Marines Under Armor: An Interview with Kenneth Estes

Tank and AFV News recently had the opportunity to pose a series of questions to retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and professor of history Kenneth Estes.  Mr. Estes is the author of several books on tanks and armored warfare, most notably his history of the development and role of AFVs in the USMC, Marines Under Armor.  His other works include (but not limited to) Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War (Texas A&M University Military History Series, 85.), A European Anabasis: Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-45, Into the Breach at Pusan: The 1st Provisional Marine Brigade in the Korean War (Campaigns and Commanders Series), Marine Officer’s Guide, 7th Edition and also several Osprey New Vanguard series titles.  Mr. Estes is a Seattle native and holds a doctorate in Modern European History from the University of Maryland.


You had a long and successful career with the USMC, having held positions such as Company commander, instructor, historian and writer before retiring at the grade of Lieutenant Colonel (full career synopsis available at end of interview).  Describe the beginning of your USMC career.

CPend DelMar Apr70I graduated from the Naval Academy in 1969, took the basic USMC officer course [The Basic School] Aug69-Jan70, attended USMC Tracked Vehicle School, Tank Officer Course Feb-Apr70.  At the USMC Tank Officer Course, Camp Pendleton (1970), I trained on the M48A3, M67A2 and M103A2 tanks.  This included firing the machine guns, 90mm and 120mm tank cannon and the flame projector of the M67A2. Normally each of us in that course would have preferred assignment to the U.S. Army course at Ft Knox, but only one officer per Basic School class was so detailed. However, the truth of the matter was that the USMC course was fully ‘hands on’ and personal training for just 10 tank officer trainees and therefore much more suitable, and I found out months later that lieutenants attending the Armor Officer Basic Course at Ft Knox in those years did not drive the vehicles and several missed gunnery because of range weather conditions. Moreover, the USMC Tracked Vehicle School was located at gorgeous Del Mar Basin on the coast near Oceanside CA, so one could enjoy all the merits of Californication.

You either served or trained on the M48, M60 and M103 US tanks.  What were your impressions of these vehicles?

Well, by the time I came to serve in them, these were vehicles introduced into service in 1955-58, modernized in 1963-64 with most applicable M60 upgrades and once again rebuilt during the Vietnam War. So, they were very familiar to all hands and spares were available in the system. The principal difficulty was that the USMC supply system did not function very well in delivering spare parts to the units and particularly did not draw items well from the item manager [US Army]. Army provisioning of parts was much richer for units and we envied this.

So there were no real ‘issues’ and the bugs had been worked out long ago. The M48s were also very roomy and easy to learn. For the 90mm gun, it was easily served, had an excellent variety of ammo, which at least was in plentiful supply and an officer in time could learn to shoot at least to an above average level and keep up with his enlisted tankers.

The M103s were heavier and ungainly in poor terrain, had some turret problems. They should have received the M60 turret system but that conversion probably was judged too expensive [may have been underpowered at that point before the M60A3] when we expected to change to the MBT70 in a few years. Their only deployments outside the US were to Guantanamo.

The M67 flame tank was probably obsolete already. It had little use in Vietnam and since hand held AT weapons outranged it, it was overdue for retirement. It hung on because of USMC positive experiences with flame weapons in WWII and Korea. Tactically, they were to be used only with two gun tanks covering each flame tank. The tankers who manned them mostly liked them and enjoyed the freedom to shoot them at will without anybody competing for use of their flame firing range. They also deployed only to Guantanamo.

What systems on these tanks work as advertised?  What systems don’t work as advertised, forcing the crews to improvise or create work-arounds? 

The M48A3 was rugged and robust, and had no issues as we call it today. The M67s had to take care with their turret systems, chiefly the high pressure air circuits. The M103 heavy suffered more from broken torsion bars and when maneuvered to its maximum potential, reportedly had a weakness in the front compensating idler arm, according to the 3d Tank Battalion, from maneuvering in the California desert. The turret system, an electro-hydraulic nightmare designed from USN AA mounts, was complex and not well understood by the turret maintenance men, who of course attended army schools and received little to no instruction on it, depending what instructors were on hand. The most common defect would be slow turret drift right or left despite holding the traversing handle still. A skilled gunner would curse and cope. Even senior mechs often knew little about the system. A known and persistent weakness was the equilibrator seal, vital to keeping the gun elevation system operational. It was a weekly event on the heavy tank company ramp to see one or more gun barrels drooping when not in travel lock. Replacing that seal was time-consuming heavy work. Despite all this, we knew that if the heavies could arrive on the battlefield, they would settle the issue.

