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25 Years of Military Vehicles

How time flies! When I began gathering materials for the December issue of Military Vehicles Magazine (MVM), it occurred to me that it was going to be the 150th issue. As I paused to do the math to determine 25 years had passed since folks began reading about the preservation, restoration and utilization of military vehicles in MVM, my mind drifted… “25 years—that would have been 1987. What was I doing?”

Was there a path?

When Dennis Spence founded Military Vehicles Magazine, I had just taken my first “professional” job out of graduate school. Lincoln Log Cabin State Historic Site had hired me as their “director of interpretation.” This was a fancy name for “1845 farmer.”

The mid-1980s were a glorious period in “living history” (the name adopted by folks who liked to dress up in the clothes of a bygone era and live as though they were part of that previous time).

The previous decade saw the celebration of the United States’ bicentennial. From it, sprung a group of reenactors who were dedicated to recreating history as authentically as possible. Painstaking research was followed by equally painstaking attention to detail in sewing, weapon fabrication and even dialect and mannerisms.

I had been reenacting with various Civil War groups in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until I attended graduate school at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) that I landed smack in the middle of the “authentic” movement. Without any real outside force, a perfect gathering of talent and ability joined in east central Illinois. Joe Covais’ tailoring business, New Columbia, was headquartered in Charleston. Lincoln Log Cabin, the 1845 living history farm was only a few miles distant and staffed by cultural historians Randy Jackson and Bill Combs (now the president of the Ohio Valley Military Society). The Historical Administration graduate program at Charleston’s EIU was churning out a new generation of museum professionals. And Hollywood was working on a series of reenactor-based movies that included parts one and two of “North and South” and “Glory.” All of the ingredients were there for something special.

After finishing my classroom studies, I spent all my time at either Lincoln Log, New Columbia or traveling to reenactments. During the week, I was an 1845 farmer. On the weekend, I was a 19th-century soldier. The immersion was nearly complete. Very little of my week was spent in the 20th century… in fact, I rarely changed out of my 19th century clothing.

“1845 JAG” with his daughter, Trisha Lynn, ca. 1987. At the time, he was living the perfect dream of 1845 farmer by week, and 1860s soldier by weekend.

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But, as you know, collectors and reenactors are rarely content. Though I was living a perfect mix of 1840s with 1860s (“Modern times begin in 1865,” was my favorite declaration), my friends and I yearned for more. Soon, we started assembling uniforms and gear to partake in the blossoming hobby of World War II reenacting.

Covais and I formed the nucleus (actually, we were the sole members) of the “18th Luftwaffe Field Division” and equipped ourselves with K98s, steel helmets, flight blouses and camouflage smocks. We attended our first event at Weldon Springs, Mo., where about 200 other WWII reenactors gathered a couple of times a year for “tactical battles” in which the reenactors actually maneuvered against each other rather than follow a “battle script” typical of Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments of that period. Bedecked in our Third Reich gear, we arrived at the former military reservation not quite knowing what to expect.

Imagine our surprise when we saw a half-track appear followed by a DUKW and a few jeeps. Multiply that awe tenfold when a German “Hetzer” self-propelled gun clanked by the two lonely Field Division soldiers hunkered in their foxholes! It never occurred to Joe or me that people actually had vehicles and used them this way.

“1945 JAG” depicting a soldier of the 18th Luftwaffe Field Division at Weldon Springs, ca. 1988. It was at one of these early WWII reenactments where it occurred to him that “people like historic military vehicles.”

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The Hobby Explosion

The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great time—unemployment was very low and the economy was strong. People had confidence in their jobs, good credit and free time to enjoy. Hobbies flourished.

WWII and Korean War veterans were in their 60s and 70s. They had the time, money and energy to acquire and restore the vehicles they drove when they were young soldiers. Simultaneously, the U.S. military was making big changes in the vehicle program. After the U.S. Army adopted the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles (FMTV) series of vehicles in 1996, it began releasing thousands of M35 2-1/2-ton and M939 5-ton trucks to the surplus market. The mix of personal prosperity and availability of trucks produced the perfect environment for the hobby to blossom.

It wasn’t just the military vehicle hobby that was growing, though. By the mid-1990s, I had left the museum profession and entered the world of publishing. Hobby publishing was large and varied—there was a magazine for every niche. In fact, my first publishing gig was (and yes, my ears are turning red) as editor of Dollmaking magazine. My career as guru of the porcelain doll world was short, however, and I jumped at the chance to become a book editor of sports car and tractor books—two other hobbies that had exploded from a potent mix of nostalgia, available vehicles and extra cash in hand.

