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Following M3A1 Grease Gun #750213 Through Vietnam

Combat Marines are full of sea stories. I’ve heard and loved many of them, even the ones I knew weren’t true. But of all the noteworthy sea stories I’ve heard, the one about three combat photographers who shared a captured-and-then-captured-back World War II-issue M3A1 Grease Gun in Vietnam in 1968 stands out. That weapon, and the Marine who liberated it, may have made Marine Corps history.

The old Grease Gun was named for its resemblance to the tool still used by mechanics today. Inspired by the British Sten and German MP40, and developed during early WWII, “the Greaser” was made almost entirely of stamped metal with only a couple of machined parts. Production cost was $15 per unit in 1943, equal to about $220 today. The Army touted it as more accurate than the Thompson, claiming a soldier firing an M3 full-auto offhand would keep 90 percent of his rounds inside a 6×6-foot target at 50 yards. We like to call this claim “absolute nonsense;” the Greaser was appreciated for its ability to spray an area with heavy .45 rounds, but nobody ever called it precise.

Fisher with his prized Grease Gun, 1968

Fisher with his prized Grease Gun, 1968

The M3 saw only limited combat use toward the end of WWII but was in general service during Korea and afterward, all the way into the ’90s (my Texas Army National Guard armor unit had them until 1997 or so). Over 48,000 M3s and improved M3A1s were produced by Guide Lamp and Ithaca, and clones were manufactured in South America and China. The M3 series had reliability and safety issues, but something about them is so cool that every classic war movie had one in the hands of a movie star, and much of the public would recognize one even if they didn’t know its name.

At some point, an M3A1 made the trip from its American birthplace to Vietnam. It was delivered to the South Vietnamese military, then captured by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong (VC), then captured right back by U.S. Marines, and finally liberated by a Marine combat photographer.

It happened during the Tet Offensive, in the Battle for Hue City in February 1968. As Marines advanced, they captured numerous NVA and VC weapons, some of which were collected into a pile. In it were WWII-era weapons of American manufacture, including M1 Carbines, Garands, Grease Guns, and at least one Browning Automatic Rifle. These beautiful treasures had been issued to the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN) and then taken from defeated troops or looted from government armories.

Del Vecchio Grease Gun Vietnam

RJ Del Vecchio after an operation, September 1968

A 1st Marine Division combat photographer, Corporal John Pennington, or “Penny” to his friends, was attached to the infantry fighting through Hue. In addition to being a Marine Corps photographer, while in Vietnam Pennington also wrote columns for his hometown newspaper in Roy, Utah. Sometime around the second week of February, Pennington had the opportunity to acquire a Grease Gun from the pile of captured weapons in Hue. Combat photographers often bitched about unwieldy M16s getting in the way when they were using their cameras; they wanted something bigger than a pistol, but didn’t have access to a weapon that really fit their needs. So when Pennington saw the captured weapons, he thought the Grease Gun was a perfect solution. With it, he took five magazines and a Vietnamese-made pouch that held four mags. The pouch was for another weapon and the flap didn’t close over the M3 mags, but it was still a decent setup.

We GWOT vets were watched like hawks overseas so this is hard to believe, but apparently Hue 1968 was the Great Machine Gun Giveaway; Marines could hang on to whatever captured weapon they wanted, as long as they were willing to hump it. SKS rifles were a perpetual favorite, and during the fight for Hue, the most prized trophy was a Thompson submachine gun. So, oddly enough, Pennington was able to just pick up the Grease Gun and walk away.

South Vietnamese weapons captured by the communists and recaptured by U.S. Marines in Hue

When Pennington ran out of film after about a week in Hue, he went back to the rear with his combat footage and Grease Gun. Pennington’s friends and fellow Marine combat photographers RJ Del Vecchio and Dennis Fisher were there when he arrived. “I remember Pennington walking into the hooch one day with the M3,” Fisher said, “and thinking he looked pretty badass with it over his shoulder.” But Pennington had second thoughts about the M3; he was a MoPic (motion picture) photographer already burdened with a tripod and movie camera, and decided he didn’t want the M3’s extra weight. So Pennington decided to give the Grease Gun to his good buddy Del Vecchio rather than keeping it for himself.

