World War II in Europe
Development of the M26 during World War II was prolonged by a number of factors, the most important being opposition to the tank from Army Ground Forces. The tank losses experienced in the Battle of the Bulge against a concentrated German tank force composed of some 400 Panther tanks, as well as Tiger II tanks and other German armored fighting vehicles, revealed the deficiencies in the M4 Shermans and tank destroyers in the American units. This deficiency motivated the military to ship the tanks to Europe, and on 22 December 1944, the T26E3 tanks were ordered to be deployed to Europe. But only 20 T26E3 tanks eventually engaged in combat in Europe.
The first shipment of 20 Pershing tanks arrived in Antwerp in January 1945. They were given to the 1st Army, split between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions. A total of 310 T26E3 tanks were eventually sent to Europe before VE Day, but only the 20 that arrived in January engaged in combat.
In February 1945, General Gladeon Barnes, chief of the Research and Development Section of Army Ordnance, personally led a special team to the European Theater, called the Zebra Mission. Its purpose was to support the T26E3 tanks, which still had teething problems, as well as to test other new weapons.
Due to the repeated design and production delays, only 20 Pershing tanks were introduced into the European theater of operations after the Battle of the Bulge showed the serious mismatch between Allied and German armor. The 20 Pershings arrived in Antwerp in January 1945. These were split into two platoons. One was assigned to the 3rd and the other to the 9th Armored Division. In March, the T26E3 tanks were redesignated as the M26.
The 3rd Armored first used the M26 to engage the enemy on February 25 near the Roer River. Another platoon of five M26s, less one that was being serviced, played a key role in helping Combat Command B of the 9th Armored capture the Ludendorff Bridge during the Battle of Remagen on March 7-8, 1945. When fighting against German Tiger II tanks and Jagdpanther tank destroyers, the M26 performed well.
After training the tank crews, the T26E3 tanks were first committed to combat on 25 February, with the 3rd Armored Division, in the fighting for the Roer River. On 26 February, a T26E3 named Fireball was knocked out in an ambush at Elsdorf while overwatching a roadblock. Silhouetted by a nearby fire, the Pershing was in a disadvantageous position. A concealed Tiger tank fired three shots from about 100 yd (91 m). The first penetrated the turret through the machine gun port in the mantlet, killing both the gunner and the loader. The second shot hit the gun barrel, causing the round that was in the chamber to fire with the effect of distorting the barrel. The last shot glanced off the turret side, taking off the upper cupola hatch. While backing up to escape, the Tiger became entangled in debris and was abandoned by the crew. Fireball was quickly repaired and returned to service on 7 March.
Shortly afterward, also at Elsdorf, another T26E3 knocked out a Tiger I and two Panzer IVs. The Tiger was knocked out at 900 yd (820 m) with the 90-mm HVAP T30E16 ammunition. Photographs of this knocked out Tiger I in Hunnicutt's book showed a penetration through the lower gun shield.
On 6 March, just after the 3rd Armored Division had entered the city of Cologne, a famous tank duel took place. A Panther tank on the street in the front of Cologne Cathedral was laying in wait for enemy tanks. Two M4A4 Shermans were supporting infantry and came up on the same street as the Panther. They ended up stopping just before the Cathedral because of rubble in the street and didn't see the enemy Panther. The lead Sherman was knocked out, killing three of the five crew. A T26E3 was in the next street over and was called over to engage the Panther. What happened next was described by the T26E3 gunner Cpl. Clarence Smoyer:
We were told to just move into the intersection far enough to fire into the side of the enemy tank, which had its gun facing up the other street. However, as we entered the intersection, our driver had his periscope turned toward the Panther and saw their gun turning to meet us. When I turned our turret, I was looking into the Panther's gun tube; so instead of stopping to fire, our driver drove into the middle of the intersection so we wouldn't be a sitting target. As we were moving, I fired once. Then we stopped and I fired two more shells to make sure they wouldn't fire at our side. All three of our shells penetrated, one under the gun shield and two on the side. The two side hits went completely through and out the other side.
On the same day, another T26E3 was knocked out in the town of Niehl near Cologne, by a rarely-seen Nashorn 88 mm SP anti-tank gun, at a range of under 300 yd (270 m). There were two other tank engagements involving the T26E3, with one Tiger I knocked out during the fighting around Cologne, and one Panzer IV knocked out at Mannheim.