The principal weakness of all these tanks was their height and I became envious of the West Germans with their low silhouette Leopard I.  There was also the problem that the USMC did not provision its tank fleet as generously as the U.S. Army, and I am here also speaking in terms of overhaul cycles. But we were young, confident and aggressive, and did not know anything about the T-64 and the new special armors.

What were some of the unique challenges that USMC tankers faced that their land based army counterparts didn’t have to concern themselves with?

Apart from supply and maintenance deficiencies, the main difference was the knowledge of the infantry in operating in a combined arms environment. The infantry dominated the USMC senior leadership, seconded by the artillery. In WWII and Korea, they had all learned to lean on the tanks for vital support in tough fighting against a tenacious enemy. However, the conduct of the Vietnam War somehow soured the infantry, who too frequently complained of having to guard disabled or bogged vehicles or, when in action, that the tanks ‘attracted fire’ on them and any nearby personnel [they preferred that the enemy just fire on them??]. Accordingly, the USMC infantry were not well prepared for the USMC post-Vietnam shift to NATO operations contingencies. To the infantry officer, he was in command, with all the other supporting arms specialists as his ‘advisers.’ The thought that they had also to understand and employ armored tactics usually did not occur to them. I could bore you with endless tales of woe with infantry commanders who did not employ [or badly employed] his tank units.

Throughout its history, the USMC has had a number of failures in regards to developing AFVs, going all the way back to the Marmon Herrington light tanks of early WW2 up to more recent debacles such as the cancelled AAAV/EFV.  What factors are to blame for some of these failed AFV development programs? 

Now, now, I busted that myth in my Marines Under Armor, as well as the one that the USMC always took army hand-me-downs or took M4A2 mediums in WWII because the USN carried diesel for its landing craft. Consider this; as small as the Marine Corps became post-WWI [75,000 to 20,000 initially, 17,000 in 1935] it maintained a light tank platoon of eight M1919A1 tanks at Quantico 1923-1935, including one overseas deployment to China. These regularly drilled with the fleet marines in amphibious landing exercises through 1927, then deployed to China for duty, returning in 1928. In 1935, the Marine Corps Equipment Board specified a five ton tank for use in the new Fleet Marine Force, forming a tank company in each of two planned brigades. Through no fault of its own, the board observed the five-ton limit, because an unnamed staff officer at headquarters had determined that the USN could handle nothing larger in its transport ships. Only in 1940, with 25 Marmon-Herringtons on order and 10 in hand, did an officer of the Board, future WWII general and commandant in 1953 LtCol Lemuel Shepherd, storm into the headquarters and demand to know why Navy transport ships, most with cranes capable of lifting 15 tons or more could not handle tanks heavier than 5 tons! The error was corrected and the Corps ordered its first 36 army light tanks (M2A4) on 8 July 1940, to be followed by (as of 13Nov42) 73 M3 gasoline, 175 M3 diesel and 375 M3A1 (of 508 ordered). The objective was an all M3A1 (gasoline) force, but the dispersal of several units across the Pacific would make that difficult and the M5A1 light tanks would become standard in late 1943, starting with the new 4th Tank Battalion.

I call that a recovery from misdirection, not a failure.

The M4A2 decision was based upon obtaining a medium tank as early as feasible. Considering the army ban on sending diesel vehicles overseas [with exceptions], only the M4A2 would be readily available [only the Russians wanted them, initially]. On 28Nov42, the USMC Quartermasters office wrote, “168 M4A2 ordered to SD for 1st/2d TkBns (med), [one of few references to the number of medium tank battalions planned] 40 actually arrived. 168 M4A2 allocation proposed  for March. Deliver by priority rating. Do not believe M4A1 or M4A3 will be available by March or April. Since initial issue to 1st and 2d battalions will not all require replacement at same time, seems impractical to switch to new model, even if available.”

