CAMP RIPLEY - A piece of 70-year-old war machinery that helped American tankers beat the Nazis at their own game in World War II recently received a face-lift at Camp Ripley.
The M4A3E2 "Jumbo" Sherman tank sitting in front of the Minnesota Military Museum building is one of only eight that exist in the entire world. The "Jumbo" nickname comes from the fact that the tank is big, even by tank standards. Along with other Sherman Jumbos, it was introduced in the latter days of U.S. involvement in WWII. They were intended to help solve a simple but devastating problem facing the U.S. Army: Its tanks simply weren't as effective as their counterparts in the German Wehrmacht.
The standard M4 Sherman was produced in droves, but it was also destroyed in droves by German armored vehicles, like the Panther and Tiger, with better armor and guns. So designers created the Sherman Jumbo, with much thicker armor than the garden variety Sherman. The resulting 42-ton monstrosity was favored as a lead vehicle in U.S. tank columns because it could soak up all the hits if the column was ambushed.
The particular Jumbo sitting in front of the museum still has the scars on the bow of the tank where it probably took a direct hit from a German cannon, and scars on the right side where it apparently took shrapnel from indirect artillery fire. It obviously lived to tell the tale.
Doug Thompson, curator of the museum, said the Jumbo restoration came about because the Camp Ripley base will - every few years - allow the museum to pick a military vehicle in its collection to be restored. This year was the Jumbo, which was already partially restored in 1986. This time, however, the museum and the National Guard went all-out on fixing the Jumbo's appearance. "For years, this tank was sitting out here with post-war modifications, the wrong paint job, the serial numbers weren't right," Thompson said. "It really was deserving of a good restoration."
Thompson consulted several Sherman experts, including the world-renowned Pierre-Olivier Buan in France, who flew to the U.S. just to see the tank for himself.
"(He) wrote me a whole long laundry list of things that needed to be done to the tank," Thompson said. "He sent photographs with red circles saying, 'This part needs to look like this, this part should be here, this should be removed, you should add this here.' He gave us kind of the diagram of how to do it."
Thompson said the soldiers in the armor repair shop at Camp Ripley did the hands-on work, fixing the outside of the tank and even custom manufacturing WWII-style exterior parts when no vintage ones could be found elsewhere. They added a vintage .30 caliber machine gun barrel to where it would historically stick out from the tank's bow, or front.
As Thompson recalled, the historical experts and Camp Ripley mechanics had their work cut out for them.
The Jumbo Shermans, including the one that would eventually come to Camp Ripley, were the only Shermans the military bothered to bring back to American bases after Germany surrendered, Thompson said. The more common M4 Shermans either stayed in Germany on occupation duty or were sold to other militaries - but the Jumbos were needed for the invasion of the Japanese home islands. The atomic bombs rendered an invasion unnecessary, and the Jumbos were eventually put out to pasture.
Camp Ripley's Sherman, serial number 3082941, served for a while as a machine gun range target, Thompson said. The National Guard bolted extra armor to the side and drove the Jumbo back and forth for the machine gun crews to shoot at. However, the tank wasn't used for the artillery range, which is one of the reasons it still survives today - and one of the reasons historians know its scars came from German cannons in combat, not American ones in training.
Thompson hesitated to put a monetary value on a tank the museum considers priceless, but he added that similar M4 Shermans in running condition have gone for $600,000.
Camp Ripley's Sherman has an engine, but is not in running condition. The Military Museum gave the Brainerd Dispatch the rare opportunity to go inside the tank - and the disparity between its outside cosmetics and the inside condition was obvious. The inside of the tank is evidence for both the cramped, stuffy conditions WWII tankers had to endure, and for the value of getting regular tetanus booster shots.
It would take another restoration with a lot more money and even more elbow grease behind it to get Camp Ripley's Jumbo back to the condition it was in when it first hit the streets of western Europe. But for now, at least, it finally looks the part.