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The National Museum of Military Vehicles tries to tell an important story

The National Museum of Military Vehicles will have its long awaited Grand Opening on May 28 just outside of Dubois. Dan Starks is the Museum's founder and Chairman. He joined Wyoming Public Radio's Bob Beck to describe the museum and why it's worth your time.

Dan Starks: This is a private venture that has been funded by my family with two major goals. The first goal is to honor the service and sacrifice of American veterans and their families. The second goal is to educate the next generations on the history of American freedom.

Bob Beck: Where did you get the idea to do this?

DS: It evolved over time. My starting point was to acquire a derelict junked, World War II Sherman tank with the idea that I wanted to find someone to restore it so that I could drive it in the local Fourth of July parade. From that seed, it became clear to me that the story surrounding these vehicles really resonated with a broad cross section of Americans. And as my collection began to expand, and as word of mouth spread, and more and more people asked to come see the collection, it became clear that this was of enough interest to enough people that we needed to put this collection in a public location, be called a museum and organize our stories and make it available to everyone who'd be interested in it.

BB: Did you have to explain to people early on you're acquiring these items for a museum and not planning to take over Dubois?

DS: Ha, ha, no. That's a good point, though. Most of these vehicles do not have live weapons. The ones that do have live weapons are highly regulated and required ATF stamps in compliance with ATF regulations. But every vehicle that is available to the public in the museum has been de-militarized and critical components of what otherwise would be live guns are stored in vaults.

BB: Have they all been used in military action?

DS: Many of them have been used in military action. We don't know the specific history of a lot of these vehicles. Some of them may have been stateside, they might have been used in training. There are a few of these vehicles where we do know their battle history. We have an M18 Hellcat tank destroyer, for example, where we have documented that it fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December of 1944. We have a DVD of the actual commander of this actual tank destroyer. But that's the exception rather than the rule to know exactly the history of the vehicles. The military did not track the history of its vehicles in a way that would make it easy for us to know their exact history.

BB: So you have bought 500 fully restored military vehicles. How hard was it to acquire them? And how does one go about acquiring all these things?

DS: It was a challenge to acquire. And I never would have imagined that my efforts would result in this kind of collection. I acquired my vehicles from all over the world. Probably half of the vehicles I acquired were in the United States when I acquired them, but the other half, about 250 of them, were in various locations overseas ranging from Australia to South America to most countries in Europe and Canada. Some of these vehicles I just would stumble across some of these vehicles I would find in auctions as museums would shut down. For example, the Normandy Tank Museum shut down due to financial difficulties and liquidated its collection. I was able to acquire a number of vehicles in that liquidation auction. But now I'm known enough in the military vehicle world that when people want to dispose of interesting artifacts, they very often reach out to me and ask me if I'm interested before they put their collection items up for sale.

BB: You've also got weapons and all kinds of things right?

DS: Yes. I have a collection of historically significant firearms. The most significant firearm is a musket that fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. It is amazing that it was not already either lost to history or in a museum. It stayed in the family of the New Hampshire militiaman, John Simpson, who carried that weapon into battle at Bunker Hill and returned home with his weapon at the end of the Revolutionary War. It stayed in his family until 2019 when the family decided to make it available in a public auction and I was fortunate enough to be able to acquire it in that auction.

BB: You mentioned that this is really a museum about freedom. What is the story you're trying to tell?

DS: Key attributes of what it takes to create and now what it takes to sustain our freedom. For example, the role of manufacturing in preserving American freedom. When we think about American manufacturing, people think about economic impact on US manufacturing jobs, for example. But I don't hear discussion about the significance of maintaining adequate American manufacturing, to refresh military vehicles and military weapons in the event of the kind of war that we had in World War II. It's kind of little known today that one of the major reasons we were able to overcome so many disadvantages after being unprepared for World War II, was the size and strength of our manufacturing economy. World War II really illustrated that clearly. And today, that lesson tends to be lost in the public conversation. So we're bringing that lesson back up to the fore.

Another key dynamic is the value of appreciating our veterans. George Washington said that the willingness of young people to serve in future wars, no matter how justified, will be in direct proportion to how they perceive the country has appreciated and treated its veterans. That brings us to the example of Americans who served in the Vietnam War. They've never received the level of appreciation and tribute that they deserved. They were often dismissed, and even at times, abused as they would return to the United States from their service in Vietnam. And regardless of the politics of the Vietnam War, it's just so critical to value and respect and take care of and appreciate Americans who served in the Vietnam War, regardless of one's politics. And so we talk about that at length in the museum and talk about how significant it is to have Americans willing to step up and continue to serve in the US military. And if we want Americans to be willing to do that, we should take better care of those who already have.

BB: Well, let's talk a little bit about the grand opening. This is going to be on May 28 at 10 a.m. You're gonna have a number of big speakers?

DS: Yeah, Governor Gordon has graciously agreed to speak. We have a three star retired general coming from Washington DC to speak, we have the past National Commander of the VFW included in our speakers, and we have a full day at the event.

We have a new gallery that we're opening in our main building in the museum. It is kind of the capstone that prompts us to now have the grand opening. This is the last gallery that builds out our first main building. And this will really be the kickoff of our beginning to better communicate around the country what it is that we're offering here in the museum.

We're going to make it a fun day as well as an educational day. We're offering free tank rides for our guests during the day. And we're also establishing an outdoor shooting range to give guests the opportunity to shoot some of the firearms that they see in our weapons vault and some of the firearms that they hear about when they learn about the history of American freedom.

BB: The museum is eight miles southeast of Dubois on Highway 26. People can learn more about the event and museum at the museum's website.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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