Failure? Not really. The tank battalion commanders rebelled in 1944 when HQ determined that the Corps would have to take the M4A3 tanks in the future because the army was no longer applying the latest upgrades to the A2 series. They considered the M4A2 invaluable like no other.

Postwar, everybody faced the problem of tank obsolescence. The US Army determined all its medium tanks obsolete except for the M4A3(76mm, wet). Nothing better was available to the Corps except some M26 tanks, and 102 of these were acquired before the outbreak of the Korean War. Thereafter, the USMC continued to acquire the current production tank of the army, with the exception of the initial M60 tanks, which the headquarters staff regarded as an insufficient improvement to warrant disposal of its M48 and M103 fleets, especially with the MBT70 in sight. The failures of the MBT70 program resulted in the USMC acquiring the improved current production M60A1 tanks in 1974 and current production M1A1 in 1990. In addition to the specific modifications all USMC M1A1 tanks received that were different from the army – deepwater fording kit, hull chaining points for shipboard and landing craft embarkation — the Corps has continued to invest in standard modernizations of the series. In 2012, USMC tanks received SCWS, ADU and TIP. The Corps alone adopted improved titanium blow-off panels in 2014 and a Firepower Enhancement Program in 2016.

Failures? None to speak of. Now if we must refer to the amphibious assault vehicle, the current AAV7 series was the first development and acquisition of amphibious vehicles by the Marine Corps, as all previous development and orders came through the USN Bureau of Ships. The result was a thoroughbred, so good that it continued in service since 1971 steadily upgraded as emerging technologies failed to reach practical development. It will serve in part through 2035 in the USMC and continues to serve in several foreign services.

The last attempt to produce a high speed amphibious assault vehicle was the ambitious AAAV or Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV), which would carry fewer troops and little equipment at 25+ knots in state 3 seas from launching ships located over the horizon from the assault beaches. I evaluated this as too high a technical risk in 1986, when I was tasked with developing the concept of operation for the AAAV at HQ. My proposal was for swim-capable infantry fighting vehicles to be carried by the LCAC into the assault beaches to land directly or themselves launch from the LCAC close to the beach. It was initially circulated at HQ, but drew fire from several groups that either abhorred the use of navy landing craft in the initial assault, or had already decided on the high-speed AAV as the desired goal. I later told the PM of the AAAV program that ‘nobody would want to spend $4M on a f****g amtrac!’ It turned out they were not interested in spending in excess of $17M/vehicle either. I’m not happy to be proven right in the end and the resulting vehicle has very impressive characteristics. However the budget crunch was on again and the AAAV/EFV had been targeted too many times already for the cut and so it went.

Nothing is easy in amphibious fighting vehicles, so don’t be fooled by the Chinese version now being displayed, as I don’t believe it’s seaworthy in the same conditions the USMC deemed essential for the AAAV/EFV. The USMC will field a low cost wheeled alternative to the AAV-7, to be carried and launched by LCACs if an over the horizon landing is required. Color me surprised!

During the Cold War, the US Army Armor branch seemed rather enamored with the WWII German Panzer forces, adopting some of their doctrinal principles including terms like “Schwerpunkt” and “Auftragstaktik.” Was this admiration for the successes of the early WWII Panzer divisions limited to US Army tankers or did it also bleed over to USMC tankers?

Starting in 1974, all USMC tank officers attended the army courses, Basic Armor (Lt) and Advanced Armor (Capt) at Ft Knox, although the advanced course was not mandatory. Many of us studied tactics on our own back to the WWII experiences and for reasons I know not, the MC Gazette carried numerous articles in the 1950s written by German generals and other commanders on their WWII experiences. Some of this repeated itself in the 1970s and 1980s, but these were by then USMC advocates of combined arms and ‘maneuver warfare.’ Some of this came from army courses, but also from experiences with NATO exercises in Norway, Denmark, Germany and Turkey, starting in 1975. Very few of us talked in German terms, but the USMC formally embraced ‘maneuver warfare’ in 1985 and mission orders and ‘commander’s’ intent became a requirement in operations orders certainly by 1988.

Why was the USMC more receptive to the idea of the heavy tank in the post war period than the US Army?  Considering the mission of the USMC as an expeditionary force, it would seem that heavy tanks would not fit well with that role, and yet the USMC kept the M103 in service far longer than the Army did.


