CARLISLE COUNTY, KY — The sounds of war in Carlisle County: Nearly 200 men and women gathered for the sixth annual Battle of the Bulge Kentucky Tactical reenactment on Jan. 14. It’s grown each year, even surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event is a ton of fun for reenactors, but the inspiration for it was far from enjoyable. The Battle of the Bulge lasted six weeks, beginning in December 1944 and ending in January 1945. When it looked as though the Allied forces were assured a victory after a successful D-Day invasion, Germany launched one last counteroffensive to drive them back. They failed.
Today, efforts to remember and honor our World War II veterans’ service and sacrifice look like many things — in this case, walking in their shoes.
Gunshots rang out on a cold and clear Saturday morning in January as soldiers moved through the woods, careful to avoid the enemy.
“I’m sending some guys your way, though,” Drew Whitworth said into his radio.
Drew’s a soldier in real life, with the U.S. Army. The weekend of the reenactment, he stepped into the familiar role of infantry commander for the American forces as they took on the Germans.
“Well, you’ve got a lot of Germans right in front of you,” came a soldier’s response through Drew’s radio.
This was no longer a farm in 2023 Carlisle County. It was a World War II battlefield in 1945 Europe, and the Allied forces were advancing on the Germans.
“We’re gonna’ have at least 150 to 175 reenactors,” Drew’s dad and event organizer Bear Whitworth said. “A lot of guys to feed, a lot of guys to move, a lot of logistics goes on in something like this.”
The night before the battle, we met Bear and Drew at the old Milburn gymnasium, where the reenactors gathered. The two gave us a taste of all that goes into making this tactical event as realistic as possible.
“It’s not like normal reenactments where it’s set up for spectators,” Bear explained. “This is just for the reenactors. This is our chance to get to maneuver with our weapons and our tactics that would have been in the 1940s.”
The equipment is authentic.
“Mine has a white stripe showing that I’m a commissioned officer,” Drew said, showing us his helmet. “It’s what they called a ‘follow me’ stripe.”
“All of our weapons are real. Most of them are antique,” Bear said.
Chester Vaughn traveled from Louisville with his son to take part. He’s got every standard weapon used in World War II by the Allied and Axis forces. That includes the M1 Garand rifle.
“Fires eight rounds,” Vaughn said, showing off the weapon. “And if you ever heard the stories that when you’re out of ammo, all of a sudden it goes ‘ping’? This is called the M block.”
Vaughn dropped the M block, a metal piece he was holding. It made a loud ‘pinging’ sound as it hit the gym floor.
“Makes that ‘pinging’ noise,” he finished with a smile.
The next morning on farmland near the gym, gunshots could be heard from the many M1 Garand rifles on hand for the event. Blanks only. That’s all they use out there. If you’re “hit” by the enemy, army nurses and medics are on hand to help.
The uniforms, weapons and equipment help bring it all to life.
“These things were built with a 180-day life expectancy,” Vaughn said the day of the reenactment, referring to his restored 1944 Willys Jeep. “That’s all they expected them to, because they’re gonna’ get blown up, shot up, run off of a hill or whatever.”
So too do the veterans many of these reenactors carry with them. In Drew’s case, it’s his grandfather, Jim Whitworth.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for him,” Drew said.
His grandfather’s Army-issued duffel bag is his prized possession.
“Oh, 100%,” he said. “So, there’s his name right there — Cpl. James E. Whitworth.”
He was a farmer, who could have gotten an exemption when he was drafted.
“But he felt like it was his duty getting to serve. So he went ahead and served,” Drew said.
“He did the occupation of Germany. And there were still some holdouts that didn’t want to give up, but Dad had to try to make peace with the German people,” Bear said. “They’re our allies now because of the way we treated them at the end of the war.”
His service inspired his son bear’s. Drew’s too. It also inspires them to keep taking part in these types of reenactments.
“If we can keep the memory of these people alive,” Bear stressed.
He means the Greatest Generation, who faced far more than blanks — men like 99-year-old Bernard “Sonny” Anselm.
“This one in the corner is the Battle of the Bulge,” Anselm said, pointing to the Bronze Star, one of several awards and medals displayed in a frame.
We sat in his La Center kitchen, looking at the treasures he still has from his time overseas. Things like his dog tags, a cartridge belt he keeps in his workshop, and dozens of pictures. Anselm said he doesn’t look at those pictures often. He doesn’t need them to remember.
“There’s never a day gone by that something won’t pop to your mind about it,” he said.
He said it’s hard to live with those memories.
What the reenactors imagine, he survived during the Battle of the Bulge. Anselm was Eighth Division, 121st Infantry.
“It lasted several weeks. It was rough,” he said.
More than a million Allied soldiers took part, including 500,000 Americans.
“When the Germans thought they had us surrounded and everything, they called for us to surrender, but general said no. No. We’re gonna’ fight it out,” Anselm recalled.
There were cold temperatures, and food was limited.
“I hadn’t had anything to eat for about two days,” he said, remembering a particularly hungry time during his service.
There were also dangerous missions. Sometimes, alone. Once, Anselm was sent to find a missing outfit of soldiers.
“I got out there so far, and I hit the artillery country, and they was just bombing and bombing and bombing,” he said. “Stopped where I could and hid and everything, tried to dodge them and everything. And I got so far and it got so bad that I just jumped off in a bombed-out crater. And, oh, I don’t know how deep it was. Deep enough that it had half knee deep of water in it. I stayed there practically the biggest part of the night because I couldn’t tell which way I was going.”
Despite several close calls like that one, he’s here today. In fact, Anselm turns 100 later this year.
“I never got a scratch in the whole war,” Anselm said with a slight grin. “Never got a scratch.”
In Paducah, another local Battle of the Bulge veteran who also made it home with his life is celebrated with an exhibit at the Market House Museum in downtown. Lt. Col. Gus E. Hank III was infantry, like Anselm. He’s since passed away, but some of the items he carried are displayed here, including a German doctor’s bayonet.
Museum Director Penny Fields knew Hank. He shared stories of his time in the war with her through the years.
“He told me one night he was standing guard, and he thought he was standing against a stone wall with snow covering it,” Fields said. “When he kinda’ got to seeing what it was the next morning when the sun came up, it was actually stacked bodies that were snow covered.”
What Hank and Anselm lived through is now brought to life annually by the reenactors, with a purpose.
“This is more of a way of anthropology. You can let people kind of see firsthand how heavy something was, what the uniforms looked like, what they felt like,” Drew explained. “This gives you a firsthand experience of what they went through.”
And, the Greatest Generation’s determination to serve, no matter the sacrifice.
To learn more about the Battle of the Bulge Kentucky Tactical event, click here.
To learn more about the Market House Museum in Paducah, click here. It officially reopens again for the season the first Saturday in March with brand new exhibits.
To see additional stories WPSD published with Bernard “Sonny” Anselm, watch the videos below.
To send Jennifer Horbelt your Service & Sacrifice ideas, click here.