In January 1955, United States Marine Corp. Lt. Colonel John Rentsch visited Smith & Wesson President Carl R. Hellstrom to examine the brand new Model 39 9mm pistol. Developed over six years and through 30 prototype changes, the Model 39 was the first double-action, auto-loading pistol manufactured in the United States.
Developed for the military, Uncle decided to stick with the millions of M1911s they had already on hand and do an open-handed shrug at NATO standardization when it came to pistol calibers until 1984, though the M39 did prove popular on the civilian market for years and was one of the best CCW guns of the 1960s and 70s. Just ask Paris Theodore.
Now with the 9mm Sig P320 winning the Army’s MHS competition, and the word that the Navy, Marines and Air Force are likely to tag on to replace their Berettas, it looks like the Devils are going Swiss-German (by way of New Hampshire) moving forward, with S&W being passed over yet again.
However, the Navy did end up using the M39 to one degree or another, in combo with the Hushpuppy Mk 22 suppressor in Vietnam.
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, July 19, 2017: The Belgian sword master and his legacy
Here we see the Butler-class destroyer escort USS Corbesier (DE 438) in an undated photo, likely somewhere in the Pacific in late WWII. She was named after an extremely well-known (for his time) expert with a blade.
“Cutlasses, lads!” was a standard call to prepare to repel boarders going back to the Continental Navy with Colonial armorer Richard Gridley and John Bailey reportedly crafting a number of these curved short swords for Washington’s fleet.
As described by JO2 Meckel in 1957’s “The Cutlass Carved Its Niche in Our Navy’s Annals,” the fledgling U.S. Navy ordered small lots of cutlasses from sword makers Nathan Starr of Middletown, Connecticut; Lewis Prahl of Philadelphia; and Robert Dingie of New York.
Starr later made three different 2,000-cutlass lots in 1808 (for $2.50 each), 1816 ($3.00) and 1826 ($4.25)– talk about inflation! These were needed in large numbers as frigates such as the USS Constitution were authorized no less than 156 cutlasses.
These early swords were later augmented and then replaced by the Ames Cutlass in two variants (1842 and 1860) with the latter, remaining in service amazingly through WWII.
Moving from the Barbary Wars and War of 1812 to the Civil War, the Navy’s love affair with the cutlass remained intact, even as armor plate, steam engines, Gatling repeaters, torpedoes (mines) and rifled naval guns moved combat into modern terms.
With the need to remain trained in these traditional edged weapons, you need a sword master.
Enter one very dapper Antoine Joseph Corbesier, a man skilled at the noble art of attack and parry with a sword.
As noted by DANFS, Corbesier was born 22 January 1837 in Belgium and, after service with the French, emigrated to America.
As described by Fencing Classics, “A brief advertisement in the New York Tribune, from October 19, 1863, places him in New York during the time of the Civil War, where he was a teacher at the New York Fencing Club before opening his own school.”
By 1865, the 28-year-old European fencer was Sword-Master of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and, had made such an impression on the very gruff Admiral David Dixon Porter, then Superintendent, that Porter endorsed Corbesier’s 76-page text on sword fighting published in 1868.
“Principles of Squad Instruction for the Broadsword” soon became the standard tome for the use of naval cutlasses in the U.S. Navy and the influence can be seen for decades, along with other works he produced on the bayonet.
Meanwhile, new ships coming on line, even though they were modern steam vessels lit by electric light, were still given their (reduced) allotment of cutlasses which, in naval tradition, would remain aboard until the ship was removed from the Naval List, ensuring the swords would float around through the Spanish-American War, Great War, and even into WWII.
By special act of Congress, after more than 40 years of instruction at the Academy, Corbesier was given the rank of first lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps 4 March 1913.
He died in the Naval Hospital at Annapolis on 26 March 1915, where he lived at the time.
His obituary ran in several nautical journals of the day, the below from Seven Seas Magazine.
Even with the great swordsman gone, the Navy kept the cutlass on tap, and they continued to see service in far flung ports when needed, even apparently being broken out once or twice in China as late as the 1930s.
On the eve of the Great War, the Navy attempted to replace the Civil War-era Ames Cutlass with the new M1917 Naval Cutlass, based on the Dutch Klewang boarding sword, though its adoption seems more miss than hit.
Then came this:
JJ55-3/1510, 15 October 1942
ACTION: ALL SHIPS AND STATIONS
1.Officers of the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, shall no longer be required to possess swords as part of their uniform equipment.
2.The various uniform regulations will be modified accordingly.
3.It is expected that a form of dirk will, in due course, be adopted as uniform equipment in lieu of the sword.
4.Due to the urgent need for metals, it is suggested that officers, who may so desire, turn in their swords for scrap.-SecNav. Frank Knox.
