The Burning Military Tank Story
A true story
Written 12/2010 rewritten 04/27/2016 unedited
This true story tells all about one of the biggest coincidences that I have ever encountered in my entire life. In 1957, I was nineteen years old, and living in Westville Connecticut, working part time as an apprentice, to an excellent auto Mechanic, his name was Bill (It may be better to not mention his real name).
I had met Bill who was an excellent mechanic, when I was working for his cousin Tony. Tony, at the time was managing a two bay Gulf gas station in Westville, Connecticut, and both my cousin Allen and I worked there as part time as gas station attendants, pumping gas, greasing cars and changing oil.
Our boss Tony, who was a local born New Haven Italian, was a nice enough fellow. He had served in the army during the Korean War, and was psychologically affected by what happened to him there. Tony was at the Chosin Reservoir, and watched all his friends being killed, and he couldn’t ever get over it.
So it was Tony who first introduced me to his cousin Bill, who was the mechanic. Once I met Joe and I saw what a good mechanic he was, I knew I wanted to go to work for him. Bill looked like a typical Italian guy, he was average height, slender, with wavy black hair. Despite looking Italian he never acted like he was Italian and he told everyone that he was Irish. Why I don’t know, but I do know that his stepfather was Irish, and when I met Bill’s girlfriend she also was Irish.
Eventually I met Bill’s stepfather, and he actually matched the Irish stereotype, not only did he have a bulbous red nose from a few too many drinks, but he spoke with an Irish brogue and best of all, like many stereotyped Irishmen, he worked as a railroad cop.
Bill told me that his stepfather had once almost lost his job as a railroad cop. It seems that he was patrolling the New Haven railroad yard when he heard someone breaking into one of the box cars. He scared the crooks off but when he saw the box car was full of shoes he climbed in and was caught trying a few pair on.
At the time I met Bill the mechanic, he was managing a large three bay Gulf gas station on Derby Avenue, in new Haven, so I went to work for him as his gas attendant and apprentice mechanic. That’s when I learned that managing a Gulf gas station and being an auto mechanic didn’t exactly go hand in hand.
Most people don’t know this, but all gas stations come in different sizes, it could be a two bay station, a three bay station or even bigger. The amount of working bays you had, signified the extent of what kind of work you were allowed to do, and the Gulf Oil Company was very strict about it. If you leased a two bay station from them, you could do only minor repairs, like changing oil, and greasing cars, fixing tires and washing and waxing cars. If you were in a three bay gas station you were allowed to do tune ups and replace small parts like windshield wiper motors. But you couldn’t do any engine overhaul work, or transmission work or anything major like that, so when Tony, who had a small two bay station had any bigger repair jobs to do, his cousin Joe would come at night and we would all quietly do the work with the doors closed.
Finally Bill, who was a full time mechanic, leased the big three bay Gulf gas station on Derby Avenue in New Haven, he thought he could get away with doing major repair work with no one noticing it. His idea was that the profit he made from selling gasoline would pay the rent, and he could freely do any kind of repair work he wanted to do in the three bays. His idea was a good one until the Gulf Oil Company representative came by and caught him. That’s when I heard them arguing, and it was when Bill realized he would have to move if he wanted to continue doing major mechanical work.
One day when I came to work Bill told me that he had located a place that we could move to. It was an unbranded gas station with a large shop area, the place was located on Derby Avenue right near the junction of Forest Road in New Haven. So the following week, I helped Bill move to the new shop location.
For Bill the new location was perfect, few people ever came in just for gas, and he was free to do any kind of auto repairs he wanted with no one telling him what to do. For me it was also a good thing, as I didn’t have to pump gas anymore, and I had time to learn how to do all kinds of mechanical work like brake jobs, and rebuilding engines or changing transmissions.
It was around early in 1958 when I started to get nervous about getting drafted into the Army. I became so worried about it, that I was thinking about joining the Army Reserves. I thought joining the reserves would be a lot better than waiting for the draft board to come and get me.
I already knew that I wanted to be a mechanic in the Army, and if I got drafted, I might miss the opportunity to go to mechanics school and get sent right into the infantry.
So as time passed, I knew that I had to make a decision, and it got to the point where every day, the problem, was weighing heavily on my mind.
The only person I thought I could discuss it with, was my boss Bill. Because I thought I had once heard him mention that he had been in the Army. So one winter day, Bill and I were sitting in his small office drinking coffee, and I mentioned my dilemma to him, I was hoping he could give me some good advice as to what to do.
As soon as I mentioned the word “Army”, Bill rolled his eyes, and he said “I don’t think you should join the Army.” That’s exactly what he said to me, so, I asked him if he was ever was in the Army, and why he felt that way? “Yes” Bill said, “I was in the Army, but they let me out.” How did they let you out? I asked.
“Well” Bill said, “That’s, a long story”, he was quiet for several minutes, and then he said, “Several years ago, I was drafted into the army and I was sent to school to learn to be a tank mechanic. After tank mechanics school, the Army transferred me to Germany. In Germany, Bill said he was assigned as a mechanic to an M46 tank unit that was training in the German countryside. At the time, He said that at the time the Army was using mostly all M46 tanks which had gasoline engines.
One day, Bill’s sergeant, instructed him to weld a bracket on the back of a tank. The tank was parked on the edge of a big field. So, Bill said, “I drove my jeep over to where the tank was, the jeep already had my oxygen, acetylene welding torch on it”.
