The wait through the rest of the night was wet, dark and conducted mostly under my poncho. It had taken several tries for me to convince the Gunny to get Jurgens’ flashlight from him so I’d be able to lay out what we might do to ensure our return across the angry river water without taking terrible casualties. Although the enemy had been forced inside a dense jungle compound of sorts, the same open area that extended out between our position and that jungle growth, which was protecting us, would serve as a killing field if the NVA could not be forced to move away from the river area. It would take at least twenty minutes for us to lay and then use the ropes to get across even the short distance of water we had to traverse. Twenty minutes of exposure on open ground in broad daylight was an invitation to death if even one machine gun could be mounted to open up with any protection around it. The NVA had to be ensconced in their caves and the paths we knew they had to have running along just under the flora cover. They could pop up at any time, however with potentially devastating and deadly results.
I pulled the poncho open to get fresh fetid night air, mixed with the misty goo of early monsoon misery. Jurgens had delivered his flashlight but needed watching, since he hadn’t left the vicinity once after handing it over. Flash lights weren’t that uncommon in the unit, so I was mildly disturbed about why he might want to remain so close to somebody he knew had no use for his continued life on the planet. That he obviously felt the same about me was what was really bothering me. I could make him out in the night only because of the glow from his cigarette. How he kept it going in the rain I had no idea. I knew the Gunny was close by, but I didn’t know how close.
Nguyen was sitting by my side when I came up out of the poncho, however. He sat erect while Fusner and Zippo laid flat only inches away. My scout team was more like a pride of lions or tigers than humans during the night. Visibility was near nothing so I went back under the poncho, switching Jurgen’s light on once more. What we might do in the morning depended on the map. Everything was right in front of me if I could only figure it out. I drew a black oblong circle for Kilo company, and where it had to be down the wall. I drew another for us, and a third for the rest of the company across the river. I then marked a long thin corridor for where the Ontos sat and extended it all the way back to the old airfield. Finally, I drew a rectangle around the entire jungle area where the NVA had to be.
If nothing else, the company, including Kilo’s contribution and that of the Army combat engineers had pretty much proven that there wasn’t going to be an ARVN base built down in the A Shau Valley. Not again. There’d been the air strip and that had proven a disaster, still sitting there to serve as an example. The improved concrete and asphalt road had been more of a success, but for whom? The only way the NVA had been able to get their tank as far down as they had was by using the only road built by first the French and then rebuilt by the U.S.
I let the map lay there and scrounged around for my stationery. I could get a letter to my wife aboard the resupply chopper if we made it across the water in time. I wrote about the beauty of the night and the blessed merits of fresh water falling from the sky all the time. When I was done with the writing I looked at the map once again. And I saw it. The valley, just beyond our position and expanding down to another place below where Kilo was, once again snuffed out against the wall, as long as the river stayed in full flood. And the monsoon season was just beginning. The strip of land we were occupying, along with Kilo and the NVA, was shaped more like a bent banana rather than the rectangle I’d drawn, with the inner curve carved out by the swollen river and the ‘outer’ curve pressed against the canyon wall. But the rectangle would allow for some safe space.
There was one war machine specifically built to slip neatly into the niche situation the land mass, and the location of our combat units provided. Puff the Magic Dragon. The multi-barreled nightmare machine with mini-guns jutting out of one side grinding the ground below into jungle mulch wherever their dragon tongue-like fires were directed. I had heard that Puff was the only weapon the NVA feared more than the Ontos. The Skyraiders were one thing but it was going to take something special to keep the NVA inside its tunnels if we were to get the time we needed to get across the river.
Could we get Puff in the morning and if we could what was to be done with Kilo Company? Captain Howard “Howling Mad” Carter’s outfit was supposed to leave its current position at dawn, and head up to join us in our own position to make the crossing. Could they get by on the flank, with the wall at their back and the NVA firmly ensconced in the jungle between them and the river?
I came out from under my poncho. My short letter to my wife, each word a carefully considered lie, was done and in my pocket. All I had to do was make it to the resupply chopper before it picked its load and got the hell out of the valley as quickly after a dawn landing as it could. Whatever was going to happen was going to involve incoming and outgoing fire and that meant the resupply would be coming into a hot LZ. Once again, our dead would not be hauled out.
There was only one solution that might work, and if it did then every objective could be accomplished. If something went wrong then there would be hell to pay all around.
I handed Jurgen’s flashlight back to him, and for a brief second, I thought he might turn it on to see if it was still working, but he didn’t. He shoved it into one of his thigh pockets.
“We cross at first light?” he asked, with no animosity or aggressiveness in his tone.
