As a kid growing up, one of my favorite shows was a realistic World War 2 action series called “Combat!”.
Sergeant Saunders (Vic Morrow) was my hero and his adventures with Kirby, Little John, Cage and Lieutenant Hanley and Doc. The series ran form 1962 to 1967 which is pretty remarkable since the actual war in Europe lasted less than a year. Interestingly enough, the platoon never actually made it out of France in the whole five years.
The part that I really loved about the show was the weapons. You could get a real sense of the war from the scenes where the platoon fought harsh battles with overwhelming forces of Germans. Week after week, you could see the ability and limitations of those guns. From the Thompson to the M1 Garand, each weapon played its role. But none seemed more important than the trusty old .45 that Saunders and Hanley both carried.
That weapon was a sign of authority and normally only carried by higher ranking folks. It was a significant weapon since it was at the ready if you ever blew through your whole supply of ammunition (easy enough to do when you are surrounded by dangerous enemies). It was the last ditch weapon besides the combat knife they all carried but it was the one I wanted the most. Apparently based on the proliferation of anniversary replicas of the 1911 A1 45 caliber semi-automatic pistol this year, I really believe I was not the only one who felt that way.
We would play combat in the neighborhood and I always managed to have a replica tucked into my waistband (made of plastic and mostly green colored). I think I can only remember having a holster once or twice but it didn’t matter. Along with my other weapons, that 45 gave me a feeling of confidence that I would be able to kill or capture anything that came down the Cemetery Hill behind our house. Those were great years since just like Combat, when someone was shot the camera always managed to be looking the other way. You may see dead guys lying around but you rarely saw any blood shooting out of them.
Just as all childhood games come to a close, so did our time in combat. The players gradually drifted away to do other things and eventually there were not enough guys to mount a decent campaign. It was a shame since that was about the time that war toys hit their peak. Johnny Seven OMA (one man army) Thompson subs made of real wood and metal, and all manner of die cast pot metal rifles and accessories.
Then in a few short years, they were all gone, victims of an increasingly gun wary populace. Some blame could be attributed to a series of high profile assassinations and some blame could be given to the escalating war in Viet Nam. In any case, it didn’t matter to me because in the following years I discovered that girls had better things to offer
My attraction to actual guns was frustrated by the fact that despite a long military heritage, we had no weapons in the house. Okay, an old Spencer Repeater from the civil war was present but you certainly wouldn’t fire it. My Mom and Dad refused to even entertain the purchase of a .22 so I had to live a life of complete firearms celibacy.
All that pent up frustration finally led to the only action I knew would get me closer to my goal. That is why at the age of 17 I convinced my folks to let me sign up for the Navy as a Gunners Mate designee. I was destined to ride into combat on a PBR somewhere in Southeast Asia and no one was going to stop me.
Except maybe a classification clerk in Boot Camp who changed my field to Machinist Mate designee. I don’t know what that person’s name was but I do remember feeling cheated at the time. What little I knew of Machinist Mates I read in my trusty Bluejackets manual and there was hardly even a mention of a weapon. Not only that but all of our weapons training in Boot Camp was cancelled meaning I was to graduate to the fleet with NO WEAPONS TRAINING at all. But a contract is a contract and I followed the path that I was sent on.
After another year of school and temporary assignments, I finally found myself on the crew of the USS George Washington. The most amazing thing then happened. I was assigned to assist the Petty Officer of the Deck in guarding the topside of the ship.
To do this, they issued me my very first .45.
Now mind you, I had still not shot a weapon (even in training) but the need was there and in the darkness of the evening, my Petty Officer showed me the actual workings of the weapon. Well, relative darkness since we were tied up to the Proteus and those powerful security lights were starkly bright in some places.
I am not sure who we were guarding the boat against. If any swimmers had appeared they would have been easily spotted by the watches on the Tender or by us. I was prepared to draw my weapon and insert the clip as I had been shown, draw back the slide and proceed to empty the first magazine. Yes, that’s right, I was standing topside watch with a gun I had never fired that was not loaded. I never once feared that I would flinch in my duty or fail to remember the exact sequence of actions to put bullets on targets.
Two things happened during the next upkeep period that forever changed my views about my role as a combat character. The first was my first trip to the firing range. We were issued stock .45’s which had probably actually been built in 1911 and were so loose, they rattled as you handled them. As anyone who routinely shoots can attest to, the guns we had would challenge the most magnificent and experienced marksman. The fact that I have small hands did not aid in my aim either. I did a pitiful qualification round (actually more of a familiarization round).
