Burning Tanks.
   (Ver 2)


This article is a combination of three e-mail messages.

My original message:

The first time one of my tanks caught on fire was at the ammo loading pad a Fort Hood, Texas. The tank was a Sheridan and I was not inside it at the time. It was the incident that I mentioned elsewhere, where there was an electrical fire and I had so much trouble getting the engine back in after the repairs.

The second incident was a lot more serious and not just because of the time and place.

While I was with B 1/33 in Germany, after we had been given permission to maintain a full load of 'black bullets' after many years of empty ammo racks except in the field, Birdbrain (B-13) caught on fire one day. It was an electrical fire near the battery compartment underneath the turret floor and strictly due to poor workmanship on a hull mechanic's part. (I hadn't yet reached the point where I didn't allow them to work on any part of my tank that wasn't sitting on the ground, at least 20 feet away from the hull.)

Electrical fires are nasty because the fumes from the burning insulation are often toxic and because the fire suppression system in the tank is not, oddly enough, designed to deal with them very well. My tank was the second one in from the track park gate. The whole battalion was parked in there, in a 'C' shape, with each vehicle's fenders less than 12 inches from the next, except at the corners. (A little reminiscent of Pearl Harbor, isn't it? Believe me, we didn't learn a thing there.)

I was just locking up and ready to head for the club, a beer, and maybe a game of pinochle, when I noticed smoke coming up from underneath the turret basket floor. I ordinarily did my own battery work because I was very picky about it, but my crew (Darriel Johnson was the only crewman I had at the time) had the mechanics in to replace a battery with a dead cell that day while I was having breakfast. I guess I kind of knew about it, but the coin took an awfully long time to drop.

I intended to inspect the entire under-floor area, if necessary, to see where the fire was, so I had to get out and take the gun out of travel-lock so I could traverse the turret, manually, since I had already shut off the master battery switch.

After I got back in, I opened the access cover in the turret floor and started traversing looking for anything suspicious. I had elevated the gun to maximum to allow clearance over the turrets of the tanks on each side, and had traversed more than 300 degrees, puffing and panting, before I saw signs of flame. It appeared that one of the big battery cables that ran to engine compartment had been jerked around so much that the insulation had worn away and shorted out against the hull.

Anyway, as usual, the hull was at least an inch deep in diesel soaked mud, because we had not been to the birdbath for some time. The mud had caught fire, and I was very thankful that the M60s had diesel engines instead of gasoline. The battery cable was still smoldering.

If I am not mistaken, the M60A1-A3 had four bottles of CO2 for fire suppression. The driver, after breaking a seal, can pull a handle that will fire off the first two large bottles, mainly into the engine compartment, and then has a second shot available, but it is only one bottle. The 4th bottle is the manually operated fire extinguisher that is mounted to the floor near the loader's seat.

I learned a lot more than I ever wanted to know about fire extinguishers during this incident. First I grabbed the manual fire extinguisher and followed the instructions. It didn't. It was totally empty because my merry crew had been using it to cool their soft drinks during hot days in the field, or track park, and never bothered to mention it to me. Next I pulled the driver's first shot, got nothing, and then pulled the second shot. Still nothing. In retrospect, the CO2 must have leaked away over the years. We had those bottles pulled and weighed regularly, and I always accepted the mechanic's judgement that they were full. Until then.

I was running out of options. The fire was still small, but I did not want to see it get to the live rounds that I had aboard. (I think that there were 13 rounds in racks mounted base down on the left side of the gun. The rounds were designed to be fired electrically, but I am sure that sufficient heat would also set them off. Visions of an 'auto de fe' haunted me. 63 tanks gone in an instant and all my fault. Then I remembered that, when I had been taking the gun out of travel lock, the commander of the B-12 tank had been present. I popped up out of the loader's hatch and asked to borrow his turret fire extinguisher. He said, "No."

This was a man that I had worked with for at least 6 months and considered a friend. He just locked up his tank and left. It is quite possible that he had no idea what a mess I was in, but, if he had asked, I would have given him my whole tank, including fire extinguishers.

