Working Iron Blog

Restoring Willie

It’s interesting how transportation and the military are so intertwined, for you really can’t have one without the other. For today’s modern military, moving troops, weapons, supplies, etc., to locations within the U.S. and all over the world is a transportation task like no other (as you can see here and here).

Yee sometimes transportation is called up for more historical – and humbling – purposes, such as the tale of “Willie the Whale.”

Terrence Bell recently related the story of how an old LVT-4 amphibious assault vehicle (by the by, “LVT” stands for “Landing Vehicle Tracked”) that served with U.S. Marines under fire in the Pacific theater of World War II took a look tractor-trailer journey from the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama to the U.S. Army’s Ordnance School at Ft. Lee, Virginia.

Back in the day, LVT-4 – nicknamed “Willie the Whale” (and seen arrivng at Ft. Lee at right) for its amphibious nature – adorned the front of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds facility in Maryland.

Relocated by the U.S. Army Center of Military History following base realignment and closure procedures at Aberdeen, Willie got transferred to Anniston … and sat there rusting, waiting for the opening of an engineer museum where it would be displayed – a moment that never seemed to arrive.

That proved a said fate for this particular LVT-4; a vehicle used by the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Army and its allies in the Pacific and European theaters, noted Bell.

As an evolution to the earlier model LVTs, the biggest change and improvement was the relocation of the engine forward and the creation of an access ramp in the rear of the vehicle, he said.

This ramp allowed for easier loading of equipment and men as well as providing better protection while under fire. So successful in design and adaptability, it saw as a both a troop and artillery transport vehicle. It also witnessed services as a “deployable ramp” for bridging seawalls and a flame-thrower capable vehicle used to clear bunkers in the Pacific.

Willie, however, is an early production model LVT-4: sporting two large windows and escape hatches for the driver and the assistant driver. The later production model LVT-4s had improved armor to the front and viewing ports for the driver and a mounted machine gun for the assistant driver. There was even a LVT (A)-4 – a tank-style model with a turret hosting a 75mm howitzer, Bell said.

Posted for many years outside the U.S. Marine Corps barracks at Aberdeen, many Leathernecks grew curious as to where he ended up once after the base realignment.

“A lot of the instructors and staff that went to the school as privates saw it going to and from the barracks,” Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer 3 Joseph Bering, director of the small arms repairer course at Randolph Hall, the Marine training facility at Ft. Lee. “Seeing it again is a reminder of that heritage we had at Aberdeen.”

Claire Samuelson, museum director of the Ordnance Corps Training and Heritage Center, said Willie welcomed “thousands of Marines” to the Aberdeen barracks – which is one reason why countless emails and phone calls were spent tracking Willie down to his lonely storage lot in Alabama.

Through coordination and agreements to provide a “better indoor home” Willie, it was agreed to move it back with the Marines at Ft. Lee, she pointed out. “It’s undergoing some minor cosmetic work courtesy of Marines enrolled in courses at Randolph,” Samuelson noted.

The Marines will perform, as part of their training, small welding necessities and “cosmetic” improvements to Willie, as well as conduct a hazmat test on the vehicle so it can be refurbished at Randolph Hall. “One day, we would like to have it completely refurbished to reflect how it would have appeared when in use by the Marine Corps,” Samuelson said.

Having Willie back in the hands of Marines is a means to connect the Devil Dogs with its time at Aberdeen, where Marines trained for decades, Bering added.

“The landing craft is a way to expose young Marines to history,” he stressed. “The advantage of having our welding students refurbish a piece of history like that is it allows them to connect with the past, with those who have come before us.”

The restoration work is expected to take two years to complete, Samuelson noted, and at some point in the future, Willie will be relocated to the U.S. Army Engineer Museum at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.

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