Fort Snelling says goodbye to the 88th

A tank crushes a car as part of a demonstration
A tank crushes a car as part of a demonstration, similar to what will happen on both days of the expo to demonstrate how antique Army tanks operate.
Photo courtesy of the 88th Regional Support Command

The 88th Regional Support Command traces its lineage back to World War I.

In the '60s, it was the largest Army Reserve Command in the Upper Midwest. Its soldiers have fought in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan.

"I don't care how long you live. If you live for 100 years you're still going to be Army."

But the 88th is most famous for its role in World War II, when its soldiers fought their way across the rugged mountains of Italy, earning them a formidable reputation among enemy troops. Artifacts from this and many other conflicts now reside in a non-descript hangar near the Twin Cities International Airport, home to the Fort Snelling Military Museum.

"What we did when we built this thing is we tried to orient it along the lines of what had been at Fort Snelling way back from World War I up, anything we could try to get ahold of," said veteran Art Hubbard.

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After retiring from the military, Art Hubbard helped start the museum. Now, he and his buddies volunteer their time restoring antique tanks and other vehicles to their period splendor.

The museum is small and humble. It's really just a garage where the volunteers, many of them veterans, hang out and talk and tinker with the vintage machines. A lot of military bases have their own archives but Fort Snelling's stands out because all of its antiques are in full working order.

"The thrill is to feel and hear that piece of equipment come back to life again that you know has been dead for years, never operated," said John Fannon, who flew helicopters in the military.

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Volunteers repair and maintain artifact military vehicles at the Fort Snelling Military Museum. They hope the museum remains at Fort Snelling, even after the base says goodbye to the 88th.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"I was in from January 1966, until January 2007, 41 years," Fannon said. "I was in Army aviation so I'm kind of just the resident gopher around here. Everybody says, 'hey, John, go get this, John, go get that,' so I go and get it for them. I'm not really that adept at mechanical aptitude."

The other volunteers make up for that. Art Hubbard maintained thousands of vehicles during his more than three decades in the 88th, many of them in this very same garage. That's why, he and Fannon said, starting the museum after retirement was the natural thing to do.

"I don't care how long you live. If you live for 100 years you're still going to be Army," Hubbard said.

"You're still a soldier," Fannon said, "or an Airman or Navy, whatever."

"I could go out and go to work at Home Depot or Menard's or someplace else," Hubbard said, "and do something like that."

"But you wouldn't derive the satisfaction out of it," Fannon said.

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Art Hubbard changes the oil on an antique tank. The volunteers worked for days to prepare the antique military vehicles for the demonstration.
MPR Photo/Jess Mador

"And it's more fun doing what we're doing," Hubbard said.

The volunteers have been working for months to get the tanks ready for the open house.

Up on a ladder holding a dipstick and a rag, Hubbard does an oil change on an M1-14 Armored Personal Carrier.

"I'm going to get the dipstick and stick it down in there to see if it touches," he said. "If it doesn't then we'll probably add more oil."

The museum has vehicles from most major recent conflicts. Each one needs to be cleaned up and readied for the open house, which will feature a parade of vintage tanks. John Fannon said it's amazing to see the tanks in action.

"You come out here on the weekend when we display everything and we have it operational," he said, "you get to smell it, you get to see it, you get to feel it. That monster rolls by - I mean, the ground literally shakes when the Patton M60 tank comes by. It's 50-plus tons. It's a heavy machine. It's exciting."

Volunteer Dan Little said for many veterans, the event is a chance to relive the past.

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A tank crushes a car at Fort Snelling. Cars will be crushed on both days of the expo to demonstrate how antique Army tanks operate.
Photo courtesy of the 88th Regional Support Command

"When you first start this stuff up and then they see it moving again, a lot of them will actually start crying because it's so emotional for them," he said.

Fannon and Hubbard remember one group of World War II veterans that visited the museum.

"You see these old guys toddling off the buses," he said. "Oh, my God, they've got their walkers and their canes they can hardly walk. Then they get around these tanks and, my God, it was like - youth! - sprang back into them. They were climbing on these tanks, trying to get back inside of them. It was just amazing and the stories they told, it was just fantastic."

"There was that one guy, he was 82, 83," Hubbard recalls. "Hell, he was up on top of that Sherman, down inside, he wanted inside that Sherman in the worst way. He got down inside that driver's compartment, he was ready to go."

It's not clear what will happen to the Fort Snelling Military Museum once the 88th moves to Fort McCoy. The Army technically still owns all the artifacts and could reclaim them at any time. The volunteers are hoping the relics will remain in Fort Snelling, for Minnesotans to experience forever.