Mr. Littlefield’s Battlefield

Visiting retired military vehicles in the California hills

By Marcin Wichary

I’ll get the weirdest thing out of the way first. We had fun. It was an unprecedented dose of cognitive dissonance; after all, we were surrounded by hundreds of machines once built explicitly to kill people (and some of them that probably actually did kill people). We talked about it, we reflected on it, and we had deeper reasons to be here that I will come back to near the end.

But we also had fun.

This was a unique opportunity. The waiting period was more than half a year, and mid-June 2014 was one of the last weekends we could visit “Jacques Littlefield’s sprawling assemblage of rare, unique, and significant armored combat vehicles,” as the brochure put it, before it’d be closed and auctioned off in bits and pieces.

Who knew that for many decades, in the hills of California’s Portola Valley, hidden in between various open space reserves, someone collected over 200 tanks and armored military vehicles on some 500 acres of land?

(What else is hiding out there?)

Alas, we learned very little of Jacques Littlefield. He was a favored son of a doting heiress, and devoted his life to collecting military vehicles before he died of cancer in 2009. We never found out what his motivations were. Was he or his loved ones personally affected by war? We heard he started with models and dioramas of war scenes — did he treat his collection of actual tanks as a natural extension of those? An extension that, contrary to most people, he could actually afford?

This was not a museum, and the tour was lopsided — it focused mostly on heavy technical details, blind admiration for the technology of war, and… pimping individual tanks. Roughly half of them would go on sale soon, and they were ours for the taking if anyone was interested in parting with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars (not to mention much more just for the cost of complicated transport of heavy machinery located near steep hills).

But it was hard not to be impressed by and curious about these huge machines, built for a world very different than ours.

Or their fascinating signage and user interface. For example, the “32” painted in yellow in the photo above, and “16” in the image below, signified the weight of the tank, in tons — useful to determine whether it could cross certain bridges without those bridges collapsing. The weight was meant to be written on all the military vehicles, but it was seldom applied to jeeps (of which we’ve seen a lot). After all, if a bridge cannot even hold a jeep, what is it good for?

Wait, was that message below written using a freaking blow torch?

There were some kids among us (Yelp review: “My son said: ‘This place is WAY better than DISNEYLAND!’”), and it was eerie to see them playing with things that were the farthest from toys one could imagine. This included an armored vehicle with rotating chains meant to either force-explode enemies’ possible mines, or damage them enough so that they’d never go off. This must have been hell to see in operation.

The collection was not limited to just tanks and jeeps. Among various military vehicles, we found a moveable bridge. From the auction brochure: “The bridge weighs 15 tons and can be picked up or lowered without the crew leaving the vehicle, very handy when operating in an environment with nuclear, biological, or chemical contamination.”

In the meantime…

“What did you do at work today?”

“Oh, I had this stupid problem with our CSS not working well in Firefox…”

We saw all the ordnance lying around and tried to figure out how deathly (or not) it was. The shopping cart was a nice touch, an unintentional commentary on the realities of the military-industrial complex.

If that was not impressive, how about howitzers and self-propelled guns?

Or a bona fide Scud missile from the Soviet Union. “These early missiles were notoriously hard to use because of the need to use the cryogenic fuel and were extremely inaccurate.” But you might still want one? Estimate: $300,000–$350,000.

We marveled at the differences in scale between vehicles. On the left (below), a folded Soviet radar (“functionality of the radar is not known”). On the right, Fiat 500’s angry cousin.

We rolled our eyes at posturing in words and illustrations…

…on both sides of the Iron Curtain (the messages below say Always ready, Be ready, and For Stalin! in Russian).

Many tanks looked as if they were just parked there, ready to drive out at a moment’s notice.

And, holy shit. It turns out, they were. Most of the vehicles were effectively operational.

(The box with marshmallows was a nice touch.)

Which made our weekend trip to Portola Valley even more surreal — at one point we were suddenly surrounded by tanks moving around with a great deal of noise, dust, and smoke.

Moving around, or being helped around. Did you ever imagine seeing a tank being towed by a RAM truck?

Apparently, the name tank came about during WWI. Early prototype British vehicles were covered with tarp and to those who didn’t need to know, they were presented as “mobile water receptacles,” or… tanks. The shape was close enough for this ruse to work. Later, the name stuck.

But we didn’t learn that in Portola Valley.

We mostly just had fun.

I struggled with this, thinking at times it must have been as inappropriate as selfies at Auschwitz or atomic tests tourism.

But then, there was the story of Donal’s grandfather. Donal was one of the friends who accompanied me on this trip; his grandpa served during WWII, driving a Sherman tank through Belgium. Like many war soldiers before or after him, he declined to talk about it much.

Donal and his father did a lot of research on their ancestor’s history, including revisiting his tracks. That day in California, Donal found an opportunity to stand right next to an actual Sherman of the type his grandpa grew to know so intimately.

Donal and a Sherman tank

My grandfather, too, fought in the war, sabotaging German vehicles during the occupation of Poland. He talked about it a lot —but, as a little kid with an Atari, I could not have cared less. Grandpa died before I learned to care, and today I regret so much not just allowing him to talk and listening, for hours on end, to his experiences.

It’s often hard to connect to our forefathers on the subject of technology. They got to know the first generation of computers: room-sized machines created to… yes, compute ballistic trajectories — a far cry from pocketable devices we use to listen to music and exchange snapchats.

For us, tanks are as abstract a technological concept as is war itself — we can analyze them, be in awe of them, laugh at them…but never truly understand them. For our grandparents, tanks were the harshest of realities, their design or engineering details often constituting the difference between life and death.

Donal among tank

Donal found his Sherman; I stumbled upon a Panzer tank the likes of which blitzkrieged through Poland in September 1939, soon after my grandpa turned 18. I thought about him a lot that day — his overdone evening prayers, singing performances involving his favorite dog, loud and exaggerated stories about mixing sugar with gasoline to render German tanks inoperative. Stories I was tired of back then, and stories which I would give so much to hear and explore today.

Maybe we shouldn’t have had fun. But maybe my grandpa, or Donal’s grandpa, would smile knowing that after all they went through, we would know tanks only as curious objects, and have fun playing with them in this surreal soon-to-be-closed non-museum, basking in the California sun.

Thanks to Michal Cierniak for letting me know about Mr. Littlefield’s collection, and to Donal, Aaron, Laura, and Tyler for joining me on this trip.