A Dangerous Tossing Game, Played At Night

A Dangerous Tossing Game, Played At Night

by john harrisonTomInMountains

Second Platoon was circled up for the night in a defensive position high on top of a jungle clad mountain as near to Cambodia as we ever got, and I was sound asleep when the man on radio watch shook my shoulder. It was early in our one-year tour of duty in Vietnam, not long after the Battle of the Knoll but well before my Mother got me another machine-gun.

“Sir, its 3rd squad.” My RTO, (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie said as he handed me the black plastic, radio handset.

“There is something moving in front of us. Over.” whispered the man from 3rd squad over the radio.

“What is it? Over.” I said very quietly, but not whispering since I had been taught in OCS (Officer Candidate School) that whispers actually travel further than just talking very quietly at night.

“I don’t know. Over.” he replied.

“Do you have a target? Over.” I asked.

“No. I can’t see anything at all. I just hear it. Over.” he replied

“Well, when you do see it, shoot it. 2-6, out.” (2-6 is my radio call sign. It means I am the, 2nd Platoon, platoon leader.) I said and gave the radio handset back to the man on watch.

Then I rolled over, back into my poncho liner, and tried to go back to sleep. I think I had just about made it when the man on radio watch shook my shoulder once more.

“Sir, it’s 3rd squad again.” he said as he handed me the radio handset.

“This is 2-6, over.” I said into the handset.

“They are throwing rocks at us. Over.” he said.

“So, throw them back. Over.” I replied.

“We already did. But, they are better at throwing them than we are and they throw them really hard. One of them just put a dent in my steel pot. Over.” he said.

“Can you see them?” I said.

“No.” he replied.

“All right, cook off a hand grenade and toss that at them, but make sure you don’t hit a tree when you throw it.” I ordered.

“Roger, out.”

Throwing a hand grenade in the jungle, in the dark, is extremely dangerous because you might hit a tree and then the hand grenade could bounce back and worse, in the darkness you might not be able to find it in the underbrush to throw it again before it goes off. The Army, the thrower, and any others near by, would all consider that a to be very bad result.

ItCdBeBeautiful At the time and perhaps still, the American M-26 hand grenade we used had a 4.5 second fuse. There is always a dynamic tension in choosing exactly the right amount of time for a hand grenade fuse so that it allows the thrower sufficient time to get rid of an armed hand grenade, but it does not allow the receiver sufficient time to throw the hand grenade back before it goes off.

When it explodes, the M-26 hand grenade punches out about 1,000 stainless steel fragments to a distance of about 10 meters, which is considered the casualty-producing radius for the hand grenade. The lethal radius for 50% of those casualties is about 5 meters, or 16.5 feet. However, the danger area around such a hand grenade blast is 25 meters on soft ground, and out to about 300 meters on hard ground. A soldier in good condition, standing up, can throw a hand grenade about 20-25 meters, or about half that distance accurately, all of which is well within the danger area of the blast from the hand grenade’s explosion.

Using a hand grenade effectively at short range requires “cooking off” some of that fuse time because otherwise the recipient has too much time to throw it back. When you “cook off” a hand grenade, first you pull the pin. After you pull the pin, you let the spoon go, letting the spoon go arms the hand grenade, and starts the 4.5 second delay counting down. At very close range, the Army considered it safer to “cook off” up to 3 seconds of the fuse time rather than to give that time to your enemy to throw it back.

The use of the word “safer” rather than “safe” was done on purpose. As a philosopher would say, when it is a question of being more or less safe, it is not really a question of safety at all. There is nothing safe about a hand grenade, much less about cooking one off, particularly at night, particularly in the jungle where there are trees in the way in every direction you could even think about throwing one. Hand grenades are dangerous, period.

This is actually not that tight in terms of vegetation. If it was really tight, you couldn't see anything.

So, I had ordered someone, who would be working in the dark, to “cook off” a hand grenade by counting slowly to 3 after he let off the spoon. He would then throw it, with only about 1.5 seconds or so left, before it explodes. Then, immediately after throwing the hand grenade, if he is trained correctly, and if he remembers it, he will quickly drop to the ground, or better yet, get behind something really thick before the hand grenade goes off.

Assuming that the hand grenade fuse was made properly, cooking off a hand grenade before throwing it is considered safer than the alternative for well-trained, iron-nerved troops. On the other hand, consider that because of the inherent danger of cooking off a hand grenade, it is never even practiced in training with live hand grenades.

