Learning to Drive a Tank
Jud’s New England Journal
For June 2012
Welcome to the June 2012 edition of
Jud’s New England Journal, the rather
curious monthly musings of Judson Hale,
the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine,
published since 1935 in Dublin, N.H.
Learning To Drive a Tank
It required just a nightmarish
five minutes. But I’ve applied
the lesson almost every day since . . .
“All of you under there! Fall in!” I heard my platoon sergeant yell. He was squatting next to the tank under which three or four of us were drinking beer instead of working. The time: June, 1955. The place: the tank motorpool at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. I’d been drafted into the U.S. Army three weeks earlier. At the time, it seemed to me that avoiding work was cool.
“Any of you got a driver’s license?” he barked at us, standing at a rather wobbly attention before him. Without a thought, and before anyone else could reply, I said I did.
“Good,” he said. “We’re short one driver for the three-day maneuvers that begin tomorrow morning. You’ll drive Baker 3.”
It was then it dawned on me that while I was referring to a car driver’s license, he was referring to a tank driver’s license. There had been tank-driving training and licenses (or certificates) given to a few new recruits the week before. I had not been among that number.
But although I found my heart was suddenly pounding, I said nothing. To be a tank driver was like a huge promotion. And floating around in the back eddies of my mind was my mother often saying one should always “seize life’s ‘moments’.”
At sunrise the next morning I was sitting in the driver’s seat of Baker 3. The engine was roaring — yes, I’d managed to start the thing, thanks to last-minute instructions from a tank-driver friend the night before. I’d even remembered to press the two starting levers before activating the radio system. “Start the engine with the radio on,” my friends had warned, “and the power surge will blow out a hundred-thousand-dollar piece of equipment.” Surely that was the sort of little blunder that might alert the other crew members in my tank to the fact their new driver was not exactly experienced.
“Move out!” came the order over my headphone from the tank commander standing tall in the turret far above and behind me. I pushed the single lever located on my right into the forward position, pressed gently on the accelerator, and forty-seven tons of steel began to rumble forward.
“Stay fifty yards behind Baker 4,” the voice in my earphones instructed. Thank goodness the pace of our long line of tanks, each with its 90 millimeter gun pointing backwards, leaving the motorpool area was slow, with many stops. It gave me a chance to calm down. But only a little.
Once on the road outside the base, the tanks in front of me accelerated. Baker 4 was already several hundred yards ahead and gaining speed when my tank commander’s voice crackled through to me. “Get going, driver!” Slowly I increased the foot pressure, passing the point where I still felt reasonably comfortable, on beyond to where I became frightened and thence, after another bark through the headphones, to being out of control.
Unlike the later model M-48 tanks which we were to have in Germany a year later, the M-47 was steered not by a wheel but by moving the shift lever. And, as I was to learn during the next few minutes, when you were up over 40 mph, you steered by merely thinking left or right. Any more pressure than that meant trouble.
I was in trouble. When I oversteered to the right, I overcorrected to the left. I figured catastrophe was two, maybe three, overcorrections away.
“Cripes! What-in-hell-are-ye-doin’!?” The voice in my headphones almost pierced my eardrums. A gas station was looming up in front of us. As we flashed by, barely missing the two pumps, I was conscious of a brief crunching sound which I later learned was the attendant’s motorcycle. Seconds later, we’d swooped over to the other side of the road and were beginning what would probably be our last overcorrected turn before descending over the bank leading down to the dry riverbed running parallel with the road. Now the voice coming over my headphones was so loud and shrieky I couldn’t decipher the words.
Finally, exercising my only remaining option, I slammed on the brakes. My tank commander was not catapulted out only because his foot caught on the 50-caliber machine gun mounting next to the hatch cover. The gunner later showed me his front teeth, loosened a bit when his radio mouthpiece passed by them on its way to the back of his throat. The bow gunner and the loader had bruises.
But I had avoided going over the bank, and at the suddenly reduced speed was able to break the overcorrecting cycle. At long last we proceeded down the road in a straight line, my foot shaking so badly I could barely keep it on the accelerator. As we began to catch up with the tanks ahead, I repeated the words, “Don’t steer!” over and over to myself out loud, between tightly clenched teeth. “Now we’re gonna ease to the left — but don’t steer!”
So, I’d learned how to drive a tank that long-ago June day. And my mother had been right about “seizing life’s moments”. From then on I was a proud driver, then a gunner, and, eventually, a tank commander. Avoiding work was never again cool. And perhaps most important, I came to realize that often the best steering is done with one’s mind.