We’ve all busted blanks. Hell, it’s a good time. You get to wade out into the field for a few hours on a Saturday to play make-believe war with your buddies. You run around in the woods popping off rounds like The Expendables until you get hit. Then you stand up, flip the krauts the bird and spend 10 minutes telling two other “dead” guys why the pocket stitching on At The Front’s new run of M42 jackets is wrong.
The only alternative to this is of course public events. Where you get to pack up a U-Haul’s worth of shit and drive 6 hours only to spend the whole weekend staring at a gaggle of snot-nosed 8-year-old kids in Call of Duty t-shirts snapping photos of you on an iPhone while you’re trying to time travel.
You do this year in and year out. Then at some point you start to think maybe that’s all the hobby has to offer. Sicherungs-Regiment 195 says nay.
They’ve departed from the reenacting norm and struck out on a path all their own. Dissmissing blank-fire tacticals and delving into the nitty-gritty ins and outs of everyday life in the field, the East Coast unit seeks to challenge the status quo of traditional WWII reenacting events. They recently authored an article on their own blog highlighting their views on living history. Man The Line sat down with one of the writers, Willi Graf, to discuss the article and the unit’s progressive take on the hobby.
MTL: Tell me a little about yourself and your history with WWII reenacting. How long have you been involved in the hobby and what interested you in living history in the first place?
My name is Chris (aka Willi Graf) and I live in Boston, MA. In the “real” world I’m an attorney and avid skateboarder. I have been involved with WWII reenacting for about 5 years now. My primary interest in the time period is resistance to Hitler/National Socialism from within the German Army. What specifically interested me about reenacting was the physicality of it and the manner in which it provided an existential component to history.
MTL: Tell me more about your current unit specifically. You portray Sicherungs-Regiment 195. Who were they?
Sicherung units were WWII German Army security forces that deployed behind the front lines. As far as I know we are the only unit in the United States that reenacts a Sicherung unit. Primary responsibilities of Sicherung soldiers included things such as guarding supply lines, supply dumps, critical road junctions, bridges, railways, etc. In extreme situations Sicherung units were called-up to perform front line duties.
Many Sicherung soldiers were deemed unfit for front line duty. Many were older than average combat soldiers. This exactly mirrors most real-world reenactors. It’s an impression that can be very realistically portrayed by almost anyone. While many in the hobby pursue an elite impression. We took the exact opposite approach. We are uncommon in that we are as unimpressive and unpolished as it gets. We are the champions of the less than common soldier. No bling here.
MTL: What initially drove you away from tactical reenactments as we know them?
First, was my own ability to see through the laughable representation that traditional tacticals are in comparison to actual WWII combat. Tacticals are adult cap gun fights in the woods with really expensive Halloween costumes. Tacticals re-present nothing that actually took place during the war. On the German side of things, how often do you see a reenacting unit with an MG? Almost never. In reality, the rifle squad, led by an MG, was the smallest functional combat unit within the German army. I could cite many, many other examples; lack of heavy artillery, lack of vehicles, lack of mortars, lack of manpower numbers, etc. Tactical reenacting isn’t even a shadow of what took place in WWII combat. I wanted more from the hobby than what tacticals had to offer.
The second was two people; Noah of 3. Panzergrenadier, and Chris Pittman. These are two very knowledgeable and very experienced reenactors. Both will forget more than I will ever know and both have been huge influences and mentors to me. They showed me that something better and more realistic was indeed possible. They opened my eyes.
MTL: What kind of events do you take part in now and how are they different from an average tactical battle or public living history event?
We participate in every type of traditional reenacting event. That said, the manner in which we participate is very non-traditional. We also participate in events that are far outside the reenacting mainstream.
Last year we attended the Odessa Ostfront event in New York. This is a traditional tactical event. During the tactical, we deployed a good distance behind the lines. From there we ran anti-partisan patrols, knowing we would find no one, and guarded sections of road so supplies could be brought to the front. As the front came closer to us, we moved back and away from it, always remaining in the rear. No one in our unit fired a single shot, which was just the way we intended it. Hearing the sounds of conflict around us, but never actually seeing it, was a hauntingly realistic experience.
We also do unit-only immersion events. They’re actually our ideal events. Just us and no one else. As the old adage goes, war is 90 percent boredom and 10 percent sheer terror. At our immersion events we re-live the day-to-day activities of common soldiers. Things like setting up a new camp position, drill and training, sentry duty, security patrols, rifle cleaning, field cooking and writing reports.
MTL: Do you sense a movement, so to speak, among other living history groups when it comes to wanting more “immersion” style events?
I do, and I hope it continues and spreads. A local event host in New Hampshire, Vince Milano at the Fields of Fire site, has been hosting some really innovative events in the last year. They combined elements of both traditional tactical engagement, and other areas of military life not usually associated with “trigger time.” Also, with so much of the reenacting community migrating to Facebook groups, larger discussions about this topic are taking place. It seems as if the concept of non-tactical immersion style events is taking a deeper root in the collective mind. I hope that it is, and I hope the concept continues to flourish.
MTL: The article you partially wrote talks about dismissing blank fire events. Is there a way to mold immersion events with simulated blank fire combat or should we abandon the cap-busting all together?
Blank fire events are the catch-all. There is certainly a place for them in the hobby, and there always will be. It is precisely this facet of the hobby that, usually, is the initial draw to become involved with reenacting. I view tacticals as reenacting 101. The advanced stage of the hobby are much more cerebral and do not involve “trigger time” at all. My goal is to challenge tacticals as the default event scenario. I absolutely think that tacticals and progressive immersion events can work in tandem with each other. All it takes is some creativity, and the desire to make it happen.
MTL: The article says, “It is our belief that focusing the WWII reenactment hobby on hoak battles does our hobby a disservice.” Why is that?
