It was a beautiful spring morning in 1977, I recall, on the range at Fort Knox, KY. I had eight tanks lined up on the St. Vith range. M60A1 Main Battle Tanks, the fabled M1 was still five or six years in the future. (I didn't see my first M1 until 1984) I was the platoon leader of 2nd platoon, Co C, 4/37th Armor. The tanks were loaded with 40 rounds of main gun ammunition, mainly training HEAT-T and sabot TPT (APFSDS-T). I was the range safety officer, sitting in a M151 Truck, Utility 1/4 ton
. (A jeep, okay?).
St Vith range was a beautiful tank range in the hills of Kentucky. On both sides of the range, tall ridge lines dominated, because the range was situated in the valley, a perfect spot to conduct live-fire training, because the ride lines helped in keeping the tank rounds in the range fan. The diesels engines were idling, awaiting a bus-load of brand-new lieutenants from the Armor School. Our company had been tasked with shepherding them through the first of the main gun tables
In the tower, the range officer was conducting coms checks with the tanks while being overseen by our ancient company commander. He was a mustang, with Vietnam service and was probably in his early 30s. We called him The Blade, because he cut young lieutenants deep, wide and continuously. He hated us on a rotating basis and this morning he was screwing with someone else. I was okay with that.
The bus arrived with the students, and I watched them gather in the bleachers behind the range tower. I got out of the jeep, sloshed the dregs of my coffee out of the Thermos cup, and walked over to the bleachers, where I gave my Standard Safety Briefing. I was followed by the 1st platoon leader, who gave his standard Firing Briefing, and we broke the students down into crews for the exercise.
The students climbed up on the tanks, settled in, and we had just began the first engangement, a borsight exercise at 1200 yards, where they fired at boresight panels and adjusted the sights for zero. I was back in my jeep, about fifty yards behind the line on a small knoll where I could watch the frivolity, when I suddenly noticed four small spots in the sky, directly downrange, about 200 feet AGL, getting bigger by the second.
I picked up the radio handset "Cease Fire, Cease Fire. High performance aircraft in the range fan. All Tanks unload guns and display a green flag."
I heard The Blade key his mic. "2-1,(my radio call sign) what the hell are you talking about?"
Just about that time, the flight of what I had now identified as F4 Phantoms screamed past the range tower on full burner. I looked up at the tower, and saw The Blade step out on the balcony. He looked like he was about to have a hematoma. He grabbed the telephone to range control, and I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I bet it was both profane, derogatory, and impressive.
The F4s made a wide turn, went back downrange till they were little dots in the sky, just over the trees, then turned and came around again. Burning right down the middle of my range fan. They screamed past us again, broke left, then came around for another pass. On the third pass, they waved at us. By this time, I thought The Blade was going to have a stroke. They waggled their wings, lifted up over the ridge line, and were gone.
It was a surreal moment. Everything was quiet, too quiet, then I heard the range officer key up his mic and start giving firing commands. The tanks displayed red flags, and the training resumed.
The Blade came down about fifteen minutes later to tall me I had done good. He had talked with Range Control. The flight of Phantoms was from the Ohio Air Guard and were practicing tank-killing. They had another range set up about three miles away with some derelict tanks for dry runs, had gotten lost and came down on our range. They were sorry.
For me, it was just another day on the range. I managed to get an "Attaboy" from The Blade, but you know what they say about "Attaboy". One "Aw Shit" wipes out a thousand "Attaboys". With The Blade, it was my Karma to get another "Aw Shit". But, as I sipped a hot cup of coffee from my thermos, I basked in the fleeting feeling of an Attaboy.