By Ben Sherman, Fort SillMarch 21, 2013
FORT SILL, Okla. -- Polo Field at Fort Sill transformed into a living history experience that carried those who attended back in time nearly 240 years on March 16.
Visitors spent the day viewing and touching pieces of America's military past; and talking with historical interpreters who brought each period to life during the post's first Military Timeline event.
Frank Siltman, director of Museums and Military History at Fort Sill, said the purpose of the event was to allow people to see and touch Army history, which covered 10 major wars since America's birth.
"We wanted this to be a family event and I think it was a great way for us to reach out to the Fort Sill and Lawton communities," Siltman said. "We've seen quite a number of children and young people out here today. They really are interested in the history on display."
Siltman said the turnout was very good, with approximately 600 to 700 people coming and going throughout the day.
"We started out at 10 a.m. firing the muzzleloading artillery, then at 10:30 a.m. we had the cavalry demonstration. At 11 a.m. we fired a World War I 75 mm cannon and at 11:30 a.m. we fired the WW II 75 mm pack howitzer. Then after lunch we repeated the schedule. We weren't able to fire the quad .50-cal machine guns on the M16 halftrack because of the cost of the simulation rounds," Siltman said.
He said the M16 was used for antiaircraft defense during World War II and represented one of the new Army Air Defense Artillery Museum's displays at the event. Other ADA items visitors examined were an aerial searchlight and single .50-caliber M2 machine guns.
One popular exhibit featured weapons from the Revolutionary War. Gordon Blaker, director/curator of the Army Field Artillery Museum portrayed a colonial soldier and showed eager onlookers how to load a Springfield musket (without a musket ball). He then pointed the musket toward the open Polo Field and fired, causing a great puff of smoke to erupt from the barrel. Blaker told the spectators the accurate range of the musket was no more than 150 yards, because it had a smoothbore barrel.
Another popular demonstration was the firing of the Model 1841 6-pound field gun. Gun chief Harry Shappell, a retired Army chief warrant officer, explained to spectators the different types of projectiles and charges the Civil War-era cannon could fire. He then shouted commands for the gun crew to load the gun and fire. A tongue of flames 8 feet long shot out of the barrel with a loud boom and lots of smoke. The children present were especially pleased, though many pet dogs present disliked the loud noises.
Next on the timeline was one of Fort Sill's special historical groups -- the Buffalo Soldiers. Historical interpreters, in actual period cavalry uniforms and boots, entertained the onlookers with tales of life on the plains when Fort Sill was founded.
Portraying a sergeant from the all-black 9th and 10th Cavalry "Buffalo Soldier" regiments, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Paul Cherry explained the importance of these units.
"The Buffalo Soldiers built Fort Sill. And, the first black officer to graduate from West Point, 2nd Lt. Henry Flipper, was assigned to A Troop, 10th Cavalry here in 1879, and engineered the building of the fort."
Cherry went on to tell how Flipper developed a drainage system, now called "Flipper's Ditch" that eliminated stagnant rainwater -- a breeding place for malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
Visitor Sandy Lehew got a special ride on one of the Buffalo Soldier horses. She and her 14-year old niece, Kristi Harrell, came to see the exhibits.
"We're all history buffs and love the Civil War. It's awesome to see these guys dressed in actual period costumes," she said.
Kristi was even more excited about the history at Fort Sill.
"It is an amazing place," Kristi said, adding that she previously visited the post on a field trip when while studying the War of 1812 in school. "It makes history come alive to come here and see actual objects from that war."
Another crowd favorite was the Fort Sill Field Artillery Half-Section, directed by Chief Gerald Stuck. He told the crowd that a half-section was a field cannon team towed behind six horses, along with their ammo caisson.
"This is how artillery units moved in the field right up until World War II, when the Army switched over to trucks and jeeps. Even then, in some situations they had to rely on horses because the vehicles weren't always reliable in muddy conditions," said Stuck.
He directed his men, all active-duty Soldiers dressed in authentic World War I uniforms, as they loaded their Model 1879 French 75 mm field gun, which American forces used during World War I.
Spc. Trevor Kaszas, normally a wheeled vehicle mechanic in Company B, 168th Brigade Support Battalion, explained what it meant to be in the unit.
"It's an honor to serve with the Half-Section at Fort Sill. I mean, how many Soldiers get to serve with an equine (horse) unit in today's Army? That's just pretty cool," he said.
After the crew loaded a blank 75 mm round into the 95 year-old field gun, the order to fire was given. Flames and smoke blasted out of the cannon, again to cheers and applause from the crowd.
Many weapons that were fired during the event were used in combat.
Fort Sill's 75 mm pack howitzer, a field gun that made the difference in so many World War II battles, sat alongside a display provided by the World War II Airborne Demonstration Team from Frederick, Okla. The all-volunteer group is dedicated to preserving the history of Army paratroop units by regularly training a new generation to jump out of their two World War II era C-47 aircraft at the old Frederick airfield.
Dave Eller, a member of the airborne demonstration team, dressed as a private in an authentic Army jump suit from the Pacific Theater.
"I represent the paratroopers who jumped with the 503rd and 426th Parachute Field Artillery battalions," Eller said. "They jumped with the 75 mm pack howitzers, which broke down into several parts so they could be dropped from C-47s with the troops. That's the only field artillery piece they had until reinforcements arrived," he added. Many groups worked together with the Fort Sill museums to make the timeline event a success.
"The Friends of Fort Sill organization was very supportive of this event, provided historical items for people to purchase, and Fort Sill's BOSS group (Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers) sold concessions for the thirsty visitors," Siltman said. "We want to do this event again in the future and add some Desert Storm vehicles and more historical interpreters, if at all possible. We don't know what the future will bring, but with the enthusiastic responses we got today, we will do our best to showcase our military heritage in the future."