World War II re-enactors to attend Vermilion County event
DANVILLE — All the World War II-era males in Dave Fornell's family served their country, so holiday gatherings always included some discussion about that time in history.
"I was always intrigued by the war stories," said Fornell, 43, of Elgin. "That interest in World War II never really went away."
At 18, he saw a newspaper story about World War II re-enactors and realized there were others who shared his intense interest. He soon attended his first event, joined the group and has been a member of the World War II Historical Re-enactment Society ever since.
An editor for a cardiology and radiology magazine, Fornell attends eight to 10 events a year. His wife, Nicole, is also an re-enactor.
Both will take part in this weekend's two-day Kennekuk World War II Remembrance Days at Kennekuk County Park. The free, fourth annual event includes battle re-enactments featuring American, German, British and Soviet armed forces, as well as displays of the American homefront and military vehicles. There will be a USO-style barn dance tonight featuring music from the 1940s.
Fornell said about 200 re-enactors have registered for the event and he expects at least 130 to show up.
Local re-enactors Jim Blanton of Westville and Wayne McCulley of Champaign have been instrumental in growing the event.
Like Fornell, Blanton also heard family war stories growing up. His grandfather was a World War II veteran; his father, a Korean War vet.
Blanton saw his first WWII re-enactment in 1982 at the age of 21 while at Kentucky's Fort Knox. He joined the group that day. A year later, he bought a 1942 Willys Jeep to restore. That led to his dad sharing more of his war stories while his son worked.
"He would sit there, and he would just open up," said Blanton, who years later also bought a 1942 military Harley Davidson. It didn't require nearly as much work as the jeep, because he bought it from a WWII veteran, who'd purchased it in 1945 as a surplus item following his discharge from the military. The veteran drove it home to Ashton, Ill., and never altered it until Blanton came along.
"It was in real good condition for 60 years old," said Blanton, who has uniforms that correspond to both his jeep and Harley.
He will bring both to the park, where there will be several more light military vehicles and possibly a fly-over by a central Illinois pilot in a WWII-era plane. Blanton said that depends on the weather.
McCulley has been a WWII re-enactor for about 10 years. He grew up with a general interest in history and enjoys hearing veteran stories.
McCulley portrays American and British infantrymen at the eight to 10 events he does each year; this weekend, he'll represent the Brits.
Fornell said a third to half of the re-enactors have never served in the military. They're a diverse group, he said, ranging from attorneys to garbage haulers to janitors, but they share a passion for the history, the uniforms, the vehicles or the guns of the era.
"It's just a fun time," Fornell said.
Most of all, he said, the events also about honoring veterans and preserving history.
In the past, it wasn't unusual for between 20 to 100 World War II veterans to turn out for a re-enactment, Fornell said. But as that generation fades away, it's rare when five come to an event like this weekend's.
But not everyone supports these re-enactments, especially the portrayal of German forces. Some events in previous years weren't open to the public for that very reason, Blanton said.
He said that has changed.
Fornell's local group will primarily portray a German unit this weekend. It's important to tell the history, he said.
"We try to tell well-rounded stories," Fornell said.
What: Kennekuk World War II Remembrance Days
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today; 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Kennekuk County Park, 22296-A Henning Road, northwest of Danville
Who: It's organized by the World War II Historical Re-enactment Society, which includes more than 1,000 re-enactors and living historians from all over the Midwest.