by William G. Menosky
Tommy gun. The name evokes different memories or thoughts in a cross section of people both in the United States and internationally. Some may think of names that wrote the violent history of the twenties and thirties in this country: Capone, Floyd or Dillinger. Others may think of the Irish crowd with Michael Collins and their early struggle for independence, or the English “Tommies” of the second World War, or even of Colonel Henry A. Mucci, Bridgeport war hero. Still others may think of Hollywood types like Cagney, Wayne, or more recently, Johnny Depp in the movie “Public Enemies.” But whatever the first thought, the name carries instant recognition. The “Thompson Submachine Gun,” ”the Chicago Typewriter,” “the Chopper,” “the Tommy gun”: its story is long, infamous, heroic, and, surprisingly, it runs right through Bridgeport.
With bankrolling supplied by New York financier Thomas Fortune Ryan, the Tommy gun was the creative idea of General John Taliaferro Thompson, West Point grad and small arms expert. In 1916, he started the Auto-Ordnance Corporation (AOC). World War I ended abruptly in 1918. Consequently, it was too late to actually get some prototype guns into battle for testing. As a result, the Thompson gun went through more refinement and, finally,15,000 guns were manufactured during 1921-22 at the prestigious Colt’s Patent Firearms Manufacturing Company in Hartford, CT.
Over the next eighteen years the gun was sold, literally, in dribs and drabs to various police departments, sheriffs and small constabularies around the US, to the Post Office, the Navy, the Marines and to a few foreign countries. Everyone praised its performance at the many trials that it was put through but no one was buying in quantity. The War was over and purchasing budgets were low or non-existent. Who needed a machine gun anyway? The criminal element found uses for the gun but that story moves in a different direction. So, in any sort of business sense, the Thompson gun was a huge financial failure.
Until…1939. Enter J. Russell Maguire a Connecticut born industrialist and opportunist. The Auto-Ordnance Corporation was in deep debt to the heirs of Thomas F. Ryan and the Ryans wanted out. In July, a deal was finally struck giving Maguire controlling interest in AOC. Maguire believed that war was imminent in Europe and to say he was correct is a major understatement. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. On November 1, France ordered 3,000 guns. Maguire immediately contracted with the Savage Arms Corp. of Utica, NY to start producing guns. The incoming orders, slow at first, soon became massive. In August 1940, Maguire leased and then later purchased in April of 1941, the Raybestos-Manhattan brake-lining plant along Railroad Avenue and Cherry Street in Bridgeport, CT.
Why Bridgeport? It had a large skilled labor pool of machinists and toolmakers. It had material suppliers, rail transport, a deep water port and a supportive group of small machine shops. It was a perfect venue in which to succeed. By the end of 1941, there were orders for 319,000 guns. By 1944, between Savage Arms and AOC in Bridgeport a total of 1,750,000 Thompson submachine guns were produced with Bridgeport accounting for 500,000 of that total! The guns were sold or provided through the “Lend-Lease” programs, to almost every Allied country. The AOC plant had over 2,500 hundred workers.
Almost 70 years have slipped by since AOC finished its work and left the city. No one recognizes its name or knows its history and contributions. Most of its buildings have been demolished. Today, let us clearly understand that the firearm produced by its proud workers in the hands of our bravest young men probably had something to do with the name, “Arsenal of Democracy,” being ascribed to Bridgeport, CT. Finally, the half million Thompson guns manufactured on Railroad Avenue were, undeniably, a part of the heroism in the victory by American and Allied forces in both theaters of World War II.