The annual World War II Weekend is held at the Reading Airport in Berks County, Pennsylvania the first weekend in June. This is the largest World War II reenactment in the country, but it’s not just a reenactment; to refer to it as such would be a great injustice. It’s so much more than that. WWII Weekend is gigantic! You could walk around the event for the three days it’s held (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) all day long and still not manage to see everything there. Close to 2,000 reenactors are present, as well as everything imaginable from World War II. Tanks, armored vehicles of all kinds, encampments, planes, veterans, and celebrities.
I’ve attended the event for a few decades and still manage to find new things there every year. This show is a major passion for me; I go off the rails every year when it’s time for WWII Weekend. It’s more of a pilgrimage to me than merely “a show.”
WWII Weekend — The Atmosphere
The effect of being at The Weekend is intense. Everywhere you look, there are people in period clothing, whether it’s civilian or military garb. Not only do reenactors dress up, but many guests also dress in period clothing, which adds even more to the atmosphere.
Big band music is broadcast over the entire show via speakers. It’s really hard to describe the overall feeling of it. If you’re a fan of the 1940s, it’s likely that your soul will just drink it all in. For me, it’s both exciting and relaxing at the same time. Considering the place is so huge, being surrounded by people planes, tanks, vehicles, reenactors, and music, it’s easy to feel a sensory overload.
The main hangar is always full of veterans who share their stories with visitors. Often, they’ve documented their experiences in books and other media. Some of them take to the stage at certain times to tell their stories to the crowds who gather.
There’s no other experience quite like hearing these people tell about their World War II experiences in their own words, live. They are slipping away quickly, so it’s important for us to listen and preserve their legacy.
If you enjoy looking at and touching tanks and all sorts of armored vehicles, then this aspect alone will endear you to the WWII Weekend. American tanks, German ones, armored cars, half-tracks, large ones, small ones… American Shermans and an M3 Stuart are in regular attendance. A German Panzer III and IV (reproduction vehicles) are normally there, along with several authentic half-tracks and various other German vehicles.
A German Stug III is a regular attendee that was used in several scenes in the “Band of Brothers” series. One year, the Tiger Tank (a repro based on the chassis of a Russian T-34) that was portrayed in “Saving Private Ryan,” made a special appearance.
Artillery from many countries is also present. Howitzers, anti-tank guns, anti-aircraft guns, it’s a literal smorgasbord!
Seeing these weapons in person allows you to really understand how they operate. And if you have questions, there’s always a reenactor or three nearby to help explain how they work.
A couple of dozen planes are present every year. Everything ranging from light spotter planes to the B-29 Superfortress named Fifi. It’s not unusual to see B-17s, three B-25Js, a Japanese torpedo plane, a B-24 heavy bomber, two TBM-3E Avengers, a Douglas Dauntless, a P61B Black Widow (that’s being restored), an FG-1D Corsair, a P51D Mustang, a C53 Skytrooper, a C47D Skytrain (that participates in dropping paratroopers at the show), and several others.
Many of these planes are flown at intervals during the air show. There’s nothing like hearing the sound of some of these planes flying; they’re truly living history!
Beyond that, people can actually book rides on most of these planes (for a fee, of course).
As mentioned, there are nearly 2,000 reenactors who participate in the show. Many are in encampments, with tents set up everywhere. You can see how they lived in the field, as there is tons of equipment set up to check out. Encampments are set up for the Germans, Americans, British, Japanese, French, Russians, and others, each set up in their respective areas.
One thing you’ll quickly discover about the reenactors is that they truly love answering questions and giving out information. Every single one is approachable. Whether you have a question about their uniform and where they go to purchase their gear, or how the weapons operate, they’ll eagerly launch into a full-scale explanation of it.
And they live in those encampments for the duration of the entire weekend, so you really do get to see a little bit about how they live. It’s truly fascinating to see how the field gear functions.
Interestingly, there are encampments for the Americans for both Europe and the Pacific Theatres, since they fought on both of those fronts. It’s like you’re really walking back in time. It’s truly interesting to see the differences between the European theatre and Pacific theatres, as the weapons, gear, and uniforms are quite different in many cases.
Aside from uniforms, there are weapons displays of every imaginable variety. It ranges from knives/bayonets, grenades, pistols, rifles, submachine guns, light machine guns, heavy machine guns, anti-tank weapons, and artillery.
While people are not normally permitted to simply walk up and pick up these weapons, if you ask a reenactor, they will let you handle them gladly. Picking up a Browning Automatic Rifle or an MG-34 or MG-42 is a very rare opportunity, and it’s a lot of fun to actually heft these weapons to see what they really feel like. Be prepared — most of them are quite a bit heavier than they look!
Motorcycles (many with sidecars mounting machine guns) and other vehicles are also in abundance.
