History comes alive

Do you have a family member who served in World War II? Did you ever dress up in his or her uniform and ask about the war? There are some people who don’t outgrow the urge to try on uniforms – except now they are the ones telling the stories. They call themselves living historians or re-enactors.

During EAA AirVenture they inhabited a World War II era encampment adjacent to the warbird parking area. The camp featured canvas tents, a wooden sidewalk and military vehicles. A radio played Big Band era music, giving an auditory dimension to the trip back in time.

In one of the tents a man in a Royal Air Force officer uniform was preparing for inspection by tightening the blanket on his bunk. A dress blouse hung from pegs above a footlocker. A pair of boots was next to a footlocker. Hanging from the center pole of the tent was a portrait of the Royal Family. The glass on the picture had a crack in it, which made the scene more authentic. I could just imagine an RAF officer carting it around with him, cracked pane and all, because the Royal Family is, well, the Royal Family.

Living historians come from all walks of life and from all over the country. They are teachers, bankers, mechanics and business executives. But when they participate in what is known as Living History Impressions, they assume the personas of those they portray.

W. Allen Hiserodt III, 21, from Denver, has been a living historian since his early teens. He was one of the first to start doing impressions at AirVenture.

“We met with some resistance at first,” he recalled. “There were some people who weren’t very nice to us, but then there were others who thought it was really a cool thing to do to keep history alive. I do an Army Air Force Fighter pilot from the Eighth Air Force, as well as a bomber pilot from the Eighth Air Force, a bomber crewman and World War II Airborne. I also have a World War II infantry man impression along with a Vietnam era infantry man impression and Vietnam era pilot.”

Because of his extensive knowledge on the subject, Hiserodt acts as authenticity officer for the group. When he says his impression is correct right down to his feet, he means it.

“I have everything down to authentic English money in my pockets, I have the right socks and identification card,” he said. “I even have the instrument rating card and the ration card, all completely authentic. Guys who fought in World War II will come up to me and say ‘you look just like we did!’ which to me is the ultimate compliment.”

Chris Huffnus, 25, from Manhattan, Ill., does an impression of a European theater Army Air Corps pilot. “As a kid I was interested in military aviation, but the modern stuff like in ‘Top Gun’,” he recalled. “Then I saw the movie ‘Memphis Belle’ and got interested in World War II.”

He joined a chapter of the EAA Warbirds of America and started putting together a uniform as he learned more about the men, aircraft and aerial tactics used during the war. He also introduced his father, Matt, to living history. “Dad got so into it that he bought two Army jeeps,” he noted.

Father and son dressed as European Theater pilots at AirVenture, where they often ran into men who flew in the war.

“Once when we were in the Fly Market a man who saw the 6th Air Force patch on my Dad’s shirt came up to us all excited,” Huffnus recalled. “He said ‘I was in the Sixth!’ You could see that just by talking to us it was 1943 again for him.”

This isn’t just an activity for men. Beth Wisniewski, from Milwaukee, often joins the group in an oversized pair of coveralls when she is doing her Women Airforce Service Pilots impression. She became involved in living history through her husband Kevin.

“Kevin started doing this on his own at EAA many years ago with just a couple of friends,” she said. “We now have about 40 people participating.”

Kevin Wisniewski does several impressions during AirVenture. One day you may find him as an enlisted man acting as crew chief for an aircraft. The next day he may be an officer in the US Army Air Corps. He also helps other members find uniforms to perfect their impressions.

The living historians take special care to make sure their uniforms and the camp are correct. “If we get something wrong, one of the veterans will let us know about it,” Beth Wisniewski noted.

Acquiring the uniform can be a challenge, depending on which theater of World War II you wish to adopt your character from. Typically hard to find items include anything worn by troops in the South Pacific. Because of the excessive heat and humidity everything wore out quickly.

Most of the living historians at AirVenture 2005 were dressed as soldiers from the European Theater. They acquire their uniforms, as well as other equipment, from rummage or estate sales. Some come from the basements and attics of veterans, while others are purchased off eBay. There also are companies that specialize in making replica uniforms and other trappings of a soldier’s life from the 1940s, such as canteens and cartridge belts and even the contents of footlockers.

Sometimes you will see a group of re-enactors crowded around someone who served in the war, listening intently to his stories.

“We hear stories veterans have never shared with their families or, if the family members are with them, they hear these stories for the first time,” says Beth Wisniewski. “We feel honored that they open up as much as they do.”

Outside of AirVenture you may encounter living historians at airport open houses, veterans’ ceremonies or at air shows that feature warbirds. If you’d like to get involved, type “World War II re-enactors” into an Internet search engine.

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