DOUG’S NCIS VIET NAM CASE FILES — UBIQUITOUS FRAGGINGS
Soon after my arrival in Vietnam, I learned a new word: “fragging”. It was a word being heard with increasing frequency around our office, Naval Investigative Service Resident Agency, DaNang because the small cadre of NIS civilian Special Agents assigned to this small office in the far north of the Republic of Vietnam were increasingly being called upon to investigate incidents where hand grenades were being used to murder and maim fellow American servicemen.
At this stage of the war, March 1969, two divisions of US Marines were deployed in offensive operations in the north of the country. 3rd MarDiv was disbursed in the area along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) while 1st MarDiv had responsibility for the defense of vital DaNang and points south.
Fraggings then tended to be Marine Corps events, though there was a substantial US Navy support element present. Typical targets were senior non-commissioned officers and officers in various USMC commands; the worst of the incidents seemed to occur in logistic support elements. There were racial overtones to several of the most egregious incidents.
Murder effected by a fragmentation grenade is a particularly difficult incident to investigate. There is seldom useful physical evidence remaining after the explosion of a device carried by most field Marine riflemen. Unlike firearms investigations, there is no projectile available for analysis and comparison, and fingerprint evidence was rare. Agents were challenged to find alternative evidence and testimony from witnesses, many of whom were disinclined to offer assistance.
In early April, 1969, I accompanied Special Agent Larry Coleman on my first trip into the field from DaNang to assist him with what became my first involvement in a fragging investigation. The victim was a Marine Staff Sergeant cook assigned to the firebase southward known as Hill 55 where USMC artillery and infantry fought Viet Cong insurgents and North Vietnamese Army units seeking to control the countryside and its peasant farmers. In a battered International ¾ ton pickup once the property of Navy SeaBee engineers, we made our way down Route 1, dodging Vietnamese civilians and an array of Marine armor on the move. I also saw recently-deceased VC displayed roadside by local defense units eager to let their enemy know of their recent success.
This visit and subsequent investigations disclosed that the deceased was actually not a murder victim, despite many initial indicators to the contrary. Physical evidence and NIS inquiries in the US substantiated Coleman’s conclusion that he had committed suicide by placing a live M-26 fragmentation grenade alongside his middle torso while llying on his cot. Though virtually eviscerated by the blast, his upper torso remained intact, in such a manner that (as his letters home indicated) he could have an open-casket funeral attired in his formal USMC dress blue uniform.
Though there had been fragging incidents as early as 1967, by 1969 NISRA DaNang agents were often dealing with more than one major fragging death every month. As my three-year deployment progressed and I rotated to other areas in South Vietnam after the Marines were withdrawn, the trend continued but involved US Navy personnel. The incidents and images which follow represent a cross-section of some of the Vietnam fragging investigations I controlled or participated in.
Fragging at USMC Firebase Hill 55
This crime scene photograph taken from the outside of the victim’s hootch at Hill 55 was taken shortly after his corpse was removed. The cot has been shattered at the middle where the fragmentation grenade detonated. Hand prints are seen on the fly screen, his issue M-16 propped against the cot. The screen had been cut to give the impression that it had been sliced to provide access for the grenade; scientific analysis later supported Special Agent Coleman’s assertion that it had been cut from inside rather than by an outside intruder, causing him to investigate the possibility that the incident was a suicide.
Fraggings Could be Threats, Revenge or to Intimidate
An incident at the US Marine air facility at Marble Mountain, DaNang involving an M-26 fragmentation grenade rigged with a primitive time delay device was likely an outright attempt to cause widespread destruction of aircraft and facilities – and although the perpetrator was not identified, investigations indicated that a Marine was responsible. In the first photo below, Senior Resident Agent Chuck Bickley interviews a Marine warrant officer from the explosive ordnance disposal team, flanked by Marine military police who had discovered the grenade in a coffee can, wrapped in electrical tape and immersed in gasoline, planted adjacent to multiple rocket warheads in an ammunition revetment. Had the gasoline had sufficient time to loosen the tape adhesive, a massive explosion could have resulted. The cool-headed EOD gunner had cleared the area, plunged his hand into the can to grip the grenade striker lever to replace the safety pin. We were impressed…
Monkey Mountain, the highest point on the seaward Tien Sa peninsula, was home to the Marine Corps air defense missile detachment. Never called upon to engage the enemy, there was an element of discontent in this unit that overflowed into overt intimidation of a senior non-commissioned officer considered too vigorous a disciplinarian and task master. The late NIS polygraph examiner Tom Brannon not only identified perpetrators and obtained confessions, he determined where grenades were hidden for use in future attacks. The photos below depict the hillside barracks, the second a disused bunker where a second grenade was concealed under sand.