By my count, I’ve visited close to 400 military museums of different sizes and shapes in three or four-dozen countries, but the American Armor Foundation Tank Museum in the small town of Danville, Virginia, is one for the books. Danville (population 43,000), on U.S. Highway 29 in rural southern Virginia is hardly where you’d expect to find a world-class tank museum.
Tucked away under some trees, the museum boasts an impressive collection of 118 vehicles, which includes tanks, armoured personnel carriers, armoured cars, and tracked and wheeled artillery. Throw in some mobile anti-aircraft guns, a smattering of amphibious vehicles, Jeeps, and mortar carriers—plus a couple of missiles, and you’ve got one of the most extensive collections of U.S. military armour in the country.
It takes visitors considerable time to walk along row after row of tanks and guns in this cavernous shuttered mill building. With 330,000 square feet, the museum has no shortage of space and capitalizes on this with some superb battle dioramas.
You’ll see a Vietnam War rice paddy scene, an NVA sniper concealed up a tree, a U.S. M108
Self-Propelled Howitzer Tank (1963) concealed in a cornfield, a U.S. Browning Quad-M51.50 Calibre Machine Gun amidst the rubble of a World War II Belgian town, a World War II Japanese machine gun bunker made from railroad ties, and a WWII German PAK 40 7.5cm anti-tank gun on a dirt field, ready to fire.
FUN & GAMES
The museum is not above having some fun with its dioramas. In one scene, a G.I. sits in front of an
M5481A1 Cargo Carrier holding a rubber chicken, with a large wasp’s nest hanging from the tree overhead. A T-72 tank sits atop a car that is crushed beyond all recognition while another diorama features a Soviet T34/85 tank in the rubble of Berlin with a German soldier buried beneath the tank treads. Ouch. By far the museum’s oldest tank is the antique WW I M1917 6-ton Special Light Tank. «She’s the Belle of the Ball, the first U.S. tank ever produced», says Museum Curator and founder William Gasser, screeching his tricycle to a stop next to me. He uses the tricycle to commute around the enormous museum on maintenance tasks. The sight of this bewhiskered man in his sixties, wearing spectacles, braces, military camouflage pants, and packing a six-gun in a side holster (for security -so behave!) on a tricycle is hard to take seriously. He’s eccentric, quirky, perhaps a little over-the-top, and definitely obsessive, but it turns out that William is a walking encyclopedia of all things military.
Over the course of several encounters, as William rattles off the specs and performances of the tanks, guns, and other vehicles, I conclude that he’s simply a military genius who’s passionate about his military history and equipment. I might even describe him as a kindred soul.
«Most of the museum’s vehicles are donated or on lease from the U. S. Military, while the rest of the stuff is my personal collection», William tells me when I ask where he got it all.
William explains that of the 950 M1917 World War I tanks that were built, only 10 were deployed in
Europe. Three hundred were given to the Canadian Army and the remainder of the vehicles were used as the standard light tank of the U.S. Army right up until 1931.
Just one dozen M1917 Light Tanks still exist today and the museum’s particular example was used in the classic war movie, «For Whom the Bell Tolls» and also in a Laurel and Hardy movie!
The M1917 is nicely restored, painted a lime green colour, with nuts and bolts sticking out all along her hull. Weighing in at 7.25-ton, her 42-horse power Buda 4-cylinder, water-cooled engine gave her a rip-roaring top speed of 5.5 mph.
U.S. tanks predominate throughout the museum. An impressive array of the Patton series includes an M47 Patton Tank (1952), an M48A5 Patton Tank (1970s), an M60A1 Patton Tank with M9 Dozer (1959-1990s), and an M60A2 Patton Tank from the mid 1970s.
The Tank Museum’s World War II armour collection will delight aficionados of that era.
The U.S. M43A3E8 Sherman tank with plow attached (1944-45) is something of a rarity with a bizarre history. This particular Sherman was buried for 16 years at a Long Island mental institution in New York before its recovery by the museum staff, and is the only M2 plow-mounted Sherman known to exist in any museum anywhere in the world.
Made by Buick, the museum’s M18 Hellcat Tank Destroyer (1944) was rescued from Yugoslavia (now Bosnia) and bears many bullet impact scars from battle, and flanked by a small squad of models of German soldiers, the museum’s well-preserved Panzer III Tank has a good back-story having been traded to the museum from Israel by an arms dealer.
The LVT-4 (Landing Vehicle Tracked) Water Buffalo is an up-armoured version of the LVT-2, fitted with a drop down rear door. Used in the Pacific from mid 1944 onwards, this amphib proved very useful as it could carry 30 men, or a Jeep, or a small field gun.
The museum’s LVT-4 languished for over 25 years in a New York junkyard as a local landmark before she was rescued and restored.
William Gasser tells me that many of the vehicles remain unrestored because of their sheer number and the prohibitive cost. Nevertheless, the unrestored tanks emanate a certain authenticity as you walk past them. Fans can adopt a tank and contribute towards its restoration.
The museum’s post-war tank collection boasts a rare U.S. M103A2 Heavy Tank (1952-73), of which only 219 were built, for the U.S.M.C., and a U.S. M247 Sergeant York Tank, plus a U.S.
M551A1 Sheridan Light Tank (1966), and a U.S. M41A3 Walker Bulldog Light Tank dating from the 1950’s.
A few foreign tank treasures at the museum catch the eye, including a rare Swedish STRV 74 Medium Tank (19581984), one of only seven remaining in the world and the only one in the western hemisphere.
Armoured Personnel Carriers are also represented at the tank museum with the U.S. M75 (1951), the U.S. M114 (1960’s), and a Hungarian Army PSZH-IV APC (mid 1960s). The M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle (1981s) is a cross between a tank and an APC, and is designed to scout ahead of the M1 Abrams tank.
During the Gulf War, the M2 destroyed more Iraqi armoured vehicles than did the M1 Abrams tank. The museum’s Bradley is the only one on exhibit in any museum.
The museum’s impressive tracked and wheeled artillery collection is one of the finest in the world and includes a nicely restored U.S. M56 Scorpion Self Propelled Gun (1958), a U.S. M55 Self Propelled Howitzer (1955-1970s), and a rare U.S. M44 Self-Propelled Howitzer (1954), one of only three remaining in museums today. Another rare gun is the US M108 Self-Propelled
Howitzer Tank (1963), and an Iraqi T2S3 152mm Self-Propelled Howitzer (1973) that was captured in Operation Desert Storm. A U.S. M54 90mm Cannon (1958) rounds out this great collection.
The museum’s 24-ton U.S. M48 4.2″ mortar Carrier (1950’s) was found at a Pennsylvania Army Tank Dump where it was scheduled for destruction as target practice. The Army donated this piece to the museum.
The Danville Tank Museum is not a place to aimlessly walk through the galleries without a plan, because you’ll soon run out of time before you can see everything, so be sure to allocate enough time in each of the galleries to take it all in.
A visit to the Danville Tank Museum is a worthwhile experience for the casual military fan and the hard-core vehicle enthusiast. You will not be disappointed.