ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND – It doesn’t take long to realize the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum isn’t your garden variety shrine.
Some 240 tanks, cannons and other heavy equipment are scattered across the museum’s grounds. A German K5 Leopold rail gun sits on railroad tracks across the street, its 70-foot-long barrel a reminder of World War II, where it was captured by troops in Italy.
When the base realignment process is finished reshaping military installations in 2011, though, the museum will be gone. After 88 years in Aberdeen, the military plans to reopen it at Fort Lee, Va., where it will be combined with two existing museums.
“It’ll be one of the largest Army museum complexes ever,” said William F. Atwater, museum director.
The loss of the Ordnance Museum, once considered one of Harford County’s biggest tourist attractions, is a rarity for Maryland as it readies for thousands of new jobs and the transfer of dozens of military units.
Veterans groups and officials managing the expansion at Aberdeen say they are sad to see the museum go. But they consider Maryland fortunate, considering the thousands of new jobs expected to move to the state in the next five years.
“We’re very excited about the new things that are coming to Aberdeen Proving Ground,” said Jim Richardson, executive director of the Harford County Office of Economic Development. “While we really hate to see any disruption here, change is inevitable, and the overall changes we will see are for the better.”
U.S. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, said “we must move on,” particularly since the museum is moving with the Ordnance Center and School, which provides technical training for soldiers at Aberdeen.
“I can understand that some of the veterans who are a part of the Ordnance might be concerned it’s leaving,” Ruppersberger said. “But I think it’s important that wherever it goes, they create their own tradition and be proud of what they’re doing today.”
Luis Fernandez, commander of VFW Post 10028 in Aberdeen, said veterans understand the decision to move the museum.
“It doesn’t belong to us,” he said. “It belongs to the Army and the Ordnance Center School.”
Atwater, who will retire Nov. 30, said he understands the decision to move the museum, but he questions how hard Maryland officials fought to keep it.
“If you’re a politician and you’re losing 3,000 low-paying jobs and a museum (at Aberdeen), but getting 5,000 jobs that pay well, what’s your incentive to say anything?” he said.
Atwater leaves behind an 18-year legacy that includes overseeing the rehabilitation of dozens of pieces of equipment ranging from Sherman tanks to Howitzer cannons.
The process to refinish the equipment is complicated, and can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months, Atwater said. In most cases, private contractor Engineering Documentation Systems Inc., of Virginia, provides the manpower for needed sandblasting, painting and metal work.
The rehabilitation is necessary in part because the tanks and other equipment sat without protection on the grounds of the installation for years, exposed to rain, snow and sun that corrode their armor.
“What you’re really doing is conducting an experiment on how long it takes to dissolve a tank,” Atwater said last week, looking at a rusty 1945 “Easy Eight” M4 Sherman tank on blocks. “When we get through with this, it will look like it rolled off an assembly line.”
That means money spent for the federal government. The Center of Military History in Washington, which owns the tanks, has traditionally spent $400,000-$750,000 per year to restore heavy equipment at Aberdeen, Atwater said. The cramped quarters at Aberdeen made it unlikely that would change.
By contrast, when the Fort Lee ordnance museum is completed, it is expected to have 80,000-120,000 square feet of indoor display space, a far cry from the gymnasium-sized area visitors now see.
Joy Metzger, Fort Lee spokeswoman, said the museum will be grouped with the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, which it picked up in a previous round of BRAC decisions, and the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum. Both are tourist attractions there.
“These two work together in bringing in groups, and I’m sure however many museums Fort Lee is fortunate enough to get they would all work together,” she said.
The Army is expected to move most of the heavy equipment to Fort Lee by rail car or truck, with the work beginning by the end of the year. It remains likely that some items will be left behind, though, with decisions made on an item-by-item basis.
Richardson said the county will be interested in items and equipment that are left behind and is exploring whether a museum devoted to the installation’s history could eventually be opened.
“ENIAC, the world’s first supercomputer, was built there, and pieces of it are still on the post,” Richardson said. “It would be nice to get those in a place where people can see them.”
The existing ordnance building is expected to house a smaller communications museum that will move with many other facilities from Fort Monmouth, N.J., Atwater said. The Army must use it as a museum because the money to build it was given to the Army on that condition.