Sunday, April 10, 2005

Of Life and M203 HE Rounds

This is my first post so please be gentle. :D

Here's my story. It's a story that must be told. It's not a happy story, nor a sad story, but it was definitely life-changing.

I was an Armourer serving out my NS liability at training center (the actual unit name will not be revealed to protect the guilty). For those who are not in the know, an Armourer is an weapons technician - we're the guys that fix guns when they go wonky. Not to be confused with "Armour" - guys who get to ride tanks.

Anyways, one day, close to the end of my 2.5 years of service, my Armourer IC gets a call from one of his buddies. Without telling us what the call was about, he turns around and asks for a volunteer.

Needless to say, no one did, and he was "forced" to pick a volunteer - hapless me, very much against my will.

My Armourer IC, his 2IC and I were quickly packed away into a land rover and driven out to the live-firing area. On the way to the live-firing area, I was told what happened. A live HE round was stuck in the barrel of a grenade launcher and his buddy - the firing officer in charge - wanted us to bail him out.

I'll pause the story here for a few explanations. The weapon in question was an M203 - the grenade launchers we get mounted under an M16. The round in question wasn't a "curry-powder" round - it was an actual High Explosive round. In a situation like this, the standard procedure would be to report the incident and get a demolitions expert or Ammo Technician onto the scene. The Firing Officer didn't want to - because it would delay the exercise and everyone would go home late.

When I got the scene, the Firing Officer had left the offending weapon beside a concrete firing station and posted a few guys around it. When we arrived, the Firing Officer called off the sentries and asked for help - and my Armourer IC started fiddling with the M203 - with the live round inside.

After about 5 minutes of fiddling around we all see the situation - the round was jammed inside the barrel, the extractor (the part of the barrel that "pulls out" a spent round) was bent out of shape and the High Explosive round was "primed" - meaning the round was armed and an impact would probably set the round off.

Which my Armourer IC promptly ignored and started fiddling with the weapon some more.

When I started to get up and saying that the situation was dangerous, my Armourer 2IC put his hand on my shoulder and pushed me back to a squatting position - saying that they wanted the problem to go away "quietly" and that "everything would be okay".

Right on cue, my Armourer IC had forced the round out of the barrel - and fumbled catching it. The round dropped to the ground business end first.

I think you can guess the result by now - the round turned out to be a dud and didn't explode. I was soundly ribbed for being a "kia-si coward" for the rest of my days at the unit, which were thankfully short.

It has been 8 years since that incident. Some nights I can still see the round dropping to the ground in slow motion - and yet too fast for me to do anything. I know that two years after I ORDed an NSMan died in an incident very similar to the one that I had gone through - and on the very same live firing area. I could not help but wonder if that person could have been me. I wonder sometimes if I had been spared for a reason, or if it was some incredible twist of luck that kept me alive, but left another dead.

So here's my story. I apologise that it isn't as funny or entertaining as the rest of the ones I see on this blog, but I do want people to know that people should be proud of their sons and boyfriends making it through NS in one piece - some weren't that fortunate. I should know. I was -this close- to being a statistic.

(Note: Mr Miyagi, I edited this from the original email I sent you for accuracy.)

34 comments:

Whitem00n said...
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Whitem00n said...

Always trust people to completely neglect the safety of others. As much as they ribbed you about the incident, I don't think they will have any tears to cry out if the round actually exploded...

Talking of which , I experienced open range live firing where I see people planting shots which are just centimeters behind the front people. I think others saw what is the happening too but it is treated as a norm. My last live firing which was a ridge line live firing exercise always flashes back in my mind cause there were times that I could not see the front people as they were blocked by ferns or other vegatations. The key is don't squeeze the trigger if you don't have clear line of sight. One careless squeeze may be the regret of your life

lun said...

how coincidental it is that the people who takes the mickey are those who aint got the balls to go in the first place :)

lip said...

u're lucky. very lucky indeed. I think the SAF has come a long way since 8 years back. Now more emphasis on Safety Culture.

but then, we do it at the expense of "realism". Israeli army, Thai army, US army, they are willing to trade in some casualties in training. Singapore? Zilch.

Maybe when this area becomes a hotspot for muslim extremism...

someday

Anonymous said...

aiyoh.. you are damn lucky to be alive.

"Big shots" like to do things their own way, even thought they know perfectly well that it is against the TSR. As you've said, they simply want to avoid the inconvenience that doing the right thing might bring.

Unfortunately in life, there will always be idiots like the Firing officer and the Armourer IC.

