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November 27, 2012

News & Features

Family soldiers on to open tank museum

New York Times News Service

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Tanks at the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation museum in Portola Valley, Calif. (Peter DaSilva / The New York Times)

A tank museum anywhere is a strange spectacle. It documents humanity's ingenuity and ambition, and also its desire to demolish whatever is in its path with terrifying finality.

A tank museum tucked into the tranquil hills in Portola Valley, Calif., is stranger still. Yet it's where you'll find the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, one of the nation's most intriguing museums. On the right day, you might find volunteer Tom Sator there, too.

You would think Sator had gotten his fill of tanks when he enlisted in the Army and spent about six months in 1944 and 1945 blasting his way across France and Germany as a member of the Fourth Armored Division's 37th Tank Battalion.

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  • For details about the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation, visit the museum's website.

"There's five people in one of those," says Sator, 89, referring to the M4 Sherman tank that served as his home during World War II. "You're living there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There's no shower facilities. There's no bathroom."

At the tank museum, Sator says he's learned more about the technology and manufacture of tanks than he did in the Army, where his job was to load ammunition.

"The only things they taught us were how to drive it, how to grease it, how to shoot and how to abandon it," he says.

The tank museum allows visitors to study tank design under much less frenetic conditions. There are more than 60 tanks and more than 240 items in all, including anti-aircraft guns, amphibious trucks, motorcycles and a pair of Scud missile launchers.

There's an M4 Sherman similar to the one Sator fought in, and a German Panther that spent the second half of the 20th century rusting at the bottom of a Polish river. It has since been restored in exacting detail.

There are Soviet tanks, Israeli tanks and a tank from World War I.

The tank museum owes its existence to Jacques Littlefield. Heir to a construction and mining fortune — the company his grandfather founded helped build the Hoover Dam — Littlefield worked as an engineer at Hewlett-Packard in the mid-1970s before leaving the 9-to-5 world to manage his investments and follow his unlikely muse.

As a youth, he built model tanks. As a student at Stanford, he constructed a remote-control tank that weighed nearly 200 pounds and spit flames from its cannon. In 1975, when he was 26, he obtained his first full-size military vehicle, a wheeled scout car from World War II. In 1983, he bought his first tank, an M5A1 Stuart that was built by Cadillac in 1943 and purchased by the Canadian Army in 1946 for $831, then sold again to the Portuguese Army in the late 1950s.

Littlefield, who died from cancer in 2009, was known among armor collectors and aficionados for his meticulous commitment to historical accuracy and the extent to which he made his private collection available to interested parties. In time, it grew so large that he built a series of gymnasium-size warehouses on his 470-acre Portola Valley estate to house it.

"When Jacques passed away, everything stopped for about six months," says Phil Hatcher, the museum's director.

Then, Littlefield's children decided that the foundation should stay on the family estate. While acquisition and restoration of vehicles has largely stopped, the all-volunteer tank museum is open to the public for guided tours on Saturdays. Tickets are priced at $20. (It will be closed from Dec. 16 through Jan. 11.)

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