Constable: Cantigny's 'WW II Experience' is education

 
 
Updated 5/21/2015 5:10 AM
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  • War historian and museum curator Christopher Zielinski explains this vintage amphibian landing craft to last year's "recruits" at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

    War historian and museum curator Christopher Zielinski explains this vintage amphibian landing craft to last year's "recruits" at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • A "living historian" explains this encampment to last year's "recruits" at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

    A "living historian" explains this encampment to last year's "recruits" at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • The ammunition, weapons and vehicles used to win World War II will be explained Saturday at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton.

    The ammunition, weapons and vehicles used to win World War II will be explained Saturday at the "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. Courtesy of First Division Museum

  • People who bought tickets to Saturday's "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton not only will learn about these vintage Army vehicles, they'll get to tour the grounds in some of them.

    People who bought tickets to Saturday's "World War II Experience" at the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton not only will learn about these vintage Army vehicles, they'll get to tour the grounds in some of them. Courtesy of First Division Museum

This Saturday, nearly four dozen "recruits" will slip on their dog tags, receive their marching orders and settle into an Army encampment as 1st Infantry Division soldiers taking part in "Reporting for Duty: The World War II Experience" at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. The recruits will hear the blasts of weapons and watch medics treat casualties in the battlefield.

People no doubt will think the actual guns, mortars, uniforms and military vehicles from World War II are really cool. But experiencing the tools of war is a far cry from experiencing the horrors of war.

"Even here, we never give the perception that war is cool or that war is great," says Christopher Zielinski, curator of macro artifacts in the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park in Wheaton. "I can't give you the smell of death, or the screams of a real guy dying, or even the vulgarity of guys talking."

If he could, those paying customers might come home with post-traumatic stress disorder instead of a souvenir T-shirt. Even watching pretend medics remove a pretend bullet from a pretend soldier's arm covered with pretend blood after a pretend battle might cause some real discomfort for some of Saturday's recruits, Zielinski says.

The First Division Museum staged this event for the first time last year, with military roles portrayed by "living historians," not "re-enactors," says Zielinski, who went to Western Illinois University on a track scholarship, earned his bachelor's degree in history from Lewis University and received his master's degree in military history from Norwich University, the private military college in Vermont.

"They're not out there for entertainment or to think they look cool in a uniform. This is an education," he says.

Even the lunch break has to dial back from a typical World War II C-ration can of meat and beans, hash or stew.

"We civilianize it," Zielinski says, explaining how recruits can dine on tasty sandwiches and even some chips and potato salad.

Last year's inaugural event drew 22 recruits. This year, 45 people bought tickets, which cost $100 each or $170 for two.

"We maxed out easily and had to turn people away," says Zielinski, who says the museum is planning to host the event again in the fall.

"We get a wide range of people," he adds, noting that Saturday's recruits include veterans, history buffs, families and a group of children with learning disabilities. Any kid who is 12 or older but too young to fight in an actual war must be accompanied by an adult.

This year's event includes a first-aid station manned by women.

"We show how women were part of the war," Zielinski says.

"We try to make it as real as we can," he says, noting that people do more than get to see the weapons. "There are an additional handful (of weapons) that we fire blank-firing shots. It's very close to what it originally sounded like."

People like to learn the history of World War II, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. But most war history museums don't do events simulating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"It's too soon," Zielinski says. "But you are starting to see Vietnam (simulations) more and more."

The son of a veteran, Zielinski says the museum honors the members of the armed forces and explains their service to our nation, but doesn't glorify the wars they fought.

"Hopefully, we can educate the future leaders not to go to war," Zielinski says, as he stands near young children playing on the tanks on display at Cantigny. "One day, it will click. Until then, you just educate them."

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