FORT LEE, Va. (Sept. 11, 2014) -- Undoubtedly, the Skeleton Tank is an artifact of war, but it also warranted consideration as a potential solution to the problem of trench warfare during World War I.
That’s according to Claire Samuelson, curator of the U.S. Army Ordnance Training and Heritage Center here. She said the vehicle was designed in 1914 to travel over the large ditches constructed on the battlefields of Europe but lost out to heavier British and French designs.
“The British are usually credited with the concept of the tank,” she said. “This story puts a different twist on that because several months before the British designed the first tank, there was an American design. Essentially, it was an armored machine designed to travel over trenches.”
The Skeleton Tank did not come to fruition until 1918, the year the war ended. Only a prototype was produced. It sits in a storage facility here, out of public view, but was recently selected to the list of Virginia’s Top 10 Endangered Artifacts by the Virginia Association of Museums. A total of 38 artifacts from around the state were submitted for consideration based on a combination of public vote and historical significance.
Samuelson said the Skeleton’s story began with Edwin Wheelock of the Pioneer Tractor Company, a Minnesota-based agricultural manufacturer. “It was essentially fitted with pipes,” she said, noting it lacked a weapon but had sufficient room to add one. “The only thing that is armored is the fighting compartment or the turret. It is very light, comparatively speaking.” The vehicle weighed nine tons. The British and French tanks were between 20-29 tons.
To promote his idea, Samuelson said Wheelock actually traveled to Britain and submitted his design to government authorities. “He may not have been the best businessman,” she said. “He didn’t have a patent, just some design work – penciled sketches and things like that.”
After the war, British officials credited two natives with the invention, a machine with armored turrets.
“Did the British take his work?” said Samuelson. “I don’t know. It’s a possibility.”
If Wheelock’s trip to Britain was fruitless, the American government at least gave his idea some consideration. It paid Pioneer $15,000 to produce the prototype.
Samuelson said it is difficult to determine what impact the Skeleton Tank – if mass-produced – would have had on the war. She thinks its lighter design may have given the Allies an advantage.
“It may have sped the war up,” she said.
Samuelson said the tank’s potential and its historical significance is worth efforts to preserve it. The top 10 list is part of an effort to garner support to help preserve the vehicle and similar artifacts.
“It’s been under cover here for a few years,” she said, but not under controlled conditions. “Virginia weather is not kind so it has sustained some damage.”
The wooden portion of the vehicle is rotting, and some of the metal parts are rusting. Samuelson estimates it could cost $80,000 and a few months to refurbish.
“I’m hopeful and optimistic but realistic,” said Samuelson of gaining adequate support for the project. “As long as it stays inside, the damage will not continue at an accelerated rate. As long as we have the resources, it could be preserved many more years.”
For more information, visit the THC website at www.goordnance.army.mil/OTHC or write the foundation at PO Box 5613, Fort Lee, Va. 23801.