Things started getting weird at Saturday’s World Word II reenactment when the blonde children slouched onto the scene wearing Hitler Youth Movement uniforms. Surrounded by some American GIs and a pair of tense MPs, the three little Nazi boys scanned the crowd with slightly sinister expressions and conveyed the indignant, unrepentant air of unbroken POWs.
“You see those boys?” I told my 3-and-half-year-old son. “They’re the bad guys.”
Jackson ceased his intense, sing-song game of asphalt-smashes-iceplant to glance at the boys.
“Cool,” he said.
My son’s genial response to these kids scared me. I nearly launched into a pointless explanation of the historical evil these children represented. Instead, the sudden appearance of a really cool, really authentic Nazi motorcycle and sidecar distracted me.
“Is the war starting?” Jackson asked hopefully. Like a real war, this one had so far mostly consisted of waiting around while personnel were located and equipment was moved.
“Soon,” I said for the 100th time.
The Nazi soldier killed the engine and hurried off the bike to help an overweight captain of the SS out of the sidecar. Rather than a thick Kraut accent, the SS officer sounded American, and I found myself disappointed that his voice was completely incongruent with his uniform. His black leather jacket with its ominous SS insignia oozed evil. He couldn’t have been more hateful had he been wearing a KKK sheet.
But of course he wasn’t a real Nazi. He was a historian whose father had been a field medic in General Patton’s army, a grown man whose interest in German military history had been sparked as a child by the medals and other Nazi knick-knacks his father had brought home from the war.
So instead of lecturing us on the benefits of eugenics and ethnic cleansing, this ringer for a SS officer told us about Operation Market Garden, the battle which the World War II Research and Preservation Society (WWII RPS) was about to painstakingly reenact for the 100 or so of us who’d braved the maze-like ruins of lower Fort Ord to find them.
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As it turns out, Operation Market Garden was a disaster for the Allied forces. Fifty-two years ago, from Sept. 17 to Sept. 25, 1944, 35,000 Allied troops tried to secure five bridges over the main rivers of the German-occupied Netherlands in a ballsy but poorly-conceived offensive. Airborne forces together with armored units were supposed to result in the Allied crossing of the Rhine, the last major barrier to an advance into Germany. Alas, the final Rhine bridge at Arnhem was never taken, and the British 1st Airborne Division was destroyed in the ensuing combat. The defeat of Allied forces at Arnhem is considered the last major German victory of the Western Campaign.
What a drag, I thought, resenting this corpulent Nazi his smug little history lesson. What is this? Hooray for Nazis Day on Fort Ord?
The Nazi, perhaps sensing our displeasure, reiterated that his group was “dedicated to honoring and preserving the tactical experience of the World War II combat soldier through research, education, vehicle preservation, and intense tactical battles.”
Fine, fine, I thought. I guess we won in the end, so it’s OK to throw the Nazis a bone or two in the interest of historic accuracy.
The SS officer told us the battle was about to begin, then wedged himself back into the sidecar and was spirited away. As they went, I half-wished one of the Allied soldiers would shoot them both in the back and their motorcycle would explode into flames.
Jackson and I found a vantage spot looking down into the rows of abandoned barracks that would assumedly be standing in for Arnhem. Suddenly the shooting started and all hell broke loose. Allied soldiers seemed to have some Germans pinned down in one of the barracks. In a nice touch, one of the Nazis broke a window out with the butt of his rifle and returned fire. The shooting was wild and relentless. There was shouting and smoke grenades and someone ran by with a bazooka.
It was impossible to tell what was going on. There was no reference point to the actual landscape of Arnhem or wherever they were supposed to be. After 15 minutes or so I felt that we were just watching a bunch of overgrown kids playing soldier with cool costumes and guns loaded with blanks.
Surprisingly, even Jackson got bored with the game and went back to playing with the asphalt and ice plant while WWII raged on. It was authentic looking, for sure. But for some reason it reminded me more of recent footage I’d seen from Iraq. I found it depressing. Instead of sticking around to watch the Nazis eventually persevere, I gathered up my son and went home to get a little peace.