And blow, ye winds, high-ho..
On a typical hot humid July afternoon at Naval Air Station Pensacola. Aviation Officer Candidate School Class 17-71 stood, under arms, in five sweat stained opened ranks of nine, dressed right and covered down.
Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC, had been drilling us on the broiling hot cement parade deck-fondly known as ‘The Grinder’. As usual he was greatly dissatisfied with our feeble efforts to do anything in unison and, as usual, was unabashed in displaying his ire. In the process of working himself into an apoplectic fit he reminded us that we were the worst fumble footed, ham handed, and uncoordinated mob of subhuman life forms ever to disgrace the uniform of the United States Navy. He menacingly circled our little rectangle of khaki clad candidates sarcastically haranguing us, a lion looking for the weakest gazelle to cut from the herd and pounce upon.
I stood in the center of the formation, the fifth file in the third rank. It was an enviable position because files two, five, and eight are ‘stack men.’ We stood at attention while those to either side of us linked their M1 rifles’ stacking swivels to ours when stacking arms. Standing at attention rarely attracted unwanted attention while movement inevitably did. It was also generally a safe refuge as the Drill Instructors normally fed upon those on the convenient outer edges of the formation. Therefore, I was quite startled when the lantern jawed scarlet scowling face of Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC, suddenly filled my entire field of vision.
Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC’s gray eyes, the color of concrete, bore into me. The brim of his campaign hat tapped the spit shined bill of my combination cover in time with his staccato woodpecker-like questioning. “Tell me Rocket Man, just what is that weapon you are so slovenly attempting to hold at right shoulder arms!”
In Pavlovian fashion I rattled off at the top of my lungs, without taking a breath or pausing for punctuation, “Sir! The weapon the candidate is holding in a slovenly attempt at right shoulder arms is a U. S. Rifle, Caliber .30, M1it is a gas operated clip fed air cooled shoulder weapon it weighs approximately nine point five pounds and the bayonet an additional pound its serial number is 5944220, sir!” Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC glanced down at the receiver of my rifle to confirm the serial number. Finding it correct Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC showed his pleasure with my correct answer by awarding me a mere 25 pushups for my slovenly right shoulder arms.
The U. S. rifle, caliber .30, M1, the Garand, was the brain child of French Canadian John Cantius Garand who lived, for a time, just a few miles north of my home town of New London, in Jewett City, Connecticut before he ended up the darling of the Springfield Arsenal. His Connecticut roots have not been forgotten and Garand has a Connecticut Turnpike bridge near Jewett City, by Exit 93, named in his honor.
The sweat dripping from my forehead dappled the cement in front of my face as I did my pushups and my mind drifted to the Garand to dull the discomfort. I had shot the M1in competition before signing on the dotted line which consigned me to AOCS and the gentle ministrations and creative pedagogy of Staff Sergeant A. W. Myers, USMC.
The Garand was the first semiautomatic rifle to see standard issue to an army, but not the first to see combat. That honor rests with the now justly forgotten and unreliable Manufacture d’armes de Saint-Étienne (MAS) Fusil semi automatique de 8 mm RSC modèle 1918 fielded in a limited fashion at the end of World War I by the French. The RSC was not the only worthless firearm with which the French have gifted the world. The Fusil Mitrailleur Modele 1915 CSR, the Chauchat machine rifle, nicknamed the “Sho-Sho” by the unlucky U.S. Doughboys who employed it, was another. However, the pièce de résistance of French firearm follies has to be the pétard.
The weapon dates to sixteenth century France when gunpowder was emerging as the new wonder weapon. Giant stone castles were virtually immune to attack and usually only fell after months, or years, of being blockaded. Siege was costly in treasure, time, and men so some bright French military engineer dreamt up the idea of using the new explosive to attack a fortress.
After some experimentation a small bell shaped vessel, of brass or iron, filled with gunpowder seemed to fit the bill. Attached to a castle door by hooks, it was ignited by a fuse, and the resulting concentrated explosion, a primitive shaped charge, would breach the door allowing assault troops to rush in to plunder and pillage.
In typical French scatological style the device was named the Pétard derived from the Middle French péter, which means to break wind. One must presume that the rations of Gallic soldiers of the day, rich in flatulence producing French legumes,Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cheese, and small beer, must have produced some prodigious intestinal gas to resemble, upon release, the detonation of five or six pounds of gunpowder.
Being a pétardier was a dangerous occupation and more often than not, after setting the weapon and lighting the fuse, he was blown into the air, and to smithereens, by the device. This gave rise to the expression describing being harmed by one’s own plot against another as “being hoist by one’s own petard.”
As I labored away at my push-ups I couldn’t help but grin at the fact that things never seemed to change in the military. Here I was, often being punished for my haphazard handling of a gas operated weapon while 500 years earlier gas operated soldiers were often punished by their weapons for haphazardly handling them.