Author with M103 Heavy Tank at Bovington Tank Museum

My wag response would be, ask the army why they lost faith! The Army Advisory Panel on Armor of 1949 established the policy requirement for a heavy tank battalion (69 T43 tanks) among the four in each armored division, plus a corps armored cavalry group equipped with three heavy tank battalions, for a total of 276 T43 tanks of the 1,111 tanks envisioned for the typical army corps. For the USMC, it was a simple matter of getting the best balance of tank power from admittedly scarce stowage capacity of USN assault shipping. Long before the close run thing called the Battle of Tarawa, we knew that we needed tanks in the amphibious assault and that they had to be relatively light and maneuverable at first, in order to get ashore as soon as possible and deal with machinegun nests, but also there had to be follow-on tanks more capable than the initial ones, that would handle the exploitation of the landing and also deal with likely enemy counterattacks that might include armor. This was Marine Corps Policy in 1940 [CMC  8Apr40: decision memo on number, type of tanks]. When the divisional tank battalion’s [USMC being first to make a tank bn organic to infantry divisions] standard light tanks failed to do the job at Tarawa, the M4A2 medium tank was promoted from the follow-on tank to the assault tank. The force tank battalions were therefore deleted from USMC organizations because there was nothing more capable than the army medium tank. However, postwar doctrines reasserted the two-tank doctrine, specifying a heavy tank for the force tank battalions. The M26 was initially procured as an interim heavy tank, but was not considered suitable at the time. Thus, when the army decided to develop the T41, T42 and T43 light, medium and heavy tanks in the late 1940s, the Marine Corps signed on for the latter two types at once. Fast forward to 1954, when the army completed production of 300 T43E1/M103 heavy tanks, 220 for the USMC. Their defects caused the army to correct only a few major deficiencies in their 80 tanks and standardize them as the M103. They would field one battalion for evaluation in Germany with Seventh Army, but effectively had lost interest. The Corps retained its requirement for the heavy tanks and force tank battalions and insisted on and funded over 100 modifications to its tanks, which the army completed as the M103A1 rated type standard in 1958. These would serve in the active and reserve USMC through 1972. Only two force tank battalions ever took to the field with M103A1, one for just a year, and otherwise formed as one of the three or four tank companies of the divisional tank battalion. The USMC Reserve was required to maintain seven heavy tank companies for wartime reinforcement such that each of the planned four divisional tank battalions and two force tank battalions would have one and three heavy tank companies, respectively, under existing mobilization and war plans (1963). At this point, a peak number of 119 of the 218 M103A2 tanks were therefore allocated to the active and reserve components of the Corps.

You trained in the M67A2 flamethrower tank.  What was your impression of this vehicle, and do you think there will ever be a requirement again for a flame throwing tank?

See above. I don’t see them making a return.

How do your experiences as a tank officer shape the way you approach your historical writing?

I had always been an avid reader of military history and history in general and was fortunate to receive USMC support to obtain the master’s degree in 1974 from Duke Univ and institutional support from the Naval Academy to enroll in the PhD program at Univ of Maryland while an instructor. I received the PhD in Modern European History in 1984, but kept it a secret from all but personal friends. As late as 1986, there were only 12 marines holding the PhD on active duty, and I didn’t want to be on that skyline. I could imagine my boss’ reactions, “What? a f****g doc???!!!”

Anyway, my approach to military history remained, ‘what can the study of XYZ tell us about what the soldiers of the day were trying to accomplish and to what extent was this feasible or successful?’ To me, the enduring lessons of strategy, operations, tactics and techniques all existed in the archives and in publications for anybody to learn or consider. That is not to say that history repeats itself, but there are patterns in history and these bear observing. So I’d say that History added to my potential as a tank officer. As far as the reverse goes, I’d say my overall experiences in training and operations has taught me to look for the details and indicators that serve as primary evidence to unit cohesion, effectiveness in battle and so forth.

You had mentioned on that your upcoming book is going to be your last.  What will this book be about and why is it the last you plan on writing?

