On the front lines: Erick Baumgart relives history as World War II re-enactor
WORTHINGTON -- In real life, Erick Baumgart is an officer in the Worthington Police Department, a relative newcomer to the community, having moved here from Winona less than a year ago.
But on the occasional weekend, Baumgart assumes a different persona -- that of a World War II paratrooper in Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.
World War II re-enactment is Baumgart's hobby, one that takes him regularly to the Twin Cities and other encampments throughout the Midwest to re-create a dynamic time in world history.
"Re-enacting isn't about going to play army on the weekends," he explained. "It's living history."
For Baumgart -- a fourth-generation peace officer whose ancestors emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine -- the interest in World War II re-enactment was borne from a desire to learn more about his own family's history during that time period. He also wanted to go beyond what he'd learned from textbooks in school.
"My grandparents were all veterans, and they never talked about it, so I didn't know anything," he said. "I saw the HBO series, 'Band of Brothers,' and that's when I got interested in finding out more about my grandparents. I ended up looking online and found the historical re-enactment society, and I met a fellow police officer, a Minneapolis police officer, who did this, and he got me into going to some events to see what it was all about."
Baumgart's grandparents all died by the time he was 10 years old, so he was unable to go to the source. Through his research, he learned his one grandfather, Ralph Boeckman, was a combat engineer on the European front.
"His unit liberated Dachau," said Baumgart, referring to a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. "That's why he never talked about it. I was given a reunion book from 1990 that had the day-to-day location of his unit, so I got to walk through the war with him. If he was alive, I would talk to him about it now. I learned a lot about what my grandfather experienced that he never talked about."
When his family members learned of his interest in World War II, they began sharing information and memorabilia.
"All of my family started looking in their attics, looking in their basements, giving me everything they had ... pictures with no names on them, souvenirs," Baumgart said. "It was like this big compelling family jigsaw puzzle of who he was, going straight from the farm to fighting Nazis -- how he became the man he became. And that includes the love letters and gifts he sent to my grandmother while they were dating. It's a great love story and coming-of-age story.
"My other grandfather was in the Coast Guard, hunting U-boats on the coast of New York," Baumgart continued. "Again, through all this stuff, I found out that he met my grandmother, they started dating, when she was a nurse in the Army. She was a nurse, and he was a Coast Guard sub hunter. There are pictures of them in uniform together."
Baumgart had to find a re-enactment group close enough to facilitate participation, and he was also drawn to the bravado of Fox Company.
"Some units are chosen because their father or grandfather fought for this unit," he explained. "I looked online, and my group was just the baddest looking group of guys. The 101st didn't conform to a lot of standards that the army set. Seventy-percent of them were expected to die in combat, so the higher-ups didn't bother. They were a fairly rough breed of men."
Through their activities, the re-enactors meet a lot of real-life WWII veterans, and they glean stories and model behaviors after those men.
"Ernie Lamson is a guy who lives up in the Cities. He challenged us to pushups. I think he's 90-something and he outdid some of our boys with pushups. He still scares me. When you have a 90-year-old person telling what it was like when they were 18, they instantly become 18 again -- the back straightens up, and they get that vigor. When there's a group of them together, they start ribbing each other -- two 90-year-old men acting like teenagers, ready to throw down and start fighting.
"Because we remind them of their younger selves, they openly tell things -- things that their grandchildren have pulled us aside and told us they've never heard about before," explained Baumgart. "They learn a lot more about grandpa by bringing him to these things."
Another of Baumgart's personal role models is a local veteran, John Dammer.
"I saw him with a World War II hat on at a store in town here, and I asked him about it," said Baumgart. "Half a day of talking later, he invited me back to his house to go through all his souvenirs. He pulled out everything that he had smuggled out and sent back home and told me the stories about them. His wife of 60-some years had just passed away, and he told me about how he was with her during the war. It was his story of who he was and who he became."
Baumgart was particularly intrigued by a tale related to Dammer's musical ability.
