Ramona Man Is Really on a Roll--and He Doesn’t Tread Lightly

Times Staff Writer

Ramona can thank its lucky stars that Gary Harper is a mild-mannered man. Harper, an Army veteran, has enough military equipment in his backyard to start a small war, and to win it.

Townsfolk took little notice of Harper’s warlike hobby until recently, when he parked a borrowed tank next to his house, the barrel of its 37-millimeter cannon pointing into the bays of his Quick Service carwash on California 67. That got their attention.

But Harper isn’t even trying to discourage the Avon lady from ringing his doorbell. He just ran out of room within his walled military compound, packed with odds and ends of wars already won or lost.


Relics Span the Ages

Cluttering his compound and his beam-ceilinged living room are military relics dating from Medieval times through the Vietnam War.

There’s a heavy truck, a personnel carrier, a couple of jeeps, an ammunition carrier Harper is converting into a German tank, some artillery pieces and a BMW motorcycle--complete with jump seat and sidecar--that did triple duty during World War II.

The khaki-colored three-wheeler was a message carrier, a VIP ferry and a fighting machine. A post mounted on the sidecar could be fitted with a machine gun manned by the sidecar driver. Ammo was carried by a third man riding on the jump seat.

His favorite bits of paraphernalia include some vintage rifles from the Civil War era and a military pith bonnet from the days when Brittania ruled the waves, more familiar to old movie buffs as the type of topper Errol Flynn might have worn in his roles as a dashing British cavalry officer in India.

The question he’s always asked usually comes after he has given a visitor a quick tour of the compound, the storage rooms full of uniforms and gear, the machine shop with its gun racks full of firepower: Why does he collect all these mementos of death and dying?

It started, Harper said, when he couldn’t square the war stories of his father, a World War II Air Force veteran, with the story lines of television shows like “Rat Patrol” and “Combat.” He started reading and collecting to find out what really happened during the war.

“I was in junior high school before I ever learned anything about World War II,” he said, “and I don’t want my kids to be like that.”


Many Lucky Finds

During a four-year Army hitch in Germany during the 1970s, Harper began accumulating military gear in earnest, sending his loot back to the States. But luck led him to a lot of his prizes: a Navy spyglass found at a Ramona yard sale, a military truck abandoned in a ravine, there for the taking.

Harper and other collectors have some strong competition from Japanese tourists who come to the United States to buy up souvenirs from Pacific battles. Japanese battle flags, samurai swords and the other souvenirs of island battles of World War II often make the round trip back to Japan, he said.

The Stuart tank that is parked by Harper’s front door is on loan from a friend who has a Buena Park museum featuring relics from world wars. Harper has promised to modify the cannon so that it will shoot blanks and to do a tuneup on the engine, “which is running a little rough.” Then the juggernaut will be in line for a role in some future war epic film.

Harper has had the U.S.-built war machine out for a spin on its rubber treads and reports that it is very maneuverable and definitely built to fit short, skinny drivers. To descend into the Stuart’s innards, Harper said, “I have to go in with my arms above my head.”

Harper said he gets numerous queries about the legality of owning such high-powered weapons. State and federal laws are relatively simple, he said, and allow a person to own about anything he wants if he can show a need for it and can demonstrate security measures to protect it from falling into unauthorized hands.

Kimberley Harper said that she “doesn’t mind” her husband’s hobby, “as long as it’s safe for the children,” ages 4, 5 and 6. She was noncommittal about the collection of swords and sabers leaning in the corners and the display of bayonets and Bowie knives leaning against the wall. She counters the militaristic hardware with a hobby of her own, caring for stray animals, which occupy pens in the family’s large front room.


Surprising Extras

Sometimes Harper finds a bonus when he picks up a bit of military history. Musette bags used by troops to carry personal items sometimes come still equipped with soap, washcloth and a PX ration card. Once in a while, Harper will find a note, with name and address of some young woman on a long-ago assembly line, tucked into the pocket of a ditty bag in hopes that some soldier will write to her. And once, while disassembling an Iranian rifle, vintage 1940s or 1950s, Harper removed a plate from the stock to find underneath what probably were prayers written on thin sheets of paper.

Harper’s army comes equipped with uniforms of many nations and many wars. A stickler for detail, he sometimes has the rough woolen jackets altered to restore them to their wartime styles after earlier owners have turned them into civilian wear.

Harper’s hobby is not a static one. He and about 100 other Southern Californians head out into the hills one weekend each month to refight past battles as accurately as recorded events will allow. Last weekend, Harper fought in the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, a Belgian skirmish circa the Battle of the Bulge. As a recently promoted Hauptscharfuhrer (equivalent of a master sergeant), Harper led his German unit into the simulated fray near Big Bear, despite rainy weather and chilling temperatures.

After the 2- to 3-hour mock battles, the troops from both sides gather back at the campgrounds for a beer or two or three, to refight the engagement and to argue about how it could have ended if the original combatants had had the benefit of hindsight that their counterparts have more than 40 years later.

This weekend, it was on to the Big Bear VFW for a steak dinner. All the troops donned American, British and German dress uniforms and did what all soldiers hope to do after the heat of battle has waned--drink and eat and swap tales of war.

Most of the members of the California History Group to which Harper belongs share his dream of someday opening a “living museum” to give visitors the actual feel and sounds of battle. Would such an attraction be a success in Ramona? “Why not?” he asked.


Earlier this year, Harper participated, with 6,000 others, in the re-creation of the Civil War battle at Shiloh for an audience of about 60,000. As a Confederate soldier, Harper suffered more injury (blisters) from his authentic boots and their wood-pegged soles than from the assaults of the Union cavalry.

Despite the blisters and the summer heat, the bloody reenactment of the Civil War clash was worth the effort, Harper said, “because people learn what war is really like.”