MELISSA BLOCK, host: Last month, thousands of people traveled to a field in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. They were there to re-enact one of the most famous battles in history: the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Except this wasn't your typical re-enactment. Participants used paintballs, and the winner of the battle wasn't a given. Rob Sachs attended the event. He sent this story.
ROB SACHS: In the paintball world, the invasion of Normandy isn't just an event, it's the event.
NICKY ANGEL VALOR: This is our Super Bowl.
SACHS: That's Nicky Angel Valor. She's one of the generals of the Allied forces. She helped create the invasion of Normandy, putting in touches to make it historically accurate, like using the names of French towns on the playing field.
VALOR: Sainte-l'Eau, Sainte-Mere-Eglise, Pointe du Hoc.
SACHS: There's no real beach. We're in the middle of Pennsylvania after all. So instead, life-sized boats are spaced out on the field facing a tree line where the Axis players are embedded. Allied players cram into them to start the game. Then the countdown begins.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: ...four, three, two, one, game on.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)
SACHS: Referees use a rope to drop the boat's wood doors.
VALOR: It's the ultimate adrenaline rush. One of the most amazing things is being on this beach when the horn goes off, and there are 4,000 guns shooting at one time.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SACHS: Once the game starts, there's less emphasis on historical accuracy, says Allied General John Holme, aka Mad Kow, a veteran of the Persian Gulf War.
JOHN HOLME: A lot of people are going to come here, and they're going to expect a re-enactment, but I think there's a lot of components about this that really don't make this a war re-enactment at all. Load it up, fellows. (Unintelligible) and go drop the door.
SACHS: Still, at first glance, it looks pretty convincing. Plumes of orange smoke bellow from smoke bombs. Players call out to each other over walkie-talkies. Referees continue to load the Allied forces into the U-boats and send them into battle.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Load them up. Load them up.
SACHS: The illusion fades once you notice the guy dressed up as Darth Vader shooting off paintballs from behind a tree or the bagpiper haphazardly waltzing his way through the field.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SACHS: The majority of the players are in military fatigues. Many of the participants are veterans. Some are active duty. A few others, like Rich Gall from Kirkwood, New York, are history buffs.
RICH GALL: I'm decked out in the World War II paratrooper, U.S. sergeant from the 505th Airborne, 82nd.
SACHS: Some, though, take things too far. Skirmish USA, the owner of the field, bans Nazi paraphernalia, but that didn't stop Nick Woodrum, who drove up from West Virginia.
NICK WOODRUM: They call me Woodog.
SACHS: Woodrum has the Nazi SS insignia shaved onto one side of his head and a swastika on the other, but insists...
WOODRUM: It's all character. It's all fun and games, no hate.
SACHS: Earlier, he had a swastika flag flying over his tent site and was asked to take it down.
WOODRUM: I respect, so - but it's like having a Civil War re-enactment without Confederate flags. It don't make no sense.
JAMES ARMINTROUT: You know, 4,100 people, you're going to have a few bad eggs, and we try to minimize them as best we can.
SACHS: That's James Armintrout, another Allied officer. He goes by the name Ninja. He says the overwhelming majority of people here are friendly and respectful. As an example, General Angel shows me a vial of sand she's wearing around her neck. It's from Omaha Beach.
VALOR: This reminds us that what we're doing is pretty much nothing. We're having fun with this, but we're not going through what these men faced when they truly stormed the beaches, and we are grateful for what they've done.
SACHS: Watching the fake invasion from the sidelines are two real-life soldiers, Sergeant First Class Dustin Miller and Staff Sergeant Derrick L. Lewis. They're from a nearby Army recruiting center. Both have served two tours in Iraq.
Staff Sergeant DERRICK L. LEWIS: We look at it as respect and support, and if you want to play it, by all means have at it.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
SACHS: On this invasion, the Allied forces won the battle 124 to 95, but they can't rest too long as both sides are already plotting their strategy for next year. For NPR News, I'm Rob Sachs.