Restoring Army Antiques: Knox Motor Pool Puts Polish Back on Historic Vehicles
Restoration Specialist Steve Wise uncovers an M50 "Ontos" he and his team restored. The "Ontos" (A Greek word meaning "The Thing") was officially called the Rifle, Multiple 106mm, Self-Propelled M50. During the Vietnam War, enemy forces referred to the anti-tank vehicle as "the world's biggest shotgun."

FORT KNOX, Ky. (Army News Service, May 31, 2007) - The repair bay on Richardson Tank Motor Park here is filled with what could be pieces of a life-sized hobby model kit.

There is an empty hull from a World War I-era French tank sitting on a stand with sprockets attached and a freshly-painted turret off to the side. The drive assemblies are on the other side of the bay; one is almost complete, while the other still needs its rollers and idler wheel attached.

Under tarpaulins in the same bay there are 1940s-era Dodge command trucks, one of which was used by Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher during his inauguration ceremony.

Outside the bay, the motor pool is full of antique military equipment of every description: old Soviet tanks found in Afghanistan, German 88mm artillery pieces, and even the hull of an Iraqi SCUD missile from the first Gulf War.

For military history buffs, Richardson is the land of rust aplenty.

Richardson Motor Pool is an annex to the Patton Museum where restoration specialists Steve Wise and O.B. Edens work every day, restoring antique military vehicles for the Patton Museum.

Both have extensive backgrounds in maintenance and tank repair, but there's a fair amount of creativity they need to bring to the job.

For instance, on the French tank, which was used in 1918 and found in pieces in an Afghan salvage yard, the rollers aren't lubricated the way they are today. They're packed with half-dollar-sized balls of horse hair, which absorb whale oil that allows the roller pins to rotate freely.

And there's no manual to read - French tanks from 1918 don't come with instructions.

"We have had to have several pieces fabricated," Mr. Wise said. "You can't go on the shelf and buy this stuff anymore."

Many of the tank's bushings and pins were worn down, so the pieces had to be machined and replaced.

"With today's capabilities in a machine shop, that's not really very difficult," he said.

Restoring a piece such as the FT-18 (shorthand for "French Tank, 1918") can take up to a year, Mr. Wise said. He didn't have a figure or estimate for hours required, only that it was "astronomical."

To make matters trickier still, there's not a huge budget for restoration. One year, they had just $2,000 to work with.

Fortunately, Mr. Wise and Mr. Edens rely on a network of registered volunteers who donate time and expertise to the task of restoring the vehicles. Properly-qualified volunteers (who must have a background in mechanics) are coordinated by Patton Museum Director Frank Jardim.

Help also comes in the form of financial support from the Patton Museum Foundation, Mr. Edens said.

This allows Mr. Edens and Mr. Wise to take advantage of an extensive network of antique military equipment stockpiles and collections across the globe, Mr. Wise said.

In one case, the 6-volt starter on the museum's 1941 Dodge command truck went bad. Within a few hours, Mr. Edens had found a brand-new starter for the truck in a stockpile of "New Old Stock" several states away. It cost about $125.

But there are vehicles - the FT-18, for example - for which no replacement parts exist. In those cases, Mr. Wise and Mr. Edens have to fall back on their own backgrounds as mechanics, as well as a good dose of ingenuity. To make sure everything ends up back in place after being sandblasted and primed with an industrial-grade epoxy paint, the team uses a digital camera to take pictures of the piece from every angle.

That way, they can be sure there won't be pieces left over once they're finished putting everything back together.

"It's really interesting, it's intriguing," Mr. Wise said of his job.

Mr. Wise and Mr. Edens also helped support Memorial Day weekend's battle re-enactment at Fort Knox's Keyes Park.

(Spc. Ian Boudreau writes for the Fort Knox "Turret.")

Page last updated Thu May 31st, 2007 at 15:03