Magazine | August 27, 2018, Issue

To Collect and Preserve

The author in his M4A1 Sherman Grizzly medium tank (Erik Albertson)
World War II–era tanks, Jeeps, and machine guns help keep historical memory alive

It began simply enough. What person my age didn’t grow up watching the on-screen heroics of U.S. soldiers in World War II movies? In almost every one there was the combat-weary U.S. Army sergeant wielding his trusty and iconic Thompson submachine gun. I served in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman attached to Marine Corps units and caught the “green disease.” It never really leaves you, and years later I decided I wanted to have an authentic WWII M1A1 Thompson submachine gun. My wife supported this idea, and thus began my collection. Having purchased a Thompson, I counted down the eight months for a transfer approval from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), passed my ATF background check, and brought it home. It was a thing of beauty and craftsmanship, a true manufacturing masterpiece of steel and wood. It was an absolute joy to fire, as any who have fired one can attest. It was also an increasingly rare piece of history.

During World War II, the industrial might of the U.S. supplied many of the Allied forces. We built tanks, trucks, weapons, and shells, as well as machine guns. The numbers might surprise you: We built 249,380 of the M1918A2 Browning Automatic Rifle, 824,623 of the M1 and M1A1 Thompson sub-machine gun, and 622,163 of the M3 and M3A1 Grease Gun (so called because this automatic weapon looked like a mechanic’s grease gun). That is a total of 1,696,166 machine guns. Yet production of them almost entirely ceased in 1945. According to a response to a 2016 FOIA request, the ATF, which regulates all machine guns in private hands in the U.S., lists in its database only 490,664 such weapons today. Their number decreases every year.

My collection grew alongside my passion for it. I purchased an M3 Grease Gun after my Thompson, and then an M2HB Browning .50 machine gun, often called the “Ma Deuce.” This large, heavy machine gun has been in continuous service in the U.S. military since 1933.

Ah, but what is the perfect complement and firing platform for the Ma Deuce? A WWII Jeep, of course! My wife saw the logic of this related collecting interest, or simply didn’t want to hear more, and off I went. I bought a Ford GPW model dated to 1943, and the competition between my weapons collection and my vehicle collection began. I quickly learned that purchasing WWII vehicles isn’t akin to purchasing used cars. There are always quirks and well-intentioned yet utterly unreliable ad hoc repairs made by previous owners, and there are no guarantees. As I drove my Jeep home from the DMV, the throttle cable became entangled with another component of the engine and raced the vehicle to full speed. Using four extra hands I didn’t realize I had, I managed to wield the gearshift, steering wheel, and hand throttle while braking and clutching and made it home in one piece. If I had had any hair, it would certainly have gone gray.

I acquired a few more light WWII vehicles, but it was clear my collection would remain incomplete until I added the ultimate piece: a tank.

My first tank was an M4A1 Sherman Grizzly medium tank, built in 1943. I flew to the seller’s location and inspected the tank with great enthusiasm and a discerning eye. Being a neophyte to tank collecting, I quickly deduced that the tank was large, smelly, and green. I took it for a test drive (yes, qualified buyers do this) and loved it. It was much easier to drive than one might expect, as long as one had driven a manual transmission. It handled well and rattled even better. I bought it and immediately began to learn that transporting a tank is never routine. There are countless state permits required (wide load, heavy load, etc.), rules restricting trucking traffic on certain days of the week, and significant costs.

Yet it was worth it. The Sherman was truly the tank that won the war. While German WWII armor (meaning tanks, tank destroyers, and assault guns) were rarely operational more than 60 percent of the time, the American Sherman tank was at least 89 percent operational during the entirety of WWII, and often more so. Further, while Sherman tanks were taken out by German armor and guns, resulting in an average of 1.1 crewmen per tank becoming casualties, German tank crewmen were lost at a rate eight times higher. The Sherman was reliable, durable, and survivable. Thanks to it, at the end of World War II, the U.S. had achieved dominance over opposing German armored vehicles, with a kill ratio of 2.75 to 1.

I set to the task of bringing my new tank back to fully operational status. There are no WWII-tank-parts stores, but eBay comes close. Finding engines and parts requires one to plug into the network of tank owners and restoration experts. It’s a small network, and an incredibly supportive one. These sages readily offer up their expertise, often without compensation, and know all the nooks and crannies where parts, and even other tanks, can be found and purchased. Applying this knowledge required skilled hands, so I hired a full-time mechanic to attend to my tank, my Jeep, and a few other light WWII vehicles I had picked up along the way. I added two more mechanics in short order, and this small yet dedicated team, alongside vendors and restorers, brought my Sherman back to life. It is today fully operational, including the main gun.

Can anyone buy a tank? In the U.S., the answer is generally yes, and there aren’t any specific federal-level licensing requirements to do so. There are strict licensing and registration requirements for live (functioning) machine guns and main guns, however. I started a weapons-manufacturing company while building my collection and was thereby able to fabricate the weapons as well as legally register them. For the average civilian without a federal firearms license, it is legal to own a tank with a live main gun, but one will wait a year or more for the background check and tax stamp to be issued. With venerable armored vehicles, patience is a requirement, be it for licensing, registration, or the never-ending quest for parts.

What prevents most folks from purchasing a tank? Price. These rare, aged vehicles begin at about $250,000. The highest sum of which I am aware was $2 million for a U.S. WWII M26 Pershing medium tank.

