Cannons now quiet, tanks that shaped history offer lessons for soldiers and scholars

L.A. Cicero Scott Littlefield with tank

Scott Littlefield with the M551 'Sheridan.'

Some have nicknames like “Deathstalker” and “Black Magic.” A few are branded with swastikas or slogans saluting Stalin. The ones dressed in camouflage pose a strange question to a civilian: How could a 60-ton tank powered by a jet engine expect to go unnoticed?

They’re all relics of warfare from the past century—hulking armored vehicles that prowled the battlefields of two world wars, Korea and Vietnam, or waited with cannons pointed and treads ready to roll during the Cold War.

The tanks, about 50 in all, are just a fraction of the 200 or so military vehicles located on the sprawling Portola Valley estate of Stanford alum Jacques Littlefield, who died in January.

Half-tracks, motorcycles and trucks outfitted with machine guns and rifles offer an unusual chance to interact with military history. But they can’t compete—in battle or in jaw-dropping scope—with their much larger steel-skinned rivals. Part museum, part repair shop and part learning lab, Littlefield’s complex operated by the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation is known simply as the “tank farm.”

“When you see these things and imagine 10,000 or 20,000 of them facing off against each other, you think: ‘My God,’” said Jack Kollmann, a lecturer at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies (CREES), who organizes an annual field trip to the site for his students and members of the Stanford community. “It’s startling to see this brutal equipment that was designed for killing.”

Tanks that shaped history

Other Stanford faculty members bring their design and mechanical engineering students to see the collection located about 15 miles southwest of campus. They study the changes in style and technology that progressed from the relatively small and boxy German Panzer I to the Russian T-34 with sloped armor making enemy projectiles more likely to ricochet upon impact. And the Sherman M4 gives a close-up view of America’s mass-produced World War II tank.

“The tanks that shaped history are all here,” said Maj. John Moore, who recently toured the site with Kollmann’s CREES group.

Moore, an Army foreign area officer who likely will be stationed at an American embassy in the former Soviet republic once he gets his master’s degree at Stanford, spent nearly a decade as a tank commander. He was assigned to peacekeeping missions in Iraq when the war began, but later spent three months battling Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

That sometimes meant fighting for three days straight while crammed into a space barely big enough to stand. His tank was hit nine times by rocket-propelled grenades, but he never suffered a scratch.

But that protection comes with a price. Moore and his crew of three other soldiers endured temperatures that rose to 150 degrees, a nearly unbearable stench and constant attacks by militants armed with Molotov cocktails and a mission of creating enough fire behind a tank’s turret to stall its engine, cut its power and overheat the hull.

“That forces the crew to escape; then they shoot the crew,” Moore said.

Moore says the Littlefield collection opens a window on soldier life and brings home a tangible sense of what’s at stake during a war.

“There’s going to be a young man in that vehicle following orders, and it’s a good idea for people to be aware of the equipment and weapons being used as a result of policy decisions that are being made,” he said. “This is the stuff that will implement and enforce those decisions.”

Fascination with engineering

Insights into military strategy, world history and political brinkmanship are only part of the story behind the tank farm and the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation. The collection was based on a much simpler principle: Jacques Littlefield loved tanks and the engineering that went into making them.

“People sometimes think this is a war-mongering collection,” said Scott Littlefield, one of his sons and a visiting scholar at CREES. “It’s true that the end-use of these vehicles isn’t pretty. But it’s amazing to think of the engineering that went into designing and building them. They show the horror of wars on one level and the ingenuity of humanity on the other.”

Growing up in Burlingame during the Baby Boom generation, Jacques Littlefield spent countless hours building plastic models of tanks. By the time he entered Stanford majoring in chemical engineering, his hobby had advanced into an obsession.

Between tinkering in his parents’ garage and the university’s student engineering workshop, he built two remote-controlled tanks. One of them was a copy of a Russian T-34-85 that was made out of metal and wood, measured a few feet high, weighed about 100 pounds and was outfitted with a working flamethrower. (Years later, he bought the real thing—a 28-ton leftover from the Soviet Union emblazoned with the Russian battle cry “For Stalin!” on its turret and equipped with an 85mm cannon.)

