There and Back Again – A Huey Crew Chief’s Vietnam War Browning Hi-Power

Vietnam Huey Browning Hi-Power

The author conducting a ‘hot refuel’ on his aircraft “Maid Mary” in 1966 (courtesy Bud Harton)

By James “Bud” Harton

Years ago, actually eons ago, I was a crew chief/door gunner on a UH-1D helicopter in Vietnam. I was assigned to an assault company and our unit was comprised of 24 UH-1D “slicks” as troop carriers and eight UH-1C gunships in our armed platoon.

The “slicks” earned their nickname as they didn’t have any outboard weapons, just the M60D machine guns mounted on each side of the rear of the cargo hold. Slicks carried the troops into the landing zones and then kept them supplied while in the field.

The gunships, armed with mini-guns, rockets and 40mm automatic grenade launchers, escorted the slicks in and then provided overhead cover for the grunts in the field.

Army Aviation helicopter units in Vietnam in the early years of Vietnam were the cutting edge of war technology and were ongoing experiments in what worked and what didn’t. Every single piece of equipment and gear, tactics and crew coordination and standardization were all being developed while we fought the war.

We were allowed great flexibility in how we equipped ourselves. Right from the beginning, it was learned that the personal weapons assigned to flight crews were lacking and the possibility of “going down” meant you had to be ready to leave the aircraft and fight on your own until rescued.

Originally, we were limited to our assigned weapons; that is, the weapons permitted under the unit’s table of organization and equipment (TO&E). For the pilots, that meant a Smith & Wesson Military & Police Model 10 revolver in .38 special and M14 rifles for the two enlisted crew members or “GIBs” (guys in the back).

As time went on a couple of valuable lessons were learned. The first being that when you hit the ground hard, the only think you were coming out of the aircraft with had better have been strapped to you. That meant that most of us developed a “bailout bag,” often an empty Claymore mine bag containing some basic equipment such as first aid supplies, pen flares, some “C” rations, cans of food and ammo.

Because our M14s were in the way, back there in the transmission well where our M60s were mounted, they were slung over the pilots’ seats. It was agreed the pilots would be using those because the crew members could use their M60D machine gun once they were on the ground.

In real life, though, that almost never happened because leaving the aircraft quickly was all too often the case and trying to remove an M60 from its pedestal mount or getting an M14 unslung from the back of a seat was difficult to do when the aircraft was burning or the rice-propelled little people were coming for you.

So we improvised and without too much command interference, and we all started developing our own weapons.

After experiencing war for almost 40 years, Vietnam was rife with weapons from all over the world. Getting an AK was easy enough to do, but if you were really ultra-cool, you traded for a Swedish K or even a Thompson M1A1.

Specialist Gary Wetzel, a door gunner in our 1st platoon had a Thompson the night his aircraft was blown up by an RPG in a landing zone and he earned the Medal of Honor.

M2 carbines with both standard and paratrooper stocks became all the rage as did shotguns sent from home and specially modified using a hacksaw. A good friend of mine brought back an S&W Outdoorsman, a .38 special on a .44 frame, and I found a German made Browning Hi-Power to carry in an M3 tanker’s shoulder holster.

The Hi-Power, probably brought back from World War II as a captured weapon, had been chromed but you could still see the German Army proof marks on the frame and barrel. The FN plant in Belgium had been overrun in 1940 by the Wehrmacht and the plant continued making weapons, but under German control.

The Hi-Power became the Pistole 640(b). How it got to Vietnam I haven’t a clue, but it became all mine for the thirty-two months I stayed in country and it flew on well over 1,000 sorties while I was a crew chief on a “slick” and for the greater part of my tours on a gunship.

In September, 1968, I was told I could not extend my tour any longer and I would be going home almost immediately. I didn’t have time to go to the local Provost Marshal to get an export license so I passed my beloved Hi-Power off to another crew chief and left for home.

Over the years, I have often very much regretted leaving it behind. But this past January, that other crew chief, Dale Hensley of South Carolina found me and asked if I wanted my Hi-Power back.

I cannot begin to describe the flood of emotion that I felt when it arrived at my local FFL. Sounds, smells and even the chatter on the aircraft intercom and radios came flooding back.

hipower

Courtesy Bud Harton

It’s pretty rough. The cheap ‘bumper’ chrome is thin and pitted, but otherwise it’s just fine. I contacted Dave Williams of the Springfield Armory Custom Shop and he agreed to strip the chrome for me and restore the original finish as much as possible.

The barrel was too badly pitted to fire so I have put it away and replaced it with another. I have changed the grips out and saved the originals because I don’t want them to suffer any more hard use.

