“THERE’S A USO DANCE TONIGHT?!”, or How a Trip to See Gettysburg Quickly Devolved Into Hours at a WWII Reenactment
by Heidi Obermeyer
The day we spent attempting to see Gettysburg was an eventful day for our group. Camp Misty Mount, where we were camping, was just a half hour or so away from the famous Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg. Being a kid from the West, I had never visited a Civil War battlefield before (although there are TONS around DC) and thought this would be a good way to spend our day. I was ready to buckle down and learn about a new-to-me period of history! “The Civil War: let’s do this!” I thought, and probably said. Little did we know what fate had in store for us that day.
We got to the complex at Gettysburg around 10:30, and that place is HUGE! There’s a museum and visitor’s center that were completed in 2008, both of which are beautifully done. What we didn’t know before arriving was that President Eisenhower’s private farm is nearby, so when you got to tour the battlefield it works out well to pop by the President’s house and then continue on your driving tour of the battlefield. On the fateful day of our visit, guess what was happening at President Eisenhower’s farm? I don’t think you’re going to guess it, so I am going to tell you: a World War II reenactment, complete with a battle (which we missed), actual WWII veterans (of which there must be only a few left in the U.S.- these guys were old!), and a USO dance in PERIOD COSTUME. As you can imagine, our little group of Europe nerds was sold. We had to go check this thing out!
The Eisenhower farm is a worthwhile place to visit in its own right. The farm is a national historic site and is maintained as it was when Ike lived there, including local farmers growing crops that were planted in the surrounding fields back in the day. I didn’t know much about Ike, so the tour of the house was interesting and provided a good overview of his presidency and personal life. While we were wandering the reenactment campsite, I overheard a woman who was meeting one of the Vets there telling him that she was President Eisenhower’s granddaughter! I think it’s pretty cool that she was back at the house and that there’s still a family connection to the property.
After a comprehensive tour of the house, we were let loose in the reenactment encampment. It was history nerd heaven! All manner of tents, vehicles and people dressed in period costumes were scattered across a couple acres of farmland. We set to work straight away strolling among the tents, asking people questions and poking through all their equipment and supplies. There were tents with all kinds of themes- a medical tent, an auto mechanic, a sewing/quilting tent, a mess hall, an officer’s tent, and lots of refurbished military vehicles. Most of the tents were focused on U.S. troops, but there was also an international presence- Finnish, British, Italian, Polish, Russian, and German camps were also set up.
The German encampment was kind of disturbing- all of the people who were doing reenactments of the Nazis didn’t seem like they had a very good idea of the history behind what they were doing. None of them spoke German except for one woman with a very specific knowledge of Krankenschwestern (Nurses) on the Eastern Front. I have to be honest- they were a little skeezy. The other weird part about it was that it takes a lot to get your hands on old Nazi loot in Germany, so to have amassed such a huge collection of it in the United States seems strange to me.
Katelyn, in her infinite good luck and friendliness towards all, secured us a ride on one of the restored military vehicles that a few of the friendlier U.S. camps had. We got to take a quick loop around the fields complete with period music and our driver greeting everyone we passed by addressing their rank (“Move along there Corporal!”). It was excellent in a way that only a ride in a historic vehicle can be.
We wrapped up just in time to head back to the visitor’s center to check out the Gettysburg museum (I’d recommend it if you’re in the area- it’s huge, new, and very well-curated!) and do a half-hearted version of the auto tour of the actual battlefield. I am a lackluster Civil War history buff, but a good time was had by all before we returned to camp to cook dinner over a campfire that barely puttered along no matter what we did.