Tales from the Field – December 2016

by Butch Ekins

All-Veteran Crew In Action

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Butch Ekins, crew chief of the all-veteran manned “Iron Butterfly.”

Back in the mid-1970s, my buddies and I went over to Clean Gene’s place on Rock Boulevard every Thursday night after work for a few beers while watching a new TV show called “Happy Days.” It was a comedy set in the 1950s. The star was Opie from Mayberry but we liked another character – the duck-tailed biker called, “The Fonz.” He rode a Panhead and had a cool way of saying “Ayyyyy.” This was the first time we’d rode the bikes to Gene’s. March is still winter in Reno, just not quite so freezin’ cold. If you wanted to start a Harley in winter, you had to prepare early in the morning. Cover it with a tarp  next to an electric heater, and by afternoon, it would start right up, first kick. Sixty-weight PreLux was like tar when it was cold. You could hold it in your hand. They made a 40-weight PreLux winter oil, but once a loose Panhead warmed up, you’d be laying  down a smokescreen.

It was almost dark when I pulled into Gene’s alleyway. Denny’s Shovel and Eddie’s Triumph were already there. No point looking for Gene’s Beezer. It was never running. His wife, Debbie, let me in and brought me a beer. She’d been in a lot better mood since Gene got a job.

Gene was working on a model tank until our show came on. He always put incredible detail into them, like eyebrows on the little crewmen. This one was a U.S. ArmyM-60.

“All right,” I said, “that’s just like my old ride. I qualified as M60 crew in ‘70.”

“I’ve been in a million APCs but never a tank,” Eddie said. He’d served in the 3rd Armor Division in Germany at the same time as me. I’d been a tank commander, and he was a mech infantry squad leader. Gene and Denny had both been truck drivers in ‘Nam; Gene in the Marines and Denny the Army. The four of us felt a certain bond as veterans and with the bikes.

“You know,” Gene said, “we all would have made a good tank crew.”

“Yeah, maybe,” I said.

“They got two tanks at the National Guard armory in Yerington,”says Eddie. “Let’s putt down there this weekend and have a look.” An idea was hatched.

When we arrived at the Yerington Armory, I was disappointed to see it was only a couple of Sheridans. They looked like tanks, but were made of aluminum for air transport. They had a reputation from ‘Nam for catching fire and melting when hit by an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). And the main gun was a wimpy little thing with the muzzle velocity of a .30-30. We parked the bikes out front and filed into the orderly room to see if we could go out and have a look. First Sergeant Gable was at his desk.

“Sure, go ahead,” he said. “We’re getting rid of these things and bringing in 10 new M60s next week.”

“Whoa, no crap?” He explained that the Yerington unit was in transition from scouts to a line armor company. All the small Western states would be organized as the 163rd Armored Cavalry. It would be the ready reserve of the legendary First Cavalry Division. My heart was pounding.

Gable must have sensed my excitement. He asked if we were veterans. “Yeah, we are.”

“Well, we need crews for those new tanks. Tell you what. You enlist for one year. If you don’t like it, you just resign. You get the rank and pay grade you left the regulars with. And you’ll be a crew all the way through tank gunnery this summer.”

“I’m in!” I said. Eddie looked at the others. “Let’s do it!” “

“Looks like you got yourself a crew, Top,” says Eddie.

“You’ll be the only all-veteran tank crew in Nevada. Let’s see what you got. Our company clerk, Beer Bear, will sign you up.”

That was an appropriate name. SP5 Howard looked just like the Hamm’s beer bear. 

We rode over to Carson City to draw our uniforms. On the way back to Reno, riding alongside these scruffy bikers with flapping fatigues tied to their sissy bars, I felt excitement mixed with anxiety. Man, I sure hope I’m doing the right thing.

At Gene’s place, we split up for our own digs. I reminded everyone, “We’ll take my car. Be ready a 5 a.m., Saturday morning. It’s our first drill, let’s make a showing!”

That whole week, I worked to get my uniforms together. Patches and name tags sewn on, boots polished to a mirror shine, and trousers tailored and pressed for a perfect fit. Since we were all veterans, I was confident my men knew the routine.

On Saturday at 0-Dark-Thirty, I pulled up to Gene’s place. The lights were out. I pounded on the door. Debbie answered.

“Where’s Gene?”

“Oh, he was drinking last night. He just went to bed a few minutes ago.”

“Well wake him up! I’ll go get the other guys and be back.”

At Eddie’s house the lights were on and the stereo blasting. Inside were a bunch of guys playing poker, Eddie still in civies.

“Oh shit, Butch, I forgot all about it! Let me finish this hand and I’ll be right with you.” They’d been up all night.

We got to Denny’s place and woke him up and got him dressed. The uniforms had never been unpacked. Still had the labels on them.

So I had two-thirds of my crew safely asleep in the back seat when I got back to Gene’s. The lights were still out! Debbie answered and told me Gene thought we had left him. He was hitchhiking to Yerington.

I found the final member of my all-veteran crew out on Interstate 80 – still drunk.