It won’t be my everyday carry, but now I have what I consider to be the ultimate BBQ gun. It comes with its own story of war and service on three continents. How cool is that?

 

[This post was originally published in 2014]

 

comments

  1. avatar surlycmd says:

    What a great story! I’m glad it was reprinted.

    1. avatar Tom in Oregon says:

      Yup. Me too.

      Thanks Bud!

  2. avatar Minuteman says:

    Need a pic of the finished project!

  3. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

    Just read a book by a guy who served in the First Cav. in ‘Nam, ‘Chickenhawk’, by Robert Mason.

    Whoa. The guys who did that job had nads the size of beach-balls. Serious respect.

    I should have coming my way in the near future a semi-auto that looks a whole lot like your Browning, in a small collection of handguns. I’ve been researching stripping the battered chrome plate off of it, and it looks like it’s do-able at home. For a new finish, I’m considering Parkerizing it.

    The only problem is, once the chrome plate is gone, how do you keep it from rusting before it goes in the phosphate bath? I’d like to smooth out some of the dings on the metal surface…

    1. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

      Here’s the book, an *outstanding* read :

      https://www.amazon.com/Chickenhawk-Robert-Mason/dp/0143035711

    2. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

      That’d be a great question for DG. I cold blued a .22 a few years back, had to do small sections at a time because it would rust as soon as I sanded it and used water to rinse it (per directions). That was a pain in the butt, it looked okay once done.

  4. avatar Rob says:

    I love firearm stories.
    My favorite guns in the safe each have stories, but none as cool as this.

  5. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

    When I was a Wright Patterson Air Force base Museum about 27 years ago they had a chromed High Power on display with its holster and the name and picture of the American pilot that was shot down with it. The pilot used the multi-shot High Power to shoot his way out of capture and was eventually rescued. He donated or perhaps loaned the gun to the Museum. I have not been back to the Museum since then and I realize they change displays all the time but if it still is on display I would not mind going back and seeing it one more time.

    My Father also carried an FN High Power in a 1911 shoulder holster in WWII. He liked it because of its high capacity , accuracy and mild recoil none of which the 1911 gave him. He did bring the gun home with him. It had two matching clips, and also the original holster. He brought the 1911 holster home as well but no 1911’s as it was a serious offense to steal government property. He had two 1911’s and 6 captured European pistols but he threw both 1911’s overboard when the boat docked in the U.S. He said he stood next to a row of other G.I.’s all throwing their 1911’s overboard as well. It turned out to be a bad mistake for everyone as the MP’s were screaming at everyone to get the hell off the ship as soon as possible. He walked right past them and none of his bags were even checked.

    He also brought back a Luger and a Steyr Hahn 9mm that was chrome plated.

    1. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

      * Hi-Power you lying troll

      1. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

        I have forgotten more about high powers than you will ever know. I am one of the few that can shorten up even the long reset of the trigger, one of the main bitches about the high powers. The only lying troll is you and your ignorance. Screw you.

        1. avatar jwm says:

          Your dad is the gunsmith, vlad. You’re just his mentally ill embarrassment. And 27 years ago you were still in diapers.

          But you keep lying. You might believe them but we don’t.

        2. avatar strych9 says:

          I can’t tell if he’s fallen off the wagon for the new year but kept the AA speak or if he’s actually convinced that the spiritual realm runs on mechanical parts.

        3. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

          No Vlad you don’t know shit about firearms. You are a sewer rat that has overheard some BS and tried to repeat it to sound intelligent. Go back to sniffing through feces for a bite to eat and leave the gun talk to people who don’t live under bridges.

        4. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

          It is beyond the ability of the Neanderthals of the Far Right to fathom or admit or even recognize the fact that the Far Left owns guns too.

          Here is a question for you Morons. How do you think the Russian Red Army annihilated the Russian White Army (Conservative Capitalvanians who supported the Czar). Hint: they shot the shit out of the White Army.

          Or perhaps a much more recently when Ho Chi Minh beat two powerful nations, the Greedy French and later the Hillbillies of the U.S. of Hey who ended up destroying the rice industry and the rubber industry in Vietnam and ended up not making money on the rice profits (as the French were intelligent enough to do) but had to import rice to feed the people of Vietnam with U.S. tax money. Brilliant would you not say. I laugh every time I think of this.

          Try again Morons of the Right, every time you open your mouths you stick your foot in your mouth.

      2. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

        You Morons would be lucky to know which end the bullets came out of. You are all a laughable joke when it comes to knowledge about firearms. You prove it by what you do not say.

        1. avatar jwm says:

          Aww. Now we done it. We got vlads panties in a bunch. When he goes to group today we’ll all be talked about.

