Viet Nam story from my father.
|Grenade-by Jim Anton
July 29, 2011 at 7:11pm
This is the follow up to "Water" I hope you enjoy this as well.
Late Sept 1968
Somewhere Along The DMZ
It was late Sept 1968 and we'd left the relative safety of the Rockpile to venture out and do what we were there for. We'd choppered out early on a hot, humid morning and headed north, into high canopy and mountainous terrain. We lifted off with a fairly large force and were to separate and slip off to see what we could see. The folks on the other side were also out in force and made an effort to dissuade us from landing. Lots of small arms fire and even a .50 cal machine gun were directed at the birds as we came down. Our Sea Knight came in with some gaping holes in the side. I remember sitting in the sling seat looking at the other side of the chopper watching new windows appear about head high down the length of the aircraft. So, it was with a bit of misgiving that I wandered into the jungle with only maybe a dozen guys for company. We knew there were hundreds, maybe a few thousand, of the other guys around, so were cautious as we slipped out of the landing zone. It's difficult to carry all the equipment we had and still remain silent and inconspicuous, but we tried.
We roamed down narrow trails as quietly as we could. Sunlight could be glimpsed high above in splotches against the sky, but didn't reach the ground. The canopy was so high and the humidity so oppressive, it was like moving through a huge terrarium. As daylight slowly passed into evening, we found a small ridge top to settle in for the night. The sides of this area had been pounded by artillery in the fairly recent past and were covered with loose rocks and shattered trees. We spread out along the lip of the hill, (actually a mountaintop) and tried to be as still as we could, while we got a bite to eat and stretched out sore muscles. We worked as diligently and quietly as we could to create a few foxholes. A few guys to each. One to dig, one to move the dirt/rock away, and one to keep an eye out. Somehow we actually managed to get a fairly good, and plenty deep, hole dug. Enough to accommodate Cannon, Shepherd, and myself with ample shoulder room. We were finished just about the time it got dark and the full moon began to rise.
We'd avoided an enemy patrol or two and dealt with a few of their scouts in the late afternoon that day and hoped to remain undetected during the night. A dozen guys, regardless of how intrepid they might be, are really not a good match for hundreds of well armed opponents. Thus, it was this sort of silent watchfulness we clung to as we waited out the night. And save for the occasional explosions and gunfire from the landing zone, our area was pretty quiet. At least until about 2 in the morning. The rocks and shale began to make some noises as stones were dislodged. It was coming from below us and to our left. Out a bit, but moving toward us. And whoever was making the noise was also trying hard to be quiet. But he'd gotten into an area where stealthy moves were impossible. Which was exactly why we'd chosen our night time location. The three of us leaned out and over the edge. We could just barely make out a dark shape about 30yds away. The ground was all one color, but there was a splotch of something darker out there. The moon was brilliant and you could see fairly well. There was no real cover for him to seek as the artillery had blown the area clear of trees and bushes.
Shep had a plan to deal with this guy. We didn't want to fire a rifle or the machine gun, as the muzzle flashes would give us away. A random explosion however, should do it, and would only give our approximate position. The idea, as he proposed it, was for him to get out of the hole, crawl back a bit, and circle out left. He'd go to the edge of the slope, perhaps 20yds to our left, and make some small noises. That should prompt our visitor to also move and make clear exactly where he was. Once we knew where he was Cannon would throw a grenade at him.
This might be a good time to mention the protocol, procedures, and options associated with throwing grenades. The movie method shows the pin pulled and the sphere thrown. This method will work, though very hard on the teeth. However, there is a 'spoon' on the side of a grenade that flips off when it's thrown. The spoon makes a very distinctive noise. Sort of a loud, "PING" when it comes off. If you hear it, you know you have: A) Something in the air headed your way, and: B) A few seconds to vacate the area.
In some situations, it's best you don't advertise what you're doing. In these instances, you pull the pin and quietly lift off the spoon and then throw it. Again, there are drawbacks to everything. The upside of this method is silence, once you throw it. The downside is that once the spoon is removed, the grenade begins its inexorable countdown. You've armed it and it's going to make a big BOOM in 4 seconds. So, some controlled haste is essential.
This then, was the basic plan. However, I had concerns about the one part of the concept I thought was flawed, and felt obligated to quietly make a suggestion. Since I had a great arm, it would make much more sense for me to do the throwing. This was met with some headshaking, but I insisted. I pointed out that I had thrown grenades completely off the practice range in California. This did impress them, I could tell. A more dispassionate leader might have pointed out, "This ain't California!" but, this one didn't. So it was agreed, I'd be the one to make the throw.
