Nellis war relics symbolize freedom, dedication of military

They stand as symbols of freedom. Some are perched on concrete pedestals at parks and military bases. Others guard the entrances to American Legion and VFW posts.

The thunder from their jet engines and deafening blasts from their barrels have long been silent. Yet their sun-baked shrouds remain as reminders of their historic roles in the nation’s defense.

Freedom Park at Nellis Air Force Base has the most prolific display of war relics in Southern Nevada. Eight jets line the lawn at Freedom Park, spanning five decades of combat training.

There’s an F-86 Sabre from the Korean War era; an F-111A Ardvark, F-105G Thunderchief, and an F-4C Phantom from the Vietnam War; an F-100D Super Sabre from 1954 that was first to fly level, supersonic speeds; an F-5 Freedom Fighter flown by Nellis “aggressors” from 1972 to 1989.

There’s also an A-10 Thunderbolt from the New Orleans-based “Ragin Cajuns” reserve wing; and the “Stealth on a Stick,” a black F-117A Nighthawk that flew under a cloak of secrecy at Tonopah Test Range in the 1980s.

“This is a visual history of Nellis and fighter pilots, the modern successor of knights and chivalry,” said Jerry White, the 99th Air Base Wing historian.

“Whether you are a pilot, maintainer, weapons guy or a G.I. or Marine in a foxhole, this means the difference between life and death,” he said as he gave a preview for Independence Day of the Freedom Park display.

OTHER AIRCRAFT, ARTILLERY

The aircraft plus an F-16 Fighting Falcon outside the Thunderbirds hangar and another red-white-and-blue jet, an F-84F Thunderstreak near Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas, are all on loan from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio.

Similarly, a pair of towed artillery guns and a UH-1H “Huey” Iroquois helicopter parked at Amargosa Valley VFW Post 6826 are on loan from the Army Tank and Automotive Command in Warren, Mich.

And, at American Legion Post 8 in Las Vegas — one of the first American Legion posts established in 1919 — there’s a World War II-era 75 mm artillery gun flanking the flagpole next to a World War I French artillery piece that once had wooden-spoke wheels until they rotted away.

“This program of monument ordnance has quite a history,” said Chris Semancik, chief of the collection branch for the Army Center for Military History. “The Jefferson administration directed that trophy pieces, historic ordnance from the revolution be displayed at West Point.”

With that seed, the Army began to grow a garden of war trophies with cannons and weapons from the War of 1812 to artifacts from the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s.

“As we see other government arsenals being built, they would adorn the gates with historic ordnance. They were often captured pieces that would be displayed as trophies of war,” Semancik said.

The demand for military display items kicked into high gear after the Civil War as communities sought them for town squares, monuments and cemeteries where large groups of fallen soldiers were buried.

“So the American public as well as the U.S. Army began to develop this martial sense of displaying historic ordnance really post-Civil War,” he said.

Surges in demand for display items followed World War I and World War II.

“It became quite common for post commanders to have a historic tank or even a tank from the current inventory. They would put one of those out at the opening of the gate to show unit pride,” Semancik.

MILITARY PROPERTY ON LOAN

Larry Campbell, an artifacts expert involved with managing historical Army property, explained the procedure for tracking loaned items, ensuring they are rendered safe and won’t fall into the hands of adversaries.

The secretary of the Army is authorized to loan historic artifacts for static displays to qualified veterans organizations, museums and foreign entities. The items must first be “demilitarized” and certified by the Army that the breech of a 105 mm howitzer, for example, has been welded shut.

To make a Sherman tank inoperable it costs about $4,500, which includes sweeping it clean of communication equipment, optical gear, and draining and disposing fuel and lubricants.

In addition, the receiving party must pay for having it hauled to their location.

“A Sherman tank could run you $14,000 to $15,000 for transportation,” Campbell said, adding, “The loan is a conditional to a VFW. If they no longer want that item, it comes back to the Army. On a yearly basis they submit a picture to show how it’s on display.”

Currently, more than 2,000 Army tanks and artillery pieces are on display in the United States, Germany, South Korea, Guam and other countries.

Hawthorne Army Depot, a munitions storage installation 300 miles north of Las Vegas, doesn’t have static displays. But a nearby park displays an anti-aircraft gun, and the private, nonprofit Hawthorne Ordnance Museum has a collection of many loaned torpedoes, bombs and mortars on display in addition to a pair of small, QH-50 Navy helicopter drones designed for anti-submarine operations.

The Air Force also keeps track of static display items through loan agreements kept in the national museum’s database. Aircraft, too, must be stripped of weapons, ammunition and classified gear before they can be loaned out.

“We’re not giving it to you, we’re loaning it to you. That’s how we keep track of everything,” said Jim Frank, a historian and deputy director of the Air Force heritage program.

135,000 ITEMS IN U.S. INVENTORY

The inventory has 135,000 artifacts ranging from B-52 bombers to patches, uniforms and a Space Shuttle Challenger coin. The database tracks loan agreements with 108 veterans organizations and 250 cities and municipalities, which must maintain the displays and pay for all demilitarization and transportation costs.

Nellis Air Force Base is also home to a rare collection of captured, adversary equipment including several MiG fighter jets and former Soviet tanks, anti-aircraft guns, missile launchers and radar gear.

The Threat Training Facility was a classified area from 1976 to 1993 where pilots could see some of the targets they might encounter. Now more than 30,000 visitors a year including youth groups and invited guests come to the display yard.

“It’s called a petting zoo because you can touch stuff,” said Rodney Gilbert, supervisor of maintenance and restoration. “We emulate what the enemy would do.”

Said Lt. Col. William Fry, commander of the 547th Intelligence Squadron: “It’s another example of our desire to train U.S. forces to the best level possible.

Where else could you climb over the weapons adversaries use against you?”

Contact reporter Keith Rogers at krogers@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0308.

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