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Tank Girl: Earning My Stripes in a WWII-Era M4A2E8 Sherman at Drive A Tank

Crushing cars is only part of a personal journey

KASOTA, Minneapolis – Thick, black diesel smoke coughs out of the M4A2E8 Sherman tank as I get a feel for the throttle. My father, a retired Army captain and tank platoon leader in Old Ironsides – the famed 1st Armored Division – perches in the commander’s position in the cupola behind me. How familiar his eagle eyes feel watching me. He’s an imposing man who once drove an M60 tank at 55 mph on the autobahn. I’m sitting awkwardly in the driver’s seat of a behemoth similar to the one Gen. George S. Patton commanded in North Africa. My palms are sweaty. I can barely reach the pedals. Now, somehow, I have to drive this thing.

Kasota is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town some 70 miles south of Minneapolis. It’s also the home of Drive A Tank, which is owned and operated by an enterprising guy named Tony Borglum. While on a trip to England with his father when he was younger, they drove armored vehicles. Borglum wondered why this wasn’t something available to do in the land of the Second Amendment and sensed an opportunity. He painstakingly set about collecting an arsenal of armored stuff to drive and historic military weapons to fire, finally opening his unique operation in 2006.

When the opportunity presents itself to head out to Kasota to drive and crush stuff with tanks, you go. Naturally, I had to invite my dad as well. I knew he flew Cobra and Huey helicopters during his active service in the Army. What I didn’t know until recently was he also spent a year as a tank platoon leader at Ferris Barracks in Erlangen, Germany, about 30 minutes northwest of Nuremberg, at the height of the Cold War.

A tank commander’s job is to do nothing and everything. Though not directly in charge of loading, firing, or maneuvering, they’re ultimately responsible for the vehicle and the crew inside it. So, of course, Dad should come, regardless of how it might affect my ego. You see, when it comes to my father, I want him to think I’m smart. On the subject of cars, I can hold my own. A tank girl, I am not.

Before anyone climbs into any mountain of metal at Borglum’s shop, there’s the mandatory safety lecture. “Do what we say, or you’re out of here,” Borglum warns. I look over at my dad. He’s pretty good at following directions but better at breaking rules. “Don’t touch switches, especially in languages you can’t read, because it could move a hulking machine part that also cuts off fingers.” Don’t touch knobs, great. Now, let’s get on with crushing cars already.

Borglum’s presentation continued. Only now it’s accompanied by somber black and white photographs of soldiers slouching in the earth’s jagged wounds that were the trenches of World War I. Images depicting the squalid conditions of “The Great War” suddenly collided with my frivolous impatience to demolish stuff. Tanks were never intended as car-crushing amusements. These were hellfire machines carrying living, breathing men who were trying to kill other living, breathing men. I was struck by the gravity of the look on my father’s face as he recounted a story about conducting a NATO exercise called Reforger during his time in Germany – a troop redeployment strategy that would have led to a massive loss of life had it ever been executed for real. In an instant, this assignment became about much more than joy riding and killing cars.

My 5-foot-5-inch, 120-pound frame is dwarfed by the Sherman, which is almost 20 feet long and 9 feet wide and tall. There is absolutely no comfortable place on a tank. I try to settle into the driver’s position but struggle to adjust. Eighty-thousand pounds of metal vibrates my entire body through my haunches. My proportions are all wrong, so I sit on the edge of the seat, giving me virtually no leverage when steering. A pair of tillers makes up the tank’s basic steering mechanism. Pull both tillers toward you and you engage the brakes. Release them and you move forward. Engage the right you’re turning that way, left you’ll turn left. Not much to remember – until you’re in the stink.

There’s no power-assisted anything. It’s as manual as it gets, and everything’s hard. Borglum, who’s in the bow gunner’s position next to me, throws the tank into second gear. “Now, take your foot off the clutch,” he barks. “Now easy on the throttle.” My heel digs into the tank’s floor. The two-stroke diesel spews black smoke as it sputters to life; metal creaks and groans as we crawl forward.

Nicknamed Easy Eight, the M4A2E8 Sherman was a quicker, better-armored variant of the M4. It was equipped with a GM 6046D 12-cylinder engine that was comprised of two linked 6-71 supercharged diesel engines, which could operate independently of the other should the need arise. Production started in 1944. While it had some disadvantages, most notably the tall profile, its strongest asset was mobility. To Patton, a staunch defender of the Sherman, they were the best because they were simple and reliable. In other words, they worked.

According to the Department of Defense, no one except the U.S. Government owns American-made tracked combat vehicles. That’s what makes the E8 Sherman, primarily manufactured in the Midwest, a true unicorn in Drive A Tank’s stable. Equipped with a 76 millimeter M1 gun, it’s one of the only Shermans available to drive anywhere in the world, by civilians or otherwise. Borglum has his because it was cut into three pieces and technically classified as scrap. He bought the pieces and welded them back together.

