by Ralph Zumbro
NOTE: This article is an updated version of one that appeared in the May-June 1989 issue of ARMOR magazine, which shows just how long some of us have been howling in the wilderness. I've updated the article with some extra insights for 2002 readers.
Armor is rightfully called the arm of decision. Absolutely nothing alters the course of an infantry battle as radically as the arrival of a thundering behemoth spewing high explosives, dripping grenades and crushing buildings. The infantry’s problem is in learning how to live with the things. In Vietnam, once the decision was made to try heavy armor, the tanks were an instantaneous success wherever they were applied. Unfortunately, several problems developed, all of which stemmed from two facts.
First, there were just too few of us to go around, for instance, in mid 1967, my company, A-1/67, was the entire armor support for the entire 1st Air Cav. Just seventeen, worn, battered tanks that been fighting since 1965, spread out to three full brigades of air mobile infantrymen who had no other ground support.....That was about 10,000 men in helicopters. Second, the supply mechanisms of a normal armored unit were....And still are, I must add, designed for a conventional European/Middle eastern conflict. There is NO way that a line company’s abreviated logistical tail can handle fractionated operations. Sometimes the company was split into six, or even eight sections, spread over 250 miles of mountains, jungles and paddies, and our only “reserve,” was the six tank! As you may suspect, controlling and supplying these scattered operations was a logistical nightmare.
Armor’s Achilles heel is its insatiable appetite for combustibles and spare parts. A Patton series tank is supposed to be turned in for depot rebuild at 4500 odometer miles, but we ran ours for 15-20,000 miles. 22,000 in the case of my decrepit dozer tank. The lessons we learned are directly applicable to the two most likely scenarios for a modern war, the Desert Storm size AirLand battle, and the so-called Low Intensity Conflict or LIC. As far as the tank and its crew are concerned, however, LIC is a misnomer. The politicians may classify a given fracas as “low intensity, but down in the jungles, the tankers and their infantry buddies will be fighting like wildcats in heat.
I have been in firefights so close that we had to button up and machine gun the VC off each other’s hulls. One TC popped up too soon and got a cannister pellet in the jaw. Our exec got into a knife fight with an NVA officer in his own turret! When you have to club hostiles off your hull with the gun tube, that is high intensity - for that crew. Tanks that are fighting that hard have to be resupplied and quickly. In one village battle, we had to pull out and re-ammo three times in one day. Unfortunately, even mechanized infantry isn’t set up to support heavy armor. The ammunition and spare parts aren’t in the supply line. One time a TC called in for a resupply of 90 mm and got a slingload of 90 mm recoilless rifle ammo. When you are cross-linked with infantry, your tanks will be scattered to the winds and you can’t afford to lose track of them. When terrain intervenes, set out relays or establish links through other radio nets.
At one time we were in such demand that infantry CO s were loath to admit that they had tanks with them for fear that someone else would ask for the armor, claiming “imminent contact.” In that instance, the air cav units could reach their own HQ s but ours was out of range. Eventually, we evolved a split supply system that used the resources of the host unit for such day to day items as fuel, rations, and small arms ammo. When things got hot, though, we had to have armor ammunition and replacement crewmen on tap. No one, except another tanker can anticipate the needs of armor in combat. Using seasoned tankers to control the flow of combustibles expedites the process because their experience allows them to understand the needs of the men in the turrets.
We discovered this quite by accident when my decrepit dozer tank took one hit too many and had to be turned in for rebuild. Due to the fact that the nearest replacement was in California, my crew and I got trapped in company base just as some of its critical personnel rotated out. We were assigned the job of Ammo/POL/general supply delivery. In effect, I inherited a group of gypsies, tramps and thieves. When an emergency call came in though, We didn’t have to guess what was needed....We Knew. I learned to sleep with one eye open, and to keep one ear tuned to the radio track. Every time a tank passed through company base, the support troops would check to see what was needed.
We developed the practice of keeping a basic load for one platoon in helicopter slings under canvas, ready to go. That supply had to be partially unpacked in order to ease the job on the other end. Ninety millimeter main gun rounds, for example, were uncrated but left in their fibre tubes. We also had several sizes and makeup's of sling-load. Sometimes a platoon or section would call in, needing only a few main gun rounds, C-rats, water, and a few mechanical spares. Other times, a section on convoy escort would need a few hundred gallons of diesel choppered out in bladders.
After a while, you develop an instinctive feel for the type of operation and start planning ahead. When a section of tanks is working through a heavily fortified area, it is going to draw HE and HEP more than any other type of ammunition. A convoy rescue, on the other hand, will burn a lot of flechette, cannister and coax. The prime rule is that everything necessary for a protracted engagement must be in company base in cargo slings at all times. Any chopper, even a gunship can lift supply loads. I have seen an ARA ship come into a hot LZ, drop off a sling and then take up station over a tank and start shooting.
