March 2017 - Weldon Spring, MO - Every March a group of World War II reenactors from the mid-west descend on the US Army Reserve training center in Weldon Spring, MO. The goal: to better understand the European theater of World War II by fighting small battles again. The participants are required to carry in only what was used in the war. They wear WWI uniforms, carry WWII guns (and weapons) and use WWII vehicles. Many go farther by adding their own details: glass Coke bottles (with sugar cane sugar), cigars/cigarettes a flask and even a nude b/w picture of his girl back home.
Allied and Axis forces separate in the woods and meet with real gunfire (shells with no bullets). Participants use movie blanks during the scrimmages. When soldiers are killed, they remove their helmet, strictly on the honor system.
Battles begin with the sound of distant gunfire and eventually grow to ear piecing rings. Battles often end as helmet-less troops cheer on participants. As the day wears on, so does the fatigue. I ate Hershey chocolate bars between battles; a dense form of carbohydrates. You look around and beside the occasional smartphone one might forget all about 2017.
DISCLOSURE: A friend of mine helps plan and run this annual event. This is a private event and photo access is very limited.
The Jeep drives through down a wet road to a rendezvous point with other Allied vehicles during one of several "exercises".
Participants bring their own restored vehicles to the battle weekend. The vehicles are all carried to the event on flat-bed trailers. Many of them participate in parades and other reenactment events around the country.
The "helmet-off" British SAS (special forces) reenactors were shot and killed while trying to take back a road from German reenactors.
Reenactors take off their helmet to show they have been killed during an exercise. During battles they will use "movie blanks" or gun shells with gun powder and no bullet. They fire on the enemy and use the honor system when shot and killed.
Allied reenactors ride in and break for lunch. They take pride in only bringing types of food used in battle; old Coke bottles (with sugar cane sugar), Hershey's Chocolate bars, canned food, summer sausage.
He ate with his unit and told me to "disregard the pull tab" on his can of SpaghettiOs. Apparently, they didn't have pull tabs on cans in WWII. Reenactors packed food in their day packs and snacked between battles. The food I saw included; summer sausage, Hershey's Chocolate, canned pasta and thick bottles of Coca Cola (the kind with real sugar cane sugar).
One reenactor carried a nude black & white picture of a woman in his helmet. There was also a letter with a "UK" return address. I didn't ask if it was a letter to send her in case he was killed in action or if it was a letter from her. Regardless, he was not going to die in battle today. The picture and letter were added to boost authenticity, one more detail to make one forget we were living in 2017.
Brits at Lunch
The British reenactors spread their lunch across their vehicle's military netting.
Father & Sons
Dad is driving his two sons into battle. Before dinner the dad talked about being a reenactor with his sons in Revolutionary War reenactments as well. I think they said they were from Illinois. They drive this jeep in parades back home. One of his sons was cleaning his rifle after the day's battles were over. I got chills. The scene looked real as if I was back in WWII.
This group walked the road and then spread out into the woods. An event director said many reenactors lack the tactical background of the soldiers of the period. On this day the Germans spent most of their time on their bellies picking off Allied GIs.
Women at War
Three women lead their unit into battle. Reenactors will recruit others to participate in their unit. This unit was unique as they had three women in it. The "Unit Photographer" took a picture of each member before entering battle.
A German armored half-track fire on Allies prompting this father and son team to fire back. The machine gun uses gas instead of gun powder to fire giving off the blue colored flame. Dad fired an M1 rifle.
These Allied reenactors take cover behind their Jeep as a group of Germans sits helmet off (dead) in their vehicle. The battle raged on as the Allies were encircled by enemy fire including a unit of Italian reenactors from Kansas City.
I followed these two for a time. They watched a machine gun vehicle back up as it fired. It was an Allied Jeep. Not a good sign. A group of Germans to their left charged a up a hill. These two attempted to charge from the German's blind left. My ears rang after a few loud pops very close. The German reenactor looked at me with two fingers up and pointed at me and the GI next to me. And like that - we were dead. I took off my helmet and picked up my camera as he ran by.
One Italian reenactor yells as he's shot during a battle. He yelled out like a kid playing guns in the woods as he fell. His fellow reenactor went low for cover and helped his wounded friend to safety.
A German soldier reenactor walks in front of a tank while checking his phone. His helmet is off - a reenactor sign he has been killed in the current battle. It was pretty common for reenactors to post pictures during the battle especially after they were shot.
Italian Gun Crew from KC
After I was killed the second time, I wandered into the woods to see this - an Italian machine gun team (from Kansas City). "Can you get a picture of our machine gun position?" one asked. "Sure...as you were."
Reenactor Units often begin as friends who find out about these events. They buy uniforms and guns. They study about the war and come to these events to share stories and make new ones. I met groups of Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas. Another event the same weekend somewhere else in the mid-west drew reenactors away from this one.
One German reenactor shoot video with his phone during a battle against Allied forces. It appears as though he was broadcasting live from his phone.
A German reenactor runs shoots cover fire as he runs across an Allied held road. A group of reenactors who had already been killed in combat watch and cheer from in back of me. He tried not to laugh.
Germans on Foot
German reenactors walk toward the last battle of the day.
Me: As a modern people who rely on cars, dishwashers and work at computers it's amazing how much energy is used to navigate a day like this. I came home exhausted and found a bruise on my shoulder. What from? I have no idea.
En route to the last battle our convoy was caught in a traffic jam. I made this picture of the gunner behind our jeep. Several reenactors smoked cigars, cigarettes and one even passed around a flask. These are habits we don't do as often in 2017.
Allied Traffic Jam
The jeep group sat in traffic on the way to the last battle / exercise.
I wonder how often this took place in WWII. How often were troops stuck in convoys toward the front? One documentary I watched about Vietnam said helicopters not only brought troops to battle faster but ensured a far more time spent engaged in battle vs in transit.
How much did you know about enemy troop movements or locations? How much of the war was spent "commuting"?
Leaving the exercise are just left me with more questions.
My Ride Home
At the end of three battles, a day spent keeping my 2009 vintage Canon DSLR dry and low camera battery power it was time to recharge. I told my unit commander I was walking back to the barracks. I walked for about 30-minutes. My Boy Scout training told me it was a good time to eat. I ate a Hershey's bar and then a can of SpaghettiOs. I walked for some unknown amount of time until I heard a motorcycle. He wore a German uniform. I flagged him down and he told me to hop in the sidecar. And that was how I got home after the war.
(Actually, after dinner I felt odd as I loaded my gear into my (Japanense) Honda Accord. Then again, my grandpa bought it a long time ago. He fixed landing crafts in the Pacific and never said much about the war. He told us the Accord was the best car at the time and that is why he bought it. He never said anything about it being a Japanese automaker.)