In a battle with time
By Blake Belden, staff writer
Aug 15, 2014, 09:39
BLAKE BELDEN/HOPEWELL NEWS/NEWS-PATRIOT The Skeleton Tank now sits in a tent at Fort Lee.
FORT LEE — Situated in a remote storage facility on the outskirts of Fort Lee, among a collection of outdated, international military vehicles, lies the historic prototype for a light-weight tank designed for trench warfare in World War I.
The skeleton tank, although never used because the war was over by the time it was officially tested, sits nearly a century old in a tent on the military base as the one and only model ever made.
Because it has been weathered and deteriorated over the past 95 years, and it serves as an historic relic, Claire Samuelson, the director of the U.S. Army Ordnance Training and Heritage Center at Fort Lee, submitted the item for nomination in a statewide competition, Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts, in hopes of garnering public interest and heightened conservation efforts for the tank.
The skeleton tank was designed for the use of Allied Troops in 1914, but the actual prototype wasn’t constructed until 1918, the final year of World War I.
It was designed during a time when warfare on the Western Front was characterized by rows of deep trenches to avoid being struck by open gunfire. Because this made terrain difficult to travel over, blueprints were drawn up for the skeleton tank, a light vehicle with a wooden body connected together by standard iron pipes that could easily cross the wide trenches, according to Samuelson.
Meant for two people, a gun turret, or fighting compartment, hangs suspended between the tank’s track frames, coated with about a half-inch of armor, the only armored part of the entire tank, with a tiny, horizontal slit for occupants to look through.
Samuelson didn’t know if the tank was ever actually equipped with a 30-caliber gun, but she said that the blueprints called for one if they ever were to go into full scale production.
The skeleton tank holds up to 17 gallons of gasoline, at a rate of two miles per gallon, allowing for a total 34-mile trip.
After it was designed and produced, the prototype was sent to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, a military testing facility in Maryland.
“By the time it was tested and everything, the war was over, and this was the only one that was ever made,” Samuelson said, emphasizing that the tank became obsolete as an effective military vehicle shortly after the war ended.
According to Samuelson, there was much dispute over who should be credited with originally designing the skeleton tank. Col. Ernest Swinton, of the British army, concluded that an armored machine was necessary to overcome the military stalemate of the Western Front, and was officially awarded for the invention of the tank by the British prize court. However, Edwin Wheelock, the vice president and manager of the Pioneer Tractor Company who was ultimately contracted to build the skeleton tank, claimed that he originally designed the blueprints for the tank and brought them over to England months before Swinton had come up with his idea for it.
Pioneer Tractor Company was paid $15,000 to produce the skeleton tank prototype, Samuelson said. Taking inflation into account, this number is closer to approximately $236,800 in today’s currency, a number that still pales in comparison to the production costs of current military warfare vehicles.
Refurbished in the early 2000s, everything except for the wooden frame is still the original structure, and the skeleton tank was transported to Fort Lee around five years ago from the Aberdeen Proving Ground, where it had been sitting outside for the majority of its existence.
Samuelson gave credit to the refurbishment efforts on the tank, but said that “it’s seen some hard times since then [including rust and rotting wood] which is why I nominated it for the Top 10 Endangered Artifacts.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF U.S. ARMY This photo taken in 1953 shows two soldiers with the tank.
Organized by the Virginia Association of Museums, the fourth annual Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Competition serves to highlight the existence and importance of old historic artifacts from across the state in hopes of promoting the item’s recognition and creating preservation support for the item.
Christina Newton, the assistant director of the Virginia Association of Museums, called the skeleton tank “an unusual and important item” especially in terms of military history.
“So hopefully, by participating in [the competition], they will create a connection with someone or a group that would be interested in helping to support them,” Newton said of how the nomination could impact Fort Lee’s goals of preservation.
Newton explained that it is not uncommon for winners, finalists or nominees to receive additional funding or support from citizens or groups who become aware of the artifact through the competition.
The top 10 finalists are chosen by a group panel comprised of conservators and collections care professionals who will conduct a professional review of the artifacts on August 25, in addition to one artifact which will receive the People’s Choice Award determined by a public vote through August 23.
The panel will look at “not just the significance of the item, but what the organization would do if the item were able to be conserved, so they’re really looking at the integrity of the item, not so much [the] popularity,” Newton said.
There are no monetary awards given by the Virginia Association of Museums in the competition.
You can vote for the skeleton tank to be win the People’s Choice Award at www.vatop10artifacts.org.
Other artifact nominees, of which there are a total of almost 40, include the tombstone of the founder of Virginia Tech and a German artillery canon used in World War I.