Just as the midnight moon broke free from the clouds on Christmas eve, the only sound in a small southeastern Minnesota town came from the Peterbilt cabover releasing its air brakes. In the moonlight, three people clad in Santa Clause outfits stood by watching the tractor's driver expertly back a flatbed trailer. A fourth Santa, behind the trailer, walked backwards, signaling to the fifth Santa seated in the cab, behind the wheel. Number four Santa looked over his shoulder to judge the distance. Only twenty feet remained between the foot of the trailer and an M3A1 light tank sitting undisturbed in the snow.
HATCHED AT HIGH SCHOOL
The five Santas had worked on the plan for nearly half a year. Comprised of four high school juniors and one sophomore, the group met in the school’s library each day after lunch. There, the plans of a an Oceans 11-type of heist took shape.
The goal: A WWII light tank displayed in a neighboring community’s city park. The plan: The five (who called their group “the Fuselage,” because, as the group’s instigator explained, “We are neither left wing nor right wing) would use deception and ambivalence as the primary tools to steal the tank.
But how did five boys in a small, rural community, believe they could pull off something with the potential of becoming the most famous robbery in southeastern Minnesota? It was one of those rare alignments of the “stars.”
The first star, Santa-R (I will use this code to protect the identity of those described in this historic account), grew up on a farm. His Dad ran a trucking business as well. Santa-R knew tractors and trailers.
Everyone in the high school knew that the second star, Santa-M, was a military nut. He wore fatigue shirts to school and in Shop class, had cut and installed a “commander’s hatch” on the roof of his Ford Econoline “mystery van.”
Santa-B, well, he was a “theatrical star,” always demonstrating a sharp wit and imagination for creating sense from chaos. No one in the Fuselage” had to nominate a leader. They all just instinctively accepted the leader was Santa B.
If any of the group voiced a modicum of restraint or reason, it was Santa-D. Santa-D was the “good student star’ in the group. Unusually bright, he possessed an obvious mathematical aptitude. His would use his skills in the “Santa tank caper” to calculate the group’s ability to slide a tank onto a flatbed in the dark of night, transport it, and disappear before the dawn of Christmas morning.
And finally, Santa-J was like a “shooting star” no one noticed. He might flare up by shouting patriotic slogans in German during a pep rally, or try to appear nonchalant as he ate a “soldier’s fare” of hardtack and black coffee during hot lunch. But whatever he said or did, the fact was, it was all geared toward making people see him. He was just not that good at keeping his opinions to himself, or his passions a secret.
So, when the members of the Fuselage asked the librarian for maps of local communities as they plotted the heist, it was just a potential red flag that went unnoticed. For an entire semester, the five got together in the library everyday. Grabbing copies of Hot Rod, Field & Stream, American Rifleman from the magazine rack, they fell into the chairs of what they called, “their table,” to talk about girls, cars, teachers, and of course, the Tank in the neighboring town.
It was Santa-B’s idea. “No body cares about it,” he justified. “The turret is full of leaves, beer cans, and rubbish. No one has painted it in years. It is just sitting there rotting!” The other would-be accomplices listened. “Here’s my plan…”
Santa B lowered his voice and looked around the library. The other four Santas did the same. Then he quietly, but confidently, explained, “We are going to STEAL the tank.” Just whe the other would-be Santas loudly chortled with enthusiastic approval, the library monitor, Mr. W., appeared. “What are you boys cooking up?” Santa J, always too fast with his mouth and too slow with his brain, blurted, “We are going to steal a tank!”
“Sure you are,” Mr. W. breathed out with a tone of disgust, “Just keep it down,” he whispered as he walked away.
“See?” Santa B declared pointing at Mr. B’s back. “No one will notice OR CARE!”
“Okay,” Santa-M conceded, “So, when and how do you propose we steal the tank?”
“On Christmas Eve,” Santa B replied confidently. “Dressed as Santas.”
Santa B’s plan seemed sound. Essentially, we, er, the Santas would rely on Santa-R’s trucking know-how to winch the dormant Stuart onto a flatbed. They would drive the trailered tank through town while the residents were huddled at Midnight Services or snug in their beds. If anyone should challenge them, the Santa costumes would provide enough confusion and disbelief to create the necessary diversion for escape. Sitting in the school library, the other four admitted, “The plan had merit.”
Right up to December 22, the routine was the same: Meet in the library after lunch, grab the current issues of Hot Rod, Field & Stream, and American Rifleman, discuss cars, guns, and girls, before returning to the plan. Sketched out on maps torn from the phone book, it appeared to be taking shape. They all talked as if they knew what their individual roles would be. Mr. W. even stopped by on several occasions to listen to their plan. Because he was an “out-there” English teacher, the members of the Fuselage assumed he could be trusted.
That day, classes would be dismissed right after lunch. There would be no gathering in the library. Instead, the five wished each other a Merry Christmas and shared stories of what family traditions they would have to endure. When the final bell rang, Santa M got into his mystery van. Santa B walked to his Dad’s store while Santa D went the opposite direction to his nearby home, and Santa R gunned his Plymouth Fury’s dual exhaust as a way of saying, “See ya later, guys.”
Santa J was the last to leave that day. Maybe he was thinking, “Wait…we were going to steal a tank!” But I suspect that was the farthest from his mind. Instead, watching the other Santas leave for Christmas vacation, he was probably looking far into the future and thinking, “I was pretty darn lucky to have had friends like these—Guys who knew me and shared my passions.”
Preserve the Memories
Editor, Military Trader and Military Vehicles Magazine
Editor’s note: No tank was ever taken by the members of the “Fuselage.”
It turns out, the five Santas were just friends who were fortunate to grow up in a town and time when “zero tolerance” only referred to the space between a bolt and a nut—a time, now as unimaginable as, “The Night Santa Stole a Tank.”