They all got an hour of sleep on the drive to Yerington and with a few minutes left before formation, I stopped at a 7-Eleven to get them some coffee and get their uniforms semi-squared away. A sorrier-looking crew you’ve never seen as I reported them all present.

I was itchin’ to get outside and meet my new tank. I wasn’t disappointed.

Fresh out of depot overhaul, it was a thing of rare beauty. The smell of new gloss OD paint, the shiny black rubber treads, the 105mm main gun thrust out in the very essence of macho. Fifty-two tons of badness. My crew perked up and helped prepare the machine for duty. It was a lot of work that took all day.

All the crews named their tanks. “Heavy Metal,” “Led Zeppelin,” “Canned Heat.” We decided ours would be the “Iron Butterfly.”

At final formation Saturday evening, it was announced there would be a company party in the day room to celebrate receiving our new tanks and our new mission as line armor. I figured my guys would pass in favor of a good night’s sleep. I was so wrong.

The armory dayroom was set up real well, like a honky-tonk bar. And the party was rippin’. The damn ‘cruits would pour a handful of quarters in the jukebox and punch in “Bad Leroy Brown” ten consecutive times at max volume. The young ‘cruits could drink legally because on drill weekends the armory was U.S. Army property.

Beer Bear came through and told all the new TCs to bring their crews to the Captain’s office so he could welcome us in. I found Gene and Denny. “Can’t find Eddie,” they said. The welcome was the usual Army motivational stuff. When it was done, we found Eddie at the bar.

Later, Clean Gene took the opportunity to get shit-faced drunk. Denny got into an arm-wrestling match with the ‘cruits and of course that always leads to a fight. The next morning my crew could hardly move, dragging ass all day. When the company was dismissed Sunday afternoon our platoon leader, Lieutenant Morrow, took me aside.

“Sergeant Ekins, I’m telling you right now, get control of your crew. If you want to be crazy bikers, that’s fine. But not here. We only have four months to train for tank gunnery qualifications with the First Cav. A lot of people are watching us. No National Guard tank has ever qualified with First Cav. They want to see if Nevada is worthy of being their ready reserve. If your people don’t want to get with the program, I’d like you to leave now so we can put another crew in that tank.” The L-T was only 19 years old, but he’d locked my heels like a pro.

The drive home was pretty quiet. “So what do you guys want to do?” I asked. “They’re not going to put up with our shit anymore. Can we be soldiers for one year?”

After a moment of silence Eddie said, “What are you going to do, Butch?”

“Stayin’. I signed up for a year and I’m keeping my word. I’m going to qualify a crew with the First Cav, and I hope that’s us.”

They thought about it, and then Eddie spoke for them all. “OK. We can be soldiers for one year.”

My veterans were true to their word. On Thursday night they brought their uniforms to have Debbie sew the patches and name tags on correctly.

Gene made his model M60 the Iron Butterfly, and the model crewman were us. After “Happy Days” we hit the books. Debbie served up the beer and chips. She thought it was so sweet, her little men singing their Army songs. “My pack is light! My ass is tight…swinging from left to right!” I drilled the men by the numbers. Everyone makes fun of by-the-numbers but it really works when you have a lot of information to put out in a short time.

Four months at one weekend a month is only eight days of hands on the tank. There’s no way you can train a tank crew in eight days. The armor divisions train every day for months to qualify their crew in tank gunnery.

I asked First Sergeant Gable if we could take the Butterfly out on off weekends for additional training.

“You’re an NCO, Ekins. You do whatever it takes to get your crew in shape.”

Taken during his time in active duty with the 3rd Armor Division, Butch coming back from the field near Friedberg, West Germany, August 1968.

Taken during his time in active duty with the 3rd Armor Division, Butch coming back from the field near Friedberg, West Germany, August 1968.

BONDING

My veterans decided to dedicate every Saturday till summer camp to bond with our tank. After a few weeks, we were flowing. No more bumped heads and cracked shins in the cramped crew compartment.

Each man knew his procedures to bring the big machine to life. Gene checked fluid levels and tracks then climbed in the driver’s hatch and started up the Continental V-12. Denny secured the dummy 105 rounds and checked main gun function. Eddie cleaned and adjusted his gun sights. I didn’t have to tell them anything. The startup just happened.

When everything looked right, I called on the intercom, “Crew report.”

“Driver ready.” “Loader ready.” “Gunner ready.”

“Driver move out!”

I made it a strict rule-no swearing on the intercom. I had learned that at the 3rd Armor Division NCO Academy. Swearing causes indecision and panic.

The five-mile road march to the desert gave us all time to warm up and think about our crew duties. The Yerington training area had plywood silhouettes of Soviet tanks set at various ranges and our crew drills began.

“Driver stop!” Gene brought us smoothly to a halt.

“Gunner. Sabot. Tank,” I said and spun the gun close enough to the target so Eddie could pick it up in his sights.

“Identified,” he said.

Denny chambered a dummy sabot round and threw off the safety. “Up!”

I ranged on the target and checked

Eddie’s gun sight lay. “Fire!”

