World (War II) comes to Conneaut: Part 1 of 2

CONNEAUT — Northeast Ohio has hosted bigger events in 2019, but in the World War II reenactment community the “gold standard” has become D-Day Conneaut. About 1,800 reenactors and 40,000 members of the public will converge upon Conneaut Township Park on August 15-17. As the world remembered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in early June, those interested in World War II living histories will find no better place or opportunity to learn and remember than at this event, which sprang from the most humble of beginnings in 1999 (see end of this story).

2017 DDay Ohio
German soldiers capture Maquis resistance fighters in occupied France.

Reenactors from 40 different states and more than a dozen other nations all over the globe, coming from as far away as Chile, South Africa and Australia, are assembling in Conneaut for what has become the single biggest World War II reenactment in the world. D-Day Ohio Inc., the non-profit group which sponsors the weekend, “capped” reenactment entries at 1,800 members, military and civilian. The event sold out within 20 minutes when registration opened in May.

AUTHENTIC – EXCLUSIVE

Part of what makes D-Day Ohio so alluring is the unprecedented level of involvement of those dedicated to living history and reenactment to all phases of the D-Day story. French resistance fighters (Maquis), the Germany army, civilians, U.S. forces (of course), and forces of Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations (mainly Canada) are all part of the weekend’s activities. Each day’s events combine military action, including a 3 p.m. beach invasion battle on Friday and Saturday (August 16 and 17), with civilian and military living histories.

2017 DDay Ohio two
Canadian soldiers landing at Juno Beach.

D-Day Ohio’s web site describes its event as the most realistic and educational D-Day reenactment of the World War II era. Talks and demonstrations on every aspect of the war will take place. Want to learn about Victory Gardens, for example? There is a talk about it at Conneaut.

All those involved are also committed to authenticity. What visitors see as they tour the camps where reenactors are staying, as they attend the talks, and as they watch the battles are representations of what serving as a soldier or being on the home front was actually like, both in Europe and in the U.S., during WWII.

“We strive to bring World War II to life for the benefit of both the public and the reenactment community,” explains Wayne Heim, one of 11 members of D-Day Ohio’s Board of Directors. A medical illustrator and photographer in real life, Heim also handles communications and the web page for the event. “We have a staff and volunteer code of conduct, to which all participants adhere. Here’s a small example: If you see any reenactor at our event wearing eyeglasses or watches, those are only the type that could have been worn by those in the ETO (European Theater of Operations) between 1942 and 1944.

2017 DDay Ohio three
A Commonwealth armored troop carrier comes ashore at Juno Beach.

“I love it because we’re stepping back in time. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and every year I learn something new, something different,” Heim adds. “We try to capture the look and feel of being in the early ‘40s. You can even smell the canvass when you walk around the Allied and German encampments.”

One of the special aspects of D-Day Ohio is that one CAN walk around. From park opening to park closing (Thursday noon until Saturday evening) those attending can visit the various camps, watch battles, listen to presentations, see demonstrations, and even talk with the reenactors. Here’s one example: There is a demonstration in the Allied camp each afternoon on precisely how soldiers disembarked off the Higgins Boats which took them to Omaha, Utah, and the other beaches, and how they went into action once on land.

FREE TOO!

Conneaut is friendly to families and to budgets too. Admission to D-Day Ohio is free. Attendance at the events and the days’ battles are free also. The D-Day Ohio committee now owns two Higgins Boats, and you can even take a free ride on one of them if you wish while you are at the event.  Details about all aspects of the weekend are at the website www.ddayohio.us

Attendees can get up close to a wide variety of tanks, artillery pieces, machine guns, and other armored and transportation vehicles. Some are from the 1940s, and others are replicas. Overhead, one will see both P-51 Mustangs and a B-25 Liberator bomber during the days’ activities.

“We are 100 percent driven by donations,” Heim explains. “We have a Bucket Brigade, and there are places at the Park where once can donate. We have corporate sponsors, and when those visiting go to the PX purchases there help support the event. We also make money from the sale of pictures at the event.”

D-Day Ohio operates with a budget of about $200,000. There is an army of about 350 volunteers who put in untold hours to support the event. They staff information booths, bring meals to the Committee personnel who are working non-stop during the event, and assist with parking and other activities. Local sports teams from Ashtabula County help with loading and unloading. Boy Scout troops help manage security lines for battles.

Of course not everything can be free. If you wish, you can fly aboard a C-47 “Whiskey 7,” a plane just like the one which carried members of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Division paratroopers into Normandy on June 6, 1944. Cost is $95, but hurry because many of the seats for the flights are already taken. Passengers must depart from the North East Ohio Regional Airport in nearby Jefferson.  Here’s link to the website if you’re interested:

https://fareharbor.com/embeds/book/nationalwarplanemuseum/items/155294/calendar/2019/08/?flow=34313&full-items=yes

Just about everything else is free, and it is all open to the public at 12 noon to 5 p.m. on Thursday, and then 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. (NOTE: There is a British beach battle on Friday at 3 p.m. The reenactment of Omaha Beach – Normandy invasion is Saturday at 3 p.m. Click here for a link to the entire schedule: Schedule  )

SOMETHING SPECIAL FOR VETERANS

Guests of honor at D-Day Ohio are the still-living veterans from World War II and Korea who come to Conneaut for the event. If they register in advance, they will enjoy special parking privileges and have a shuttle escort to a Veterans Hospitality Tent, which two local churches and Conneaut American Legion sponsor. They also have ideal seats for the major activities of the day which they attend.

