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Up close with the tanks, guns and vehicles of the American Military Museum

  • American Military Museum curator Craig Michelson in front of one of the tanks on display. All photos by Joe Soong.


South El Monte , CA United States

You’ve probably seen an Army tank on television or in the movies where the tank crushes all the bad guys. Or you’ve played a military video game where you command your tanks in a life or death battle against Nazis in World War II. But did you know that you can see the real thing and it’s probably closer to you than the local Costco? At the American Military Museum in South El Monte, you can see and stand next to actual tanks, and much more, and be impressed, maybe even a little awed.

The outdoor museum has more than 180 exhibits on display, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks, jeeps and mobile guns. The museum’s oldest item is a cannon from the 1880s donated from a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Sierra Madre that was closing its doors. The newest vehicle on exhibit is the 1984 Army Hummer, M998, one of the first Hummer pickups in existence.

According to Craig Michelson, the museum’s curator, one of the most popular machines is a World War II era 30-ton Sherman tank that is the same type featured in the 2014 movie Fury. “A lot of visitors, since that movie came out, they always want to stand in front of the big tank and I hear them say, ‘This was the tank that Brad Pitt was on,’” said Michelson.

Another favorite is the UH-1M (Huey) helicopter gunship that became a symbol of the Vietnam War. The Huey, which is on loan from the Army, was originally on display at Fort Ord. However, when the fort was closed, the Army allowed the museum to display it.

An exhibit with historical significance is an anti-aircraft gun system from the now-decommissioned battleship USS Missouri. The Missouri is best known for being the site where the Japanese signed its surrender documents during World War II. When the ship was brought into Long Beach in 1988 for a retrofit, the ten-ton, four gun system was removed and placed into storage. Hearing about this, Donald Michelson, Craig’s father, wrote the Navy to ask if AMM could display it and fortunately was allowed to do so.

Donald started the museum as a non-profit in 1965. As an officer in the US Army’s Quartermaster Corp in World War II, Donald managed supplies, contracts and procurement. After the war, his father owned a uniform company and his customers would donate old World War II uniforms to him. This led to him providing uniforms for low budget movies in the 1950s.

Their first big film was Catch-22, which came out in 1970. Not wanting to rent military equipment, the movie studio told Donald that Catch-22 filming would be in Mexico and if he bought the needed military equipment, the movie company would maintain it and give it back to him when filming was finished. Don agreed and bought five WWII jeeps, several military trucks and related equipment that were shipped to Mexico and later returned to him.

In 1978, the museum moved from a temporary location in the city of Bell to the current South El Monte site. The Army Corp of Engineers provided AMM with their seven acre location, which the museum subleases through the L.A. County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Craig, who has a background in mechanics, started working for the museum in 1980. He began by driving and maintaining rented military equipment on movie sets, and is now the museum’s curator and manages its operations.

He also appears in the media as a military equipment expert and found it an effective way to publicize the museum. For Fury, he appeared in an extra from the film’s DVD to explain how a Sherman tank functioned. Last year, the Smithsonian Channel show Weapon Hunter came to AMM and filmed several segments. In addition, Michelson appeared on the cable shows Junkyard Wars and Storage Wars a few years ago as an appraisal expert on military equipment. In his television appearances, he said he didn’t necessarily need to be financially compensated, but does ask each show to display AMM’s logo.

The museum attracts more than 15,000 visitors each year, ranging from local San Gabriel Valley residents to buses full of overseas tourists. All are impressed, but some can become overly enthusiastic when seeing heavy military armor up close. For example, Craig said he recently learned the Korean word hashima when a group of professionally dressed Korean businessman visited a few months ago and were fascinated by the display pieces. Guests are informed that they may pose next to the military hardware, but for safety and liability reasons, they are not allowed to touch or climb on the displays. Although the group’s tour guide understood the policy, the guide had to repeatedly tell the businessmen to “hashima.” Michelson later was told that hashima means “don’t do that,” as in, “Don’t touch or climb on the displays.”

