One of America’s most extensive collections of decommissioned tanks and other military vehicles got its start in 1982 when a Washington lobbyist turned history buff bought an Army jeep.
Once you start collecting mobile military artifacts, Allan Cors said, it’s hard to stop.
Three years after picking up the first jeep, Mr. Cors, a former top lobbyist for the glass and ceramics giant Corning Inc., purchased his first tank: an M5 Stuart. It was the later version of a light tank given to British troops under the Lend-Lease Act before the United States joined the war against Nazi Germany.
The collection grew — and grew and grew.
Mr. Cors now owns at least 80 military vehicles, including a vintage M1917, the United States’ first mass-produced tank, and one of the few operational World War II-era M4 Sherman tanks. In 1989, he bought a farm in Nokesville, Virginia, to consolidate and display his collection.
“I’ve been interested in military history since I was a kid. It stayed with me all my life,” said Mr. Cors, who served a term as president of the National Rifle Association.
The farm is now the site of an annual Tank Day. Visitors can clamber over dozens of armored behemoths and watch military reenactors show what life was like for the dogface soldiers of World War II. Last year, about 20,000 people attended the first Tank Day since the onset of the pandemic. The two-day extravaganza starting Saturday may have a bigger crowd.
Museum officials estimated that the collection is worth several million dollars. It’s not easy to forecast the market for vintage tanks.
Plans are for the collection to be a centerpiece of the National Museum of Americans in Wartime Experience, the nonprofit that Mr. Cors chairs. The museum will be along Interstate 95 in Dale City, Virginia. Museum CEO Dennis G. Brant said the goal is for visitors to make physical connections to the military vehicles, the ultimate interactive experience.
“I can go over to the Marine Corps museum, but I can’t touch anything. It’s all behind glass. I can go over to the Army museum, and I can look at it, but I can’t touch anything,” he said. “This museum is going to be ‘touchy-feely.’”
The museum also hosts an oral history project to document the stories of front-line military personnel, rear-area soldiers and even families back home.
“Everybody does a double-take when they see a tank driving out here on the track. But it’s the veterans who make all that possible,” said Dennis Gill, who heads the museum’s Voices of Freedom project. “It’s important to document their stories.”
Mr. Gill’s grandfather was a waist gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber during World War II. He was shot down over Romania and taken prisoner by the Germans. He would die of a heart attack at 46, having never shared his story.
“All we know in the family is from his [discharge papers] and some newspaper clippings about his exploits,” Mr. Gill said. “We don’t know what he experienced as a POW or what it was like for him in a B-17 — getting shot down and jumping out of it.”
Mr. Cors also has acquired a number of tanks from foreign countries, including some from behind the Iron Curtain. He snapped up an East German T-72 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officials in reunified Germany said it could be his if he paid the shipping costs.
“The vehicles, to me, are just a medium for telling the stories of those who served,” he said. “The real story of the Tank Farm is not about the tanks.”
The collection also houses a British Centurion tank, a landing craft for Marines in World War II, and a pair of odd-looking Swedish S-Tanks, which don’t have turrets and aim by shifting the entire vehicle toward the intended target.
“This is my circus, and these are my monkeys,” said Marc Sehring, operations manager at the Tank Farm.
He said children tend to look at the assorted tanks and armored personnel carriers as merely big things to climb. Reactions from veterans are often much different, even from those who never told their families about their wartime experiences.
“When they see a vehicle, that kicks up a memory and all of a sudden it starts to flow,” Mr. Sehring said. “They see stuff that they fought against.”
Mr. Sehring said they hope to add more recent American tanks eventually, including the M48 that U.S. troops used in Vietnam, the Cold War-era M60 tank and the more modern M1 Abrams.
“But U.S. tanks are really hard to come by. We have a tendency to either blow them up or sell them to other countries,” he said.