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Tanks for the Memories 

Reconnoitering the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation and its 205 military vehicles. In Portola Valley.

Wednesday, Jan 22 2003
I keep all of my photographs in an old "snakeskin" suitcase, which was once the likely property of some chirpy young thing enrolled at the Baltimore School of Beauty. The pink logo is still clearly embossed on the front of the case next to the outline of a well-coiffed woman with a tiny, turned-up nose; and the previous owner's name, L. Shansby, is written in an attractive, self-assured, feminine hand (modeled, it would seem, after the fresh-faced script chosen by her alma mater) on the inside lip of the lid. Above the signature, there is a grainy black-and-white image cut from a magazine. (Whether it was Miss Shansby who originally pasted it there or a subsequent owner I cannot say, but I choose to imagine there was something more to Miss Shansby than hair dryers and finger waves.) The photo depicts four grubby kids with threadbare clothes, ill-fitting shoes, and happy faces playing on an abandoned tank: One hangs from the gun barrel like a little monkey, another focuses all his attention on pulling something off a damaged section of the hull, a third peeks out of the turret, and the fourth lies across the turret with his hands under his head, gazing at the sky; a small goat rests in the shade of the tank's front end. Beyond the tank, there is only scrub brush, rock, and broken fence posts. The scene could be anywhere, really -- Lebanon, Kosovo, Albania, Afghanistan, Israel, Angola, Kamchatka, Dubno, Nicaragua -- but the pallor of the children and style of the clothes suggest Eastern Europe, maybe Poland or the former Czechoslovakia where many derelict tanks from World War II were left to the landscape until mechanical-treasure hunters like Jacques Littlefield provided someone with a good reason to dig them out.

Littlefield's latest acquisition, a German Panther, introduced in 1943 as a response to the Soviet T34 medium tank, was discovered in just such a field in Poland. Heavily rusted and pocked by explosive charges detonated by a retreating crew at the end of WWII, Littlefield's Panther displays only a vestige of its former power, but it's certainly enough to intimidate me. Weighing 100,000 pounds and possessing forward armor 4 inches thick, a remarkable suspension, and a 75mm main gun, I later find out it was enough to intimidate a Sherman tank in battle.

"This Panther sat in a German collection for about 10 years," says Littlefield, laying a hand on the pitted hull as the roar of machinery erupts behind us. "They said it was pulled out of a pond, but there's no way it was under water for 40 years; just look at it. The wheels still turn. We were able to turn over the engine. It'll be fully restored by the end of the year."

Weaving between forklifts, high-powered compressors, rolling stairs, small cranes, and industrial-strength power tools, Littlefield helps me explore his sprawling shop, where no fewer than four tanks are currently being restored by his staff of nine.

"It all started with a Scout Car," explains Littlefield, an investment portfolio manager with a slight build, balding pate, and boyish grin, "but I've always been interested in history and mechanical things. I used to build models -- cars, trains, small engines. As I got older, the projects got bigger. Some people like to rebuild cars; but the difference between a car and a tank is like the difference between a diesel locomotive and a steam locomotive. There's so much more to think about in a tank. They're really amazing machines."

As the son of Edmund Wattis Littlefield -- named in the Forbes 400 as heir to the Utah Construction Co. legacy (see the Bay Bridge and Hoover Dam; the company turned to mining and merged with General Electric in 1976) -- Jacques Littlefield is uniquely outfitted for the hobby of collecting tanks, not just with funds (it seems, after the Cold War ended, you could buy a demilitarized tank for the price of a cheeseburger, if you knew where to look) but with space. Littlefield's ranch, 450 acres hidden in the mountains of Portola Valley, a tract owned by former California governor and longtime San Francisco mayor "Sunny Jim" Rolph, is now home to an Olympic-size dressage arena; a 1/8-scale train that carries guests over bridges, through tunnels, and around a pond; a full-size C.B. Fisk concert hall organ housed in an acoustically ample addition to Littlefield's residence; and the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, which comprises 205 specimens on display in 48,000 square feet of daunting exhibition space. As a nonprofit corporation, the MVTF provides three-hour tours for veterans, historical groups, schools, car clubs, collectors, and Boy Scouts; as owner of the largest, and arguably most important, privately held collection of tanks in the world, Littlefield organizes trades and loans with museums, offers his collection for research, and, on every Fourth of July, invites his neighbors to watch while he drives over a couple of old cars.

