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.50 Caliber Shell Casings Lying in the Sagebrush

By: Randy Tucker

I noticed the dented steel plate as I walked on the edge of a ridge about a half-mile from the main ranch house at the base of Sinks Canyon in Fremont County, Wyoming. The half-inch thick piece of steel was chained to a pair of steel posts driven into the ground.

The dents, some dappled on top of each other, created an alligator skin look to the heavy chunk of suspended metal.

I looked back towards the house and noticed something on the front deck. Taking out my binoculars, it came into clear view. It was a large, bolt-action rifle. From the deep dents in the steel plate, it had to be a .50 caliber weapon.

Thankfully, no one was shooting it while we were on the ridge above the house, but the evidence was that someone took regular target practice at his piece of metal.

Back to the trail we went; a few hundred yards further up the ridge, we found another similar steel target. It was attached to another set of steel posts just as the first one had been, but this one had fewer dents in it and was devoid of the dappled appearance.

A few minutes later, we had hiked to the crest of the ridge. The farmhouse was shrinking in the distance. Before we descended down the other side of the ridge, we found the final target. Another square foot of heavy steel, with just a handful of dents in it, sat a mile from the house.

We returned later in the afternoon, stopping at the house to say thanks for allowing us on the property. The .50 caliber Remington bolt-action rifle sat on the open front porch, supported by a pair of bipods in the front.

The owners indicated they often had shooting contests, with one observer training a spotting scope on a target while the others took turns trying their skill at hitting the distant targets.

On a hot California afternoon, a half-century before, there weren’t any observers with spotting scopes the first time I was able to watch a .50 caliber in action.

My dad was an Air Force crew chief in charge of fire control on the venerable B-52. He started in the late 1950s on B-47s, but by the time we lived in Puerto Rico beginning in 1959, his career was with Boeing’s “Stratofortress,” as they called the giant, eight-engine jet bomber.

Even as a youngster, I thought the insignia of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) a steel knight’s gauntlet holding a red bolt of lightning and a green laurel leaf in one hand was a bit at odds with reality. The SAC motto, “Peace is Our Profession” seemed even more incongruous since the big birds my dad worked on were originally designed to deliver atomic weapons. That didn’t seem too peaceful, even for a 13-year old kid.

By junior high, we’d moved three times since living in Puerto Rice. I started school while dad was stationed at Blytheville Air Force base in Arkansas, moved into upper elementary in Fairfield, California when he served at Travis Air Force Base, and then it was our final destination, Mather Air Force Base a dozen miles east of Sacramento. They were all SAC bases.

Occasionally, at all hours of the day, and even in the middle of the night, we’d hear a roar coming from the B-52 service area off the flight light a few miles from where we lived in non-commissioned officer housing.

It was the sound a four-gun turret of .50 cal machine guns makes when fired for a two, three, or sometimes a five-second burst.

They called them static gun tests. The name was derived from the turret being stationary, rather than any noise you might call static that the process produced. If it was noise based, it was the loudest static ever heard.

They’d take an old car, tow it to the far end of the testing area about 800 yards away, and use it as a target.

As a youngster, my dad, along with the fathers of most of my friends took us to work with them on occasion. I crawled into several B-52 cockpits over the years, marveling at how tiny the crew area was in such a huge aircraft.

They didn’t allow us on site when they test fired the machine guns, but one day my dad told me where I could watch them being tested from a vantage point above the site.

My friends Larry Benedict, Jerry Sebastion, and I rode our bikes to an abandoned, raised platform about three-quarters of a mile away from the static test target.

We watched as one of those dark-blue painted U.S. Air Force trucks, this one with a tow-truck winch on the back, pulled an old Buick two-door car into view.

The tow truck disappeared, and a few minutes later, so did the Buick. They fired a two-second burst, and the sedan disappeared in a cloud of dust. Pieces of glass, metal, and rubber filled the sky and began to drift back down, just before the tremendous sound of those four .50 caliber machine guns reached us.

It was more of a high-pitched scream than the familiar staccato sound you hear in movies and television from machine guns. The noise quickly passed, but parts of that  Buick continued to rain down for a few more minutes. It was an impressive sight, that has remained with me all these years.

Dad retired from the Air Force in 1971, and we moved to the farm between Pavillion and Kinnear.

The quad Browning M3 machine guns retired as well a year later, replaced by the 20 mm Vulcan mini-gun. All defensive guns were removed for good from the B-52 in 1992.

The idea of defending a bomber against a fighter attack dated back to the massive B-17 and B-24 raids over Germany in World War II. A total of 38 gunners on these aircraft earned “Ace” status after shooting down at least five Luftwaffe fighters.

A pair of B-52 tail gunners didn’t reach the lofty status of “Ace” but were the last gunners on an American bomber to shoot down an enemy aircraft almost 50 years ago.

On December 18, 1972, above Hanoi Staff Sergeant Samuel O. Turner locked on an attacking Mig 21 and destroyed the North Vietnamese aircraft with a burst at 800 yards.

A week later, on Christmas Eve, also on a raid during Operation Linebacker near Hanoi, Airman First Class Albert E. Moore shot down another Mig 21 at the extreme range of 4000 yards with a long burst from his quad .50 caliber turret.

Whether it was tired iron out of Detroit or a Soviet-made fighter aircraft with malice in the pilot’s heart, the .50 cal proved to be more than a match.

I still find spent .50 caliber shell casings in the Gas Hills on outdoor adventures, remnants of World War II training missions from Casper Army Air Force Base, a visceral connection to the past lying in the sagebrush.

Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at ratucker@wyoming.com.

Image: Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Paul J. Perkins - http://www.navy.mil/view_image.asp?id=47707

 
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