Del Vecchio, or Del as he prefers to be called, was the opposite of the stereotypical 19-year-old draftee sent kicking and screaming to Vietnam. Del was 23, had a degree in chemistry, and was in graduate school when he decided to join the Marine Corps specifically to go to Vietnam as an infantryman. However, in the grand tradition of the Corps, he signed up for the job he wanted but wound up getting screwed — or so he thought at the time.

“At the end of boot camp they announced everyone’s MOS, and instead of 0311, I heard the DI say, ‘Del Vecchio, 4631.’ I thought, ‘What the hell is that?’ When I found out it was combat photographer, the only thing I could think of was that some clerk in DC had looked at my records, saw my chemistry degree, and said, ‘Hey, they use chemicals to develop pictures, right? Make this guy a photographer!’ At the time I was crushed, but becoming a photographer wound up being the greatest thing that could have happened to me.”

Corporal John Pennington Photography

Corporal John Pennington in the field, taken by fellow photographer Del Vecchio in April 1968

Not long after being given the Grease Gun, Del was attached to 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment for Operation Pursuit near Da Nang. “On the second day of the op, the lead element walked into an ambush at the foot of one of the hills,” Del remembers. “I ran down the slope to get to the firefight. Just above the firefight, I stopped to help a Corpsman working on a wounded Marine, but he died despite our efforts. At that time there was movement in the thick jungle off to our right, so I sprayed the area with the Grease Gun.” Del recalls, rather sardonically, “After that, there was no more movement.”

He didn’t have time to look for enemy bodies, though. “Then, I ran to the base of the hill, took more pictures, and eventually went out on the last rush to recover our KIAs,” he said. “Once we got the body parts distributed among the other guys, I was elected rear guard since I had the Grease Gun, which everyone figured was more dependable than our M-16s.”

Regarding the M3A1’s accuracy, Del said, “If you were firing single shots you could pretty much always hit a man-sized target at 50 feet, but full auto was something else. After I fired it full auto during Operation Pursuit, I thought, ‘This thing is easier to control than I expected.’ But later when I fired it on auto at the range I was all over the place. I think I was able to control it in combat just because I was high on adrenaline.”

Grease Gun Fisher Vietnam

Fisher up north with his Grease Gun and camera

Del carried the M3A1 for a few weeks after Operation Pursuit, but being allowed to keep a captured trophy wasn’t the same as being allowed to carry it; Del kept getting hassled about his unauthorized weapon. “Once some major got on me about the Grease Gun, and demanded to know why I had it,” he said. “I told him combat photographers were only issued a pistol, and we were allowed to carry whatever other weapon we thought was appropriate for the mission. The major didn’t like my answer, but he stomped off and left me alone.” When asked if the excuse he’d given had been true, Del said, “Oh, it was a complete lie. I made it up on the spot.”

Despite outsmarting that major, Del eventually got tired of the hassle. He gave the M3A1 to his buddy Fisher and switched back to his regular old, pain-in-the-ass M16. Fisher spent most of his time further north, far from the flagpole, and was in less danger of getting in trouble. 

While Del had been a frustrated photographer who initially wanted to be a grunt, Fisher was the opposite. He arrived in Vietnam as a grunt, and six months later leveraged his civilian photography background to get assigned as a combat photographer. Fisher, who extended six months in Vietnam for the opportunity to take combat photos, eagerly accepted the M3A1 and carried it for the rest of his tour. But a combat photographer’s primary job was shooting a camera instead of a weapon, so, like Del, Fisher only fired the Grease Gun in combat once.

Photo taken by Del Vecchio Grease Gun Vietnam

Photo taken by Del Vecchio shortly before he was wounded, May 7, 1968

On April 13, 1968, Fisher was attached to Delta 1/27 for Operation No Name II, against the 804th NVA Main Force Battalion. To get to the battle, Fisher and a combat correspondent had to hitch a ride on an unescorted truck full of ammo, which wasn’t particularly comforting. When the truck reached the staging area, he and the correspondent grabbed boxes of mortar rounds, jumped off, and headed toward the gunfire. They arrived at a fight in full swing, with two Marine infantry companies taking heavy losses against a tough, motivated, dug-in enemy. One company, having lost a platoon leader and several other Marines, was barely hanging on. “We moved forward to try and rescue Bravo Company,” Fisher said of the battle. “The enemy had staked out small bridges and terrain features that we had to cross and began a steady fire on our approach. I saw some enemy movement across the canal, lowered my camera, and raised the Grease Gun all in one motion, and opened fire. It was more instinct and my infantry training than anything else.”

