Let’s face it, if you grew up on Army posts you probably encountered more than a few tanks—working and non-working. And if you grew up with tanks practically in the back yard, like me, you probably have much more than a passing interest in what they are, what they can do and what they symbolize.
Early tank exposure
During the Korean War in the 1950s, my dad was in a tank crew. Much later, when we lived in Germany in the early 1960s, he was a M60 tank commander, part of the 3rd Armor Division, stationed permanently in Germany to help keep the Soviet Union from invading Europe through the Fulda Gap.
Behind our apartment buildings on post at Mannheim, on the other side of the fence where we could never—under any circumstances—go through (or under), we could see neat, green rows of jeeps, half-ton trucks, water and fuel tankers, enclosed trailers and other vehicles ready to be moved at a moment’s notice when the alert sirens were sounded.
We couldn’t see the M60s, but we knew they were also in neat rows, somewhere beyond my field of vision.
The M60 was the “new” main battle tank that was deployed widely in Europe during the 1960s. As a small child, I knew Dad had something to do with tanks, but I never saw him at work and I was curious to know more about this thing called the tank.
Unloading the tanks
I do remember being six or seven and going with my Dad to see the tanks being unloaded from railroad cars. My brother and I had begged to go with him even though it we would be confined to the car.
That didn’t matter to us. We wanted to see the tanks and we got our wish.
From the car we could see some activity, with men moving about and we could just see a few of the tanks sitting on low, open railroad cars.
As the fall daylight faded, and as our exciting outing turned from minutes into what seemed like long hours, the car’s warmth faded also was replaced by the cold.
Soon my brother and I sat shivering in the car, huddled together trying to stay warm and wishing we back at home in our cozy apartment in the housing area.
After what seemed like several hours, Dad returned and filled us in on what was going on, then drove us home.
We never asked to go with him on any “Army” business again.
Living in Germany in the 1960s, and knowing that less than twenty years earlier, Germany was the center of a war that stretched far and wide, and having seen just about every movie about WW II, it was no wonder I developed an interest in German tanks.
While I realized that that Germany was our enemy during the war and that Hitler ordered all manner of atrocities, I could not help admiring German engineering abilities and the fact that WW II propelled the Germans to create many different tanks that were “state of the art” for the time and influential on tank designing during and after the war.
During the 1970s, we lived at Fort Knox, Kentucky, a large Army training post, which is also a place where a lot of tank training goes on. Imagine my delight to find that Fort Knox had U.S. tanks and tanks from different countries, including Germany.
Fort Knox, like other military bases around the country, has many tanks from different eras permanently “parked” around the post. Most of these tanks were somewhat accessible when we lived on post, and we would climb up on them and down into the turret, even though they smelled of aged oil and grease, tepid water and had the musty smell that comes from little air movement.
My brother and I were very familiar with U.S. tanks, especially the M60—both from seeing the tank up close on Armed Forces Day and from poring over the “official” Army manual my dad had at home, with it’s many cut-away drawings and diagrams showing all the inner workings of the tank.
While civilian kids were busy memorizing baseball players and batting statistics, we Military Brats had grown up memorizing and studying specifications of tanks, aircraft, ships and submarines. And, as you could expect, I enjoyed any and all war movies, and books which depicted battles, especially where tanks were involved.
Seeing a tank in a book or in the movies was totally different from seeing a tank up close. Most modern tanks will tower over the tallest adults and are very intimidating. The hand-holds and foot-holds are not always obvious.
It was a truly a special treat to actually take a look inside a German tank, and it was a real delight when we found an accessible tank with some hand-holds we could reach and actually climb up on the tank. Standing up on the tank and looking out we would then imagine what it must have been like to be in battle.
Frozen in time
In the 1970s, with the woods all around the old German tank, and with it’s peeling paint and many rust spots, the tank was more of a fading monument to an era that was quickly becoming history.
To be honest with you, I can’t remember what model the German tank was. It was enough that it was German and we had a chance to see what it was like inside.
Most of the tank had strategic welds placed throughout the tank so it was impossible to close hatches, make the gun or turret move. I’m sure the welding saved many fingers from getting pinched or worse, but we would have loved to been able to make the tank actually operate in some fashion.
It was quite dark inside, but in a few moments our eyes adjusted to the dim light streaming trough the top hatch.
We found some view ports which the driver and gunner had used. Even with much of the original equipment removed, it was a small cramped space—and hard for us to imagine a crew of three or four men working in the tank for hours at a time.
It was fun to imagine the tank rumbling along, and knowing you were protected by several inches of steel. Of course, a direct hit by an anti-tank gun might set off all the munitions which you would be carrying and end it all.
My brother and I tested all the former moving parts inside the turret, hoping to find something that was not frozen. We did find a small escape hatch that had been overlooked and we had fun crawling out from under the tank.
In addition to many tanks scattered around the post, Fort Knox offered The Patton Museum, which had a number of different tanks ranging from WW I tanks through contemporary tanks. It was a lot of fun to see the giant, ugly WW I British Mark IV in contrast to the impossibly small 2 men tanks built by the French, and to go inside the museum and see both WW II and WW I tanks together.
You might say WW I created the “prototypes” which were the basis for fine war machines used in WW II, and WW II was where tanks proved themselves to be invaluable in battle and claiming ground.
Part of my curiosity about tanks was a genuine interest in anything that was military-related, but in some ways I think I was trying to understand what it must have been like for my Dad, living in and around his tank during the Korean War, and out in the field, spending so much of his time away from us when we lived in Germany.
The Patton Museum had a Tiger tank in its collection, which was massive compared to the Sherman tank, its contemporary during WW II. Near the Tiger was a British Centurian, similar in size, but the Centaurian was developed after WWII, and did not seem to match the Tiger in terms of it’s sheer presence.
While living at Ft. Knox, the movie Patton, starring George C. Scott, was released, and it played to packed theaters on the base. I saw it more than once and it renewed my interest in all things tanks.
I also had the opportunity to work in the Patton Museum. One of my brother’s friends, Steve Ward, worked at the museum and as luck would have it, his family was going on vacation and he needed someone to work in his place.
My brother mentioned the opportunity to me and I jumped at the chance to earn some money working indoors—definitely a step up from cutting grass for neighbors.
At that time (1971) the Patton Museum was housed one the many “temporary” wooden buildings which were built during WWII. Outside the museum was several tanks and pieces of artillery. There was a WW I British Mark IV, designed to cross the trenches, which while primitive by today’s standards, was a huge piece of machinery and a site to see up close.
The museum had a small collection of tanks and artifacts on display, and I worked behind the counter selling models, souvenirs and other items. We also sold medallions to help raise money for the new museum being planned, which when built, would house far more artifacts than was currently being shown, in a permanent structure.
The cash register I worked with was a real antique—probably from the 1930s or 1940s—requiring the operator to press down several buttons at once to “ring up” a sale, which pushed up small metal tabs so the customer could see the purchase amount.
At the museum, learned to make change from large bills, and to work with the public, and was I able to experience the British Centurian tank being cranked up indoors—something I will never forget.
I made more money in two weeks than I made in several months of cutting lawns, and bought me a small Emerson stereo system.
I’ve not yet had the opportunity to visit the “new” Patton museum which was completed and opened after we left Fort Knox—it’s on my list of places to “revisit” and I hope to see the museum soon, and maybe revist some of the tanks parked around Fort Knox. And this time I’ll take photos.