Military Weapons from the Past: Americas First Rolling Armored “Shotgun”


A weird little Marine Corps tank blasted North Vietnamese troops

Designed and built in a farm tractor factory and armed with six 106-millimeter recoilless rifles, the M-50A1 Ontos was rejected by the Army and only purchased in small numbers by the Marine Corps. Years later in Vietnam, the USMC trained infantry riflemen to drive these vehicles, nicknamed “Things,” down the roads and into the bush to scare the living daylights out of the North Vietnamese.

Michael Scudder and the veterans of the 1st Anti-Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, and the 3rd Anti-Tank Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, have left us a fascinating body of lore about the development and deployment of the Ontos, which Pres. John F. Kennedy once dubbed a “weird little bugger.” More than just another zany mid-century weapon, the story of the M-50A1 offers a powerful lesson in adaptation.

The Ontos (“thing” in ancient Greek) was proposed at the end of the Korean War as an air-transportable anti-tank vehicle for the U.S. Army and Marine Corps.

As an armored vehicle the Thing had its charms and its challenges. Scudder, a former hot-rodder prior to joining the Marines, noted the “the engine/transmission combination reminded me of the highly modified hydromatic transmissions being used on the drag strips of the early 1960s.”

At only nine tons, the Ontos could handle rice paddies and muddy roads with its wide farm-boy treads, and although lightly armored, it was tough enough to take light gunfire while maneuvering to position.

In addition to .50-caliber spotting machine guns it mounted a remote-controlled Browning Automatic Rifle, but it was the six big sticks of whoop-ass that gave the Thing its real teeth. During acceptance tests at Aberdeen Proving Ground all six 106-millimeter recoilless rifles were fired at once — blowing bricks from buildings and windows from cars nearby.

Above — an Ontos at Tet in 1968. Brian Ross photo. At top — An Ontos in Vietnam. Photo via Wikimedia

Its interior could barely contain the three Marines needed to drive, load, shoot and command the weapon, and like other lightly armored vehicles, the Ontos was a bad place to be if it struck a mine. Its tracks were cumbersome to maintain and spare parts were a constant concern; many Things gave their lives to keep their fellows in the fight.

Then there was the matter of reloading in the field; harsh language often filled the interior when the loader was ordered out of the vehicle to perform his duty. Although the recoilless rifles gave off huge clouds of smoke when fired, its employment as convoy escort and bunker-buster made its visibility less of an issue.

Obsolete upon arrival as a lightweight tank-killer, the Ontos marked time in the USMC inventory until 1965 when they were deployed first to the Dominican Republic, then to Vietnam.

There it was the Marine riflemen and the company-level officers who learned how to use the weird little tank. “Ontos crews were pulled from the Marine infantry battalions to learn the trades of gunners, radiomen, mechanics and tacticians,” Scudder wrote. “Some crewmen were motor transport or track maintenance trained, but most were more likely to be former riflemen.”

Repurposed in the field, the Ontos became one Hell of an infantry support weapon: “[T]he beehive round […] sent out a hundred darts per firing to clean out a jungle of its enemy. There was no other weapon that could clear a jungle for a depth of a quarter mile … It was an armored shotgun and the North Vietnamese Army feared it.”

Parked in bunkers at Khe Sanh, the Things had a hand in repulsing a major ground attack. During the Tet Offensive they also proved to be lethal street fighters. “The Ontos was knocking out NVA positions [in Hue] with each firing,” Scudder wrote. “They learned that they could force the NVA from some of the buildings by firing the M-8 .50-caliber spotting rifle through the windows and thus notifying the NVA that their demise was near. The Ontos did in a short time what the artillery and air units couldn’t.”

The grunts’ improvised success with the Ontos echoed an earlier Pacific War adaptation. In 1944 the 776th Tank Battalion transformed itself into a field artillery group to support the assault on Leyte Island in the Philippines.

Amtanks equipped with 75-millimeter howitzers provided both direct and indirect fire support to infantry without sacrificing their amphibious capabilities. Indeed, the 776th made both the longest waterborne end-run — 100 miles — and the longest movement across open sea — 38 miles.

