READING - The president is running late, and the crowd - a courteous mixture of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and civilians assembled on the tarmac in front of the hangar - is getting restless. After all, the feature attraction of the evening, the big-band USO show, can't resume until he says a few words.
Nor does it matter that everyone already knows those words - or at least the first 11 of them - by heart: "Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy . . . ."
Finally, FDR, played by Delmas Wood, arrives in his blue 1936 Ford Phaeton, delivers the speech that signaled America's entry into war after the attack on Pearl Harbor - and then the music and dancing resume at Reading's annual WWII Weekend.
Since 1991, history buffs, military enthusiasts, and nostalgia seekers have congregated at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum for what is billed as "the biggest, best, and most comprehensive commemoration of World War II and the Greatest Generation in the country." This year's event, scheduled for June 3-5, is expected to draw more than 20,000.
Each day, 1,000 authentically outfitted and equipped reenactors man their stations in seven "encampments." Most prominent are those depicting the European and Pacific Theaters, but there is also a French village still in the hands of the Wehrmacht, with skirmishes occasionally breaking out, and the Great American Homefront, which re-creates life Stateside in the war years.
On the flight line, you can look over 35 vintage Allied and Axis aircraft before they take to the skies for the twice-daily air show. For a hefty fee, you can even go for a short ride in a Boeing Stearman or North American SNJ trainer, or on a half-hour bombing raid over Hamburg (Pennsylvania, that is) in a B-17 Flying Fortress.
The aircraft and the reenactors give me a feel for what service was like for my father, a first lieutenant in the 20th Air Force. So do the weekend's 50 or so "special guests" - men and women who participated in some of the war's pivotal moments.
On a sunny Saturday afternoon last year, the crowd is particularly thick in front of two Doolittle Raiders and Jake "McNasty" McNiece, of the 101st Airborne's Filthy 13, the original "Dirty Dozen." So I make a beeline for Northumberland, Pa., native Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk, the navigator and last surviving crew member of the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Van Kirk, a spry 89, confirms what his aircraft commander, Paul Tibbetts, had told me a dozen years earlier, that there was a third atomic bomb. But that bomb had gotten only as far as Moffett Field, a naval air station in Sunnyvale, Calif., when the Japanese surrendered.
Two tables away sits former Ensign Harlan Twible, one of the 316 survivors of the USS Indianapolis, the cruiser that delivered the atomic bombs to the small Pacific island of Tinian. Four days later, it was torpedoed en route to the Philippines, and 880 men perished in what is considered the Navy's worst tragedy at sea.
Twible, a 23-year-old Naval Academy graduate at the time of the attack, answers questions about his five harrowing days in shark-filled water before being rescued. As one of the ship's few surviving officers, he played a significant role in the successful 1990s campaign to exonerate his skipper, Capt. Charles B. McVay III, who had been court-martialed for failing to take evasive action.
Since my father served as an aircraft commander on Guam, I head over to the Pacific Theater encampment - full-scale, living dioramas among clumps of bamboo. In the Red Cross tent, I learn that homing pigeons were used in the Pacific to deliver messages between camps and that Pennsylvania's own Hershey Chocolate Co. invented M&Ms, with their "melt in your mouth, not in your hand" coating, for wartime use there.
A mere civilian, I'm flabbergasted when Gen. Douglas MacArthur (played by Brian Woodcock) struts through the encampment, complete with Ray-Ban sunglasses and corncob pipe.
Compelled to talk to the Supreme Allied Commander in the Far East, I offer that his "Dugout Doug" nickname is most undeserved. Woodcock agrees that MacArthur was fearless, but he was too important to take risks, keeping him behind the lines more than he and his troops would have liked.
"Some of the front-line troops just didn't understand that," the general says.
Everyone has to stay behind the lines for the stirring, twice-daily reenactment of the Marine Corps' iconic flag-raising atop Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi.
Here, it's a 10-foot, tarp-covered lump across one of the airfield's taxiways. And it takes only five minutes for the two dozen reenactors from the Parris Island Living History Detachment to overwhelm the Japanese defenders. But it's still a compelling photo op, and the valiant Marines hold their famous pose long enough for everyone to get their own award-winning shot.