        2. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

          And remember JM the Socialists beat you Nazi’s in WWII and the Socialists will beat you Nazi’s in 2020. He who does not know history is doomed to repeat it. I will be enjoying 2020. Kiss the rectum of Trump JM he will not be around much longer in office.

        3. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

          The funny shit is I don’t post on politics often. I’m an Independent. I attack you on your basis of not knowing shit about guns, from the garbage you post and you go right to calling me a Nazi. P.S. it’s called a Hi-Power you dolt. Do us all a favor and pull your bottom lip over your face and swallow.

        4. avatar jwm says:

          You’re the nazi, vlad. But thanks for playing.

      3. avatar jwtaylor says:

        I didn’t read Cisco’s comment and I never do, but either Hi-Power or High Power could be correct. Depending on who’s stamp it had on it, Browing or FN, or the year of manufacture or even the location of export, both terms were used by FN.
        The orignal French would have been more like high power, as it was the “Grand Rendement”.

        1. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

          Shhh I know, especially since it is a pre 50s model. Was waiting for the troll to actually argue about gun knowledge, but nope he went right to the Right Wing Nazi comment. My dream is a Canadian Inglis, Hi Power with the Stock/Holster.

        2. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

          The ejection port changes were implemented, and FN started production after receiving an order for 10,000 pistols, the first of which were completed in March 1935. For marketing reasons, the model was renamed Grande Puissance (High Power), often called G.P. or Model of 1935, after the Belgian military designations. Renaming the model was important, as FN wanted to capitalize on the improved design adopted by the Belgian government.

          “””””””””””””””””Shhh I know,”””””””””””””””””””’

          And by the way Jeff the Griz.

          Nice try at saving face but it did not work.

        3. avatar jwtaylor says:

          Jeff, damnit! Sorry.

  6. avatar enuf says:

    Wonderful story and a delight to read that he got his Hi-Power back. Hope we get to see some good pictures of the restored gun!

  7. avatar sound awake says:

    was that an assault company or a modern sporting company

    1. avatar hillhunter says:

      well done! i’ll be copyrighting that.

  8. avatar Jeff the Griz says:

    The Hi-Power is my absolute favorite 9mm pistol. I only own a Bulgarian clone and it is what I use to teach new shooters. I had a FM(not a typo) for 2 days until I stripped it to clean it and realized my new in box pistol was not new as advertised, and someone had probably used +p in it as there were hair sized cracks around the chamber. The shop owner made it right, but I don’t know when I’ll be able to add a true FN or Browning to my collection.

    1. avatar Geoff "I'm getting too old for this shit" PR says:

      I once had an oddball FN, but it was stamped “Hi-Powr” if memory serves. It wasn’t “High Power”.

      Like an idiot, I let it go when life imploded in the late 90s. It had an *exquisitely* butter-smooth, super ‘slick’ action to it. I later found out it was worth about 1500. I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

      I hope the chrome-plated gun the guy who may be giving me that small collection is a High-Power. It was the softest-shooting 9mm I have ever shot.

      The reason I’m choosing to play home gunsmith on this is because the guy who may be passing it along to me had it appraised, and the shop said the chrome-job destroyed the value of what the appraiser said was worth about 1700 bucks, had it not been plated…)

    2. avatar Vlad Tepes says:

      To Jeff
      ””””””””””””””””””””””””””””””I had a FM(not a typo) for 2 days until I stripped it to clean it and realized my new in box pistol was not new as advertised, and someone had probably used +p in it as there were hair sized cracks around the chamber.””””””””””””””’

      You should have know that when you pay less for a cheap knock off you get less, way less and in your case you bought junk

  9. avatar RCC says:

    Carried a Hi Power plus one spare mag for 4 years back in the late 70’s and into the early 80’s when I was in Australian Army signals.

    Australian helicopter crews were Issued M16’s and every thing you could think of as not enough Hi Powers to go around initially. Still in use by army here but phased out for Glocks by special forces.

  10. avatar Cambo says:

    One of the best articles I have seen. Keep posting more of this type please.

  11. avatar D Dunbar says:

    Amazing article! Thanks for the story!

  12. avatar Roh-Dog says:

    Damn. A great story.
    Welcome Home to all the Vietnam Veterans!
    (And the others too!)
    From a proud American and OIF Infantryman.

  13. avatar Roger J says:

    I have a good friend who was a crew chief on a Dustoff helicopter in 64-65. He was shot down 3 times in one year. Each crash progressively worse. He never spoke about after the crash. I’ll have to ask.

  14. avatar Will Drider says:

    “Man in the Door”. was there, done that but in the Marines. A lot of freebies to choose from, best was from spooks flying the blue/silver hueys when they needed a part. They had everything and ammo to keep them well fed too. Good times, bad times but here we are.

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