Massive military collection is about to open in Danville, VA


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Drizzt
April 28, 2003, 05:41 PM
News & Record (Greensboro, NC)

April 27, 2003 Sunday ROCKINGHAM EDITION

SECTION: TRIAD; Pg. R1

LENGTH: 1082 words

HEADLINE: WAR FOR ALL TO SEE;
A MASSIVE MILITARY COLLECTION IS ABOUT TO OPEN IN DANVILLE VIRGINIA

BYLINE: BY TIM YEADON Staff Writer

DATELINE: DANVILLE, VA.

BODY:
It is so quiet here among the rare tanks, uniforms and untold stories of war heroes and hell, and Bill Gasser hates that about his museum.

There's a Blackhawk helicopter to his right, and a bit down the row sits a German Mk IV Panzer tank, the only one of its type ever to make it to America for display.

Nearby is one of only five remaining American tanks from World War I. Outside are two tanks captured in 1991 from the Iraqis during the Gulf War.

There are 99 tanks and artillery pieces at the American Armoured Foundation Tank Museum, Gasser's 330,000-square foot dream just north of Danville.

When the nonprofit tank and cavalry museum opens May 17 after four years of work, it will rank among the 10 largest military collections in the world.

But on this morning, Gasser seems bothered by the enormity parked so neatly before him.

"This whole museum depresses me," Gasser says, stopping suddenly.

The air is chilly, and high above him, giant banks of fluorescent lights hum throughout the massive, concrete-floored warehouse. To his left is an M5 Stuart Light Tank, still riddled with bullets from World War II.

"To be here alone with all this wonderful equipment and history, it's depressing," Gasser says. "Only when people are here will I be able to hear what I want to hear - the 'oohs and ahhhs.' Otherwise, it's just a warehouse of scrap metal."

For four years, Gasser has worked behind closed doors to prepare the 15,000-item collection that trade magazines have called "world class."

The museum director's goals are high.

He wants to attract 100,000 visitors yearly from around the world, including every schoolchild within 100 miles. If they come, he hopes they'll bring the economically depressed area much-needed dollars - and leave with a sense of the true cost of war.

But that has not yet happened.


Three hours have passed since Gasser began this tour for a visitor. He has only just walked into the Hall of Tanks.

To get there, Gasser shuffled slowly past small arms and rifles, mortars, cannons, pins, medals, patches, toys and more than a thousand uniforms, including 70 worn by generals.

He rattles off historical details as quick as anyone could from underneath a commemorative wide-brimmed 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldier hat, excitedly showing Adolf Hitler's signature at the bottom of a Nazi document and explaining the differences between a large artillery gun and a howitzer (which has a shorter barrel).

He almost always wears white gloves on his hands. He began that habit years ago when he discovered he could not keep from touching everything.

He wants you to know that next to Gen. George C. Patton, Elvis Presley, who served in the Army, is the second-most famous "tanker" in history. Third place, he says, probably goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who drove tanks in the Austrian Army.

And moments later, he cringes when asked whether the museum is a protest against war, or a commemoration of war's heroics. Instead, he calls it a testament to man's inhumanity to man.

"I'm sick and tired of youngsters and adults coming in and saying war is glorious," Gasser says. "It is the most base, despicable thing we could have ever created, and we created it."

He says he's not anti-war and that every freedom loved in America came not by protesting, but by the sword and gun.

But he also wants the world to better understand the true cost of those freedoms. They were bought, he says, with death, pain and suffering.

"Everything is here for you to look at, and for you to come to your own conclusions," he says.

The journey to bring the museum to Danville was not easy.

It began when Gasser was 5 years old in New York state. That's when his mother bought him his first collectible, a pack of plastic Army soldiers.

He never joined the military and was not drafted during the Vietnam War, but he continued collecting pins, flags, weapons, and finally tanks, until he quit a job as a business executive for a high-tech metal-fabricating company.

Betting his life savings, he opened his first museum in 1981 on New York's Long Island.

