'Living History' Groups Honour WW2

History buffs with a passion for World War Two take it to the limit – dressing in vintage uniforms, sleeping in tents, eating rations, and even reenacting entire battles! Their primary purpose is to teach the public about a war that is rapidly fading from living memory.

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“Reenactment” is the term for a craze that has spread across the Western world. History fans can now reenact battles involving Vikings, Romans, and even the Wild West.

In the United States, reenactment took off in popularity around 1965 during the American Civil War centennial.

In this country, a popular reenactment is the War of 1812 between the United States and Canada – no doubt because Canada emerged victorious!

But interest in both the First and Second World Wars continues to grow. Here in Western Canada, I discovered two “living history” groups – one in Edmonton, and one in Victoria.

The reasons given for participating vary. Some members are armed forces veterans themselves, and others have relatives who fought in the Second World War. But everyone agrees on one point: it’s important to preserve these memories and pass them along to the younger generation.

 

First Special Service Force Living History Association, Edmonton, Alberta

 

This group was co-founded by history enthusiast Brian Mason, a 34-year-old American with an archaeology degree who now works for the Edmonton City Police. Brian moved to Edmonton from North Carolina, where he was involved with American Civil War re-enactment.

After arriving here, he joined the Rotary Club, where he became friends with an older man, Rob Patterson-Bruton of St. Albert. “Over coffee we got talking about the lack of historical education in our schools today,” Brian said, referring to public school systems in both Canada and the U.S. 

“Kids today learn about war through two venues: Hollywood, and video games. They think war is accurately portrayed through movies like Call of Duty, or Saving Private Ryan. It’s a travesty, really. They’re not learning anything of substance!"

So the two men decided to do something about it. They agreed that the two world wars are the ones most familiar to most Canadians, and they chose World War Two because of easier access to uniforms and gear, plus the firsthand knowledge of living veterans.

To pay tribute to both of their countries of origin, they chose to represent the First Special Service Force, otherwise known as “The Devil’s Brigade.” This was an elite commando unit composed of Canadian and American volunteers who undertook some very dangerous missions. To read more about this 1,800-man force, click here: The Devil’s Brigade.

“Their actions are an important but obscure part of our mutual history, and we wanted to bring it into the public awareness," Brian said.

The group does not adopt the identities of individual soldiers, but rather the general spirit of the brigade as it existed in 1943. Brian is proud of the fact that First Special Service Force veterans have thanked him and shaken his hand. “The response from veterans in general has been astronomical,” he said.

The photo at the top of the page shows three group members dressed as Allied soldiers in a restored U.S. jeep. The passengers are Reid Fisher, Zack Hutley, and Victor Nakatsuru. The driver and owner of the jeep is a member of the Alberta's Military Vehicle Preservation Society.

Below are some other photos showing the group on the job.

Reid Fisher is dressed as a member of the American Airborne, beside a U.S. tent setup. The photo was taken in Sherwood Park, Alberta, on Canada Day 2015, at the group's largest annual event.

This photo shows some of the masses of equipment that group members have accumulated. Sourcing and purchasing authentic gear is one of the challenges  facing every living history group.

The group has served as extras in three movies so far. This photo was taken during the filming of an independent movie, not yet released, called Thousand Yard Stare, shot in Drumheller, Alberta. From left to right: Victor Nakatsuru, Evan MacDonald, Dan King, Tyler Schmidt, and Dan Spadafora. 

Not everyone needs to play a combat soldier. Here Martin Truscott portrays an Allied War Correspondent, one of those brave souls who risked their lives to bring photographs and news accounts to the folks back home.

One of the challenges for all living history wartime groups is how to incorporate women.

Renee Chapelle of Edmonton, aged 38, fell into living history by chance. She works for a stage and theatre lighting company. One day her friend took her to a gun show, and she found herself fascinated by a display set up by the First Special Service Force Living History group. 

She had no prior interest in the Second World War, but she became so intrigued that four years later, she is the group’s Secretary/Event Organizer, and the only female member. Group leader Brian Mason calls her "the brains behind the whole outfit."

In Canada it is very difficult to find authentic women’s uniforms, since the number of women who served was much lower. As with other reenactment groups, Renee gets around this by dressing as a wartime civilian, sewing her own clothing and collecting vintage hats.

