Many of the weapons and special guests featured in Sons of Guns have fascinating stories to tell, taking us back in time to explore the rich history of weapons and the men who carried them. Here's more about our favorite historical weapons and warriors:
BAZOOKA - 20th Century American Icon
A Birth in Comedy
Yes, there's the gum and the famous tube that fires anti-armor rockets, but there was another "bazooka" that was actually the first. Sometime during the 1930's, the well-known musician, comedian and entertainer, Bob Burns, popularized a wacky instrument made from two nested lengths of gas pipe and a whiskey funnel. This cross between a trombone and slide whistle (Burns had actually invented it before World War I when he was sixteen) could play about six notes that sounded to Burns like something produced by a "bazoo," a contemporary slang term for a "windy fellow." Naturally dubbed "bazooka," this comical musical contraption turned out to be popular enough for American GI's to see the similarity between its shape and the new rocket-firing weapon not long after it was issued to combat units in late 1942.
The Right Rocket
Even before the shooting stopped in 1918, World War I weapon designers were already working on a tube-fired rocket that could be used by infantry to counter the looming threat of tanks. The initial rocket technology was actually developed by the father of modern rocketry, Robert Goddard, but there was no momentum to finish the design until America entered World War II, over 20 years later. In 1942, an enterprising young Army lieutenant, Edward Uhl, successfully developed a working rocket launcher and then accidentally stumbled on the inspiration for the distinctive firing tube when he " was walking by this scrap pile, and there was a tube that ... happened to be the same size as the grenade that we were turning into a rocket. I said, That's the answer! Put the tube on a soldier's shoulder with the rocket inside, and away it goes." Uhl is rightly regarded as the "father of the Bazooka."
The bazooka's other main component, the shaped-charged explosive, had been successfully developed during the 1930s, but the amount of explosive required to defeat tank armor was unwieldy for hand-held delivery. It was Lieutenant Uhl's breakthrough with the rocket system that created the first effective portable ant-tank weapon.
The bazooka entered combat in November 1942 when American forces first carried them in the campaign against Rommel in North Africa. Lack of training combined with the unreliability of the first rocket models seriously marred the weapon's debut, but the Germans were sufficiently impressed to use captured bazookas as the inspiration for their own anti-armor rocket system, the much superior Panzerschreck ("tank terror"). Even with subsequent improvements to the American bazooka through the course of the war, using the weapon against enemy armor - especially the larger German tanks - required an almost suicidal resolve. Bazooka team members suffered some of the highest casualty rates during World War II. Even a tough warrior like Gen. Patton admitted that "the purpose of the bazooka is not to hunt tanks offensively, but to be used as a last resort in keeping tanks from overrunning infantry. To insure this, the range should be held to around 30 yards."
Among the many who bravely distinguished themselves employing bazookas against German armored attacks were numerous Medal of Honor recipients including these two exemplary soldiers. Here are excerpts from their award citations that vividly describe the close ranges that were typically required for these weapons to be effective :
- Sgt. Van T. Barfoot
Place and Date: Near Carano, Italy, 23 May 1944
With his platoon heavily engaged during an assault against forces well entrenched on commanding ground, Sgt. Barfoot moved off alone upon the enemy left flank. He crawled to the proximity of one machine gun nest and made a direct hit on it with a hand grenade, killing 2 and wounding 3 Germans. He continued along the German defense line to another machine gun emplacement, and with his tommy gun killed 2 and captured 3 soldiers. Members of another enemy machine gun crew then abandoned their position and gave themselves up to Sgt. Barfoot. Leaving the prisoners for his support squad to pick up, he proceeded to mop up positions in the immediate area, capturing more prisoners and bringing his total count to 17. Later that day, after he had reorganized his men and consolidated the newly captured ground, the enemy launched a fierce armored counterattack directly at his platoon positions. Securing a bazooka, Sgt. Barfoot took up an exposed position directly in front of 3 advancing Panther tanks. From a distance of 75 yards his first shot destroyed the track of the leading tank, effectively disabling it, while the other 2 changed direction toward the flank. As the crew of the disabled tank dismounted, Sgt. Barfoot killed 3 of them with his tommy gun...
- Sgt. Clyde L. Choate
Place and Date: Near Bruyeres, France, 25 October 1944
Sgt. Choate commanded a tank destroyer supporting infantry positioned on a wooded hill when, at dusk, an enemy Mark IV tank and a company of infantry attacked, threatening to overrun the American position. After his tank destroyer was quickly set afire by two hits, Sgt. Choate ordered his men to abandon the destroyer. After reaching comparative safety, he returned to the burning destroyer to search for comrades possibly trapped in the vehicle... braving enemy fire which ripped his jacket and tore the helmet from his head. Completing the search and seeing the enemy tank and its supporting infantry overrunning our infantry in their shallow foxholes, he secured a bazooka and ran after the tank, dodging from tree to tree and passing through the enemy's loose skirmish line. He fired a rocket from a distance of 20 yards, immobilizing the tank but leaving it able to spray the area with cannon and machine gun fire. Running back to our infantry through vicious fire, he secured another rocket, and, advancing against a hail of machine gun and small-arms fire reached a position 10 yards from the tank. His second shot shattered the turret. With his pistol he killed 2 of the crew as they emerged from the tank; and then running to the crippled Mark IV while enemy infantry sniped at him, he dropped a grenade inside the tank and completed its destruction. With their armor gone, the enemy infantry became disorganized and was driven back...