The ultimate proof of a weapon’s effectiveness is its impact on the enemy. If Marine commanders had little love for the Ontos, the NVA had even less: again and again the Ontos crewmen interviewed by Scudder emphasized the fear the North Vietnamese had of the Ontos and the care they took to avoid contact with them.

Like old soldiers, the Ontos just faded away; after four years of battle they were worn out and abandoned by 1970. Some were sold as surplus but most were junked; a very few wound up on display. Today there are more remaining tanks from World War I than there are Things from the jungle.

Read the Original Article at War is Boring

Military History: The U.S. Navy’s “Douche” Boat Washed Away Viet-Cong Bunkers


In the early morning hours of June 10, 1969, U.S. Navy vessels sailed down a stretch of the Vam Co Dong River in South Vietnam. The force included a special weapon sailors called a “douche boat,” which could literally wash away Viet Cong fortifications.

“My assigned mission was to search out and destroy … bunkers, spider holes, trenches, booby traps and cashes [sic],” retired Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate Ray Longaker, Jr., who served for a time as commander of both of these craft, wrote in a message posted at “My crew and I did just that.”

 Over the course of the June mission, the sailors on the boat blasted more than 20 bunkers and other fighting positions and safely tripped a number of booby traps. Over the next five days, the craft nearly tripled those figures after two more missions on the Vam Co Dong.

And they did all this primarily with a high-pressure water cannon rather than some sort of gun or more traditional weapon.


In 1966, American and South Vietnamese forces were fighting for control of the Southeast Asian nation’s rivers and canals. Communist guerrillas routinely built fortifications and traps along vital routes to harass government forces and commercial shipping.

“The Viet Cong was … choking off the flow of rice to market,” according to an official U.S. Army history of the riverine campaign. “Far from being ‘totally cleared of Communist forces,’ … the delta was more than ever under Viet Cong control.”

In response, the top American command in South Vietnam proposed the ground and sailing branches partner up to take back control of these inland waterways. Better prepared for major battles on the open seas, the Navy quickly developed a fleet of smaller craft suited to this entirely different kind of warfare.

The sailing branch purchased newly designed river patrol and assault support boats to hunt down the enemy and patrol the brown waters. Command ships carried communications gear to coordinate the missions.

n addition, technicians converted World War II-era landing craft into armored warboats bristling with machine guns, cannons mortars, howitzers and even flame throwers. The biggest types were called “monitors” in reference to the American Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

Other old landing craft became transports to ferry Army and South Vietnamese soldiers up and down the rivers. Some boats had helipads and medical facilities to treat troops wounded in battle.

But Viet Cong rockets, recoilless rifles and underwater mines were still a serious threat. The militants made homemade mines in a variety of sizes using whatever materials were available. American forces captured examples made out of sheet metal packed with nearly 290 pounds of TNT — more than enough to blow apart the relatively thin-skinned river boats.

“Booby traps consisting of hand grenades or B-40 [rocket] rounds with trip wires were discovered along paths from V.C. bunkers to the river,” an official Navy history recalled of one river mission. “Other booby traps were found which were designed to detonate as boats beached along the shore.”

And hidden inside mud bunkers reinforced with logs, insurgents were well-shielded from attacks. The earthworks often simply absorbed the explosive force of large caliber artillery shells and air-dropped bombs.

Enter the douche boats.

Read the Remainder at War is Boring

The Bad-Ass Files: Donald Blackburn, Unconventional Warrior


“With a regiment of nearly 5,000 guerrillas at his back, Blackburn began a campaign that systematically destroyed the Japanese 14th Army within the Cagayan Valley.”

THE FIRES ON Bataan burned with a primitive fury on the evening of April 9, 1942, illuminating the white flags of surrender against the nighttime sky.

Woefully outnumbered, outgunned, and ill-equipped, the battered remnants of the American-Philippine army surrendered to the wrath of the Rising Sun. Yet among the chaos and devastation of the American defeat, U.S. Army Captain Donald D. Blackburn refused to lay down his arms.

