Portola Valley military tanks heading to East Coast

Nonprofit will use armored vehicles to re-enact battles

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.

More information

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.


Like this comment
Posted by Rev. Lee Purkey
a resident of another community
on Jan 28, 2014 at 11:11 am

What a shame to have lost such a wonderful piece of history here on the West Coast.

We in California, one of the largest and most populous states in the Union, have had countless generations serve in the wars and conflicts within our nation's history. And, although we have massive tracts of land that could be easily used for exactly these sorts of demonstrative museums and memorials -- and have the nation's best assets of both funds and technology -- we have only small military monuments and inconspicuous museums that hint at our nation's past.

Many of the WWI and WWII bunkers, forts, and gun implacements have been stripped and torn down. In the San Francisco area, our Civil War brick gun fortifications have been likewise neglected, buried, or torn down.

One exception that remains is Fort Point, tucked under the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite the heavy presence in California of the Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force (Air Corps) and Merchant Marine (and countless training bases), we have managed to put up only a few plaques, monuments/statues.

In SF Bay Area we have docked a restored WWII sub and Liberty Ship, and in Alameda a later-era Carrier (but all with great political fighting and push back from elements within the state).

Many of the War monuments to honor our past service men and women that predate WWI are in shambles and hidden, unadorned from most people. SF's and Monterey's presidio's hold some of the best and oldest structures and monuments in the West Coast, and yet they are often plowed under for development, falling apart, overgrown, or included within other structures that make little or no mention of their past significance.

In Monterey's Military "Defense Language Institute" Base, the large marble statue of Father Sierra's landing (mid 1700's), donated by the Stanford Family, is hidden from public view by freeway development - and sits atop the buried remnants of the first Spanish fort in North America - its bronze cannons sitting idly in a tiny nearby museum, that was a cavalry horse barn during WWI/WWII.

Likewise, on the DLI base, the large obelisk monument to those who fought in the Spanish American War is falling apart and unkempt. In Santa Cruz, where I live, our oldest cemetery holds a special section for those who fought in the Civil War - the Grand Army of The Republic - but it is sorely dilapidated, and overgrown.

My uncle served in WWII in the 101st, 502R, 2nd Bat, HQ Company - jumped on D-Day and went thru the whole battle into Carantan. He later jumped and fought in the Market Garden campaign three months later and was severely wounded in the battle for Best, Holland.

After recovery he served another 20 years in the 101st. And yet when I officiated at his funeral, burying him as a Ret. Colonel in the 101st, he was buried in what is called here in Cal. the "Arlington of the West", in San Bernadino (Southern Cal). This Veteran's Cemetery is a vast and stark swath of dry, flat grass and flat headstones. It is shockingly unadorned and with few, if any, monuments to honor the ocean of those at rest there.

It seems as if we in California bury our garbage dumps with more adornment than that! I was shocked and deeply saddened. We in California have NO museums to tell the stories - no places to demonstrate and teach about the stuff of the past, important military events.

There is little active expression of a grateful people here in California to give homage to those that sacrificed and the historical importance of the battles fought. We have countless places and parcels of land to achieve these museums that would be available to everyone - and many wealthy people to contribute.

But history in the West seems only worthy as a footnote - where current or future needs demand singular focus. It saddens me deeply that Mr. Littlefield's great and rare collection (which gave such rare insight and pleasure to those in California is leaving to the farthest corner of our country - far out of reach for most of the rest of the country.

The new active museum sounds like a beautiful idea - just wish more could see it from around the country. We are starving in the West for military museums that demonstrate history in such a way.

I do wish we as a nation would step forward and make available more places across the country that tell the stories of our military history with vivid colors and wide brush strokes. It seems a hope and dream unattainable in my lifetime - possibly ever here in California. I wish you well in this great venture of teaching history thru tangible ways - so very sweet. I do wish, however, that those here in the West could more easily access and experience it too.

Praying God's Blessings for you, Rev. Lee Purkey

Like this comment
Posted by Ver
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 28, 2014 at 12:06 pm

Had the opportunity to see this collection with my kids a decade ago - spectacular.

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Posted by Ver
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 29, 2014 at 8:17 am

editor - thanks, much better!!

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 29, 2014 at 10:59 am

Vehicles of war. Looking at them and using them for re-enactments has a purpose, I guess. But what about swords into plowshares?

I mean what are we honoring here? Machines designed to kill people.

The awe that comes along with strolling around this collection, is that really something that has intrinsic value? Or is it a childish fascination, an evolving fascination that begins a stick and a 12-year-old and a mock sword fight?

Tanks and howitzers were and are important and I don't mean to diminish that, but I think some perspective is in order.

Like this comment
Posted by Alan Miller
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 29, 2014 at 1:14 pm

Dear Joe,

There is a happy medium between glorifying war and honoring your fellow humans who died to keep you and your children free - whether or not it was their choice to be involved. Unless you were in combat yourself I would ask you to give more consideration to those who died defending your rights.

While nothing besides direct participation can give us the proper perspective on what war truly is, movies and books do not give us nearly as good a sense of what happened compared to tangible assets like ships and tanks. Those who do not appreciate the reality (horror) of war on a gut level are far more likely to allow it to occur again. The tank museum allowed us to climb into a tank and experience the cramped quarters and brutal steel. Without a chance to imagine being fired upon while in a blind death trap of panic, tanks (and war) seem more interesting and fun than terrifying and worthy of avoiding.

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Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jan 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm

Good point, Alan. I flew for about 30 minutes in a B-25 bomber, the same one flown by Joseph Heller as a bombardier, and the bomber in "Catch 22."

It was terrifying to imagine having to aim bombs while being shot at, and with nothing between you and the AA shells but a few pieces of equipment and some plexiglass. There wasn't even a seat.

Getting out of there to a safer part of the plane involved crawling through what, in any other situation, would have been an air conditioning duct.

I don't think the "defending your rights" argument holds water in all cases. It's trotted out too often as an excuse for going to war. If you argue with it, you're somehow not a patriot.

And the facts of World War II belie the sacred aura that surrounds the U.S. involvement. "Catch 22" was anti-war and devastating. So apparently is "Kill Anything That Moves," a new account of horrific behavior by American soldiers in Vietnam.

The truth about war is what is important. I agree that the tanks could serve that purpose. But that gratitude needs a counterpoint. Gratitude by itself is too simple and easily used for nefarious ends.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of another community
on Jun 29, 2014 at 11:34 pm

CNN Money June 18th, 2014

They are now headed for auction!

Buy your own tank... or missile launcher

A huge private collection of military vehicles is being auctioned off in California.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of another community
on Jun 29, 2014 at 11:47 pm

Alen and Joe,
What you are honoring here is the men that died for your freedom, your freedom to write what the two of you ha e chosen to write.

Without that right to freedom, none of us would be allowed to right anthing here!

Wise up!

Like this comment
Posted by Joe
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Jun 30, 2014 at 9:01 am

Stop telling people to wise up. You have a point of view, that's all. I have a different point of view, one that benefits from having served in the military for six years.

Your POV may be more popular, but that hardly makes it more credible.

Like this comment
Posted by buy buy buy
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Jun 30, 2014 at 10:56 am

These tanks are now for sale on the open market. Great opportunity to buy one and mount it in your front yard to honor our soldiers.

Like this comment
Posted by Tanks a lot!
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jun 30, 2014 at 11:20 am

I suppose I'll take two so we can play games with them....

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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