The last battle scenario during the Sept. 1-3 Race to the Rhein had just been fought, kids scrambled to collect the fired brass casings, and reenactors were starting to strike their encampments.
Then an older couple entered the temporary onsite museum.
Louise and Bill Kaunzinger, 95 and 99 respectively, had heard about the World War II reenactment in Crestview’s Spanish Trail Park and wanted to see it for themselves. For Bill, it would be a visit back in time. He had fought in confrontations including the fierce Battle of the Bulge.
As word spread that a World War II veteran was visiting, reenactors — Allied and Axis alike — started pouring into the museum in the park’s Senior Center. Selfies started, the Kaunzingers patiently posing for anyone who asked.
For Collyn Smith, 14, who just started the World War II reenactment hobby at Race to the Rhein, meeting a veteran of the war was an incredible opportunity.
“Meeting him was amazing,” Collyn said. “It was like touching history. To know what he did and to be able to honor him by being a reenactor was exciting.”
Andrew Daigle, one of the event’s organizers, said Mr. Kaunzinger’s visit was a chance to connect with a rapidly vanishing veteran generation. As a reenactor, he frequently reflects on the brave men who wore similar uniforms 80 years ago.
“It's important to honor the veterans who sacrificed so much for our country,” Andrew said. “With the exponential loss of our veteran population over the past years, they have slipped from mainstream media and from public knowledge for the younger generations.
Mr. Kaunzinger related some of his wartime experiences for his audience, which eagerly gathered around to hear first-hand accounts. As first scout for Fox Company, 18th U.S. Infantry, he was often the first soldier on the scene, at one point facing fanatical German SS troops.
“The enemy launched a fierce tank attack against our positions,” he vividly recalled. “The artillery from both sides was ear shattering, and pine trees were felled as if a tornado went thru.”
He received the Bronze Star on Jan. 28, 1945, for his heroic action leading to the defeat of a German machine gun nest, and later, the citation’s oak leaf cluster as well as a Purple Heart.
Crossing a minefield as the U.S. Army entered the German fatherland, Mt. Kaunzinger relied on his hunting experience back home in Illinois, his training, and more than anything, his faith.
“I gave my squad specific rules to step only in boot impressions. Moving out I remembered my deer hunting tactics, looking for telltale signs,” he said.
“Approaching the tank barriers, I paused, asking my Lord for help. The moon broke out, exposing boot prints in the snow. Uttering three words, ‘Thank you, Lord,’ I then stepped upon each boot impression and safely made it through and then motioned for the squad to follow.”
Because the reenactors had expended most of their ammunition on the weekend’s final battle scenario, they gave the Kaunzingers a personal weapons demonstration instead, moving two comfortable chairs under the picnic pavilion behind the Senior Center so they had a ringside seat.
The three-day Race to the Rhein was Crestview’s fourth World War II history and reenactment event, and its best attended. Already organizers Grant Brooks and Andrew, both members of the Crestview Cultural Services Division’s Living History Corps, are planning for a spring 2024 reenactment.
“We were really happy with the turnout, especially on student day,” Grant said. “We had more than 250 students, teachers and parents. Teaching kids about the war is important, and reenactments make it exciting for them to learn about it.”
Mr. Kaunzinger added a postscript to his service that served as words upon which the reenactors can reflect.
“My thoughts are, war is hell but often necessary,” he said. “But it’s important to never lose faith in your Lord and your country.”