© Peter Brush, 2010
1970, the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was engaged in
anti-infiltration operations in the Rocket Belt, an area of 500-plus square
kilometers around the Da Nang Airbase. Company L occupied bunkers at an outpost
on Hill 190, west of Da Nang. Assigned to guard duty on the evening of 23
October, Private Gary A. Hendricks settled in to his position on the perimeter
and made himself comfortable. Sergeant Richard L. Tate
was the sergeant of the guard. When Tate discovered Hendricks sleeping on post
he gave Tate a reprimand but took no further action. One day later, shortly
after midnight, Private Hendricks dropped a fragmentation grenade into the air
vent of Sergeant Tate’s bunker. The grenade landed on Tate’s stomach and blew
his legs off, resulting in death. Two other sergeants in the bunker were
injured by the blast. Tate, married with three children, had but three weeks
remaining on his tour of duty. Hendricks was charged with murder. He confessed
and was convicted by general court martial. Fragging was the name
given to the murder or attempted murder of officers and non-commissioned
officers in Vietnam. In addition to Tate’s murder, the U.S. Army reported 209
cases of fragging in 1970. This article examines the
history, causes, extent, and consequences of fragging in the Vietnam War.
grenades in various forms have been used in warfare for over a thousand years, modern-style
small-percussion hand grenades were first employed on a large scale by European
armies at the beginning of the last century. American soldiers have assaulted
their superiors by fragging in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War,
although at a much lower level than in Vietnam. Broadly defined, fragging
includes assaults using explosive devices by soldiers against their own
officers and sergeants, as opposed to enemy attacks. The practice of fragging
was named after the weapon of choice: the M-26, M61, or M67 fragmentation hand
grenade, standard issue to U.S. forces in Vietnam. Unlike rifles and pistols,
grenades were not assigned to individuals by serial number. Once exploded,
grenades leave no traceable ballistic evidence.
In America’s earlier wars of the twentieth century, fraggings (and similar homicides by gunfire) usually occurred in combat situations. Officers deemed incompetent, overly aggressive, or otherwise considered a danger would be killed by enlisted men under their command while engaged with the enemy. Fragging of this sort also occurred in Vietnam. Journalist Eugene Linden, in a 1972 Saturday Review article, describes the practice of “bounty hunting” whereby enlisted men would pool money which would be paid to a soldier who killed an officer or sergeant they considered dangerous. One example of this bounty hunting was connected to the famous Battle of Hamburger Hill in May, 1969. After suffering over 400 casualties in taking the hill, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division were ordered to withdraw. Shortly thereafter, the army underground newspaper in Vietnam GI Says publically offered a $10,000 bounty on Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, the very aggressive officer who led the attack. Several attempts were made on Honeycutt’s life; all were unsuccessful.
There are no
official Pentagon fragging statistics before 1969, the year U.S. Vietnam troop
strength peaked and withdrawals began. When it became clear the US was not
pursuing a military victory in Vietnam, many soldiers became less aggressive,
not wanting to be the last to die in a war that would not be won. Fragging and
the threat of fragging were means by which enlisted men could discourage their
superiors from showing enthusiasm for combat. After Hamburger Hill, an army
major noted, “Another Hamburger Hill,” (i.e., another hard-fought, high
casualty infantry assault), “is definitely out.”
As the war
wore on, more fraggings took place in secure rear
areas. According to Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl,
Jr., the morale, discipline, and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces in
Vietnam were, with a few exceptions, worse than at any time in the twentieth
century, and possibly in the history of the United States. An unnamed officer quoted
in Newsweek remarked, "Vietnam
has become a poison in the veins of the U.S. Army." The Pentagon showed a
great reluctance to discuss publicly the issue of fragging. A search of several
prominent American newspapers shows the first use of the word “fragging” in The
Washington Post in January, 1971, in a story about withdrawing from Vietnam.
became a political concern in April, 1971, when Democratic leader Mike
Mansfield of Montana raised the issue on the floor of the Senate. Mansfield
related details of the death of First Lieutenant Thomas A. Dellwo,
of Choteau, Montana, killed by a fragmentation grenade on March 15, 1971 while
asleep in his billet at Bien Hoa. The death of Dellwo, a married 24 year old West Point graduate who
wanted to be a career soldier, was especially senseless: he was not the intended
victim. Mansfield wondered what failure of order and discipline within our
Armed Forces produced an atmosphere that resulted in 209 cases of fragging in
1970. According to Mansfield, fragging was an outgrowth of the mistaken and
tragic war in Vietnam. Another senator noted he had recently asked a judge on
the Court of Military Appeals if he knew what “fragging” meant. “No,” said the
judge, after the meaning was explained to him, “but unhappily we all know about
the act because these cases are coming through the military court system in
The Pentagon confirmed there were 209 fragging incidents in 1970 which resulted
in 34 deaths. This was more than twice the number of incidents for 1969 -- 96,
which resulted in 37 deaths. Fragging incidents
increased in spite of troop withdrawals: the first eleven months of 1971 saw
215 incidents that resulted in 12 more deaths. As of July 1972, when the last American
soldiers were leaving Vietnam, there had been 551 reported incidents of
fragging, which resulted in 86 killed and over 700 injured. These Pentagon
figures only include incidents involving explosive devices. Given the greater
availability of firearms, the total number of assaults on commanders by
enlisted men probably reached into the thousands, according to historian David Cortright. Military lawyers
estimated only about ten percent of fragging incidents ended up in court.
