Liberation of New Oxford transforms small central Pennsylvania town into WWII war zone

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NEW OXFORD, Pennsylvania — Bullet shells ping against the New Oxford Coffee Company's window in rapid succession on Sept. 20, 2014. The sounds of gunfire comes from the front of the shop - the back - the sides. Though the shootout has been going on for minutes, each loud POP! startles those drinking coffee inside, their eyes are glued to the windows as German troops battle Allied soldiers mere inches away.

From the cafe, there's no escaping the battle. For a moment, everyone is unified — together they sit, immersed in the world of a small French village on a September morning in 1944. The Germans are occupying, the Allied forces are liberating and the citizens are caught in the crossfire.

The bullets were blanks, all part of the New Oxford Area Historical Society's sixth annual Liberation of New Oxford event. What sets this World War II event apart from normal re-enactments is the town becomes the battlefield and the townspeople the villagers.

"It's a challenge for us, because we don't normally fight street to street, house to house," said Jud Spangler of West Manchester Twp. in York County. Spangler was the head of the German forces at the re-enactment.

Having it in a real town lets re-enactors lose themselves in the moment and travel back in time.

"Even though we stage it so that we lose, in the half an hour where we're duking it out — it's real," Spangler said.

That's part of the reason that the event is growing at a rapid rate.

"The first year (the Allied re-enactors) came up and it was just a convoy," said Elaine Gerwig, chair for the New Oxford Area Historical Society's Liberation of New Oxford committee. "The convoy just came and they went around the circle a few times and we pretended we were already liberated and there was no battle."

"We said: 'That was great, but it was kind of boring.'" she laughed. "'Can we do something more exciting next year?'"

Getting a battle meant finding a way to close Route 30 around New Oxford. However, the groups application to PennDot was quickly approved. "There was no issue," Gerwig said.

"Once that happened, we were like 'Yeah! We can do it!'" Gerwig said. "We got the battle going and it just turned into this huge, huge event."

That first battle had approximately 80 re-enactors total, she estimated. This year the number is closer to 500.

The town population is 1,783.

It's all about honoring veterans, according to Gerwig.

"I do have a tremendous amount of respect for the veterans and this is why I like doing this," she said. "They deserve our respect and to be remembered."

"Good heavens, the hundreds of thousands of men who died! How can you forget that? You can't," she continued. "It's such a part of your history, your background and where you came from."

For Spangler, the re-enactment is a chance to preserve history.

"Most WWII veterans are in their 90s if they're still alive," he said. "They often have really unique stories that they wouldn't share if someone didn't stop and talk to them."

"One of the things re-enactors do is they try to get those personal histories, record them and preserve them so you help the general public remember the sacrifice the free world made in order to stay free."

The veterans themselves give a largely positive reception to the re-enactors, according to Bob Buker of Maryland, the organizer for the Allied re-enactors, which were based at Eisenhower National Historic Site. "Many of them at least appreciate what we are trying to do," he said. "Even though it is playacting, it's really more remembering."

"I think they do a good job," said World War II veteran Leo Jarboe, 87, of New Oxford. This year was his second time coming to the re-enactment.

"I think it's important to let people know what we went through back then," he said.

Fellow World War II veteran Earl Blettner, 90, of Hanover had a similar view. "It's something in our life that we've done," he said. "So it's important to remember."

When William Brown, 88, of Gettysburg watches the re-enactment, it reminds him of his time fighting in World War II. "It brings back some things, seeing these guys walk around in the uniform," he said solemnly. "You remember some of the things you forgot."

His daughter, Kathy Brown of Gettysburg, hopes the re-enactment served as a reminder for more than her father. "It's important that the new generation remember what these veterans went through," she said.

And the re-enactment works on that level.

"We've had kids going to the library after this event, looking up books on War World II," Gerwig continued. "It really does spark their interest."

"It goes beyond the books, beyond the video games when you see it in person with all your senses," Buker agreed.

That's part of the reason it is so important to have a strong German re-enactor force. While the Allies re-enactors are the heroes of these events, their foes play just as an important of a role.

"As the Germans we try to show what the Allies were up against," Spangler said. Without a strong Germany force, the re-enactments fall flat. "People miss the point," Spangler continued. The Germans in any reenactment try to provide a good foil."

The stronger and more impressive the German force, the more people realize just what the Allies were up against — a powerful enemy that had taken over most of Europe.

Spangler succeeds every year in frightening Trudy Wine, one of the volunteers and spectators for the event.

"He scares the crap out of me," she said. "He's tall and he's just intimidating."

That intimidating factor adds to the real factor and helps Wine think of what it must have been like to be a French villager during World War II. "It's really cool to see what these people went through," she said. "It's just the coolest thing I've ever seen!"

Rose Lansing, owner of Redbud House, a kitchen accessories store in the center of New Oxford, has thrown herself headfirst into the event. One of the volunteer coordinators, Lansing become involved in the re-enactment through her involvement in the historical society. While she isn't a fan of the actually battle part, she enjoys the Liberation's initial market and ending veterans celebration.

"It's just kind of an interesting thing to do one a September morning," Lansing smiled and laughed. "What else are you going to do?"

For Lansing, however, the USO dance is one of the big highlights of the re-enactment. She listened to big band music the entire week leading up to the dance just to get herself in the mood.

The dance is the Historical Society's fundraiser for the re-enactment. It took place on Sept. 19 at the old gymnasium at the New Oxford Borough Hall. Tickets were $15 in advance and helped the society to break even on the approximately $4,000 event.

And every penny helps.

The goal this year is to do more than just break even. The society wants to raise money this year to help it purchase the land the New Oxford Train Station sits on in order to prevent the historical landmark from having to be displaced.

"We're a small historical society," Gerwig said. "We only have 60 members. Trying to get all of this done with just the few of us? It really is tough and we get burned out."

Most of what is seen on the square during the re-enactment is donated. But every year the donations changed. For instance, last year the re-enactment had bleachers for spectators to sit on so they could see the action. This year the donation didn't come through.

"I really would love to continue (the re-enactment)," Gerwig said. "I think the value of it and the idea of it and what it stands for is so important."

Gerwig wants to see the event grow. She's already working to get paratroopers to come in for next year's Liberation. In five years she wants to have the re-enactment turn into an all-day affair, with a 1940s fashion show and movie screenings.

"It's a great little opportunity for our little town to be on the map for something important. But, I don't know how that will happen. We really need some extra help to get that accomplished."


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Information from: Pennlive.com, http://www.pennlive.com

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