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.
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 underneath 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.
(Although I picture him doing it with the little French smirk that they get as they’re trashing someone else’s painting or taking a sip of cheap wine. Yes, we know it’s not as good as yours, get over yourself. And shave your chest for Christ’s sake.)
By this point I was completely delusional, murmuring nonsensical fraises 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.
What I would assume is a common trait among most WWII reenactors, I love the music of the era. Big Band, jazz, I love it all (although I can’t stand the Dixieland crap of the 20s, but that’s an entirely different debate). I begun my love affair with jazz when I stumbled upon a recording of “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” at the age of 13 or 14 and have since jitterbugged my way further and further down the path of depression era tunes. Yet, I have only recently begun to discover the true power this music can have on one’s reenacting experience.
No generation was more influenced by music than those growing up and growing old in the 1930s and 40s. Actually, the children of the 1960s would have taken first prize in that contest, but I disqualified them for the use of music-enhancing drugs. Anyway, music was an enormous part of people’s lives during the depression and the seed that was planted in the 30s came to fruition during WWII.
A family’s radio was arguably their most important possession throughout the 1930s. It was their HBO, MTV, AMC, CNN and FOX all rolled into one. They had an intimate bond with the radio that today’s world doesn’t share with television. They trusted their radios, relied on them for much of their entertainment as well as news and had decidedly fewer alternatives for either of the previously mentioned categories. The radio brought life, and part of that life was music.
This was my first realization when I began to really appreciate WWII music. Until then, when I thought of Big Band music I imagined a sticky, smoke-filled nightclub in the heart of Chicago with flying skirts and famous gangsters. That’s what we see in the movies of course, a fast swing tune followed by the slow romantic number where Ben Affleck tells Kate Beckinsale he has to go fight for the Eagle Squadron. Pretty much standard. These places certainly existed before and during the war, but my mistake was thinking that was how most young people in the 30s and 40s got their music fix. I was sadly mistaken.
While the GIs were growing up they got their music from the radio, although where I come from it was more likely just an old man with 4 strings on his banjo and 5 teeth in this mouth, but I digress. They spent their youth listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, Little Orphan Annie and the best jazz the wireless had to offer.
So, years later when they were all in England and Italy and the Philippines their desire to hear Crosby and Goodman and Miller didn’t dwindle. It was a release, a way to go home for just a few minutes, the chance to think of something other than the war. They worshiped the radio and listened to it any chance they could get.
Now I’ll switch back to reenacting as I tell you to harness the power of this music and make it a substantial part of your impression. No matter what army you reenact, a solid knowledge of the era’s music and a sound appreciation for what a large part of the men’s lives it was is key. Know the music, and don’t be afraid to branch out. Sinatra is great, but so are Ornette Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie and Jelly Roll Morton. We have almost unlimited access to thousands and thousands of Mp3 files that can be had for pennies on the dollar (or for free if that’s your racket).
Build up a solid library of these tunes and cater them to certain events. Find some French radio broadcasts for a Normandy or French occupation event, and throw in a couple of V-E Day broadcasts for a late war event. Whether you’re an American airborne unit sitting around in your tent waiting for the invasion to come or an SS unit holed up in a barn in Italy, break out the radio and tune it to your favorite channel (which is code for press play on your IPod).
In our hobby we are always searching for that ultimate feeling. The chill that runs down the back of your neck for 5 seconds as you think to yourself, “that’s what it must have felt like.” I can tell you that in my experience this feeling has almost always come while I was sitting in a dimly lit room sucking on a Lucky and quietly listening to “Body and Soul” or “Moonlight Cocktail.”
In the many nights I have spent sitting around a campfire crinkling my nose at the musty smell of a nearby GP medium, I would say that WWII films and TV shows rank amongst the most frequent of reenactor talking points. SPR authenticity mistakes, a handful of Oddball quotes and the never-ending Bill Guarnere impersonation attempts always seem to slither their way into the conversation at some point. Among the more recent discussions has been the debate on the now not so new HBO miniseries “The Pacific.” Criticisms of the series among the reenacting community are as numerous as they are diverse, but the most common complaint to fall on jeep cap covered ears is “well, it wasn’t Band of Brothers.”
