Demolitions

So it came to pass, right at the time in early 1986 when I reported to my first duty station in Hawaii, that unit, the 25th Infantry Division was in the midst of converting from the old ROAD division to the Div86 “Light” configuration.

More than simply a change in organization, the goal was to infuse a spirit of excellence throughout the entire organization, but most especially in the rifle companies that formed the heart of the division.  An intense “Lightfighter” training program was instituted across the entire division.  In addition to honing traditional infantry skills in the attack and the defense, a strong emphasis was placed on patrolling, and such tactics as raids and ambushes.  Training emphasized fieldcraft and self sufficiency. Among the many skills taught to us was demolitions- the use of high explosives.

Traditionally, demolitions are the province of the combat engineers. And truth be told, even after reading the field manual on demolitions, if I needed to drop a bridge or a building, I’d probably leave that to them.  But there aren’t a lot of engineers, so support isn’t always available. But there are often things that need to be blow’d up real good. Bunkers, captured enemy weapons, vehicles or other equipment, you name it. Obviously, providing some rudimentary level of demolitions competence to the infantry was a good idea.

So it came to pass that my platoon was scheduled for two whole days on the post demolitions range.  We had a Staff Sergeant and a Specialist from our supporting engineer company with us. They gave us the briefest introduction  to methods and to safety, they let us loose on several hundred pounds of high explosives.

The Army has in its inventory all kinds of explosives, but by far the most common is Composition Four, or C-4. It’s available in a wide variety of packages, but the standard is the M112 Demolition Charge. It’s a simple block of 1-1/4 pound of C-4 wrapped in a green plastic cover with an adhesive on one side.  C-4 is a plastic explosive. You can cut it, mold it, shape it, and do all sorts of things with it, like make a little Mr. Bill doll. Or if one block isn’t enough to blow up whatever it is you’re blowing up, you can stick multiple blocks together to make as big a charge as you need.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Unexploded ordnance destroyed by the 455th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron explosive ordnance disposal Airmen on Jan. 23 included everything from small arms, aircraft ammunitions and rockets, to Howitzer casings, large projectiles, rifle grenades and anti-tank mines. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Catie Hague)-Via Wikipedia

Back in those days, there were two methods of setting off C-4- electric and non-electric. Electric detonation was through the use of an electrical blasting cap, blasting wire, and a blasting machine, which was really just a small dynamo to generate an electrical charge. The charge travelled down the wire to the blasting cap, which detonated, and set off the main charge of C-4.  Truth be told, I was somewhat intimidated by electrical blasting. The list of safety precautions was long and detailed.  The odd thing is, the M18 Claymore mine uses electrical blasting,  and I was never concerned when using that. But weird things can happen with electrical blasting. If there’s enough radio frequency energy in the area, the long wires can actually build up an inductive charge and cause a premature detonation.

The other method, non-electrical, was simply time fuse and a blasting cap. Time fuse looks like green plastic tubing with a yellow ring painted on it every 18 inches or so. Unlike the fuse you see in the old western movies and whatnot, it is waterproof. A special pair of pliers is used to crimp a blasting cap one end of the fuse. The other end has a friction fuse igniter clamped onto it. The blasting cap is inserted into a hole in the C-4 (which, you poked the hole using the handle of the crimping pliers, usually). Pull the fuse igniter, and walk to a safe distance.  After a while… BOOM!

Non-electrical demolitions was pretty simple. There were only a few things you really had to remember (primarily about how not to blow your hand off while crimping the blasting cap).

The other piece of demolitions that we used was det cord. Det cord is a plastic tubing that looks similar to time fuse, but without the painted yellow rings. Inside the tubing is an explosive known at PETN. Det cord can be used as an explosive in its own right. For instance, wrap it around a tree or a telephone pole a couple times, and it will cut it neatly in half. But more commonly, det cord is used to link two separate main charges of C-4. You might want to destroy a captured bunker, a truck and a mortar. Rather than setting up time fuse three separate times, simply set up one charge with time fuse, and connect the other charges with a length of det cord. They’ll all go off simultaneously. That’s safer and quicker.

Those two days of blowing stuff up were probably the most fun I’d ever had on an Army range. Other than a strict instruction not to put charges under anything, always on top*, we had few restrictions placed on us. I think they may have had a limit of something like no more than 10 blocks in any one charge, but that was OK with me. We blew up old trucks and jeeps, cut down trees and telephone poles, dug instant foxholes, cut an old Bailey bridge and just generally had fun blowin’ stuff up.  The only thing that could have made it better was if I could have said “Here, hold my beer and watch this!”

The LT and I did get into a bit of trouble.  We were using det cord to cut a telephone pole in half.  No one told us we’d only need one or two wraps.  We wrapped it 20 or 30 times. Sent the top half of that thing flying like a Saturn 5.

Fast forward five years to Desert Storm. I was in a heavy mechanized Bradley infantry company. There was a real, if slim,  possibility that  we would have to use demolitions to breach bunkers or blast our way through minefields. Accordingly, we needed to refresh our demo skills. As it turned out, of an entire infantry company, only ONE soldier had ever done live demolitions. Guess who got to give a LOT of instruction to his fellow soldiers? In the event, we never had to use our skills on the battlefield. But soon after the cease fire, we were tasked to travel across the battlefield, and destroy any Iraqi equipment they had abandoned, so they couldn’t salvage it for later use.  Most vehicles and such were easily dispatched with a thermite grenade on the engine block, but armored vehicles had to be more thoroughly disabled. And so our skills were put to the test. Placing a 1-1/4 charge of C-4 with a 4 minute time fuse on the main ammo racks of BMP pretty much ensured it would never again be of any use. Plus, it was fun to blow stuff up!

*That pushes debris down.  You don’t really want to blow stuff UP, cuz it will come raining down on your head.

21 thoughts on “Demolitions”

  1. Intriguing what you said about mech guys not having demo training. When I was a mech platoon leader in the early 1980s in Germany we practiced a lot…that probably had a lot to do with NATO/WARSAW PACT thing where we would have to abatise and trash everything in the path of GSFG.

    Also, at FT Stewart in the 24th ID(M) during the mid to late 1980s we did a lot of demo work. That may have been a result of being a part of XVIIITH Airborne Corps but it was a METL task for us. We did live demo training during every gunnery cycle.

    Strange…I thought that was the norm.

    1. Neither battalion of the 1AD I was in had done any. I was quite surprised. I can understand a shortage of live training, what with range/resource/time constraints, but some basic training with dummy aids would certainly have been a good use of Sergeant’s Time.

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