Thursday, July 9, 2020

Naval Aviators' Essential Accessories

The MA-1 flight jacket Jim Hurston wore on missions over Vietnam.

By  Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

The origins of the pilot’s flight jacket can be traced back to the early days of aviation and the open cockpit. Exposed to the elements at high altitude, pilots needed a way to keep warm. Fast forward to the late 1930’s with the introduction of the G1 US Naval Flight Jacket. This all-leather jacket was authorized as the official flight jacket for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps.

In the post Korean War years and the beginning of the jet age, the flight jacket changed from being made of leather, and instead was made of nylon. The dark brown color was also done away with in favor of sage green (which was felt to be more “tactical” if the pilot was wearing the jacket when they got shot down).

On display currently in the Vietnam exhibit, is an MA-1 flight jacket that was worn by Navy aviator Jim Hurston. The jacket is adorned with various unit patches and logos, as well as Jim’s name and Jim’s unit, Attack Squadron Seventy-Five. “The Sunday Punchers” of VA-75 deployed to Vietnam three times (1965, 1968, and 1972) and eventually received the Rear Admiral C. Wade McClusky award for most outstanding attack squadron.

A route card used for mission planning purposes by naval aviator Bob Ponton. This one happens to take him over Haiphong, the heavily-defended harbor not far from the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. 

Adjacent to Hurston’s flight jacket are maps and a route card from Bob Ponton who was a Bombardier/Navigator with VA-115, an A-6 squadron flying from the USS Midway (CVA 41). The maps have detailed accounts of when and where Bob was flying. Included on the maps are specific mission targets such as SAM sites. The maps present visitors to the exhibit with a visual representation of what a typical “work day” was like for A-6 aviators in Vietnam.
A map of Haiphong harbor, one of several maps on display at HRNM that were carried on Bob Ponton's knee board on missions over North Vietnam. 

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Thanks a Million!

By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian

I never thought I would see this day.

Over 270 posts and five years ago, I took over the editorship of the six year-old Hampton Roads Naval Museum blog. Although we experimented with different formats such as long-form stories and book reviews, the most important factors for success were focusing on our artifacts and particular primary sources in our collection, leavened by brevity and timeliness.  From 2014 to 2018 we went from an average of 320 page views per post to over 4,000.

Statistics on page views from the HRNM's blog from its founding until June 2020. 

When Naval Network Warfare Command began blocking Blogger-hosted blogs on government computers and Google shut down their Google+ social media platform at around the same time over a year ago, our numbers plummeted once again.  Despite this, and the fact that the social media platforms that have come into being since the blog's founding have become the predominant platforms for news and information about museums, not to mention everything else, we have persisted and our numbers have even been climbing again as of late.
The top ten posts of the HRNM blog as measured in page views on Blogger, not counting those read on other ersatz aggregation sites (otherwise known as "content farms") around the web hosting HRNM posts without permission.  
Although it may never again hit the heights it did only a couple of years ago, writing for and editing this blog has been a surprisingly demanding yet subtly satisfying experience.

We could not have gotten close to one million page views without the work of current and former museum staffers such as educators Diana Gordon, Matthew Headrick, Jerome Kirkland, Julius J. Lacano, Joseph Miechle, Reece Nortum, A.J. Orlikoff, Alicia Pullen, and Zachary Smyers. HRNM Registrar Katherine Renfrew, former director Elizabeth "Becky" Dove and former curator Joe Judge also contributed pivotal posts during my tenure here.
A screen shot of the first HRNM blog post, published by then-HRNM historian Gordon Calhoun, who founded the blog.   
Helping us have been our contributing writers, made up of local authors and naval enthusiasts, museum interns and docents as well even drillling reservists, who each have contributed their deep and varied experience to the blog, such as Diane L. Cripps, Cmdr. Colette Grail, USNR, Justin Hall, Ira "Dick" Hanna, Matthew Krogh, J. Huntington "Hunt" Lewis, Sarah Linden-Brooks, Steve Milner, Alexander G. "Sandy" Monroe, and Christopher Pieczynski,

The blog's very survival has also sometimes depended upon the efforts of former and sometimes co-editor Laura Orr, the museum's education director, as well as Elijah Palmer, her deputy.  They have also written quite a few posts in his own right, both before and after my arrival.  

As my departure draws nigh, I will look back with pride at our modest attempt to make the collection of this museum and its parent command, the Naval History and Heritage Command, more accessible to naval enthusiasts, journalists, students, scholars, and those who are unable to visit either by circumstance, distance, or the ongoing pandemic prohibitions.

