Located within a giant hangar rich with the scent of oil and the aura of fortitude, is a collection of armored vehicles that tell a story of America’s history and the fight it has upheld to this day to ensure freedom for one and all.
The hangar isn’t on some long-lost battlefield on the other side of the world—instead, it’s in nearby Old Bethpage.
Housing more than 30 pieces of armor—all of them in full running condition—and focused primarily on the World War II era, the Museum of American Armor serves as a reminder to all that the price of freedom is indeed not free, according to museum director and resident mechanic Mark Renton.
“We bring people here to see what it was like, so you can understand what your father, your grandfather, your uncle might have went through,” he said. “Kids today, with all the realistic combat video games they play, they all know exactly what these vehicles are, but the problem is that this is not a video game. Men lived and died in these vehicles.”
Gary Lewi, board member and vice president of the museum, said that the collection housed in Old Bethpage originally started as just a few independently-owned pieces on display at the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale. However, as time went by and the collection of armor grew, it soon became apparent that it was no longer suited as a side-attraction in Farmingdale. It was time to give this important part of U.S. history a dedicated showcase of its very own.
After a search, the choice was made that the grounds of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration would be an ideal home for this ambitious undertaking, Lewi said.
“We realized that the collection began to be significant, so we had a meeting with the Nassau County executive [Ed Mangano] where we told him that we had a state grant of $1 million, and museum founder and president Lawrence Kadish was prepared to invest that and more,” he said.
On June 6, 2014—the 70th anniversary of D-Day—the museum opened its doors to the public as a not-for-profit, privately-owned and funded entity. A $10 fee grants admission to both the museum and Old Bethpage Restoration. The museum is staffed mainly by volunteers, many dedicated historical interpreters who are glad to relay the realities of serving in the armed forces of yesteryear.
These volunteers, many adorned in vintage uniforms, gear and replica rifles, drive home the spirit of the WWII era far more than just the armor ever could on its own. Pete Costas of Hicksville is one such individual. He said that he uses his service to the museum as a way of repaying the veterans who have fought for our freedom throughout the years.
“I do this to keep their memory alive, and to teach people not to take them for granted,” he said. “You can do a lot of things in this country, but that freedom comes at a price, and many men and women paid that price for us all.”
“I’m even considering looking for an apartment on Long Island, I’m here so much,” he said. “My Asian heritage allows me to give visitors to the museum the flavor of what the minorities did during the war. I’m Filipino, and quite a few served over in Europe in various different combat roles.”
Visitors enter through a lobby containing a small theater where they can watch a film highlighting the use of armor in America’s military throughout the ages before proceeding to the real meat of the facility—the showroom itself.
Among the impressive collection is a WWII Sherman tank; a U.S. M1 155 millimeter gun, capable of dropping artillery upon enemies situated up to an astonishing 20 miles away; an M25A1 tank transporter, essentially a massive flatbed truck nicknamed the “Dragon Wagon;” and a M48 Cold War-era tank with an especially fascinating, convoluted history, according to Lewi.
“In the 1960s, we gave it to Jordan in a military alliance…the Israelis captured it in a 1967 war, and then used it against the Egyptians in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, where it took a rocket-propelled grenade in the engine while defending the Suez Canal,” he said. “It became a war prize for the Egyptians, who then flipped it to a British broker who sold it to an American collector in California. His estate signed it over to a not-for-profit, who in turn sold it to a museum patron to has it here in Old Bethpage on permanent display.”
The collection at Old Bethpage has seen use in local parades and events, Lewi said. As well as for giving rides to attendees at the museum in events known as “Armor Experiences,” where people are geared up in authentic WWII garb, given mission briefings and then put into an actual armored convoy that travels throughout the woods of the restoration.
The support shown for the museum by the public is heartwarming, Lewi said, but the visitors that truly inspire all the hard work put forth by the volunteers that keep the museum running are the many military veterans who come for a glimpse into their proud past of duty and sacrifice in the service of freedom.
“Long Island has the highest veteran population in the United States,” said Lewi. “Recently, we had a Battle of the Bulge ceremony where 500 vets and their families showed up to be acknowledged. We had a WWII vet who had been a crew member on a Sherman tank, and another vet who had driven the Dragon Wagon, both around 90 years-old and meeting for the first time, comparing their experiences. It was very moving.”
To find out more about the Museum of American Armor, visit www.museumofamericanarmor.com.