Experimentation Soldier.
   (Ver 1)


While I was with 1/9 Cav, 1st Cav. Div. At Fort Hood, Texas, in the mid 1970s, I was assigned temporary duty as an Experimentation Soldier twice. The first time the experiment actually took place at Fort Hood, when we were testing ‘Tank Crew Degradation due to Lack of Sleep and at Night’, and I have mentioned that test in another article. I should mention that the certificate I received for this test didn’t have anything to do with the actual subject of the test. The second time was a little different.

I had just done one of the worst things that I had ever done. While I was at BNCOC (Basic NCO Course) at Fort Hood, the tank crew people needed tanks for the final exercise. There was a unit on the post, I think it was 1/5 Cav. That had two tanks per crew at the time because of an experiment with the M48A5. (M48 hull with a diesel engine and 105 mm main gun.) BNCOC borrowed M60A1s from whichever unit it was for our training. Imagine a tank, normal crew of four, swanning around with 12 people in it, all saying, “Go that way!” at the same time, while pointing in different directions. Even the driver was from our class and probably hadn’t driven a tank for years. We came upon a razor wire mess left over from some other unit’s training and the TC of the moment decided to show us that the M60A1 was just as effective against wire as it’s WWI predecessors. He was wrong.

We got into the wire and it literally ate up all of the suspension components on the right side (looking from the back). The road wheels, the support rollers, even the track itself, suffered catastrophic damage. Then the drive sprocket on the right side broke completely away from transmission. All of the sprocket mounting bolts on that side had sheared.

It was no longer even a tank. At best it was a very heavily armed pillbox, in the middle of some very open terrain, with, if it had been a real situation, 63 main gun rounds, 6000 coaxial machine gun rounds, and about 1000 rounds of .50 caliber. In other words, a perfect artillery target.

We went back into that unit’s track park ‘on the hook’ (that was the time that I saw the M88 Tank retriever pulling two cross-cabled M60A1s up a steep slope with flames 8-10 feet long coming out of the exhaust. That was IMPRESSIVE.) We all felt bad (Those of us from the BNCOC class) because we had a pretty good idea what it would take to fix that tank. I intended to stay with it until the bitter end. I planned on spending weekends and off-duty time working on it. I was there when the real TC first saw that tank and I will never forget that moment. He was in tears. You would never be able to understand if you haven’t raised a tank from a baby to a real, fully functional tank, and then had it virtually destroyed while on loan. At that very moment, I received my orders for Fort Hunter-Liggett. Considering what happened during the first 45 days there, I should have been at Fort Hood.

I was sent to Fort Hunter-Liggett, California, by way of Fort Ord to test the effectiveness, especially the visibility to a buttoned up armored vehicle crew, of an artillery dispersible anti-tank mine. In many ways this trip was a real fiasco, but there were some memorable moments.

The first one was when I was spit on, for the first time, by civilians at airports because I was wearing a uniform. Even the Hari-Krishnas refused to have anything to do with me. This was just after the Vietnam ‘Police Action’ ended and I realize that feelings were high, but I was not a happy person. The American people select their government, sort of. The Government is supposed to do what the voters want or else they end up looking for jobs. When the people that the voters have elected can’t figure out a way to solve a problem, they send in the military. I had always assumed that being sent to solve a problem by the American government implied that the voters would support the decision. Wrong-O.

When I got to Fort Hunter-Liggett I was informed that, through no fault of my own, I was 45 days early for the test, and that it was not in the Army’s best interest to send me back to Fort Hood for the 45 days. There were a few other people from the Cav that arrived at the same time and we were assigned to a living space that, in my opinion, was less hospitable than a tent and probably older than any tent in existence. The walls were wood up to about 4 feet and screen above that. Fine for warm conditions, but it was not warm. The floor was made of poorly poured concrete with a definite slope to it, which was good because the kerosene tank for the heater leaked badly and there were usually about 3 centimeters of kerosene covering the floor in one of the corners. Yes, we did smoke in there. Cavalrymen are better known for bravery than intelligence.

We went to work the first day and were assigned to sleep on a hillside overlooking the track park. Tough duty. The weather, during the day, was beautiful. We were fairly high up in the mountains, though, so the nights were often bitterly cold. After the second day, we didn’t go back. I didn’t wear a uniform for the next 42 days. No one noticed.

