My first "Searchlight Duty".
   (Ver 2)


One day, during my first real gunnery qualification with B Troop, 1/9 Cavalry, 1st Cav Div at Ft. Hood, Texas, I was assigned to searchlight duty. I had a very vague idea of what this entailed at the time. Naturally, I had a 'pickup' crew because the unit was never at full strength while I was there. My gunner, Spec 4 Scanlon, and my driver, PFC Frederick were trained Sheridan crewmen. My loader, whose name escapes me, was a Spec 4 Scout added to the crew to fill the slot but he had some experience, for the same reason, from a tour in Germany. I was a fresh acting Sergeant and section head of the Sheridan section. I didn't really need to worry about the other two vehicles in the section because, for gunnery, the platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Manuel Mora Zurita, commanded one and the platoon commander, Lieutenant Stuart T. Ashton IV, commanded the other.

I tried all day to find out what I was supposed to do for searchlight duty, without displaying my ignorance, and that didn't work out very well. I knew that it was important because gunnery qualification had a large effect on career progression. I did not want to provide poor service. I had already fired this stage of the course and had not been satisfied with the performance of the crew that illuminated targets for me, even though I didn't know exactly what they were supposed to do. I did know that they were slow to light up, and frequently innaccurate. Trying to find the target within the alloted time, and get a round off had been difficult a few times and I was determined to do better.

In the early afternoon we headed up the road to the mesa where the searchlight position was set up. At the time I was commanding Bagworm which, I think was B-28. Bagworm had a power problem (eventually diagnosed, some time later, as caused by having the wrong type of fuel injectors in one bank of cylinders). The engine was a GMC 6V-53T (six cylinder, V-type, 53 cubic inches per cylinder, turbo-charged, same as a Greyhound bus except for the turbo-charger). Unfortunately, there was also an electrical problem that kept the headlights from working. (We eventually replaced the entire front hull wiring harness and found that the very last wire replaced from the old harness was broken at the connector to the hull, and was the ground wire for the headlights.) Anyway, getting to the top of the mesa was a challenge in itself. There was a short step up sheer rock at the very edge of the mesa, probably less than 6 inches, that we had trouble getting over. The whole trail up to the position was pretty steep.

Once on the mesa, and in our assigned position, we were left pretty much to our own devices. We had the frequency for range control and a call sign and that was it. I asked Sp4 Scanlon, my most experienced crewman, how this was ordinariily done and the response was not what I expected. He said that whenever he had done it before, the tank commander had just hung a piece of string from a convenient spot in the turret so that it passed close to the hull part of the turret ring then made marks on the hull when the gun was laid on the target to indicate azimuth. The marks were labeled with the target number. He said that there was another piece of string hung from the top of the turret that dangled past a mark on the breech of the gun to give the elevation. That didn't make much sense to me because our tanks were equipped with azimuth indicators and elevation indicators both marked off in 'mils'. A mil is 0.05625 of a degree. But what did I know?

As the sun started going down, range control called and started laying us on our targets. I had the whole crew at station and string strung everywhere. Range control was finally satisfied and I thought I had everything under control. Sp4 Scanlon asked me, very diplomatically, how I planned on handling the crew for the night. He said that ordinarily at least one person got a good night's sleep out of searchlight duty and was I planning to be that person? I was horrified.

A leader of soldiers has three missions, accomplish the objective in as timely and efficient a manner as possible, take care of the troops and take care of the troops. Also, no one knew who my crew was, but they knew who I was, a new tank commander with a lot to prove. If I failed in my (inconsequential in the real world) mission, I would be responsible, not them, and rightly so. So I told Scanlon that I would operate the turret and had no need for a gunner or loader. The driver only needed to be on fifty percent alert. In other words, the driver needed to be in the driver's compartment and a light enough sleeper that I could get his attention without making a personal visit with hammer in hand. (We were required to keep most hatches shut while doing this and it did not take me long to find out why.)

So, about 2100, the first tank went down range to fire. It was a disaster and I wish I could apologize to the crew that I gave such bad service to. Range control was all over me for being slow and inaccurate. I'm sure that crew felt the same way I did when I got bad searchlight service. I swore a terrible oath that it would NEVER happen again. Fortunately, we had a break in firing due to cows downrange. (Fort Hood was open range at that time and we were not supposed to shoot at the cows.)

Given the time, I dragged out the M551A1 Operators Manual and tried to find out how this was really supposed to be done. The only thing I could find that was applicable was a section about 'range cards' which I had never heard of before.

Range cards are really cool. They glow in the dark for some time after exposure to light and can be written on with several different types of marker, or even pencils, and clean up nicely afterwards. It has two sides. One looks like polar plot graph paper, and I never found a use for that side, but the other side is blank, allowing a tank commander to exercise whatever artistic talent they might have. The idea is that the tank commander, during the daytime, makes a sketch of possible target areas on the range card and then, with the help of the gunner, collects the azimuth, elevation and range to target data and writes it on the range card, near the drawing of the target, in a specified format. The reason why this caught my eye was that the searchlight data is one of the elements required and is always different from the firing data because the searchlight beam is not affected by gravity or the wind, or the spin of the round.

