Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hanging Tough

Commemorating the Normandy Invasion . . . in three different places . . .

Throughout late May and early June, several of my friends and I attended numerous commemorations and living history events throughout Pennsylvania for the 67th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy. Our unit, The Screaming Eagles, portray the 101st Airborne Division and frequently combine forces with some British reenactors to portray the 1st Allied Airborne Army. Above is yours truly checking out the inner workings of an original Sherman Tank at Army Heritage Days in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

As part of our display, we constructed our own trench systems including barbed wire, sandbags, and related equipment. While it's impossible to capture the scope or filth in the toils of trench life, we hope such depictions offer visitors a taste of what living in a trench might have looked like.

Further to our left was our Russian comrade, seen here talking with active members of the Army. Of all the Allies, the Soviet Union was undoubtedly the most bloodied-up, with over six million people lost in battle and over another four million lost in related incidents. Though not active in the Normandy Invasion, the Russians were pushing west as the British, Americans, Canadians, and French began their advance into the east - slowly but surely tightening the noose around Nazi Germany.

The American Infantrymen on our right too dug slit trenches. Such defensive positions were commonly used but also frequently inadequate. Though a soldier could rest the entire length of his body in such a hole, it was often not enough to protect him from enemy fire, shell fragments, etc. Furthermore, vehicles could easily run over slit trenches and crush the men in them since the positions were not dug deep enough. That said, they were far easier to construct than more elaborate or deeper modes of protection.

Soldiers could protect themselves further, however, by adding sandbags or debris to existing trenches. Further protection could surround the defenses in the form of barbed wire, Hawkins Mines, or Gammon Bombs. The former was a mine that exploded under pressure. When an enemy vehicle ran over it, a chemical igniter brought forth a spark and eventual detonation. A Gammon Bomb was essentially a grenade in a small cotton bag which, after it was unscrewed and tossed, detonated on impact. Both of these types of grenades can be seen resting on the sandbags when the photo is clicked and enlarged.

As you'll also note in the photo, many young visitors enjoy participating in this "trench life" scenario. We encourage interaction by allowing them to crawl into the trench and try on certain pieces of gear. Though only trying on a few accoutrements, they quickly gain a sense of how hard life was (and still is) in the military.

Meanwhile, I portray the Stars and Stripes war correspondent. Not only do I have a functional Remington Rand typewriter, but I also do G.I. cartoons in the style of comic great Bill Mauldin - who created the archetypal American soldier through his characters Willie and Joe. Many themes of the war can be incorporated through some of the items on my desk. For instance, the copy of Stars and Stripes under the camera represents freedom (of the press), something the Axis powers denied to most of its people. Meanwhile, a Western Union telegram can symbolize loss, for many citizens learned of a war death in the family through such a telegram. Historical interpretation such as this must move beyond simple show and tell. Historical artifacts and reproduction gear can be used to invoke the larger picture and create a more meaningful connection with the visitor.

Chuck Lynch talks tactics and weaponry to a young recruit, connecting the parallels of past and present. Army Heritage Days is essentially a living history timeline, as you can see from the other reenactors in the far background.

A few days later, we were on the front lines once again. This time, at the Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg to commemorate the D-Day anniversary. Eisenhower purchased this property only a few years following WWII because he has a decades-long fascination with the battlefield, in part thanks to his days at the Camp Colt tank training facility located there in 1918. Every June and September WWII reenactors camp out on the prez's lawn.

Chuck once again enlightens the youth of America - boy scouts this time.

Justin Shope, our medic, takes a break from the heat.

...And Chuck does the same. Also take notice of the tin cans wrapped around the barbed wire. This was common in both World Wars because cans and bottles acted as additional alarm systems in No Man's Land. Also note the Hawins Mine in the background.

Eric Sral taking a nap . . . again.

Some of our fellow American reenactors also had a vintage Willys Jeep with them. How could I not get this picture taken?

The next day, we headed over to the Clipper Magazine Stadium, home of the Lancaster Barnstormers, to take part in their tribute to hometown hero Major Dick Winters of the 101st Airborne. This event was spearheaded by eleven year old advocate Jordan Brown, who has raised nearly $90,000 for the Hang Tough project in memory of this famous officer.

One of our tasks included escorting the original Easy Company veterans out onto the field before the game. (Courtesy Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)

They included William "Wild Bill" Guarnere and Edward "Babe" Heffron. (Courtesy Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)

Note us in the background as well as the original Band of Brothers and the actors who portrayed them in the foreground. (Courtesy Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)

All of the VIPs threw out the opening pitches of the game. (Courtesy Tim Gray and the WWII Foundation.)

We also had the opportunity to talk with numerous other veterans. This gentleman was a paratrooper on D-Day and he was the last one to jump out of his C-47 plane before one of the engines failed and then blew up. Lucky man.

Eric Sral and Clint Burkholder before the game.

With the cast of Band of Brothers at the Dick Winters Tribute. Left to right: Ross McCall (Liebgott), James Madio (Perconte), Frank John Hughes ("Wild Bill" Guarnere), and Jared Frederick.

Me and Easy Company veteran "Babe" Heffron.

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