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From Flamethrower to Tear Gas Gun: The M3 Portable Riot Control Agent Disperser
By David Albert

During the mid-1970s, I was privileged to live in the Canal Zone of Panama, as the son of an Army doctor, stationed at Gorgas Hospital. Our house stood within a few hundred yards of the Panama border, on Ancon Hill, where many of the Colonels and Generals lived as part of the significant military presence in the Zone. Previously, from 1962 to 1966, after graduation from Medical School, my father lived in Ancon as a civilian intern at Gorgas. So, although the Panamanian experience was new to our family in 1973, the Canal Zone had already made a huge impression on my father based on his experiences a decade earlier.

During the late 1940s to mid 1960s, the 10-mile by 50-mile long Canal Zone through the Isthmus of Panama experienced significant tension between the U.S. and Panama. Several instances of rioting occurred, with Panamanian rioters mostly kept at bay from the Canal Zone. Panamanian nationalism, and ongoing treaty extension efforts by the U.S., along with several insensitive comments and actions by the U.S. Government over the years produced strong anti-American sentiment among many Panamanians. “Yankee Go Home” was common graffiti along the border. The differences between the Canal Zone and Panama were stark. The U.S. government kept the Zone in immaculate condition, partly because of the yellow fever epidemic that plagued the area in the early 20th century, and the fear that mosquitoes might once again wreak their havoc on the population. Lawns were manicured by Canal Zone maintenance workers, and any places where water could stagnate were filled in, or treated with insecticide. The pristine condition and high standard of living in the Zone contrasted sharply to some poverty stricken areas of Panama, visible in close proximity across the border, which also contributed to the tension.

In November 1959, tempers erupted, and nationalist Panamanians attempted to enter the Canal Zone with intent to raise the Panama flag over the Zone, which was viewed as sovereign territory. The riots were subdued by Canal Zone Police, and U.S. Military personnel. The 1959 riots were the first known instance where a new, less-than-lethal military device was utilized, known as the M3 Portable Riot Control Agent Disperser. The new weapon was created by modifying the WWII designed M2 Portable Flamethrower, and is easily mistaken for a flamethrower to the untrained eye. The new weapon was intended to disperse tear gas on a larger and more focused scale than existing portable methods of the period, which were typically employed via shoulder fired 1-1/2 inch cartridges, or by hand grenade. The M3 first entered U.S. Military inventory in the late 1950s, and fired a mixture of CS-1 and talc through a wand known as the “M9 Riot Control Agent Disperser Gun.” M3 capacity was 8 pounds of CS-1, and 29 pounds of talc. The duration of a single burst was approximately 19 seconds, and in short bursts of 5-6 seconds, the filling would last about 30 seconds in riot use. The range was only 40 feet, but fear of its effects during employment usually caused crowds to disperse. Several M3s were designed to be employed by troops, firing in quick succession, if necessary to quell a riot. Its use in Panama helped to diffuse the 1959 riot. With the riots still freshly in mind, in early 1960, the U.S. made a wise decision to fly the Panamanian flag at the administration complex in the Canal Zone, along with the U.S. flag. Panamanian politicians also attempted to influence calm in Panama, based on real fear that tension might erupt into revolution. The U.S. subsequently expanded flying the Panamanian flag to other locations in the Canal Zone, where the practice was visible to Panama.

In early January 1964, a few students at Balboa High School initiated an incident that soon escalated into full fledged riots in Panama, on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the region bordering the Canal Zone. The raising of the American flag on a vacant flag pole at Balboa H.S. produced a quick reaction from Panamanians, whose resentment of the U.S. had simmered for several years without an outlet. Violent protests erupted over what many saw as an occupational U.S. presence on Panamanian soil, and also a rumor of Panamanian flag desecration by Americans. After the flag was raised within easy view of the border, Panamanians entered the Canal Zone, and riots developed. Some of the unrest was spurred on by Castro loyalists whose intent was to disrupt relations between the two countries. U.S. Military forces, and Canal Zone Police mustered to protect Zone residents, pushed the protesters back into Panama, and defended the Zone against further invasion and unrest. My father manned an ambulance during the riots, and was shot at by rioters. Thankfully, shots only hit the ambulance, and missed my father.