The petty fights about “I got you, dude” are so grade-school and can often to lead to frustration, animosity, and hobby burnout. From a pubic display perspective, the spectacle of mock-battles paints war as consumption entertainment, not history. Hollywood actually does a much better job at painting war in realistic ways than reenactors could ever hope to do. If reenactors are supposed to be “guardians of history,” there is a serious problem when then public’s response to a battle is not disgust and horror, but applause.
MTL: Walk me through a typical event that Sicherungs-Regiment 195 might host. You have both allied and axis reenactors. What do they do all weekend?
To date we have not hosted an event that was open to anyone other than ourselves. I don’t know if we ever will. That said, if we theoretically ever did host an event, I would imagine it would be akin to a living history public display event, but without any public around. Units would set up camps or positions according to their impression, and then live that way for the weekend. It could be anything from GI grunts living in a foxhole, a solo 82nd Airborne misdrop trying to find others, a long-range combat patrol that finds nothing or a German field office processing paperwork all day. Sound boring? Guess what, military life is not all a John Wayne movie or a GI Joe highlight reel.
MTL: The article says you hope reenactors will move away from exclusively portraying front line units. Is there anything Sicherungs-Regiment 195 can do to get the word out and encourage other living historians to broaden their horizons?
First, we get the word out by simply existing as the type of unit we are. As I mentioned before, I think we are the only ones doing a Sicherung impression. Indeed, there are others who do assorted types of non-combat impressions, but we show that it can also be field-based, and maintain a hardcore authenticity approach at the same time. By just existing we show there are alternatives to specifically combat-based impression.
Second, through our various media outlets like our website and Facebook page, we engage the larger community. In doing so we advocate and promote our vision, philosophy, and methods. Beyond that, we also produce meta-material, which is to say, commentary on the hobby itself which is not something many units do. Essentially, we produce “press releases” about reenacting. This has proven to be a great way to foster progressive conversation about reenacting.
Third, by attending events, in non-traditional roles, people actually get to have real time engagement with us. They get to ask questions about our impression, see what we do, how we do it, and see what sets us apart from the standard approach. Event scenarios suddenly get tweaked to accommodate these weird Sicherung guys who sleep in the field, are really hardcore, but don’t want anything to do with shooting blanks. On occasion it causes some confusion about just what the hell we are, and what the hell we are doing. This, we think, is a great sign. It means we are getting people to think outside traditionally understood reenactor roles.
MTL: As reenactors, we are all looking for the feeling of “that’s what it must’ve felt like.” You believe we can accomplish a more intensified version of that if we knock off the cops and robbers act and delve further into the day-to-day life of an average GI or Soldat. So, what was the single most realistic experience you’ve ever had as a living historian?
Great question, and an easy one to answer! Without question, standing sentry duty at night esp., when the weather is bad. It can range from boring to terrifying. It can be miserable, and even painful. Anyone who says standing night watch is not an authentic war time duty, that can be easily and accurately recreated, should not be in this hobby.
I don’t think I’ve ever been scared during a war movie. Surprised yes, nervous definitely. But not scared. “Fury” changed that.
I think it was the thought of what it might’ve felt like to sit in one of those death traps on a daily basis and wait for some 88mm, or a 12-year-old kid, to blow you to bits or burn you alive.
I was in Utah shooting “War Pigs” when I saw “Fury” for the first time. I was in dire need of a great WWII film to get me in the mood for our upcoming shoot, and what better to do that than a film like “Fury.” It was dirty, disgusting, brutal and real.
It wasn’t just the set, costumes and makeup that were dirty. It was the characters. They weren’t made out to be heroes in the traditional sense. They were dirty people. They were guys forced into a situation that made them cold, gross and unapologetic. They were inhumane really.
I’ve heard vets talk about how surviving the war meant stripping away all but your survival instincts, and that’s what I saw in “Fury.” The war tore everything good out of them and replaced it with fear and uncertainty.
That fear worked its way into me. I felt legitimately afraid and surprisingly lonely. Which is hard to do when you’re sitting in a theater with 100 other people, munching on overcooked popcorn.
The combat was as intense as I’ve seen in a film. The first attack on the German AT guns was biblical. The tiger sequence was immaculately done and gut wrenching. The horse story, Jon Bernthal’s lack of humanity, Shia LaBeouf’s emotional implosion. I was lost in their desperation.
I thought, “They all damn-well-better live through this movie,” even though I knew none of them would. And by god I was right.
“I’m going to get us all killed. Except for you kid.”
We spent the whole movie being told how “Wardaddy” has kept his crew alive all the way from Africa to Germany. He then, with the German army in shambles and the war’s end clearly in sight, decides to casually hand them all a death sentence by way of staying to defend a shitty crossroads, alone, with a broken tank.
They then decimate a battalion of SS troopers who’ve apparently lost half of the panzerfausts they were carrying 5 minutes earlier, before being killed (mostly) by one guy with a scoped bolt-action rifle.
The last time I took a 180 from love to hate that fast was when a girl in my kindergarten class said she didn’t like me.
The cliché machine really kicked in during the final stanza. Pitt and LaBeouf’s love story got a little weird, Logan Lerman had one too many “fuck you Nazis!” and the German commander/high school football coach had the time to stop in the middle of a fight and give his team a pep talk.
If they sold the movie on VHS I’d record over the last quarter of it with re-runs of Andy Griffith.
They’d done so well up to that point. Sure the “Old Man” Captain Waggoner looked like a Marvel villain and Sgt. Davis could’ve doubled as one of the Sherman tanks, but the rest was so good.
The end didn’t hit home. I lost the sense of fear and realism that’d overwhelmed me for the first hour and a half. But…
I’ve seen the movie four times now and am about to go buy it on DVD (if I don’t drink too much before I finish writing this). Errors aside, this film is a fucking document. It’s a base level, ground-pounding view of war at its dirtiest. It makes me feel even more sympathy and awe for the dwindling millions all around the world who had to experience that terrible conflict.
