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Driving a Tank - Chris Sarno Memoir

Sarno explained that a Sherman tank had a clutch, whereas the M-46 had an automatic transmission and thus no clutch. The Sherman had two lateral sticks that moved to the left or right. The M-46 had only one lever, and an engine that was twice as powerful as that of the Sherman engine. "The M-46 had a better suspension system that gave you a beautiful, deluxe baby carriage ride," recalled Sarno. "Whereas, a Sherman would bounce and hit every bounce…and you could feel it. Sometimes you’d bounce and almost hit your teeth on the open hatch. The Sherman tank was a rough-riding tank and it didn’t have the big 90 millimeter gun either."

But because they didn’t know anything about the M-46, the trainees at Delmar didn’t know what they were missing by not having one. They mastered the Sherman tank in spite of its flaws. Their training was generally in-tank training, and included learning how to handle maintenance. Their instructors had been tank men in Korea. They observed the Marines as they trained on the tanks, addressing mistakes they made immediately and in no uncertain terms.

"There was one instructor that I admired most," recalled Sarno. "Master Sergeant Koontz was a 30-year man who had been in the Inchon Invasion and the taking of Seoul. In class, he would start out talking about oils—the heaviness and the lightness of the different types of oils that we used in the tank. Then one guy would say, ‘What was it like in Korea?’ He’d get away from what he was supposed to tell us, and instead tell us sea stories. He said that in Seoul, they shot up the whole damned place—anything that moved." Koontz told his tank school class about the time in Korea when a tank hatch was up and a Marine rifleman came up to his tank in the heat of battle and stuck a severed head on the travel hitch facing the rear of the tank. "A dead gook," said Sarno. "They cut his head off and stuck it on that and they drove through Seoul that way. I admired Koontz because he was the greatest tanker I ever saw. He wasn’t a hard-nosed guy saying that we were all going to die and all that. He talked about tanks and situations. He always had a famous saying, ‘Everything is predicated on the terrain and the situation.’ That meant that every instance when you’re in direct fire is different from any other. That turned out to be true. In combat, you can’t say, ‘This is the way it’s gonna be. Be flexible. If it isn’t in the book, you can accomplish it if you want to be a survivor. I liked Koontz, but we had other instructors who were good, too."

Those instructors had to be good to have survived some of the wild rides that the occasional Marine—Chris Sarno included--gave them as they learned the intricacies of the Sherman tank clutch. There was a trick to it, and some tankers-in-training had a more difficult time learning it than others. "I struggled to master the art of being able to ‘double clutch’ in the shifting of gears on the Sherman tank," Sarno confessed. "While driving a Sherman, the driver had to pull back the left lateral to go left, while at the same instance flooring the accelerator for power to thrust the tank left (just the opposite of driving a car around a corner). The right lateral had to be pulled hard toward the driver’s stomach to maneuver a right turn. The single ‘joy stick’ of the M-46 was on the driver’s right side and all one had to do was…gently…guide the stick to the left and floor the accelerator to move 50 tons left."

Sarno recalled that on one sunny, hot afternoon while in driver’s class, the instructor wanted him to drive. "My buddies drove this Sherman up a wide trail about 300 meters high. You could see the tranquil Pacific Ocean glistening and the civilian cars humming along Highway 101. The sergeant told me when to shift as we descended down the trail. I got it into neutral and we slowly moved down. ‘Shift it into first gear, Sarno.’ I tried, but only ground the gears. He repeated this several times to me, but I was unable to get into first gear. The tank picked up speed every foot now. We were in ‘Mexican Overdrive.’ I could feel the wind in my face in this out-of-control descent. It felt like 60 miles per hour as we plunged down this straight trail in a dust cloud. I was scared shitless as I saw Riley bouncing on the deck plates on the turret deck. Riley was from Boston. I prayed to the Virgin Mary to no avail—I was on my own! The sergeant screamed, ‘Just keep the tank in a straight line. Don’t hit the brakes.’ If I hit the brakes, we would be over the cliff. The four guys in the tank thought we were goners, but I used two laterals gingerly and the tank halted about 200 yards from the main tank park. It was a bumpy but fast ride—not in the book—but no one was injured. When we stopped, tank park members rushed out to help. The sergeant took me behind the tank to scan hanging parts, and then he clobbered me to the deck. I couldn’t and didn’t want to defend myself. I had screwed up. Riley told me to my face, ‘Sarno, I will never get in a tank with you as a driver.’ I was a man without a country. I was on guard duty at the tank park that long weekend."

Two days later, another instructor grabbed Sarno’s arm and felt his muscle. He said, "You’re strong as a bull. Why can’t you shift gears?" Sarno told him that it was a mental block. His inability to shift gears easily also caused him to get chewed out by a tank commander the day the trainees went through a tank machine gun drill. Looking through a periscope, Sarno easily mastered firing at ground level targets. What he couldn’t do was shift those gears. Inching his way back on the course in fifth gear, he was met by the tank commander, who grabbed him by the neck and told him never to start off in fifth gear because it would rupture the oil lines on the engine. "I almost got kicked out of tank school over my inability to shift gears," he confessed, "but I convinced the sergeants that I wanted tanks BAD. Somehow, I passed tank school." Sarno said that he went on to be a "damn good driver" on an A-41 tank, and mastered the M-46 and M-47 as well. "I went on to be a fine M-46 and M-47 driver," he said. When he left for Korea in the 12th draft, he was a private. He returned from Korea as a sergeant and a tank commander. "So much for ‘shifting gears’," he said.

Marine tank school at Camp Del Mar consisted of a great deal of classroom preparation, dealing with the weight of various oils, and constant daily preventative maintenance to the tank. "I would say that tanks are mobile twenty percent of the time while the other 80 percent of the time it is undergoing tank preventative maintenance." He recalled. "We got greasy, obviously, but that tank had to be ready at a moment’s notice." He said that Marine tankers were expected to grasp the general idea of how the engine functioned with the transmission and the hands off (the major junction box) in the ring of the turret—the master brain to the electrical circuits. Sarno and the other crew members got very proficient with breaking tracks. They underwent gunnery training on the .50 caliber machine gun, the .30 caliber machine gun, the .45 caliber pistol, and the Thompson submachine gun. They also took classes on tank tactics, "where yardstick evaluation is deemed by terrain and situation at hand."

Sarno said that it is a little known fact that tankers aid grunts in a war zone. "When moving through two split columns of Marine infantry," he said, "we slowed down to keep the dust cloud from forming. If stopped for a quick road check, we filled up grunts’ canteens with water and a few extra C-rations boxes, too. We even let them puncture a can and heat its contents up on our long muffler covers. Hot C’s were a real treat to the ground pounders." For 19-year old Sarno, who was so fresh out of high school that he didn’t even have a driver’s license or car yet, he got quite a thrill out of pushing a combat-loaded "50 ton beast" like a baby carriage.

About 55 riflemen were turned into tankers at Camp Del Mar, including Chris Sarno. With tank school behind him, Sarno moved one final step closer to attaining his dream of going into combat in the Korean War. "There was one phase left," he said. "I had to go to Main Side Pendleton to go into close combat training. It was back to being a Marine rifleman."


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