The Complete Story of the River Oaks Tank
The HOA wasn’t the only foe that Tony Buzbee and his tank, Cheyenne, faced in the Battle of River Oaks Boulevard.
The tactical withdrawal of Tony Buzbee’s World War II-era Sherman M4A4 tank earlier this month brought the month-long Battle of River Oaks Boulevard to a close.
After Buzbee—a trial lawyer, Marine veteran, and proud Aggie alum (and current A&M regent)—parked the fully operational tank on the street in front of his home on Houston’s swankiest residential thoroughfare last month, the unlikely sight brought joy to hundreds of gawkers. History buffs and children thrilled at the sight of “Cheyenne,” the tank’s name as painted on the side by its previous owner, often stopping their cars to get out and pose for pictures.
And why not? In its newly-restored period authenticity, Cheyenne looked every bit the exemplar of General George S. Patton’s famous “Hell on Wheels” armored vehicles that crashed through Normandy’s hedgerows from the D-Day beachheads all the way to Paris and beyond back in 1944.
“It was this particular type of piece of equipment that helped us win that war,” Buzbee, the grandson of a Normandy vet, told a reporter. “And had we not won that war, this would be a completely different country, now we celebrate our freedoms and our right to speak, and our right to have a tank on our front yards.”
Among the many visitors was Frenchman Patrick Nerrant, an Air France pilot and history buff who sold Buzbee the tank last year when Nerrant auctioned off the collection of his now-closed Normandy Tank Museum. “I don’t know if he was just passing through or what, but he wanted to see it in a residential neighborhood,” Buzbee says. “That was really cool.”
“I wish it was permanent,” neighbor Ken Douglas told KHOU not long after Cheyenne arrived on the boulevard. “I think it’s an asset, and I think if you watch the cars come up and slow down, you say to yourself, ‘Wow, that’s America.'”
Buzbee’s armored invasion, however, was not welcomed by all in his ritzy neighborhood. The River Oaks Property Owners’ Association was forced to resort to the weapon of choice of all such groups: the much-dreaded Sternly Worded Letter.
This one was a little lighter on specifics than most. Since there was nothing specifically in the by-laws forbidding the storage of military vehicles in front of River Oaks homes, the HOA resorted to whatever they could throw at Buzbee. They claimed that the tank impeded traffic (it’s a lightly-traveled four-lane street), that it was a “safety issue” (perhaps somebody could have fallen off of it?), and a catch-all allegation that Cheyenne caused neighbors to have unspecified “serious concerns.”
The defiant Buzbee’s publicizing of the HOA’s letter brought on a media circus that the tank owner says was overblown—the story was picked up by Fox News, Jalopnik, SB Nation, and Popular Mechanics, to name a few national outlets. Still, Buzbee thinks the the fact that there was any controversy at all is ridiculous.
After all, the River Oaks Patrol—the enclave’s private security force—and the Houston Police Department told Buzbee where to put the tank when it was delivered. “I cleared it in advance, and they told me where to put it exactly, they put cones around it, they blocked off the street when it was delivered. And then the HOA sends me a certified letter,” he says.
In the spirit of General Patton, Buzbee was unmoved by this opening salvo. “Typical,” he says. “It sounds like small-town stuff, but this was Houston, Texas. But I didn’t fret over it. Hell, I would have moved it two weeks before I did but for the fact I got that letter. So then I decided I’d leave the tank here for two more weeks just to see what they would do about it.”
Without requisitioning a purpose-built truck from the National Guard capable of lifting and hauling away a 35-ton tank, towing was not an option for the HOA or the city. That left them with option B, and that was when the citations started coming.
At first, Buzbee greeted phase II of the HOA’s counterattack with the same bravado with which he met the letter, even after traffic cops had papered the Sherman with three parking tickets in six days. It was only after the third citation that Buzbee defiantly announced on his Facebook page that he was almost ready for his strategic withdrawal. (Don’t call it a retreat.)
“Everyone who wanted to see it should have done so by now,” he wrote on Facebook. “After some real self reflection, I don’t feel guilty.”
And now the 73-year-old Cheyenne is at her placid new home near Texarkana, enjoying some peace and quiet, far from the HOA. Since Buzbee mentioned the importance of having Cheyenne at the ranch for the opening of hunting season, I asked him if he planned on blasting a few bucks with its 75-mm cannon. He is not.
“I wanted to have it up there so we could drive it around and run over stuff with,” he says, adding that the main cannon was rendered inoperable as a condition of his bringing it to America. However, he does plan on mounting historically-correct, fully-functional machine guns on Cheyenne. “Will I be driving around pastures shooting up the place? Probably not. But I am definitely probably gonna be running over some old small cars, dumb stuff like that.”
