Comics / DC Comics History

DC Comics History: the Haunted Tank (1964 - 1967: The New Look)


By Deejay Dayton
February 23, 2020 - 07:56

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There is a painful whiff of white supremacy that permeates some of the Haunted Tank stories that appeared in G.I. Combat during the period 1964 – 1967: the New Look, and I will be addressing those Robert Kanigher tales at the start of the article. It’s subtle, for the most part, but the attitude that the south were the side of nobility and honour during the American Civil War is definitely there. Still, the team spend much of its time fighting Nazis, often with excellent art by Joe Kubert, Russ Heath, or Irv Novick. Sgt Rock is a regular guest star at this time, and Johnny Cloud and Mademoiselle Marie pop up as well. The era also sees the return of the ghost of Attila the Hun, as an antagonist for the ghost of General Stuart.

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The story of how the ghost of General Stuart came to oversee the crew of the Haunted Tank gets revealed in G.I. Combat 114. The story opens on Jeb Stuart, Arch Asher, Rick Rawlins and Slim Stryker, shortly after Jeb's first encounter with General Stuart.  They are at a military hospital, and Jeb is assumed to be raving like a madman when he talks about General Stuart.  How exactly they decided to let him go back and command the tank crew is not really addressed.  Basically, it's good enough that his crew trust him. Much more time is spent on how General Stuart decided that the Haunted Tank crew were worthy of his protection.  We see that ghosts of military leaders gather together in the afterlife, and choose living soldiers to be guardians for.  Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Lord Nelson all have to argue Stuart into taking on this position, and he really does not like the idea of looking after yankees.

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The remainder of the story essentially consists of the crew of the Haunted Tank having to prove they are worthy, despite not being Confederate soldiers, of having Stuart look after them.  The crew goes through an awful lot, having their tank sink, getting another which they ram into an airplane, as per the cover image.  Slowly they win over the General, who comes to their aid when they are trapped in the desert. But it's really kind of creepy that they would have to prove themselves to a Confederate general.  As if somehow the Union side was the bad side, and have to prove their worthiness to the more noble south.  I cannot imagine such an angle being written today.  But it does sort of match the overall thrust of the series, as disturbing as it is.

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The Haunted Tank crew take a trip through time in G.I. Combat 110. It's a tale I find fairly disturbing.  Most of it takes place during World War 2, and there is plenty of action against the Nazis.  The ghost of General Stuart is helping Jeb and his men out, as usual, and Jeb wishes that he could help the general in return. Well, wishes do tend to come true in this series, and Jeb and his men find themselves time warped back to the US Civil War.  They get to meet the general when he was alive and fighting, and join the rebels as they battle the Union forces.  Yes, after fighting against the racist Nazis the Haunted Tank crew are happy to join the side of slave owners in their fight to preserve white supremacy. Clearly this was not how the subtext of the story was perceived at the time.  But it does illustrate the central problem with having a Confederate general at the spiritual guide for a tank crew. 

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The notion of a southern general condescending to aid a northern tank crew gets brought up again in G.I. Combat 113. Sgt Rock appears in the story, although his  role is pretty minor, just meeting with Jeb Stuart at the start of the story.  The Haunted Tank and Easy Company are heading to the town of Morteville.  The Tank is to hold the town until more tank reinforcements can arrive. Jeb winds up really starring in this tale, after not understanding General Stuart's always-cryptic warning.  He is alone and outside the tank, and he to deal with a group of Nazi tanks.  Of course he succeeds, but it makes for some interesting visuals. Straightforward enough, but we still see General Stuart ponder the appropriateness of a Confederate general overseeing a "Union" tank in this story.

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When racism finally becomes a topic in this series, Kanigher still manages to skirt the elephant in the room. In the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 118, one of the soldiers the crew of he Haunted Tank have to work with is a Japanese-American.  While Jeb Stuart, Rick Rawlins and Arch Asher have no problem with this, Slim Stryker lost a brother to the Japanese, and overtly hates and attacks the guy. Considering the whole Confederate General thing, it might have been appropriate if racism against blacks had been the theme, but Japanese fits the period.  The Japanese soldier had also lost a brother to foreign soldiers, but he is sympathetic to the situation.  Or just used to being treated like shit.  Jeb Stuart gets to muse on the horrors of prejudice, but General Stuart is not given a comment on it. The Japanese guy and Slim are at the core of the story.  Of course, in the end the guy risks his life to save Slim, who then comes to understand he was wrong.

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As I mentioned, Sgt Rock is almost a supporting player in the Haunted Tank series during these years.  Often his role is quite small but he does get featured in the tale in G.I. Combat 108. The story opens as the Nazis massively attack the Haunted Tank.  Arch Asher, Rick Rawlins and Slim Stryker all get seriously wounded, and Jeb Stuart begins to look for a medical unit to help them. Along the way he runs into Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.  They are attacking a German bunker, and the encounter sees Wild Man and Ice Cream Soldier get injured. So now both Rock and Stuart are eager for a field hospital.  When they find one, the doctors are moving out, as Nazis have been bombing the area.  Rock demands that the doctors treat his men while he and Stuart go scout out the new location. Stuart and Rock find that the area for the new MASH unit is surrounded by Nazis.  As they battle their foes, the wounded members of both Easy Company and the Haunted Tank crew turn up to help, and all together they clear the field of the Nazis, making it safe for the new hospital set up.

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Sgt. Rock's father makes an appearance in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 121. The story does feel like Kanigher is repeating himself in the big picture.  Back in the early days of the strip there was the story about the turtle, if you recall?  Well, in this story there is a pigeon that the team comes to the aid of, and which leads them on their grand adventure. After fighting some Nazi tanks atop a hill, the Haunted Tank flee into a cavern when the hill collapses, and wind up in World War 1. There they meet a soldier who Jeb Stuart realizes is the father of Sgt. Rock, and join his men in fighting against the Germans. The Haunted Tank crew return through the cave to the present, and wind up aided by daddy Rock and his men against the Nazis.

