Fro Press of Atlantic City: Different Drummers: War isn't hell, it's a hobby for Estell Manor man
Go to this website, via computer, to see full color photos of the diorama:
ESTELL MANOR — The Americans methodically advanced through the smoking ruins of a European village, Sherman tanks at the forefront, B-24s soaring overhead. The Germans, apparently caught off guard, scrambled to throw together a last-ditch defense — a difficult task indeed, as they were all about only an inch tall.
This epic confrontation took place not in the hedgerows of Normandy or the mountains of Germany, but in a basement in Estell Manor — where Stephen Sperlak has created not just a detailed, miniature diorama of a scene out of World War II, but has surrounded it with a collection of uniforms, weaponry and documents worthy of its own museum.
Click here for a photo gallery of Stephen Sperlak's work
Sperlak, 53, has been working on the diorama on and off for the last 10 years, he said, in between his jobs at the Mullica Township Public Works Department and as an Estell Manor Volunteer Firefighter — or, one could say, he’s been doing those jobs in between working on the diorama.
“I have a honey-do list,” Sperlak insisted. “It’s not like I don’t do other stuff. But sometimes on cold winter days, there’s snow out there and there’s nothing to do.”
He originally began the project with his nephews, Michael and Joey Sperlak of Cape May Court House. But as is often the case in model sets, the kids sort of grew out of it while the adults kept right on going.
Even Sperlak’s wife, Jane, has pitched in, creating a bombed-out building out of the tiny bricks usually used to make sidewalks in model train displays.
“That took forever,” Jane joked. “And I did all the little motorcycles and bicycles here, and all the little sausages in the German kitchen.”
“A little kielbasa, a little wine,” as Stephen described it.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Jane said. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. If he’s a fisherman, you got to go fishing, you know? ... But I like the fact that there’s no injured Americans, only injured Germans. Though one guy has a cut finger.”
American MPs direct traffic as mini-Americans and their mini-tanks roll past snowy hills held by German mountain troops on skis, their devoted German shepherds by their sides, all as a Bf 109 Messerschmitt fighter plane plummets from the sky above them — or, in this case, dangles eternally from the ceiling by a piece of string.
“All these models are very intricate,” Sperlak said. “You can see the little gas caps and handlebars on the motorcycle, and all the kinds of field gear the guys are wearing. ... And there are machine gun nests, and some Americans with bazookas next to some of the buildings, and some Airborne guys just dropped in on their parachutes over here.”
One unfortunate German is in a very painful position, forever falling backward in mid-gunshot. Meanwhile, a few bigshot Nazis, probably happy they’re not fighting vengeful Soviets on the Eastern Front, stand by their mini-staff cars in front of a town that suspiciously resembles a colorful, Dickensian Christmas village for model train sets.
Most model trains, however, aren’t unable to operate because the Wehrmacht has blocked off the tracks with bags of salt.
Of course, just a few feet away from the diorama are life-size reminders that the scenario that plays out on the tabletop actually happened. One shelf is a virtual step-by-step example of how the Nazi war machine shriveled up and died.
“When the war started, they had double-decal helmets,” Sperlak said, “wings out for the Luftwaffe and wings down for the army. And the edges were curved under and real smooth.”
As the war went on, smooth helmets gave way to helmets with rivets pressed into them and edges that turn —with a swastika on just one side, like some sort of evil Pittsburgh Steelers.
“In the last ditch of the war, there’s no decals on it and the edges aren’t rolled, they just stick out,” he said. “You can see how they got cheaper and cheaper as their factories were all destroyed.”
At least German helmets seemed comfortable, with liners and leather chin-straps. Sperlak showed a Japanese helmet that was simply tied on with string.
“This helmet here I got from a veteran in Vineland,” he said. “He just put stamps on it and mailed it home. Nobody touched it.”
Sperlak also had a Japanese Army flag — nicknamed “meatball” flags by GIs — that proved more poignant than it might seem at first glance.
“It has this guy’s name on it (in Japanese),” he said. “It may have been his parents who sent it to him. These little red squares are from when they brought it to Buddhist temples to have it blessed. And there’s a lot of signatures, everyone from his unit. All of his buddies signed his flag. Some of these flags have bloodstains on them.”
The bulk of his collection, meanwhile, is devoted to the U.S. Military — befitting someone whose father, Stephen Sperlak Sr., spent 31 years in the Coast Guard and whose uncle, August McCough of Wildwood, was wounded on Iwo Jima as a U.S. Marine.
There were wartime posters warning GIs that “A lighted match is visible from 3,000 feet: Observe blackout discipline!”, a poster of the five Sullivan brothers, who were all stationed on the same ship and died when it went down, uniforms from the 82nd Airborne, the Nurse Corps and a PT boat officer, division patches from every unit that fought on D-Day — even patriotic ads urging Americans to smoke Chesterfields.
In one display case are unit citations for Private Charles W. Richards of Mays Landing, whose 509th Parachute Infantry Battallion was given a unit citation for a drop on Carano, Italy, on Feb. 29, 1944 — a literal Leap Day — and above it, the program for the Christmas festivities at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1941.
There’s also a collection of U.S. helmets — which, unlike the Germans, improved in quality as the war progressed.
There are also items from other wars, such as a camouflaged World War I helmet that reads “France 1918/Belgium 1918”, and a photo and a plaque from the family of Lance Corporal Richard W. Davis, of Vineland, who was shot by a sniper in Vietnam while on a stretcher in a helicopter.
“How could you sell that?” Sperlak asked. “Some people say they’re collectors, but they’re just dealers. They think of it as a business. It’s a hobby to me. And it gives me a chance to talk to these guys.”
But once, in 2004, Sperlak did decide to sell some of his collection — to pay for a number of local veterans to travel to a reenactment in Pennsylvania.
“It was a way of saying, ‘Thanks for being there for us’,” he said. “Guys came out stiff and in wheelchairs, but when they rolled up to the front gate, they were 19 again. Eyes as big as silver dollars. It brings chills to just think about it.”