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My Tank: Driving the Sherman M-4A3

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 5/1/2015 Don Sherman
M-4 General Sherman Tank: In one of the strangest family reunions extant, current technical director Don Sherman got behind the, uh, levers of an M-4 General Sherman tank in Las Vegas. Named for a certain Civil War general whom Sherman insists is part of the family tree, the M-4 tank was pivotal in World War II but was certifiably antique by the time of our drive. It was awaiting restoration by a casino-owned classic-car museum when Sherman took the controls, piloting the beast across Las Vegas streets to an empty lot where he could play out his Rommel-chasing fantasies. Read the full story >>© Alexander Stoklosa In one of the strangest family reunions extant, current technical director Don Sherman got behind the, uh, levers of an M-4 General Sherman tank in Las Vegas. Named for a certain Civil War general whom Sherman insists is part of the family tree, the M-4 tank was pivotal in World War II but was certifiably antique by the time of our drive. It was awaiting restoration by a casino-owned classic-car museum when Sherman took the controls, piloting the beast across Las Vegas streets to an empty lot where he could play out his Rommel-chasing fantasies. Read the full story >>

General William Tecumseh Sherman is disparagingly remembered in Atlanta as the inventor of hot urban renewal. Fortunately, the rest of the country holds the warrior who made my surname famous in somewhat higher regard. Many historians consider him to be the greatest of the Civil War generals and quite deserving of the honor of having an important army tank carry his name. I've always wondered what manner of warmonger was clanking around with our moniker. My short and undistinguished military career during the Vietnam conflict (C/D, November 1971) did give me the opportunity to try out an M-113 armored personnel carrier. Once, as C/D's technical editor, I had a ride in a brand-new Chrysler-built M-1 turbine tank. But until recently, the M-4 General Sherman medium tank and I had never crossed paths.

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Brock Yates is the man who changed all that. On a recent visit to Las Vegas, while touring the restoration shops of the Imperial Palace Hotel's auto collection (C/D, January 1985) with administrator Richie Clyne, Yates came upon the retired war horse on these pages. He negotiated a quick ride in it as a pleasant diversion from the crap tables, and he enjoyed the experience so much that he briefly considered calling the local army recruiter for an appointment. Better sense prevailed, and Brock instead called our Ann Arbor offices to make this golden opportunity known to the C/D editorial staff. Clyne has enjoyed a few joy rides himself—including one foray during which he inadvertently stood this 31-ton behemoth on its nose—so he wasn't at all surprised by my telephone call requesting a turn in the driver's seat. We arranged an appointment.

When the day arrives, George Lepp, the photographer assigned to the project, gets the experience off to a good start by draining a thousand quarters from an Imperial Palace slot machine. Richie Clyne greets us warmly anyway, gives us a quick tour of the collection, and sends us to the restoration shops to meet Joe Dickie, the man in charge of making museum pieces out of decrepit hulks. Joe is to be my tank commander and driving instructor. While an assistant gasses and lubes the General for a test run, Joe ushers me through the various departments that erase the ravages of time in the preparation of cars and trucks for the city's premier auto museum. I find that the last V-16 Cadillac purchased by W.C. Fields is next in line for a complete tear-down and build-up. A worker is applying the finishing touches to a royal-blue-and-gold 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The shop holds five to ten machines in various states of restoration, and an adjoining warehouse contains another twenty or thirty pieces invarious states of disrepair. We wander around a World War I Renault tank, a pair of custom-bodied 770K Mercedes, an experimental Chrysler hardtop convertible built in the early forties, and a lifetime supply of teardrop headlamps. Need an engine for your Sherman tank or a fender for your Wills Sainte Claire?

Eleven skilled craftsmen are on the payroll, and all the stripping, cleaning, machining, mechanical assembly, woodwork, painting, and upholstery are done under one roof. The shop handles everything but plating in-house. Joe Dickie is the boss and also the master panel beater, whose occasional job it is to hand-hammer a new fender or door skin from a flat sheet of metal. Charles Lindsay, the resident upholsterer, proudly spits tacks the same way his guild did 60 years ago, and he staunchly refuses to stuff the seats he refurbishes with anything but authentic cotton batting. But this is not the time to revel in overstuffed seats and polished brass. We adjourn to the driveway, where the Sherman tank waits with all the spit and polish of a Dempster-Dumpster. Although our test tank hasn't exactly been through a war, it's one long restoration project away from being a pristine, low-mileage cream puff ready for the front row of the Imperial Palace collection. Its rubber track pads are chunked and badly in need of a manicure, its olive-drab paint job is duller than dishwater, and one of its hatches is frozen in the open position. There will be no need to be gentle with the equipment today, for this is one Sherman that's rough and ready to butt heads with all corners. You couldn't hurt it with a hand grenade.

