This past Sunday we had the opportunity to spend a few hours at the Russell Military Museum. This privately owned museum sits just south of the border between Illinois and Wisconsin about an hours drive north from Chicago. The museum is situated right off the highway and is easy to get to. A somewhat battered looking M3 Stuart light tank marks the entrance to the museum parking lot, a former car dealership lot converted into a museum in 2007.
If not for the light tank sitting out front and the sign on the building, a passer-by might be forgiven for mistaking the museum for a salvage yard. Those expecting a highly polished, big budget affair such as the (relatively) nearby First Division Museum at Cantigny Park will be disappointed. The Russell Museum is a “mom and pop” style museum, a labor of love by owner Mark Sonday and his family, who double as the museum staff. While the museum may lack a certain amount of polish, it more than makes up for it in the amazing array of military hardware present in the collection.
Museum owner Mark Sonday has been building his collection over several decades, originally showcasing them at a previous location in Pleasant Prairie Wisconsin (which wife Joyce Sonday now refers to as “Unpleasant Prairie”.) Forced to move due to Pleasant Prairie using eminent domain to clear land for a retail development, the Sonday family became embroiled in a long legal fight to gain fair compensation for the theft of their land by the state. For more on the legal battle and move, read this Chicago Tribune article. (Why a community would prefer an outlet mall to a collection of historic armored vehicles and aircraft is a complete mystery to us!)
The museum consists of two parts, indoor and outdoor. Entering the building, there is a gift shop and admissions counter. Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children and for $15 visitors can get a ride on a M113 APC at certain times of the day. The gift shop is filled with a variety of items, military themed toys for kids, clothing, military patches and other various items. On our visit we were fortunate in that the owner and his family were all in the entrance area at various times, collecting admission and talking to customers. They were very friendly and willing to answer the many questions we had concerning the collection.
Beyond the front lobby is the indoor display area. This is a single large room, housing several AFVs, a number of other vehicles and numerous display cases housing military small arms, uniforms, helmets, models and other items. The vehicles in this room are all restored, including a M4 Sherman tank, M5 Stuart light tank, M7 Priest SPG and an M50 Ontos, recently purchased from the former Littlefield collection. Other items include a 6 pounder anti-tank gun, a M29C Weasel, M3A1 Halftrack, and a couple Cadillac Gage Commando armored cars. Model builders will have plenty to look at and admire as several collections of scale models are housed in the Museum. The most impressive is a collection of hundreds of scratch built naval models which take up four glass display cases.
While the interior displays are by themselves worth the price of admission, the real fun begins when one steps into the outdoor area. While the average visitor might only see a collection of vehicles and aircraft in various states of disrepair, the true AFV enthusiast will experience a veritable field of treasures waiting to be discovered. While the aircraft may make for a more impressive sight than the vehicles, we will be focusing on the vehicles since that is what this site is about. That said, being able to walk around aircraft such as a F-15, F-16, A-10 Warthog, Mil 24 Hind and others is a real treat. To say nothing about the numerous Huey helicopters literally stacked against each other in one corner of the lot. Here is a photo gallery of some of the aircraft on display. Unlike the ground vehicles which all belong to the museum, most of the aircraft are on loan from the US Government.
Now for the AFVs! The majority of the vehicles on display are American in origin, although there are a few foreign items. Most notably is a British Centurion tank that has been altered to look like an M1 Abrams. This vehicle was used in the film “Courage Under Fire” in lieu of a real M1 Abrams tank. All in all, not a terrible looking vismod, although fairly obvious to anyone that knows the Abrams well.
For those that like Commonwealth WW2 vehicles, this Sexton SPG will no doubt be of interest.
As to other foreign AFVs, there are a couple 4×4 vehicles worth mentioning, a British Ferret and a Soviet BTR-40.
Now lets take a look at one of our favorites (and a favorite of the Museum owner), the M4 Sherman tank. Several Sherman tanks and related vehicles are to be found in the outdoor area. These include an M4A1 with 76mm gun and HVSS suspension, an M4A3 with 105mm gun, another M4A3 on a truck bed, and a M32 AVR. Also to be found are some Sherman tank turrets, including one from an Israeli M50 “Isherman”, a cutaway turret with turret basket and a former range target turret.
M4A1 with 76mm gun and HVSS suspension:
M4A3 with 105mm gun. According to the owner, this vehicle was used as an aerial target which caused significant damage to the turret top and engine deck, hence the steel plate in place of the original engine grills.
M32 ARV, possibly a M32B3 variant?
M4A3? on a truck bed at the back of the lot.
M50 Israeli Sherman turret, other turrets.
Next up is a gallery of some of the other US tanks on display. There is another Stuart light tank in the outdoor area, making a total of three counting the gate guard and the one indoors. There is also a M41 Walker Bulldog light tank, a couple M47 Patton tanks that look a little worse for wear, a very battered looking M48 on a truck bed, a M60 and a M60A3 with mine rollers.
Next up is a gallery of self-propelled artillery. This includes a M37 105mm SPG, a M110 8 inch SPG and a M-42 “Duster” AA gun.
Our final vehicle category is armored personnel carriers and other transports. These include a few different types of M113 (including a M901 Tow Missile launcher purchased from the Littlefield collection), either a T113 or T117 (hard to tell from the picture), a M114, a LVTP-5, a M116 Husky Amphibious carrier, M4 and M5 Tractors, a dozen M-548 Weapons Carriers, a M-578 recovery vehicle, a XM-501 Hawk Missile Carrier, an AVLB and a really unusual half track.
There is also a large variety of soft skin vehicles in the collection although we really didn’t have time to photograph them all and soft skin vehicles really fall outside the subject matter of this website. Here is one final gallery of a few odds and ends.
That’s all the photos we managed to snap while wandering the museum and outdoor area. This should give a pretty good impression of the kind of things to expect to see here. For anyone with an interest in US military hardware, we can’t recommend this place enough. For the same price as going to the movies ($10), you can see all these amazing steel beasts up close and in the flesh, so to speak. The staff are friendly and willing to answer questions about the displays and there is a section with some vehicles that children can crawl on. Also, for $15 bucks you can get a ride in an M113. That’s less than most cab rides! If you are in the Chicago or Milwaukee areas, make the drive, it’s worth it. Given the exceedingly poor job the federal government has done preserving our armored vehicle history, it’s really important to support private institutions like the Russell Military Museum that are making these vehicles accessible to the public and away from the scrap heap.
And by the way, they told me next summer they intend to crush a car with a Sherman tank. I for one plan to return for that.