Operation Market Garden Anniversary
This weekend I went to Son, Netherlands, to watch my fiancé participate in his 101st Airborne re-enactment group for the anniversary of Operation Market Garden. This was the first time I had seen him participate and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never been to a re-enactment in the U.S. and while I had seen photos of my fiancé’s group, being there live and in person, was a whole different experience.
On Friday 16 September, his group plus several others set up a WWII Airborne Combat Camp on the edge of the town of Son, a short walk from the old Town Hall and main street, where fighting took place. By the time we arrived, several tents, vehicles, and a lot of equipment had been set up on the grounds. The idea was to show visitors and school children, what a camp, Aid Station, Field Hospital, vehicles, guns, and life was like during this time in September 1944.
Several school groups came through the camp Friday afternoon to visit. Each child received a booklet with questions to answer. The kids had to go from tent to tent, talking to the soldiers and asking questions. Maybe the “best” question was in the medic’s area. Children had to ask about the “miracle medicine.” When they did, they received some of this medicine – a chocolate bar.
On Saturday 17 September, most of the re-enactors were there by early morning. After breakfast I walked through town and saw men arriving at the bridge, which the Germans blew up. A lot of fighting took place there. Walking down the main street it was common to spot Airborne troopers walking in small groups on patrol, jeeps and other vehicles riding on the roads, even the ambulance was picking up the wounded.
No battles were fought and no blank ammunition fired, as that was not allowed, but each group designated one person to be the wounded man so he could be picked up and taken to the field hospital where a nurse and surgeon were waiting. Near the Old Town Hall, I almost walked past a group of soldiers sitting in a circle “dug into” the group.
While the men were doing their thing on Saturday, a couple of the wives of my fiancé’s re-enactor friends, took me for a ride in a WWII jeep around Son and Best, to see WWII sites. I saw the Temporary American Cemetery at Son, which after the war, when the graves were disinterred, became a corn field again. I saw the Joe Mann Memorial. Joe was awarded the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of several men. Mann was wounded and when a grenade landed in his foxhole, he threw himself on top of it. Mann was killed, but his buddies survived. I also saw the Drop Zones and Glider Landing Areas, now corn fields for the most part. There are monuments at each site. It was quite an educational afternoon.
Honoring Service Through Re-Enactment (Living History)
What many Americans don’t know is …… Europeans honor the service of our American WWII soldiers not only by adopting their graves and showing their respects during the year, but also through re-enactment. I’ve spoken to many Americans about re-enactment, because in the U.S. we see a lot of Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactment. I hear a lot of comments to the effect, ‘It’s a lot of old guys dressed up playing war.’ Yet, when we see re-enactment of people like Abraham Lincoln walking around Springfield, IL or colonists at Williamsburg, we see and classify that not as re-enactment, but living history.
What if we changed our perspective? What would we see then?
- An opportunity to see, outside a museum, the uniforms and gear an Airborne soldier or medic carried.
- An opportunity to talk to the re-enactors and learn the history of the area, battle, or war. These men not only dress as an Airborne Trooper, but know the history of the unit the re-enact. Since they live in or near the areas where these battles were fought, they are excellent resources for boots on the ground knowledge. I tell people when I lecture, that these are the people you want to connect with in Europe if you plan to walk in your soldier’s footsteps. These are the people who know a lot about the battles and can show you places your soldier fought, and sometimes, died.
- When battles are re-enacted, you get to experience what it might have been like as a town was taken. Often the groups re-enact with American and German forces.
- A chance to go back in time and sit and observe life in a combat camp or life during the war in a town.
- You might meet World War II veterans! During the major battle or campaign anniversaries, large groups of veterans and their families come to Europe to see where they fought, where their buddies died, and some are still buried. I had the honor of meeting Jim “Pee Wee” Martin Saturday, when his convoy of jeeps and trucks, pulled into the camp.
- American dignitaries, ambassadors, and active military personnel attend these events. You might connect with someone from the U.S. who can help move your research forward.
Whatever you think you know about re-enacting, I ask you to reconsider your view and give it a try if you have the opportunity. You might meet interesting, knowledgeable people, and learn many things about your soldier’s service.
Want to learn more?
Want to know more about Living History groups in Europe? Read the latest issues of Drop Zone Magazine. You’ll find an article in there about my WWII research books also!
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