WHAM!!! WHAM!!! A Perspective on being a Sherman Tank Gunner at the Americans in Wartime Museum Open House
I recently had the honor and privilege to serve as the Gunner on our M4A1 Sherman Tank during the 2016 Open House. The experience was so incredible I thought I would share the sights and sounds of what it was like.
Preparation started well before the Open House. We carefully carried the un-charged (but primed) rounds out to the Sherman to make sure each would fit into the cannon’s breech. Museum staff then made arrangements to have blank 75mm rounds charged with powder under controlled conditions. After the powder was carefully measured and poured, another volunteer placed cork wadding over the top and sealed the rounds.
While that was taking place, Marc S., the Operations Manager, thoroughly briefed me on the operation of the breech and the triggering mechanism. At first, trying to open the breech was extremely difficult, until I figured out the proper body position and arm angle to gain maximum leverage. I practiced and practiced. Tricks the crews in WWII would have used to save their lives, saving precious seconds.
After several practice sessions, I was confident in my ability to safely and correctly conduct the firing sequence. Suddenly it was Saturday, the first Day of the Open House!
Marc gathered the crew of the Sherman, the LVT4, and the members of the US Marine Corps Historical Company to discuss the scheme of maneuver. Once everybody was clear on the safety protocols and how the mock battle would unfold, we mounted our Steel Chariot.
I carefully stowed my rounds. I double checked all my tools. I went over the hand signals with my Vehicle Command and my Driver. All I could see was a small circle of sky thru the lone hatch. I was cut off from the outside world.
Suddenly the tank lurched forward and we were starting the demonstration. My senses were overloaded—the roar of the engine, the squeal of the track, the bumps that moved the tank around. All impossible to anticipate in my steel cocoon down in the belly of the tank.
The tank stopped, that was my cue to load and lock the first round. I hefted the massive 75mm blank into the breech and slammed it shut. My vehicle commander gave one last visual check for safety and I got the thumbs up, it was time to fire!
I screamed “On the WAAAAAY” and mashed the trigger……WHAM!!!! The cannon bucked back, and I felt the thud of the blank charge in my chest. The blue smoke erupted from the muzzle and the crowd cheered, although I couldn’t hear it.
I slammed open the breech and the mechanism kicked out the empty….acrid black powder fumes assailed my nostrils and filled the turret, even with the hatch open. I placed the empty down in the turret basket and reached for my second round.
The cannon was now loaded, it seemed to take minutes, but I am told it was only a few seconds. Once again, I found myself bellowing the traditional tank gunner’s cry of ON THE WAY as I mashed the trigger a second time.
Again, the cannon recoiled. I opened the breech and more fumes wafted past my head. I sat back, spent from the adrenalin, and started to think about the men serving at Bastogne, or in Tunisia, or Iwo Jima….doing this for days on end. Loading, firing, reloading, firing again….all in conditions that took a toll on body and mind.
Our fire support mission done, my ears now filled with the crackle of small arms fire!!! Was that incoming or outgoing….it was difficult to tell. Then I remembered it was the Marines conducting their assault. But I found it impossible to comprehend the flow of their attack….I could only think about what a real battle must have felt and sounded like—how disconcerting it was.
We then backed out of the battle arena and into our parking position. I cleaned up the rounds and the tools, to be ready for Sunday. The engine revs slowed and died, I waited for my Commander to exit and then I went up, out, and down to the ground. Then on Sunday, for a second time, I “gunned” our Sherman tank.
All of the above words describing the sights and sounds, however, pale in comparison to the emotion I felt knowing that on each day, we were privileged to have in our bow gunner position a WWII Sherman Veteran. Yes, that is what Open House is about, keeping the memory alive of those who served aboard these armored beasts we have in the collection. As I crawled out of the turret, I shook the veterans hand again, this time with a much deeper understanding of what he had done for our country.
At next year’s Open House, please take the time to shake the hand of the many veterans also attending.