Almanac

News - November 20, 2013

Littlefield's tanks heading east

by Dave Boyce

At this time a year from now, about 80 of the 240 tanks and other armored vehicles of war in the Jacques Littlefield collection in the hills above Portola Valley will have taken a cross-country trip, likely by train, to a new home 20 miles west of Boston, in Stow, Massachusetts.

Once there, the meticulous attention these mechanized weapons received under the care of the late Mr. Littlefield and his crew of restorers will enable some impressive events: re-enactments of tank battles from significant 20th century conflicts.

The nonprofit Collings Foundation is assembling a 60,000-square-foot building for indoor display of the vehicles, but there are also plans for an outdoor amphitheater on some of the 69 acres the foundation owns. The viewing public will hear the grumble of tank engines and the ominous clanking of metal treads. They will feel the ground shake and smell the diesel fuel permeating the air.

"It's a much more immersive and impactful experience," said Rob Collings, the foundation's executive director.

The Collings foundation is taking over management of the collection from the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, which Mr. Littlefield organized in 1998 to help serve the interests of authors, historians, educators, the defense industry, veterans groups, model makers and the entertainment industry, relatives told the Almanac for an earlier story. Mr. Littlefield died in January 2009.

The MVTF donated the vehicles "in order to create a permanent home that will maintain and share the core collection into perpetuity," Mr. Collings said.

The indoors display in Massachusetts will be a tank museum, but customized around fewer artifacts and interactive. The 240 vehicles in Portola Valley left visitors "glassy eyed after a while," Mr. Collings said. "It's too much to take in." With 80 vehicles chosen for their military significance the other 160 will be auctioned off in August 2014 in Portola Valley a visit should be less unstructured.

Along with tanks, armored personnel carriers, tank destroyers and self-propelled and anti-tank guns, the collection includes missile launchers, field artillery, reconnaissance vehicles, artillery, anti-aircraft weapons, trucks, tractors and amphibious vehicles.

The Collings Foundation has an additional goal: inculcating in visitors feelings of gratitude toward veterans. One way to generate such feelings is through a war film, Mr. Collings said, using "Saving Private Ryan" as an example. The fictional but realistic account of the June 1944 invasion of Normandy including scenes with tanks "left (viewers) feeling grateful" to the Allied soldiers who took part, he said. Can that be done without a movie? How do you make the case to the public that, without efforts by the military, "we might not have our freedom," Mr. Collings asked.

One of the foundation's programs, the Wings of Freedom tour, creates brushes with "living history" in the form of restored World War II bombers that are flown into U.S. communities and available for 30-minute rides. When visiting the Peninsula, the propeller-driven aircraft land at Moffett Field in Mountain View. (Tickets for the 2014 tour will be $450 per person, according to the foundation website.)

This reporter was a passenger from Hollister to Moffett Field in a B-25 twin-engine bomber, alternately crouching and kneeling in the plexiglass nose as American bombardiers had to do. The trip did generate feelings, including humility, vulnerability and a sober appreciation of what the bombardiers endured. The ceaseless roar of the engines was overwhelming, their huge propellers whirling almost within reach, and the aircraft itself was memorable for its raw practicality, its interior devoid of anything designed for human comfort and ease of movement.

Evolution of a tank

Such live-action experience will not be part of the tank demonstrations, but there will be live-action observation. The re-enacted outdoor battles could include scenes from the Battle of the Bulge in Germany, Desert Storm in Iraq and the Korean War, Mr. Collings said. There will be gunfire, but not with live rounds.

The collection will include tanks from World Wars I and II, including four American Sherman tanks collected so as to show their evolution, and at least two varieties of German Panzer tanks. The Panzer Panther in the collection took five men working full time for five years to restore it, he said. "It's just an absolutely remarkable restoration."

The Panzer I, Mr. Collings said, spent its early life masquerading as a tractor, whose manufacture was allowed under the armistice rules after World War I. When German forces overran Poland in 1939, the tanks they used were modified tractors, Mr. Collings said.

"It's very, very historically significant. It was what started it all and today, there are precious few of them left," he said. "It is truly an amazing piece of history."

The tanks will travel by truck from Portola Valley "at the quietest part of the daylight hours to avoid causing problems," Mr. Collings said. If they travel by train to Massachusetts, they will be visible to observers, but shrink-wrapped in opaque plastic, he said. The cost of moving them to their new home: at least $1 million.

While the total collection may be worth $30 million, even $100 million today couldn't duplicate the restoration work done by Mr. Littlefield and company a huge and dedicated commitment, Mr. Collings said.

"It's not going too far to say that they were the best in the world," he said. "These vehicles are the finest out there. ... the artifacts are simply perfect and functioning."

"The public is the biggest winner of this whole thing, to have access to these vehicles," he said.

More information

Go to tinyurl.com/PVBG2 for a Boston Globe story from October 2013 on a Collings Foundation battle re-enactment that includes tanks.

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