I am given to fits of rage on occasion. This was one of them. I grabbed my five gallon water can out of its holder and dumped it all over the blaze. I should have been killed instantly and the 'auto de fe' started, but the fire went out after I had ruined a pair of boots stomping on hot stuff and sparks. I dropped down the loader's seat and just sat for a while with not a coherent thought in my mind. I don't think that I have ever been so angry in my life.

There is a little more to the story. It turns out that, when I started getting involved in maintenance management, I found out that fire extinguisher re-fills were scarcer than personnel heater ignitors in Germany. I'm sure glad that the bad guys didn't know that

Eric's reply ( Eric is a former British tank crewman):

We never carried live ammo except on the ranges and sometimes people used the fire extinguishers for cooling beer. We stopped that because you had to get a new one from the technical quartermaster. The tech stores where run by a few guys under the tech qm, a captain who had come up through the ranks, so he had heard all the excuses (and downright lies).

When we had a spell of people using extinguishers up we were told in no uncertain terms that, to get a new one, we would need a note from 2 living popes. Of course the detachable extinguishers (BCF ?) were checked and had to be full or....

We had very few fires. Sometimes Ferrets caught. I never saw a Scorpion catch fire but I donít know why because the rubber fuel bags which were designed to self seal where fitted inside the fuel tank with press studs, but the bags used to come undone and the bottom of the vehicle filled with petrol. You had to pump it out with the hand operated bilge pump and then take the front plate off the inside of the turret from the front of the fuel tank, get your head inside and get the remains of the petrol out with cotton waste. We used two blokes on that, one on top of the turret in watching the other guy in case he collapsed from the fumes.

We had a Stalwart (6 wheeled amphibious truck) come into the elechlon leager one night on exercise. It was full of petrol cans and had smoke coming out of the cargo compartment, so loads of guys hopped on, dropped the sides and starting chucking 5gallon Jerrycans of it like it was going out of style, how no one got brained I do not know. Anyway when all the jerry cans where off it turned out the handbrake had been on a notch and caused the smoke.

My reply to Eric:

That's pretty good about the note from two living popes. I can see how that would be difficult to come up with. I raised such a stink about fire extinguishers after that fire in Germany that the unit had it's first ever fire extinguisher inspection. We found out that there was not a single portable fire extinguisher in the unit that was full. Several of them were also missing important parts. After struggling with the supply and maintenance people for several months the crews started buying their own out in town. For a short period of time most of the people in the unit had personal fire extinguishers, and if they wanted to use them to cool their sodas, that was their business.

Finally we got a new company commander, and this addresses the signature issue also, because he did not inspect the vehicles very thoroughly before he signed for them. When he found out about the fire extinguishers he called battalion headquarters and told them his tanks weren't going anywhere until the fire extinguishers were full. I'm not sure how that turned out because I had left Germany before the dust settled, but he was probably asked to retire early. He also decided to do a thorough inspection of everything he had signed for, and there were some very expensive items missing. In theory, he was liable for them, but I don't know how that turned out either. I know that the old CO was happy to get away un-scathed.

There were two occasions where I saw tanks that I thought were on fire. The first one was a Sheridan at Fort Hood that was zooming across country at night with a flame at least a foot long shooting out of the back deck. Since I had never seen that before I made the natural assumption and chased it down. (Actually it stopped. This was during the time when my Sheridan would only go about 20 mph.) It turned out to be Patrick Lavelle's Sheridan, B-29, from my section. He had just figured out his governor modification that allowed it to go a lot faster than it was supposed to, and the driver liked the effect so much that he had flipped the duck-tail exhaust cover open into the fording position. It was a cheery sight.

The other time was in Germany and one of the tanks from one of the other platoons was leaving a huge smoke trail behind it when it came into view and then stopped and shut down. This time it turned out that one of the turbocharger's impeller shafts had sheared. The outer impeller was just rattling around in the housing after we got the exhaust system disconnected. Unfortunately, this was one of the old style turbochargers that was quite a bit larger than the newer models, the only type of replacement we had at the time. The connections and performance were the same, but that engine looked a little strange until we were all converted over to the RISE engines.

My thanks yet again to Rory.


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