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I Was A Loader In An Army Tank Unit.
Most people in the US Army didnít want to be loaders. For one thing, it probably meant that you were the newest one in the crew, which is always a pain. That you had to clean the coaxial machinegun (and usually fire it before we got the Belgian coaxes). And you had to haul around a lot of ammunition at times. There is also the possibility that you will be put out to provide local security at 0 dark thirty in the morning, in snow up to your lower lip. Possibly the worst thing is the thought of making a mistake that either makes the whole crew look bad or gets someone killed.
I hardly ever loaded before I became a Staff Sergeant, so I usually didnít care about being a Ďnew guyí, even if I was one at the time. If I only had to clean a coax instead of an M85 I would have been a happy person. As I will explain, hauling around ammunition was not a major fear and I even enjoyed it sometimes. I ALWAYS provided local security from the TCís cupola when we were in the field, partly because there wasnít enough room inside the tank for my crew to sleep comfortably if I was inside, and, to be honest, I could never find a comfortable place inside anyway. I always slept on the right front fender if I slept at all. (I eventually ended up with some nasty back problems from my chosen sleeping position, sitting in the Ďautobahní seat with my periscope cover for a pillow. No one ever sneaked up on us. Maybe because the uncomfortable position kept me on edge all the time.)
The reason why I was asked to be a loader on other crews was that, aside from the shortage of full crews, I didnít many make mistakes and I knew enough about gunnery to be an asset if anything went wrong. One of the reasons why I accepted was that it gave me an opportunity to get a feel for the course before my crew and I went down it. (I have since recognized that that behavior was unethical, but, at the time, my standards were not as high.) The other reason, however, was that I enjoyed it.
There are a thousand mistakes that a loader, or anyone else in a firing tank, can make that are, at best funny, and, at worst, tragic. Iíve seen or made a number of those mistakes, and I have learned from every one of them.
The M68 gun/cannon has a safety lever that the loader pushes into the set position after he is finished with his duties. This signifies that he is out of the way, everything is safe, and the gun is ready to fire. The gun will not fire unless this switch is set. (In normal M60A1s this was an ugly roughcast steel lever in ahousing. In the Ďbladeí tanks, because they were so old, it was just a toggle switch mounted on the loaderís side of the gun shield and somewhat difficult to see at night in a red light environment. (Interior lights were either red or white then. Red is used at night to maintain some semblance of night vision capabilities if you suddenly have to get out of the tank.) When the loader sets the ready switch, he had better be out of the way. During training at Fort Knox I saw someone who pushed the switch when he wasnít out of the way, and when the breech recoiled, his arm was sheared off between elbow and shoulder.
One of the loaderís many duties in an American tank is to unroll the asbestos pad that hangs down from the turret ceiling in front of the grating that keeps stuff inside of the turret bustle from jumping out and attacking people. Maybe the Bundeswehr was right about only partially extracting shell casings because they can be dangerous. In an M60A1 we actually had an adjustment for, I think, five different levels of extraction force. The highest level was for use in winter when the breech might be very cold and shrunken to the point where a hot shell casing was difficult to extract. One of my loaders forgot to drop the pad once and, after firing the first round on the course, I felt a distinct burning sensation on my right cheek, the one closest to the turret wall. I was mystified. It turned out that the hot shell casing had been ejected straight into the bustle grating and had then bounced around in such a way that it Ďkissedí me on the cheek that was facing away from the gun, and then went on. It finally came to rest on top of the pile of hydraulic fluid soaked flak vests piled up under the gun, where it smoldered away for a while. (We kept our flak vests there because we didnít like to wear them and because they were very good at absorbing hydraulic fluid.) I had a burn on my cheek, but no one else was hurt in any way, which was the main thing. I suggested to the loader, politely, that he unroll the pad, and we went on.
