By Rodney H. George
The United States army is organized into specialty branches and within a branch individuals are further trained and eventually listed as qualified in a Military Occupational Specialty or MOS. In the Vietnam era MOS 11B is listed a Light Weapons Infantry, the basic grunt and an 11D is a Armored Vehicle crewman. Prefixes and suffixes further identify particular skills. So for example I was a 1203 - Armored Unit commander and became an 11203, an parachute qualified Armored Unit commander. There are literally thousands of MOS's and qualifiers in the Army. Although outsiders think most of the Army is made up of 11B's, in fact combat troops are a minority, even in a combat zone. So in Vietnam while there were over 550,000 troops in country, the greatest number of ground combat maneuver troops ever available for duty there at one time was about 50,000.
Of all the branches, only Infantry and Armor have as their mission statement to "Close with and destroy the enemy". At its simplest, one fights mostly on foot, the other mostly from a vehicle. But there is another difference between the experiences of serving in the two branches. In an Infantry fire team you live, work and fight with four other men and come to know them better than you know your own brother. But frequently when actually in a firefight you are out of sight and immediate communication with the others in your unit. Individuals disperse so as not to offer a single target and to be mutually supporting by fire. Down in the weeds with a rifle and incoming fire, you often can't see anyone else. A member of a combat vehicle crew has the opposite experience. He never goes anywhere in combat without being able to reach out and touch the other members of the crew. Even in the incredibly noisy environment of a firefight involving tanks and personnel carriers, excellent electronic communications mean that every member of the crew can always be heard by the others.
A tank crew consists of a driver, a loader, a gunner and a tank commander. An ACAV crew in Vietnam consisted of a driver, two side gunners and a track commander. The fate of the entire crew is intimately tied to the performance of each member. A gunner cannot find targets, only hit those identified by the TC. He cannot load the main gun or coax, only fire them after the loader has done his job and the driver has positioned the vehicle so they can kill and hopefully not be killed. You cannot do the other man's job, nor often even check that it has been done correctly. Mutual trust is built into the situation. Besides the requirement for trust imposed by the job though, you spend a lot of time with those other three men. At night in the field two of you are always awake and there are a lot of hours to fill. In the day there are many hours where absolute alertness is not required, so again there are hours to fill with talk. There is not much you don't know about a man after serving on a crew with him.
A long time after Vietnam I visited the display of armored vehicles at Aberdeen Proving Ground and sure enough there was a post Vietnam vintage M48A4 tank on display. Only it wasn't. The lifeless 55tons of steel had the shape of a tank but it wasn't a tank.
It didn't smell. A tank smells of burned diesel fuel and cordite and stale food and sweat and fear. •It had no weapons mounted and the gun tube was rusty. To a tank crew weapons are life. Weapons are cleaned first, before eating, before sleeping, before using the latrine. A tank without working weapons is not a tank, it is a monument. •The hull was sparsely clean. A tank in combat looks like the Clampetts moving to Beverly Hills. There is spare small arms ammo, and pyrotechnics and personal gear and tools and wire stakes and razor wire strapped all over the outside of the turret wherever it won't blind the optics or restrict a field of fire. In combat there is no room for clutter inside the turret, so all the oddments go on the outside where they won't be in the way. Besides, they just might detonate an incoming RPG before it hits the armor, turning a fiery death into just a loud bang. All the baggage strapped to the turret made each tank as recognizable to the crew as the face of a friend. •The hull was marked only with official stencils for unit designation. A real tank has crew notations all over it, from the "65" written on the sponson box to remind the crew of the torque used to tighten end connectors to the magic marker arrow on the gun breech to remind the gunner which way to turn the firing pin well cap when cleaning the main gun.
For Doober and John and Mike I hope the rusty parody of a tank sitting at Aberdeen covered in pigeon droppings isn't D31 1/11. Let it be some hull assigned to the Ordinance Board that has never known life.