by Ski Ingram
Like every young boy, I was fascinated with blowing things up and pretended to do so whenever I could. I had gone to Tiajuana, Mexico a few times with my parents and bought a lot of fire crackers and cherry bombs. I’d use these to blow up model airplanes and cars. It was great fun for a young boy. After being drafted into the Army I got my chance to use real explosives and blow big things up.
Explosives are dangerous and that lesson was brought home in stark reality on June 8, 1970 while I was in Green Beret training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Seven Green Berets were killed and five wounded in a training accident on the demolitions range while learning to use explosives safely.
When I learned about explosives and booby traps, my instructor stressed the importance of double checking our work and being safe at all times. After I arrived in Viet Nam and was assigned to Company C of the 503rd Infantry of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, I was called upon a few times to blow up suspected enemy booby traps. I was also deemed an expert in setting up our booby traps because of my training with Special Forces.
After a few months I was transferred to November Company, 75th Infantry, Airborne Rangers. Every new Ranger was required to attend a one-week familiarization course before going into the field with a Ranger team. I was not required to attend as I had been in country for five months and had trained as a Green Beret.
I had been in the Ranger Company about a month and was sitting in on the booby trap class given to the new Rangers. I didn’t like the way the instructor was teaching the class and told someone about my concerns. I even volunteered to teach the class in the future, but was never asked to do so.
A few weeks later the class was being taught to a new batch of Rangers by the same instructor. The instructor was telling the class how to set up a booby trap using Claymore mines. The mine is detonated electrically using a 9-volt battery. Not to get into details, but you have to be very careful that no wires leading from the battery to the electric blasting cap are frayed or touching one another when you plug the battery into the blasting cap wires. If the connection is made, the mine will go off when you plug in the battery. When the instructor plugged in the battery the blasting caps exploded. Fortunately, the caps were not in the Claymore. A few of the students were peppered by tiny pieces of metal from the blasting caps, but no one was seriously injured.
One of the new Rangers was a guy named Richards. When he went out on his first mission with his Ranger team, he begged his team leader to allow him to set up the booby trap that night. For some unknown reason his team leader let him do it, which in my opinion was ill-advised. Richards set up two Claymore mines as a booby trap and then plugged in the battery. In his booby trap class, he should have been told to get down behind a tree or a log before plugging in the battery just in case something went wrong. Richards did not do that. He stood up next to his work and plugged in the battery. The Claymores exploded. All they found of Richards was his head and his feet in this jungle boots. Explosives are dangerous.
This leopard is the Rangers’ last official kill. It walked into a “Widow Maker” (booby trap) on the last day of that team’s mission, which was the last mission for our Ranger Company. It had one hole through its spine, which killed it. If it had been one inch shorter it would have walked completely under the blast zone. Ranger Campbell was the one who set up the booby trap so he got the pelt. The teeth were given to a bunch of the Vietnamese who worked for us. They believed that owning a leopard or tiger’s tooth would bring them luck.
In July 1975, I was assigned to the 7th Army Training Command in West Germany. This was a 55,000-acre training facility where all NATO forces went to train at least once every year. Those units would fire artillery rounds, tank rounds and drop bombs almost every day. Some of the artillery and tank rounds and bombs would fail to explode when they hit the ground. They then became duds and very dangerous as they could explode at any time. Some had very sensitive fuses. They could explode if you caused a shadow to pass over them from the sun as you walked near it.
Sgt. Dicky was the resident explosives expert and it was his job to blow up all of the dud rounds before they could hurt any of the people training in the area. A few months after I arrived Sgt. Dicky was due to be transferred back to the United States. I was then tapped to become the new explosives expert.
My buddy from Viet Nam, Johnny Vaught, and I were sent to a one-week explosives and demolitions school. It was a great refresher course for me. We learned all about explosives, why they work and how they work. We learned how to set up different kinds of charges and the various methods of setting off those charges. It was a great class except for one thing. We didn’t get to blow things up as that was too expensive. We learned how and why, but didn’t get to do it.