Mastery of the Sherman is not my goal. Mediocrity seems aspirational. My right foot coaxes the throttle, and we pick up speed. The faster it goes, the easier it is to maneuver and control the goliath. As the Sherman easily absorbs muddy ditches and busts over rocks on Drive A Tank’s 23-acre, densely wooded driving range, my other senses stir. Diesel exhaust fills my nostrils. The tracks clack and squeal against the wheels as they turn, and the engine groans under its load. It occurs to me these same sounds would have echoed off the bombed-out buildings of France and into the ears of terrified soldiers. My heart races at the thought. My throat tightens.

“I can’t do it.” The words enter my mind but never cross my lips when I can’t get the Sherman to make a hard left. My father’s watching. “You good?” Borglum asks. Just nod, dummy. My left foot plants into the front panel of the tank above the clutch, I wrench the left tiller with both arms. “You’re the only woman in the damn group,” I think. “Do this.” The Sherman barely clears the turn, slow and deliberate, but it clears.

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My minor victory is sweet, but short-lived. Another obstacle looms ahead. “If you’re not at 2,100 rpm you’re not making it up the hill. It’s gotta rev. This makes 400 horsepower at 2,100 rpm, and at 1,850 rpm it makes 75. That’s the nature of the beast,” Borglum explains. Just drive the tank, girl. Borglum shifts the Sherman into third. I ease off the clutch. The Sherman heaves again. “Now mash the throttle!” My right foot hits the floor. The tank bolts forward, and dirt kicks up in my face. The Sherman roars downhill, and I brace for the small rise in front of us. Borglum pats the Sherman. “Come on, baby.” With the incline we lose momentum fast, but we make it.

Piloting the Sherman was the most physically demanding and visceral driving I’ve ever done. My arms ached, and my nervous system hummed as I barely pulled myself out of the hull. We drove a total of four vehicles including the Sherman. The FV433 Abbot SPG. Not technically a tank but a self propelled Howitzer that does a great imitation of one. The FV432-APC armored personnel carrier was the lightest vehicle we drove. Of our group of four, yours truly drove it the fastest and got the dirtiest while barreling through a mud hole. Both are British made vehicles originally equipped with Rolls-Royce engines.

The pièce de résistance was the car crusher, the 750 horsepower, 60.6-ton Chieftain manufactured in Great Britain. Hearing sheetmetal buckle and safety glass pop under you is definitely cool. But it was only about 20 yards of driving, then over the main battle tank’s defenseless victim. Then done. I couldn’t even see it. My prey was a Ford Escort wagon, set directly in the Chieftain’s path, like a mouse in a boa constrictor’s cage. According to Borglum, it’s what a high volume of his customers are after. They’ll leave very satisfied.

Depending on what you want to do, Borglum and his incredibly professional team at Drive A Tank will set it up for you. With nine authentic tanks, several military vehicles that have been used in actual combat, a shooting range, and historic firearms, it’s an endless canvas of military experiences.

Borglum admits though that not everyone has a positive response to his enterprise. “Anytime you provide an experience to the public with these kinds of vehicles,” he says, “you’re going to get mixed reactions.” War is a nefarious gatekeeper whose toll is varied but steep. There’s nothing glib about what Borglum does. He’s a student of military history. He listened intently while my dad shared his firsthand knowledge — pride surging as the memories poured out. It’s a reverential experience, even if most of his customers never realize it and just show up to demolish cars.

As we said our goodbyes and shook hands, Borglum seemed genuinely pleased my father participated. “You guys are welcome to come back anytime.” I have a good feeling he meant it. We just might.

At dinner I asked my dad what the best part of the day was for him. “Remembering everything, the smells. The smell of the canvas in the back of the personnel truck. The diesel fuel. The vibrations of the tank. The ‘clack, clack, clack’ the tracks make. The hard feel of the metal. And driving. I wasn’t a driver, but it felt good to get behind the sticks.” It seems strange to learn something new about a person you’ve known for decades, but I was grateful to watch him in his element, talking to Borglum’s staff, some of whom had just left active duty. “That one kid called me sir. Did you hear that?” My father appreciates someone who respects him.

As a tank platoon leader, my dad had plenty of authority in his day, reigning over not only his M60 but four others. Dad affectionately christened his tank the “A. Mother F.” — a friendly dispatch of what his enemy had to look forward to should they ever meet. This isn’t a man who’s ever demonstrated much fear. Decisive action is more his tack. Take his daughter’s word for it.

Later than night, still buzzing from the exertion of the day, my dad did something he rarely does. He changed his mind. “My favorite part of the day wasn’t what I said it was earlier.” He gets choked up. I keep quiet. “It was watching you. Watching you participate in something I did when I was a young man. You held your own with all those guys. I was so proud of you out there today.” My heart leaps into my throat.

My grandfather flew in the British Royal Air Force. My grandmother drove an ambulance during World War II. Both of my brothers were in the Army, one of them saw combat in the Middle East. My dad is a West Point graduate, a retired Army captain, former helicopter pilot and Ranger in addition to a tank platoon commander. At least in my father’s eyes, his only girl finally earned her stripes in Kasota, Minnesota, driving a tank.

Drive A Tank packages start at $449. For more information, call 507-931-7385 or visit www.driveatank.com.