Joe drops through an open manhole at the front corner of the sloping hull and cranks the mighty engine to life. Eight huge gasoline-burning cylinders in a 60-degree V-block cough a cloud of blue-white smoke out the back and rattle the air with sounds that make you think aircraft more than semi truck. As a matter of fact, the Sherman's Ford-built 1099-cubic-inch prime mover was originally conceived as a V-12 aircraft engine; it was demoted to ground-pounder duty when its vibration characteristics were deemed unacceptable for the heavens. Today, it's spitting through its carburetors during warmup, but otherwise it's quite ready to foment fear and loathing in Las Vegas. Joe threads the tank through the local complex of industrial buildings, down an alley or two, and across a thoroughfare teeming with four lanes of traffic. The sin-city civilians screech to a halt and gape at our procession: one World War II jeep, one Sherman tank, one journalist atop the tank doing a poor Patton-into-the-breach imitatiot and two men on foot to clear the path. There are no casualties as we clank-squeak across the street to soft ground as speedily as our tracks will carry us. Luckily, the Imperial Palace owns a vacant lot within a block or two of the shops, and it's perfect for our reenactment of the 1942-43 North Africa campaign.

We have sand, dust, willing troops, and two eager Shermans, but no Rommel. Actually, it's just as well that the enemy can't make it today: when this tank was decommissioned, the government followed normal procedures and chopped off its 75mm gun tube with a cutting torch, so we have no firepower. As a civilian, this emasculated warrior first wrecked houses for a living in New Jersey. After it fell into the basement one too many times, it became a static attention grabber in front of a New York antique-car dealership. Years later, it was "discovered" by a Hollywood mogul and bought off the lot for what turned out to be a five-year stint as a movie prop. When Richie Clyne purchased the tired hulk last year for $35,000, it had a damaged engine (which has been replaced with a new one) and a gun tube that had been welded back together for appearance sake. The big weapon will fire no more, though the museum does have a number of operational machine guns for it, just in case the gamblers ever run amok at the casino.

The lack of armament isn't a problem for us, though, because there is plenty of machinery to hold our attention. Like all modern tanks, the Sherman is made of two components that are designed to be as impregnable as possible: a hull that contains the propulsion and guidance machinery, and a turret that swivels on a ring of ball bearings. The engine, its mufflers, and a pair of radiators reside in the rear third of the hull under a hefty pair of ventilation grates. The driver and the bow gunner sit in cramped quarters ahead of the turret, with a bulky five-speed transmission between them (see drawing). The other three crew members—the commander, the main gunner, and the ammo loader—ride the merry-go-round-like cage attached to the turret. It, too, is cramped and full of machinery. The rotund need not apply for access to the driver's seat, because the oval-shaped entry port can't be stretched a micron.

I pass the rigid entrance requirements by twisting sideways in the opening and drop down to study the controls and take instruction from Joe Dickie. To the left is a simple panel of switches and gauges (most of which don't work), and two pedals and three stout hand levers are mounted on the floor. The pedals operate the throttle and the clutch in the conventional manner. and a right-hand lever stirs through five forward gears and one reverse. The two other levers are each as long as a hockey stick and as hefty as a baseball bat. They have to be big, because they do big jobs without any type of power assist: they each control the brakes and the differential mechanism for one track. Pull the left Louisville Slugger and you turn left. Hauling back on the right lever pivots the tank to the right. Pulling them both halts all forward progress. What could be simpler?

Following Joe's instructions, I prime the carburetors with a few strokes of a small pump. (For some reason, the priming knob is a small white plastic skull with red eye sockets.) I flip the magneto switch, boot the throttle, and poke at the rubber-covered starter button, and the nimbly V-8 reports for duty. The clutch pedal feels like a Nautilus machine set in the Schwarzenegger position, while the shifter is loose and sloppy. I locate second gear without a crunch (first is a creeper hedgerows and scaling barricades) and relieve my clutch foot, launching the 31-ton hulk into nearly irresistible motion. Joe (in the turret) and I pivot tightly to the left in search of a dune to demolish, and I find that it takes a heavy foot on the gas to keep up any momentum when one side of this dreadnought is stopped dead in its track. It also takes all the upper-body oomph I can muster to operate the long left-turn handle. After only a few minutes of repeated pivot turns, the straight-ahead direction wins out as the preferred course of travel.

No dune on this lot is too high to stop us. I attack various mounds of loose fill dirtwith a vengeance, but the General Sherman, pitching up and down, takes them all in stride. Its ride motions are soft and slow as the tracks lay a temporarily smooth course across the irregular ground to provide easy going for the twelve road wheels. The armor-plated box resists up-and-down jostling, but side-to-side motions are a different matter. My head is ricocheting around in the driver's port hold like a pinball trapped between the "Free Game" bumpers, and I thank the lucky stars in my head that we purchased an aviator's helmet at the war-surplus store. The big engine is loafing, I'm having little trouble manhandling the steering levers, and I haven't hit anything yet—so obviously it's time for more velocity. That calls for double-clutching through neutral on the way to third gear, since there are no synchronizers in the transmission. The big cogs clunk into engagement, I floor the throttle, and the pace advances from walking to running speed. If only we had a usable gun tube, a few rounds of ammo, and Joe's keen eye through the gun sights, we could easily adjust the Las Vegas skyline more to our liking.

