Stripes Spotlight: Soldier gets hands-on with World War II history
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — A man with a perfectly restored, airbrushed and lacquered Army jeep sees Joseph Hall at a World War II commemorative and calls him on the less than perfect stencil job on the white star on the hood of Hall’s 1941 Willys jeep.
Unfortunately, the man, who has no military experience, picks on the wrong G.I. Joe.
“I know how soldiers act,” says Command Sgt. Maj. Joseph Hall, who’s been the in the Army 27 years. “I know how soldiers think.”
Who did the stenciling in the circa-1940 Army?
“The guy in trouble,” Hall says. “He’s watching his buddies go out on the town with a pass, and he’s stuck there with a stencil and a brush.”
That soldier’s handiwork is not going to look like car-show detailing.
When he’s not battalion command sergeant major with 1st Battalion, 6th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division, Hall is the leader of a group of re-enactors called the Phantom Regiment.
Based at Baumholder, the Phantom Regiment is Hall and a group of young soldiers bitten by the same World War II bug. These are the people who know the difference between the 82nd Airborne D-Day paratrooper uniforms and the ones they wore for Operation Market Garden three months later.
“It’s an out-of-control hobby, more than anything,” Hall says.
Sgt. Maj. Hall does it for the right reason, says Steve R. Ruhnke, curator of Baumholder’s 1st Armored Division Museum.
“He’s just dedicated. Some people [collect military artifacts] for financial reasons,” Ruhnke says. “He does it for the love of history. And for educating others, especially young soldiers.”
Hall’s particularly knowledgeable about WWII equipment, Ruhnke says, and Hall’s soldiers concur.
“He knows more than I’ll ever know,” says Spc. Jonathon Parker, the 22-year-old Phantom Regiment tank driver who is also an Abrams gunner with the Baumholder-based 1st Battalion, 35th Armor Regiment.
Perhaps it’s because something about Hall hails back to the Greatest Generation. Clearly, he admires those soldiers.
“I think they grew up tougher,” Hall says.
They were adept at keeping tanks running, he says, because they’d come from the farm where they worked on tractors and drove old jalopies.
Hall has the unnerving ability to instantly recall anything he’s read, heard or studied. In casual conversation, streams of data flow from him.
How much does an M-1 Garand rifle weigh? Why is a Sherman tank so tall? What’s its gas mileage? How many casualties were there in the first 24 hours of D-Day? What tactics did the Americans use? The Germans? Which units fought where? Why did it take the U.S. Army three years to develop a suitable field jacket for the European theater?
The answers are easy for Hall.
He can leave listeners smelling the Cordite on the battlefield, hearing artillery shells screeching in as they ponder what it was like to crouch in a foxhole enduring hours of deadly accurate artillery and mortar fire.
And who knows, says his wife, Sabine, maybe this knowledge could lead to a second career.
After the 1998 Steven Speilberg movie “Saving Private Ryan” premiered, experts such as Joseph Hall became “a big-time resource” for people wanting accurate information about World War II, Sabine Hall says. Especially those people using the Internet to chase down the loose ends of their father’s service.
Including his wife.
Rifling through books and old unit records, Joseph Hall was able to fill in the details of her father, Heinrich Heitmann’s brush with death. The French captured Heitmann August 19, 1944, near Lambert/St. Trun, France.
“He had been in the 2nd SS Panzer Division and the French resistance thought it was a good idea to shoot him,” Joseph Hall said. But American troops happened upon the scene in time to stop the executions, and Heitmann was detained as a prisoner of war in the States.
Ever since “Saving Private Ryan,” retiring baby boomers have started sending lots of e-mails to Hall asking him things like; “My dad was in the 4th Armored Division. What did he do?”
Those are the kind of questions he likes to answer as often as he can with the assistance of the Phantom Regiment.
On a snowy Veterans Day, Hall and his young acolytes have the regiment’s Sherman tank on display in the Baumholder Base Exchange parking lot. Young tankers come by and ask if they can climb around the Sherman tank and compare it to the M1A2 Abrams. Half expecting Hall to say no, they’re in the turret in about two seconds after he gives his blessing.
All the uniforms — which are authentic, though not original — on the six Phantom Regiment members present are Hall’s. So are every last piece of kit and all the weapons.
And there’s a basement full of stuff at his house. Permanent change of station time is especially interesting at his house, he says: “How do you pack a BAR (Browning Automatic Rifle)?”
Though he and the Phantom regiment do stage what they term “living history demonstrations,” Hall is quick to say he’s not a re-enactor. “I’ve been running around the woods shooting blanks my entire life,” he said, smiling. “That really doesn’t get it for me.”
What gets it for him is using all he has learned and collected to create a “museum without glass; without walls,” he says.
He sees living history “as a touchy-feely museum,” Sabine Hall says. “In a conventional museum, everything is behind glass or ropes. But with [historical recreations], people touch the rifles, and they feel how heavy it is. When they touch the wool uniforms, they see how thick it is.
“It’s like touching a museum.”