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.
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.
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.
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/).