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Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms

The stories behind the guns are as fascinating as the guns themselves.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms

Private Masao Takeda rolled himself into a ball in the corner of his dark cave and felt the earth move to the incessant deafening impact of American naval gunfire. He had served with the 14th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army for thirteen months, one of which had been spent in this wretched hellhole. He had seen his commander Colonel Kunio Nakagawa twice during the brutal weeks of preparation before the Americans had arrived.

Nakagawa was a talented strategist fully committed to the Imperial cause. Nakagawa was likely dead by now along with most of the other Japanese defenders of this god-­forsaken rock. Takeda had endured the naval gunfire and air strikes for three full days, and he now began to question his sanity.

The island comprised a mere six square miles of real estate, but the U.S. Navy had made it the focus of seven cruisers, five battleships, and nineteen aircraft carriers. However, Nakagawa had done his planning well so relatively few Japanese soldiers were lost to this otherworldly bombardment. They had, like Takeda, been squirreled away deep in the honeycombed caves that perfused the mountains. It was cutting these caves that had occupied the 14th Division in the torrid weeks leading up to the invasion. What made it different now, however, was that this bombardment would be followed by men.

Marines on the ground meant tanks, flamethrowers, and a limitless supply of hand grenades. He could hear the chaos as each sequential hard-­point fell to the American Leathernecks. Now they were close, and Takeda knew it was time.


Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
The War in the Pacific was a brutal pitiless thing fought in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Islands frequently had to be wrested from the Japanese by the yard.

He choked on the dust that had risen from the shelling, coughing in the darkness. Straightening his glasses, he could just make out the pile of lifeless flesh near the cave opening that had recently been his squad mates. They had not been quite quick enough moving into the rear of the cave when the first shell screeched in. Takeda was alone.


The shelling stopped, and Masao Takeda pulled himself to his feet. He filled the pockets of his blouse with hand grenades and cracked the action of his Type 99 Arisaka bolt action service rifle to ensure he had a round chambered. Creeping carefully past what remained of his friends he squinted into the brilliant sunlight. Perhaps fifty meters away he could see the dull green figures of American Marines moving carefully toward him. Resting his rifle across the broken wheel of the disabled 47mm field gun that had recently been his mission to operate, Takeda slipped off the safety and drew a careful bead on the lead Marine.

The recoil from the heavy rifle knocked him back slightly, and he saw a puff of dust on the man’s jacket. Opening the action quickly he was surprised to see the muzzle of a Browning Automatic Rifle penetrate the mouth of the cave unexpectedly. He had time to raise his rifle involuntarily and scream before the big gun chewed him to pieces.

Lance Corporal Herman Parsons from Salinas, Kansas, dropped the empty magazine from his BAR and replaced it with a fresh box. The late afternoon sun illuminated most of the cave. He could see no further movement. The “Jap” he had killed had flung his rifle forward reflexively as he died, and the weapon rested, bolt open, at an awkward angle at the cave’s mouth.

Marines on the ground meant tanks, flamethrowers, and a limitless supply of hand grenades. He could hear the chaos as each sequential hard-­point fell to the American Leathernecks. Now they were close, and Takeda knew it was time.


Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
The Imperial Japanese Army ravaged China, the Philippines, and most of the Western Pacific before Allied forces shoved them all the way back to their home islands.

Parsons’ Platoon Sergeant was calling for a hasty defensive perimeter to bed down for the night. Parsons hefted the Japanese weapon, still warm, by its muzzle. Holding it up to the light he saw the bolt left open and two places where his rounds had creased the gun before they killed its previous owner. Parsons grinned. If he survived the next twenty-­four hours the shot-­up Jap rifle would make a great souvenir.

History

The amphibious invasion of Peleliu was supposed to take four days. Fully securing the island ultimately required two months of vicious close combat. The operation claimed the lives of 2,336 Americans and left another 8,450 seriously wounded. Of the 11,000 Japanese defenders on the island only 305 survived. The island’s small airstrip never played a particularly strategic role in the ultimate campaign that defeated the Japanese Empire, so the invasion of Peleliu was not covered extensively by the media. There were only four reporters present for the entire operation. The Battle for Peleliu has been described as the “Bitterest Battle of the War” for the US Marines who were there.

The Japanese defending the island had learned a great deal from previous defeats at places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Guam. Instead of attempting to hold the landing beaches they allowed US forces to come ashore and then engaged them from carefully prepared defensive positions inland that were sited in depth. They had filled the rocky hills with tunnels and made good use of natural terrain. The result was a bloodbath for both sides.


The Japanese 14th Division had been drawn from occupation duty in Manchukuo, China, mere weeks earlier to face the American onslaught on Peleliu. Their weapons were typical of those used by IJA Infantry units in 1944. The primary Infantry rifle used during this period was the Arisaka Type 99.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
The Japanese Arisaka Type 99 was an evolutionary improvement on the earlier Type 38 bolt-action Infantry rifle.

An Underappreciated Combat Tool

The Arisaka Type 99 was also known as the Type 99 Short Rifle in IJA parlance. An evolutionary development of the previous Type 38, the Type 99 was thoroughly redesigned to accept a more powerful cartridge. Where the Type 38 fired a modest 6.5x50mm round, the Type 99 fed larger 7.7x58mm cartridges. During postwar evaluations by the NRA, the Type 99 Arisaka was found to be the strongest bolt-­action rifle design of any used during the war.

Early Type 99 rifles included such niceties as a sliding sheet steel action cover, a folding wire monopod, and fascinating folding antiaircraft sights. As the war progressed and the effects of focused allied bombing took their toll on domestic production such stuff was incrementally deleted. Last Ditch guns produced at the end of the war were absolutely Spartan, sporting a fixed rear sight, unfinished steel, crude manufacture, and a wooden buttplate held on with nails.

