Three years ago Peter Poessiger watched as virtually overnight years of work “marched out the back door.”
When the Air Defense Artillery left Fort Bliss as part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, its museum followed. The formidable missile park that was the Air Defense Artillery Museum was taken to Fort Sill, Okla.
Then the tanks arrived at Fort Bliss – giant pieces of the 1st Armored Division’s “Old Ironsides” museum.
The tanks came with the division when it moved from Germany to Fort Bliss in 2009, and Poessiger has been rebuilding the museum’s exhibits since.
He has transformed what was essentially an empty Fort Bliss warehouse, an old Post Exchange built in the 1960s, into two state-of-the-art museums under one roof, featuring artifacts of Fort Bliss from 1847 to 1987 and the 1st Armored Division from 1940 to present day.
Now he is retiring. After 34 years of active military service and 13 years of military museum work, Poessiger says he is retiring a “very happy camper” and is looking forward to playing more tennis and traveling.
“Persistence is the name of the game; never give up on the American dream,” he says. “I will stay in El Paso and see everyone in my new status as an ‘interested citizen.’”
Poessiger has been responsible for the preservation of Fort Bliss and 1st Armored Division history for more than a decade, working as the director of the Fort Bliss Museum and the Old Ironsides Museum, which he fondly refers to as “his” museums.
Poessiger, 74, grew up in Leipzig, in what was then East Germany, where he determined at a young age that he wanted to escape the communist oppression there.
“People who are born to freedom must be grateful every day, and people who are not must seek it,” he says.
And he did, managing to escape to West Germany in 1956. The Berlin Wall wasn’t built until 1961, but the country had been divided since the end of World War II.
In 1957, Poessiger immigrated to the United States where he was promptly drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany.
He served through two wars – Vietnam and Desert Storm – and retired from the Army as a colonel.
He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Texas at El Paso, graduated from the Command and General Staff College in 1975 and the U.S. Army War College in 1986.
Poessiger has an intense, jovial personality and speaks with a lively German accent. He has a passion for Mercedes-Benz and has a shelf full of models.
Poessiger will be honored for his service during a retirement ceremony at 9 a.m. Sept. 26 at the museum, 1735 Marshall Rd. on Fort Bliss.
He walked through the exhibits with El Paso Inc., talking about his plans for the future, rebuilding the museum, his favorite artifacts and escaping East Germany.
Q: These exhibits are impressive. How did you have them built on such a tight budget? And what was the condition of the tanks when you got them from Germany?
These tanks all looked pretty bad when they got here. They needed a lot of TLC because they were outside in the elements for 15 years. All the exhibits were produced by staff here from scrap.
We use the inmates from La Tuna Federal Prison – we now call them trustees – and one of them we found out is an artist and did a lot of good here.
Apparently, he had worked at Universal Studios. For example, the tile roofs here are made of the cardboard tubes that hold maps cut in half and this roof here is made of pieces of old carpet from my office.
Q: How did the 23 tanks get here?
I went to Germany three times to oversee the move from Baumholder, Germany. The tanks did not come in the sequence that we determined over in Germany. They went from Baumholder by flatbed truck to Rotterdam, then to Amsterdam and from there it got worse. Which ship? Didn’t know.
Some went to Houston. Some went to the East Coast. So I was sitting in the office one day and the tanks arrived one after the other.
Q: How did BRAC, Base Realignment and Closure, impact the museum?
Before BRAC, we had the Air Defense Artillery Museum here; this was a formidable missile park. Each weapons system that the Air Defense Artillery had was out front of the museum where the tanks are now.
But all of a sudden came BRAC and virtually overnight five years of work marched out the back door and, from there, to Fort Sill, Okla. It was not good for the heart of Peter Poessiger. Five years of work gone in two weeks on 20 flatbed trucks.
Q: I understand the museum is also often used for Army ceremonies.
Today, the 4th Brigade is rehearsing a Friday casing of the colors ceremony, because they are going to Afghanistan. It’s always lively here. We’ve had a wedding here. We do all kinds of things: changes of command, Purple Hearts, even the gala to raise funds for the museum.
Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard has also begun holding a welcome ceremony for newcomers. After he welcomes the soldiers, the brigade commanders take the soldiers into the museum so they not only get their first exposure to their commanders, but also a bit of the history. That’s a win-win situation.
In the afternoon, the families come in here and are taught the things they need to know when their spouse goes to war.
Q: It’s striking how history is being made here at the museum now, these soldiers deploying from Fort Bliss to Afghanistan possibly featured in an Afghanistan war exhibit here one day.
The interesting thing is the more things change sometimes the more they remain the same.
Q: How have the museums changed since you became director in 2000 and what are some of the challenges building a museum?
The greatest challenge is always fundraising. I did not plan in 2000 to build an Old Ironsides museum. We were going to improve the Air Defense Artillery Museum, but that changed overnight.
