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February 04, 2004 - 10:12 p.m.

The Battle of the Bulge Redux

Or… All Quiet On The Pennsylvanian Front

Apologies, folks, my blog has been quiet for a solid week now, and nary a can of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup in sight! I’ve been busy preparing for, attending and recuperating from a wild and crazy World War II reenactment of The Battle of the Bulge. Fun, fun, fun!

Since this was my first WWII event (I’ve got 3 Civil War reenactments under my belt but am still very much a novice), I had planned on blogging my expectations of the event, and then following up with a postmortem, but work, snow, packing and just plain life in general conspired to keep the first part unblogged. Therefore, I expect this to be quite a long entry!

Invitation, Justification, Pontification

My buddy Adam, himself a Marine Corps combat veteran of the first Gulf War, invited me to the annual reenactment of The Battle of the Bulge held at a military base in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. In addition to the Civil War events he’s brought me to, Adam does reenactments of WWI U.S. Army & Marine Corps and WWII U.S. Army, Marine Corps and German 2nd Gebirgsjager Division. (a Mountain Infantry unit).

Well, sort of German. They were in fact Austrian in origin. The 2nd Gebirgsjager Division was formed April 1, 1938 after the Anschluss absorbed Austria into the Greater German Reich, incorporating the former Austrian 5. and 7.Gebirgs divisions. As such, the 2nd Gebirgs reputedly had no love for the ruling Nazi Party, and supposedly fragged Gebirgs who dared join The Party!

Adam invited me to join with the 2nd Gebirgsjager Division, and not knowing a Gebirg from a Stormtrooper I hemmed and hawed and was pretty uncomfortable with the idea of “dressing up like a Nazi.

He explained that not only were we not portraying a Nazi unit – as stated above they were Austrian – but that our Unit Commander has zero tolerance for what he refers to as “Sieg Heil Bullshit.Our Commander is in real life a high-ranking officer in the U.S. Military, who likes to draw a distinct line between playing the bad guys in a reenactment and glorifying the role.

For example, one time a group of reenactors decided to hang a giant Nazi flag outside of their barracks. Our Commander shut them down, stating something to the effect of “We are American Citizens and guests on a United States Military base, I don’t care what you are reenacting and why but the Nazi Flag Comes Down!

(Please note, here and elsewhere if I screw up the facts in any of my anecdotes, please drop me an email or make a note in the comments section and I will correct it posthaste!)

Therefore, I don’t have to worry about falling in with a bunch of creepy Nazi wannabes with “white sheets” in their trunks, the guy leading our unit doesn’t tolerate that crap!

Further incentive to go Axis instead of Allies followed along these lines:

1) Someone has to play the bad guys, because the good guys need someone to shoot at!

2) Allied reenactors outnumber the Axis about 5-to-1, so I am guaranteed plenty of trigger time, while Allied troops often had a hard time finding Krauts to shoot at! Sure enough, after taking my fourth hit towards the end of the day Friday, I was heading back towards Axis lines to regenerate with some G.I.’s, when one of them admitted he still hadn’t fired his weapon all day!

3) It’s cheaper! Adam had plenty of gear to fit me, both German and G.I., but whatever I needed to purchase for myself was much cheaper if I went Gebirgs than G.I.! WWII U.S. gear has recently inflated in value, while much German gear could be easily reconfigured from classic and modern day Swedish, Swiss and Austrian uniforms plus readily available East German gear at much cheaper prices!

4) I already know many of these guys from the U.S. V Civil War reenactment unit that I’ve fallen in with before; we were in large part distributed between the 2nd Gebirgs and the U.S. 2nd Armor Divisions. Those of whom I’d previously met struck me as a fun bunch of guys!

Somewhat reluctantly and still a little embarrassed, I decided to go German.

Arrival

My buddy Oscar (2nd Armor) and I arrived Thursday afternoon to find that, by happy coincidence, our barracks were directly across from one another. Since only WWII vehicles were allowed to park near the barracks, our street was lined with Allied and German vehicles of every type imaginable; jeeps, motorcycles with sidecars, large personnel carriers towing howitzers, a tan 1940’s VW Beetle sporting appropriate insignia, and more. I didn’t get to see the tracked vehicles until out in the field Day 1, but there were halftracks and at least 2 Bren Gun Carriers as well.