I was a Sergeant at the time and got along very well with a Corporal who was also from the 1/9 Cav. He was quite the ladies man and soon had a temporary lover who owned a small pickup truck. We drove up and down Highway 1 for days. The scenery was breathtaking. Fort Hunter-Liggett is ‘next door’ to a national park and that whole section of the California coast is just un-believable. We went to Monterey a lot to watch the sea otters and try out the many fabulous restaurants (I remember Bouillabaisse and being served with wine while standing in line to get into a restaurant on Fisherman’s Wharf. Go there some time. It’s definitely worth it, or was then.) and other attractions. It was probably the longest vacation I have ever had. There was a place called the ‘Barrel House’ along the highway that looked just like a barrel except that the front was mainly glass. They sold barrel furniture and you got cheese and crackers just for going in. The Cavalry prefers ‘ham and baby ears’ though, so we seldom went there.

On post we were allowed to eat at the officers club, for a fee, because there were not enough officers assigned to the post to keep the mess going otherwise. There was an enlisted men’s club, a Staff NCO club and an Officer’s club. After I found out that the Staff NCO club only served Bloody Mary’s made with clamatoe juice, I didn’t spend much time in there except for Wednesday nights when ‘dancers’ from ‘the valley’ would appear to entertain us by dancing on the pool tables, usually wearing nothing but a smile. One of them was, I think, one of the most perfectly built women that I have ever seen.

Finally, the vacation ended and we had to go to ‘work’. The whole concept was that we would drive ‘buttoned up’ (all hatches closed) M113s through valleys that may, or may not, have artillery dispersed mines in them. We were supposed to try to spot the mines through the M113’s vision blocks and avoid them. The M113s were equipped with tubular antennas that were attached to the front end, to detect the mines when we ran over them. (The real mines did not have transmitters in them.) We also had devices similar to a Hoffman device on the right front (viewed from the back) that would fire a colored smoke charge when we were ‘killed’. It was actually rather tedious but there were moments.

Once my driver refused to drive buttoned up so I took over for him. I had probably only gone about 30 meters when we ‘popped’. It took me a few meters to stop because I just could not believe that I hadn’t seen the mine. We popped the door in the cargo ramp and I could see both of them plain as day, between my track marks. We were thoroughly ‘dead’. The mines were hard to see because they were painted to match the terrain. The production models, as I understand it, only come in five or six different colors. The mine itself was probably a little more than 7 inches in diameter, since it was supposed to have been fired from an 8-inch howitzer, and was about half that tall. I tried a few more times and didn’t have any better success at detecting them, which is probably a good thing. The real ones are set to self-destruct after a set period of time in order to avoid ‘blue on blue’ confrontations.

One of the other noteworthy things was that everyone else in the crew I was with died within two years. We got lost one day and drove over some wire into a place that we were not supposed to go. There was a rumor that Fort Hunter-Liggett had been used as a testing area for persistent chemical or biological agents many years before. I have no idea, although it seems extremely unlikely because the land belonged to the Hearst publishing family and was leased, as I understand it, to the American government in perpetuity in lieu of some taxes. If the Hearsts ever had any idea about re-occupying the area they would never have let it be used for NBC tests. Anyway, when I tried to contact the other people that I had been there with, after I got out of the Army, I was told that all seven were dead, and that none of them had died of natural causes. Hmmmmm.

The final noteworthy thing was that I was promoted to Staff Sergeant before I left there. I knew that I had been selected after the meritorious board that I have mentioned, but the Army works in strange ways, and you never know when the actual promotion will take place. We (the M113 personnel) were assigned to a tank battalion for the tests. They ran the course alongside us. I got to meet the battalion commander on several occasions, and he apparently decided to keep an eye out for me. One morning, at formation, he asked me if I felt like being promoted that day. He said the orders were in and he could do it if I wanted him to. (Actually he said that he was going to promote me, whether I wanted him to or not, because it would be good for morale.) So, in front of an entire battalion, and I can’t even remember which one it was, I was promoted to Staff Sergeant. After I got out it took me 10 years to get that rank back. Of course, I spent another 2 ˝ years as a Staff Sergeant and was eventually selected for Sergeant First Class, but got out instead, and there was a civilian period of 4 years as well. I guess that cuts it down to 3 ˝ years.

My thanks yet again to Rory.


  sig - logo