Fair warning to any who seek to own a tank: It is a constant labor of love. World War II tanks have two states: breaking and broken. You will almost certainly spend more than the purchase price restoring and maintaining the tank.

I rapidly added other tanks, such as an M5 Stuart light tank and an M4A3(105) HVSS Sherman medium tank, as well as tank destroyers such as the M18 Hellcat Gun Motor Carriage, which was timed at 74 miles per hour in a speed test during World War II, and the M36 Jackson Gun Motor Carriage. I added artillery such as the M7B1 Priest Howitzer Motor Carriage and the 155mm Gun M1, known as the Long Tom. My WWII collection now includes more than 60 vehicles and artillery pieces and an equal number of weapons. I could assert that it is complete, but my wife would tell you that she’s heard that line before and that you shouldn’t believe me.

The collection isn’t simply my own obsession. My wife oversees project management and expenses. My three kids are learning about each vehicle and weapon and acquiring the ability to operate them all safely. My middle daughter taught her then-boyfriend how to load and fire the 76mm main gun on one of my M18 Hellcat tank destroyers and then drove this 40,000-pound armored vehicle around our farm like it was a golf cart. It has become the family hobby.

As my collections grew, so did my need for assistance. In addition to the full-time mechanics, I formed a team of like-minded history buffs, hiring some full time to maintain the facilities, weapons, and vehicles, as well as adding a small army of volunteers. Formally incorporated as the nonprofit WW2 Armor, the members come from all walks of life: mechanics and machinists, former and current members of the military and law-enforcement officers, computer programmers and information-technology professionals, doctors, and teachers. All share a bond — a love of WWII history and a profound respect for those who served in the fight against tyranny.

We bring the weapons and vehicles to WWII events and reenactments. We demonstrate them by firing blanks and black powder and driving them around, providing for the attendees a sense of what it was like to hear, see, and smell them in action. We can tell and, more important, show the history of a U.S. Army armored division in Europe in WWII. At events such as the D-Day reenactment in Conneaut, Ohio, every August, 30,000 people can come beside and touch an actual WWII armored vehicle. We tell them what it’s like to serve as a member of a tank crew and operate its weapons. It’s more than just firing, of course; we share what it’s like to eat and work in the armor, explain how we maintain weapons and vehicles that are more than 70 years old, and discuss the safety challenges they present. With close supervision, we permit event guests to hold the unloaded weapons. Having felt their weight and witnessed the recoil, they learn that a soldier one-handedly firing a Thompson might be the best special effect in movies.

The history we share is, of course, that of brave men and not just weapons or vehicles. We love it when someone meets us and then says to a family member, “That is what Grandpa did” or “That is what Grandma built.” Sometimes the speaker is the veteran himself.

I’ve had the honor of meeting men who used these very vehicles and weapons during World War II. In some cases their eyes become moist. As a veteran, I understand the reaction. They’re thinking of their buddies most of all, and speak of them warmly. They tell us funny stories and sad stories, and share their experiences of life in war. They enlighten us and expand the body of knowledge around World War II. Their memories become an immortal gift, one made visceral through the demonstration of the vehicles and weapons.

One WWII veteran and his family approached me as I presented one of my M3 Grease Guns to the attendees. He told us he carried one during the war and with a smile asked whether he could hold it. I confirmed it was unloaded, of course, and then handed it to him gently. He snapped it up as if he were back in service, checked that it was indeed unloaded and in a safe configuration, and began to tell all around of some of his narrow scrapes and experiences as part of an armored division. His son later told me that he had never heard his father speak so much about the war, and hadn’t seen him so energetic and engaged in several months.

It is personal for my family and me. My grandfather and two great uncles served in World War II. My wife’s grandfather, Nathan Kaplan z”l, was a truck driver in Patton’s Third Army and helped liberate prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. To Jews, each of these weapons and vehicles is a reminder of what was done to end the Shoah, the Holocaust, the concerted, witting attempt to wipe the Jewish people from the face of the earth. The attempt might have succeeded but for the fighting spirit of the Allied forces. When speaking to groups of WWII veterans, I like to remind them that they are lifesavers and life creators: They saved the lives of those they liberated from the camps, and they also made new life possible. I remember seeing older folks in my grandmother’s hometown of Skokie, Ill., fading numbers tattooed on their forearms, walking into a restaurant with their grandchildren. Those kids, like so many of the friends of my children, are here because of what the Allies did. These weapons and vehicles are part of that history. They are weapons of war and tools of liberation.

In his poem “Ozymandias,” Shelley talks of the bold words carved at the base of a ruined statue: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty . . .” Our WWII veterans are leaving us at a significant rate. Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that only 558,000 are still with us. Approximately 362 leave us each day. A famously reticent generation, they take with them the firsthand accounts that enrich our understanding of the war that defeated a great tyranny and a greater evil. Not unlike Shelley’s Ozymandias, all that they will leave behind physically are their works, including their tools of war. And not unlike the statue, these items are falling into ruin. It is thus to us collectors that the duty of preservation and education must fall. My family and I, as well as our staff and volunteers, are dedicated to preserving and demonstrating the story of those brave people and the tools they used. What began as a single weapon grew into a collection and a mission: preservation, education, and a duty to accomplish both.

Oh, and did I mention that it’s a lot of fun?

Rob Thomas — Mr. Thomas, a rabbi, is the CEO of the nonprofit WW2 Armor and a member of National Review Institute’s board of trustees.

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