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My First Tank Gunnery Qualification.
This took place a Ft. Hood, Texas, in 1975, while I was with 1/9 Cav, 1st. Cav. Div. I had really enjoyed gunnery training when I was going through tank crew training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Unfortunately, I would not be assigned to any of the crew positions that I was familiar with. Instead of being a gunner, loader or driver, which I knew something about, I would be the vehicle commander, which I knew very little about. I'm not sure what my rank was at the time. Anyway, I had just been made section sergeant after having been selected as Honor Graduate from the local Sheridan crewman school. ( I should have mentioned that my unit had three M551 Sheridans per platoon in three of it's four troops.)
I should also mention that the Sheridans didn't go to the field very often because of the amount of fuel they used. Mine was named 'Bagworm' and the vehicle number was B-28. The other two were B-27 and B-29 commanded by the platoon commander and platoon sergeant, respectively. This numbering system was considerably different from the numbering used in M60 units partly because their were 9 vehicles in the platoon.
There were a number of things that happened that I will probably never forget.
It had only been a few months since the last time that I was in a Sheridan when it fired, but I had completely forgotten how they kick. M551s weighed 15 or 16 tons at the time, depending on whether they had a belly plate mounted or not. The 'gun' was actually originally designed as a launcher for the Shilleleagh missile, as I understand it, but Shilleleaghs do not have any real short range capability and are also very expensive. So the guns were designed to fire 'conventional' rounds as well. They were actually kind of unconventional because they had combustible cartridge cases. The caliber of the gun was 152 millimeters and I believe that, even with a relatively short barrel, they had a muzzle velocity of more than 1000 feet per second. M60s, on the other hand, weigh 56-60 tons and have a 105 mm gun with a muzzle velocity of up to 5200 fps, I think.
To illustrate how Sheridan's kicked there's the story about the first time I walked off the side of one and ended up on the ground. We were doing some kind of firing from a concrete pad one day. I think that this was to make sure that the recoil systems would not blow out. We pulled up on the pad and set up a set of wooden steps next to the hull just behind the turret. The driver stayed in his compartment, buttoned up, with the parking brake set and the engine running.
I had my head out the TC's hatch and was watching the target with my binoculars when the gunner fired the first round. I never did that again. It felt like I had broken pieces of bone out of the tops of both of my eye sockets and I ended up with some spectacular bruises. We fired a few rounds and it was all over, so I started to get down to ground guide the vehicle back off the pad. I didn't look to see if the steps were there or not, and they weren't, so I got down a little faster than I had planned.
The M551 had slid backwards, with the tracks locked, approximately 8 feet on the smooth concrete. The steps were up by the front fender in front of the driver's compartment. You might wonder why we didn't engage over the side because of things like this. I have been told that M551 will roll if the gun is fired directly over the side. I've never met anyone that has ever seen this, and it's really hard to believe, but I can see how firing off the side might be rough on the suspension, and I never had any reason to do it anyway, so I don't know what would have happened.
Most of the memorable stuff during qualification happened during our night run on the final qualification range. Anything that could go wrong did.
First, we had a main gun misfire. Misfires are actually very rare, in my experience, if the equipment is kept well maintained. We went through the procedures in the manual and still couldn't get the round to fire. Sheridans have an interrupted screw breech operated by an electric motor ordinarily, and the ejector is only meant to be used with missiles, which have an aft cap. There isn't supposed to be anything left in the breech after a conventional round is fired because of the combustible cartridge case, and the extractor is set to the 'out of sight' position when firing conventional round to keep from damaging the cartridge case. What I'm trying to say is that there was no way to get the round out of the breech from inside the turret if it didn't fire. I think we did have a three jawed device that was supposed to be able to grip the case and that could then be used to pull it out, but if we had it, it didn't work.
So the grader jeep pulled up alongside and the officer in it yelled at me to use the ramming staff to push the round out. Good idea, except that I had been asked to donate my ramming staff to the range personnel in case someone had a misfire on the course. So the grader had to drive back to the control tower and get the ramming staff. Well, we finally got it but no one wanted to stand in front of the gun so I ended up with the ramming staff, pushing gently against the nose of the round. The nose was conical tapering from 6 inches to about an inch and a half over a distance of about a foot. Small end towards me. This was a 'black bullet' by the way, and not a target practice round.
So I pushed and nothing happened. I pushed harder and nothing happened. I was working with my loader, who was the only one inside the vehicle at the time. He was supposed to catch the round if it popped out suddenly. (I still can't remember his name but I think it started with an 'N'.) Finally, I had had enough. It was well after midnight and we were all tired. I had no idea how well or poorly we had been firing and was genuinely concerned about qualifying. This was just the kind of thing we didn't need.
