MILITARY MUSEUM WEARS OUT WELCOME: Group Seeks Housing for Vintage Vehicles
by Patrick E. Gauen of the Post-Dispatch Staff
If you happen to have an empty fort, Capt. Carol Veneable may be
able to fill it beyond your wildest imagination--with tanks, cannons,
armored trucks, helicopters and other heavy stuff of war.
After 10 years of barley noticed residence at an Army post in
Granite City, the Armed Forces Museum of St. Louis is being kicked out of
its free home.
Secured behind the guarded gates of the Army's Charles Melvin Price
Support Center, the private museum is regarded by the Army as little more
than a parking lot for parade vehicles.
Besides, the Department of Defense has other uses for the museum's
400,000 square feet of covered storage space.
Venable, the curator, who uses the title "Captain" earned before he
retired from the Civil Air Patrol, calls it "a witch hunt" and "a
persecution." He said the government is wrong to evict vehicles he compares
to human veterans.
"Like veterans, they served their country. Like veterans some of
them fell on hard times. Like veterans, they deserve a good old soldiers'
home for retirement," he insisted.
The military view is more dispassionate.
"Presently your organization does not qualify as a museum," wrote
edward K. Woolverton of the Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command in
Warren, Mich., in a letter to Venable dated Oct. 8.
Woolverton's letter gave the non-profit group 90 days to find a site
accessible to the public to meet criteria for borrowing military surplus.
Otherwise, the four helicopters, artillery, and the rest of the Army's
holdings will be repossessed.
In a separate issue, the Army Aviation and Missile Command in
Huntsville, Ala., which controls the Price Center, wants the museum out by
March 31 regardless of whether it meets the Armaments Coomand's criteria.
Army spokesman Bob Hunt said the military needs the space.
"It's not a museum like you would think of a museum," Hunt said.
"They keep things in storage until they haul it out for a parade or a
reunion." The stprage structure has a roof but no sides.
The government owns about 40 percent of the museum's approximately
148 major pieces, says Norm Sirna, a sewer system consultant from Florissant
and president of the museum. The rest are privately owned either by the
museum or individuals.
Sirna said that before the Army started trying to evict the museum,
visitors had easy access to the display. "All the guards at the gate would
ask was, 'Do you know where it is?'"
He said the vehicles are used in about 30 parades a year.
Venable, a McDonnell Douglas retiree who lives in Ferguson, said he
is scrambling to find replacement equipment for their biggest event, the
Veterans Day Parade on Nov. 11. "The Army told us we can remove any vehicle
we hold the title or the bill of sale to, but that we can't bring any back,"
Because some of the machinery was donated directly to the
organization, Venable said, not all of it has titles or bills of sale. For
now, there is no other place to put any of it.
Sirna said Friday that he was working on finding new space. "It has
to be free," he explained. "We don't really have any money."
The museum is an offshoot of a World War III re-enactment club,
Sirna said, with about 150 members.
Venable said the Army locked out the museum Volunteers for a while
beginning Aug. 11, and still restricted their access.
Venable and Sirna said they and some others associated with the
museum were interogated Aug. 13 by Army criminal investigators who seemed
especially interested in their trading of tanks with a park in the Madison
County town of Maine.
For many years the village displayed a World War II vintage M-3
stewart tank, Venable said. It was built in St. Louis; the museum coveted
the tank for restoration to run in parades. The museum arranged a trade for
its training version of a more-modern M-60 tank.
"It was a legal swap, which we were entitled to do," Sirna said.
Army spokesmen declined to comment on any criminal inquiry.
The Army lends "demilitarized" weapons for public display. The job
of keeping track of them has been switched to the Armaments Command from the
Center for Military History near Washington, one Army official said.
"What's happened is, we're caught in the middle of a war between
those two commands," lamented Venable. Sirna agreed.
Wendy Saigh, a lawyer for the Armaments Command, said she did not
have details on any switch in oversight authority. But she said the
"conditional deeds of gift" are being reviewed by her agency at a variety of
locations across the nation to be sure restrictions are being met.
Compliance by the museum at Granit City is still under study, she
said. She explained, "Our interest is to make sure the items are being
displayed in a manner consistent with the honor with which they were used.
Venable said he cannot understand the problem. "We love our
governemnt," he said. "We would never do anything to hurt our governemnt."
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