Photo courtesy of Dave Kovach
There’s only one veteran in this photo. Find out how Columbia County, Pa. Commissioner Dave Kovach (l) and Tom McLaughlin are trying to bring “it” — or rather one of its “siblings” — home to its birthplace.
Dave Kovach would like nothing better than to “Bring Stuie Home” in time for Columbia County, Pa.’s bicentennial in 2013.
Short for Stuart, Stuie is a World War II veteran, who like “his” flesh-and-blood comrades in arms, is becoming a rarer breed as the years go by. But unlike those mere mortals, Stuie is a man-of-steel — one of the thousands of light armored tanks that were built in the county’s Berwick borough.
“The whole reason I’m doing this is to honor the people that built them, fought with them and died with them. It means so much to me,” said Kovach, who grew up one block from the American Car & Foundry (ACF) plant where the tanks were manufactured. “My uncles and my dad, if they weren’t away fighting World War II, some of them were right there making the darn things.” Kovach co-chairs the Berwick Historical Society’s Stuart Tank Committee, along with Tom McLaughlin, a friend he’s known since high school. He even has an old family photo showing his grandfather, father and eight uncles who all worked on the tanks.
To support the war effort, ACF converted its rail car production line to military equipment production in 1939. It manufactured more than 15,000 Stuart light tanks for the U.S. Army and Marines, and the Lend-Lease Program for America’s allies.
Stuart tanks have an undeniable pedigree, McLaughlin said. They were the first military tanks produced on an assembly line. “It was the first time that a tank was built to operate as what we know today as a tank. Prior to that, they were built strictly for infantry support; so they only did about 10 miles per hour at best,” he said. “The Stuart did 35 miles an hour, which was a tremendous improvement and really helped out the British in North Africa. I guess you can call it the first ‘shoot and scoot.’”
McLaughlin said there are currently about 260 known Stuart tanks in the United States, most of them owned by the Department of Defense. Many are on display in museums or at American Legion posts, “places like that.”
“There are still a few that are owned by individuals, and occasionally one comes up for sale,” he said, “and we’ve been trying to track those down while we’re also trying to raise the funds to actually buy one once we find it.”
Like big fish, there have been ones that got away. Kovach and McLaughlin located a Stuie in 2005 that was “basically just the exterior hull,” McLaughlin said. It carried a price tag of $37,000. “Someone showed up with the money before we did, so we lost out on that one.” So far the tank committee has raised about $10,000.
More recently, the men found one for sale in Wisconsin. “We had just started so we didn’t have like $35; the guy wanted $35,000 for it,” Kovach said. “We said, look, give us a little time; we’ll come up with the money. Well, within a month he sold it.”
Last fall, he and McLaughlin learned of a model M3A1 Stuart — the lightest of the Stuies at 28,000 pounds — in Ohio, completely restored, and bearing a price tag of over $190,000. David Uhrig is a military vehicle broker and appraiser who, just two weeks ago, found a buyer for that one. “This is only the second M3 I’ve ever had,” he said. “They are so rare.” He’s been in the business 40 years.
“A lot of stuff I sell never makes onto my website, because I’ve got people waiting for an item.”
Steve Greenberg, an Oregon military vehicle enthusiast, bought an M3 about 10 years ago. The tank is in running condition, and he shows it off in parades and at community events. “I do a lot of events honoring veterans during the year as well.” His advice for Kovach and McLaughlin: “Watch the Internet, unless you know somebody. Most of the tanks that get sold, especially the rare stuff, is word-of-mouth.”
If Kovach and his committee could buy a Stuie in time for the county’s 200th anniversary next March — “Out of my mind” is how he anticipates he’d feel.
He has no worries about where the vehicle would be displayed: four local property owners or businesses have volunteered the space — “one right on Main Street.”
“Before I had any of these spots, I was telling people, you know what, if I can’t find a spot, I’ll put it in my front yard,” he said.