The Hard Truth About Fragging

By Peter Brush
7/28/2010 • Black History, Vietnam Point of View, Vietnam War

(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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