Hidden Corners of History - The M56 Scorpion



Jim Heald

The Ashland Beacon

   Once the vehicle sat at the east entrance to Central Park, where under adult supervision, many kids climbed onto it and imagined themselves as tankers in the army.

   A few years ago it was moved to Armco Park and is one of the centerpieces of the Boyd Country War Memorial next to the KY State Police barracks.

   But the vehicle is not a tank. A tank is a vehicle with a big gun and shields its crew with an armored turret. The M56 Scorpion is a Self-Propelled Anti-Tank platform, also known as a SPAT. Its purpose was to kill tanks with its 90 mm M54 gun, but there was no protection for its crew. However, a shield did provide protection from the blast of the gun when fired.

   Four crewmen were assigned to each vehicle: a driver, gunner, loader, and commander.

   The driver was responsible for vehicle maintenance, making sure the engine and electrical system were fully functional.

   The gunner, positioned on the right, was responsible for sighting the gun that had a range of about 3200 meters. However, when fired, the gunner either had to hold on tight or dismount the vehicle lest he possibly gets injured by the weapon's recoil. As the gun could be traversed left and right, he was particularly vulnerable when it was aimed at targets on the right where the gun's discharge could injure or possibly kill him.

   The loader worked on the back deck of the SPAT. A hinged floorplate was raised, giving him more space to move around when pulling ammunition from their spring-loaded storage tubes. When the vehicle was on the road, the plate was dropped back into position.

   The commander also stayed at the rear of the vehicle monitoring the radio and relaying information to the crew.

   At the rear of the vehicle is storage space for 29 rounds of ammunition, with each shell generally weighing in at 44 pounds. Ammunition included smoke, white phosphorus, and armor-piercing rounds for combat. Blank rounds were available for training missions.

   It was produced by Cadillac, a division of General Motors, between 1953 and 1959 with 325 Scorpions being built.

   The Scorpion was used for direct fire support by the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. It was eventually replaced by the M551 Sheridan.

   In 1966-67 87 SPATs went to Morocco and saw combat during its time with the Moroccan army in the Western Sahara War.

   Five Scorpions were used by the Spanish Navy Marines from 1966 to 1970. In South Korea, 60 Scorpions went into surplus and never saw combat.

   There are a number of Scorpions on display throughout the United States including two in Kentucky (Forest Hill Station in Millersburg is the other location). Another M56 is located at the War Memorial of Korea, located in Seoul.

   A number of YouTube channels feature additional historical and technical details about the M56 as well as rare film footage of it being dropped from a cargo plane and what it was like firing the 90 mm gun. Inside the Chieftain's Hatch, hosted by Nicholas Moran, was helpful in researching this article.