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The Hard Truth About Fragging

By Peter Brush 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: July 28, 2010 
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(National Archives Image)
(National Archives Image)

"In all the lexicon of war there is not a more tragic word than 'fragging' with all that it implies of total failure…."
– Charles Mathias (R-Md.), April 1971.

On the evening of October 22, 1970, Company L of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment was engaged in anti-infiltration operations in the "Rocket Belt," an area of more than 500 square kilometers ringing the Da Nang Airbase. The company was set up in bunkers at an outpost on Hill 190, to the west of Da Nang. Assigned to guard duty that night, Private Gary A. Hendricks settled into his position on the perimeter and made himself comfortable. Too comfortable, it turned out. A bit later, when Sergeant Richard L. Tate, the sergeant of the guard, discovered Hendricks sleeping on post, he gave the private a tongue lashing, but took no further action. Shortly after midnight the next day, Hendricks tossed a fragmentation grenade into the air vent of Sergeant Tate's bunker. The grenade landed on Tate's stomach and the subsequent blast blew his legs off, killing the father of three from Asheville, North Carolina, who had only three  weeks left on his tour of duty. The explosion injured two other sergeants who were in the bunker.

Hendricks was charged with murder. He confessed and was convicted by general court-martial. His death sentence was reduced to life in prison.

The manner in which Hendricks murdered Tate, using a fragmentation grenade in the dark of night, will be forever linked to Vietnam as an iconic symbolization of an unpopular war gone horribly awry. Ironically, perhaps the first use of the word "fragging" in a prominent newspaper appeared in a January 1971 Washington Post opinion piece about troop withdrawals and the winding down of the war by columnist Chalmers Roberts. "U.S. forces, now knowing they are on the way out but not knowing just when, have developed an enclave mentality and a philosophy of 'Why take the risks in a war that's winding down?' Recent reports from Vietnam talk of demoralization and of draftees 'fragging' gung-ho officers; that is tossing hand grenades at them to put a stop to aggressiveness."

In 1970, in addition to Tate's murder, the U.S. Army reported 209 cases of fragging.

Although grenades in various forms have been used in warfare for more than 1,000 years, modern-style small-percussion hand grenades were first employed on a large scale by European armies at the beginning of the 20th century. While the term "fragging" may have been coined during the Vietnam War, there were reported instances of American soldiers assaulting their superiors using grenades in World War I, World War II and the Korean War, although the number of occurrences were miniscule when compared to the Vietnam War.

The practice in Vietnam was named after the weapon of choice: the M26, M61 or M67 fragmentation hand grenade, standard issue to U.S. forces. Aside from the effectiveness of these weapons to kill and maim, unlike rifles and pistols, grenades were not assigned to individuals by serial number. Once exploded, they leave no traceable ballistic evidence that may be used to identify a perpetrator.

In America's earlier 20th-century wars, fraggings and homicides by other means typically occurred during combat situations when officers who were deemed incompetent, overly aggressive or otherwise considered a danger, would be killed by enlisted men under their command. Fragging of this sort also occurred in Vietnam.

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17 Responses to “The Hard Truth About Fragging”


  1. 1
    ROSS WEBSTER says:

    Some facts seem to be wrong here!!!!

    In July 1969, the battalion (3/3) took part in Operations Virginia Ridge and
    Idaho Canyon, attempting to stop North Vietnamese infiltrators from the
    27th NVA Regiment and 33rd Sapper Battalion from coming through the DMZ.
    The operation continued until September, when the 3rd Marine Regiment
    was ordered to stop operations in preparation for its redeployment back
    to the United States. The battalion began to depart on October 7 and had fully arrived at MCB Camp Pendleton by the end of 1969. Many 3rd Battalion Marines with time still left on their tours of duty were transferred to other units.
    3rd Battalion spent over 1,600 days in Vietnam and conducted 48 combat
    operations, the most of any Marine battalion in the conflict.
    653 Marines who served in 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines lost their lives
    during the Vietnam War or were killed while operating with other units.
    Nearly 2,800 others were wounded

