WW2: Living History
November 09, 2018
Photos by Jeffrey Jones and Eric R. Poole
Gun smoke rose to reveal a natural moment of solitude following the exciting clash of small arms and armor. The sound of diesel engines idling within halted tracked vehicles provided a churning, metallic rhythm to witnessing hearts. There were no more earsplitting cracks of gunfire or thunderous booms from artillery cannons. Acres of uniformed bodies lay motionless in the aftermath of this battle; it was a time to reflect that real men once gave their lives.
Then, soldiers on both sides of this conflict stood up with life, exchanged smiles and shook hands. These were reenactors in organized units from different states representing the Allied and Axis powers of World War II.
The tanks were real. The motorcycles were real. Even some of the guns were real, but most things were not as they appeared. This subset of the American gun culture combined authentic elements with detailed replicas to tell a story and keep history alive.
BEHIND THE SCENES
Interestingly, the very best reenactors and reenacting groups are frequently sought after and employed in major movie productions because of the historical accuracy they have achieved. In reenacting, emphasis is placed on matching uniforms, firearms and period-level tactics. Most groups allowed to participate in reenactments will regularly train together and police themselves to look and act like a historically known unit. Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War I reenactments are still common around the U.S., but none seems to attract audiences like those events based on World War II.
“People have a special connection to World War II,” says Tom Miller, manager of Peoria Park District’s W.H. Sommer Park in Illinois. “Many parents with children have grandparents that supported the war effort either at home or abroad. These parents are encouraging their kids to learn the heroism in their family, while some kids are asking parents to take them to a reenactment because they’ve learned about the war in school and want to know more. When World War II veterans come out, you can see joy in the connection between veterans, spectators and reenactors.”
Besides the authentic-looking gun replicas, the other important component to a reenactor’s equipment list is the soldier’s uniform and related accouterments. They call this the “impression.” Most organized reenactment units place critical importance on each soldier to recreate these details through thorough study of a unit’s history and known photos. During the war years of 1939 to 1945, each nation’s equipment and weaponry changed, so seasoned reenactors will know to consider that having only a Sturmgewehr 44 magazine-fed select-fire rifle will limit a participant to battles portraying the era from 1944 and 1945. Most reenactors will keep a generic impression for maximum participation and develop other unique impressions for special occasions.
Many government-backed museums and private organizations leave demilitarized tanks, armored personnel carriers and towed artillery on static display. These are often subject to the degrading effects of weather and minimal maintenance due to funding cuts. Opponents of private ownership of such items argue against allowing for the civilian ownership of such arms and armor. What you usually find at these reenactments is what remains of the last functional pieces once released by the U.S. government for private ownership. A Russian T-34 tank was on loan from a private museum and cared for by two benefactors who knew the complete service history of the vehicle and crew. For these two men, the continuous maintenance of these vehicles requires special knowledge, skills in preservation as well as the ability to craft their own spare parts since so few exist. Long after the last markings are finally bleached away by the sun at a government-operated static display, these passionate men and women will have enlisted the next generation of enthusiasts to keep these vehicles ready for simulated warfare.
The Second World War saw rapid growth in small arms and armor development on all fronts, which lends itself to the interest in accurately depicted service-issued ensembles. Living displays and mock battles have become so popular that a lucrative business opportunity has arisen from selling replica uniforms and firearms. No more than 10 years ago, most of the firearms, as well as some uniforms and accouterments, were authentic, but ripping a clothing item or converting a surplus firearm to shoot blanks usually meant permanently damaging a piece of history. The demand for true-to-spec firearms and equipment gave quiet rise to the success of non-gun manufacturers like Tokyo Marui’s automatic electric guns from Japan and the U.S. Replica Gun Company. Only some of these replica gun companies’ business is in reenacting, while the remainder serves movie production companies and collectors of replica guns — that’s right, there are actually collectors of replica guns.
The increasing scarcity and collectability of original items has made it all but impossible for those new to reenacting to obtain original uniforms and firearms. In talking with reenactors, you’ll find that most recognize the risk in further damaging or destroying real pieces in these mock battles. Out of respect for the safekeeping of these elements, surveyed reenactors preferred to know that these types of items are preserved in museums and collections.
Firearm enthusiasts will appreciate the variety and detail of period firearms on display. Many reenactors still carry actual firearms converted to shoot blanks, while others use blank-firing percussion caps, gas-operated and electric airsoft models, or no-shoot steel and rubber guns. Some of these period-spec replicas command a price comparable to that of a real surplus example. A generic impression of a German soldier carrying a Mauser Kar98K will have to spend more than $800 for a blank-cartridge-firing replica, more than $600 for an MP-40 or $2,000 for a replica belt-fed MG42. An American-soldier actor will often be seen with a simulated Colt M1911A1 costing a little more than $150, a Model 1921 Thompson for $900 or an M3A1 Grease Gun for a little over $550. Mark 2A1 “pineapple” grenades only set them back about $30 each. An M1A1 Carbine with folding stock goes for $1,200, and most reenacting soldiers don’t understand why replica gun companies still haven’t learned to do away with the post-war addition of the M1 Carbine’s bayonet lug.
Because of the blowback system in many of the plug-fire cartridge replicas, these rifles and handguns don’t always prove reliable. However, the repeated malfunction drills only add to the interestingness as each battle plays out. A German reenactor admitted, “I usually just end up posing or acting like I’m firing a very expensive weapon.”
Though many collectors might be opposed to owning replicas of military surplus arms made in Japan, these are quite common in recreating battles. Since the 1950s, World War II-vintage small-arms replica manufacture in Japan has been a growing industry where real firearms are impossible to obtain. Japanese replicas offer surprising authenticity in detail and have been commissioned for display purposes at war museums around the world in place of actual firearms.
WEATHERED FOR WAR
Sommer Park in central Illinois has hosted the World War II reenactment seen on these pages for the last five years. “It was started by a student’s 2008 internship project,” says Miller. “Out of a small Battle of the Bulge event that winter, we started adding another in June. It’s become the signature event for this park. We get reenactment units from Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri and Iowa.”
Thick mud kept moist from intermittent rains added to the realism of these reenactments. One World War II veteran related the low trees and miserable wet weather to his experience in France. “This is as realistic as it gets.”
Reenactors typically camp leading up to and throughout the two-day event while wearing their vintage attire and even cooking from original field manuals. Allied and Axis groups are spread out across many acres where visitors are encouraged to interact. If you stand patiently, it doesn’t take long for one of these actors to politely engage you about his unique story behind the equipment he carries or the real-life soldier his uniform was designed to represent. Hearing the well-versed knowledge and passion for this period in history helps one to step back in time.
Many families use the time between battles to take photos of their children with actors wearing meticulously assembled ensembles. Not only do the actors enjoy teaching students about life during the war, kids are able to better visualize the narratives learned in school. Local photographers and journalists use these events to snap rich imagery that could only be achieved on the set of a Hollywood film production. Shortly after the event in Illinois, we found that many photographers had applied vintage aging techniques to stylize their photographs and posted their creations on the web. With so many authentic vehicles rolling across the landscape and the exhaustive work that reenactors do to detail their appearance, some photographs look as though they were lifted from the pages of history.