“The tank is coming back. It’s a victory.”
Democratic state Rep. Lonnie Reed (pictured) was excited as she announced successful efforts to reclaim the town’s tank (actually an armored personnel carrier) that was snatched without warning from the National Guard Armory on Montowese Street earlier this month.
The “tank,” as it is affectionately called, was a place where children would play and older folks would stop to pay respects. And then one day it was gone. It wasn’t a victim of crime—it was a victim of an apparent misunderstanding.
The National Guard, in an effort to gather historical equipment for display in Niantic, removed the tank Aug. 3 without notifying the veterans or any town official. High-ranking National Guard officials didn’t know and didn’t check to learn that the armored vehicle was actually a war memorial given to the town by Gov. Ella Grasso. A granite plaque at the site is inscribed: “In memory of the men who served their country in the Conn. Army National Guard units attached to this armory. Nov. 12, 1978.”
This landmark of Branford history will be returning to its rightful place next month, thanks to the efforts of local veteran Tom Sudac, along with Reed and Governor Dannel P. Malloy.
Even though the tank is coming back to town, there are major changes ahead for the Armory.
Col. John Whitford, public affairs officer for the Connecticut National Guard, told the Eagle that 70 of the current 100 members of the 102nd Infantry now stationed in Branford will move to a new facility in Middletown when it opens in a few weeks. He said 30 members will remain in Branford for the time being.
The Armed Forces Reserve Center, which will open soon in Middletown, was built as a result of recommendations by the Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) in 2005. A number of military units will be moving there, including members of the Army Reserve and the National Guard. Another facility will be built in Danbury.
“Our footprint will be reduced,” Whitford said in regard to the Branford Armory. “There will be a few small elements of the 102nd that will remain.”
The Branford Armory is also home to the Second Company Foot Guard, one of the oldest continuously serving military units in the United States.
Regarding the “tank,” Whitford maintained the armored vehicle actually belongs to the National Guard and was slated to be put on display at Camp Niantic. However, since it has such value to the town, it will be refurbished and returned sometime in September.
From Sudac’s perspective, the tank should not have been moved. “It was installed there as a lasting war memorial,” said Sudac, who helped to bring the carrier to Branford in 1978. “When it was taken out of Branford, I hit the ceiling.”
Sudac was a corporal with the National Guard’s Heavy Tank Company of the 43rd Division of the 102nd Infantry, headquartered in Branford. He turns 80 next week.
Sudac has a newspaper article and the original photo from November 1978 picturing the dedication of the carrier. The granite plaque was not yet finished.
Standing at the spot where the carrier once stood, Sudac said: “It’s a lonely place without that vehicle. It represents a lot of feelings for a lot of men who served their country. I miss seeing it there.”
When Sudac found out the tank was missing, he immediately contacted National Guard officials and was told it was relocated to Niantic. So Sudac started making telephone calls. That’s when Reed became involved.
“The whole thing was quite upsetting,” Reed told the Eagle. “We’re going to fight to get it back,” she said last week.
She contacted veterans groups and local officials, and found out that no one had been notified of the National Guard’s intent.
“They just came and collected it like it was a piece of abandoned equipment,” Reed said.
She then called Gov. Dannel Malloy who put one of his top aides on the case. She told the governor that “Everybody is just stunned, shocked and amazed” that the war memorial was taken. “It was a piece of Branford history. It was iconic.”
By Friday afternoon, the governor’s office called to tell Reed that Major Gen Thaddeus J. Martin, adjutant for the Connecticut National Guard, didn’t know the armored vehicle was a war memorial. As soon as he learned the history, he promised to have the carrier painted and returned to the Branford Armory.
The National Guard has been removing armored vehicles from towns throughout the state for an historical display in Niantic.
While Reed was elated at the outcome, she was also concerned that it happened in the first place. “It’s very disconcerting that veteran’s groups are not being kept in the loop,” she said.
Sudac echoed those feelings.
“I have all the respect in the world for Lonnie Reed. She did a wonderful job,” Sudac said Friday after he heard the good news.
“That was supposed to be a gift to Branford to honor the Korean veterans and those who served in the military,” Sudac said. “It all started when I was president of the Heavy Tank Company 43rd Division back in the 70s. The guys asked me if we could get a tank and put it on the lawn for prosperity.”
So Sudac put a notice in a newspaper saying the veterans were looking for a Sherman tank. Gov. Grasso called him and said she located a tank in Florida that was available. The veterans didn’t have money to transport it, so Gov. Grasso told him the state would pick up the tab since it would become a war memorial. “She said we could make Branford a memorial site for the Korean War veterans,” he said.
The veterans installed a cement pad for a base and awaited its arrival. Much to Sudac’s surprise, it wasn’t a Sherman tank that was delivered, but an armored personnel carrier, a much smaller vehicle. He recalled thinking, “What are the guys going to think of this?”
But the guys accepted it. “As we drove by there over the years, we would see parents putting their kids on it to take pictures,” he fondly recalled. “It’s a piece of steel, but we strongly feel we have something to show for the guys in the service.”
Sudac, who joined the military when he was 17, was stationed in Japan during the Korean War for more than a year, training Japanese troops to operate Sherman tanks.
Most of the guardsmen with the Heavy Tank Company, which included men from Branford, East Haven and Guilford, were assigned duty in Germany during the Korean War as part of NATO forces.
Sudac and the other veterans have a fondness for the tanks. “The Sherman tank was our bread and butter tank,” he said.
On the last Sunday in September, the veterans gather at the armory and read a list of Korean War veterans who have died. The list grows longer each year. “We lost three members of our company just this year,” Sudac said.