This article offers readers a snapshot as to what it was like for soldiers to spend 12-months fighting the war from a tank. Infantry soldiers used to call both tanks and APC’s “Iron Coffins” and refer to those crews as “ballsy”. How else would you describe somebody who can sit patiently and watch an RPG tracking toward his armored horse – a hit, could disable his ride and, surely, injure some of the four crewmen inside. It’s worth a read.
By Ron J. Holland
Here is a bit of what it was like fighting in a tank in the Vietnam War. We crewed an M48A3 tank, 11th. Armored Cavalry Regiment. Here we go.
Let me take you into an area called III CORPS in Vietnam. You are on a seek and destroy mission driving an M48A3 Patton tank. You are approaching the jungle near the Cambodian border. It’s hot as hell in the buttoned-up tank and you are approaching the tree line. There is supposed to be two platoons of tanks, five tanks to each platoon but due to breakdowns, there are only seven tanks total and twenty ACAVs. The tanks in Delta Company work with the buddy system, if one tank breaks down, you’re buddy helps you out. If the VC are on you, again, your buddy tank helps you out by spraying the enemy off your tank with the deadly ‘thump, thump’ of the .50 cal. Called ‘back-scratching’. It doesn’t hurt the tank but sure as hell hurts the enemy.
Our tank, Deadeye, was slowly approaching the tree line when we saw a shower of sparks dead ahead at twelve o’clock, then a smoke trail heading straight toward us. It sails past the turret. A miss. We knew that whoever fired the RPG would now be scurrying to a new area to load and fire again because we usually blasted the area that the smoke trail came from. These guys had to move quickly so their aim was not always on.
Damn Yankee our buddy tank traversed the turret to ten o’clock and our TC traversed ours to two o’clock and we instantly both fired canister. The trees shredded at impact. Both tanks fired again and our .50 Cals and 7.62s tore up a wide section of the tree line. The grunts moved in beside us as we crawled toward the tree line slow and menacingly. There were no more RPG rounds fired. In the tree line, far to the left, just where Damn Yankee had fired at two o’clock, two bodies were found, or what was left of them. A satchel of RPG rounds and an RPG were found.
Our guesswork paid off. The VC had fired, missed then ran to our left, his right where Damn Yankee blasted him with a canister.
“Good shooting Tex,” Maverick our TC radioed him when we found out.
“Should I blow the smoke out of our barrel?” KC, Damn Yankee’s TC joked.
In jungle warfare, you rarely see the enemy and for sure our canister and Beehive rounds had killed the enemy but we never saw them. I never really knew.
The following story describes another type of ops we went on between the big jungle fights, where, at night, we would barrel up and down a section of Highway 1 in Vietnam to keep the VC from planting land mines. It was called Night Thrusts or Running the Road. After I thought about it more, my mind went back to those nights and what it was like when we had stopped for a rest.
We parked herringbone pattern one vehicle to the right, another to the left and so on. On each vehicle, one of the crew pulled guard duty and on an M48A3, one stood on the commander’s seat poking halfway out of the hatch and hands-on the big .50 Cal machine gun. Two hours each man. For a crew of four like mine that gave you a six-hour sleep, if you could sleep.
I had half an hour left on watch. I swung the 50 around slowly doing a 360. I listened. A combat soldier, if he’s lucky to survive, develops a super-sensitive hearing and sixth sense. I heard leaves rustling softly, crunching sound, branches hitting branches, insects. I could also hear Reb, our Tennessee gunner snoring.
Maverick, who was using my driver’s seat to snooze on, heaved himself out of the driver’s hatch and climbed up to his cupola that I was in.
“I’ll take it Dutch,” he said. Maverick looked like crap. Swollen eyes, face blackened and greasy, fatigues filthy and ripped flack vest grey with sweat and grease. And he stunk to high heaven. We were all like that. You watch war movies and the soldiers in those movies do not look at all like real soldiers on the front line. I always laugh at that. Real combat soldiers look like dirty, grubby hoboes or homeless panhandlers, combat soldiers out on ops anyway.
I told him he still had ten minutes. He waved me out,” Catch some Zees man, you’ve got a bit of a drive tomorrow.” I climbed out and stretched my legs, they were cramping, bones making a cracking sound. I took a piss then climbed into my hatch and settled down.
An M 48A3 driver has a bit of room, his seat is the best place to sleep in the tank, the loaders the worst. There were gauge panels to your left, and ahead of where the compact steering wheel was. I checked the gear lever, neutral and checked that the brakes were set.
I dug around and found some c rats. I was kind of hungry. I went through the olive green tins. Beans and Weenies, no too late for such a heavy meal. Spaghetti and Meatballs, nope. Ah yes, pound cake, fruit salad, and crackers. I took my P38 (can opener) and opened the pound cake. Mmmm, always good. I opened the fruit salad and the crackers and had a feast washing it down with warm water, halazone flavored
I looked at the photos I had pinned up on the dash wherever there was space. My adorable twin sisters and they’re million dollar smiles, my sweetheart and her big blue eyes and mom and dad. I got a twinge of homesickness. To just hug them again. To do crazy things again with my sisters and laugh, to hold my girl and give her a big kiss. I had a song going over and over in my mind as I sat there.
Oddly enough my sisters sent me a tape of music and so did my girl. Lori and Tracy said it was a great song for soldiers far away that are missed by loved ones. They wrote,
“It’s a beautiful song but we can’t listen to it, it just makes us cry all the time thinking of you out there. We were sitting together in the rec room and it came on the radio. We both looked at each other and started bawling like babies holding each other. Oh God, we miss you. We got Daddy to put it on the tape for us.” My girl said it always made her think of me and she too would cry when it played.
It was a cover song by a Canadian band called The Sugar and Spice. Beautiful singing by the girls, melancholy, and every so often a martial trumpet which to me, really made the song. It got a hell of a lot of play at BLACKHORSE base camp bringing tears to a lot of homesick troopers.
I’m inviting you to listen to it. I’m dedicating it to my brothers who were over there with me. Fellow tankers, grunts, Marines, jet jockeys, brown water sailors, the Navy and those who supported us from the cooks to the mechanics to the QMs. Take a listen and think of them with me. This is the song that was going through my head late at night in my tanker’s driver seat with the faces of my loved ones smiling at me while I ate pound cake, fruit salad, and crackers.
And that was a part of what it was like to be an 18-year-old Tanker Boy (as my girl used to call me back then, now my wife) in combat and at rest in Vietnam.
This was recorded and released in 1969….Its about a soldier called to a American Civil War situation and promising his girl that she can finally go with him…she supposedly dressed as a man. Sugar and Spice was a Western Canada Band.
This commentary was originally posted on the Quora website in response to the question posed in the title. Thank you, brother, for sharing what it was like to fight the war from a tank. Thank you for your sacrifice, service, and welcome home!
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