The setting is a shaded and humid jungle slope. A bridge crosses over a dried-up stream, but it is within sight of a pile of sandbags set up by the opposing team. The raiding German forces decide to distract Allies stationed at the sandbags with one member armed with a Sturmgewehr 43 rifle stationed at the far end. “Links flügel vor! (Left flank forward!),” the commander shouts as his troops go round tall bamboo stalks to attack from the bottom. The Germans fail to take the fortified encampment.
Nevertheless, there are heavy casualties on both sides, measured in the welts and bruises caused by the BB pellets. Still, the tension, fear, and adrenaline the players felt were undoubtedly real.
This is a typical Sunday afternoon for the World War II airsoft hobbyists. The members regularly get together on weekends, don their full uniforms, and go out and battle. Each one has taken meticulous care to recreate the impression of a particular person or member of an actual World War II unit, from German patrols to Allied airborne units.
The attention to detail would impress any historian, from the camouflage pattern of the uniforms right down to the type of fabric. The game itself is intense, but it’s made more difficult by thick uniforms, a full loadout, and toy guns that weigh a tad less, if not exactly as much as the real thing. Still, the men go back out to play, round after round, throughout the afternoon.
“It’s not just all about form,” says Albert Labrador, a modeller and photographer. “It’s the sense of going back and appreciating what was worn, what the equipment looked like. It’s one thing to look at a picture, it’s another thing to be burdened by the actual equipment.”
The group started out with just a few members, avid World War II buffs looking for common ground with other airsoft players. With World War II modelling, collecting, and re- enacting being closely related fields, it wasn’t long before the group formed over a common hobby.
“This group is a combination of scale modellers, collectors, re-enactors, airsofters, historians. Most of us are members of the Philippine Scouts Heritage Society,” says Jojo Nicolas, a founding member of the airsoft group.
The PSHS is an organization dedicated to preserving the history, heritage, and legacy of the Philippine Scouts. Largely forgotten by the general public, the regiment consisted mostly of Filipinos serving as enlisted soldiers in the United States Army units headed by American officers. The first Scout companies were organized by the US in 1901 to repel Filipino revolutionary forces. Philippine Scout regiments later became one of the first United States Army units to see combat in World War II.
Today, their memory is kept alive by re-enactors, a group of passionate history buffs that stage accurate historical re-enactments of the regiment’s valor during reunions and memorial days. “We re-enact to remember our heroes,” Jojo says, proudly donning the Philippine Scouts impressions during these events. “We just want to show it to people to get whatever lesson they can from it.”
It’s certainly well-appreciated by the veterans, as Rainer Villanueva notes. “After the ceremony, there was one old man who looked at my sleeve insignia. It was the same as the one on his hat. He was touching the insignia and rank markings. He told me, ‘Hijo, yan ang suot naming nuong araw. Salamat at hindi mo kami nakalimutan.' It’s really touching. You give value to the veterans.”
The tradition of airsoft
“We all have our collections at home,”Jojo explains. “Old helmets, uniforms. Airsoft was a big help, especially with the wide availability of World War II guns. When the airsoft guns came, we brought the uniforms out.”
Airsoft imitation firearms are sometimes called gas guns, BB guns, or Automatic Electric Guns (AEG). They can be spring-, electric-, or gas-powered (gas blowback, GBB). Though first appearing in the late 1970s, airsoft guns became popular in the Philippines only recently because of more reasonably priced, lifelike products from China.
Avid hobbyists began to form groups and play against each other in timed rounds at private locations. Game sites and repair shops quickly sprang up all over the country to sell guns and replica apparel, and offer repairs and modification.
The proliferation of China-made airsoft guns drove prices down radically. A replica weapon could sell for as low as PHP 4,000. Depending on the country of origin, others could go for as much as PHP 20,000. Some of the most highly prized are made by the Japanese manufacturer Tokyo Marui. Still, brand is hardly a consideration for these World War II skirmishers. The majority of the weapons, however, are based on existing firearms used by various armed and special forces around the world.
“It all started when I bought this World War II helmet,” recalls Jim Tripon, an avid airsofter since the 90s and a founding member. “I started looking around, browsing the airsoft forums, asking around who is interested in World War II. We all got together, had this one game, and we were all really fine with mixed-up gear.”
Research quickly remedied their inauthentic gear, helping the group steadily perfect their impressions to become the historically accurate re-enactors they are today.
“In our youth, most of us watched Combat,” Jojo says, referring to the 1966 war TV series. “You grew up watching these movies, reading these books, and you act out a part you’ve been looking at since you were a kid and see what it feels like.”
In the beginning, their uniforms were made locally using reproductions from abroad as patterns. These days, uniforms are made in India by a tailor who creates uniforms for re-enactors worldwide. For accessories, many profess an addiction to eBay for authentic pieces or high-quality reproductions used in re-enactments.
All these for a game in which skirmishers batter their weapons as they crawl toward cover or dash through brush to duck behind a stump.
Celwin Alohipan shrugs it off as he throws back a beer, post-game. “Some of it will just get damaged from normal wear and tear,” he says. “There are casualties during the game.”
Says Jojo, “We play using outdated gadgets, heavy guns, uncomfortable units, and hot wool because that’s what the soldiers used during the time. It might be a bit harder but we have fun. Bottom line is, we all want to have fun and feel good. It’s a bonus if we can share some history with others.”
Photographs by Pat Mateo
This story first appeared in Vault Issue 8 2012.