Soldiers find vintage weapons among caches in Iraq
May 25, 2007
BAGHDAD — While searching for weapons caches, American soldiers near Abu Ghraib often play the part of accidental archaeologists.
Iraq is a country steeped in history, but the artifacts that soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry have periodically stumbled on are not born of the Middle East. Instead, they have migrated from Europe and Asia, remnants of past battlefields that have been pressed into service again.
Rifles etched with the Nazi eagle and swastika, Tommy guns seemingly straight out of black and white gangster movies, and a British Sterling submachine gun familiar to any World War II enthusiast have been found among the weapons troves of insurgents. The weapons, often preserved in their hiding places in motor oil, are discovered in perfect working order, a startling incongruence to their surroundings in Iraq and modern warfare.
“Most of this stuff should be in a museum and not floating around,” said Capt. Rene Diaz, 29, of Puerto Rico. “You normally can only read about these kinds of weapons.”
The unit finds about two to three weapons caches per week, said Capt. Shaun Trinkle. The finds vary in size from a couple of guns with a few hundred rounds to larger caches with dozens of weapons and explosives. Trinkle, a 27-year-old from Fort Hood, Texas, said soldiers typically find a variation of the AK automatic rifle, a weapon common to many Iraqi households.
But on a dozen occasions, the troops have found weapons that date as far back as the 1930s and 40s. The weapons, from places like Russia, Germany and the United Kingdom, are worth tens of thousands of dollars to collectors, Diaz said.
Diaz, a gun enthusiast, spends time pulling apart the rare weapons, studying the sturdy design that has allowed them to continue performing more than a half century after their manufacture.
“These old weapons were designed to be pounded and punished,” he said. “In World War II they were made simple and easy to use. And here they still are.”
Trinkle, another admirer of vintage weapons, said it is anyone’s guess how the guns — some worth upwards of $25,000 on the antiquities market — could have found their way into dirt holes in the orchards and rutted fields of western Baghdad.
“Sometimes it amazes me,” he said. “Some of the guns may have been family heirlooms passed down. Some may have been surplus weapons sold by other countries to Iraq. Some may have been floating around on the black market.”
The appearance of British weapons has the most plausible explanation, the soldiers said. The guns were likely remainders of the colonial British presence in Iraq during the early part of the 20th century. Iraq achieved independence from the British in the 1930s.
“The weapons are pretty rugged,” Diaz said. “But a lot of them were destroyed after [World War II] so that’s why they’re collector’s items.”
Diaz said he hopes some of the antique guns are displayed at the unit’s home base in Fort Hood. The process of clearing the weapons for return to the United States involves a lot of paperwork, he said, but otherwise the guns will be destroyed or turned over to Iraqi authorities.
“This is real unique stuff that you definitely don’t see every day in the United States,” Trinkle said. “Here you just find them buried in the ground.”