Only two films have ever changed my outlook on the hobby of living history. The first was “The Pacific.” And the second was “Fury.”
The idea of writing a “my year in review” article almost made me vomit. I’ve always hated them. They’re usually filled with enough clichés to kill a small rhinoceros and they never do anybody any good. Yet, I decided to buck up and give it a shot.
It was truly a grand year of reenacting. In addition to getting to work on a little project known as “War Pigs” (stay tuned for more updates) I had what I believe was my best year of living history. I think it’s fair to say my whole ideology on the hobby has changed in the last 12 months. For better or worse, my reenacting experience has morphed almost into a form of extreme camping.
A night of sleeping in 15 degree weather = definite suckage.
We can’t recreate the combat of WWII. That’s a given. But this year I discovered just how well we CAN recreate the general, all-around, all-encompassing suckage that was life in the field during the war. So I began to think differently when getting ready for events. Looking cool, “educating” the public and choosing the right shade of O.D. #7 all went right out the window. My only priority was becoming completely self-sufficient. Food, clothing, cigarettes and liquor were pretty much all I cared about. I never went to an event with a prescribed place to sleep, nor did I hall that piece of shit cot of mine all over the Midwest. I showed up with whatever was on my back and in my pockets.
I was also disgusting. I slept in muddy holes with filthy blankets, cleaned my spoon with my pant legs and even stopped showering a few days before events just to get the right amount of ripeness going.
Can you smell me from here?
My M1, my footlocker display and my wholly overpriced pair of shiny new Corcoran’s ceased to be my most prized possessions at events. They were instead replaced by a bottle of Brandy or Schnapps, the occasional D-ration, a couple of eggs if I could keep them from breaking and a copy of Jack London I always made room for.
I credit much of this gradual shift toward mediocre insanity to flipping through my copy of David Kenyon Webster’s “Parachute Infantry” a second (and third) time last winter. I’d read it 5 or 6 years ago and while I enjoyed it, the writing didn’t have much effect on me. As soon as I opened it up again last January I realized how pussyfooted I was going about this hobby. Webster describes life on the front lines in immaculately beautiful detail. That’s it. No heroics, no patriotic B.S. about serving god and country. It’s a day-by-day account of how he got through the festering pile of shit that was the war in Europe. It’s also the best WWII memoir ever written.
He tells you what they cared about, what they needed, what they loved and what they hated. For the most part it was (in this order) Booze, hot food, warm places to sleep and anybody far enough from the front lines to get all three of those things on a regular basis.
So I tried to approach every event with this in mind. It wasn’t a fun weekend getaway with the fellas. It wasn’t a time to sit around sipping on craft brews talking about ATFs new run of 43 jackets and instagraming O.D. selfies. It was a time to feel it. A time to imagine what it must’ve been like. A time to embrace the suckage, as they say.
Now obviously I’m not going to equate spending a few weekends in the field without anyone trying to kill me to Webster’s experience, but I thought I’d try getting as close as I could.
And I have to say, it really did suck. I ate cold, shit food right out of the can. I soaked my wools with days of sweat and froze my ass off. I was eaten up by skeeters, drunk most of the time, tired, wet and sore. I waddled out of most events with dime-sized blisters on my heels. I shoved a rather large piece of punky wood an inch underneath my right thumbnail. I hit myself in the forehead with the business end of a pick maddox (watch your backswing). I cut my fingers on the sharp, tin edges of 10 and 1 cans, ruined every pair of GI socks I own. An ejected round from my carbine hit me in the mouth and chipped a tooth. Every event I went to was decidedly miserable and overwhelmingly exhausting.
But it was so much goddamned fun I think I’ll do it again in 2015.
Most reenactors will cringe at the thought of their “first” impression. We all had to start somewhere, and usually “somewhere” meant putting on some green army clothes and a helmet liner. At least that’s where I started. I love looking back at my ancient and atrocious impressions, so I thought I should share them with everyone. Like most of you, I’ve come a long way since my obsession with WWII began at the age of about 13. So take a look and feel free to make fun of these photos as much as you want. Enjoy.
It’s become commonplace in the WWII reenacting community. Get on any social media site and you’ll see a post or a status update about the loss of another well-known WWII veteran. Earl McClung, Shifty Powers, Frank Perconte, Zane Schlemmer, Dick Winters.
This week it was Edward “Babe” Heffron, member of Easy 506 and longtime companion of Philidapihia’s most beloved one-legged resident, “Wild Bill” Gaurnere. He was 90-years-old when he died last Sunday.
I was upset when I heard of his passing but was comforted as I realized how well documented Babe’s story was. He’ll be remembered for decades to come, thanks to Band of Brothers and the memoir he wrote alongside Wild Bill. Babe’s story will be watched and re-watch, read and re-read. I wish I could say that about every other member of the greatest generation.
Babe Heffron, right, as portrayed in “Band of Brothers” by actor Robin Laing.
People too young to be reading this right now will never know the true impact of this generation. And, they will never have the opportunity to meet anyone from it. The greatest generation is on its way out. And when the last child of the depression dies I fear the wisdom they all brought to this Earth will cease to exist as well.
This extinction comes at a time when we need wisdom more than ever. My generation, Gen Y, has never known hard times. We (myself included) are oblivious to struggle and hardship. It pains me to see the last generation to have truly experienced these things fade from the limelight.
I am by no means disgusted by my own generation. Today’s twenty-somethings have a few things going for them. We’ve founded more businesses in our 20s than any other generation; we’ve moved forward on fronts such as social equality and environmentalism and are on course to become the most education generation in history, for what it’s worth.
Yet we seem to be dislodged from reality in so many aspects. We’re petty, sometimes arrogant and (yes I’ll even admit this) entitled. And losing our depression era elders will only further distance us, as well as the generations to come, from a time in our history when none of these traits were even fathomable, let alone acceptable.
