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Tank Mired in the McNaughton Muck

Archived Rhinelander Daily News Clippings 1955

Whenever talk turns to military tanks in the Northwoods, one story still echoes through the forest: the time a mighty tank was swallowed by the infamous McNaughton Swamp, some 65 years ago.

It was Sunday, August 28, 1955, when an M-47 Patton tank rumbled down Highway 47, making its way back to the Merrill National Guard Armory after a parade in Minocqua. The 32nd Division, also known as the Red Arrow Division, was gearing up for its annual reunion in LaCrosse over Labor Day weekend. In 1955, highway 47 was a narrow strip of pavement with minimal shoulders, cutting through dense forest and swampland that make up the McNaughton area.

About 12 miles north of Rhinelander, the seemingly solid road betrayed the tank. The ground gave way, and the swamp, a notorious local piece of wetland, claimed the 48-ton behemoth. The tank began to sink almost instantly, mud and water creeping into the crew compartment. The soldiers clambered out, undoubtedly embarrassed by their unexpected predicament.

News of the mishap spread like wildfire, drawing hundreds of onlookers. Whispers of how the accident occurred buzzed through the crowd. Some speculated that the young soldiers had been distracted by a pretty girl. The official story, however, was that they had swerved to avoid hitting a boy on a bicycle.

Efforts to rescue the tank were laborious. Three 5-ton army wreckers, one from Merrill and two from Camp Douglas, 130 miles away, arrived but were no match for the swamp’s grip. The tank sank deeper, defying every attempt to move it. Two more wreckers were called in, and after days of repositioning heavy tow cables, they managed to get one track back on the road.

Archived Rhinelander Daily News Clippings 1955

The scene became a spectacle, with curious locals flocking to the site, hampering recovery efforts. Traffic was diverted around McNaughton, by way of Hwy K and 51, and 17 and D, much to the frustration of detoured motorists. The army and civilian personnel were also getting frustrated. A tale as old as time, man versus nature, the atmosphere was tense, and patience was wearing thin.

Colonel Melvin Lang, the property and fiscal officer at Camp Douglas, was flown in to oversee the operation. Two additional tanks were brought in from Merrill to serve as anchors. Local house movers and self-taught engineers Chet Musson and Hermann Lassig proposed a novel solution: driving stove pipes into the mud around the tank to break the swamp’s suction grip.

With renewed motivation from Colonel Lang, and extra weight, the tank was finally freed on Thursday morning, September 1st, after five grueling days in the muck. Water had flooded the engine compartment, necessitating a complete overhaul. The tank was towed to a nearby railroad siding, loaded onto a heavy trailer, and transported to Camp Douglas for repairs and a thorough cleaning.

The event made headlines across Wisconsin, captivating readers with the tale of the tank swallowed by the swamp. For years, the gaping hole in the McNaughton Swamp where the tank had been trapped served as a reminder of the dramatic rescue. Today, the physical evidence has long disappeared, but the legend of the tank that got stuck in McNaughton Swamp lives on in the stories told by those who remember.

Source: Rhinelander Daily News, August, September 1955. Various Wisconsin Newspapers, September 1955.

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Kerry Bloedorn joined WXPR in 2022 as the host of A Northwoods Moment in History. A local historian, Director of Pioneer Park Historical Complex for the City of Rhinelander and writer for The New North Magazine, he loves digging into the past and sharing his passion for history with the Northwoods community.
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