"He plays the accordion, and he told me about how he was peeling potatoes on mess duty in France, and afterward, he started playing the accordion," related Baumgart. "He got pulled into the officer's mess hall to play for them, and he did such a good job that they told him, 'You don't peel potatoes any more. Instead, you come and play for the officers.' Along with all his other gear, he kept his accordion all through Europe. That in itself could be a novel."
In the re-enacting ranks, Baumgart is a private first class.
"Which means I have no authority and all the responsibility," he explained with a laugh. "So it's all digging foxholes, setting up tents, going to get firewood. That's my re-enacting life. Oh, but I get to shoot some Germans in the process. A lot of our guys are veterans, so we have the same chain of command as the Army did back then. You earn promotions in a similar way. We try to keep it authentic. Between events we do tactical training, learning to set up ambushes, clear buildings, do basic attack movements. How we perform during that is how we basically get promoted, but none of us do it for the stripes on our arms."
The re-enactors generally meet on a monthly basis, and Baumgart attends about six larger re-enactment events each year. Most recently, he was at one in Rockford, Ill.
"One of the things we also do is in December, for the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, we dig a foxhole and stay in it throughout Christmas to raise money for Richard Winters Leadership foundation," detailed Baumgart. "This Veterans Day, my unit will be setting up camp in Winona and standing in for a 24-hour vigil."
Besides the time that is devoted to their hobby, the re-enactors also make a significant financial investment.
"It's expensive," Baumgart admitted. "I think the start-up cost to get the gear is about $1,000. You borrow a lot of equipment until you slowly build your own, and then it's never ending. You start buying things for your footlocker, odds and ends, and then there's the parachute school, the tours in France that they do."
So far, Baumgart hasn't jumped out of a plane, but it's on the horizon.
"We have to go through a World War II Airborne training in order to get our paratrooper wings, actually have requirements to keep up the standard. This spring is going to be my jump time. I figure if my chute doesn't open, it will only bother me for a second."
As far as his own equipment, Baumgart has the bayonet that his grandfather sent back to his grandmother, and he's always on the lookout for period-specific items, whether it be a piece of a uniform, weapon, or maybe a Flash Gordon comic book to place in his footlocker.
"Antique stores are gold mines," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that, unless you know the history or are interested in history, it's junk. People donate items that are not only sentimental, but extremely valuable."
The re-enactors try to stay true to their unit's history, and Baumgart finds his group's experiences particularly fascinating.
"Our unit paralleled Easy Company in 'Band of Brothers,'" he explained. "First off, they underwent a rigorous training for a type of infantry that had never been used before. The majority of all paratroopers had never been in an airplane before they jumped out of one. I guess a modern-day equivalent would be a space soldier. It was a new concept. They went through rigorous physical, agility and mental preparedness training, and a large percentage of the people who applied didn't complete the training. They were the first modern-day special forces, an elite unit kind of thing."
The first major involvement for the 101st Airborne was parachuting in on D-Day, Baumgart added, and the division also parachuted into Holland for Operation Market Garden and was involved in the Battle of the Bulge.
"For the most part, any major battle that students learn about, they were involved in," Baumgart said.
The authenticity of the re-enactment extends beyond the battlefields.
"Part of the fun is getting into the roles. When I get into my uniform and I'm with my guys, we become sort of cocky, arrogant -- alpha males. There are also women who do it, and they up-do their hair, get their 70-year-old dresses on, and you go dancing," said Baumgart, admitting that he's a passable swing dancer. "A lot of us guys can. That's how you woo the sweethearts.
"The more authentic you are, the easier it is to convince yourself that you are back in the 1940s."
Now that's he's been involved in re-enactment for a few years, Baumgart has a better appreciation for what his grandfathers and the millions of other World War II veterans went through in serving their country.
"I think what I pull from all of this is that we have grandfathers and great-grandfathers in nursing homes who are still suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) who have a story to tell, that they need to share the burden what our country asked them to do," reflected Baumgart. "It wasn't just kids going to play war in the woods. It was our family members having to see and do things that humanity shouldn't experience.
"... I know that if my grandpa was alive today and I showed this much interest in what he did, it would bring us together. My hope is that people start talking to their grandparents or parents about what life was like back then, whether in the military or not, because life changed for everybody."
Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.