By: Randy Tucker
It was one of his first patrols after arriving in Vietnam. Dave Orbell was a combat infantryman with a replacement company assigned to the 3rd Brigade, 8th Infantry of the 4th Infantry Division.
“We moved out into some elephant grass and got lost,” Orbell said.
At 6-6, Orbell was able to see over most obstacles, but this stuff was tall.
“We wandered around for a couple of hours until the lieutenant called in a Loach,” Orbell said.
A Loach, officially designated the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse, was a light helicopter, often used for reconnaissance. This one wasn’t looking for the enemy, it was serving as a guidepost for the men of Orbell’s unit to find their way out of the maze of tall grass.
“It hovered over us, and we followed it out of the grass,” he said.
The patch of grass was only about 10 acres in size, but it was enough to confuse the infantry unit, leading them to walk in circles before the chopper led them out.
“Just as we started to break into the clear, three guys started yelling, ‘live grenade!’” Orbell said. “They weren’t enemy grenades, they were their own grenades that had come unscrewed from the handle and striker assembly.”
Grenades weren’t nearly as popular among men in the field as they are portrayed in Hollywood films. They didn’t have near the blasting capacity the special effects boys show them having in the movies either.
“We didn’t like grenades much,” Orbell said. “There weren’t that many uses for them. Sure, we’d toss them into spider holes, or throw them into brush if we thought the enemy might be there, but they were just about as dangerous for us to carry as to throw.”
The problem with the grenade was that it was exposed as the men moved through the brush. Each soldier carried four grenades, hooked onto the shoulder straps of his pack, rucksack, or belt, depending on his preference.
“These guys had them on their straps and as the grass brushed against them the grenade body unscrewed. The grass was so heavy they didn’t notice when they finally fell off,” Orbell said. “They weren’t dangerous since the igniter and fuse were still hanging off the straps.”
Newly arrived soldiers soon learned how to add a little more protection when carrying grenades in the field.
“We bent the pins over so they wouldn’t pull out,” Orbell said. “They were just soft metal, cotter pins, so we could still pull them out if we needed to. We wrapped the body with green duct tape to keep them from unscrewing too.”
The men of the US Army were just boys in many cases, and as young men are apt to do, they messed around with deadly things a lot, playing the odds against the Grim Reaper.
One day, there was a muffled explosion in camp. Everyone thought a dud mortar round had hit the base, but it was much sadder than that.
A couple of 19-year old infantrymen were drunk and playing a style of Russian Roulette with hand grenades.
“They were messing around, throwing grenades down each other’s shirts,” Orbell said. “The pin came loose and the handle flew off as one guy had the grenade drop down his shirt. Before he could pull it out the grenade went off. One less GI.”
As dangerous as the grenades could be in the field, the men feared dehydration much more than an accidental explosion.
“We packed eight canteens of water when we hit the brush,” Orbell said. “Some guys packed too many C-rations and not enough water. The secret was to keep the weight at a minimum. Some of those C-rations weighed a lot.”
The heaviest in his memory were the Lima Beans and Ham, a toxic combination of heavily salted congealed beans and ham that always had at least an inch of fat floating on the top of the can when you opened it.
“It wasn’t that bad in camp, but the cans were heavy, and all that salt made you drink too much water,” Orbell said. “I preferred lighter rations, crackers and peanut butter were the best, but when supply couldn’t make it because of the fog or weather, you ate whatever you could find.”
The least favorite item they carried was the white phosphorus grenade.
“We hated those WP grenades,” Orbell said. “They burned everything and you couldn’t put them out. They were the first thing we threw away in the field, just to get rid of them.”
Orbell started the war with an M-16, but after the unit’s M-60 gunner and assistant gunner were killed in a firefight, he became the M-60 man.
His background as a teenager hunting in the woods of Western Pennsylvania made him a natural with firearms, and that background paid off in the jungles of Southeast Asia. He just wasn’t nuts about throwing explosives, but most soldiers in that war weren’t fans of it either.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.