As both a Marine and a machine gunner, I guess you could say I’m partial to the history of Marine machine gunners. Part of that history contains a little-known story that combines practically all of the most important elements military history nerds like me salivate over: Marines, machine guns, World War 2, and the ingenuity of the fighting man.
If you wanted to spoon-feed me some history, that’s how you’d describe it. Today we are talking about the M2 Stinger. A Marine modified machine gun that earned its name in the fierce fighting of the Pacific theater.
The Stinger wasn’t just a machine gun designed and built for use as a mounted aircraft gun. The few Stingers that saw action were literally torn out of downed airplanes, modified for infantry use, and carried into the fight by a half dozen brave and hearty men–one of whom would earn a Medal of Honor with this DIY-death-dealer in hand.
The Core of the Weapon
First, when I say M2 and machine gun, I’m not talking about the famed Ma Deuce .50 caliber Browning machine gun. Military naming conventions don’t exactly make sense, but the M2 in M2 Stinger comes from the .30 AN/M2; an aircraft-modified version of the famed Browning 1919 belt-fed machine gun. The Browning M1919 was an American-made machine gun designed to provide suppressive fire. This rifle utilized the .30-06 cartridge that was the general infantry round used in rifles and automatic rifles at the time.
Numerous variants of the M1919 existed, and that included the numerous modifications made to the weapon over the years. Around the time of the invention of the Stinger, the Americans were using the M1919A6.
The AN/M2 was originally designed specifically for aircraft. As such, it needed to be as light as possible. Lighter planes fly faster and longer, so trimming weight is critical. To that end, the engineers utilized a thinner barrel and receiver.
As a result, the M1919A6 weighed 32 pounds, and the AN/M2 weighed in at roughly 21 pounds. That’s a considerable drop in heft. Additionally, the AN/M2 offered a much higher firing rate than the standard M1919A6. In a dog fight, you need to be able to pour lead into a target, and the 1,200 to 1,500 rounds per minute firing rate allowed for just that.
Additionally, the gun used spade grips and lacked a stock of any kind. It certainly was not suited for infantry work. Regardless, the AN/M2 would be the core of the Stinger.
The Marines behind the weapon
Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome is a famed Marine Corps motto because Marines often do more with less. As such, when given the opportunity, they’ll make anything a bit more deadly. In 1943, the Bougainville Campaign was underway, and the Marines carried some AN/M2 machines gun to shore. One such Marine, Pvt. William “Bill” H. Colby, outfitted his AN/M2 with a bipod to make it a little more useful. He’d find a good reason to use it almost immediately.
Under an ambush, Colby put the gun to work. Ambushes require you to fight through, and the two best ways to fight against a near ambush are grenades and automatic gunfire—or preferably, lots of both. The AN/M2 certainly provided lots of fire. I’d imagine the noise of 1,200 .30-06 rounds ripping off would provide quite the fright for just about anyone nearby, let alone those in its line of fire. Colby and his A-gunner, Private Crumlish, kept the gun fed and running.
They repelled the attack, and the Stinger proved it had promise. Yet, it retained its awkward aircraft design.
Somehow, word got around the idea was born. The use of the AN/M2 as an infantry weapon caught on. Two more Marines, Sergeant Milan Grevich and Private First Class John Lyttle, wanted to make the weapon more practical for infantry operations. Grevich was a machine gunner and remained unimpressed with the weapons available in his section. So, he improvised, adapted, and overcame.
Building the Stinger
The Stinger finally came to life with the presence of a bipod, an M1 Garand stock fitted to the receiver, and a unique solenoid trigger design that replaced the spade grips. It added rear sights and bipods from BAR rifles.
But where would one even get spare aircraft machine guns? Well, when a plane goes down or is scrapped, you don’t leave weapons behind. There was no shortage of downed aircraft in World War II, and Grevich and Lyttle were able to obtain six AN/M2 machine guns they then modified into Stingers.
The name came naturally from the gun’s fire rate. Some joked at the time that the gun provided quite the Sting. The man-portable gun weighed only 25 pounds, which put the Stinger in line with modern medium machine guns like the M240B. That light weight compared to other machine guns of its day likely made it quite handy in tight jungles, and certainly allowed the men to move easier.
You really can’t overstate how the volume of fire delivered by the Stinger made it a fiercely violent weapon. It may have been difficult to control on just a bipod, seeing as it was originally intended to be mounted on an aircraft, but the rate of fire could just lay waste to so much territory that accuracy wasn’t too pressing a concern.
Machine guns suppress the enemy, and the Stinger’s high rate of fire allowed it to be extremely effective in that role, especially when you consider the Japanese human-wave tactics that were prevalent in the Pacific theater.
Being able to lay down a stream of lead was a force multiplier for the Marines in the fight from a practical standpoint, but it’s important not to discount the effect firing 25 .30-06 rounds per second at the enemy can have on their morale. Of course, with that rate of fire, the gun eats a lot of ammunition, and I feel bad for the A-gunners and ammo bearers toting it all.
The six Stingers were distributed to G Company’s three rifle platoons, with one going to the Demolitions section and one carried by Grevich himself. The sixth and final Stinger went to Cpl. Tony Stein.
The Stinger at Iwo Jima
Cpl. Tony Stein hit the shores of Iwo Jima on February 19, 1945, Stinger in hand. He laid down hate in the form of suppressive fire for his platoon as they moved through the beach, continually exposing himself to enemy fire. Japanese soldiers in pillboxes and emplacements had it out for him, taking aim at the Marine with the unusual weapon, but he persisted. He, and his Stinger, gunned them down one at a time. He moved from target to target, pouring lead into each.
Imagine the sound and fury of that gun against a symphony of enemy fire. Every minute the enemy’s fire lessened, but that Stinger’s distinctive noise prattled on. The only breaks must’ve been the two times the enemy managed to literally shoot the gun out of Stein’s hands. Don’t worry; both times, he hoisted it back and kept slinging hate. In the end, he’d killed 20 enemy soldiers with little more than the Stinger and a whole lot of guts.
Sadly, however, he wouldn’t make it home. On May 1st, 1945, he was killed in action. An enemy sniper targeted him as he led a mission to infiltrate enemy pillboxes. Whether the sniper knew about the Stinger and his tenacity as a machine gunner is unknown, but he would certainly be a target the enemy wished to eliminate.
Cpl. Stein received a Medal of Honor for his actions at Iwo Jima. His Medal of Honor citation even mentions the Stinger as a “personally improvised aircraft-type weapon.”
The End of the Stinger
With the war ending, the Stingers were turned in and promptly destroyed. If the war had gone on or the Stinger produced earlier, it’s interesting to think where it would have gone. The gun could’ve potentially replaced the BAR and formed an early general-purpose machine gun. It’s a tragedy that no Stingers have survived into our modern era. I would love to see one in the Museum of the Marine Corps. It’s a small story against the vast historical backdrop of the world’s greatest conflict, but it’s one that’s certainly worth noting.