If I were you, I would have ble*dy cursed them and reported the incident to MINDEF. Who the F*ck are they to risk my life over such a petty matter. If they want to die, let them die lah. Why involve other people?

Anonymous said...

wa liew, damn dangerous man. you're one lucky fellow. so much for safety, tsk tsk.
think you're an amourer from a maintance base somewhere right?

Anthony said...

Good guess but no, I wasn't an armourer at a maintenance base - I think the armourers at maintenance bases tend to be a bit less gung-ho about these things.

Anonymous said...

heh coz i was serving at this main base somewhere than. but tht was like 5years ago.

kureshii said...

well lip, we can't afford to lose anyone. teh us army is fine with losing a few rural boys, but here in singapore i doubt the SAF will want to risk the bad press.

anthony, as long as you know what can kill you and make sure it never happens to you, you'll never kill yourself. just try not to let anyone else kill you.

Belle said...

hi, i agree totally agree that your story has to be told.

it's so scary and i applaud all NS men who finish their term in one piece.

sometimes i get worried when my bf has live firing too, but at the end of the day, he will call me to tell me he's still in one piece.

and i am proud of him. and of all of you. :)

Anthony said...

Thanks for the positive comments guys.

Anonymous - I did consider reporting the matter. Honestly. And if I did, maybe that poor guy 2 years down the road wouldn't have died. But I didn't, and I can't say that the reasons were altrustic - I was concerned about my own (lack of) credibility against three other guys who would swear blind that they had done nothing wrong.

Kureshii - Tried -very- hard not to get killed thanks! Am still trying. So far successful. I hope you are too. Read that you were becoming an MTO? Be a good one - I've heard (though not seen) too many horrifying accounts of fatal vehicle accidents.

Anonymous said...

As an armoror, I would believe you know how the ammunition for the M-203 family works. For the HE/HEDP rounds used by the SAF, the arming distance varies from 14-28 m (other versions are available). Part of the reason is safety for the user. The other reason is to allow the weapon to be fired through thin vegetation without detonating.

When the weapon is fired, the round will rotate due to the initial spin imparted by the rifling of the barrel. There is a centripetal acceleration. There is a mechanism which opens due to centripetal acceleration to a point where the firing pin will be pushed forward by the use of a spring. On impact, it will initiate the detonation.

I believe that the round which dropped was not a dud; rather it simply did not arm.

Now I do agree that ammunition should not be handled carelessly. But if you understand the how the weapon works, you will be able to tell what is dangerous and what is not. The various block charges we use for example - these are stable and will withstand being dropped or thrown around. The detonators on the other hand, are not. TNT is quite a powerful explosive, but there was this engineer who cast an ashtray out of it - it only explodes under certain circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar incident 30 years ago when I was a NSF. I was ammo storeman NCO and this duty office was checking our active stock. In the middle of the storeroom this guy opened a box of detonators with so much force, the entire box spilled all over the floor. After our balls have regained normal size and position, we slowly and carefully picked each one and place it back in the box.

Re: the grenade, if it has same mechanisam as mortars, it has to be shot out of the barrel to arm it but there was one incident when a mortar was defective and already armed out of the box. It killed the entire mortar crew.

Still give me shivers as in those days we have only muscle power and we stacked boxes in the store by throwing them up the stacks. Just imagine if that mortar had gone off when we were stacking it.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar incident 30 years ago when I was a NSF. I was ammo storeman NCO and this duty office was checking our active stock. In the middle of the storeroom this guy opened a box of detonators with so much force, the entire box spilled all over the floor. After our balls have regained normal size and position, we slowly and carefully picked each one and place it back in the box.

Re: the grenade, if it has same mechanisam as mortars, it has to be shot out of the barrel to arm it but there was one incident when a mortar was defective and already armed out of the box. It killed the entire mortar crew.

Still give me shivers as in those days we have only muscle power and we stacked boxes in the store by throwing them up the stacks. Just imagine if that mortar had gone off when we were stacking it.

Anthony said...
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Anthony said...
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Anthony said...
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Anthony said...

Hi Anonymous(es),

I wish I shared the same confidence I had that day. You're right - M203 rounds require some distance to arm. That was what my Armourer 2IC told me to get me to stay.

That's assuming that the round was functioning normally. I assure you it wasn't.

I called it a "dud" in my story because of a simple reason - the round had actually already been triggered off but failed to launch. We could see the dent in the percussion cap of the grenade.

We had been taught in OETI about defective, "slow-burn", propellent that sets off the round if jarred. Possibility of slow-burn propellant + Gung Ho Armourer IC + Fumbled Catch = one Freaked Out Armourer.

