Re-enactors refight D-Day in central Ohio, honor veterans

It was a sweltering summer day as Preston McCollum sat in an airplane hanger and watched men in German officers’ uniforms walk by.“There were a few kids here, and two German soldiers walked by, and they said, ‘Don’t you wish you had a rifle?’ “ McCollum recounted, laughing good-naturedly.

The days of rifles and animosity were long over for the 90-year-old World War II veteran. Besides, McCollum spent most of his time in the Army helping people in the Medical Corps.

Most of the restored equipment, vehicles and uniforms at the Knox County D-Day Re-enactment near Mount Vernon were familiar to McCollum, though he hadn’t seen most of the items since he was an 18-year-old on foreign soil. This year’s re-enactment, the third since the event’s conception, featured a T-51 Mustang.

“I remember when I was over in Germany, I saw them a lot escorting other planes,” said McCollum, a Mount Vernon resident.

The owner and pilot of the T-51, Jeff Paden, has been flying the three-fourths scale model of a P-51 Mustang for 20 years. For him, diving across simulated battlefields is his own form of service.

“I look at it like this,” Paden said, sitting on the wing of his trusty fighter. “I couldn’t serve in the military, so this is my way of giving back.”

Though Paden is used to flying his plane — which he estimated is just one of maybe 900 left in the world — he said he couldn’t imagine what it was like for the young Americans who flew them in battle.

“It’s hot. It’s not comfortable,” he said. “They flew in these things in the war for eight to 10 hours at a time.”

Saturday, Paden joined about 120 other re-enactors to portray the historic day — June 6, 1944 — that for many marked the beginning of the end of World War II.

Actors set up realistic encampments at the Knox County Airport, Americans and Germans facing off on opposite sides of a field. The T-51 flew overhead and skydivers dropped into the action in full uniform.

Kevin Henthorne, an event organizer, said he expected that 500 to 800 spectators showed up for the free, one-day event.

“It’s mostly just about paying respects and paying tribute to veterans,” Henthorne said.

For Jim Cassler, a Canton resident, it’s all about paying tribute to his father, who fought in World War II.

“It’s a way of honoring what he did.” Cassler said. “To listen to (other veteran’s) stories, it makes it worth while to be here. When I hear a World War II vet, it’s like my dad is talking.”

Cassler was drawn to re-enacting by a World War II-era Army Jeep that had been in his family for years. He stood next to the restored Jeep, reminiscing about learning how to drive it in his youth and going through old memories.

“I got to meet a vet who wandered into camp. I took him in the Jeep and made some new memories,” he said.

This weekend, Cassler is playing the roll of a member of the 5th Rangers, Fox Company.

For McCollum, the re-enactment is a glimpse into his own past.

“This is a great thing they have here,” McCollum said. “They make it pretty realistic.”

Though his mother fretted over him when he went overseas, and some days he never thought he would make it to 21 years old, it was all worth it.

“I don’t regret going,” McCollum said. “Somebody had to.”

ebohatch@dispatch.com

@emilybohatch

 

 

 

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