Survivors of war face destruction by weather Ordnance museum lacks funds to save relics

January 01, 1996|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,SUN STAFF

History is rusting away at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

An imposing Mark IV tank, for example -- which was built by the British and helped drive German forces out of France in the 1918 battle of Armentieres -- is collapsing from the inside.

Rain, ice and snow have seeped into its interior and are rusting out the floor. Changes in temperature, acid rain -- even bird droppings -- are eroding its exterior walls and tracks.

The Mark IV and many other weapons that survived conflicts from World War I to Desert Storm now face a deadly assault by Maryland's weather.

"It takes Mother Nature a long time to reclaim a tank, but she can do it," says William F. Atwater, curator of APG's Ordnance Museum.

Moving the nearly 240 tanks and other heavy weaponry under a roof appears to be the solution, Mr. Atwater says.

But he's far short of the estimated $3.5 million needed for such an ambitious project. Hampered by the federal government's no-frills budget of $25,000 a year for the museum, and with no funding from the state or Harford County, he says he has no choice but to watch the machines of war slowly rust away.

"There are pieces of equipment here that must be repaired now, must be moved under cover now. We have to act quickly or they will be lost to us forever," he says.

Some of the museum pieces, painted flat black, line Maryland Boulevard -- also known as "Tank Row." But most are displayed on 25 acres surrounding the 50,000-square-foot Ordnance Museum.

Mr. Atwater hopes to build a large structure -- about 750 feet by 450 feet -- consisting of a roof, gravel floor and four walls. If the tanks are put under a roof, he says, he could have them painted with their original colors and markings.

Part of the mission of the museum, which is open to the public and has about 200,000 visitors a year, is to teach officers logistics, tactics and strategy.

"Every one of these tanks has a story," says Mr. Atwater, who has a doctorate in philosophy.

He points with pride to a Czech T-35 tank, the only one in existence. The tank, used at the beginning of World War II, is superior in every way to the German tanks, he says. Germany conquered Czechoslovakia, usurping its military manufacturing capabilities, when France and England sought to appease Hitler, he says.

To preserve such pieces of history and raise money for their repair, the Ordnance Museum Foundation Inc. was created four years ago by military buffs, says President Richard N. Carnegie.

The 250-member nonprofit group has raised $30,000 and plans to solicit large contributions from corporate donors, he says.

"We are hoping that U.S. companies like General Dynamics or German companies like Porsche will want to preserve the tanks they helped to build," Mr. Carnegie says.

State Sen. William H. Amoss, a Harford Democrat, believes about $500,000 in state money could be available to build a roof over at least some of the equipment. "The state has given money to other museums, like the Decoy Museum in Havre de Grace, so why not to the Ordnance Museum?"

But he wants a commitment from the Army, which operates the museum, to pay for a concrete floor -- a safeguard against potential environmental problems -- before he asks the General Assembly for money.

"This is the ecological solution," Mr. Amoss says. "If the tanks were elevated, there wouldn't be any concerns about lead paint flaking off and into the ground water."

Some of the tanks also may contain up to 600 gallons of diesel fuel, as well as oil, hydraulic fluid and transmission fluid, Mr. Atwater says. Draining and disposing of those fluids creates another potential environmental hazard, he says.

But any major construction project, such as a concrete floor, would have to be paid for by Congress -- and that's very unlikely, says Ed Starnes, public affairs officer for the Ordnance Center and School at Aberdeen.

The tanks, despite their problems, still are an attraction. On a recent afternoon about 50 people, including more than 20 tourists from Tokyo, visited the museum.

"This is very interesting for us, to see the weapons America has used," said 34-year-old Albert Chin from Tokyo. "In most museums, the exhibits are put away from the visitors, but here you can get as close as you want."

David Williams, 49, a retired Army colonel from Newport News, Va., said he has been to military museums around the nation. "This is our heritage. My father and grandfather rode in these tanks, used these weapons to defend our country."

Aberdeen Proving Ground's Ordnance Museum, closed today for the New Year's Day, is generally open weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Because Defense Department funding has been approved, the museum remains open during the current federal shutdown.

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