single.php How I learned to love the Sherman. The writings of an AHM intern. - The American Heritage Museum header.php
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September 28, 2020

When main character Norman Ellison showed up as a rookie replacement for bow gunner Red with a battle-hardened Sherman tanker crew in the 2014 film Fury, the first thing the rest of the crew did was hand Norman a bucket and a sponge and told him to clean Easy Eight, their M4 Sherman. Seemingly enough, this is something that all tank guys love to do to newbies. You see, on my very first day interning at the American Heritage Museum, and after a wonderful tour of the facilities, they brought me out to the back of the museum, handed me some rags and a bottle of Spic and Span, and told me to get to work cleaning Liberty, the museum’s own M4A3 Sherman.

According to Dick, the restoration shop leader, Liberty hadn’t been cleaned since the previous tank driving experience offered by the museum. That day was apparently particularly muddy, evidenced by the layers of dried mud that encrusted the treads and the underbelly of the tank.  The interior had a pristine layer of dust and dirt that had settled on every little every nook and cranny in the tank except for on the floor. The floor was different because the immaculate spread of dirt was mixed with fine oil, coating the surface in a sticky, impossible-not-to-track-all-over-with-your-shoes paste. I didn’t know any of that before I started, so bright-eyed and bushy tailed, I brandished my cleaning supplies and embarked on my journey to see a clean Sherman.

Things became a challenge as soon as I started. After spending a day in Liberty, it would be safe to say that the Sherman was not designed with people of my stature in mind. In fact, average height for US soldiers in WWII was 5’6”, and if that seems small to you that’s because the average now, according to the CDC, is about 5’9”. Now put yourself in my shoes as I’m clambering up onto Liberty and peering into the oval hatch hole that would be my way into the tank and realizing just how small of an opening it really is. What would be your first thought? Because mine was how the heck am I going to fit in there? 

Determined not to fail this early in my tank cleaning crusade, I cautiously put my feet in and lowered myself down into the tank until I found the seat to stand on. Everything was surprisingly good so far. Waist deep into the tank, I looked around to see how my surroundings had changed. With my face much closer to the hull I noticed all the nuances from the molding that I could not see from afar. As it turns out, tank armor isn’t just really thick sheet metal and has a lot of pock marks and welds throughout. While I was admiring all of the details of the tank I realized something that gave me considerable pause. My shoulders were much, much wider than the opening I was standing in. I wasn’t going to be able to get into this tank without some gold medal contorting. In order to get into driver’s seat, I had to press myself up against one side of the hole and squeeze my shoulders together in order to get enough room to be able to lower my body into the opening. It was in this position, with my feet close together on a seat cushion, knees bent and close to my belly, and my right hand gripping the lip of the hatch to garner some semblance of balance that I was able to wiggle into the tank.

I was mostly inside the tank at this point, and with some awkward finagling and maneuvering around I rediscovered what order felt like as I found myself in the driver’s seat. I ogled at my new surroundings. Having never been in a tank before I wasn’t sure what to expect but as I looked around things made sense. The driver and codriver sat in the front on the left and right sides, respectively, separated by the transmission, that was just out in the open in what I’m sure was an effort to save space. The commander and the gunner sat in the turret, which on the inside was supported a raised circular platform open to the rest of the crew. Right in front of me lay the Sherman’s controls, and on the other side another set of controls were in front of codriver’s seat as well, making Liberty the only dual control M4 in the entire world.

After I got over the initial awe of being in a tank I noticed the amazing white paint job Dick had previously bragged about doing was, well, mostly brown now, and it was at this point that the true scope of my task hit me. There were so many crevices and tight space that were right in front of my face, but I had truly no way of getting to them due to the tight quarters and the space-is-a-commodity mentality that went into designing most tanks. I decided to ignore those places at the start and just focus on what I could do. I started with what was closest to me: the transmission, the driver’s controls, and the walls. When it was time for me to move to the codriver’s seat, instead of getting out of the tank and going through that tight descent a second time, I squeezed in between the transmission and the raised turret platform into the other half of the tank. I repeated what I did on the driver’s side. Now all that was left were the hard to reach spots, which, unfortunately for me, was about two thirds of the tank.

I won’t explain how I got to everything, but most of them involved me twisting my body into some kind of human pretzel and just barely getting my fingers into where they needed to go. The one place that continued to befuddle me, however, was the floor. For the longest time the floor eluded me so well that during the clean I would take ten-minute breaks just so I could sit and stare at the floor, trying to determine how I could manage to get my arms down there. Here’s the issue: if you were trying to clean the floor in your house, for instance, you could just lean down and clean it and there’s no problem, right? Well if I tried to do that from the driver’s seat in Liberty I would have clocked my head on the frontal armor. Plus, if I somehow managed to actually avoid the armor I would have ended up getting blocked by the controls that protruded out from the bottom. There really was no way for me to win.

That is, of course, until I embraced my inner yoga, went back behind the transmission, and slowly dropped myself into the tank in a way that would make any yoga master proud. It was a bit uncomfortable and wasn’t sure if I could actually get out from my position, but I didn’t care. I was low enough to where I could put a hand out and clean the floor. I had finally won. I had beaten the floor which had tormented me so. I’m not exaggerating when I say cleaning up that slurry was possibly one of the most satisfying things I had ever done in my entire life.

At one point towards the end I heard someone calling for me from outside the tank. I poked my head out of the hatch hole and saw Dick looking at me with mild concern. He asked me if I was even still alive in there because he hadn’t heard a peep from me in a few hours. I had not even noticed I was in there for that long. All I was sure about was spic and span, dirt, and yoga poses. I was so close to finishing! I let Dick know I was still functioning and dove back in for the final push.

When I had finally finished cleaning the interior I pulled myself out of the tank. Getting out happens to be significantly easier than getting in, with the only hard part being that my upper legs were about as long as the hatch hole was wide, so pulling my lower body out while I was sitting on top of the tank proved to be somewhat challenging. I had been inside for a solid three hours, and there was no way I was going to get to the exterior of the tank that day, so I put it off for the next.

The next day rolled around and all I could think about was cleaning that exterior. It was my first time using a power washer, but I felt ready. I was focused. I was Zen. This tank will be spotless by the time I finished. That’s what I told myself as I approached Liberty. I started by wetting all of the dirt that coated the tank and then I got into the nitty gritty of blowing off pieces of dirt with pressurized water.

About thirty seconds into the power washing my focused, Zen-like state was shattered by a jet of muddy water that was sent right back to me. I quickly found out that when I spray water directly into one of the conical tread teeth it instantaneously shoots it back, precisely.  I looked down the length of the tank and realized there were some 70-odd of these such teeth, each one possessing the power to completely blow back what I had sprayed. I tried a few things to combat this, such as strategically angling myself against the teeth so that I would not get doused, but it wasn’t to much avail. Cleaning the exterior of the tank only took me about an hour, but by the time I was done the entire front of my body, from my face and my glasses to my sneakers was completely drenched and spackled with dirt.

Cleaning Liberty was an awesome first thing to be asked to do; it was my first day and I already got to work with tanks, how much better could it get? I’ve done a ton of cool things here since I’ve started at the beginning of the months and I’m probably going to be making writing stories about my escapades a semi-regular occurrence so be sure to check back and see when I post! I’ve already got another story in the works about the Type VII. Stay tuned!


Frank D.

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