When I worked as a loader I would frequently try to keep the hot shell casings from bouncing around after a shot was fired. I ended up with several pairs of boots and many pairs of overshoes that were partially melted. We werenít supposed to handle those shell casings unless we were wearing asbestos gloves, but that was such a pain, and time was usually running, so we made adjustments. The worst hot shell case story I have ever heard was a little different. Our company commander was out on the firing range one day and had to urinate or bust. (I donít know how he could do that. I could never muster enough urine to put out a soggy match when I was on the course.) Between engagements he asked his loader to hand him a spent shell casing but didnít explain why. Maybe the loader thought it would be funny if the CO burnt his hands. Anyway, he handed him the one that had come out of the breech last. The CO urinated into it and the crew nearly mutinied. I donít know what that smells like, but, from their descriptions, I donít want to know, either.
I had an instructor at Fort Knox who was badly injured by a gunnerís seat. All of the seats in our tanks were adjustable for height except the loaders. Before pneumatic cartridges the counter-balance was strictly by springs. The gunnerís seats had a heavy duty coil spring inside the pedestal that would raise the seat when the release lever was lifted. The counter-balance spring was designed with the idea that someone would probably be maintaining contact with it during adjustment, or at least that the very heavy seat and seat back would be installed. I donít know what the instructor was trying to do, but he hit the seat release with no seat installed and his chin just above the post. He was in the hospital for a while.
During one of my stints as an Ďexperimentation soldierí I was a grader for an M60A1 unit that was being tested for drop off in firing scores caused by lack of sleep. They only fired at night and they got very tired and eventually started making mistakes. Other than grading their firing we were supposed to keep them from doing anything dangerous on the range. I was with 1/9 Cav at the time and really didnít know that much about M60A1s, other than what I had been taught, and mostly forgotten, from AIT at Fort Knox. One night we were on a pad firing at moving targets. It became my tankís turn to fire. I was hooked into the intercom and I could hear the TC saying that he was having difficulty ranging to the target. Range control asked to talk to me and wanted to know if I could see any problems. Actually, I didnít. They pressed the TC to fire for a little while and he refused. (I admire him for that. It is pretty obvious when you donít have a good range to the target and firing without one is irresponsible.) Guess what the problem was.
It was a nice night so the loader had hung his field jacket over the edge of his open hatch. Unfortunately, it covered one of the end-housings of the TCís range finder. With only one optical input, coincidence is not possible, so no range. I never forgot that incident. I always checked my end housings before going down a course and, if I could not get a good range to a target, I wouldnít fire, no matter what.
There are two ammunition hauling stories that I would like to tell. First was at Fort Hood, when I was in the Cav. I didnít interfere with the crew much because two of them had years more experience than I did, although I was the TC. We were pulled up alongside the ammo-loading pad drawing big bullets for the next runs. Sheridanís didnít hold very many rounds so I didnít feel too guilty. One minute they were loading rounds and the next it was fire extinguishers. Not a good sight. It turned out that they had had to traverse the turret to expose some of the ammunition racks and a spark had been created that ignited some of the diesel soaked mud in the bottom of the hull. (We had been out for a while with the hull drain plates sealed.) No big deal. We took all of the ammunition back out and were hauled off to the side to wait for the maintenance people because some wiring in the hull had been damaged. We were told to get the power pack ready to pull, so we did. (Not nearly as heavy work as getting an M60A1 pack ready to pull.) Company maintenance showed up at about 2200 and we pulled the pack and replaced most of its electrical system.
This was the only time I have ever had trouble getting an engine back in. The Sheridan power pack had a very large automobile style radiator mounted on the front of its frame. Sheridan turret edges are relatively sharp compared to other turrets, for ballistic reasons. The first time we tried to get the engine back in, the crane operator hiccuped and swung the radiator into the turret, which put a big gash in it. So we had to put it back on the ground and replace the radiator.
After that, I donít know what was wrong, but we could NOT get the transmission trunnion bearings to stay in place during the last stages of engine insertion. I had never seen that happen. The front engine mounts went into the slots in the hull floor perfectly, but, during the last few inches of the pack insertion, the lower transmission trunnion bearings were being forced out of their slots. We tried grease. We tried Loctite. We tried prayer. We tried hammers. We pulled it all the way out and set it on the ground for scrutiny and evil looks several times. I donít know what the difference was at 0400, but it finally slid right in just like it had been there a few hours before, as it had. Maybe WE were too tired this time.