“The freedom we enjoy today goes directly back to what veterans did in these wars, and we give them the greatest recognition at D-Day Ohio,” Heim says. “Some of our reenactors are involved in part because they had fathers and uncles and other relatives who stormed the beaches at Normandy in June 1944. You see a lot of tears in eyes when some of these veterans tell stories.”

Additionally, there are special activities for veterans on both Friday and Saturday at Conneaut. Friday there is a complimentary luncheon and rides on the Higgins Boats. On Saturday, the veterans salute program begins at 11:30 and features the presentation of the French Legion d’honneur and a Veteran Oral History Session. After the amphibious landing reenactment, veterans can attend a dinner and a USO-style evening show.

If you’re thinking about going to Conneaut and you are a WWII or Korean Veteran, you and a relative or friends should see details at the D-Day Ohio website and then register in advance with Eric Montgomery via e-mail at stitch@ddayohio.us

ORGANIZATION, COOPERATION AND PLANNING MAKE IT WORK

An amazingly dedicated Board of Directors and committees, heart set on providing an authentic living history and battle reenactment experiences, is a main reason why D-Day Conneaut has become such a major event in World War II reenacting. It starts with a mission, and most everything and everyone flows from there.

“The mission statement on our web page tells our story … basically our goal is to keep history alive,” Heim explains. “We don’t want to glorify war; rather, we want to accurately tell the story of what happened, from the perspective of all sides, so that people never forget what D-Day at Normandy was about.”

2017 DDay Ohio Four.png
German armor attempts to repel Allied landings on the beach on D-Day.

The Board of Directors, which is made up largely Northeast Ohio members, meets 4-5 times a year in person, augmented by phone and e-mail meetings and threads. Some committees meet every month. “We do a lot of work within committees, Heim adds. “The Finance Committee is in charge of all materials we sell, as well as budget and expenditures. We have a Living History Committee, Building Committee, Home Front, German Committee, and other groups, all who labor between Board meetings, and all those plans and decisions go back to the Board meetings for approval.”

Betsy Bashore, who has been participating in living histories for more than 25 years, is the CEO of the D-Day Ohio Board of Directors. She’s been assisting at D-Day Conneaut since 2006. Struck by the heroism of combat photographers in WWII, she has recreated a photo lab at several reenactment events. She also frequently portrays a U.S. Army nurse.

In addition to the Board, another 10 more people serve D-Day Ohio in the roles of volunteer coordination and event support. More than 40 other volunteers serve in various supporting capacities, including US military forces, Allied armor, US Airborne, Landing Teams, Army Air Corps, Allied Medic, Allied Vehicles, Allied Chaplains, Allied Naval Flotilla, Commonwealth leaders, German commanders, German Beach Defense, Waffen SS Commander, French Resistance Coordinator, and Civilian Home Front.

WHY CONNEAUT?

Conneaut Township Park consists of about 60 acres of land with a beach of about a third of a mile at its north end. John Keaton spent time there in the late 1990s, visiting his in-laws there and swimming at the beach. He thought that the beach and surrounding park area would make an ideal site for reenacting the Normandy invasion.

“I suggested a reenactment to the Conneaut city leaders, and they said go for it,” Keaton recalls. He submitted the necessary insurance forms and obtained a permit to hold the first reenactment there in 1999.

Keaton recalls that in the year 2000, the reenactment had but 20 Americans invading troops, 50 German defenders, and about 75 civilians watching the one-day affair. “I asked the US Navy to come and bring LCM-8 landing craft. They provided two of them. “I said thanks, and told the Navy that we will have more in the future,” he recalls.

Keaton stayed involved in the initial years of D-Day Conneaut, but turned over operations to the non-profit Board as it organized and grew. “I made the mistakes, and Betsy and the Board corrects them,” he says with a laugh. “They’ve done an amazing job growing D-Day.”

GETTING THERE: Conneaut is a drive of 45 to 90 minutes from Northeast Ohio, depending upon where you live. Take Interstate 90 East to the last Ohio exit, No. 241, Ohio Route 7. From there go north to Conneaut, less than three miles from the exit. Lake Road (Ohio Route 531) borders Conneaut Township Park on the south. Watch for signs to the parking areas.

PART II: A perspective from some of the reenactors is next, along with Conneaut’s own D-Day Museum and the Northeast Ohio radio station which “backs the attack” as well.

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