US Armor in Vietnam - Armored Fighting Vehicles (M48 'Patton', M41 'Walker Bulldog' and M551 'Sheridan')

Page Title - United States Armour
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Tanks and Recovery Vehicles


As stated in the General Introduction, despite initial reservations regarding the deployment of tanks to RVN they did, nonetheless, see considerable and widespread action throughout the country.

US tanks faced no real threat from their NVA counterparts, with the only significant encounter being at the battle of Ben Het, however, the nature of the terrain and the constant threat of anti-vehicular mines necessitated each armored unit to have full maintenance and recovery services available.

M-48A3 PATTON

The M48A3 medium tank was the most numerous tank employed by the US during the Vietnam War. Serving with both Army and USMC armored units the M48 saw extensive use and produced numerous variants.

M48A3 Patton

M-41A3 WALKER BULLDOG

The M41A3 was supplied to the ARVN beginning in 1965. Considered unsuitable for use in RVN by the US Army due to it's very thin armor and cramped interior, the simplicity and mechanical reliability was felt to be more suitable to the smaller sized ARVN cavalry troopers.

M41A3 Walker Bulldog

M-551 SHERIDAN

The M551 was originally designed as a lightweight, airborne droppable assault vehicle. Rushed into production, it was plagued by numerous technical problems throughout it's time in service. Forced into a role it was never designed for, the M551 had a very checkered career during the Vietnam War.

M-88 ARMORED RECOVERY VEHICLE

Based on the suspension and running gear of the M48A2 tank, the M88 could be used for both medium and heavy recovery operations using an 'A' frame type hoisting boom.

The superstructure and crew compartment were composed of a single large armor casting and provided protection against most types of machine guns and artillery fragments.  

Side view of M88

First accepted into the US Army’s inventory in 1959, over 1000 M88’s were produced by Bowen-McLaughin-York of Pennsylvania and powered by a Continental AVSI-1790-6A engine with an Allison XT-1400-2 transmission. The vehicle was rated at 980 horsepower. Modeled as it was on the M48A2, the M88 was fitted with a gasoline powered engine which made it a vulnerable target to NVA and VC antitank weapons such as the RPG and mines.

M88 and crew on the move

The crew comprised of the vehicle commander, driver, mechanic and rigger. Both the driver and mechanic were located at the front of the crew compartment with the driver on the left side. The commander was in the center under the cupola with the rigger directly behind him. Each crew member had a hatch in the roof of the cab, the commander had his cupola and there was also a door in each side of the superstructure.

Normally armed with a single .50-caliber machine gun externally mounted on the vehicle commanders cupola.

M88 at work

The M88 was fitted with a front mounted blade which was hydraulically powered and controlled. This was used primarily to anchor the vehicle and support it when lifting loads with the boom.

However, it was also quite often used like a bulldozer for clearing vegetation and digging defensive positions – a task which it was not designed for and which was discouraged.

The US Army and USMC developed a bulldozer blade which could be retrofitted to an M48A3 tank (then designated M8A3). In this configuration the M48A3 Patton was used for busting trail through dense vegetation as well as digging out or even burying enemy defensive positions.

M-51 HEAVY RECOVERY VEHICLE

The heaviest armored vehicle used during the Vietnam War. Used almost exclusively by USMC with each Marine tank battalion having four of these vehicles, one per company. This massive vehicle, weighing some 60-tons, used the same suspension and track components as the M103 heavy tank.

M51 Heavy Recovery Vehicle

The M51 first entered service with both the US Army and USMC in 1954 although the US Army used the M51 for only a short period before replacing it with the M88.

M51 Heavy Recovery Vehicle at work

The USMC did not use the M88, instead they made almost exclusive use of  the enormous M51 as their prime recovery vehicle. Weighing a massive 60-tons and based on the chassis of the M103 heavy battle tank, the M51 was a gasoline powered vehicle that could produce 1000 horsepower.

Equipped with a 30-ton capacity crane, a 45-ton capacity winch and a 5-ton capacity auxiliary winch, the M51 was well suited to almost any recovery task. The hull was divided into three compartments and was made from welded rolled armor plate. The crew cab was housed on the front of the vehicle and accommodated the vehicle commander, driver, crane operator and rigger.

Bill Erwin wrote;

Was very suprized to see a picture of the old M-51 Heavy Recovery Vehicle. Just thought you might be interested in this little piece of USMC history. I was part of the first operational M-51 crew in the middle (July?) of 1957 when HQMC decided to test them with the M-53 and M-55 self propelled guns. I was in fact assigned to 1st 155 Guns (SP), at the time stationed at the then MCTC 29 Palms. If my memory isn't deceiving me I seem to remember that we received them even before the Tank Battalions or Combat Service Groups (FSR) did.

