A quick snap shot of a skinny kid late Friday afternoon, October 11, 1981, before heading to the armory of Company B, 1st Battalion. 112th Armor, 49th Armored Division, Texas Army National Guard. Buses waited at the Dallas, Texas armory to take the Company, commanded by CAPT Wagner, to Fort Hood, Texas for weekend training. During this weekend, the events that occurred would prove to be the most dramatic I had experienced.
The pensive look on my face is real. I dreaded this weekend, because it was my first time to go to field training with B Company. I was a college freshman at the University of Texas at Arlington and my dad was an active duty Lieutenant Colonel in the Regular Army, attached to the Texas Army National Guard as a Senior Brigade Advisor, and had high hopes for his son, and I knew much was expected of me.
I was a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) cadet under contract with the Department of Military Science at UTA. Because of an accelerated program, I was, by that October, far enough along in the program to receive a monthly paycheck of $100. I was to complete the critical last two years of ROTC during my Freshman and Sophomore years of college, in effect completing my Military Science (MS) I and II grades during the summer sessions before my fall freshman semester when I would be a MS III. An MS III was the Junior college student level of leadership within the ROTC program, that out-ranked MS I’s and II’s, and at that level a cadet chose his branch of service he or she wanted to be commissioned. My dad’s branch was Armor, so I chose Armor, with a secret wish to be a helicopter gunship pilot.
The plan was to finish ROTC by the end of my Sophomore year and receive a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Texas Army National Guard, provided I had earned enough college credits to qualify. This was the accelerated program, of which I was never very comfortable with. It just seemed too easy and way too much pressure for a first-year college student.
Concurrently, the Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP) existed for Military Science III and IV students which placed a cadet, after taking the oath of allegiance and passing the physical, with a National Guard unit. This was done, ostensibly, to have a cadet gain some insight to military service, acquire some knowledge, and participate in training. But I think filling the ranks within the National Guard was more to the point. The attractiveness was that a cadet received a monthly check of $92.50 per month, and was give the rank insignia of three-striped sergeant. I always considered my rank as an E-5 honorary and never, never, felt myself superior to anyone, especially an E1. The was frequently discussions about whether we should be considered Cadets
or Guardsmen. I don't know about other cadets, but I never felt I fit in with the Company. I guess the fact that I was a college student and that my dad was an officer made them see me as privileged, or something. It did somehow feel fraudulent to me. But, because I had signed the contract and now wore the 49th Armored Division patch on my left shoulder sleeve, I pinned on my Sergeant chevrons and went with the program.
So, that October afternoon I was worried. I wasn’t even positive I wanted to be a part of all this, much more choose the military as a career. Regardless, there I was, and this was the first opportunity to earn my monthly check of $92.50.
Upon enlistment, and after Basic Training, a soldier spent months at Fort Knox, Kentucky, learning his trade, or as it was called then, his Military Occupational Skill (MOS). At that time, I don’t believe females could choose a combat arm branch of service, but I could be wrong. For my Armored basic training, I was given a four-inch-thick manual on the M60 tank, and a duffle bag of gear.
So, that Friday evening, October 11, 1981, I reported to the White Rock Lake armory for 3rd Platoon, B Company, 1st Battalion, 112th Regiment of the 49th Armored Division at the appointed time. After formation and announcements, we loaded onto buses and headed to Fort Hood. I sat next to a Private First Class (PFC) I did not know. We engaged in light conversation including some kidding around about the National Guard. My seat mate was a Southern Methodist University (SMU) law student. It was already dark when the buses departed the armory and the mood was light-hearted.
We arrived at the Fort Hood barracks around 10:30 that Friday night, if I remember correctly. When the buses pulled up to the general area of our quarters for that night my Platoon Leader, 2nd Lieutenant Herrington, who had arrived at Hood earlier that Friday, indicated to the driver where our billets were for the night. We got off the buses and after another formation, we settled into some empty barracks on the outskirts of Fort Hood among the thousands of acres of training ranges and tank trails. We dropped our duffle bags in front of cots and began preparing for lights out. But before I could unload my bag there was a briefing called for officers and tank commanders, and because I was an officer in training and had those stripes, my attendance was required.