Together with fellow captain Russell Volckmann, he escaped into the mountainous jungles of North Luzon. The two soon raised a private army of over 22,000 men against the Japanese.

“Blackburn’s Headhunters”

The Cagayan campaign received a boost in 1944 with the arrival of the Sixth U.S. Army. A composite unit known as Task Force Baker (consisting of elements from the 6th Ranger Battalion and the 510th Engineers) rendezvoused with Blackburn’s men in June 1945 and together the two forces cleared the Japanese from Aparri, the largest enemy-held seaport on the Luzon.With a regiment of nearly 5,000 guerrillas to start with, Blackburn began a campaign that systematically destroyed the Japanese 14th Army within the Cagayan Valley. He launched his insurgency by eliminating Japanese spies in the towns along the Cagayan River. With the enemy’s “fifth column” neutralized, his growing force mounted raids on Japanese garrisons, supply depots, and fuel dumps throughout the region.

As the Pacific War drew to a close, the Sixth transferred its authority over the island to the Eighth Army. Blackburn’s Headhunters, as they became known, were given one final mission. By late summer 1945, the Japanese in North Luzon were in disarray. Desperate to make a last stand, a small Japanese force under generals Kizo Mikami and Yutaka Marauka built a defensive perimeter around the town of Mayayao. Eighth Army’s XIV Corps feared that the contingent would disrupt the U.S. 6th Division’s supply lines. Blackburn was ordered to wipe out the enemy.

From July 15 until Aug. 9, 1945, under the cover of mortar attacks and P-38 Lighting air strikes, Blackburn’s men stormed the Japanese redoubts and pacified their defenses. A few days later, he received the greatest news he’d heard in four years: Japan had surrendered; the war was over. While discussing terms of surrender with Blackburn’s headquarters, Mikami’s chief of staff produced a map of Japanese forces in the Cagayan Valley. A red circle had been drawn around the location of Blackburn’s own HQ. But if the Japanese knew where the American-Filipino army was located, why didn’t they attack it? “Too many guerrillas,” the enemy officer replied. Based on the frequency and ferocity of the guerrilla raids, Mikami estimated that Blackburn must have had at least 10,000 fighters under his command. “I never had more than two battalions (about 3,000 men total) at one time,” he revealed. The enemy officer was speechless.

Read the Remainder at Military History Now



Psychological Warfare Files: Ghost Tape #10 and Operation Wandering Soul


“Vietnamese legends held that on the anniversary of a person’s death, a spiritual channel between our world and the afterlife can open making communication possible. Was this just such a phenomenon?”


JUST AFTER dusk on the night of Feb. 10, 1970, the jungles near the U.S. Army’s Fire Support Base Chamberlain in Hau Niga Province, South Vietnam came to life with a cacophony of spine chilling sounds. Mournful wailing, sobbing, and baleful shrieks filled the air — unearthly sounds that seemed to be coming from everywhere, but nowhere in particular.

And amid the blood curdling chorus was a clearly audible warning:

“My friends,” pleaded a disembodied voice from across the darkness, “I have come back to let you know that I am dead… I am dead!”

“It’s hell… I’m in hell!” it continued in Vietnamese. “Don’t end up like me. Go home, friends, before it’s too late!”

The eerie warning was followed by a chorus of other strange sounds: banging gongs sobbing women and a shrieking child’s voice calling for her father.

To the Viet Cong soldiers hiding in blackness beyond the American perimeter, these otherworldly could have been the wandering souls of departed comrades. According to local folklore, the sprits of the dead that were not returned home for proper burial were cursed to walk the earth in torment until their remains were found and properly interned. Vietnamese legends held that on the anniversary of the death of one of these wayward phantoms, a spiritual channel between our world and the afterlife can open making communication possible.

Were these chilling sounds just such a phenomenon? Were they spirits of the dead of some past battle reaching out to the living? Perhaps to the communist guerrillas listening it seemed that way.

The reality was something much less fantastic.

Read the Remainder at Military History Now