ORDNANCE ODDITIES—LATE VIETNAM WAR

In the course of decades of research in various military and museum archives, Robert Bruce has acquired a treasure trove of photos of what might be considered “odd and unusual weapons.” Here is another follow-on to earlier oddities that have appeared in previous SADJ issues.

In this edition, we’ll take a look at some interesting developments as the massive might of the combined U.S. Armed Forces was brought to bear in Southeast Asia, not only against elusive Viet Cong guerrillas, but increasingly in pitched battles against well-trained and -equipped regulars of the North Vietnamese Army and their Communists Chinese and Russian “advisers.”

Now, with apologies for some of these rough-looking images—presented as they were found—let’s look at some very unusual weaponry from America’s quickly escalating involvement in South Vietnam’s fight against Communist guerrillas, backed by North Vietnam and China.

People Sniffer. January 31, 1967, An Khe, RVN (Republic of Vietnam). Sp4 Gilbert Hurte of Company B, 5th Battalion, 1st Cavalry Division with the XM-2 “Manpack Personnel Detector—Chemical” on simulated patrol. One would be hard pressed to come up with anything more absurd than the “People Sniffer,” a backpacked, automated chemistry set with rifle-mounted, vacuum-cleaner-type scent collector. Apparently desperate to try anything that research and development money could buy to help keep infantry troops from being ambushed, the Army’s Chemical Corps fielded this monstrosity. It “worked” by sucking in air laced with the ammonia-based sweat smell of nearby humans, analyzing it on the move and warning the operator/point man. Oh, and there was a bigger version for recon helicopters. You can’t make this stuff up.

 

U.S. ARMY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

That Special Smell. Probably in a pine forest on Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a U.S. Army Special Forces “Green Beret” Sergeant demonstrates how the XM-2 “Manpack Personnel Detector—Chemical” will be used on patrol in Southeast Asia to detect the presence of enemy soldiers hiding behind thick jungle growth, sounding a headband-mounted warning buzzer. Upon positive identification, of course, the smelly VC or NVA would then be dispatched immediately with bursts from his 5.56mm M16 rifle. Note that this is a very early model AR-15/M16, characterized by slab-sided receiver, lack of a forward assist, “waffle” magazine and 3-prong flash suppressor.

Escalation in Vietnam

While it was initially believed that the Viet Cong insurgency in the Republic of Vietnam would soon collapse when confronted by strong South Vietnamese forces being trained, armed and equipped by America, this proved sadly optimistic. Despite horrendous casualties, Communist VC guerrillas didn’t seem to falter and were increasingly well-armed and reinforced by PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) regulars from the north.

America’s political leadership was unwilling to cut and run (that would eventually change when Democrats took control of the money), so escalation was inevitable. By the high water mark in 1968, more than 536,000 U.S. Soldiers, Seamen, Airmen and Marines were in the fight, alongside Allied counterparts, notably 800,000 South Vietnamese and 50,000 South Koreans.

Desperate for some sort of victory that would put an end to the hemorrhage of American lives and treasure, the Army as an institution and its essential Ordnance Corps radically ramped up RDT&E (Research, Development, Test & Evaluation). This came in support of the ever-expanding war in Vietnam that was already spilling over to other countries in Southeast Asia. Results, as it’s said, were mixed, and it wasn’t rare for combat troops in the field to make their own modifications and innovations.

U.S. ARMY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Mini Mortar. November 1970, RVN. Mortarmen with the 9th ARVN Division using “Kentucky windage” to aim and trigger fire their 60mm M19 mortar, a lighter, purpose-built version of the venerable M2. It was unhampered by an awkward and heavy bipod and was fitted with a 4-pound mini baseplate, so these South Vietnamese soldiers could quickly move into position to engage enemy troops with a somewhat accurate mini barrage. The rag-wrapped tube protects the soldier’s aiming hand against burns after firing multiple rounds. Noting the absence of customary helmets and gear, this appears to be a training session.

 

U.S. ARMY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Mini Blooper. October 30, 1970, RVN. Seen with a group of Pathfinders of 2nd ARVN Rangers, is this radically chopped M79 grenade launcher. Firing a selection of low-recoil but highly effective 40mm rounds, in some situations it’s a much handier solution to close engagement with an area fire weapon. While this homemade modification wasn’t officially approved, it was not uncommon among U.S. and Allied special warfare units in the war and even up to recent times with Navy SEALs. Meanwhile, Ordnance fielded the M203, a single-shot blooper hung under M16s.

 

U.S. ARMY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Multi-blooper. Earlier, back in the states, U.S. Army Captain Roe was showing off Springfield Armory’s T148E1, a clever experimental 3-shot version of the well-regarded 40mm M79 “Bloop Tube.” Judging the shotgun-style, single-shot, break action necessary for reloading the standard 79 to be too slow, the spring-advanced “harmonica” chamber allows quick follow-up shots, presumably aided by a double-action trigger mechanism. It’s said that some 300 were made for troop testing, and some even found their way to ‘Nam before the plug was pulled due to unreliability.

