CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. --
In October 1998, a master gunnery sergeant made a bet with a gunnery sergeant that he would not be able to get a Vietnam-era vehicle running.
“He told me if I could get it running, he’d retire. He rode the mule in his retirement ceremony,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. James C. King, motor transport maintenance chief, 1st Marine Division.
The M274A5 mechanical mule, the first vehicle King restored, and most of the vehicles restored thereafter, have been presented at the 1st Marine Division Association’s anniversaries, held at the end of every January.
“We wanted something (1st Marine Division members) could relate to; most of them had served in a previous war and wanted to reflect on the days they drove those vehicles,” said King, a Glendora native.
Today, the ever-expanding Camp Pendleton Mechanized Museum houses 75 vehicles from different eras, including World War II, Vietnam and Desert Storm.
The vintage vehicles, as well as original parts, were acquired through donations and funds allotted by the base museum. King said he waits until the service life of the vehicle is done before taking it into his care, as the item managers in Albany and Barstow receive new vehicles.
“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” he added, with a smile.
The expanding treasure collection was officially established as the Camp Pendleton Mechanized Museum in 2002.
One year later, King left the museum in the hands of volunteers and docents and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom to Camp Blue Diamond, Ar Ramadi, Iraq. Upon his return to Camp Pendleton in 2005, he started up where he left off.
King said he takes pride in making sure each vehicle in the collection is fully operational.
“The M82-30 bulldozer inside the museum is the only one in the Marine Corps that runs,” he said.
Southern California has had the opportunity to see these machines in action during the Laguna Niguel Armed Forces YMCA Golf Tournament, the Palomar Airport for an Angels Depot fundraiser, various events on Camp Pendleton, parades in local communities and roles in Hollywood movies.
In 2005, King escorted a vintage 1947 Landing Vehicle Tracked Armored A5 to Iceland to participate in the filming of the movies “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
“I actually drove that thing in the movie,” King said.
He also served as the technical advisor and mechanic for the vehicle during the filming.
As soon as he returned, he completely cleaned and restored everything that had been damaged on the vehicle during filming, placed it back in the Landing Vehicle Tracked Museum, and continued working on other projects.
“We’re still trying to expand the museum,” King said.
There are vehicles waiting in the wings of the museum that still require a little tender love and care, he added.
Although the Marine Corps honored him at his retirement ceremony Friday after 30 years of faithful service, King doesn’t show signs of cutting back on his volunteer work on the vehicles that, after 10 years, have evolved into the Mechanized Museum.
If the time comes when he is unable to volunteer, King is certain the museum will continue on its own cadence now that it’s finally been established.