In that moment, Fisher was reminded of an important combat lesson: “Anyone who spent time in combat knew the sound of every weapon, both friendly and enemy. Well, the sound of the Grease Gun is distinctive, and nobody there had heard it before. There was a momentary pause, just a few seconds, in the firing from both sides, as if they were trying to process this new sound and decide who it belonged to. It was one of those ‘what the hell was that?’ moments.”

Photo taken by Fisher during Operation No Name II

Fisher carried the Grease Gun on several more operations and has fond memories of it. Actually, he was so fond of it that more than 50 years later he remembers the make and serial number. “If you want to try and trace the manufacturing history, I still remember that it was made by Ithaca Gun Company, and the serial number was 750213,” he said. “Some things Marines just don’t forget.”

But in September, Fisher unexpectedly received orders to go home a week early. He left so quickly that he didn’t even get to bring home his Ka-Bar, much less make arrangements to pass on the Grease Gun. A friend got the Ka-Bar back to Fisher several years later, but the Grease Gun was left behind, alone and unloved, abandoned to an unknown fate.

“The Grease Gun that had served me and others so well hung on the wall of our hooch, along with my web belt and flak jacket, as sort of a silent testimony to a part of my life that had come to an end,” Fisher said. “It was time to head for the motor pool and catch a ride to the airfield. I walked out of my hooch with my gear, and that was my last memory of the Grease Gun in Vietnam.” 

All told, between mid-February and September 1968, Ithaca Gun Company M3A1 #750213 was carried by John Pennington for about a week during the Battle of Hue City, by RJ Del Vecchio for about a month, then by Dennis Fisher for seven months. Del and Fisher may have gotten lucky and whacked an NVA or two with it, but as with many of us who shot at enemy in combat, they’ll never know if they hit anything other than trees and brush. Only Fisher has pictures of himself carrying the Grease Gun; Del had one but lost it (and is still mad about that), and as far as anyone knows, nobody took one of Pennington with it. No one has any idea what happened to the weapon after Fisher was forced to leave it behind.

Grease Gun Mags Vietnam

The mag pouch taken by Pennington and used by him, Del Vecchio, and Fisher.

Today, Fisher and Del happily speak about their experiences in Vietnam. Fisher has had a long, successful career in technical photography, assisted in filming some major movies such as Top Gun, and was in charge of the cameras for the 2012 Stratos jump from a balloon at the edge of space. In addition to photography consulting, he’s assigned himself a mission of tracking down Marines in his photos so he can give them pictures of themselves in combat. Even cooler than that, Fisher still has the ammo pouch he carried spare M3 mags in.

Fisher’s friend Del runs a charity for disabled ARVN veterans in Vietnam, who are despised and ignored by the communist government, and has returned to Vietnam several times to deliver aid to them in person. He also wrote a book titled Whitewash, Blackwash: Myths of the Vietnam War, and gives speeches to correct common misconceptions about Vietnam. Did you know the VC were so unpopular that South Vietnam stopped their draft after Tet because it was overwhelmed with volunteers? I didn’t.

In all our communications, neither man spoke one word of regret about their time in the Corps or decision to serve in combat. They epitomize “Once a Marine always a Marine,” and for a chunk of their combat time in Vietnam, they were lucky to be iconic Vietnam Marines armed with an even more iconic WWII weapon.

But this brings us back to John “Penny” Pennington.

On June 8, 1968, Pennington and another photographer named Edward Sullivan stopped by the photographers’ hooch at Phu Bai. Fisher was there, the M3 was hanging on the wall, and Pennington said he was surprised it hadn’t been confiscated by some lifer. After a short visit, Pennington and Sullivan headed out, and the next day were on a convoy that was hit in a hellacious ambush near Khe Sanh. Pennington, Sullivan, and 13 other Marines were killed; the ambush and resulting confusion were so intense that one KIA wasn’t even found until the next day. Pennington was one of 12 Marine Corps combat photographers killed during the Vietnam War, and his comrades still miss him, his good nature, and his sense of humor. Pennington had once found Del crawling away from a battle with a smashed foot and shot-up hand, and made the smartass remark, “Can’t I leave you alone for just a minute?” — which is how Marines show concern for each other. “He was just a nice, likeable guy,” one veteran said. Because he was so likeable, and maybe because of an act of bravery nobody knows about, Pennington has achieved an immortality of sorts.

