Gord Wozencroft lowers himself through the hatch and settles into the metal driver’s seat, made a little softer by a thin layer of foam padding.
It’s hardly a graceful maneuver. Wozencroft is not a small man, and Sherman tanks weren’t built for comfort.
On his left is an olive-green box with a few dials and switches.
Wozencroft fingers a switch in the lower centre, waits a second, then turns.
The mighty power of a Detroit Diesel engine coughs to life. A hint of diesel mingles with the guttural throb of a motor two metres behind him. At his right hip spins a massive drive shaft that carries power to the transmission at his side and to the sprockets that drive the tracks outside.
Caroline has new life.
• • •
For more than 30 years a Sherman tank has sat near the cenotaph at Sappers park at the corner of Keith Wilson and Vedder Road. It was climbed on, photographed, researched, written about, criticized and venerated.
How it ended up there is a story in itself.
But it’s not this story.
This story is about how the tank – named after the daughter of the man who first saved it from certain destruction, and then from possible relocation – was resurrected.
A Sherman tank is not a rare thing in the world of military artifacts. One of the most iconic images of the Second World War, the Sherman was manufactured by the thousands. Finding a Sherman that actually works, however, is a more difficult thing.
More than 50,000 tanks were produced during the war, often faster than the engines could be supplied.
It was the main battle tank of the U.S. Army, but it also served the Canadians, British, Russians and even the Chinese. It fought its way from the deserts of North Africa, up the spine of Italy and off the beaches of Normandy.
When the war ended and the tanks decommissioned, most were scrapped, used as target practice, or enshrined as monuments at the entrance to military bases like Chilliwack.
Brooke Quam is not a man of many words. But to him, the Sherman was the finest tank of the Second World War. Sure, it couldn’t slug it out with a Panther at 500 yards, he says. But that’s not what it was meant to do. Its greatest assets were mobility and reliability. Properly supported, or operating from a concealed position, it could take on the best the enemy had.
Quam is no stranger to military equipment. He’s part of a tight confederacy of enthusiasts who volunteer their time at the Canadian Military Education Centre at the former CFB Chilliwack.
He’s a kind of mechanical magician, says Wozencroft, himself the owner of two military vehicles, including a three-quarter ton M37 weapons carrier.
Wozencroft and Quam have been the foot soldiers in the reclamation of Caroline. It’s been a process requiring both mechanical wizardry and political dexterity.
The politics came early. In 2008, as plans were being made to redevelop the cenotaph site, it was learned that the military intended to move Caroline out of the city. While negotiations dragged on, a group of Caroline supporters dragged something else – the tank. They pulled the vehicle from the cenotaph into the military museum compound a few hundred metres away.
Liberated – but still not totally free – Caroline had to wait for official government word that Chilliwack would remain her home.
That word finally did come, thanks to strong political and public support that included a 1,800-name petition.
Rollie Keith, a veteran tank driver and instructor who gave Caroline her name decades ago, helped marshal that support. It was the second time the retired army officer helped save the tank, and Keith counts those two victories among his most important in a career pocked by military and political engagements.
But while Caroline was no longer in danger of being moved out of Chilliwack, her fans weren’t satisfied yet. They wanted to do something many thought impossible: Get the vehicle back in running order.
First they had to secure permission. Caroline is technically the property of the military. It’s entrusted to the 39th Combat Engineers still stationed in Chilliwack, who have stewardship over the tank and had plans to put it on display.
Wozencroft, delicately threading his way through these various levels of command (and mending bridges along the way), sought permission to convert the tank into what was deemed a “running monument.”
There were some reservations, but several months ago approval was granted.
But how do you return the shell of a tank into a functioning machine? Much of the working parts had been stripped out decades ago, including her motor.
Quam never had any doubts it could be done. He already had many of the necessary parts, including an engine that he kept in his shop.
How did he happen to have a spare motor for Sherman tank?
“I always knew I wanted a tank,” he says dryly, “so I thought I better start collecting the pieces.”
Using a large hoist from one of the vintage military trucks on site at the museum, the volunteers gingerly lowered the motor into the engine compartment. The radiator was adapted from an old bus; the fuel injectors removed and cleaned, hoses replaced and reattached.
When the battery was finally attached and the ignition switched on, Caroline moved under her own power for the first time in maybe half a century.
Wozencroft estimates he and Quam have spent more that 500 hours getting the tank to this point. Still others have contributed their time, their money, their expertise and their enthusiasm.
For Quam, the thrill is seeing a legendary piece of machinery reanimated.
For Wozencroft, it’s about preserving a piece of history for the men who once rode the tank into battle: a crew of five that worked shoulder-to-shoulder while the threat of an 88mm anti-tank shell could end their lives in a fiery second. It’s about veterans still alive who remember those tanks, and for the generations who have since grown up in a peace earned by their efforts.
Caroline never saw battle (although she does have some war wounds from her days on the target range). She was one of the last Shermans built and models like hers were used by Canada in the Korean war.
Because of that Korean connection, Caroline has been repainted to match that era.
She’ll be on display for the first time at the Canada Day celebrations at Heritage Park on Friday. Veterans and the general public are invited to drop by and sign a special commemorative book.