Shelby Anderson’s classroom at Laguna Beach High School is like walking into a living museum of sorts.
Across the back wall of Room 27, Anderson displays military uniforms from World War I through the Korean War and artifacts such as World War II ration books, a field communication kit with a typewriter, meal boxes and carefully preserved newspapers with headlines announcing important 20th Century world events.
The items are conversation starters, but more importantly, they are critical to her teaching of U.S. history to 11th graders by taking stories found in textbooks and turning them into real life. It is one of the way she helps her students recognize the difficulties of military service and how that service and, in so many cases, a person’s ultimate sacrifice, are still relevant today.
Anderson, 27, also personalizes the stories of service and makes them more relatable, for her students and many others as a member of the Historical Unit of Southern California, or HUSC, a living history group – think reenactments – that focuses on preserving the memory of those who served and died in 20th Century conflicts. She routinely dresses up in a World War II Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, uniform.
Historical interpreters such as the HUSC group – a craft that dates back to antiquity and in the U.S. became popular after the American Revolution and Civil War – are a hands-on tool to educate the public, experts say. Not only do they breathe life into history, but they do it in an engaging and entertaining way, and make a complex topic more relatable to a mainstream audience and stoke interest in remembering the past.
“When I wear the uniform, it makes it more real,” Anderson said. “There’s not a cellphone in sight. It helps people connect, and when we personalize it, we understand the depth of sacrifice more. When I bring a person in uniform, that’s real and not just a story.”
When Anderson is not teaching her students, she’s out with about 100 members from her group, taking the living military history to the public. Recently the HUSC has done presentations at the Lyon Air Museum in Santa Ana, the Planes of Fame Air Museum in Chino and the March Field Air Museum In Riverside. They also participate in flag raising events, rifle drills, historical commemorations, battle reenactments and memorials.
This weekend, the group took part in a Memorial Day ceremony at the Los Angeles National Cemetery, where 80,000 service members from the Civil War to present day are buried. Group members dressed in era-specific uniforms marched through the cemetery and placed American flags on the graves of the fallen.
“We are doing the best we can to illustrate the human experience,” said Daniel Bermudez, 32, of Yorba Linda, who founded the all-volunteer reenactment group that draws member from around Southern California. An avid military history buff, he started doing military reenactments when he was 17. Now, he dresses in World War I uniforms mainly, he said, to underline the service of a generation that can no longer tell its story.
Bermudez said he was inspired to dedicate himself to military history after listening to stories from his grandfather, who served in the Navy during World War II and Korea. He began collecting uniforms and artifacts and reading all he could on military history. He’d go into the mountains – in heat and cold – to experience what it was like to wear the clothing and equipment in conditions that might simulate what it was like to be in the field.
He formed the HUSC group, which has members mostly in their 20s and 30s, who enjoy history like him and have an interest in historical uniforms and artifacts. Among them are veterans and even some active-duty service members.
The overall goal is to instill a sense of respect, pride and loyalty in the men and women who defended their country in times of war and what they experienced, Bermudez said. “I hope that by wearing the uniform and sharing the veterans’ stories, we can give the general public a tangible piece of history they can better appreciate.”
Gian Gentile, a senior military historian at the Rand Corporation who is a retired US Army colonel who also taught at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, credits Bermudez for his role in engaging the public. He points out that frequently many who turn out at Memorial Day events are often veterans or people who have family who served. Through what Bermudez is doing, Gentile said, hopefully more of the public will become engaged and take an interest in the country’s service members and their sacrifice.
“What these reenactors do is hugely important,” he said. “And, if you have someone with actual military experience and combine that with the passion from these reenactors, they can absolutely inspire the American public to learn more about sacrifice and service.”
Sgt. Hunter Allen, a Marine now based at Camp Pendleton, began doing living history reenactments at a Colonial history farm outside Washington D.C. as a child growing up in Virginia. While he’s not into battle scene reenactments now, he said he enjoys representing Marines from World War II and Vietnam in the static displays the HUSC group present.
“I feel like I’m part of the past and the future,” the 29-year-old said. He particularly enjoys interactions with veterans and the way they recognize the old uniforms.
“A Vietnam vet will pass by us with his family and you’ll immediately see him open up and share his experiences,” Allen said. “You’ll see his family actively listening and will hear him talk about the war. I feel like we do a great job of making it real.”
Authenticity is vital to Allen, who, in seven years in the Marines, has already done four deployments and understands servant leadership and what it means to pay the “last full measure of devotion,” he said. In April, he returned from deployment with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit. A few days later, he was out with the living history group.
He is part of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, a Camp Pendleton unit that in July 2020 lost eight Marines and a Navy corpsman when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off San Clemente Island during pre-deployment training. Allen attended funerals for several of the Marines, including Pfc. Evan Bath, who, like Allen, was fascinated with military history.
“If Pfc. Bath was here now; he’d be one of the guys I would have gotten into this hobby,” Allen said.
Camp Pendelton’s 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines were also particularly hard hit by the suicide bomb explosion at the Kabul Airport during the United State’s final troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Ten of 13 service members killed in the attack were from the unit.
“They’re all our brothers; they’re guys I saw in the chow hall, at the barbershops; we all wear the same uniform,” Allen said. “I don’t think the public truly gets the self-sacrifice all the Americans gave in conflicts. And, I hope to God many never have to experience that. But that’s why young men and women serve in the Armed Forces, so Americans have a choice or option.”
Gentile agrees with Allen that the average American might not understand the depth of military service.
“By and large, the majority of the American public is no longer tied to the military,” Gentile said, adding the efforts of reenactment groups are “a great way to expose students to the military and bring awareness to the American people at large.”
Anderson’s reenactments for her classes have sparked greater interest among the students, which could translate to more engagement in their stewardship in the community and possibly in the military, Laguna Beach High School principal Jason Allemann said. Each year a handful of graduates go to a service branch boot camp or a military academy.
“Ultimately, it’s about making a connection and what we learn in the real world,” said Allemann. “It builds a curiosity.”
That’s exactly what happened for Parker Forgash, a student in Anderson’s class, who said he had “shivers and goosebumps” after taking in one of her recent lessons.
“It’s made everyone a more active listener,” he said, “and left us feeling grateful for what happened in the wars.”