Cool stuff!

At my first sight of the tricked-out barracks, all of my lingering doubts faded into the ether. What attention to detail! The quarters had mountaineering gear strategically adorning the bunks, a weapons rack filled with all manner of rifles and automatic weapons, a vintage cuckoo clock, plus a desk set up for Our Unit Commander with WWII era German equipment such as a typewriter, field telephone, chalkboard, stationery, and myriad cool personal effects.

We were encouraged to get all farby stuff out of view. Farby is the word reenactors use to denote anachronisms, modern day gear, any non-period material whatsoever. I’m told the word comes from various phrases starting with “Far be it from me…”, as in “Far be it from me to suggest that the Gebirgsjagers didn’t have a 24” television, DVD player and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’ ” (Geez, what were those dudes downstairs thinking!? If ya can’t leave the TV at home for this kind of weekend, then you should just stay home! )

A favorite lament was often shouted when someone’s cell phone would ring during an inopportune moment. “You’re ruining my World War Two Moment!!!” At one point Our Commander was addressing us in the barracks when a cell phone went off. Flustered he let out a “You’re ruining my Civil War Moment!!!” Much heckling followed. “Far be it from me to remind him which war he is reenacting…

The barracks also came equipped with mascot: a friendly, female cat mostly white with black on the back and a tiny smear of black directly under the nose! Yikes, it’s Der FuhrerCat! Oddly enough, this cat was apparently a stray that lived on the base and just wanderered into our barracks and made herself at home. She was quite lovable, except at 3:00 am when she yowled to be let out! Someone pass me that combination mountaineering pick/cat toy, will ya? Sheeeesh!

Day 1, Mortal Combat Plus A Grooism (but not #14)

We awoke Friday morning bright and early, suited up in our cold-weather gear, and was in formation on the street at 7:30 am. After some loitering and necessary grumbling about the bitter cold, we prepared to deploy. I was handed 2 full ammo canisters (someone once asked me if we fire blanks. Uhhh…) to add to my already full load, said a silent prayer to the gods of lower back pain and kept my mouth shut. Even with a bad back I did not want to be a whiner; I figured as a newbie I would endure the crap chores like carrying ammo and K.P. Duty with good humor, knowing the veterans (as well as the Veterans) have already paid their dues.

We marched in formation to a fleet of school buses (farby! ) deployed to take us to our staging areas and loaded up. Let me tell you, it’s hard enough for grown adults to fit on a school bus, let alone adults burdened with rifles, canteens, sundry gear and ammo cans! The most uncomfortable I felt the whole weekend was the time spent crammed into That Damned School Bus!

After disembarking and stretching out cramped muscles, we marched along a long road marked occasionally with “Tank Crossing”signs. Oh for my farby camera, but I learned from my first reenactment that it’s just not worth adding a camera to the generous supply of gear carried. As we marched along a seemingly endless tank trail one or more A-10 Warthogs (farby!) overflew our formation, letting out the occasional burst of machine gun fire. He (they?) made many passes and entertained us with the occasional aerobatic trick.

This lead to quite the Grooism, although the identities off the Grooish Ones are still unknown (luckily for them!)

Apparently, someone didn’t understand the nature of the aerobatics, and a false rumor spread like wildfire that the A-10 had crashed!!! Some idiot saw the pilot do a barrel roll or similar maneuver and disappear from sight, and overreacted bigtime! Then some other loser believed the rumor and broadcast it over field radios which were being monitored by the military base!

This caused quite a stir of confusion on the base, and next thing you know our reenactment had a cease-fire as A-10's and F-16's patrolled the skies to try and determine what exactly it was someone thought they saw (they knew it wasn't an A-10 since none of their planes were missing).

Well, as previously mentioned Our Unit Commander is in real life a high-ranking U.S. military officer and was obligated to leave the field and report to the base command. He needed to find out if the rumor was true (he suspected it was not) and offer his assistance if it was, so his day was ruined any number of ways.

