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HEIDELBERG, Germany — Just before Gen. B.B. Bell departed U.S. Army Europe, he gladdened the hearts of his command historians with a grand idea: a world-class museum and convention center to be built at Grafenwöhr.

"He said we should have a world-class museum that told the story of how U.S. Army Europe has accomplished the missions it has been given by the American people: Here’s why Americans are in Europe. Here’s what we’ve done across 65 years," said Andrew Morris, USAREUR deputy historian.

Start planning, Bell told Morris.

Then the general left for South Korea. And the museum project fell from favor almost immediately.

"Some people didn’t like museums," Morris said. "Plus, we were getting smaller."

But as units decamped from Germany in the force realignment, all manner of "artifacts" remained, piling up in warehouses, trailers and depots, or just hanging out near flag poles.

"All over Europe, sitting on everybody’s front yard: World War II tanks, artillery pieces — all these things are artifacts," so designated by the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Morris said.

What to do with it all hasn’t been clear for years. The last guidance given to historians, from Bell’s successor, Gen. David McKiernan, was "continue to plan," Morris said.

But the 1st Armored Division is poised to return its headquarters from Baumholder to Fort Bliss, Texas. The question of what to do with all its artifacts — and the fact that when the 1st AD museum goes to Texas, there won’t be any museum in USAREUR — has raised anew the question of a museum to tell U.S. Army Europe’s story.

"The 1st AD is going home and what do we do with all that junk?" Morris said. "If we’re not going to have a museum, my recommendation is, ‘1st AD, all those items — they go with you. If we’re going to have a museum, we keep it here.’"

That’s 140 big items like tanks and 2,700 little things such as uniforms, weapons, documents, rations, telephones. The idea is now being studied by a team from different USAREUR staff sections. In the next few weeks, Morris said, the group is expected to form a recommendation to be sent to Gen. Carter Ham, USAREUR commander.

Expense is involved, no matter what happens.

The 1st Infantry Division spent some $683,000 dismantling its award-winning museum and painstakingly packing and shipping, among other artifacts, 18 tanks to Fort Riley, Kan., when it left Germany in 2006.

"Unfortunately, it’s expensive stuff to move," Morris said.

One reason is stringent requirements to clean old equipment of microbes to meet U.S. Agriculture Department standards. So an old Sherman tank parked in Schweinfurt, for instance, once filled with "old beer bottles and muck," had to be gutted, steam-cleaned and stored on a bed of salt before it could be shipped.

Moving the 1st AD’s stuff "would be similar in nature and similar in cost," said 1st AD museum curator Steven Ruhnke. Ruhnke said that in addition to the historical value, some old tanks possess impressive monetary value. "Some collectors would pay six figures," he said.

Even while many artifacts have been returned to the U.S., others remain. Displays and artifacts from the 1st ID are being stored in a Thompkins Barracks warehouse in Schwetzingen. Then there is the depot in Germersheim, south of Heidelberg, where numerous old vehicles are being stored.

And when the 2nd Cavalry Regiment arrived in Vilseck from Fort Lewis, Wash., a few years ago, it brought some 6,000 artifacts with it.

"They just show up with a museum — four connexes and nine vehicles," Morris said.

The unit is still awaiting funding for its museum.

"Artifacts," no matter their condition, are protected by a web of policies and regulations governing their use, lease, sale, disposal or donation, Morris said. "Even a four-star can’t give away an artifact," he said. "One tried."

"There are lots of fingers in the pie. That makes it hard to do anything. Some WWII artifacts are piles of rust held together by paint. We can’t get rid of them."

And some are hugely valuable ones, such as the "Cobra King," an M4 Sherman tank that’s been displayed in Vilseck, and in December was confirmed to be the first tank to reach American troops defending Bastogne from the Germans’ counterattack during the Battle of the Bulge.

Morris said he’d love to see Bell’s idea made reality. But he’s also devised other, smaller options for a new museum. A military museum is not "dusty buttons in a display case," Morris said.

"They’re training centers, helping commanders train their soldiers. You take congressmen there. You take foreign generals there," he said. "You’d educate a whole generation again."

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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