After graduating from Demolitions School, I was promoted as the new Demolitions Sergeant. I was responsible for ordering all of the post’s explosives and keeping track of how much I used, but no one asked me what I was using it on. Captain Joseph Honrath, my Commanding Officer, was deathly afraid of explosives and didn’t understand how to supervise me.
I was free to use any amount of explosive on anything I was going to blow up. It takes about 2 pounds of C4 plastic explosive to crack the steel case on a dud 155mm artillery shell, thus blowing it up. I would always take out more explosive than needed, say 10 pounds of C4. I’d use 2 pounds to blow up the dud and the other 8 pounds to practice what I had learned in school, but didn’t get to do.
After being given the key to the explosives bunker, the first thing I did was inventory its contents. I then ordered more C4, TNT, fuse, fuse lighters, and blasting caps. I also cleaned up and organized the bunker, then waited for my first opportunity to blow something up. It didn’t take long.
One of the first things I was required to blow up was a 155mm artillery round that had failed to explode when it hit the ground. Hohenfels training area was a unique place. It did not have areas that were used exclusively for live fire exercises. One day a unit may be firing artillery or tank rounds into an area and then the next day troops would be in the same area practicing small unit tactics. You may already see the problem. If an artillery round fails to explode and then the next day there are troops walking or running around in vehicles and hits one of the unexploded rounds someone could get hurt, very hurt.
There were two ways that we used to set off the explosive. One was by an electric blasting cap, the other with time fuse. Time fuse is much more fun. One of the things I would do was try to judge exactly when the fuse would set off the explosive. It became a game with me and Johnny Vaught, who went on most of these assignments with me.
One assignment we were given was to blow up a 500-pound bomb that failed to go off after it was dropped from an F15. I don’t remember why, but the powers that be took a World War II tank, painted it bright yellow and then parked it on top of a small hill in the middle of the training area. An Air Force jet flew over the target and dropped two bombs directly on the target tank. However, there was a problem, they did not explode. One hit the ground and skidded more than 3000 feet into the TOW Missile range. The other bomb dug itself into the ground, I have no idea how far as I was not about to dig it out.
When the bombs were dropped, Johnny and I were standing on top of a large hill some distance away from the target where we had a clear view. We were up there with all kinds of officers, Generals, Colonels, and other lower ranking officers and high-ranking sergeants. Everyone, including Johnny and I, were dumbfounded. They didn’t know what to do, but Johnny and I knew. We were going to get to blow up some big bombs.
We were all wondering why the bombs didn’t explode. When we looked at the bomb that ended up in the TOW range, we discovered the answer. Both safety pins were still in the bomb when it hit the target. There are two safety pins in the bomb, one in the nose and one in the tail. Whoever loaded the bombs did not attach the safety wires to the wing of the plane so that the safety pins would be pulled out when the bomb was dropped. We then assumed that the pins were still in the other bomb which would make it safe to dig it out of the ground. Apparently, Johnny and I were the only ones to realize this as it was decided that it needed to be blown up in place. Johnny and I were very happy.
The hill where the tank was parked was made up of very loose dirt making it difficult to determine where the bomb entered the earth. Since we didn’t know exactly where the bomb was, we decided to place forty, 40-pound shaped charges all around the hill in hopes that at least one would hit the bomb and blow it up. That will be more than 2000 pounds of explosive being blown up all at once.
We daisy-chained all 40 shaped charges together so they would blow up at the same time. We hid behind a small brick building that had been built before World War II. It was a tremendous explosion, one of the biggest I have ever heard or felt. The ground shook as if we were having an earthquake. When we went back up to the top of the hill, we saw what looked like dirt rings all around the hill top. It looked like someone had dropped a pebble in a pond except this was in dirt.