He was seriously pissed that his fun "WWII Moment" had to be thoughtlessly screwed up by a handful of jackasses who ran their mouths about stuff they didn't know... and broadcast it over a radio, yet!

Anyway, back to the action at hand. I got to take 4 hits on the day (hey, it’s my job to get shot, right? ) and had quite a blast. At one point our squad rushed a Bren Gun Carrier (whoa!!! ), and the crew all took the hits in dramatic fashion! We then turned to assault a second Bren Carrier, took out a crew member and then were cut down by the Bren Gun. That was my first hit of the day, and whatta way ta go! Since our gear was warm and toasty, it was actually pretty comfortable laying in the snow, so I rested my aching back for a bit then got up and joined my unit.

A bit later a squad of G.I.’s were attacking us when more Allied forces appeared on our flank! The first squad started yelling at the newcomers “Go away, these are our Germans, go find your own! ” I decided it was time to take hit number two and “died” in glorious fashion!

When the scenario ended after many hours in the field (how many? I dunno, 3? 4? 5? Time flies when you’re being mowed down by machine gun fire) we marched off the field, boarded the School Bus From Hell, and hit the Flea Market!

Flea Market Follies

The Flea Market is where vendors set up to sell World War II period wares. The vendors themselves are decked out in period gear just as we are, in fact the whole weekend you had to stay in uniform. We were expected to be minimally armed as well, so those with sidearms carried sidearms, otherwise we had to at least sport a bayonet on our belt, all for the sake of style and realism.

When I say they had everything, boy did they have everything. They sold uniforms for all sides and services, medals, patches and weapons. They had trinkets of every kind, from German beer steins to American pin-up calendars, German chocolate tins, packs of WWII Lucky Stripes, skis and snowshoes, wheels, crates large and small, whiskey & schnapps bottles, sewing kits, towels, even period eyewear with an attendant optometrist to outfit you right then and there!

I splurged $35 on an awesome WWII era German-style carved pipe adorned with a silver stag, but was quite disappointed to learn I can’t actually smoke the damned thing. It is jointed in 2 places and air leaks through one or both joints enough to make it impossible to draw from a full bowl. Did I err?

I picked up an inexpensive period pocketknife of Belgian manufacture that’s both simple and unique, and spent $25 on a German stick-grenade to tuck into my belt! I had told Adam to let me know if he saw a bargain on one of those, but I didn’t hold much hope as they tended to go for $50-$60 dollars each. He called me over and said “buy this”, so I did. All the veterans agreed that I got a good deal; more than one said they would have bought it if I hadn’t.

All in all, a fun day!

That evening we ate, we drank, I did K.P. duty, we talked, drank, smoked, drank, joked, drank some more, sang bawdy English and Australian songs, and then collapsed from exhaustion. Dreams were uneasy in the sweltering top floor of the barracks, and I being a newby had a top bunk yet! And of course the cat yowled at night!

Day 2: So Which Side Was The Bear On?

Both the cat and I somehow survived the night, and Saturday morning brought an announcement to fall in on the street at 7:45 am. When the time approached, we were told to stand down for 20 minutes. We reformed and then hung around for another 20 before marching off to the Evil School Bus of Doom. Again I had 2 full ammo cans to lug around, and again I accepted them with good cheer and aching back.

After disembarking and hanging around the staging area for another 20 minutes, we were told our objective was to climb That There Mountain (we were after all light mountain infantry) and march along a certain ridge to set up covering fire. My back complained but I shushed it; plenty of time for convalescing at the barracks. I was then assigned to support a machine gun crew and told to follow my designated Gunner at all costs.

As I prepared to scale the snow-covered mountain slopes, I spied half-buried in the snow a quite sturdy looking branch. I uncovered it, hacked off just the right length, and had myself the mountaineer’s best friend – a walking stick Gandalf The Grey would have been proud of! Climbing the treacherous mountainside weighted down with gear and ammo cans would have been impossible without it, many is the fall my staff saved me from, and it made crossing fallen trees much easier as well.

