Roberts' World War II tanks roll in reenactmentsDo you like delving back through history watching popular TV specials that focus on reenactments of Civil War battles?
If you do, you might want to drop by Charles "Chuck" Roberts' farm in Big Rock, Ill. Roberts, who graduated in 1966 with a degree in mechanical engineering, can reenact World War II for you (well, at least part of it!) right in his own backyard.
It is safe to say that Roberts' backyard is like none other. For example, it is the site of Roberts Armory, which houses WWII tanks, staff cars and anti-tank guns, all of which were personally restored by Roberts and which he often takes on the road to pa rticipate in reenactments of famous WWII battles.
"My most-requested vehicle is the M5 Stuart Light Tank, many of which saw duty in the European and Pacific theaters," he reports. "So far, the M5 has been seen on such shows as The Untouchables and Motor Sports Unlimited, and in a WWII documentary."
Roberts, who owns his own consulting engineering firm, became interested in his unusual hobby as a youngster while his parents were stationed at Army bases in the Philippines, Japan and Alaska. "As a postwar 'Army brat' there were plenty of opportunities to observe and ride in WWII military vehicles," he recalls.
His interest was further piqued when he was an ROTC student at WPI and got a firsthand look at an M48 tank on display in front of Sanford Riley Hall. Also, through conversations with the late Professor Kenneth Merriam, who consulted with the War Departmen t in WWII, he became aware of shortcomings in anti-aircraft gunner training.
"In our display of anti-aircraft guns at the armory, we have followed Merriam's advice pertaining to the setup and use of the quadmount," Roberts says. "Merriam always said the gunner should aim at the plane as it was approaching or departing in order to get a hit. Not when it was directly overhead."
Following graduation, Roberts joined the Army as a second lieutenant. "I was put in charge of a platoon of engineers testing military vehicles and working on projects relating to new and innovative designs," he says. "My interest in military hardware neve r stopped—even when I started my engineering business in 1979. I bought my first military vehicle in 1987 and have been enthusiastically adding to my collection ever since."
And just how does a civilian go about collecting military vehicles? According to Roberts, he obtains some from other collectors and he also gets used equipment from dealers who may have contracts with foreign countries that have stockpiles of WWII hardwar e.
"Many of these vehicles are nonoperational and might be considered 'basket cases' by the casual observer," Roberts comments. "But my M22 Locust Tank came through restoration well, however."
Roberts credits his wife, Lydia, for helping with the cosmetic aspects of the restorations. She has scraped off rust and even assisted in changing the tracks of the M5 tank and the M16 Halftrack.
"Some repairs, such as restoring radiators and the welding of a new turret for the M22, were contracted out," Roberts says. "But Lydia and I do everything else ourselves. Her only request is that we have no more than one nonoperational vehicle being worke d on at a time."
Once restored, Roberts' equipment is all set to be displayed or "star" in WWII reenactments, which, he claims, are approaching the popularity of Civil War depictions. A reenactment entails a "battle" between U.S. Army troops and their military vehicles an d German troops and their vehicles.
Allied reenactors wear authentic WWII uniforms. The enemy soldiers, who yell appropriate German words during the conflicts, wear modern Swedish uniforms with the buttons altered and the original Vermacht insignias sewn on. Each participant spends about $1 ,000 for his outfit.
During a typical reenacted battle, an Allied convoy is ambushed, but before being totally overwhelmed the survivors manage to radio an armored patrol that comes to the rescue. All of the vehicles used are owned either by individuals or by the nonprofit hi storical groups to which they belong.
Roberts says there's a simple reason why he enjoys taking part in reenactments. "Coming from a military family, I've always heard about World War II," he explains. "The reenactments give me the only opportunity I have as an adult civilian to experience WW II-type soldiering with my friends. But we're not a bunch of political or ideological warmongers, as some critics claim. We are well aware of the terrible toll that real wars take."
Lydia, who was never in the military, often portrays a uniformed WAC, whose role in WWII was one of support in the maintenance, cryptology, clerical and radio communication fields, as well as vehicle transport behind the lines. Preservation of such unifor ms and vehicles of the era is a benefit to historical education, she says.
According to Roberts, his 7-year-old son, John, is the envy of his friends at school. He has grown up with the vehicles and has learned about WWII through "osmosis." He looks forward to the excitement of the reenactments.
There are always special occasion displays and even rescue missions that spotlight Roberts' vehicles. During a recent veteran's memorial dinner, General William Westmoreland paused to admire his M8 armored car, Roberts reports. "And once, when a National Guard HUMVEE got stuck in a swampy area during a Boy Scout event, we used the M16 Halftrack to pull it out."
Roberts says the most significant aspect of his vehicle restoration project is the preservation of historical mechanical apparatus. "These vehicles were the mechanical marvels of their day and performed a vital service to the country," he says. "It is imp ortant for us all to remember."
-- Ruth Trask
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