The highest priority after contact must be the establishment of a semi-secure LZ for medevac, resupply and reinforcement. Many times only tanks can do this, because a section of forest must be smashed flat to allow the birds to land. Several times, even in close combat, we had to pull the tanks out of a village, form up on line and wheel around in a circle to clear both brush and snipers out of an area. It was also necessary, at times, to carry the wounded out on the tanks, and haul ammo and water back to the infantry.
Tanks working in a built-up area expend ammunition at a prodigious rate. A Patton series tank carries between 54 and 64 rounds of main gun ammo, which can we shot off in a few hours. We learned early on, that coax and .50 stowage in all main battle tanks is woefully insufficient. Twenty thousand rounds of 7.62 and 4,000 of .50 ought to be considered minimum. We also learned to stow extra main gun ammo outside the turret and on the back deck and to expend them in a bombardment period, before entering a hot zone.
All this consumption, however, will work the hell out of the company HQ people. For one thing, the first use ammunition dump must be at company base, not battalion. The company doesn’t provide enough bodies or vehicles, so battalion has to be tapped beforehand for trucks and personnel. These men should be attached to the company and under control of its NCOs. We had to set up a flying column composed of two 5-tonners and one deuce and a half. One truck and its trailer were for ammo and demolition supplies and the second rig was equipped with POL pods. The deuce and a half was crammed with general supplies and also carried our personal gear Many times, we were out for several days to a week, and had trouble finding the platoons. Then we’d spend the night at any safe port, ARVN, Korean, Aussie, whatever. In retrospect, each truck should come with a driver and a load handler or two. There were never enough bodies to go around and at one time I was handling ammo with Montagnards.
For the types of war that we seem to be headed for in the latter decade of this century...... Note, it’s here, we were right.....the company supply system is going to have to be slightly modified. Wheeled vehicles just can’t go all the places that a tracked vehicle can go. on many occasions, we used APCs to haul ammo into a remote area because helicopters couldn’t get down through triple-canopy rain forest. A much better solution would have been to use M-548s. that way, each one could be loaded with combustibles and set up to tow a fuel bladder. Each carrier should have enough crew to handle cargo and fight, if need be. There should be a .50 ring on each one, and they HAVE to have radios. In far too many instances, we had to find the tanks by following their tracks - or even asking the infantry or the local civilians if they’d seen them. This is NOT the way to run a war.
The company bunkers must be able to resupply the whole outfit several times over, once contact is made, and the ready-slings must be sent off very quickly. Next, whatever means of transport is practicable must be sent off to resupply the base itself. Once, I got caught in An Khe ammo dump by my spare truck coming in with the word that the whole company had just jumped into an NVA kill zone, on purpose....That was an interesting day. The bottom line is that the flow of ammunition must not stop or you’ll lose the initiative.
As Captain Demario asks in the September-October issue. “Even if we stop the Warsaw Pact cold, shouldn’t we have to expect to have to throw them out of every town and forest they’ll be sure to defend?” Soviets make unscrupulous use of the civil population and that will force us to create many mall independent armored units, with the attendant supply/admin problems. OK, OK, so that paragraph is dated. Now tell me what has changed. In Mogadishu, the warlords forced their women to lay down in front of Marine Captain Campbell’s tanks and the Afghans regularly hide in the civil population. The business never changes.
Once the enemy IS on the defensive, the pressure must be relentless, and that means massive consumption of fuel, ammo and rations, as well as spare parts. Get this one thing straight, if no other. Supply is important. Tactics has no value to a unit that is out of combustibles.
We must give some serious thought to adding a support platoon to the line armor company, especially those that are part of an armor division. It should be fully tracked and capable of allowing the company to split into six segments. The supply, mess and maintenance people would all fit in here, and we should add an artillery style ammo section. Also, you’d gain an extra officer who could double as liaison with cross-linked units. Whoever is controlling the resupply operation must get with the company HQ noncoms and set up a running inventory. A balance must be struck between having enough combustibles on hand and still be able to move the whole shebang on a moment’s notice. When move-out time comes, you’ll have to make a decision between making extra trips or destroying the extra supplies in place. That was one reason we always stocked extra demo gear....Just be real cautious about where you stash items like blasting caps and fuze lighters.
