By Greg Aragon
If you are looking for an outdoor getaway with lots of fascinating history and incredible old vehicles, I’ve got an idea for you. It’s the American Military Museum in South El Monte. It’s inexpensive, located outdoors in case you want to social distance, and it has tons of tanks, Jeeps, amphibious vehicles, helicopters and other artifacts used in battle by the army, navy, marines and air force.
I discovered the place by accident, or should I say because of an accident. I was taking the 5 Freeway home from Anaheim when a traffic jam caused by a wreck prompted me to take side streets home. Then, while driving through the city of South El Monte, I passed a junk yard full of mesmerizing old military vehicles. Upon further investigation I discovered a hidden gem in the middle of the city.
“This is a collection of more than 180 different vehicles from WWI to present day,” says Craig Michelson, curator of the American Military Museum. “The museum was started in the early 1950s as a way to keep these steel soldiers alive for future generations to see. These [artifacts] were in every war and they are the tools that kept our guys safe.”
The first thing you see when you pull into the museum is a giant M47 “Patton” tank welcoming visitors. This massive machine was loaned to Italy in WWII by NATO. The 92,880-pound beast had a top speed of 37 mph, a crew of five, and carried one 90mm M36 gun, two 30-caliber machine guns, and one 50-caliber machine gun.
Entering the outdoor museum is like walking onto the set of an old war movie or an episode of MASH. There are historic vehicles everywhere. The first thing that caught my eye was an old Bell Helicopter Gun Ship. Also called a Huey, this aircraft was shot down in Vietnam in 1969, before being repaired and reassigned to the California National Guard and then to the museum in 1993. It carried seven rocket launchers, a machine gun, and a 40-mm grenade launcher on its nose.
While admiring the chopper I met Don Radcliff, who flew helicopters for the army in Vietnam in 1970–71. “Flying a helicopter is like flying an organ,” says Radcliff, a volunteer at the museum. He says to maneuver a Huey helicopter a pilot has to move both feet and arms at the same time, while also watching all the gauges at the same time.
From the helicopter, I walked past a row of old green cargo trucks and then examined a few huge amphibious vehicles. One was a 36-foot wooden landing craft, used during WWII and Korea to land and retrieve personnel or equipment during amphibious operations. These 18,500-pound “Higgens boats” had capacity for 39 troops and were considered invaluable to the D-Day landings on June 6, 1944.
Moving on, I found a battalion of humongous tanks lined up as if ready for battle. Leading the pack is a M60A1, the last of the Patton series of tanks. This was the first American tank to use a multi-fuel engine, that burns gas or diesel. The M60 has a 105mm gun with infrared night vision. The 10.5-foot-tall tank weighs 47.5 tons and stretches 26.6 feet long with its gun in travel position. It was last used in 1997 by the marines, before being replaced by the M1 Abrams tank.
The best part of the museum for me is the row of classic military Jeeps. My favorite was the M38 1/4-ton utility truck. Used in Korea between 1951-1953, this Jeep is the militarized version of the CJ-3 with a 24-volt waterproof electrical system. The Willys-Overland Company sold the M38 to numerous armies throughout the world and also concluded licensing agreements whereby the vehicle was built in several other countries.
Leaving the museum I met John Trover, a volunteer who told me about the 25mm Bushmaster “chain gun” sitting near the entrance. Similar units to this are currently used on Apache helicopters. Trover, who served in the army in West Berlin from 1969 to 1972, showed me a solid block of steel about 10 inches thick that this gun blew a hole through.
The American Military Museum is located at 1918 Rosemead Blvd., South El Monte, CA 91733. The museum is open Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults and $1 for children. For more info call (626) 442-1776 or visit tankland.com.