This order, as noted by NHHC Curator Mark Wertheimer in 2003, did not affect cutlasses still in unit and vessel armories, and they “remained an ordnance allowance item until 1949” indeed, being done away with in by NavOrd Inst. 4500-1 in November 1949. Reportedly, some Marines even carried them ashore in the Pacific for use as machetes during the jungle fighting of WWII.
However, the swordsman may have been gone, and his weapons headed for the literal scrap heap, but he was not forgotten.
On 11 November 1943 at Dravo shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware, a Cannon-class destroyer escort was named USS Corbesier (DE-106) in his honor. She went on to be commissioned as the Free French Naval ship Sénégalais (T-22) on 2 January 1944, which is fitting to a degree based on Corbesier’s French military service in the days of Napoleon III.
Sénégalais went on to seriously damage German submarine U-371 just five months after she was taken over by the French, taking a German homing torpedo in the exchange.
The French ship went on to serve that Navy until 1965, being scrapped in Germany.
Meanwhile, a second USS Corbesier, (DE-438), a John C. Butler-class destroyer escort, was launched in 1944 by Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., Kearny, N.J. Commissioned 31 March 1944, she sailed for the Pacific and performed ASW missions and general escort duties.
On 23 January 1945, with sisters Conklin (DE-439) and Raby (DE-698), Corbesier sank the Japanese submarine I-48 off Yap Island.
23 January 1945:
15 miles NE of Yap Island. At 0310, USS CORBESIER (DE-438) makes a radar contact at about 9,800 yds. The target is heading 210 degrees at 18 kts. After CORBESIER closes to investigate, I-48 dives. At 0336, CORBESIER obtains a sound contact and fires a salvo of Mk.10 “Hedgehog” projector charges but misses. CONKLIN and RABY (DE-698) join the chase. CORBESIER makes five more Hedgehog attacks, all with negative results, finally, losing the contact.
At 0902, CORBESIER regains contact and executes another “Hedgehog” attack, again with negative results. At 0912, CORBESIER reestablishes sound contact with the sub, but loses it before an attack can be made. CONKLIN makes a new “Hedgehog” attack at 0934, from a distance of 550 yds. Seventeen seconds later, four or five explosions are heard from an estimated depth of 175 ft. At 0936, a violent explosion occurs, temporarily disabling CONKLIN’s engines and steering gear. Huge air bubbles come up alongside; soon thereafter oil and debris surface. Large quantities of human remains are likewise sighted.
17 miles N of Yap. A motor whaleboat from CONKLIN picks up pieces of planking, splintered wood, cork, interior woodwork with varnished surfaces, a sleeve of a knitted blue sweater containing flesh, chopsticks and a seaman’s manual. I-48 is sunk with her 118-strong crew and four kaiten pilots at 09-55N, 138-17.30E
It wasn’t gentlemanly swordplay, but it was no less deadly.
Corbesier went on to serve off Okinawa, parrying attacks from Japanese kamikaze off Okinawa. She completed the war with two battle stars, and berthed at San Diego, was decommissioned in 1946. She was scrapped in 1972.
The Navy has not named another vessel after Adm. Porter’s sword master.
They did bring back the officer’s dress sword in 1952, in 2011 CPOs were granted the authority to carry a mil-spec cutlass on certain occasions, and today the (ceremonial) use of the sword is instilled in the Marine’s Corporal’s Course, so there is that.
And yes, there are still a few old-school Ames-style cutlasses around, which would warm Corbesier’s heart.
And of course, if you are passing through the Naval Academy, stop by the Cemetery and Columbarium, and visit Lot 394 to pay your respects.
Yet, “If the Army and the Navy Ever look on Heaven’s scenes; They will find the streets are guarded By United States Marines,” holds true, the swordsman may still be holding class.
Displacement: 1,350/1,745 tons
Length: 306 ft. (93 m) overall
Beam: 36 ft. 10 in (11.23 m)
Draught: 13 ft. 4 in (4.06 m) maximum
Propulsion: 2 boilers, 2 geared turbine engines, 12,000 shp, 2 screws
Speed: 24 knots (44 km/h)
Range: 6,000 nmi at 12 knots (22 km/h)
Complement: 14 officers, 201 enlisted
2 × 5 in (130 mm)
4 × 40 mm AA (2 × 2)
10 × 20 mm guns AA
3 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes
1 × Hedgehog
8 × K-gun depth charge projectors
2 × depth charge tracks
(though likely no cutlasses)
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On July 12, 1965, Lt. Frank Reasoner of the 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, led by U.S.M.C. became the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor for action in Vietnam. Reasoner repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, killed two Viet Cong, single-handedly wiped out an enemy machine gun emplacement, and raced through enemy fire to rescue his injured radio operator. Trying to rally his men, Reasoner was hit by enemy machine gun fire and was killed instantly. For this action, Reasoner was nominated for America’s highest award for valor.
