Reenactors bring military history to life

Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Dominic Cairo (right) and fellow reenactors recreate a Finnish military camp from Word War II Sunday, Nov. 12, 2023, during the Veterans Appreciation Weekend at the Museum of Missouri Military History in Jefferson City. The museum hosted reenactors from World War I, the Cold War and everything in between.

Brandon Marvin has had an interest in World War I since he was 11.

After serving six years in the Missouri National Guard, Marvin made a career collecting, preserving and protecting military history from WWI, specifically Missouri National Guard history from that war.

Missouri National Guard troops served the 35th Infantry Division in France during the war. Harry Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, served as a captain at the time.

In addition to collecting helmets, uniforms and grenades from WWI, Marvin assists people trace their family history of military service. He helps them find what ships they sailed on, what battles they fought in and where they were stationed. If a family doesn't have pictures, he tries to locate a photo of the soldier.

"It's really important because at the end of the day if you don't preserve this stuff, how do you teach it?" Marvin said, adding that history books tend to gloss over the first world war.

As he interacts with the public, Marvin said many people don't realize the U.S. fought in Russia, Italy, Austria-Hungary and other countries during WWI, in addition to Germany.

"A lot of little things get lost. A lot of veterans, they don't always write it down. They don't always tell those stories to people that pass them on," he said. "I'm here to be that middle-man."

Marvin, a resident of Republic, was one of a few dozen reenactors at the Museum of Missouri Military History over the weekend. The museum brings military history to life for a Veterans Appreciation Weekend around Veterans Day each year. It hosts a similar event around Memorial Day as well.

Museum Director Charles Machon said a few hundred people visited Saturday and Sunday. There were fewer people than normal, which Machon said was likely because people attended other Veterans Day events or went deer hunting as the season opened Saturday.

Machon said he likes inviting reenactors to showcase what life was like in military camps throughout American history. Guests aren't restricted by display cases and learn in-depth history from experts, he said.

WWI reenactors were stationed on one end of the field outside the museum while a Cold War-era armored vehicle and reenactor were stationed on the other. In between were tents, reenactors from throughout time huddled around small campfires.

Reenactors imitating World War II Finnish soldiers were new to the event this year.

Dominic Cairo, one of the four Finnish soldier reenactors, said the group took part in the Veterans Appreciation Weekend to share their passion and interest in history. Cairo said it's a good opportunity to learn from veterans and teach others about Finland's history.

"Part of the fun we've had in representing Finland is that it's not extremely well understood or studied in the United States," he said. "Now with Finland as our new ally and a member of NATO, we think it's very important to try to explain the situation in Finland during WWII. We don't want people to be confused or misunderstand what's going on."

Finland initially fought the Soviet Union alongside Nazi Germany before fighting with the Allies against Germany.

Cairo, a native of Aurora, said he began developing an interest in Finland through some museums he worked at in Japan. Sharing the interest with friends made it blossom, leading to trips to Finland.

"It's an expensive hobby but it's not just a hobby," Cairo said. "We're out here to try to actually do something -- we genuinely want to teach people."

As period music played from a nearby radio, Cairo showcased what Finnish soldiers wore and ate during WWII. On display were helmets, grenades and a bike typically used by the army.

Cairo said teaching history is important because it helps shape where humanity goes next.

"It's really important to understand the things that have happened and to appreciate them so that you can really know what to do today," he said. "If you don't know where you came from, how do you know which direction you're going?"

Matt Hajek spent his Sunday afternoon peering out of the gun turret of a Cold War-era M113 armored personnel carrier. With a map and M16 rifle in hand, Hajek was imitating an American soldier stationed in Germany for the Cold War.

"People usually don't come over here for what I'm doing, they usually come over here because of the vehicle," he joked.

Hajek, of Rolla, is part of a small team restoring the vehicle into full working order. Only the engine and some interior lights currently work, Hajek said.

The vehicle, built in 1966 and used until at least 2004, was going to be an artillery target at Fort Leonard Wood until it was donated to the museum. A few replacement parts got the engine up and running, Hajek said, so now he's turning focus to the vehicle's intercom system and exterior lights.

Hajek said the M113 is his favorite military vehicle because of its varied uses. The U.S. military still deploys them in support roles, including as armored ambulances, mortar carriers, command vehicles and engineer vehicles.

"I like the lesser-known, obscure stuff, and this vehicle is kind of the silent workhorse of the Cold War for America," Hajek said.

Now on display, he said "the big armored vehicle kind of steals the show."

  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Brandon Marvin, a military history reenactor, talks to Janice McCall, of Kansas City, about collecting items from World War I during Sunday's event at the Museum of Missouri Military History. In addition to being a reenactor, Marvin helps families trace their military history.
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Dominic Cairo, dressed as a WWII soldier from Finland, rummages through a soldier's bread sack to showcase some of the food and items a Finnish soldier would typically carry. Cairo and three other reenactors representing the Finnish military during WWII were on hand to answer questions Sunday at the Museum of Missouri Military History.
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Matt Hajek sits inside a Cold War-era M113 armored personnel carrier during Sunday's event at the Museum of Missouri Military History. Hajek is part of a small team at the museum restoring the vehicle to full working condition.