The day was not a complete waste however since we were allowed to have one magazine each on the ship’s Thompson. Yes, that’s right, another one of my dreams come true. I doubt I hit anything at the Marine range that day in Guam but our visit was cut short when one of my shipmates underestimated the climb rate of a Thompson being fired full auto. The Marine Sergeant was not impressed at all with the holes that suddenly appeared in the tin roof of the dugout where we were firing. Especially since he was standing on top of the roof a few yards away. We were asked to leave.
The second thing that happened was on my last night as a Topside Petty Officer. As you may recall, the Proteus had those magnificently bright security lights on top shining down on our boat. It was a mid watch and we had just settled down into a routine of drinking coffee and imagining what it would be like to sleep an entire night without being woken up for any reason. Liberty had just expired on the tender and we could see shadows of people moving about the decks above us. Our own crew was also returning from Andy’s Hut and you could tell there was a dust up by the torn shirts and sailors helping the less fortunate down the brow.
Apparently earlier that evening, there was indeed an altercation between our boys and some tender folks. I don’t know who the winner was, I just remember the OOD from the tender coming down the brow and informing me that he expected all of our guys to stay on board for the night and sleep it off. We both saluted him and said the obligatory Aye Aye sirs and we all went about our business.
Sometime after 0100, it happened. From somewhere behind those powerful bright security lights, objects started flying towards the submarine. I cannot recall all of what was thrown but do remember having the presence of mind to remember my training (or what there was of it).
1. Is your life in danger?
2. Is the life of anyone under your charge in danger?
3. Is the ship or its weapons in danger?
4. if yes to any of the three, don’t be a damn fool, call away a security violation and lock and load.
Finally, a chance to prove I would take a bullet if I had to. I was shaking so bad that I dropped the first clip. I quickly recovered and with a flourish that would make Vic Morrow proud, I locked and loaded my first round. What I did not take into account however was that the tender guys, upon hearing security violation and seeing the two of us aimlessly pointing our 45s at the upper lights, would react with their own team which consisted of a lot of Marines with M-16s, shotguns and M-14s. At that point I realized we were probably outgunned.
We were all frozen in time for a few minutes trying to sort out what to do next when the Duty officer came up from down below with his .45. There were some heated words between the two ships but it became apparent that this was nothing more than some drunks trying to exact the last word. We all stood down and I was anxiously waiting for my heart to restart. The next day, a debrief was held and to the Captain’s credit, he gave us some slack. The ship would leave for patrol the next day and we all had a few months to get past the event. I qualified below decks watch and was never again to stand topside watch on the GW.
I carried a .45 a number of other times in my later career. This time, I made sure that I had more than enough practice and always viewed the duty with a lot more respect. The last time I carried it was during the first Gulf War. I had recently been promoted to CWO2 and was at my first duty station as an officer.
The night the attack in the Gulf started all of the officers were recalled to the command and issued .45s with two clips. We were instructed to keep them with us at all times and be ready. To this very day, I am not sure who thought Holy Loch Scotland was in imminent danger from either Scuds or the Republican Guard, but by jiminy, we were ready to repel boarders on the Los Alamos. Fortunately our role only lasted for a few days and the weapons were returned to wherever they came from.
Some lessons about the .45 I will take to my grave:
Its better to have one and not need one than the opposite.
Even the best gun in the world is almost useless if it isn’t loaded and handled by someone who is trained
If you are going to carry it, be prepared to use it. If you pull it, make sure you mean to fire it.
A .45, like any other weapon, is useless if you think the guy aiming his gun at you won’t pull the trigger. You might as well just hand him your weapon and bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.
As I watched the news about the Iranian terrorists who were attempting to attack us, I thought a lot about the people leading us.
God, I hope they don’t issue them any .45’s.
From an interview with Rick Jason, his co star on the series:
Vic Morrow had an absolute dislike of firearms. He used a Thompson submachine gun in our series, but that was work. In any other respect he’d have nothing to do with them. On one of the few days we got off early while there were still several hours of daylight left, I said to him, “I’ve got a couple of shotguns in the back of my station wagon. You want to shoot some skeet?”
Without so much as a pause he responded, “No, thanks. I can’t stand to kill clay.”
He knew he could always break me up and during our five years together he did it quite a bit. His sense of humor happened to tickle my funny bone and he knew he had my number.”
I would have never guessed that.