The meeting was a review of the upcoming training: who, what, where, and how. For me, the briefing might as well have been in Chinese. I had no clue as to what I was supposed to do, or the details they were discussing. After the meeting, I turned in but I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Saturday morning came early. I got up to wash to my face and brush my teeth. As I looked in the mirror above the sink I could see behind me in an open stall my platoon leader, LT Herrington, sitting on the throne taking his morning ‘duty’, smoking a cigarette, and looking at my reflection in the mirror in a way that seemed to suggest a preliminary evaluation as to what kind of troop I was going to make. I turned around to awkwardly meet his gaze. That’s when I noticed he had had jump wings (Airborne qualification badge) tattooed on his chest where the accoutrement would have been pinned on his uniform.
Anxiety was building within me.
After chow in the mess hall, which consisted of regular breakfast fair, which was tolerable but extremely greasy, we fell-in for formation, listened to last minute instructions and assignments, and mounted our tanks. I was assigned to my Platoon Sergeant’s tank.
My Platoon Sergeant was Staff Sergeant Stevens, a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran. He wore the 3rd Marine Division patch on his right shoulder, the placement of which indicates the unit he was assigned to in a combat zone. In Staff Sergeant Stevens case, it was an oddity; he had a Marine Corps Division patch sewn on the right shoulder sleeve of his Army fatigue shirt. I always thought that that was pretty cool. I liked SSGT Stevens from the beginning. He was refreshingly "real" compared to the prima donnas I was among in the Corps of Cadets. He was short and corpulent, with a somewhat brusque manner in a friendly way. I doubted he could have passed a physical training test. But he took me under his wing and I was very grateful for his patience. I remember an occasion when I was considered AWOL (Absent Without Leave). I had undergone initiation with my fraternity the previous 24 hours prior to that Saturday's formation. I had lain down to get a few minutes sleep before heading to the Armory. Before I knew it, my mother and brother are pounding on my door, wondering why the hell I wasn't at drill. After I had gotten myself together and had reported to Stevens, I was pleasantly shocked by his reaction. He kind of smiled and said that it wasn't a problem and that he understood. Wow! He had my complete loyalty after that.
Our tanks were the early model M60, a version before the M60A1. Though its turret had the rounded shape
of an older M48, the M60 had a 105mm main gun instead of a 90mm gun. The M60 hull was the same as the newer M60A1, with the straight edged glacis plate below the driver, instead of the rounded type on the M48. I climbed on to SGT Steven’s tank. Standing on the engine deck of our tank I took in the scene of this beautiful Saturday morning.
I can’t remember exactly, but there were approximately seven or eight tanks on line with tankers busily stowing gear and checking the readiness of their assigned vehicles. That’s when lesson one occurred: check the oil.
I don’t recall much after that, but, I do remember climbing into the tank commander’s hatch, donning the Communications Vehicle Crewman (CVC) helmet, and performing a radio check. To my surprise it worked.
I established radio communications with the tank commander next to me. On the CVC there was a selector
flip-switch under the left ear which in essence changed the channel enabling communications within the vehicle only, or on an expanded frequency network (the net.)
Using the standard radio protocols, I confidently spoke into the microphone, “(our vehicle call sign)…radio check, over”, where upon one waits for a response. To my surprise and amazement my check was acknowledged by the tank to my immediate right. I can still see the tank commander’s knowing grin; this guy’s
a cherry for sure. Tank Commanders were Non-Commissioned Officers, Sergeants or Staff Sergeants. However, because B Company was never at full strength, it’s possible this tank commander was only a Specialist Fourth Class. I regret I never knew his name, but I could tell he was good at his job and experienced.
Sergeant Stevens assigned me as the loader. The M60 tank had four stations: Driver, Loader, Gunner, and Commander. I seemed to recall, and I could be mistaken, that at the time one had to be an experienced Driver before becoming a Loader. And a Loader had to master his job before becoming a Gunner, and so on. Besides the primary function, each crewman had certain peripheral tasks to perform on the vehicle also. For example, the Driver would be responsible for checking the oil and making sure the tank was fueled. Because this weekend's training would be maneuver training only with no gunnery there was no need for a Gunner or a Loader, but, because I was new and essentially just a passenger I was designated as the Loader, which several months later I would be assigned as a Loader during actual gunnery practice.
