WWII Re-enactor Sherrick McCray
Honoring the Memory of ‘The Greatest Generation’
His parents likely knew that Sherrick McCray wasn’t an average kid early on.
“I’ve been into military history since I was very small. When I was five or six I remember asking for books for my birthday,” said the 37-year-old MBA student and detective with the University of Central Oklahoma police.
“World War Two is my favorite time period, but I’ve read military history from pre-biblical times to where we’re fighting right now,” he said. “World War Two history is just my favorite aspect of it.”
In 2002 that passion led McCray to his first event re-enacting battles from the European theater of the war. He said, “Re-enacting kind of gives you another in-depth feel that just reading about the war can’t do. We use the same kind of equipment and fight with the same tactics they did. We spend a day or two in the field, sleeping in their type of tent, eating their kind of rations. We want to keep their memory alive.”
Specifically, McCray is talking about the 101st Airborne Division. The troupe of re-enactors he is part of emulates the 101st. General Order Number Five, which gave birth to the division on Aug. 15, 1942, reads, “The 101st Airborne Division, activated at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny. Like the early American pioneers whose invincible courage was the foundation stone of this nation, we have broken with the past and its traditions in order to establish our claim to the future.”
Only the toughest men were allowed to serve in the 101st Airborne. Soldiers had to face being dropped from an airplane behind enemy lines and still be able to fight and win. Only one in three men passed the selection criteria to serve in the 101st. Part of the selection criteria included a 140-mile foot march in three days, as well as rigorous airborne training.
About 6,700 members of the 101st were dropped behind German lines during the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. Though the drop did not go as planned, the end result was success. Despite that, a month later one-fourth of the men serving in the 101st had died in combat.
McCray has carried his love of the 101st as far as jumping out of C-47 airplanes like those used during the war. “I actually did 13 jumps from a C-47, which is what the 101st jumped out of. It was built in 1942 at Tinker Field Base in Oklahoma City.”
McCray said he and his fellow re-enactors do eight events each year, half of which are open to the public.
“We’ll talk about our uniforms and have a public battle,” he said. “Those usually are not historically correct battles.”
The private re-enactments are another story, he said. Held on private land or a National Guard training area, those events are a tactical war with German re-enactors. “They’re not scripted,” McCray said. “Whoever does better wins, but you still get a better feel for how it was then.”
McCray said they need a large space for the re-enactments. “It has to be large enough to maneuver with a platoon-size unit,” he said. Typically, he said about 50 local people participate in the weekend war games, with 25 per side in the combat, though at a recent exercise at Camp Gruber near Muskogee there was about 1,000 re-enactors from as far away as North Carolina and Minnesota.
“If we just have 25 people, 150 to 200 acres is enough space,” McCray said. “For the larger events, we need about three square miles. We have to work with what we have. Most people don’t travel from more than a state away.”
Oklahoma offers terrain similar to what the real 101st encountered in Europe, McCray said. “We get terrain that’s wooded, not exactly like France or German, but pretty close. That’s one reason we do the European theater.”
McCray said the European theater is typically more popular with re-enactors than the Japanese theater, though there are groups, particularly in more tropical settings like California, that do re-enactments of the Japanese theater. A group in western Texas re-enacts battles that took place in Africa, he said.
Most of the re-enactments McCray has been part of have been limited to the smaller arms available to the 101st and its German enemy – rifles and pistols with simulated bazookas. “For a while we had an 88 aircraft gun,” he said. “A guy in Texas made it available to us.”
McCray said the first time he was involved in a re-enactment was like being in “dreamland.” However, my favorite event was when we set up a display for a WWII 101st reunion. We got to talk to and hear the stories of the guys that were there.
“There’s only so much you can get from books,” he said. “When you’re there, holding a rifle, going from trench to trench with a sergeant barking orders at you … It’s a whole new experience. There have been times when I’ve been in a bad position, where the Germans are ready to overrun us, and it made me appreciate, just a little, how those guys felt in the war.”
McCray acknowledged that the feeling in a re-enactment is not exactly the same as combat. “It felt more like tension than being afraid,” he said. “You know you’re not going to die, but it’s not a good feeling. It’s fun, like being on a roller coaster. There’s a sense of danger without the danger.”
He’s improved his ability since that first time. Today he is a first lieutenant in his unit. “One thing I strive for is tactics,” he said. “I use the same tactics they used. I’ve read the original World War Two manuals. We work very hard to get our uniforms right. We look at pictures and arrange our gear the same way. When those guys used gear in the field, they arranged it a certain way and there’s a reason they did it that way – it worked.”
Reading the manuals and the history books has helped, but the real lesson McCray has learned is one that soldiers have been learning since the dawn of history. “One thing I’ve learned is that any plans you have turn to chaos once combat starts,” he said. “World War Two radio communication wasn’t very good, for instance. It’s hard to control men with no radio.”
McCray hasn’t been in the military, but veterans who participate say the war games are realistic, he said.
McCray said that most re-enactors have done other types of war games, such as the American Civil War and Vietnam conflict. “But it takes a lot of money to do this. I would rather perfect my 101st impression than have two or three that are not so good.”
Re-enacting battles of the 101st Airborne has taught him a lot, McCray said. “They say our World War Two guys were The Greatest Generation, and I believe they really were,” he said. “This makes me appreciate what actual military guys do in combat. It makes me appreciate what those guys did back in World War Two. They didn’t have the conveniences we have. I don’t know how they did it; they just did what they had to do.”
McCray added, “These guys, the World War Two veterans, are dying off. We just hope we can keep their memory alive through what we’re doing.”