What the future holds, who can say?  As for the last few years, we have hopefully made local naval history more interesting for you along the way.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Necessity was the Mother of Lethality (Part 3): Handmade Viet Cong Carbine

This slide and slam-action carbine, captured from the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, is from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) and is featured in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's exhibit, The 10,000 Day War at Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975 (M.C. Farrington)
By M.C. Farrington
HRNM Historian
Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

For this installment of our series on some of the rather unique Viet Cong weapons featured in our current exhibit, The Ten Thousand-Day War at Sea, we were not precisely sure what to call this weapon, but we decided that the safest bet is to stick with "Viet Cong Carbine." 
Viet Cong Carbine, left side. (M.C. Farrington)
Although one might be tempted to call it a rifle because of its appearance, most small arms of its type lacked rifled barrels.  It is of a very simple design, and it definitely looks like it uses slam fire action (based on the spring-loaded bolt configuration), during which a round is fired as soon as it is inserted into the chamber.  
Three-quarter view, close up of right-hand side showing exposed spring-loaded bolt. (M.C. Farrington)
Before North Vietnamese weapons shipments down the Ho Chi Minh Trail overwhelmed American and South Vietnamese interdiction efforts during the latter part of the 1960s, very few factory-made small arms were in the hands of front-line National Liberation Front fighters, known to their enemies as the Viet Cong
The trigger and guard looks as though it might have been salvaged from another weapon.  Note the NHHC accession number affixed to the inside of the guard.  (M.C. Farrington)
Left literally to their own devices during the early years of their struggle with American and Republic of Vietnam forces, Communist cadres in South Vietnam fashioned firearms from old pipes, automotive and even bicycle parts in underground workshops, of which many were literally underground.  Some were patterned after weapons captured from the Japanese when they occupied French Indochina during World War II.  Many were imitations of those captured from the French during their unsuccessful attempt to reestablish their colonies in Indochina after the war.  They also replicated German weapons captured by the Soviets during the war that were given to the Viet Cong's predecessors, the Viet Minh, to aid in their fight against the French.  An assortment of other Soviet, Chinese, and even American designs rounded out the Viet Cong insurgents' small arms stocks by the mid-1960s, but it would be unfair to characterize their efforts as merely imitative.  The guerrilla gunsmiths operating in the tunnels and swamps of South Vietnam were more than capable of creating their own designs, and the weapon featured here just might be one of them. 

The trigger and guard, as seen from below.  (M.C. Farrington)
Although it seems that a pin or bolt once held it there, by the time of the carbine's capture the upper receiver component, if you will, was attached to the stock assembly with a wire, not winning it any longevity contests.
A piece of wire holds the rear of the receiver to the carbine's stock assembly.  (M.C. Farrington)
The magazine well is not too large, and the actual cartridge that this weapon may have fired is vague.  It could have been anything from one of the small pistol calibers like the Soviet Tokarev, which is 7.62x25mm, or possibly 7.62x39 (which is what the AK-47 fired).  As with most firearms of this type, it is safe to say the weapon was designed around whatever ammunition its makers had the most of.  The capacity of the magazine is also hard to say, though it could be compatible with the 10-round 7.62x54mm Soviet World War II-era SVT-40 magazine.
Ahead of the magazine well as seen from under the carbine, the accession number appears to have originally been added shortly after its incorporation into the NHHC small arms collection. (M.C. Farrington)
All that is clear about this weapon is that it was taken off the battlefield just as the Vietnam War was really heating up, in part due to the dramatic surge and variety of weapons, the majority of them from Chinese factories, made available to the Viet Cong by the relentless logistical effort mounted by the North Vietnamese through the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  After the Viet Cong was largely decimated during the 1968 Tet Offensive, soldiers of the People's Army of Vietnam filtered into the south via the trail to replace them, many of them carrying the North Vietnamese K-50M and the Chinese Type 56, examples of which are also featured in the exhibit.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Necessity was the Mother of Lethality (Part 2): Scrap Wood & Metal Becomes Pistol

Cut off from a reliable source of manufactured goods early in the war thanks in part to U.S. and Republic of Vietnam Navy vigilance, National Liberation Front (also known as Viet Cong) fighters operating in South Vietnam carried primitive firearms such as this single-shot smoothbore pistol, which used a nail as a safety.  It is one of the more unusual weapons featured in the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's exhibit, The 10,000 Day War at Sea, the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1950-1975 .  (Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) collection/ Photograph by M.C. Farrington)
By Thomas Grubbs
Contributing Writer

The 9mm round is the AK47 of the ammunition world. Widely available, it is fired from literally hundreds of firearms, both pistols and submachine guns. It can be found in every armory and most every gun store or arms bazaar on earth. Their ubiquity has made it the go-to caliber for homemade weaponry. The Viet Cong, denied access to traditional sources of weaponry such as foreign imports or in territory factories, naturally turned to manufacturing their own firearms, such as the pistol seen above.

Like the RC Cola grenade, this homemade handgun is a product of necessity. Small arms, like all other types of military materiel, would have to be transported over the difficult land route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail or by sampan along the coast. It would also have to compete for scarce space against other equally important war materiel such as medical supplies or spare parts. Both routes were exposed to American air and sea power, particularly units supporting Operation Market Time, which took a steady toll on supplies traveling down them. Therefore, manufacturing weapons on site in South Vietnam was a much safer and more convenient alternative.

Unfortunately, there were no arms factories supplying Viet Cong forces in South Vietnam. Making weaponry in hidden workshops allowed the Viet Cong to have a source of supply of small arms to be close to the, for lack of a better term, front line yet protected from attack. The pistol’s crude construction from commonly available materials belies its effectiveness: at close range it would be just as effective in killing as a pistol constructed in a factory. In this case, necessity is the mother of invention.

This slightly different view shows a serial number painted onto the grip. (NHHC collection/ Photograph by M.C. Farrington)

Editor's Note: Thomas Grubbs earned a master's degree in military history from Southern New Hampshire University and is currently a park ranger interpreter at Vicksburg National Military Park, Mississippi. His research interest is in the history of the dreadnought battleship. 

This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.