I am saddened and disheartened to think that while the generation that pioneered resiliency and survived the depression becomes less relevant, the generation that invented the “selfie” becomes more relevant.
Disclaimer: Adult language is present in this post. Proceed with caution…
By: C.L. Sill
I arrived in Carentan, France on a train from Paris at just after 9:00 a.m., July 25th, 2012. On the way there I had watched out the window as the city slowly transformed into rolling countryside that looked strangely like Eastern Nebraska. As we moved closer to the coast the hills flattened out and the hedgerows and orchards became infinitely more beautiful.
My stomach was in my throat. In the last month and a half I had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, worked illegally in a Berlin printing factory, drank the greatest beer in the world with the greatest friend I’d ever known and climbed the Eagles Nest from the very bottom.
Yet nothing could possibly trump the feeling of pulling into the station at Carentan, stepping down off the train and knowing I was actually in Normandy.
I’d dreamt about it since I was 14-years-old. Since my aunt lent me a copy of Band of Brothers and unknowingly lit the fire that would become the passion of my life.
I’d made it, and I knew what was first on the agenda. Omaha beach.
Those of you not familiar with the layout of Normandy, Omaha Beach is a pretty good distance from Carentan. About 35 kilometers. There are no sources of public transportation in Normandy, and since guided tours are for pussies the only logical option was to rent a car.
I was 21 at the time and my friend Brian was 24. So obviously we had spent all our spare money on Becks, Döner and Lucky Strikes in Berlin and thus had no scratch for a rental car.
We did however notice a few spare bicycles in the garage of our bed and breakfast. After vigorous protest from the B&B owner Judy, she agreed to let us use them at no charge. She warned us you couldn’t get to Omaha Beach and back in one day. We assumed she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about and headed east on two wheels (each).
They were wide-tired, grey mountain bikes. The brakes only sort of worked and their seats were as wide as a ruler. The clasp on my seat in particular kept working itself lose and sliding to the lowest possible setting. So I end up with knees hitting elbows, riding what basically amounted to a child’s bicycle.
(Note: I am just a touch over 5’4”, so it takes a bike too small for your average 12-year-old girl to qualify as inadequate for me. It was that small.)
We stopped less than an hour into our Tour De France in Isigny-Sur-Mer. We stumbled across a street fair with food, art, and loads of berets for sale and decided it was time for something to eat. A turkey sandwich on a baguette was the cheapest thing on the menu. It was around 11 a.m.
There were only two more stops on our journey to Omaha. The first was Point-du-Hoc, where we spent about an hour climbing through the remnants of bunkers and shell holes where rangers had taken cover 68 years earlier. The next was at a small orchard and farmhouse just east of Ste-Pierre-du-Mont. There was a sign out front that said Calvados and cider.
Being the borderline alcoholics that we were, it just had to happen.
We bought a small bottle of Calvados and a very large bottle of hard cider. We were told to let the cider chill for 2 hours before drinking, so we parked in a hedgerow on a dirt road just outside the farm and downed the entire thing.
As ridiculous as it may seem, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Here I was lying back in the tall, wide-stemmed grass of a Norman hedgerow, looking at a field of grazing dairy cattle drinking local cider. I wondered if nearly 70 years ago a 21-year-old GI from the 29th Infantry might have been resting in the exact same place, sipping on liberated cider from that very farm.
We made the remaining ride to Omaha in great spirits. The cider had rejuvenated us and the closer I got to the beach the more determined I was.
We locked our bikes to a tree near the parking lot and walked toward the beach. My pace quickened as I came closer to the entrance. To our right you could just make out a remaining bunker cut into the top of the cliff. We walked through the parking lot, took a big right turn and saw Omaha beach, a four-mile stretch of French coastline where 2,000 Americans had given their lives in a single day.
It was the end of July, around 85 degrees and sunny. The beach was absolutely packed. Families making sand castles, old men in bathing suits playing some sort of strange game with what looked like metal softballs. There was a hamburger stand.
I felt this rage build up inside me. I’d seen an old man sob like a child as he told me what he’d witnessed on this beach in 1944, and these Frenchies were on fucking vacation.
Brian, apparently as stunned as I, didn’t say a word as we walked down the beach. That was fine with me.
It wasn’t until we were nearly to the other end of the beach that I began to realize my mistake. This place had been a beach long before it became Omaha beach. The great-grandparents of children playing in the surf were probably taken here by their parents before the war. We invaded France to give it back to its people.
I realized those GIs had died in part to allow these people to have a day at the ocean on summer weekends.
With my resentment toward the French temporarily sidelined, I prepared for what I knew would be the most emotional part of the day. The cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Overlooking the east end of Omaha, it is filled with the graves of 10,000 WWII casualties.
We walked up the narrow path from the beach to the edge of the cemetery. The gate was closed. It was around 5:20 in the evening. The gate was only about two feet high and I saw several people still walking around. We hopped over and approached a small group of men sitting on the stone fence that surrounds the cemetery. They were English and were there for a military ceremony. They told us the cemetery closes at 5 p.m. Before we even had time to process this a very skinny, stereotypical Frenchman with a trashy mustache and beard approached us.
He spoke not a word of English but got across very quickly that we needed to leave. Neither of us spoke French, so our pleas did nothing to change his mind. We had ridden all the way from Carentan, walked 4 miles down the beach and were now turned away from our ultimate goal. We would not have the chance to come back. I was on the verge of tears.
As we slowly made our way back to the entrance one of the Englishmen pointed out the curator of the cemetery, who was standing not 40 feet away. He was an American.
I’ve never been able to remember his name, but if I did I would send him a Christmas card every year until the day I died. We approached him, told him our story and waited for his reply.
“Where you guys from?” he asked.
“Well I suppose I’ll make an exception for a couple of guys from Nebraska.”
