Every time I see the crinkled photo of my dad in his 1940s Army uniform, it’s a reminder that tangible connections to World War II are becoming harder to experience, especially as the ranks of the soldiers who fought in it thin out. But the era of patriotration, Ike, khakis and Big Bands still comes to life every year at Reading Regional Airport, where the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum stages its annual World War II Weekend. This year’s event will be June 2-4.
I had an enjoyable chat with Russ Strine, president and founder of the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum. We discussed World War II Weekend, now in its 27th year, and why people from across Pennsylvania’s Americana Region and beyond are drawn to it.
“It’s a total immersion history experience where you surround yourself with the history and experiences of World War II,” said Strine. “We’ve been very careful to keep modern aircraft, vehicles and other equipment out of the event. It’s strictly World War II.’ Visitors can expect to encounter 1,500 re-enactors, more than 40 encampments representing all of the nations that were involved in the war, 200 military vehicles from tanks to Jeeps and 80 aircraft ranging from a B29 to small Grasshopper reconnaissance planes. “Eleven of these planes will be available for rides,” he says. “Two years ago, we had visitors from Japan who came to ride in a B29, which delivered the atomic bombs. It was a very moving to witness this.
There’s no event like it in the world,” Strine adds, “and its authenticity and attention to detail have attracted people from Berks County, as well as England, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.” Strine says his biggest source of satisfaction is when he observes grandfathers walking through the exhibits with their sons and grandsons, talking, sharing and showing what they did in World War II. “A lot of these guys never talked about the war; now they do,” he says. “We also see families who may have lost a grandfather recently, and they come back to remember, or a family that didn’t have that chance to talk with a grandfather who served in the war.”
Among the highlights of the event is coming face to face, literally, with history as World War II veterans from all services and theaters of the war report for duty one more time to share their stories. This year’s h
onored guest is Hershel “Woody” Williams, the legendary Marine who received the Medal of Honor for his valor attacking fortified positions during the Battle of Iwo Jima. He’s the last surviving recipient of the medal from that battle. “We have 35 coordinators who plan different aspects of the event and two of them coordinate special guests,” Strine notes. “They network and find these people and entice to come.”
I also asked about the music, which defined the era and filled dance floors and airwaves with American optimism and a link to home. Sure enough, Swing and Big Bang Band concerts will fill the airport hangar on Friday and Saturday night while World War II impersonators stroll the grounds and perform at the officer’s club. “It’s worth the admission alone for the entertainment,” Strine says. Time to pull out dad’s old duffle bag and dog tags, play some Glenn Miller and look for something in olive drab. It’s roll call for World War II weekend. Admission to World War II Weekend is $28, $26 in advance, and $13 for children under 12.