During the summer of 1945 the officer complement in USS Eagle 32 (PE 32) consisted of a lieutenant commander, who was the skipper, two lieutenants, a lieutenant junior grade, and an ensign. The ensign was the gunnery officer and the skipper was ancient, that is, he was about fifty. None of the rest of us was over twenty-five.
One day when the ensign mentioned the contents of the small-arms locker, we suddenly acquired an itch to fire the Thompson sub-machine gun. We had not known that one was on board. The skipper, when granting permission, instructed that we were to fire to the starboard from aft of the after deckhouse. He emphatically ordered, “The gunnery officer will be in charge. His instructions will be obeyed!”
The skipper added, “I’ll join you later on.”
When we assembled aft the gunnery officer’s grin indicated that he was going to make the most of his moments in charge. At that time we lieutenants had logged quite a bit of fun at our only ensign’s expense. He wouldn’t let us touch the gun until we understood every aspect of how it operated. With a devilish smile he recited a purposely long monologue that started with the Thompson’s history and concluded with description of the unique fitting on the gun’s muzzle. “This,” he said, “is a Cutts compensator. The cylindrical compensator features a series of slots machined across only its top surface so as to direct some of the expanding gases upwards. This helps to hold the muzzle down, because with each shot the gun will jerk up.”
We would have ripped the gun from the ensign’s grasp except for the fact that he, a former college football player, was bigger than any of us. The ensign purposely droned on, “Even with the compensator, the shooter must be conscious of the need to apply enough force to keep the gun from climbing.”
With that and at long last he announced that he would demonstrate how to properly fire the gun. He took a position about six feet away from the starboard bulwark.
Some years before, Eagle 32 was fitted with mine-sweeping gear. In order to facilitate rigging paravanes over the side, the sheet-metal bulwark was lowered in height by twelve inches. Upon removal of the mine-sweeping gear, twelve-inch long stanchions were welded on top of the bulwark and a chain was rigged across so as to achieve the effect of the original height.
For some reason, perhaps because firing had not yet started, the skipper walked aft on the starboard side of the after deckhouse. Just then and with the gun waist high, the gunnery officer said, “This is how we did it in Chicago!”
Following his own instructions he bore down and because of his great strength, he over compensated. Everything seemed to happen during the same instant. His first shot cut the chain and one bitter end flailed violently directly in front of the skipper. That and the latter’s scream discombobulated the ensign and his next four shots punched holes in the otherwise solid bulwark. Our captain was only a few paces from becoming a victim of a prohibition-era Chicago-style massacre.
Before the skipper calmed down, he yelled an order to put the damn thing away.
That is how come I never got to fire the Thompson submachine gun.
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo