My lifelong passion for firearms started in Patton Park, behind my Detroit home. That’s where, at 12 years old, I traded a gas-powered wooden model airplane to an older kid for his Winchester Model 58 bolt-action, single-shot .22-caliber rifle. I already had BB guns, bayonets, and knives, but no way was my dad going to let me keep a real rifle. So I carried it home and hid it under our back porch. But it didn’t take more than two days for my dad to find it. To my great surprise, he just smiled and said, “Robert, you can keep it.”
What a dad! He used to tell me stories about how, as a kid, he made his own silencer for a .22 rifle so he could shoot pheasants in the south end of Dearborn. Riding high on his consent and his stories, I started buying weapons through the mail. By the time I was 16, I was an NRA life member. Other kids collected rocks, stamps, or baseball cards; I collected ordnance. I had dozens of rifles and pistols, including a British .55-caliber Boyes antitank cannon, complete with live ammunition, and a functional German 88mm Panzerschreck bazooka.
In the early 1960s, boatloads of World War II and Korean War weapons were pouring into the United States from all over the world. And I could buy all of them through the mail at really cheap prices, just by signing the tiny gun magazine mail-order forms saying I was 18. This was toward the end of the good old days, when young teenagers could even get a draft beer at certain taverns.
My dad would drive me to the neighboring woods, where the two of us shot my .22 rifle. And when I was a couple of years older, my dad, my brother-in-law, Doug, and I would take my rifles and antitank cannon to an outdoor range. I kept my weapons in our old coal cellar, which the three of us cleaned and painted and built out with rifle racks and shelves. Every weapon I received, I meticulously took apart to clean and study its mechanics. My dad had spent his whole life tinkering with machinery of all kinds, and since most of my weapons needed restoration or repair, the two of us worked many late nights in his garage. As a bonus, it gave us a chance to really get to know each other.
But time moves on, and three weeks after I turned 17, I walked away from my family and all the weapons and gun books that I so loved. I had to be part of history, and the Army was going to be my ticket. Fascinated by the history and the pictures of weathered, unshaven paratroops holding Tommy guns, I signed up for airborne.
After I qualified as an expert rifleman with the M14, the Army sent me to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, to specialize in heavy weapons, especially the 13-pound 3.5-inch M20 shoulder-fired bazooka, the 107-pound 81mm M29 medium mortar, and the 650-pound 4.2-inch M30 heavy mortar. It was all great stuff. I was like a kid in a candy shop, learning trajectories and working with high explosives, shaped charges, and mines, and I qualified as an expert mortarman. But what I really loved were the machine guns: the .50-caliber M2 Browning heavy-barreled machine gun, the 7.62mm M60 general-purpose machine gun, the 7.62mm M14 selective-fire rifle, and the .45-caliber M3A1 submachine gun, or “grease gun.”
The study of machine gun mechanics is like the graduate school of small arms. All the operating principles and physics, based on heat, pressure, and Newton’s three laws of motion, come to life in the different methods that make the weapons self-functioning: blow-forward, blowback, delayed/retarded blowback, advanced primer ignition, short recoil, long recoil, gas trap, short-stroke gas piston, long-stroke gas piston, direct gas impingement, and electric gear or chain drive. Even the feeding mechanisms—belt, drum, or box magazine—and end-of-barrel attachments, such as recoil boosters, muzzle brakes, compensators, flash suppressors, flash hiders, and sound suppressors, can affect operation.
But let’s face it, there’s something much more fundamental about machine guns: they look sexy and feel good in your hands. I had one big problem, though: all the weapons I loved belonged to the Army, and if you really love something, you must have it for yourself. I had already tried, at age 14, to steal a .30-caliber Browning automatic rifle from Fort Wayne’s Museum in Detroit. Now, four years later, I found myself in Germany, rigging parachutes and bored out of my mind. When I wasn’t packing massive 98-pound, 100-foot-diameter G-11 cargo parachutes and rigging dirty-ass vehicles and artillery for aerial delivery, I was figuring ballistics with Hatcher’s Notebook—the bible of firearm ballistics and automatic-weapons mechanisms—or else studying for my GED, which I received in Germany. But I was still no closer to owning the fully automatic objects of my desire. Worse, I had chalked up two Article 15s (disciplinary actions). One was for getting drunk and arrested by the German police, the other for trying to send home a T-10 main and reserve parachute.
Captain James Kopp, my company commander, knew all about my passion for firearms because he had signed the forms so I could buy several pistols from the U.S. Air Force’s Wiesbaden Rod and Gun Club. (They were kept in our arms room.) Captain Kopp gave me a huge break. He felt that temporary duty with Company D, 17th Infantry (LRP), a long-range reconnaissance patrol unit in Frankfurt, might help me get my act together. And like magic, I was back again with the Army I loved.
