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When Washington City Paper last visited the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum, it was the eve of the Allied forces’ 1991 ground attack on Iraqi forces occupying Kuwait, and museum Director Jack Atwater had a brief wish list for what would come to be known as the Hundred-Hour War (“Jack Atwater Asks for Your Tanks,” 2/22/91).
Regarding the unpleasantness in southwest Asia, Atwater, whose 25-acre corner of the Army Proving Ground in Aberdeen, Md., is dedicated to an 8,000-specimen history of weapons in general and a 260-item collection of armored vehicles in particular, had desires both personal and professional.
On the personal side, he wanted badly to see his little brother Sidney return home safe and sound. Like Jack before him, Sidney is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps. Unlike Jack, who mustered out in 1980 to build a career as a historian, Sidney is still on active duty, and in the Gulf War was on the point of the Allied sword.
Professionally speaking, what Jack Atwater wanted out of the Allied invasion was a Russian T-72 main battle tank. One of those 41-ton beauties, with its 125mm automatic cannon and 700-horsepower V-12 engine, would round out his museum’s array. That collection includes hundreds of tanks and self-propelled guns and anti-aircraft batteries, as well as rockets like the V-2 with which Germany terrorized England during WWII. Any other trinkets would have be welcome, but Atwater really had a yen for a T-72.
The museum director’s fonder wish was thwarted, albeit more gently than might have been. Running a desert road under blackout at conflict’s start, Sidney Atwater’s Humvee nearly chewed into the tail of a slower-moving Allied convoy. He ordered his driver to pull onto the trackless sand and pass, just as another impatient officer in one of the caravan’s five-ton trucks was giving a like command.
The vehicles collided. The truck won, crushing the Humvee’s back end and sending Sidney Atwater over the hood to skip across the sand like a stone, breaking his right clavicle and throwing his back out of whack. But, as any Ripley reader knows, there was good news.
The rampaging truck was an Army mobile hospital whose passengers provided triage and Tylenol. Fast-talking his way out of orders to the rear, Sidney commandeered another Humvee and, gobbling acetaminophen with codeine like popcorn, pressed on to war’s end four days later, whereupon he collected a Purple Heart. In the 20 months since, Sidney Atwater’s collarbone has healed, but he continues to undergo treatment for his back and recently was diagnosed with parrot fever, a rare and virulent bug transmitted by bird droppings, of which there were many in a souk he visited inSaudi Arabia.
On the war-booty front, Jack Atwater fared better. Shortly after hostilities ceased, he scooped up several prizes of Russian origin: a troop carrier, a tank recovery vehicle, a shop van. And a few months ago he finally took delivery of a T-72, plus an unexpected pair of heavy-metal treats: a 2S1 self-propelled gun manufactured back in the USSR and a BRDM2 surface-to-air missile launcher made in East Germany from a Russian design. Captured in the desert without damage, the smaller vehicles are in very good shape—all the BRDM needed was a battery charge, and it was ready to roll—but the tank is no cream puff.
Thanks to Allied shelling, its right front quarter is sufficiently crumpled to raise a wince on behalf of its last crew. “It wasn’t a direct hit, but it was close enough that those fellows inside didn’t have a chance,” says Atwater, who has arranged for body work and a new coat of mottled desert camouflage paint to show the beast off to its best advantage.
And, if everything proceeds as planned, that new paint job will have some protection from the elements so the T-72 does not go the way of all steel. In 1991, the Ordnance Museum Foundation was established to further the museum’s cause and prevent further deterioration of its collection by raising funds for a 58,000-square-foot enclosure big enough to hang a roof over those oxidizing boy-toys, provide workshop space for restorations and maintenance, and create a classroom-cum-theater in which to present seminars on weapons history. The war chest is far from full, but some armor-friendly architects have drawn blueprints gratis, and Atwater is confident that he will see the rainy day when he looks out the window and doesn’t worry about rust.
Located two hours north of D.C. on Interstate 95, the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum is open 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. every day but Monday and some holidays. For information call (410) 278-3602 or write Box 588, Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD 21005.