Recreation & Destinations

Rockford Re-Enactment Best in the Nation

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Find out why more than 800 World War II re-enactors transform Midway Village into war-ravaged 1940s Europe each fall, and why Rockford’s event trumps others like it.

Historical re-enactors take their hobby very seriously and dread the day when WW II veterans will no longer be here to advise them. (Jon McGinty photo)

Click here to go behind the scenes at World War II Days!

Now in its 14th year, World War II Days at Midway Village Museum (MVM) provides the single largest and most comprehensive WWII re-enactment experience in the United States.

In 2009, more than 8,000 spectators came out to watch 800-plus re-enactors stage booming battles, exciting street skirmishes and clandestine operations, all against the backdrop of a 1940s European village and woods. This year’s event is Sept. 25 & 26.

Spectators watch a skirmish play out in the village. The many skits of World War II Days are planned far in advance and must be approved for accuracy by the World War Two Historical Re-Enactment Society Inc. (HRS), whose 800-plus members put on the event at Midway Village Museum each year. (Jon McGinty photo)

“What’s so nice about the Rockford event is that we get a lot of re-enactors portraying civilians, including kids dressed up in period costume, because we have a very cool setting with all the buildings at Midway Village serving as a European village backdrop,” explains Belvidere resident Scott Koelling, overall event coordinator for 13 of the past 14 years. “The site really helps to set it apart, as does all the support that comes from Midway Village and the Rockford Park District.”

Each year, the re-enactors set up their period Axis and Allied tents in the museum’s woods on the Thursday before the event opens, and stay until Sunday night, cooking in authentic field kitchens and sleeping outdoors, rain or shine.

On Saturday, visitors arrive to watch how re-enactors camp, cook, dress, interact and do battle. Short of entering a time machine, the event is the closest thing to a 1940s war experience most of us will ever know.

Koelling belongs to the World War Two Historical Re-Enactment Society Inc. (HRS), and his 2nd Panzer Division sponsors the event each year. The HRS, founded in Illinois in 1975, is the leading re-enactor hobbyist organization of its kind, with members coast-to-coast and from Canada and Europe. It has more than 60 units, some with 60-plus members. Examples include the Soviet 95th Rifle Division, the First Polish Independent Parachute Brigade and the United States Army Air Force 303rd Bomb Group.

And it’s not just for men; it’s often a family hobby, says Koelling. There are units of WACs (U.S. Women’s Army Corps), WAVES (U.S. women who served in the Coast Guard, Navy and Marine Corps), the Red Cross, French Resistance, military police and military photographers. American, British Commonwealth, Soviet, Polish and French Allied divisions are represented, as well as German, Italian and Japanese Axis divisions. (After all, the Allies need someone to fight).

Nearly 20 HRS WWII events are being staged across the country in 2010, predominantly in the Midwest, starting with the Battle of the Bulge Tactical Battle in Nevada, Mo., last January, and concluding with this year’s grand finale in Rockford. Asked why Rockford’s event is so popular among re-enactors, Koelling says it’s all about the high standards for safety and authenticity.

Re-enactors enjoy interacting with visitors and sharing what they have learned about the real World War II experience. (Jon McGinty photo)

“We enforce the rules set up by the HRS – period,” he says. “We want an authentic, safe experience for re-enactors, and an educational, entertaining event for spectators.” Weapons are inspected upon arrival. Modern sunglasses are banned and authenticity of dress is enforced, right down to the prohibition of post-June 1945 medals. Hairstyle lengths are dictated to the quarter-inch, depending on which “impression” a re-enactor is making. For example, no beards are allowed unless one is portraying a member of the French Foreign Legion, French North African unit, Royal Navy unit or German U-boat crew.
Koelling once told a re-enactor portraying an American soldier that he needed to shave his beard or leave. “We’re portraying the norm, not the exception,” he says. “That’s just how it is. We uphold standards.” Koelling’s rigidity not without good reason. “Even though there are relatively few veterans who attend, we don’t ever want to disappoint them or to embarrass them,” he says. “That’s understood, and we enforce it.”

Museum and Rockford Park District staff members oversee myriad logistics, from parking and Porta-Potties to food sales and transformation of the village from a 1900 Rockford scene to a more 1940s, European-looking scene. Meanwhile, Koelling and crew fight the war, to the fascination of a growing audience.

“It’s by far our largest event of the year at the museum,” says Jessica MacDonald, event coordinator from the museum’s side. She and Koelling prowl the grounds all weekend, joined at the hip by walkie-talkie. Using her background in theater, MacDonald oversees the 1940s European village makeover and coordinates with costume designers. The hotel is transformed into a German headquarters, and those gals parking their black bicycles near the General Store just might be members of the French Resistance.

Between 2006 and 2007, attendance for WWII Days almost doubled, from 3,300 to nearly 6,100.

(Dustin Waller photo)

“When we see 8,000 people coming, as we did in 2009, we’re close to reaching capacity,” says MacDonald. “We work on this all year long, as do the re-enactors.” But it wasn’t always so.

In the early 1990s, Koelling, now 45, along with fellow re-enactor Rich Russo, coordinated educational “battles” throughout the Chicago area and visited schools to teach children about the war.  In 1993, as open spaces and school budgets dwindled, the duo approached Midway Village Museum, and the rest is, well, history.

“The re-enactors take themselves very seriously, and each one is a teacher,” says MacDonald, marveling at the commitment she sees among these hobbyists. “They love to field questions from visitors. They strive for total authenticity, right down to the notebooks they carry and the pens they wear around their necks.”

And, in Koelling’s case, right down to the German light tank destroyer he drives. He co-owns one of two privately-owned Hetzers in the United States; three others are in U.S. museums. He and a few friends purchased it in the early ’90s for about $17,000, when the dollar was strong against the Deutschmark. Today, it’s worth about $145,000.