With the LRRPs, all I had to do was manage all 170 of their T-10 main and reserve parachutes. Actually, make that 169, because I finally managed to send home a T-10 main and reserve parachute—this time without getting caught. And I got to fire all the LRRPs’ cool weapons. They had the new high-tech, selective-fire M16s and the AK47s, while everyone else in Germany (other than special-ops troops) had only M14s. I also got to watch them fire the new 66mm M72 Light Antitank Weapon (LAW). So as long as I was on temporary duty with the LRRPs, I was back where I belonged: in the infantry, not the quartermasters. Not only that, I was with special-ops troops. And because I had so much free time, I could jump with them on their exercises with German paratroops (Third Fallschirmjager Regiment) and even went on one patrol in the Fulda Gap, seventy miles west of Frankfurt. That was where twenty to thirty Soviet divisions with about four thousand tanks were expected to attack if World War III ever kicked in.
And it was with the LRRPs in Germany that I scored my first fully automatic assault rifle. As I’ve said, it was a different world then, and more forgiving than today. The first sergeant with the LRRPs took a liking to me and sold me a Chinese AK47 he had picked up in Vietnam while serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. After paying him a hundred and fifty bucks, I sent the AK home, and two months later, just before I was transferred back to my unit, I got a letter saying it had arrived.**
But still I wasn’t satisfied—not really, because Germany seemed to be the one place in the world where exciting things weren’t happening. It was the summer of 1967, and the Six Day War had just gone down: Israel whipped Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. At the same time, France was pulling out of NATO because President Charles de Gaulle felt slighted playing second fiddle while the U.S.A. and the UK took the lead. I had recently returned from Évreux-Fauville Air Force Base in France (northeast of Paris) to get the last of our G-11 parachutes out.
But other, more troubling things were afoot. For one, a war had just happened four thousand miles west of me, in my hometown: the July 1967 Detroit riots. Thousands of homes, apartment buildings, and businesses were looted and torched in the city center and east side, near Belle Isle. Much of the city resembled Berlin after the war. But the destruction didn’t come from Allied bombers or Soviet troops; it was the handiwork of American civilians. Over 7,000 arrests were made for looting, arson, and assault, and 43 people were killed. Those shot or otherwise seriously injured in the line of duty included 188 cops, 83 firefighters, 17 National Guardsmen, and 3 members of the Eighty-second Airborne Division. And my Uncle Albert, a World War II veteran who served with the Second Armored Division from North Africa to Berlin, had been beaten and robbed along with his father, in their party store on Sixth Street, just up the block from where I first lived. My brother sent photos: armored personnel carriers with deck-mounted .50-caliber machine guns, and National Guard troops bivouacked in Patton Park right behind our home.
Meanwhile, six thousand miles east of me, U.S. aircraft were downing dozens of MIG fighters over North Vietnam. And tens of thousands of North Vietnamese Army regulars were attacking U.S. Marines along the DMZ or storming out of neutral Laos and Cambodia against the U.S. soldiers defending South Vietnam. The United States already had 486,000 troops in Vietnam, but to avoid increasing the draft and fueling the mounting political and civil unrest at home, it needed volunteers from the 350,000 U.S. troops serving in Europe.
What with Israel kicking its neighbors’ collective ass, Detroit turning into a war zone, and Vietnam literally catching fire, it was all a wake-up call to step into the mix and do my duty. So after a long, boring stint as a paratrooper in Germany, where I could only play at being a soldier, jumping out of C-130 transport planes and CH-34 helicopters, wearing starched fatigues and polished boots and carrying unloaded weapons, I knew what I had to do. I was 18, old enough to volunteer for Vietnam, which I promptly did. And when I got there, I volunteered again for the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol—the Army Rangers. My mom wrote saying she was unhappy about all my volunteering. I felt bad for her, but I had to live my life, and fighting a war in a warm, tropical place didn’t seem like such a bad idea. And in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to get my hands on a whole lot more automatic weapons than one measly AK47.
I arrived in Vietnam on Thursday afternoon, November 30, 1967, just in time to gear up for the real fireworks. In that one year, 1968, I would experience the two biggest battles of the war: the Tet Offensive and the siege of the Marine combat base at Khe Sanh. I would also get to make two reconnaissance patrols into the most formidable enemy-held territory in South Vietnam: A Shau Valley. I would learn more about life than I ever did in twenty-eight years of college. In the leech-infested jungles of Vietnam, I got the opportunity to know myself—and to acquire machine guns.
** All National Firearms Act weapons have since been disposed consistent to federal law.