By Fred T. Beeman
Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
Back in 1968, the Vietnam “War” was in full force, and to avoid being drafted by either the Leathernecks or the Army, I enlisted into the U.S. Air Force. I was 18 and very “innocent” about the ways of the world.
Although all 60 of the occupants of Lackland Air Force Base (San Antonio, Texas) barracks were “unique”, Johnny Leo (not his real name) stood out, because of his playful antics and harmless practical jokes. No one in our group knew of Eddie Murphy in those days, but Johnny Leo could have been Eddie’s clone or twin brother.
Because Johnny was always clowning around, no one believed that Johnny had a serious side. But on one fateful day we witnessed it, and all of our lives were instantly and forever changed.
As part of our basic training, early morning “formation marching” was something we could always expect. On this Friday morning, as we marched in formation toward the mess hall, a shiny metal ball about the size of a human fist came sailing out of nowhere, landing a few feet away from Johnny Leo, who wasn’t all that far away from me. Simultaneously, I heard a drill sergeant scream “GRENADE!”
With no hesitation whatsoever, Johnny Leo shoved two other recruits away from the “pineapple”, fell to his knees, placed both his hands on it, hugged it to his stomach and lay down on top of it, his eyes tightly closed, mumbling prayers.
Tears flowed from my eyes as I realized what Johnny was doing. He intended to absorb the entire blast, saving his comrades from either death or permanent injury. An eternity passed for all of us, as we stood watching Johnny, waiting for the explosion, too scared to move.
Another drill sergeant came racing toward Johnny, who was still laying on the grenade, with his eyes tightly shut. The sergeant yelled, “At ease, soldier! It’s a fake! YOU ARE IN NO DANGER!” Johnny refused to budge from his position, certain that his life was over. Two drill sergeants rolled Johnny on his back and forcibly pried his fingers off the dummy grenade. Once that was done, one held up the replica saying, “See? IT’S NOT REAL!” Johnny, who had been emotionally at Heaven’s Gate, began to cry and shake uncontrollably, as did the rest of us in his barracks.
As Johnny was carried off by two sergeants to the base hospital to be calmed down and checked over, one of our sergeants confided to us that a few times a year, Air Force personnel deliberately toss a dummy grenade into a group of raw recruits, searching for that ONE man who will react like Johnny Leo. Although it appears to be a sick practical joke, the Air Force made no apologies for its methods.
On a Friday in 1968, Johnny Leo unintentionally demonstrated his love for his fellow Airmen, showed he had “the right stuff,” and became our “hero” forever.
Available in The Best of HeroicStories, Volume 2.