Re-enactments take spectators back in time
Building model airplanes as a kid, Larry Mihlon was often frustrated by kits that contained the wrong decals or lacked details such as the wire rigging for World War I biplanes.
"The German fighter planes of World War I and World War II were my favorites," he said in a phone interview from Axis Command Headquarters at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County. The phone he was talking on came from a 1930s Berlin hotel.
Mihlon and several other World War II historical re-enactors have gathered at the Pennsylvania Army National Guard facility to spend the week swapping gear, discussing research and holding a re-enactment commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, fought from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, on the border separating Germany and Belgium.
Mihlon, 45, of West Long Branch, N.J., is a police lieutenant. He also is preparing to play the part of a German soldier.
While representing a Nazi seems like an odd choice, Mihlon said the desire to understand history by absorbing its details -- even its trivia -- has nothing to do with the politics or atrocities of Adolf Hitler's murderous regime.
"There is almost nobody who does this work that is fascinated by that," he said.
Being what they are, however, the re-enactor groups sometimes attract neo-Nazis or people of similar beliefs.
"There are people like that who slip through," Mihlon said. "Those people are quickly forced out."
In fact, the groups often don't have to force self-styled fascists out because they leave on their own accord when they realize the rest of the group isn't interested in their views, he said.
"That's not what it's about. We're about the soldiers, the sailors, the planes, the tanks, etc.," Mihlon said.
By immersing themselves in a period, the re-enactors create a "time bubble" that gives them some sense of what conditions were like during World War II, he said. Of course, those conditions don't include the pain, suffering and sacrifice that soldiers and civilians went through, he added.
"It's almost like seeing an egg. You see the outside of the egg; you see the texture of the shell, but you don't see what's inside the egg," Mihlon said. "What we present is the shell. What's missing is the core."
The payoff for spectators is that they get a three-dimensional, sensory experience that gives them a clearer window into history than they can get from most television shows and movies.
"It's the closest thing to being able to turn the clock back and go to that era," he said. "More often than not, what you see on TV and in the movies is wrong."
Mihlon said he's not faulting the movies. Their goal is artistic interpretation. The goal of his group, the Luftwaffe Air Crew Re-enactors Association, and other re-enactor groups is historical accuracy.
Like other historians, members of the group research uniforms, gear and -- in particular -- airplanes.
"Rather than present it in a lecture or written form, we present our findings in a living form," he said.
The re-enactors also answer questions based on their research to help spectators gain a fuller understanding of the uniforms, equipment and vehicles.
Even people who aren't interested in World War II, but are interested in vehicles probably will get a kick out of the restored transports such as the German Kettenkrad, a combination of a motorcycle and half-track, that Mihlon saw Thursday.
"You can't help but be in awe of them," he said.
DetailsBattle of the Bulge re-enactment
The World War II Federation, a nonprofit historical association, is hosting a narrated re-enactment of the Battle of the Bulge from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Fort Indiantown Gap. In addition to the re-enactment to commemorate the battle's 60th anniversary, the group has a barracks display showing military items from World War II.
Fort Indiantown Gap is about 220 miles from Pittsburgh and 20 miles northeast of Harrisburg.
More information about the re-enactment is available online at www.wwiifederation.org .