FORT BENNING, Ga. -- If you think refurbishing an old car is hard, try doing it with an 80-ton tank.
But that's exactly what goes on each day at the National Armor and Cavalry Museum on Sand Hill. Located off of Fifth Street, the museum is the world's second-largest collection of Armor-related artifacts. It currently includes about 400 vehicles such as tanks, tank destroyers, amphibious and airborne tanks and Cavalry items such as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle used in World War II. The primary goal of the collection is to preserve historic artifacts for the future so Soldiers can learn from them, said Len Dyer, the museum's director. "This really is a part of our country's national treasure," he said. "Guys in World War I, World War II, Korea -- they fought and died in these things. Our primary job here is to train Soldiers and that's what this collection is all about." Soldiers from a wide variety of units and training courses on Fort Benning, such as the Infantry and Armor Basic Officer Leader courses, master gunner courses, and many others, visit the museum's collection to learn about the vehicles and equipment Soldiers of the past used and encountered on the battlefield. In addition to American artifacts, the collection also includes tanks from Japan, Israel, Italy, Russia, Germany and France and spans from World War I to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We train not only Armor and Cavalry guys but also Infantry guys," Dyer said. "With the knowledge base the staff has, we can talk about artillery, aviation, a lot of areas we can touch on for the combined arms element of how tanks are fighting on the battlefield."
To make sure Soldiers get the most out of their visit, Dyer and mechanic Frank Albano spend a lot of time restoring the vehicles to look as close as possible to their original appearance. They are also helped by a small group of volunteers and Marines. "(Visiting the collection) benefits Soldiers immensely because it gives them an understanding of how these things work," Dyer said. "A lot of the vehicles we have in the collection are still being used by second- and third-world countries, so it's very possible for an American tanker today to run into an older vehicle. So the more information he knows about how that vehicle is capable of fighting, he'll have a better ability to deal with it." Restoring a tank can take anywhere from three months to a year or more, depending on the project, Dyer said. Most of the tanks the collection receives have been stripped of various parts and pieces over the years, and often have large amounts of rust. The biggest challenge in restoring the tanks is finding the right parts to go in them, Albano said. Finding replacement parts for a World War I-era tank is not simply a matter of purchasing them at a store, because many of the parts haven't been manufactured in nearly a century. Fortunately, Albano and Dyer have the means to fabricate similar-looking replacement parts on the museum's premises when they can't obtain the real thing.
The grounds house workshops for woodcutting, sandblasting, canvas and leather working, painting, and metal cutting and fabrication. There is also an extensive library of original technical manuals for American and German vehicles, which Dyer and Albano consult to make sure their replicas are as accurate as possible. By using materials such as rosin poured into molds, they are able to achieve a high degree of accuracy.
"Fortunately, knowledge is not as much of an issue for us," Dyer said. There are several steps Dyer and Albano go through in restoring a tank. First, they research its history in order to understand the time period to which they are going to restore it. Second, they determine the amount of time and funding it will take to restore it, and then order or fabricate parts. Next, they sandblast it to remove rust and grime, then repaint it and complete any other necessary work before making it available to Soldiers as part of the collection. "We try to use it a little bit more like an immersion laboratory classroom environment so the Soldiers can fully understand the capabilities of these vehicles," Dyer said. "We try to get them as up close as possible with whatever we have available here -- original radios, ammo in ammo lockers, so that when that Soldier gets into that vehicle, he feels like he's in a vehicle back in World War II." Albano, who served for 10 years as a tanker in the Army before working for the museum, said his job is very rewarding. "It makes me feel proud to keep history alive," he said.