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War Toys

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POSTED: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 10:15pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - 11:53pm

Tom Townsend lives on a 33-acre spread near Rusk in Cherokee county. He and his wife Jan raise miniature cattle and horses.

After he got out of the army, he was a successful writer of children’s books.

“The army wasn’t any fun because it’s the army, but the tanks were fun,” Tom said.

Oh, and he has a toy collection, big toys. Tom is a collector and restorer of military vehicles and gear. In fact, he has the largest collection in East Texas. But that got a little boring, so, he got into the movie business.

“Then I got a chance to work on a movie called ‘Courage Under Fire,” he told us. “They needed tank drivers for that movie. It was a good cast and a pretty good movie. And they had taken a bunch of old British Centurian tanks, which was built right at the end of World War II, so I spent 3 weeks out in El Paso. I got to drive through fire and stuff and just had a really good time, and got paid for it. So, when I got through I thought, maybe I should tailor my own collection more toward what movies would want.”

And when director John Woo needed a Japanese tank for his 2002 Nicholas Cage war movie “Windtalkers,” Tom was happy to oblige.

“I was a consultant on Windtalkers,” Tom recounts, “and they were having a terrible time finding Japanese tanks because, as we said, there aren’t any. And so my wife and I decided, we can build one. And 3 weeks later we had the tank there, running and a video of it.”

In 2008, Spike Lee directed a unique film about black soldiers fighting Germans in Italy, called “Miracle of St. Anna.” And again, Tom had the trucks he needed. That same truck was used for scenes filmed at the Battleship Texas for the movie “Pearl Harbor.”

From Jeeps to big rigs to a unique British armored patrol car to a unique armored dune buggy used in the film “Universal Soldier," Tom has the gear.
And much of it isn’t what it seems.

“I saw that on the wall and I thought, wow. An M1 Garand. And then I found out, what?” I asked. “All rubber,” Tom said. “They broke it right here,” says Ann.

“They did that in the Miracle of St. Anna,” Tom remembers. “You know when you’re giving it to a guy who’s making $50 a day to do all sorts of terrible things with, you don’t want to give him something too awful good.”

“These are demilled guns or they are totally fake guns which are converted to fire propane and oxygen,” he explained. “So, you’ve got a compression chamber inside with a spark plug in it. You’ve got two lines that feed propane and oxygen into that chamber that make it fire. And so it fires like a real machine gun, makes the noise, makes the flash, but yet it’s highly affordable to use on a movie because ammunition for the real guns is so incredibly expensive. It’s all aluminum, so you have to be kind of careful with it. You can overheat it to a place where you will melt it and once you do, it’s several thousand dollars down the drain.”

And he covers many eras and armies with equipment and props to make things authentic. Right down to a World War II barracks bunk bed.

Now, purchasing and running a real military Humvee can be expensive. So this one is really a disguised Chevy Suburban. And Tom’s always on the lookout for something new and unique.

“I believe this to be a 1911 White,” Tom told us, “of which quite a few of those went to France. This came from up near Gallatin, we were up there on some cattle business and saw it in the weeds and made a deal on it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it.”

And on the Military Network on HULU, Tom hosts a web show about the hobby called, “Military Motor Pool.”

So, whether it’s events like the Wings Over Houston airshow or big budget Hollywood films, Tom Townsend has found his niche. And, he’ll get back to tuning up his 1942 Jeep, right after, they feed the cows.

 

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