‘ You’re right, it wasn’t. It’s not like it was (mostly) based on two individual memoirs, written about a different branch of the service who was fighting on the other side of the world against an enemy that couldn’t have been more physically or mentally different than those lining up against easy 506.
“But George Luz wasn’t even in it, I was waiting to quote ‘got a penny’ for 10 hours!”
Group from the TV show ‘Band of Brothers’
I get it. You saw the names Spielberg and Hanks on the same box and expected “the company of heroes” with cammo helmet covers. I myself nearly fell into this trap around half way through the first episode. “Wow, 20 minutes in and we’re in combat already? I don’t even know that guy’s name, and where the hell is that hill they had to run up during training?” I didn’t like it. The sense of comradery you felt while watching “Band of Brothers” in nothing but your boxers and steel pot while polishing your jump boots, was gone. The characters were far too vague. I damn near shut it off…. But I didn’t.
Still form ‘Band of Brothers.’ HBO Original Mini Series
Nine episodes later I pulled myself out from behind the couch, where I had been sitting for the last 10 hours grasping the stock of my carbine and munching on K rations while peering over the cushion to watch, and stood in amazement as the end credits rolled by. I might have even cried (although if you ever ask me that face-to-face I will deny it wholeheartedly). I was now already contemplating how I was going to afford a Marine Corps impression, not to mention being hopelessly and progressively in love with Sid Phillips’ Australian girlfriend.
That being said, I was not completely void of criticism. The storyline was occasionally hard to follow and some of Joe Mazzelo’s (Eugene Sledge) acting was reminiscent of my high school’s production of “The Grimm Brothers Spectac-u-lathon.” But, my friend, if you say that it wasn’t Band of Brothers, then I will say good. It wasn’t supposed to be. Much of that argument has been based upon the fact that it just wasn’t as “personal” as BoB, and I would argue the contrary. This series might not give us an exclusive membership into one the most close-knit groups of men to ever walk the earth, but it does let us into the heads and the hearts of the average 20-year-old kid that was swept in to the tragedy we know as the Second World War. Too depressing? You’re right.
But my point in all of this is that this series really lets us see what the individual soldier went though, not what a group of men experienced. “Band of Brothers” was not completely without personal stories, but I feel like “The Pacific” brought it out just a bit more efficiently.
I met a vet once on a plane going from Washington DC to Sioux Falls, SD. We spoke only briefly before he finished his small bag of pretzels and dozed off in the window seat. But during our 5-minute conversation he told me he was a replacement with the 29th Infantry division, and had caught up with them just outside of St. Lo. He was in combat for a grand-total of 1 week before being wounded and sent home. 7 days. I often think about what his experience of the war must have been like, compared to something like “Band of Brothers.”He would have trained in the states of course and gotten to know a number of guys during his time there. But most replacements by that time in the war were simply sent to repo depos once they got overseas, then split up and assigned wherever they were needed. So there’s a good chance he only knew those he was in combat with for a week. Contrast that with the nearly 2 years the 506th spent training together before seeing combat and you have a dramatically different experience.
“The Pacific” brings this out this portion of the war very well. They felt close to all those they fought with (due to the intensity of what every one of them experienced), but more than anything they were individuals who just wanted to get the hell out of there and go back to their lives. Many of them (my grandfather included) were not at all close to the men they fought alongside once they got home, and quite a few of them (my grandpa also falls into this group) never saw any of the guys again for the rest of their lives. Now just to make it clear, I am by no means hating on “Band of Brothers.” I have worn out about 4 DVD copies of it now, and practice my “Wild Bill” every night in front of the mirror (it’s not going well). I simply wanted to shed a little light on the Pacific vs. BoB match-up and let everyone in on how I feel.
But mostly I wanted to talk about that Australian girl. If anyone knows her let me know, I am not beyond stalking
Well I am back on the old blog to happily report some fun and exciting news for my official www.ManTheLine.com’s WWII Internet Web Series Pilot. “WUNDERLAND” has been selected and will be premiering at the South Dakota Film Festival. “Wunderland” a short narrative pilot directed by my good friend Andrew Kightlinger and is an official selection. Set in WWII during the Battle of The Bulge, ‘Wunderland,’ follows a squad of US soldiers and their dedicated officer as they fend off the brutal onslaught of German attackers.
