As a Combat Engineer with my fellow 19-year-olds and a few guys into their 20s, the symbol was hand grenades. We wore them hanging from the lapels of our green mid-length field jackets. The idea was you were ready in case of an attack by Germans sneaking up on you, day or night.
American hand grenades of World War II were sturdy. They didn’t explode unless you pulled a ring attached to a pin hard enough that it came out of the grenade. You did the pulling while holding the grenade tightly, really squeezing, to put pressure on a metal handle curving around the grenade. The handle stayed in place as long as it was gripped tightly.
But when you threw a hand grenade you had armed by pulling the ring, the handle flew off and triggered ignition.
The munitions in the body of the grenade exploded, turning the body of the grenade into flying shrapnel.
Hey, you can see why it was a masculinity symbol. There on your jacket lapel hung death.
You were rough and tough, ready to kill the enemy, and unafraid of the danger the grenade might just have its ring come out by accident and blow you into many pieces.
In short, it was dumber than driving drunk.
Dumber than jumping into a pool without checking the depth of the water below.
However, we adolescent soldiers did it and I never heard of a grenade exploding while being worn. Nor did anybody in our Combat Engineers battalion, to my knowledge, ever need one. Our danger was being shot by snipers while we did our work clearing mines or building bridges for the rest of the Army to cross, not fighting with grenades unless we suddenly had to become Infantry soldiers.
But once we went fishing with a hand grenade. Someone, there was always someone who learned these things, reported that there was a small lake not far from where we were living at the end of the war in Europe.
“It’s probably loaded with fish,” Private Someone predicted. “It’ a cinch,” he said. “We just go there, throw some grenades in the lake and we’ll have fish pop right out of the lake that we can grab.”
Could this really work? I know I thought that. If fish got hit by flying shrapnel, they’d be torn apart and what good would they be?
But off we drove in our truck, maybe five of us. I was elected to throw the first grenade. After all, I had come to the Combat Engineers from Infantry Basic Training so it was assumed I had more experience than the rest of the gang with hand grenades.
The little lake was in a rustic setting. Trees all around it. No houses. Not much of a beach. It was a fishing hole. But, if it had once had a lot of fishermen, they were away in the German Army or, at this point, sitting in Prisoner of War camps run by either America or Russia.
I took my hand grenade off my jacket lapel—by the way, don’t ask me how we hung them on our lapels. Did we stick the grenade’s curving handle into a lapel? Surely we didn’t hang them by the ring holding that pin in place. Sorry, I don’t recall that part.
But into my hand went the grenade and then we all walked slowly to the edge of the water. The lake’s surface was serene and flat, illuminated by our truck’s headlights because we had chosen to do our fishing by night.
I raised my hand in the throwing motion we had been taught back in Camp Wheeler, Georgia, left hand up and out of the way but pointed toward the target like a left-handed Nazi Heil Hitler salute, I pulled the pin, then threw, pretty scared since in training I had only thrown a live grenade once.
Whoosh, the grenade was arcing up over the water. And then we heard the muted sound of an explosion and the water whirled in a circle around where the grenade had plunged into the lake.
Seconds passed. Could this crazy idea work? Was there any way the Army had a count of how many hand grenades had been issued? What kind of trouble could we be getting into?
Suddenly, the questioning stopped. Breaking the surface of the lake came dozens of fish, maybe a hundred. Big ones, some two feet long. They were motionless as we waded into the water and scooped them up into pails we had found to bring along.
There were so many fish, we couldn’t carry them all away and they were all dead. Stunned by the blast. And we saw none torn apart by shrapnel. Perhaps the ones hit by shrapnel were on the bottom of the lake. Or maybe the shrapnel didn’t fly out through the water and it was just the force of the explosion that threw the fish up to the surface.
For years I imagine, Germans returning from their army may have gone fishing there and noticed it was harder now to catch one. We surely stunted the fish population.
Or perhaps the Germans were prisoners in our camps for long enough that the fish population may have recovered and our night’s fishing had no permanent effect.
I do know though that many state and local governments ban fishing with explosives. I looked it up in Google and didn’t find any mention of hand grenades. The fishing with explosives is usually done with dynamite and I’m not sure it works as well as our hand grenades. The pictures in Google showed scattered individual fish floating on the surface of a bay, not the hordes of fish clumped together, by the dozens, their white bellies shining, which I remember.
I’ve never gone fishing since. Nothing could ever replace the excitement and instant gratification of seeing a horde of fish rise out of water seconds after tossing a hand grenade into a little lake like a mysterious miracle, creating a thrill never to be seen again.