By Ben Sherman, Fort Sill CannoneerJanuary 17, 2013
FORT SILL, Okla.-- The Army Field Artillery Museum staff at Fort Sill is constantly working to expand their collection. In 2012 the museum acquired 10 new self-propelled artillery pieces, many of which were from the World War II era. The first one completed was the 150mm "Hummel" (Bumble Bee) German self-propelled howitzer, (which was featured in the Sept. 27 Cannoneer). Four more pieces have recently been restored, two of which are featured in this story.
"We acquired many of them this past year from the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Grounds," said Gordon Blaker, Army Field Artillery museum director and curator.
"The Ordnance Museum has moved from Aberdeen to Fort Lee, Va., and they've also modified their mission. So we took advantage of that with the BRAC move and with some funding that General [Mark] McDonald very generously gave us to get additional artillery pieces moved here."
The two pieces featured here are the Sturmpanzer IV "Brummbär" (Grouch) self-propelled howitzer, and the Semovente M90/35 90mm self-propelled gun.
"The Brummbär was a heavy assault artillery piece designed mainly for urban combat, to destroy buildings and enemy fortifications. It's heavily armored, with 100mm thick armor in the front and a 155mm very short barreled howitzer," said Blaker.
"This particular one we now have was captured in Italy during World War II and then shipped back to Aberdeen for evaluation. There were only 316 Brummbärs made, and they were in production from April 1943 until March 1945."
Blaker went on to say only four Brummbärs remain in the world, and the one at Fort Sill is the only one in the Western Hemisphere. The other three surviving artillery pieces are in Germany, France and Russia.
"Brummbärs were organized in four assault gun units which the Germans called "Sturmpanzer-Abteilung" which means armored assault detachments. Our Brummbär has now been restored on the outside by the Directorate of Logistics paint shop. Although we did get all of the hatches cut open, we hope to restore the interior in the future."
The DoL paint shop has the responsibility of restoring the artillery pieces so they can eventually be put on display in Constitution Park next door to the FA museum. For the workers it is exciting to be part of the restoration process, although it is quite a bit of work.
"A lot of this stuff comes in looking like it has been sitting in a river for about 10 years. We often have to rebuild certain parts that have deteriorated over time because of the rust after sitting outside for decades," said Corey Lejeune, a paint shop worker.
"The hardest part is trying to get it to match with the way it was originally. We depend on Blaker to give us information and tell us how it should look."
The second restored piece is the Semovente M90/35 90mm self-propelled gun, which arose out of the needs of the Italian army to have a weapon capable of killing a Soviet T-34 tank on the Eastern Front.
"The Italians sent a number of artillery units to the Eastern Front to fight alongside their allies, the Germans. The Italian forces there quickly discovered they didn't have anything capable of knocking out Soviet T-34s, which were fairly well armored. So they mounted their most potent anti-tank gun, which was actually an L/53 anti-aircraft gun, on a modified tank chassis and put an armored shield around it," Blaker said.
Production was started in April 1942 but only 30 were produced before Italy surrendered in September 1943. When Italy surrendered the German army in Italy seized the remaining guns and used them mainly as self-propelled artillery.
"Our particular gun has a fairly good history. It was assigned to the 163rd Support Artillery Group, was captured in Sicily in 1943 and shipped back to Aberdeen for evaluation. It is the sole surviving example in the world," Blaker said.
"On the Semovente we had to refabricate the fenders because they had rusted out. So we had to take them apart and refabricate them," said James "Butch" Durgin. "The tracks no longer rolled, so we had to move it around with a forklift, a really big forklift."
Zeph Wilson has worked in the paint shop for nine years and believes the work they do is important.
"Restoring these historic vehicles is a lot of fun and very rewarding, and I'm glad we get to do it," he said.
"The camouflage pattern was all hand chalked on each piece, and then the guys had to cut in the new color without getting over spray. It takes a lot of technique to make it look right. Not just anybody can do this type of work."
"We managed to find some good photographs of the Semovente right after it was captured, put the original unit markings back on it and duplicated the camouflage pattern it had," said Blaker. "Both of these guns have been nicely restored."
Future issues of the Cannoneer will feature the German 138/1 150mm self-propelled heavy infantry gun, nicknamed the "Cricket;" the German L/28 105mm self-propelled field howitzer, the "Grasshopper;" and the Soviet B-4 M1931 203mm tracked howitzer. More artillery pieces recently obtained by the FA museum will be featured as they are restored.