My plan was to ditch the stick when we engaged the enemy, but fortune smiled on Man and Stick as throughout the day it became more and more convenient to hold onto. The solid piece of wood was really quite comforting, it looked good with my mountaineering uniform, and it really did ease the burden on my back! Back at camp I carried it around all day, and many troops on both sides complimented me on my find.

I later learned that sticks of this sort were, as I had hoped, commonly used by the Gebirgs, so it is now my mission to find some photo reference of a Gebirg and his walking stick and try to detail mine (of course I brought it home) in a similar fashion.

Back to The Battle. The Gebirgs were up the mountain holding a high ridge and engaging Allied troops in a full arc ahead of us and to our right flank. We were being overwhelmed by numbers (this is supposed to happen, of course), our machine gun was jammed, and we were called upon to fall back. Our MG guy couldn’t leave his weapon in a partially disassembled state, so I was going to hold back and help with the gun as the Allies overran us. “First,” I said, “let me go take a glorious hit, and then I’ll help you out…

So I rushed forward, got shot, dove to the ground, lay there a minute and then wandered over to my Gunner. Suddenly my unit was returning, somehow fleeing attack from our rear flank; odd, how could the Allies have gotten into our rear…?

The answer came in a word.

BEAR!!!

Whahuh? Whadda ya mean ‘bear’?”

BEAR! Bear, a bear, over there!

Oh, a bear! ” I finally got it. Hey, I thought it was some weird German command, ya know?

Now, I know black bears are seldom aggressive, and I figured this one was likely spooked and running scared. However, spooked could turn ugly if it finds its way blocked, and our weapons only fire blanks. It occurred to me that my trusty stick was the best weapon at hand if it actually did attack someone; sure, we could use rifle butts, and someone later suggested we should have fixed bayonets (god, no, that’s all we’d need is a suddenly brave yahoo with a pigsticker!), but I had a superior Reach Weapon in hand. So while I did not go charging the bear (I never even actually saw it, truth to tell), I slung my rifle over my back and stood guard on our perimeter, staff in hand, until the commotion died down.

Now, the above tale is actually only Part Two of The Great Bear Scare of 2004 (as one of the Gebirgs later dubbed it). For Part One, we must travel down the mountain slope to the road held by Allied Forces, specifically the 2nd Armor Division.

Oscar seems to have been the first to see the bear. He was standing in his buddy Dave’s jeep scoping the area, when something shot out of the bushes behind him. Now, occasionally reenactors bring out War Dogs, so in those first seconds he thought a big hairy War Dog had busted through the brush. He was ready to joke “What, did someone bring a wolf?” when he instantly realized it was no dog, nor wolf…

BEAR!!!” he yelled as the creature rushed the exposed backs of his comrades. All he could think of was that if it attacked someone, he would have to try and pull it off them, so he prepared to move forward.

The bear darted between bewildered G.I.’s without harming anyone, thankfully. It crossed the road, made its way through the G.I. ranks and bounded up the snow-covered mountainside up towards the Gebirgs. There it scattered G.I’s and Krauts alike as confusion spread far and wide.

Later the question was asked, “So Which Side Was The Bear On?

That’s easy” answered Adam. We were losing the battle, the bear came, everyone ran and the Gebirgs were left holding The Ridge we were about to lose. It was a German bear!!

Only on the ride home did it occur to me that the obvious joke was that the Russians had come!!!

After The Great Bear Scare of 2004, I was the only MG crew member left besides the Gunner himself, so once he got the MG working again I became his loader (it takes two to rock and roll on full auto, baby! ). While this was great fun, I felt obligated not to take a hit unless the Gunner did, as I didn’t want to foul the ammo belt. Since we only had very limited engagements after Ursine Interruptus, I only got to die gloriously in battle once on Saturday! Too bad. I would however at least get to die of humiliation later that evening…

Mr. Grooism Finally Asserts His Grooish Tendencies with…
Grooism #14, A Good Belt!

After the battle we rode the Big Yellow DeathMobile back to camp, I posed for some photos, took pictures of our barracks and the many vintage vehicles on the street, then wandered the Flea Market a bit before chowing down.

