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The Tank Gunnery Qualification Standardization Committee.
During the winter of 1978-9, while I was in Germany, I was assigned to the 3rd Armored Division Tank Gunnery Qualification Standardization Committee. At the time I was still holding out some hope for being sent to the Master Gunner’s course for tanks at Fort Knox, Kentucky. I probably would have stayed in the Army if I had been allowed to go to that course, but there were already too many Master Gunners in my battalion and I was told that we would not be sending anyone to the course for at least two years.
I must have left unexpectedly because, when I came back several months later, I was told that I had left a partially eaten pizza on the desk in my room. Our barracks building had been renovated over the previous winter, for the second time since 1926 and we had only moved back in a few months before. Especially compared to the ‘bowling alley’ that I had been living in before, my room was very nice. I just didn’t get to stay in it for very long.
I went to 3rd Armored Division headquarters (I can’t remember what kaserne) and reported in to the division Master Gunner. He was surprisingly young, and a Staff Sergeant, as I was at the time. He explained to me that the division commander was concerned about the way that some of the battalions were running their gunnery qualification. At that time the management of qualification was a battalion level affair. The battalions of the division would rotate through the ranges and each one would control pretty much every phase of their unit’s qualification process. There would usually be observers at the ranges from division headquarters, but they didn’t have any real official function or power. Due to differences in training and experience, the battalion operations personnel who did most of the work, didn’t always do it the same way. There had also been some very serious incidents at the ranges earlier in the year when another division was qualifying.
In at least three cases tanks parked behind the firing line had fired on, and hit, tanks on the course road. There were at least 12 people killed, I think. These incidents actually made the 8th Army newspaper. It seemed incomprehensible to me that these incidents were allowed to happen but it is easy to understand the mechanics. Crews get bored on the ‘ready’ line while other tanks are on the course. It could take as much as an hour for a tank to make a complete run and there were always added factors, like weather, or even breakdowns, that could keep a tank on the course all day. The waiting crews couldn’t go anywhere or they might lose their place in line. I usually spent my time making sure that all of my weapons were spotless and all of my ammunition was freshly maintained. I never asked my crew to do any of this, not because I didn’t trust them, but because I wanted them to have as much rest as possible. While I was with the 1st Cavalry Division I had found out that sleep was something I could function without.
Nothing is more embarrassing for a tank commander than to be told that the course is ready, and he can’t find one of his crewmen. So the crews would sit in or on the tank and wait. The gunners, or another of the crew, might decided to get in some ‘tracking’ practice for the moving target engagements, or try to see what type of engagements they would be facing when they were on the course. The problem occurs when there is a live round in the gun. This is a big ‘no-no’ but it is obvious that some people did it, and a lot probably got away with it. Imagine those gunners’ surprise when they pressed the trigger and the gun fired, especially if they were good at tracking.
Anyway, one of our responsibilities was to make sure that there were no incidents like this when 3rd Armored was on the range. We were also responsible for makings sure that the targets were replaced when they were shot up too badly for further use. Some units would use a target past it’s usefulness because they didn’t want to shut down the range, and usually the ranges on either side, while they were replaced. We were to make sure that no one got any special consideration, that the graders were honest, and, in general, that the range was properly run. No extra light for searchlight engagements, no extra time or runs for the moving targets, and a lot of other things like that. To tell you the truth, this turned out to be the most enjoyable assignment that I had in the Army.
The 3rd Armored Division Tank Gunnery Qualification Standardization Committee was a strange little group. Two Staff Sergeants commanded by a Brigadier General. There were not going to be any problems with lack of authority. I liked that general and I wish I could remember his name. He was an excellent pinochle player, and so was I at that time. We had a lot of fun with ops personnel from new battalions.
There were a few times when the other Staff Sergeant and I would work together, but he liked days and I didn’t, so we hardly ever saw each other except for a few minutes at shift change. We didn’t have any ‘blue on blue’ problems because we decided early on that any tank on the ready line that was caught with it’s gun traversed anywhere except over the back deck was disqualified from further firing. Since failure to qualify usually led to tank commanders being relieved at the earliest possible opportunity, this was taken very seriously. We had to disqualify a few officers that thought they were above the rules, and the general backed us up completely. We also checked every tank that went down range to see if there was a round already loaded into the gun. If there was, they were disqualified. I can’t imagine how anyone could think that saving a few seconds on the first engagement is going to make any real difference, but some people apparently thought differently. It apparently became obvious to all of the tank commanders that cheaters get thrown off the range more often than they win. 3rd Armored Division had no ‘blue on blue’ incidents during that gunnery cycle.
I won’t go into the day to day stuff. I got to see a lot of tanks shoot, and I always enjoyed that, except for the time that the brand new M60A1 RISE Passive that had been briefly assigned to me went down range with someone else in command, and didn’t do very well. I did manage to get away with an unauthorized absence when I went down range as the loader for my favorite platoon sergeant. I did not give him any information about the course that I knew like the back of my hand by that time, but he had a really good gunner, and he wasn’t bad either. I think they qualified Distinguished.
I ate a lot of hot soup. I can’t find the words to express how much I appreciated our food services support out there.
There were a few notable occurrences.
