Guncrank Diaries: Haunted Guns

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This unusual Type 99 machinegun accompanied a young Japanese paratrooper
to his death in 1944. Thanks to WorldWarSupply.com for the cool support gear.

Sometimes I just like to sit quietly and imagine what it must have felt like there at the end. I’m not a particularly superstitious guy. However, there is something supernatural about these guns.

I own two whose stories I can verify. A man died with the first by his side. Another man used the other to kill two soldiers, not altogether unlike himself in the fetid trenches of WWI. Both weapons are, therefore, truly sacred.

We humans venerate things — the Smithsonian is dirty with such stuff. I’ve seen the top hat President Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theater the night he was killed alongside John Deere’s first manual plow. The original C3PO costume from Star Wars is quite cool, as are the red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Some stuff, however, embodies a much deeper significance.

There’s a slight depression in the woods at the Chickamauga National Battlefield that looks like a pig wallow. It’s just a low spot that tends to collect brackish rainwater and stay muddy. In September of 1863, however, wounded soldiers wearing both blue and gray congregated there together, trying to slake an insatiable thirst. Young men bled out in this hallowed space intermingled with their enemies, all meeting God together on equal terms. You cannot stand there and appreciate this story without being moved. So it is with these holy guns.

A terrified young Italian grunt used this 1891 Carcano rifle
to kill at least two enemy soldiers in combat.

Leyte

On December 6, 1944, one of 409 elite Japanese paratroopers leapt out of his Ki-57 transport plane above an American-held airfield on the Philippine island of Leyte. Young men fight for various reasons, many of them, in retrospect, silly. This one was not. This young man was about to die protecting his home and his family.

He jumped from 700 feet. He would spend maybe 45 seconds under canopy. During that time, a young U.S. Army aviation mechanic grabbed his M1 rifle and raced out of his tent to see dozens of Japanese parachutes descending all around him. He picked one at random, drew a careful bead on the dark form hanging underneath it and squeezed off a round. The Japanese paratrooper stiffened and then was still.

The mechanic said later the Japanese soldier was dead when he hit the ground. The American soldier came home with the Japanese paratrooper’s machinegun along with a package of Japanese cigarettes and a couple of letters he retrieved from the dead man’s combat jacket.

The gun is unfired, not even in training. There isn’t a smudge of carbon on it anywhere. That he would jump into a combat zone with a weapon he had never tested seems nonsensical to me. Additionally, all the serial numbers match except the magazine well cover, offset by a single digit. I’ll never know the details.

These old WWI-vintage round-nose Carcano bullets fomented
some simply ghastly damage downrange.

Service In Hell

The young Italian soldier served on the Allies’ side during WWI. That Italy was part of the Axis in the subsequent hemoclysm is more a function of their megalomaniacal leadership than any real national interests. In the First World War, this naïve Italian soldier, like countless others on both sides, just wanted to live long enough to go home. To do that, however, he had to kill.

This man used this M1891 Carcano bolt-action rifle to kill two Austro-Hungarian soldiers that he knew of. Once the war finally ended, he brought the weapon home with him. During his long years at war, he’d grown comfortable in the company of the implements of violence.

The post-war Italian economy was in shambles, and this newlywed had no prospects. He found passage across the Atlantic in steerage aboard a steamship. When he processed through Ellis Island in New York City, he carried a knapsack with some socks and underwear, the M1891 and 48 rounds of GI-issue ammunition. It was a different time and American authorities just waved him through, combat weapon and all.

Like the patriarch Jacob of Biblical lore, this man worked for years to earn enough to retrieve his family. Along the way, he learned English and came to cherish being an American. He subsequently sired a thriving brood of young Americans, all rabid patriots.

Guns are more than just walnut and steel. They are also repositories of the spirits who touched them during the most remarkable times. In a manner of speaking, I suppose that does make them haunted.

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