Jesse's Heroes 

Historical reenactors turn World War II into a virtual-reality game. Someone has to play the bad guys, but why would anyone want to play these bad guys?

On a bright Sunday morning, young men carrying uniforms, helmets, and rifles trickle down a deserted street in an industrial area of Hayward. No one takes much notice as they disappear one by one into a warehouse.

In a cluttered back corner, the men pull on the uniforms, lace up boots, and pile camouflage jackets, daggers, and grenades on the floor. Last to arrive is a new recruit, a quiet fifteen-year-old named Drew. His uniform is new and clean: he is wearing a crisp gray shirt tucked into a pair of spotless green wool trousers. Though he has fought in only one battle, the older men think the fresh-faced kid has what it takes to be one of them.

"Check you out!" one calls to him approvingly. "You're a star!"

Drew beams, his cheeks turning red beneath the peach fuzz.

"You're gonna look good," another tells him. "The Germans were young. You're gonna look like a Nazi!"

Telling someone they look like a Nazi is not an insult in the Infantry Section of the 9th Panzer Division of the Waffen-SS, Northern California chapter. About once a month, the members of the 9th SS come from across the Bay Area to dress up in German uniforms and reenact the battles of World War II. It's not for everyone. Playing a World War II German soldier appeals to a different kind of man. As the unit's Web site explains, it's the ultimate experience for "a man who will strive for the excellence that each one of us has within ourselves. A man who, like the Waffen-SS soldier, doesn't know the meaning of the word 'impossible.' "

While the members of the 9th SS casually call each other Nazis, they cringe when other people do the same. Jesse Lillefjeld, the 22-year-old head of the unit's infantry section, resents it when anyone suggests that his hobby might actually have some connection to Nazism. "It drives me nuts when people will be all, 'Man, what do you do? So you're like a Nazi?' I can't stand people using that word!" he groans. Being a historical reenactor is not about imitating the heavily accented sadists from movies such as Schindler's List or Raiders of the Lost Ark, he says. It's about playing men, not monsters. "I'm not walking around in a black uniform and armband, rounding up people, kicking in doors, and being a thug," he says. "I'm trying to portray a person in history."

That person in history happens to be a soldier in one of the most notorious fighting forces of the past century. The Waffen -- or combat -- SS began as Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard before it became the elite military wing of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the Nazi security organization that ran the death camps. It eventually grew into a force that rivaled the regular German army, with nearly one million soldiers spread across Europe from the hedgerows of Normandy to the outskirts of Moscow. The troops of the Waffen-SS were known as "asphalt soldiers" -- fearless in battle, fanatical, and ruthless. At the Nuremberg tribunals, the entire force was branded a criminal organization, and dozens of its officers were sentenced for war crimes. In his history of the SS, Order of the Death's Head, German historian Heinz Höhne wrote, "Stories of barbaric treatment of prisoners of war and civilians by the SS units were as numerous as the tales of SS bravery."

It is those tales of bravery and military prowess that draw Lillefjeld and the others in his unit to put on the uniform of the Waffen-SS. Historical reenactment, they say, is a way to discover what it was really like to be a frontline combatant in the bloodiest war in history. Reenactment, explains Lillefjeld, is a way of creating a "personalized" version of historical events. It's not, he insists, just about dressing up and playing shoot-'em-up. "A lot people think it's just a gaming system. Okay, it is to some. But to a lot of people it's more -- it's living history."

That oxymoronic phrase is the way serious reenactors prefer to describe their hobby. Think of it as historical research meets virtual reality. Why watch another documentary on the History Channel or read the latest Stephen Ambrose book when you could be in the thick of battle, dodging bullets and shooting like a real soldier? As one reenactor puts it, "Imagine your favorite movie. Now imagine stepping into that movie." Battle reenactments are supposed to look and feel real -- if you can forget that your gun is firing blanks, that there is no blood when you're shot, and that death is just a temporary inconvenience. And when it's all over you can go home, clean the grit from under your fingernails, take a long hot shower, open a beer, and pop Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the Gates into the VCR.

The men who reenact -- and the vast majority are men -- spend their weekends running around state parks, military bases, and farms, dressed in replica uniforms, lugging heavy bolt-action rifles, storming Nazi machine-gun nests, and leading suicidal charges against the Bolshevik hordes. They join units like the American 101st Airborne, the British 3rd Paratroop Brigade, the Russian 150th Rifle Division, and the 12th "Hitler Youth" Division of the German Waffen-SS. There are small units of partisans, nurses, and even reenactors who occasionally fly over from Japan to play Japanese-American GIs fighting the Germans, who are, of course, played by Americans. Most American reenactors would rather follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers and play American GIs or British Tommies. About a third choose to be Germans. Of these, the majority picks Waffen-SS units over regular German army units.

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