Above: Scott Koelling of the HRS coordinates the event along with Jessica MacDonald of Midway Village Museum. Koelling portrays a German soldier of the 2nd Panzer Division.

“We try to get it out into big battles, so people can see how it really works,” says Koelling, whose 17-year-old son, Kevin, now drives the Hetzer. The vehicle’s design is based on a modified Panzer chassis. “Sometimes these vehicles never make it outside of museums, and I think that’s a shame.” All manner of armored vehicles, jeeps, artillery, and even a German cavalry, are on hand for close-up inspection, and the impressive battle pyrotechnics alone draw many visitors.

Sometimes, education unfolds in unexpected ways. “We often see families have an emotional experience they didn’t expect, as the re-enactment jars the memories of grandparents or other older relatives who lived through the war,” says MacDonald. “Communication is opened up, between grandparents and little kids, or even adult children who are suddenly curious about the experiences of their older family members. We see that all the time, and it’s one of the rewards for going to all of this work.”

Koelling understands the value of families communicating their war experiences. He had a German uncle who fought with the Axis and an American uncle who fought with the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater. His American uncle survived the war; he doesn’t know the fate of his German uncle.

“My grandmother and relatives wouldn’t talk about it,” Koelling recalls. “But to me, both sides matter. The German foot soldiers thought they were doing what was right. One of the things we educate people about is the distinction between being a Nazi – which was actually a political party – and being a German foot soldier. A lot of people don’t understand that. Just as Americans are not all Democrats or all Republicans, Germans were not all Nazis.”
The HRS has no tolerance for people who show up at the re-enactments to further their Nazi or fascist beliefs, or any other political cause. It’s happened a few times, and Koelling has asked them to leave.

“That’s not what we’re about,” he says. “We’re not making a social comment on war,  and we have no political agenda whatsoever. We exist to educate the public about World War II and to preserve the memory of those who served in it. Period.”

(Dustin Waller photo)

One of the earliest HRS events was also one of the best, at least in Koelling’s mind: It was a re-enactment of the D-Day landing, staged on Chicago’s Montrose Beach. “That generated a lot of enthusiasm, and the momentum has only grown,” he says.

While the hobbyists represent the war authentically and with dignity, they also have a lot of fun when they get together. Friendships span thousands of miles. “These are people who are serious about their hobby, and also wildly creative,” says Koelling. He recalls some of the tricks one unit has played upon another in the deep of night in the Midway Village woods. Such hijinks invite strategic retaliation at the next HRS event, and only strengthen the camaraderie among units.

The creativity also shows up in the skits played out for visitors. Planned months in advance, the scripts – with themes like street skirmishes, Red Cross responses and message decoding – are submitted to HRS command central for approval. Likewise, battles are plotted ahead, based on real events. And while the Axis may win a battle or two on Saturday, the Allies always prevail by Sunday. This year, for the first time, Pacific Theater battles were staged, to capitalize on enthusiasm roused by the TV series, “The Pacific,” produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which aired on HBO earlier this year.

“We’ve taken our cue from popular culture before, such as ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ [1998, directed by Spielberg and starring Hanks] and ‘Band of Brothers,’ [HBO, 2001, produced by Hanks and Spielberg],” says Koelling.

When he’s not attacking the Allies, Koelling works at AT&T offices in Hoffman Estates, Ill. He spends hundreds of hours per year preparing for WWII Days, attends other re-enactments around the country, and takes a full week of vacation from his job during the September event countdown, to coordinate a work week and make final preparations. A born leader, he oversees the chain of command for battle and skit planning, safety and authenticity enforcement and scores of other tasks. Coordinating some 800 participants worldwide would be impossible if not for his Web page, says Koelling, and he spends about two hours a day responding to re-enactor e-mails.

Many women participate, portraying WACs, WAVES, members of the French Resistance, civilians and Red Cross nurses, as shown here. (Dustin Waller photo)

“It really does make you stop and think about what communication was like during the war, without the technologies we take for granted today,” he says.
The search for authentic dress has become easier in recent years, since manufacturers began replicating WWII period uniforms, gear and souvenirs. An HRS garage sale was held in Batavia, Ill., earlier this year.

New items are sold by vendors at re-enactments and can also be ordered online.

“Believe it or not, they’re made in China,” Koelling chuckles. “But it’s a win-win for everyone. The vendors make money, and we have easier access to uniforms and other things that are pretty close to looking perfectly authentic.”

The Internet also makes it easier to locate original artifacts. Who knew that WWII German field kitchens would someday be a hot item on eBay?

The most important resource of all, however, is slipping away and will never be recovered – WWII veterans. Koelling rues the day when they’ll no longer be alive to teach re-enactors the subtle differences between reality and the next generation’s interpretation of it. He speaks affectionately of a German Army veteran who became a U.S. citizen after he was released from a long imprisonment in a Soviet Gulag labor camp. The veteran had been a member of the German Motorcycle Corps before he was captured by a battalion of female Russian soldiers in the war’s final days. One of  just a handful of Gulag survivors, his firsthand accounts of suffering are bone-chilling, says Koelling.

“He comes out every year [to the 2nd Panzer Division] and helps us to understand what life was like then, what we’re getting right and wrong,” says Koelling. “That’s invaluable, and we won’t have that kind of input much longer.”

This, above all, gives meaning to the re-enactor’s hobby. A major world event like World War II should not only be remembered, but remembered accurately, he says.

“It’s up to us to preserve the memories of people who fought in that war. ‘More Majorum.’ That’s our motto. It means, ‘In the tradition of those before us.’” ❚

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