ROCHELLE – Chuck Roberts started collecting World War II memorabilia in about 1987.
He served in the Army and worked on a lot of equipment during his service. His parents served in WWII. His father was in the Battle of the Bulge and his mother was in the Army nurse corps.
Roberts was always interested in WWII history. He bought one historical vehicle from the second world war, and he promised his wife, Lydia, that it would be the last.
What has resulted since for the Rochelle couple is the Roberts Armory, a WWII museum that specializes in the acquisition and display of armored vehicles, artillery and other artifacts used by the U.S. in WWII.
The museum participates in WWII-related displays, parades, motion pictures and reenactments throughout the United States. The purpose of the museum is to preserve the history of World War II and to honor those who served.
“It's sort of a labor of love on the history of WWII,” Chuck said. “We get a lot of people that come in with post-war equipment. And we just can't handle more. We're overflowing with just the WWII stuff. When I walk in here after all these years, I'm sort of shocked and I say, 'Holy cow, what are we going to do with all of this stuff?'”
“We say it's a hobby that got out of control,” Lydia said.
Exhibits at the Roberts Armory include: An M5A1 light tank "Stuart", MM22 light tank "Locust", M8 light-armored car "Greyhound", M16 half-track, 75 MM gun motor carriage M3, T-16 universal carrier, M29C cargo carrier "Weasel", M7 snow tractor, WC51 and WC52 weapons carrier, M6 37 MM gun motor carriage, Willys-Overland MB ¼-ton truck "Jeep", Ford 1.5-ton truck GTBA "Burma Jeep", 1941 Buick Century series 60 staff car, 1941 Plymouth P11 staff car, 1939 Cadillac staff car, 1942 Harley-Davidson type II, Army bicycle, Multiple cal. 0.50-machine gun mount M45 "quadmount", 37 MM anti-tank gun M3, 40 MM automatic gun, M1 (anti-aircraft), 75 MM pack howitzer M8, 75 MM recoilless rifle M20, LCVP Higgins boat, DUKW 2.5 ton amphibian truck and Singer roadster SM 1500.
The museum will be open to the public this Saturday from 1-4 p.m. and is two other times a year on Memorial Day and the Sunday before Veterans Day.
“It takes us probably a day or two of work just to open it up,” Chuck said. “We do maintenance on the vehicles. Everything here runs and all the guns have simulated fire. It's getting to the point now where we're the only experts that know how to fix these things. People call and email us from all over the world with questions. We do 3-D printing of parts that can't be found anymore.”
The walls of the museum are lined with pictures and stories of Rochelle veterans and it has historic copies of the Rochelle News-Leader that have pictures of the soldiers and information from when they were in the service. Other than local veterans, the museum has a lot of things relating to the 70th tank battalion, which is a group the Roberts’ reenact.
The vehicles at the museum participate in local parades and car shows. The Roberts’ have written five books on World War II history and currently have two more in with a publisher. Lydia’s specialty in collecting is women’s WWII uniforms.
“My closet is more packed with uniforms than regular street clothes,” Lydia said. “ I kind of got interested because of Chuck's interest. In high school, I hated history because it was just memorizing places and dates. And these things we have, you can touch and feel them and find out the history behind it all. It's much more interesting than just opening a book.”
People have come from “all over the world” to visit the museum, Chuck said. He enjoys meeting people and sharing a common interest. Sometimes families of veterans that have since passed bring in items from their service.
“We're continuing the legacy of the memories and technology of WWII,” Chuck said. “Once the veteran passes away and leaves behind things related to it, sometimes the family comes here and we can tell them what the photos meant to the best of our ability.”
The large vehicles at the Roberts Armory have been purchased through a broker. They’ve come from countries like Portugal, Chile, Norway and France. Chuck works on all of the equipment himself and enjoys the machinery aspect of it. Lydia’s only requirement for his “hobby” is that no more than one vehicle at a time can be inoperable.
“We're into the machinery and not too many people are,” Chuck said. “It's impressive to still see it. It's to remind people that no matter what you think about this stuff, this is the reason why you're not speaking German or Japanese as a primary language. Because your ancestors were in these things fighting the Germans or the Japanese.”
Over the years, the museum has seen visitors that are veterans of WWII or those that served in later wars like Vietnam and Korea, where the same or similar equipment was used. Those interactions have been meaningful to Chuck and Lydia Roberts.
“One of the things I enjoy most about having visitors here is, especially when we've had WWII veteran visitors come, they start to talk about their experiences and the family would say, 'That's the first time we've heard them talk about what happened in the war,’” Lydia said.