World War II, Indiana:
The Buckeley Homestead in Lowell, Indiana, is an early 20th century farm complex preserved as a museum, some 60 miles south of Chicago. A couple of hills away are the McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, and all the other chain shops of the strip. But the homestead has sheep, horses, and several hundred acres of fields, forest, and mud, making it acceptable as a site for an annual World War Two Winter Battle.
I arrived at the headquarters, a 1910 barn, and found the organizer, Mike Bollow, who, when he is not portraying an armored car commander of the 116th Panzergrenadier Division, can also be seen as an RAF pilot, and as a graphic designer in Aurora, Illinois. Mike, who I had spoken to on the phone, was busy registering participants, making them sign legal waivers, collecting their $15 fee, and handing out red “wound cards” which have to be stamped by refereees during the course of the battle as the “soldiers” are “killed.” He quickly gave me a beer, followed by a slug of whisky, and afterwards I fell asleep and waited for the dawn.
Dubbed “Operation Kessel,” several hundred “soldiers” representing the American, Canadian, British, Polish, Russian, and German armies gathered in the very grey, wet, and cold morning. Each “unit” lined up in parade ground formation. A typical re-enactors group can number from five or ten to thirty or more. Five or six women playing German Red Cross nurses. The unit commanders received their orders.
Everyone scattered through the property. The Germans dug some bunkers, the Russians were dropped off at the other end, and the Anglo-Americans started the battle by charging a wooden footbridge. The rifles and machine-pistols are real guns firing blanks, most of the machine-guns have been adapted to use compressed gas that makes the loud noise and red flash. Glorified cap guns, if you well. Also mortars and bazookas firing fireworks and smoke bombs.
I started with the Russians, who were speaking English with bad Russian accents and calling each other “Tovarish” and so on. I went with them into the woods looking for a German machinegunner but we all got separated and lost quickly. Lots of shooting, but nobody likes to “take a hit” and be “killed” unless they are very close to the guy shooting at them and can’t pretend otherwise. The referees, wearing the uniforms of British paratroopers with red berets and yellow armbands, kept running around making sure that people were being properly killed. After being “hit,” they have to lie on the ground for 5 minutes, take their helmets off, and then go back to the “first aid station” to get their wound cards stamped “treated.” Then they return to the battle; this is supposed to simulate replacements arriving on the battlefield in drips and drabs.
So most of the time, each unit of 5 or 10 guys wanders through the woods, starts shooting at long range whenever they spot the other side, and then they get more or less wiped out as they get too close. So then they have to start over. Everyone complains that the other side doesn’t die enough, and because the guns are real antiques, they keep jamming and screams of “schiesse!” and “shit” ring out through the trees.
After I had enough the Russians, who were slowed down because they were dragging around a 150-pound machine-gun on little wheels, I wandered through the lines and found the Germans. They were furiously defending themselves from the American attack on the footbridge. Plenty of GIs got truly soaked trying to cross the little rocky stream, and I slipped and slid ten feet on my ass running across the muddy bridge. Here it was a lot of noise and lots of dying. A lot of histrionic dying, that is, spread-eagled in dramatic positions on the ground. Because, of course, these guys are not re-enacting World War Two so much as they are re-enacting a World War Two movie.
Then, as the Americans were just about all dead, the “1st Polish Parachute Brigade” arrived. They re-enact the Polish soldiers who fled to England after the defeat of Poland, and returned to fight in 1944 with the Allies. Because this is the Chicago area, all of the Polish re-enactors are real Poles! No bad Russian or German accents here, they were speaking real Polish as they charged onto the field. This is where it gets pretty weird…real Polish immigrants, all with guns…playing war! I wonder if they weren’t a bit too anxious to kill off the Germans so they could get at their real enemies, the Soviets….(!)…
So for about seven hours we ran around. There was a real fight, when a German and a Russian argued about who should have been killed. They actually started throwing punches and had to be sorted out. The Russian was sent home. Another German demonstrated Hitler’s suicide to me by bringing his pistol to his head and shooting himself. Luckily he was wearing his steel helmet because at such close range, even blanks can kill (there is brass that does shoot out of the barrel.) Other guys smerared fake blood on their faces and a few had real cuts from the thorns in the underbrush.
Because blanks are expensive as real bullets, the guys started running out of ammunition, and that’s when they call it quits. Someone put up a Christmas tree, the Poles served soup, Mike went around handing out airline sized bottles of vodka, and a scratchy 78 rpm German rendition of “Silent Night” was played on a wind-up gramophone.
And then everyone went home in their SUVs.
[a former member]
2004-12-18 16:01:55 UTC
Mar 12 2008