A real show stopper
AMES – During World War II, there were many efforts made to design weaponry. Some were a success, others deemed failures.
However, what ended up as a failure for John Deere during that time led to an achievement for two tractor aficionados.
Brian Anderson and Leo Milleman, both of Ames, have rebuilt two 1940 John Deere tractor tanks.
“We read an article about John Deere building prototypes of the tanks and we got the idea to build them,” said Milleman. “Brian found the guns for them, and then the planning got serious.”
Anderson said, “We found original 1919 A4 Browning .30 caliber machine guns in Wisconsin. Those guns were the key.”
Anderson and Milleman said it was John Deere’s great grandson, C.D. Wiman, who wanted to build the tractor tanks on a mass production scale.
Wiman thought he could build 100 tractor tanks per day at a unit cost of $6,500 to $8,000, including the machine guns. He then planned to sell the armored units to the United States defense department for combat.
The plan for the tractor tanks, they said, was for John Deere to design and manufacture an armored tractor to provide a low- cost combat unit in volume lots.
The three major uses for the tractor tanks were as a combat unit, an armored prime mover and as a training tool for tank operators.
The first tank, the A-1, was built by John Deere and since reconstructed by Anderson.
Anderson said it was made from a 1940 Model A John Deere tractor with 5,000 pounds of steel armor. This tank would be supported by a three-man crew – a driver and two gunners.
The tank’s two machine guns were placed in steel turrets that were able to turn up to 190-degrees; each turret being able to be turned either by the gunner or the driver.
The A-II was built by John Deere and was reconstructed by Milleman and a partner, Curtis Clark.
John Deere built the A-II prototype, Milleman said, before testing of the A-I was complete.
Although similar, the A-II has a wider front than the A-I, a lower profile, faster ground speed, more horsepower, smaller rear tires, no steel lugs and segmented armor for servicing.
The A-II weighs less than the first prototype due to its profile, Milleman said.
The A-I prototype made it to testing at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and almost instantly it was regarded as a failure.
Neither tractor tank ever made it into production for a multitude of reasons, Milleman and Anderson said, including:
- Too low of horsepower per weight ratio. They were top-heavy, and actually too heavy for the JD motor.
- Poor visibility – the area visible to the driver starts 10 feet from the tractor on either side of the engine hood.
- Rough riding qualities.
- Poor maneuverability.
- The engine two-cylinder engine was inferior for a combat vehicle.
- The machine guns could shoot out its own rear tires.
- Not enough room for the .30-caliber boxes
- When the machine guns fired, it was deafening to the driver.
- The steering wheel would go out of control when the tank hit the pot hole.
- The gunner had poor visibility and could not steady the machine guns when traveling over rough terrain.
- The gunners were burned by the .30-caliber shell casings.
Anderson and Milleman said those issues just happened to be a few of many defects found with the A-I .
“There was a comedy of errors found while testing in the 1940s,” said Milleman. “Evidently an engineer, not a military man, was the one that designed them, but it is unique that the great-grandson of John Deere came up with the idea.”
Fast forward 60-plus years and the reincarnation of two prototypes that most likely became scrap metal would begin to come back to life.
Milleman, a retired urologist had the opportunity to visit with one of his patients who actually worked at John Deere at the time and remembered seeing the two prototypes after the military testing.
“He saw them come back, they sat there for a bit and it’s believed they were scrapped right there at the factory,” said Milleman.
Anderson said he read about the tractor tanks in May 2002 and after more research, work began on Anderson’s A-I in 2003 and Milleman and Clark’s A-II in 2004.
Anderson and Milleman did all of the research on the tractor tanks and eventually built exact replicas, all based from the only nine original photographs to be known in existence.
The men said it all started with rebuilding of the two 1940 John Deere A tractors, with the help of tractor restorer, Paul Lehman.
However, the first big hiccup was that they found the two tractors in complete disarray.
“The restoration wasn’t typical restoring of a tractor- every piece had to be built from scratch,” said Anderson.
Then it was time to begin the daunting task of making multiple measurements to determine how to get the turrets onto the tractor and have them turn,-figuring it out just from looking at a picture.
Machinist Lynn Jorgensen, of Panora, was a huge help in helping to get the tractor tanks built, they said.
The tractor tanks were built and first displayed at a two-cylinder tractor show in the Amana Colonies in 2006.
Anderson and Milleman travel together showing their tractor tanks at a variety of shows and fairs including military shows, county fairs, the Iowa State Fair and the Threshermen’s Reunion and Stampede in Manitoba, Canada.
The tractor tanks have also been to the John Deere Pavilion in Moline, Illinois; Camp Dodge; and to a large steam show in Rollag, Minnesota.
The duo said they like to do at least one big show a year and then have the tractors featured at museums.
“We are particular about shows because it is difficult to trailer them,” said Anderson.
Anderson said no matter where they display their tractor tanks, they are always a hit.
“Farmers really enjoy it. Many people don’t even realize John Deere made these,” said Anderson. “We feel like we are giving back to our military, agriculture and community by doing this.”
Millerman said, “It’s a neat tribute to John Deere and their agriculture and military history that is involved with all of it.
“It shows the important role that agriculture played in the war.”
Anderson and Milleman said this interest grew from their love of tractors and patriotism.
“We are both farm kids, and we were raised with John Deere tractors and thought it would be a unique project,” said Anderson.
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