That dumb stuff won’t come cheap, as keeping Cheyenne running is going to be pricey. Buzbee says the tank gets ten gallons of gasoline to the mile. But no matter. The man owns a tank, and he is going to enjoy it. “For the most part it’s just a cool thing to have,” he says.
But the HOA wasn’t the only foe Cheyenne and Buzbee faced. A lengthy process to get the tank to Texas and an troll devoted to taking down the Aggies also played a part in this saga.
A Sort of Homecoming
Buzbee took ownership of the tank September 18, 2016, in Catz, France, just 25 minutes drive from D-Day’s Omaha Beach. That town’s Normandy Tank Museum shuttered and liquidated its collection at auction, and Buzbee, a veteran of the First Gulf War and the Somalia campaign, had someone there, bid paddle in hand, hell-bent on scoring some vintage American armor for his boss.
Buzbee’s bid of 347,200 euros (about $389,000 at the September 2016 exchange rate) plus a 20 percent commission (total price about $467,000, presumably plus taxes and shipping) sufficed to claim the auction’s crown jewel. None of the other 129 lots—several lesser tanks and armored vehicles, mannequins in period uniforms, and artillery pieces—topped 300,000 euros. (According to Buzbee, when all was said and done, he’d spent $600,000 on the tank.)
Almost a year later, on August 23, Cheyenne was loaded on the freighter Resolve at the French port of Le Havre, and after a quick port-of-call across the English Channel in Southampton, Buzbee’s 36-ton toy began its long Atlantic journey, a sort of homecoming back to the country where it was assembled 73 years ago. Importing even an antique tank requires hacking through a nearly never-ending pasta bowl of red tape. First, they had to bore a hole through the main gun. “That was one thing they made me do before I took it out of France,” he says. “Then I had to take it from France to England, and then England to Galveston. It had to clear customs at every stop. I also had to clear it through [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives], the U.S. State Department, and the Department of Transportation, just to carry it on the roads here. All of that took about a year.”
Once he’d laid the groundwork, it was time for the French to say bon voyage to Cheyenne. In filling out Cheyenne’s bill of lading, the attorney couldn’t resist knighting himself—a “Sir Anthony G. Buzbee” is listed as the tank’s lordly Houston recipient. And a few weeks later, Cheyenne was unloaded at the Port of Galveston and winched onto a flatbed eighteen-wheeler. When the big rig rumbled up River Oaks Boulevard on September 12, Fox 26 reporter Isiah Carey and a camera crew happened to be on the scene.
Tieless in a silver sport coat, red pocket square above his heart, Buzbee, cigar in hand, met Cheyenne at the end of his driveway in front of his multi-million dollar home. “Oh my God, would you look at that?” he gushed in his deep East Texas drawl. “You think this is the first time a tank has been to River Oaks? That is sa-weet!”
Buzbee told Carey he was thrilled to own a piece of history. “[It] liberated Paris, it liberated Berlin, traveled down the streets of Paris and Berlin…How could anyone not be excited about that?”
Owning a tank was a long-held dream of his, the attorney said. “As a child, you played army, you have your little Tonka tanks, and you run over trucks, and when I found out it was coming up for auction I told one of my guys, ‘Hey, let’s get that tank! It’d be really cool to run over things and blow things up!’”
“Will you really blow things up?” asked Carey. “Oh, absolutely!” Buzbee replied. Later in the interview, he told Carey he hoped to make the gun operational again so he could “blow shit up,” but he did not restate that claim in later interviews.
Buzbee told Carey that in the meantime, the tank would be stationed in front of his house. “What are your neighbors gonna say?” asked Carey. “All these rich-ass people?”
“I’m sure they appreciate history like you and I do,” Buzbee replied.
“No, they’re gonna kick you out like subsidized housing,” Carey predicted.
Buzbee went on to say that the tank was a something of a statement against the rise of alt-right Nazis on American shores. “This tank and the five men that rode in it—they fought the Nazis. They liberated Paris. They beat the Germans, and here it is now, a piece of history sitting in my front yard, and I think it’s a testament to our United States, and if somebody’s offended by it—well, you know, you’re never gonna make everybody happy.”
Both Carey and Buzbee were correct in their predictions.
Of Unknown Origin
But even as the tank was bringing joy to hundreds of Houstonians every day, the devil was busy, as Carey likes to say. And it wasn’t just the HOA. Buzbee’s other nemesis in the tank fight was “Randolph Duke,” partisan of all things Texas Longhorn and dedicated Internet-based scourge of all Fightin’ Texas Aggies.