    The battalion relocated during October and November 1969 to MCB Camp
    Pendleton and was reassigned to the 5th Marine Amphibious Brigade. They
    were again reassigned in April 1971 to the 1st Marine Division. The battalion was deactivated June 1, 1974. 3rd Battalion 3rd Marines was reactivated on October 1, 1975 at MCB Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, and assigned to the 3rd Marine Division.
    Elements of the battalion deployed to the Western Pacific at various
    times during the 1970s and 1980s. In February 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the battalion was deployed to the Persian Gulf onboard the USS Okinawa and was also the back-up force during Operation Eagle Claw. This deployment made 3rd Battalion the first American ground unit to enter the region since World War II.

    MAJ. ROSS L. WEBSTER USMC (RET)

  2. 2
    ROSS WEBSTER says:

    Looks like I read the wrong unit. It was 3/1 mot 3/3. Sorry.

  3. 3
    R J Del Vecchio says:

    Mr. Brush neglects a few points of importance. There were no fragging reports before '69 because there were none to report. The practice came in as the war waned on, its unpopularity increased, and more exemptions expired and resentful men were drafted. While certainly many incidents were about soldiers resentful of officers or NCOs., there were also many against other soldiers because of personal disputes and sometimes, conflicts over drug activity. (Which was greatly increased after '69.)
    It was clearly a bad time in many ways for the military, with various forms of discontent running rampant for a variety of reasons, and not just among the military. However, overstating the situation is not proper service to history.
    And yes, I was there in '68 as well, traveling all over I Corps.

  4. 4
    John says:

    Fragging was "greatly" exaggerated as was "all" negative occurrences regarding our troops in Vietnam. The conduct such as fragging was no worse than similar instances in other wars.

    North Vietnam knew they could not defeat the US. They developed one of the world’s largest propaganda organizations (Dich Van) to defeat us psychologically. They successfully divided us by pitting the US population (especially naive college students) against our politicians and soldiers. The news media played into their hands without researching facts or sources. The public was “suckered” by the repeated disinformation from North Vietnam along with Communist and other dubious sources from within our nation.

    There are a few books written well after the war, but I believe “Unheralded Victory” by Mark W. Woodruff is easiest to learn what really happened in Vietnam. This eye opening book was written in 1999. The book's data and sources come from American and Vietnamese well after the conflict to erase emotions and patriotism.

    Alibris.com has used ones available for very little cost.

    Our mistake was that we left South Vietnam after we overwhelmingly defeated North Vietnam. We stayed in Germany, Japan and South Korea. We left South Vietnam because of public sentiment based upon pseudo information. Which of these countries are better off? Which of these governments and countries would you now choose to live in?

    My guess is that once you read this book, you will be in awe of the veterans accomplishments, despite having to endure all the restrictions and ill-placed public negativity.

    In general, our nation and veterans have nothing to be ashamed of regarding our participation in the Vietnam War.

  5. 5
    Ed says:

    John, from the way you write you're clearly a biased American who doesn't let the fact gets in the way. But it's a free world and everyone is entitled to an opnion, so shall we?

    You sound like a soft little armchair general; a little intellectual who has never experienced real combat, much less killed anyone, but who loves throwing around theory and pretending to be 'patriotic'. Perhaps a bit like some of the officers back then. Sometimes the people on the ground have more common sense than those pretending to be intellectual – and when they run into a CO like that, well, a little grenade for the common good was the lesser evil.

    It is amazing that there are still fools who think leaving was a mistake especially as the whole communist domino theory was proven to be rubbish. To the natives it was about expelling the invaders, not some sort of geopolitical game played by the major powers. No – nothing so sophisticated, merely quaint good verses evil stuff. Guess who's the evil empire here; who flew in thousands of miles to go napalm bomb the natives? And who is fighting for their lives, their familiy and their land?