I was in heaven! I had found a solution to my previous failure! I could get rid of the damned strings which really did offend my sense of order! Unfortunately, range cards are supposed to be made out during the day, and day was long past. So I whined like a small person on the radio and told range control that I needed to re-register because I had a 'broken string'. After at least a minute of silence, they acquiesced.

Whole new ball game! I was in the gunner's seat with the M551 Operator's Instructions on my lap (pretty crowded in a Sheridan) and I was getting numbers for the aiming points on the range card. I had a great feeling of confidence because the system made sense to me and I was sure that it was a tried and true system.

Guess what. It worked perfectly. I was always laid on target before the call to illuminate and I never missed. I feel that there were probably a few other tank commanders who took as much pride in the work as I did, but not enough. I could definitely tell the difference when I was the one firing. At this time there was no requirement for red-light illumination on ranges in the CONUS (Continental United States) but I did red-light in Germany later on and that was a little more difficult.

One thing a tank commander needs to keep in mind is that a fatigued crew does not perform well. Fatigue is one of the worst enemies of tank crewmen. Fatigue leads to mistakes which lead to death. Keep your crew as rested as possible and you will all live longer. Searchlight detail on a qualification range is kind of a cheat because it is not a real war-time situation, but, if your status or rank depend on doing well at the range, which is the case in most military organizations because of the cost of the ammunition, it is a good idea to keep your crew rested, even at your expense, unless you get so worn down that you become inneffective. I finally reached the point where I would put everyone on my crew out of the hull to sleep IN SAFE PLACES, and would do the whole thing myself. I mainly used manual controls both for accuracy and to save the batteries which the searchlight could drain quickly, but a few minutes at high idle every few hours would keep us going as long as nothing electrical that didn't need to be running was kept turned off.

I hope that this isn't getting too long but there were a few other things that happened during this assignment to searchlight duty that I will never forget.

First, we were shot at one night by a Sheridan on the range. This is actually a fairly easy mistake to make because it is very difficult, under some circumstances, to tell which end of the searchlight beam is which. Say that a gunner is looking in a general direction and sees the beam. He's on the clock and must fire as soon as possible. So he follows the beam to the end and pulls the trigger. It might be the wrong end and I can tell you it is very difficult to tell, based on experience. During this gunnery, because we did get shot at, I made a decision that caused some problems years later. I decided that I would never shoot unless I was sure. No 'blue on blue'. If I was ever wrong and should have shot, in a real situation, I was hoping that we would get lucky, but I would not fire at a target that I wasn't sure of just to possibly save my life. Needless to say, I never discussed this with any of my crews except once, at Grafenwoehr, and maybe you will hear about that later.

The other interesting events that occurred during this 12 hour period were that we got to see mortar crews in action, and we had to go back down off of the mesa.

Night gunnery used to include several engagements that were illuminated by mortar flares rather than searchlights. Maybe they still do. Range control released us before firing was over because the tank on the range only needed indirect (mortar provided) illumination. So we drove back to the area where the mortars were set up and found them preparing to depart. Most of their work for the evening had been at relatively short range so they had a lot of excess 'increments'. Increments look like individually pre- packaged cheese slices but are made of a plastic explosive very much like C4. The mortar crews can't turn in the unused increments, so they burn them. C4 and several other plastic explosives like it, are perfect for brewing a pot of tea or warming a cold C-Ration (food) if you treat them with respect. Anyway, these increments were for 4.2 inch mortars and stacked a few feet high when they were lit off. It was a spectacular fire, but I have to wonder if there really was no way to re-cycle them. I'm sure that they were cheap, maybe, but not free.

The other interesting part was getting the Sheridan down off of the mesa. It was early morning and we had no headlights, a weak engine, and brake problems. We pulled up to the edge and I had everyone except the driver and myself dismount. (I had reason to be upset with my driver) I said, into the intecomm, "OK Fred, let's go." Nothing happened. I waited a minute or two and said, "Fred, what's wrong?" He replied, "I can't find my seatbelt." I was reaching a point where diplomacy was not an option that I felt worth pursuing, so I said, "Fred, I don't have a seatbelt . . . you don't have a seatbelt . . . there are no seatbelts in this vehicle. You have two choices. Either go forward, or get out. " We went forward.

Then I saw a flashlight waving in the air as we started to tip and told Fred to stop. I yelled at the nearest person to ask what the flashlight was all about. The reply was that the troop commander, whose name I wish I could remember becaue he was a good commander, was going to 'ground-guide' me down the hill. I said, "It's one thing if the two of us end up dead at he bottom of this hill, but if we hit the CO on the way no one will ever be able to get all of the blood and body parts out of the suspension. Tell him that we don't move until he does." So he got out of the way and we slid down the hill and I would like to say we had a good breakfast afterwards, but that would be a lie.

My thanks yet again to Rory.


  sig - logo