Though the 2012 movie “Red Tails” brought the Tuskegee airmen, the first African-American aviators of the United States armed forces, to the public eye in recent years, historian Joel Brown said their story was long ignored. Even his own dad, a World War II GI truck driver, who talked often about the war, never mentioned the airmen, and Brown didn’t find out about them until much later in life.
“Tuskegee was one of the best-kept secrets of WWII,” he said.
Brown, of St. Paul, will put on his flight gear and take on the role of one of the airmen during the fifth-annual Armed Forces Day WWII weekend. The event, which takes place May 17 and 18 at Dakota City Heritage Village in Farmington, includes mock battles, hands-on activities, speakers, a military swap meet and a civilian fashion show.
Brown will discuss the history of the airmen in the village barber shop, which will be set up as headquarters with field radios and other military gear.
During World War II, a time when military units were still segregated, Brown said, “the War Department wasn’t really serious about getting that group into war.” However, members of the 332nd Fighter Froup, nicknamed “red tails” or “red tail angels” because of the red painted tails of the aircraft, were given a chance to accompany bombers, and they earned an impressive combat record.
Brown, who has been featured on the History Channel and who speaks regularly about the airmen, hopes to show “the fact that African-Americans were heavily involved in WWII, more than generally has been recognized.”
Brown is one of about 200 volunteers who participate in the event, and coordinator Jon Boorom said the weekend attracts about 1,000 visitors a year.
Boorom, who started doing re-enactment with his family at age 4, said, “it’s like family camping, but you get to play dress-up at the same time,” adding that it allows people to play “make-believe in a way that’s acceptable for an adult.”
Boorom said each of the re-enactors has a specific area of interest. “I read a lot,” he said, “and it’s nice to be able to share your knowledge with other people.”
In addition to mock battles, visitors can see a makeshift field hospital in action and vehicles such as trucks, Jeeps, motorcycles, a Sherman tank, and American and German half-tracks.
“They get to see it up close and personal,” Boorom said.
For the second year, the Cat’s Meow WWII Girls will put on a civilian fashion show, a display of typical 1940s fashion, with its peplum waists, keyhole blouses and peep-toe shoes.
And, “you wouldn’t have gone outside with a hat and probably gloves,” said organizer Alissa Wirth of Red Wing.
Rationing caused style to change during the war, she said, as silhouettes got slimmer and companies removed buttons.
With silk and nylon being made into parachutes and other supplies, many women made do without their stockings, sometimes replicating the look by using an eyebrow pencil to draw stocking seams on the back of their legs.
Wirth said she has researched WWII fashion in books and magazines, and she also gets firsthand information from older clients in the hair salon where she works.
“One of our goals,” she said, “is to never be asked a question we don’t know the answer to.”
Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities freelance writer.