Another Look at Reading’s 2017 World War II Weekend

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Photography by Howard German and Daniel O. Myers

For twenty-seven years, a legion of committed World War II Weekend volunteers and re-enactors has turned the Reading, PA airport into an active and entertaining living history lesson.

Entering the airports vast grounds, weekend attendees stepped back in time as they passed along the recreated Home Front with period actors conversing with the public. This WWII era Main Street included a recreated victory theater, air raid warden’s guard shack, house, cottage-style gas station with vintage cars and a department store selling 1940’s dry goods. Meandered farther down the street, the O-Club offered a variety of 1940’s entertainment as actor portrayals of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Douglas MacArthur and LTJG John F. Kennedy strolled through the crowd.

French Village Battle

Staked out among the sprawling encampments were more than 1,700 WWII military re-enactors accurately portraying the lives of Allied American, British, Australian and Russian troops along side Axis German soldiers and, combat and support units representing many foreign nations. Weekend attendees examined up close extensive personal collections of weapons, firearms, military gear and authentic accessories as well as two hundred military vehicles that included cars, motorcycles, jeeps and tanks. Many WWII items were offered for public sale from a one-hundred-and-twenty-plus vendor militaria flea market. Throughout the day, re-enactors put their equipment and training to use when they engaged in a skirmish between the French Resistance with America allied help and German troops around a battle-scarred French Village. Later, separate battles ensued between Chinese Nationals and Imperial Japanese Forces in the Pacific Theater, as well as American infantry attacking a German Wehrmacht column of armor vehicles.

Grossdeutschland Panzer

Grossdeutschland
One of the largest weekend bivouacs depicted the “Greater Germany” Grossdeutschland. The German Army tended to recruit volunteers from entire villages and towns believing that an altruistically cohesive unit would be more willing to fight for one another. In August 1940 the black cuff Grossdeutschland was assigned to a motorized unit. During the June, 1941 Russian “Operation Barbarossa” campaign, they were part of the 2nd Panzerarmee that had the distinction of being one of the few German units to reach the outskirts of Moscow. In 1944 the Grossdeutschland was reformed as the “Panzer Korps Grossdeutschland’, suffering heavy casualties against superior enemy forces until the war’s end in May 1945.

Taking instructions directly from living German Grossdeutschland Panzer Division veterans, these re-enactors present the common World War II German soldier as accurate as possible. Members of the Grossdeutschland maintain one of the hobby’s strictest guidelines with regard to historical correctness of the German soldier’s uniform, equipment layout, and knowledge of the German Army’s drill tactics and lifestyle. All newcomers are expected to learn the German Manual of Arms. WWII U.S. military veterans are often amazed at how accurate the group portrays their former enemy. These German re-enactors come from a variety of diverse backgrounds including German familial roots. They have chosen to join the Grossdeutschland because of their interest in World War II history along with a chance to act out a childhood dream of portraying German soldiers in action.

Battalion Aid Station

Battalion Aid Station
Following a battle, casualties were first taken to a Battalion Aid Station. Safely located near the front lines- these stations treated, stabilized and moved the patient out as quickly as possible. Time was critical! Within the Reading encampment, weekend visitors were able to chat with a real doctor inside a recreated WWII Battalion Station. Dr. Moody, from Harrisburg Hospital, exhibited a tent stocked full of medical items and instruments from his own personal collection including plasma- the most important element in first aid which was first kept on ice then later a dry base that was mixed with water. Dr. Moody explained the most valued person in an Aid Station was a seasoned medic that could recognize and know how to remedy a patient’s situation, even better than a new doctor. And, always listen to the nurses!! In a fluid battle, Battalion Stations were sometimes overrun by the enemy. In many of those situations, there was respect among the American and German doctors that were known to bring their captives to each other’s respective Aid Station or even care for the other side’s wounded. Once the patient was stabilized, they were sent along to a Collection Aid Station.

Field Hospital
Situated three to five miles behind the battle lines, the Collection Station’s medical staff determined a patient’s next move which was usually to a Field Hospital. Patients would generally remain no longer than twenty-four to forty-eight hours in a Field Hospital where surgeons would continue to work without break until the job was done- no more patients needing medical attention. The Field Hospital set-up for the weekend was staffed by personnel that are related in real life to the medical field (Doctors, Nurses, EMT, Paramedics, and Ski Patrollers). Some had parents in the war and re-enact in their honor. Items contained in these hospitals included medical instruments along with rubber gloves and tourniquets. Prior to the war, the best medical instruments in the world were manufactured in Germany. The war stopped that supply along with rubber from Japanese occupied Burma. Also found was the most valued drug of the war- Penicillin- which, due to a huge black market, was kept under lock-and-key.