    And yes a significant number of the troops on the ground, on both sides, recognized this. Call it propagenda or call it the (rather bleeding obvious) 'truth' – fact is that given the futility of the war, fragging overzealous idiot CO's who didn't give a damn about their troops almost seemed sensible. Perhaps it was sensible?

    Interestingly, they were proven right. Eventually even the more pretentious, but competent, intellectuals had to admit the whole communist taking over the world theory was wrong. Instead, the war was exactly what many troops on both sides recognized it to be in the latter stages. Guess what John? The good guys won.

    • 5.1
      John says:

      Ed, biased? No. Vietnam veteran? No. 84-85 Honduras-Nicaragua conflict veteran? Yes. Limited combat? Yes.

      I am not concerned if you served or not. This does not make one more knowledgeable of a specific subject. It makes them more knowledgeable in the facts only where they served and what they saw in their limited view of the conflict.

      I began studying the Vietnam War in 1979 and still do. Because way too many things reported in the news media simply did not make sense regarding the actions of the so-called evil USA and the evil American troops. Much of my information comes from the then North Vietnamese archives and High ranking NVA officers’ records and books they wrote. Also data comes from U.S. military statistics. These are not opinions, these are facts. I never mentioned the so-called domino effect. I said to compare the differences of the nations we stayed in after conflicts with our leaving South Vietnam. Where we stayed – freedom prospered within their sovereign countries. Vietnam is a communist country and their people still do not have many freedoms. Socialism and its cousin Communism has never succeeded in any nation.

      You should know that all “facts” (not opinions) point to us winning the Vietnam War. The popular notion that we lost the war is a myth. The more you tell a lie the more it becomes the truth. We have been beating ourselves up with guilt for over 30 years based upon deception, lies and myths.

      When any soldier from any war describes their experience, they are telling their own little view of the war that happens directly to them. All combat veterans can tell stories of horror and mistakes from any nation’s army. Many of these are not mistakes, but the soldier’s perception in his little arena. The perception of a company’s office daily progress would differ from manager and worker. The soldier and worker in the trenches do not see the big picture because of their limited views. Rumors and myths thrive from this.

      The Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) was created in 1954 to stem further communist takeover of countries in the Pacific region. SEATO was created as part of the Truman Doctrine to create anti-communist bilateral and collective defense treaties. These treaties and agreements were intended to create alliances that would contain communist power. This is why the United States initially became involved in South Vietnam to fight the communist movement under Ho Chi Minh of North Vietnam.

      Representatives from Australia, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States, under the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, (from which SEATO was formed), pledged to defend against what it saw as an escalation of communist military aggression against democracy.

      The Democratic and Republican administrations along with Congress during those years prevented the US military to fight the war as it should have. Our troops had these ludicrous “rules of engagement” and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had none. Militarily, our men were severely restrained. However they still accomplished all objectives and forced North Vietnam to admit defeat and sign the peace agreement.

      At that time our government was afraid if we were too aggressive that China would send troops against us, as in Korea. A little research would have proven this was not going to occur. China admitted this to be true after the war. The memories of us decimating them in the Korean War were still fresh in their minds.

      North Vietnam knew they could not defeat the US. They developed one of the world’s largest propaganda organizations (Dich Van) to defeat us psychologically. They successfully divided us by pitting the US population (especially naive college students) against our politicians and soldiers. The news media played into their hands without researching facts or sources. The public was “suckered” by the repeated disinformation from North Vietnam along with Communist and other dubious sources from within our nation.

      The NVA was equally trained as well as the US army. They also were just as well equipped- supplied from China and Russia. They actually had better field artillery equipment (Russian). We had the advantage in air power. Records reveal the so-called “Viet Cong” actually were many times NVA trained or NVA, not always the poor farmer that was depicted in the news media.

      By their own estimates we killed 1.2 million of their soldiers-far more than our estimation. Can you imagine the length of their war memorial wall? It became obvious that the NV men were going to war and never returning and families not notified. It was later shown that the NVA had a tremendous desertion problem and men doing all possible not to be drafted. The young men had a saying, “Born in the North to die in the South”.

