How To Hide Behind a Pebble

How To Hide Behind a Pebble*

by john harrison

Every combat infantryman knows how to hide behind a pebble, but they also know it’s not much use to do so. It is not that you can’t conceal yourself behind one so much as it is that even though most pebbles are really hard, they still can’t stop bullets. However, because they are so hard, pebbles make excellent secondary shrapnel should an explosion go off nearby. If you are an infantryman seriously considering hiding behind a pebble, a nearby explosion is almost a certainty.

6802861 - Feb 2 Pinned Down on Levy

This is pinned down, but given the need an infantryman could get even lower to the ground. If you look closely, you can see he is in a small depression. This was taken February 2, 1968, near Phan Thiet by Jerry Berry, PIO 3/506th (ABN).

Since a pebble is too small to protect you, but is solid enough to hurt you when it is driven into your body by an explosion, a good infantryman avoids them if possible. This is just one of the little things that you learn as an infantryman that serve to keep you alive in that place called battle.

The question of hiding behind a pebble also points out the difference between what the Army called “cover” and what it called “concealment” when I was in the service. If you can find good “cover” then you are safe from enemy fire. They may know exactly where you are, in a bunker for example, but if you have good cover then you are protected from their fire.

On the other hand concealment is exactly that. The enemy cannot see you. In fact they may not even know you are there. It is their lack of knowledge of your position that protects you.

Since you can be killed just as dead by random as well as by aimed fire, most times cover is better than concealment; but there are some exceptions to this. A bunker is usually safe against the fire of an AK-47 for example, but a bunker is an absolute death trap if the enemy has a few RPG rockets. It is a much better idea in that case to simply hide.

If you can’t be seen by the enemy, then the enemy can’t find you, and better yet if they can’t find you, they probably can’t kill you. This is a simple rule that the VC, and the Viet Minh before them, used to fight armies far more powerful than they were for years. Therefore, if your cover can’t protect you, then hiding is a much better idea than staying where you are. Like most decisions, it all depends on the particular circumstances that you face.

So, if it is not useful, why then does every combat infantryman know how to hide behind a pebble? Simple, because something is always better than nothing, and if you are a combat infantrymen nothing is often all that you have in the world.



On the other hand, when you are talking about 2,000 pound, 16 inch naval gunfire, or a 750 pound Hi-drag bombs, there is no such thing as good cover. Only concealment and a little luck in being out of the blast range will work under those extremely challenging circumstances. Battle can be brutal.

I once told a civilian that I had often crawled into my helmet to hide while in combat. The civilian for some reason, doubted my story. He may have thought that he had a good reason for that doubt. I don’t really remember. I had been drinking for a while that night before we spoke, so it is entirely possible that I was not as clear as I should have been in my description of how that could happen. However, I have no doubt that I did indeed hide deep inside my steel pot repeatedly in combat.

If you have ever heard the sound, “thump, thump, thump” then you know exactly what I am talking about. “Thump, thump, thump” is the sound that three mortar rounds make when they are fired from their tube. You hear that sound, and you wait. Just that sound concentrates and focusses the mind wonderfully.

You wait and you listen for the explosions that you know are coming. You listen carefully because, you know that if you hear the mortar rounds explode, that means you are still alive. You will never hear the one that kills you. On the other hand, hearing the one that maims you for life is probably at best small comfort.

As an American the good thing is, you will rarely hear more than three or four mortar rounds fired unless they are yours. One of the very real advantages of being born American is the amount of ammunition that we send to the battlefield, and that we have helicopter gunship pilots who think that it is great sport to track down and then fire up the firing positions of enemy mortar crews. These gunship pilots can do that because mortar shells are mostly visible in flight. So if you are up in the air over the battlefield you can see pretty quickly, where the mortar shells are coming from and then hone in on them.

The abundance of ammunition means that American artillery always loves to fire, and they have literally tons of ammunition available to do exactly that. I always found massive American artillery fire to be very helpful on the battlefield.

Having gunships overhead also means that if the enemy mortar crew is not of the shoot and quickly scoot school of mortar crews, then that gun ship overhead will flat kill them with its first pass. The latter passes serve mostly to bust up their equipment, although it is said that some gunship pilots continue to fire purely for esthetic reasons. Not being a pilot I would not know, but I have always enjoyed watching that process unfold.

Before any of that happens though, other things occur. First you hear that “thump, thump, thump” sound. Then, your sphincter muscle tightens tighter than it ever has before in your life. It continues to tighten, or contract with each thump. According to doctors during contraction of a sphincter, or circular muscle, the lumen (opening) associated with the sphincter constricts or closes. This constriction is caused by the progressive shortening of the sphincter muscle itself. If the thumps continue, that sphincter muscle continues to shorten with each thump.

Again according to doctors, voluntary sphincters like the one in the anus are controlled by the somatic nerves. That is your brain actually orders the voluntary sphincter muscles in your anus to contract, or open by a conscious command from your brain. However, I would love to see someone down range that hears that  “thump, thump, thump” sound try to order their sphincter muscle not to contract. It simply can’t be done.

Of course, some will say that they have known people, never themselves of course, that have reacted very differently when under mortar fire. They will say that these people, usually just acquaintances, not even friends, have experienced severe, multiple spasms rather than a single continuous, progressive contraction. Invariably these spasms would lead to unfortunate, dark brown, stains, some permanent, on their uniform trousers. However, this just proves the point that sphincter muscles are not always voluntary since no one would chose to spasm that way on purpose, or at least not on purpose when their pants are up, and their boots are bloused.

