We Were Heroes: The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins Discussion Guide
- Grades: 6–8
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
From Hitler to the Holocaust, from Normandy to Nagasaki, World War II was one of the momentous events that shaped America and the world. Movies like Saving Private Ryan have brought the horror of the war and the heroism and bravery of those who fought it back to forefront of the American consciousness.
Who better to introduce young people to World War II than one of the most heralded writers for young people working today, Walter Dean Myers. In his second My Name Is America book, Myers lets young readers experience World War II through The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins. The warm good-bye scene at Scott's Virginia home is quickly contrasted with Omaha Beach in 1944. Through Scott's journal entries, readers can smell the smoke and death of war, hear the bullets and screams, and taste fear and courage as Scott and his fellow soldiers make their way up the beach toward the German pillbox and the machine gun fire raining down on them.
In his journal Scott Collins grapples with questions of why the war is happening? What makes Hitler so evil? What is it like to have death, fear, bravery and heroism as constant companions?
"If anybody finds this notebook, please send it to my father, Mr. James Collins, care of the Norfolk and Western Railway, Roanoke, Virginia." Less than two weeks after his first journal entry, Scott Pendleton Collins — nicknamed Smoothie by the other guys in his unit because he didn't need to shave — started to grow up. "I was scared and ashamed of being so scared and wanted to get back around with the other guys... When I got there, I saw that the guys had been shot up terrible. A shock went through me." Nothing in basic training, nothing in the dry runs and mock battles his company staged, nothing he had ever experienced prepared Scotty for the sounds and smells, the fear and death that surrounded him on Omaha Beach.
Scott learned many lessons: "I can tell the difference between the smell of a dead cow and a dead man." He met many people: "I saw my first German face-to-face today... I wanted to see if he looked different from Americans. He didn't." He matured — in wisdom more than years — as he fought his way from Omaha Beach to Vire then proceeded to St. Lô. New replacements became a hazard. Old friends disappeared in the confusion of battles; sometimes they lived, sometimes their bodies were shipped home. "We had come over as an outfit of neighbors. Now there were spaces in our minds where friends used to be." During his brief stint in France, Scott Pendleton Collins unmasked one of war's greatest mysteries: the good guys don't always win and sometimes they don't even survive.
Less than two months after his first brush with death, Scott Pendleton Collins returned to Omaha Beach. This time, it was on a stretcher. Scott, Bobby Joe, Kerlin, Wojo, Mikey, and the other boys from back home were all victims of the inescapable mechanism of war. Its effects were random — death, mutilation, insanity — but no one escaped unchanged. Although Scott hoped that every battle he fought and every city or hill he stormed would be another step toward ending the war, reality whispered different words. "The central player in this story is the war itself. It lives on."
Thinking About the Book
- Walter Dean Myers wrote another book about war (the Vietnam War) entitled Fallen Angels. In that novel war is described as "hours of boredom and seconds of terror." After reading the World War II journal, do you think Scott Collins would describe war the same way? Explain.
- What one incident from Scott's journal do you remember most? Why?
- On several occasions in his journal Scott makes reference to his letters home being censored. Why were soldiers' letters to friends and loved ones censored?
- Scott, Bobby Joe, and J.J. ate dinner with a French family (June 25). The girl reminded Scott of his sister Ellen. He wrote, "The fighting is taking away the little girl in her and making her old before her time." How can children be old before their time?
- At times, the American soldiers met the French villagers on a personal level. For Scott, there was the priest, the old lady and old man on the night of June 13th in a building in Couvains. There was the family of three women who invited him to dinner when they had no food. In thinking about these encounters, Scott wrote, "We soldiers are fighting for our lives. The French...are fighting for their souls" (June 25). "Sometimes, I'd swear that war is a living thing, huge and ugly, that eats up lives" (June 23). What does he mean by these two journal entries?
- Scott Collins often mentions the various rumors that seemed to be always circulating among the troops. What were some of the rumors he hears?
- In his journal entry of June 17th Scott writes, "Noise is death." What does he mean?
- On the last page of the Epilogue the reader's attention is called to the photos on the Collins' living room wall showing four generations of Collins men who fought in wars. Describe the military experience of each of these men. The last sentence of the Epilogue reads, "The central player in this story is the war itself. It lives on." Explain that statement.
- On June 20, a chaplain explained why it was necessary for America to enter World War II. He listed five steps. Do you agree with what the chaplain said? Have you ever seen people who tolerate, feed, appease or fear evil? How can tolerating evil lead to more explosive situations?
- Irony is a device that authors sometimes use to emphasize the differences between two occurrences or situations. Walter Dean Myers effectively uses irony to contrast the normalcy of life, sometimes back home but also in France, to the horrors of war. Use a T-chart organizer to contrast everyday activities with war-time incidents:
|Everyday Activities||War-Time Incidents|
- There are many famous quotations about war. One is by John Adams who said, "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." What does he mean? Can his quotation be applied to Scott Collins and his family?
- Write a script for a Newsreel that describes the fighting in which Scott participated. Prepare maps to show where battles were fought. Find pictures of World War II that you can intersperse during your report. During World War II, did television provide the news as CNN does now?
- World War II was fought on many fronts: the battles in Europe were only one "theater" of action. The following list of people, places, and events were part of everyday conversation during the war. Identify these names and discuss why they were important to the war effort.
- Scott read an article from his hometown paper about the comedy team of Burns and Allen. See if you can discover what/who were 1944's most popular...
- Movie stars
- Theatrical Plays
- Special treats like candy or new shoes
- While the "boys" were fighting in Europe and the South Pacific, rationing became an important part of life in the United States. Young people, like Scott's sister Ellen, also assisted the war effort through projects sponsored by their schools. What kinds of materials were rationed? Why? What kinds of responsibilities did school children assume? Write seven diary/journal entries that reflect your life in the US during World War II. Remember to include the hardships and sacrifices you and your family made as well as news from relatives who are in the armed services.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.