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The Hard Truth About Fragging

By Peter Brush
7/28/2010 • Politics, 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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24 Responses to The Hard Truth About Fragging

  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.


  2. ROSS WEBSTER says:

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

  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.

    • Adam Michaels says:

      R J,
      I’m not sure to which reports you are referring. You are closer than most with ’69. However, fraggings began within a few month of Tet in ’68 and by June the Army and some of the civilian architects of the war knew it. The concern was serious enough that “morale researchers” were sent in to interview troops on an anonymous basis with the reports going back to D.C. first. Interviews, questionnaires and surveys were patterned after corporate Employee Morale Studies modified for the situation by .mil Contractors closely associated with MACV.

      These studies and reports resulted in briefings of Officers new to the war zone that probably contributed to the decline in fraggings after ’72..

  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. 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. 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.

    • 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.

      • 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

      • carroll price says:

        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.

      • John says:


        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. 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. Jeff says:

    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?

    • 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. Tyler says:

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

  9. James Creeden says:


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

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

  13. Joe2 says:

    Re: Assertion, Denial, morality
    Communism, by any name, has always failed and is responsible for more deaths, injuries and brutality than “all” other wars combined.

    Americans still need what Tariq Ali called in one of his essay titles, “A Short Course History in US Imperialism” (Clash of Fundamentalisms, 281-315). Its killing sites are many. The rage is still palpable. I name just a few of the post-WWII sites of U.S. covert or overt aggression: Korea (scorched earth campaigns and a still unended war), Japan (nuclear devastation of civilians), Haiti (again), Guatemala (1954, its only effective democracy since the conquest overthrown), Iran (1954, another U.S./British supported coup), Vietnam (too much horror to summarize), Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Cuba, Indonesia, the Congo (yes, the U.S. here, too), Venezuela, South Africa (anti-apartheid forces often unsupported by the U.S.), Iraq (1990-the present), Afghanistan (2003 to the present). There’s more. (For documentation see pages 20-21, 166-6 in my Religion, Politics and the Christian Right.)

    Is there no sleeplessness among U.S. citizens and residents over all this? U.S. “civil” society is life played out upon an unrecognized killing floor. “Floor” may be a metaphor too solid. Perhaps it is more like an aged skin stretched tight over brittle bones – bones of those unjustly slain in the name of U.S. sovereignty.

  14. Luke Cousineau says:

    The communists are here among us. Listen to the claptrap spewed by the likes of “arm chair General Ed”. Joe, aka “dude”, only he knows that JFK was killed for wanting to make peace. (He wanted peace of a different kind dude!). One of the last countries in the west to denounce slavery?? Corporations control the government and the press?? Ours is a dynamic world my friend and that sort of drivel is stale. And you Carol Price, with your rational thinking regarding the ruling elite, priceless! Hats off to you Tyler for insulting all Vietnam era vets so succinctly. Shame on you James Creeden for agreeing to Tyler’s insult. Finally to you Joe2, your selective readings fail to dissuade me in the amount of misery the spread of communism has inflected on mankind.
    There is evil in the world and the elitism of your arguments fail to make this world a better place in any way.

  15. […] impacts and Hunt Emerson is in a class of his own in his work on the Luddites, the Swing Riots and Fragging, the practice of enlisted men shooting superior officers which was so prevalent during the Vietnam […]

  16. […] black ops, good and bad intentions, political maneuvers, drugs and Rock & Roll, confusion, fragging, misinformation, lies, heroism, atrocities, corruption, profiteering… What truly happened […]

  17. Marie Keating says:

    Sir, Did you serve with my husband, LCPL Michael J. Keating? I have a group picture, on the back it states 1970 DaNang India Co., 3/1. Thank you

  18. […] In 1971, amid the waning days of the unpopular Vietnam War, a column in The Washington Post about demoralized troops cited reports of soldiers “fragging” gung-ho officers. […]

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