Our normal ground supply procedure was to take my three-truck column and make biweekly runs to the nearer platoons or sections as necessary. Depending on local VC activity, we would either make the runs unescorted, or tag along with a hardened convoy. We usually stuck to roads or tank trails and let the tanks come out to us. For a unit that was over 50 miles out, we would draw extra trucks from battalion or a transportation company, and set them up in a section of the host units firebase. On one occasion, we had a platoon working with the Korean Capital Division and had to carry an interpreter with us. Unless something radical happened, one run every two weeks was sufficient for these detachments. In any case there was always enough in these remote dumps to replenish a platoon at least twice, and a Chinook form Pleiku or Bong Son could easily restock them in a couple of hours.
As time in the field accrues, so will the need for spare parts and advanced maintenance. As a result, there’ll usually be one or two tanks in and out of company base at any given time and these can be tapped for escort duty as they become run-able. Alternatively, when one tank is returning to its platoon, the trucks can simply tag along. This allows them to penetrate deep into the bush to remote LZ s, as the tanks can pull then through the rough patches. In my case, when I got my brand new dozer tank, I kept the ammo/POL operation and did my own escort duty.
If a platoon has been out much over a month, it will need everything from Coleman mantles and mosquito netting to torsion bars and roadwheel bearings. Turbo chargers, seals, headights, the list is almost endless. Your motor sergeant is your guide here, as his experience will allow him to second guess the wear and tear and to replace things before they blow. Pappy Mitten came up to me once with a package for a Sgt. Fergeson, because “a couple of his roadwheels were leaking grease last time he went by on convoy escort.” When a road wheel or idler bearing starts to use too much grease, replace it before the wheels fall off, (it’s happened) and when a battery gets too thirsty, replace it before it pulls the others down, too. You have only as much voltage as the lowest battery in the harness and plugging in the slave cable is not advisable when lead bees are trimming the underbrush.
When you have exceeded the turn in mileage by double and are being shot at in the bargain, the rules go out the hatch. Annual maintenance was being done quarterly in Vietnam and normal monthly schedules had to be pulled weekly. If the parts can be gotten to the tanks, it is amazing how much repair work the crews can perform out in the field. We even brought a VTR out to the Cambodian border and changed power packs in a native village. Later on, our Exec one-upped us by changing a tank power pack with a CH-47 on top of a jungled mountain out “near” Cambodia.
As mileage increases, so does the list of onboard spares. We learned to carry extra road wheels and track sections, arranged as extra armor. We carried torsion bars, bolts, wire, headlights, LMG spares, spare weapons....I think we carried half a ton of spare stuff most of the time. In a normal tank or cavalry platoon, there’s no such thing as platoon or section equipment, because you’re supposed to be able to get everything necessary from company HQ. That’s fine for a Desert Storm or WWII type operation, but if you’re in a Central American rain forest or halfway across Africa, you are going to have to be self-supporting. That means extra gear and a place to haul it. Long range base antennas, for example and engine lifting slings. Extra length tow cables and slave cables. Fuel transfer pumps and hoses, Trip flares, claymores and wire for semi permanent perimeters. The list goes on forever and all this needs to be stowed. Eventually we wound up manufacturing oversize bustle racks and splitting up the accessories. Then we discovered trailers.
If a platoon or section is to operate in a defined area, say, out of some infantry fireballs, it can be given a trailer full of general supplies and a fuel trailer. You simply hook the trailers directly to the tank and haul your housekeeping gear with you. This method will give a heavy section an independent capability, because three tanks and two platoons of infantry can live for quite some time off of five tons of general supplies. Our normal SOP was for one tank and one platoon and our CIDGs to man the perimeter while the other two tanks and a platoon with its native scouts were out beating the bushes for trouble. Hint; when a truck hits a mine on the road, its trailer is up for grabs, if you move fast enough.
You can find a way to get fuel, ammunition, food and parts out to the tanks but eventually, wear on the machinery will overcome the supply of mechanics, and combat attrition will cause a shortage of skilled crewmen. There simply aren’t any spare troops in a line company unless you cross-train your rear echelon types as tankers. I have seen three TC s medevacked out in half an hour, and galvanized cooks and clerks came out on the supply ships and dropped into tanks now commanded by gunners. Most of the time, when we went out to clean up some ambush, there’d be a line of would-be loaders waiting by the gate. We even used Air Force types during TET.
Cross-training will also help solve the mechanic problem. If you start having your motor people give classes now, and send your more promising candidates to schools, you will drastically increase your unit’s flexibility, and effectiveness. Americans are unique in that we, more than any other nation are wedded to machinery. That means that our army, more than any other, can keep tanks and APCs running under adverse, even impossible, conditions. We’d Damn well better be able to, because all the terrorists in the world have just declared war on us and we’re going to have to go dig the buggers out of their deserts, swamps and jungles before we get a nuke delivered by Toyota.......Carborundum Illigitime Reducio.