And as an added safety measure, the museum removes all fuel and batteries and other components that are needed to start and drive their larger armored vehicles.

More recently, Craig, a Southern California native, has noticed the museum becoming increasingly popular across multiple generations due to the popularity of video games such as World of Tanks. He is seeing more and more younger visitors in addition to the older history aficionados. “What I love is a grandfather bringing his grandkids and telling them that this is the tank I drove or this is the Jeep I drove in the service,” he said. “Or the little kids who play video games and tell me they can drive a Sherman tank.”

Proof of this were Kevin Thomas, from Rancho Cucamonga, and his grandson Evan, 10, both of whom were visiting AMM for the first time on a recent weekend. Thomas grew up in Alhambra and attended Mark Keppel High School but had never visited the museum until a friend brought him and his grandson, who was enthusiastic about the visit because he liked seeing the tanks that were in his World War II video games.

“I’m a history fan and it’s nice to come look at things you read about,” said Thomas. “Evan seems to be following in my footsteps with history. He knows a lot about World War II at his age and loves military things.”

Students from schools such as Otis Art Institute, PCC, USC, and the Art and Design Center also visit the museum. Instructors will call to let Michelson know their students, who are studying topics such as transportation design, product design, or video game design, will be coming to AMM to sketch its exhibits. Additionally, Whittier College sends students as part of a class on conflict and war.

Since the museum is open from Friday to Sunday, weekdays are when Michelson, two part time staff and more than 50 volunteers can perform the tasks that keep AMM running smoothly. To maintain the condition of the displays takes a lot of behind-the-scenes effort. With a hundred vehicles on display, it can be like painting a bridge from beginning to end, he said. You start work at the first display, and when you finally work your way to the last exhibit, you find you have to start again because the first display needs work again.

To best utilize the museum’s resources, the displays in the front are prioritized for maintenance work and are promptly taken to the back area for repainting if there is any deterioration in their condition. When painting a display piece, Craig and his volunteers focus on making it a quality, thorough job. If there is any deterioration in the metal, it’s wire-brushed or sandblasted, and then an acid treatment is applied to prevent further rusting, followed by the application of high quality primers. “When I clean it all up and put it out and everybody tells me it looks brand new, that makes me really, really proud,” he said.

He is particularly appreciative of his volunteers, without whom it would much more difficult to keep the museum open. They do everything from staffing the museum during operating hours to cleaning the displays to staffing a display booth at local events. There are also several volunteers with expertise in welding, mechanics, and restoration that come in to help.

Craig, who has a background in mechanics, doesn’t mind teaching skills such as sanding and painting to the volunteers, many of whom are from local high schools, come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but have no experience working on vehicles. He has found that the younger volunteers, regardless of prior experience, enjoy working on the exhibits and are very enthusiastic. Alec Lebow, 18, from La Serna High School in Whittier, is one of those volunteers. “Getting inside the tanks, cleaning them, helping with everything from spraying weeds to helping repaint a Jeep, it’s such an awesome experience to be able to do all this,” said Lebow.

Last but not least, the museum has a furry four-legged volunteer. A feline who was affectionately given the name Baby was adopted about two years ago. She was emaciated when she wandered into the museum grounds, where she was fed and became the museum’s mascot. Now, when museum staff is giving a tour to a large group, Baby will follow them around, and will let strangers pet her (as I did) when she is lounging around the premises.

In his time at the museum, Michelson has seen the public’s interest in history and the military remain constant. Lately, museum attendance has been trending upward, largely due to the popularity of military video games. He hopes to supplement this by continuing to publicize the museum. When visitors tell Michelson they saw him on You Tube or Hulu, he sees how his media work and word of mouth is attracting new visitors, who find they have discovered an unexpected treasure in the middle of the San Gabriel Valley. “They love the collection, they’re very happy that we’re doing this, it’s trying to help keep history alive,” said Michelson.

To visit or to volunteer:
American Military Museum
1918 N. Rosemead Blvd.
South El Monte, CA
Operating hours are Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10:00am to 4:30pm
Tel: 626-442-1776

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