By john harrison
It happened in 1968, the bloodiest year of a long, bloody war. Alpha Company had just been resupplied with ammunition after yet another firefight. It was still Tet ’68. We were moving across a wide expanse of rice paddies dotted with small groups of mud and wattle houses with thatched roofs in the Disneyland area near Phan Thiet, RVN, aka the place where the Infantry plays. That day, Disneyland had a lesson in humility waiting for me.
It was late morning that day, but it was already brutally hot. As usual, the 2nd Platoon had the point for Alpha Company.
Just after the point left a group of huts, a hand grenade exploded behind me, and a fountain of water shot up into the sky. Someone had dropped a hand grenade down a well next to the rice paddy. It created a cooling shower if you were standing on the side where some of the water came down. You also got rid of a hand grenade.
The next thing that happened was that my RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) Hal Dobie handed me the PRC-25, radio handset and said simply:
Meaning that Alpha 6, or the Company Commander of Alpha Company, Tom Gaffney was on the horn and wanted to talk to me.
“This is 2-6. Go ahead.” I said.
Meaning this is the 2nd Platoon Leader. We had recently switched from using “Over” to using “Go ahead” and then “Go” as radio pro words probably because we thought it sounded cooler.
“This is 6, what do you have? Go.” asked Gaffney.
“2-6. Nothing. Just one of the guys getting rid of an excess hand grenade from the resupply. I’ll stop it. Go.” I replied.
But for having to answer the radio, I already would have been doing exactly that.
“No. We felt something back here in the ground when the hand grenade went off. There may be a tunnel. Check it out. Go.” Gaffney said.
I went back to the well, just a four foot wide hole in the ground lined with rock and looked down it. When I asked for a hand grenade I had several offers. The M-26 hand grenade that we used weighed exactly a pound each and was rarely used except in very close combat. This meant, once you were issued one, you would be carrying it for a while. We had just been resupplied and they sent out too many hand grenades so a lot of guys wanted to get shed of the extra weight.
That little hand grenade weighed the same as half a canteen of water. As hot as it was, we needed the water; the grenades, not so much right then. Troops in the field are very practical about the weight they carry. If it is useful, it almost does not matter how much it weighs. If it is not useful, it does not matter how little it weighs.
Hand grenades are also just plain dangerous to be around. One company commander, and all of that company’s medics had been wounded a month or so before when the pin on a hand grenade, which had been badly rusted from months in the field, sheared off and the grenade exploded in the company CP (Command Post) during a medics meeting.
Disasters like that were happening so often that a new order came down from division soon after requiring that all hand grenades be carried inside a canteen cover rather than on the webbing.
I took one of the offered hand grenades; pulled the pin; let the spoon fly, and dropped it down the well as I stepped a little way back from the edge. In four point five seconds exactly, the grenade went off; a tower of water emerged from the well and then most of it splashed back down into the well.
I went over and looked down the well. Just to the left of where I was standing and about seven or eight feet down I could now see the top of a round hole in the side of the well’s wall. It was about three feet in diameter and looked a lot like a tunnel to me. I asked for another hand grenade and again received several offers. I took one, pulled the pin, popped the spoon and tried to toss it into the round hole in the side of the well but it missed the hole entirely. It bounced off and landed in the water below.
Four point five seconds later, it went bang, large water plume. Then, I walked over to the side of the well and looked down again.
This time I saw an entire circle in the side of the well and it looked even more like a tunnel entrance. I took another grenade and leaned out over the well. I wanted to stay on my feet because I wanted to be able to move back from the edge quickly. After all, a grenade was going to explode. I wanted to be no where near that. This time I was even more careful with my toss, but the grenade hit something metal sounding inside the hole, bounced out and blew up in the water in the bottom of the well just like the first three hand grenades.
Since they now knew where the water going to splash, more of my guys managed to get wet from the spray each time I dropped a hand grenade. While they maintained the perimeter around the well, some rotated in each time for the spray.
