I went back to Fort Stewart after basic training and began A.I.T. (advanced individualized training) in armor, while awaiting orders for officer candidate school.
Armor means tanks, and since I had finally been permitted to learn to drive my mother’s 1959 Cadillac, just a year before, I felt perfectly comfortable behind the wheel of a M48A1 Patton tank.
Technically, a tank doesn’t actually have a steering wheel but is operated by means of two pedals about a foot tall and ten inches wide and two big levers, one for each hand. The right pedal, if it can be called that, for it is more of a large metal plate akin to a skillet, is for the diesel fuel and the left pedal is for the brake.
It takes two hands and two feet to drive a tank.
The two levers operate the treads. When you pull back on the left lever with your left arm, it locks the left tread, but not the right tread, so the tank moves toward the left. When you pull back on the right lever with your right hand, it locks the right tread and the tank starts to move to the right.
Both levers are spring-loaded and the tank moves straight ahead if one or the other of the levers is not engaged.
The driver of a tank is seated in a metal seat with some padding, fortunately, way down in front and off center to the right of the tank as you are facing it. When the hatch is open, the top of the driver’s head clears enough of the body of the tank to have an unobstructed view of the road– or path– the tank takes. Small trees, scrub brush, boulders, ditches, small ponds, military vehicles and buildings of various sizes do not qualify as obstructions to a tank. Top speed is about 50 miles per hour and the tank weighs about 40 tons. Tanks do not stop on a dime. Or a quarter.
If I remember correctly, a 4-man tank crew consists of a tank commander, an assistant commander to operate the .50 caliber machine gun and to help load the ammunition, a gunner to fire the cannon, and a driver to keep the tank moving. It’s important to keep a tank moving because a tank is a big target— and it’s harder to hit a moving target. You don’t want to get hit by hostile enemy fire, even if you’re in a tank–and especially if you’re in a tank– because of what’s called “spalling”—that’s when an enemy projectile of one sort or another strikes the outside of the tank causing the metal parts inside the tank to break off and ricochet around inside the tank killing the crew.
Also, you are subject to being burned alive inside the tank by “Cherry-Juice”, or hydraulic fluid that could spew out were the tank to be hit in certain vulnerable places by enemy fire.
When I heard this, any sense of security I had regarding tanks quickly evaporated.
If the hatch is closed, the driver “sees” through a series of periscopes and has the added “advantage” of having a radio headset built into his helmet, so that the tank commander, who presumably has a better view of things, can issue orders. Having a TC yelling at you, over the rumble of the treads, as you hurtle through space at 40 miles an hour, at night, while peering at the road ahead through a periscope is the ultimate “backseat driver” experience.
I know, because it happened to me.
We were doing night-exercises. My only instructions were to follow the tank in front of me. Seemed simple enough. But I have never been especially good at following simple instructions.
I was to keep my eye on the dual tail lights of the leading tank.
As long as I could see the two tail lights as distinct, separate lights, I was the right distance from him.
If on the other hand, I fell too far behind when following, then the tail lights would appear as a single red light and I was to speed up. This was important, because there would be other tanks following me. You want to stay together, especially at night. It gets dark out there and, besides, there are no rear-view mirrors on a tank.
We rumbled off into the darkness– and for a while anyway, things seemed fine.
I peered through my periscope with my feet on the pedals and my hands on the levers. I could see the two lights of the tank in front of me quite distinctly. I have always been prone to daydreaming. I’m easily distracted and I confess, I don’t remember exactly what I was thinking about as we lumbered down the road that night at 40 miles an hour, but I do remember that suddenly the two little red lights in front of me seemed as one.
The next thing I knew, I was receiving orders from the TC over my headset. I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, due to all the noise of the treads and the static of the radio, but somehow, I knew he was talking to me. It sounded like, “….ERWAA-DIZZGUT-AHHREAAA!”
I wasn’t quite sure how to respond, so I eased up on the gas pedal thinking that with less engine noise and tread noise I would be able to understand him better. I also spoke to him over my headset.
To which he repeated whatever it was that he had said before: ““….ERWAA-DIZZGUT-AHHREAAA!!!!”—but in an even louder and more urgent tone this time.
I still didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me.
While I was trying to figure out what to do next, I became acutely aware of someone approaching from behind. It was the TC. He had left his position up in the turret and climbed down to where I was in the front of the tank. He grabbed me by the right shoulder and said in plain English,
“You’re too far away from the other tank”. Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but you get the idea.
Shortly after that, I was transferred out of the tank corps and sent back to Fort Jackson where I started over again in Advanced Infantry Training. I didn’t really mind, though, as I thought I would be a smaller target as an infantryman than I had been as a tanker. I did miss driving that tank, though.
You can’t mow down trees in a Cadillac.