Volkswagens are present, as well as a couple Kubelwagens. Jeeps are everywhere.
This year, I saw a Goliath, which is a very small explosives carrier with tank treads. It’s only a couple of feet long and maybe a foot and a half wide. It was actually clanking along, with the operator walking behind it in a demonstration. You just don’t see oddities like this every day.
Another treat was seeing a Bren Gun Carrier. To me, small armored vehicles are as interesting as the larger ones.
During the course of the weekend, there are several reenactment battles. Normally, they pit Americans against Germans and Americans against the Japanese.
When you watch these battles, get ready for the noise! There is plenty of rifle and automatic weapons fire, which is cool beyond words. The different forces fire and maneuver against each other, but thankfully without the blood and gore of real war. Seeing an MG-42 rip through a few belts of blanks really is quite a treat!
One of the battles takes place in a simulated French village that lends just the right amount of authenticity.
Speaking of treats, they put on a flame thrower demonstration that is nothing short of spectacular. I witnessed it from about 50 yards away, and the heat from the flamethrower was terrific. I expected that there would be a lot of heat, but it was way more than I anticipated. It felt as though I were sticking my face into a gas grill.
And it’s not just infantry that participates in some of the battles. Tanks, jeeps, and armored vehicles, as well as artillery, also get in on the action.
Among the celebrities I’ve met there included Paul Tibbets (who flew the Enola Gay on the Hiroshima mission), about a dozen of the Easy Company veterans from the Band of Brothers (including Bill Guarnere, Babe Heffron, Buck Compton, Shifty Powers, Forrest Guth, Don Malarkey), Colonel Robert Morgan (who flew the Memphis Belle B-17), “Dutch” Van Kirk (the Navigator for the Enola Gay), and so many others. The list goes on and on. Those guys are no longer with us, sadly, but it was great that they devoted their time to attending such events and educating the public.
To have actually met the real guys from the Band of Brothers was a thrill that I can’t even put into words. Not to mention all the rest of the veterans that we got to meet.
For two years in a row, R. Lee Ermey (of “Full Metal Jacket” fame) was in attendance. Despite his abrasive television persona, he was actually the nicest guy in the world to talk to.
Not all of the celebrities are people; One year, the Memphis Belle B-17 was a guest. Of course, it wasn’t the actual Memphis Belle (it’s in a museum), but it was the Hollywood plane that was actually in the movie. Still, it was a treat to see, since it’s one of my favorite movies.
If you enjoy browsing a bewildering array of military memorabilia, artwork, clothing, weaponry, toys, books, and trinkets, stop by the flea market. There are over 120 vendors set up. The selection is mind-boggling. You can buy anything imaginable, including replica weapons. Want a deactivated panzerfaust? They’ve got them! A set of dog tags made on an authentic WWII dog tag machine? They’ve got you covered.
Home Front Area
One part of WWII Weekend that I find more and more interesting is the civilian side of things, called The Home Front. In one of the buildings and the area next to it, there is an extensive civilian display set up. The word “display” doesn’t come close to doing it justice. Aside from a plethora of vehicles that are set up, there is a gas/service station, complete with a gas pump.
A simulated house interior is present, complete with bedroom, living room, dining room, and kitchen. It’s packed full of authentic 1940s household items. Of course, all of this wouldn’t be complete without reenactors to lend the ultimate authenticity. Again, it’s like stepping back in time.
There’s also a hairstylist shop, a seamstress shop, and a candy shop for buying sweets and sodas. Maybe I’m odd, but I find these civilian displays as interesting as the military ones.
Nearby the house display, there is a stage where reenactors do a number of live routines: commercials, singing, and even comedy routines. The sound gear appears to be authentic, and it sure sounds like the 1940s. I always stop by and listen a little bit for a slice of 1940s live radio.
There’s a quartet of guys, a man who imitates Frank Sinatra, a trio of singing gals, a Bob Hope Show, and a lot more people who perform on the stage. The talent is impressive!
Most of the time, they have 1940’s period music playing over the speakers at the show when the announcers aren’t narrating the show. It really adds a nice touch and helps set the mood.
For those who enjoy swing dance, a dance is held on Friday and Saturday nights after the reenactments wind down from 7:00 to 10:00 PM. Big bands simulating Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller play for the swing dancers.
Despite this lengthy description, I haven’t covered a fourth of what goes on at WWII Weekend. It honestly is that huge and expansive, and it seems to grow every year.
If you’re a WWII zealot like I am, you’d do well to carve out a spot in your schedule to attend the WWII Weekend. Be prepared to be utterly overwhelmed by the enormity of the event. If you’re any sort of history fan, you will love it.
More information can be obtained by contacting:
Mid Atlantic Air Museum
11 Museum Drive
Reading, PA 19605