The Tank Museum
Wandering through the vast interior spaces of the Tank Museum, you may glimpse a man pedaling an adult tricycle with a revolver strapped to his hip. That's no freak security guard; it's William Gasser, the owner. He rides the trike because it's the only way he can keep an eye on all of his tanks.
William, a New York industrialist and self-described "former millionaire," bought his first armored fighting vehicle in the 1970s. Now he has well over a hundred -- and not just any run-of-the-mill front-lawn-of-the-local-VFW rust buckets. There's an M1917 tank from World War I, so rare that the National World War I Museum searched for years before it could locate one. He has a German Mark IV Panzer from World War II, "like having the Mona Lisa," he said. "The Holy Grail would be easier to find." There's an Iraqi T-72A, captured during Operation Desert Storm, displayed atop a crushed a car; and an M4 Sherman tank that William personally dug out of a makeshift grave in a field behind a lunatic asylum.
William opened the Tank Museum in 1981 at his home on Long Island, after reading a story about the Higgins Armory Museum and impulsively deciding, I can do that, too! Lacking space for more than one or two tanks, in 2003 he moved the entire collection -- 2,597 tons of equipment -- to Virginia. It's now in a former tool plant, a third of a million square feet, surrounded by 90 acres of land. There's plenty of room for tanks; the problem is getting tourists to visit this out-of-the-way spot. "The people who come here are determined," said William. "You want to see the coolest tank stuff around? It's not gonna be in your back yard."
A self-confessed obsessive-compulsive, could William stop at just tanks? Uh, no. He has hundreds of uniforms worn by tank and cavalry generals; displays of tank tableware, ash trays, pillow cases, toys; a room devoted to rocket launchers and flamethrowers; thousands of helmets, hats, and fantastical headgear, each on a custom-painted mannequin head, no two alike.
As William walked us around, talking in machine gun bursts, his voice echoed off the distant factory walls. The walkie-talkie strapped to his belt squawked with messages from unseen parts of the building.
We could smell the oil from the tanks as he showed off his 6,000-square-foot indoor battlefield ("Not even the government has one this big.") and an Eva Braun dummy modeling one of her cocktail dresses. There's a big replica of a Martian War Machine from the 1953 film The War of the Worlds (a "tank of the future" in William's judgment) and a miniature death mask of Erwin Rommel that clearly shows where his ear was shot off.
William grabbed a lever, pumped vigorously, and swirled fake snowflakes around a glassed-in life-size diorama of winter combat in Korea. Another big display, set in Italy, shows a weeping GI cradling a buddy who's been disemboweled. Years ago William kept it hidden from children; not anymore. "Let 'em see it," he said. " They're too used to Schwarzenegger movies. This is what war is; it's horrible."
William realizes that tanks are at the high caliber end of the insanity collector spectrum. Now in his sixties, he feels the multi-ton burden of his private arsenal. "I'm a Dr. Frankenstein who made his monster too big," he said.
Still, he won't part with any of it, and is working hard to find a university or billionaire who will keep the museum intact. And when he showed us his flipped-over M-56 in a Vietnam rice paddy, or talked of the museum's annual car crushing demonstrations and hand grenade tossing contests, the weariness instantly vanished. "These are things you're just not gonna see anywhere else on the planet," he said. "That's not a boast; it's a fact. This is Smithsonian quality!"