The Gunny appeared at his back. The darkness was a mess of muted jungle reflections radiating everywhere from the minimal light allowed through the rain clouds and the misting rain itself. I didn’t have an answer for Jurgens so I said nothing, merely shrugging my shoulders in a move he probably couldn’t see. The rain was cooler and fresher than the air had been under the poncho and I thought of trying to sleep. My mind was briefly taken back to the cave-like hole near the river bank at the base of the old runway. It was the last place I’d gotten any rest at all.
The Gunny murmured something to Jurgens I couldn’t hear. The sergeant scurried away.
“What’s the plan?” the Gunny asked, crouching close.
Our position was in defilade so I thought he would either light a cigarette or begin brewing a cup of coffee, but he did neither. He crouched, waiting for an answer, like Jurgens had before him.
“Danger close,” I replied, twisting my plan around to try to make it fit into the valley. “If we can get Puff out of Da Nang, we can pour fire down on that mess of jungle to the point where nobody’s going to do much of anything but hiding, giving us all the time we need. The problem is Kilo. Puff will never fire that close to Carter’s company, whether they stay where they are or move along the cliff to reach us. But if they try to make that move without anything but the Skyraider’s fire and our own support they’ll be chopped to ribbons.”
“So, what do we do? We can’t exactly cross the river either, not with the NVA over in that jungle.”
I marveled at the situation ethics the Gunny brought to every situation. He was a Marine all the way but he was a Marine dead set on surviving, even if that meant that Kilo would be out there on its own. I had no doubt that he felt we would cross the river, if we could, and get the company back to the old runway. I also knew he thought Kilo would have to take care of itself.
I sighed to myself. If it was only that simple. But our survival and Kilo’s were linked, whether we liked it or not.
“The solution is for them to move back down river, Puff comes in and does its thing, we cross over the water and head back downriver to help Kilo across from down there. The Skyraiders, given decent weather, can strafe the hill over on the other side along with the remains of the jungle while we get Kilo across. Then we all move up to toward the runway. We make it that far and we’re in range of Fire Base Cunningham, and even the 175’s will be safe to fire.
“I don’t like it,” the Gunny said. “Why can’t Kilo cross on its own and come upriver to join us at the runway? What are we, the river crossing experts, or something, not to mention guardians of the universe?”
I thought about what he said. I knew that stressing a plan that had saving Kilo as the key part once again wasn’t going to motivate him, or the other men either. I tried logic.
“What have they got down in those tunnels or buried deep in that jungle patch? A battalion, or maybe more? With Kilo linked to us we have two full Marine companies, reinforced with supporting fires from artillery and air. Hell, if they have a regiment we can hold our own pretty easily. On our own things might not be so great, plus Kilo’s Marines are rested and we’re a mess.”
“We’re trying to get up and out of this damned valley, but we keep going back down there,” the Gunny hissed, his voice so soft it was almost impossible to hear him.
“What the hell? We’re supposed to help an ARVN unit build a firebase here? What fantasy novel did that one come out of? Has anyone noticed that dead airstrip and why it’s so torn up and dead? Or why the highway ends right here and hasn’t gone anywhere since this damned war started? We can’t even protect ourselves.”
I had no answer for him. He knew what I knew and the idea of somehow supporting an ARVN unit in building a firebase had passed from my mind almost the instant we’d entered the valley. We were in Indian country and our presence, even with what supporting fires we could bring to bear, wasn’t going to have much effect on that. The full brunt of the North Vietnamese effort to supply the whole war in the south was based on using the valley as the key artery for the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I’d come to doubt that there were enough Marines in all of I Corps to outnumber and outfight the NVA in and around the A Shau Valley, just the part I’d come to know so bitterly.
“We get Kilo, we get our dead, we get the hell out of here and back to the runway,” I said. “Then we hold until battalion decides we need to go somewhere else or do something else.”
“The plan is called Danger Close?” Fusner whispered from behind me.
“I don’t like it,” the Gunny whispered, moving closer, finally taking out a cigarette and lighting it. He took one puff and offered it to me.
I didn’t want the cigarette but took his offering. One inhalation and I coughed, as usual, before handing it back. I needed the Gunny’s support and would endure a whole lot more discomfort than a cigarette to get it.
“I don’t like it,” the Gunny repeated.
“What part?” I answered, fear stirring in my very center again.
I could not fight Jurgens, Sugar Daddy, the Gunny and then deal with the enemy too.
“The name,” the Gunny said. “It’s too candy ass.”
I breathed out slowly, in relief. The name of the plan was meaningless.
“Think of something else,” I replied.
“Danger Close. That’s cool,” Fusner said from the dark.
“Danger Close Cool”, okay,” the Gunny replied.
The name made no sense but I was too tired and dawn was too close to argue. Danger Close Cool it would be.
“What about that Class ‘A’ prick?” the Gunny asked.
