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Tank Crew Training.
I went through M60A1 training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, in 1975. It was very interesting to me because I had been fascinated by tanks for a long time. There was the normal training course garbage with inspections and work details, but we spent a lot of time with the vehicles.
I have to mention here that the buffer assigned to our floor of the barracks, for polishing floor wax, was broken during this whole course. As the trainee platoon sergeant I assigned everyone an area of the floor that was theirs’ to take care of. We used Johnson’s wax, even though it is flammable and it was against regulations to have it in the barracks, and took care of our areas by hand. (This was the first of many times in the Army, and later in the Marines, where we bought things with our own money that we needed to keep things looking good either because they were not available through the supply system at all, or were just out of stock at the time.) Yes, I had my own area of floor, and it always looked good. Unfortunately, this led to a few confrontations between people for walking across ‘their’ area of the floor. I quickly went to the Japanese system where no trainees were allowed to enter our platoon area if they were wearing boots.
The training at Fort Knox, in my opinion, left a little bit to be desired. I think that the main thrust was to get us used to being around and inside tanks without being a menace to ourselves or anyone else. We learned a very small amount of basic maintenance and a lot about how to clean machine guns. We were each allowed to drive a few miles and taught the wrong way, in my opinion, to re-install an escape hatch in deep mud. We were taught how to check fluid levels and track tension. We were not really exposed to the harsh realities of real maintenance. Even when we went to the ‘birdbath’ to wash the tanks after they came out of the field the first time, there were people waiting in line to hold the hoses. It was different the second time, of course.
When we started gunnery training, things changed. We were only trained for the loader and gunner positions because we never fired from a moving tank range, so all the driver needed to do was make sure that the batteries didn’t run down. We started off with in-bore laser devices, to give us confidence. The TC, an instructor, would set the range and we would (b)lase away at various reflective targets. No need to compensate for windage or range and the laser gave a two or three second burst so we could see where we were hitting.
From there we went on to a range where we used in-bore .22 caliber (short) rifles to fire at rubber cutouts of armored vehicles. We were only 20 feet away from the targets so they had to be pretty small and they were just thick enough to stand up by themselves, on edge, on sand. When they were hit they would usually at least fall over, but the small amount of actual damage meant that the targets could be used for quite a while. We were getting pretty familiar with the controls for the gun and the sights by this time. We had also had extensive training in range safety.
After that it was time to fire real bullets. At first it was only with the coaxial machine gun. Somehow the armorers at Fort Knox kept those raggedy coaxes working well enough to give us the false impression that they ordinarily worked rather than the truth, the opposite. This was still ‘sub-caliber’ firing.
Finally, we went to the range to fire the main guns. This wasn’t much like a real gunnery, in retrospect, since we were sleeping back at the barracks most nights and receiving hot food at least once a day. The excitement was there, though. We each got to fire at least one round during the day and one at night. We also had demonstrations of what the M85 .50 caliber machine gun could do in skilled hands. Very nice. My two rounds hit somewhere, possibly a target, so I was happy, but we were firing at panels instead of hard targets, and I have always had difficulty recognizing hits on a panel. People say that the tracer ‘winks’, if it goes through the panel, just before it hits the ground and goes flying off somewhere at an angle. I have seen a few winks, but not from rounds that I fired.
My most memorable moment from that main gun shoot was, naturally, when I did something stupid. There were a lot of trainees firing that night which means a lot of empty shell casings rolling around on the turret floor, which is not a good idea. When each three-man group mounted the tanks during the changeover periods, the first task was to clear away the ‘brass’. (The shell casings were actually made out of aluminum at that time.) It was the duty of the people who were not firing to sneak up between the tanks, which were firing from a concrete pad, and haul the empties away. Early in the morning I noticed my people slowing down. I had been up to get shell casing a number of times, even though I was the trainee god, but I thought they needed one more motivational example, so I sneaked up between two tanks and grabbed two shell cases, and then both tanks fired within seconds of each other. When I said it was like ‘nothing’ when the gun fired, I meant on the inside. On the outside things are different. I had honestly never had a ‘ringing’ in my ears before. I lost my night vision completely from the muzzle flashes. I was stunned.
I think that either something had gone wrong in one of the tanks or the TCs were tired and having a little fun because we had avoided doing this kind of thing before. It can really screw a gunner up if a tank right next to him fires just before he does because the muzzle blast can blind you for a second and the dust will probably obscure your target for a short time. Anyway, I was a lot more careful at picking the times that I would retrieve shell casings after that. We only did that during training, by the way. After that we were either responsible for picking up our own ‘brass’ or we stuck the empties back into the racks.
Some people have asked me what it is like when the gun fires. It is hard to say because I was usually so keyed up, but my general impression was that it was like nothing. When I was a TC, I could often see the breech go back out the corner or my left eye, and, if I had my hatch open, I would feel something like a light pat on top of my CVC (Combat Vehicle Crewman’s) helmet. Especially with the helmet on, there wasn’t much noise, and the vehicle didn’t move very much. Blade tanks moved even less. What I saw was the thing. My sights would go dark from the smoke, but I could see the muzzle flash. After the smoke cleared a little I would see the tracer from the round wiggling and wobbling off down range. I could even see how the prevailing wind affected it although things were still a little hazy from blown up dust and the smoke. Finally, the round would either hit, or not. If it was a hard target (old armored vehicle carcass) and it hadn’t been chewed up too badly, there would be a nice ‘spark’ when the round hit it. It is quite possible to shoot straight through the holes in a hard target that has been on the range too long, without hitting it. When I was a grader I always kept track of the status of the targets so I could tell the TC that the middle of the target was gone, or whatever, but that people had been getting good sparks off of some other part of it. That was actually more challenging for them than aiming at the center of mass, and it made it a lot easier for me to score them.
