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Gator Gallery

AmTrac Museum Preserves Corps' Unique Amphibian Legacy

Story by Chris Lawson

It's a tribute to tradition, initiative, history and a lot of hard work.

Call them "pigs," "water buffalos," "gators" or "tracs," they're all here now. And thanks to the staff and students of Camp Pendleton, Calif.'s Assault Amphibian School Battalion--as well as numerous volunteers and donors--these amphibian antiques from World War II and Korea will continue to tell the Marine Corps story.

Just two years ago, on May 24, 1996, what began as a simple quest by a handful of dedicated Marines to preserve a little amtrac history steamrolled into reality. On that day the battalion dedicated a simple but immensely significant memorial to the Corps: the LVT Museum.

Located in a Quonset hut at the entrance to the battalion schoolhouse, appropriately by the ocean's edge, the museum is a proud and fitting memorial to amphibian tractor technology and tradition. Now, Marines young and old alike can step back in time to remember the valor of their peers or predecessors. They can also track the technological achievements of the "Alligator Marines" and their unique vehicles, both of which were so critical in creating the modern-day identity of the Marine Corps.

"This is our legacy, and we feel responsible for preserving it," said Lieutenant Colonel Michael Corcoran, commanding officer of the battalion, as he showed off the two-year-old museum.

The primary mission of the LVT Museum is for the preservation, responsible renovation and display of the Marine Corps' historically significant amphibians. The displays track the technical history of the LVT1, LVT2, LVT(A)1, LVT4, LVT3(C) and LVT(A)5 variants which saw action in World War II and Korea.

Many current and former Marines may remember the rows of experimental amphibian vehicles that just a few years ago dotted a parking lot in Pendleton's Rattlesnake Canyon. For years, Pendleton officials located, gathered and restored a plethora of "tracs"--mostly experimental types--for this unofficial museum of sorts dedicated to amphibious technology.

But after years of exposure to the California climate, many of the vehicles fell into disrepair. They started to rot and rust, Corcoran said. And despite the limited popularity of the lot among Pendleton Marines and visitors alike, the Marines of the Assault Amphibian School Bn wanted to see a real museum dedicated to the Corps' renowned gator force.

"The old lot was full of experimental vehicles which was interesting, but we wanted to get the actual landing craft that have been used in battle," Corcoran said.

And so they began their quest. The battalion got out the word that they wanted to build the museum. They immediately began locating and "targeting" potential museum exhibits (vehicles) from all over the country-many in various states of disrepair. Before long, they had enough hardware to make a credible go at the project. And thanks to the Quonset hut, they had a protected place from which to work. The museum soon began to take shape.

The battalion Marines did everything from welding replacement parts and scraping rust off hulls, to painting and even doing engine work on some of the working exhibits. The students of the school were, and continue to be, heavily involved.

"It's the first thing the students do when they report aboard," Corcoran said. "We walk them right over there and tell them this is their legacy."

"You are what you came from, and it's important they know their history," echoed Master Gunnery Sergeant John Singleton, the battalion's ops chief.

So not only do the students get a good history lesson in amphibious warfare and development, they also help cement the "never forget" traditions of the Corps. They too are playing their part in gator history.

What's best about the museum is the chronological progression of the exhibits. Visitors begin at the beginning-the thin-skinned, rear-engined LVT1 which was mostly used as a cargo vehicle.

"It kind of looks like a Demster Dumpster," Corcoran joked, not far off in his description.

Marines who rode as passengers in the first amphibian had to live and fight without a ramp. They simply went out over the side of the LVT1 when it was time to hit the beach.

Then there's the LVT2, with one-eighth of an inch more armor than her predecessor, as well as a better engine and a lower silhouette. Next in line is the LVT(A)1 which was the first amtrac to sport a turret, illustrating the tactical change in the way the Corps began to fight amphibious war.

