This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune Prime Time senior living section.
For living historians and military buffs, fall means one thing: reenactment season. The practice of dressing in period military uniforms and safely reenacting battles with weaponry and vehicles from the past is popular this time of year leading up to Veterans Day.
While it may seem like a modern-day hobby, reenacting is a tradition that dates back to the Roman Empire. Today, Civil War reenactments are the most popular genre in America, especially during the sesquicentennial of the Civil War that ends this year, says Kent Berg of the Living History Reenactment Association, a national organization.
However, World War II reenactments are becoming more popular in the Midwest, says Berg. He estimates that 5,000 people participate in WWII reenactments in the U.S. and even more around the world.
There are several WWII reenactment groups and reenactment locations in the Chicago region. They include the WWII Historical Reenactment Society, and the Central Illinois WWII Reenactors. Midway Village and Museum in Rockford and the Lockport Township Park District hold WWII reenactments.
“The Midwest is the mecca for WWII reenacting,” says Rich Russo of the WWII Historical Reenactment Society.
WWII reenacting has a wider array of large “props” to draw upon than Revolutionary War or Civil War reenacting because of the sheer number of automatic weapons and war vehicles that were available by then. It has the infantry combat aspect but also the mechanical aspect, Russo explains. First-time spectators might be surprised by the wow factor.
To produce a recent event, Russo partnered with Ed LeTourneau, executive director of Salute the Armed Forces, a nonprofit dedicated to help returning veterans transition to civilian life. The reenactment included battles between 400 German and American infantry. It featured working tanks and other rare war vehicles such as a German Horch (similar to a Humvee), authentic weapons such as a 50 caliber machine gun, and vintage military aircraft flying “bombing runs” over the battlefield. A pyrotechnics team coordinated by LeTourneau, who has movie experience, provided live gunfire and explosions. The reenactment drew 10,000 spectators.
For the love of it
Russo says reenactors and collectors love to share their memorabilia, restored vehicles, and research with the public at reenactments and living history presentations. In the past 21 years he has learned about everything from the role of carrier pigeons in WWII to German battle whistle commands to the different ways American and German soldiers held their cigarettes. “It is amazing how many individuals are willing to spend their own time and money acquiring, restoring and transporting these things to events,” Russo says.
This is especially tricky when it comes to 30-ton tanks, which must be brought in on tractor trailers and can cost thousands to transport.
So why bother to repeat history? Reenactors say they are preserving it — both physically in artifacts and culturally through stories and research.
“This is living history that the public can see up close and touch. It’s an experience that they cannot get from movies and books,” Berg says.
Both Russo and LeTourneau had relatives who fought in WWII but died before their stories could be fully told. Since there are so few WWII veterans around these days (an 18-year-old in 1941 would be 92 today) it’s a race to preserve their memories, they say. Reenactments can bring out this hidden side of history, especially when veterans attend. It’s also an opportunity for veterans to connect with each other.
Old vets, young vets
Kyle (last name withheld upon request), a 31-year-old Iraq and Afghanistan veteran from Rockford, has been reenacting since he was 16. He says the best part of a reenactment is the camaraderie among his unit and the connections they make with the veterans who attend the events.For example, at a 2012 event Kyle witnessed a German veteran who was a tank commander meeting a former Russian tank commander.
“They were both in involved in the battle of Kursk, one of the largest tank battles ever fought before Desert Storm,” he says. “At one time they were locked in deadly combat. To see them come together now and share laughs and stories is one of my best memories.”
“Also, interacting with veterans helps us in what we are trying to portray,” he adds. “My grandfather, a Pearl Harbor survivor, never really talked about it. I regret I never sat down and picked his brain about it, but by the time I was older he had Alzheimer’s disease.”
Berg agrees. “Veterans appreciate what reenactors do for the public,” he says. “Remembering the past is what veterans want future generations to know and understand. It keeps the sacrifices made by the veterans alive for future generations.”
If you’re interested in watching WWII living history, it’s not too late. The Battle of the Bulge, the last great German offensive of WWII, will be reenacted Dec. 12 at Sommer Park in Peoria by the Central Illinois WWII Reenactors. Visit centralilww2.com for details.