Living History – Exploring A WWII Reenactment Camp
Twenty-four years ago, a man named Kevin Wisniewski showed up at the annual EAA airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. He stood out amongst the thousands of other people, because he was dressed as an officer from World War II. Every piece of his gear was authentic, part of a lifelong collection. He wondered around the displays of World War II planes in the show’s famed “Warbird Alley.” People were enthralled with his outfit. Many asked to take photos with him. It went over so well that the next year, Kevin asked his best friend to join him. A few years after that, they were approached by representatives of Warbird Alley and asked to set up a camp there.
Today, the World War II reenactor camp is one of the highlights of Airventure. Applicants are carefully screened by Kevin for authenticity. This year, over sixty reenactors were in attendance, representing many members of the greatest generation. There were pilots, officers, and privates. There were Rosie-the-Riveters. There were representatives of the British and Australian forces. There were genuine World War II artifacts like rifles, radios, and jeeps. Tents were set up like they would be at a World War II base. A visit to their camp is like taking a step back in time.
As a history enthusiast myself, I share in their passion. I feel an overwhelming debt to the people that came before me, and who shaped the world I live in. I do my best to repay that debt by preserving their stories. I do it with a pen and paper. Reenactors take it to a whole other level, and I wanted to hear their stories.
They came to reenacting from many different places. A lot of them just fell into it. Like Matthew Milligan, 29, of Sugar Grove, Illinois. When he was in college, a friend of his invited him to drinks with some reenactors from Rockford. They all hit it off, and they convinced him to give the craft a try. “It became a passion, and the most expensive drinks I ever had,” he says with a smile, referring to his costume and kit. Ryan Knapp, 24, of Portage, Michigan, got into WWII Pilot reenacting from an extensive family background in aviation. He was also inspired by a museum near his home. “It became a natural fit,” says Knapp. It also became a way to pay homage to those who came before him. “It’s surreal knowing I’m the same age now as those guys 80 years ago.” Chip Buerger, 54, of Oak Park, Illinois, has been reenacting for a long time. He got into it because he wants to educate the public about history, since a lot of schools come up short. “We want to honor the vets, living or dead, by carrying their stories,” he says.
Whether they fell into reenacting or sought it out, they have a big responsibility. They are a bridge between the present, and the rapidly fading past. It is a duty that has had a profound mark on all of them. First, it helps them empathize with a lost generation. In 1994, Wisniewski was a part of a big D-Day reenactment. He got a chilling idea of what the real soldiers went through when his unit wound up in a foggy forest. They could barely see the tanks through the mist. “I got a feeling that this is what it was like,” Wisniewski says.
It also lets them connect aging warriors to their distant past. Buerger has had many personal experiences with this. “It’s amazing to see these old vets bring their grandkids through,” he says. “The kids will point to things and ask their grandfather about it.” It is also moving to see the soldiers return to their roots. Buerger recalled seeing a wheelchair bound World War II vet come into the reenactor camp one day. He saw a rifle like the one he used during the war, and pointed it out to Buerger. When Buerger asked him if he wanted to hold it, something amazing happened. “I turned to get the rifle,” he says. “When I turned back around, this old and crippled veteran was on his feet. I handed him the rifle, and like it was second nature, he snapped into present arms position.” In that moment, an old man was transformed into the warrior he had once been, and according to Buerger, it was incredible to watch.
Ryan Knapp agrees. “Something small will remind a veteran of a story from their war days,” he says. They will point to something simple like a coffee pot or a radio. It will transport them to a time long gone, and they will start telling stories, ones that might have been lost if not for inspiration from the reenactors.
It’s incredible for these reenactors to be a part of preserving history, so even though they have sometimes faced opposition, they don’t plan to retire their uniforms. “We got harassed at first,” Wisniewski admits. “So we became our own entity and worked hard on making it legit.” Today, Warbird Ally has done an about face, and praised this reenactor camp for bringing history to life. “We bring the machines, but you bring the human touch,” they said.
What a compliment, because it is the human touch that the rest of us can relate to. That’s why reenacting is so important. Someday, the last soldier from the great World War II will pass away. Through the efforts of these and many other reenactors, their stories will live on. They will live on before our eyes, and we can interact with them, which educates more than anything else. These reenactors are all volunteers, and they pay for their kits from their own pockets. A lot of them go through extensive training, and great pains to ensure accuracy. Preserving the past and repaying the debt is that important to them, as it should be for all of us.
Personal Interviews – special thanks to Matt Milligan, Ryan Knapp, Chip Buerger, and Colonel Kevin Wisniewski
EAA Airventure 2017
All photos by M.B. Henry, for more, please visit my photo gallery.
Have you participated in a history reenactment? Share your story in the comments below!