"It was not a troop carrier, but an assault vehicle," said Major Kent Ralston, the battalion executive officer whose passion and excitement about the museum is infectious. He climbed atop the LVT(A)1 and grabbed the 37 mm cannon which was a significant tactical change for amphibious assault doctrine.

"This thing got the Japanese to get their heads down," he said. While visitors can't climb on the vehicles like Ralston, the staff has built ramps, platforms and steps around many of the vehicles so you can get an up-close perspective.

Next in line is the LVT4 which had more cargo capacity, a forward engine, and-most significantly-a ramp in the stern.

"That ramp in back made a big difference to the Marines who had to storm the beach," Master Gunny Singleton said. "When you're coming out the front, it kind of sucks when people are shooting at you."

These are the kinds of nuances that the staff hope regular Marines and amtrackers alike will take to heart. For example, the LVT3(C) was the first "covered" amtrac. It's interesting, Ralston said, to watch the reaction of today's Marines when they peer at the old tracs and imagine what combat must have been like for their predecessors. But then that's what this place is all about.

"At the schoolhouse especially, we want our guys to learn their history. They have nothing to stand on if they don't."

And there is more than just vehicles. The museum boasts historic pictures, uniforms, patches, newspaper articles and more. White and blue checkerboard signal flags adorn the ceilings, and camouflage netting adds a taste of expeditionary ambiance. There are jars of sand from the beaches of Tarawa, and a pack of cigarettes and a mortar used by a Japanese defender. There are even actual wooden dowels and giant wooden hammers that Marines once used to plug holes in the hull of amtracs that had taken hits en route to the beach. It all adds to the unique flavor of this special place.

"Things are now just starting to show up in the mail, gifts from people who have heard about the museum," Corcoran said. "More and more our kids here understand how important this is."

The staff and students alike are totally responsible for the care and well-being of the museum, Corcoran said, doing everything from maintaining the vehicles and arranging the exhibits, to constantly repairing the 1944-era Quonset hut that houses the museum.

Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jim Gehris was weatherstripping the outside of the Quonset hut following a few days of heavy California rains. He said 25 gallons have leaked in from the recent storm, so schoolhouse Marines must be always on vigil.

"The only thing permanent in the Marine Corps is a temporary building," Gehris joked as he caulked a seam on the outside of the hut. He had just returned from the base self-help office where he gathered some much needed supplies.

"Nobody else is going to do this," he said. "We kinda feel it's up to us."

But the staff and students were not alone. Everyone from the base historian to several individual commercial store owners off base have helped make the dream come true for the amtrackers. Donations of time, money and materials were critical, Corcoran said. The efforts of the staff and students to interest these folks in the project, however, were also key.

For example, Marine Corps artist Colonel Charles Waterhouse donated one of his famous paintings-"Storming the Seawall"--to the museum. The staff then lobbied a local art gallery to professionally mat and frame the painting for free. That's just one example. The Marine Corps Historical Society chipped in a $1,000 award to help get the museum up and running.

Corcoran said that's the kind of spirit from the Marines and donors alike that will make this museum popular, successful and relevant. And to him, it's all worth the effort.

The guest of honor at the dedication ceremony was Col Victor J. Croizat, USMC (Ret), who wrote the book "Across the Reef" which profiled the bloody Battle of Tarawa. A passage from that work was read during the ceremony to emphasize the need to remember the valiant amphibians of yesteryear:

"The Tarawa landings had given new meaning to the concept of courage. They had shown dramatically how inadequate that word was in identifying the quality that moved men to wade a fire-swept reef towards an even more dangerous shore...or urged amtrac drivers to repeatedly run up the odds of survival by providing critical shuttle services from sea to land."

Corcoran said the museum will help keep those memories alive for future generations to learn from. He recalled a statement printed in the brochure for the dedication ceremony, which read:

"The achievements of all the Amtrackers, from those units participating in World War II and Korea, will be forever immortalized within the still beauty of these now silent vehicles. Let us always remember those who served and died in the name of our people, our way of life, our Corps, country and God."

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