I Almost Forgot the Fourth of July, but then I Drove a Tank – Popular Mechanics

Over all the clatter and sweat and roar and reek of diesel, the thought occurs to me: I just muzzle-swept San Francisco with 152mm worth of tank barrel.

I look over at the man keeping an eye on this ridiculous operation. He’s wearing a “Fartacus” t-shirt and a helmet with the letters ‘TDMF’ painted in bold red enamel on the forehead. “TD” stands for “Tank Driving.” You can guess the rest. He’s inches away from the driver’s compartment, hanging on for dear life and grinning exactly as much as I am.

I let the M551 Sheridan clatter to a near stop on level ground and engage first gear, then turn the tank on its axis, applying a healthy stab of throttle and lots of right lock. We pivot a perfect 180 degrees and come to a stop aimed down an oak-lined dirt road. The TDMF says, “Alright, it’s all yours!” and slides off the bow of the tank.

I can’t believe how easy the Sheridan is to drive. Alex O’Neill, operator and mechanic, walked me through the process 10 minutes ago, and now he’s letting me loose in the thing. Start with with the brakes in by applying all your weight and strength to the pedal on the left. Disengage the fuel cutoff. Turn the fuel pump on and listen for the loud whine to tell you it’s working. Thumb the ignition, and all hell breaks loose.

via I Almost Forgot the Fourth of July, but then I Drove a Tank – Popular Mechanics.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the Sheridan. Maybe that’s partly because I never had to do the maintenance on a 30 year old engine with a poor supply of parts.

While I was qualified and licensed to drive certain armored vehicles, such as the M113 and the M2 Bradley, I was never assigned as  a driver for one. All my full time driving duty was in wheeled vehicles like the Humvee. Still, as a Bradley commander, it was kinda fun to kick the driver out of his hatch once in a while and take the old girl for a spin.

It’s not like driving one is terribly technically difficult. Being a good tactical driver takes practice. But just bouncing around enjoying driving one is pretty easy.

Back in the mid-1990s, while the Army was facing a round of base closures, my brigade happened to be at Pinon Canyon Maneuver Training Area doing some training. And one day, my vehicle happened to have some problems with the fire control system that precluded us from playing with the others in a big mock battle. But the Army had invited a large contingent of VIPs from the Colorado community to visit PCMTA to see what the Army was up to. There was a large grandstand overlooking the valley where today’s battle was to be fought. And so, someone had the bright idea that, since we weren’t contributing to the battle, we should go display our vehicle for the VIPs.  After frantically cleaning the worst of the mud and dirt from the inside, and restowing our gear as neatly as possible (and taking down the posters of scantily clad women that used to be found inside armored vehicles), we started giving the VIPs a walk through of the Bradley. Here’s the back where the grunts, sit, here’s the turret, and here’s the driver’s seat. That got boring, so we started giving them rides around the area. After a while, even that got boring, so we let one or two of them drive just a little bit. The Bradley has an automatic transmission, power steering and power brakes. It takes just a few minutes to understand the basics. And really, the hardest thing to convince the novice drivers of was that the gas pedal really has only two positions. Off and all the way down. If you want to get a Bradley to start rolling, you really need to mash the pedal down.

Eventually some tight-waisted staff officer had kittens about us letting civilians drive my Bradley around, and put a stop to it. But for the men and women we let drive, it was surely a highlight of their visit to the Army.

And by the way, Fort Carson and Pinon Canyon stayed open.

10 thoughts on “I Almost Forgot the Fourth of July, but then I Drove a Tank – Popular Mechanics”

  1. Much innovation with the ‘ole Sheridan: Air Drop capable (8 100’ G-11A Cargo Canopies), big Main Gun with a (then) innovative array of ammunition, fast (for armored vehicles at the time, very fast), neutral steering which basically allowed the M-551 to “dig” its own fighting position, and one of the first to have Main Gun Stabilized capability. I’m sure I’ve forgotten other unique qualities. Anybody in this august group remember the M-114 without googling it??

    1. Never was much of a tank, however. A friend who had been in Company ‘O’ Artic Rangers had been in one a few times commented “you could take the thing out with a rusty mess kit knife.” It didn’t take much to get through the Armor. IIRC, the main gun was mainly a missile launcher. Shilleghly Missile as I recall.

      I think there are still a number of them at NTC dolled up to look like enemy tanks.

      I’m sure I misspelled the missile name.

    2. “Anybody in this august group remember the M-114 without googling it??”

      Heck yeah. Inf. company commanders were assigned one, but our CO decided he would rather ride in a jeep and traded it to the weapons platoon. It had no real function but just kind of followed along with the platoon like a lost puppy. It was fun to ride in but, if I remember correctly, was a maintenance problem and the track didn’t have much traction in the mud.

  2. Well I heard of a model of the M-114 that mounted a 20 mm in the TC cupola and never saw one and heard (RUMINT) that the 20 mm bucked the M-114 around too much and thus stayed with a .50 cal. In the sixties the M-114 being a scout vehicle, led the way to the field in a Reforger Exercise and they constantly ran over German (Nazi era) UXO and exploding some…fear and loathing. Squat is an apt description…one could stand beside the M-114 and your head (if not head AND shoulders) were above the top deck. They had heaters which was a huge draw.

  3. I was in the 11th ACR S4 in Fulda from 73-77 and the Cav troops were all equipped with Sheridans. I remember seeing a TWX come through ordering removal of all belly armor from the Sheridan because of weight concverns, and the belief that the Soviets had not mined the Fulda gap. Now, this is almost 40 years ago so some of my recollecting may be off a bit, but sometime around 1976 a crew was firing at Wildflecken and were all killed when a round exploded back into the turret. Investigation that followed discovered that when cleaning the breech with steel wool a static charge built up. When the round was loaded the discharge set off the round, killing everyone aboard. I saw the results when it was pulled back into the PDO yard for disposal. I didn’t want to see it again. Another time at Graf a Shillelagh was fired out the tube but didn’t ignite until it hit the ground. Then it went straight up coming down somewhere behind the tower.

    I believe the Sheridans were all replaced by M60s in the Cav sometime in the late 70s, after I had left.

  4. In B/3/109 Armor, we didn’t worry about penny ante stuff like “qualifications” when it came to driving tanks. They took me, someone that had never been in a Tank, put up front and told me “you’re the driver.” Ergo, I was suddenly qualified. The second time I was ever in a Tank, I bounced the Company Co across an LZ at Campbell, with him cussing me in my headset. I ad to tell him he was an amateur compared to the Chief Boatswain Mate on Courtney. He also told me I was crazy as he slid done the front glacis to attend to Bn Ossifer’s Call.

    They did get sticky about Jeeps and 6 bys, but not the tracks. And, it was a hoot. It was worth it even if I washed out of OCS because of injuries.

    1. I had a driver once who was the great grandson of SecWar Stimson.

      He beat the heck out of me one time driving juuuuust a tad aggressively over some terrain once. Once. After a little kinetic counseling, he went on to be an excellent driver, and later a fine NCO.

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