So I pulled the staff out about two feet and slammed it into the nose of the round. Everyone around me hit the ground which wouldn't have done much to save them if the round had gone off, and I noticed the loader's head sticking out of the hatch. He started to say that the round hadn't moved then looked down inside and said, "Ooops." I had knocked the round out of the breech so that it slid across the loading tray, hit the back of the turret, and broke in half. The entire combustible cartridge case had broken away and dumped all of the propellant out on the floor. I remember thinking at the time that the propellant, except for the color, looked very much like some of the latest breakfast cereals. It was cast into hexagonal honeycomb shapes.
Anyway, we did a quick cleanup, took on a replacement round and headed off down the course. I remember that I had a white light engagement later against a real truck (old hulk instead of a cardboard silouette) with my M-2 heavy barreled .50 calibre machine gun and I was amazed that I got onto the target, which was more than 500 meters away, in only a few rounds. This would be important later.
The next thing that happened was that my 'chicken box' fell off the turret. The chicken box is made of steel and at least 3/8s of an inch thick. It mounts on top of the TCs cupola and provides both a seat and some protection for the TC. They are very heavy. I noticed that mine had fallen off when I realized that I was laying on my back on top of the engine compartment and that I couldn't hear anything over my headset. There had been a grader riding on the turret with me, and I didn't see him anywhere. This whole incident was probably my fault for not checking the four bolts that were supposed to hold the box in place, but I'd just never thought about it. Anyway, three had sheared and one had failed in tension.
The immediate problem was that the M551 was still moving down the course road and, since the quick disconnect on my headset had quickly disconnected, and snapped back down into the turret, I didn't have any way to tell the driver to stop. The loader's hatch was closed and locked and I couldn't seem to get up over the bustle rack to get to my hatch. I finally crawled back accross the engine compartment (not very far on a Sheridan) and pulled the 'infantry coordination' phone, which is connected to the intercomm system, out of its compartment near the right rear tail light. Oddly enough, it worked. I don't think that it had ever been used or tested since I had taken over the vehicle. I yelled at the driver to stop, and, being who he was (Fast Fred, more on him later), he asked me who I was. I told him, very briefly, and he stopped. Everyone got out and we started looking for the grader and the chicken box.
The grader was just getting up out of a ditch and turned out to be shaken and bruised but otherwise all right. The chicken box was too heavy to put back up on the hull so we pushed it off into the ditch for later retrieval. Then we loaded up and drove on. You would think that this would be enough to make us give up but we didn't realize that it wasn't over yet and I think we were all kind of numb, mentally, by then.
The next engagement was coaxial machine gun, straight ahead, at a T intersection where we were supposed to turn left towards the final engagement which was another coax engagement. I had discussed the turn with Fast Fred and he said he understood. The first engagement went pretty well until the coax ran away (wouldn't top firing) and then stopped, for good. But then we got to the turn, and didn't turn. As we went over the edge of the road into the ditch I was yelling "Left! Left!" to Fred and the loader and gunner were thrown forward against whatever objects were in front of them that were solid enough to stop them. It was a rough ride for me as well and I never mustered the courage to ask the grader what it was like for him. Fred finally responded that it wouldn't turn left, so I yelled "Stop! Stop!" and it did do that. If I am not mistaken we actually ran over some of the targets, which is not sportsmanlike at all. To this day, I don't know what went wrong down int the drivers compartment but within minutes we were able to turn left again, so away we went
One more engagement and the nightmare would be over. At this moment I didn't care if we qualified or not. I just wanted to get off the range. Unfortunately, the coax could not be resurrected and the next engagement as for the coax. I had plenty of .50 caliber left because of my luck with the truck engagement, but the rules of war say that you aren't supposed to shoot anything that big at troops in the open. It would be unsportsmanlike. I called the grader anyway, and asked him what we should do. He probably wanted to get off of that vehicle so badly that he would have agreed to anything,and he did give me permisiion to use the .50 on the troops.
I thought I got pretty good coverage, and I guess he agreed. So it was finally over.
When we pulled off the range I was told that I would be de-briefed so we would know how we had done. There may have been a de-briefing after the day run, but I didn't remember it. Anyway, I was astonished to find out that we had shot Distinguished, one of two Sheridans in the squadron that had done so. I think we got more than 1800 points out of 1975 or something like that. It was definitely a night to remember. I think I gave my crew the next day off.
My thanks yet again to Rory.
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