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 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 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.
Collings is taking over management of the collection from the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, which Mr. Littlefield organized in 1998 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.
It will be a tank museum, but with a difference. It won't simply display artifacts with explanatory signs, Mr. Collings said. An interactive experience can convey a history lesson with much more meaning. Besides, he added, 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. "Saving Private Ryan" is a good example with its fictional and graphic account of the June 1944 invasion of Normandy -- including scenes with tanks. "You left (the theater) feeling grateful," he said. Can that be done without a movie, he wonders. How do you make the case to the public that, without efforts by the military, "we might not have our freedom," he asked.
One of the Collings programs, the Wings of Freedom tour, creates brushes with "living history" by flying World War II bombers to U.S. communities and offering rides. When visiting the Peninsula, the propeller-driven aircraft land at Moffett Field in Mountain View and are available for 30-minute rides. (Tickets for the 2014 tour will be $450 per person, according to the foundation website.)
This reporter took a 30-minute ride between Hollister and Moffett Field in a B-25 twin-engine bomber, alternately crouching and kneeling in the plexiglass nose as American bombardiers had to do. The feelings afterward included 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 bare-bones, raw interior devoid of anything designed for human comfort and ease of movement.
Evolution of a tank
A live-action experience for the public will not be part of the tank demonstrations, but the vehicles will reside in a building designed to make the most of the collection. 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, Mr. Collings said. With the arrangement in Portola Valley, "you walk through there and get glassy eyed after a while," he said. "It's too much to take in."
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, he 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 then travel by train to Massachusetts, they will be shrink-wrapped in opaque plastic, Mr. Collings said. The cost of moving them to their new home: at least $1 million, he said.
While the total collection may be worth $30 million, even $100 million today couldn't duplicate the restoration work done over the years 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.
The Boston Globe has an October 2013 story on a Collings Foundation battle re-enactment that includes tanks.
Note: An earlier version incorrectly said that Stow, Massachusetts, is east of Boston. It's west of Boston.