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving as Commanding Officer, Company A, 3d Reconnaissance Battalion, 3d Marine Division in action against hostile Viet Cong forces near Danang, Vietnam on 12 July 1965. The reconnaissance patrol led by First Lieutenant Reasoner had deeply penetrated heavily controlled enemy territory when it came under extremely heavy fire from an estimated 50 to 100 Viet Cong insurgents. Accompanying the advance party and the point that consisted of five men, he immediately deployed his men for an assault after the Viet Cong had opened fire from numerous concealed positions. Boldly shouting encouragement, and virtually isolated from the main body, he organized a base of fire for an assault on the enemy positions. The slashing fury of the Viet Cong machine gun and automatic weapons fire made it impossible for the main body to move forward. Repeatedly exposing himself to the devastating attack he skillfully provided covering fire, killing at least two Viet Cong and effectively silencing an automatic weapons position in a valiant attempt to effect evacuation of a wounded man. As casualties began to mount his radio operator was wounded and First Lieutenant Reasoner immediately moved to his side and tended his wounds. When the radio operator was hit a second time while attempting to reach a covered position, First Lieutenant Reasoner courageously running to his aid through the grazing machine gun fire fell mortally wounded. His indomitable fighting spirit, valiant leadership and unflinching devotion to duty provided the inspiration that was to enable the patrol to complete its mission without further casualties. In the face of almost certain death, he gallantly gave his life in the service of his country. His actions upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
Thank you for your service, Lt. Reasoner.
PACIFIC OCEAN (June 9, 2017) An AV-8B Harrier assigned to the “Tomcats” of Marine Attack Squadron 311 takes off from the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) while underway in the Pacific Ocean. During the flight the Harrier’s pilot fired the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS), a laser-guided rocket, for the first time in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
The Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System turns a standard unguided 2.75-inch (70 millimeter) rocket into a precision laser-guided rocket to give warfighters a low-cost surgical strike capability. The Tomcats are the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit’s fixed-wing attack asset and are attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), the 31st MEU’s Aviation Combat Element. The 31st MEU partners with the Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 11 to form amphibious component of the Bonhomme Richard Expeditionary Strike group.
(U.S. Marine Corps video by Lance Cpl. Garett Burns/Released) 170609-M-DC758-001
Official caption: “1/8 Marines move up to the front lines to relieve Marines from 3/6, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. USMC Photo May 8 1965.” Note the M14s, canvassed mortar tube, two cases of mortar shells, and the box of C-rats.
The M274 Mechanical Mule was one of the smallest military vehicles priced. It was intended to move casualties of supplies in jungle terrain where even a jeep couldn’t go, or for airborne units where it could be helicoptered or airdropped. 11,000 were built between 1956 and 1970. The steering column could be tilted right down, allowing it to be “driven” in reverse by a man crawling behind it. Despite its complete lack of armor, it could be used to mount heavy weapons up to the 106mm recoilless, though it was intended merely to move them from place to place.
Caption: Locating a Sniper—A rifle squad from Company “D,” 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, searches for a sniper firing at the position inside the International Safety Zone in Santo Domingo. Note the M1 helmets, Korean War style flak vests and M-14.
The action in the Dominican Republic was not the pushover some often chalk it up to. In the end, Johnson lamented ordering troops into action there. The below doc from the invasion is surprisingly gritty, and directly addresses the sniper problem in the above photo.
3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, “the Golden Brigade,” arriving for their time in Vietnam in early 1968. Note everybody taking advantage of “smoke em if you got em,” as well as the camo M1 covers, M16A1s, several 173rd ABN Brigade combat patches, and heavy distribution of M79 bloop guns.
Reminds me of this passage from a book that I was pleased to see on my son’s reading list, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried,
In addition to the three standard weapons–the M-60, M-16, and M-79–they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemed appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They carried catch-as-catch-can. At various times, in various situations, they carried M-14s and CAR-15s and Swedish Ks and grease guns and captured AK-47s and Chi-Coms and RPGs and Simonov carbines and black market Uzis and .38-caliber Smith & Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAWs and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C4 plastic explosives.
Lee Strunk carried a slingshot; a weapon of last resort, he called it. Mitchell Sanders carried brass knuckles. Kiowa carried his grandfather’s feathered hatchet. Every third or fourth man carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine–3.5 pounds with its firing device. They all carried fragmentation grenades–14 ounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smoke grenade–24 ounces. Some carried CS or tear gas grenades. Some carried white phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”