Cantigny museum's newest tank is 77 years old -- and it runs

  • Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the First Division Museum at Cantigny, powers up a M5A1 Stuart light tank that arrived this month.

      Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the First Division Museum at Cantigny, powers up a M5A1 Stuart light tank that arrived this month. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Ian Richardson sits atop the M5A1 Stuart light tank.

      Ian Richardson sits atop the M5A1 Stuart light tank. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the 1st Division Museum at Cantigny, gets acquainted with a M5A1 Stuart tank. It's one of the few World War II vehicles with an automatic transmission, "so you can hop in, hit the gas and go," he said.

      Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the 1st Division Museum at Cantigny, gets acquainted with a M5A1 Stuart tank. It's one of the few World War II vehicles with an automatic transmission, "so you can hop in, hit the gas and go," he said. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the 1st Division Museum at Cantigny, drives a M5A1 Stuart light tank that arrived this month.

      Ian Richardson, historic vehicle coordinator of the 1st Division Museum at Cantigny, drives a M5A1 Stuart light tank that arrived this month. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/15/2019 8:54 AM

Ian Richardson is nowhere near a battlefield when he slips behind the wheel of a World War II-era tank and starts the two engines.

He's getting acquainted with the individual quirks of this weapon of war, a surprisingly nimble, nearly 16-ton machine he maneuvers around the parking lot of Cantigny Park's First Division Museum in Wheaton.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's one of the only vehicles that we used in World War II that has an automatic transmission," Richardson said. "It's not a manual, so you can hop in, hit the gas and go."

For Richardson, it's been a "whirlwind" year of planning to bring the M5A1 Stuart light tank to the museum, and it's a heralded addition for several reasons.

Sought after by private owners, the Stuart is the only working tank in Cantigny's collection.

"Everybody knows us for our tanks, and we wanted to have one that actually ran and now we do," said Richardson, the museum's historic vehicles program coordinator.

That means visitors will actually see a 77-year-old war relic on the move. And then they'll think about what it must have been like for the four young men who fit into its cramped confines without the firepower of larger battle tanks.

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"It brings the sights and smells of that conflict to you in a way that you can't do with just talking to people, with reading and looking at stationary objects," Richardson said.

The museum preserves the history of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, but also humanizes the soldier's experience so patrons feel personal responsibility for the people behind the uniform.

Just like the immersive exhibits, there are no barriers around 11 tanks outside the museum. The "tank park" would make for an imposing entrance if not for all the kids who are free to climb atop the hulls.

Those tanks and a Sherman inside the museum's Battle of the Bulge gallery are inoperable and on permanent display. But the Stuart is compact enough to drive without chewing up the roads.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"It's got brand new tracks on it," Richardson said. "It's got a brand new paint job. It's got all new parts, working radios even."

So how did Richardson, an officer in the Army Reserve, track down a Stuart in such mint condition?

He went to an annual convention of the Military Vehicle Preservation Association, reached out to hobbyists and eventually helped arrange an agreement with two collectors to trade the museum's medium Sherman tank for a Stuart.

Their value? Around $250,000, but "no one's selling Stuarts right now," Richardson said.

"They're good on gas. The engines are easy to fix and get parts for," he said. "And because they're smaller and easy to move around, and size-wise, they're average, they're pretty popular."

He estimates there are 50 to 100 functioning Stuarts across the country.

"A lot of them came back to the U.S. in the '90s from South America," Richardson said. "That's where we sold a lot of them after World War II."

The Stuart arrived from Kentucky on a trailer earlier this month, more than a year after the museum unveiled a "very rare," meticulously restored 1918 Liberty truck. That project took almost 11 years.

"It's been my whole life here essentially, and I love that truck," said Richardson, who joined the museum in 2017. "But right after that, we started thinking about swapping out the Sherman for a lighter tank that the park could handle and that we could work on, and then I started turning gears, talking to people."

Tractor manufacturer Massey-Harris produced the tank around November 1942 in Racine, Wisconsin. It was one of the first 100 M5 Stuarts to roll off the company's assembly line. It later became an M5A1 model when it was retrofitted with a new turret and other small upgrades.

Richardson has the tank's serial number but doesn't yet know the particulars of its use in the war. But he will educate museum visitors on the Stuart's role in general supporting infantry troops and reconnaissance due to their relatively smaller size and speed (up to about 35 mph).

Richardson also has researched the connection to the 1st Division: 17 M5 and M5A1 Stuarts formed a company assigned to the 16th Infantry Regiment from D-Day to the end of the war in Europe as part of the 745th Tank Battalion.

Light Tank Company "D" of the 745th was commanded by Capt. Leonard S. Wilds, who received the military's second-highest award -- the Distinguished Service Cross -- for saving his crew from a burning tank hit by German anti-tank guns in France on July 28, 1944.

In honor of Wilds, Richardson hopes Cantigny's Stuart will bear the unit markings found on the captain's tank.

The museum will roll out the tank for certain events and possibly for re-enactments in the region.

"We're finally happy to have something that runs and brings that experience of the tanks and of World War II directly to the public," Richardson said.

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