      There was increasing unrest within North Vietnam because they had no access to the factual progress of the war. As in all Communist governments, they had no freedom of speech or press and they still do not.

      CBS “60 Minutes” verified during and after the war, the North Vietnamese government secretly hid the badly wounded soldiers from their families and the public because of the enormous casualty rate. I do not know how long this disturbing policy was in effect.

      Throughout the war the North Vietnamese government had a detailed and systematic plan to execute and murder South Vietnamese citizens they deemed as threats. Also, Ho Chi Minh was absolutely vicious to the people in the North. R.J. Rummell estimates that from 1957 to 1975 the North Vietnamese government executed around 50,000 North Vietnamese civilians (most were executed by 1960). Source: R.J. Rummell (1997). "Vietnam Democide: Estimates, Sources & Calculations".

      North Vietnam’s brutality did not stop at the war’s end. An estimated 95,000 South Vietnamese civilians died in the communist “re-education” camps, another 500,000 were involved in forced labor projects, which killed 48,000 civilians. Another 100,000 were executed. Finally, 400,000 people died while trying to flee Vietnam. This does not include the unknown fate of thousands of indigent people enslaved for laborious work on the Ho Chi Minh trail throughout the war.

      I find it disturbing when everyone (seemingly) rips the USA apart because of the much publicized My Lai Massacre. Clearly this was committed by a few individuals and not US government and army policy. Some soldiers refused to participate and some simply walked away. This came to an end when other US troops protected the civilians and threatened to shoot their fellow soldiers. We that have never experienced the tremendous stress of war could never imagine committing such an act. This is not to be used as an excuse. What these few soldiers did was wrong. This terrible event amounts to nothing, compared to the planned and premeditated slaughter of civilians, throughout the war by the North Vietnamese government and NVA official policy.

      Americans always wanted to forget the war and most will never study what actually occurred. In 1972 Nixon finally gave permission to the air force to conduct military bombing their way. This should have been done years earlier.

      In a matter of days the effect was so devastating that there literally were no more targets left to destroy in NV. All SAM sites destroyed and their entire missile supply depleted. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) did not dare make any movements. The civilians in Hanoi believed they were defeated, began hanging and waving white flags at U.S. planes. The NV politicians were so frightened that they quickly contacted the U.S. and signed the peace treaty.

      North Vietnam signed the peace treaty January 27, 1973. The last American troops left South Vietnam March 29, 1973. Two years later North Vietnam violated the peace treaty, invaded and defeated South Vietnam in 1975. This had nothing to do with us. The USA was long gone by then.

      Regarding the embassy evacuation; this occurred in 1975, more than two years after all of our troops were gone. The embassy scene was “the perception of defeat”. Perceptions do not make truth. The U.S. only had an embassy in South Vietnam (SV) after the war like any other country. It was staffed with the normal “handful” of Marines. The news media falsely connected this scene to the loss of the war. This event occurred more than two years after all of our military was gone and had nothing to do with the war that we had won.

      Yes, panicked South Vietnamese wanted to leave, knowing the fate that may await them. Actually, the NVA were under orders to halt all further advance into Saigon until the evacuation was complete. They had not forgotten the military might of the U.S. that nearly destroyed them during the war. They also knew our naval force was close and that the carrier alone had enough power to defeat them.

      Our mistake was that we left South Vietnam after we overwhelmingly defeated North Vietnam. We stayed in Germany, Japan and South Korea. We left South Vietnam because of public sentiment based upon pseudo information. Which of these countries are better off? Which of these governments and countries would you now choose to live in?

      We all should be in awe of the veterans’ accomplishments, despite having to endure all the restrictions and ill-placed public negativity. This is why I refer to Vietnam Vets as the “greatest generation of soldiers”.

      The good guys did win…we just made the mistake of leaving allowing the bad guys to conquer South Vietnam.

      Again, we have nothing to be ashamed of our participation in the Vietnam War. That is not true of the political leaders of that day who would not allow us to fight the war properly.

