When Midway Village Museum holds its annual World War II Days this September, it will bring together the largest such re-enactment in the Midwest. Find out what activities are available this year and how you can experience living history.
Dave Fornell has been a World War II re-enactor for 28 years. When you ask him why, at first, the child in him peeks out.
“It gives you an excuse to collect really cool stuff and to go camping with friends,” he says. “And it’s an adult show-and-tell, which helps me justify why I have so many World War II items in my collection.”
In his next breath, the adult with a sense of moral obligation speaks.
“World War II has nostalgia about it that runs deep within the common population,” he says. “Anything about that war has a popular tone. People see it as the Greatest Generation fighting a war for freedom and democracy. There are a lot of grey areas in so many things, but in World War II, there were pretty clear-cut lines of good and bad. We had genocide and people overtaking countries. And if not literally, they were economically putting people into states of servitude. Every corner of the world was involved. We try to make people understand the war from all sides. That’s part of why we do this. So history doesn’t repeat itself.”
That’s why Fornell and hundreds of other re-enactors do repeat themselves every September at World War II Days, a weekend-long event at Midway Village Museum in Rockford. These are more than hobbyists. These are teachers. And the expansive museum grounds serve as a grand classroom.
This year’s event takes place over three days, with the “Behind The Lines Tour” on Sept. 21 and the actual World War II Days taking place Sept. 22 and 23.
“It’s the largest two-day event at Midway Village and the second-largest World War II re-enactment in the country,” says Lonna Converso, the museum’s director of marketing and social media.
According to Fornell, who is the overall coordinator of the event, roughly 1,200 re-enactors take part in the three-day event.
“This event is unique,” says Fornell, who by day is a magazine editor for Scranton Gillette Communications in Arlington Heights. “There are only a couple of these around the country as big as Rockford. Anything above 300 to 400 is considered pretty good-sized. But this one draws re-enactors from 35 states, and we also have some international visitors too, including some from Canada, Poland, Malta, Italy and Great Britain. The re-enactors consider this one of the top events.”
Not bad for a presentation that started 22 years ago with roughly 100 re-enactors.
And it’s more than just the players.
“We also have at least 80 World War II vehicles,” Fornell says. “That includes bicycles, motorcycles, tanks and half-tracks. And we have an original German Hetzer. And if you’re into weapons, pretty much every kind from World War II is on display.”
There are roughly 90 scenes – or units – throughout the grounds with anywhere from five to 90 re-enactors in each one.
“There is an emphasis on different time periods of the war,” says Fornell, who serves as commander for a German unit. “For example, there’s Poland in 1939 and France in 1940. People will be able to see World War II entrenchments and people in foxholes. We have battles that take place in villages and battles in the woods. The main battlefield is the size of several football fields, with entrenchments on both sides with professional pyrotechnics. There are lots of explosions and smoke. And we’ll have a dueling tank battle.”
The main focus is devoted to the war in Europe, but there are areas set aside for the Pacific.
“We try to cover all facets,” Fornell says.
It’s not just battles that are re-enacted here.
“The Andrews Sisters will come for a musical performance, and World War II model planes will do flying demonstrations,” says Alyssa McGhghy, the special event coordinator for Midway Village. “You basically step into Midway’s historic village and you are immersed into World War II.”
Spectators are encouraged not only to see the displays and watch the battles, but to get directly involved.
“It’s very interactive,” McGhghy says. “Re-enactors love it when people come up and engage with them. We encourage that.”
“You can ask every camp a question,” Fornell adds. “The kids can get a lot out of it, as well.”
In fact, Fornell says some of the best questions come from the younger generation.
“A lot of the kids today play war-type video games, and they get their feet wet regarding history,” he says. “It’s amazing how much they already know about things like weapons and battles. It prompts questions that their parents wouldn’t even think about.”
The family-friendly atmosphere, combined with the size, scope, authenticity and attention to detail, are what draw nearly 9,000 spectators to the annual event.
“We have World War II vets who actually come out,” says Converso. “There is camaraderie for them. And it’s great to meet them and thank them for their service.”
Daily tickets to World War II Days are $14 for adults, $12 for veterans and active-duty military, $8 for children ages 3-17, and free for kids under 3 as well as museum members and World War II vets. Purchase tickets online at midwayvillage.com or at the gate. Parking is $2 for non-museum members.
The Friday night “Behind the Lines Tour” does not feature live battles. McGhghy calls it more of a preview.
“Educational displays are up,” she says. “We have a General Patton who is there with his command center, and many of the other camps are set up.”
The tours that first night are from 5-6 p.m., followed by a dinner and a presentation by Dr. Edward Gordon, who wrote the book “Divided on D-Day: New Perspectives on the Normandy Campaign.”
Then on Saturday and Sunday, the action begins.
“If people have an interest in World War II, this is one of the must-go-to events in the Midwest,” Fornell says. “It’s worth the drive to come out. There is plenty to do and see. It’s a wealth of knowledge and information that you generally won’t find in a museum.”