I can tell you the experience of being a part of the coordination of a crew, designating a target, acquisition
of target, slamming that 50LB, 105MM round in to the breech, and yelling “UP!” in to the mic, the Gunner responding “ON THE WAY”, and feeling the tank rock upon “FIRE!”, and seeing that shell casing being
ejected out of the breech at my feet, at night, was exhilarating! And I was good at loading, and our tank
crew scored high.
On this beautiful October Saturday, as we headed towards the maneuver range in column my anxiety had subsided and I was very excited; this was my first ride in a tank. It was great. The tanks moving in column along a well-worn trail, dust rising in to the morning sunshine, me listening to idle banter mixed with business over the company net with my CVC earphones. It almost made me feel like a real tanker. But in the back of my mind I was preparing myself for things to get serious.
We made our way to the designated maneuver range where we shut down and climbed off our tanks for a final briefing. The Company was divided up into two factions: the defenders and aggressors. My Platoon was designated as the aggressors, with LT Herrington in command. The defenders mounted and drove off to find cover and ambush positions along the side of a densely wooded ridge.
Then it came.
“Okay Hudson, you ready to drive?”
What could I say but, “Yes, Sergeant.”
I climbed inside the drivers hatch, put on the CVC and waited. Stevens, in the commander’s cupola, instructed me on how to start the tank, to engage the clutch by pressing hard on the brake pedal, and shift her to low gear. By this time the rest of the platoon was already heading down the trail. I started to panic. I pressed as hard as I could on the brake pedal but could not engage the clutch. I said something like “it won’t depress.”
Stevens response was, “You gotta press hard!”
My reply was, “I AM pressing hard!”
“No, you gotta press REAL hard!”
I was already sweating, and the column was getting farther and farther away. Finally, after applying what seemed like one hundred pounds of foot pressure on the brake pedal, the clutch engaged. I shifted into low gear and headed down the trail chasing the rest of the platoon. I finally caught up with the column, having shifted to high gear and speeding up to 30 or 35 miles per hour.
On LT Herrington’s command, we executed a right flank and came on line facing a rocky bluff about a half-mile away from where the good-guys lay in wait.
Our Platoon Leader, Second Lieutenant Herrington, gave the order, “Attack!”
We moved out. On the radio, I heard Lieutenant Herrington, in his best Russian accent, issue the command to destroy the imperialist dogs. I’m sure we all chuckled. I know I did.
My first obstacle was a dry streambed all the tanks had to cross. I came to the edge, let the tank roll down, came to the opposite edge, gave a little gas to get up the other side, took my foot off the accelerator, and let the tank rock forward. Having had no instruction on how to cross a streambed while driving a tank, it just seemed to me the logical to not keep my foot on the gas pedal while the tank was nose-high. Sergeant Stevens said good job, and we continued toward the base of the bluff. My confidence was increasing.
As we arrived at the base of the bluff, the platoon split up and headed up individual trails. As I drove our tank along our trail, I came to my next obstacle. Across the trail were three or four felled trees and numerous branches in a bunch in an attempt to create a road block. On retrospect, I believe these bunched up trees was
a crude message, warning others to stay away from the top of this bluff for some reason. I excitedly asked what I should do.
“Keep going,” Sergeant Stevens said.
I rolled over the trees. I hardly felt it, as a few felled trees and branches were no problem for a 55-ton tank.
We made our way to the top of the bluff, and that’s where the weekend turned sour.
We were rolling along when I made a left turn of about 10 degrees. The steering suddenly felt funny and unresponsive. After a few seconds, Sergeant Stevens yelled for me to stop. Dejectedly, he told me to put her in park and shutdown the engine. I had no idea what the problem was. We all climbed out of the tank. To my shock, the left track had broken and now was grotesquely folded and kinked around the drive sprocket at the rear of the tank.
