At about the same time on July 21st, 1921 that history was being made off Hampton Roads, Virginia with the sinking of the former German battleship Ostfriesland by experimental bombs dropped from a military plane, another kind of shootout was taking place in the woods of northern Cumberland County, North Carolina. While General Billy Mitchell’s theory was being proven with the controversial Air Corps bombing mission, it is with the latter event that our story really begins.
A 21-year-old 8th grade drop-out named David Marshall Williams had elected to supplement his modest Atlantic Coast Railroad paycheck with the production and sale of prohibition whiskey from a series of stills hidden in those deep woods. On this unlucky summer day, a Sheriff’s deputy died in an exchange of gunfire with David’s crew of “moonshiners”, an unexpected outcome which would change Williams’ life and a piece of American history.
Williams always denied having fired the fatal shot, and his trial ended without a conviction because of a “hung jury”. Rather than face a retrial, he pled to 2nd degree murder, and was sentenced to a 20–30-year prison term to be served at Caledonia Prison Farm in Halifax county.
Although not at his best in a classroom, the young farm boy had exhibited a love for tools, tool-making, and metal craft from an early age. The prison warden recognized genius when he saw it, and soon Williams was designing and turning out a long list of iron and steel components for the prison. And he was especially gifted in the repair of firearms for the guard staff. In fact, with borrowed paper and drawing accessories, he was designing entire weapons systems around a never-before-seen gas operated mechanism which would revolutionize automatic weapon technology.
Warden H.T. Peoples placed his own job in jeopardy by allowing Williams to actually manufacture his newly-designed semi-automatic rifle while doing his time. When called on the carpet for this, Warden Peoples said he had so much faith in the young prisoner, that he would finish out Williams’ time himself if ever one of his weapons was used in an escape.
After eight years in prison, and with the forgiveness of the dead deputy’s family, Williams was pardoned by Governor Angus McLean. With his patents in hand, he went to work for the Winchester Company, adapting his short-stroke chamber system to the M-1 Garand rifle. His ultimate was the military weapon to be known as the .30 M-1 Carbine, destined to become the most produced military weapon in history; to be exact 6,220,000 in all its several configurations. It went ashore at Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and it is the quintessential “D-Day” rifle of Normandy remembrance.
The U.S. .30 M-1 carbine also went to Korea adapted to selectively act as a fully automatic submachine gun, making it an excellent patrol weapon where much of the infantry action took place at short range – often in hand-to-hand combat distances. Light weight and equipped with 35-round capacity magazines, it gave the gift of extraordinary fire power to the basic four-man patrol team. It was my constant companion – day and night – for the year I lived in a combat environment, and along with a replacement firing pin taped to my underarm in cold weather it went with me everywhere and was tucked under one edge of my sleeping bag at night.
Today, the prized WWII vintage .30 M-1 Carbine I own stands guard nearby, and I sleep more soundly for its reassuring presence. I salute David Marshal “Carbine” Williams who deserved the honors bestowed upon him at the time of his death in 1975: honorary membership in the National Sheriffs; Association and appointment as Honorary Deputy United States Marshal, and 2nd Deputy Sheriff of Cumberland County, to mention just a few.
The author with his faithful companion in wartime Korea. Circa 1952
Al Cooper Photo