America's Patton tanks saw combat from Korea to Desert Storm
For over 40 years, some variant of the Patton family of tanks served America. From the mountains of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam, and through the deserts of the Middle East Patton tanks bested America’s enemies time and again.
In 1950, the first Patton tank, the M46, entered service. The M46 was originally based on the WWII M26 Pershing heavy tank. However, after extensive redesigns and improvements, it received its own designation and a new namesake — Gen. George S. Patton, a hero of WWII.
The M46 was armed with a 90mm main gun, a .50 caliber machine gun, and two .30 caliber machine guns, one mounted coaxially, the other forward-firing in the hull.
The arrival of the Patton into service was just in time as in June of that year North Korea, armed with formidable Russian T34 tanks, rolled across the 38th Parallel into South Korea. Fighting alongside WWII-era M4 Shermans and the M26 Pershings it was meant to replace, the M46 would see heavy combat in Korea.
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The first M46 tanks landed inside the Pusan Perimeter in August 1950 as part of the 6th Tank Battalion. They would prove critical in the defense. More M46s landed at Inchon with the 1st Marine Division’s 1st Tank Battalion.
In an attempt at psychological warfare, the tankers of the 24th Infantry Division’s 6th Tank Battalion painted tiger faces on their tanks thinking it would demoralize their superstitious Chinese adversaries.
By mid-1951 the Patton tanks had replaced all M26 Pershings in service in Korea. However, the M46’s own shortcomings had already led to the development of a replacement — the M47 Patton.
Though the M47 was introduced in 1952, it would be too late for it to see combat in Korea. However, the M47 was important because even though it shared design features and components with the M46 Patton, it was considered America’s first all-new tank design since WWII.
The M47, though, was just an interim design while engineers completed work on its successor, the M48 Patton. The M47 would never see combat but the M48 would be a workhorse of American and allied armored units.
Like its predecessors, the M48 also mounted a 90mm main gun; it was the last tank to do so, but had significant improvements in armor and performance.
The M48 was also introduced too late to see combat in Korea, but just over a decade later the Marines would take it to Vietnam. Soon, Army units were bringing their own Pattons to the fight.
Due to the nature of the conflict, the M48s did not often have the chance to go toe-to-toe with North Vietnamese armor. One of the few instances of tank combat came during the NVA assault on the Ben Het Camp where elements of the 1st Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment were stationed. The American Pattons easily defeated the NVA’s PT-76 tanks and BTR-50 APCs.
More often than not though, the M48s were relegated to infantry support — a role they excelled at. The Patton’s ruggedness allowed it to absorb a good amount of damage and its 90mm main gun was a welcome addition against dug-in enemies. A favorite of the troops was the Patton’s canister rounds, which acted like a giant shotgun through the jungle, cutting down man and tree alike.
A number of M48s were also converted to M67 “Zippo” tanks that mounted flamethrowers for dealing with stubborn Vietcong and NVA soldiers.
The Patton was also one of the few vehicles that could withstand the landmines that were employed against American forces. As such, it was often used as a route clearance vehicle to “sniff out” the explosive devices.
While the M48 was slogging it out in Vietnam, the next in line of the Patton family of tanks was coming into service with the American military: the M60 Patton, the M48s eventual replacement.
The M60 was the final tank in the Patton family line and America’s first Main Battle Tank. It mounted a modern 105mm main gun, a .50 caliber machine gun for the commander, and a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun.
The M60 also was the basis for the M60 Armored Vehicle Launched Bridge and the M728 Combat Engineer Vehicle, both of which were deployed to Vietnam alongside the M48s.
The M60 itself would not be deployed to Vietnam, but would be a mainstay of American armored formations, particularly in Europe.
One of the more interesting developments of the M60 Patton was the M60A2. Derisively known as the “Starship” because of its overly complex technology, the M60A2 mounted the same 152mm gun/missile system as the M551 Sheridan. A redesigned turret and an abundance of new technology gave the A2 variation a distinct look. However, the design was an overall disappointment and it was quickly retired.
Despite entering service some 30 years’ prior, the M60 Patton would not see significant combat until the end of its service history during the Persian Gulf War. Outfitting Marine tank battalions, the M60s performed admirably.
The Marines’ M60s spearheaded the assault to liberate Kuwait. In the fighting for Kuwait City, the M60 bested its original rival, the Soviet T62, time and again while sustaining only one tank lost to combat and no casualties. Marines manning Patton tanks destroyed over 100 Iraqi tanks and numerous other vehicles in the fighting.
Shortly after the Gulf War the M60 Patton was retired from combat service in favor of the new M1 Abrams. The last Pattons would return to Germany, the final resting place of their namesake, where they acted as OPFOR at the Combat Maneuver Training Center in Hohenfels before they too were retired in 2005.