Following surgery, recover took place in Post-Op where nurses were known to wear lots of ruby red lipstick, giving their male patients a moral boost. WWII Field Hospital’s temporary structures, consisting of four hundred tents, could be moved and set-up in a new location within thirty-six hours. Their motto was “drop, roll, move-out and reset.” Lessons learned from these WWII mobile Field Hospitals were later deployed in Korea and Vietnam. These hospitals boasted a 94% survival rate and were able to send their patients along to the next link in the chain of evacuation, an Evacuation then General Hospital or Hospital Ship.

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Air Show
Dozens of beautifully restored WWII L- Bird observation, primary trainers, utility and transport planes along with fighters and bombers from around the country were parked on the ramp for visitors to observe up close. All three days, these planes taxied out and took flight for a three-hour afternoon air show. Announcer Larry Rutt called the action while simultaneously providing the audience with interludes of valuable and insightful factoids. Many fan favorites returned for 2017 including the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29 “FIFI” and Greg Shelton’s FM-2 Wildcat in conjunction with the P-40 and T-6 demos and, T-6 missing-man formation.

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Every year the show features a cadre of warbirds that include Navy and Marine SB2C-5 and TBM-3E, SBD-5; Bombers B-17and B-25 and, Fighters MK IXE, P-51D. With no shortage of patrons lined up to pay for a “Bucket List” ride, many of these planes continued to fly all weekend long, including in-between show acts.

Bell P-63 Kingcobra
The Reading WWII crowd also witnessed the Commemorative Air Force’s Dixie Wing P-63A Kingcobra #42-68941 take flight alongside the P-51D “Mustang” and MK IXE “Spitfire.” After more than a decade of restoration, a new paint job provided by Atlanta based Delta Airlines and completed flight testing, #42-68941 was flying its second only air show for 2017.

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The Bell P-63 Kingcobra was the only U.S. fighter to begin production and go into combat after the start of World War II. Based on the P-39 Airacobra platform, the P-63 improved on its predecessor’s limitations including a new laminar airfoil wing- giving the new aircraft less drag and greater speed- a four-bladed prop replacing the P-39’s three blades, a larger nose armament cowling and a second hydraulic engine supercharger. The P-63A was designed as a single-seat ground-support/fighter-bomber with a thirty-round 37mm cannon that fired through the prop as well as two synchronized two-hundred-and-seventy round .50 caliber machine guns in the nose and two additional two-hundred-and-fifty round .50 caliber guns located in wing pods. The P-63 was eventually produced in five variations. A long-standing myth has endured that the P-63 was used as a ‘tank buster’. Even though the 37mm nose cannon had the capability, this was never intended to be the aircraft’s primary purpose. Unfortunately, the P-63’s performance lacked that of the P-51 and, since the P-51 and P-47 were already in full production, the US Army Air Force (USAAF) declined to order larger quantities of the P-63. The USAAF never used the P-63 in combat but instead opted for fighter training. Under the Lend-Lease act, the primary WWII user of the Kingcobra was the Soviet Union. Starting in the summer of 1944, about 2,400 of the 3,303 P-63s produced at Bell’s Niagara Falls, NY factory were delivered to Russia via the Alaska-Siberian air ferry route. In the spring of 1945, the Soviet’s saw successful use of the P-63 in aerial battles on the Eastern front against Japan as a low-level fighter. Following the war, with additional armor added to withstand the impact of frangible bullets and painted bright orange, RP-63s “Pinballs” were used by the U.S. military for gunnery practice as manned flying targets. Later civilian life saw the P-63 as an air racer. Following the war, the Dixie Wing’s P-63 flew as a Bendix Air Racer. Aircraft #42-68941 is currently only one of four flying examples and is the responsibility of Dixie Wing’s crew chief Jim Arnold.

The air show’s grand finale featured the GEICO Sky-Typers’ North American SNJ-2 six-ship aerobatic team flying an eighteen minute low-level demonstration. All three days prior to their demo; the team flew around the local area sky-typing. The GEICO’s appearance was Reading’s first time ever six-ship formation team. Friday and Saturday nights following the air show, the big museum hangar was cleared for a swing dance dinner to the sounds of Artie Shaw’s USN and Glenn Miller’s USAAF Big Bands.

WWII Weekend is always held the first full weekend (including Friday) of June and is the country’s largest gathering of its type, where dedicated re-enactors bring history to life.

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