This time I lay down on the side of the top of the well to try to look into the hole. I planned to try to lean down, toss in the grenade and then just roll away from the well. I had already pulled the pin from the hand grenade.
Then, for the first time I saw the bent, grey, metal fins in the hole. I had heard the expression: “My heart stopped.” Now I experienced the feeling too. However, I would have described it as more like someone dropping a solid concrete block on my chest from about ten feet above me. I kept a death grip on that hand grenade’s spoon.
Now that water plumes had washed out the entrance to the tunnel, I could see the bent back fins, clearly. I could see the fins of what looked very much like the fins on a 750 lbs., High Drag, United States Air Force, bomb. Clutching that hand grenade tightly, I rolled away from the edge of the well.
“Get back!” I yelled and kept right on rolling away from the edge of that well as fast as I could roll.
With a High Drag bomb, when the plane releases the bomb, the fins pop out. The fins do three things: they stabilize the bomb in flight; they slow the bomb down so the aircraft can get clear of the blast; and, they will only arm the bomb if the aircraft has enough time to get clear of the blast.
Since the bomb is more stable in flight because of the fins, it is more accurate. It can be dropped from the plane closer to the target because the fins delay the bomb’s strike. The pilot can drop it more confidently because it will not go off unless he has time to get away from the blast. The disadvantage is, if the pilot drops it too close, it leaves the bomb there unexploded giving the enemy a lot of free high explosive for their own improvised explosive devices.
When I was twenty or so feet away from the well I sat up and carefully put the pin back in the hand grenade. I took my time and cautiously bent the pin ends back to secure the pin in its hole.
I was really proud that my hands were not shaking—surprised me too.
Probably only my own natural ineptness as a tosser of hand grenades had saved my life and the lives of most of my men. An Air Force 750 lbs. bomb blast produces a crater of about 35 feet in width. Most of my platoon had been standing within a 35-foot wide circle around that well.
If one of the hand grenades had stayed in the tunnel; if it had rolled down, past the bent fins, closer to the explosive in the bomb; if it had set off the bomb, we would have all literally become an emulsified mess of blood, flesh and small bits of shattered bone.
They spent about a week in OCS (Officer Candidate School) showing us the many ways to set off explosives. One of the best and most often used ways to set off an explosive is called sympathetic detonation. You just set off an explosion as close to another explosive as you can, and the first explosive blowing up will set off the second one as well.
In a way, that is what a blasting cap does. You slide the cap into the explosive, or sometimes you place it beside the explosive and when the cap explodes, it also sets off the main explosive. When engineers rig multiple explosives to blow, they use sympathetic detonation to set them off, usually with Det Cord, sort of a thick rope made of high explosive.
One example of sympathetic detonation that I had seen recently was watching the engineers throw a hand grenade into a lot different explosives they had piled in a hollow tree to blow that tree out of the way to create an LZ (Landing Zone). The effect was the same as placing the blasting cap into the explosive you wanted to set off. Being in a confined space, like in that hollow tree, or in a tunnel, made it even more likely for one explosive blast to set off another nearby explosive.
It had been just dumb luck that I had missed the tunnel entirely with the first hand grenade I threw at it, and that the second hand grenade had bounced off of the high drag fins that gave the bomb its accuracy and stability. I do not know if a one-pound hand grenade is enough to set off a 750 lbs. bomb, but in the right place, in the close quarters of a tunnel, it might be.
If other bombs had been dropped nearby, almost a certainty since this bomb had not exploded and the fighter pilot surely would have tried again, then the explosives in this 750 lbs. bomb could have become unstable. Then, even a firecracker exploding nearby might set it off.
When we walked on, leaving the bomb to our engineers, I tried to give the hand grenade back to its owner, but no one would admit that it was theirs and I could not remember who gave me that one. I did not want to carry that hand grenade either. I kept wondering about all the bending of the pin? It was heavy too.
Soon after that, we heard the bomb go off. Naturally, the engineers had set it off by sympathetic detonation.
I kept that grenade, but when we passed the next well, I pulled the pin and tossed it in.
Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506th PIO.