Guest Blogger, Daniel Dinges has kindly provided readers with an excerpt from his new book, Get Out of the Way.
Have a read and then send me an email. Dinges’ publisher has kindly agreed to give away a free copy of Get Out of the Way. If you’d like a copy, just post a comment, as to why you think this would be a great addition to your library.
Hand Grenades and Atropine
There were all kinds of other things to learn, of course. Most topics were just skimmed over. For instance, the two days of hand-to-hand combat training we got. I don’t think I would feel good about having to defend myself against a skilled, trained, and experienced adversary with that little training. For most of these topics, it was just preparation for advanced infantry training, which would come next for most of us.
I remember a particular CBR (Chemical, Biological, Radiological) lecture very well. It had been an unusually cold day for April, and by midmorning, we were all shivering. The lecture hall was warm. and as we thawed out, we began to get sleepy.
The instructor began the session by announcing that if anyone were caught sleeping during the lecture, he would be invited to demonstrate the use of an atropine injector for the class. The class was very informative, but boring. Then we got to the atropine injector. Atropine was and is the antidote of choice for nerve gas. It looked like a cigar tin. Inside were a large long needle and the dose of the drug. You use it by slamming the end of the tin against the body. A very strong spring propels the needle through the clothing into the body and injects the dosage.
The recommendation was to inject it into the meaty part of the thigh at the back. Just about that time, the instructor noticed a sleeping trainee in the back.
“Send the trooper in seat forty-one down to the stage.” Up he came, still half asleep. “You were sleeping, right?”
“Uh, yes, Sergeant.”
“Sit down.” The trainee obeyed.
“Here, inject yourself with this.”
“Slap the end on your thigh.”
The trainee had slept through the part about the meaty area behind the bone. Instead, he slapped the injector right down on top of his thigh. The needle imbedded itself in the bone, and the whole thing stuck there waving like a flag in the wind.
They got a gurney that had been stationed nearby and wheeled him right out. I think this had happened before. The incident has always stuck with me, so to speak. In ‘91, during Operation Desert Storm, the Israelis issued atropine injectors to the general population in case of chemical attack by Iraq. I remember a CNN report about one incident where a number of citizens panicked after a missile attack and took the atropine. Many of them were hospitalized. I immediately got a mental picture of the trainee in basic.
The hand grenade toss was another of those special moments. It was squeezed into the schedule one afternoon near the end of rifle qualification. I was doing great on the rifle range, so the DI asked me to come along in the morning to help set up the grenade range. We put out all the munitions and loaded the practice grenades, all under the watchful eye of the range officers for the day. Unlike most of the jobs the training company personnel did, the duty for this range was spread out. Everyone got a turn. The reason was that this was the most dangerous job in the place.
They would eventually have to stand in a foxhole while trainees threw live ones. You could see the stress on their faces. Nobody enjoyed this exercise. Throwing hand grenades looks so macho on the movie screen. In real life, it is a different business.
The grenade we were using at that time was very powerful and very deadly. Most trainees couldn’t throw one far enough to get out of the range of the blast. The grenade itself was about the size of a baseball, only much heavier. It was smooth and looked different from the pineapple of WWII. The firing mechanism was functionally the same. You pulled a pin from the handle at the top. When you threw it, the handle flipped off, arming the timer. When the time was up, it exploded.
There were a couple of things to keep in mind. The thing did not always explode on time. It could detonate anywhere from three seconds to eight seconds after the handle came off. Forget about counting to three before you let go. The other thing was that the handle was made out of a very light aluminum. If you squeezed it hard, it would bend. This flexibility led to a phenomenon called milking. If you got nervous and started squeezing the handle before you threw it, you could actually start the timer without any visible sign. You would not figure it out until the thing went off in your hand, killing you and whoever happened to be nearby.
The rest of the company showed up after they were done at the rifle range. The afternoon started with a lecture about these weapons, range safety protocols, and the schedule for the afternoon. Next, we threw duds that weighed the same as the real thing. From the number of them that ended up short of the flag that represented a safe distance from the blast, I would agree that most of us could not throw one far enough to be safe without taking cover.
We then threw simulators. Duds with a real firing mechanism attached. You pulled the pin, and it went off with a small bang, like a firecracker after the fuse delay. I had spent most of the morning putting them together. This was supposed to get you used to arming and throwing in one fluid motion.
Finally, it was time for the real thing. A single trainee would climb into a throwing pit where an officer was waiting. His job was to save your life if you screwed up by freezing with the grenade in your hand, dropping it, or doing something else stupid and deadly. No wonder the range officers were so happy to be there.
Eventually, it was my turn. I already had met the instructor while we were preparing the grenades that morning. His mood had not improved. With each new recruit, he was getting a little more nervous. The lieutenant gave me the instructions. I picked the thing up with my throwing hand, held it across my chest, and grabbed the pin with my other hand. At his signal, I pulled the pin, swung back my arm, and pitched the thing as far as I could. I guess I hesitated too long before I took cover. The lieutenant grabbed me behind the neck and slammed me into the ground. I didn’t mind. The grenade exploded as advertised. I got up and thanked the instructor. I do not know if the other recruits felt the way I did.
No one messed up, so we all got back to the barracks in one piece. I did not envy those officers having to play that game every month or so.
It was about this time that the whole company got into trouble. Our company commander was pleased with our progress and decided to let the company go to lunch without any officers or instructors. This was against post regulations, of course, and it was meant to show his trust in our ability to act like soldiers. It meant that the acting NCOs (noncommissioned officers), of which I was one, would have to form the company and march to the mess hall; and after lunch, re-form and march back to the company barracks.
Things were going great until we got close to the mess hall. At that point, we noticed another company approaching from a different direction. It appeared to be closer than we were. If they got there first, we would have to wait around outside for that unit to eat. Only one company was allowed in the mess at a time. There was always the chance that the mess hall would run out of food. That happened too often and was one of the most frustrating parts of our existence. Nothing like getting to the mess hall after five or six hours of strenuous activity and finding out that lunch was going to be a scoop of soggy string beans and lumpy mashed potatoes. One night, we had come home late from the range to find that exact situation. When we got to the chow line, there was almost nothing there. The soldier behind me actually got tears in his eyes. There was very nearly a food riot.
We decided to speed up. So, we went to a double step. Eventually, the other company noticed we were going faster and would get there first. It also sped up. We responded and increased our speed to a trot. The other unit followed suit. As we turned the corner, we were barely ahead. The last 100 yards turned into an all-out mad dash by a company of hungry trainees. We got in front of the hall and quickly organized ourselves into a neat column. Just then, the other company got there. A real lieutenant walked up and asked to talk to the officer in charge about our flagrant violation of a post regulation. Of course, all of our officers and DIs were back at the company barracks.
The incident was reported to the training battalion headquarters, and our company commander got a stiff reprimand. He quickly demonstrated his displeasure with our performance. Our consequence was two extra hours of physical training every day for a week. There is nothing like doing sit-ups at three thirty a.m. in a mud puddle to teach you the error of your ways.
One of the milestones of the course was the bivouac. It was a two-day camp out, army style. We marched out into the undeveloped part of the fort and set up camp. We slept in pup tents, dug foxholes, ran around, and fired many blanks through the rifles. The foxhole part was a real pain.
The ground around the fort is rock and clay. A regulation foxhole is six feet deep. We spent all afternoon working our butts off, and most of us did not have a hole that was even four feet deep. When the mobile kitchen showed up, the cadre finally showed pity on us and let us stop.
Nighttime was the fun part for the company DIs. We were sleeping in two-man tents with our packs and rifles inside. The game was to see if they could steal the rifles out of the tent without waking us up. The penalty for getting your weapon stolen was lots of extra duty. That had actually been a big problem in Korea. Teams of enemy soldiers would sneak into a camp at night and steal a bunch of weapons. Then, the whole force would attack. Many of our soldiers died that way.
The only way to make sure that did not happen, they said, was to place the two rifles in your tent at a right angle to the entrance on the ground and sleep on them. We were told that it was impossible to steal them if you did that. It was also a good way to wake up with a terrific backache. I learned later that evening that you could, in fact, steal them anyway. All you had to do is make sure the troops were sleeping soundly and take your time. I decided sleeping soundly in the field is a good way to end up dead. As usual, folks did screw up and get themselves some extra duty.
About eleven, Sergeant Green woke me up and asked me to take a walk with him to check the perimeter. We moved off into the woods, and he started showing me some tricks he had learned about moving silently in the jungle. We were out about an hour sneaking up on guards, stealing rifles and whatnot, just like the rest of the cadre. I don’t think I learned anything earthshaking. We did get some time to talk informally about life in the army, his family, and the usual things. It was a special time.
We were sitting on a log a few yards off one of the main trails. That way, we had a good view of anyone coming down the trail, and no one could see us.
“Is this like it is at night over there?” That was what was mostly on my mind, of course.
“Naw, the jungle is so thick that it’s pitch-black at night. You have to rely on your ears and senses of smell and touch. Charlie is so good he can steal stuff from your foxhole with you in it. Next morning, stuff is just gone.” It was too dark to see his expression, but his voice said a whole lot more than the words. “They do that just to scare the shit out of you. They could kill you just as easily. Night, that’s the roughest time.”
“How long will it be before you have to go back?”
“Oh, a year or so, maybe. My wife is just getting over this trip. I hope she feels calmer about it by then. Right now, she wants me to get out.”
I wondered why he was staying. “Why don’t you get out?”
“I enlisted right after high school. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m staying in for my twenty if I can.” We talked for a while and then moved on.
Then, of course, there were the rattlesnakes. Fort Wood is famous for them. We all carried one unauthorized piece of equipment: a snake stick. That was a long tree branch with a fork at the end. They were not too big of a problem when we were out there. I only saw a couple. The DIs said they got so bad at times that the exercise had to be canceled.