You're right though, it could just be the safety mechanism working. In which case, I thank the higher powers that be that it WASN'T a dud.

kureshii said...

not technically a dud, to put it that way. a dud is a round that is expelled from the barrel, but fails to explode upon impact. in this case it would be a misfire, or hangfire if the round actually went off some time later.

if it will kill you not to know how an m203 round works, try this link.

as an MTO I'm not too worried about the drivers when they're out on detail. 5-tons are kings of the road in peacetime - built like a tank, and almost impossible to mangle beyond recognition. the drivers are usually responsible enough to buckle up. case in point: how many cases of SAF drivers dying in car accidents have you heard or read about? Of course, this taken to mean they were driving in tonners or landrovers, and not some crappy GP car.

everytime one of them leaves camp i worry myself sick thinking of the soldiers sitting behind, too tired to observe basic safety rules (buckle up, hold your rifle muzzle - you'd be surprised how close you may come to losing an eye), and too trusting of the driver to look out for their survival (5-ton veers off tekong highway and flips, 19 servicemen injured).

i'm equally, if not more worried about the various civilian cars they meet along the way. the basic rule of dfensive driving is to drive like everyone is out to kill you. this does not apply to SAF ops vehicles. you see one of them, you act like it's out to utterly annihilate you given the slightest chance. some of the drivers have been on the road the whole afternoon; they are only human, some just passed their driving test months ago, and there is no better way to tire yourself out than to drive 50kph on the highway; bloody SAF speed limit. i understnad it's aout safety, but how about raising it to 60? less road time, less fatigue, more alertness, and if they decide to fuck care the speed limit they won't just exceed it by a little. but anyway...

think about it. in a collision with a tonner at highway speeds your chance of surviving is about 50%, your chances of walking away unscathed about as good as striking 4D. with surround airbags that chance increases a hundredfold [these are not real statistics, of course, but don't let reliably calculated figures lull you into a sense of complacency]. you hit it from the sides, the wheel axles won't crumple to absorb the impact the way an aluminium body frame will. you hit it from the front or between the wheels, the floor and the roof will turn you into a sandwich. you hit it from the back, the convoy light (white painted cross at back on vehicle) will guarantee at worst a decapitation.

and yet i see and hear about civilian drivers who think they are invincible, inflaming my drivers and putting themselves at risk. i've heard about minivan drivers overtaking and flicking the middle finger as they overtake the lumbering giants. i've heard of sedan drivers tailgating unimogs (1.5ton). and don't get me started on lane cutting. the drivers in general are an ill-disciplined bunch; if you shout at them they shout back at you, rank regardless. they are resigned to a life in DB, a few more days doesn't matter to them, especially if their tpt supervisors are devils. as a driver you can't see right in front of you, you can't see shit behind you and there are countless blind spots all around the vehicle. and one of these days if you manage to flip him out enough and he decides to pull a stunt he will go to jail, he will get a heavy penalty, he may never drive again and he will not have a prosperous career (if he even has a chance of getting one anyway, many of them are n level holders, some lucky ones have diploma. i've seen the rare air-level or two, but that's it). but he will be alive.

i wanted to get one of my drivers to post his experiences here, but they are not a net-savvy bunch. i'll try to help people see things from their point of view. hopefully that will help people think twice before jerking hte finger or speeding up as they signal in advance.

jordangoh said...

The difference between Life and Death has always been delicately separated by the thinnest of lines.

I'm very glad nothing unfortunate happened to you that day brother.

Life is just so fragile.

StupidGenius said...
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StupidGenius said...

lip, this case is not abt realism. It's true that some SAF exercises lacks realism cos of safety concerns.

But it's never worth it to die while in training during peace time. All the trainings they put us through is to kill the enemy during war time, not to kill ourselves during peace time.

And those same pp in the army are also responsible for our economy in the private sector.

Hobbes said...

Remember the arty incident in NZ a few years back? The cause of that in bore explosion was a faulty fuse (or at least that was the official explaination). The fuse was armed (hence too the 155mm HE round) despite the fact that it had not left the barrel yet. That was a very sad accident for me 'cos I knew some of the people that were there.

kureshii: I tho 7-tonners were the king of the road? :P

Agagooga said...

There aren't enough 7 tonners around to be significant

Lance said...

one gets used to civilian drivers who, apparently, would rather die than give way to a MID vehicle. consider yourself lucky if you get honked less than a couple of times.

the traffic around PLAB is especially bad...

kureshii said...

