War memories mark Mid-Atlantic Air Museum WWII Weekend

The ever elegant US Navy Corsair.

Any combat veteran will tell you that the sights and the sounds of battle are innervating, be they the roar of a B-17 or the boom of a Bofors gun.  But there is a side of war which can only be seen once the guns finally fall silent.  For Cedric Jimerson, this side was revealed when he entered the concentration camps.

“We entered the camps and could not believe the horrors.  Men and women packed so tightly together on the floors that you could not walk between them.  And there was a room where dead newborns were piled one on top of the other.”

Dr. Cedric Jimerson recalled his time as a surgeon during WWII. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Dr. Cedric Jimerson recalled his time as a surgeon during WWII. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Now in his nineties, Dr. Jimerson has surely seen his share of human suffering.  In his role as Chief of Surgery and Chair of the Department of Surgery at Community General Hospital in Reading, Pennsylvania, Jimerson has cared for patients for over sixty years.  But what he witnessed as a young physician during WWII was enough to last a lifetime.

Jimerson shared his memories with thousands of people last weekend as the Mid Atlantic Air Museum presented its 23rd annual World War II Weekend.  Billed as the largest WWII event in the world, the celebration drew an estimated 22,000 to Reading for battlefield re-enactments, 1940’s era entertainment, a warplane airshow and reminiscences by veterans such as Jimerson.

All branches of the service were represented at the event.  There were even visits by FDR, Generals Patton and MacArthur, PT 109 captain John F. Kennedy and (oddly) Indiana Jones.  A surprising number of good-natured re-enactors portrayed members of the German army, but Jimerson’s memories of the real Wehrmacht are not so pleasant.

“We traveled in vehicles which had a big Red Cross on the top and the sides.  They weren’t suppose to shoot at us but sometimes they did.”

Asked about drugs to combat infections, Jimerson told the absorbed audience that penicillin was available but only in small quantities in hospitals in England.  “All that we had were the sulfa drugs; crystalline sulfanilamide and sulfadiazine tablets.  A lot of people died from secondary infections.  People were especially susceptible to gonorrhea and women keeled over from acute salpingitis.”

Hunger and hygiene were two other issues the medical teams had to address but often not before they crossed a cultural crossroad.

“We were distributing potatoes as a food staple for the starving refugees, but the stores were disappearing almost as fast as we got them in.  Pretty soon we discovered the Russians were taking the potatoes and making vodka with them.”

“We were also surprised to learn that the Russians didn’t know what to do with toilet paper,” Jimerson said.

Eyewitness accounts such as Dr. Jimerson’s helps to fill in the blanks for re-enactors like Jared Gisi.

Gisi was attending his 13th WWII weekend.  The McDaniel College graduate became interested in history as a youth while watching old movies and reading Stephen Ambrose’s books.  Gisi said he found further encouragement from a high school teacher who was into re-enacting.

Gisi told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he enjoys, “talking with the vets and just hearing their stories.”

Jared Gisi and Mike Kloppenberg man a 40mm Bofors Gun. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Jared Gisi and Mike Kloppenberg man a 40mm Bofors Gun. (Anthony C. Hayes)

During a mock aerial attack, Gisi was joined by battery-mates Mike Kloppenberg and Caleb Huber, as the trio manned a 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft gun.  If there was any question that the young re-enactors were accurate in their portrayal, veteran Lawrence Nagle assured Gisi that they, “got it right.”

A Douglassville, PA resident, Nagle said he trained on the Bofors gun before being assigned to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians.   From 1943 through early 1945, Nagle kept a watch on the skies over the Aleutian Islands.  He was reassigned when the US was planning the invasion of Japan.

“They sent me to Fort Ord for infantry training.  They lumped a bunch of veterans in with the raw recruits.  Then one day, the commanding general looked out at all of the guys like me, with battle ribbons and stripes and said, ‘You guys don’t belong here.’ Of course, they dropped the (atomic) bomb before we were shipped overseas.   That saved a lot of guys.” Nagle remembered.

Hearing veterans speak and watching the re-enactments on the ground were just part of the draw for Sam Gafner, a jeweler from Warren Pa.  Gafner told the Baltimore Post-Examiner that he had also hoped to take a ride in a B-24, mostly as a way to honor his late uncle Robert.

The B-24 was one of the hardy workhorses of the Allied war effort.  Academy Award winning actor James “Jimmy” Stewart flew some twenty missions in a B-24 while assigned to the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups.  (Stewart would later portray the life of one of the most famous casualties of the war, bandleader Glenn Miller.)

Re-enactors repel an attack by a Japanese Zero. (Anthony C. Hayes)
Re-enactors repel an attack by a Japanese Zero. (Anthony C. Hayes)

Robert Gafner was a Staff sergeant in the 456th bomb group, also know as Steeds Flying Colts.  Sam Gafner said his uncle was shot down July 21, 1944 over Czechoslovakia; and though witnesses saw several parachutes open, Sgt. Gafner’s actual fate is still unclear.

“My aunt remarried once the war was over and moved to the west coast, but she stayed in touch with our side of the family.  After her death, I received a box containing my uncle’s personal effects: his service file, some pay stubs, a few letters and a set of wings.”

Gafner also said his uncle was not the only family member to serve overseas.  His aunt Katherine served as a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) with General MacArthur in the Philippines.  Sam recalled that his aunt wrote one letter home to say how thrilled the WAC’s were that the SeaBees had constructed a swimming pool for the women.  It wasn’t clear however, if the boys were simply being nice of if they wanted to be reminded of what they were fighting for.

He did return - a parade of Jeeps led by General Douglas MacArthur. (Anthony C. Hayes)
He did return – a parade of Jeeps led by General Douglas MacArthur. (Anthony C. Hayes)

At 5:00 p.m. all movement at the show came to a halt as a small group of warbirds made one last pass over the crowded air field.  The flight paid an emotional tribute with its missing man formation while in the distance, a lonely bugler sounded Taps.

It is estimated that by 2020, the men and women who served during WWII – the people Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation” – will all be gone.  Telling their stories to the next generation will fall then to historians and writers; to events like the MAAM WWII Weekend, and to faithful re-enactors, like Jared Gisi.

“Re-enacting is my way to honor their sacrifice and to show my appreciation for what they have done.”