Fightin’ Iron: Johnson LMG for Airborne Marines?

Fightin’ Iron: Johnson LMG for Airborne Marines?


The Johnson light machine gun showed up in many surprising places, including Italy in 1944, with select elite units.

Almost 40 years ago, I wrote a story about a special type of gun much loved by the Marines of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. In fact, the story was about several special battalions of the United States Marine Corps and the special firearms they were adamant they had to have. Much of my information for this story came from conversations with the commander, who was a wartime veteran of the 2nd Parachute Battalion. Just as the monster of World War II begins to loom over the horizon, it becomes clear that the Marines will be fighting on thousands of islands in the Pacific, and that their enemy will be the tough and experienced soldiers of the Empire of Japan. One thing was certain. In some cases, there were small-scale battles on small islands with radio stations and other facilities. Other battles may take place in locations so large that they require thousands of troops. In addition to regular infantry regiments supporting artillery, the Marines formed small battalions of assault troops and parachute infantry units. In the case of the parachute Marines, the plan for their use included dropping men at low altitude directly over enemy defensive positions.

Naturally, paratroopers wanted a gun that could be deployed quickly. Common infantry rifles could also be used, but they were heavy and fairly slow to operate. However, a set of ideal firearms does exist and was developed by the United States Marine Corps. Marine Corps Reserve Officer Melvin Johnson designed, developed, and manufactured battle rifles as well as light machine guns. By the way, the Johnson light machine gun (LMG) has more in common with his BAR than with the Browning LMG. More importantly, Johnson is several pounds lighter than either of these Browning products. Manufactured at Johnson’s New England factory, the Johnson LMG was used by various U.S. and allied military units during and after World War II. This situation continued into his 1950s.

Parachute Marines were strong supporters of the Johnson rifle, but the gun was never officially issued to them. Politics intervened in the matter, with people at the top lobbying for these “special” Marines to be equipped with the same guns as other Marines. All this happened before the war. Nevertheless, Johnson was able to arouse considerable interest in his company’s products internationally, including interest in the Netherlands. They wanted large quantities of Johnson rifles for the defense of the Dutch East Indies. The guns were ordered, manufactured, and delivered to a Dutch shipping company in San Francisco. America’s involvement in World War II began with the attack on Pearl Harbor, but we tend to forget that the Dutch East Indies (rich with oil fields) were occupied a few days after December 7, 1941. be. Johnson’s shipment was seized. This was because the Dutch colony no longer had anyone to ship them to, other than the enemy Japanese occupation forces. Additionally, legend has it that the Johnson family was trapped on a railroad siding in Northern California.

Meanwhile, in Southern California, the 2nd Parachute Battalion, Pacific Fleet Marine Corps, was training for a deployment to the Solomon Islands. With the stubbornness of only the best Marines, the entire battalion continued to covet the .30 caliber treasure loaded onto a boxcar hundreds of miles north. A careful examination of Chute 2’s records did not reveal that more than a dozen Marines were absent (with or without authorization) for several days. Similarly, several of his GI trucks were nowhere to be seen. A strange phenomenon.

When the Rough Marines of the 2nd Parachute Battalion finally deploy to the mysterious Northern Solomon Islands, other units notice their unusual armament. This included a light machine gun with his 20-round magazine protruding on the left side and a rifle with a 10-round internal rotating magazine. No one present could adequately explain their use.

I learned about an interesting part of Marine Corps history over an informal dinner in the commanding officer’s quarters. It was sometime in the fall of 1959 at Pickel Meadows. My host was a veteran of the 2nd shoot and more. He was steeped in Johnson family legends, including a raid in which his company’s squad augmented the firepower of his PT boat in the U.S. Navy. They forced about 10 Marines to lie face down on the deck of the gunship. He also showed us a badly abused Johnson, picked up on one of the Korean reservoir battlefields. How the Chinese soldiers found such a gun in 1950 or how the colonel brought it back is anyone’s guess.

Since joining the Corps in 1957, I have been fascinated by its history, people, weapons, and battles. On November 10th of that year, I attended my first Marine Corps birthday ball. This is a famous traditional and formal event. The walls of the hangar were decorated with the retired colors (flags) of Marine Corps units that no longer exist. We were seated under the uniforms of the aforementioned 2nd Parachute Battalion. My date, a very memorable and pleasant young woman who attends the nearby University of Mary Washington, wanted to know what this was all about.

I said, “It’s fighting the Marines…and fighting their steel.”



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