Riding the rare beast
Behind the wheel, er levers, of a Flint-built tank destroyer
THE FLINT JOURNAL FIRST EDITION
Thursday, August 26, 2004
By James M. Miller
email@example.com • 810.766.6318
WHAT: 1944 M-18 'Hellcat' tank destroyer
ARMAMENT: 76 mm main gun, 50-caliber machine gun
DIMENSIONS: 8 feet 5 inches tall, 21 feet 10 inches long, 9 feet 5 inches wide
ENGINE: 975-cubic-inch, 9-cylinder Continental radial
WEIGHT: 37,557 pounds
TOP SPEED: 55 mph
MILEAGE: 1-2 gallons per mile, leaded gas
BUILT: At Buick in Flint
RICHFIELD TWP. - The M-18 "Hellcat" tank destroyer was the sports car of the armored lineup during World War II. Smaller than many tanks, light-weight and quick, it was the fastest tracked vehicle of the war.
It was built by Buick in Flint.
This week I got the chance to drive the Sloan Museum's sporty little M-18 around a field behind the home of Bill Gross and his family. Gross and other volunteers have been restoring the war machine for the Flint museum, which got it in 2002.
The first thing a driver or co-driver has to do is drop down through one of two hatches in the hull, into the tight little compartments in front of the turret. The Hellcat gets no points for ease of entry; you step on the back of the seat, then down to step on the seat, then lower yourself into place.
Gross recommends wearing the tanker helmet because there are lots of things to bang your head against when the machine is bouncing around.
The seats can be adjusted up or down. In the seat's highest position, the driver's head sticks out of the hatch while in the lowest position the protective hatch covers can be closed and the driver has to use a small periscope to look out, with a viewing window only about an inch high and about six inches wide.
With the seat up, the view out the front is great. In the lowest position, with the covers closed, it is a very tight spot; there could not have been many tall Hellcat drivers.
And using the periscope is awkward. There is one each for the driver and co-driver, and the periscopes are offset to the sides, so the drivers have to lean to the side to use them.
The noise level inside is so great that loud shouting is not always effective. As volunteer Daniel Mitchell of Flint said, from inside you hear all the machinery
and engine noise; from outside you hear the treads clanking.
Driving the Hellcat is a
lot more work than I was expecting.
Each driving position has two handles for steering, mounted on the hull and swinging down. Pull back on the right handle to turn right, pull back the left handle to turn left. When going straight, it's possible to make easy, even subtle, course changes with a gentle pull on one handle or the other. But to make a hard turn it's necessary to pull hard on one of the handles.
"It'll tire you out," Gross said.
And there's a disconcerting lag time between when you pull hard on the lever for a big turn and when the thing actually starts to turn. About the time you begin to panic that you're going to run into something or go off course, it lurches into the turn.
"You learn to plan ahead," he said.
The outside track does the work in a turn, clawing around and tearing up the turf, shredding clover.
"I won't have to plow
the field this year," Gross joked.
The Hellcat's official top speed was 55 mph, on concrete, but it is said that with the governors turned off it would do 70 mph.
"The fastest we've had it was 35" out at Bishop Airport in July 2003, Gross said.
Because it was intended to be fast, designers needed to come up with a smooth suspension, and the Hellcat's torsion-bar ride is smooth, for a tank.
"It's got that Buick ride," Gross said.
We drove over the deep ruts of a road that crossed the field - ruts deep enough that a Jeep or truck would have bounced - and I didn't even feel them. But I ran over a rock a little smaller than a bowling ball, and I could tell we hit it.
Crew comfort was not a large consideration. The "air conditioning" you get when seated in one of the front seats is the air being pulled down into the hull to help cool the transmission.
"These things were miserable hot in summer, miserable cold in winter," Mitchell said.
A tank destroyer looks a lot like a tank, but was built specially to knock out other tanks, with a heavy gun built to pierce armor. However, in the battlefield realities of
the war, the tank destroyers were used in many of the same roles as tanks, such as supporting infantry troops
and assaulting fortified positions.
Tank destroyers were built with open-top turrets, but some crews fabricated tops for them to get a little protection.
Standing in the tank commander's position, grabbing the replica 50-cal. machine gun, it's easy to see why - you're about half way out of the turret, feeling very exposed.
The .50-caliber is not operational. To comply with federal regulations, the Hellcat's 76-mm main gun was rendered inoperative before the machine was brought back to this country.
Even though the Hellcat's 18-ton weight is considered light for a tank, it is still heavy, and its 975-cubic-inch engine gulps fuel. Gross said it has used about two gallons per mile.
Most of the restoration went quickly; about eight months from when they began taking it apart, the volunteers had it painted, reassembled and on display in time for Buick's 100th anniversary celebration in July 2003. Because the engine and transmission worked well, they did not take them apart.
The Hellcat is a rare beast. Only 2,507 were built between July 1943 and October 1944.
Gross said the restoration is nearly complete. They need to duplicate and
install some of the padding and rubber that went
around the edges of the hatch openings, the top of the turret and other places. They need to find or make
a gauge and control panel and want to locate a turret motor.
(If you've got a turret motor for a Sherman tank, that'll work just fine).
After WWII, the U.S. government gave many tanks, tank destroyers, trucks and other military vehicles to Yugoslavia and other countries in eastern Europe.
The tanks and tank destroyers were still in use as recently as the 1990s. When Yugoslavia broke up, different factions in the Balkans were using the Hellcat and the M-36, a tank destroyer built in Grand Blanc. The museum's M-18 was in the Balkans, and came home via a dealer in England.
Buick donated $45,000 toward the purchase of the Hellcat, which the museum hopes to display on Veteran's Day.
It'd be interesting to see whose ass the importer kissed to get the Form 6 signed. To allow US
origin equipment back into the States requires State Department approval, and they haven't been
doing that for quite a while.......
It took a lawsuit from some collectors & importers just to get ATF to start signing the Form 6's again
to allow foreign armor imports.... It's cheaper/easier to buy a British Chieftain than a 1950's era