The T26E3s with the 9th Armored Division saw action in fighting around the Roer River with one Pershing disabled by two hits from a German 150 mm field gun.
A platoon of four T26E3s played an integral role in the 9th Armored Division's dramatic capture of the Ludendorff Bridge during the Battle of Remagen, providing fire support to the infantry in order to take the bridgehead before the Germans could blow it up. Some of the division's other tanks were able to cross the bridge, but the T26E3s were too large and heavy to cross the damaged bridge and had to wait five days before getting across the river by barge. Europe's bridges were in general not designed for heavy loads, which had been one of the original objections to sending a heavy tank to Europe.
A single Super Pershing was shipped to Europe and given additional armor to the gun mantlet and front hull by the maintenance unit before being assigned to one of the tank crews of the Third Armored Division. The new gun on the Super Pershing could pierce 13 inches (330 mm) of armour at 100 yards (91 m). The front hull was given two 38 mm steel boiler plates, bringing the front up to 38+38+102 mm of armor. The plates were applied at a greater slope than the underlying original hull plate it was welded on top of. The turret had 88mm thick RHA from a Panther turret welded to the gun barrel covering the front.
An account of the combat actions of this tank appeared in the war memoir Another River, Another Town, by John P. Irwin, who was the tank gunner. Zaloga described three actions in his book. On 4 April, the Super Pershing engaged and destroyed a German tank, or something resembling a tank, at a range of 1,500 yd (1,400 m). On 12 April, the Super Pershing claimed a German tank of unknown type. On 21 April, the Super Pershing was involved in a short-range tank duel with a German tank, which it knocked out with a shot to the belly. Irwin described this German tank as a Tiger, but Zaloga was skeptical of this claim. After the war, the single Super Pershing in Europe was last photographed in a vehicle dump in Kassel, Germany, and was most likely scrapped.
Use in Okinawa
In May 1945, as fierce fighting continued on the island of Okinawa, and M4 tank losses mounted, plans were made to ship the M26 Pershing tanks to that battle. On May 31, 1945, a shipment of 12 M26 Pershing tanks were dispatched to the Pacific for use in the Battle of Okinawa. Due to a variety of delays, the tanks were not completely offloaded on the beach at Naha, Okinawa until 4 August. By then, fighting on Okinawa had come to an end, and VJ Day followed on 15 August.
Use in Korean War
The M26 saw service in the Korean War. When the war began in June 1950, the four American infantry divisions on occupation duty in Japan had no medium tanks at all, having only one active tank company (equipped with M24 Chaffee light tanks) each. When these divisions were sent to Korea at the end of June 1950, they soon found that the 75mm gun on the M24 could not penetrate the armor of North Korean T-34 tanks, which had no difficulty penetrating the M24's thin armor. Three M26 Pershing tanks were found in poor condition in a Tokyo ordnance depot. They were hastily brought back into operation with missing fanbelts improvised. These three M26s were formed into a provisional tank platoon commanded by Lieutenant Samuel Fowler and sent to Korea in mid-July. When used to defend the town of Chinju, the tanks soon overheated when the substitute fan belts stretched and the cooling fans stopped working, and so the only three American medium tanks in Korea were lost.
More medium tanks began arriving in Korea at the end of July 1950. Although no armored divisions were sent because the initial response from battlefield commanders was "Korea isn't good tank country", six Army infantry divisions and one Marine division were deployed. Each Army infantry division should[clarification needed] have had one divisional tank battalion of 69 tanks, and each Army infantry regiment should have had a company of 22 tanks; the Marine division had a tank battalion of 70 gun tanks and nine combination flamethrower-howitzer tanks, and each Marine infantry regiment had an antitank platoon with five tanks each. While tables of organization and equipment mandated that all tank platoon vehicles should be M26 Pershings, with howitzer tanks in company headquarters and light tanks in reconnaissance units only, some units had a shortfall that had to be filled with other tanks. The 70th Tank Battalion at Fort Knox Kentucky had pulled World War II memorial M26s off of pedestals and reconditioned them for use, but had to fill out two companies with M4A3s; the 72nd Tank Battalion at Fort Lewis Washington and the 73rd Tank Battalion at Fort Benning Georgia were fully equipped with M26s; the 89th Medium Tank Battalion was constituted in Japan with three companies of reconditioned M4A3s and one of M26s from various bases in the Pacific; due to the shortage of M26s, most regimental tank companies had M4A3 Shermans instead. Two battalions detached from the 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood Texas, the 6th Medium and 64th Heavy Tank Battalions, were fully equipped with M46 Patton tanks. The 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton California had all M4A3 howitzer tanks, which were replaced with M26s just days before boarding ships for Korea. A total of 309 M26 Pershings were rushed to Korea in 1950.
A 1954 survey concluded that there were in all 119, mostly small scale, tank vs. tank actions involving U.S. Army and Marine units during the Korean War, with 97 T-34-85 tanks knocked out and another 18 probables. The M4A3E8 was involved in 50% of the tank actions, the M26 in 32%, and the M46 in 10%. The M26/M46 proved to be an overmatch for the T-34-85 as its 90 mm HVAP round could - at point blank range - punch all the way through the T-34 from the front glacis armor to the back, whereas the T-34-85 had difficulty penetrating the armor of the M26 or M46. The M4A3E8, firing 76 mm HVAP rounds which were widely available during the Korean War (unlike World War II), was a closer match to the T-34-85 as both tanks could destroy each other at normal combat ranges.
After November 1950, North Korean armor was rarely encountered. China entered the conflict in February 1951 with four regiments of tanks (a mix of mostly T-34-85 tanks, with a few IS-2 tanks, and some other AFVs). However, because these Chinese tanks were dispersed with the infantry, tank to tank battles with UN forces were uncommon.
With the marked decrease in tank to tank actions, the automotive deficiencies of the M26 in the mountainous Korean terrain became more of a liability, and so all M26s were withdrawn from Korea during 1951 and replaced with M4A3 Shermans and M46 Pattons. The M45 howitzer tank variant was only used by the assault gun platoon of the 6th Medium Tank Battalion, and these six vehicles were withdrawn by January 1951.
M26A1 at the Royal Army Museum of Brussels. Leased to Belgium, all M26s remained US property with the exception of this particular vehicle, which was donated to the museum in 1980.
After the end of World War II, U.S. Army units on occupation duty in Germany were converted into constabulary units, a quasi-police force designed to control the flow of refugees and black marketing; combat units were converted to light motorized units and spread throughout the U.S. occupation zone. By the summer of 1947, the army required a combat reserve to back up the thinly spread constabulary; in the following year, the 1st Infantry Division was reconstituted and consolidated, containing three regimental tank companies and a divisional tank battalion. The 1948 tables of organization and equipment for an infantry division included 123 M26 Pershing tanks and 12 M45 howitzer tanks. In the summer of 1951, three more infantry divisions and the 2nd Armored Division were sent to West Germany as a part of the NATO Augmentation Program. While M26 Pershings disappeared from Korea during 1951, tank units deploying to West Germany were equipped with them, until replaced with M47 Pattons during 1952–53. The 1952–53 tables of organization and equipment for an infantry division included 135 M47 Patton tanks replacing M26s and M45s.
In 1952, the Belgian Army received 423 M26 and M26A1 Pershings, leased for free as part of a Mutual Defense Assistance Program, then the official designation of U.S. military aid to its allies. The tanks were mostly used to equip mobilizable reserve units of battalion strength: 2nd, 3rd and 4th Régiments de Guides/Regiment Gidsen (Belgian units have official names in both French and Dutch); 7th, 9th and 10th Régiments de Lanciers/Regiment Lansiers and finally the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Bataillon de Tanks Lourds/Bataljon Zware Tanks. However, in the spring of 1953, M26s for three months equipped the 1st Heavy Tank Battalion of the 1st Infantry Division, an active unit, before they were replaced by M47s.
In 1961, the number of reserve units was reduced and the reserve system reorganized, with the M26s equipping the 1st and 3rd Escadron de Tanks/Tank Escadron as a general reserve of the infantry arm. In 1969, all M26s were phased out.
As the U.S. Army units in West Germany reequipped with M47s in 1952–1953, France and Italy also received M26 Pershings; while France quickly replaced them with M47 Pattons, Italy continued to use them operationally through 1963.