Little-known Grafenwoehr accident remains vivid to those who lived it, nearly 60 years later
GRAFENWOEHR, Germany — Few today know about the grim accident — the worst in Grafenwoehr’s history — that took the lives of 16 soldiers serving on this base on Sept. 2, 1960.
A platoon of U.S. soldiers was putting up tents that Friday morning, getting ready to spend their weekend training in the field. At about 9 a.m., an 8-inch, 200-pound howitzer shell overshot its intended target and hit their tents, killing 16 soldiers and wounding 27.
“The shell smashed into three tents occupied by soldiers,” according to Stars and Stripes on Sept. 3, 1960. “It tore through one tent, exploded in the second, and sent fragments hurtling into the third.”
Army investigations determined the 8-inch howitzer shell was overcharged and badly aimed. It missed the artillery impact area and landed at Camp Kasserine.
There are no memorials or services these days to mark the tragedy. Only newspapers and a small section dedicated to the accident at the Grafenwoehr Museum for Cultural and Military History serve as memorials of the incident.
“The accident seems to have been lost in history,” said Army spokesman Desiree Dillehay. “At this time, [U.S. Army Garrison] Bavaria does not have any memorials or services that recognize this accident. It was the deadliest accident seen in the Grafenwoehr Training Area to this day but remains relatively unknown to most people.”
Yet the memory of that day lives on in the soldiers who were there.
Retired Gen. Colin Powell, who went on to become secretary of state under President George W. Bush, was one of them.
On the day of the accident, Powell was a first lieutenant stationed on Grafenwoehr. He describes the event in his memoir, “My American Journey.”
“My ears pricked up at an odd, whistling sound overhead. In about a nanosecond, I realized it was an artillery shell that had strayed wildly out of the impact area,” Powell recounts in his book. “I stopped, frozen, and actually saw the 8-inch round come in. It struck a tent pole in the 12th Cavalry’s sector, detonating in an air burst. The roar was deafening, followed by a terrifying silence. I had seen a hundred war movies, but nothing prepared me for the sights I saw that day.”