History buffs, combat veterans refight old battles at WWII Museum

Michael Badeaux, 56, was relaying orders Saturday morning to a troop of World War I American doughboys storming a trench of German soldiers near the French hamlet of Chateau-Thierry.

With their superior firepower — specifically their tanks, a new addition to the U.S. arsenal— the Americans had killed scores of Germans while suffering only minimal casualties.

“The Germans are down to the nitty-gritty,” said Phillip Alford, 40, who was watching the action unfold on a large handcrafted board game at the National World War II Museum.

Badeaux, visibly pumped about his army’s performance, paced back and forth and chatted with his opponents, a pair of gangly teenagers.

Even when an unlucky roll of a die resulted in four of his soldiers being blasted by a hand grenade, Badeaux remained all smiles.

The high-spirited clash, meant to mimic the exact conditions of the 1918 battle, was one of dozens of war games that took place over the weekend at the eighth annual Heat of Battle Wargaming Convention at the New Orleans museum.

The convention is a gathering place for war gamers, a hodgepodge population ranging from battle-hungry teenagers to history buffs and actual combat veterans, about 250 of whom made their way to the museum for the event.

According to Walt Burgoyne, education programs coordinator at the museum, almost all of the war games are precise in their historical accuracy, often re-creating exact battles of the past.

“They see what the terrain of a battlefield was like and how the forces were deployed,” he said. “They are actually seeing history.”

Glen Husted, a retired master sergeant in the Mississippi Army National Guard, was leading a game that re-created a battle between German and U.S. forces at Sainte-Mere-Eglise in Normandy on the morning of D-Day.

Husted, who is the arms conservator for the Mississippi Armed Forces Museum, said playing war games provides “a whole new understanding of history and the stress of battle.”

“You have to decide which way to send troops, when to retreat and when to stand and fight,” he said. “These are the same sort of decisions you would make if you were a colonel.”

The games are lengthy affairs, lasting as long as eight hours, and Husted said players sometimes will conduct “after action reviews” to debrief what happened.

Dice and cards are used to provide a level of chance, but according to Husted and other players, it’s strong strategic decisions that determine who prevails.

Husted said he particularly connected with the battle in Sainte-Mere-Eglise because of the actions of Elmo Bell, a Mississippi soldier who was recognized for his valor during the fight.

Husted also noted how closely the war games resembled the scenery of the actual battles.

That was confirmed by Sabra Magro, a French resident who was visiting New Orleans with her son, Alban.

When passing by Husted’s game, Magro remarked on how closely the church and town square resembled those of a real French village.

Also participating in the game was 19-year-old Mike White, a member of the Tulane University ROTC who is from St. Charles Parish.

White said he was first introduced to war games at age 11 and has attended all of the annual Heat of Battle conventions.

He said playing war games helps him appreciate the toughness of soldiers in the field.

“It gives you a perspective on how difficult these men had it,” he said. “It’s kind of sobering.”

While many of the conference’s attendees were from the New Orleans region, others came from around the country.

Jeff Stein, 40, is a stand-up comic from Los Angeles and a passionate war gamer.

He even has created his own game, which pits the Axis powers against the Allies in a World War II scenario.

“It takes about 15 minutes to learn but a lifetime to master,” he said.

Stein said his game was recognized by Guinness World Records as being the largest board game: It measures 77 inches by 30 inches.

Stein said he enjoys the convention not only because he’s able to get a heavy dose of gaming but also because he’s able to experience the rich entertainment and food options New Orleans has to offer.

He said there are few places as enjoyable for playing war games as the World War II Museum, which is full of artifacts from the war.

“There is nothing like playing beneath these planes or next to these Sherman tanks,” he said.