I Threw a Live Grenade…

10 Jun

I threw a live grenade … into the air …
It came to earth … I know not where.

That sparking, sizzling thing you are staring at is shrieking, freaking:
“Throw me, now, three, two, ….. (don’t play with me, boy.) That was dumb.”
So you lived on, despite your try at self-destruction – despite the fact that the grenade was a dummy, made sterile just for practice … in the hands of novices like you and like me.

Then there were vipers, the stingers, the killers.
“The hand grenade is not your friend, ever. ”
“Respect works. Fear will demolish you.”

As a lifetime carrier of pieces of a Japanese hand grenade, I speak with authority. “Do not get friendly with them.” The drill sergeant used more graphic words. He had respect I believe our minimal, misdirected grenade training in basic deprived us of a superior weapon. A respectful attitude toward grenades was not taught.

(Apology: today, the grenade is a preferred weapon for street combat. But with a snap-on launcher, it also deals with the range between the hand thrown grenade, and the 81mm mortar. And it’s a dozen times more accurate than most RPGs. The new rifle mounted grenade launchers from Gennany are like computerized mini-mortars with sensors for elevation and distance. Wow! If you go back to ’43 you may recall the Rube Goldberg launchers that heaved up the grenade, the rifle and often, the rifleman, all together.)

The hand grenade was scorned as a low order weapon. Rarely did a soldier get close enough to toss the cursed things effectively. They were of little everyday use and tons of discarded grenades lie in river bottoms. In my outfit, each soldier carried two frags – and squad leaders carried a red-smoke, green-smoke, white smoke, thermite or phosphorous. I heaved a sputtering, overheated phosphorous bomb into a rice field. Very heroic. Several Filipino families would have been immolated otherwise. In a field demonstration, one of our boys was chosen to crawl up to a dummybunker, to toss in a phosphorous and roll away. He dropped the grenade, panicked, ran – and it caught him full blast. We coated him with mud until the medics came.

My first experience with grenades included a big Idaho potato. We were issued one potato each, which we threw at the Second Battalion guys on the top of the slope. They threw them back with force and accuracy. Then, screaming, they charged downhill. Fistfights and mayhem ensued which got us restricted to barracks for the weekend, but we learned that it is better to throw a grenade downhill than uphill. The Japanese gave further lessons. They threw our sizzlers back at us.

Grenade is French-fried for Pomegranate which is about the size of a 1942 fragmentation grenade. We Americans called them Pineapples and in WWII we made fifty million of them, They were the size of a half-brick, and about the same weight. I recall General Westmoreland with grenades taped to his pack harness. It was good for chuckles, great for the press photographers, but a terrible example. His endorsement did popularize the grenade. By the end of that war more than fifty different hand grenades were in service, including poison gas.

Though the Brits in WWI were slow in adopting the grenade, they quickly made a quarter million a week, in total seventy five million; Most were used in desperate trench warfare. They offered a high arch and deadly air bursts the long-handled Germans potato masher of WWI and WWII was powerful but grossly inaccurate. The French soda bottle grenade of WWI spread terror in the German trenches. Later in history, the Russians made a take-off called the Molotov cocktail which decimated German armament. Any patriot could light and throw them from an upper window, or die trying. For suicides, the Japanese preferred a handy device loaded with high-explosives to blow themselves up; no pain, no gain.

We used grenades chiefly to clear out caves, tunnels and deep ravines. Thermite could put a cannon or an engine out of action forever. My friends from the Viet Nam era used them to sanitize the interminable tunnels and burrows that infested the ‘out-country.’ Sadly, there were those dispirited Americans who ‘fragged’ their own frustrated officers.

Then, there are funny stories like the one about the guy in Italy who found a camouflaged cave; he tossed in a grenade just to be sure and destroyed a thousand bottles of prime wine that had been secreted from the Germans. Not so funny was the cry “grenade” when someone was using the slit trench and had to run with his pants down. In an R and R camp in Legaspe, the latrine was blown up by a grenade, wielded by a spiteful beast. The blooping sound was unearthly; if we were in Oklahoma, you might think we struck oil. Sort of.

On the Tagaytay leap I carried two frags and a red smoke in the downstairs pockets of my pants. Those who remember, will feel the shock of that jump from a carrier going in at twice the speed of sound, it seemed. My grenades tore through my pants pockets and got dug in before I did. Our objective in carrying such an overload was to get tons of weaponry on the ground, fast. It worked, though not as planned. Blown out Chute panels covered the earth like snow, the native folks picked them up and ran – ‘silk underwear’ was on the market within the week. Every hooker in Manila had ‘J-O-E parachute panties.’

