By Scott Longman
Marine Sergeant John Edward Boitnott squinted at what was in front of him, and he was not happy.
He was looking northward at a vast, descending piece of barren real estate that bottomed out in a valley and then rose at the far side, about to his elevation and about a thousand yards away. That opposing high ground held lots of North Koreans who wanted to kill him and his fellow Marines. And they were actively trying to do just that.
His unhappiness was based on hard-won experience. Few infantrymen in history have ever come close to his stunning career. He saw his first combat—and his first Purple Heart—on the very first day of U.S. involvement in WWII, aboard the U.S.S. Chicago at a little place called Pearl Harbor. He then fought his way across the Pacific, gunning it out in many famous battles, including the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, Okinawa and the legendarily brutal Iwo Jima. Instead of demobilizing after V-J Day, he stayed in the Corps, and as a consequence, was among the earliest boots on Korean soil in 1950.
His extreme skill with a rifle had developed through both hard training and far harder combat experience, and in 1950, he earned the extra-rare Distinguished Marksmanship Medal. So when the Marine 5th Regiment put out the call for master shooters to form Sniper Group/Platoons, he was on the shortlist. And not that he ever lacked motivation, but his got raised three notches when an opposing sniper managed to glance a bullet off his helmet.
Anyway, the specific reasons for Sgt. Boitnott’s then-current unhappiness were several. First, the ochre and gray landscape had very little foliage and certainly not enough for concealment. Second, the ground itself was extremely hard, which meant that digging trenches and fighting holes (Marines hate the term “foxhole” because foxes hide in them, they don’t fight from them) was likewise awful and at points impossible. Their trenches, such as they were, were mostly only about three feet deep. But the most important issue was that Sgt. Boitnott’s rifle was suboptimal for the job.
He had a newly issued M1-C, the faithful Garand that he knew so well converted to sniper use. The Garand itself was an honored, accurate, durable, reliable much-loved weapon. And the .30 M2 round (the .30-06) it fired was a sledgehammer on humans. But the U.S. military issued the M82 rifle scope, based on the Lyman Alaskan. It’s difficult to fathom in light of current issue scopes having 25x magnification if not more, but the M82 had a fixed magnification of a paltry 2.5x. In fairness, for its time, the M82 scope was a durable and precise piece of equipment. It just wasn’t one for thousand-yard shots.
The other fact that’s hard to believe in light of modern well-developed sniping, is that there was no match-grade ammunition available. Most knowledgeable sources agree that the as-issued M1-C system was good for only about 600 yards. But Sgt. Boitnott would have no shot that close, and some at double that range. So he went to work. Based on his years of combat experience, he had a partial fix for the ammunition issue. Stock M2 ball ammo had a bullet of 152 grains, but the armor piercing variant had a heftier 168 grains. That ten percent made a significant difference at longer ranges. As the phrase goes, you can lose velocity but you can’t lose mass.
But that left simply seeing the damn Commies to begin with. The 2.5x scope wasn’t a lot of help. But Sgt. Boitnott was an inventive Marine, and he had an idea. All it needed was a slightly unhinged volunteer. There are a couple of stories, but the best one is that he walked into his mess hall and publicly requested a volunteer to serve as a decoy target. A daredevil Private First Class named Henry Friday offered himself up and the two went to work.
Essentially, PFC Friday was a shooting gallery duck, whose job it was to walk back and forth in the shallow trenches. Presumably, his gait was uneven because of his giant balls. Regardless, it worked.
Sgt. Boitnott vigilantly eyeballed, waiting for some hapless Commie to fire. Muzzle flash, small puff of smoke and then his counter-sniper fire was inbound.
A one-shot-one-kill at a stunning 900 yards.
And then again.
Well, some war correspondents got wind of this and showed up. He kept going to town, and they splashed him across newspaper front pages and magazines. It was, ironically, that buzz that led some senior officers to find out about it and shut him down. But before they did, he’d racked up nine kills. And even without his PFC decoy, Sgt. Boitnott managed to rack up another eight kills before it was over.
His war came to an end in July of 1952, when he won the last of his Purple Hearts, badly hit with heavy enemy fire. Although it ended his war, it did not end his military career. He went on to several prestigious posts, including that of head of security for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he finally retired after 30 years of service, he had won the Bronze Star with V device (for valor in combat), the Navy Commendation Medal with V device (also for valor in combat), two Presidential Unit Citations, a staggering 24 Campaign Medals and an equally crazy 6 Purple Hearts, among many others.
A Marine, an attitude, a Garand and a big dose of creativity.