by James Rada, Jr., photography by Chris Weber (courtesy of the New Oxford Historical Society)
It was a pleasant Saturday morning in New Oxford until the Nazis arrived.
Residents had been gathering on the town square to sell milk and cheese and other items. One man pushed a beer cart around, apparently hoping to catch early imbibers. Another pushed a broom, trying to keep New Oxford looking lovely.
Then the picturesque morning was destroyed when the engine sounds of trucks, motorcycles, and cars entered the town. They stopped in the center of town and more than a hundred German soldiers spread out around the square.
They started walking through town as if they owned the place. And they did. The town had been occupied by the Germans for some time. The soldiers moved among the residents questioning them, checking their papers, and if they felt like it, arresting them.
This all may have happened on September 17, 2016, but in New Oxford that morning, it was September 1944 in a small village in the Netherlands.
The roads (including a busy east-west highway) had been closed for a block in all directions from the town square and modern residents stood back at the edges of the square as the center of New Oxford was transported back in time. It was all part of the annual Liberation of New Oxford event, which has been happening in the town since 2008.
“The first year, there was just a convoy through town with no battle and some people dressed up to act like French civilians who were being liberated,” said Elaine Gerwig, vice president of the New Oxford Historical Society.
Not too many spectators showed up, either. Only 50 to 100 people stood on the sidewalks of New Oxford watching the spectacle.
Word got around, though. The following year, the Allies led captured POWs through the town. Always looking to improve the event, it was decided to add German soldiers into the mix.
“I was approached by the Allied commander who said that they wanted to make things a little more exciting and have a fight between the Germans and Allies,” said Judd Spangler, who coordinates the German re-enactors.
So the following year, the Allies and the Germans began battling for control of the New Oxford Square and they have continued to do so.
This year, there were plans to have Allied paratroopers land in New Oxford as part of the liberation, but a problem with the aircraft grounded that plan.
Instead, a small group of Americans entered the town first and exchanged fire with the Nazis, but they were soon forced to retreat.
The Americans were reinforced with British and Canadian soldiers. Then the Allied troops launched another attack with half-tracks and armored vehicles (no tanks because the treads would damage the highway). Machine gun fire pinned down soldiers as they took cover. The Allies advanced and the Germans fell back. Those who didn’t move fast enough were captured.
As the sound of gunfire died off, the villagers reappeared from the stores and homes where they had taken cover during the firefight. Realizing that they were now free from the Germans, they cheered and danced in celebration of their freedom.
“It was like being in a time warp, especially for the soldiers,” Gerwig said.
About 500 re-enactors total were involved in the 40-minute battle with twice as many people ringing the square to watch the events unfold.
Even some of the local businesses on the square get involved with period decorations. Martin’s Hardware displayed a sign written in Dutch to help add to the authenticity.
Following the battle, the Allies went on to the WWII Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg while the Germans camped at the old train station in New Oxford. They welcomed visitors to their camp to see how the German soldiers lived during the war.
Kathryn Shadle of New Oxford attended the event with some of her children. They have attended a few times because they find it a fun event. She has even thought about dressing up as a villager from time to time. Her sons, in particular, enjoy visiting.
“Gage and Hugh, especially, like to look at the old equipment and the ammunition and rifles,” Shadle said.
As part of the Liberation event, WWII veterans are recognized for their service and treated as guests of honor. This year, 10 veterans were on hand to see some of their memories come to life.
“We need to honor them now because there are fewer every year,” Gerwig said. “I know of two WWII veterans who live in New Oxford who couldn’t attend because of their health.”
Besides the events on Saturday, the weekend’s events include a USO dance on Friday night featuring big band music in the New Oxford Borough Hall. The attendees dress up as if they were in the 1940s and swing dance the whole night through.
“The historical society and borough are great partners,” Spangler said. “They welcomed us to come in and camp.”
He said that most WWII re-enacting events aren’t actually public events so the Liberation of New Oxford is a chance for the re-enactors to show what they can do.
“With WWII veterans being honored, it is a privilege to attend,” Spangler said. “This is a very, very popular event for re-enactors.”
Planning for the event begins in the late spring or early summer. Arranging to have the U.S. Route 30 closed for the four hours of the event has to start in April.