Tanks for the memories

History: Aberdeen Proving Ground officials are honoring the past by restoring their aging armor for the future.

June 25, 2000|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

ABERDEEN - The busload of visitors from China scrambled around the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum pointing wildly, snapping pictures and marveling at the collection of memorabilia plucked from the battlefields of the 20th century.

They posed in front of the gleaming French reconnaissance vehicle from World War II, restored with the care of a Renaissance painting. Others went outside for a photo in front of "Anzio Annie," a gargantuan railroad artillery piece that fired a round 30 miles, captured from the Germans. And a small group was fascinated by a Vietnamese booby trap cleverly concealed inside a pack of cigarettes.

More than 250,000 visitors are expected this year at the museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford County - an attraction experiencing a renewed cultural popularity while undergoing an $18 million restoration of the rusting behemoths from El Alamein, the Battle of the Bulge and the Meuse-Argonne.

Now, officials are attempting to raise $12 million more to build an indoor home for the 240 tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery pieces, once restored, over the next decade.

"This is the military patrimony left to the nation, and we'd like not to repeat another costly restoration project," said museum director William F. Atwater. "The pieces of the museum are not only historic treasures, they have practical value for engineers and scientists who gather lessons from the past for modern-day applications."

The museum artifacts were collected from World War I through Operation Desert Storm and are kept outside on the museum grounds. Most were snatched after a combat engagement and sent to Aberdeen for study by U.S. intelligence services and some eventually found their way to the museum, which traces its origin to 1918.

There are other indoor exhibits - smaller rifles, machine guns, mines and other weapons, all of which are inoperable.

Lighter themes

Some exhibits offer lighter themes, like the dependable Army jeep. Contrary to many tales, Atwater said, the jeep's name comes from the cartoon character Popeye's pet, which ate orchids and commuted between the third and fourth dimensions.

One of the most popular exhibits is a portion of the nation's first computer built by the Army at the Proving Ground in 1943. It weighed 30 tons and contained 11,000 vacuum tubes.

"We had a group of national high school valedictorians who recently visited for a lecture and, not surprisingly, not one of them knew what a vacuum tube was," said Atwater, who holds a doctorate in military history from Duke University. "They were further blown away when I told them their pocket calculators could do the same work as that monstrosity."

The students were equally interested in the restoration project, in which officials are attempting to head off potential environmental damage at the sprawling military base on the northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay.

The lead-based paint chipping and rusting from the tanks and gun pieces could work into the underground aquifer and local streams that empty into the bay. Many of the vehicles also contain oil and hydraulic fluids that could leak into the ground and into the waterways.

"This is a project that involved three important issues," said Atwater. "We have the environment, the historical and possible waste of government property. So getting it funded was not that great a problem. Getting the $10 million to $15 million for an indoor facility to protect the restored tanks and artillery pieces might, however, be another story."

Thinning ranks

When the project began last year, employees and regular visitors were alarmed that the ranks of "Tank Row," dozens of combat vehicles along the Proving Ground's main entrance road, were mysteriously thinning. Gaping holes along the grass median strip prompted calls to top brass.

"Tank Row is a stark reminder of the military past of our country," wrote researcher C.K. Zoltani. "As one who has worked at the Proving Ground since serving there in the military, I began noticing that one by one, the tanks and other exhibits are disappearing."

Zoltani, and others, will be happy to hear of the restoration plan and that those metal monsters that bounced and clanked in times past will be back, restored with exacting precision.

The first restored vehicle sits inside the main museum building, a 65-year-old French armored reconnaissance vehicle called an R-35. It was captured by the Germans in World War II and given to the Italian army, then hit by a round fired by a U.S. infantryman.

First, Atwater and his staff asked the French government about the original camouflage paint that was applied to the R-35. Within weeks, the museum had paint samples from the French. Could the French supply a rearview mirror the original vehicle had? They did.

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