The AR-15 has been much in the news lately. A few months ago it was seen as a pin replacing the American flag on the lapels of Republicans in Congress. This time it’s news following a tragic shooting in Nashville. These weapons have become a cultural icon in conservative circles, rationalized and lately marketed as sporting rifles. They are not. A hunter hitting a deer with one of these on automatic-fire will not need a butcher.
In a conversation about guns following the 2018 carnage at Douglas High School in Florida, I commented that there was no earthly reason that a civilian hunter needed a rifle whose trajectory over a hundred meters rose and fell only two inches. and whose muzzle velocity exceeded the speed of sound by a factor of three, and when modified to military spec, fully-automatic-fire, will shoot about 800 rounds per minute. The M-16 (civilian model is AR-15) shoots NATO-standard 5.56mm bullets propelled by a cartridge about the size of a man’s pinky finger. My surprised listener said she didn’t know I was a gun enthusiast.
“I’m not. I haven’t fired a gun in more than forty years.”
“Well how do you know all that stuff?”
“I was made to memorize it, along with the serial number of the weapon issued to me by the army. I can also field-srtip and reassemble one in the dark.”
Such comments would, for decades, stop a conversation dead and in some circles still will. Aside from the specifications, I have some personal experience with these weapons. Following is a scene from my memory dating back more than 50 years.
Rifles for Halftrack
Saigon’s Tudo Street isn’t far from the Presidential Palace but too far to walk on a steaming hot day.
I hadn’t known that DB and Virgil told Halftrack of their plans but when we arrived at the New Yak Bar it was clear they had. What was Halftrack’s role in all of this? What was his role in anything? It wasn’t clear to me then. It isn’t clear to me now. Halftrack was sitting at his usual table two thirds back from the door across from the bar with a clear view of the door but screened by the potted fern.
He’d become a fixture there in the past few months. He seldom held court as it were, though he could have. He preferred to entertain his clients one at a time. With each new guest the barmaid came by to settle up what was owing on the table from the previous client. She knew better than to leave an open tab for the table. Too many fights had started over who was responsible for the tab. One GI was shot over being asked to split a hundred dollar tab when he’d only been there for one round of drinks. Halftrack said the bar maid called the MPs who settled the disagreement on the sidewalk out front. “It wasn’t my table,” he was quick to point out.
As we sat down at his table, the barmaid came over and demanded payment. Halftrack fished out a wad of brightly colored piasters, peeled off a dozen or so and handed them to her. Based on the size of the wad, he must have been holding court before we got there. Unusual for him, Virgil later said.
“How’d your meeting go?” he asked to no one in particular.
“We didn’t have our ducks in a row and the alligators got a couple of them,” quipped DB with his usual sardonic humor.
“What the hell does that mean?” asked Halftrack.
“It means that the colonel didn’t bite on our proposal. He bit one of the ducks instead, at least partly because Allen here got cold feet in the middle of the discussion. But we did learn that they want to move a hell of a lot of money.”
“I didn’t get cold feet,”I said. “I just can’t see how it could work especially when you start talking more money that the Central Jersey Trust sees in a year from all the officers at Ft. Monmouth. They think we’re talking about a mob-run bank in Atlantic City.”
“How much money are they talking?” asked Halftrack.
“Well, the number fifty million floated by at one point,” offered Virgil, raising an eyebrow for emphasis.
“Jesus,” said Halftrack under this breath as the barmaid approached to take our orders.
“You got American beer? No Bah Mui Bah. Bah Mui Bah number ten,” said Virgil.
“We got number 1 American beer. We got Rhinelander,” offered the barmaid.
Virgil winced. “Biere la Rue. No ice.”
The Barmaid looked at me. “Rhinelander,” I said.
Then DB. “Can of grapefruit juice and a bottle of soda water.”
As the barmaid walked off, Halftrack muttered under the din of the bar, “How long do they think it’ll take to move that much money?”
“I don’t know what they think about that but they want to move it by the end of the year. That’s only five months.”
“That’s ten million a month!” Halftrack nearly shouted then caught himself mid sentence.
“Neva happin, Jack, replied DB.
“Allen, where are you in all this?” asked halftrack, wiping his finger at the water condensing on his beer bottle.
“I think it’s nuts. There are just too many ways this could go sideways. It just seems to be way out of my league. I mean I’m not even in a minors farm team. For you guys, maybe,” I said looking at DB and Virgil.
“Yeah,” said Halftrack, pulling at the bottle of beer. “You guys need a plan B.”
“This was our plan B said Virgil. The colonel said maybe we could work together to move money but I had no idea he meant that much.”
“Well, if you can’t launder the money directly, you’ll have to convert it to something you can ship out of the country,” said Halftrack. “I knew a guy from South Africa who got his money out of the country buying expensive British racing Motorcycles and shipping them to the States where he sold them. Other people are into drugs but that’s pretty much sown up by the Thieu people. They’ve lately taken to shipping Heroin to the states, bypassing Cholon.”
“That game is over anyhow for small-time operators. That’s how I got my nut to start currency arbitrage, only I ran the game backwards to get cash into the country,” said DB. “Now I want to run it forwards.”
“It won’t be expensive motorcycles. There aren’t any; and little tiddlers and Hondas like mine are a drug on the market, so-to-speak,” added Virgil.
