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"Basketcase" Part II.
I was a tank commander with 1st Platoon, B Company, 1/33 Armored with 3rd Armored Division, stationed at Gelnhausen, FRG. I had just spent nearly a year restoring an M60A1 tank to nearly complete status from its former status as a hanger queen. My unit was departing for the firing ranges at Grafenwoehr for gunnery qualification. This would be my second gunnery qualification in Germany and it didnít work out as well as the first one.
For trips like these tanks are usually transported on flat bed rail cars. The rail cars, unfortunately, are not as wide as the tanks so one of the exciting parts of the process is getting the tanks loaded. B 1/33 always loaded one company of tanks (17) per train. Each tank took up one flat car. If your tank was the first to load you had to ground guide your driver over 16 empty cars to get to the one you were assigned to. Nearly half of the track on each side hung over the edge of the car at all times. We had to really trust our drivers. Not because we were in any danger of being run over, because we always stayed one flat car away from the moving tank, but because the only thing the driver could see well was you. If he decided that he had a better idea of where the tank was on the car, or if he got jerky, there was a remote possibility that the tank would fall off of, or tip over, the rail car. We had to know that our drivers understood our signals and would do exactly what we signaled them to do. My driver at the time was Sp4 Darriel Johnson and he didnít have much experience driving, but I never had any problems with the way that he did things then or later. Iím not sure what car we were on for this trip but he put us right onto it and we only had to make a few minor corrections before the Bundesbahn(?) inspector was satisfied.
The trips usually lasted at least a day since our trains had low priority. We spent the time playing cards and sleeping, realizing that we werenít going to get much sleep during the next few weeks. We had ĎCí rations to eat (this was before MREs) and five gallon water cans for water. We tried to stay out of the bathrooms which were usually pretty grim. (After spending quite a bit of time overseas, Iíve realized that Americans like nothing better than to mess up a bathroom. I have never understood this.)
We had a minor mishap on the way from the Grafenwoehr railhead to our bivouac area. The tools that are used to connect and tighten the cables that hold the tanks onto the rail cars usually end up under the driverís seat when we unload until we do our first bit of maintenance after arrival. Somehow DJ kicked something that hit the escape hatch lever, or maybe the hatch had just vibrated nearly loose on the train, but we had only been moving for about 15 minutes when the escape hatch released and fell out on the ground, along with all of our rail loading tools. I called the first sergeant on the radio and told him about it. He said to keep going and that he would pick it up for us. Some bonehead ran over it before it could be retrieved, and it had to be on purpose, so the locking levers had to be beaten back into shape, and the tools were ruined.
Nothing much happened during this gunnery except that we got shot at on searchlight duty, again, but this time with a main gun round. I felt very lucky when I found out who the gunner was because he seldom missed.
I got irritated at my gunner on one of the earlier ranges because he kept telling me that the sights were off, but I had zeroed the tank myself, so I knew better. So I told the turret mechanics that all three of the gunnerís sights needed to be purged (Recharged with nitrogen) on a day when we were scheduled to fire. The tank was already on line when the gunner got there and asked where his sights were. I told him that they were being checked out in the shop and that I would fire the course from my position. This wasnít ordinarily done as I remember it, and we might have been pulled off the range if the controllers knew what I had in mind. The TC on an M60A1 only has one sight for the main gun, which is actually the optical coincidence range finder, and the controls for operating the turret are not nearly as good as the ones the gunner has. The gunner also controls the ballistic computer, a mechanical analog computer that changes gun elevation to compensate for the ballistic characteristics of the type of round selected. Anyway, I hit every target, dead center. The gunner had very little to say about the sights after that.
