The sights, sounds and smells of World War II filled the air around Reading Regional Airport as the 30th annual Mid-Atlantic Air Museum's World War II weekend wrapped up on Sunday.
This year’s event may have been the biggest one yet.
“I looked across the field, and all I could see were the tops of aircraft, the tops of tanks and people everywhere,” Jim Swope, event coordinator and founder, said. “I didn’t see any blacktop.
"I've never seen crowds like this on Sunday," Swope said while navigating through the crowds in his World War II Willy's Jeep from the 83rd Infantry Division.
About 60 World War II era aircraft and about 1,700 living historians took part in the three-day event.
Last year’s show was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Swope attributed the near-record attendance this year to a variety of factors, including people looking to return to normal as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down.
“We were the first air show after 9/11, and we had a great turnout,” Swope said. “And we’re one of the first shows at the end of COVID, and we had a great turnout. So, we've weathered war and pandemic.”
Sunday also marked the 77th anniversary of Allied troops storming the beaches of Normandy on a mission to crack Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
One of the more popular aspects of the event is the opportunity for visitors to meet World War II veterans, get their autographs and hear their stories.
Veterans such as Clarence Smoyer from Allentown, a corporal in the 3rd Armored Division and nicknamed the “Hero of Cologne"; Guy Whidden, a sergeant with the 101st Airborne Division that jumped into Normandy and Holland; and Norris Jernigan, who was a corporal with the 393rd Bomb Squadron and 509th Composite Group, were on hand.
Donna Tice from North Lebanon Township, Lebanon County, sat in the shade provided by the wing of a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 21 Zero trying to escape Sunday's heat.
“It’s the history that I come for and talking to the (veterans) in there because they won’t be here much longer,” Tice said.
Tice was there with her grandson, Logan Will of Schaefferstown, Lebanon County.
Like his grandmother, Will enjoyed the airplanes.
“I love the sound of the airplanes,” Tice said. “You can hear them flying over our house, and I drop everything to run out there and see that low-flying airplane.”
Tice struck up a conversation with Shannon Leister from Pottstown under the Zero’s wing.
“It’s the history and just a fun family day,” Leister said.
The event’s significance was not lost on Leister who made sure to stop by the hangar where the veterans were seated.
“I just like listening to them tell their stories,” she said.
Tice and Leister were happy the weekend event was back.
“When I first started coming here it was just a little thing,” Tice said. “I cannot believe how much it's grown and the interest you see among people. I think it’s neat they still continue it.”
The reenactors were happy to be back as well.
“Our group is just happy to be out here,” said Chad Smith, assistant event coordinator and a reenactor with the 83rd Infantry Division, a group Swope founded. “It feels normal now. It’s also a way to try and get away from reality for awhile and celebrate America.”
Smith said many of the people who stopped by the unit’s tent over the weekend were from outside of Pennsylvania and had never been to the event in the past.
Eric Junger, a retired United States Marine Corps major, and his unit from Parris Island Heritage Foundation in South Carolina reenacted one of the most iconic images from World War II: raising the American flag over Mount Suribachi during the battle of Iwo Jima.
His unit has been coming to World War II Weekend since 2005, and they were happy to be back.
“It was like coming back into the open arms of a family,” Junger said. “Almost everybody knows each other and the museum, and everyone who runs this show is very welcoming.”
What separates the air museum’s event from others is it combines an air show with a tactical show.
“It’s a complete immersion,” Junger said. “You have people walking around in period clothes, and they are not even part of a reenactment group. They are just doing it. It’s a great feeling here.”