Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2012, 6:00 am

Weapons of war don't fade away

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By Marlene Gantt

"Old Soldiers Never Die (they just fade away)," according to the song written by Frank Westpahl in 1951 about the dismissal of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

The weapons of war, however, do not necessarily fade away. Reconditioned ordnance and machinery from WWI stored at the Rock Island Arsenal and the Savanna depot were said to have saved Britain after the Battle of Dunkirk during WWII. British, French and Belgian troops were cut off by the German army during the battle at Dunkirk, France. Miraculously Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk by British ships.

The evacuation went on from May 27 to the early hours of June 4, 1940. An order came to the Rock Island Arsenal to ship ordnance material and machinery at once by rail to be put on ships for Britain. Fortunately the Arsenal had received a grant of $385,000 in 1934 for overhauling WWI rifles and guns as a preparedness measure, according to the Rock Island Argus.

After WWI ordnance material and machinery swamped the Arsenal from the battlefields, camps and factories according to the Argus. Hundreds of train loads of weapons arrived monthly. The returned equipment was cleaned, labeled and sorted. After it overflowed the warehouses, employees put it out in the open. It covered many acres on the island and the Savanna proving grounds.

During the reconditioning that began in 1934, Arsenal employment rose from 1,200 to about 2,500. Many of the guns had not been touched since the 1920s. One phase of the operation was modernization of .30 and .50 caliber WWI machine guns to qualify for modern methods of warfare, according to The Daily Dispatch.

The guns were adapted into heavier weapons for use against tanks and low-flying airplanes. Many were to be used as part of the armament of tanks and scout cars. "Originally the guns were water cooled and the transformation consisted of substituting heavier but smaller air-cooled barrels for existing barrels and water-cooling packets. These WWI Brownings with modifications were two-man weapons, fed by cartridge belts," said The Dispatch.

The shipment for England was completed 16 days after the order was received, according to Col. Carl A. Walkman, commanding officer of the Arsenal. It included 1.2 million Lee Enfield and Springfield rifles, 70,250 light machine guns, 17,200 Vickers and Browning medium machine guns, 25,000 Browning semiautomatic rifles, 300 Stokes mortars and 993 75-millimeter field guns according to the British War Office. Ammunition included 140,000,000 rounds for the rifles and machine guns, 1,300,000 rounds for revolvers and 1,000,000 75-millimeter shells.

Efforts were made to obtain only boxcars for the shipment, but much of it had to leave on flatcars, visible to people along the right-of-way. Nevertheless, the greater part of the supplies arrived despite the great menace of German submarines in 1940. It was estimated that the British paid $40 million for the Rock Island supplies. Deliveries were completed between July and November in 1940. The weapons equipped the British home guard anti-air-craft and coast defense units.

These arms were used by the British until more modern weapons could be supplied. Then WWI guns were used by the allies to equip Free French forces. At least 22,000 Browning automatic rifles and 7,000 Browning medium machine guns were returned to the U.S., according to the Argus.

"Arms and ammunition sent from the United States, mostly from the Rock Island Arsenal, formed the only real protection between England and doom through German invasion after the British were defeated at Dunkirk in 1940, according to a story from London by E.R. Noderer printed in the Chicago Tribune. "When the history of the Second World War is written in detail," commented George Wickstrom, Argus writer, "it may be said that the weapons which came from Rock Island had a major role in saving civilization."

More than 100 WWI six-ton tanks stored at the Arsenal for several years were shipped to Canada during 1940 for training purposes. The tanks could only go four or five miles per hour. Early in WWII, the British had both heavy and light tanks. At the time of the Arsenal shipment in 1940, the fastest moving British tank was the Cruiser. It had a road speed of 26 mph and an off-road speed of 15 mph.

(MacArthur was relieved of his command for making public statements that contradicted the administration's policies. He was a popular hero of WWII who was commander of the United Nations forces fighting in the Korean War in 1951 when he lost his command.)
Marlene Gantt of Port Byron is a former Rock Island school teacher.