Shep crept off and Cannon and I stood shoulder to shoulder in the foxhole; me clutching my portable bomb, awaiting movement from below, and Cannon glancing, actually, almost wincing, in my direction. After several minutes we heard Shep push a few rocks around. Almost immediately, we could hear some crunching sounds as a few stones were dislodged below us. I could see the long shadow clearly in the moonlight. I grabbed the pin and pulled, then carefully lifted off the pin, cocked my arm and threw. It was a tremendous throw. It would certainly have gone right where I'd wanted it. In fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if it had actually hit my target, not just landed nearby. It undoubtedly could have been one of the great all time grenade tosses for both distance and accuracy in the history of warfare.
There's possibly a portion of the grenade protocol I neglected to mention earlier. And that has to do with trajectory. You throw them out and up. Which means you don't throw in line of sight or directly at a target, but up in the air with a nice arc and down on the target. That's what you do. In my haste to impress my companions, I had only focused on where I wanted the grenade to go and not so much on the path it would take to get there. You may remember I mentioned artillery had pummeled this mountain and virtually every tree was blown apart. Several were only 12-15ft tall, and sheared off above that point. One such tree was in front of us and to our right. It was probably no more than 20ft away from us. One thing in particular I hadn't noticed about this tree was, although blown in half, it retained one long limb. The limb, roughly as large around as my waist, extended quite some way to our left.
So, I've thrown the grenade as hard as I can, there's a brief bit of quiet, and then a loud and distinctive, "Thunk." This wasn't the sound I was anticipating. But, the sound wasn't followed up by a thump on the ground, so neither Cannon nor I had any idea what had happened. We were looking around and then up toward the moon. And there, backlit by the moon, was a very small, dark shape. It seemed to be getting smaller. I'd managed to throw so hard and with enough force that the limb managed only to deflect the grenade’s path. That path now seemed to be backward and upward. Cannon and I were mesmerized by this black speck climbing into the sky. We could see a huge full moon over our heads and that grenade clearly suspended above us. Abruptly, however, it seemed to be growing in size. Had I given it much thought, I'm sure high school physics would have reminded me that the rules of gravity are pretty much the same world wide. And as surely as it went up, that grenade appeared to want to find its way back to its owner. We stood and watched like statues as the blob came down to us. Luckily, it didn't come directly down; certainly a result of my tremendous throw. It landed with a thud about 2ft behind us. Marines are not particularly renowned for their mathematical skills or for resolving time/distance theorems, but I think we were both processing calculations that would make any MIT professor proud. With a high pitched "Arrgghh" we both dropped to the bottom of the hole. And about that time there was a rather loud, "BOOM" which managed both to stun our ears and collapse the hole.
I was with a small group of very well trained guys. Every portion of our training emphasized and reemphasized the need for stealth and quiet to achieve what we needed to accomplish. That stealth thing pretty much goes out the window when you blow up your own foxhole. And I must admit; I was a bit disappointed by Cannon's reaction. I expected a "…can happen to anybody" or "…better luck next time" response from such a seasoned combatant. Oh, no. Frantically, trying to claw our way back to the surface to get out of our dirt and rock tomb, did very little to fill him with compassion.
As we hit open air with our upper bodies, still buried from the waist down, he began yelling, "Get this fool away from me!" This struck me as somewhat unkind and unfair. I made an effort to return to our stealth mode by putting my finger across my lips and making “Shhh” noises. This seemed to have rather the opposite effect and he continued to yell, while trying to extract his legs. In fact, his yelling increased in volume and intensity as he began to get clear. I can still hear his voice screaming, "Get this fool away from me! He tried to poison me. Now he's tryin' to blow me up!" I valiantly attempted to explain what had happened in a reasonable tone. Rationale conversation and a calm, dispassionate review of the event seemed beyond his reach at that moment. And my goofy smile, while shrugging my shoulders, didn't add much to soothe his rant.
When the dust settled, and Shep had Cannon safely restrained, quiet once again settled over the hill. We sat out the night awaiting the attack we were certain would come at any minute. But, the rest of the darkness passed without incident. I attributed this to the amount of noise we made. We’d likely created an impression of unit size and strength and that it was this alone that discouraged the North Vietnamese from launching an assault. I didn't push this opinion very aggressively as no one seemed of a mind to thank me. I wasn’t hoping for a medal or anything, but a slight show of gratitude wouldn’t have been out of place. However, none was forthcoming as we slipped back into the jungle. I console myself with the sure knowledge that these many years later, they're all very grateful for my assistance that night.
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