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Armored Cavalry Scout Part II.
When I got to B Troop, 1/9 Cav, 1st Cav Division, in early 1975, annual Sheridan gunnery qualification was in progress. On my second or third day with the unit I was trucked out to the range to provide whatever useful functions I was capable of. As a PFC (E-3) that wasn’t much. Since gunnery was already in progress I couldn’t be assigned to a crew so I think I spent a day or two fixing targets, chasing cows off the range and lying around in the truck.
We finally moved on to a different range that included a moving target and I volunteered to help operate it. (That old saying about not volunteering didn’t seem to apply to me. I volunteered for a number of things and actually enjoyed most of them.) I’ve seen a number of moving target operations since this one, and they were all considerably better designed and maintained. This setup consisted of an unlighted doorless bunker at one end of a set of lightweight narrow gauge tracks, a very much used M151 Jeep with one rear wheel replaced by a pulley, and a target cart with a three-quarter sized plywood side silhouette of a Russian BMP mounted on two by fours. The tracks and bunker were all behind a berm and there was a depression behind the tracks with a small creek bed a few hundred feet farther back. (Don’t forget the creek bed.) If I’m not mistaken, we received instructions from the ‘tower’ by ‘land line'. (TA-312 telephone. I eventually got a lot of experience repairing these in one of my other careers.)
The drill was that the other ‘operator’ and I would be dropped off at the bunker around dawn during the changeover from night fire to day fire. We had ‘C’ rations for lunch and a hot meal for dinner. We stayed there until the last Sheridan had finished its moving target engagement, usually a few hours after midnight. When the phone rang one of us would listen to the tower while the other started the jeep. When the person on the phone gave the signal the jeep ‘driver’ would run the target out to the far end of the track and back in. The engagement was usually for the Shillelagh missile. (On one occasion Sergeant First Class Metcalf gave a demonstration of how to engage aerial targets and fired at a four foot diameter balloon tethered to the target cart with his M2HB .50 caliber machine gun from approximately 1100 yards. It took him less than 15 rounds to hit it. I was extremely impressed. Metcalf was one of the best platoon sergeants I ever worked with and was promoted to First Sergeant before I left the unit.)
Anyway, I enjoyed the work. It certainly wasn’t very demanding as long as the jeep would start. (It had to be replaced once during this gunnery.) I spent a lot of time standing in the bunker door watching the firing. We couldn’t see the Sheridans over the berm but we could hear when they fired and it was interesting to watch the results. The rounds had inert warheads so they would just punch a 6-inch hole in the target if they hit it. More on the Shillelagh later.
There was one exciting moment. A Shillelagh that missed the target hit the far side of the creek bed behind the target and flew straight up in the air for a few hundred feet, then slowly looped back down towards the bunker. I’m not real good at recognizing dangerous situations so I just stood there and watched. The other operator huddled up in the farthest corner of the bunker. The missile hit the ground about 100 feet away from the bunker at a slight angle so that the rear end slammed down and I could see that it was getting pretty banged up but the rocket motor was still firing. It would spin around in a circle for a second or so and the dart off a few feet, over and over again. For some reason it seemed that most of the darting it did was toward the bunker. The rocket finally burned out when the missile was about 40 feet away. I thought to myself, “That was pretty neat.” The other operator didn’t come out of the bunker for the rest of that night and was replaced the next day.
I was exposed to mess hall chicken noodle and vegetable soups at this time, and immediately became addicted.
Shillelagh missiles are interesting devices. They are 152 millimeters in diameter, about 4 feet long, and were optically tracked and received guidance from an infra-red beacon. When they are fired the extractor for the gun is in the up position so that the aft cap can be ejected. We never knew what the maximum range was for them, but I saw a sergeant fire at a target on an adjacent range, by accident, one day and hit a four foot circle on a target panel that I estimated was over a mile away. Most Sheridans didn’t have any kind of range finder at that time so I did my range estimations with my binoculars and did not always get very close, so I’m not sure how far away that panel really was. It was a long way off, though, and he hit it dead center.
I was told that Shillelagh’s cost about $40,000 each in 1975 money. One day I was given the opportunity to fire $320,000 worth down range. The Army was conducting a test to see if there was any difference in missiles that were stored at the five or six different depots in the world. So they randomly selected 10 or 20 missiles from each of the depots and sent them to Fort Hood for firing. My Sheridan’s gun system, the missile part especially, was in good shape so I was drafted to provide a vehicle although initially I was not scheduled to fire. We were required, however, to re-align the missile tracker after every shot, which is a tedious process and the designated shooters soon lost interest with eight missiles left. I was more than happy to take over as gunner. I had fired a few rounds, as gunner, from Sheridans during training, but never a missile. I’m pretty sure that I got 6 good hits, but I had one missile ground itself and another that went about halfway to the target and then straight up. I didn’t see where it came down.
Interestingly enough, shortly after this I was notified that I was eligible for the Meritorious Staff Sergeant board if I wanted to try it. I definitely did. There are usually five members on these boards and each asks questions about a different subject. You never know who’s who until you hear the first question from that board member. The area that I was sweating was related directly to Sheridans because I had a lot of experience with boards and knew the other areas pretty well. The other boards had not usually been at unit level, though, so I had never been asked a question that related directly to my job as a Sheridan commander before. I recognized the fourth member of the board as the First Sergeant of Delta Troop, the Air Troop, that didn’t have Sheridans, so I figured it couldn’t be him that would ask me the Sheridan questions. But finally he was the only one left. I though to myself, “How hard can this be? He surely doesn’t know anything about Sheridans.”
He only asked one question. “How would you align the missile tracker of a Sheridan?” I just about went into shock right there. Tracker alignment involves 20 or 30 steps that have to be done in sequence. We always used a laminated instruction card to take us through the process step by step. I couldn’t believe that he was asking me to go through it without the card but I had just fired those eight missiles a week or so before, and I thought I remembered most of the procedure so I started off. I noticed that he had a copy of the card and was following along with me. Finally, he said, “That’s enough, thank you.” Only that one question. I thought that was very ominous. I thanked the board, about faced, and left. I didn’t have a good feeling.
A few hours later my platoon sergeant told me that I had been selected first of two from 14 applicants. I was amazed, but it gets better. My platoon sergeant took me to the staff club that night, the only time I ever went there, for a beer, and we ran into the First Sergeant from Delta troop that had asked me the Sheridan question. The first thing he told me was that the answer he had expected was that I would say that I would get out my little laminated card and do what it said to do. He said that it was lucky that he had a card in his wallet so that he could follow along with me because he certainly couldn’t do it from memory. He said that he had intended to ask at least two more questions but after I had gone through more than half of the tracker alignment procedure with no notable mistakes, he didn’t think there was any point.
The most interesting part was that he really did know Sheridans, inside and out. He had been in one of the first Sheridan units sent to Vietnam and the Sheridan he commanded was eventually hit by one or more B40 rockets in an ambush. (Remember tht the Sheridans that weresent to Vietnam had the entire missile system removed first, so they could only fire conventional rounds or machine guns.) He was blown out of his hatch onto the back deck and the whole thing was on fire. He couldn’t see and kept trying to jump off the back deck onto the ground but it took him three tries before he finally made it. By then he had some pretty serious burns. That story made me feel pretty humble.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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