“One of the ways women participated back then was through the role as military nurses, and I would love to find a nursing uniform.”

This photo shows Renee in her favourite dress, and one of her three favourite wartime hats.

This group photo from Canada Day 2015 in Sherwood Park, Alberta, shows group members, from left to right: Rod Hamilton, Renee Chapelle, Reid Fisher, Victor Nakatsuru, Claude Villeneuve, and Martin Truscott.

There wouldn’t be much point in having a battle reenactment without an enemy, but one of the problems that the group experiences is the public reaction to seeing a German uniform. 

“People see a swastika and they come right out and call us nasty names,” Renee said. “Often the public doesn’t know the difference between an average German soldier who was just doing his duty, and a full-fledged Nazi. But even the regular soldiers had to display a swastika as part of their uniforms. We can usually deflect the criticism by explaining the difference, and telling them what we are doing.

This photo shows four group members dressed as German Wehrmacht soldiers doing what all soldiers did much of the time -- just hanging around, playing cards. From left to right, they are Matt Holland, Riley Smith, Derek Campbell, and the fourth man is unidentified. 

The photo was taken at the June 2015 Summer Skirmish at The Military Museums of Calgary, an event featuring reenactors not only from World War Two, but from other military operations throughout history.

The group also participates in some important commemorative events. Here Claude Villeneuve and Brian Mason stand on guard in front of the cenotaph dedicated to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, located near Canmore, Alberta, during the celebration of D-Day on June 6, 2014.

The Edmonton group is most commonly seen at local trade shows and gun shows, where they set up displays, dress in uniform, and answer questions. Their biggest annual event is on Canada Day in Sherwood Park, Alberta, when the group puts out a major effort including a full camp, military vehicles, and a battle reenactment.

Your next opportunity to see the group in action is during the Summer Skirmish at the Military Museums in Calgary on June 11 and 12, 2016.

Would you like to get involved yourself? Group leader Brian Mason said he would love to have more women members, as well as people of all ages. For more information, please call him at 780-242-2788, or email him at briankmason@hotmail.com.

To visit the group's website, click here: First Special Service Force Living History Association.

 

The Victoria-Esquimalt Military Reenactors Association, Victoria, B.C.

 

Don Thomas is the Event Coordinator for the Victoria-Esquimalt Military Reenactors Association, with members in both Victoria and Vancouver. Although the group’s wide-ranging mandate covers the entire period from 1776 to 1960, Don says the Second World War is the more prominent era.

Now 64, Don grew up in Brockway, New Brunswick where his story-telling grandmother first sparked his love of history. At the age of seventeen, he joined the Canadian Army and served for 27 years.

“When I was posted in Ontario, I got interested in the War of 1812 Reenactment down there,” he said. He’s been involved with living history for several decades. Since 2009 he’s been an active member of the Victoria group, which he says is very family-oriented, with men and women of all ages participating.

Here is Don Thomas dressed as a first aid attendant.

All photos of the Victoria group shown here were taken by group member Tony Austin.

At every appearance, the group draws a crowd. “The reaction is very good. Of course, visitors who come to military museums are already interested. Of one hundred people who go through, probably seventy-five come to see us.”

Visitors often bring in uniforms or other artifacts to show the group. “Many of our parents and grandparents fought in one or both world wars, so people feel they have a personal connection.”

The Victoria group doesn’t focus on a particular segment of the armed forces – instead, it wants to educate people about all wartime roles, some of them less known than others, including the home front as well. That allows wide participation by both men and women of all ages.

Here Tony Austin, the group's excellent official photographer who took all the photographs here, portrays the Commander of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Group member Gary Kangas is dressed here as an Air Raid Warden, a vitally important role on the home front.

Don himself owns a number of different uniforms. “There are always lots of guys who like the boots-and-bayonets, but I like to show other aspects of military service,” he said.

“Last year I concentrated on the Merchant Navy (the ships that transported vital goods and supplies across the Atlantic) by dressing as a sick berth attendant on one of the rescue ships that sailed with the convoys.”

Here is Don Thomas on the left, wearing a Royal Canadian Air Force uniform, along with Connor Thomas, Jonathan Wolter, and Bryce Smith. Patricia Bay, now the Victoria International Airport, was a huge operational training air base in the Second World War.

