Jake Devers’ Tank
The M26 Pershing, Part Two
By Arrigo Velicogna
The story began here.
Having the tanks in the United States and having them in battle were two different things. In December 1944 the German army launched its last big offensive in Western Europe, in the Ardennes region. It was by far the largest employment of Panther tanks in the west. While the Battle of the Bulge, as the offensive was also known, was a decisive Allied victory it also started a public controversy over the capabilities of the American tanks, particularly the Sherman. In response to widespread criticism, especially from journalists, in late December 1944 the head of Ordnance, Major General Gladeon M. Barnes, offered to send 20 of the new tanks directly to Europe while the other 20 would go to Fort Knox for additional testing.
In January 1945 the first 20 tanks arrived at Antwerp in a special deployment codenamed Zebra Mission. They were issued to the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions, then recovering from considerable vehicles losses suffered in the Battle of the Bulge. The two divisions trained crews for new tanks until the end of February. The T26 debuted on 25 February and the day after that they had their first tank engagement. One tank from the 3rd Armored Division was knocked out (but later recovered and repaired) in a night ambush by a Tiger 1. The day after, on the 26th, the T26 evened the odds destroying a Tiger with a frontal hit at 900 yards. In the same action two Panzer IVs were destroyed at 1,200 yards. The 90mm gun had proven itself.
Sgt. Robert Early's Pershing from E Company, 32nd Armored Regiment, 3rd Armored Division, on its way to dispose of a troublesome Panther in downtown Cologne.
On 6 March one of the most unusual tank engagements of the campaign occurred in the city of Cologne (Köln), where a T26 (from the 3rd Armored Division) engaged and destroyed a Panther in front of the medieval cathedral under the watchful eye of a camera. This was one of the few complete tank duels ever recorded on camera. The following day, the 7th, Lieutenant John Grimball’s heavy tank platoon of the 14th Tank Battalion assigned to the 9th Armored Division’s spearhead, Task Force Engeman, heading toward the small town of Remagen. When the tanks and infantrymen crested the hills to the west of the city they spotted on the of the few intact bridges over the Rhine River, the Ludendorff Bridge. Grimball’s tank supported the advance of the mechanized infantry inside the town and then covered their assault on the bridge itself. The German defenders blew up the bridge ramps to stop the tanks from crossing but Grimball’s men continued to provide covering fire, silencing several enemy positions thanks to their 90mm guns. The bridge itself was captured intact.
The T26’s soldiered on until the end of the war in Europe. By the end of the war 310 T26E3 had been shipped to Europe and 200 had been issued to combat units, but only the ones delivered with the original Zebra Mission saw extensive front-line action. As far the combat operations in Europe were concerned it was the classical case of “too little, too late.” They had no real impact on the course of the war (it had already been won), and they did not encounter many German heavy tanks, the German panzer force having been largely destroyed by the end of the Ardennes offensive.
Still they proved capable of dealing with the most powerful German panzers, including the King Tiger, and their armor withstood direct hits without problems. The crews appreciated them because even when disabled crew losses were minimal (the Sherman already had a good average with only one crewman lost per tank destroyed). The only negative comments stemmed from the fact that the tank was powered by the same engine as the M4A3E8 Sherman but weighed 8.2 tons more. The new Torquematic transmission drive proved temperamental, but could be made to behave with proper maintenance procedures and supply of spares. The U.S. Army accepted the tank and changed the designation from T26E3 to M26, baptizing it “Pershing” in honor of General John “Black Jack” Pershing, hero of the Mexican Expedition and commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France during the Great War.
Despite the small role played in the invasion of Germany the days of the Pershing were not over; a much more exacting enemy was waiting. A little more than five years after the end of Nazi Germany, on June 25th, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army crossed the 38th Parallel, invading the Republic of Korea. The invaders were spearheaded by Soviet-made T34/85 tanks. The outnumbered, out-maneuvered South Korean soldiers had just a handful of 57mm anti-tank guns and bazookas to oppose them.
