Somewhere south of the 38th Parallel, in the thick of the Korean War: Captain James Lowell Harrington squinted through his binoculars at the nearby countryside, looking for an enemy that wasn’t supposed to be there. His King Sherman tank, “Ironsides,” rolled along slowly, leading a company to the front lines. The fingers of his right hand gripped his .45 tightly, showing his dislike of their position.
The fields of Korea are a welcome sight when you’ve spent so much of your time staring at the same five guys, a bunch of nondescript metal, and the dark coldness that is the inside of a Sherman. This day it was beautiful and calm.
It would be suicidal to try and navigate the tank onto such soft ground. The American forces were practically begging to be ambushed.
Too calm. He hadn’t been on a tank ride this pleasant since he’d asked a pretty young nurse — his future wife — to go for a spin in the countryside of France six years earlier. That’s about as romantic as Captain Harrington got: a tank was still involved. On the day in question, he would rather have been holding his wife, would rather be back at that sunny afternoon after V-E Day.
But there he was, leaning out of the hatch to scan the Korean landscape for the enemy he refused to believe wasn’t waiting for him.
When Fury came out in theaters, I was psyched to see a movie about a tank crew deep in the shit of World War II. My grandfather, Captain Harrington, commanded a tank just like Brad Pitt’s character, “Wardaddy.” As such, I’ve always been fascinated by tank warfare.
Leading up to the climax of the movie, I watched with rapt attention as Wardaddy’s tank breaks down at a crossroads in enemy territory. The crew, having spent much of movie in the confines of the tank, stubbornly refuses to leave it. Determined to go out with a bang, they hunker down and wait for the enemy to arrive. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about the story my father had told me, when my grandfather was faced with almost the same situation…
The flat terrain offered very little cover for infantrymen in the event of the attack that Captain Harrington was increasingly sure was coming.
Having gone through hell in North Africa and Italy during World War II, Captain Harrington had a healthy distrust of areas deemed “safe” by out-of-touch superior officers. Surrounded by endless swampy fields of rice paddies, the three tanks under his command were confined to a narrow dirt road. It would be suicidal to try and navigate the tank onto such soft ground. The American forces were practically begging to be ambushed. The Captain knew they were unlikely to encounter any enemy tanks, but without the ability to maneuver freely, even the limited anti-armor weaponry possessed by the hostile Korean forces could damage Ironsides.
On top of that, roughly 150 men, including a lot of boys that he’d trained, were relying on his tanks for protection. The flat terrain offered very little cover for infantrymen in the event of the attack that Captain Harrington was increasingly sure was coming. Just a handful of trees dotted the landscape. The area had been cleared two days before, but two days was plenty of time for enemy forces to dig in to a fortified position. They knew the terrain better than the Americans. The same damn terrain that was forcing his company into a vulnerable situation.
Outside the tank, soldiers joked and griped, the timeless right of an enlisted man. Inside, a tense silence reigned.
Outside the tank, soldiers joked and griped, the timeless right of an enlisted man. Inside, a tense silence reigned. Captain Harrington ran a tight crew, and they knew him well enough to see he was uneasy. They stole glances at his white-knuckled grip on his sidearm.
The steel-plated protection afforded by Ironsides obscured their view of the outside world. They continued to look out of their viewports, but the Captain’s body language was still their best gauge of imminent danger. So far, he hadn’t led them astray.
Once you’ve heard the sound of a mortar round on its way to kill you, you don’t forget it. Captain Harrington knew the sound well, and slammed the tank hatch closed.
“Button up! Load an HE!” He grabbed the radio hanging next to his commander’s chair and called on the other tanks. “They’re dug in up ahead somewhere, let’s dig ‘em out!”
Looking through the periscope, he saw multiple twinkles of light as machine guns opened up on his company. “They’re playing the devil’s piano for us, boys! Let’s return the favor. Fire at will!”
The forward gunner began enthusiastically squeezing off rounds. The tank shuddered as the main cannon shot off a high-explosive round. The infantrymen needed covering fire to dig foxholes, and Captain Harrington and his tanks provided it.
It wasn’t going to be enough. Foxholes were better than nothing, but provided little protection from mortar rounds. The mobility of mortars made them difficult to knock out, especially from a distance.
Ironsides’ longtime driver, Jaws, knew this. He turned to the Captain and asked, “Full ahead sir? Let’s get the bastards!”
“Mines, private. They gotta be all over the road ahead.”
If the enemy had taken the time to set up an ambush, they had taken the time to mine the road. Captain Harrington wiped his brow as he considered the problem. If they stayed put, their ability to protect the infantrymen would be limited. A stalemate would arise, and although the American forces were more likely to be reinforced first, he didn’t want to let his company slowly bleed men until that time. If they moved down the road, a mine could blow off their treads and they’d be sitting ducks.
He wiped his brow again, his body feeling the heat of the tank in action while the gears in his head ground towards a solution. Advance or hold ground? Neither option appealed to him. But Captain Harrington always took action, and he wasn’t going to stand pat now.
“Turn us 45 degrees to the right, full ahead. Rice paddies be damned,” said the Captain.
Cackling wildly, Jaws gunned the engine and led Ironsides offroad. The gunner rotated the turret towards the enemy lines, anxious to fire. The tank went down a small incline and slammed into the next paddy. Ironsides’ treads cooperated at first, moving slowly forward. But then the soft ground gave way and she dragged to a stop. Jaws gunned the engines, but the ground just churned and churned and they went nowhere.
Captain Harrington waited for a long moment as Jaws did everything he could to move the tank. More churning. Jaws slumped back in his seat dejectedly.
Once you’ve heard the sound of a mortar round on its way to kill you, you don’t forget it.
“Damn it all to hell, Cap, she ain’t movin’.”
Tense silence fell over the crew as they waited for their Captain to respond. As they waited, they heard the telltale whistle of a mortar round — faint at first, but growing louder with every second. The men braced themselves. Then the round exploded directly on top of the tank: wham! The whole vehicle rocked on its treads, and the men’s nostrils filled with the acrid smell of explosive chemicals. Ironsides might have only been an upgraded version of Captain Harrington’s machine from WW2, but she stayed true to her name and kept the crew intact.
A stream of expletives exploded from Captain Harrington’s mouth as he began to punch the grey steel of the sidewall, slamming his hand into it over and over as he cursed his misfortune.
“Alright, goddamnit,” he said, composing himself. “Shut her down. Let them think we’re completely dead.” With a lot of luck and inaccurate shooting by the enemy, they might be able to hold out until dark and escape.