Museums Battle Over Ownership of WWII 'Stuart' Tank

An M3/M5 Stuart tank hitches a ride on an M26 Tank Transporter (Dragon Wagon). The ownership of a similar tank is being contested by two museums in Washington state. (Getty Images/John Gomez)
An M3/M5 Stuart tank hitches a ride on an M26 Tank Transporter (Dragon Wagon). The ownership of a similar tank is being contested by two museums in Washington state. (Getty Images/John Gomez)

A pair of local museums are trading verbal artillery over custody rights of a World War II-era tank, with both claiming ownership of the 10-ton artifact.

Lewis County Historical Society President Peter Lahmann says that on June 9, he and some helpers will show up to the Veterans Memorial Museum with a large truck outfitted with a tow bar, aiming to reclaim the M3 Stuart tank they say has been on loan to the veterans museum for about 15 years.

When they show up, said Veterans Memorial Museum Executive Director Chip Duncan, they'll find a locked gate, because the tank was intended to be kept at his museum in perpetuity.

Both Lahmann and Duncan say they hold no ill will toward the other museum, but each holds steadfast to an ownership claim of the tank, and they admit attempts to resolve the matter have become contentious.

"It's like if I loaned you my lawnmower, and you kept it for a long time, and I asked for it back and you said, 'No it's mine now,'" Lahmann said. "I'm not buying it."

The tank was acquired by the Historical Society in 1982, and it sat in front of the building until it was moved to Veterans Memorial Museum in 2003. Lahmann maintains that the move was a temporary loan, and he's eager for his museum to again feature the tank.

"We really think it's time to come home," he said.

Duncan doesn't see it that way.

"It was a tank given to us by the Lewis County museum," he said. "No ifs, and or buts about it. ... Basically, it was a mutual agreement, a transfer from the Lewis County Historical Museum to the Veterans Museum, which would require an agreement between both parties to return it."

Such an agreement is one Duncan has no intention of cosigning.

"[Veterans Memorial Museum] is a military museum," he said. "There obviously was no military museum at the time [that the Historical Society obtained the tank], but that's probably where it would have ended up, because it's better suited. ... It fits here better."

The dispute has been hampered by what both sides describe as unproductive communication and unresolved questions over the terms of the tank's 2003 move. Neither side has paperwork outlining the agreement to move the tank, and both say their legal advisers have assured them their claim is valid.

Both sides agree that paperwork does exist for the loan of the tank's engine, which is featured in the veterans museum separate from the tank. Duncan says he will be happy to return the engine, but maintains the tank was given under different terms. Lahmann argues that it's unlikely the tank would have been given permanently if its engine was only a loan.

The veterans museum also says it has an archived letter from then-executive director Ernie Graichen of the Historical Society, in which he refers to the tank's move as a "transfer." That wording, Duncan says, proves it was not intended to be a loan.

Meanwhile, Duncan complains that Historical Society leadership refuses to meet with him or the veterans museum board.

By his account, the Historical Society first asked for the tank back in December of 2015, which was followed by a meeting in February of 2016 that "wasn't very fruitful at all." Lahmann described the meeting as a "hostile environment."

When the issue resurfaced more recently, Duncan says he has pushed for a meeting between both museums' leadership teams, but has been rebuffed.

"Every single time, we've been told no and ignored," he said.

Lahmann said more discussion is unlikely to be productive.

"We've met before, we've exchanged correspondence, and we think the time for talk is pretty well ended," he said. "It's time for action."

The Historical Society's lawyers, Lahmann said, sent over a 30-day notice of the museum's intent to reclaim the tank, which he intends to carry out on June 9. If Lahmann follows through with his plan to show up with a tow vehicle, Duncan says he won't be able to gain access to the tank.

"We've simply asked for a meeting between both boards," he said. "Until we get that, nothing is going to happen."

He added that logistics won't allow for the tank's removal anyway.

"We're under construction right now in that very same lot," he said. "I can't have people in there because it's a safety issue. ... On June 9, because we're still under construction, the gate's going to be closed."

If a standoff ensues, Lahmann said he doesn't intend to escalate the situation.

"They can unlock the gate, and we can go in and get it back," he said. "Or they can not unlock the gate, in which case we'll be polite about it. We'll go back and regroup and come up with our strategy."

For his part, Duncan said he will be at his son's graduation on June 9, although he's still pushing for a meeting between the two museums on a proximate date.

For Lahmann, the tank is a personal connection. Before it belonged to the Historical Society, it was a "lawn ornament" at the National Guard's post at the Centralia Armory, where Lahmann's stepfather served. He remembers riding on the tank during a parade as a child.

If the Historical Society reacquires the tank, Lahmann says he aims to do maintenance and restoration work on the tank, possibly even getting it running again.

He wants it to take part in local parades, and he says he'd be happy to loan it back to the veterans museum for events.

"Once we get word out, this is going to engender quite a bit of interest in the community," he said.

Duncan maintains that the tank is best positioned right where it is and noted the complication of finding a legal mechanism to resolve the issue.

"It's not like a car," he said. "There's no title to it."

Despite the tank dispute, both Duncan and Lahmann said they were holding fire over the other organization as a whole, with Duncan saying he didn't want to say anything that would hurt the Historical Society.

"Both of these are volunteer organizations," added Lahmann. "You have good-hearted people who are doing the best they can. ... I didn't really think this was going to be a contentious issue."

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This article is written by Alex Brown from The Chronicle, Centralia, Wash. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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