The M48A5: A Crewman's Perspective

by Michael Eastes

(first published in Journal of Military Ordinance, Sept. '98)

        The M48 series tanks were developed in the early 1950s in response to advances in tank design in the Soviet Union.  As with most combat vehicles, M48s went through a series of evolutions to improve and upgrade them to meet changing requirements.  In 1975, the Anniston Army Depot in Alabama began a program which would eventually convert over 1,500 of these tanks to a standard almost equal to the M60.  These vehicles, destined for service with Reserve and National Guard units, were designated M48A5.  They would also go on to see service in a number of foreign armies.
        The conversions, taking three to four months per tank to complete, included fitting the L7 105mm gun, modified ammunition racks and gun travel lock, new track, some engine modifications, improved fire control equipment, and in some models Israeli-style low-profile cupolas and new machine gun mounts.  These changes gave the M48s a new lease on life and many are still in service around the world.
        This article is not intended to be a technical piece.  I am neither a mechanic nor an engineer.  I was merely a soldier who served for a time in these impressive machines, and came away from them with an enduring love and respect for military vehicles and the people who crew them.  Accordingly, this will be a look at the M48A5 from the perspective of one who ate, slept, and sweated in them.
        First of all, armored vehicles are not designed with crew comforts in mind.  Any luxuries tend to be accidental, with rare exception.  The A5 was typical of the US vehicles of its era: reliable, functional, and with no frills.  Each man brough his own ideas of making it more comfy, some with more success than others.  I'll go through each position and discuss the layout and advantages of each.  In the bow of the tank was the driver's position.  This was the most isolated man in the crew; in the hull while the rest of the men were in the turret.  Communication with the rest of the crew was via the helmet intercom.
        The basic driver's controls consisted of the steering wheel, large pedals for the brakes and accelerator, and the gear shift.  The experience of driving it was comparable to that of driving a car with an automatic transmission, although the tank was less responsive.
        For comfort, the driver's compartment was probably the best.  At speed the driver was able to hold the steering wheel and brace into the seat using the left leg against the hull.  The driver could also anticipate the shock of striking ground obstacles better than the turret crew.  At night a sleeping bag could be draped over the seat and behind, so that the head rested on the turret basket, making the most comfortable sleeping arrangement in the vehicle.  Closing the hatch protected the driver from the weather, and even in the cold made for a more-or-less warm compartment.  Most drivers jealously guarded their area at bedtime.
        The loader's position was on the left side of the turret.  To the rear of the fold-down seat was a rack for main gun ammunition stowed horizontally.  At the front of the turret, at floor level, was an upright ready rack holding more main gun rounds.  The rear racks in some tanks held four rounds, in others, nine rounds.  The upright ready rack held nineteen rounds.  In addition, storage racks to either side of the driver held an additional twenty five rounds of ammunition in reserve.
        The loader was responsible for loading the main gun and maintaining the coaxial 7.62 mm machine gun.  The coax was mounted to the immediate left of the main gun, with its muzzle projecting through the mantlet plate.  Its ammunition bin was mounted on the left turret wall.  In many M48A5s, the loader also had an M60D machine gun mounted on the turret roof for use against aircraft and ground troops.  As for comfort, the loader's position was a mixed blessing.  The fold-down seat was arguably the least comfortable in the vehicle.  The floor could be used for sleeping, but projections and compartments on the turret basket made this almost impossible for a large man.  During live firing, the recoil of the main gun was a serious hazard to the loader.
        On the other hand, the position was comparatively roomy and the availability of a hatch in the turret roof made movement tolerable.  Both the loader's and commander's positions, however, were punishing when the tank was at speed.  I always returned from the field with a ring of bruises around the midsection.
        Without a doubt the most cramped and claustrophobic position was that of the gunner.  Placed in the right forward position of the turret, this was the only crewman without ready access to the outside.  In addition the seat was surrounded by the many items of equipment needed to sight and fire the gun.  In my case, (I'm 6'4") when in this position, my left leg was squeezed between the main gun and the turret hydraulic cylinder; my right between the cylinder and fire control computer; the back of my helmet in contact with the range finder; and my face within a couple of inches of the sights.  The turret power controls projected between the legs.  If not properly sealed, the filling cap for the hydraulic cylinder could pop off, spraying scalding hot hydraulic fluid inside the turret.  Most gunners learned to check this seal religiously.  During live fire the gunner had to press his face hard against the sight or the recoil could knock him senseless.  While firing, the turret interior filled with smoke and dust.  The noise was incredible, with the radio chatter in the earphones, the crashing of the gun, and the clanging of the ejected shell cases hitting the back of the turret wall and floor combining with the roar of the engine and clatter of the tracks when moving.  While moving at speed, the gunner's seat was the most stable, as there was really no room to bounce around.  If the crew had to bail out, however, the gunner was in trouble, as he had to clamber backwards over his own seat, under the range finder, up into the commander's seat, and finally out.  In the event of a hit in combat, the gunner was the least likely to survive if fuel or ammo cooked off.  For me, at least, sleep was impossible in the gunner's seat.
        The commander was the busiest man in the crew.  His position was on the right rear of the turret in either the older style cupola mounting the .50 caliber machine gun, or the Israeli-style low profile cupola with an M60 machine gun mounted outside.  To his front inside the turret proper were the controls and scope for the range finder.  To his right was a handle that allowed him to traverse the turret and fire the main gun.  To his rear were the tactical radios.  He also gave commands to the rest of the crew to move and fight the tank, while monitoring the radio for commands from higher authority.
        To make the commander's tasks a bit less stressful, we used the Israeli technique of setting the range finder to 1500 meters and indexing APDS into the fire control computer.  This allowed effective use of the main gun against vehicular targets up to 1500 meters distance without resetting any controls, and this worked for most engagements.  At longer ranges, if the commander wasn't able to adjust the range finder, the gunner could adjust fire using the sight reticles.
        The commander's seat was adjustable and reasonably comfortable.  We found that a partially filled air mattress made it very workable for sleeping, but the sharp edges around the seat would puncture the mattress if care wasn't taken.  for most purposes the commander's position was the best for visibility and more comfortable than the loader's and gunner's seats.  When fully loaded, the tank weighed in at fifty-four tightly packed tons.  Very little space was available inside for any personal kit besides weapons, web gear, and rations.  Most items were kept in duffel bags in the bustle racks on the rear of the turret.  Most crews had one or two camouflage-painted coolers rigged to fit the bustle racks.  Almost all tank crewmen (and soldiers in general) became adept at living on the contents of their uniform pockets, and could pack an amazing array of supplies on their persons.  If nothing else, tankers learn to pack efficiently.
        For all the discomfort, bad smells, and extremely hard work, I've never been around a machine of any kind that was as much pure fun as a tank.  Even in peacetime, living and working in such close quarters makes a tank crew closer and more in tune with each other than any other endeavor I have experienced.  New and better tanks have come, but in my mind the M48A5 and its cramped confines will not be surpassed.

Photographs accompanying this article:
Michael Eastes' M48A5 of A Troop, 1/18 Cavalry photographed at Fort Irwin in 1981
The gunnery training laser system installed
SGT DeWeese in the cramped gunner's position on the M48A5.  The gun breech is to the left in the photo