The Japanese produced the Type 99 from 1939 until 1945 at nine different arsenals, two of which were outside Japan. More than 3.5 million copies rolled off the lines before Japanese industry was pummeled into oblivion. The Type 99 fed from a five-­round internal fixed magazine and was loaded from the top via stripper clips.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
Early Type 99 rifles included a delightfully complicated antiaircraft sight that was supposed to aid in determining lead on a moving aircraft.

Stories Forgotten and Tales Lost

I actually paid a premium to acquire this shot-­up old Type 99. The rifle came without a bolt from a gentleman who had taken the gun in trade. The original story of its combat usage and capture have been lamentably lost to history. The spot of fiction that introduced this piece was simply my best effort at recreating something plausible to fit the details.

This rifle caught two .30-­caliber rounds directed downward from the top. One round passed perfectly between the receiver and the sidewall of the stock, taking a substantial chunk of the stock with it. This bullet would have undoubtedly torn away the extractor had the bolt been closed at the time. I presume this was the reason the bolt on this specimen was missing. The second round creased the outside of the stock, leaving a deep burned furrow along its track.

The rifle is in otherwise fine shape and would likely be fireable had I a death wish. The cleaning rod and sheet steel action cover are both missing, but the complicated antiaircraft sight is intact. The steel action covers rattled in practical use and were frequently discarded as a result. I have gathered several Arisaka rifles for my personal collection over the years and have only found one that still sported the original action cover and cleaning rod. Interestingly, that specimen was a Type 38 captured by a GI in combat in Korea in the 1950’s.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms

The trigger mechanism and magazine on this damaged Type 99 still work just fine. Additionally, there does not appear to be any damage to the bolt raceway. This leads me to believe that the rifle might have been struck with the bolt in the open position.

The geometry of the damage is quite thought provoking. Both rounds followed the same vector and are a mere half-­inch apart. This intimates either some exceptionally fine marksmanship or, more likely, a burst from an automatic weapon like a Browning Automatic Rifle or a 1919 machinegun. The fact that the rifle was struck from the top likely just speaks to the chaotic nature of combat. As one might expect given the provenance of the gun, the Imperial chrysanthemum is otherwise unmolested and the markings are crisp.

Musings

I am drawn to guns because they are such elegant little machines. I collect military weapons because they are tangible connections to some extraordinary times. To possess such a relic as this is a privilege.

Reading about military history is one thing, but to hold the weapons used during these sordid periods drives home the reality of what those old guys went through better than might any book. Some young Japanese soldier likely died clutching this battle-­damaged Type 99 Arisaka rifle. An American soldier of roughly the same age likely brought it home as a souvenir of what was ultimately the most exciting time in his life. Combat veterans with whom I have spoken invariably admit that, despite the horrors of war, such experiences defined their lives going forward.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
We took very few Japanese POWs during the brutal fighting that characterized the War in the Pacific. Out of 11,000 Japanese defenders on the island of Peleliu only 305 survived.

The American Deep South is littered with abandoned German POW camps. There are, by contrast, precious few that housed Japanese soldiers. Japanese soldiers were expected to die honorably for their emperor, and American soldiers strived mightily to help them out in that regard. Ultimately Colonel Nakagawa, the architect of the Japanese defense of Peleliu, committed ritual suicide, while most of his troops fell to American guns, bombs, and napalm.

The hardships I endured as a soldier pale in comparison to what our young studs went through in places like Bastogne, Monte Cassino, Fallujah, Helmand Province, and Peleliu. However, the friendships I cultivated while in uniform set the standard for all others. The brotherhood of warriors is a holy thing that is difficult to describe to those who have not had the privilege of experiencing it. In this beat-­up old Type 99 rifle we see all the horror, pathos, victory, pain, and defeat intrinsic to modern war. In its own mute way this old rifle tells its own remarkable story.

Life, Fate, and Chance

Millions of high velocity bullets and fragments scythe across the battlefield during the course of modern combat operations. Each weapon is designed to rip the life out of enemy combatants as quickly and efficiently as possible. In their ultimate effects we can divine some of the most remarkable pathos.

A friend was a decorated Infantry officer during the Korean War. One evening his unit was pulled out of the line and sent to the rear to receive brand new flak jackets. These armored vests were bulky and heavy but radical additions to the US grunt’s loadout. They spent the evening in the rear taking advantage of some hot chow and a little unmolested sleep before rucking up the following morning and heading back to the front.

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms
This is a high-mileage M4 bayonet designed to fit an M1 Carbine. The German 9mm bullet imbedded on the grip tells a poignant story.

Early that morning my buddy caught a .303 round to the chest from a Chinese sniper armed with a British No. 4 sniper rifle. The round struck him in the 1911A1 pistol he carried in a shoulder holster before deflecting straight for his heart. His spanking new flak jacket stopped the round and saved his life. His troops ultimately killed the sniper and identified the rifle.

A local buddy recently showed me a high-­mileage bayonet a friend had given him. The knife is tired throughout showing the stigmata of obvious hard use. A detailed inspection shows that it is a standard M4 bayonet for an M1 Carbine. All my buddy knows is that it was brought back from combat in Europe during World War 2.

The hilt of the bayonet sports a German 9mm bullet wedged between the leather disks that make up the handle. The German round punched through the steel of the knife and stayed there. If it didn’t save the life of its previous owner it did at the very least save him from much more grievous injury. It is in little things like these that we can come to appreciate the profound power of random.

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