"It's incredible to work for someone who has the resources to take on a project like this," says David Narian, who began working for Littlefield in 1988. Now in Sacramento pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering, Narian drives down every week to work on the Panther. Others, like military collector, nickelodeon restorer, and longtime employee Greg Taylor, come from as far as Nevada to keep their hands well-greased.

"It's really exciting to see what we might uncover," says Narian with a twinkle in his eye. "Every tank is different, super-complex, super-interesting. If they could speak, what tales they'd tell."

Littlefield invites me to crawl under a freshly painted turret suspended by a crane. I admire the tank's blinding cleanliness and precision, its compact quarters, the specific compartments for flashlights, food rations, blankets, goggles, ammo, and weapons -- all the amenities of home.

"British tanks provide for tea service," chuckles Littlefield.

I climb on top of the Panther as the turret is removed for the first time and imagine that the air swirling through the cavity is heavy with memory, blood-hued, just like the metal under my feet.

Littlefield leads me through a door into a cavernous, rust-scented room where a dozen dilapidated tanks loom like a legion of murderous mammoths frozen in steel. They are awesome -- there is no other word for it -- and their sheer bulk cannot fully account for the depth of emotion they invoke. I face one, trying to imagine a standoff, and fail. My heart is pounding.

And this isn't even the beginning.

Littlefield shuffles me into a van and drives down the hill through the rain, pointing out a propeller recovered from the Lusitania, the British ocean liner sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland in 1915. He pulls up to the exhibition hangars; here are armored vehicles from nearly 20 countries, spanning 70 years of military might. For example: a 1941 Churchill Crocodile equipped with a flamethrower; a Cold War classic known as the Russian T55; a 12-ton half-track (as seen in The Dirty Dozen); a 1961 French Eland; a 1966 M551 Sheridan; a U.S.-Israeli M1 Super Sherman; the only restored and semi-operational SdKfz 222 German reconnaissance vehicle in the world; a 1938 BMW R75 motorcycle complete with machine-gun mount and swastika-emblazoned sidecar; a Russian 2S7 Pion, the largest armored combat vehicle ever made; the most complete British Conqueror Mk 1 in existence, which represents the largest tank ever built; a 1945 Howitzer Motor Carriage; a wooden-wheeled artillery launcher Model 92 from Japan; an RPG tank destroyer (as seen in Bosnia); a 58-foot-long, 70,000-pound tank transporter known as a Dragon Wagon; the exact T54 Lori Petty straddled in Tank Girl; and two Scud missiles.

"Saddam Hussein has 12, and I have two," says Littlefield with a funny little nod.

Enticed by the idea of in-tank tea service, I climb onto a British tank and drop down inside, squeezing into the gunner's position.

"Grab the joystick at your right," directs Littlefield, "and look through the sight. Your ammo man is to your left. You're taking orders from a man behind you. It's a little cozy."

I squint through my scope. Snug inside this thick metal husk, with a 105mm gun between me and the world, I feel exactly the opposite of the way I did at the shop, standing in front of the guns: I feel big and fierce and excited.

"So how many more tanks do you plan to get?" I ask by phone later.

"Well, it's kind of like art collecting," says Littlefield. "There's probably 50 I want, but 15 that I can actually get."

And what, then, is the Mona Lisa of tanks?

"The German Tiger," says Littlefield without hesitation, "but I think I'll be able to get one of those one day. There are always tank parts popping up for sale."

I finger a photograph of me crouched on top of a Sherman tank, grinning like a wild woman, and a magazine article, accompanied by a photograph of a Russian T62 with the words "For Sale. Never Been Fired." painted on the side. I wonder if they should be added to my photograph box.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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