I have to say that I had spent a lot of time learning as much about all of the aspects of gunnery as I could before this. I wanted to be sent to the Master Gunnerís course at Fort Knox, Kentucky and I wanted to have as much of a head start as I could get. After the amount of time I had spent fixing that tank up, I knew all of the systems pretty well. I kept the log book up to date as to how many rounds of each type were fired each day, and what lot number they came from. I made sure that my loader knew not to mix lots for an engagement. We were allowed two rounds per engagement, usually, so whatever we got from the loading area had to be broken up so that all the rounds from one lot were separated from any other lots that we received and any odd rounds were stored in the hull for emergency use only. (As I understand it the normal process for accepting a lot of ammunition is to fire five rounds from a gun that is fixed in concrete at a 20 by 20 foot panel at 1000 yards. If all five hit anywhere on the panel, the lot is accepted. I believed that those rounds would Ďgroupí and even if the first round we fired from a lot didnít hit anywhere near the rounds from the previous lot, the gunner should be able to trust that another round fired from the same lot would perform pretty much the same.)
As usual, not much happened until near the end of the cycle, except for the personnel heater going dead.
We had a few good shots on the early part of the qualification course on range 80, actually almost enough to qualify us without doing the night run, but then things went wrong. We had a misfire. Deja vu all over again. I couldnít believe it. After all the time I spent on that tank, and after firing perfectly for most of three weeks, we had a misfire. The gunner tried all three triggers and no luck. We pulled the round and stuck in the firing circuit tester and didnít get a light. I had put that breech block together by hand, several times, while waiting to shoot and I should have thought about that but . . .
We were pulled off the course and sent back to the track park. Anyway, I got mad at the loader, PFC Daniel DaSilva, originally from Sri Lanka. I said, ďWe need to tear the breech block down. You know whose job this is donít you?Ē That was a stupid thing to say only partly because tank commanders are ultimately responsible for everything that does or does not happen to their tanks. DaSilva had only been in the Army for a few months, and I think in Germany for a few weeks. He didnít look very self assured at that moment.
A few months before I had been a grader for the company crew skills test, where, oddly enough, I had run the breech block station. Breech blocks for 105mm guns are necessarily heavy and awkward. Standard procedure for removing and re-installing one involved using a Ďcoffin hoistí ratcheting chain drive hung from a loop welded to the turret ceiling to drop them and put them back in place. I knew, however, that I could hold the weight of a breech block, for short periods of time with one finger through the lifting eye bolt. You need to trust the other guy, though, because there is some work that needs to be done under the breech to release the spring that drives the breech back into place when a round is loaded and also a retainer held in place by a button and spring arrangement. I told DaSilva what I wanted him to do and he didnít say a word. I think we had the thing down to bare pieces in less than a minute. The grader was watching through my hatch and said, ďYou didnít let anyone do that during the skills test. Did you?Ē But I was busy.
We slapped it all back together after cleaning all of the parts that were already clean, and I used the Ďhumaní hoist to get it back in the gun while DaSilva did what was required underneath. We still didnít get a light from the firing circuit tester so we were sent back to the maintenance area and I called my favorite turret mechanic. He finally found that the Ďin-batteryí switch mount was broken which kept the firing circuit from being complete. He said that I should go to the company commander and let him know because he thought this was a legitimate Ďalibií (excuse). I never really liked that company commander and I certainly didnít like his response to my request, but he finally agreed to let us try again.
By this time the sun was nearly down and we were the last crew to make a day run that day. We got to the target and laid the gun on it again and the gun fired. It was scored as a second round hit since we had seen the target before, which I thought was actually very generous.
Then we drove on to the last engagement which was supposed to be a green BMP silhouette somewhere in a green valley. By then the sun was behind a hill. I honestly could not see the target, and, as I mentioned in the article about search lighting, I will not fire unless I am sure of the target. In a war time situation I would probably have backed down and tried again somewhere else. But we sat until the grader finally told me that the time was up.
I was shattered. I did not think that we would even qualify with a second round hit and a missed engagement. When I got back to the base of the tower I was told that my night run was optional. I had already qualified but there was very little chance that we could earn another Distinguished Crew award. I decided to go for it, especially since one of the main events of the night course was a Ďrange cardí engagement, and I was the one selected from my company to set up all range card engagements.
