Civilian Sherman Use: Hollywood, Loggers, Farmers, Museums and Frat Boys
Since the Sherman tank was produced in huge numbers, and the Army didn’t need that many, and even after taking the best for themselves, mothballing the best of the ones they didn’t for use as military aid to struggling allies, they still had a bunch of small hatch M4 tank of various types sitting around. The US Government decided there might be a civilian market for the tanks and put them up for sale as surplus.
It was not just Sherman tanks that would go on sale after the war, actually before the war ended in the case of aircraft. When the war ended the US Government was saddled with so much, now essentially useless, war material, in many cases they just left it to rot where it was sitting. They bulldozed the stuff into ditches or off cliffs, or dumped it into the ocean. That was the fate of most of the war material in the pacific theater. There are heartbreaking photos of P-38 Lighting fighters bulldozed off a cliff in the Philippines.
The war material, tanks, planes, trucks, tools, bulldozers, tug boats, etc. back in the United States would mostly be melted down for scrap, thousands of B-17 and B-24 bombers, P-40s, P-38s, P-47s, you name it, if it flew, it was surplused after the war. Many airlines snapped up the transport planes and cargo planes, but just about all the fighters and bombers got scrapped. For about the price of a nice new car you could have owned any of the fighters, brand new, with full tanks of gas. Many fighters were bought up for use as air racers, or use as surveying aircraft, but at that point in time no one cared enough about them to consider preserving them, with exceptions for particularly historically significant aircraft.
You could buy Shermans in running condition, with the gun DE milled, for about the price of a nice used car. I do not think the Sherman was a hot seller, though a few civilians here and there bought them for the novelty. They did sell to some construction company’s here and there, other companies bought them up in droves, and all the other vehicles that used the Sherman powertrain, and began converting the hulls into specialized equipment used in construction, mining, and forestry. They also one in at least one case sold a Sherman to a college fraternity.
Several companies, Finning, Traxxon, and Morpac made rocking drilling machines based on Sherman hulls, the whole upper hull being replaced by the drill and superstructure. Madill seems to have specialized in converting Sherman hulls into mobile ‘yarders’, a central tower with winches, used to pull freshly cut trees up to an area to be further processed and loaded on trucks. These companies were mostly Canadian, and Morpac is still making heavy duty off road load carriers based on Sherman suspension components.
Vickers used Sherman hulls and suspension to make heavy duty tractors for peanut farming in Africa. These heavy tractors were to be used to clear land for the farms. They only used the suspension, final drives, differentials and tracks, the transmission was different and they used a large inline six for power.
Some power companies used drilling machines based on the Sherman tank as well, but I am not sure if they are the same as the drills made by Finning and Traxxon. In at least one other case a company named Abdo S Allen Co. used a Sherman tank they bought surplus in the 60s as a heavy duty building destroyer. They used the M4A3E8 Sherman, with no dozer blade or anything to knock down large swaths of houses in North West Oakland California in the late 60s. They could be the only destruction company to figure out they could use a tank for demolishing light buildings.
In the 70s things began to change. Interest in World War II started to pick up, and that meant interest in the equipment, so museums for WWII equipment started becoming more popular. The United States has always been interesting in aviation as a people. So WWII aviation was the first thing to really take off. It really started with surplus machines being used as air racers, and then many of the old racers, sitting around rotting, got bought up by men who wanted to own a WWII aircraft. Some of these men founded things like the Confederate Air Force, or the Planes of Fame Museum in Chino. These groups and many more keep aviation history alive by keeping the fantastic old flying machines in the air. It’s amazing that today, there is a larger variety of well restored and rare WWII aircraft flying than when I was a kid in the 70s.
Hollywood made a few movies using somewhat correct airplanes, but most movies until 90s didn’t bother with accuracy in armor, and many of the big screen epics like, The Longest Day, the Battle of the bulge, and Patton, using more modern stand in tanks. A Bridge To Far, broke the mold, and got a lot of running Shermans together, though many not exactly period correct. Kelly’s Heroes was another oddball in that it used real Shermans as well, but their tiger was fake.
As interest in WWII continued to grow, all forms of equipment became popular, and there had already been a few tank guys out there that had a tank or two, or whole collections. Tank museums, most in the US anyway, are owned by the government, and the displays are largely gutted, welded closed near hulks, rusting away in an outdoor display area. It’s not uncommon in Europe for a tank museum to have several runners they bring out for events various times a year for crowd pleasing displays. There are a few museums in the US not owned by the government that are doing this now too. One, at least in the past, I don’t know if it still runs, was the Planes of Fame museum in Chino California, they had a running Sherman they show off at their airshow. The Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington, has a running M4A1 75 and a T-34-85 and do an event where they drive them around on May 30th! This weekend! Battlefield Vegas a huge shooting range in Las Vegas, has a large verity of Machine guns you can shoot and is resto modding a Sherman that they got off a target range. The owner is planning on adding some more modern updates to it, for safety, reliability, and habitability in the Vegas heat. Since the tank was just about at the scrapping point, and I’m for A/C in everything, I see no problems with this at all.