He handed us a program he’d found on the ground and told us we could stay as long as we wanted, within reason.
The scruffy Frenchman stood nearby, looking defeated.
We spent the next hour in a field of white crosses, walking on grass that would put any golf course to shame in complete silence. We were the only people there.
I was standing in the presence of the bravest men to ever walk the Earth, men I held in higher regard than God. Yet I could see no other human being as far as I looked. I felt everything and nothing. Numbed by the reality of 10,000 citizen soldiers, invisible.
My mind was still in the clouds as we made our way back to the miniature gate, which the curator had left open for us. I closed it, turned around for one final look at the cemetery then headed down the trail. We got no more than 20 feet before I heard an American voice call out to us.
“You guys enjoy your visit?”
I turned and looked, it was a different American. He was older. Gray-haired and heavyset with a very angry look on his face. Not knowing he was being sarcastic, we responded in kind.
“We did, thanks so much,” I said.
“Well I’ve got bad news,” he says. “We’ve got you on camera trespassing on federal property. You need to come up here.”
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me right? I didn’t say that of course, but could this day get any weirder? I’d just spent an hour on an emotional rollercoaster and was still processing the thought of walking through of all those graves filled with kids my age, some younger. Now I’m about to be brought up on charges for trespassing?
Our pleas for mercy went over much better with the overweight American than they did with the bearded Frenchman. We explained that we had in fact been given permission to stay after hours, and the man eventually backed down. He let us go.
My head was spinning at this point. I needed Calvados. We had plenty. After a few pulls I straightened myself out and with unknown names on white crosses still running through my head (Anderson…Smith….Hall…Niland) I made my way back across the four miles of beach.
We unlocked our bikes from the tree as the sun was setting. Judy’s head popped into my mind.
“You can’t make it to Omaha Beach and back in one day.”
Well Judy, you got us there.
We rode 24 kilometers without stopping. Past the farm with the cider, past Point-du-Hoc, past every random hedgerow that looked exactly the same as the last one. We eventually made it to Isigny-sur-Mer at around 10 p.m. It’s at this point that I’ll mention we hadn’t eaten anything since 11 a.m., the last time we were in Isigny. And we had only drank about a bottle of water a piece out of a bathroom sink at Point-du-Hoc, plus the bottle of hard cider and around 3 shots of Calvados. And we were sunburnt as hell.
There was one restaurant that still had its lights on. We walked in and were immediately turned around. They were closed. We were 7 kilometers from Carentan and our B&B. About 5 miles. We had no choice but to get back on the bikes and keep going.
5 minutes later we were on a narrow road between two hedgerows. No traffic and no streetlights. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face let alone Brian who was about 20 feet ahead of me.
It was everything I could do to make my legs work. They were somehow still going in a circle, taking me closer to my queen sized bed at Judy’s place.
Then all of a sudden they weren’t.
I passed out, went face first into the ditch on the side of the country road. Brian kept riding, he hadn’t heard me crash and burn.
He tells me it was around 10 minutes before he realized I wasn’t behind him, turned around and went back to find me sprawled out in the ditch. I was sound asleep. He woke me up and after another 10 minutes of reasoning with my incoherent brain he got me to stand up. I couldn’t ride the bike, so we had to hoof it.
We saw one light far off in the distance. Carentan? Definitely not. It was a small farmhouse with a few out-buildings. We put one foot in front of the other and just barely made it there before we both had to stop. I collapsed below the light and stared up at the bugs fighting for space underneath it. Brian decided we needed some food, immediately.
Brian is somewhat of a language junky. He speaks fluent German and Spanish, and at the time was working on both French and Russian (he’s getting pretty good now). On the bus to Paris he had messed with a French iPhone app and had apparently learned one word. “Bread.”
He left me lying underneath the dim streetlight like a wino in a Brooklyn alley and knocked on the farmhouse door. It was a short conversation.
I have to admit if a sunburnt, dirty, smelly Frenchman knocked on my door at 11:30 at night and said “bread,” I would probably slam the door in his face too. So I don’t blame the fella for doing exactly that.
By this point I was completely delusional, murmuring nonsensical phrases about escargot and the Chunnel. Brian was trying to get me home, asking simple questions to keep me talking. I had moved down (or up?) the babysitting rungs from wino to 3-year-old.
He pulled me to my feet and made a joke about never having kids. Then we walked out from under the yellow glow of the lonely streetlamp, heading west again.
Into the breach. The home stretch.
We got back to Carentan just after 1 a.m. I actually managed to ride the last half-mile or so. I very distinctly remember talking about chocolate cake, which made my mouth water. I hate chocolate cake.
“God-damned Judy,” I thought. “Should have warned us.”
We unlocked the back door of the B&B and I headed straight for the kitchen. All I could find was a measly cup of orange juice.
I woke up the next morning, sad to realize there was actually only one queen sized bed in our room and I was sharing it with Brian. Could have sworn there were two last night.
We threw back the covers and checked our maps. 35 kilometers, that’s almost 22 miles one way. Plus four miles down the beach and four miles back.
That’s 52 miles. Combine that with no food and a decent amount of alcohol and you get a pretty rough morning.
But this was Normandy. Immaculate villages by the sea made entirely of stone and more history in all directions than I would ever see again. This was my dream trip. We had a day and a half left and we were burning daylight.
We went downstairs for breakfast and were cutoff in the hallway by Judy. She instantly began giving us flack for coming in too late.
“I told you so,” she said.
Ya no shit Judy.
We went out back to smoke in the garden after breakfast. There were the bikes, just staring at us. I wanted to destroy mine, find a piece of pipe and just beat the hell out of it. But I didn’t. I finished my Lucky, put on the backpack and grabbed the bike by it’s ridiculously uncomfortable handlebars. We pushed them to the street and turned northwest.
“Ste. Mere Eglise,” I said, then started to pedal.
