As the Vietnam War heated up in 1965, concern was expressed about the inadequacy of combat training for Air Force GI’s. The USAF Chief of Staff ordered every Air Force base in the world to make sure all enlisted personnel were taught the basic skills of combat survival.
In England, where I served as a chaplain’s assistant at twin bases RAF Stations Bentwaters and Woodbridge, combat training consisted of two days in the conifers that lined the Bentwaters flightline. The trainer was a sergeant with a mean Claude Akins baritone who, according to rumors that seemed to fit his personality, had been a prolific sniper in Korea.
Our combat class consisted of clerk typists and cooks, mostly guys who had enlisted in the Air Force precisely to avoid combat. We had all qualified with firearms so the combat curriculum was limited to teaching us how to hide from the enemy, an exercise called “cover and concealment.”
The sergeant also decided typists and cooks should have some experience with grenades. Again, a rumor circulated that a GI under the sergeant’s control had once pulled the pin from the grenade and, in a moment of confusion, dropped the grenade at his feet and threw the pin. The sergeant was determined that we would all know how to throw grenades.
The problem was that there were no grenades in the arsenal at Bentwaters/Woodbridge. The sergeant was undeterred. During a break, he picked up a can of Coca-Cola and weighed it in his palm. The can was, he concluded, about the same weight as a grenade.
The next day the sergeant brought a six-pack of Coca-Cola cans to the training area.
“The main thing you need to do with a grenade,” the sergeant told us, “is to throw it as far away from you as possible, and then duck.”
For the next two hours we held a coke can in our hands and, following the sergeant’s coaching, threw it as far as we could into the woods.
Some how we managed to accomplish this without laughing, but as the day went on we were getting a little punchy – and sweaty. One of the trainees with moist palms fumbled his coke can and dropped it at his feet.
Immediately, another GI fell on the can.
“Run, run,” he shouted, “save yourselves.”
We froze in silence as we waited the sergeant’s reaction.
Finally he spoke in the familiar Claude Akins rumble.
“And you wonder how the United States never lost a war,” he said.
For the rest of my time in England, the veterans of this two-day combat training had special greeting whenever we encountered one another on the base.
“Coke Can!” we’d shout. And, as startled passers-by winced, we’d feign terror and cover our heads.