There is also a large group of people, who like to reenact WWII battles, and they collect the vehicles as well, but tanks in this scene are rare. There are small private tank museums that use their tanks in local events like veteran days parades or local airshows. Tanks are a lot easier operate and cheaper to maintain than a WWII airplane, and that may be adding to their popularity and value with collectors as well. Aircraft require all kinds of inspections and certifications, and you have to store them in hangers, and if you don’t fly them regularly they will rot away. Since they fly, not being on top of all the required maintenance might get you killed.
If your tank restoration project breaks down when your testing out the rebuilt Ford GAA, you just fix it there, or have it towed back to your work area. It’s not going to fall out of the sky and possible kill you and other people. In both cases, to really work on it, you need some heavy equipment. You’re not pulling a turret, or motor (tank or plane), without a heavy duty hoist of some type, 10,000 pounds plus minimum, and that might not be enough to get a turret off. Most tank motors the Sherman and other American WWII tanks used are pretty simple as internal combustion engines go, though the R975 radial would be pretty daunting to most car people, even it isn’t that complicated. In both cases they are thoroughly documented, but true experts on the motors who can overhaul them are few and far between, for both tank and aircraft motors.
In the United States, it’s not all that hard, if you’re willing to pay the taxes and go through the government checks, to own a tank with a working canon. Since the tanks were never sold by the government to civilians with working guns, the guns are often pieced together, with parts that don’t match, and this really takes the danger level of owning a tank to a new level. Part of the added danger is the rounds can’t just be purchased, you have to find suitable used brass, not an easy task, and then hand load it with surplus or custom made projectiles and surplus powder. As dangerous as this can be, I’m all for allowing people to do what they want with the things they own, and having a working main gun on your Sherman is pretty damn cool.
Now, these last few paragraphs have had a touch of tongue and cheek in them, owning a tank is a very expensive thing to do, and the bigger the tank the more money it will suck up each year, just less than an airplane. A tank can’t fall out of the sky, but it is by no means safe, and doing any kind of work on it, or even climbing on and off of it, can cost you a finger or broken bones. Putting an arm or hand in the wrong place while a turret is being rotated can get them messily removed. Falling off a tank while it’s moving is a bad way to die, but it happens. It’s hard for people who have never worked with heavy equipment of any kind to realize just how dangerous 30 tons of steel is just sitting still. That said, the people out there restoring WWII history, and keeping it running are awesome. Nothing beats seeing a Sherman tank moving around to really give you an idea of what the thing was all about. The Sherman people who go to the trouble to get the A57 in their M4A4 working are my automotive heroes!
At some point in the 80s some producer or special effects place got their hands on a Sherman and it made appearances in shows like the A-team, Knight Rider and Airwolf. I suspect it was the same M4A3 used in the Movie ‘Tank’ with James Garner, and that is now owned by the Collings Foundation. In more recent years, privately owned tanks, and some working museum vehicles were used in the making of the miniseries Band of Brothers on HBO. They don’t appear in many of the episodes, but they are in at least two. More recently the movie Fury was filmed using the tanks of the Bovington tank Museum in the UK. They also purchased an M4A4 hulk, and did a quickie ‘resto’ on it and made up a fiberglass turret that could be blown off, for the movies to often used ammo rack explosion.
Another thing tanks get used for in civilian life is in ‘Drive a tank’ places like, Ox Ranch in Texas, and driving a tank isn’t the only thing you can do there! Machine guns, Off roading, hunting, tanks, this is like heaven!
There are several other places in the US, and around the world like Drive a Tank in Minnesota and Battlefield Vegas, (Sherman in the works). You can pay for a package that often includes driving several kinds of vehicles leading up to the tank of your choice. They often offer add-ons like shooting machine guns or running over a car you supply, for various fees. The places that have a Sherman usually don’t use it in the car crushing displays; it’s usually a bigger tank like a British chieftain.
The final civilian Sherman type I want to mention is the kind you find in front of VFW halls, or town or state parks. The tanks in these cases are not actually civilian tanks. The Army still owns them more or less, so if the place they are in happens to close down or change, the town or VFW can’t sell the tank. The Army will come and get it, and they are supposedly responsible for keeping them up, but in reality, they are usually pretty rusty on the inside, and often have the floors starting to rust through.