Therefore, no matter what the doctors say, sphincter muscles are not always completely voluntary, as anyone who has ever fully experienced explosive diarrhea can also attest. Sometimes even a good, otherwise reliable, sphincter muscle seems to just have a mind of its own.

It is the shortening of the sphincter muscle that allows one to fit into that helmet. As the firing continues, it continues to shorten. You can look this up in any medical textbook describing the operation of sphincter muscles. They will all say that the sphincter muscle constricts by “shortening”.

When you are short enough, you will fit entirely into your helmet. Case closed.


There’s more, this story and twenty four more like it can be found in my new book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive which is available on Amazon both as a paperback and on Kindle. Use this book to tell your grandchildren what you did fifty years ago. Please give it a look. See; Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive 1968

Recent Reviews of Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive: “John Harrison does an eloquent job writing what it was like being in the infantry during the Vietnam war. I know, I was in the infantry in Vietnam. There is a statistic which states that only 1 out of 10 who served in Vietnam were in the infantry. All of us have been asked what that was like at one point since our return. It is an impossible question for most of us to answer in part much less in full. John Harrison manages to do this in his book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive. So, if you are inclined and wonder what it was like, or you want to tell someone else what you went through, buy this book. Show it to your friend. It tells that story. To, “LT” John Harrison- thank you Sir.Salute.”

“John Harrison’s book, Steel Rain, the Tet Offensive, is a series of short stories, told mostly in the first person, that weaves together the humor and violence that only a talented writer can accomplish. The result is a compelling book that is hard to put down. John’s words flow easily on the pages, making an easy read. I highly recommend this book to anyone that has been there and did that, or anyone wanting to know a personal record of one lucky Lieutenant in Vietnam and the people that made it possible for him to return home.
Dan Hertlein, helicopter mechanic with the 192nd AHC at LZ Betty 1968″

“John is the soldier speaking the truest story of Vietnam. I will confirm his action as I was in a different company same battalion, fighting the same battles.”

  • Title created by the poet RonGFord. Used with permission. The rest is all my fault; don’t blame Ron. You can read Ron’s poem the Wall here:  The Wall.

13 thoughts on “How To Hide Behind a Pebble

  1. Bill Johnson

    The science here is, well, enlightening. I’m disappointed that you didn’t get far enough into your story to reveal the relationship between a thoroughly-tightened anal sphincter, a needle, some axle grease, and a sledgehammer. Another time, I guess.

  2. LLC Thunderhorse

    I was in Phan Thiet as an Infantryman in Dec – Jan ’68 and agree with all. The thump, thump, thump was scary indeed until you heard the first round hit. The others tended to follow the first, so after the first one hit, you could crawl out of your helmet. For some reason, while waiting for that first tell tale explosion, I felt like I needed to crawl over to a different spot on the jungle floor although the odds of being hit there were the same in one’s mind. I would like to add that, in my opinion, it is true that the buttons on your fatigues seem more like cinder blocks when you are trying to press Mother Earth.

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      All true. I wish I had remembered the buttons on shirt thing, I would have tried to work that in. Which company were you with? I was Alpha Co. at the same time. Currahee

  3. nordrof

    Good one LT also very true.The first reunion I ever attended was in 1995 In Reno there was a LT there that said his asshole was so tight he didn’t shit for a whole year .It cracked me up .One night in particular I remember was when we set up around what I would call an oasis .That night they attacked us lots of machine gun fire on every position which was bad enough but the sound of those mortars being dropped and the waiting for them to land was very unnerving.The sound of medic echoing through the night knowing that some had met there mark adds to the fear .We were well dug in as you had ordered us to do thank you LT

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      It just cracked me up too. I’ll bet it was mortars that did it to the LT. Do you remember the mortars at the house on the night patrol. Those are the ones I can’t forget, and there were a lot more than just three. Currahee Ron. Thanks for the title.


  4. anotherwarriorpoet

    Great article. I had a Vietnam Vet tell me before I joined the Army that the first time I got into a firefight I’d be ripping the buttons off of my shirt to get closer to the ground. It was honest advice.

    As far as hiding entirely in your helmet – yup. I sure as hell seemed to “get small” just about every time I needed to; incoming rounds, small arms fire, hand grenades: you name it – my body armor and helmet became a huge Kevlar blanket I was happy to hide under ☺️

    1. JohnEHarrison Post author

      Thanks for the comment. Body armor was just an idea for us. All we had was that helmet and the ability to get small. it is no surprise that most infantry heroes were small men. They are harder to hit.

  5. Pingback: “Fire Mission!” | JohnEHarrison

  6. Carlos A. Velez

    Thump, thump, thump. Mr. Harrison is right when saying that the enemy fired two or three times–and then scampered. I was awakened by that unmistakable sound my third morning in the bush–north of the Rockpile and Razor Ridge. The enemy was “walking” the mortar rounds, the second one landing closer than the first, tree leaves slowly gliding to and fro, falling on us like green snowflakes. I knew that the third round would be hitting somewhere within our position–and I waited for the thump. My heart was stuck in my throat while time stopped moving forward. But the sound of the third thump never came, having been replaced by the much appreciated thump of a Cobra gunship’s blades smacking the air.

    I have to believe that was the morning that Carlos the Boy became Carlos the Man.

      1. Carlos A. Velez

        John, I believe you give more credit than I deserve. My stories (and I have written quite a few, but just for myself and family members who have to suffer my readings in silence) are very matter-of-fact and lacking in imagination.
        Given that you are a master and a teacher (among your MANY other accomplishments) I will take your comment to heart and give your suggestion a try.
        Still, I will be patiently waiting to read your next work of art!

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