The riots ensued for the next 3 days, and U.S. Military personnel formed a shield along the Canal Zone border. Much of the unrest involved unarmed protestors who set tires and border shops on fire, and generally tore up the Panamanian side. However, Panamanian snipers brought a much more lethal element to the riots. U.S. forces were tasked with keeping the unrest out of the Canal Zone, and used restraint whenever possible; however they escalated from tear gas, to shotguns fired overhead, to rifle shots when necessary. U.S. troops utilized M1 Garands, M1 Carbines, M12 Trench Shotguns, as well as the M3 Portable Riot Control Agent Disperser in their riot engagements.

M3s were used during the 1964 Panamanian riots as a non-lethal response to demonstrators, in the same manner as during the 1959 unrest. In some instances during the riots, lethal force was used instead, particularly in Cristobal on the Atlantic side of the Zone. In the end, 23 people were killed, including 4 U.S. servicemen, and the conflict made the cover of Life magazine.

My perspective on the Canal Zone riots of 1964 was developed 10 years later as a member of the Safety Patrol at Ancon Elementary School. The fence-line of our school formed part of the Canal Zone border with Panama, with a major business district of Panama City directly across the street. Each morning, our responsibilities included raising both the American and Panamanian flags over the school, plainly visible to Panama. The rules involving dual nation flag etiquette in the Zone had changed to include schools after the 1964 riots. Both flags were flown at equal staff, and we always raised the Panamanian flag first. The flag process in the 1970s was closely monitored, based on the unrest and lessons learned of the previous decade.

In the U.S. in March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced his decision not to run for a second term as President. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated a few days later, followed in June by Robert Kennedy’s assassination while campaigning for Johnson’s post. The Vietnam War produced more U.S. casualties than any previous year, and the Tet offensive shifted public sentiment. Demonstrations occurred around the country, voicing opposition to the war, and also to the death of Dr. King. The turbulent, unpredictable year put the public and law enforcement on edge as the Democratic National Convention began in Chicago in late August. Mayor Daley anticipated potential demonstrations from outside groups with known plans to congregate during the convention, and prepared the Chicago Police Department for action. He wanted to prevent demonstrators from distracting national attention from his party convention. He sought significant support from the Illinois National Guard, which he received.

During the afternoon of August 28, 1968, “Yippie” (Youth International Party) demonstrators began protesting in Grant Park. The anti-establishment group disrespectfully offered a pig as a candidate for the 1968 presidency. Their protests were met by a combined force of over 20,000 Chicago Police and Illinois Guardsmen, who were positioned as reserve forces to supplement CPD as necessary. Violence broke out between demonstrators and law enforcement in Grant Park, and rioting spread. The Yippie protestors were organized, and moved the focus of their angst away from Grant Park where protests started, to across Michigan Avenue, in front of the Conrad Hilton Hotel. They wanted Chicagoans to experience any clashes and exchanges with authorities firsthand, instead of in the park. The volume of tear gas expended was huge. The M3 Portable Riot Control Agent Disperser was put into action by the Illinois Guard, as were other more conventional tear gas dispersing methods by the Chicago Police. So much gas was used that Democratic Presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey felt the effects in his hotel room. The rioting continued into the evening of the 28th, and Michigan Avenue resembled a new venue for Army maneuvers. The Hilton was disrupted by the tear gas, along with improvised noxious fume bombs set off by the Yippies around the hotel, where many of the convention delegates stayed.

Documented use of the M3 Portable Riot Control Agent Disperser is limited, and this article covers some of what is known about its use. The three instances in 1959, 1964, and 1968 offer us real glimpses of the weapon in riot use. A later version of the M3, designated as the M33A1 was still in U.S. Army inventory in the mid-1980s. Perhaps some M3s or M33A1s are still in U.S. Army inventory. If not, it would be interesting to determine whether they were destroyed, or if any may have made their way to police departments or to private hands. Readers of this article who have further information about the M3 or M33A1 are encouraged to contact the author through this magazine.


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