His description could only be of one person, even though in the captain’s presence, the Gunny was the picture of Marine rigidity and discipline. I wondered how men like Carter did it. How could they keep a form of order and command that seemed to elude me entirely? Maybe Kilo company was just a better outfit and Howard Carter more deserving of respect, although there was the Class ‘A’ prick comment to consider. I hoped the Gunny didn’t talk that way about me behind my back, but then I doubted it would make any difference.
“There’s that,” I replied, noncommittally, although I knew the Gunny knew exactly how I felt about the man.
“Get me El Producto,” I said, quietly, turning to where I thought Fusner was.
The radio handset appeared next to my hand, as if by magic, and then it pulled back out of sight, Fusner making the call to Kilo, but letting me know he was on top of things, as usual.
“The six actual is asleep, sir,” Fusner whispered in my ear.
“Wake him up,” I ordered.
A few seconds of hurried whispering went on behind me. I knew the drill. The way Carter ran his unit all of his Marines would be afraid to awaken him, for fear of being put on point, or worse.
“Tell them that if they don’t wake him up they’re all going to be dead by dawn, and tell them Junior said so.”
Minutes went by. The Gunny took out fixings to make coffee in the dark, the small red and yellow flare of his burning explosives a potential gift to an enemy sniper. Reflexively, I scrunched down further into the mud. Fusner pushed the microphone into my left cheek.
“What is it you want now, Junior?” Captain Carter said, using his most pissed off imperious tone, stressing my nickname.
“At dawn, you need to move down until you can’t anymore,” I said, ignoring his presentation. “Stay there until we come for you from the other side. I’ve got covering fire for the move, the wait, the crossing and the way back.”
In truth, I didn’t have shit. I hadn’t reached out to the Skyraiders, although I knew Cowboy would not abandon us. I hadn’t even tried to find out how to use Puff or if there was one of those death ships available to do what we needed done in the morning. I wasn’t even certain that resupply had dropped enough rope to use further down the river, which would take a lot more than the easier job of crossing twenty feet of open rushing water at the bridge would entail.
“We don’t move without orders from battalion and I’m damn well certain that I’m not waking the six over there,” Carter said.
His voice gave away his fatigue and I sensed an advantage.
“You stay there and Puff the Magic Dragon is going to make mincemeat of everything between the two canyon walls, including you,” I lied. “They’re coming and they’re committed to saving what they think is left of our tattered units, so go ahead and wait for battalion. We’ve pulled your bacon out of the fire twice now, maybe three times and it’s not going to happen again unless you follow the plan.”
“Seems like your idea of saving our bacon costs a lot of Marines their lives, Junior, and how do we know you’ll be there with the equipment needed to cross that rotten river?”
I knew I had him. He wouldn’t have asked the question if he wasn’t going to make the move. He had to know that battalion might simply order him to remain where he was or even move up river against withering enemy fire. He might be an academy prick but he wasn’t stupid. Our company dealt with battalion as little as possible. It was very evident that the guys in the rear command areas didn’t really want to know what was going on in the valley, if our battalion CP was any representative example.
“We’ve crossed a few times now and we’ve got the equipment,” I offered, hoping he would simply let everything else go.
I was lying but I was doing so with the expectation that I could pull off the necessary fire support to support the plan.
“Don’t say it,” he said.
I understood. The chances that we were being listened in on were high down inside the valley with so many of the enemy around. Not discussing anything was just the way I wanted it.
“This better work,” Carter said, his frustration at having no other place to turn fully evident in his voice.
He couldn’t stay where he was and moving up toward us along the cliff was suicidal. That we’d gotten away with our run up along the river bank was due partly to luck and partly to an enemy not being ready for such an outrageous move.
“Stand by for incoming,” I said, letting him know that supporting fires would start at or right after dawn. Air would be up in the dark but there was no way any of us wanted Puff firing thousands of rounds down into the valley in the dark.
“I don’t believe it,” the Gunny said, drinking his coffee and smoking his second cigarette. “The question is, will he do what he has to do or some other screwy thing he thinks up. It was better when he was sleeping.”
“Get Cowboy, or somebody there,” I told Fusner, returning the command handset to him. “We need Puff and we need him bad. Those Skyraider teams at the base will know how to reach the guys who fly them. I’m going to give them a grid rectangle to fire into with plenty of free fire area around it. As long as Captain Carter in Kilo keeps his mouth shut we should be able to get permission to fire. The Skyraiders will automatically coordinate with Puff. We need at least three or four passes ten minutes apart to give us the time.”
I laid my head down on my poncho liner, more to rub the mud off than to rest or try to sleep. The next thing I knew someone was shaking me like a leaf.
“It’s all ready,” Fusner said, literally lifting me to my feet.
It was light enough to see him. It was almost dawn. I’d gone out for several hours. I couldn’t get my bearings.
“What’s ready?” I asked, putting on my helmet and letting Fusner strap me into my pack.
“Danger Close Cool,” he said, with a slight laugh. “Puff the Magic Dragon is coming to our amusement park.”