The bazooka was World War II’s answer to the American soldier’s need for portable firepower that could inflict serious damage on the enemy.
Simple enough for use by rifle squads, powerful enough to shoot high-explosive rounds into bunkers and pillboxes, the bazooka put more bang farther away on the battlefield than the average G.I. could throw in the form of a grenade.
True, Gen. George Patton praised the M-1 Garand rifle as the greatest battle implement ever made. But Gen. Dwight Eisenhower ranked the humble bazooka with the atom bomb, the jeep, and the C-47 transport and cargo plane as one of the four “Tools of Victory” that allowed the Allies to prevail over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
“The bazooka is one of those weapons that has become iconic in spite of its limitations and problems,” said Alan Archambault, former supervisory curator for the U.S. Army Center of Military History. “Even today, most people recognize the name and the weapon.”
Rockets on the battlefield are nothing new. History is full of examples of militaries harnessing explosive force to rocket power with many kinds of results.
The 13th Century Chinese fired rockets at their enemies. The Star-Spangled Banner mentions the “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” – Congreve rockets fired at Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 in an effort to burn the fort to the ground.
American space pioneer Dr. Robert Goddard, inventor of the liquid-fuel rocket, even developed a prototype recoilless rocket launcher that he demonstrated to the U.S. Army in November 1918. Unfortunately for Goddard, the Great War ground to a halt just a few days later and the U.S. military lost interest in rocket-powered weapons for a while.
But when the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, the only anti-tank weapons in its arsenal were the guns on its tanks and specific kinds of anti-tank artillery. That was a problem considering the U.S. Army faced an enemy in North Africa, later Europe, who relied heavily on Panzer divisions.
U.S. Army Ordnance innovators Capt. Leslie Skinner and Lt. David Uhl experimented with shaped-charge grenades that packed an armor-piercing punch but were too heavy for soldiers to throw. One day, Uhl apparently spied a steel tube on a scrap pile and decided a smooth-bore launch tube was the perfect companion to the grenade/rocket combination he recently developed.
Tube, fin-stabilized rocket, grenade: By May 1942, the combination became known as “Launcher, Rocket, 2.36 inch, Anti-Tank, M-1.”
But nobody called it that – the contraption looked like one of the novelty musical instruments of Bob Burns, a popular comedian of the era. Burns called his tubular noisemaker a “bazooka” – from Dutch slang for “loudmouth” – and the name for the joke instrument became the name of the weapon.
Optimally, the bazooka needed two men for proper use: a gunner who aimed and fired the rocket-propelled rounds and a loader who carried the rounds in a cloth bandoleer before loading the bazooka through the back end of the launcher’s tube.
An electric charge from a dry-cell battery ignited the powder charge in the rocket, which sent the round hurtling out of the tube and on its way to the target.
However, early models of the weapon could be downright dangerous. Occasionally, the rocket would fire but get stuck in the tube, leaving the soldier with a live bomb in his shoulder-mounted launcher.
All models of the bazooka produced significant “back-blast”– discharge from the firing rocket that streamed out of the rear-end of the tube – and an obvious smoke trail that often gave away the position of the shooter.
However, improvements to the weapon produced the far-more reliable M-9. It had a light warhead, but it was capable of destroying many armored vehicles because the round could penetrate five-inch armor.
Although intended as an anti-tank weapon, the bazooka could also fire white phosphorous and incendiary warheads for anti-personnel and anti-material use.
For example, Wilbur “Bill” Brunger was an engineer with the U.S. Army during World War II when he received orders in 1945 to demolish three underpasses on the Autobahn near Dortmund, Germany, so the rubble would block any advancing enemy vehicles.
Brunger was with a squad of men trying to take control of those underpasses when they encountered German half-tracks coming their way.
His squad had an M-9 and Brunger fired a round at one of the half-tracks. The round was so efficient he got more than he bargained for.
“It must have had ammunition because it blew, I’d say, a hundred feet in the air,” Brunger said in an 2004 oral history prepared by the Douglas County History Research Center, Colorado. “But it blew up. I was glad we weren’t any closer than we were.”
In fact, the weapon was so effective the bazooka received the sincerest form of flattery: The Nazis copied captured bazookas and also created their Panzerschreck anti-tank rocket launcher using the American bazooka’s basic design.
Although it went through different variants, the bazooka remained in use through the early stages of the Vietnam War. Then, the M-72 LAW (light anti-tank weapon) eclipsed the bazooka and became the rocket-weapon of choice among infantrymen.
However, the bazooka has one remaining cultural influence in American history. According to some sources, Bazooka bubble gum (first introduced to the gum-chewing public in 1947) owes its ordnance-inspired name to the World War II weapon that made a big bang.