William Atwater, Apg Curator, Thinks Tanks

February 03, 1991|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff writer

When ABC newswoman Diane Sawyer wanted to know about the U.S. Army'sM-1 tanks, she went to see William F. Atwater at the U.S. Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Atwater's job as curator of the museum has turned him into a walking reference book of military history since war erupted in the Persian Gulf. But that doesn't surprise him.

"We're sort of the official repository of military history," he said.

Atwater estimates that the museum is getting about 40 telephone calls a week for information on military tactics, equipment and practices --everything from dog tags to mine fields.

"I'm seeing more people asking more questions of a serious nature," Atwater said.

Before the war started, the museum received about one call a week, said Atwater, who has been the curator for two years.

The flood of inquiries has come from many sources, including newscasters, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council, the armed services and relatives of soldiers fighting Iraq.

Sawyer, for example, went to Aberdeen Proving Ground on Jan. 23 to get information on M-1 tanks -- the army's main battle tank -- for her show "PrimeTime Live."

Another ABC news crew arrived at the museum last Tuesday to film Soviet tanks used by the Iraqi army.

The museum has two tanks, the T-62 and the T-55, that are used by Iraq. Atwater said he hopes to get a T-72 tank, another Iraqi tank, as the war progresses.

After Sawyer's visit, Atwater said he got a telephone call from the office of the Secretary of the U.S. Army. Army officials wanted to know where the word "howitzer" originated in case they were asked during a briefing.

What did Atwater tell them? Howitzer is a German word that originated in the 15th century, Atwater noted. It was then used to describe a stone-thrower or catapult; now a howitzer is a short cannon that fires mortar rounds.

Atwater said he also fielded questionsfrom members of the American Legion. They wanted to know what types of weapons soldiers now use and how they keep them free from dust.

Relatives, meanwhile, call to ask if soldiers still wear dog tags and what kind of food the soldiers eat, Atwater said.

Atwater said he couldn't repeat what the CIA and the security council asked. That'sclassified information, he noted.

To answer all the questions, Atwater said he and his staff usually go to the museum's reference books or APG's library.

Atwater said he also turns to his "old-boy network" -- made up of his former military associates.

But at times, Atwater needs to go no further than himself to answer some questions.After all he holds a Ph.D. in military history and served in Vietnam as a marine.

Despite the interest in the war and military trivia, Atwater said he hasn't noticed more people coming to the museum, which has the largest collection of vintage armored vehicles on the Eastern seaboard.

Atwater noted that the winter is usually a slow time for the museum. He added that increased security measures since thewar started makes it harder for visitors to get to see the ordnance museum.

About 100,000 visitors a year come to see the museum's display of 225 vintage tanks, artillery pieces and weapons.

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