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Chapter 51

Keep Those Caissons Rolling

Never thought I would wind up in a Field Artillery outfit. My military career began in 1949 when I lied about my age by one year to join the Texas National Guard, 49th Armored Division, Co. B, 49th Recon Battalion, Weatherford, Texas. I joined because they told me I could be a tank driver and true to their word, I started driving the M-24 Chaffee. Neat little tank, twin Cadillac engines, automatic transmission, a fifty caliber, two thirty calibers and one 75mm cannon. The unit had two of these tanks at the armory and I got in a lot of driving time before my first summer camp at Fort Hood.

Fort Hood, home of the 2nd Armored Division, "HELL ON WHEELS." We borrowed tanks from the division for training and they gave us all the junk in the motor pool. We gained much experience keeping these antiquated armored vehicles running but we made it and the machines were in perfect shape when we turned them in. Summer camp meant just that. We slept in tents, either squad or pup, for two weeks. Dust was so bad, it stayed in your eyes, mouth and ears even after a shower. Good experience though and I came home a better man. I knew I was a man because our company commander always addressed us as, "Men,....I started to shudder every time I heard him say those words because it usually meant something unpleasant was about to happen.

The next year we had several weekend drills that provided some realistic training in the art of tank driving and we had several new types. One was the M4A3E8 or the "Easy 8" as it was called. This one called for some real tank driving. A Ford V-8, five hundred horsepower engine with a five speed synchromesh transmission. This took lots of gear shifting and I was glad my dad had taught me well while learning to drive a truck under his watchful eye. It was first designed as a heavy tank but by the time we received it, it had been downgraded to medium. It gave a good account of itself doing battle with German Panzer units during WW2.

Fort Hood again and borrowed tanks. This time I got lucky. Good tank but 2nd Armored Division had decided to send the regular driver along to keep and eye on his tank. This didn't sit well. He was a Sergeant from New York, overbearing little cuss who spent more time goofing off than training. We were on a range, fifteen miles from the motor pool, when it came time to leave. We searched high and low for him and couldn't find him so my tank commander told me to "head for the house." It was late, we had eaten, showered, had a couple of beers and were laid back in our bunks when the driver arrived mad enough to bite a nail. He headed straight for my bunk spelling out just how bad he was going to "whup" me. My tank commander stood up and told him he would have to whip him first, then the gunner took my side, the rest of the crew in fact. The Sergeant headed for the Company Commander's tent which was a mistake. We had already informed him about the errant driver. The CO told him he was considering court martial procedures against him. That stopped the belly aching and he didn't ride with us the rest of the camp.

In 1952, my Guard unit sent four of us to Fort Knox, KY for what was supposed to have been an Armored Leader's Course for two months. A typo, snafu, what have you, had us in a school that lasted almost six months where we learned to drive every vehicle and fire every weapon in an Armored Division. I was pretty mad at first but I was a Sergeant by then and had the privileges that went with the rank. No KP! Home of the Gen. George Patton Museum, I spent a lot of free time poring over the life of this famous General.

Back in "civilian" life, I returned to work for Jones Theaters until April 1953. Spent the rest of that year in the San Francisco Bay area working for TWA. When I returned to Weatherford, I joined the army January 4, 1954. With the Leader's Course in my files, and some good math scores, I was offered OCS training but turned that down as I knew I could be called back in to service. I elected for electronics training, radar and after basic started radar operator school at Fort Bliss, Texas. We trained on several types of radar. Surveillance, gun laying and counter mortar and this last one is how I wound up in an Artillery outfit.

Pretty neat little radar. Say an outfit is being shelled by enemy mortars. The radar had the ability to track a projectile long enough to establish the path or arc. Using a parabolic template, and the graph from the track, it was an easy matter to pinpoint the location of the offending mortar and direct fire to it. After graduation from operator school, I was assigned to Battery C, 148th FA, 105 Howitzer, Fort Bliss, Texas. The unit had just be reactivated and didn't have any radar sets. I was assigned to the Communication Section when I wasn't driving the Battery Commander, (which is another story) or acting as projectionist for the Battalion. Having some spare time on my hands, I wondered down to the gun park to watch the crews perform the "Cannoneer's Boogie." Besides the physical work of loading and firing a gun that size, there is considerable math involved laying a round within fifty feet of the target.

By now it was summer in that part of the world. We received orders that we would support West Point Cadets who were Juniors, teach them the fine points of firing the 105. We had to stay in pup tents, white collar inspection every day, while they arrived fresh from barracks on air conditioned buses. A young red headed cadet reported to the weapon where I was acting as Gunner, the guy who pulls the lanyard and gives all the fire commands. A bit of safety trivia here. It is a mortal sin to step over the trails of a howitzer when the gun is laid in firing position. The trails are those two I-beams spread behind the gun to anchor and absorb the recoil. When they are moved back together, they are used to tow the weapon. When the gun is fired, the trails come up about three feet off the ground. If you happened to be astraddle one of the trails, it could do serious damage to your manhood. The punishment for this sin is crawling under both trails, in the dirt on your belly. As part of the introduction to Howitzer 105, I pointed this out several times and asked if everyone understood. Of course they didn't, they were too anxious to pull that lanyard! Came the little red head's turn and sure enough, he stepped across the trails and I sent him back his fresh uniform, put him in a brace and gave him the lecture again. I don't know where that boy's head was that morning because he stepped across the trails three more times. I doubled the punishment and when he came out the last time, disheveled, sweating, filthy dirty, he said, "I am going to be an officer one of these days and I hope I get you in my outfit!" I said, I do too, CADET. Because by the time I am through with you today, you will be the best damn officer in the Army and I will be proud to serve with you!"

By that afternoon, after we had policed the area, cleaned all the guns, he had cooled down. As he prepared to join his fellow cadets on the bus, he came by my gun and offered his hand. He didn't say anything but the handshake was enough. I hope he went on to have a great career as an artillery officer and remembered the PFC who dealt him so much misery.

You can see photos of the tanks and guns by using Google and typing in M-24 Chaffee, M4A3E8 Sherman and 105 Howitzer. Some great articles on these sites.

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