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Sgt Rock and Easy Company also play a role in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 111. Jeb Stuart and his men are fighting in North Africa, along with Sgt Rock and Easy Company.  It's a hard fought desert battle. At one point the Haunted Tank gets blasted by enemy fire, and Jeb, Arch Asher, Rick Rawlins and Slim Stryker all get thrown from the vehicle.  The Nazis grab the tank, and the crew are forced to survive in the desert in the middle of a sandstorm.  Kubert does a great job with this part of the tale.  They manage to take over a Nazi tank, and use it to get their own back.  Back in their own tank, Jeb and his crew rejoin Sgt. Rock.  Although the stories do not really continue as such, they also appear in the next issue of Our Army at War, in Rock's series.

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Johnny Cloud, whose series in All American Men of War had become more sporadic at this point, guest stars in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 115. The story opens with Jeb Stuart receiving a medal for aerial combat, and Johnny Cloud getting one for tank combat, and then flashes back to explain how this unusual situation came about. Jeb Stuart is taking a break from all that war stuff, meeting Johnny Cloud at an airfield and checking out his plane when Nazi planes attack.  Johnny takes to the air with Jeb in the gunner's seat, and Jeb manages to take out some Nazi planes. They get forced down onto a haystack, which just happens to be concealing the Haunted Tank.  How convenient. 

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The plane then rides the tank, and Johnny Cloud uses his guns to take out other tanks. The story then jumps back to the awards ceremony.  As they leave it, Jeb and Johnny wind up facing a battalion of Nazi infantry, and fight them with their bare hands until Sgt. Rock shows up for yet another cameo in this series.  The conclusion has Jeb and Johnny get more medals, for infantry combat.  Still, a fun variation on the usual theme, and a better use of the guest star than often happens in this series. 

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Johnny Cloud is still around in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 116.  The  story could easily be viewed as a sequel to the last tale, although taking place after the men have had time to recuperate from their injuries. Certainly the way it opens presumes that Cloud and Jeb Stuart have formed a close bond.  Jeb talks with Johnny Cloud about the fact that he alone can see General Stuart, and Johnny shares his experiences with his own spirit guide. Then the story moves on as Jeb picks up the commander of a destroyed tank in the middle of a village.  The guy is named Leonidas, and talks as if he were the leader of the Spartans.  There is no visible spirit guide, but again the concept of a connection between a military leader from the past and a soldier from the present is at the core of the story. Most of this is about tank warfare on the ground, though Johnny Cloud does remain a minor figure in the rest of the tale.  At the end, after Leonidas succeeds at his mission and dies, Cloud and Stuart gaze off into the sky as their respective spirits ride horses together.

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In G.I. Combat 120 the Haunted Tank crew are assigned to capture an enemy tank.  Despite all that he has done so far, Jeb cannot come up with any way to do so, and so he thinks about who others have done similar things. This allows for the two flashback scenes.  This issue was released one month after the final issue of All American Men of War, and this is Cloud's first appearance after his series was cancelled. Cloud’s presence in the tale allows for the kind of aerial shot of urban warfare is commonly featured in Haunted Tank stories.  Good for setting up action and building some suspense.  Because you know what?  The Haunted Tank always beats the Nazis.

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Mademoiselle Marie returns in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 123.  The character had not been seen in three years, and this is far from her best outing. Jeb Stuart and the Haunted Tank crew are sent to team up with Marie for a secret mission. The problem is, when they find her, Marie has been suffering from shell shock and can't remember what the mission is.  So they just sort of drive around the French countryside, fighting any Nazis they come across, while Marie acts useless and whiny. Eventually they come across a castle that seems familiar to her, and sure enough it's being used as a Nazi rocket base.  They take out the base, but the Haunted Tank probably could have done it just as well with a cryptic hint from General Stuart.

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The ghost of Attila the Hun returns in the Haunted Tank story in G.I. Combat 112, which features a couple of cameos as well. Jeb Stuart and the Haunted Tank crew are ordered to the front lines, and along the way meet up with Sgt. Rock and Easy Company.  There is plenty of World War 2 action in the story, but the really good stuff involves General Stuart and Atilla the Hun having a ghostly battle, the one denied in their first encounter. These scenes just overwhelm the tank battles on the ground, but I'm not complaining.  Attila is acting as the spirit for a pilot this time around.  He seems just connected to the Nazi side as opposed to having a bond with a particular soldier, as Stuart does. The ghosts go plummeting down into a crevasse, leaving Rock and the Haunted Tank crew trapped by Nazi tanks. The end is kind of weak in both directions.  General Stuart shows up, dead and well, and the soldiers are saved when Johnny Cloud flies in out of nowhere to take out the tanks.

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Johnny Cloud gets to appear in G.I. Combat 124. Johnny's role in the Kanigher and Heath Haunted Tank story is very small, and typical of the way guest stars have been used in this series, popping in for a moment of action and then going on their way. The story deals with Jeb Stuart and his crew getting a new tank. They are uncomfortable with its shiny perfection (and probably that new tank smell), and get morose when its keeps getting through combat without taking a scratch.  Finally they ram it into a wall, and this cheers them all up. This story would create some continuity problems down the line, with the crew later behaving as though General Stuart had always been with their specific tank, rather than moving with the team from one tank to another.

The Haunted Tank continues in the next period, 1967 – 1970: It’s a Happening!

Haunted Tank: G.I. Combat 106 – 124 (June/July 1964 - June/July 1967)

Next up – the Metal Men!

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Last Updated: February 23, 2020 - 08:09

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