by Ski Ingram

Date: September 1969

Place: Fort Ord, California

Unit: Basic Training

It was soon after being drafted that I saw my first one. I remember being quite surprised that it didn’t look like a pineapple. After all, in all the movies I’d seen, which was the only place I’d seen one, they all looked like pineapples. These were round and very heavy. I learned later that the early ones were shaped like a pineapple, and they even had bumps on them making them look like a pineapple. It’s the bumps that blow apart after it explodes turning the bumps into deadly shrapnel.

The new hand grenades are round and smooth, just like a baseball. I guess with baseball being the national pastime, and most boys grow up throwing them, the Army decided it would be easier to teach someone to throw something shaped like a baseball than a pineapple.  After all, to this day I have never thrown a pineapple at anything. The Army was right, it was easy. All you had to do was pick it up, pull the pin and toss it in the general direction of what you wanted to destroy.

My first day on the hand grenade range was very exciting. Just the thought of having control of all that power was intoxicating. I could hardly wait to throw one.  There were some guys however that didn’t want to even hold one, much less pull the pin and toss it at anything.  Me, I couldn’t wait to do it.

The first thing they taught us was how a hand grenade works. We then used practice grenades to get used to throwing one. We then put an explosive charge in our practice grenades to get used to pulling the pin and letting go of the spoon before throwing it.  All this took hours and I wanted to throw the real thing.   We then went to lunch.

After lunch we lined up to throw our grenades.  I hurried to the front of the line in hopes of being the first to throw one.  As we waited in line, I found out that some of the guys didn’t want to throw theirs. I wished that I could volunteer to take the place of one of those scaredy cats.

When my turn came, I was led to an area that was surrounded by a concrete wall about three feet high.  There was a slit at the bottom of the wall about six inches wide and four feet deep. This was used to kick the grenade in if the dummy who was supposed to throw it dropped it. I stepped into the pit with my instructor.  He handed me a real live, just make one mistake and you’re dead, hand grenade.  I moved into position as the instructor told me that if I dropped the grenade and it didn’t kill me, he would. I believed him.  I then pulled the pin and threw it for all I was worth at the target, a stack of old tires some thirty-five feet in front of us.  I ducked behind the wall and waited as I counted to myself, four, three two one, BOOM.

It was the loudest explosion I had ever heard. The shock wave vibrated off the concrete wall with such force that I was glad I wasn’t on the receiving end. In a word it was awesome. The power of destruction was unmistakable and frightening at the same time.  I loved the experience.  I wanted to throw another one. It wasn’t until getting to Viet Nam about a year later that I got my chance. While in a war zone I got to throw a lot of them.

A few years later, while attending a non-commissioned officer school at Fort Benning, Georgia, I got to throw more.   While there we all had to attend a hand grenade class.  This was after I had been trained as a Green Beret and served in an Airborne Ranger unit in Viet Nam and had thrown no less than 50 grenades in combat. I was still excited; I loved to throw hand grenades.  At one point during the class, we were taught how to cook off a grenade, something I had done only a few times in combat.

First let me explain about hand grenades. Hand grenades consist of a metal jacket that encases a detonator, composition “B” (an explosive), and a fragmentation coil. The detonator consists of a bursting charge, delay element, and the fuse. On the detonator is a striker, a safety lever or spoon, and a pin. A hand grenade works by pulling the pin and releasing the spoon.  The spoon holds the striker which is being held in place by the spring.  When the spring is released, the striker hits the fuse which lights the delay element.  The delay element burns for about four to five seconds before igniting the bursting charge which ignites the composition “B” thus blowing apart the fragmentation coil and killing or injuring anyone who is nearby.

When a hand grenade hits the ground and “blows up” it blows apart, in all directions.  Lots of the fragments go into the ground directly beneath where the grenade lands.  Now if you can get the grenade to blow up in the air, then those deadly fragments are blown down into whatever is beneath it.  That is the purpose of cooking a hand grenade off, getting it to blowup while still in the air.

As you might guess, that can be very unnerving. You pull the pin, let go of the spoon and hold the grenade in your hand while you count to three before throwing it.  Split second timing is very important. You either cook it off and it blows it up in the air or you cook it off and let it blow up in your hand. Since you are anxious and you don’t want it to blow up in your hand some people count really fast, if you know what I mean.

Now back to the class at Fort Benning. We were using practice grenades to learn how to “cook of” a grenade. They look and feel just like a real hand grenade, but with about as much punch as a small firecracker.  Here again, just like in basic training, we had people who were afraid to throw a hand grenade, much less cook one off. Most of these guys were combat veterans now being asked to throw practice grenades. What were they afraid of? No matter how hard you try a practice grenade can’t hurt you, but these guys were still scared to death and wouldn’t throw one.

It was few a years later that I got the chance of a lifetime.  I was a Range Safety Officer on a NATO training area in West Germany.  One day while inspecting the hand grenade range, I discovered that for some reason hand grenades were delivered to the range, but those who were supposed to be trained were not.  When I arrived, it was about an hour before the range was supposed to close. 

The officer, a 2nd Lieutenant, who was in charge of the training didn’t know what to do. He had about 300 hand grenades and no one to throw them.  He couldn’t turn them back in as he had his crew remove them from the boxes. It was decided that we should throw them. The 2nd lieutenant, his two assistants, Johnny Vaught and I began throwing hand grenades. We threw them until we were” knee deep in hand grenade pins.”  We threw them until I thought my arm would fall off, we threw them until I thought the ringing in my ears would never stop and then we threw some more.

I tossed grenade after grenade, I kept remembering that first day on the hand grenade range when I was caught sneaking back into line and made to do 50 push-ups because I wanted to throw just one more hand grenade on that day.

A true story as remembered by Ski Ingram