I remember that I was stopped out on the course once for the replacement of a hard target that had literally been shot to shreds. I got the first shot at the new one. I got a spectacular secondary explosion from it, very unusual, because apparently the fuel tanks had not been drained as they were supposed to have been. It was a TPDS-T engagement at about 1600 yards. (TPDS-T stands for Target Practice Discarding Sabot with Tracer. The Target Practice part meant that it had an aluminum penetrator rather than tungsten carbide, which allowed us to get the same trajectory with a much-reduced powder charge and consequently much less wear on the gun tube.)
I was the Honor Graduate from my class at M60A1 School and went straight on to Sheridan Add-On training, which only lasted a few weeks. The majority of the training was very much like M60 training except for the way that the Sheridans kicked when they fired. We only fired conventional rounds during our training, but there was one missile fired for demonstration purposes.
We also got a demonstration of the 152mm flechette round that was very impressive. The M60A1 had a round called ‘Beehive Time’ at the time, for use against troops in the open. I’ve never even seen one except in training. In use the TC would range to the troops and call it out to the loader who would adjust a dial on the nose of the round accordingly. When the round was fired it would stay together until a few hundred feet before it reached the set range and then explode, dispersing 5000 flechettes which are knitting needle sized and semi fin stabilized, I think. They could, supposedly, go though light armor and cover an area of maybe 100 square yards. I would not have wanted to be there when one went off.
The anti-personnel round that the Sheridan fired was considerably different. With a maximum effective range for conventional rounds, of about a thousand meters, and a minimum arming range of about 300 meters, there was no need to add the capability to select a bursting range, unlike the M60’s beehive round that could be fired out to 4200 meters. The Sheridan’s round looked like a big shotgun shell and held 10,000 flechettes. For the demonstration one of these was fired at a hillside that had been sparsely covered with tethered balloons about a foot in diameter. I think I saw one balloon intact after the round was fired out of what must have been a hundred. I was told that there usually wasn’t even one. We also watched the only firing of the smoke grenade launchers, mounted on the turret, that I ever saw. Yes there was lots of smoke but I was told that these things were statistically proven to be more dangerous to the vehicle than anyone outside it.
The fun part was when we took our Sheridan’s ‘swimming’. We went to a lake one day and started preparations. We removed all of the hull access plates and greased the O-rings. We put fresh grease in all of the wheel hubs. Then we started raising the ‘flotation barriers’. If you look at a picture of a Sheridan it will probably have a rounded edge all around the top of the hull except in the front where there is an extra aluminum plate stowed against the front deck. The rounded part is actually a set of rubber flaps that cover the flotation barrier. The plate in the front is the bow shield, or something like that, but we called it the ‘surf board’. It has a Plexiglas window in it about four feet above the front deck (Remember that.). After all of the straps holding down the rubber flaps are released, the bow shield is raised and braced into position with a set of braces that are usually folded up and hidden underneath it. After that, the side skirts are erected and are held upright by additional hidden braces made of aluminum tubing. The rear skirts are the last to be raised and the outlet tubing for the bilge pumps is strapped to them. The other end of these tubes is plugged into the bilge pump outlets in the back of the hull after the protective flaps have been raised.
Sheridans should only go into water from gently sloping ramps. They don’t really swim all that well, but they do not dive well at all. Motive power is provided by the tracks, which have enough contour to get a tenuous hold on the water. This is where the ‘water steering’ option comes in. When in water steer, unless the steering ‘T’ bar is centered, the tracks are counter-rotating. To turn to the left, the right track goes full ahead and the left track goes into full reverse. Each of us trainees got a chance to try each of the four crew positions used during this evolution, if we could swim.
The driver is the only one inside the hull, normally, during swimming. The surfboard in the front is so high that the main gun can not fire ahead. A Sheridan will definitely do a crocodile death roll if the main gun is fired over the side while it is in the water, and it would take someone much braver, or stupider, than I am to fire over the back deck while in the water. The TC sits in the chicken box and gives the drive directions because the driver can’t see anything except water that is half way up the Plexiglas plate in the surfboard and a little bit of sky above the water. The gunner stands by the loader’s hatch in the case that rapid re-entry is necessary, and watches the bilge pump outlets. If one stops pumping water out, or starts pumping out more than normal, it is a good idea to head for shore. The loader sits on the bustle rack and stares down into the engine compartment through the opened grill doors. We were told that if the water ever got up past the exhaust manifolds on the engine we were getting ready to “Dive! Dive! Dive!”
I liked swanning around in the water so I took the places of several people who said they could not swim. I drove once, but mostly I played gunner. I kept an eagle eye on those bilge pump outlets. After four outings I hadn’t really noticed any increase in flow when the loader of the moment asked me where the ‘exhaust manifolds’ were on the engine. I stared into the engine compartment in horror. The water was nearly up to the valve covers. The driver, who must have been getting pretty wet by then, didn’t say a word.
I seem to remember keying the intercom and saying something like, “Sir, I respectfully submit that the water in the hull is at an uncomfortably high level, and, with all due respect, I feel that we should head for the nearest dry ground, expeditiously.” Well . . . something like that. I wasn’t worried about drowning but I would have hated to see that lovely (not) piece of machinery sink, especially because I was pretty sure that I would not graduate until it was cleaned up.
We made it to shore, and I graduated, once again, (I had been the trainee company sergeant this time.) as the company Honor Man. It had been an interesting few weeks. The platoon got together and sent a delegation to the exchange to buy the makings for Italian submarine sandwiches and we pigged out. It was a good group of people, but I never saw any of them again.
I have never before thought about any possible connection between my recent experience and the sandwiches. I hope that no one takes offense, as none was intended.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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