Tales from the South Horrific
By Patrick F. Cannon
There was a time when I was a crack shot. Well, perhaps not the crackest of crack shots, since the United States Army had a higher marksmanship award than my ranking as a Sharpshooter. Somehow, at least to me, “Sharpshooter” has a bit more cache than the actual highest ranking, Expert.
I achieved my ranking with the M-1 Garand rifle, the standard issue weapon during World War II and the Korean War. It was gas-operated and semi-automatic. Loaded with a clip of eight rounds, bullets could be expended as quickly as you could pull the trigger. It weighed about 10 pounds; in all, about six million were made before it was replaced by the M-14 just before the Viet Nam War.
One was issued to you very early in basic training and remained with you for the next eight weeks. I’ve forgotten my serial number, but I can assure you that I could then spout it out on command (but I’ve never forgotten my service number, which was US55702219 in case you’re interested). The rifle was your constant companion. While you didn’t sleep with it, it was always nearby, locked in your wall locker. You spent much time cleaning it. A speck of dust in the barrel would cause your platoon sergeant to explode in a paroxysm of rage. A similar rage would occur if you called it a “gun.” You would then be required to recite this ditty: “This is my rifle (holding it up), and this is my gun (pointing at your crotch); one is for shooting, and one is for fun.”
Part of the cleaning ritual involved taking it apart and putting it back together. Even after more than 55 years, I believe I could still do it. Before you actually took your test, you had to “zero in” your personal weapon, which meant adjusting the sights to suit your particular eyesight. When you finally shot for record, it didn’t involve shooting at bull’s-eye targets, but at human shaped targets that popped up at various places and distances on the shooting range. Considering the times, you might have thought the targets would have Russian faces, but they didn’t.
I should mention that both my basic and advanced training were in Georgia. I first arrived at Ft. Benning – at 182,000 acres, one of the Army’s largest posts – by bus from Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, where I had entered the Army and nearly froze to death, as it was early March. Ft. Benning was warmer, which was welcome, but it was in the middle of nowhere and consisted of forests and red clay soil. When it was dry, the red dust covered everything; after it rained, the clay turned into the greasiest and slimiest mud you could imagine. Being in the Army, you naturally spent a good deal of time either walking or crawling through it; and watching out for the snakes too.
I went to Signal School at Fort Gordon. It was near Augusta, which is home to the Master’s Golf Tournament. We were able to take a quick tour of its home, surely one of the most beautiful golf courses in the world. This was 1961, and the club was just as segregated as Augusta itself. Indeed, we were warned not to go into town with our African-American friends. I believe both the golf club and town have grudgingly integrated by now.
Once I left basic training, I never fired an M-1 again, and can’t even recall ever seeing one, except in movies about World War II. My next weapon was the M-1 Carbine, a smaller rifle which used the same .30 caliber bullets, but was designed to be a handier weapon for airborne troops and others who needed something smaller and lighter than the Garand. While I had one assigned to me, I only fired it once, when I was required to qualify with it when I was stationed in France as a cryptographer.
Let me interject here that my duty station was a communications center located in La Rochelle, an Atlantic Ocean port between St. Nazaire and Bordeaux. This post had served the same function for the French Army before 1940, and then was used by the German Army until 1945, whereupon we took it over until thrown out of France in the 1960s by Charles DeGaulle, who never forgave us for liberating his country in 1944.
As it happened, the shooting range we used was built by the Germans. It was indoors and had the traditional bulls-eye targets. It was a cooperative effort – when you weren’t shooting, you operated the targets from a pit where the ropes that raised and lowered the targets we located. Before I descended into the pit for my turn, one of our sergeants noticed that one of the targets was askew and asked me to reach across and fix it.
To do this, I stepped on a sturdy looking beam, which gave way, causing me to fall into the pit. I fell on my back, and had the wind knocked out of me. While that luckily was the extent of my injuries, I was excused from further duty (it’s an ill wind that blows no good). I have always suspected that the departing Germans had sawed almost through the beam, hoping that some unwary American would complete the job.
My last duty post was with a combat support signal company. Because I had been favored with a cushy job in France, the Army decided I should end my career in the middle of the Mojave Desert in a God forsaken place called Fort Irwin. While we spent most of our time painting our vehicles after the blowing sand had worn the paint off, when we were actually training, my station was in a small and space-constricted van.
I was assigned not one but two weapons – a .45 caliber Browning Automatic pistol, which was the standard side arm for the Army from 1911 to 1986 (I believe they’re still made); and the legendary “grease gun,” a small machine gun reputedly made out of old tin cans. While the younger among you may not know what an actual grease gun used for lubricating cars looks like, I can tell you that this machine gun also somewhat resembled a caulking gun. It was just about as accurate.
As it was small, it was issued to people who worked in confined spaces, like my van, and tanks. The only time I ever fired it was at a firing range, when actually hitting any part of a target 50 yards away was considered a miracle. As I recall, it was a miracle denied to me.
Although the Army saw fit to trust me with these four weapons, I have never since owned any kind of firearm. Recently, I had occasion to fire an M-1 Carbine. I did OK, but it was so noisy that I think I’ll take a pass next time. While I was in the Army during the Berlin Wall and Cuban Missile crises, I was fortunate never to actually use my weapons for anything but target practice. When I think back to my fellow basic trainees, I’m not sure all of them were as lucky.
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon