Sometimes “Flight” Is Your Only Option

, , , , | Working | January 12, 2021

My dad was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War, and his unit was deployed to Vietnam in the late 1960s. Since the Air Force is not known for having a lot of experience with ground combat conditions, the entire unit was sent to an Army base in Texas to get some training on how to survive in a war zone.

At the Army base, Army sergeants, several of whom were veterans of two wars, did their best to try and teach young Airmen some of the hard lessons the sergeants had learned in combat. They learned how to shoot and maintain their rifles, the difference between “cover” and “concealment,” and what to do during an attack. The sergeants were very earnest and diligent, but a lot of what they were trying to teach — over a three-week period — needed a lot more time to get through the heads of a lot of the Airmen. They were basically trying to condense the Combat Infantryman course down to a couple of weeks.

Late in the day, near the end of the course, a sergeant gathered all the Airmen in a large group in the middle of an empty field. About fifty yards from where the Airmen were bunched together was a circle surrounding them. The sergeant started his spiel by pulling a Russian grenade out of his pocket and holding it up for the Airmen to see.

Sergeant: “This is a Russian F-1 fragmentation grenade. The Viet Cong have a lot of these, and they work really well. They’re very similar to the frag grenades we use. This particular grenade has a three-and-a-half-second fuse, which starts burning once the pin is pulled.”

The sergeant pointed at the cotter pin.

Sergeant: “The grenade goes off at three and a half seconds, spreading metal fragments from the casing over an area of about 200 yards. The effective lethal radius of the grenade is only about fifty yards.”

The sergeant then pointed at the white chalk line surrounding the group.

Sergeant: “That white circle out there is fifty yards. Remember, by the time a grenade lands, the fuse has already been burning for a couple of seconds. If I pulled this pin and dropped it right here in front of me, none of us would make it to the fifty-yard line before it went off.”

The sergeant went on, clearly describing what the effects of the grenade would be and repeatedly emphasizing that running away from the grenade would be useless, as they wouldn’t be able to make it past the effective blast radius before the grenade went off.

Then, to everyone’s horror, the sergeant pulled out the cotter pin and dropped the grenade at his feet.

My dad immediately ran away as fast as he could. Most of the other Airmen stayed put, and the sergeant made no attempt to move or take cover.

The sergeant then shouted, “BOOM!”, probably scaring the fertilizer out of several Airmen. The sergeant picked up the grenade and reinstalled the cotter pin.

Sergeant: “You’re all dead, girls. If that had been a live grenade, there’d be nothing but a lot of poorly-trained hamburger where you’re all standing.”

Then, he pointed at my dad, who was slowly walking back toward the group.

Sergeant: “All except [Dad’s Last Name]. He actually made it past the circle before the grenade went off. [Dad’s Last Name], you go ahead back to the barracks. Good job. The rest of you are going to join [Other Sergeant] and me on an exercise about how to react when someone throws a grenade at you.”

The Army’s training for my dad’s unit turned out to have been mostly wasted, because the unit was assigned to a base in Vietnam which was widely considered the safest place in Asia at the time. It was only attacked once by long-range rockets, and no one on the base ever saw or heard any shots fired in anger outside of that one incident. My dad came back to the World unharmed and never talked much about his tour there. This is the only “war story” he ever told anyone.

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