I felt terrible. I had broken our tank. Sergeant Stevens was reassuring and said don’t worry about it, it
happens. It was early afternoon and our day was done. We sat there all day while the rest of the Company continued training. We needed an M88 tank recovery vehicle and proper tools to separate the broken track from the sprocket.
About an hour before dark, Lieutenant Herrington made his way to our position. The Company had rallied at the top of the bluff some distance away. I remember the impressed smile on his face as he walked up and viewed the carnage of our knotted left track around the drive sprocket. I was standing on the sponson box on the left side of the tank beside the turret as I watched him approach. I was expecting a rebuke for having damaged government property and spoiling the training, which surely would have happened had we all been ROTC cadets and Cadre. He only looked up, smiled a knowing smile and left to rejoin the rest of the company. He had things to do. I still remember that smile, the setting sun casting an orange glow on his face. That was the last time I saw him.
Night fell with the three of us inside the turret listening to the company frequency and chatting as night maneuvers began. Suddenly there was an excited transmission. I do not recall the words, but it was apparent something bad happened. After a few moments listening to cryptic reports to Captain Wagner, the Company Commander, Sergeant Stevens told me to stay with the tank. He and the other crewman walked away to find out what was going on.
I was alone in the dark, inside the turret, intently listening to radio traffic as the drama continued. Eventually, I found switches on the roof of the turret to turn on lights. Having been in the dark for so long, white light seemed too bright, so I switched to the light to red. The weather changed. The wind was up and it was getting cooler, giving the atmosphere a spooky feeling.
It began to rain, with thunder and lightning. The rain became heavy and water began to pour inside the tank through the tank commander’s hatch and onto the radios. I had to close that hatch. In the downpour, I climbed up into the tank commander's cupola and pulled on the hatch to close it, but it wouldn’t budge. I dropped back inside the turret and watched water continue to pour in, wondering if I was about to be electrocuted.
Then I heard Captain Wagner announce over the radio there was a tornado in the area and everyone should get inside their tanks and button-up, or close your hatches. I had to try again or get sucked out of the tank by a tornado. I climbed back up and pulled and pulled but the hatch cover would not budge. In the dark, pelted
by the rain, I felt around the base of the cover searching for whatever it was that was preventing me from closing the hatch. Finally, I discovered this thumb-like lever. Pulling on it, the hatch bounced a little telling me it was now unlocked. I was able to close the hatch. I felt frustrated and stupid for not knowing how to close a
The storm passed and the Company received an all clear over the radio. After some time waiting, and still alone, soaked and shivering, I dismounted the tank and walked about twenty yards towards the direction Sergeant Stevens had gone and waited, wondering what was going on. I could make out some activity and, eventually, I could see Sergeant Stevens and about three other soldiers waking toward me.
As Sergeant Stevens got close, he told me, in a matter-of-fact way, Lieutenant Herrington was dead. I didn’t respond. I fell in with them and we headed back to the tank.
Sergeant Stevens explained to me what he had found out. While the tanks were moving out, a tank had rolled injuring the tank driver, and killing the tank commander and Lieutenant Herrington. The driver was inexperienced and was at the controls, driving for the tank commander who I had conducted a radio-check with Saturday morning. Lieutenant Herrington had been standing outside the tank next to the commander’s cupola. He and the tank commander were focused on a range card (which to this day I am still not sure of what a range card is), and did not pay attention where the driver was going.
The driver drove over a ledge (the tank lost traction on the rain soaked ground, its heavy weight causing it to slip down the slope). As it slid on the wet surface, one side of the tank hit a boulder causing the tank to flip.
By now, it was very early Sunday morning. We climbed inside the tank and everyone built a nest to get some sleep. The SMU guy I sat next to on the bus joined us, and to my irritation took my driver's position to bed down for the night. The other crewman and Sergeant Stevens put our duffle bags on the turret floor and laid on them to sleep. I was left with the tank commander’s seat to sit on with my feet on the Gunner’s seat. Those seats were hard wire mesh, bouncy, but hard. I didn’t get any sleep.
