From retired Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer John R. Olson I just learned the amazing legend about how AGOI ("a guy over in") some other unit survived a direct shot to the head during combat.
Olson calls the story "The Magic Bullet."He prefers the acronym AGOI rather than the folklorist's term FOAF (friend of a friend) when referring to certain bizarre military stories that are always attributed to someone in a different unit from the storyteller's own.
Olson heard such stories frequently during his time in Vietnam. The opening phrase "A guy over in . . ." was inevitably followed by some other unit, like the 1st Cav, or D Battery, or 3rd Platoon.
Here's what happened to AGOI, according to the legend of "The Magic Bullet":
AGOI (C Company, etc.) was on patrol or in his bunker when an enemy sniper fired at him. The bullet punched through his helmet, but due to the extremely long range of the shot it deflected between the outer steel shell and the fiberglass inner liner.
The bullet then rattled around inside the helmet before falling harmlessly out.
Occasionally, said Olson, the story was embellished with the comment that "The guy said it sounded just like a bee or a hornet."
Sometimes, according to the story, the man actually believed that there was a bee in his helmet. When he yanked it off, the bullet clipped off a piece of his ear.
Olson recognized "The Magic Bullet" story as an updating of similar yarns told in earlier wars. These often told of bullets magically stopped by a Bible or a packet of letters from a man's wife or girlfriend that was carried in his shirt pocket.
The bullet was headed straight for the soldier's heart when it was stopped by the pocket's contents. In some versions, the bullet's tip pointed to a significant passage in the text.
The reason for the tale's updating, Olson suggests, is that during the Vietnam War most line troops wore body armor or "flak jackets." Thus, there was less logic to the old bullet-in-the-heart scenario.
Any bullet that could penetrate the armor would surely also make it through some sheets of paper in a man's pocket.
It made more sense, then, for the well-aimed bullet in the story to be directed at the head, where a direct hit would usually be fatal - except, of course, to AGOI.
Paul Fussell, in his recent book, "Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War," discusses other lucky-escape stories. He notes that, among military personnel, they have the function of "fostering irrational hopes and proposing magical outcomes."
In his chapter on wartime rumors, Fussell also mentions another magic bullet story. In this one, which was included in an episode of the television series "M*A*S*H," a bullet or piece of shrapnel strikes a soldier without doing harm and is thereafter carried as a good-luck charm.
Fussell quotes one World War II soldier who saved a stray bullet that had bounced harmlessly off his helmet, and who later said of it:
"For years I carried this bullet about as the One With My Name on It, possession of which, according to army superstition, guaranteed immortality, at least for the duration."
The flip side of the magic bullet legend is a story that describes a fantastically lucky shot. A version I heard recently concerned a 12-year-old boy supposedly bringing down a B-2 bomber with an air rifle. I call it "The Magic BB."
The story claimed that the huge new plane was being test flown out of Fort Sill, Okla., when it passed fairly low over the town of Mountain View.
A boy who was outside shooting his grandfather's 1923 BB gun looked up, saw the outline of the plane, and shot at it.
According to the story, the expensive aircraft was brought down by a single BB. To hush up the incident, the government was said to have promised the boy an appointment to West Point after he graduated from high school.
If there's any truth to the story, the kid will probably end up with a magic bullet in his helmet if he ever enters combat.- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available in paperback from Norton. Send your questions and urban legends to him in care of the Deseret News.