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Saturday, August 13, 2011

A ride in Charlestown's "Tank"

The "Tank" and one of the ATVs (town photo)
When I first spotted it several years ago, parked behind Town Hall before the new Police Station opened, I wondered, “Why the hell does Charlestown have a tank?” I doubt I am the only one who saw that military-grade armored personnel carrier (APC) and wondered the same thing.

Well, mystery solved.

A crack team of Progressive Charlestown investigative reporters descended on the Charlestown Police Station to find out if Charlestown was preparing to go to war, and if so, with whom (Hopkinton? South Kingstown? Westerly?).

For the answers, continue reading.


As Chief Shippee climbs into position,
PC crew member Linda Felaco wonders
whether this is a good idea.
Charlestown Police Chief Colonel Jack Shippee took the PC Investigative Team inside and outside the police station, and showed us the fruits of some pretty remarkable scrounging.

Chief Shippee has been adept at using the town’s ability to tap into the Federal Surplus Property program to come up with gear that is moldering away in storage, waiting to be sold, thrown away or given away.

Our APC, with only 400 hours of use on it, was made obsolete for military use by more modern equipment, such as up-armored Humvees and Stryker vehicles. This APC was built in 1990 and was sitting unused at the Crain Air Force Base near Terre Haute, Indiana.

Chief Shippee took title of it for free. He even had the option of getting it with tracks (not so good on our roads) and with gun mounts for heavy machine guns like M-60s. The Chief passed on those, too. He hustled free transportation on National Guard aircraft to Quonset and brought it to Charlestown, where it needed some repairs to unseize the engine (frozen up from disuse). Now, it works just fine and is lots of fun to ride (more on that in a bit).

Chief Shippee has also gotten lots of other useful stuff for free. There are two military-grade Hummers sitting out in back of the station that were tagged for sale at almost $40,000 each. The Chief got them both for free. He also got a very slick boat for our Harbormaster that came with two high-horsepower outboards and a towing trailer. All free.

There are two brand-new all-terrain vehicles in the police garage that the Chief purchased with grant money.

Much of this equipment is shared with other jurisdictions in South County. The tall communications tower behind the station (very prominent from US One at the Ninigret Park exit) replaced an older, shorter tower. Cox Cable owns the tower, but Charlestown’s emergency communications are also mounted on that tower, plus the Chief told us he has two additional spaces on the tower that he could lease.

He is also looking to get rid of the old tower, which is lying on the ground at the base of the new tower. The Chief did not comment when I suggested that the new tower – and even the old tower – could be really useful as mounts for mid-sized wind turbines.

Chief Shippee took us all through the Police Station, where he proudly pointed out that all the furniture inside was donated. There’s a nicely equipped workout room in the basement – all the exercise equipment was bought by the police union.

I asked Chief Shippee whether the “no good deed goes unpunished” principle has come into play – has his reputation for hustling impaired his ability to get the town to fund things the department needs. He said it’s come up, but he can usually count on getting what he needs for the department. And that includes the hundreds of thousands of dollars in gear (the “Tank,” the harbormaster boat, the Hummers, the ATVs, the furniture, the comm tower, etc.) his “dumpster-diving” has brought.

Now back to the Tank. First, let me assure all the Progressive Charlestown readers that it is necessary to run the tank from time to time to keep the engine from seizing up as well as to make sure it’s in good running order. We weren't joy-riding. Really.

The Tank is amphibious and, with the prior night’s rain, had water in the passenger compartment. No problem, though. The Chief told us the vehicle has its own bilge pump.
Chief Shippee made this young man's day.

So with the Chief at the controls, the PC team hopped in.

Seated like good soldiers in our jump seats, off we roared into Ninigret Park waving to puzzled passers-by. Though the Tank is supposed to run at 25 mph or less, we moved right along (whaddya gonna do, call the police?). We tooled along the rough pavement and gravel all around the festival area in relative comfort – I’ve been in buses with rougher rides – though very spartan surroundings.

My review: solid A. I would have given the experience an A+ if we had gotten to fire off some M-60 rounds or tear gas canisters – or got to ram through the side of a building. Maybe next time.

The tank travels well through rough terrain, including the beach (though not the snow, surprisingly) and would be useful for rescue purposes. Or for going after a barricaded suspect. But so far, the Tank has not had to be used for such serious matters, either by Charlestown or the surrounding towns.

As a card-carrying leftwing-pinko, I shouldn’t be pleased or impressed with all this hardware. But nevertheless, I am. Much of the specialty gear Chief Shippee has scrounged is there to save lives, rescue the innocent and protect our first responders.

The Tank is a big hit when it rides in the Charlestown Memorial Day Parade. I mentioned to Chief Shippee that it had some great fund-raising potential. He agreed and said that he had the Tank at a couple of the festivals and gave kids rides. A donation bucket for local charities placed next to the Tank pulled in some decent money.

While we were talking with the Chief after our ride, an older man with his adult son and a boy who must have been his grandson came out of the station after doing some routine business. NOTE: tanks are irresistible guy magnets. They also came out to check out the tank and the kid was thrilled when Chief Shippee let him climb inside.

I don’t know if the Tank will ever have to be used under fire – I hope it remains an interesting curiosity forever – but I did find an interesting potential use for it. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the mayor has found that the Russian version of our Tank is very useful for parking enforcement.

Chief Shippee – here’s a way to make sure that nobody abuses reserved parking spaces at our town beaches ever again:



Author: Will Collette