We picked the retriever up from the rail head at Amboy Ca. and moved it cross country to the base at 29 Palms. 29 Palms at that time was the Marine Corps Test Center (MCTC 29 Palms) I was a 1841 attached to H&S Battery, 1st 155 Guns (SP) FMF (the SP stood for self propelled).

Up until that time we had the M-4 converted tank recovery vehicle which, believe it or not, had a V-12 Liberty Aircraft Engine for power. There were no hydraulics, all muscle power. Now to the M-51, when we got it, it was still painted Army Brown, had US Army markings and ID numbers and was sealed for long term storage.

Needless to say the first thing we did was remove all the sealing material and repaint it to MC Green. The first field recovery we did was with an M-53 155 Gun (SP) and there we found out just how bad an idea it was sending the M-51 to a gun outfit. To start, because of the long gun barrel overhang to the front of the M-53 & M-55 (8" Howitzer (SP)) you had to tow from the rear of the gun.

Now you have to remember too that being an Artillery weapon there was a large recoil spade in the rear of the gun. This had to be literally removed before you could hook up to it. But all in all it was a vast improvement over the M-4 recovery vehicle. We did encounter another problem with the M-51, when running at speed on the dry lake beds it had a bad habit of loosing road wheels. Seems as how the Army had the wrong direction threads on the road wheel nuts! You can imagine seeing your road wheels passing you as you were traveling as the nuts would unseat themselves and spin off.

After we had had the M-51 for about 6 months it was decided that we needed to go to school on it and went to Det. 1st FSR for class and, as it always is, they had no idea of the capabilities or use of it as they hadn't even seen one except for the one we had.

I remember that the class was given by a CWO Nahass, who later became maintenance officer for 1st Tanks. I lost contact with the M-51 from '58 to 1963 when I was attached to O&M Co. 1st FSR. It was decided that during a Div field exercise that we would pull the turret on an M-48A3 using the M-51 as the crane. This proved to be a near disaster as the turret weight is approximately14-tons and in order to get the height needed to lift the turret the M-51 has to be at least on the level with the top of the engine deck on the 48. As you can imagine with a total combined weight of approximately 80-tons, finding a place where you could (1) get the M-48 close enough to the back of the M-51 for the hook to get to the lifting eyes and (2) would hold the combined weight without caving in, which is exactly what happened. End of experiment. That was the last of my experiences with the M-51 as I was discharged shortly after that fiasco. As to your request about using any of this in your web site, feel free. As a former tread-head I'm always glad to share my experiences. My MOSs were 1841/1861/2151 I hope this was of some help.

Semper Fi

Bill Erwin

M-728 COMBAT ENGINEER VEHICLE (CEV)

The M728 was based on the hull and turret of the M60A1 tank. Equipped with a bulldozer blade and a large 'A' frame boom, the M728 CEV allowed combat engineers to perform a variety of jobs on the battlefield under armor protection. The 165mm demolition gun was designed to break-up concrete obstacles and was highly effective for fire support.

M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle

Based on the hull and turret of the M60A1 tank, the M728 CEV was equipped with an 'A' frame boom, winch and bulldozer blade. Carrying a four man crew the CEV was armed with a short-barreled 165mm howitzer and two machine guns and weighed 57-tons.

M728 CEV at rest

M-578 LIGHT RECOVERY VEHICLE

The M578 LRV was based on the chassis of the M107 and M110 self-propelled artillery carriers. The boom had a 360-degree traverse and was capable of lifting 30,000-lbs whilst the towing winch could tow up to 60,000-lbs. Designed for the recovery of M113's, the M578 could recover an M551 Sheridan.

M578 Light Recovery Vehicle moving in the field

The vehicle had a crew of three, consisting of a driver, crane operator and a rigger. The hull front and driver's compartment were both lightly armored whereas the cab of the vehicle, where the crane operator and rigger were seated, was protected by 1/2-inch steel plate. 

A single .50-caliber machine gun was mounted on the roof of the cab and offered some protection for the crew.

 

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Sources:

Armor of the Vietnam War; (1) Allied Forces, Michael Green & Peter Sarson, Concord Publications Ltd

Armor in Vietnam; A Pictorial History, Jim Mesko, Squadron/Signal Publications Inc.


 

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