Bringing WWII to life

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By John Barnhart

While many Bedford area residents are familiar with Civil War reenactors, two Liberty High School seniors reenact soldiers from a more recent conflict.

David Seamster and Josh Grimstead portray World War II soldiers from the 29th Division. Their age adds to their authenticity as they are close to the age of the men who actually fought in that conflict. Bob Slaughter, a Roanoke D-Day veteran who spearheaded the effort for the National D-Day Memorial, was 19 when he came ashore that June morning.

The two have one advantage over Civil War reenactors. They can use some actual vintage equipment. Seamster, for instance, carries a World War II vintage M-1 Garand. Grimstead's M-1 dates to the Korean War.

In addition to his rifle, Seamster also wears a pair of WWII vintage trousers. They're 100 percent wool, as is his shirt, which is a reproduction.

Like the Civil War reenactors, the two reenactors are sticklers for authenticity. They note that many National Guard units had World War I vintage equipment when they were called up. Many kept a number of items. Grimstead carries a World War I vintage canteen, it has a steel cap instead of the bakelite cap from the World War II canteens. He also has a World War II vintage ammunition belt.

Much of the vintage equipment is used when they aren't doing something rough, like recreating an actual battle. Seamster, for instance, replaces his vintage trousers with reproduction trousers, also of 100 percent wool in those instances.

The wool trousers and shirts are hot in the summer, but the two appreciate the fabric when they reenact winter battles. Last January, they participated in a reenactment of the Battle of the Bulge. It took place in New York, with snow on the ground. Last month, they reenacted the D-Day landing. This took place on the shores of Lake Erie. They waded in waist deep water, and it got cold at night.

Seamster and Grimstead get as realistic as possible during a reenactment. This means living like a World War II soldier and eating reproduction K-Rations.

"They are edible," said Seamster.

According to Seamster, these are actually better than the original. World War II veterans that he has talked to told him that the originals tasted like wood or cardboard.

Of course, in order to reenact a battle, somebody has to be the bad guys. Seamster and Grimstead said that the 29th Division Living History Group face Grossdeutschland USA in battle reenactments. These guys reenact a German Army division. The actual Grossdeutschland Division was a panzergrenadier division that served exclusively on the Eastern front and never met American troops in combat. Their engagements included the Battle of Kursk, possibly the largest tank battle in history. More than 6,000 tanks were involved and the battle raged over several days.

Whether they are wearing original or reproduction equipment, these reenactors know why they have each item. At the time of this interview, the two young Bedford men were dressed out as 29th Division soldiers at the time of D-Day. They were wearing the M-38 boot, which was a low-top boot that reached the ankle. It was more of a shoe than a boot. That's why they were also wearing the M-1938 leggings. The leggings kept brush from getting into the shoe. A lot of men didn't like the leggings because it took too long to lace them up. That's why the Army came out with a higher top boot with a buckle top in late 1944.

The field jackets they wore, early 1941-issue, have a cotton outer shell with a wool liner. Along with the other gear appropriate to the D-Day assault, they have gas masks. These are in the black packs that are at their chests in the photos. They're cumbersome and the soldiers who went ashore on D-Day discarded them in the early days of the fighting in Normandy.

Another advantage Seamster and Grimstead have over Civil War reenactors is that there are still some World War II veterans alive.

"He [Ray Nance] and Mr. Stevens were actually the main contributors to the 29th," Seamster said, referring to how the reenactment group got started.

The two recall a Family Day at the D-Day Memorial when they set up an encampment. Nance inspected it and made a recommendation on tent pegs. They have also spent time with Slaughter.

Both are JROTC cadets and they've gotten together with some other cadets at BSTC, who are Civil War reenactors, to develop a living history presentation called "Bedford Boys at War." They set up tents, display their personal gear and describe it.

The presentation is designed for elementary school school students. They are scheduled, so far, to make their presentation at five elementary schools this year.

More information can be found on the 29th Division Living History Group by going to its Web site at www.29thdivision.com.