Here Bob Campbell portrays a Captain in the Canadian Army.

In the reenactment world, there are differing degrees of authenticity. Groups like this one, with a strong focus on history, education and commemoration, do their best to get the details right.

“We don’t expect anyone to show up 100 percent turned out the first time,” Don explained. “We realize that it takes time, money and effort to develop a historic persona. So everyone in the group is willing to work with new members, by lending them kit and giving them advice.”

He said the realistic look is easier to achieve now that there are companies in the United States and Great Britain manufacturing twentieth-century replicas – although they don’t make Canadian uniforms.

If you’re a woman, it’s even harder. The uniform worn by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, otherwise known as CWACs, is especially difficult to find. Here an employee at Fort Rodd National Historic Site in Victoria wears an authentic CWAC uniform.

Most women reenactors wear vintage civilian clothing. For example, this photo shows group member Martina Diklitch portraying a member of the Canadian Red Cross, waiting for casualties.

Here Sarah Diklitch is dressed as a member of the American Women's Air Force Service Pilots, otherwise known as WASPs. These women called ferry pilots delivered all types of aircraft between air bases at home and overseas, although they were never allowed to fly in combat.

In Great Britain, the Auxiliary Transport Association, or ATA, had several Canadian women pilots. You can read about one remarkable woman on a previous Wartime Wednesdays blog post by clicking: Vi Milstead.

Here group member Jodi Sturgill is dressed as a French Resistance fighter, another important and dangerous role performed by many women.

Inspiration for wartime roles comes from many sources, including original photographs taken during the war. Here Sarah Diklitch dresses as the American girl known as "Winnie the Welder," one of the hundreds of thousands of women who built vehicles and weapons of war. 

This is the original wartime photograph of Winnie the Welder at work.

Here group member Zoe McCormack reprises the famous photograph of our own Canadian factory worker, Veronica Foster, also known as "Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl."

And here is Ronnie herself, one of 800 women who worked at the Inglis Factory in Toronto during the war, manufacturing light machine guns.

To read more about one million women who worked in Canadian factories in the Second World War, see my previous blog post by clicking here: Bombshells and Bomb Girls.

And here group members Lucas Wald and Harry Moon fire an actual Bren gun, perhaps one made by Veronica Foster herself!

The Victoria group’s main focus is to support local museums, and there are several excellent ones in the area. There’s the Naval and Military Museum at nearby Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, of which Don’s wife Debbie Towell serves as curator. There’s the British Columbia Aviation Museum in Sidney, and the National Historic Site at Ford Rodd Hill, plus another at Fort Macauley in Esquimalt.

If you would like to see this Living History group in full regalia, turn out to Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site on the upcoming Victoria Day weekend. There you can stroll through the fort and admire equipment, uniforms and vehicles from Canada’s military past, and chat with reenactors. This year's theme: Canada and Her Allies.

A second four-day event at Fort Rodd from June 16-19, 2016 is called Fighting on the Home Front. Step back in time to honour women of the Second World War and learn about the contributions they made on the home front. Visitors are welcome to dress in their best 1940s-style costume, or don a pair of overalls and a spotted head scarf like Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl herself.

To join the group, or request more information, please call Don Thomas at (250) 642-2977 or email engineerjumper@shaw.ca.

                                                 * * * * *  

   UPDATE ON MARGARET HERMESTON

Last month I wrote about Karen (Margaret) Hermeston, the first female photographer in the Canadian Armed Forces. This petite brunette paved the way for women in uniform with her dedication to her craft. To read the whole story about her unusual role as a military photographer, click here: Karen Hermeston, Army Photographer.

But I was unable to find out what had happened to her after the war, so I asked my readers for help.

Through blog subscriber Dawn Munroe, who has her own website called Famous Canadian Women, I was able to contact Karen’s niece, Maggie Hermeston of Cochrane, Ontario.

Maggie is a retired civil servant who spent her career with the Department of Natural Resources. And she remembers her aunt very well! Here’s what she told me when I telephoned her:

Firstly, Karen M. Hermeston was never called Karen, or her wartime nickname “Hermie,” but was known to everyone as Margaret.

She was born in tiny Charlton, Ontario to parents Angus Melvin Hermeston, of Scottish descent; and his Norwegian-born wife Maren Ruud. They had two children – daughter Karen (Margaret); and son Douglas, born nine years later. Margaret Hermeston grew up in Englehart, Ontario.

