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Armored Cavalry Scout Part I.
This is one of a compilation of items from my time with B Troop, 1/9 Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, Texas in 1975 and 1976.
I was the Sheridan section sergeant in an armored cavalry platoon. Armored cavalry squadrons were, at the time, used as scouts for the division. The squadron consisted of three armored cavalry troops and an air troop. The air troop included a number of helicopters, a ‘Blues’ platoon (air-mobile infantry) and the divisional horse platoon. The horse platoon was actually mounted on horses and equipped according to the 1876 cavalry manual, I think. There may have been some overlap there, but I never really learned much about Delta (Air) troop. It’s interesting to note that the helicopter assault in the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’ was done by helicopters displaying our unit markings. You can see the 1/9 and crossed sabers on the nose of the commander’s helicopter. When 1st Cav was in Vietnam it was a totally air mobile unit. When it returned to the US it was re-equipped as a ‘cold war’ type unit.
The armored cav platoons had 5 M114s, 1 M113, and three M551s when I arrived, but that was to change shortly.
My M551, Bagworm, had power problems as well as an electrical problem with the headlights that took a long time to fix. The engine sounded good but it just wouldn’t go very fast.
Patrick Lavell was in charge of one of the other Sheridan’s and he had figured out how to adjust the engine speed governor of B-29 so that it would do 65 miles per hour across country. That is pretty scary in a tracked vehicle especially since I had seen a Sheridan that had driven into ditch at high speed and split its hull.
Once when we were out on maneuvers we ran into a very large tear gas cloud. It had dissipated to the point where it wasn’t visible but it was still very strong. For some reason I was riding on Lavelle’s bustle rack when we ran into it. There’s always the question when we ran into tear gas of whether it would be less painful to drive through or to try and find our masks and put them on. (This really shouldn’t have been a question because, in a real situation, whatever was in the air probably would not have been tear gas.) Anyway, his driver made the decision for us and took off at very high speed. I was really impressed and hanging on for dear life for a while.
I started thinking that the problem with Bagworm might be fuel related. We didn’t take the Sheridans out very much because they used a lot of fuel. They had three fuel cells that, I think, totaled about 185 gallons in capacity. They were supposed to have a range of 3-400 miles which would give them a fuel consumption of between 1.6 and 2.1 miles per gallon. There were two fuel filler caps, and I had had to replace both of the gaskets that went under the caps shortly after I got it because they were missing. Things get very dusty at Fort Hood, and I was replacing my fuel filters a lot more often than recommended because they became coated with mud pretty quickly. So I convinced myself that I had contaminated fuel tanks. We never drew the tanks down very low on most exercises and the vehicles were not refilled for several days after we got back, usually. It seemed reasonable that the dirt in the fuel would sink to the bottom of the tank and then go back into suspension again when we got out on the tank trails.
So I started my quest to find a de-fueler. I didn’t want to dump the fuel and I was sure that there must be some way to get it out of the tanks and get rid of it in an environmentally friendly way. I talked to the base fuel people and they said they didn’t have anything like that. I talked to the aviation people on base, and they had a de-fueler for helicopters but were not willing to use it because the diesel fuel would contaminate it.
Finally I felt that I had exhausted all reasonable options. The next time we went to the field with the Sheridans I took an extra fuel filter with me. I parked Bagworm on the first day and pulled the fuel tank drain plug. It wasn’t more than half full at the time because I hadn’t taken on fuel the last time the refuelers had been by, but it was still probably about 90 gallons of diesel fuel, and it did look pretty nasty coming out. I then dumped about 20 five gallon cans of water into the fuel tanks through both fillers and let that drain. I replaced the fuel filter and let her sit for two days with the fillers covered with cloth and the drain open. I had told my platoon commander that I had a mechanical problem that I could fix but that it would take a while. The exercise moved far enough away that he couldn’t reach me on the radio, and I guess he forgot about me.
After the two days I contacted him and told him that I was ready to go but very short on fuel, so he sent me a fueler. (I liked that platoon commander although he never stopped harrassing me about being an ex-Marine, or Jarhead as he liked to call me. I wanted him to be able to say, honestly, that he had no idea what I had done if I got caught.) The fueler driver was a little surprised at how much I took on, but apparently didn’t say anything to anyone. I pulled the fuel filter drain plug and let the electric fuel pumps run until most of the air and water was out of the system and the fuel was flowing and then started her up. She started just fine and the engine sounded as good as ever. I reminded myself that I would need to drain the fuel/water seperator frequently for a while but I thought I had finally fixed the problem.
Unfortunately, that was not the case. I’m sure that draining the fuel hadn’t hurt anything but she still wouldn’t go any faster than 30 miles an hour and wouldn’t pull 4th gear at all. So I gave up, kind of.
Every time we came back from the field I’d have her driven over to the maintenance support battalion with the same complaint about lack of power, and every time I got her back she’d be a little bit slower.
Finally, shortly before I was transferred out of the unit, we headed out to the field one day and she got stuck in a gully. She’d had enough power to get over a hill into the gully, but after we got to the bottom, she didn’t have enough power to climb back out, in any direction. It was very embarassing. This was the first time that I ever got towed back from the field. She was dropped off over at maintenance and I was right with her. I told the maintenance people that I didn’t want her back until she was fixed.
I should say here that Bagworm still had the same engine in her that she had when I took her over about a year and a half before. The M551 used a GMC 6V-53T engine. (Made by General Motors, 6 cylinder, V-type, 53 cubic inches per cylinder, with a single turbo charger.) The military used similar engines in many different vehicles in order to make use of common repair parts to reduce inventory, etc. Our retriever, an M578 used the same hull and drive train as several self-propelled guns and had an engine from the same family but it was an eight cylinder and supercharged. The Gamma ‘Goat’, a small amphibious general purpose truck, had an engine from the same family, but it only had one bank of three cylinders and I think it was normally aspirated.
Anyway, it turned out the parts commonality issue had been what caused me all that trouble. My engine had one bank of cylinders with the right fuel injectors in it, and one bank that had fuel injectors from a fork lift engine in it. It would seem logical that that the fork lift injectors had less fuel flow capacity than the injectors that were supposed to be in there based on the power problem. No amount of adjustment in the world would make that engine run right. I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to take her to the field after she was fixed to see how fast she would go. Other than the engine and the headlights Bagworm had been very reliable and generally maintenance free throughout our time together. There was one occasion when she caught on fire at the ammo loading pad during gunnery, but that’s another story.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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