Instead, we rearrange the vacant lot under our tracks. After a few laps, half the loose ground cover is hanging over our heads like a local sandstorm, and the rest is inside the hull of the tank. Add heat, the din of the engine, the incessant clank-squeak of the 158 track shoes, the iron halo rattling around the driver's head, the uncomfortable seat, and the workout levers that must be pulled now and then, and you've got the makings of a very credible Excedrin commercial. It's easy to see whyFor me, dune busting in a Sherman tank was the thrill of a lifetime, but I would never wish such a career on anyone. It's hard work, and there are too few opportunities to enjoy the satisfaction of crushing an enemy halftrack or blowing an unwanted bridge to smithereens. Factor in the near-tropical heat of AI-Alamein or the bitter cold of Korea's 38th parallel and you've got one truly miserable existence. Furthermore, as we all know from video games, tanks are prize targets. As if wasn't bad enough that the lives of the WWII tankers were filled with the boom, smoke, and recoil from their outgoing rounds, they also had to worry about enemy artillery crashing through the walls whenever their cast-iron penalty boxes came within range of the German Panzer divisions' 88mm guns. General William T. didn't live to see the dawn of tank warfare, but his words apply nonetheless: "I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell."

Historical Notes | Shermans uber allies

Nearly fifty thousand M-4 General Sherman medium tanks were built from February 1942 to June 1944, making the Sherman the most important and widely used tank in the service of the Allies during World War II. The Russian T-34 is the only other tank built in such numbers.

The Sherman was America's first modern tank, featuring a fully welded body and a turret capable of 360-degree rotation. Nine manufacturers—includ-ing the Chrysler Corporation and General Motors—built the M-4 during the war, in a variety of configurations and with weapons ranging from a 75mm gun to an eight-inch howitzer. In addition to conventional tanks, a number of other battlewagons were based on the Sherman chassis: flame throwers, amphibious vehicles, bulldozers, bridge layers, mine exploders, tank-recovery vehicles, cargo and personnel carriers, and prime movers. (Two of the armored recovery vehicles are still in use today.)

Five different engines powered the Sherman to war: a Ford gasoline V-8, a Continental nine-cylinder radial, a GM twelve-cylinder (two in-line sixes) diesel, a Chrysler 30-cylinder (five in-line sixes) multibank, and an Ordnance Engine nine-cylinder radial diesel. Each of these powerplants produced at least 350 horsepower.

Shermans were supplied to British, French, and Soviet troops during the war in Europe, and they initially tasted battle at Al-Alamein, Egypt, in October 1942. American troops first used the M-4 a few months later in Tunisia, but that was a sadly inauspicious beginning: the first five tanks to enter the war in our hands were quickly knocked out by the Germans. Shermans participated on nearly every major battlefield during World War II, serving in both the European and the Pacific theater. They also fought in Korea, in three Middle Eastern wars, and in a number of lesser conflicts. Twenty-two countries purchased Shermans, and some of them are still in service today.

General Patton found the Sherman's virtues—relatively light weight (under the limits of most bridges), narrow width, and high reliability—quite useful against the Germans. It was adept at penetrating enemy lines and making an annoyance of itself in rear areas. However, the Sherman seldom held the upper hand in tank-versus-tank battles with the Germans. The Panzer divisions had higher muzzle velocities or larger-caliber weapons at their disposal, and they had little trouble penetrating our armor. The Sherman's 75mm gun couldn't punch a hole in the armor of the later Panzer and Tiger tanks, even at point-blank range, so our troops had to develop special tactics to hold their own. We enjoyed superior numbers of tanks; high mobility, which was used to great advantage in flanking maneuvers; and fast-traversing turrets, which often al­lowed American troops to squeeze off the first shot. And the 75mm gun (and its 76mm replacement) made up for its lack of wallop with its accuracy.

Technological advances since World War II have rendered the main battle tank largely obsolete. A foot soldier armed with a rocket launcher and mod­ern armor-piercing ammunition can blast nearly any ground-based vehicle from contention (at least if it's caught napping). In addition, other fighting machines—light-armored personnel carriers, wheeled missile launchers, and gun-toting helicopters—have almost completely replaced the heavier, slower, and more vulnerable ground pounders.

The Sherman does, however, serve a very useful role in retirement. As a mu­seum piece and occasional thrill ride, it's the perfect reminder of the price our na­tion paid to secure the peace we enjoy today.

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