Honoring the Greatest Generation

One of the complaints kids voice about having to learn history from books is how dry it is. If you could interact with it, it might be more interesting, they say.

That could be done if you visited the Living History display that graced the warbird area of EAA AirVenture. Just behind the lines of P-51 Mustangs was a World War II-era encampment made of canvas field tents and period vehicles. People wearing World War II uniforms populated the encampment. For the duration of the show they adopted personas of World War II-era soldiers.

“My husband, Kevin Wisniewski, started doing this on his own at EAA many years ago with just a couple of friends,” explained Beth Wisniewski. She joins him at the show, often dressed as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots or an Army nurse. “We have a group of about 40 people who gather together once a year for this. Most people who participate belong to other living history organizations.”

The re-enactors come from all walks of life and from all over the country. They are teachers, bankers, mechanics, you name it. But when they participate in what is known as Living History Impressions, they assume the identities of the soldiers they portray in an effort to keep the stories of the Greatest Generation alive.

They collect uniforms from veterans, find them at rummage sales, buy them off eBay or from companies that specialize in making authentic reproductions. They study books and personal accounts of the war, along with photos to make sure the uniforms are correct.

They go to great lengths for authenticity, including cutting their hair in a 1940s style. Some even put together footlockers with period correct items such as foot powder, ration bars and even the brands of cigarettes that were popular in the day.

Big Band era music played on a radio in the compound as visitors stepped inside the canvas walls — and back in time. The smell of canvas, leather and wool assaulted their noses as they took in the details, such as a footlocker at the end of the bunk, a shirt hanging from a nail on the tent post and an issue of “Life” magazine with a WASP on the cover.

Small children clutched the hands of their grandfathers and asked, “Did you have one of those Grandpa?” as they pointed at a footlocker or helmet.

The living historians consider the passing on of these stories to be a very precious gift, said Wisniewski. “Sometimes we hear stories veterans have never shared with their families or, if the family members are with them, they will hear these stories for the first time. We feel honored that they open up as much as they do.”

At this year’s AirVenture there were Army and Air Corps officers and enlisted men, members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, Army nurses and officers from the Royal Air Force. Some of the living historians have several personas, which they sported on different days during the week. A trailer held spare uniforms that were bought and sold and bartered.

If you’d like to get involved, type “World War II re-enactors” into an Internet search engine. You’ll probably be able to find an outfit close to home.

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