By Bill Derby, Publisher
Memorial Day was celebrated this past Monday in remembrance of our military brothers and sisters who have fallen while serving their country. A unique group of local people participates in World War II battle re-enactments to share the historical significance and honor the sacrifices that generation made.
It is a dedicated hobby for many, but they will tell you it is to honor the veterans who answered the call and made the ultimate sacrifice during those war-torn years in America’s history.
One local man has turned his interest and fascination with military history into a passion to honor those who served. Doug Ledbetter shared his story.
Ledbetter said his dad, Doug Ledbetter, Sr., participated in re-enactment battles and was interested in colonial history and the Revolutionary War. “When he took me along to watch him taking part in re-enactments such as the Battle of Kings Mountain and the dedication of seeing those historical events, the authenticity and historical accuracy interested me.
“Since I have always been interested in the Greatest Generation of the 1940s and World War II history, I really wanted to be a part of re-enacting. I was fascinated that young men everywhere dropped everything and enlisted in the military. In my generation the same thing happened after 9-11,” Ledbetter explained.
Locally, the WW II re-enactment troops are a loosely formed group with the same interest. Regular re-enactments of famous battles are held all over America with many in the Midwest and Southeastern U.S.
“I have read numerous books about the Army and battles that took place in Europe,” Ledbetter said. “When I visited a local business, Military Supply Company in Johnson City, the owner, Richard Montgomery, invited me to attend a WW II re-enactment. I decided it would be a great way to honor the veterans of that era. He helped me learn a lot about the military. I thought there would be older men involved but I was surprised how many of the younger generation are keeping it alive. They want people to remember the sacrifices made for our country.”
Ledbetter recounted how he started gathering authentic equipment of that era and searching the internet for as much original equipment, uniforms, helmets, and insignias as he could find. He soon found out his new hobby could be expensive. “My uniform is from the 504th 82nd Airborne. In order to get the authentic helmet and right insignias might cost $200. I had to get the right patches. I learned how to use a sewing machine to get them on my uniform correctly,” he laughed.
“During the ‘40s men were actually smaller than we are today and the authentic size shirts and jackets usually do not fit. The re-enactment groups have very specific standards and knockoffs are not allowed. There are companies that do re-manufacture exact replicas of clothing, weapons and other equipment you can purchase,” he explained. “I think it’s more beneficial for the younger generation to see since they have never been exposed to the actual equipment and weapons other than seeing them on TV or in the movies.”
His group travels to six or seven re-enactments each year. Some events are two-day programs but most are one-day events held on a Saturday. One community in Middle Tennessee, Linden, has a fantastic event where they turn their whole town into a 1940s-era community. People dress in 1940s clothing, change storefronts and close off Main Street for parades. The actual Battle of Linden between the US Army and a German paratrooper unit takes place on Main Street with automatic weapons, machine guns, cannons and the actual military battle re-enactment.
As Ledbetter explains the action, “It is living history! When Linden first held a re-enactment it was only a few guys showing their uniforms and weapons. Today, the whole town makes it a celebration of history honoring the WW II veterans. When people come out to see the battle re-enactments it’s an exciting opportunity for them. People love to see the weapons, vehicles, cooking equipment and uniforms.”
In order to present an authentic re-enactment, another group of men become the enemy or German troops. Those men take on the role of German paratroopers and have the same authentic specifications for their uniforms and weapons.
“We actually portray multiple countries’ troops in our group and try to fill the ranks on either side to help even the participants’ numbers,” Richard Montgomery said. “Typically in the past there have been a huge number of US Army re-enactors so we have spent more time portraying Germans. Other re-enactors in our group include US Army and Airborne troops and even a few who participate as British paratroopers.”
Ledbetter continued, “I’ve been involved for the past two years. The patriotism is fantastic. Many WW II vets attend our re-enactments. I make sure I get around to meet them. We will usually have around 20 WW II vets at each re-enactment. Some events are two-day programs, which allow us to camp overnight. We set up our camps exactly like an Army unit would do during the war. They have to be authentic and we take great pride in making sure everything meets specifications including our tents and cooking equipment. We enjoy being together as a group and the camping is fun but we all know it’s for a much higher purpose.”
Montgomery said, “Our group provides almost all of the WW II support for the Sycamore Shoals event in Elizabethton coming this Nov. 12-13 and everyone will enjoy the program and have a great time. We have been going since the start and we have a great time getting to mix in with other re-enactors from other time periods… it’s as educational for us as it is for the public.”
Ledbetter’s passion for WW II history shows when he talks about the Willys jeep he lovingly restored. “I always loved the GI Willys jeep. It’s so iconic for WW II. I looked for one for years to restore. I finally found one as close as possible to the WW II era in Chickamauga, Ga. It is actually a 1948 Willys jeep made just after the war. I can’t use the jeep in re-enactments since it doesn’t qualify as an actual war jeep but I have restored it as close as possible in representing the famous GI jeep. It’s been a labor of love and has taken two years to restore by re-doing the body work, adding the correct decals and seats. I use it in local parades and put my family in to ride along.
“We plan on being in the Jonesborough Days Parade this year. Cara, my wife will be in a 1940s dress and will make sure our young sons, Brady and Blakely, are dressed in 1940s boy’s clothes. I will be wearing my WW II dress uniform. It’s fun and shows the people what the jeeps really looked like during the war.”
Based on his experience participating in numerous military re-enactments, Ledbetter suggested Jonesborough would be a perfect location for a local WW II re-enactment venue. “People would come from all over the state and nearby to see this patriotic program. It’s fun and honors our veterans, especially when the whole town turns into a 1940s era community. I think it would be great.”