‘Call of Duty’ wants you to bring a shovel to a gunfight, like these 4 badasses did in real life

Surprisingly, this has actually happened in real life.
James Clark Avatar
(Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War)

In perhaps the most first sergeant move ever, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War wants you to pick up a doggone E-Tool, and get to work.

Yes, as part of its ongoing release of unlockable in-game content, the game recently added an E-Tool to its Multiplayer, Zombies, and Warzone game modes.

Here’s how it’s described on the game’s official site: “Like the Machete, Wakizashi, and Sledgehammer also available in Black Ops Cold War, the E-Tool is as deadly as it is essential for outdoor operations.”

For those not familiar with this particular piece of equipment, an E-Tool, short for “entrenching tool,” is a small collapsible shovel that comes standard issue to servicemembers. While the game version is called the “Bunker Buster,” a more apt name would have been the “Back Buster.” E-Tools are most often used for digging holes and shoveling dirt — because, you know, it’s a shovel. Said dirt, once shoveled, can be used to fill sandbags, and holes created from shoveling dirt can be used as latrines or widened and deepened to become fox-holes, burn pits, trench lines, and whatever else you need.

In the game, the E-Tool functions as a melee weapon — a one-hit-kill melee weapon, to be precise. It’s strongly recommended that if you decide to jump into the digital battlefield with one of these things strapped to your back, that you load up on perks that keep you mobile and quiet. A melee weapon isn’t much use to you if you die before you get close enough to swing it.

(Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War)

As with many new weapons added to the game after launch, to unlock the E-Tool, you have to complete a challenge. In this case, that means using a melee weapon to kill three enemies without dying in 15 different matches. On paper, that doesn’t sound too hard. Let’s be honest, we all fancy ourselves as a more lethal reincarnation of John Rambo when playing first-person shooters. That is until you come across a better player and realize that you’re actually the unnamed bad guy Rambo decimates as he racks up his umpteenth confirmed kill. Such a shocking realization can lead to rage quits and, quite possibly, a broken TV screen.

Perhaps that’s why Black Ops Cold War has made the E-Tool pack available for purchase for 1,400 CoD points — an in-game currency that you pay for with real money — which comes out to roughly $15. That’s about half the cost of an actual E-Tool.

Though at least with the in-game entrenching tool you won’t have to worry about being ordered to shovel 1.6 million pounds of sand — the equivalent of 12 M1A1 Abrams tanks — to build a watchtower, which is something four soldiers recently did. (No word yet on whether Call of Duty will add ‘dig a hole and fill a sandbag’ to its exhaustive list of in-game content.)

Related: We salute the 4 soldiers who shoveled 1.6 million pounds of sand to build this HESCO tower

Impressive as that is, it’s not as shocking as running up to someone on a battlefield and swinging a shovel around like you’re a battle-axe-wielding Viking warrior. The idea of clubbing, or chopping, someone to death with an E-Tool isn’t new; It featured in Oliver Stone’s 1986 Vietnam War drama Platoon, when the film’s villain, Sgt. Barnes, nearly killed the protagonist with an entrenching tool in the movie’s final battle. It’s also happened in real life, on more than one occasion.

Marine Sgt. James P. Whalen was fighting against Japanese troops in the Mariana Islands on June 19, 1944, as part of the Pacific Campaign of World War II when his rifle suddenly failed during a firefight. He used his E-Tool to hold off a group of Japanese soldiers who charged at him with swords drawn.

“Bravely swinging his shovel he almost decapitated the first Japanese [soldier] thereby temporarily disorganizing the group and giving his comrades time to organize effective gunfire which killed the entire enemy group,” read his Silver Star citation.

Then there was Army Pfc. Bobbie L. Merrill, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for holding a critical position on the Ryukyu Islands in Japan on March 7, 1945. From Merrill’s award citation: “When with mounting intensity the enemy attacked for the third time, he emptied his pistol into the charging forces, and grasping an entrenching tool, attacked and killed a Japanese officer. Seizing the dead man’s saber, he turned upon another enemy officer and engaged him in a violent duel, finally killing him.”