When the United States intervened in the conflict only a handful of M24 Chaffee light tanks were available in the barracks in Japan. Yet the Korean War was to prove, as far U.S. tanks were concerned, the M26 Pershing’s war. Despite some successful delaying actions, including the heroic anti-tank efforts of the commander of the 24th Infantry Division, General William F. Dean, at Taejon the month of July was marked by continuous Allied retreats. Three Pershings were scraped together from several junked examples in Japan and sent to the Korean peninsula. The reconditioned vehicles had several problems including defective fan belts for the engines forcing them to use rail transport wherever possible. The makeshift tank platoon was sent by rail to defend the town of Chinju. The tanks were awaiting replacement belts when the North Koreans attacked on 28 July. The platoon commander, Lieutenant Sam Fowler, tried in vain to secure a train to evacuate the tanks and then decided to try to road march with the retreating infantry. The three Pershings overran an enemy roadblock on 31 July, but they lost contact with their own infantry and were stopped at a destroyed bridge. The enemy attacked them again and the engines of two tanks broke down. The third one surged forward again evacuating several crewmen, but its engine also quit after reaching safety and the tank had to be abandoned. In a single action the entire medium tank force available to General MacArthur evaporated. Yet help was on the way. The same day a full company of M4A3E8 medium tanks arrived at Pusan, shortly followed by more Shermans and Pershings.
By mid-August General Walton Walker, the commander of the U.S. 8th Army in Korea, had several Army tank battalions and one Marine tank battalion equipped with M4A3E8 Shermans and M26 Pershings. A few of the Pershings were even the new M46 model with a more powerful engine. These tanks proved their worth in several encounters against the North Korean T-34/85’s while defending the perimeter around the Korean port of Pusan (now Busan). The 90mm gun proved unstoppable against tanks and infantry. The Pershing did not even need the special Sabot (HVAP) rounds to dispatch the Soviet-made tanks.
On the night of the 17 August a platoon of Pershings from A Company 1st Marine Tank Battalion successfully engaged a force of 4 North Korean tanks. The first communist tank was hit by an HVAP round that holed the front glacis and then exited by the rear plate of the hull after killing two crewmembers. Two other HVAP rounds did the same. Army Pershings repeated the same performance ten days later during the night of 27 August when North Korean tanks, Su76 self-propelled guns, and infantry attacked the positions of the 27th Infantry Regiment supported by C Company 73rd Tank Battalion. In two days the North Koreans lost 13 T34/85’s and five assault guns. The tide had turned.
In the September counteroffensive the Pershing again played an important role. Marine Pershing landed at Inchon, the big port serving the city of Seoul, on 16 September and fought several sharp engagements with T34/85’s in the area between Inchon and the South Korean capital. Their support was invaluable in the bloody street fighting. Army Pershings participated in the breakout from the Pusan Perimeter and in the overland drive to the 38th Parallel first and to the Yalu river later. By the end of October the North Korean tank force had ceased to exist. Initially the air force claimed the majority of the tank kills, as usual, but the extensive technical survey conducted by the Ballistic Research Laboratory on North Korean tank wrecks credited tanks for 97 of the 256 T34-85 wrecks examined for the period July-November 1950. Aircrafts accounted only for 63 kills. Of the 97 tank kills scored by tanks the Pershings were credited with 51 (32 for the M26 and 19 for the M46), one was obtained by an M24 and the rest by M4A3E8 Shermans.
Looking at the story of the Pershing tank more than seventy years later, hindsight allow us to pontificate endlessly on the short-sighted approach of almost everyone involved except General Jacob Devers. He alone realized the need for a better-protected and better-armed tank to keep pace with Axis developments. Yet it’s also important to realize that we do this with the benefits of seventy years of research and a vast base of knowledge on the subject of tanks, tank guns, and tank armor. When General McNair and General Eisenhower took their decisions about the tank that would have led the American armies into Germany this material was simply unavailable. As wargamers we always tend to focus on armor penetration numbers and forget that tanks are, for the majority of their time, fighting against towed guns and infantry. In that role the Sherman medium tank was more than effective.
We have also to recognize General Devers’ stubbornness in defending a project he felt was necessary and ensuring that a replacement for the Sherman was available at all. The Pershing showed itself capable of handling both the best German panzers and the Soviet T-34/85. It allowed the US tank force to transition into the post-war era with a reliable and capable tank. The Pershing was also one of the first tanks used to rebuild European militaries after 1945. Even more importantly the Pershing was the progenitor of the entire M47/48/60 series of tanks that became the mainstay of the US armed forces until the appearance of the M1 Abrams in 1981. It was quite an accomplishment for a tank that was deemed unnecessary and almost killed by the U.S. Army.
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