 

ROBERT BRUCE

Pumper Thumper. While the Army was sliding second and third rounds across the breech, the Navy was pumping out up to four of ’em in sequence from this 40mm mega-shotgun. It’s the “China Lake Pump,” developed for Navy SEALs at their famed California RDT&E complex. While undeniably impressive, combat experience showed what SEALs dubbed as the “pumper thumper” turned out to be impractically heavy, and it wouldn’t reliably feed the flat-ended XM576 buckshot round that’s pretty much indispensable in close combat.

 

USMC/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Four-Shot Flamethrower. April 1970, RVN. Marine Staff Sergeant Davenport (gunner) and Sergeant G.A. Sorensen prepare to fire the XM191/M202 Multi-shot Portable Flame Weapon. Responding to a 1966 requirement from the Marine Corps to blast/burn out enemy bunkers at 100m or more, Army Ordnance and Chemical Corps teamed to field a rocket pack that eventually became the M202. “The MPFW system consists of the lightweight, shoulder-fired, four tube, semiautomatic, 66mm, XM202 rocket launcher and the factory-loaded, four-round XM74 rocket clip. The rocket, which is propelled by the M54 LAW motor, has a warhead containing 1.3 pounds of thickened triethylaluminum. …”

 

U.S. ARMY/MILITARY HISTORY INSTITUTE

Zippo Reb. June 18, 1967, Cau Dat, RVN. In Operation Cedar Falls, troopers of 1st Battalion, 4th Cavalry Regiment light up the surrounding jungle with hose bursts of flaming napalm from “Zippo Reb,” their M132 Armored Flamethrower. These vehicles had been quickly crafted by Ordnance and Chemical Corps engineers by stuffing the spacious interior of a standard M113 Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) with four 50-gallon fuel tanks and a high-pressure pumper unit feeding an armored cupola mounted M10-8 flame gun. Side by side with the flame nozzle is the problematic 7.62mm M73 machine gun that—when it wasn’t jammed—could be used for suppressive fire. In addition to that pintle-mounted 7.62mm M60 for much needed backup, their APC is well-accessorized with concertina wire, crates of extra ammo and chow and a handy stretcher for sleeping or just in case.

 

U.S. ARMY/MILITARY HISTORY INSTITUTE

Queen’s Cobra Spits Fire. A useful side-on view of the M132’s cupola-mounted M10-8 flame gun in action, capable of sending multiple bursts of liquid fire out to 200m. Solidarity with our allies in the Vietnam War apparently extended to this crew from the Royal Thai Army’s Queen’s Cobra Regiment on operation near Phuc Tho, RVN, on November 19, 1967.

 

USMC PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

The Thing. On May 28, 1966, on Operation Mobile in RVN, this USMC-tracked and -armored six-shooter and its three-man crew are ready for action. Semi officially known as Ontos, from the Greek word for “thing,” the rifle, multiple 106mm, self-propelled, M50 was the Army’s somewhat bizarre attempt to field a compact, light, airmobile antitank weapons platform. The marines latched on to it and used its six powerful 105/106mm recoilless rifles (there’s a confusing/amusing story there) to excellent effect in the epic battle for Hue City in 1968.

 

U.S. ARMY/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Morning Mine Clearing. August 6, 1970, RVN. A 1st Squadron 10th Cavalry, 4th Infantry Division M48 series tank with E202 Tank-Mounted Expendable Mine Roller system is ready for a day’s work on Highway 19. The enemy’s profligate use of pressure-detonated mines and powerful IEDs proved formidable weapons against supply convoys moving essential fuel, ammo and rations, so brave tankers “Butch” and his TC (track commander) rolled out every morning for the nasty, dangerous and TBI-inducing job of clearing the way.

 

U.S. ARMY/MILITARY HISTORY INSTITUTE

War Wagon. On March 22, 1968, Can Tho, RVN, we find the 3rd Combat Aviation Battalion’s mobile security team. Standing up in the back, manning the crank-operated 40mm MK18 grenade machine gun, is Warrant Officer Bernard Buono, creator of this heavily armed, sandbag-protected, rapid-response M151 Mutt, named the “War Wagon.” Its mission is to rush to defend the unit’s perimeter to counter increasingly frequent and effective enemy assaults. The formidable array of onboard weaponry includes the driver’s 5.56mm XM177E1 submachine gun, the passenger’s 7.62mm M134 Minigun—probably a spare from the unit’s armed helicopters—and a 40mm M79 single-shot grenade launcher resting on the back fender as Buono’s MK18 backup.