IMG_3826 (1)

Author with Tiger II heavy tank at Musée des Blindés Saumur

Funny you asked, as I just received notice from Fonthill Media, Ltd. the news that my German Heavy Fighting Vehicles of the Second World War: From Tiger to E-100 has been accepted as delivered and is assigned ISBN 978-1-78155-646-7. I’m unclear about production schedules, but it seems clear that by early next year it will be on the street. They approached me for this book in late 2014, the publisher asking for a book on German heavy tanks. Because so many Tiger tank books had come out in the preceding four to five years, I suggested that it be broadened to AFVs to allow an investigation of the Ferdinand/Elefant and Jagdtiger tank destroyers and the superheavy tank projects as well. Well, they accepted and I was off to the races. Who knows what new material can be produced on these tanks, however I think I have added a few wrinkles to include a 25 photo crawl-through of the King Tiger owned by the Tank Museum at Saumur.

I have decided that it’s the last book mostly from becoming realistic about reaching 70 in my continuing youth and being able to spend more time reading books I have yet to touch on my bookshelves, vice sweating over honest work. I do have research interests that continue and my recent discovery of some interesting archives might lead me to look for an existing blog to post pics and docs … any ideas on that?

In a post, you once referred to Tom Jentz as a “chronicler” as opposed to a historian.  In your mind, what is the distinction?

Actually, the late Mr. Jentz began his publishing by referring to himself as a researcher. He impressed me with the pains he took to disassociate himself with ‘historians’  who — one infers from his usual book introduction — simply regurgitate the works of others and pay no mind to the spreading of falsehoods,  and mistakes in the published world. He thus justifies his failure to show his sources and provide indexing to his books by stating that his signature devotion to using ‘only primary sources’ is proof positive of having arrived at the last word on the subject without amassing the numerous footnotes, endnotes and bibliographies such as found in published books of others.  The last word, we are supposed to believe, is provided by his quotations from unspecified documents and personal accounts, which alone must be considered to be authentic.

So I find such assertions to be a bit hostile to the historical profession on the face of things. Moreover, his faith in the accuracy of primary sources presents some difficulties, especially when officials could and have made errors in creating said documents, and one can never be sure that a given document was not superseded or countermanded by another. As for personal accounts, I am sure that I am not the only researcher and writer who has been led astray by a personal account, or interview, regardless of the person’s military grade, experience or ability to bear witness to events. History is a social science. Like other sciences, the veracity of a statement or finding depends upon the ability to replicate results. Concealing one’s sources allows no such thing. So the failure to provide proper citations to one’s work in archives and collections may keep others from using them [if that is the intent], but it also leaves one in doubt about whether sources have been selectively used or not used, hence leaving one in doubt, not certainty.

So, I find Jentz’s work on the tanks I was studying to be maddeningly disorganized by using neither chronological nor thematic order to his narrative, and also the use of long passages of quotations, in any order, without much benefit of interpretation or reflective insights. His ability to weave them together into a coherent story, as a chronicler might do, does not prove convincing, because he provides too little indication to the reader as to what important elements of the story are being portrayed and how they fit into the overall thesis. So, one must read such a book from cover to cover, but may not find answers to questions at hand. If so, you are out of luck, for there is no index and so you must page through the book again, hoping to find the link or concept one has missed…or not.

You have written a book about the non-German volunteers who served in the SS during WWII called A European Anabasis: Western European Volunteers in the German Army and SS, 1940-45.   For armor enthusiasts, the 5th SS Panzer division Wiking is probably the best known of these units.  What motivated non-Germans to volunteer for an organization as virulently racist as the SS?  Also,  you describe several of the available books on the topic of the non-German volunteers as either revisionist or apologist in nature.  How much has our understanding of the Eastern front been shaped by books espousing the German viewpoint of that conflict?

Well, first of all A European Anabasis covers Western European volunteers in the German Army and Waffen-SS, 1940-45. I did so pointedly, because to include the eastern countries required confronting the extra languages and the very poor German records for the later years. It is based upon my doctoral dissertation which I revised heavily after giving it some time to mature in my head. Columbia University Press published it as an electronic book in 2003, and I revised it again for the print edition, done in 2015 by Helion & Co.

Any attempt to relate the experiences of a select hundred thousand Europeans within that vast campaign would seem, on the surface, to reflect a rather shallow calling. However, so little is really known—and so much has been misunderstood—about the relationship of the European volunteers to the German Armed Forces as to justify study that makes use of all available archival and published sources. In many otherwise respectable studies of European history or of the war on the Eastern Front, the Spanish “Blue” Division, the “Walloon Legion,” or the “Danish Free Corps” have been depicted as quasi-Nazi militias, totally in the service of German interests. Thus, the principal objective of this study has been to determine who these volunteers were, why they fought on the German side, and what they accomplished. Beyond the essential factors of the operational histories of the volunteer units, though, remains the examination of the peculiar circumstances encountered by the volunteers in an expeditionary force in a distant and strange land, under the control of an equally unusual military command, in an ideologically charged struggle in which their homelands remained to the end non-belligerents.

As to your specific questions, the apparent racism of the Waffen-SS would have been missed by anybody already interested in joining the German armed forces. We have to understand that in 1940, after the fall of France, democracy was seen as on the wane by many people, especially disgruntled young men of military age. To some it seemed as if there was nobody left who could stop the Germans and that two forces would dominate the immediate future, Fascism and Communism, and it was simply a case of choosing one of the other. While racism was not a necessary component of Fascism, it clearly was in the Greater Germanic Reich. As for any armored units, none were manned by foreign volunteers except one or two assault gun companies formed briefly in SS-Volunteer Assault Brigades of 1944. An unknown number of volunteers served in German armored units as AFV crewmen, but these were individuals qualifying for recruitment as ethnic Germans, passing German standards of height, language and race. The 5th SS ‘Wiking’ Division had foreign volunteers chiefly in its infantry regiments, totaling only 1564 of the division’s  19,377 as it assembled for the opening moves into Russia in 1941. The mixed German-foreign volunteer units generally held a minority of the foreign volunteers and most of them served in national units where their own officers could exercise command. After the Spanish Volunteer [‘Blue’] Division returned to Spain, the W-SS took over most foreign volunteer formations, except for a French Legion and a Croatian Regiment.

As far as revisionist works, this certainly began in the 1950s when Waffen-SS veterans began to write books and articles extolling their military virtues and noting the ironies of the renewed Soviet menace to the rest of Europe. But between my work on this field with my dissertation and my return to it for publication purposes, I never imagined that the need for it would have increased so markedly from the time of its inception. I was surprised to find that a right-wing branch of the historical revisionist “movement” revived notions of the Western European SS as a forerunner of the NATO alliance and a precursor of the united stand against the ambitions of the USSR in Europe. Some described the Waffen-SS as “Europe’s first army.” Equally disheartening was this statement, “The Waffen-SS was an organization that had fought in a manner never encountered before… and was to lay the foundation for the integrated NATO defenses after the war,” with nary a mention of how this sleight of hand actually was accomplished. My mission thus became to provide a more logical basis for understanding the volunteer phenomenon in my work. In other parts and some blogs there seems to be no end to worshipping the blond-haired, black-suited Panzertruppen riding their armored steeds across the Russian steppes. For more on that, see the interesting book The Myth of the Eastern Front: The Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture by Ronald Smelser, Edward J. Davies ll.

You worked with a WWII marine tanker named Robert M. Neiman to help write his memoir, titled Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War (Texas A&M University Military History Series, 85.)  How did that book come about?

While researching and writing my Marines under Armor (2000), I really regretted not having begun the work 10 years earlier when so many more of the WWII generation were still alive, as I had narrowly missed possible interviews with many of the USMC tank pioneers. In December 1998, however, I read a comment in that month’s issue of the Marine Corps Gazette by Robert M. Neiman. In it, he discussed what he saw as current neglect in USMC tank-infantry coordination that greatly resembled what he had seen in the early days of WWII. His mention of key Pacific Campaign battles and key figures in Marine Corps tank development caused me to call him and probe his knowledge further.

This call led to a great relationship between two Marine tankers of different generations. The extent of Neiman’s knowledge exceeded all expectations. He had commanded tank companies on Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian and Iwo, then became the executive officer of a different battalion on Okinawa, one of the rare Marine officers to serve in both of the last two island battles. In addition he had participated in the development of tanks and tactics in the early days of the war. He had witnessed most of the important evolutions in WWII Marine Corps tanks. When I asked him why he had not written a book about his experiences, he simply answered that he did not think he was a writer. For me, it was clear that if I did not do something, his knowledge would be lost.