By the late 1990s, Gasser's museum had become a destination for visitors worldwide. And as its reputation grew, so did the donation of artifacts and dollars. The museum overflowed, and the majority of its now $13 million collection was stored in various warehouses and rented lots.

Many of its tanks and artillery are on loan from the federal government. Gasser claims to be the largest federal depository in U.S. history, not including foreign countries and arms dealers.

In 1999, he found buildings large enough in Danville, the abandoned offices and factory of toolmaker Disston, spread over 89 acres.

The buildings were donated by Disston's owner, Sandvik Inc., after they had sat dormant for nearly 10 years.

Probably fitting, the first time Gasser saw the site in Danville, he thought it looked like a war zone. Many of the windows were gone, and the insides had been looted.

Since then, he and his wife, Karen, his two sons, a mechanic and a full-time volunteer have done most of the reparations themselves.

After 40 round-trips in an 18-wheeler they packed with history, the Gasser family has painted, plumbed, rewired and built dozens of display cases. And though the roof and parking lot each still need $1.5 million repair jobs, the museum will open a year earlier than originally planned.

With his life savings nearly gone, Gasser hopes to raise $6 million from city and state governments, which he says the museum will repay many times over when visitors spend their money at local motels, restaurants and gas stations.

He also needs hundreds of volunteers to catalog artifacts that are always being donated, do research, clean, restore tanks and artillery, and work in the museum's gift shop.

There is so much to do.

So, five hours after his tour began, Gasser steps back into the museum's front lobby. Just inside the front door is a black, cone-shaped, 20-kiloton nuclear warhead - unarmed, of course. A small plaque at its base reads: "Honest John Missile - 1961."

Two racks of recently donated military uniforms wait to be cataloged, bagged, and stored.

"I guess I have to get back to doing the inventory," Gasser says. "Or else, I'll be back in the laboratory. Or maybe painting."

In less than a month, people will be here to see his dream, he says.

Then, he will be happy.
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....cue Homer Simpson drooling sound....... :cool:

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Pward
April 28, 2003, 09:24 PM
I feel a road trip coming on
:) :cool:
:p

OEF_VET
April 29, 2003, 02:57 AM
I'll need to jump over to mapquest and find out how far Danville, VA is from Nashville.

moa
April 30, 2003, 02:07 PM
This sounds even better than the museum at the U.S. Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in the sense that the large exhibits are indoors. Aberdeen is probably the best ordnance, armor and small arms museum in the USA, if not the world. Unfortunately almost all the large exhibts are outside, which is not good.

And the last time I was at APG, it appeared that at least one Nazi Tiger tank was not on display.

Location is Aberdeen, Maryland.

4v50 Gary
April 30, 2003, 02:31 PM
I hate war too, but love the weapons. Sounds like I gotta go back to the Old Dominion State.

Billy Sparks
May 1, 2003, 11:43 AM
Danville?? That is less than an hour from me....what am I doing the 17th.....

MrAcheson
May 1, 2003, 12:01 PM
Yeah the APG museum has been losing its viewable outdoor exhibits for a while. The armor and artillery are all out of doors and when they restore a piece they have to remove it from display for its own health. Until they have a better facility the public collection is going to dwindle to nothing.

The other unfortunate thing is that the museum is on a military base which means even the "public" displays are no longer truly public. You can't get on base without an escort. Its probably starving the museum of much needed cash.

moa
May 1, 2003, 06:56 PM
I just checked the APG website, and it says that you only need identification to visit the museum or get on post. Only certain gates are open to the public. Here is the website.

http://www.goordnance.apg.army.mil/odmuseum.htm

Last time I was at APG museum, they were taking donations for a large indoor display area. I think they were trying to collect $12 million. That was back in the summer of 1999.

Bowlcut
May 1, 2003, 11:13 PM
Dang it....if i were still at home in the tri cities area in upper east tn, Id go. But thats a long drive. A drive I never look forward to. But sounds like something almost too cool to miss

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