John “Penny” Pennington

One Marine who worked with Pennington, and may have been beside him in Hue, was a combat correspondent named Gustav Hasford. Marines might know Hasford — he wrote a novel titled The Short-Timers, which eventually became a movie called Full Metal Jacket. Joker, the book’s protagonist, is a combat correspondent whose M16 is destroyed in Hue. A grunt gives him an M3 Grease Gun that was “souvenired off a wasted tanker,” and Joker carries it for the rest of the book. I’ve spoken with several combat correspondents who served with Hasford, and none of them recall any correspondent carrying an M3; Joker’s fictional Grease Gun must have been based on the one liberated by Pennington.

Furthermore, in Hue, Joker, the combat correspondent, is saved by Rafter Man, the combat photographer. Hasford and Pennington were in Hue for about a week each, around the same time. Did Pennington save Hasford’s life during that huge, horrible, legendary fight? One Marine who served with Hasford thought it might’ve happened, but others say Hasford never mentioned any such incident. Pennington never did either.

Hasford died in 1993, and we’ll never know what, if anything, transpired between him and Pennington in Hue. Combat correspondents and combat photographers sometimes worked together but usually were in different units and generally weren’t that close — but for some reason, Pennington’s Grease Gun went into Hasford’s book. More importantly, Hasford dedicated The Short-Timers — the entire book — to Pennington.

Document from Pennington’s memorial service

I like to think that at some critical moment in Hue, just as Hasford was about to get shot by an NVA soldier, Pennington swooped in and hosed the NVA with his Grease Gun. Or maybe Pennington hosed an entire squad. Hell, it was probably at least an NVA platoon, probably two, roughly equal in size to an American battalion, and Pennington took them all down with one mag. Thankful for having his life spared and mourning Pennington’s later death in combat, Hasford immortalized Pennington and his awesome Grease Gun by putting them in his book. And that book became the legendary movie all Marines will know forever.

True or not, that’s a sea story I’ve chosen to believe.

[Editor's Note: This Article first appeared in RECOIL #50.]

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18 responses to “Following M3A1 Grease Gun #750213 Through Vietnam”

  1. askeptik says:

    “…When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  2. Rob says:

    Great story. Very uplifting. The tankers in F Co. 40th Armor still had grease guns during my time in the Berlin Brigade. Shot one on one occasion. Imo an underrated but highly effective weapon.

  3. doug santo says:

    Nice write up. I enjoyed reading it.

    Doug Santo
    Pasadena, CA

  4. Thomas Grow says:

    Thanks – great tale of good men.

  5. Spearhead says:

    30 years ago today, I watched a tank commander fire a “Grease Gun” into a bunker he’d just crushed flat.

  6. J. Bryan says:

    In Armor School we had one (big) kid who could actually shoot the damn thing full auto. The Drill Sergeants thought it was such a hoot that several of them just started loading mags and handing them to him. I think he must have burned through 500 rounds. Shot all the silhouettes to shreds.

  7. Dennis Williams says:

    As a C7A pilot, I was issued a S&W .38 revolver and early model M16. Pretty much useless unless to shoot myself. I traded a bottle of Jim Beam for a 1911 .45 and then a quart of ice cream for a M3A1. With the same ammo, I had to carry less and felt much more comfortable in touchy situations since distances were short and fire power was essential.

    I used both a few times when on the ground at fire bases under attack. I was never disappointed and still here.

