By Frank Iannamico
Many collectors of surplus military weapons have often wondered where their guns have served and of the men who carried them into battle. “If only they could talk” is an oft spoken phrase.
World War II 1939-1945
During World War II, many U.S. weapons were supplied to the allies of the United States, and after the war ended many weapons were left overseas. One recent treasure discovered were the Lend Lease 1928A1 Thompsons that were shipped to the Russians during World War II. Most of the Thompsons were crated up and still in new condition. Reportedly, the Russians didn’t use the Lend Lease Thompson and Reising submachine guns because of their limited supply of .45 caliber ammunition. Large numbers of German and Japanese weapons were captured and after the war ended many were abandoned and destroyed. Others were gathered up and placed in storage for service in future conflicts. After down-sizing their armies after the war the allies placed many weapons in storage.
During the 1950s Korean War, U.S. and South Korean troops went into battle primarily armed with World War II weapons. Some, like the M1 Garand rifle and M3A1 submachine gun, were placed back into production. The North Koreans and Chinese also used a large amount of World War II weapons, many supplied by the Soviets, and ironically, U.S. Lend Lease weapons that were given to China and Russia. Also fielded were Japanese weapons that were left in China when Japan surrendered. Enemy weapons captured by U.S. forces were sent to museums or destroyed while U.S. weapons captured by the communist forces were stored for future use. Although regular standing armies seldom field captured weapons, they are often used by guerilla fighters.
After World War II ended, the French set out to resume their rule in Vietnam. However, communist leader Ho Chi Minh had already organized a movement for Vietnamese independence. Known as the Viet Minh, they seized Hanoi in the north and declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in September 1945, around the same time that the Japanese surrendered to the allies. The Viet Minh government under Ho Chi Minh remained in control of only portions of the north, as the French resumed control of most of the country. Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French, and signed an agreement with France on March 6, 1946, in which Vietnam would be recognized as an autonomous state in the Indochinese Federation and the French Union. The purpose of the agreement was to drive out the Nationalist Chinese from North Vietnam. Fighting broke out between the Viet Minh and the French soon after the Chinese withdrawal with a French attack on the northern port city of Haiphong in late November 1946. The French Indochina War commenced finally culminating with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The United States had backed the French during the war to keep another country from falling to the communists after their victory in China during 1949. After the Chinese Civil war ended, the communist Chinese began providing military aid and training to the communists in Vietnam.
Because the French armament industry had been devastated during World War II, the French fielded many U.S. supplied weapons to fight the Viet Minh. The French made MAT-49 submachine gun was one of the few modern French small arms to see service. After the French capitulated, many more U.S. weapons fell into communist hands.
The enemy fought by the United States and the South Vietnamese during the Vietnam War was widely believed to be armed with “Soviet” made AK-47 rifles, primarily because of reports by the news media. However, this was not always the case, particularly in the early stages of the war. The AK rifles the enemy fielded were made in a number of different communist countries with the most common being the Chinese version of the AK, the milled receiver Type 56. Later in the war variations of the stamped receiver AKM appeared. The Chinese continued supporting the North Vietnamese during the U.S. involvement.
The opposing forces, particularly the Viet Cong guerrilla fighters, used a potpourri of weapons, many of which were of World War II vintage and earlier, captured from previous conflicts that made their way to the guerilla fighters.
Featured in this article is one such weapon, a U.S. made M1 Garand rifle, serial number 5488384, made by the Harrington and Richardson Arms Company (H&R) during 1954, after the Korean War had ended (production continued after the war to replace those given to South Korea and lost or destroyed in battle.) The barrel is of H&R manufacture and dated 7-54. The M1 was probably supplied as military aid to the South Vietnamese Army, and eventually captured by the VC. This M1 has seen a lot of use and abuse. There is damage on the left side of the stock and barrel where the weapon was struck by a bullet, which probably took off the upper handguard. At what point in the weapon’s service life this occurred is unknown. The rifle came with a tag that provides a brief explanation of where and when the M1 was liberated. The weapon was captured from a Viet Cong Guerilla after he opened fire on troops from the 3rd Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion /503rd Airborne Infantry, 173rd Airborne Brigade. The soldier who claimed the M1 was Spec 4 Gerard Martinez Jr. The VC was killed by return fire from the soldiers. The tag states the grid and time the weapon was captured, but failed to include the date. The M1 was returned to the U.S. by the Army and eventually made its way to the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) where it was auctioned off with the tags describing the capture still intact.
During the Vietnam War, as was the practice in previous conflicts, small arms captured from the enemy were allowed to be kept by U.S. troops as war trophies after completing the proper paperwork. War trophies were limited to handguns, bolt-action and semiautomatic rifles. No select-fire weapons, like AK rifles, or submachine guns were allowed to be claimed as trophies, although a number of AKs were illegally brought back. Some of the smuggled AK rifles were registered during the 1968 machine gun amnesty. Today, original, legally registered AKs command a premium price. Most of the war trophies brought back from Vietnam were in relatively poor condition, partly because of the very humid tropical climate of that country. Weapons used by the Viet Cong guerillas were often hidden in damp underground tunnels, and received little care or preventive maintenance.
There is quite an interest in war trophy weapons, although the original documentation is usually required by serious collectors to prove the weapon’s provenance. War trophy registration during the Vietnam War required four separate forms:
- A temporary export license with the standard information: name, rank, serial number, description of item, and address where the final export license should be mailed;
- A Viet Nam export license (in Vietnamese);
- A registration of war trophy firearm form (DD form 603) and,
- A war trophy registration and authorization. (DD form 603-1).
Veterans' Heritage Firearms Act
The Act was originally sponsored by Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT) in the House and Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) in the Senate in 2009. The legislation would provide a 90-day amnesty period during which veterans and their family members could register firearms (machine guns) acquired overseas before Oct. 31, 1968, without fear of prosecution. Congress granted a similar, but brief amnesty in 1968. However, the event was not widely publicized, and many veterans were unaware of the opportunity.
The new bill called the Veterans' Heritage Firearms Act of 2009, was first introduced January 9, 2009, provided for a 90-day amnesty period during which veterans and their family members could register in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record any select-fire or full-automatic firearm (machine gun) acquired before October 31, 1968, by a veteran while a member of the Armed Forces stationed outside the continental United States. Currently, possession of an unregistered machine gun is a felony and you can’t register an unregistered machine gun.
The Bill was reintroduced during the 112th Congress on January 25, 2011 as HR 420/S.798. Will it ever pass? Only time will tell.
(Special thanks to Todd Gustafson, National Archives II, 173rdAirborne.com)
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