We moved onto one of the ranges quite late in the winter and it was very cold and snowy at Grafenwoehr that year. The ‘control tower’ was occupied 24 hours a day while a unit was on the range, usually with a stove blasting. On this range the place was so warm for so long that we ended up with a mosquito problem and had to have the tower fumigated.
Another time I had an experience that most people would probably not want to share. Early one morning I needed to go to the bathroom, badly, and it was not going to be a quick stop. It was probably about 10 degrees Fahrenheit out, and the wind was gusting. The range that we were firing on had a ‘two holer’ and it stayed busy a lot, but I could see a lonely outhouse on top of a small hill on the next range. So I trudged through about a half mile of snow to my objective. I noticed, when I got there, that it didn’t have either a front or a back wall, just side walls and a roof. My need was urgent, though, so I made the necessary adjustments in dress and sat down. Naturally, the seat was so cold that all bowel functions were inhibited for a few minutes, but things eventually warmed up. Then I noticed that the sun was rising over a berm directly in front of me, and it was a beautiful sunrise. I never saw any that could compare until I was stationed at MCAS Futenma, Okinawa, eight years later. Maybe it is difficult for you to imagine, but I was happy at that moment, and it was a moment that I will never forget.
The last incident wasn’t so happy. I had noticed a searchlight tank giving very bad performance one night. It was kind of a judgement call because I could have had it replaced, but preferred to either have the unit take care of it, or the other tank commanders. We were not supposed to allow any actions that would help crews, but anything that a unit allowed to happen that made it harder for the crews, we were told to do as little as possible about. When the other staff sergeant came on duty in the morning I mentioned the tank that had given the bad searchlight service and it turned out that he knew the TC, and didn’t think much of him. Just before I was supposed to go back to the barracks in our jeep, the other staff sergeant called me on the radio and told me to come to the searchlight position. When I got there I found out that the TC had thrown more than 100 rounds of .50 caliber ammunition off the tank into the snow right on the side of the tank opposite the course road. There was no doubt that it had been the searchlight tank that had discarded the ammunition because of the tracks and the fact that it had been the only tank in that position all night. In my opinion, you can’t get much more stupid than that. I picked up the rounds, which were still belted, and took them up to the control tower intending to speak harshly to someone and then go to bed.
The general happened to be there, but I didn’t see him. He heard what I said to the range officer. The next thing I knew, we were in the jeep, with the ammunition, headed for the barracks that the company that had fired that night were staying in. We got there before the crews even got back from the track park. The general marched into the company office with me in tow, carrying the belt of ammunition over my shoulder. The Charge of Quarters, who was pretty young, was the only one awake at the time. The General said, “Son, I want to see your company commander, first sergeant, Master Gunner and battalion Ops Officer, right now.” The CQ made some ‘fish out of water’ faces, so the general said, “I believe that the appropriate response is “Yes, general.” but I will accept “Yes, sir.”” The CQ made the appropriate response and then got on the phone.
When the company commander arrived the general had me hand him the belt of ammunition, and when everyone else got there, he spoke to them at length. I was so tired that I didn’t absorb any of it, but I think I ended up with blistered ears anyway. For the first time in weeks I was actually still awake when the mess hall opened for breakfast, so I pigged out, and went directly to bed.
I hope that no one thinks this was a trivial offense and that the general’s actions were feckless or arbitrary. He had recently returned from a tour in Korea with a tank unit, and Richard Merrick had told me some stories about the things that happened there. Korea is poor in natural resources, and many of the people there are just plain poor. No fault of theirs. They would actually sneak out onto the tank gunnery ranges during firing to try to ‘salvage’ the spent rounds. Any piece of a projectile, any shell casing and even the links that belt the machinegun ammunition together would disappear within seconds after they hit the ground. Unfortunately, people frequently get killed in the process, no matter how careful the tank crews are, and, although I hate to say it, some American crews don’t make any effort to keep it from happening.
To make the story complete, when I finally got back to Gelnhausen, there was someone else living in my wonderful room, and all of my stuff was gone. Many of the people in the unit had never seen me before. We had a new first sergeant that I took an immediate dislike to. I went to the career planner to find out what my options were if I stayed in the Army, and he told me that I didn’t have any options. (I’m not sure if this was because he was a failed tank commander who had been pushed into a full time additional duty or not.) He said that, if I re-enlisted, I would spend another 36 months at Gelnhausen, probably working for the battalion operations section. In other words, no tank to call my own for at least 3 years, and no Master Gunner’s course, and no re-enlistment bonus, and not even a change of duty station.
At the noon formation, the new first sergeant asked me, in front of the whole company, how soon I was going to re-enlist. I told him, in front of the whole company, that he would die long before I would ever re-enlist.
Two weeks later I was discharged at Fort Dix, New Jersey. The only strange thing that happened there was that, although I had cashed in the 72 days of leave that I had accrued, before I left Germany, the proper entries had not been made in my pay book. When I told the clerk at Fort Dix that I had already been paid for the leave he told me that I had two choices. I could either let them pay me for it again, or I could hang around Fort Dix until an investigation was completed, which might take months. He suggested that I take the money and deposit it in an interest bearing account and see if the Army ever found the mistake on its own. I did and they didn’t.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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