Monday, November 05, 2007

Five Rounds of Machinegun Ammunition

Five Rounds of Machinegun Ammunition

Here in Japan, you cannot, as a rule, find machinegun ammunition in the shops. In fact, the only place in the whole world where I've seen machinegun ammunition on sale is on Crete, when I visited that island back in the 1980s.

By then, the Second World War had been over for decades, but they still had surplus ordnance on sale, including machinegun rounds. Very large, incredibly rusty and as dangerous as all hell. If you're visiting Crete and are attracted by the nifty bang-bang toys they have on sale in the market stalls, put the Devil behind you and Just Say No. Stuff that was designed to go bang will still be able to go bang, even if it's half a century old. And, when it does go bang, you, or someone in your neighborhood, will end up maimed or dead.

The only other place I've seen old ammunition which you could take home as souvenirs was in the Solomon Islands. I was there with a peace time medical mission which was bent on eradicating the skin disease yaws from one particular place (easily done: everyone gets a single shot of benzathine penicillin, and your mission has been accomplished).

We camped by an airstrip built by the Japanese and later used by the Americans, and the whole place was one big junkyard arsenal.

Before we got on the plane to go home, the Regimental Sergeant Major lined us all up and gave us the No Bang Bangs lecture. He was going to be on the same plane, and he didn't want it exploding in midair.

Some time later, I learnt that some guys from my unit had, at considerable risk to their lives, gathered up rotten old Japanese ammunition and had opened it up, had scraped out the explosive, and had put the shell casings in their baggage to take home.

I never even thought of doing such a thing. Not even for a moment.

These memories were stirred when a parcel arrived this morning. Inside were some fragments of bricks; a plate of bone which, at a guess, was from a human skull; and five rounds of ammunition which I took to be for a belt-fed machinegun. To my eye, the caliber looked to be 7.2 millimeters or thereabouts.

The bullets had pretty pink tips which made them look not like rounds of ammunition but lipsticks, so I presumed they were rounds of tracer. When I was training in the Waiouru military base many years ago, I saw machineguns firing tracer at night. Very, very pretty. The machinegun blurts out its message, and the bullets reach out into the night, death's finger stroking for a target, and you see the tracer, caught by the wind, swaying off to one side, yielding to the wind.

Okay. Five rounds. How to get rid of them? Can't put them out with the trash. All our garbage ends up in an incinerator, and if you put unexploded ammunition into an incinerator then it will cook off, and suddenly you're taking incoming fire.

When I was a kid, we spent two years on Ocean Island, one of the Pacific Islands which was overrun by the Japanese during the Great Pacific War. (Ocean Island has these days reverted to its former name, which is Barnaba, and is a part of the free and independent nation of Kiribati (say KIRI-BASS), and is one of those places which are doomed to sink as the oceans rise with Global Warming.)

Just before our family arrived on Barnaba, someone living on the island had been shot dead by a round of old Japanese ammunition which cooked off in a barbecue fire at a beach. So, at the age of six, I got my first (and, in retrospect, my most important) Unexploded Ordenance Is A No-No message.

After some reflection, I wrapped the machinegun rounds in the same Chinese newspapers, put them into an envelope, sealed the envelope, addressed it to AFRICAN UNION FORCES, BAHAI, CHAD, AFRICA, then dropped it into a post office box, without bothering about postage.

Bahai, as I discovered while reading up about Darfur, is a locality in Chad, not far from the border with Darfur.

Okay. Mission accomplished!

Which reminds me that I still have one military mission as yet undone: to hunt down the service records for two of my military ancestors. I have been remiss, and days have ticked by while I have been allowing myself to be distracted by things which are irrelevant to my mission, such as Paris Hilton's curves, the Mobile Light Infantry's recruiting propaganda, and my wife's increasingly hair-raising tales of life as an enslaved brick kiln laborer in Darkest China.

Well. Not tonight, I think. But soon. I will take another shot at it. And see how far I get.

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