In May, I received an invitation from 2nd Marine Tank Battalion via USMC Vietnam Tankers association to attend their annual tank competition. It was short notice but I pulled out all the stops to get to Camp Lejeune by June 4th for the shoot out the next day on range S10. Master Gunnery Sgt. Sanchez replied to my endless emails and answered my questions. I was even able to bring my lifelong friend Mel Barrera, an aspiring photographer who had done a great job shooting many of my car races.
Each year the tankers wring out their 244 tank crews to come up with the top crews from 1st, 2nd, and 4th tank battalions, sending the best from each to slug it out at Tiger Comp on simulated engagements with main gun and machine guns at rotating military sites in the US. They are judged by speed of engagement, accuracy and crew communication.
It has been decades since I was a gunner and then TC with 2nd platoon C. Company, 1st tank 1967-68 Vietnam. Just like the Marine saying “Once a Marine...” we say “Once a tanker, always a tanker.” I was really looking forward to seeing changes in both Marines and equipment. I operated M48a3 Patton Tanks and today they use a M1a2 Abrams. It’s a world of difference since the mid 60s.
These days they have bigger guns (90mm to 120mm), better armor, faster better engines (diesel to turbine), Starwars sighting systems and communications, and all at a weight gain of only 8 tons.
I had the opportunity to meet the 1st tank crew and swap some sea stories and get answers to a few of my questions. One surprise was the fact that RPGs were still able to get inside due to improved warheads. I knew that massive IEDs had been able to blow them up in Iraq, but thought the new armor had all but defeated vulnerability to the common RPG. Tank crews have not changed as much as their gear has. The crews are still close knit, young and a bit cocky; it was as if I were jawing with my old crew. Only difference I noticed was these tankers were wearing nomex jumpsuits and they were a bit more tech savvy.
Things kicked right off after a brief explanation of the course of fire, random problems of pop ups and moving targets that the crews would have to engage, both from defilade and on the move.The crews took their turns at the course, engaging and hitting targets at excess of 2500 meters, starting with firing from fixed defilade positions to the left and right of the range, and then running deep into the range to fire on pop-ups both to the left and right of their line of approach. The flashes arrived a few seconds ahead of the “booms” and “braaaaps” of the gunfire. I watched some of this deeper action through some 8 power German field glasses. Most of the spectators were missing this fast and furious action going on well down range.
The crews consisted of:
1st Tank Bn.
C.O.: LtCol. Lee Rush
TC: Sgt. John Hunter
Gunner: Cpl. Christopher Aguilar
Loader: L/Cpl. Andrew Ghataora
Driver: L/Cpl. Victor Ruiz
2nd Tank Bn.
C.O. LtCol. Robert Bodisch
TC: Ssgt. Joseph Lowery
Gunner: Cpl. Charles Smith III
Loader: L/Cpl. Ryan Foster
Driver L/Cpl. Keondre Mitchell
4th Tank Bn.
C.O.: LtCol. John Valencia
Inspector-Instructer: LtCol. Ronald Storer
TC: 1st Lt. Andrew Bender
Gunner: Cpl. Johny Mitchell
Loader:Cpl. Soren Shay
Driver: L/Cpl. Jakxon Wolfe
1st Place- 2nd Tank Bn. 2nd Place- 4th Tank Bn. 3rd Place- 1st Tank Bn.
The winning crew received the Sgt Robert McCard (MOH) trophy and other awards and prizes to include items from General Dynamics and a Navy/Marine Corps Commendation medal.
After the crews took their turns, they performed a demonstration; the symphony of multiple 120mm main guns and Ma Duce fire almost took me back to Vietnam. It was music that I will always enjoy and appreciate, the sheer power of Queens of battle.
Best show ever, and...best job I ever had!