When Erik Runge can hear the mechanical rumble of a half track crunching along in the distance, when he feels the cool wood of a Gewhr rifle as he lines up to advance, leading his men into certain slaughter, he feels fear; it feels real enough.
“There are moments in a reenactment when you’re totally immersed and you feel fear — it looks real, it sounds real,” Runge said.
When Runge puts on his uniform complete with boots and a hat, he ceases to be Erik Runge, a mild-mannered independent aerospace engineering contractor. He puts himself into the roll he is set to play on a steamy Memorial Day afternoon for Operation Celebration in Peabody.
He is a young officer for his German infantry unit. He grew up just outside of Berlin; he was stationed in Hanover. With more and more officers dead or imprisoned by the Allies late in the war, he has been pulled up from the enlisted ranks. He is now charged with leading a group of drafted men more experienced in warfare than he. They don’t want to fight, but if they did not fight their families would have been detained and placed in concentration camps.
This fantasy is not far off the reality. Runge has only reenacted for four years, but he’s been chosen as an officer because he is the unit commander. Many of the men under his command have reenacted for more than a decade.
The men are also anxious because they are headed for certain defeat. The Germans knew they were going to lose the war shortly after D-Day and the opinion mill in Germany had soured on Hitler’s campaign as U.S. troops crept closer to Germany, Runge said. This also rings true of the generic western front battle to take place on Memorial Day.
“I think there would be a riot if the Germans ever won,” Runge said.
While part of Runge is engaged with the sights and sounds of the battle, he also knows there are blanks in his rifle; the medics running around the urban Peabody battle ground are covered in fake blood. He had met with the commander of the Allies before the fighting started to plan out how the battle would progress — two of his men would be picked off during the first wave and four the second time. Unlike the blood-curdling urban battles in France or the Netherlands, this is scripted; this is fun.
Runge has been hooked on reenacting from his first appearance on a battlefield. He was a high school senior who enjoyed the history of World War II. He had fed his appetite for history with World War II movies and video games. He went to reenactment one day in his hometown of Emporia to further pique his interest.
“It was really fun to watch,” Runge said.
After the performance, Runge talked with some of the men and expressed an interest in reenacting. On the spot they offered him a part in the show the following day. They unveiled an extra uniform, helmet, and rifle. Even though Runge was unsure what to do at first, he got the hang of it by shadowing an experienced reenactor, doing what he did. It was a life-changing event for Runge.
Off to college, Runge slowly started to piece together his battle attire. Purchases of a helmet, hat, and uniform flowed one after another until he was ready. Reeancting can be an expensive hobby. Runge is far behind some of colleagues who have spent $10,000 or more on equipment. Runge is saving up to purchase an era motorcycle. Those reenactors who have purchased vehicles have spent $100,000 or more.
Runge and his small band of reenactors are attempting to grow in ways both significant and minute. He said the main goal of the World War II Reenacting Corps is to educate the public. Events like Operation Celebration are huge. Not only do the reenactors have the battle, but they also set up a booth in the park to talk about three sides of the war: American, German, and Russian.
“Thousands of vets are dying a day,” Runge said. “It’s more important to do this while they are alive.”
They are also educating the public through a partnership with the World War II History Center in El Dorado. Together they have applied to acquire land near El Dorado Lake to use as a full-time battlefield.
The World War II Reenacting Corps are also looking to recruit new members. Runge said he has planned a few different battle scenarios for Operation Celebration. He could have 60 participants or 13 depending how family plans work out around the holiday. The reenactors are all volunteer, although many of them, including Runge (a short stint as a cadet in the Air Force), have military experience.
“I’m not out there yelling at them, making them do pushups,” Runge said. “We wouldn’t have many people if we did. We don’t pay well.”
What Runge definitely will have with him is an extra uniform and rifle, just in case anyone approaches the reenactors interested in being a part of the battle.