Despite his obvious interest in mechanical engineering, Littlefield changed his undergraduate major to economics. He then earned an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, following the footsteps of his father, Edmund Littlefield—the businessman and billionaire philanthropist who took over his family’s Utah Construction Co. and funded the business school’s Edmund W. Littlefield Center.

Complications from a bout of encephalitis left Jacques Littlefield with hearing problems that kept him out of the Vietnam War. So when he finished his MBA in 1973, he went to work in Hewlett-Packard’s calculator division.

“He used his tank models to show the people at HP that he was familiar enough with mechanical engineering to work there,” Scott Littlefield said.

But after a few years at the company, Jacques Littlefield decided to retire and turn most of his attention to managing his investments and collecting military vehicles. He had already made his first purchase—an M3 Scout Car from WWII—and was hooked.

Cold War ends, a collection grows

Within the next few years, he bought a half-track and his first two tanks, restoring them on the 450-acre Pony Tracks Ranch. Figuring he’d need the space to accommodate what would grow to likely become the world’s largest privately held collection of military vehicles, he built a complex of 10 warehouse-like buildings on the hilltop estate.

Four of them make up the “museum,” which displays the core collection to private tours. Five buildings are used for storage, and one was transformed into a repair shop that Littlefield rigged with a 15-ton overhead crane, lifts, drills, sand blasters and torches.

As the Cold War drew to a close in the late 1980s, a flood of military vehicles became available on the open market. Littlefield went on a spending spree, at one point buying one tank a week for several months, said Bill Boller, president of the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation that Littlefield started and funded in 1998. Now dependent on private donations, the foundation will continue to maintain the collection.

“The end of the Cold War gave Jacques an amazing opportunity,” said Boller, who received an MBA from Stanford in 1971 and first met Littlefield while the two were working at HP. “All of a sudden there was an availability of this stuff that was never available before. Jacques recognized that if someone didn’t capture these vehicles while they were available, they’d be lost forever.”

The collection is a resource not only to scholars, but also to groups as diverse as defense contractors developing new weapons for the military and moviemakers hunting for the specs they need to replicate a vehicle for their films.

“Jacques preserved a great deal of military history that the military hasn’t even preserved,” said Mike Green, who has written extensively about tanks and leads tours of Littlefield’s collection.

The preservation has included a great deal of renovation. At any given time, the shop is littered with spare parts or frames of worn vehicles. Recently, it’s been home to a German Panther tank that spent more than 50 years at the bottom of a Polish river. Afraid the Russians would salvage the tank and use it against them, the German soldiers who accidentally sank the vehicle while crossing the frozen waterway in 1944 blew up the turret and left the whole thing behind.

The crown jewel

When it was finally dredged from the muck and brought to Littlefield’s attention, it was little more than a hunk of rusted scrap. But Littlefield saw the potential. His crew of mechanics and technicians spent six years rebuilding the engine and exploded turret to restore the tank to all its original specs.

“That is the crown jewel in the collection,” Boller said. “It represents one of the most feared tanks of WWII. There are no more than a couple dozen in the world, and there are less than three or four that actually operate. And none are as completely restored as this one.”

Jacques Littlefield last saw the Panther this past winter just before the restoration was finished. The tank could be driven, but its turret still needed to be attached.

Admiring the tank with Boller, he turned to his friend and smiled.

“I’m satisfied,” he said.

A few days later, on Jan. 7, Littlefield lost his decade-long battle with colon cancer. He was 59. That same day, the Panther’s reconstruction was completed.

Littlefield was laid to rest in the family burial plot on Pony Tracks Ranch. His coffin was brought to the site on the back of an M551 Sheridan, a 15-ton Vietnam-era American tank with “Deathstalker” painted on its cannon. Designed to be airdropped and able to swim across rivers, it’s one of the most mechanically complex tanks in Littlefield’s collection. It was his favorite.

Just below where Littlefield’s coffin was secured to the tank, someone wrote a message in the thick, black smudge of engine exhaust that still coats its armor.

It reads: “Jacques RIP.”