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Rochester teacher, student unearth history of man killed during D-Day invasion

 Rochester teacher, student unearth history of man killed during D-Day invasion

The Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. PHOTO COURTESY OF NORMANDY INSTITUTE

U.S. Navy seaman Auvergne Breault was just 20 when he was struck by a giant mortar that knocked him off his boat, leading to his drowning death, during the June 6, 1944, allied forces invasion of Normandy, France, known as D-Day.

Thanks to Rochester social studies teacher and MEA member Matt Cottone and a former student, Breault’s story will soon be recorded and saved at the very location where he gave his life for his country 80 years ago this week.

Cottone and Smith, one of Cottone’s former students at Van Hoosen Middle School, are one of 15 teacher-student teams nationwide chosen for the Albert H. Normandy Institute fellowship. They were given a specific mission: Identify a Michigan solider who fought and died on D-Day and is buried in Normandy. Cottone and Smith, now a junior at Adams High School, are the only Michigan team in the program, which is run through George Washington University.

Auvergne Breault
Auvergne Breault

“This was a unique opportunity to truly take education outside the classroom to the very beaches of Normandy where so many brave Americans sacrificed their lives for the freedoms we and our allied partners enjoy every day,” Cottone said. “Ian was the perfect partner, and we got to work right away.”

Challenging project

The process was a laborious one. Perhaps most challenging was locating surviving family members with any knowledge about the young Navy seaman. Complicating matters, as many as 18 million World War II records that could have helped tell Breault’s story were destroyed in a 1973 fire.

A search on Facebook found 10 different people with the Breault name, three of whom said Breault looked like a relative.

One person referred the team to the Delta County Historical Society and local library to track down additional records. Cottone and Smith developed new contacts along the way who eventually provided a clear picture of the young Navy seaman.

They later hit the jackpot: A website with two women seeking information about Breault who turned out to be his nieces. They provided Cottone and Smith with Breault’s birth certificate, military registration card, local news clippings and family photos.

Cottone and Smith next travel to Washington, D.C., to study first-hand experiences from World War II, and leave for Normandy on June 18.

Touching tribute

Based on their research, Cottone and Smith will write and recite a eulogy for Breault in Normandy. A copy of the eulogy will be enshrined in the Normandy American Cemetery archives. Once stateside again, they will hand deliver a copy of the eulogy to Breault’s nieces in Escanaba.

“I consider this adventure the latest in my continued efforts to help my students understand the world is a much bigger place than just Rochester schools,” Cottone said. “It’s been a long and winding road, but one that has provided a once-in-a-lifetime learning experience for both me and Ian, and I can’t wait to share this experience with my students.”

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Ed Wright

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