DC Comics, for years, had a line of war comics that featured any number of individuals fighting Nazi aggression during World War II. Last week’s entry on The Losers and characters like Sergeant Rock were fairly straightforward and rather mundane. But then there were stranger things like the Unknown Solider, a nameless, faceless master of disguise; a “war that time forgot,” where soldiers ran around blowing up dinosaurs; the Boy Commandos, who were kids fighting Nazis just like the Kid Guerrillas of Unit 3; the Creature Commandoes, soldiers turned into classic movie monsters; and even the G.I. Robot which was, well, a robot soldier.
And then there was the Haunted Tank.
What was the Haunted Tank’s deal? Well, the tank was commanded by Sgt. (later Lt.) Jeb Stuart. The tank itself was a Stuart model tank. And somewhere in the afterlife, the good guy war heroes that were there were being sent to assist the war effort against the evil Nazis. That didn’t sit well with Confederate Cavalry officer General J.E.B. Stuart, but when Alexander the Great gives you an order, you should probably follow it. General Stuart was ordered to watch over this one tank when both the tank itself and the commanding officer were named after him. About all that meant was Lt. Stuart could see and speak to the ghost, but the rest of the three-man crew couldn’t see him at all.
Now, it should be worth noting that General Stuart didn’t care much for the assignment at first for a number of reasons, not the least of which was Lt. Stuart was a Yankee. Was “Jeb” a common name to give a Northern kid in 1961 when the character first appeared? I have no idea. Writer Robert Kanigher didn’t really pay much attention to his older stories, so continuity was not really a thing. Of the two origins of the crew, the second had Lt. Stuart put in charge of the three man team, but they were all Southerns so Jeb had to challenge (and beat) each of the men to a fistfight to gain their respect.
Oh, and to help gain the ghost’s respect, Lt. Stuart hung a Confederate flag off the Haunted Tank instead of the American one.
It’s stuff like this that really dates these stories and characters. These days we have states deciding to remove the Confederate flag from official buildings and some Southern cities removing their Confederate war memorials from public parks, but here’s a comic where the protagonists are not only hanging the Confederate flag instead of the American one, but the ghost of a Confederate officer is hanging around giving advice.
Giving advice was about all the ghost could do, by the way. The closest the ghost had to an enemy was the ghost of Atilla the Hun or Genghis Khan (I don’t remember exactly who, truth be told) that would accompany different Nazis war machines into battle.
As it is, the Haunted Tank was featured in the pages of G.I. Combat from 1961 all the way to 1987, though at some point the Stuart tank was demolished and replaced with a Sherman tank, leading to the ghost of William Tecumseh Sherman taking over for General Stuart. And, for whatever reason, the Tank still pops up here and there. DC had a title called Power Company, a superhero team structured like a law firm, where the editors had a poll for a guest star and they put the Haunted Tank on there as a joke alongside the likes of Firestorm. Then the Tank won the poll and got that guest shot as promised. Garth Ennis used it for a two-parter during his run on The Demon where the now-eldlery human crew had to run a mission in the afterlife. The more meta-story of Doctor Thirteen that ran in a Tales of the Unexpected mini-series had the good doctor teaming up with various silly or forgotten DC heroes as they looked into a case involving the men rewriting continuity after the Infinite Crisis. The Tank appeared for a few chapters, where the highlight may have been an irate General Stuart attacking the ghostly pirate Captain Fear who, given Fear’s thick Spanish accent, referred to Stuart as a Yankee, which the general found highly insulting. That led to a sword fight where the two ghosts slashed holes in each other but couldn’t really hurt themselves because they were, you know, ghosts.
But most recently, the Haunted Tank reappeared in a Vertigo mini-series with a twist. The setting was the invasion of Iraq as part of the War on Terror. General J.E.B. Stuart was back, but this time around, his namesake tank commander wasn’t really glad to see him.
See, this time the mortal Jeb Stuart was African American, and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with any Confederate ghosts. Additionally, this time around, the ghost was also a bit more solid and could actually fight and kill enemy soldiers, but the twist, such as it is, revealed the living Jeb Stuart was actually a descendant of the ghostly one.
That was awkward.
Something like the Haunted Tank is probably going to get a mixed record these days, but maybe we can take a look at it from its animated Batman team-up for a final word.