attempt to introduce fragging into the American political vocabulary was
successful. In September, 1971, the House or Representatives conducted hearings
on Defense Department appropriations for 1972. Texas Congressman George Mahon,
Chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, called three army generals as
witnesses to discuss the problem of the deteriorating morale and discipline in
the U.S. Army. The first witness was General Bruce Palmer, Jr., Army Vice Chief of Staff. Palmer acknowledged the problems of the
army, including fragging, could no longer be minimized and thanked the
committee for giving him the opportunity to discuss them. Palmer noted some of
the army’s then current problems had ocurred in
previous wars, but that widespread drug use and fragging were new phenomena.
Palmer provided statistics on the incidence of fragging. He pointed out the
increase in the number of incidents could be attributed at least in part to
increased awareness of the problem and subsequent increased reporting. When
asked if fraggings followed any noticeable patterns,
Palmer replied that since the number of incidents was rising while the number
of deaths and injuries were decreasing, many incidents might be explained in
terms of intimidation or “just plain horseplay” rather than cases of deliberate
murder. He confirmed the attacks did not seem to be racially motivated but
rather attacks against “the man in authority, black or white.” The army in
Vietnam, under General Creighton Abrams, “has really cracked down.” The next
witness, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel Lt. Gen. Walter Kerwin, gave the committee details on the specific legal
charges, types of courts martial, and sentences awarded to fragging offenders.
When a congressman asked General Palmer about incidents of officers being shot
by their own men, another congressman ended the discussion by noting “They have
been shooting second lieutenants in the back for a thousand years.”
Profiles of Vietnam
war fragging victims are straightforward: they were assaults by explosive
devices (which excludes rifles, pistols, and knives); they were officers and
noncommissioned officers of superior rank to their attackers and were
discharging their command responsibilities at the time of the attack; the
attack was at a distance, and not a face-to-face assault; and the incident
occurred outside the United States (particularly in South Vietnam).
fragging incidents did not end up in the court system, it is more difficult to
establish a profile of perpetrators. However, due to a study conducted at the
US Disciplinary Barracks (USDB) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, some general
characteristics can be described. Of 850 inmates in the USDB population, 28
offenders who met the above profile were identified, based on details in their
courts martial transcripts. On average, they are 20 years old and had 28 months
on active duty. About 20 percent were African American, and about 7 percent were
draftees. The assaults occurred at night, and with little planning beyond
talking to others about intent. Most did nothing to avoid capture. Captains and
first sergeants were the most common victims, which is consistent with the
command structure at the company and battery level. Seventy-five percent of the
perpetrators were involved in a verbal or physical disagreement with their
victims. In terms of motive, the victims were seen as having somehow denied the
offenders of something desired, such as promotions or transfers. The victims
were perceived as a threat to the offenders. Only two offenders claimed race was
a factor. Most were loners who had enlisted in the service and supported the
war. Their educational level was low. Most were assigned to support units, were
assigned to jobs for which they had not been trained, and reported little job
satisfaction. They felt they had been scapegoated and showed little or no
remorse for their crimes. Almost all of these men (87.5%) were intoxicated on a
wide assortment of substances at the time of the fragging. According to the
authors of the study, the easy access and use of drugs was an essential factor
in the assaults. Drugs were more common in Vietnam than in other wars, and
drugs tended to reduce any inhibitions the offenders may have had about
assaulting their superiors. Although the study
involved only a small fraction of the total number of soldiers who participated
in fragging incidents, it does offer insight into the characteristics of those
who were willing to engage in this violent and unusual crime.
consequences for the US military in Vietnam far beyond the number of actual
victims. Potential victims found themselves in a difficult place, caught
between the hostility and frustration of the men they commanded and the
expectations of their superior officers. Officers and non-commissioned officers
were expected to inspire their men, to be aggressive, and to initiate and
succeed in combat. Yet to do so was to assume the risk of being fragged. For
every actual fragging incident there were many threats of fragging, such as the
surreptitious placement of a grenade or grenade pin, or the detonation of a
non-lethal gas or smoke grenade in the potential victims quarters or work areas.