The Army was testing a new night vision device, one that was supposed to work looking through heat and smoke. The powers that be came and asked Johnny and me to blow up a line of white phosphorous explosives after which tanks would drive through the smoke. They wanted to determine if the new night vision devices could see the tank as they drove toward the smoke and heat.
We were given 24 2.4-inch white phosphorous rockets, the type fired by helicopter gunships. As before, we daisy-chained them together and blew them up at the same time. Major Bob Picket asked to be part of this assignment as he believed it would be something interesting to see. We pounded wooden stakes in the ground and attached the rockets to the stakes about three feet off the ground. We were on the same hill where the yellow tank had been parked a few months earlier.
When it was all set up, we lit the fuse and jumped in our jeep for the ride to the hill where we could see all that was about to happen. The rockets went off within a few seconds of when we told the colonel in charge that it would. He was very impressed about that. A few seconds later four tanks came rolling over the hill. We couldn’t see them because of all the smoke from the white phosphorous. Once the tanks rolled past the smoke the officers in charge packed up their gear and left without saying a word to us. I never did find out if the night vision devices worked or not.
I got very good at blowing things up. One day Johnny and I went out to blow up a 155mm round. It was in a place where there was nowhere to hide from the blast. We decided to put on an extra-long fuse and then drive our jeep to the other side of a large ravine. We were standing in front of the jeep waiting for the explosion when we both said at about the same time, “I wonder if we are far enough away?” Just then the round went off and a piece of “white hot” shrapnel came flying through the air hitting the right front tire on our jeep. The tire exploded as if was a bomb. We were very shaken after realizing that that “white hot” piece of shrapnel had missed us only by inches.
In April of 1977 the training area hosted a French tank company. One early Saturday morning the tanks were on a live fire range. While I was driving up to the range in order to inspect the range to ensure they were obeying the safety rules, the tanks overshot their target causing the rounds to land outside the boundaries of the training area landing in the town of Hohenberg. Three rounds landed in a park and one landed in the bedroom of a couple that lived near the park. I will tell this story at a later time however.
On my last week in the Army Johnny Vaught asked me if I wanted to go with him to blow up one last 155 dud. I immediately jumped in his jeep and took off to a far corner of the training area. It was a rainy day and I was dressed in civilian clothes. I was also wearing cowboy boots. We arrived where the dud was and set the charge. It was standard practice to use a two-pound block of C4 with two fuses. After setting the charge we drove our jeep behind a large hill that wasn’t too far way to wait for the explosion.
We waited and waited, but the charge didn’t go off. We had a dud charge on our dud round. This was a first for me, I had never had a charge that I set fail to explode. In fact, this was the first for both of us. Standard practice is to wait for at least 30 minutes before going near a dud just in case it decides to blow up late. We didn’t have that much time to spare. After about 15 minutes we decided to see what went wrong. We parked the jeep some distance away and walked very gingerly up on the dud. I was wearing cowboy boots so I was slipping and sliding in the mud. We decided to prepare another charge and lay it on top of the first charge. I took a ¼ pound block of C4, put in two fuses, pulled each pin and then as gently as I could laid it on top of the first charge. It was very difficult and nerve wracking as I was still slipping and sliding in the mud.
When I got back to the jeep where Johnny was waiting, he took off for the far side of the hill to hide from the blast. This time the charge exploded on time. We went back to see the damage and found a large hole, about three feet deep where the round had been. The round had been near a tree about two feet in diameter. The tree was gone. All that was left was a two-foot stump. That tree would have been me if that round had blown up when I laid that second charge on top of the first one.
There were a few large pieces of shrapnel in the hole. It was white hot from the heat of the explosion. I used a couple of twigs, made by the exploding tree, and picked up a large piece and threw it in the back of the jeep.
I later mounted it on piece of wood and wrote the date (25 June 1977) so I would never forget how close I had come to getting killed on my last day in the Army.
As remembered by Ski Ingram January 2021