Hands-on historian works to share the story of Army Engineer R&D
Standing in white coveralls, power washer in hand, Terry Winschel didn’t seem to mind the intense heat and humidity of Mississippi in July. The historian for the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center was all smiles as he sprayed decades of dirt and lichens off of a vehicle unlike anything in the military today.
With sixteen tires mounted around a track on each side, the prototype Airoll looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, but painted a familiar shade of olive drab green. It is one of more than 20 prototype vehicles tested for the U.S. military at the Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg over the last 60 years. ERDC’s seven labs conduct research across diverse areas in support of military engineering, environmental science, water resources, geospatial research and information technology.
Some of the prototype vehicles are instantly familiar to most Soldiers, like an early Humvee. Others are more esoteric, including a six-wheeled amphibious scout vehicle and two powered by marsh screws. Another prototype was designed with “tri-star” wheels – as featured in the 1977 post-apocalyptic science fiction movie, “Damnation Alley.”
When he’s not power washing unique vehicles, Winschel scours ERDC’s archives, labs and warehouses. He’s on a mission to collect and preserve documents, artifacts, photos and anything else that will tell the story of ERDC’s remarkable part in the history of America and the world, from early river models through the space race to today’s innovations. The vehicles help tell an important part of that story, according to Winschel.
“These prototype vehicles, some of which may be the last of their kind, tell a story,” Winschel said. “All these vehicles speak to a period in history and the American values the people at the time held. They tell the stories of the creative, innovative responses to the challenges of their times.”
The dirty work of washing the vehicles is nothing new to Winschel, who joined ERDC after a 35-year career with the National Park Service as a historian. As part of his job, Winschel could often be seen with a brush axe, clearing the way to monuments and markers in less accessible parts of the Vicksburg National Military Park.
When ERDC’s Vicksburg campus was open to public visitors, the vehicles were on display. After 9/11, public access to ERDC ended and funding to preserve the vehicles was cut. For 15 years they sat parked outside, slowly losing a battle against time and the elements. Winschel made the derelict prototypes a personal mission, and is the only resource currently assigned to the task. All the other support has been garnered through the collaborative spirit around ERDC.
“Right now, I’m a staff of one. I’ve been going around ERDC with my hat in my hand, a smile and a handshake to get what I need. I’m finding absolutely everybody out here is cooperative, friendly, helpful and very professional,” Winschel said, citing help from ERDC’s Mobility Branch – the team primarily involved in the original testing of the vehicles – as well as a dozen other laboratories, directorates and employees.
The cooperation around ERDC has helped get many of the vehicles moved to Winschel’s unique car wash, as well as a new home indoors. ERDC’s Airfields and Pavements Branch even contributed surplus airfield matting – another ERDC innovation – on which the vehicles can be displayed. It’s another opportunity for Winschel to tell the story of research and development happening at ERDC’s seven laboratories.
Despite all the assistance, Winschel is still looking for resources to strip, paint and restore the vehicles’ original markings for long-term preservation and static display.
“The next stage of this operation, I’ll need more than my good looks and a smile.”
In addition to the prototypes, Winschel also wants to develop a station-wide wayside exhibit plan for ERDC. The interpretive panels would share with visitors and ERDC employees the history and accomplishments of an Army organization whose work has had positive impacts from Vicksburg to surface of the moon. (Winschel recently located a case containing the original wheels tested by ERDC’s Mobility Research Branch for NASA’s Lunar Rover Vehicle.)
“Esprit de corps is so important to any organization. People get caught up in their own world - their own work, or their own lab – that it’s easy to miss other efforts around ERDC. They don’t get to see our story as a whole,” Winschel said.
During his career, Winschel has published nine books, more than 100 articles and 150 book reviews, and served as a guest speaker at events across the country as a preeminent expert on the Vicksburg campaign during the Civil War. Now part of the Corps of Engineers, he is producing a series of historical vignettes that tell the story of the Union and Confederate engineers’ pivotal role the siege of Vicksburg.
“The siege of Vicksburg is an engineering story, one of pick and shovel, axe and saw,” he said. “That story of siege operations hasn’t really changed that much, whether you go back to the Revolutionary War or the Trojan War.”
The campaign involved remarkable works of military engineering, including Union attempts to bypass the river bend at Vicksburg by digging a canal. Combat engineers left a permanent mark on the landscape of Vicksburg: fortifications, trenches and other earthworks remain evident to this day. (Note on publication w/ link).
Connecting today’s U.S. Army engineers with their Civil War counterparts is a natural extension of the narrative of the Corps: the ingenuity, bravery and accomplishments of sappers and scientists alike have all shaped Vicksburg, the Army, and beyond.
For Winschel, the core of the ERDC story is in the process of innovation, the challenges taken on over 80 years of research and development, and how it reflects on the people, the Corps and the nation. The Airoll, though never adopted by the military, is just as important as the moon rover wheels that accompanied Apollo 15.
“We have to tell that story of what has gone on here and what goes on today,” Winschel said. “It’s important to understanding who we are, from our accomplishments as well as our failures. Not everything in our history is rosy, but we strive to make sure we learn from those failures and improve ourselves.”