The “Florida Flyboys” is a Facebook group and reenacting unit based (quite obviously) in Florida. They portray multiple impressions over various time periods, but focus most exclusively on the 8th Air Force during WWII. The following are interviews with two of the flyboys’ most dedicated members, Jacob “Rusty” Field and Ted Johnson.
All photos courtesy of Jacob Field and the Florida Flyboys.
Name: Ted Johnson
Occupation: Deputy Sheriff
How old were you when you began reenacting and how did you become interested?
I had always been mildly interested in WW II history and the so called “glamour” of that era, but I only started exploring the reenacting side of the history a few short years ago.
The first event I ever went to, I dressed as an Army Air Forces pilot and intended just to kind of hang out in the background as “ambience”. However, I quickly found out that people were quick to ask you questions, both technical and historical, about your impression. I discovered that if I were going to pursue reenacting in earnest, I was definitely going to have to brush up on my WW II history.
Does your family have history in the Second World War (grandpa’s in the service, grandma’s working in the plants etc.)?
I did have quite a few relatives in the service during WW II. I had quite a few great uncles and my step grandfather who all served in World War II in some capacity or another. One in Germany with the Army, one in England with the 9th Air Force, one in the Army in Burma and two in the navy; one in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific. I also had a great aunt who was a Navy Yeoman at the Sub Chaser School in Miami, Florida.
What kind of access do you have to the airplanes that are so crucial to an Air Corp impression?
Fortunately, Florida has quite a few very good museums and attractions related to the history of flight and most of these are fairly receptive to allowing us to use their aircraft and facilities as backdrops or teaching tools for our living history lessons.
The Collings Foundation’s aircraft are actually wintered and maintained at American Aero Services in New Smyrna Beach, Florida and they start their Wings Of Freedom Tour here in Florida with first six or eight stops being all around the state. We’re also fortunate to have museums and flying attractions such as Fantasy Of Flight in Polk City, Florida, Warbird Adventures in Kissimmee, Florida and the Zephyrhills Museum Of Military History at the Zephyrhills Municipal Airport in Zephyrhills, Florida.
We also have numerous air shows around the state to include the TICO Air Show in Titusville, Florida, the annual Sun & Fun Air Show in Lakeland, Florida and the Stuart Air Show in Stuart, Florida.
What originally intrigued you about the Air Corp in particular?
As stated before, I’ve always had a kind of a veiled interest and enthusiasm for this area of WW II and, I have to say, after doing my research for a few years now, I have a renewed respect for the men who flew in the Army Air Forces under battle conditions.
I am told you have met some of the surviving Doolittle raiders. Tell me about that experience and what it meant to you.
Thrilling and awe inspiring, to say the least! But, in the end, these guys are just like any other older gentleman you might meet on the street. I think they really try to downplay all the hoopla and fan faire in their honor. It constantly amazes me that most vets, the raiders included, will tell you that they had a job to do and they just went over and took care of business. Very nondescript about the whole “war” thing. Some very nice and down to earth fellows.
What sets the Flyboys apart from other reenacting units?
I don’t think anything really sets us apart, necessarily. We are continuously striving to better our impressions and to properly honor the folks that we strive to portray. I think once you stop doing your homework and stop learning, that’s when your unit starts to stagnate, becomes lazy and starts to move backwards. I know a lot of older reenactors who sometimes look down on some of the younger, more inexperienced reenactors. I think this is a big mistake. The younger guys are going to be around quite few years longer than us and we should take them under our wings and teach them so they can properly carry this history to future generations.
Tell me what kind of reenactor you are. How strict are you with authenticity? Are you a “no holds barred” immersionist who has a 100 percent period impression and carries no modern items at events, or do you let something slip by every now and then?
I try to be as spot on authentic as is possible (i.e even my pocket items, which most people never see, are period correct). However, I’m also a realist and it’s understood that we don’t live in war time 1943 America. Consequently, there are going to be things at events that will be beyond our control as far as looking and being 100 % accurate sometimes. I try to hide any modern conveniences or necessities that I might need, so that the period accuracy of the event is not compromised if possible.
Everybody has a gripe about the reenacting world. Give me your biggest pet peeve in the hobby.
I think my biggest pet peeve would be someone who starts in this hobby but never tries to better himself in the knowledge of the history or the improvement of their impression. I can quite understand someone that is new in the hobby making mistakes, but someone that refuses to learn or to improve their craft is not needed. We do a disservice to the public when we inaccurately represent what we try to portray. Since the history of WW II is, more often than not, glossed over in the public schools, we should feel a responsibility to accurately teach the children of this country what their grandfathers and great grandfathers went through to keep us safe and free.
Give me a few of the hurdles you think face reenactors in today’s world. For instance, many say what happened during WWII and the memories of those who fought the war are being forgotten by young people. How do we move past that and continue to remember these incredible guys, and how do we get kids interested?
I think a lot of the “political correctness” and sensitivity in our society today is very detrimental to properly teaching the history of World War II. I’m not saying we have to reenact the Nazi atrocities or any of the gruesome things that were done to our troops by the Japanese, however, I think these things can and should be tastefully exhibited in displays, so these stories are told and not just pushed under the table.
Also, I think kids have a natural interest in things like this. That’s why it’s important to tell them about the soldiers, sailors and airmen and what they went through. To show these kids what they wore and how and why the equipment was used. Let them ask questions and ask questions of them to make them think about possible answers. You never know, you might spark the interest of a future teacher or historian. I guarantee they’ll remember their experience with you for a long time.
Jacob “Rusty” Field at the ready
Name Jacob Field
How old were you when you began reenacting and how did you become interested? 15, I was interested in the hobby when I joined a Boy Scouts Venture Crew who did WWII reenactments. I soon became connected with other people in the hobby in Florida. I left the Venture Crew about 5 months ago, and now I am connected with Item Company, 101st Airborne (Reenacted) Unit and the Florida Flyboys.