One second before ignition, Eddie said, “On the way.” That gave the loader time to stand away from the gun recoil and the tank commander (TC) and  gunner to close their eyes so the muzzle flash wouldn’t blind them.

“Bang,” he said as he pulled the trigger.

“Cease fire. Crew report.”

“Driver ready.” “Loader ready.” “Gunner ready.”

“Driver move out.”

We did this a hundred times until we were sick of it. Then we did 10 more. Sometimes we stayed out in the desert for the night and had dinner over a sagebrush campfire, the tank illuminated by the firelight. I think our Iron Butterfly was happy with us. We were soldiers. We were ready.

The National Guard training area was at Boise, Idaho. Each NG crew was assigned a First Cav NCO advisor called an “AI” (assistant instructor).

Our AI was a young E-6 named Garcia. This guy was 100 percent tanker. Starched to the max, aviator shades with his hat low over his eyes, tanker jacket with ‘Nam and Cav badges, the big yellow and black First Cavalry patch on both shoulders. And on his top left pocket the Tank Crew Qualification Course (“TCQC”) patch with “Distinguished” rocker, the very highest rating. Garcia showed us our training tank, a “well used” M-48A5, similar, but not identical to our M60, then took us to the barracks: Old tar-paper shacks.

“Where’d these come from, the Civil War?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said with a slight Tijuana accent. “Tomorrow we leave for two weeks in the field.”

Garcia hated National Guardsmen, but when he found we were the only all-veteran crew, he warmed up and took us under his wing. “I’m gonna get you qualified,” he said.

You can’t imagine the thrill of firing our first main gun round. Just like we practiced but a lot more noise. Sabot 105s are armor-piercing shells with incredibly high muzzle velocity and that means tremendous blast and recoil.

For 10 days, Garcia took us through practice runs, and we fired over 200 rounds. He had lots of confidence in us and even though we made many mistakes, we were scoring near the top of the Nevada crews, but just barely up to minimum First Cav standards.

Our loaner M48A5 gave us trouble sometimes, and that worried me, but all the crews had the same problems. The Las Vegas companies were doing real good, creating a strong rivalry. Who would be the first to qualify a crew?

THUMBS-UP

Finally, on the tenth day, we were standing on the starting line of the TCQC. Twenty rounds to engage 10 target situations. Five Nevada tanks had gone through before us and all had bolo’d.

Garcia tapped me on the helmet and gave me a big thumbs-up. Nothing more he could do. He went to watch us from the range tower.

I got a crew report. “Driver move out”

We engaged our first target with a solid hit. My veterans were a well-oiled machine. We were maxing fire commands and crew duties and getting a good percentage of center hits.

But why was Eddie laying his sights so damn high on the targets? Each shot seemed higher than the last.

On the tenth and final engagement my scoring AI, standing behind the turret, tapped me on the helmet and pointed to his clipboard.

“Sergeant, you’re very close. A fast first round hit with perfect fire commands and crew duties, and you’re in the record books!”

Oh, thanks. That sure settled my nerves. “Crew report!”

“Driver ready.” “Loader ready.” “Gunner ready.”

I took a deep breath and looked down at my jacket where a TCQC patch would go.

“Driver move out!”

Gene pulled away and caught second gear. We’d traveled about a hundred meters when the AI tapped me on the helmet, “There’s your target, Sergeant.”

I spun the turret to where the AI was pointing.

“Driver stop. Gunner, Sabot. Tank!”

“Identified.”

“Up!”

I ranged it at 2,000 meters. That’s long. Damn!

Eddie had the crosshairs laid a foot over the target. I hesitated. Should l override him? No. You gotta have faith. Maybe my sights were off.

“Fire!”

“On the way!” Thump!

“Oh please, please, please!” But no one was listening. The tracer sailed clean over the target. Denny loaded another round.

“Up!” I gave a subsequent fire command.

“Over! Drop one fire!”

“On the way.’’ Thump!

The tracer went straight through the hard target in a shower of sparks.

“Cease fire.” I looked behind me to the scoring AI. He had his eyes shut and his hands on his hat. I think I knew what that meant. There would be no TCQC patches for the all-veteran crew.

Back at the debriefing, Sergeant Garcia climbed up on the tank and went inside. “Look at this,” he said. One of the elevation knobs on Eddie’s gun sight had worked loose and the recoil of every round moved it a couple clicks.

“That’s no excuse,” he said. “Nothing ever goes right in combat. You have to adapt. It just comes with experience.”

Before he left, Sergeant Garcia shook each of our hands. “You done good. I’d be proud to have you in my Cav platoon.”

In the end, none of the 30 National Guardsmen qualified. It was little comfort that we had shot one of the top failing scores. The First Cavalry Division did accept the l63rd as their ready reserve. We just needed more training.

I tried to be philosophical about it all. There is no dishonor in losing a good fight. Half the teams in the Super Bowl are losers. But still it was hard. We were so close.

We finished our enlistments and turned in the uniforms. We had not accomplished our goal of qualifying with the Cav but we had worked as a team and lived a great adventure.

It was worth it.

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