So the challenge was, again, to get a floor plan, an exhibit plan, to lay it out historically correct in the right sequence. All the stuff inside here was outside in Baumholder – 15 years in unforgiving German weather.
Q: Does the museum receive tax dollars?
Absolutely not. Washington definitely won’t give us any money for exhibits. We operate on donated money. The way we collected money from the citizens mainly and industry was to conduct a gala in honor of veterans. We had three or four galas in the museum. So people could actually have a cognac next to a missile, so to speak.
We did get a building, though. As I came on board, we lucked out. The Post Exchange wanted a new building so we got the old one. That was a $4-million gift – the building. It looked pretty bad and we’ve spent almost $500,000 to get in here.
Q: How much have you raised?
In 10 years, we raised $1 million. That was just wonderful. We got a lot of support from those retired from the Air Defense Artillery. Now, it’s going to take some time for a retirement community to develop out of the 1st Armored Division now that the Air Defense has left. The air defenders are not going to give again because some of them gave and now all of it, the Air Defense Artillery Museum, is gone. They’re not very happy about that.
Q: What was it like growing up in East Germany and how did you escape?
I went to junior college in Leipzig, graduating in 1956. Some of us volunteered – with the thought in mind to escape – to a camp that killed potato bugs, which had become a national problem.
So we volunteered for one that was in the vicinity of Gutenfuerst, which was in walking distance from the West side. We worked there during the day and at night we checked out the border.
There were seven of us at the camp planning to escape. The border there did have a sort of “death strip” but it was not to shoot people. It was plowed over each day to count the footprints of those who left East Germany.
We knew that communism and socialism wasn’t going anywhere, so one night we ran and we made it. I was fortunate to have an uncle in the United States who became my sponsor to emigrate from West Germany to Grand Island, Neb. I helped to sell pianos there, but I was promptly drafted by the U.S. Army in 1958.
Q: Take me around the museum.
Here you can step left all the way down from World War I, to World War II into you name it – Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. It’s all there.
Here we’ve got the Louisiana Maneuvers, which started in 1941. Then we head right into Africa where first Rommel beat the 1st Armored Division, then the 1st Armored Division beat Rommel, and it goes on. You could spend an hour or two here just to read about World War II.
It is important that an exhibit, no matter what it is, talks to you by way of a show or recording or something.
Here is the surrender. Then came the Cold War. There’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Here is a bit on Iraq since it’s just finished. The reason we don’t show Afghanistan is because it is still ongoing and I don’t have any stuff yet. We’ll have to wait for that. Right now, you have one brigade stationed at Fort Bliss that’s just come back from Afghanistan and another one going in. It’s tough.
We honor Biggs Army Airfield over there. There was much more that happened at Biggs Army Airfield than people know. The B-52 bombers were here training.
That was while I was here as a second lieutenant. Those B-52s flew over day and night and I’ll tell you that made studying hard.
Q: What might an Afghanistan war exhibit look like?
It will probably start graphics heavy and then will probably feature another large tank or a Stryker set in a mountainous area of Afghanistan. It’s wide open. The imagination has no limit there.
Q: How many visit the museum?
Last year, 100,000, and this year we will come close to 60,000. That decrease has to do with the fact that so many Fort Bliss soldiers are deployed overseas right now.
Q: How many artifacts does the museum have?
Macro artifacts about 25, and then micro I haven’t counted them yet, but I’d guess about 15,000 micro artifacts.
Q: What is your favorite artifact or piece of history here at the museum?
In the Fort Bliss Museum, and it has more to do with us getting to the moon than my background in the military, it’s probably the V-2 rocket.
Although the V-2 is not an Air Defense Artillery weapon, you could say that Wernher von Braun got us to the moon with it. There are only about seven of them left in the United States. Wernher von Braun lived at Fort Bliss and had a little swimming pool here.
Q: In the time that you have been here at the museum, what stands out most to you?
I guess there is not a single momentous thing. To be the keeper, to be responsible, to be accountable for three different museums, now two, and their progress is a great privilege.
Going home each day and seeing the fruit of my labor from that day that is maybe the most momentous.
Q: What do you hope for the future of the museum?
One could dream and say let’s build a bigger building and bring more macro artifacts in, but I think, under the supervision of the curator, they will dig deeper into the history of the 1st Armored Division and may conduct oral histories to be kept in the archives for future generations to see.
These Army museums, their purpose is to teach the soldiers his or her heritage and history.
Q: What are you going to do next?
First I want to relax a little bit because the lure and promise of a quieter life have become irresistible. There will be some tennis. There will be some traveling. I’m leaving here as a very happy camper.
Q: Are you going to retire here in El Paso?
Yes, I will continue to be a local citizen. Both my wife and I love El Paso. It has all the things I need, also in the sense of keeping up my health. There’s Beaumont and the VA. There’s the rejuvenation of Downtown coming up here. I like the culture in El Paso. The climate is wonderful.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.