For a few hours Saturday, the sights and sounds of war filled this small borough not far from the historic Civil War battle site of Gettysburg.
First came the mock occupation: Scores of WWII reenactors, playing the part of Axis troops, seized the center of New Oxford, which represented a French town in September, 1944. Locals, dressed in 1940’s-era outfits, played the part of French citizens trying to live out their lives as best they could under the occupation. They were subject to random searches, seizures and arrests.
Sudden blasts and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire in the distance were a constant reminder of a looming battle.
Finally, Allied forces stormed the town, defeated the Axis troops and liberated the townspeople.
Retired Air Force Col. Robert A. Shawn played the commanding general of the Allied division that liberated New Oxford. Shawn — a 92-year-old veteran of WWII as well as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts — said he takes part in five or so “big reenactments” each year. “I enjoy it, and it keeps me young,” he said.
A fighter pilot in WWII, Shawn said his aim in reenactments is to help people understand what the troops went through. As for the troop reenactors, Shawn sees his role primarily as a mentor. “I like to see them perform properly, dress properly and do the job that the veterans did during WWII,” he said. “I do it to help train the troops.”
Authenticity is a key ingredient in reenactments, noted Larry Mihlon, a N.J. police captain in real life who played the German commanding general who surrendered to Shawn. “Whenever you do any kind of role playing… one of the things, when you get into character, you obviously want to sound the part, look the part.” To do that, it takes a lot of research and study, said Mihlon who even makes the effort to learn German. “The thing I think is interesting learning another language is that if you do that and you understand how the language is executed, you learn a little bit about the people, too — the culture and why they say what they say.”
Many spectators at the New Oxford liberation who attended in previous years noted how the event keeps getting “bigger and better” each year.
Retired Navy Cmdr. John Marymont, treasurer of the New Oxford Historical Society, said that four years ago the event involved a convoy of Allied troops that circled the town center, and that was it. The past three years, he said, there has been “live fire” between opposing forces. By live fire, Marymont meant troops using weapons that fired blanks.
Former Marine Pam Collins owns the restaurant, European bakery and coffee shop on New Oxford’s circle where much of the occupation and liberation took place. During last year’s event, she said, smoke from the fighting was so thick it set off her fire alarms. “I had to call the fire department to let them know it wasn’t a fire,” she recalled. This year, the alarms didn’t sound, but Collins said she did notify officials in advance of the possibility of a false alarm.
“The customers really seemed to enjoy it,” Collins said of this year’s fighting. “You’d see customers jump in their seats when the explosions went off… We had some people narrating what was going on: ‘look, that man’s down,’ they’d point out.” Collins said she especially enjoyed watching the younger kids “getting the chance to see something that they had read about in books come alive.”
Rebecca Warner, 14, said it was “pretty cool,” taking part in her first reenactment. “I was just a little French girl walking around with my so-called sister. The Germans were, like, taking over us. And all of a sudden a war got started with the Americans, and we all got scared and tried to hide. And after the war was over, we thanked them that we were finally free.”
Warner said she plans to do the reenactment again next year and had this to offer: “Young people should do this more often.”
In hosting the reenactment, New Oxford officials said they wanted to honor WWII veterans by providing them front row seating and by recognizing each by name at the close of the event.
William W. Millar, an 87-year-old WWII veteran, said he appreciated the recognition. After the reenactment, Millar sat in the town square among other veterans and reminisced about joining the Navy in 1942 at age 17. He told how he served on an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns as an aviation metalsmith and as a master-at-arms before leaving the Navy after the war as a second class petty officer.
“For years, we had no recognition,” he lamented. “Look how long it took to get our memorial in D.C. Why, they built the Vietnam memorial before they built ours.” As for the reenactment, Millar concluded, “They did a real good job.” Aside from recognizing veterans, Marymont said the town’s historical society also aims to educate today’s young people. “Hopefully they won’t have to go off to war, but by seeing the difficulties these veterans faced and overcame in combat in the second world war maybe that will build a little patriotism in them along the way.”
For Shawn, the reenactments offer a reason for hope.
“They talk about the ‘greatest generation.’ I think our youth of today will be another great generation because they are interested in preserving the freedom of our country, and that’s very important now. ‘Patriotism,’ they say, ‘is dead.’ I don’t believe that. Because when I go to these reenactments and see young troops perform, they understand what it’s all about: Freedom. They understand the history of WWII. That’s why they participate. They’re well read on the subject. And they just want to follow in their dads’ or their grandfathers’ footsteps.”