7-tonners? nah, you haven't seen the flatbeds...those don't go on the road often anyway. the flatbed only in war (or some realistic training exercise i presume), and 7-tonners usually for towing 5-tonners and the like. 5-tonners are used for exercises regularly though, and therefore a more significant force to be reckoned with. how many 7-tonners have you seen on the road anyway?

rather die than give way to an MID vehicle? try the white audis or black benzs then. heard a case where one general langa another general's car when a civilian vehicle cut in front of the front vehicle on expressway. both generals were in staff cars (cars used for commanders). ranks and names not given to protect the innocent (namely me). no news on what happened to the civvie guy.

most civilian drivers don't give way because they think MID vehicles are like ordinary vehicles, only painted drab green. well, why do you think maintenance costs are so high? daylight robbery aside, it's because it's much ahrder knocking a dent out of a landrover or tonner than from a civilian vehicle. those vehicles are not easy to destroy. next time you read about a 5-ton veering off the road make sure you scrutinise the photo. you'll see the front axles bashed in at an angle and the entire cabin tilted backwards but the shape will still be there; compare this to the crumpled wrecks of civilian cars involved in similar accidents.

Agagooga said...

Wah. Can use for war, then.

kureshii said...

right now, kek a bit i guess can. but in peacetime they cost hell to maintain - the way the drivers keep damaging them i doubt this year's maintenance budget would be enough.

Lionel said...

well, as a matter of fact and comparison, 120mm mortar rounds can be dropped from a max height of 2m, safety wire out, and still be safe to use. but of course, i personally would not take the chance. if a M203 round can do that much, being so small, imagine what a 120mm mortar round would do; probably kill not just you, but everyone in the platoon and any lifeform in the area.

kureshii said...

dude, mortar rounds have "effective killing area", anyone caught in that area not behind cover kena 01 X good one. mortar rounds aren't designed to kill only one person.

in the SAF doctrine, mortar and arty aren't really meant for killing though - usually just to kill a fraction of enemy troops and really lower the morale of the unit under bombardment. the concussion waves from arty explosions can KO personnel hiding in bunkers that aren't sufficiently well-shielded.

jly69 said...

The mortar accident happened in my battalion during a coy live firing exercise just after chinese new year in 1974. I was a recruit in 5 SIR then. The coy was Charlie Coy and was their live firing exercise before they were to be declared operational. My old man was dead worried - thought was my coy. Newspapers reported 2 dead. Unofficially, there were lots of casualties. The brother of the chief of general staff, Brigadier Kirpa Ram Vij, had his arm blown off. The medic on duty with the coy lost his wits, broke down and cried in response to all the casualties. Fortunately, SAFTI was nearby and all the medical staff were activated and sent to the live firing area to help.

I met a staff sergeant from 2SIR, the Spt Coy CSM, a year later. He was selected to lead a crew to test fire 2000 bombs from the same batch as the faulty mortar bomb. Well, no further defective bombs as usual.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ammo tech here,

I used to work for a SSG who was a maverick but not in a good way. He also had an over-inflated view of his own technical abilities (note: I'm not the one who said so, it was common knowledge in the previous unit he belong to)

Anyway I too had a close shave while working with him. As a tech I had the dubious honour of accompanying him to demo off mis-fired rounds (HE tank rounds in this case). So the SSG presumely wanting to show off his experience to me -the new bird- used a less than reccomanded amount of explosive in the prep.

After the dust had cleared we went for the usual walk-about to confirm that the round had indeed went off. But instead I found the projectile part of the round relatively intact with the cartridge blown off. There are obvious cracks running down the length of the projectile and so I suggested treating it as a blind and to use a explosive block to finish it off without jarring it(using plastic explosive was simplier but you cant mould it onto the round without touching it)

Damn he wouldn't take the suggestion from a nsf 3SG so he proceeded to pick it up and casually prep it with PE and all the time my balls are shrinking The hell! I wanted to run back to the safety of the waiting jeep but i was constrained to stay.

So here I am sharing this, with all my limbs (thankfully) intact but it was something I can never forget.

Anonymous said...

The 40mm HE/HEDP rounds contain a fuze which does not "arm" the round until it travels a set distance, for both user safety and the safety of those standing around same. While all HE rounds have the potential to be dangerous, just as dangerous as grenades strapped to one's web vest, they are only designed to explode on impact after the spin armed fuze reaches velocity and distance. The hangfire round was probably as dangerous as a anti-tank mine with the fuze removed. It however should have been detonated on the range by EOD as required by regulations.

Anonymous said...

A young U.S. Marine thought he'd found a dud while policing up our M-203 range in the mid 1970's.
He yelled "hey Gunny...catch"

then lobbed it. It armed itself in flight and exploded at the feet of his Gunnery Sergeant...