By Jason M. Wong
This is the story of how one pair of Browning M2 fifty-caliber machine guns ended up in the NFA registry. There are many other stories similar to this, and many more guns like these sitting in a basement, garage or attic of a veteran or his widow. This story starts in Honolulu, circa 1965. A young commercial diver joins the US Navy, and is stationed at Pearl Harbor on the USS Goldsborough, a guided missile frigate home ported at Pearl Harbor. Upon joining the Navy, the young man would come to learn that his skills as a diver would be well appreciated, and lead us directly into this tale.
O’ahu during World War Two was a beehive of activity. Over 75 active military installations existed across the Hawaiian Islands allowing thousands of sailors, soldiers, and Marines to protect the United States from the threat of Japanese invasion. Part of the force protection included regular aircraft patrols surrounding the Hawaiian Islands and identification of any perceived threat following the attack at Pearl Harbor. As a result, patrols of the Pacific Ocean surrounding the Hawaiian Islands by P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft were common.
Sometime in 1942, a P-40 Warhawk prepared for take-off at Mokuleia Airfield on the North Shore of O’ahu. What appeared to be another routine patrol soon turned out to be anything but normal. As the plane took off, it immediately experienced a mechanical event serious enough to force the pilot to bail out of the aircraft. Luckily, the pilot was safely recovered. The P-40 Warhawk settled in 15 feet of water just off the coast of O’ahu, and within sight of Mokuleia Airfield. Use of North Shore beaches during World War Two was not at all like what the present day tourist may experience. The beaches of O’ahu near military installations were off limits to civilians, and on-going active military operations prevented the recovery of an otherwise broken and useless fighter plane sitting in 15 feet of water. As a result, the aircraft would sit and wait; forgotten until 1965.
Fast forward to 1965. Being stationed at Pearl Harbor had its advantages for the thousands of sailors, and Marines stationed there. Waikiki was an easy 20 minute drive, the North Shore of O’ahu beckoned with beautiful beaches, and the weather was much better than the winters experienced in much of the continental United States.
While snorkeling on the North Shore near the Mokuleia Airfield on the Fourth of July, 1965, the forgotten P-40 Warhawk Fighter was discovered in 15 feet of water by a group of sailors from the USS Goldsborough. As a commercial diver prior to entering the Navy, our hero (who has requested that he not be identified by name) was contacted and asked to check out the wreck. Upon further exploration, the cockpit, engine, and part of the right wing were all that was left of the aircraft after twenty-three years of sitting on the bottom of the ocean floor. The pilot’s seat was clearly visible within the cockpit, and most importantly, all six .50 caliber Browning machineguns were still present.
Using only a mask and snorkel, our young diver managed to recover three of the Browning fifty-caliber machine guns. One of the Browning machineguns was jolted out of the aircraft upon crash landing, and was discovered resting upon the ocean floor. As expected, this gun was covered in coral and in poor condition due to exposure to the salt water of the Pacific Ocean. The other five guns however, were still bolted within the aircraft’s wings. After spending 23 years under water, the aluminum wings of the aircraft were fairly brittle, and our diver was able to recover all five machineguns from the aircraft. Surprisingly, the aluminum of the aircraft wings protected the Brownings, and the guns experienced very little corrosion, despite spending such a long period of time underwater.
As the sun set into the Pacific Ocean on the Fourth of July weekend of 1965, our diver was able to recover three of the six guns from the wreck. Consider that while using only a mask and snorkel, the young diver carried the guns underwater from the site of the wreck to shore, dropping the guns to the ocean floor each time he needed to come to the surface for air. At the end of the day, the young diver was exhausted, and unable to recover the remaining three guns. As a result, he stashed the remaining three guns under a nearby coral reef for retrieval at a future date.
Upon return, the remaining three guns were gone. Perhaps a bystander saw the young diver’s treasure and recovered the remaining three guns. Perhaps the ocean currents covered the guns in sand and prevented their subsequent recovery. In either case, we know for sure that only three of the six guns were recovered from the wreck by the diver. Of the three guns recovered, two were functional and taken from the wing of the P-40 aircraft. The third gun was discovered lying on the ocean floor; it was covered in coral and in poor condition.
Upon return to the USS Goldsborough, the young diver discovered that the powder was still dry within the cartridges, the primers still live, and that two of the guns and ammunition were still functional despite the long period spent under the ocean. The ammunition within the guns possessed manufacturing dates of 1941 and 1942. After test firing a few rounds, the guns were put away, with little thought of registering them with the Alcohol Tax Unit, (ATU) a unit of Internal Revenue Service, and predecessor of the modern day Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).
Word of the recovery spread within the Navy community at Pearl Harbor, and before long, an ATU agent was requesting permission to board the USS Goldsborough. Upon examination of the Brownings, the ATU agent informed the young diver that the guns would need to be registered, pursuant to the 1934 NFA Act. In 1965, two-hundred dollars was a lot of money, and registering the guns with the ATU was going to be more than the young diver could afford, given his military salary. The ATU agent offered a solution. Because the coral-covered Browning was clearly not functional, the ATU agent indicated that it did not need to be registered. However, because the other two Brownings were clearly functional, the guns could be deactivated, and registered for five dollars a piece. Given the diver’s situation, one cannot blame him for electing to deactivate the Brownings and pay ten dollars instead of paying four hundred dollars to possess live guns. The Brownings were taken to the machinist area on board the USS Goldsborough, where the original Form 1 notes that the guns were acquired on July 5, 1965. The Form 1 continues but noting that the guns were deactivated by “plugging barrel with steel pin and welding same, steel pin put through rear barrel into barrel extension which locks head space, steel pin placed into firing pin chamber, and back plate welded to receiver.” The Form 1, dated January 18, 1966, was approved by ATU on February 16, 1966.
The young diver ended his military service and settled into the Portland, Oregon area, with the Brownings safely stored in his garage. Little thought was given to them until 2003, when a mutual friend to the author told an incredible story about how an old-timer had recovered three Browning machineguns from the Pacific Ocean and had an amazing story to tell. Negotiations to buy the Brownings commenced, and the two functional guns were sold. The young diver, now retired and in his mid 60’s, had no desire to sell the remaining coral encrusted Browning, as it served as a reminder of his service in the Navy, his underwater adventure, and his time spent stationed at Pearl Harbor in the mid 1960’s.
The guns are currently being repaired, and have been reactivated on ATF Form 1’s. Given the historic tale connected with these guns, the current owner intends to keep the guns together as a pair, in their original aircraft configuration.
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