Museum of 20th Century Warfare provides connection between past, present



When Jeremy Bowles was about 10 years old, he was introduced to some of his great-grandfather’s World War I artifacts in an Ohio museum.

That indirect contact with a descendant made him into a lifelong aficionado of what just more than a century ago was termed “the war to end all wars.”

That was not true, but the overlap between the young and a long-gone relative led to Bowles standing in a World War I replica trench in a grassy area at Fort Harrison State Park earlier this month, dressed for the sake of history and education just as the Americans who fought in that war in 1917 and 1918 were attired.

For Bowles, compared to many re-enactors participating in the park’s Soldiers Through Time interaction with the public, his war was a little bit more personal. He said he also had a great-uncle die Oct. 7, 1918, in World War I.

“I have a very personal interest,” said Bowles of Germantown, Ohio.

Re-enactors dressed the part of soldiers from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Vietnam and more, representing links to the country’s past and the challenges the United States has faced over the centuries to become what it is.

It was a sunny day, and the park attracted good crowds throughout the two-day experience, families with children approaching the appropriately dressed soldiers to ask what many only have read about in school history books.

The program was one of several scheduled through the calendar year, including such other re-enactments such as the Battle of the Bulge. The fort houses numerous exhibits in a permanent collection inside the Museum of 20th Century Warfare.

Operating under the auspices of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the periodic re-enactments resemble stage shows or plays, though Soldiers Through Time was set up a little bit differently with encampments, said interpretative naturalist Dylan Allison. The chief difference is that battle action moves around but the encampments remain stationary.

Wandering about, someone could pause and chat with soldiers even from the Roman Empire.

“Some of them go way back,” Allison said. “It is a unique way to experience history.”

Providing that opportunity was a key principle behind the establishment of the museum, said Bob Henry of Seymour, a co-founder who on this day was dressed as a Vietnam War re-enactor, wearing fatigues and carrying an era-appropriate weapon. Henry and partner, the late Mark Pennington, initiated something called The Vietnam Experience touring the state and it grew into the museum.

Henry does not believe school curriculum spends enough time on such nation-shaping topics as the Vietnam War and others.

“It’s two or three paragraphs and that’s it,” Henry said. “We don’t want it to go down the drain. We try to teach these kids about their history.”

Henry has spoken at schools, and for this program, he and other soldier re-enactors were in full dress, weapons on display at a booth-like setup containing items relevant to the 1960s and 1970s, including an empty Camel cigarette box.

Besides artifacts, such as uniforms and models, the museum contains a collection of books available for research.

“We get a lot of it donated to us,” Henry said.

One eye-catching item is a 13-foot-long model of the USS Indianapolis that serves as a reminder of the tragic sinking of the cruiser nearly 76 years ago during World War II and the resulting deaths of nearly 900. Given that the backdrop is war, there are sobering moments experienced walking through the museum and earnest ones talking with re-enactors, who know their history.

Margaret Wilson of Seymour was an avid spectator. A 27-year active duty and reserves member of the Army, she had heard of the museum but not visited.

“I saw the event advertised,” Wilson said as she snapped photographs. “It’s cool.”

Museum President Chris Schneider was a man from a different era, a Prussian soldier from 1866, carrying a musket and wearing a historically accurate uniform while carrying period-specific gear. He was attracted to those guys and their battles because the in-the-field strategies led to changes in the art of war. Schneider spent 21 years in the Army and said he had an affinity for studying tactics.

There is a replica World War I trench on the grounds that came highly recommended. Bowles visited the Argonne Forest for the 100th anniversary of the Meuse River-Argonne Forest offensive that marked the end of that war where his great-uncle perished as one of 350,000 casualties, 26,277 of them American.

Bowles wore a complete American uniform, though most pieces were replicas. Originals can be found, he said, but they’re not in very good condition. Reproduction helmets, such as he displayed, cost about $130.

“They’re not so hard to find,” he said.

Traveling through encampments is a journey through time in terms of weaponry. Wearing a tri-cornered hat and a blue wool outfit with red and white trappings, Max Michael seemed as Revolutionary War, circa 1776, as George Washington. An array of rifles was spread out on a table in front of him.

Michael, who has participated in a Valley Forge program and attended a 250th anniversary 18th century French and Indian War observance in upstate New York at Fort Ticonderoga “with 1,000 of my closest friends,” also speaks to Indiana fifth-graders or junior high students on that American history.

Michael was custodian of a 30-pound “wall” gun used for fort-type defense that took a 3-ounce ball and could shoot at a range of 800 yards. Michael likened this gun to “a piece of artillery, a small cannon” built like a giant musket. It was unwieldy and not used on the move.

“It takes an hour to clean this,” Michael said.

Doug Roush of Indianapolis displayed the top hat of war, the miter, as part of a Brunswick Napoleonic War uniform.

“I call it my party hat,” Roush said of his grenadier headwear. “My bling.”

It was a showstopper and conversation piece, at the least.

Soldiers Through Time attracted the curious, one being Carter McDowell, whose elementary school class was visited by re-enactors two years ago. That sparked interest, and he already owns a replica German World War II helmet and a World War II grenade, among other artifacts.

Dad Scott, who works in the Butler University athletic department, said, “Carter is a big history buff. He wants to be a re-enactor.”

Timo Johnson, 52, who was born in Hawaii, grew up in Florida, lives in Indiana and has resided all over the world, as well as serving in the Israeli Army, is into armies from everywhere and from every time with his favorite period being the 1500s. He was a natural customer for the program.

“I like to see that there are people just as crazy about history as I am,” Johnson said.

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For information about the Museum of 20th Century Warfare at Fort Harrison State Park in Indianapolis, visit


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