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Driving Main Battle Tanks.
Over the years that I was in the military I drove many different types of vehicles. Probably the most challenging were Main Battle Tanks or MBTs. I was given a little experience driving during my training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and somehow I decided that I liked it. (I didnít need to worry too much about weather at that time.) I didnít get another chance to drive an M60A1 until I got to Germany, several years later, and by then my rank pretty much disqualified me from being assigned as a driver, but opportunities do present themselves, and I took advantage of every one that I could.
During normal times a tank driver is concerned with maintenance more than anything else. We were told, during training, that for every hour we spent in the field we would need to perform between 20 and 40 hours of maintenance. I hope that this number has dropped considerably with the newer vehicles. On an M60A1 the driver is supposed to be responsible for fluid levels, track tension, suspension maintenance, air cleaner maintenance, battery maintenance, general cleanliness of the hull and suspension, and whatever else is necessary to keep the tank ready to move. We were always short of crew, and I had a tendency to micro-manage, so my drivers didnít have a rough life, I think. I apologize for being a micro-manager, but the tank commander is ultimately responsible for everything that does or does not happen to a tank, and I didnít put enough faith in my people.
The actual driving part, in good weather, is pretty straightforward. The M60A1 had 5 or 6 gauges that didnít get looked at very often, an automatic transmission with two speeds forward, one in reverse, a park position, and a neutral position that was not the same as the neutral position in a car. This was actually the neutral-steer position. If the transmission was in neutral and the driver moved the ĎTí handled steering tiller bar to the left, the right track would spin in reverse, and the left track would spin in forward allowing, literally, turning on a dime. This had to be done at a halt in order to keep things from getting broken, and the engine RPM and the quality of the surface determined the speed of the turn or pivot.
We took pride in being able to park our tanks parallel with less than 6 inches between fenders. This was ordinarily done with a ground guide, but after Darriel Johnson, my usual driver in Germany, and I had worked together for a while, I could do it from my cupola. You have to keep in mind that the driver can see very little from his position in an American tank. Our tanks did not have rear view mirrors at the time, and may still not. Most of the time on the road was spent with the gun in Ďtravel lockí, traversed to the rear and bolted down into a collapsible cradle to reduce wear on the hydraulic system and trunnions, probably. This left a space with a height of about two feet between the top of the hull where the driverís hatch was, and an indentation in the bottom of the turret bustle to allow for tall drivers. The turret bustle extended to within a few feet of the front of the hull, and the driverís hatch was located far enough back that vision of anything more than 90 degrees from the direct front was pretty much impossible. Because the driver could not raise his seat far enough to get his head very far above the hull he could not see anything less than five feet tall on either side unless it was more than 20 feet away. The reason for not being able to raise the seat very high is that drivers lose their heads that way.
The M60A1 had a semi-circular driverís hatch that weighed more than 100 pounds. To open it, a latch is released inside, which allows torsion bars to Ďpopí it up a few inches and it can then be slid off to the driverís right and latched into place. The mechanism for this is at the rear of the hatch. I mention this because, once when Darriel and I were passing a squadron of Sheridanís during an exercise, they had the right of way, and we had to pull off the road onto a sloping hillside to pass them on the right. The tank suddenly stopped. It was dark and I didnít have a map, so I was concerned about staying close to the tank in front of me. After about a minute I called Darriel on the intercom to ask him what was wrong. He didnít answer for some time, and I was getting worried. We didnít talk very much even after quite a while together, but this meant that when either of us did talk, the other usually responded promptly. After I asked again, and was preparing to get out to see what was going on, Darriel finally responded that everything was all right, and we started to move again. I didnít find out what had actually happened until a casual conversation with one of my Ďpick-upí crewmembers revealed that apparently Darriel had not got his hatch latched in the fully open position. When we went up on the hillside the hatch slid downhill, towards him, and slammed his head into the left side small end of the hatch opening. He was wearing a CVC (Combat Vehicle Crewmanís) helmet at the time and I am not sure whether he would have survived otherwise.
As I have said before, a person who really plans to die of old age seldom becomes a tank crewman.
If the tank doesnít get you, the weather might. I donít know how many times we went out on the roads from Gelnhausen on snow and ice. A tank on ice is just about as controllable as a bowling ball. Iíve seen them slide sideways off of steep crowned roads while at a dead stop. I once saw an M88 Tank Retriever slide sideways about 20 feet through someoneís front yard and knock down the front of their house. (We could see them inside, watching TV and no one was hurt.) Being in a tank that starts to slip or spin on ice gives one a very bad feeling. Iíll tell you what happens when a tank gets turned upside down a little later.
Something that bothered me more than snow and ice was frozen mud. I mean frozen rock solid. We ran into some of this at Wildflicken once after a particularly cold night. If one or both tracks fall into a rut made by another tracked vehicle and that had frozen solid; an inexperienced driver can strip the tracks off the tank in seconds by trying to turn abruptly out of the rut. Even in good weather getting a set of tracks back into their proper places can be a nightmare. Iíll mention an instance of this later as well.
So we had a tendency to creep around on ice like old ladies when the weather was bad. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didnít. One of the worst things that I ever saw happened on the autobahn in bad weather and illustrates another problem. We didnít really have any protection from the weather during road marches in the winter. Frequently we didnít even have working personnel heaters, and there are no windshields. The driver will keep his head out as much as possible, especially on the autobahn, unless the cold really gets to him, and I would never allow a driver to button up on the autobahn. I would take his place first. Some TCs donít feel that way. Anyway, we were crossing a high bridge on the autobahn on ice and with blowing snow. I was behind a tank retriever from another company, which wasnít towing anything and didnít have a head sticking out of the TCís hatch. A yellow Volkswagen passed me and hit a gust of wind in between vehicles, so it steered to the right. As soon as the body of the retriever blocked the wind effect it went right into the rear sprocket of the retriever. The end connectors grabbed it and sucked it in, and the sprocket just ate it up. The retriever driver didnít even notice anything wrong for a while. There really wasnít anything recognizable after a few seconds.
On snow and ice, tanks are not a friendly place to be. Even the smallest task can have unexpected bad results. On that same trip to Wildflicken we were getting ready to head back to Gelnhausen, or maybe to the railhead. It was early morning and I was tired, freezing and generally not at my best. I got back to my tank after a meeting and found that my TCís hatch had frozen shut. Not thinking clearly' I grabbed water can and dumped it on the hatch to try to thaw it. The water froze instantly. I became angry, not a good thing in this kind of situation, and opened a sponson box to get out a sledgehammer. I pounded on the offending hatch, and, as it happened, it popped open after the third strike. At that point I happened to notice that the company First Sergeantís jeep was parked along side with First Sergeant Jack Anderson probably getting the first undisturbed sleep he had had in two weeks. Unfortunately, metal on metal, three times, is one of the signals for a chemical attack. I saw him get out of his jeep put on his gas mask, and immediately go back to sleep. No, I never told him I was the one that did that.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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