I sat there the rest of the night listening to Sergeant Stevens snore and thinking about what had happened. I looked down but couldn’t make out anyone. With my fingers spread, I reached down so I could identify who was directly below me, maybe I could identify a space where I could be more comfortable. The first thing I touched was Sergeant Stevens' fleshy oval face, causing a loud and short snort.
There was a pause of a second or two, then with a low, menacing growl, I heard him say, “Hudson, you do that again and I’ll kill you.”
I had to stifle myself lest I burst out laughing. It relieved some of the tension I was feeling. I still laugh about it. It was so funny.
Daybreak came. The morning was cold, muddy and gloomy. We made our way to the Company area for chow. I don’t recall eating anything. Everyone seemed to have a sheepish look, as I’m sure I did. A Platoon Sergeant, a 4th Infantry Division Vietnam Veteran, was talking about what had happened as a medical helicopter flew away with the bodies. He described how they were able to identify Lieutenant Herrington by a boot sticking out from underneath the tank that had white skin. The tank commander was a black man, and if I recall the description correctly, had been ripped in half, his top half inside the tank commander’s hatch.
Sunday was spent waiting for the M88 recovery vehicle. The afternoon warmed up and I was able to nap a little on the left front fender. Suddenly I heard the roar of a large diesel engine crashing through the brush towards us. The M88 and its maintenance crew had arrived.
The process of pulling the tangled track off the sprocket was long and arduous, but the maintenance crew eventually got it unstuck. All that remained was to connect the two ends of the tank track with link connectors.
To do this, a tank-jack was used to pull the two ends together and hammer the pins in place. One maintenance soldier, exhausted from working all night trying to right an over turned tank, was having difficulty getting the two ends of the track to come together with the jack.
After several minutes of trying, he stood up, looked at me, and with disgust said, “You give a try, Sarg,” with a sarcastic emphasis on Sarg.
Without skipping a beat, I made my way to the jack and started to pump furiously. After all, it was my tank, and my fault. After a dozen or so pumps, I heard a loud crack, and fell back. The top part of the track end swung past, missing my head by inches. After that, I was not allowed to touch anything else. The maintenance crew got the track connected, but had put it on backwards. That caused the difficulty getting the ends linked in the first place. Because it was so late, the maintenance crew couldn’t do anything about it so the tank was returned to the motor pool as it was.
When I got on the bus, one of the first persons I saw was the injured tank driver. Had he been a Regular Army soldier, he would have been ambulanced to the Fort Hood hospital. He was semi-conscious and his face heavily bandaged. The trip back to Dallas was long and quiet.
We arrived back at the armory, grabbed our gear from the bus, and made our way inside. Waiting for us was a Regular Army Lieutenant Colonel, the Senior Advisor to the Third Brigade, 49th Armored Division. There would have to be an investigation. After meetings and coordination were completed, the Advisor made his way to where Sergeant Stevens and I were standing. The Advisor looked at Sergeant Stevens and asked how I did?
“He’s a natural,” Sergeant Stevens replied.
The Advisor smiled, looked at me, and asked if I wanted to talk. I gave that seemingly disinterested shrug the way a teenager would, and we walked out a nearby door. Standing just outside the door, the Advisor faced me, stood, and waited. I could no longer suppress the tension I was feeling, and burst into tears. I felt shame and angrily wiped away tears.
The soldier who climbed inside the over-turned tank and turned off the engine soon after the accident, made his way quickly past us to his nearby motorcycle, and sped off.
The Advisor, Lieutenant Colonel Hudson, my dad, could do nothing but stand there and let me purge.
Many years have passed since that weekend. Every year, when October rolls around, I think about them.
Sadly, the tank commander and my platoon leader would not be the end of tragedy I witnessed.
The following summer after Spring Semester, the next phase of ROTC training was what they called then Advanced Camp. The 3rd ROTC region, of which UTA Corp of Cadets was within, conducted Advanced Camp at Fort Riley, Kansas.
The day before I was to depart I discovered that I had misplaced my orders. My "orders" where documented authorization and direction on who, what, where, and when. They were lost. At the time I suspected my dad had trashed them or hidden them from me for being careless with them. I don't think he did, but he was the number one suspect at the time.
