On Staying Alive by Being Inept

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.

“Roger. Out.”

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.


43 thoughts on “On Staying Alive by Being Inept

  1. Roger Simons

    Something doesn’t ring true…carrying a frag until it rusts, NO WAY! Frag weighs as much as a canteen…gallon of water is about 8.5 lbs so a canteen is a bit over 2 lbs of water only. Have never heard of breaking radio protocol…did you break radio procedures when calling in artillery? How about did the FO break protocol when on the horn with Brigade to get Air Force support?

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Since I don’t know what part does not ring true I will try to reply to the issues you raise. The cotter pin on the frag is made of soft metal so you can pull it out easier. That kind of metal rusts fast. It was the cotter pins that rusted. In triple canopy jungle, any metal could rust overnight.

      A frag grenade weighed one pound. A canteen contains, one quart of water, or two pints of water. A pint of water weighs one pound at sea level. Essentially Phan Thiet was at sea level. Therefore, the weight of one grenade is the same as the weight of the water in a half full canteen.

      I do not know what you mean about breaking radio protocol. We changed a “pro-word”. We were a separate battalion, so there was no brigade to call. Our FOs handled artillery and we had a FAC for air support. I hope that answers your questions. Thank you for your feedback and your interest.

    2. James W Jenkins Jr

      I have seen rusty pins….Later on these pins were replaced by a coated metal that did not rust. I think you might have misunderstood the part about radio protocol…If he had called in Air support, he would have used the right term..as opposed to radio com at Bn level. We used our own at Company level with our TOW Platoon…it worked well at that level.

      1. JohnEHarrison Post author

        Thank you for the comment. Actually our commo with the FACs was probably the least bound by protocol, but we were a separate battalion and our FAC lived at LZ Betty with us. They and the Dustoff pilots were extraordinary.
        We could have used a TOW during Tet ’68, but a 90 MM recoilless rifle was a pretty good substitute. Welcome home James W Jenkins, jr.

  2. James W Jenkins Jr

    Why not write a book about your experiences? The article here is well written and manages to keep the reader interested…I will share it on my facebook page..unless, you take my advice and write that book!

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I may write a book. The problem is, while after 45 years it is easy to remember individual events, continuity would suffer if I tried to put them in order now. Also, there is a block in my memory, 2/2/68-2/19/68, two really bad battles. After the second sequence really falls apart. Read “Cone of Violence” and you will see part of what I mean.
      Thank you for the compliments. It is the feedback that drives my writing.

  3. George Stergiadis

    Thank you for a well written and enjoyable piece. Your writing style had me chuckling as I read it. Keep up the good work!

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      You should take a look at “Cone of Violence” if you liked On Staying Alive by Being Inept. My favorite is My Mother’s Machine Gun. Thank you so much for the feedback.

  4. fred hoffman


  5. Bill Crabbe

    John I can empathize with the angst regarding Grenades. I flew as a Door Gunner for 15 months from 67-68 with the Black Widows & Spartans.. On one occasion I found a grenade left behind by some Grunt. I attempted to return it to anybody who wanted it but no takers. Nobody including me wanted the damn thing for the same reasons. We just didn’t trust the damn things! Finally some NFG took it from me. One of his squad asked why I didn’t want it & I said Helicopters & Grenades don’t belong together… I’m glad you made it home! God Bless…

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Welcome home Bill Crabbe, and thanks for the feed back. I never trusted grenades either. If they can go bang when you want them to, they can go bang when you do not want them to. Welcome home.

  6. Greg Murry

    Hi John, I enjoyed your story very much. Very few vets tell about the accidents that bedeviled us so often. I too had a ‘well’ experience and if you would like to read about it, let me know and I’ll email it you. As for writing your memoir, I did after I retired from the army in 2005. I too had a block in my memory after a particularly bad action and to this day can’t remember much about my last two months in country. You can get the AARs to help and contacting old comrades is much easier on the internet. Go for it.
    Greg Murry

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I would love to read it. Every time I read one it jogs a memory of mine, sometimes similar, sometimes not. I did not know I had a block until I started going to reunions and then tried to write. I have forgotten some stuff completely, and after 2/19/68 I could not put it into chronological order if you paid me. If you like unintended consequences, you may like “My Mother’s Machine-gun”. Welcome home jehslh101@aol.com I look forward to reading it. john

  7. Bill Crabbe

    It is fair to say that a M79 Launcher is the better way to go! Art least that is how I felt in my Grunt days. Although from your story it would have been all over but the crying! Sometimes Luck is all you have…

  8. Don Sinclair

    John, my thanks as well. I appreciate and admire your writing style. Like many of our brothers I had blocked it all from my mind for many decades and while I don’t expose myself to many conversations, books, movies of that era I fully enjoy what I have read from you. I agree with the others that a book is in order. Might I suggest putting the segments together and later working with “binding” them together. By that time I am confident the right words will come to you. I believe what I’ve seen so far is good therapy for many of us.

  9. Jeff condit

    I was 11B with the 25th div from 11/67-11/68. Can relate to the “spotty” memory experience. Last two months are completely blank. Still remember the numerous “near death” experiences. Enjoyed your story. You write well. Keep it up.

  10. nordrof

    Good story LT ,I’m glad I didn’t know what was going on I was nervous enough.After the 2nd my brain shut down I was there in body doing my job but can’t remember much for a couple of months after that.

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      I have the same problem Ron. Some things I remember with perfect clarity, but 2/2/1968 and 2/19/1968 stand like road blocks in my memory. Each time I go to a reunion or talk to Gaffney in particular, but any of us, I am reminded of how much I have forgotten. Generally mine is more of a problem of putting things in order rather than completely forgetting, but there are some things I had forgotten that really surprised me.

  11. Thomas Ewell

    I was a medic assigned to the aid station at the base camp at Phan Thiet. Dust off would bring us the casualties so we could stabilize them for transport on to a field hospital or mash unit. I got there about a month after the ammo dump was hit with incoming fire and exploded. My worst memories of Phan Thiet was of carrying body bags to Graves registration. Even as an immature 18 year old soldier who thought he was bullet proof, I had this solemn feeling of finality and knew that someone would soon be grief stricken by this loss. I have long denied that I was affected by PTSD, I saw way too many that suffered so much more than I ever would. A fellow Vietnam Nam vet and I were sharing stories recently, he is 100% disabled. As our conversation ended, he asked me, “how many body bags does an 18 year old have to carry to get PTSD” ? Now I began to understand why they we did not all come home.

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thank you for what you did. What year were you there?

      I have written several times about medics, and have always thought that medics had the hardest job in the Army. Welcome home.

  12. Clyde

    I was with the 823 Red Horse Sqd. stationed out of Bien Hoa 1966-67. We did a lot of LZ’z for just about anyone who wanted/needed one. Even did some “stuff” with the 145th that was stationed there when they were low on personnel.
    Enjoy your writing ~ brings back a memory that was forgotten. Keep up the good work !!

  13. Really_Old_Guy

    I, too, have written the stories that I could remember as an artilleryman. Writing is ALSO great therapy for PTS.


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