Our supply sergeant, previously the Loan officer at our Downtown Savings and Loan, and hence knew his grenades – taught me things the night before I was to conduct a grenade warfare lesson. I had zero knowledge of the subject. That was true of most amateur hour instructors. Sergeant Jimmy said “Pull the pin.” What pin? “Release the firing lever (spoon.”) How you do that? “Count to five.” O.K. I counted to five. What’s next? “Nothing is next, if you’ve counted to five and you still hold the grenade, the game is over and you lose.”

I learned to have the thing in flight by a count of three and a wing and a prayer. The five second delay was not guaranteed, but I used the gamble to get a few nasty air bursts. That was like coin flipping: heads you win, tails you’re dead. Despite its modest size, the power and predictability of the serrated American grenade (a good copy of the British Mills grenade) made it a most-feared weapon. It was a weapon of opportunity but ignorance or reluctance to use it cost us lives. Few of us were trained with grenades. Sitting in the bleachers is not training. I am certain that many missiles were thrown with the pin in place.

The 1915 order of ‘take position’ was guaranteed to get you shot. Kneel on your right knee. Left Arm forwards and skyward, Right Arm back holding the grenade at shoulder, pin pulled, right arm thrust forwards. Release the grenade from your paralyzed hand toward the enemy. The correct position was shown in the 1917 IDR manual. We all tried it, once. A few landed within ten feet or so. Some hit tree limbs. Several of us tossed the grenade underhand. Those accustomed to bowling, bounced them a few times and into the bushes. I would never throw a grenade lady-style. Discus style was bad enough. Javelin style was invariably fatal.

Since the grenade had a guaranteed blast radius, kill zone, of about fifteen yards we had trouble with those that flew straight up. We made mistakes. The most persuasive demo I ever saw was this: Our instructor took us to an unused pitch black Quonset hut, wired up a grenade on a table in the middle. Then he got us out of there, blew the grenade and took us back in. The whole structure was lit up from the hundreds of holes the grenade made. Powerful demo.

I suggested that the chow line was a good place for grenade training. Everyone who wanted to eat would have to toss a dummy grenade and hit some garbage cans in three tries, or less. We got a good turnout for evening practice. I’m convinced that every infantrymen should learn to put a grenade where he wants it to go, and to do that lying on his back, squatting in a shallow trench, and while crawling and running uphill or past the gun port of a bunker. He should be able to pull the pin on the run, aim and throw. I’ve seen movies where actors, like John Wayne would pull the pins with their teeth while screaming orders.

Everyone should be able to run a trip-wire to a grenade (and remember to put the pin/s in his pocket.) Most important, he should be able to put the pins back at sunrise. Everyone should know how to use blasting caps, igniters, prime-a-cord and timers. Yes sir. I’ve done that and made some mistakes. Thankfully, none damaging or fatal to our side. Practice is a fine teacher and I

wrote a handy card that said, “ten things you never, ever do.” In the black of night, in a foxhole on a lonely post, with two grenades on a dirt shelf in front of me, with pins half pulled, and with a trip line downhill, there was a kind of comfort there. You felt like playing Suwanee River on your harmonica while you waited for the pastoral ribbons of dawn to appear. What?

One such dawn, Lt. Clement and I watched the silhouettes of Japanese running through our perimeter and past us – each armed with a ‘lunge’ grenade, a shaped charge on a five foot bamboo pole. The igniter went off if they pulled the cord or fell down. Most blew up before causing much damage. Their ‘personnel’ grenade was a ceramic softball encased in zinc and loaded with cut nails and other bad stuff. One of those devils nailed me hard.

In a training skit at VanDorn, I lead my platoon against an ‘enemy’ position. Sgt. Gumm was the referee. We did all things right: scouts out, bayonets fixed, quiet like mice, no smoking, diamond formation, until hell unleashed its potatoes. They had us cold. We surrendered and they brought out coffee and jelly toast. No hard feelings. Sgt. Gumm (we lost him at Nasugbu) asked what we might have done differently. Nothing, we had no choices. We followed orders, took the trail, right into a prepared enemy who knew we were coming, how, where, in what strength and when. And they could throw potatoes. If you must accept someone’s bad or uninformed judgment, turn it to advantage or minimize your losses. That business lesson I never forgot.

There are more than a hundred million pages of information, data, stories, nonsense and garbage on the Internet. For a refresher, I looked up “Grenades” on Wikipedia. The history goes back almost two thousand years from rock throwing to Greek Fire, to mini-mortars and sling-shots. Primitive, yes. Same results? Pretty much. When I was a kid, I feared snowballs. Nasties from the other side of town packed coal into their missiles and that was unfair.

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