The Hard Truth About Fragging

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

Journalist Eugene Linden, in a 1972 Saturday Review article, described the practice of “bounty hunting” whereby enlisted men pooled their money to be paid out to a soldier who killed an officer or sergeant they considered dangerous. One well-known example of bounty hunting came out of the infamous Battle of Dong Ap Bai, aka Hamburger Hill, in May 1969. After suffering more than 400 casualties over 10 merciless days of attacks to take the hill, the 101st Airborne Division soldiers were ordered to withdraw about a week later. Shortly thereafter, the army underground newspaper in Vietnam, GI Says, reportedly offered a $10,000 bounty on the very aggressive officer who led the attacks, Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt. Several unsuccessful attempts were reported to have been made on the colonel’s life. After Hamburger Hill, an Army major was quoted as saying another hard-fought, high-casualty infantry assault like Hamburger Hill, “is definitely out.”

Not Wanting to be the Last Soldier to Die in a War That Would Not be Won

There are no official Pentagon fragging statistics before 1969, the year U.S. troop strength in Vietnam both hit its peak and significant combat troop pullouts began. When it became widely evident that the United States was no longer 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. With this heightened sense of fruitlessness, fragging and the threat of fragging were seen by many enlisted men as the most effective way to discourage their superiors from showing enthusiasm for combat.

Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., in his seminal article “The Collapse of the Armed Forces” published in the June 1971 Armed Forces Journal, claimed the morale, discipline and battle worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces in Vietnam were probably worse during this period than at any time in the 20th century—possibly in the history of the United States. An unnamed officer was quoted in a January 1971 Newsweek article as saying, “Vietnam has become a poison in the veins of the U.S. Army.”

While the Pentagon showed great reluctance to publicly discuss the problem, fragging entered the political arena when, in April 1971, Democratic leader Mike Mansfield of Montana emotionally spoke to the issue on the floor of the Senate. Mansfield related details of the death of 1st Lt. Thomas A. Dellwo, of Choteau, Mont. “He was not a victim of combat. He was not a casualty of a helicopter crash or a jeep accident. In the early morning hours of March 15, the first lieutenant from Montana was ‘fragged’ to death as he lay sleeping in his billet at Bien Hoa. He was murdered by a fellow serviceman, an American GI. ‘Fragging’ so I have been advised by the Secretary of the Army, refers to the use of a fragmentation grenade in other than a combat situation by one person against another to kill or do bodily harm.” The death of Dellwo, a 24-year-old West Point graduate who wanted to be a career soldier, was especially senseless as he was not even the intended victim.

Mansfield asked what failure of order and discipline within the armed forces produced an atmosphere that resulted in 209 cases of fragging in 1970. Answering his own question, the longtime critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, proclaimed that fragging was yet “another outgrowth of this mistaken and tragic conflict.” Responding in the Senate chamber, Republican  Charles Mathias of Maryland noted Mansfield had made history because for the first time “he has surfaced the word ‘fragging’ on the Senate floor. In every war a new vocabulary springs up. In all the lexicon of war there is not a more tragic word than ‘fragging’ with all that it implies of total failure of discipline and the depression of morale, the complete sense of frustration and confusion, and the loss of goals and hope itself.”

Mathias vowed, “To see this evil, and all the other evils that blight the spirit of man that have sprung from the miasmic swamps and bogs of Vietnam, be terminated with an end to this tragic war.”

Despite more troop withdrawals, the number of fraggings grew, and more were taking place in secure rear areas. Of the 209 fraggings in 1970, 34 resulted in deaths. This was more than double the 96 incidents reported in 1969, which killed 37 officers.

In the first 11 months of 1971, some 215 incidents resulted in 12 more deaths. As of July 1972, when the last American soldiers were leaving Vietnam, there had been 551 reported fragging incidents, killing 86 and injuring more than 700.

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