T34 Tank Rides Enlighten Weekend Warriors
Having grown up in the Midwest and watching “classic” WWII movies, I was overconfident in the ability of unsupported armor in WWII. In my mind, armor was the “king” of the battlefield, capable of amazing maneuvers, delivering death from afar and mowing down soldiers like a scythe through grass. The WWII tank (just as the Great White Shark) was an apex hunter that was only vulnerable to a larger apex hunter (or a 500 lbs. bomb). My mind replays Donald Sutherland (“Mad Dog”) in Kelly’s Heroes as his three Shermans emerged from the railroad tunnel and single handedly devastated a German infantry company. “Woof, woof – that’s my other dog impression!”
As I got older the computerized games only reinforced the ultimate supremacy of armor on the battlefield. Von Paulus may have been afraid of sending his tanks into Stalingrad, but I wasn’t. My armor would take city after city, while my supporting infantry raced to keep up with their advance.
More advanced literature and wonderful documentaries exposed me to the more technical capabilities of armor in WWII - including some of the weaknesses of the American Sherman (armor vs. gun, gasoline engines, high silhouette), German Tiger tank (weight, width/logistics, range/service) and Russian T34 (small copula, lighter gun). However, despite some of these technical limitations, I still viewed WWII armor as the apex predator of the battlefield.
All that changed D-Day weekend (5 June 2004). My god-father, father and myself drove to Minneapolis to ride in a T34. Upon our arrival we met our tank driver (owner) Bob Bowman. Bob owns a T34 and provides rides on a commercial basis. After signing the obligatory release of liability forms, Bob provided a 45 minute overview of the T34 and it’s capabilities. The information was so fascinating and our questions so numerous, the overview seemed like 2 minutes. Next, we suited up (coveralls, helmets & goggles) and reviewed the crew positions with Bob.
The tank commander had the “best” seat for viewing the battlefield, until you had to button-up the hatches or you drove by a sniper. Buttoned-up in the cupola, the commander could see very little through his view finder and had to direct the gunner & driver (foot signals), avoid being hit by the traversing gun, and locate targets.
The loader also had a good seat up-top, until the action started. He would drop down into the cupola and begin feeding shells. He had no vision to the outside, had to avoid the traversing gun while stepping over hot, spent shell casings, keep the barrel loaded, press the safety and avoid the breach which would nearly hit the back of the turret. He also had a turret mounted machine gun that had to be loaded and serviced.
The gunner was able to sit and fire the cannon; that’s the good news. Unfortunately, he also had to hand traverse the gun, locate targets through a tiny lens and get kicked by the commander for gun and tank movements.
The forward machine gunner sat next to the driver. It was a cramped location behind the forward machine gun, above the emergency exit (in the floor) and peered through a 1/8” hole to aim the machine gun. In the event of an emergency exit (through the floor) the person would have to locate the wrench (presumably in the dark, with enveloping smoke), remove the door, and then exit.
The final position is the driver. At my very first glance of Bob, I thought of Popeye. Bob has very muscular forearms. After watching him “horse” the T34 (no hydraulics for steering or braking), I understood his forearm strength. Frankly, I don’t know if any of us had the arm strength to drive the T34!
We mounted up, as quickly as 200 lb. men can climb onto a tank and into the hatches, and fired up the engine. Even without the extra ammunition and fuel, the tank is very confined. It was a cool day (70 degrees), but it quickly became warm in the tank and the deafening noise made us glad to have brought ear muffs. We quickly confirmed our ability to traverse and elevate the gun (by hand) and then began moving towards a dirt path. Bob had warned us of two anti-tank guns (that would be un-camoflauged and in the open), and we were surveying the landscape for the enemy.
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