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Armored vehicles get dirty in the field. Even jeeps do. No one wanted dirt in the track park, though, so we would always go through some kind of cleanup process before we parked the vehicles for significant periods of time. We might spend a day on the pad before the ‘Birdbath’ became available, but we generally got the vehicles clean as soon as possible because each crew was responsible for a particular area surrounding their vehicle in the track park and dirt was not allowed. I probably spent as much time, even as a Staff Sergeant, sweeping concrete pads, as I did doing anything else. I got to be very good at it. Some VCs (vehicle commanders) felt that it was beneath them, but I never did.
When I was at Fort Hood the local birdbath was not close to our track park and we might have to drive several miles with wet vehicles before we could park. It was best to get in early and let the vehicle air dry as much as possible before heading out on the tank trail again. I guess I learned to ‘get it over with’ there. During M60A1 training and Sheridan add-on training at Fort Knox I had my first experiences with the birdbath. I happened to go through training during the first four months of the year, so it was cold there, and there is no way to stay dry when washing an armored vehicle. (Richard Merrick told me that when he was stationed in Korea they got their tanks washed at a commercial birdbath, by civilians, and were able to stay dry that way, but I was never stationed any place where that was an option.)
A ‘birdbath’ is usually just a big slab of concrete that can hold several vehicles at a time. The one in Gelnhausen could hold a whole platoon of tanks (5). The equipment consisted of shovels, brooms, fire hoses and some smaller hoses usually. The brooms were used to knock the big chunks off. The small hoses were for cleaning the inside where there were numerous items that could be easily damaged by high-pressure water. The fire hoses were for the outside of the vehicle, especially the suspension, and the shovels were for cleaning the pad after the vehicle pulled off.
I have to say a little bit about mud here. There are many types of mud. Some mud is easy to remove and some is almost impossible. From my experience, the impossible to remove type is attracted to armored vehicles like a moth to a flame. I got stuck in the mud, twice, during my career. Once I was on foot and lost a boot and an overshoe and had my hip pulled out of its socket during ‘retrieval’. The other time was in Germany, the first time that Darriel Johnson took Basketcase to the field. We were last tank in the platoon going around a small curve and off the road. The front end slid a little in the mud so that it looked like the left front fender would hit a tree. Darriel stopped, rather than hit the tree, and we were stuck in that mud for three days. After a few attempts at self-recovery and assisted recovery we were in up to the bottom of the sponson boxes, which is about five feet. The hole that Basketcase made and the damage that the retriever did to the surrounding area while getting us out cost the American taxpayers about $60,000 in ‘maneuver’ damages. It took us nearly 14 hours to clean her up afterwards.
I HATE doing this but I have to explain about tank drivers and trees. My first Sheridan driver at Fort Hood had the last name of Garner. Oddly enough, I now have a number of Garners, not related to that driver, I think, in my extended family. Garner would not go anywhere near a tree while he was driving. While we were supposed to be sneaking around in large open areas with one or two trees in the middle, he would park 20 feet from the trees. A good driver is supposed to only need general guidance on how to get from one place of concealment to another. Garner was a great driver, except that he would not go near trees even when they were the only concealment available for miles. One day I had had enough. I saw a lonely mesquite tree in the middle of a large open area. It was about three inches in diameter and mesquite is not hard wood. I told Garner that I wanted him to kill that tree. It took some coaxing but I finally got him headed in the right general direction. We approached the tree at about 20 miles per hour but when we started to get close Garner started slowing down. I yelled, “Go! Go! Go!” but we were probably only going about 10 miles an hour when we hit the tree which was sheared off by the edge of the bow and became lodged in the headlight guard. I didn’t say a word and we drove around for over an hour with that tree sticking straight up, maybe 15 feet, from the front hull. After that Garner had no more problems with trees although I did.
My next driver at Fort Hood, Fast Fred, didn’t know where he was most of the time, so trees were not a problem to him.
My first driver in Germany was named Dennis Viertel and I don’t think he liked me because on our first exercise together he drove me under the limbs of a large tree that were too low for me to fit under. I was slammed into the back of the hatch with a tree limb under my chin and I thought I was going to die. Fortunately, my elbow hit the ‘fire all’ button on the Hoffman device control box mounted inside the cupola for the exercise. Each Hoffman device charge, I was told, has the force of a quarter stick of TNT. All nine fired at once and he had his hatch open. He stopped immediately, jumped up out of his hatch and said some very hurtful things, then noticed that I was in distress already.
My last driver, Darriel Johnson, after getting stuck one time, never got stuck again, and was very good about making sure that he didn’t try to park or drive under anything that was too low for me to fit under. I had a nasty habit of sitting in the ‘autobahn’ seat, which is mounted directly to the turret roof and can only be swung back and forth rather than up and down, and it was hard to get out of in a hurry.
Sorry for the extreme deviation in subject matter. Back to the birdbath.
People did have a tendency to play around a little at the birdbath if they had had a little rest since getting into garrison, but there was never much of that that I saw. The vehicles were usually parked so close together that it didn’t require a sense of humor to light someone else up with a fire hose. It was a miserable job and I don’t think I ever spent less than four hours at the birdbath any time when I was on a vehicle larger than a jeep. In winter, ice was a problem, and things got slippery in a hurry. George Guerrero had his engine pulled at the birdbath once so he could clean out his hull and as soon as his crew turned on the fire hose he slipped on the ice, fell down on one of the torsion bars, and broke at least one rib. (George had very fragile ribs. His best friend was Lonnie Fowler who weighed close to three times what George weighed. Lonnie picked him up in a bear hug once and broke two of his ribs. Then his car slid off the road on ice one day and he broke two ribs. He was a good tank commander, though.)
We would wash everything that we could, including any part of the engines that we could reach without pulling the back deck, and we would end up with hundreds of pounds of mud and other things, sometimes unidentifiable, left on the pad when we pulled off. All of this had to be shoveled into 55-gallon drums for disposal.
To complete the cycle I was assigned to supervise the kaserne’s trash detail one day, but ended up driving because no one else had a current license for a 5-ton truck. One of our stops was the birdbath where we were able to get a crane to lift the 55-gallon drums onto the truck. (Considering my education I should know what 55 gallons of mud weighs, but it escapes me now.) We took them to a local trash dump and emptied them out. Even that was interesting to me because I had never been in a German trash dump before.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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