 

U.S. NAVY PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Low-Level Flying. May 11, 1966, Cat Lo Beach near Vung Tau, RVN. A U.S. Navy PACV (Patrol Air Cushion Vehicle) effortlessly glides from river to shore, powerlifted by an aircraft turbine engine and pushed by a giant, aft-mounted propeller. Only six of these million-dollar-a-piece hovercraft monstrosities were completed and then divvied up to the Navy and Army for use on rivers and swamps in Vietnam. Although seemingly a great idea for roaring at high speed over water and right up onto land to chase and kill the enemy, PACVs experienced some limited success but ultimately proved to be too loud, complicated, expensive to operate and maintain and vulnerable to enemy fire.

 

U.S. ARMY TRANSPORTATION MUSEUM

Gun Trucks. June 1, 1971, RVN. Built up from a beefy M54 5-ton 6×6 cargo truck and mounting four .50-caliber M2 Brownings, famed armed and armored gun truck “Eve of Destruction” makes a photo run on one of her final convoy escort missions. Beginning around 1967 in a desperate response to increasing ambush attacks on daily supply convoys through the Central Highlands, truckers of the 8th Transportation Corps began welding and bolting scrounged sheets of armor to their cargo trucks and piling on as much armament as available or possible. Eve and dozens of other home-built rolling fortresses—everyone a unique design—provided daily route security in the Central Highlands and along the coast. Eve was singled out as the only one of her kind for a return to America and now—completely refurbished and repainted—she resides comfortably inside the U.S. Army Transportation Museum’s climate-controlled main gallery.

 

U.S. NAVY PHOTO BY PH1 L.R. ROBINSON/NAVY HISTORICAL CENTER

SEAL Stoner. March 26, 1968, Mekong Delta, Tan Dinh Island, Operation Bold Dragon III. The M16 wasn’t the only weapon in ‘Nam designed by Eugene Stoner. Here, a Navy SEAL armed with a 5.56mm Stoner 63, set up as a squad auto weapon for belt feeding from a drum magazine attached underneath, covers members of his squad as they prepare demo charges in an enemy bunker. The versatile Stoner modular system could also be quickly configured as an assault rifle or carbine, fed from detachable box magazines on the top or underneath.

 

ROBERT BRUCE PHOTO

Constant Force Magazine. Handicapped by standard 20 rounders for their “Sixteens” and Stoners, SEALs in furious firefights in ‘Nam desperately needed high-capacity magazines, so Childers sprang into action in 1970 with characteristic avoidance of unworkable conventional solutions. Seen here is his “Constant Force 50-round Magazine,” Model 2 version, with a smooth body curve, nylon follower and all-important twin-coiled lift springs, reportedly inspired by those used in common roll-up window shades. This solution, he explained, lifts all the rounds with ease and the same follower pressure from first to last as the mag is emptied, eliminating that common source of feed stoppages. Inexplicably, the Navy abandoned it when Vietnam fell, and we’re unaware of any subsequent military or commercial attempts to exploit this clever concept. Any takers out there?

 

U.S. ARMY PHOTO/NATIONAL ARCHIVES

Starlight Scope. October 23, 1967, Bearcat Base, RVN. Taking a picture-perfect squatting position, SP4 Michael Longo, 9th Infantry Division, poses for a daytime photo with his 5.56mm M16A1 topped with the game-changing AN/PVS-1, the first “starlight” scope fielded for combat use in SE Asia. While previous night scopes were heavy, bulky, of limited range and used inefficient infrared light, this Generation 1 device’s S-20 photo cathode gathered and amplified ambient light nearly 1,000 times. Under a bit of moonlight, the gunner could detect and fire on enemies at 400 yards or more. The more durable and capable AN/PVS-2 soon followed, and today, far more sophisticated night vision devices are in widespread use.

 

ROBERT BRUCE PHOTO

One Unsung Hero. There are many good men behind developments in weapons, ammunition and sighting systems in the Vietnam War, including well-known ones like ArmaLite’s Gene Stoner and Colt’s Rob Roy. Lesser known but on a similar level is MajGen Carroll D. Childers, seen here in September 2000 at his home in Stafford, Virginia. A prominent member of what was formally known as the Vietnam Laboratory Assistance Team while stationed at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren, Virginia, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Childers was a key figure behind some important weapons and related equipment used by the U.S. Marine Corps and Navy Special Operations. A fascinating interview with Childers discussing his radically innovative RHINO/MIWS/SOW selective fire shotgun, and a detachable box magazine for the Remington 870 shotgun, can be found in Small Arms Review, Vol. 5, No. 8 (May 2002).

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What’s Ahead

In the next installment of “Ordnance Oddities,” we’ll turn a jaundiced eye on some “Silliness in the 70s and 80s.” Like the funny 5.56mm Folded Ammunition/Weapon System from Frankford Arsenal and maybe even the remarkable Colt SCAMP.