M26 Pershing Tank: The Armored Beast Designed to Defeat Nazi Germany’s Tanks
It would be no exaggeration to say that General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948) was to the First World War what Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur were to the respective European and Pacific Theaters of the Second World War, and for that matter, what H. Norman Schwarzkopf was to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, i.e. THE public face of American military leadership in those military conflicts.
It only makes sense then that more than one American-designed weapons system would be named in Gen. Pershing’s honor. In the Cold War, that eponymous weapons system was the Pershing short-range ballistic missile, which was designed in 1958, ten years after “Black Jack’s” passing.
However, there was also a WWII weapons system named the in the General’s honor while he was still alive, and, unlike the Pershing missile, was actually used in combat: the M26 Pershing tank.
M26 Pershing Early History and Specifications
As far as I can ascertain, the M26 Pershing was the first American tank to be named for a WWI general as opposed to a Civil War general like the M3 Grant/Lee or the ubiquitous M4 Sherman. Just as WWI was a deadlier (in terms of overall body count, though not in terms of American deaths alone) and more “modern” war than the Civil War, so too was the Pershing tank built as a deadlier and more sophisticated platform than the Grants/Lees and Shermans.
You see, the M26 was built as a heavy tank for the purpose of hunting Tigers, as in the much-feared Nazi German tank.
As has been much discussed by military history buffs, the Sherman tank was hopelessly outclassed by the Tiger; the only way the M4 had a prayer of killing a Tiger was if its 75mm main gun struck the weak point of the vaunted German tank’s armor at the rear end. Yes, there was the Sherman Firefly with its upgraded 76mm gun, but that was really more of a stopgap measure.
Development on the Pershing began in 1942 whilst the Sherman was going into full production. The actual production of the M26 – conducted by the Detroit Arsenal Tank Plant and the Fisher Body Tank Plant – began in earnest in 1944 and continued until October 1945, with a total of 2,202 being built (a sharp contrast to the 50,000+ Shermans built during the war).
Specifications of the tank included a length of 28 feet 4.5 inches, a width of 11 feet 6 inches, a height of 9 feet 1.5 inches, a weight of 41.7 tons, and an armor thickness range of 1-4.33 inches. Armament consisted of an M3 90mm main gun – a full 20 percent increase in bore size over the M4’s, not to mention the most powerful antitank gun fielded by the U.S. during WWII – backed up by a secondary armament of two Browning .30-06 caliber machines guns and one Browning M2 .50 caliber machine AKA good ol’ “Ma Deuce.”
The 8-cylinder Ford GAF engine produced 450-500 horsepower and sent the M26 chugging along at maximum speeds of 25 miles per hour on paved roads and 5.25 mph off-road, with an operational range of 100 miles. The tank had a five-man crew: commander, gunner, loader, driver, co-driver.
How did the Pershing fare against its Wehrmacht adversaries? Well, due to the rather late entry into WWII, the M26 turned out to be much ado about comparatively little (to paraphrase Shakespeare), but she wasn’t completely absent from combat action. As military historian Kennedy Hickman wrote for ThoughtCo back in May 2019:
“Following American losses to German tanks in the Battle of the Bulge the need for the M26 became clear. The first shipment of twenty Pershings arrived in Antwerp in January 1945. These were split between the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions and were the first of 310 M26s to reach Europe before the end of the war. Of these, around 20 saw combat…The M26’s first action occurred with the 3rd Armored on February 25 near the Roer River. Four M26s were also involved in the 9th Armored’s capture of the Bridge at Remagen on March 7-8. In encounters with Tigers and Panthers, the M26 performed well.”
Fast-forward to the Korean War, and by this time, the Pershing had been reclassified from a heavy tank to a mere medium tank due to changing perceptions of the U.S. Army’s armor needs. As to how it performed against Communist armor, we turn again to Mr. Hickman:
“the first medium tanks to reach Korea were a provisional platoon of M26s dispatched from Japan. Additional M26s reached the peninsula later that year where they fought alongside M4s and M46s. Though performing well in combat, the M26 was withdrawn from Korea in 1951 due to reliability issues associated with its systems. The type was retained by U.S. forces in Europe until the arrival of new M47 Pattons in 1952-1953. As the Pershing was phased out of American service, it was provided to NATO allies such as Belgium, France, and Italy. The Italians used the type until 1963.”