Her niece Maggie remembers that her father Douglas was always joking about being overshadowed by his older sister. Douglas was a paratrooper in the Second World War, one of the men who landed in Holland on D-Day as part of the famed Operation Market Garden.

After the Germans were forced into retreat, there were huge celebrations in every Dutch town. As Douglas recalled: “There I was taking part in a big parade, and I look down the street and who should I see but Margaret! I couldn’t even liberate Holland without my big sister showing up!”

Douglas married and had nine children, the eldest of whom is Maggie Hermeston. She never changed her name after her marriage, and is still very proud to share the name Margaret Hermeston with her admirable aunt.

After the war, Margaret returned to Sudbury, Ontario and married a Norwegian mariner named Kris Andresen. He was an electrician who found work in one of the local mines. The two built a house, and settled down. 

The couple never had children of their own, but after some years they travelled to Norway and adopted a boy named Andreas. Their son Andreas later married a Norwegian woman who also moved to Canada, and they had four daughters.

"I have many personal memories of my aunt," said Maggie. "She was a wee tiny woman, she could sew like an angel and she made the best Norwegian pancakes in the world!

“When I was about seven, she decided to teach several little girls in the neighbourhood how to sew. We all made simple shift dresses, and then Aunt Margaret held a fashion show for the neighbours, and we modelled our own dresses and she was the Master of Ceremonies and described each dress!”

Margaret continued to be passionate about photography and took pictures all her life. She had her own darkroom in her home, where she developed and printed them herself. She served as the family photographer and took many lovely pictures of her grandchildren and other family members. For a time she even taught photography at the local Laurentian University.

Maggie said: "Her pictures are timeless. She has taken pictures of me and my sister that if you didn't know better you'd think they were taken yesterday.

"One of her post-war pictures is quite famous -- it is of a firefighter carrying a fawn out of a forest fire. She sold the rights to the government many years ago, and it still pops up from time to time on calendars."

Margaret died several years ago, after a long, fruitful life in which she blazed the trail for other female military photographers.

Rest in Peace, Margaret Hermeston.

                                                      * * * * *

               STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week.

As a reminder of the important role played by naval rescuers, as mentioned above by Don Thomas of the Living History group in Victoria, here's an image of some desperate men on a liferaft, dated November 1, 1941.

To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, click: Star Weekly At War.

             CALLING ALL BOOK CLUBS!

Book Clubs across Canada are discussing Bird's Eye View. Below is a recent photo taken at the Windermere Valley Gentlemen's Readers Society (proof positive that men like my book, too!) 

I would love to visit your club, or answer your questions via email, telephone, or Skype. For a list of discussion questions, click: Book Club Questions.         

                           * * * * *

            MY FAVOURITE VETERANS

I have now collected twenty-eight original stories from Wartime Wednesdays and made them available in printed book form.

To read more about the book, click: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes. To order a signed copy for $35.00 Canadian, email me at elinor1@telus.net or call me at 250-342-1621. Shipping costs drop if you order two or more sent to the same address.

This book would make an ideal Christmas gift for veterans, seniors, or history buffs -- and if you request, I will giftwrap it and send it straight to the recipient.

You may also purchase a copy from Amazon by clicking here: My Favourite Veterans: True Stories From World War Two's Hometown Heroes.

         About My Novel, Bird's Eye View

  • Bird’s Eye View is fact-based fiction about a young Canadian woman who serves as an aerial photo interpreter in World War Two. In 2016 it was named a Canadian bestseller by both The Globe & Mail, and The Toronto Star. It's available as a trade paperback through any bookstore, and also as an ebook. To order online from Amazon, click Bird's Eye View. It's also available from Amazon's U.S. and U.K. websites.

                    About My Website

  • All blog posts are indexed by subject and title on this page. Scroll to the top of this page to see the list, and enter your email address to subscribe to Wartime Wednesdays. If you enjoy it, please share through Facebook, Twitter, email or just an old-fashioned phone call!

                     About My Events

  • You can see a complete list of my upcoming events on my Events page by clicking the link at the top of this page. You can also see a list of discussion questions for Book Clubs by clicking: Events.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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