I set up the position with special care that night. The whole idea behind a range card engagement is to set up and stake out a firing position during the day then do a drawing of the area with special emphasis on places where the bad guys might appear, with appropriate elevation, azimuth and range data. For gunnery qualification there would only be one target on the range card and the data had to exact and legible as possible. It was up to the other TCs to get their tanks into the staked out positions as well as possible. When the engagement starts you are already supposed to have the gun laid near the target, and you are given maybe five seconds of light to get on to it and fire.
Since my tank was not scheduled to go down range until early in the morning I had volunteered to load for my platoon sergeant who was short a crewman. I like loading and have been asked to do it for others on enough occasions to make me feel that I wasnít the only one to felt that I was good at it. I was actually being unethical because this would give me a small inkling of what awaited me on the course when I took my tank down although I would be buttoned up and busy most of the time. I also especially liked loading on B-50 which was the company Ďbladeí tank. It had a dozer blade that weighed more than a ton mounted in front and a lot of heavy armored hydraulic lines that ran under the hull to operate the blade. In a normal M60A1 it is sometimes hard to tell when the gun has fired unless your hatch is open or you see the breech move out of the corner of you eye. In B-50 it was nearly impossible. It didnít rock at all. It was also very old with lot of miles on it and the blade didnít work anymore, but no replacement was available. My platoon sergeant had been assigned to it because his normal tank, B-14 had some kind of nasty mechanical problem and was in the shop at Gelnhausen. Frank was still not very experienced, but he was getting there. His gunner was Sp4 Turner and they were the ones that had shot at my tank when we were on searchlight duty. Turner very rarely missed so I felt that this would be a very good run.
We were second tank down the course that night and I was horrified to watch the one in front of us, from my company, screw up the range card engagement. I knew the TC but not the gunner. When the light came on they fired two rounds in less than five seconds, both into the tank trail a few hundred meters in front of them. I knew immediately what the problem was and called range control to tell them to add something to the range card that said to check their ballistic computer to make sure they had the right type of ammunition set. They felt that would be cheating and didnít do it. That first tank had gone down range with a fast round indexed, possibly TPDS-T, from the last day engagement they had fired. The rounds used for this engagement were nearly the slowest, HEP-T. The difference in the amount of elevation that the ballistic computer calculates is very noticeable.
Anyway, Frankís crew had no problems with the range card engagement. I made sure they understood exactly what was on the range card. One shot . . . one kill. They knew they didnít need to fire the second round because we got a big Ďsplashí from the first, which went down range within 1 second after the light came on. (I told you that Turner was good.) Anyway, we did the rest of the course just about as easily. I think that Frank had trouble identifying one coax target, but Turner found it and tore it up. If they didnít fire Distinguished it could only have been because they had a bad day run. I had a lot of fun.
Finally, after many fits and starts, it was time for B-15 go down range. It was after 0200, as it always seems to be when we did a night run, and I had discussed everything that I had seen on Frankís tank with my crew. I guess that some of it didnít sink in because, on the range card engagement, my gunner fired two rounds into the tank trail, very close to where the ones I had seen earlier hit, and the second one without a command to fire. I have to admit that I kicked him in the back of the helmet for that, but he had his head up against the pads so it didnít do any damage.
This left me with a problem, because there wasnít any point in firing any more. We had qualified, but could not fire Distinguished, so I called the tower and told them that we were done. We couldnít turn around and go back, so the grader pointed to a trail through the woods and told us to go back that way. The course road generally tended toward the left, so we were taking a shortcut behind the hill from which I had been unable to identify the BMP target. This meant that at least the mortars, and probably the tanks, would be firing over our heads if we got stuck. We got stuck.
We Ďthrewí a track in the mud while making a tight turn. The center guides on the left side had come out from between the road wheels. You can destroy a set of road wheels when this happens in no time at all. It also puts a lot of strain on the final drive and idler wheel on that side.