Oscar and his buddy Dave offered Adam and I a ride over to the Officers’ Club for drinks in his WWII Vintage jeep. Now, I didn’t have a tunic good enough for the O.C., so Adam lent me a spare dress tunic (hey, now I’m a corporal!) and our buddy Tim lent me a very nice German dress belt.

Woooohooo, you don’t know cold unless you’ve ridden in the back of a very open (no top, no sides) WWII era jeep at 60 MPH in sub-freezing temperatures. It was as exhilarating as it was draining. Brrrrrrrrrr!!! We got to the O.C. and I chatted with a National Geographic film crew (off camera) and a German Television crew (on-camera, but Adam did most of the talking). We had a few beers, talked and laughed, I hit the Men’s Roo- I’m sorry, the Latrine for the type of activity that requires removal of tunic, belt and pants, finished the necessary paperwork, pulled up my pants, put on my tunic and rejoined the fun.

We didn’t stay much longer, after all there were free drinks waiting in the barracks, and took the freeeeezing journey back to camp. I spent a good hour in the 2nd Armor’s barracks engaged in a deep and meaningful discussion of world events with a G.I. who is in the real world a lieutenant in a NYC Anti-Crime Unit. A recently departed friend of my Dad’s was also in Anti-Crime, and one of the things he did was dress himself like a homeless man, douse himself with liquor and wait for someone to try and roll him. There are few souls braver than Anti-Crime Cops, and this guy definitely seemed to have The Right Stuff.

Anyway, after an hour of chatting I caught up with Oscar and Adam in the 2nd Gebirgjagers’ barracks. Just as I was about to grab a brew, Tim came by and casually asked “Uhh, where’s my belt?

I felt the waist of my tunic… it was bare! I had left it in the O.C. latrine, draped over the T.P. holder! Did I err?

Uhhh, ummm, damn it’s at the O.C.! I’ll get it back or else you’ll get a significant upgrade, I promise!” I said in a panic.

I ran out of the barracks and to my car, drove to the Officers’ Club. and pushed through the crowd to the latrine. The stall I had used was in use, so I waited, and waited…

The door opened and there was a belt draped over the T.P. holder, which the G.I. picked up and put on. I started to say something about the belt but noticed it was definitely a G.I. belt. Damn!

However, someone else in the latrine saw me hanging around that particular stall while others were empty, me in my beltless German tunic, and it got him wondering.

He asked me what was wrong. I mentioned that I left my buddy’s belt in here hours ago and lost it, and I was mortified because I think it has an original German buckle!

I have it back at my table, I found it earlier tonight!

Oh man I wanted to hug him, yet my feeble mind cannot right now recall his name. Sorry!!!

We went to his table and he took the belt off of someone else who was sporting it proudly. “Here I thought I had some awesome spoils of war.

I gushed thanks and praise, after which he mentioned that he thought he had seen me around. I mentioned that this was my first WWII gig, before this I had only done Civil War events. He asked me which unit, to which I replied “50th Pennsylvania.

Oh” he said, “then you must know Tim!

Are you kidding?” I said, “that’s who’s belt you found!

End Game

Not much more to tell, really. I sheepishly handed Tim his belt, and Oscar immediately handed me his Southern Comfort and Coke in a mess kit tin. I took a swig and handed it back to him. He just said “Man, you need this more than me right now” and went to grab himself a beer.

The cat ditched us for that final evening, and since many Gebirgs left for home that night, I even got a bottom bunk! After the evening’s festivities I actually slept the night through!

Oh, and we had a neat little Awards Ceremony Sunday Morning as we prepared to de-camp. Our Commander lined us all up in uniform and issued medals for various accomplishments. Adam was promoted to the German Equivalent of Sergeant. This ceremony was especially noteworthy because we lined up and saluted “American-style.Our Unit Commander had gotten pretty riled up Thursday night when attendees at some sort of ranking awards ceremony thought that since they were in German Uniforms they should do the old “Sieg Heil” and accompanying Nazi salute. He apparently made his point forcefully enough about not glorifying that which we reenact, because at the Friday Night staff meeting he reported more appropriate behavior by all!


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