From Gorby, a Soviet Tank's Giving

updated 12/23/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/23/1991 01:00AM

THE SOVIET T-34 TANK LUMBERED MENACINGLY down the ramp of the freighter Aleksandr Starostenko. Its turret rotated until the .85-mm cannon pointed toward town. For Maj. Alexander Vorobijov, it was a triumphal moment. They would be proud of him in Moscow. He had fulfilled his mission. He had brought his tank to Milwaukee.

No, this is not the opening of some Tom Clancy-ish tale of superpower collision. It actually took place Oct. 24 on a Milwaukee dock, right here in the U.S.A. And it happened because Bob Costa, 53, asked Mikhail Gorbachev if he wouldn't mind, er, sending him a tank.

Costa, a father of two, works as a warehouseman for Roundy's, a Pewaukee, Wis., food distributor. But military history is his obsession. In helping start the Wisconsin Military History Museum—due to open in the spring of 1993—Costa estimates he has spent $80,000 of his own money over the past 10 years.

In 1989 Costa read about the T-34, considered by many the premier tank of World War II. He decided the museum should have one. But where to get it? Where, indeed? Costa contacted Gorbachev in May 1990. "We would display this tank with honor," he wrote. Gorby—in a message relayed through the Soviet Embassy in Washington three months later—said, "Da!"

"It's unbelievable," says Costa, "that an average person can make a request of the President of the Soviet Union and he'd take time to approve it."

Back in the U.S.S.R., Major Vorobijov was given the job of finding a tank, finally locating one—which had seen action against the Japanese in the closing days of the war—in an obsolete weapons yard. He had it refurbished, then accompanied it on its journey, by freighter, from St. Petersburg to Milwaukee. His pride and joy was briefly put on display at a local Pick 'N' Save grocery, owned by Roundy's, and will spend the next year at Fort Knox, Ky. In 1993 it will return to Wisconsin, as a symbol of a hot war fought 50 years ago—and of a cold war that has finally ended.

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