Gunner’s Seat: ‘If the Tanks Succeed, Then Victory Follows’

(Quote by Heinz Guderein)

Combined-arms maneuver remains a core competency of our Army today, much as it has been since the development of “AirLand Battle” in the early 1980s. Central to this competency is the Armor Branch and its noncommissioned officers who, since the early days of 1918, have provided the backbone of the Armor Corps. The NCO’s leadership in combat, mastery of his platform and ability to train are what, time and again, has allowed the tanks to succeed and victory to follow. No Soldiers better epitomize the tenets of initiative; understanding through action, mobility, endurance and adaptability; or better demonstrate the ability to thrive in environments of uncertainty and danger than U.S Army tankers.

Stories of the valor and leadership of Armor NCOs are many but well illustrated by the example of two sergeants in 761st Tank Battalion of World War II fame, where two incidents happened within a week of each other. In the first, SSG Ruben Rivers was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for unusual heroism while serving with Company A, 761st. “For extraordinary heroism in action [Nov. 15-19], 1944, toward Guebling, France. Though severely wounded in the leg, Rivers refused medical treatment and evacuation, took command of another tank and advanced with his company in Guebling the next day. Repeatedly refusing evacuation, Rivers continued to direct his tank’s fire at enemy positions through the morning of [Nov. 19], 1944. At dawn, Company A’s tanks began to advance toward Bourgaltroff but were stopped by enemy fire. Rivers, joined by another tank, opened fire on the enemy tanks, covering company A as they withdrew. While doing so, Rivers’ tank was hit, killing him and wounding the crew. Rivers’ fighting spirit and daring leadership were an inspiration to his unit and exemplify the highest traditions of military service.”

In the second incident, tank commander SGT Warren G.H. Crecy came to the aid of his men Nov. 10, 1944, and fought through enemy positions until his tank was destroyed. He eliminated an enemy position that had knocked out his tank by commandeering a vehicle armed with only a .30-caliber machinegun. He then eliminated the German forward observers who were directing artillery fire on U.S. positions. After manning a replacement tank, Crecy’s new vehicle lost traction in heavy mud, and he was forced to exit the tank under fierce machinegun, antitank and artillery fire to free the tracks. When attacked by German infantry, he had to abandon his salvage efforts to man the .50-caliber machinegun, effectively holding off the advancing enemy, then forcing them to withdraw. Described as a baby-faced, “quiet, easy-going, meek-looking fellow,” Crecy had destroyed an antitank position and a number of German machinegun positions, armed only with a machinegun and without regard for his personal safety under heavy fire. His men reportedly experienced difficulty getting the machinegun away from him after the action. Crecy was nominated for the Medal of Honor and received a battlefield commission, eventually retiring with the rank of major.

These two NCOs made a lasting contribution, not only to 761st Tank Battalion but to Armor history as well. Armor NCOs have always been recognized as the expert in not only fighting their own tank but also the formation they are a part of. They know everything about everything it takes to keep that formation running and make it successful. In Ralph Zumbro’s book, Tank Sergeant, there are great examples of this during combat operations by 69th Armor in Vietnam. First is an example of overcoming maintenance issues. With an infantry company in contact and its commanding officer requesting tank support, the M48 tankers only had two tanks not already committed. One tank could shoot but didn’t run, and one tank could drive but not shoot; so like any good NCO would, they solved the problem with the “runner” towing the “shooter” into the firefight and getting the job done.

Second was how tankers adapted to support U.S. Navy riverine operations. While occupying a defensive position for the night, the tank platoon was contacted by a Navy patrol that had been pursuing enemy sampans. The platoon quickly came to life and moved into position to start scanning from the shore and intercepting the enemy. Using the infrared mode on their searchlights to scan, they quickly located the enemy boats, waited until they entered the engagement area, switched to white beams on the searchlights and destroyed six enemy sampans in a matter of moments.

Certainly, the Vietnam-era tankers of 69th Armor provide great illustrations of how the expertise of NCOs can adapt to any situation and make a unit thrive.

Lastly, the tanker NCO is the consummate trainer. The tank master-gunner program best illustrates this. Since 1974, the master gunner has exemplified how to train individuals, teams and units in both the institutional and operational Army. This program flourished through the 1980s and 90s, and could arguably be credited with the success of units on the battlefield during the invasions of Kuwait and Iraq in Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The master gunner spearheads our unit-gunnery programs now as we seek to redevelop skills that support the Army’s core competencies. The Fort Carson Mountaineer recently published an article highlighting the achievements of SSG Gregory Hennon who, as a sergeant, served as the battalion master gunner and was charged with creating the battalion’s gunnery tables that would train and certify every M1A2 crew in the unit while deployed to Kuwait.

Again, this exemplifies how NCOs, given responsibility and empowered by their leadership, will execute superbly and cause a unit to succeed.

In closing, the U.S Army’s Armor Corps is the combat arm of decision. The NCO Corps is what has historically allowed it to be so and, what through leadership, expertise and ability to train, will provide the forge the future of the armor force will be built on.

Forge the Thunderbolt!

CSM Michael Clemens
Command Sergeant Major
U.S. Army Armor School