Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Old Man Guns

For the last couple days I've been flipping through Recon Trooper, a memoir of WWII in Europe by Hugh Warren West, a soldier with the 14th Armored Division. These ground-level memoirs are always a treat, recording the little pedestrian details of life that are far too trivial for larger histories.

There's a ton of good stuff in here about racing captured German military vehicles, teaching illeterate soldiers to read ammo crates, and loosing tons of ammunition at a deer that wandered into an alarm tripwire, but of course, I zeroed in on the small arms talk:

The army was so determined that we'd be ready for combat, they kept us training at Camp Chaffee, as well as in Kentucky and Tennessee, for nearly two years. None of us dreamed we'd be kept in the States so long, but our general wanted the 14th to be an elite unit, even though it had no prior history.
The DIs and officers accomplished this by drilling us until we could handle our equipment like it was an extension of ourselves. At first, they issued us M-1 Garand rifles, and we learned to take them apart and put them back together blindfolded in less than two minutes. We even shouted odes to it as we marched. ("This is my rifle, this is my gun. One is for killing, one is for fun.")
The Garand was a fine rifle, a bolt action 30.6 caliber that was extremely accurate, and fired semi-automatic from a five-round clip. Later, I was issued an M-1 carbine, or more precisely, an M-2. It was smaller and lighter, semi-automatic, with such a small kick that you could fire it from the hip or even holding it with one hand. It had the reputation of being less accurate than the Garand, but in the right hands, it was a great weapon. My own M-2 was manufactured by Remington Rand, the company that made typewriters and adding machines. It was just any other company that had retooled its factories to make weapons of war, and I liked to think of my M-2 as a "business machine."
One day, I was firing the M-2 at the target range when a particularly nasty first sergeant approached me. I'd had a history of grief from this man, who assigned me to all the bad duty he could invent. I'd been shooting targets at rapid fire when the sergeant arrived and said he didn't like the way I held my rifle. I had the belt twisted around my arm to steady my aim, something I'd learned was most effective, but he shouted that no one could hit a target like that.
Since he wasn't my drill sergeant, I loaded a fresh twenty-round magazine and shot the whole clip rapid fire at the target with the rifle belt twisted around my arm. The target came back with 20 bulls-eyes. He never said a word. He just stalked away, looking for some other dog face to pick on.

It's interesting to see another aspect of memoirs illustrated: when you're experiencing the event through one person's memory, you also get any faults that've crept into his memory over the years. In addition to some details that sound too much like vivid popular images to accept unskeptically (like West's memory of trashing a shop outside Dachau that had been selling tattooed human-skin lampshades), there are smaller factual details that I'm pretty sure are flat out incorrect, unless they just show inadequate education on my part. When West says the Garand is a "a bolt action" rifle that fires "from a five-round clip", I can only assume he's conflating it with a model 1903 Springfield rifle. I understand five-round Garand clips exist, but were any used widely in WWII? I'm also unaware of any M1 carbines being made by Remington Rand. 1911s, sure, but carbines? "30.6 caliber", though, is probably a typo or an error in John Scura's transcription of his interviews with West.

Aside from additional training with my M-2 carbine and the bazooka, I relished taking target practice with the Browning Automatic Rifle. It was a relic, used in the latter stages of the First World War by our doughboys in France. The thing weighed more than twenty-five pounds, and was one of the first fully automatic assault rifles. But it fired a heavy 30.06 caliber bullet with incredible range and accuracy, which was something that a lot of machine guns lacked. And it was perfect for the soldier in the field, because t never jammed, no matter how much mud and water it encountered.
Our army continued to use the BAR because of its proven record in the field, and because we didn't have a suitable replacement until many years after the Korean War. I marveled at its simplicity, and thought Browning, its inventor, must have been a genius. He'd also invented our army's standard pistol, the Model 1911 .45 caliber automatic, which is still being used by American elite units like the Navy Seals and the Delta Force. I personally thought it had a little too much boom to be accurate, but it certainly had the one shot-one kill ability that every soldier wants when his life depends on it.
The rival assault weapon to the BAR in our arsenal was the Thompson sub-machine gun. This was the iconic weapon of choice by gangsters, bootleggers and G-men during the Prohibition era and throughout the 1930s. But its use in the field was limited mostly to officers. It had a variety of magazines instead of a belt, so its firing was limited to 30 to 50 rounds usually. After a magazine was spent, you had to eject it and pop in another, then rearm the thing. And firing it took some getting used to. It was a .45 caliber machine gun, so the muzzle tended to climb as you fired it in long bursts. You really had to grasp the front grip hard to keep it from climbing off the target. I wasn't that thrilled with the thing, but it was incredibly popular with the men because of its colorful history and frequent appearance in Hollywood movies.

Little inaccuracies or no, it's wonderful to get all these firsthand details of how a soldier on the ground perceived and used his weapons. And it isn't just American arms he talks about:

[West has been taken by surprise and held at gunpoint by a German soldier, but has talked the man into surrendering.]
I kept the pistol. It was a 9-mm Browning, manufactured in Belgium. When the Germans captured Belgium they took over production of these pistols, and made them conform to their 9-mm Luger ammunition, so they could use them easily in the war. The one I captured had wooden handles, like the Model 1911 .45 automatic, but it carried 13 rounds in the clip. It was very similar to the current standard-issue NATO pistol. I had that pistol in water and mud, and it never failed. It was very easy to strip and clean. I wore it on my army belt, because it had a clip.
And it was accurate. I used to take target practice, firing at birds sitting atop a barge on a lake. If I had to choose a pistol that I'd need in the field for a long time, I'd take that Browning. I dragged that pistol all over Europe with me. I was a little scared of being captured again while carrying it, because the Germans didn't look too kindly on American soldiers in possession of their equipment. But it had precious meaning, so I took the chance and kept it.
Just about everyone in my unit had captured weapons, anyway. Whenever we knew action was imminent, and there would be some risk of capture, we'd all dump our booty into the cook's half-track. He had a stove on board, and we'd all throw our stolen guns into the back.
"Those damned things in here will get me killed," the cook always protested, but we didn't pay attention. After the action was finished, we'd all return to the cook's half-track to reclaim our items. Sometimes fights would break out over who owned what.
But I made sure no one had a chance to swipe my Belgian Browning. I kept it on my belt through all actions, and brought it home with me after the war. It's still in my family to this day.

Browning should see about getting the rights to use some of that in their ad copy. It sure makes me want a Hi-Power.

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