An annual WWII reenactment on the beaches of Lake Erie
Every August on a small Lake Erie beach in the far Northeastern Ohio city of Conneaut, an invasion occurs.
But people don’t run for cover — instead they gather to watch a spectacle unfold as hundreds of history buffs, clad in historical WWII uniforms, reenact D-Day, June 6, 1944 when the Allies invaded Western Europe in World War II.
D-Day on a Lake Erie beach
D-Day Conneaut has occurred annually since 1999, save for a short break during the pandemic. Reenactors put on a realistic depiction of the allied landing at Omaha Beach, complete with soldiers running off barges, tanks, artillery and even planes flying overhead.
Wayne Heim is the head of PR and Media for D-Day Conneaut.
“It started out with a group of like-minded reenactors who just wanted to do something. They didn't have their own event, so they came out to the bluff one year, there was about 20 guys and they decided to run up the beach and a bunch of people came out, watched them do it,” said Heim. “And next year was 30 people and so forth, and it grew and we decided, well, we might have something here.”
Now more than 850 participants and 20,000 spectators participate annually.
“We're the largest World War II reenactment in the United States and the largest D-Day reenactment in the world,” said Heim.
He said the beach in Conneaut is the perfect setting for this specific reenactment.
“One of the reasons we chose this location is because the bluff area and the beach are about the size of what Omaha Beach were in Normandy. So it has a lot of similarities to it,” said Heim.
A family and generational connection
Historical reenactments are layered tributes to history delivered in cinematic settings. In addition to the display of the D-Day landing, other smaller skirmishes and situations are depicted. One of the attendees this year was Brian Jackson. He came with his son along with other family members. Jackson has a unique perspective on reenactments as a Black person whose white grandfather fought in WWII.
“My grandfather was actually a vet in World War II. He was with the Army Air Corps. [His name is] Michael Nestoff. He was a machine gunner on a B-24 Liberator. So, I grew up with a great appreciation for the Greatest Generation and for everything that they did for our freedoms,” said Jackson.
This was Jackson’s second time attending the reenactment. He came with a group including his six-year-old son, Elijah, his uncle, his parents and others. They had a front row view to the reenactment of the battle at Pegasus Bridge, which happened on June 6, 1944. The small battle for the bridge was pivotal to limiting the German counterattack to the Normandy invasion. As Jackson, his son and his uncle watched together in fascination, dozens of reenactors dressed as British soldiers traded gunfire with German soldiers, while a narrator gave historical background to the crowd over a megaphone.
While the spectacle was entertaining and gave Jackson an appreciation for the artistry that went into it, he says it’s about more than entertainment.
“It's very important that that Greatest Generation and those that fought to protect our liberties are remembered so that we can learn from history. Right? History doesn't always repeat, but it sure can rhyme sometimes,” said Jackson.
Jackson views the event as a chance to foster understanding and teach his son life lessons, like the ones his grandfather taught him about fighting alongside the legendary Black soldiers who numbered the ranks of the Tuskegee airmen.
“I'm multiracial, so my grandfather, 100% Caucasian, he actually was escorted by the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Jackson. “And he just had such a reverence for the Tuskegee Airmen.”
Jackson says the courage displayed by those men inspired his grandfather to live a life free from racial discrimination.
Also in attendance was 87-year-old veteran, Bud Lawson, who was accompanied by his wife of 63 years, Diane. They came to Conneaut from Titusville, Pennsylvania, for the chance to see the reenactment and meet some other veterans.
Lawson served in the Army and was stationed in Korea in the early 1950s. Though he never saw combat himself, he was in awe of the display and of some of the other attendees.
"Well, when you get here, you really you see all these guys, you know, like I see a couple of World War II veterans, you know, still here, and they must be 100 years old or close to it," said Lawson. "And I think about them, cause they they're really the the guys that laid it all on the line, you know?"
Resistance fighters and representing everyday life
Some of the smaller demonstrations during the course of the three-day event don’t include actual battles. The center of the reenactment village is a collection of army tents, under which mini-displays of the everyday life of soldiers are are available for attendees to inspect and learn about by conversing with the reenactors.
Additionally, there are reenactors who don’t portray soldiers at all. Some of the participants play civilians and aides to the resistance. Sandy John and her husband, from Andover, Ohio, run a group like this.
“My husband actually started this Maquis group. It's the Maquis du Britannia based in Brittany,” said John. She was dressed as a farmer.
Maquisards were French resistance fighters secretly thwarting the Nazis, while outwardly appearing friendly to them. In the performance the Maquis group put on, they depicted a scene in which French resistance fighters came to hide weapons at their farm, then a group of German soldiers happened by. The soldiers with swastikas on their uniforms made small talk with the farmers and even posed for pictures with the children of the farm. Suddenly, one of the German soldiers discovered the hidden cache of weapons and the farmers were taken hostage. A short time later the French resistance fighters returned and joined US soldiers in planning a way to save the Maquisards. The brief show was preceded by a detailed historical background to provide context.
John is a reenactor who is a longtime staple of Conneaut D-Day. She was originally a spectator, coming to watch her husband’s group for a decade before finally joining in herself because of how much she cares about history.
“I want to do this because I think history needs to be preserved. The real history, what really happened,” said John.
The experience is so immersive for her, when asked what she’s doing that day, she speaks as if she’s actually traveled to the past.
“We do things like protecting downed airmen, hoping to get them all the way across south of to the south of France, across the Pyrenees, into Spain.” said John.
The art of reenacting
Joseph Kreuz is a seasoned reenactor who came from Highpoint, Ohio to take part in the hobby he loves.
“We are more or less trying to give the audience the general broad strokes of what it had actually looked like, because a lot of people have really twisted ideas of what history looks like because of media, movies, video games. So we always have to try to let people unlearn what they've seen,” said Kreuz.
Kreuz said Ohio is a fertile breeding ground for reenactments. He knows reenactors who do Civil War, but also much less commonly known subjects like reenacting the Battle of Fallujah in the Iraq War, or just the roaring twenties generally. It doesn’t have to just be war. He said reenactors are appreciators of history in many forms.
One might assume they stick to a strict script for a battle, but Kreuz says there is a lot of improvisation within a basic framework. They play off each other within a battle reenactment and their fate is not necessarily predestined. They aren’t going to change history, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make it their own with a flair for the dramatic.
“Who is going to win, is usually planned ahead for these bouts. It would be very awkward if we were doing the battle of Normandy or one of the beach battles, and the Germans won and drove the Americans into the lake.” said Kreuz.
It’s easy to get the impression that reenactments and the people who enjoy them are in some way celebrating violence, but Wayne Heim sees it another way.
“Some people say, you know, we're glorifying war, but that's the exact opposite of what we're doing. We're trying to tell the story of how the world came together and really worked to fight and put an end to the tyranny that was taking place. So it's a great story,” said Heim.
It’s a story they’ve been telling for nearly a quarter century, and one they plan to keep alive for years to come.