I hoped that it was one of my experienced, well-trained, iron-nerved, troops throwing the cooked off, hand grenade, rather than an F-N-G (F= standard Army descriptive adjective for nearly everything beginning with the letter “F”, N= new, G= guy), but it was the 3rd squad leader’s job to choose the hand grenade thrower, not mine.

In recognition of all this I did not roll back into my poncho liner, I stayed flat on the ground; the radio handset glued to my ear. Hand grenades are fearsome things when they go bang in the night, and in the daytime too for that matter.

The hand grenade went boom. There was some thrashing around in the bushes in front of 3rd Squad that was so loud that I could even hear it back in the platoon CP, then it was quiet for the rest of the night. I went back to sleep, my time on radio watch did not start for over an hour.

In the morning, we figured it out. We were high up in the mountains, in the jungle, hunting guerillas, but it appeared that we had set up for the night in the home of a band of gorillas or of some other primate with a strong throwing arm, but not guerrillas, definitely not guerillas. They had tried to drive us out of their home by throwing rocks at us. We had replied first by throwing back the rocks, albeit completely ineffectually, and then by cooking off and throwing a single hand grenade, very effective.

There was some blood, and some bits of matted black fur near where the hand grenade had exploded, but I was glad that there were no bodies, nor even any blood trails, to be found anywhere.

I wondered as we looked around, if gorillas that get caught up in a war they have no part of, can nonetheless be awarded their own version of a Purple Heart, just like us. They should, because when someone said that war is hard on people, and all other living things—they were right.


A guy wrote to complain that there are in fact no “gorillas” in South East Asia. I looked it up and he seems to be correct. However, after doing some more research I learned that there were multiple reports, of which I was not aware of when I wrote “A Dangerous Tossing Game, Played at Night”, of large primates, black in color, that liked to throw rocks at US troops and at others. As another reader pointed out and my research confirmed, these rock tossing primates are often called “rock apes” for the obvious reason. Also, in recent years they have discovered two new primates in South East Asia, and there has been at least one Vietnamese government expedition trying to find a “rock ape” or two. Since we never actually saw who was throwing the rocks at us I can’t contribute much to the science of the thing, but the world is a fascinating place in which to live.

All photos by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.

If you like this article, you might also like: The Battle of the Knoll, (https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/08/14/the-battle-of-the-knoll/), or My Mother’s Machine-gun, (https://johneharrison.wordpress.com/2014/07/14/my-mothers-machine-gun/).


25 thoughts on “A Dangerous Tossing Game, Played At Night

      1. john walsh


        I was on convoy escort on QL-1 in 1970, manning quad 50’s in a hard truck, when there was movement in the brush off the side of the road. It was free fire zone, and unfortunately an elephant was the recipient of several armor piercing rounds. Shit happens.

    1. Raymond S Peterson

      I enjoyed reading your story about The Rock Apes. I was with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and had one occasion up north to run into what we called Rock monkeys. It made for interesting nights. I would however relate to you one story about the grenades that I used to carry. I was always concerned particularly at night about throwing a grenade and having the spoon fly off and making that noise that could give away our position . A buddy of mine and I figured out that by pulling the PIN and easing up on the spoon until we could put the pin back in through the holes and over the trigger, then we could remove the spoon completely and when we got ready to use the grenade we would just hold our thumb over the trigger, pull the pin and when we got ready to throw it, it would hardly make any noise at all therefore not giving the enemy much time to react. We also used to cook them off about 3 seconds before throwing them. We got pretty good at it even creating Air Bursts at times. I found your story very interesting however I think sometimes you forget when you talk to combat vets that they don’t need a whole lot of explaining. We catch on very quickly what you’re talking about. That being said I can also understand people who haven’t been there and done that would need a long explanation. I enjoyed your story a lot and it brought back some memories. Thank you.

      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        you hit the nail on the head Raymond some of my readers have spent more time in a chow line than I spent in the service, but some are wives, sons and daughters of those that never came back and they want to know what happened as well. I make no pretense of perfection, but I do try to write for both groups.

        Thanks you so much for your compelling write up. I think both groups of my readers will understand it.

        john harrison

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I never heard of “rock apes” until I wrote the story. You have no idea what it means to hear that others had the same experience, but then again, maybe you do. Welcome home. My brother is a former Marine.

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I never heard of “rock apes” until I posted this, now, particularly Marines (my brother is a former Marine) talk about them as though they were everywhere. When you get old, and I am old now, it is wonderful to have your memory confirmed. Thank you, and Welcome home Marine.

    2. James Graves

      Marines ran into them from time to time in the mountains in the western part of Quang Tri Province, just below the DMZ from the Rockpile all the way over to Khe Sanh.

