One of America’s most extensive collections of decommissioned tanks and other military vehicles got its start in 1982 when a Washington, D.C. lobbyist-turned-history buff bought an Army jeep.
And once you start collecting mobile military artifacts, says Allan Cors, 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 even before the United States joined the war against Nazi Germany.
The collection grew — and grew and grew.
“I filled a warehouse in Warrenton, a warehouse in Crystal City, and my garage at home,” Mr. Cors recalled. “My car and my wife’s car were out in the driveway. She was very understanding.”
Mr. Cors now owns at least 80 military vehicles, ranging from a vintage M1917, the United States’ first mass-produced tank, to one of the few operational WWII-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 also served a term as president of the National Rifle Association.
He held his first open house for friends in 1992, welcoming about 75 visitors. Every year the event grew, with more people telling Mr. Cors they wanted to see his improbable fleet of battle tanks.
The farm is now the site of an annual “Tank Day” where visitors can clamber over dozens of armored behemoths and watch military re-enactors show what life was like for the dogface soldiers of World War II. About 20,000 people attended last year — the first post-COVID Tank Day and a bigger crowd may be on tap for this year’s two-extravaganza starting Saturday.
Museum officials said they believe the collection is worth several million dollars but don’t have an exact price. It’s not easy to say what the market is for vintage tanks these days.
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 located along Virginia’s Interstate 95 in Dale City. Museum CEO Dennis G. Brant said the goal is for visitors to be able to make a physical connection 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 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 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Officials in recently unified Germany said it could be his if he paid the shipping costs.
After several years, Mr. Cors said he realized that merely accumulating military hardware wasn’t the main point of his collection.
“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 Army Centurion tank, a landing craft used by Marines in World War II, and even a pair of odd-looking Swedish S-Tanks, which don’t have a turret and aim by shifting the entire vehicle toward the intended target.
“This is my circus and these are my monkeys,” said Marc Schring, 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 on. The reaction from the veterans is often something else, however, 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. Schring said. “They see stuff that they fought against.”
Mr. Schring said they eventually hope to add more recent American tanks to the farm, including the M48 used by U.S. troops 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.