History comes alive: WWII event commemorates, celebrates the Greatest Generation

This June will mark the 70th anniversary of one of the most famous offensives in modern military history – the Normandy invasion. “D-Day,” June 6, 1944, was a turning point in World War II and has been reverently recreated in such films as “Saving Private Ryan” and the mini-series “Band of Brothers.”

It’s fitting then that just weeks before the anniversary, the Blair County Historical Society will honor those that served in the war with its third annual World War II History Weekend, held on the grounds of Baker Mansion in Altoona, on May 10 and 11.

“We’ve been growing it year-by-year,” said Jared Frederick, the event’s coordinator. “It started off with WWII re-enactors …. this time, we have not only re-enactors but combat scenarios and battles. But that’s only one part of the weekend.”

The weekend will feature presentations and book signings by historians and WWII veterans, exhibits of WWII artifacts, children’s exhibits and activities and a free screening of the WWII-set classic “The Great Escape” at 6 p.m. May 11 at Penn State Altoona’s Devorris Downtown Center, 1431 12th Ave., Altoona.

Re-enactment scenarios will be held at 2 p.m. on both days on the mansion’s front lawn.

“Really, what we want this to be is a submersive experience for people, so that for a little bit people can travel back to the 1940s,” Frederick, a part-time lecturer in history at Penn State Altoona, said. “It’s both a commemoration and a celebration of ‘The Greatest Generation.'”

This year’s WWII history weekend will include a special USO dance at 6 p.m. May 10 at the Juniata Pavilion, a WWII-era facility located at 206 W. 12th Ave., in Juniata. Tickets will be $15 for re-enactors in uniform and $20 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased at the door, during the weekend’s events and in advance from the historical society.

“That’s interesting because that pavilion was there during World War II,” Frederick said. “There’s something alluring about going to where 70 years ago, these people had their [dances].”

Providing music for the event will be The San Tones Orchestra, led by former Altoona fire chief Renny Santone.

“We’ve been playing for about five years, and we play all the big band music,” Santone said.

“For this particular event, we’re going to stick with the war era, which is mostly Glenn Miller,” Santone said.

Miller was a musician, composer and bandleader during the 1930s and ’40s. He joined the war effort in 1942, leading the Army Air Force Band on a morale-boosting tour for both civilians and soldiers alike. He is often remembered today conducting the band in full uniform.

In memory of Miller, Santone worked very hard to find an authentic WWII officer’s uniform just like the one that Miller wore in concert. He’ll wear it at the USO dance, and the veterans in his band will wear their uniforms, as well.

“We’re doing this to honor our veterans – not just World War II, but all veterans,” Santone said.

Santone said his 20-piece orchestra plays about 12 to 15 performances a year, and he is always happy with the reaction they get.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “You don’t expect young people to like this music, but they say, ‘There’s nothing like this today.'”

Santone, who is 72 and was born in the war years, said he’s gone to the previous two WWII history weekends and really enjoyed them. He said the USO dance would be a treat for the attendees.

“This will be nice because a lot of people come in for that WWII weekend, and then they don’t have anything to do at night,” Santone said.

The goal is for people to find something to do every moment they’re there, with as much as possible making them realize what life was like for soldiers in the war and for those left back home. There are several exhibits which cover what life was like back on “the home front” during the war – with children even taking part in a scrap metal drive and helping build a Victory garden.

Frederick said he’s glad to see the event growing and intriguing people of all ages.

“I am a WWII re-enactor, so that’s what started all this,” he said. “It certainly has its challenges, but it’s completely rewarding when I see all the generations together.”

Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.