21st Century

When the calendar flipped to a new century, there were all sorts of predictions of apocalypse. I suppose those carried over to the military vehicle hobby as well, because it was in 2000 that the magazine’s ownership passed from the capable hands of David Ahl to a “corporation”—Krause Publications. Hobbyists don’t often embrace change, so the rumblings were evident. Fears of how the magazine would be different now that it was being published for “profit” as opposed to produced out of “passion” permeated the shows and the then-young Internet forums.

Krause published a couple of issues before I was hired in 2001. The first issue that I produced was number 87. The changes were minimal and the publication continued to grow, both in subscribers and advertisers. The Internet, however, was gaining momentum and could not be ignored.

Sixty-three issues later, I am happy to report that our magazine—and the hobby—continues to be strong. But that doesn’t mean we are in an era of prosperity or growth. In fact, the opposite is true. The economy has changed, the WWII and Korean War generations that led the hobby 25 years ago are fast fading and the release of vehicles from the military is slowing to a trickle. Even though the passion for restoring, preserving and utilizing historic military vehicles remains strong, how do we counter forces acting against the hobby?

Historic Military Vehicles: The Next 10 Years

We are living in a crucial period in the hobby. Our primary driving members—the WWII and Korean War veterans—are rapidly leaving the hobby. The economy is not as strong as it once was and many are not spending their extra cash. And, the military is not releasing vehicles to the surplus market like it once did. With all this acting against the hobby, how can it possibly survive?

The truth is, even those factors are acting against the hobby’s health, it isn’t enough to destroy it. Though the WWII and Korean War veterans are disappearing from our ranks, their sons, daughters, nephews, nieces and grandchildren are experiencing a flood of nostalgia about the service of the “greatest generation.” We see this play out in the increase of WWII movies, reenactments, video games, tributes, monuments and publishing all celebrating the exploits of the veterans. This nostalgia, in turn, drives people into the hobby who want to feel just a little bit closer to their veteran relatives by driving a jeep in a parade, restoring a CCKW or trail-riding in an M37.

Added to the nostalgia factor is the fact that a younger generation of veterans who are reaching that 60- to 70-year-old level during which they retire and begin to recapture those feelings of their youth. Today, Vietnam veterans and their families are discovering the hobby of historic military vehicles as a way to commemorate service during the Vietnam War. Similarly, veterans of the Cold War are experiencing waves of nostalgia for vehicles painted in four-color camo of the 1970s and 1980s.

But what about the vehicles? From where will they come?

The good news is, once a vehicle is restored, it rarely leaves the hobby. Almost all those vehicles that were restored and preserved during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are still in existence. The prices might be different, but they are available and continue to reenter the market.

While it is a fact that the release of vehicles from the U.S. government will continually decrease, demand will drive the discovery of unrestored vehicles, either in the United States or other nations. Debilitating economies in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy will certainly mean that vehicles will emerge on the open market from those beleaguered nations. There will be no shortage of vehicles in the upcoming 10 years.

“Get the young involved” So who are the “young?”

So many people (usually my age or older) lament the “graying” of the hobby. I think that is just a natural effect of growing old (like complaining about those “young whipper-snappers” or “my aching back”). Again, the truth of the matter is, the interest is there among “younger” people.

Though many like to say “We have to get the young involved,” they tend to overlook the most important emerging market: The 30- to 40-year-olds. These “30-somethings” are the perfect group to introduce to our ranks. They are the sons and daughters of the Vietnam generation, therefore they are experiencing nostalgia for the history of their parents. They are settled in their careers, have begun to raise their families and have a little extra cash and free time to play. Rather than buying a Jet Ski or an ATV, they can just as easily buy a deuce-and-a-half or a Mule. Sure, it is important to seed the garden of interest at the younger ages, but man, here is a field of folks ready to harvest!

What can we do?

I know it feels good to speak to a group of Cub Scouts or to a grade school class, but if you truly want to be an ambassador for the hobby, considering targeting groups where 30- to 40-year-olds congregate. Maybe it’s the Rotary, your local rod-and-gun club or church. Make it known that you have military vehicles and that these young men and women can own them, too.

The long-term future of the hobby does depend on the young, but our immediate future—and health of the hobby—will be led by those young adults who are experiencing the joy of discovering the hobby and have the ability to pursue it today. Let’s help them on the road to “keeping ‘em rolling!”

John Adams-Graf
Editor, Military Vehicles Magazine and Military Trader

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