On the more expansive European Front, Sgt. Sweet of the 167th Signal Photography Corps uses authentic equipment to show how the war was captured on 4-by-5-inch plates.
At the 28th Infantry chaplain exhibit, Matt Ferdock explains that until the government began providing standardized sacrament kits, chaplains depended on those donated by parish churches. And while Christian chaplains were on their own, the Army protected rabbis, knowing they would be tortured and executed if captured.
Eventually, it's time for some "R&R" at the Great American Homefront, where the Victory Society ladies are putting on a 1944 fashion show and celebrating Christmas at their Homefront House.
The real crowd-pleaser is next door at the "live" studio broadcast - complete with sound effects and commercials - aired by the talented and versatile Spirit of the Airwaves Players. Their five-hour performance includes comedies such as Fibber McGee and Molly and Fred Allen, and dramas such as Superman and The Shadow.
Each broadcast day concludes with the popular Abbott and Costello impersonators, Bill Riley and Joe Ziegler, and a home-front rally. At the nearby Officers' Club, the Ladies for Liberty trio pays tribute to the Andrews Sisters, and Lynn Roberts fires off some of Bob Hope's best lines.
By 5 p.m., the scheduled reenactments are done. But the show still goes on, as the reenactors, many staying overnight in their encampments, go about their off-duty business as if it were really 1944.
A heavyset, mustachioed German sergeant blows his whistle, calls out, "Abendessen," and his troops, who have been fraternizing with the occupied French in the Café Napoleon, line up for bratwurst and sauerkraut. In the British Commonwealth camp, Canadian infantrymen heat up their beef stew over a can of Sterno. Nearby, weekend mechanics try to get a stalled jeep running - an unscripted but authentic WWII moment.
For noncombatants like me, dinner is a chow-line chicken dinner, which I enjoy on the aircraft-dotted tarmac while a lone British Spitfire banks into the peach sunset.
Come twilight, a diverse brigade of reenactors begins to gather in front of the main hangar for the evening's big-band concert. American GIs predominate, but there are also British, Italians, Russians, Germans, and even a handful of Japanese infiltrators.
I strike up a conversation with Jim Lobaza from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, portraying a Polish paratrooper in honor of his great uncle, who served in the Polish Mountain Army. Lobaza offers me some homemade krupnik, or Polish honey brandy, assuring me that it is as authentic as his military gear. With the burning sensation in my throat, I can't disagree.
Moments later, the band, outfitted in regulation Army Air Corps uniforms, strikes up a popular tune by Maj. Glenn Miller.
A 1942 60-inch Sperry antiaircraft searchlight pierces the night sky with its five-mile beacon.
Victory seems inevitable.
The WWII Weekend - A Gathering of Warbirds is in its 21st year.
One of this year's highlights will be FIFI, the world's only flying B-29 Superfortress. A half-hour flight costs $595 to $995. Otherwise, you can take a 25-minute flight in a B-17 for $450 or a 20-minute ride in a trainer for $175.
Many of the "special guests" have written books about their experiences, which they will sign and sell in the main hangar. They also sign autographs, generally for $10.
There's also a flea market with dozens of vendors of militaria, army-surplus gear, and other 1940s artifacts.
No pets, coolers, or alcohol are allowed on the grounds.
Where: Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, 11 Museum Dr., Reading, behind Reading Municipal Airport.
When: June 3-5.
Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, to 5 p.m. Sunday. The air show takes off from 1 to 4 p.m. each day. Most activities take place all three days, but some occur only Saturday.
Admission: One-day general admission, including all entertainment: $24, adults; $11, children 6-12. A three-day pass costs $67. Save by buying tickets in advance.
Food: Given the five- to 15-minute shuttle ride from the parking lot to the grounds, plan on eating there. There are two clusters of professional food vendors, one near the flight line, the other next to the militaria flea market. The Friday roast beef dinner costs $13 per person; the Saturday barbecue chicken dinner, $10. Dinner tickets must be bought in advance.
Information: Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, 610-372-7333, www.maam.org.
- Marshall Berdan