Joe said, He started to weld the bracket onto the back of the tank. He then said, “I didn’t see it, or smell it, but there was gasoline on the grass, I think it was because the tank must have had a gasoline leak somewhere, and it caught on fire. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the tank, but it didn’t work, so I frantically drove everywhere with the Jeep looking for another fire extinguisher. But by time I got back the whole M46 tank was on fire, and it was completely destroyed, ammunition was blowing up and everything”.
Bill then said “The Army blamed him for everything that happened, and they wanted me to reimburse the government for the tank which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said, the whole thing was totally unfair, they even wanted to court-marshal me, but then instead of making me pay for the tank, they gave me a dishonorable discharge, and that’s how I got out of the Army.” Bill’s face was now very serious and he was getting very mad, he said, “The Army just needed someone to blame for the accident, and that was me, that’s why I think you shouldn’t join.”
That was the exact story just as Bill told it to me, while I was sitting in his tiny office that winter day in 1958, I was 19 years old at the time. I had listened intently to every word Bill had said, but I decided to join the Army Reserves anyway.
Once I joined the reserves, I found out that they didn’t need any tank mechanics but they did need fuel truck drivers, so I was trained as a fuel tanker truck driver. You want to talk about a scary job, I thought driving a gasoline fuel tanker was like driving a bomb around. But eventually I went off to complete my eight weeks of basic training, which was at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. After the eight weeks of training all my buddies were assigned to active duty assignments all over the country, but I was assigned to come back and report to a motor pool again at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
At first I wasn’t particularly happy about being a truck driver at Fort Dix, but soon I learned that being a truck driver in the Army was just like being a big shot, everyone wanted to know you, because riding in the back of a truck was better than marching in the rain.
Now my job working as a driver in a motor pool, meant you hung around smoking cigarettes until someone on the base needed a truck and driver. So that meant that every day I might be assigned to a different place on the base. Now, Fort Dix being like a city itself, you never knew where you could be assigned next. There were hundreds of buildings and warehouses, where they stored the everyday needs of the base, and each one of the warehouses had a Staff Sergeant in charge of it, and each warehouse needed trucks to haul their stuff around.
A Staff Sergeant was a noncommissioned officer who had come up through the ranks, he was usually a soldier that had traveled all over the world with the military, and usually he has already seen some military action somewhere. When a Staff Sergeant came close to their retirement, they were usually put in charge of one of the supply warehouses, it was sort of a final cushy job to repay them for their twenty years of good service. All of the Staff Sergeants I ever met were pretty serious and pretty tough guys, who all had a lot of experience behind them, most of them had seen combat, usually in the Korean war.
On one very cold winter day I was assigned to report with my cargo truck to a supply warehouse at Fort Dix. They had requested a 2-1/2 ton truck and a driver, so I arrived there at nine in the morning and I went inside the warehouse. It was a freezing cold day, and all the old wooden warehouses had a pot belly stove going to create some warmth in the building. The stove usually was mounted on a foot high platform filled with sand so the stove wouldn’t burn a hole in the wooden warehouse floor.
On this cold morning the five or six soldiers that worked in the warehouse were all huddled around the pot belly stove talking about nothing important. So I walked over and stood by the stove warming myself, that’s when I saw the Staff Sergeant who was sitting in his freezing cold office, he got up and walked over to where we were all standing by the stove. The Staff Sergeant was a pretty muscular guy, about 5 foot 8 inches tall. He had dirty blond hair and a crew cut, and a very ruddy complexion. His Army fatigues were tailored to fit him perfectly, and I saw he had paratrooper wings, which meant he had been military airborne. This guy’s face looked like it was chiseled out of a piece of stone, and he wasn’t smiling. He looked just like you would expect a real soldier to look like, he was the kind of guy you didn’t want to mess around with.
As we stood the Staff Sergeant rolled up his trouser leg, and put his foot up onto the stoves platform to warm it up. I could see that his leg was horribly scared. It was really bad, it looked like he had a lot of skin grafts. What the hell happened to you Sarge, I asked?
He looked at me, his facial expression changed, and he said, “I was a tank commander in Germany, and we were out on maneuvers, when my tank caught on fire and burned up.” He said. “Because I was the commander, it was my responsibility to let my crew escape before I got out, but by then it was too late, and my legs were burned pretty bad.” Jesus, I said, “how did the tank catch on fire?” He replied, it was caused by some young little Italian asshole mechanic from New Haven, Connecticut.” I could have swallowed my Adams apple. He said “It was a young mechanic named Bill, he was working on the tank’s engines, and he forgot to tighten up the fuel lines, the gas leaked into the tanks engine compartment and caught fire when we started it up.”
I was taken to a hospital in Germany, and later heard the little shit of a mechanic had been court marshaled. He said, “I’ll never forget that little prick, I talked to him when he was fixing the tank, he told me he had a stepfather in New Haven that was a railroad Dick.” The Sergeant then said “I spent six months in the hospital recovering from the skin grafts, and after I got out of the hospital, I went to look for that little shit in Germany, I was going to beat the crap out of him, but I heard that he had already been dishonorably discharged from the Army.” The Sergeant went on to say that, “if I ever catch that little bastard, he made his hand into a fist, but he didn’t say what he would do.”
After listening to the Sergeant’s story, and seeing his legs, I wondered if I should tell him that not only did I know the mechanic from New Haven, but that I worked for him. The story the Sergeant told was a bit more serious than the story that Bill had told me just a few years before. I knew the Sergeant had no reason to lie to me, and he had the scarred legs to prove his story. I thought, what a coincidence my meeting this Sergeant. The Army is so big and he was just one guy out of hundreds of thousands of soldiers that were stationed everywhere. I decided it would be better if I opted to say nothing more about Bill, and that’s what I did, I said nothing.