This is not Duke’s first campaign in this theater. With the dogged tenacity of an Inspector Javert, Duke, who won’t consent to allowing the use of his real name out of fear of Aggie reprisals, has spent much of his free time over the last few years chiseling away at the true facts of the 12th Man story, that cornerstone of Aggie tradition, going so far as to send his research to the legal teams of the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts NFL teams in their battles with the school over their use of the Aggie trademark.
Buzbee’s account of the tank’s provenance is the latest fragment of Aggie-related lore to come into Duke’s crosshairs, and that Cheyenne has nothing to do with A&M directly mattered not. All that it takes to rev up Duke’s considerable research skills is that a prominent Aggie be involved. And as a regent, one who was still very much in the news for a Twitter rant demanding the firing of Aggie football coach Kevin Sumlin, Buzbee more than qualified on that account. And so Duke pounced.
Duke’s first point of attack was to note that Cheyenne did not help “liberate” Berlin. The Soviet Red Army did that all by themselves, and though American tanks did eventually make it to the fallen Nazi capital, it wasn’t until months after the guns had silenced. After he’d said that Cheyenne had been to Berlin, Buzbee had been told that he might have been in error by people other than Duke. “Some people have said [American] tanks didn’t go to Berlin, and maybe that’s true, but I know damn well my grandfather did,” Buzbee says. (After his death, Buzbee found a diary his ancestor had kept with daily entries proving that claim, along with a trove of German army war souvenirs he’d brought back to Texas after the war and boxed up out of sight.) And American tanks did go to Berlin, but again, only after the war. Whether or not Cheyenne, or any Shermans at all, were there, is unknown.
Duke was only getting started. From the auction materials and other research, he gleaned Cheyenne’s chassis and registration numbers. It turns out that as part of its restoration in the museum’s workshop, a new registration number had been painted on Cheyenne, one that did not match any tank manufactured in America’s war effort.
With those numbers in hand, Duke was able to find a partial provenance for Cheyenne on a website compiled by Sherman obsessives, who maintain a database on all 87 surviving World War II-era Shermans. According to their research, Cheyenne came to the Normandy Tank Museum via a previous (likely private) owner in Coleraine, Northern Ireland, who apparently rescued it from a stint as cannon fodder at the British army’s Salisbury Plain gunnery range. (Seven other Sherman M4A4s remain there today, getting blasted by Her Majesty’s greenest recruits.)
Where it was before that is tantalizingly absent from their records.
In any event, Cheyenne was a late addition to the short-lived museum’s collection, and according to the auction catalog, it was completely restored in their workshop not long before Buzbee’s purchase in 2016. “[Nerrant] spent a fortune trying to put this thing back exactly the way it was,” Buzbee says. “Inside and out, it’s in pristine condition. It truly is museum quality.”
Here’s where it gets tricky.
Although the catalog states that the tank “bears the colors of the 2nd Armored Division ‘Hell on Wheels,’” it does not claim those markings were original or if they were added during the restoration, and if the latter, on what basis. As the catalog puts it: “This Sherman is in the exact same configuration as the tanks engaged during the summer of 1944,” and then the prose shifts neatly to the feats of the 2nd Armored Division, which indeed helped spearhead Operation Cobra from the Normandy beachhead deep into France. Nowhere does it say that Cheyenne was actually one of those tanks, Duke points out.
Without getting too deep in the weeds of Duke’s voluminous research on the matter, in short, thousands of tanks like Cheyenne were given to the British under the terms of the Lend-Lease agreement, and some of them were then parceled out to other allied nations. Duke believes Cheyenne was one of them. “Exactly where this tank languished between when it was sent to Europe as a Lend-Lease tank in 1944 and when it was found as a shooting range target is anybody’s guess,” Duke says.
Buzbee remains steadfast in his belief that it came from England to Normandy a few days after D-Day. “Obviously it had to have left from Southampton, England, and then gone to Normandy. We know when the tanks landed at Normandy, we know a bunch of shiploads of Sherman tanks landed there, so it makes sense to me. We’ve seen the videos of the GIs stacked to the gills on those tanks on the way to Paris.”
Buzbee believes this to be so, because that was “the story that was in the auction binder that we got,” and adds “I didn’t go and research the provenance of the tank. I do know that it went to Paris. At least that is what [Nerrant] told me and I’m gonna take his word for it.”
The attorney closes with a few choice words for Duke. “If he has a bee in his bonnet or a burr under his saddle about a World War II tank, more power to him. I don’t give a shit. I don’t know who he is, and I don’t give a shit what he thinks . . . The rappers got it right: Haters gonna hate.”