Today, at Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center, outside Guernsey, Wyoming, locals can hear in the distance the sound of rockets or cannon pieces firing. The Wyoming National Guard, who uses the installation for live fire exercises, has a legacy in artillery. Big guns with big bullets, dating back to before the Korean War.
For a short period of time after World War II, a different sound rumbled against the rocks and open landscape – tank engines.
On Sept. 19, 1946, several Wyoming Army National Guard units that had served stateside or in World War II, were reactivated as the 115th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron (Mechanized). It would mainly be a scout unit, with lightly armed vehicles used to ride forward of other units and look for enemy forces. However, one company had a more heavily armored vehicle, the M24 Chaffee tank.
Company F, based in Douglas, Wyoming, was equipped with the M24 tanks, or tracks. It was a vehicle used very little at the end of World War II due to its late deployment to the European theater, but was a mainstay in recon units. Its low weight, under 20 tons (in comparison, the popular M4 Sherman variants weighed anywhere from 30 to 40 tons), made it a fast moving vehicle for either scouting or infantry support in battle. The focus was on speed, not ability to engage other tanks.
After the war, the tank would see continued use, and Wyoming received their vehicles in late 1946. Company F did training at Camp Guernsey and at Camp Carson, outside Colorado Springs, Colorado. Each M24 would be loaded onto a line haul freight car and travel from Douglas to Camp Carson each summer for annual training. For shorter training periods, the vehicles would be hauled to Camp Guernsey and maneuvers done in the training areas outside of the cantonment area.
Light tanks like the M24 were not the only tracks in Wyoming’s history.
On Feb. 13, 1947, the 141st Tank Battalion (Medium) was organized and federally recognized, with its headquarters in Laramie and tank companies in Evanston, Rock Springs, Green River (with a platoon in Rawlins), and Afton. A service company was assigned to Wheatland. Being a medium tank unit, the battalion would receive more robust vehicles, the M4A1 and M4A3E8 “Easy Eight” Sherman. These classic World War II tracks were the main medium battle tank for U.S. forces in the war. Their unique design, with a casted hull, made for quick production to the expanding military as it entered into the conflict.
Now, that symbol of American combat power was in the heart of Wyoming. As many as 17 tanks could be at one armory location. Communities would awake on drill weekend to the squeals of sprockets turning tracks. But there was a slight issue in moving them.
During the unit’s history, the 141st would have to draw tanks from the Camp Carson motor pool to use for training. It was too challenging for the Wyoming unit to transfer the tracks back and forth from the armories every summer. But, on occasion, the tanks were used in the local area. One notable incident occurred in 1949, when one of the 141st tanks was used to transport an ailing railroad worker more than 140 miles to a Rock Springs, Wyoming area hospital during a massive blizzard.
The 141st was just over three years old when it was ordered to federal active duty for the Korean War on Sept. 11, 1950. Men, gear, and the battalion’s supply of Easy Eight tanks mustered at Fort Campbell, on the Tennessee and Kentucky border. All the M4A1’s were left in Wyoming, to be turned in at a later time.
At Campbell, the unit drew M4A3 and additional Easy Eight Sherman tanks. Company D, a light tank outfit, was supposed to draw M24’s, the same tanks assigned to Douglas, Wyoming. However that supply was exhausted and the company personnel eventually transferred into Company A in December that year. The Shermans were eventually phased out for the newer M46 Patton tank. With the new vehicles, the unit assumed a new role, that of a tank training unit during the duration of the war.
While the battalion trained incoming tankers, some of the original Wyoming men volunteered or were ordered to other duty assignments. About 20 men from Company C out of Rawlins, Wyoming were sent to Korea to fill slots in other tank battalions in combat. Most of these men would return home. One tanker did not.
Sgt. George Byrant Hittner, who had graduated high school in Rawlins and enlisted in the Guard soon thereafter, was sent to Korea. He was a tank commander in Company A, 6th Tank Battalion, 24th Infantry Division and was engaged in combat near Kumsong. He was killed in action Oct. 16, 1951. In honor of his sacrifice, the Wyoming Guard would rename the former armory in Rawlins after him in 1995.
Back at Campbell, Wyoming soldiers would eventually phase out of the 141st as active duty soldiers replaced the Wyoming Guardsmen. The battalion would continue on in federal service until the mid-50s, but its ties to Wyoming ended before that.
And what about the 115th Cavalry Recon Squadron? The Chaffee stock would disappear before the end of the Korean War. In 1950, the unit’s headquarters in Cheyenne would be reorganized as the 197th Armored Cavalry Group, and then into the 115th Armored Cavalry Regiment (Light) before making one last change in 1953, to the 115th Field Artillery Group. Today, the Wyoming Army National Guard knows that unit as the 115th Field Artillery Brigade headquarters. An artillery unit with a legacy in tanks.