During the Korean War, Army 1st. Lt. Wiley McGarity turned to his E-Tool after running out of ammunition. His counter-attack, with a shovel mind you, was so relentless that it broke the enemy’s assault and forced their retreat, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Then there is the story of Marine Pfc. Lewis Grover, who on Dec. 9, 1969 in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam, was tasked with filling his squad’s canteens during a patrol. To carry them all, he left his rifle with another Marine and made his way to a nearby riverbank. As he filled one canteen after another, he noticed a concealed bunker, and inside of it, a group of Vietcong soldiers watching his every move. Pretending to be none the wiser, Grover grabbed his entrenching tool, which he did have on him, and cautiously maneuvered to the rear of the bunker, careful to stay out of sight and not alert the enemy troops that he was aware of their presence. 

The moment one of the soldiers came out of the fortification, Grover attacked with his E-Tool, and killed an enemy machine gunner, at which point he grabbed the man’s automatic weapon, and quickly retreated to cover. Grover proceeded to rake the bunker with suppressing fire to keep the other soldiers pinned down inside until the rest of his squad — now alerted to what was going on — could maneuver on the position and support his attack. For his actions, Grover was awarded the Silver Star.

While there are other examples of an E-Tool being used as a weapon of last resort — which you can read about here — within a few decades an infrequent occurrence became even more uncommon. This was likely due to advancements in modern weapons and tactics which changed the face of the modern battlefield and made hand-to-combat increasingly rare.

Yet stories of the E-Tool wielding warrior persisted, until they took on an almost mythical quality.

(Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War)

One legend that’s still passed around today, usually by bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Marines fresh out of boot camp, involves a Marine who earned the moniker ‘E-Tool Smith’ after turning to his entrenching tool to quietly dispatch an enemy sentry during a mission in the jungles of Vietnam. Another version claims that during an ambush the Marine’s rifle jammed, so he turned to his pistol and fired it until he ran out of ammo. Nearly overrun and sorely outnumbered, he grabbed his E-Tool in a desperate last stand and killed all of his attackers single-handedly in close combat. Those stories — impressive as they are — are just stories.

Back in 2016, we had a chance to talk to the Marine widely believed to have gotten that E-Tool kill during the war: Maj. Gen. Ray Louis Smith, a Navy Cross recipient, with two Silver Star Medals, a Bronze Star Medal for valor, and three Purple Hearts.

Related: The true story of how ‘E-Tool’ Smith earned his famous nickname

“The E-Tool story is a legend,” he said. “At least back in my young days in the Corps, we had a definition for a legend: A Marine Corps legend was a pack of lies that was built on an original kernel of truth. The truth is that I never killed anybody with an entrenching tool. I killed a few that I could have killed with an entrenching tool, but I never did.”

What he actually did was far more impressive. Between late March and early April of 1972 during Smith’s second tour in Vietnam, he was serving as an advisor to a group of Vietnamese Marines at a remote outpost. During an ambush, Smith and 28 Vietnamese troops were cut off from friendly forces and had to make their way through enemy lines. As they reached the outer defensive line, they came across a patchwork of razor wire and booby traps. At that exact moment, an enemy sentry spotted them, and Smith leaped up, closed the distance, and jammed the barrel of his rifle into the other man’s stomach and fired, killing him. Then, Smith used his own body to clear a path over the wire, laying on top of it so his men could walk across him to safety, before following them out.

For his actions, Smith was awarded the Navy Cross. Over the course of his career, a story emerged that he killed the sentry, not with a rifle, but with his E-Tool, earning him the nickname ‘E-Tool Smith,’ despite his repeated attempts to set the record straight. However, the myth ‘E-Tool Smith’ persists, in large part because the Marine Corps in particular, and the military more broadly, rely on these kinds of legends.

“When I say legends are good for the Corps, I mean that the Marine Corps is what it is because we believe in ourselves,” Smith said. “We’re not physically and intellectually the best in the world, we’re among the best, but we collectively are the best fighting force in the world because we believe we are.”

Seeing as Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War takes place in the years immediately after the Vietnam War — with some missions in the single-player campaign taking place during that war — it feels like the E-Tool’s appearance as a close-combat weapon is a head nod both to actual acts of valor involving E-Tools, and the widespread ‘E-Tool Smith’ myth.

And in all honesty, keeping those stories alive isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Legends, and things that other Marines believe in and attempt to hold, are good for the Corps,” Smith said. “It’s not important to me that any individual Marines think that I’m ‘E-tool Smith.’ I think that it is good for the Corps for Marines to think that there is an ‘E-tool Smith’ out there.”

So, if you want to live that particular legend, then it looks like Call of Duty has you covered.

Feature image: A screenshot showing off the E-Tool melee weapon for ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War.’

Related: 21 of the most epic combat beatdowns from US military history