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In telling the history of war, this Massachusetts museum hopes to prevent future conflict

One of the newest museums in the town of Stow, Massachusetts, housed in a space the size of an airplane hangar, is home to some 50 fully restored tanks and armored vehicles. But the American Heritage Museum has a mission of remembrance not glorification. Special correspondent Jared Bowen, of PBS station GBH in Boston, has this story. It is part of our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    And now a look at one of the newest museums in the town of Stow, Massachusetts, housed in a space the size of an airplane hangar.

    It's home to some 50 fully restored tanks and armored vehicles. But the American Heritage Museum has a mission of remembrance, not glorification.

    Special correspondent Jared Bowen of PBS station GBH in Boston has this story, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Step on to the mezzanine of the American Heritage Museum and you survey what seems, from a distance anyway, like a sea of overgrown toys. They are anything but.

  • Rob Collings:

    These are the vehicles, the artifacts that have the chronology of how war came about.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Down on the floor, staring up at these behemoths, you find a hulking history of war, tank after towering tank, tools of one of mankind's darkest trades.

  • Rob Collings:

    They were manned by humans, by men, and women in the case of the Soviets on the Eastern Front. And all of these have a remarkable story of sacrifice, of perseverance of resilience.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Rob Collings is the president of the American Heritage Museum, which opened in 2019. Most of the tanks come from the late collector Jacques Littlefield and are housed in a 65,000-square-foot facility spanning this country's war record.

    In terms of tanks, it moves from 1917 and the first mass-produced American one to the M1A1 in use today.

  • Rob Collings:

    The collection is the best in the world of these artifacts. There are at least a dozen they are the only examples on display in the U.S., and a handful are the only one of their type in the entire world.

    They're all restored, and they're running condition.

  • Jared Bowen:

    So, almost any of these tanks could roll out of here into the field behind us?

  • Rob Collings:

    Not only can they. They do. In fact, you can hear one right now.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jared Bowen:

    The source of the thunderous rumbling that interrupted our interview, a Sherman tank from World War II, making laps on a field behind the museum.

  • Rob Collings:

    These could land on the beaches of Normandy and drive all the way to Berlin. And you think about the crews at the time who were on these. These were 18-year-old kids.

    They weren't experienced. They're young boys who were scared of being there. But, also, they had these mechanical skills coming off the farm. And it's a lot like a very large tractor.

  • Jared Bowen:

    In non-pandemic times, the museum typically offers demonstration weekends and World War II reenactments. Helping to make those happen is Dick Moran, whom we found nearing the end of a six-year-long restoration of a Panzer 1, produced by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

  • Dick Moran:

    It was maneuverable. It was small, two-man crew. It was the best of the best at the time.

    What is really interesting, if you want to look up inside the turret, you can see the machine guns in here, the hatch, the sights, ammunition boxes.

  • Jared Bowen:

    And this is exactly where the museum often returns, to the deadly reality of war, to the fact that these were killing machines, not to mention literal death traps.

    Tanks were the most obvious and often easiest targets on battlefields. This Jumbo, which lumbered through the Battle of the Bulge, still bears the scars of bombs and bullets. As mighty as they are, their crew rarely survived assaults.

    One day, we actually went to a lecture. And this gentleman stepped up and he said: "Would you know the life expectancy of a tank crew?" And they said that, if you go into battle, it was 25 minutes.

  • Colin Rixon:

    And we all sank into our chairs. And we thought, wow.

  • Jared Bowen:

    Colin Rixon is the museum's lead docent and a veteran of the British Army who patrolled the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. He and a host of veterans doubling as docents tour visitors through exhibition highlights like the Prime Mover, an artillery vehicle, later driven by actor Lee Marvin in the film "The Dirty Dozen."

    They visit the Higgins boat that delivered infantry onto the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and the so-called Churchill Crocodile, which incinerated anything and anyone in its path.

  • Colin Rixon:

    This is my father's uniform that he wore when he was commander on a troop of Churchill Crocodiles that went ashore.

  • Jared Bowen:

    The personal is paramount here. Rixon says a steady stream of veterans now make pilgrimages to the museum with their families.

    Is it good, is it bad as they remember all of these things, seeing all of these pieces?

  • Colin Rixon:

    So, to many of them, it brings a story to them. It helps them, because they're able to talk about it now. That's the way to get over it, because you bottle it up inside you.

  • Jared Bowen:

    And it's where the museum leaves us, with five men, part of the U.S. Marine tank crew, who saw their commander, Marine Sergeant George Ulloa, killed in an IED explosion during the Iraq War.

    In this video, they discussed the attack in front of his now restored tank.

  • Man:

    It blew up.

  • Jared Bowen:

    It's a very cut-and-dry reminder that everything here holds a history of horror, making this the rare museum that, in one regard, hopes to never expand.

  • Rob Collings:

    A lot of people will say coming in here, is this a museum that glorifies war? And by time they get to the end, they realize it's an anti-war museum, because to totally understand war, you will never want it again.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jared Bowen in Stow, Massachusetts.

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