Mark VIII Tank comes back to RIA a century later

By Corinna Baltos, U.S. Army Sustainment Command Public AffairsMay 20, 2024

Mark VIII Tank comes back to RIA a century later
1 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Three years after returning to Rock Island Arsenal for refurbishment, the The Mark VIII tank was moved to a pad at the corner of Rodman and Gillespie Avenues here March 13, where it will be on permanent display. The tank rests on slats to allow for air to flow underneath the tank, which helps prevent rust and water damage. Shortly after the tank was moved to its current location a shelter was placed over it to protect it from the elements. (Photo Credit: Corinna Baltos) VIEW ORIGINAL
Mark VIII Tank comes back to RIA a century later
2 / 2 Show Caption + Hide Caption – Some parts of the Mark VIII tank were damaged beyond repair. So, the refurbishment team at the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing & Technology Center made replacement parts using 3d printers. While they look identical to the original, replacement parts were stamped with RIA’s logo to identify the new parts. (Photo Credit: Corinna Baltos) VIEW ORIGINAL

ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. – Did you know that Rock Island Arsenal is the birthplace of the American heavy tank?

Between 1919 and 1920 RIA employees built the first American-made heavy tanks, known as the Mark VIII. Now, a little over 100 years later, present-day Arsenal workers have restored one of those tanks, and it is now on display here.

“Building this tank showed the capabilities here at Rock Island,” said Patrick Allie, director, Rock Island Arsenal Museum. He went on to say that it paved the way for the Arsenal to become what we would consider today, the center of excellence for tank production during the interwar years.

Plans were made to design a heavy tank that be used for a planned spring offensive in France in 1919. It would be designed by utilizing the collective efforts of the Americans, British and French and would be known as the Mark VIII, or international tank.

“All of the armored plate (for the tank) was made in England,” said Allie. “The U.S. was going to provide the power plant (engine, transmission, and steering components), and it was going to be built in a factory in France with Chinese labor.” The war ended before any of them could be made in France.

While the Mark VIII project could have been scrapped, U.S. Army leadership realized that tanks were going to play an important role in the future of warfare. It was decided that they would be built for training purposes – but where?

RIA had most of the components needed to build it, so it was tasked with building 100 tanks to be used as trainers for the newly established U.S. Army Tank Corps and to figure out how to fit them into established warfighting doctrine.

“Building the tanks here set up Rock Island as the center for tanks research and development after the war,” said Allie. “The Army was trying to figure out how to use these things,” he continued. While the Mark VIIIs were in production, future World War II generals Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton came to RIA to begin developing the new U.S. Army tank doctrine.

While the Mark VIII tanks were used by the Army until 1932, there are currently only three Mark VIIIs in existence.

One is located inside the U.S. Army Armor & Cavalry Training Support Facility’s collection, at Fort Moore (formally Fort Benning), Georgia. The second is housed at The Tank Museum in Bovington, England. The third, which arrived here in May 2021, was on display at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, as part of their “mile of tanks” until 2014 when it was shipped to Fort Benning.

“This is the only place where you can see the tank on public display 365 days a year,” said Allie.

The Mark VIII was returned to RIA as part of the Army’s move to place its historical collections to relevant Army museums.

“What is special about this project to our team down the street, is this is likely one of the few, if not the only time in history a tank has returned to its origin after more than a century,” said Greg Lupton, deputy to the commander of the Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center during a ribbon cutting ceremony for the tank April 30.

For the past three years the Mark VIII has been at RIA-JMTC undergoing reconstruction work to reinforce its structure, stabilize it and paint it.

Renovating the tank was a combined effort. “We had a lot of folks that were involved in (renovating the tank), - Engineering, machinists, apprentices, our welders, and our fabrication shop,” said Jamie Medinger, division chief, Base Operations program manager, JMTC. Medinger led the crew that refurbished the tank.

“Initially there was a lot more work that was slated to be done on the tank,” said Medinger. “That turned out to be way too much of an effort. We weren’t sure we could get it back together once we took it apart because everything was hot riveted (when it was first built).”

Hot riveting is where a flaming-hot rivet is placed inside a hole on the main plate and joined with another plate. Once it is placed, the rivet is rapidly cooled down. This process causes the rivet to expand and permanently integrate into the plate. This means the rivet cannot be removed without damage to the plate.

There was also visible damage to the tank from over a century of wear and tear. This included cracks, tears, missing brackets, covers, things not mounted where they needed to be mounted, such as the guns in the turrets and the two cupolas inside of the tank.

Medinger said most of the damage was in the floor of the tank. “The floor of the tank looked like something you would see on the Flintstones (car),” he said. “It was rotted beyond repair. It was a compete mess.”

“There was a lot of rust inside,” said Allie who said much of the damage was due to the tank being placed directly on the ground in the elements, and because the interior remained closed.

“When you have an artifact with a closed interior it creates a microclimate inside, which tends to be very humid and never dries out.”

Another issue the tank refurbishment crew ran into was the amount of lead in the paint.

“We did a sample of the paint when we first started because we figured it was lead-based paint,” said Medinger. “We ran the samples through our lab and industrial hygiene and found it was some of the highest levels of lead-based paint they had ever tested. It was 80% lead. It was ridiculous the amount of lead in the paint,” he said.

To ensure the safety of the crew working on the tank and the public, RIA-JMTC contracted the exterior of the painting. The contractors wet sanded and wet scrapped the interior and exterior. Then they applied seven coats of a paint that would negate the lead in the original paint job by putting a chemical over the paint that would keep the lead from infecting people said Medinger.

Parts of the tank were damaged to the point where it was impossible to fix it, so the RIA-JMTC apprentice department made replica parts that look exactly like the original pieces. “When they are painted, you don’t know they are any different,” said Medinger.

“Some of the track shoes on the tank had large cracks in it,” said Adam Lowe, commodities manager, Base Operations, RIA-JMTC. Lowe said the crew made track shoe covers using 3D printers and glued them on top of the track shoes. “After painting them you can’t tell it was ever done.” Lowe said they also used the 3D printer to make new button side ribbon heads for the tank as well as a new toolbox for the back.

After three years of dedication, teamwork and extensive refurbishment the tank is permanently on display at RIA and is located at the corner of Rodman and Gillespie Avenues.

“This tank connects the Quad Cities citizens who built this tank in 1919 to the Quad Cities citizens that stepped forward to refurbish this tank,” said Allie. “This artifact speaks volumes to the legacy and history of this tiny island in the middle of the Mississippi River. It shows community pride. How proud the Quad Cities should be of their Army manufacturing legacy. Today the impact this island has on national defense globally, is part of that larger narrative and story.”