Military historian and arms collector Fred Ropkey died this past week. He opted out of medical treatments that might have prolonged his life for a few months. After 84 years, he was not surrendering. He had simply decided to face this final challenge unarmed.
Ropkey was no fan of war. Few people are. Yet he knew that every tank, aircraft and piece of artillery he recovered was not only a work of exquisite design, but combined they represented the hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives that had been lost – or saved.
His passion, which was almost an obsession, got its roots early. At age 8, his parents gave him a World War I sword and a Civil War pistol belonging to his great-grandfather. At age 16 he bought an armored World War II scout car and drove it to school. He stood up in the auditorium at Pike High School the day after Pearl Harbor and reported the Japanese attack to his fellow students. He tried to enlist in the Marines, but he was too young. He would later serve during the Korean conflict as a battalion commander.
Ropkey’s collection of arms grew over the years, and he stowed his thousands of acquisitions on the sprawling 100 acres of family land (dating back to the Great Depression) on the northwest side of Indianapolis. At the time, says his longtime mechanic, Skip Warvel, the idea was to simply find a place to restore those treasures. But it was really more a warehouse than a showcase. In 2005, Ropkey moved everything to Crawfordsville, signaling a new vision and purpose.
“Build it and they will come,” his wife, Lani, recalls him saying. Then he added, “Who would think that a little pole barn on a 50-acre cornfield in Crawfordsville could change so many lives?” It was no longer simply a standing building; it was a building that stood for something. He called it the Ropkey Armor Museum.
Once it opened, the Ropkeys fully realized the impact the collection had on people.
“Are you familiar with that tank?” he once asked an older man who was examining the vehicle. “I practically lived in it,” said the WWII veteran who revealed that he had not seen his “old girl” in 40 years.
“Thank you,” he said. “My life has now come full circle.”
According to Ropkey, the veteran later retreated to a hotel room with a bottle of bourbon and wrote an entire account of his experiences. Those notes now part of the museum’s Wall of Heroes.
To the end, Ropkey loved digging into history and uncovering the human stories behind each piece he salvaged. He found tanks, aircraft, even parts of ships in barns or buried underground, where the government had discarded them. He was always mystified by the lack of appreciation for these historical artifacts.
“We can fix that,” he would say to Warvel. The mission was simple: No matter the degree of disrepair, it was an obligation to resurrect the piece, honoring those who had lived and died in it. “Everything in the museum runs, flies, or floats, but the cannons don’t fire,” said Warvel, who uses the original spec manuals to make repairs.
Over the years, I was honored to be Fred’s friend. We toured both facilities on a number of occasions for television segments on WISH-TV. I’ve ridden in Sherman Tanks and sailed around a lake on a Vietnam-War-era vintage patrol boat. I will miss Fred. I won’t miss the harrowing ride in a Russian biplane.
Fred Ropkey could converse knowledgeably (and endlessly) about every U.S. combat mission in World War II. At the end of his life, he chose not to share his plight with others, instead enduring his cancer pain privately. This was the one battle Fred Ropkey did not want to talk about.