Load 'em Up

Tanks, Guns And Other Artifacts Of Military History Move South From Apg To Fort Lee, Va.

August 17, 2009|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

With heavy equipment trailers, forklifts, towing cables and cranes capable of hoisting 120 tons, the U.S. Army began the largest museum move in its history this month.

About 60 pieces from the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground were loaded and shipped 200 miles south to Fort Lee, Va., where a much grander facility will soon be under construction. The move was the first of a three-phase relocation to the new facility, which will be nearly triple the size of the old.

Given the massive and unwieldy nature of the collection, including dozens of tanks weighing many tons, movers tackled the outdoor exhibits first. It took two cranes and several hours to load a 70,000-pound German Elefant tank from World War II onto a flatbed truck.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions misstated the year that a new museum will open to house artifacts from the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The new facility at Fort Lee, Va., is scheduled to open in 2012.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

The outdoor exhibits, many of which have rusted in the weather for 50 years, will eventually be housed in a spacious, climate-controlled facility at the Virginia post.

"For the first time in decades, related pieces will be placed next to each other so they can tell a better story," said Joseph Rainer, museum director, who will be moving south with the collection. "We will be staging these pieces chronologically and best of all, preserving them from the weather."

Most pieces, which were covered with canvas for the trip, traveled with another vehicle flashing "oversized load" to passing motorists, who, for security reasons, were kept unaware that they were driving by history, said Rainer.

"This is the major repository of the history of military technology dipping back into the 19th and late18th centuries," he said.

The collection is also integral to teaching the history of the artillery corps. Each year, more than 17,000 Ordnance School students at APG study the history of artillery in the museum's exhibits and archives. Those studies of century-old technology have often spawned new ideas, like the 19th-century pack saddle that has been adapted for use today in the mountains of Central Asia.

The Ordnance School will be moving to Fort Lee in Virginia as part of BRAC, the nationwide military base realignment, and more than half of the museum collection will go with it.

"It's like Solomon's dilemma," said Rainer, who must break up one of the largest collections of military artifacts in the world. "How do I split the collection? If I had my druthers, I would take everything. I love them all."

He chose several pieces, based on their uniqueness or significance to the corps' history. Among the "definitely going" items is the restored Stuart M5 tank with a hedgerow cutter that U.S. soldiers fashioned in the field within days of the Normandy invasion.

"It tells an important story of improvisation in the time of battle," Rainer said. "Soldiers had 300 of these mounted on tanks within 48 hours. Without the cutters, they could not have gotten through a terrain of rock walls" along which thick hedges grew. The cutters, fashioned from metal obstacles the Germans had installed on the Normandy beach, cut a path through the hedges and rocks.

Also moving are several examples of a French-made field gun, one of the first rapid-fire shooters produced during the First World War and still used in the next. An M6 American tank, one of 100 produced but never put into service, is the last one that remains in the U.S. and must be included.

Construction of the Fort Lee museum will begin next spring with an opening set for 2011. "Anzio Annie," a German gun that U.S. troops captured during World War II, will likely go in the next move from APG, but by rail. The 135-foot-long gun, which weighs close to 215 tons, must arrive before the walls go up at the Fort Lee site so it can be placed on a concrete slab there. Construction can then proceed around it.

Among the displays will be several lifelike mannequins made in Baltimore. Rainer will outfit them in various military uniforms. Several soldier mannequins will replicate their combat role in a tank with a cut-away side. "Norma Jean," a riveter model named for Marilyn Monroe, who was an ordnance factory worker before she turned actress, will take a place among the figures. She will wear a kerchief and dress printed with the Ordnance Corps' flaming bomb insignia.

The APG museum, which, typically, welcomes about 70,000 visitors annually, closed temporarily for safety reasons during the move, but has returned to its daily hours. As pieces leave, many items will be added to the exhibits from Army communications agencies transferring to APG from Fort Monmouth, N.J.

"The museum shows where we have come from and where we are going and gives pride in this branch of the service," Rainer said.

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