“There’s a lot of high-value military hardware floating around. Any interest in that?” asked Halftrack.
“You mean like helicopter parts? How much is a rotor-transmission for a Huey worth?” asked DB.
“No, no way too specific,” countered Virgil. “Who would you sell them to? You’d have to be a helicopter mechanic to know what to do with it. We need something simpler.”
“Like chocolate covered cotton balls? But then where would you get the chocolate?” I added in jest.
“Or the cotton,” laughed Virgil snorting into the neck of his beer bottle with foam running down the neck. “You checked “Catch 22” out of the post library too, I see. Seem like you read a lot.”
“Passes the time. How ‘bout empty beer cans?”
“Too much labor to crush them.”
“Um. What else is there a surplus of in country that you can actually ship out?” mused Virgil.
“Talk about a drug on the market,”answered Virgil
Halftrack stroked his chin. “Actually, there’s early M-16s floating around. They’re designated AR-15 but it’s the same thing,” said Halftrack. “The word on the street is that the VC are trading off the ones they captured from the villagers — or were given, depending on whose story you believe.”
“Trading them in for what?”
“Kalashnikovs,” said Halftrack.
“AK-47s? Cheap Chinese junk,” said Virgil.
“Most of them are Russian.”
“OK, Russian junk then.”
“They may be junk but the VC like them better than the AR-15s. They don’t jam with cheap powder when you don’t clean them every day. Besides they get ‘em free, from the Chinese. The Russians make em by the tens of thousands. How they get to China I don’t know.”
“So who gets the trade-ins?”
“Can’t say exactly but the commies are selling them for cash and they end up in the hands of rich feather merchants who want to get rid of them as fast as possible. Therein lies the opportunity,” said Halftrack, making an X in the condensation on his beer.
“Where’s the market for them? You can’t sell them back to the army,” asked DB.
“South Africa. And they never came from the army in the first place.”
“Then how did the villagers get them?”
The CIA got a whole raft of ‘em as part of the first Air Force AR-15 contract. How they paid for them I don’t know. If that’s your next question. I doubt if even Shackley knows but the Air Force no longer has them on their books.”
“No, my next question actually was why somebody gave them to the villagers now that I know who.”
“Who gave them to the villagers.”
“Oh. Well after they had Diem assassinated Americans thought it would be good to arm the villagers against a North Vietnamese incursion and thought it would buy some much needed loyalty after Diem’s reign of terror. So rumor has it that they distributed on the order of 250,000 rifles: M-14s, M-4 carbines, and some of the first load of AR-15s.
“That was Thao’s doing. He was assigned by Nhu to implement the Strategic Hamlet Program and when that went sideways the villagers still had the weapons and he convinced the Agency that they needed more. Now the Agency’s trying to collect them.”
“So that’s where the used ARs I’ve been buying come from,” mused DB, referring to the rifles I’d see when accosted by DB’s local militia on my first visit.
“Probably,” said Halftrack. “Can you buy more?”
“Probably. How many did you have in mind?”
“Depends on what you’re paying. You make your money when you buy at the right price.”
“Sounds like you already have a buyer lined up,” said DB.
“I may. It seems the Agency has other operations that need arms; plus they want to get these things off the black market.”
“Why just the ARs? what about the other American weapons?”
“The M-14s and carbines have disappeared. At least they’re not on the market and the troops aren’t finding them in the villages they raid or so I hear.”
“I can see where they would want them off the market. Anybody could start up an army with all the weapons around. How’s Sihanouk’s health these days?”
“Don’t know, DB I haven’t seen him lately but they wouldn’t be going to Cambodia if that’s what you’re thinking. But by the way, rumor has it that AK47s picked up in the delta have come via Sihanoukville not from Hanoi down the Ho Che Minh trail.”
“So if the agency wants these off the market why don’t the just buy them?”
“Not on their congressionally approved budget.”
“Well, they had the budget to buy them from the air force in the first place. What’s different now?”
“The Air Force has, um, shall we say, discretionary funds. So the ARs were diverted to the Agency off the books.”
“So now they’re proposing to buy back the weapons they gave the rural villagers?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“I won’t ask where they’ll get the money to do that. I’m sure I don’t want to know, said DB.”
“Yeah, it’s better that way. You can speculate among yourselves but you won’t hear it from me.”
“Unhhh. Regarding the price. I’m buying just a few at a time. If it involved quantity, I might get a discount but I also might have to find another supplier.”
“DB, hot AK-47s can be had for a C-note if that offers you a starting point.”
Virgil shifted in his seat. “I know a guy…….”
“I’ll bet you do,” broke in Halftrack. But lets do a little more foot work before we start naming names and prices. I gotta see a man about a dog,” he said rising from the table, his bottle empty.
This caught the barmaid’s eye and she hurried over to collect the tab. I wondered why she let him run a tab at all.
Some weeks later I was aboard an Air America C-47 bound for Rangoon. Among its cargo were boxes of my electronic test equipment and wooden crates of rifles. I was let off at a jungle air field in the mountains an hour north of Saigon to repair a radar set. The warehouse I was given space to work in turned out to be a freight-forwarding warehouse for other AA shipments. Other crates and stacks of bags were stored there from time to time while I worked there.
The freight company’s motto was “Anything Anywhere Anytime.” It became apparent they made good on that promise.