tampabay.com

Re-enactors jolt real vet

D-day at De Soto brings unwelcome memories to an unwary visitor.

By ALISA ULFERTS
Published April 22, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - Ray Killian came to Fort De Soto Park on Saturday afternoon in search of a few quiet moments of sand and sun.

What he found there instead - 150 mock Allied and Axis soldiers re-enacting a D-day battle- stirred feelings and memories long archived away.

"I'm 84 years old. I was there. Unless you were there, you can't know," said Killian, of West Palm Beach, his eyes filling with tears.

Killian crossed the Atlantic Ocean 22 times as a machinist on a naval destroyer escort. He came home. Too many of his classmates didn't.

The horror of war isn't something that can ever be re-enacted, Killian said.

"I asked them re-enactors if they were going to put red paint in the water for the blood. If I'd known this was going to be here I wouldn't have come."

It was all too much, so Killian and a friend walked off, putting some distance between themselves and this shadow play of the past.

Saturday's battle, in which the participants playing Allied forces came over the dune at Fort De Soto Park to battle the Germans, is one of about a dozen like it conducted each year by the Florida WW2 Reenactors Group, Inc., a close-knit collection of history buffs.

Although they are quick to divorce the battle from the policies and politics of current wartime events, re-enactors say honoring the experiences and memories of veterans like Killian is the chief reason they conduct the public re-enactments.

"It does help keep their memory alive," said Dawn Ennest of New Port Richey. Ennest was playing the part of an official Army photographer in her first re-enactment. "There are so few of them left."

Mike Kessinger is a history teacher at Dunedin High School and one of the main organizers in the group. He knows that many things about the re-enactments can evoke strong feelings: old German propaganda posters, Nazi flags and symbols. That's part of why remembering history is so important, and why participants take such pains to ensure the authenticity of their roles and their gear, he said.

"We even have the correct stitching," in the uniforms, he said.

On Saturday, Kessinger was leading the Germans. The regular participants know they have to take a turn playing the Axis forces every now and then, he said.

"First and foremost, we are Americans," Kessinger said. "But if nobody plays the bad guys, you can't play."

Over on the Allied side, Lutz resident Scott Campbell was in charge. After finishing up a meeting with his top military officers in a stifling tent, Campbell said he was preparing to lead his troops up from the beach. He's been involved in World War II re-enactments for 10 years, he said.

"We're all just historians. We try and leave today's politics out of it and just be in the period," he said.

The only visible anachronism in Saturday's battle was the American flag, which had been lowered to half staff in memory of the victims of last week's shooting at Virginia Tech.

Staff writer Alisa Ulferts can be reached at (727) 892-2379 or ulferts@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

If you go

The World War II Living History Weekend continues from 10 a.m. to noon today at Fort De Soto Park off Pinellas Bayway (past Tierra Verde). Battle begins at 11 a.m. today. Free.