I have also been informed by the festival programmers that “Wunderland” has won an award, so I am looking forward to seeing what we won. If you have not had a chance to see all of the exciting news about the Series or the film check out our facebook page and giving us a like by clinkinghere.
In addition a few shorts scenes of the film can be seen on youtube, please check them out below:
or for some fun Behind the Scenes footage, check out this video as well:
I am hopping that this is the beginning of a successful festival and promotional run for my WWII web Series. I would also like to thank members of the WWII reenacting groups the 12th SS, 502nd 101st and the 508th 82nd, units out of Minnesota, South Dakota and Iowa. I could not have made this project from all of their hard work and dedication.
Hopefully the pilot will lead to financing for the whole web series project, So get your boots ready for the reenactor’s casting call , because I would like to get anyone and everyone who is interested involved in the project. As always I will keep you posted and up to date with what is happening with “Wunderland!”
WWII reenacting is a strange hobby, the uninformed population and media tries to explain us away with such hot button titles as “gun-nuts,” “neo-type warmongers,” “weekend warriors,” etc. But how does one explain what the hobby is to an interested person in a one-on-one situation?
WWII reenacting is what you make of it. This is a hobby (keep that in mind) where modern-day men (and a few women) attempt to recreate the WWII-period as best as they can with varying degrees of success.
It doesn’t matter if you do Viking, Roman Legion, RevWar, 1812, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Nam, or any of the other periods currently being done. You WILL encounter individuals who will be helpful and nice as you begin to collect the needed gear, uniforms, and weapons needed to participate in whatever event your “unit” decides to attend.
You will also encounter some of the most pigheaded, stupid fools on the planet in this hobby of reenacting history (WWII reenacting is not alone in this; this problem is in every period of reenacting). You will quickly figure out those who you wish to be with.
This is an expensive hobby, far more so now then it was 20 years ago. Authenticity has improved, but the result has driven up the costs as well. What was good then is now considered unacceptable in many circles. Check and double-check before buying something for reenacting. Just because a dealer says, “It’s perfect for reenacting,” doesn’t make it so.
Start with an easy impression. Don’t go crazy and spend thousands of dollars (which is easier than you think) on an impression that you later wish you hadn’t because you will never get your full money back.
Easy impressions are Russian, Partisan, GI infantry, British infantry and German infantry. These impressions are somewhat “generic” and you can move from one unit to another (GI to GI, Russian to Russian, etc.) without too much problem.
Hard and expensive impressions are Waffen-SS, Airborne (of any country), many of the minor Allied and Axis forces, and the armored force of any nation (you will need a vehicle for this). The first two require specialized uniforms, equipment and sometimes weapons to do this properly.
Weapons will add a new dimension to your new hobby. Guns are NOT toys! They are not cheap (except for those doing Russian/Partisan) and can put a major dent in your wallet. Once again, check and double-check prior to buying.
A vehicle (either soft-skin or armored) is an even bigger step into the hobby. These will run in cost even higher than most weapons. It will be a major investment into the hobby for you.
It is best to join (at first) a local unit that does what you’re looking for. The best way to find units is either on this board or on the unit listing that is linked through the At the Front (a well-known dealer) website. Talk to the unit members (face to face is best) and find out if this unit is what you want in both authenticity and friendship. Shop around.
3. Levels of Authenticity
This may be the single biggest problem you will encounter in this hobby. Each unit and organization will have varying degrees of authenticity and standards of enforcing them. Check before joining. Regardless if the unit is hard-core or farby, it’s your dollar and your time, and you don’t have to join them if the level of authenticity doesn’t fit your desires.
Remember, this is a hobby, not the real military. No one is forcing you to join and no one is forcing you to stay. Hobbies are meant to be fun, and WWII reenacting is one of the most enjoyable hobbies on this planet.
In closing, this is a good stepping-stone to explain at first what the hobby will entail. Add on parts that will cover what the difference(s) in both tactical and public-display events. Make it understandable for the average Joe. Don’t use terms that a non-military person won’t understand. Keep it simple.
Jay Sproat is a WWII reenactor with over 25+ years in the hobby. A graduate in Historic Preservation, he was one of the three founders of the original TSG and has been an editor of several WWII reenacting organizations newsletters/magazines. He resides in Missouri and works for the Department of Defense.