BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — When Dale Mills served in the Marine Corps, he worked on tanks many times the size of the equipment he’s working on today.
His latest project, though, he likened to a toy. The smallish World War I tank he's now taken over maintenance of has long been a staple at the north end of Bloomington's Miller Park.
While smaller than tanks he worked on while in the service from 1960 to 1980, he thinks it is older and less common than most he’s ever touched.
“It’s rare all right,” Mills said. “It’s history that needs to be preserved.”
Mills is leading a small team of veterans who are working to clean up the tank, hoping to finish by Flag Day on June 14 and dedicate it to the late Sammy Ferrara.
Ferrara served in the Army for 20 years, including during World War II and the Korean War, and later served 18 years as the first superintendent of the McLean County Veterans Assistance Commission before retiring in 2002. The Purple Heart recipient died in 2007 at the age of 86.
"He was a heck of a guy," Mills said of Ferrara, listing all he did for veterans through the VAC.
The city thinks the tank, an M1917, originated at the Rock Island Arsenal but was modeled off a French tank, a Renault F.T., said John Kennedy director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts.
It arrived in the city on May 25, 1939, as a gift from the local American Legion, Louis E. Davis Post No. 56. While war veterans gave permission to the City Council in 1942 to donate the tank as scrap to aid the effort during World War II, it never met that end.
Bob Moews, city superintendent of parks, remembers climbing into the tank when he was growing up, but said the city at some point must have decided to weld the doors shut and cover the hatch.
But the tank apparently was sealed without a thorough cleaning, and Mills found twigs and dirt as well as old soda cans inside that he planned to remove before sandblasting the rust off the outside.
Once the metal work is complete, another local veteran will repaint it — this time olive drab rather than its current "trash can" green, Mills said.
“I think it’s in good condition. It just is kind of like anything else. It needs a little TLC,” said Moews. “It sits out in weather year after year all the time, and we’re just trying to give it a face lift.”
Once cleaned, Mills will have Heritage Machine and Welding work on the body. Heritage owner Tom Wherry, a Vietnam veteran, said he’s donating the labor and materials and believes the tank serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made for freedom.
“People really don’t understand what it takes to keep us free in this country,” he said. “You go back to World War I, where this tank was … most of them paid the ultimate price.
“You look at stuff like that and if you’ve been in the military it’ll ring a bell for you,” he said.