What Really Happened After A Man Stole An M60 Patton Tank

Tanks are big. Some are bigger than others, but size is kind of the point. To whit: The US military's M60 Patton Tank weighs more than 52 tons and is driven by a 750-horsepower motor. It's classified as a Main Battle Tank MBT), and it's the first MBT made in the United States. According to Military Today, these behemoths are usually operated by a four-man crew, but it doesn't take four men to drive it. It does, however, take four men to drive it and operate all of its weaponry. It's main armament is a 105 mm cannon that fires rounds powerful enough to knock down a small house, over two kilometers away. To add a little pepper to an already peppery machine, we dropped a couple of machine guns on it.

To someone who finds weapons or military history fascinating, the M60 Patton is a beautiful beast, and, apparently, an enticing one. Still, it's not the sort of vehicle the military wants citizens driving around the streets, and chances are you aren't going to find one with the keys in it unless you're desperate enough to grab one from a military base. Which, oddly enough, is exactly what happened in 1995 when Shawn Nelson took an M60 for a destructive joyride in San Diego.

According to the Simple History episode "The Stolen Tank Rampage," (posted on YouTube), Nelson, an Army veteran, knew what he was doing behind the controls of a tank.

A troubled veteran

Driving a tank had been his job back when he served a two-year stint in the '80s. The former soldier received an honorable discharge, but not before building a reputation for being a difficult soldier who was constantly getting into trouble with his superiors.

Once home, it seemed like Nelson was meant for the civilian life — at least, at first. About six years after his return, his business began to fail and his marriage was dissolving, so the veteran searched for a refuge from his stress in illicit substances. We Are The Mighty points out that Nelson, on top of the substance abuse and mental health issues, was struggling with his recovery from both a motorcycle accident and the recent loss of a live-in girlfriend who overdosed on narcotics. His finances had gone to hell in the midst of it all, and the guy was going through a complete mental breakdown — not surprising, given the circumstances. Unfortunately, Nelson dealt with his problems by stealing a tank and going on a rampage.

The gate at the San Diego National Guard Armory was unlocked when Shawn Nelson showed up. He walked around for a bit and, for some reason, no one was stopping him. According to Simple History, the veteran, dressed in street clothes, climbed into two tanks and tried to start them up, with no luck. Still no one stopped him. The third time was the charm.

A path of heavy destruction

Nelson hopped inside of tank number three, pushed a button, and fired 'er up. Only then did a soldier decide something wasn't right with the situation, but at that point, Nelson was inside a freaking tank and there was nothing anybody could do about it.

The LA Times reports the tank drove over and crushed more than 40 cars by the time Nelson's rampage was finished. He rammed through telephone poles, traffic lights, and a mobile home, according to ABC. And, quite frankly, he terrorized everyone else on the road. Cars had to drive out of his way so they weren't caught under the tank's tracks and turned into steel pancakes. Someone needed to stop the machine, but the police had no clue where to start. Sure, it was easy to keep up with, since it was only moving at around 25 miles per hour, but you can't lay down spike strips or set up roadblocks for a 52-ton death tractor. Nelson seemed unstoppable.

After Shawn Nelson managed to knock the power out to over 5,000 San Diego residents and leave a trail of destruction through the city, the local law enforcement had to do something. That's when, as Simple History tells us, they called the Marine corps for help. the Marines had helicopters that could've taken the tank down with a heavy serving of anti-tank missiles, but it's not exactly legal to fire military artillery at US citizens on US soil.

A stroke of luck

What about potential civilian casualties?

A stroke of luck came after Nelson hit the highway. He'd already failed at his attempt to ram down a pedestrian walk bridge, according to We Are The Mighty, and he decided to take his frustrations out on the cement barrier between lanes. It didn't work. The tank was stuck. Police swarmed the vehicle and opened the hatch with a pair of bolt cutters, guns at the ready. They told Nelson to come out, but instead, Nelson tried frantically to free the machine. That's when the officers opened fire.

It would be determined later that Army veteran Shawn Nelson was looking for a way out of the pain and torment he felt while watching his life fall apart around him. The former soldier was suicidal. The tank and his entire destructive run were one last "hooah." As one San Diego witness told the LA Times, "It seems he just wanted to get the utilities and cause as much damage without hurting people."

The police felt they couldn't risk Nelson getting the machine free and causing more havoc, perhaps harming bystanders. The tank carried no ammunition, but it was still extremely dangerous. They were standing on the machine when they opened fire. Nelson, according to Simple History, died in the hospital later that evening. He was the only casualty.