The other ammunition-hauling story took place, several times, while I was with B 1/33 in Germany. One fine day, when I was the only Staff NCO from the platoon available, I was informed that the Divisional ammunition inspectors were there to inspect our ammunition and that it all had to be laid out on the ground, grouped by tank, on tarps. (These guys really did perform a useful service. If they found a round from a bad lot they would replace it on the spot, free of charge. We were not given information about bad ammunition lots.) Frankly I had never heard of this before, but . . . whatever. Five tanks, 63 rounds each, each weighing more than 40 pounds. Letís say 12,600 pounds, or 6.3 tons, or 5730 kilograms. Lift them out of their various resting-places and stick them out the loaderís hatch, which is around 3 meters off the ground and required extending the round fully above the head.
I had three other people working with me. One on the fender. A catcher on the ground. And the person who placed them on the tarps. I donít know how long it took to unload all five tanks. The rounds were inspected and then we put them all back. Whenever we did this I was always the man in the turret because it was such a miserable job. Anyway, I had no fear of hauling ammunition after the first time. Maybe it was a guilt thing.
Anyway, I always had high expectations of my loaders because of the things I had to do that I wished they could do for me, like maintaining the appropriate parts of the tank's logbooks. But I wouldnít let them do it even if they wanted to, because it was my responsibility, even when I was the loader on another commanderís tank. Some of the other commanders didnít even know about those parts of the logbook.
Anyway, I was very organized as a loader. I always took my own coaxial machinegun with me, because I knew how bad or good it was. I always took several grease pencils (for marking rounds for the different engagements before firing), a pen, a notebook, a carton of cigarettes, two ham sandwiches, my canteen cup in case chicken noodle soup became available, my overshoes, and my dress winter gloves. The overshoes were left on the outside of the turret. The sandwiches were hidden deep in the turret bustle with the cigarettes and canteen cup. I set up my Ďdeskí on the bottom of the turret behind where my loaderís seat was supposed to be. (It was also stowed outside the turret because I didnít ever feel like sitting down while I was on the range.) I also brought my own CVC (Combat Vehicle Crewmanís) helmet because it ALWAYS worked, or else I fixed it myself.
All of the TCs that I worked with knew enough about me to avoid talking to me while I was building my Ďnestí. I wouldnít have gone anywhere with them if they didnít. I also inspected their log books, fire control system and radios, and rebuilt their gun breeches to my satisfaction. Then I moved as much of their ammunition around as was necessary to get it set up my way.
The bustle rack for main gun rounds held, I think, 15 rounds, which was usually enough to run the course. Those were all I really cared about. If we had to get into the hull racks we were already in deep trouble and would probably be given time to do it right. I pulled every round out of the rack and visually inspected it. Any round that didnít look Ďrightí was replaced by one that did, from the hull racks. The lot numbers of all the good rounds were recorded. After cleaning the entire base of the shell with a Scotchbrite pad (I forgot to say that I also brought one of those with me.) the base of each round was marked by type and the last digit of the lot number with grease pencil. The rounds were segregated by type in the bustle rack. (I hated to load out of the upright racks on the left side of the turret and the three round Ďready rackí under the gun.)
When we finally went down range, I was happy. I wasnít nearly as fast at loading as some people were, but I got the job done, and sometimes fast isnít good. I knew a loader who could keep four rounds in the air at a time when firing at targets beyond 3500 meters from an M60A1, but once he was so fast that his tank commander didnít have time to get the gunner to stop firing when they were aiming at the road in front of them.
Some TCs basically give their gunners control during gunnery if they are suffering from a lack of self-esteem. Iíve seldom seen that work well. The time that I fired two rounds into the road, my gunner had been trained by someone else and did not wait for the command to fire before pulling the trigger the second time.
I doubt that I was ever as good at being a tank commander as I was as a loader. Maybe more people should read the book ďThe Peter PrincipleĒ, which has nothing to do with sex. Being a good tank commander has nothing to do with education or rank or anything like that. Read about Michael Wittmann some time. I would certainly like to if I could ever find anything.
BTW, very few of the things I did at tank gunnery qualification apply to fighting tanks in real war situations.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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