      One night at Khe Sanh I had a squad leader who had a nose to nose encounter with one. He was checking the positions on the perimeter and had just cleared my hole. Going to the next position through the communication trench he heard a noise in a hole just behind our lines where we dumped trash, including C-Rat food cans. He got up on top of the communication trench and was peering down into the trash dump when a hairy, 4-foot critter stood up right in front of him. He drew his 45 and fired, missed, and I heard the shot and saw a flash of movement toward our perimeter wire. Assuming it was a NVA sapper I fired; also a miss as there was no blood trail. The corporal missed mostly because what ever it was ran right through him and knocked him on his ass. You could say he was seriously spooked.

      I always thought they were some sort of an Orangutan. Orangutangs once lived in Malaysia (not all that far and walkable from Vietnam) but today they supposedly only exist in Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia; which would be a long swim. The locals who lived up there called them Batutut (Malay word) or Người rừng (Vietnamese, meaning Forest People). Today they are listed as a “bigfoot” type of creature but they for damn sure existed in the 1960s.

      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        Thanks for extending you already thoughtful comment. I always learn from my readers, and I love to have the basic idea of the story confirmed by their similar experiences. Thank you.

  1. Ray Miskell

    It was an every night occurrence at the Rockpile. Lasted untill around 03:00; then after being lulled into complacency the rocks began to go BOOM! Apes gone VC now playing the game!

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I can’t believe that I served in Vietnam, in the mountains, and never heard of rock apes. It is incredible. Thanks for the feed back i think I learn more from my readers than they do from me. Welcome home.

    2. Jim Graves

      They ranged from the Rockpile all the way over to Khe Sanh and we (9th and 3rd Marines) had a number of encounters with them along the DMZ.

      One of my squad leaders actually went nose-to-nose with one when he surprised the ape picking through our discarded can waste dump inside the perimeter at Khe Sanh. The squad leader was standing on the communication trench above the hole peering down when the ape just rose up out of the dark. The corporal drew his 45, fired and missed and the Rock Ape knocked him on his ass and took off for the wire. I saw a flash of movement and fired (missed, no blood trail) then went down and found the Corporal who was not only winded from getting run over but was damn spooked by what ever it was. He claimed it was damn near 4-feet tall. I have always wondered if there was some variant of the Orangutans that might still live up in those mountains. Only known populations of Orangutans are in Borneo and Sumatra but they did live in Malaysia, not all that far away. Natives called them Batutut (Malay) or Người rừng (Vietnamese) and it means “forest people.”

      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        They have discovered two new species of primates in Vietnam since the war, and the government has sent at least one expedition out to look for the “rock apes” since the descriptions of them are pretty uniform, but they do not correspond to known species.

        Thanks for the very thoughtful comment and Welcome home.

  2. Ray Miskell

    Our Naval Gunfire FO saved my life when out of a collum of approx 160 a Water Buffalo chose me to charge! William Lovell fired 7 rounds from his M14
    Dropping it dead about 20 meters from me! I will never forget it!

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      They are tough to kill. That horn protects more than their brain and M-16 bullets just bounced off. I always put an M-60 on them until we were clear. Welcome home Ray and thanks so much for the feedback.

  3. galucky

    Reblogged this on galucky and commented:
    I don’t know if you will see this. We did have a couple of short fuse incidents. I threw one and hit the ground. It cleared a hedge and went off scaring several of us (and myself).

      1. James Graves

        Marines encountered them in the mountains along the DMZ from Khe Sanh over to the Rockpile.

        I had a squad leader who had a nose to nose encounter with one at night. He was walking the perimeter checking positions and had just cleared my hole. He was in the communication trench and heard a noise coming from a hole we used to discard trash, including C-Rat food cans. He got up on the parapet of the trench so he could see down in the hole and suddenly some hairy, smelly and around 4-foot tall stood right up in front of him, within touching distance. He drew his .45 to fire but the critter took fright and ran right through him. He did get off a shot (miss) and I heard the scream and the shot and saw something running toward our perimeter wire. I assumed it was a NVA sapper and fired (also a miss). The squad leader was punchy from getting knocked on his ass and seriously spooked by the encounter.

        At the time (1967-1968) I assumed the big apes were some sort of Orangutang. The problem with that is Orangutangs today live only on the Islands of Borneo and Sumatra in Indonesia which would be a long swim. However Orangutangs once lived in Malysia, which would be a long walk but is connected by land to Vietnam. Locals called the rock apes Batututs (Malay) or Người rừng (Vietnames, means forest people). Today they are considered much like Bigfoot but Marines from the 1960s know they were out there and that is some serious thick jungle.

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