Currently I have created 3 Major Facebook Groups/Pages for reenactors all around the US and the world. They are WWII Combat Medics, WWII US Army Air Force, Naval/Marine Corps Aviation Re-enactors and Fans, and finally the Florida Flyboys
Does your family have history in the Second World War (grandpa’s in the service, grandma’s working in the plants etc.)? Yes, my grandfather served in the USMC on Tinian, Okinawa and other islands in the South Pacific as a radar operator for 90mm AA guns. I re-created his uniform just recently so I guess you could say I reenact him!
I see that you do impressions of multiple branches of the service (Air corps, Airborne, Infantry). Which one would you consider your primary impression and why? Naval Aviation, mainly it is because it is so hot here in Florida and it is a lot more comfortable than an M42 jumpsuit with gear while with USN impression its khakis and some flight gear.
How did the Florida Flyboys come to be? Well I formed the group along side my friends John Banet, Ted Johnson and many others. I just found that everyone had these impressions and such so I thought we should have a specific unit for them.
Do the Flyboys have a primary impression? Yes 8th Army Air Force B-17G Crew
I’m told you have met some of the surviving Doolittle raiders. Tell me about that experience and what it meant to you. It was an amazing experience. I would say that it will probably be one of the many climaxes in my life. I was recently fascinated by these guys after reading a few books. Then John Banet, a good friend of mine, asked me to go up for it and I immeadiately said YES. I even missed my Junior Prom for it but meeting the last 3 Raiders like that was a true honor and was a lot more fun than dirty dancing in some hot and sweaty gym.
Everybody has a gripe about the reenacting world. Give me your biggest pet peeve in the hobby. I can not stand people who annoy you about inaccuracies. I can take constructive criticism but criticism that uses foul language or forcing me to spend thousands of dollars on something that is (a) hard to make/ find, and b) will get no use out of) is pointless and is a very big pet peeve
Nobody likes digging holes, that’s a fact. But, as a WWII reenactor there might come a time when you have to grab a shovel and move a little earth. God knows the real GIs had to. You often hear WWII vets say they became experts in European soil during the war, and that’s absolutely true.
They dug more holes than Stanley Yelnats and while they might not have enjoyed the process, they were always equipped with the tools needed to get the job done.
Looks just like North Africa if you ask me.
I’ve on occasion seen my fellow reenactors ditch their shovels for numerous reasons. They’re too bulky, they get in the way when your running, they don’t match your new transitional musette bag etc. etc. But I’ve always felt my shovel was one of the more important pieces of equipment I carry. If this was the real thing and we were moving down a road somewhere in (insert European country) and we started getting hit by mortars or artillery, I wouldn’t want to be more than about 2 feet away from the nearest shovel. A shovel could save your skin just as effectively as an M1, so my first suggestion in this article is.. always carry your e-tool.
Now that I’ve put that out there, the next step is to break down your options.
The US army incorporated 2 types of shovels during the war, the first being the T-handled shovel, a WWI leftover. I hate this thing with a passion. You might as well be digging with a spoon and if the ground is frozen you’re better off just hitting yourself in the head with it and hoping by the time you wake up it’s Spring. Its flaws don’t end there. When placed anywhere on your cartridge belt the T-handle has a nifty habit of catching in between your legs while walking or running, sending you to the ground and a searing pain through your legs.
The T-Handled shovel
Let me say in addition, if you’re a 16 year old kid at your first tactical and you take off across a field following your squad leader like a dog and get less than 10 feet before that thing wedges in your upper thigh and drops you like a rock, you’ll never live it down.
Now that we’ve discussed the terrible setbacks and haunting memories of the T-handle, let’s move on to the slightly less worthless WWII entrenching tool.
The WWII E-tool with its carrying case
Introduced in 1943, the much more modern looking E-tool is far superior to its predecessor. No awful “T” to get stuck in between your legs and a folding handle that makes it much more convenient to carry. This folding handle can also be used to turn the blade perpendicular to the handle for use as a makeshift pick. This can be used to chip away at frozen dirt or tree roots and comes in quite handy when working in tight spaces.
So, the E-tool kicks the T-handle’s ass and as long as you’re not at an early war event you should have the option to use either one. Now the question is where to get one. The most important part is getting a good carrier. Most repro businesses sell original E-tools, which is definitely the way to go for the shovel itself. But the carriers vary from place to place and have different quality levels. In my experience At The Front makes one of the highest quality repops out there. What Price Glory can be iffy and I’ve yet to own a WWII impressions e-tool carrier. The thing that sets them apart is the snaps and the metal hooks that attach the carrier to your belt. The snaps on a low quality repro will break sooner rather than later and the metal attachments will bend until you cant hook them to your belt anymore.
Other than that all you’ve got to worry about is breaking the shovel itself, which isn’t easy to do with an original in good condition (but I’ve done it before).
That’s pretty much all there is to it. With a nice original e-tool and a quality repro carrier you should have a lasting piece of equipment that will dig foxholes like a backhoe and double as a frying pan, bayonet or even a toilet, although I wouldn’t suggest the last option.
I have to admit,
I had a super great time at the 2013 G.I. Film Festival in Washington D.C. ‘Wunderland’ had a great crowd, and played well. I got to meet a lot of great film makers from across the world.
please visit www.gifilmfestival.com for all of the cool pictures and news~!!~
Don Draper can make one hell of an old-fashioned, but classic cocktails were around long before the shark-suited Ad Men of the 1960s were roaming the offices of Madison Avenue in search of vulnerable young secretaries.
Men of the 1940s loved their booze, and whether that was an ice-cold bottle of spuds or a classy cocktail, they were well versed in the art of drink. What does this have to do with WWII reenacting you might ask? Well I’ll tell you. It’s just another small portion of becoming these men. The GIs knew their way around a bar long before they knew their way around a B.A.R. and while they might not have had too many chances to sip Manhattans in their foxholes, you can be damn sure they knew how to make one.