Iíd had a little experience trying to Ďwalkí tracks back onto tanks while at Fort Hood, but I usually maintained my tracks well enough so that I didnít have this kind of problem. Iím not sure how I could tell but I could just push up on the track between the 2nd and 3rd road wheels and I would know if the tension was right. I was lucky this time and had the track back on in less than 10 minutes, but during that time, DaSilva had stuck his head out to ask what he should do. I have to admit that I told him to get back inside, lock his hatch, and not to ever come out again. Iím not sure how close the rounds were that were going overhead, but they were too close for me and I had signed for that tank and crew. I wasnít about to lose any of them.
After the big disaster, when we were back in the track park, another TC came up to me and asked if he could borrow my M-85 .50 caliber machine gun for the night. His was in the shop and mine worked very well, except that I was never very good at hitting anything with it. Apparently he brought it back sometime just before dawn when I was sleeping in my normal position, on the TCís side front fender with the (dead) personnel heaterís exhaust pipe as a pillow, in my sleeping bag. I guess he didnít see me because he put the machine gun down right on top of me. It only weighed 70-90 pounds and it had been a bad night, so I didnít even wake up. A few hours after dawn I must have decided to roll over. Ordinarily I would catch myself when I realized that there wasnít any Ďoverí to roll to, but the machine gun over balanced me and I fell off the fender, about five feet, into a mudhole, and the machine gun landed on top of me nearly knocking me senseless.
Have you ever asked yourself why you do the things you do? I have.
Unfortunately, this is not the end of this sad story. After Range 80 came Range 79 where the platoon fired as a unit. We didn't fire many rounds but the score was especially important to the platoon commander because it was supposed to indicate how well he used his 'tools'.
I had actually made a mistake the year before and ended up in Lane 6. I'm not really sure what lane 6 was for, but it was not possible for it to be illuminated by either mortars of searchlights during the night portion of the course. The previous year I did fine during the day and was able to get hits on three range card targets during the night course. As a group, the platoon had fired Distinguished.
Before you even ask, it is not normal to use range cards this way. A range card should be used to lay the gun on an area of concern allowing the crew to pick up (see) targets in that area quickly. Ordinarily, firing from range card data in a real world situation, without ever seeing the target, is a waste of ammunition. When you consider that we could only carry 63 main gun rounds, wasting ammunition was NOT a good thing.
Anyway, like a fool, I decided that Lane 6 had been good to me the year before, so why not try it again? Well, it didn't work for me this time.
Day fire went fine. I was selected to set up all of the range card positions for the unit, and I enjoyed that. Unfortunately, we didn't get to shoot until well after midnight due to weather that was still marginal at that time. There was a lot of moisture in the air and fog that looked like low clouds rather than the ground hugging type we are used to seeing. I was still confident that I could get some good splashes from range card data even without illumination. One of the reasons why I liked Lane 6 was that most people didn't use it, so the targets were in pretty good shape.
When we finally got to fire I would have to say that it was only because someone wanted us off the range. The conditions were miserable. The only way a grader could see a hit, through the murk, was if there was a resulting splash. When my crew fired at our first range card target, I was very disappointed. No splash. It had looked like a prime pile of metal scrap during the day and I couldn't believe that anyone would have moved it. We only had about five rounds for this, and, since I didn't know what was wrong, I moved the gunner onto the second target. No splash. The third target had looked 'iffy' even during the day, but we tried that one as well and still go no splash.
So we had two rounds left, I think, and the rest of the platoon had finished firing. We needed one hit to go distinguished. It didn't happen. Remember that I said once that I would not fire at a target if I didn't know where it was? The mortars tried to illuminate for me and it didn't work. The tank from my platoon that was in lane 4 tried to illuminate for me and I saw nothing. I even tried to illuminate for myself with both red light and white light and I couldn't see anything except fog. So I didn't fire those last two rounds and we didn't get Distinguished platoon. I still feel bad about it. Not about not firing, but about going down Lane 6 instead of Lane 5.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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