Paradise at 57 mm
This story by the RRR starts last weekend on the 11-7 shift at the hospital in the Big City. Mark, the house supervisor was having a care conference for the psychiatric staff. I was a little late and as I stood in the doorway I heard him talking about the possibility he might go back into the Army as a nurse because they are grabbing prior service medical staff. He is certain a big push may be under way in the war in Iraq that may even involve Syria and Iran.
"I wonder if they need a 55 year old 'Nam vet psych nurse." I said.
He grinned at me. "Who are you fooling? You wouldn't want to do nursing, you'd want to shoot the big guns."
Everyone in the room started laughing at me, not because it's true -- they already knew that, but because my face lit up in delight at the thought. So I tried to explain to them as I will to my readers:
As soon as tanks lumbered across the battlefields in WWI, the infantry has tried to come up with weapons the lowly infantryman can use to knock them out. The Brits came up with a giant rifle that shot thumb sized bullets at high velocity into the firing slits on the old tanks. Then came a spring loaded catapult that threw high explosive grenades at them. By WWII the Germans had the Panzer-Faust, a rocket launcher that fired a shaped charge. The Americans countered with the 3.5 inch Bazooka, a stovepipe looking tube, also a rocket launcher. By the time I was in Vietnam we had the LAW, or Light Anti-tank Weapon, a telescoping fiberglass rocket launcher that was disposable after being fired. The Viet Cong picked the used tubes up and made weapons of them. They also had the Communist Block RPG, or Rocket Propelled Grenade which was very close to the Panzer-Faust.
But from the Korean War till Vietnam there was something very special which is what I was smiling about that night. We developed a technology called recoilless rifles. The recoilless rifle is a cannon that doesn't kick back when it's fired. It has slots in the breech and uses shells with combustible cases. When it is fired flame and concussion roar out the back destroying anything for 150 feet, a decided disadvantage should you wander behind it. But it made possible a cannon as large as our 105mm Howitzer that could be fired from the back of a jeep or pickup truck. And a 75mm that infantrymen could shoot from a tripod and was almost as effective as the dreaded German 88mm cannon. And then some bright person had the idea of making one 57mm and replacing the Bazooka with it.
It was a dumb idea of course. The silly thing weighed 45 pounds. It took two men to carry it and the ammo bearers could pack 4 shots at the most in a back pack. But oh my... Dear readers, what that baby was to shoot. For 20 years there existed in the U.S. inventory a cannon you could fire off your shoulder. And I got to do it. I was the medic on a range at a fort in Wisconsin and was assigned to the 57mm recoilless range. As it got towards dark and all the troops had fired and left, we called to have the truck come and pick up the range personnel and the left over shells. We were informed that as the 57mm was being dropped they didn't want the 30 some rounds back and we were to fire them up.
So here was what it was like. I crouched behind a barricade and hoisted the gun up onto my shoulder. The loader worked the breech. I could feel the heavy shell slide into the chamber. He locked the breech down and slapped me on the shoulder and dived to the bottom of the trench and covered his ears. I looked through the sight, leveled the massive barrel on my right shoulder, took in a deep breath, let half of it out, held it, centered the crossers on the turret of the old WWII tank a couple hundred yards away and squeezed the trigger.
I felt like I'd knocked hard on the door of Hell. The earth moved under my feet. There was a flash brighter than the sun. The roar was deafening even through my ear plugs. The concussion squeezed the breath out of me like a giant invisible fist. After the flash I had the quick vision of a small black dot rushing at the tank. A "chunk" noise echoed back and I could see the light of the setting sun THROUGH the turret. I stood shaking like leaf in a strong wind, then began laughing wildly and shouted, "WOW! Let's do that AGAIN!" And we did. Over and over. No experience I've ever had comes close.
And that's why I grinned so wide at the care conference. I've shot the big gun.