Belgians honored to restore historic tank
April 7, 2007
LIÈGE, Belgium — An American tank recently got blasted, though not by one of the usual suspects.
Of all people, it was a group of Belgians — and they sprayed the armored vehicle hard enough to peel paint, which was the intention. One of the participants, a soldier, even called the experience a privilege.
“I never thought that one day I would work on that tank,” said Adjutant Daniel Libert, a maintenance chief at a Belgian military arsenal in Rocourt near Liège. He spoke through an interpreter. “It’s an honor.”
If all goes as planned, the Sherman tank that has been absent from McAuliffe Square in Bastogne since November will return by Memorial Day. The crew that has been refurbishing the World War II icon has already dismantled, cleaned, sandblasted and reassembled much of it. A fresh coat of paint is next.
The Belgian army is taking care of the labor, while Bastogne is paying for the materials.
Past custodians “put some paint on it, but not much over the last 60 years,” Belgian air force Lt. Col. Luc Geryl said.
Anyone who has visited Bastogne probably has seen the M-4 Sherman tank on display in the city square. Tourists like to have their picture taken in front of it, and for people from that era it symbolizes a whole lot more.
Bastogne is inextricably linked to the Battle of the Bulge, the largest land battle in U.S. military history. It was there, up in the Ardennes highlands, where U.S. forces valiantly held off the German army for several days despite being encircled.
As the siege abated, Company B, 41st Tank Battalion, 11th Armored Division went into battle near Renuamont, a village six miles west of Bastogne. According to an 11th AD account, a tank nicknamed “Barracuda” by its crew got stuck in a snow-covered pond. The Germans subsequently knocked it out of commission. In the engagement, the tank commander was killed and four crewmen were captured.
After the war, the Belgian farmer who owned the land wouldn’t let anyone touch the tank until 1947, when the Belgian army took possession of it. Despite fire damage to the crew compartment, the tank was cleaned, given a new turret, painted and placed on display in McAuliffe Square.
There it sat until Nov. 6, 2006, when the old tank was lifted off its low, stone pedestal and taken to the Belgian army’s Centre de Compétence Matériel Roulant et Armement near Liège.
The effort to fix and refurbish the tank started slowly.
“It was difficult to find spare parts,” Lt. Yannek Jouveneaux explained as he stood next to the turret, which is separated from the tank but not yet restored. For historical purposes, he said, “I understand why we are doing it.”
Eventually, the crew found a set of Sherman tank wheels in southern Belgium and replacement tracks in the north. The paint they will use comes from a company in Luxembourg.
During the renovation effort, the crew found several items inside the tank, such as cartridges and buttons.
“We still found munitions in the tank,” Geryl said. “That was kind of a surprise.”