Also, this gives me a great excuse to drink on a Wednesday night, which is what I was really trying to accomplish.
So, I’m going to spend the next few minutes stirring, shaking and sharing my take on some classic cocktail recipes. God-willing I’ll come out the other end with some usable instructions for any reenacting friends who want to give this a shot themselves, although depending on how much quality testing I do this might be completely illegible by the last paragraph.
Anyhow, lets get started.
I’ll apologize in advance for my partisan bias towards whiskey, but there’s just nothing I can do about it. Vodka lovers, you’re on your own….
With that being said, here is my first cocktail recipe of the evening, none other than Don Draper’s old-faithful, the Old-Fashioned.
Rumored to have been invented in Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880s, the old-fashioned adheres to the original definition of a “cocktail,” meaning it includes a spirit and some form of bitters (we’ll get into those in a second). There is some level controversy about how to make a true old-fashioned and who knows what the real answer is, so I’ll just demonstrate my own method.
- 1 sugar cube
- 1 orange slice
- 1 maraschino cherry
- 2 oz. Whiskey (Usually bourbon, I prefer Rye)
- 2-3 dashes Angostura bitters
- Splash of soda water
You’ll be starting by dropping the sugar cube, orange and cherry into the bottom of a rocks glass (also known as an old-fashioned glass). Then comes the angostura bitters. A small bottle of highly concentrated alcohol (45%), bitters are used in moderation to add flavor to a drink.
Not overly apparent when present in a drink, the lack of bitters in any cocktail whose recipe calls for them stands out like a sore thumb. So, a shoot a couple dashes of bitters on top of the aforementioned ingredients, and add a touch of soda water. Now comes the fun part, muddling the drink. More or less this means smashing the ingredients together until the sugar is mostly dissolved and the fruit is nice and juiced. After that we’re pretty much done. Add ice to the glass and top it off with your whiskey. Give it a stir and you’re ready to drink. There’s a real sweetness to this cocktail that masks the burn of the whiskey perfectly, and if one sugar cube isn’t enough then add another and try again!
Now on to drink number 2, the Manhattan.
As common sense might tell you, this drink originated in New York City and is estimated to be just slightly older than the old-fashioned, being mixed for the very first time in the 1870s. One of the most famous and recognizable cocktails in history, the Manhattan has remained constant throughout time as a classic drink.
- 2oz Whiskey (again, I prefer Rye)
- ¾oz sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes angostura bitters
- 1 maraschino cherry
The key to this drink is getting the proportions right, most notably the sweet vermouth. Too little and you might as well drink your whiskey straight, too much and your Manhattan will taste like grandma’s cough syrup. A little different than the old-fashioned, we’ll use a shaker and Hawthorne strainer to concoct this drink.
Begin by filling your shaker with ice and then adding your 2oz of whiskey. Throw 3/4 oz of sweet vermouth on top of that, add 2 dashes of bitters and your pretty much done.
All that’s left to do is give it a good stir, but however fun and classy it may seem, make sure to avoid shaking this drink. As a general rule, only shake drinks that contain some form of filler that isn’t alcoholic. Lemon juice, lime juice, eggs, you get the point. Since everything in our Manhattan has booze in it, simply forego the shaking and give it a solid stir. When that’s done slap your Hawthorne strainer on top of the shaker, pore into a chilled cocktail glass, add a maraschino cherry as garnish and you’re done. This drink is as simple as it gets, and in less than two minutes you can be enjoying a cocktail that likely saw action in most every urban bar in the country during the 1940s.
Now on to the final cocktail of the hour. Sadly, this is the last drink I will be demonstrating, but I can assure you this one is a ball to make. We’ll now switch from whiskey to gin as we learn how to make a Silver Gin Fizz.
The gin fizz, of which there are several variations, became an incredibly popular drink nationwide in the early part of the 20th century. A New Orleans specialty, this drink is a member of the Collins family (Tom Collins that is) and is widely regarded as a summer drink. As I said, we’ll be making the silver variation.
Silver Gin Fizz
- 3oz Gin
- ¾ oz lemon juice
- 1½ oz simple syrup
- 1 egg white
- Topped with club soda
That’s right, I said 1 egg white. You might be saying to yourself, no way in hell I’m drinking something with a raw egg in it, but I’ll personally vouch for the outstanding texture and flavor the egg gives this drink. I was skeptical at first too, but soon came to embrace the notion of chugging a raw egg. Plus including an egg automatically qualifies this drink as a substitute for breakfast.
We’ll begin by adding all of our ingredients (gin, lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white) into your shaker. I’ll add that the easiest way to separate the white of the egg is to crack the shell in two and slowly transfer the egg from one half of the shell to the other, holding it over your shaker. Very carefully, the white will separate and fall into your strainer. Also, if you’re wondering, simple syrup is (simply) one part sugar and one part water, boiled until the sugar dissolves. It can be made easily at home by even the most accident-prone people (meaning me, heat and my fingers don’t get along well.)
The next step in our fizz process is to give the drink a good dry shake, meaning don’t add any ice to your shaker. After that’s done, add some ice and do it again, and this time really shake the hell out of it. When she’s nice and cold strain her into a tall Collins glass, top with a little soda water and you’re done!
Well there you have it. Three classic cocktails that any self-respecting GI could have ordered at the local jazz club before he shipped out. If you’re in need of a 1940s fix and the next event is months away, then thrown on your finest fedora, put on a little Benny Goodman, light up a lucky and try one of these dinks on for size. I’ll bet the effect is more than enough to get you to the next event without going into reenacting withdrawals, and after a few of them I’m sure you’ll be enjoying the jazz even more than you normally do.
Now, since I’ve had to test each one of these drinks as I explained them, I think it’s time for me to hit the sack.