By Rebecca Rose
Killeen Daily Herald
AUSTIN-A group of dedicated military enthusiasts and historians kicked off Memorial Day weekend with a big bang.
The Close Assault 1944, staged at Camp Mabry in Austin, featured detailed re-creation of the history of the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas Army National Guard during World War II.
Jeff Hunt, director of the Texas Military Forces Museum and dressed in a WWII captain's uniform, introduced a crowd of more than 150 people to the world of the American GI during the war, as re-created by members of the Texas Military Forces Living History Detachment.
The re-enactors staged a key battle from World War II. In August of 1944 in the south of France, the 19th German Army was retreating, fleeing from American forces, Hunt said. Men from the 36th Infantry Division set out to catch the Germans before they got away.
German soldiers found the perfect ambush point: a small village near a flat open field, and lay in wait to attack the advancing Americans.
Hunt said when shots rang out, soldiers launched an immediate counterattack, the results of which were acted out in front of a small crowd at Camp Mabry.
To re-create that battle, living historians donned authentic uniforms, and armed themselves with a variety of weapons, including small-arms and automatic weapons. The re-enactment featured a combined arms assault on the village, as well as jeeps and a massive Sherman tank. The group staged the battle scene four times from Saturday to Sunday in observance of Memorial Day.
Armed with cellphone cameras, spectators snapped photos and took video of the action, cheering as the mock battle came to a loud climax.
"We don't do this to glorify war," said Hunt, speaking to the crowd. "We do this to honor the memory of (our veterans)."
After the re-enactment, a moment of silence for fallen service men and women was observed. "They're the people (Memorial Day) is about," said Hunt. "Not mattress sales or ball games."
The Texas Military Forces Living History Detachment also staged the re-enactment to commemorate the history of the 36th Infantry Division, which is nearly 100 years old.
During World War I, the 36th Infantry Division was organized at Camp Bowie in Fort Worth in 1917, from Texas and Oklahoma National Guard units. After the war, the 36th became a Texas division, and the Oklahoma units became part of the 45th Infantry Division.
In 1940, the 36th mobilized for combat in World War II. The division was one of the first American combat divisions to land on the European continent. The division fought in major battles, including Mount Lungo, San Pietro and the Rapido River.
The division spent a total of more than 400 days in combat and saw 14 of its members bestowed with the Medal of Honor. The division had the ninth-highest casualty rate of any Army division in World War II.
The 36th Infantry Division was organized as part of the Texas National Guard following World War II. The 36th and 49th divisions were deactivated and replaced separate brigades. The 49th Armored Division was reactivated, in the 1970s, and in 2004, was reorganized as the 36th Infantry Division.
The event, in its sixth year, featured living historians of the Texas Military Forces Living History Detachment, volunteers who Hunt said represent a variety of men and women, some active-duty service members, some veterans, some amateur historians, all bonded by a deep commitment to military history.
The re-enactment also included a detailed explanation of the uniforms and equipment carried by American GIs during WWII, including live-fire demonstrations of authentic guns. All the weapons were loaded with blanks.
Among the weapons demonstrated were the 1903 Springfield, German K98 rifle, M1 Garand rifle, Browning Automatic Rifle, the MP-40 German submachine gun, the Browning .30-caliber machine gun and the famed Thompson submachine gun.
Spectators paused to reflect on how scenes from the past relate to today.
Mark Thayer served in the Air Force from 1973 to 1977. Thayer was an electronic technician stationed in Europe during the Vietnam War. He worked on F-11s, and to this day, he still carries his original military ID card, laminated and tucked away in his wallet.
He said he was impressed by the expert level of detail in the re-enactment, especially in the explanations of how enemy weapons compared to the ones Americans used on the battlefields. A few times during the re-enactment, a weapon would jam or misfire, a mishap that Thayer said made the scene even more profound.
"When you see a weapon jam like that, it really brings home the reality of what they were going through (on the battlefield)," he said.
Austin resident Paul Lang attended with his three sons: John Thomas, 3, Xavier, 7, and Ethan, 11. The father acknowledged that, with images of wars in the media, it's a subject that the family talks about.
Lang said he has taken his children to events at Camp Mabry to help educate them about the reality of the military.
"It's important to expose them to what it's really like, outside of video games," he said.
Lang said sometimes, his children will ask about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"They ask things like why is it so hard to beat (the enemy)," he said. "And they ask about the soldiers. They want to know what their lives are really like."
While visitors admired the level of detail in the day's events, Hunt said the accolades belong to the thousands of fallen veterans, whose memories the group seeks to honor. But hearing a WWII or other war veteran praise the authenticity was also an important recognition, he said.
"When I hear a thank you from a veteran, that's the best compliment I could get," said Hunt.
The Brig. Gen. John C.L. Scribner Texas Military Forces Museum features exhibits and information on the Texas Revolution, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, the Cold War, as well as a wing devoted to today's soldiers and airmen fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For more information about the museum, go to www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org. or call (512) 782-5770. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday and admission is free.