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Upside Down Tank.
Tanks are not really very safe for the people inside of them. The amount of damage they can do to things outside varies. This happened when I was with B 1/33, 3rd AD, stationed at Gelnhausen, FRG, probably in 1978. Iím not sure why I was out in the field with this particular group of tanks. It seems to me that several of the people involved were not from my normal platoon, but we often made up Ďtask forcesí from whatever tanks were available in order to meet mission requirements. Most of the people involved in this will remain forever nameless.
We were stopped on a gently sloping hillside where we had been Ďkilledí during a risky move across open terrain, by Cobra helicopters, and were laid up for the night. I was trying to give my crew a break so I think I was the only one in my crew that was awake. The five tanks were not separated by more than a few hundred meters.
Sometime after midnight I heard a radio call that said something had happened to the platoon commanderís tank. I knew where it was so I woke up one of the other crewmen and then got down and ran off in that general direction. There was no tank where I thought it should be, but I could see track marks in the somewhat mushy ground. I followed them for more than a quarter of a mile until they disappeared over a small cliff, which I hadnít known was there. When I climbed down to the bottom of the cliff I found the tank upside down on top of a lot of rubble. The crew had all survived with fairly minor injuries. The gunner had a broken collarbone but everyone else seemed all right.
We soon had light, from somewhere and I noticed the Battalion commander sitting on a piece of the rubble. He looked like he was crying, but I didnít know why at the time.
Then the nasty work started. The tank had a full load of combat rounds on it (another story) and they needed to be removed in case of fire, etc. Tanks arenít really designed to lie around upside down and this one was leaking diesel and oil all over the place. Both turret top hatches were buried in the rubble and the crew had climbed out of the driverís hatch, I think, but the driverís escape hatch, now on the top of the hull instead of the bottom, was now open. (Considering the weight and awkwardness, that must have required a super-human effort.) There was only room for three people inside and I was unlucky enough to be the second. Iím pretty sure that George Guerrero, another TC, was in there with me (more on him later) but I donít remember who the other person was, possibly Staff Sergeant Talley.
It was a mess inside. The electrical system had been shut down, just in case, so it was pitch black until we found a flashlight. Hydraulic fluid from the gun system was running everywhere, but the worst problem was that the 6 ninety-nine pound batteries, which normally live under the turret floor, were now upside down and above our heads dripping all over us, but slowly. We started pulling rounds out of the turret and hull racks and passing them out through the escape hatch. (This was one time when I REALLY missed having that clever turret side hatch that the Bundeswehr tanks have for discarding spent shell casings.)
It is very hard work to unload all the main gun ammunition from a main battle tank even when it is on its feet. In this case everything in the turret looked and felt wrong. We were standing on the turret ceiling and the third man in the chain was actually sitting on the bottom of the turret ring. Everything was slippery and smelled like battery acid. I could feel minor irritation on my skin after only a short time in there, but we really needed to get those rounds out of there. There was very little chance that they would go off unexpectedly, but they were not the kind of thing you would want to take chances with.
When we finally had all of the rounds out that we could get out we pulled out the coaxial machinegun and tried, once, to get the TCs .50 caliber machine gun out. It was pretty obvious, when the sun came up, why that wasnít possible, because the barrel was bent more than 30 degrees out of line. I had seen tanks hit bridges with the barrel of a carelessly elevated M85s and had never seen anything like that before.
It had been a miserable night and we were sent back to Gelnhausen the next day with the exercise called off. My uniform (this was before armored crewmen wore Nomex, which probably wouldnít have helped.) was in shreds and I itched all over. I think I eventually lost quite a bit of skin.
When the story of what had actually happened came out I was depressed. I always tried to take care of my people and make responsible decisions, but some people apparently donít.
The platoon commanderís tank had a full crew, while most of ours didnít. They had also had their parking brake unlock once during the previous day. The gunner was assigned to take over from the driver near midnight and a few hours later was told to take over radio watch from the platoon commander, in the turret. No one was sent to the driverís compartment to replace him. The engine was running to provide power for the personnel heater, which can be pretty loud.
No one noticed that the parking brakes had unlocked again until the tank had already rolled far enough to pick up some speed. The gunner tried to crawl down into the driverís compartment, which is not readily accessible from the turret with the gun over the front deck, as theirs was, and was actually stuck under the gun when the tank went off the cliff. He was very lucky. Everyone else was in their sleeping bags, which gave them some very necessary padding on impact.
Iíve seen a lot of good platoon commanders, and a few bad ones. Sometimes they make honest mistakes and sometime they do things that anyone with any experience would never think of. This platoon commander was re-assigned to special services, not Special Forces. Basically he handed out athletic supporters at the post gymnasium for the rest of his career. I canít push off all of the blame on him, though, because the gunner was the most experienced person in the crew.
The tragedy was that that Ďpile of rubbleí had been a church built in the 16th century.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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