Long story short, I reported on time and at the correct place and was processed without any problems, and was assigned to Company A, 2nd Platoon.
The tragedy occurred several weeks into the course, towards the end of camp.
We were undergoing water survival training on a small lake somewhere on the vast training areas of Fort Riley. The training included what they called the Slide for Life, which was a very tall tower with a zip-line across the lake where one held tightly to the handle bars as you rode the line to the other side of the lake. There was also training on how to inflated pieces of your uniform to make a rudimentary float. And there was an obstacle that I don't remember the name of. It was a contraption that had a telephone pole with a ladder attached with a very small platform at the top, and with a wire extending from the top of the pole out about 50 yards that was approximately 30 feet high. On television, when video of Ranger School are shown, they sometimes show the rig, along with the Ranger using the Slide for Life and an explosion in the water nearby as the Ranger releases his grip on the handlebar.
The task was to climb the pole, grab the wire with your hands and feet, pull yourself to the end of the wire, let your feet drop and hang there until given the command to drop. Where upon one dropped into the water with your feet crossed and your arms tucked using a hand to protect your face.
I had done this at one of UTA's pools from a dive platform and injured myself because I had leaned forward and either got smacked from the water, or smacked from my rifle which I was carrying at port arms on the drop, and wearing a helmet, web-gear and boots. I was bleeding from my mouth or nose, I can't remember which. I had difficulty keeping my head above water. So much so that I had to hand my rifle to a life guard already in the pool. I had pitched forward a little too much on the decent. And I was a capable swimmer.
So, our group was across the lake from this line-drop area waiting our turn to go there. All of us in our little group were kind of horsing around at the lake edge when suddenly there was some kind of commotion on the obstacle.
When I looked all I could see were the remaining concentric circles of where someone had just took the plunge. But I also saw two or three cadets urgently taking off their shirts and boots and diving underwater. They would dive and come up for air and dive again. It rapidly became obvious that somebody was in trouble.
Our worst fears were realized; someone had drowned.
My memory is a fuzzy after that. I remember that everyone was gathered into a semi-formation away from the accident scene. And I remember other cadets who were friends of the young man, especially the female cadets, a little hysterical, with the cadets who were in leadership positions at the time trying to keep people calm.
Then there was the familiar medical evacuation helicopter landing, then taking off with the body of the young soldier. It was another sad day.
Later I discovered who it was. I don't remember his name, but I did remember his face because he had visited my barracks a few days prior. He had friends in my platoon and came over for a visit. He was a young black man, and I could tell had been in the Army prior to ROTC. He had the Airborne qualification badge and helicopter crewman wings on his uniform, which impressed me very much.
My encounter with him was brief; we made eye contact as he was leaving his friends. From that split second, I could tell he was a very friendly and happy person, with a contagious smile. There was something about him that screamed he would have made an excellent officer, with a long and outstanding career.
After his body was flown out and everyone was gathered and put on trucks for the trip back to the garrison late that afternoon, I felt a little jaded.
I recognized the depressing effect the accident had on everyone in the back of our truck. I was familiar with the sensation and just detachedly observed. The accident with Company B the previous October had hardened me a little, and I was a little angry with myself for not being more somber.
Training accidents! Somehow they seem worse to me than combat casualties. In battle, it's a given that soldiers are going to die, and although it's expected, it's still a blow. But dying during training is not supposed to happen. Losing your life because you pitched a little too far forward on your drop in to the water, knocking yourself out, and sinking to the bottom of a murky dark lake is not supposed to be the way a soldier goes out. And they don't give medals for getting flattened by a tank, not that a medal would by any stretch of the imagination make a tragedy more bearable.
So today, every time I hear on the news about a V-22 Osprey crash that killed Marines, or an artillery gun that exploded killing the crew, or a Navy jet that crashed in to the sea and the pilots are missing, it reminds me that shit happens, and that military service is a dangerous occupation whether you're a decorated combat veteran, or a half-assed weekend warrior.
Richard D. Hudson
Armed Savage 6 Alpha
October 12, 2017