According to Army Judge Captain Barry Steinberg, who presided over fragging
courts martial, once an officer has been threatened with fragging, he is
intimidated to the point of being “useless to the military because he can no
longer carry out orders essential to the functioning of the Army.” Journalist Linden’s 1972
investigation concluded fragging, both actual and threatened, is so powerful an
influence that virtually all officers and NCOs have to take it into account
before giving orders to men in their command. Officers who survive fragging
attempts may not know the identity of their attackers, and live in fear the
attacks will be repeated. Linden describes a lieutenant who refused to obey an
order from a superior officer to assault an enemy position in the Mekong Delta.
This lieutenant subsequently learned his men had considered killing him for
being overly aggressive and hence dangerous to them. The men decided to abandon
their plan upon learning of the lieutenant’s refusal to attack the enemy. Though spared a possible
fragging, the lieutenant had to face the consequences of disobeying an order.
By May, 1971,
overall US troop strength in Vietnam had been cut in half. An even greater
percentage (70%) of combat troops had been withdrawn, leaving a greater
percentage of the remaining forces in rear areas. Fraggings
(and heroin use) continued to rise as the combat role declined. Army Secretary
Stanley Resor said there was a drive by the military
to get away from the word “fragging” and use “attempted murder” instead, so as not
to minimize the crime. According to Resor, more soldiers were coming forward with evidence of fraggings, and more prospective victims were being tipped
attempted to deal with the problem of fragging in various ways. Since large-scale
offensive operations were avoided, American forces were limited to small unit
patrols protecting US bases. In many units, personal weapons were taken from
everyone except those on patrol or guard duty, and fragmentation grenades were
taken from everyone. On August 12, 1972, the
last US combat battalion stood down. In 1971, in his address to the Senate,
Senator Mansfield said “I feel deeply . . . that the only solution [to the
fragging problem] is the total dissolution of our involvement in Indochina.” Mansfield was essentially
correct; the Army solved its fragging problem only by leaving Vietnam.
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will exceed the Vietnam War in duration. In
Vietnam, fragging was both a cause and a consequence of the breakdown in morale
and discipline that plagued US forces in the latter part of the war. Today’s professional,
all-volunteer army has avoided these problems in spite of formidable challenges.
As we have seen, fragging attacks have occurred in America’s wars since
grenades became widely available. In 2003, Sgt. Hasan
Akbar of the 101st Airborne Division killed two officers when he
threw grenades in their tents in Kuwait. In 2005, Staff Sgt. Alberto Martinez
killed two officers by setting off grenades and a Claymore mine in their room
at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces in Iraq. With but
two incidents in two wars, the practice of fragging as a serious military
problem has been relegated to history – the history of the Vietnam War – from
whence it came.
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Back to articles
 Gary D. Solis, Marines and Military Law in Vietnam: Trial by Fire, (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps), 1989, p. 169.
 Mike Feinsilber, “Senate Told of GIs Killing Own Officers,” in The Washington Post, Times Herald, April 21, 1971, p. A1..
 Eugene Linden, “The Demoralization of an Army: Fragging and Other Withdrawal Symptoms," in Saturday Review, January 5, 1972, p. 12.
 Robert D. Heinl, Jr., "The Collapse of the Armed Forces,” in Armed Forces Journal, June 7, 1971, p 31.
 Heinl, p. 30.
 Chalmers M. Roberts, “Ways of Pulling out,” in The Washington Post, Times Herald, January 10, 1971, p. 39.
 Senator Mansfield of Montana, The Senate Journal, April 20, 1971, 92nd Congress, 1st sess., 117 Congressional Record, 10871-10872.
 Feinsilber, p. A1, A16.
 David Cortright, Soldiers in Revolt : The American Military Today (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press), 1975, p. 44.
 Linden, p. 12.
 United States Congress, House of Representatives. Committee on Appropriations. Department of Defense Appropriations for 1972. Hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, Part 9. 92nd Congress, 1st Session. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1971, p. 548-549, 583-585.
 David Gillooly and Thomas Bond, “Assaults with Explosive Devices on Superiors: A Synopsis of Reports from Confined Offenders at the US Disciplinary Barracks,” in Military Medicine, vol. 141, no. 10., October 1976, p. 700.
 Thomas Bond, “The Why of Fragging,” in American Journal of Psychiatry, vol. 133, no. 11, November 1976, pp. 1329-1330.
 Linden, p. 12.
 Linden, p. 13.
 Michael Getler, “Resor Sees Combat Role In Vietnam Over by Fall,” in The Washington Post/Times Herald, May 18. 1971, p. A1, A13.
 Peter Jay and Peter Osnos, “Bored GIS Turn to ‘Fragging,’ Heroin,” in The Washington Post/Times Herald, September 16, 1971, p. A12.
 Mansfield, p. 10871.