After finishing Marines under Armor, I settled into a series of taped interviews in 2000-01, and wrote his as-told-to autobiography. It was a challenge, as I had never written a book in first person voice, but it turned out very well. Bob passed away in early ’06.

You have written several books in the Osprey New Vanguard series, including ones on Super- Heavy Tanks, the M103 Heavy tank and the M56 Scorpion and M50 Ontos.  How did you come to write about those particular vehicles?  How challenging is it to write within the 48 page limit of the New Vanguard series?

The limit of pages and numbers of photos in the Osprey pamphlets does force an author to make some rather ruthless decisions. In many respects these are matters of scale, but every author has to make decisions about what he will not write about as well as what he will in any particular work. On the other hand, it does force a narrower focus that can aid the writer in how he budgets his time in research as well as the writing. In the end, there will be compromises, and especially in the M103 book, the tables of data and illustrations of fording gear, searchlights, auxiliary fuel containers and so forth that I wanted simply could not fit into the book. But everybody has priorities and preferences and when I write a book, I generally write what I wished I could have read ages ago; when I first became interested in these tough and unforgiving steel beasts. When necessary, I also wish to bring to light any significant discoveries I have made that have remained unknown or unpublished. I was really pleased, for instance, to unearth the origins of “Ontos.”

What books or authors do you recommend on tanks and military history in general?

This would require a major bibliographic essay. With respect to tanks, the best works written in English are by Steve Zaloga, David Fletcher, Michael Green, the late Richard P. Hunnicutt, Thomas Jentz and Hilary Doyle, Richard Ogorkiewicz, Akira Takizawa; apologies to anyone I have omitted of the same caliber. Extending into the history of tanks and warfare, one must add James Corum [on Seeckt], Michael Citino, J.P. Harris, and Mary R. Habeck. David Fletcher agrees with me that reading A.J. Smithers is entertaining and thought provoking. How can one beat Rude Mechanicals for a title?

For battle histories of armor, I cannot sort out the best from any point of view. Personal accounts must remain a dice roll, or a matter of individual taste. I confess to not being up on the Russians. That’s enough for now.

1970-71 Tank platoon commander (13 mo), 2d Tank Bn

1971-72 Tank company exec. officer (6 mo), battalion asst. operations off. (2 mo), 2d Tank Bn

1972-73 Operations off. (S-3) (8 mo), 3d Motor Transport Bn

1973    Company commander (4 mo), B Company, 3d Motor Transport Bn

1974-78 Instructor, History Dept, US Naval Academy

1978    Logistics Officer (S-4) (6 mo), 2d Tank Bn

1978-79 Company commander (9 mo), C Company, 2d Tank Bn

1979-80 Company commander (10 mo), H&S Company, 2d Tank Bn

1980-81 Operations off. (S-3) (13 mo), 2d Tank Bn

At Duke NROTC 1984 resized1981-83 Marine officer instructor, Duke University

1985-86 Asst. operations off (G-3) (12 mo), III Marine Amphibious Force, Japan

1986-87 Head, MAGTF concepts section, operations division, Headquarters, US Marine Corps (HQMC)

1988-89 Head, amphibious requirements section, operations division, HQMC

1989-91 US Marine Corps liaison officer, bilateral affairs officer, Office of Defense Cooperation, Madrid, Spain

1991-92 Head, international affairs branch, Office of Defense Cooperation, Madrid, Spain

1992-93 Historical Writer, US Marine Corps Historical Center,  Washington DC

1993    Retired in grade of Lieutenant Colonel

1996-01 Consultant to Marine Corps Combat Development Command

2002 Research Fellow for UAE Defense Ministry, Emirates Center For Strategic Studies and Research.

2005 Contract Historian, 1st Armored Division, Wiesbaden GE

2006-08 Senior Research Fellow, Marine Corps University, Quantico VA.


  1. Great interview Walt!


  2. Dietz Ziechmann says:

    A good, useful interview. I would include George Hoffman in the list. A rare book of his covers among other things little-known information about the USMC’s use of armored and amphibious vehicle in the 20th Century.


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