      • 5.1.1
        Joe says:

        Dude I have to say you've done some research but you miss the point. The whole war was useless. Kennedy one of the first to pay with his life (for trying to make peace) and then followed the soldiers. Vietnam was fighting for it's freedom. they single handedly took on the Chinese , the Japanese , the French, the US and then the Chinese again. After seeing fathers, uncles, brothers and friends sacrifice their lives for their country, their resolve grew stronger. Finally, they're nobody's colony and they're practicing capitalism on their own terms. War is much more then a game you warmongers make it sound. And yes, we got our butts kicked, by a small country that had better reasons to continue the struggle, such as freedom (like Wallace told the English) to choose thier own leaders and protect their sovereignty. Ours were to make money, (military industrial complex) try out our latest weapons and play world police. (Funny one of the last countries to renounce slavery in the western hemisphere, wants to be the moral force of the world. Wake up! It's a big world out there, not everyone is brainwashed as a segment of our population is. The corporations control the government & the press. If this is your type of democracy good luck! Learn the simple things of life…..war will never bring peace…..".blessed are the peacemakers they will be called children of God." I have to concur with Ed

      • 5.1.2
        carroll price says:

        John,
        You can dispense with the long-winded, horse hocky. We've all heard this sort of patriotic BS until it's well-past being disgusting. All rational individuals figured out a long time ago that the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan (and dozens of others) were all started by the ruling elite for the sole purpose of assuring untold millions in profit to the greedy bastards comprising the Military Industrial Complex.The real mystery about the fragging thing, is why it took so long to start why it didn't occur more often.

      • 5.1.3
        John says:

        Joe,

        From the very beginning of Ho Chi Minh's activism, the only thing that he wanted was to bring Communism to Vietnam – read his history.

        Communism, by any name, has always failed and is responsible for more deaths, injuries and brutality than "all" other wars combined.

        carroll price,

        Your short-winded reply has "0" credibility, evidence, facts and sources.

        It is an opinion that is parroted from people that will not do research.

  6. 6
    John says:

    There is an excellent scholarly book written on the subject of fragging. FRAGGING: Why Soldiers Assaulted Their Officers in Vietnam published Texas Tech University. Written by George Lepre. Lepre is an era infantryman. His book is the first scholarly work on the subject in 40 years.

  7. 7
    Jeff says:

    John,
    This article states this:
    "In America's earlier 20th-century wars, fraggings and homicides by other means typically occurred during combat situations when officers who were deemed incompetent, overly aggressive or otherwise considered a danger, would be killed by enlisted men under their command. Fragging of this sort also occurred in Vietnam."

    This article cites no case, documented or otherwise, of any officer killed in those circumstances in Vietnam, WWII, or Korea.

    Does the Lepre book cite any such case, documented or otherwise?

    • 7.1
      John says:

      This is a much delayed response – I did not receive your reply – sorry.

      Yes, this book does compare like incidents with other conflicts.

  8. 8
    Tyler says:

    We should never been in VN to start with…defense contractors profited while lower-classes fought and died for it.

  9. 9
    James Creeden says:

    Amen,Tyler.

  10. 10
    Mike Gabbard says:

    This article brought back a vivid memory. As a company clerk with India 3/1, (not Lima Company), I was on radio watch in Company HQ when the murder of Sgt Tate occurred. I'm sure that it happened only a few hours after he caught Hendricks sleeping on duty. I knew Richard Tate and found a photo of him in my files. He was a good Marine and a friend to many. Hendricks was rushed from Hill 190 in a Jeep shortly after daylight the next morning as he would not have lived out the day. None of us were ever advised of the outcome and I had hoped he got what he deserved. Apparently not, as his death sentence was commuted. My thoughts and prayers are for his family because of this senseless act. Fraggings and other criminal acts in Marine units were rare and dealt with immediately due to high levels of training and discipline.

  11. 11

    [...] article says 209 in 1970 alone. The Hard Truth About Fragging [...]

  12. 12

    [...] But when it comes from within, there’s a name for it:  fragging. [...]



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