  8. Wally Young says:

    As a Marine VN tank driver , I carried an M31A in drivers compartment of my tank . We took our mags apart added an extra spring .2 springs would help lift the heavy 45 cal rounds .We also turned them on their side, with mag slightly elevated above the body of the gun , which helped it load bettermaking it somewhat gravity fed ! If feasible turning it upside down . . If not for these added techniques , it could jam , periodically ! As for your article,, I see nothing unusual or unbelievable . During this time period further southwest on same Hwy 9 btw the Rockpile & Ca Lu most of the grunts ,a company of 3/9 were unloading on a water Buffalo 100 or so yds off the road w/ M-16 s burning him up , but not dropping him ! On the move 25 mph or so , I grabbed grease Gunn w normal procedure 20 rd mag firing a little short ,3 rounds hit dirt or water, the rest of the 20 rounds , you could almost count hitting him all over with the 2 inches of dry mud jarring, jolting him , hurting him , bbutwe never dropped him ! Surely he died , but not in our sight ! They were tuff , little weapons !🇺🇸

  9. Elmer Stoup says:

    Was a tank platoon leader in Germany in the 1970s. Qualified on Range 80, but couldn’t hit the proverbial barn door with the grease gun on the small weapons range.

  10. Wally Young says:

    Late Jan 68 Capt Daniel Kent CO BCo 3D tanks was in a major ambush on Rt 9 , tank & infantry radios not working ,as he moved from one of 2 tanks directing fire for the grunts , he was hit/ small arms fire , my buddy ,, L/Cpl Harry Christensen took over as TC , rpg teams & NVA soldiers from close range , , from a low wooded area . Harry w/ all weapons doing all he could , but too many too close took the grease gun &keptfiring as crew kept handing him more loaded mags , a37 mm recoiless rifle put a round in the turret ring from a high ridge on the other side of the road .Harry kept trying to get Capt Kent back in the tank ! Harry was wounded twice ,but kept fighting ! Another 37 rd , direct hit , then RPGs had tank on fire , had to evacuate the tank ! As Harry tried to help Capt Kent another round blew them off the tank . Years later at USMCVTA reunion Min. Some others said after the ambush they counted 130 ormoreNVA laying all over KIAs . Said Harry killed most of them w/ grease gun . He told me , Hell Wally , they just kept coming ! Great warrior Didn’t wake up for 6 moc Silver Star . 3 PH . Semper Fi , Brothers 🇺🇸

  11. Teo says:

    Informative and amusing. Always thought the GreaseGun was Wehrmacht surplus.

  12. Harry says:

    The comment about the sound was right on. For that reason, men in my platoon and company’s did not want to carry the AK47. Way to easy to attract friendly fire, especially in the dark.

  13. Javems says:

    The Grease Gun” was still being used in 1973 when I was a Battalion Motor Officer, a position I’m not particularly proud of holding. They were TO&E weapon for the crew of a light Armored Recovery Vehicle M578

  14. Daniel says:

    I carried one in Korea in 1988 (M3A1) as a member of the recovery section (M88 recovery veh.) for our Artillery BN. 6/37FA. and again in 2000 as a member of the Ohio Army National Guard, I had the “luck” to be reacquainted with an M3, a 1943 produced weapon not an M3A1, I even managed to get dinged up by the charging handle….we arraigned for it to find a retirement home later that year. No one in the chain of command had any idea what it was or what to do with it, and I ended up with an M16A2. We did manage to get her to the range and burn up a few mags before Range Control shut us down at Camp Perry. I still smile when I think of the look on the Range Control personnel as the M3 rocked…

  15. michael McLaughlin says:

    I worked on them M3 and M3A1 as unit armorer in Ky National Guard in early 1990’s our M88 maint. section used them. they looked new. We had magazines still wrapped in paper brand new. wonder what happened to them since all the armor units in Ky guard were deactivated.

  16. Larry Goldsmith says:

    I carried my M3 for almost two years. I was with Lima Co 3/5 as their FO. I was in Hue City at the same time as this story is played out…ran into a few guys that were happy to carry it….and it was always my primary weapon of choice. It was far more accurate than the Thompson and much more reliable. Loved it.

  17. Steve Handwerker says:

    My dad served in the Army in “54-“55, for the 82 Eng. out of Ft. Leonard Wood, and Camp (now Ft.) McCoy, in public affairs. He tells his Grease Gun story as this: “One day they handed me a Grease Gun to carry around. The M3 was so cool, but I never got to shoot the damn thing,” not even at the range.

    Thank you for this fantastic, enjoyable account of three photojournalists and the M3. As a photojournalist myself, and a rifleman, I enjoyed this story so much.

  18. J F Patch says:

    The Armor units at Lucius D Clay Kaserne, 2AD (FWD) had M3’s in 1981. I remember seeing M60 tank crews carrying them slung as they humped M73’s to their motor pool on alerts

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