The firing stopped suddenly, as if the return of our company was something for the enemy to take stock of, while the remnants of Kilo Company had figured out they were only making themselves targets for the RPGs.
“They’ve quit firing those things,” Fusner whispered in my ear, after a few moments of silence.
I wasn’t sure it was so quiet because the firing had stopped or because the concussion waves of the rocket explosions had affected my hearing again.
“They ran low on rockets,” Sugar Daddy said. “We came to the rescue, making ourselves sitting targets too. If they had any more they’d be firing at us because we’re now sitting targets just like Kilo.”
“Like you made us with your lighter in the dark?” I asked, mildly resentful that Sugar Daddy, in lighting up the hole to see what could be seen earlier, had exposed all of us to another rocket strike.
That it hadn’t come was a relief. Sugar Daddy had been around long enough to know better.
“Worth the risk,” Sugar Daddy murmured.
It hadn’t been worth the risk but it also wasn’t worth continuing the conversation.
“Should we get these bodies out of the hole?” Zippo asked, trying to move the dead lieutenant and Captain Carter at least far enough away to separate us by a few inches.
I could vaguely hear one of the corpsmen checking Kemp out somewhere above and back in the direction we’d come, although except for being covered in gore and in shock I thought Kemp, the new company commander, was physically okay. I knew I was going to have to deal with him soon enough, too.
“No, we stay put and give it some time,” I said. “The Skyraiders will be back at first light. Maybe even Puff if we can get him. I don’t want to lose any more men unless the risk is worth it. Sugar Daddy, get your guys to move up and down the bank as quietly as they can to see what we can do for the wounded.”
I pushed my back into the muck of the part of the blown out hole I had for support. The hole gaped open, and the sounds of the nearby river came through the space, as if in search of us. But I felt no leeches. Maybe the mud where we were had too much sand in it. Maybe God had decided that we’d had enough for awhile. I didn’t think it was God. I noticed that none of the leeches hung about in or on any sandy areas, and they didn’t seem to like fast moving water either. I pulled out my canteen and drained the last of my water. I’d debated leaving the canteen behind, because water was heavy, but had decided I needed all the energy I could get, plus the one big downside of the ham and mothers was intense thirst. I figured the cans must be filled with several tablespoons of salt to get that kind of effect.
I put my canteen away, gripped the handle of my .45 for comfort, and was out again.
I didn’t know I was gone until Fusner shook me awake.
“What?” I said, weakly, trying to get my bearings.
“The Gunny, Jurgens and most of the company are here helping,” he said.
I looked around, seeing little, but enough to know I was alone in the hole except for the dead bodies. I’d dreamed of Captain Carter and it’d been a strange dream. We were friends back in the world and I was attending a bar mitzvah for his son. I wasn’t Jewish and I didn’t think a guy with the name Carter was either. We’d been friends, laughing together. I shook my head, trying to get rid of the still tumbling images in my mind.
“Can we contact air at this hour?” I asked Fusner, pulling myself out of the side of the mud wall but not so far as to expose myself to the gap created by the well-aimed rocket.
“Any time, sir,” Fusner replied, but not moving to get one of his radios.
“Well?” I asked, trying to come fully conscious.
“They’ll answer but there’s nothing they can do, schedule-wise, until the crews are up and about. At least nothing I’ve heard of them doing in the middle of the night.”
“Call ‘em anyway,” I said, in exasperation, not wanting to believe that many of our own allied units fought only part time while it never stopped for us down in the A Shau.
Never, except for when things were being readied for more fighting, which is what I feared. Kilo had been hit hard and the enemy would know it across the river. What they would do next had little or nothing to do with waiting or retreating. They’d want to capitalize on their success, particularly since they hadn’t had one for awhile.
“Where’s the Gunny?” I asked.
“Here,” the Gunny’s gruff voice replied, as he hit the bottom of the hole with both boots.
“Where’s Lieutenant Kemp?” I asked, wanting to avoid any discussion about the beating Kilo had taken and the death of the other officers.
I knew the Gunny had made the right decision for our company, and even me, but that decision was never going to go down easy, given the results. And, along with his decision, would be my own acquiescence to that decision. Once again, we’d disobeyed direct orders in combat. It was true we’d never been ordered to stay, in those words, but we had been told to man the holes we’d dug up along the river bank on Kilo’s northern flank. We’d said we would. We didn’t, and we’d never intended to. I’d finally come back for Kilo, like I was some on-the-spot graves registration officer, to count and account for the dead.
“Out of harm’s way a bit upriver,” the Gunny replied. “He refuses to be company commander and wants to speak to the Six Actual back at battalion. Sound familiar?”
I was instantly taken three weeks back to my own introduction to actual combat and my reaction to the same transfer of authority under impossible circumstances. There was no reason to respond. Being company commander had nothing to do with permission from a higher authority. It had to do with permission from the Marines who comprised the company, and that would play out however it would play out, which also included my own situation.
“Medevac is coming in with a CH-46 because there’s going to be quite a number of wounded before dawn’s early light.”
“Not to mention the dead,” I added, although glad they were bringing in one of the bigger choppers.
Along with the big bird would come more of the enemy-dreaded Huey Cobras.
The Gunny went to work sealing over the RPG blown opening on the river side of the hole with his poncho cover. In the dark I couldn’t figure out what he was using to pin the poncho to the mud. He then took my poncho laying nearby without asking. I was wet through from the heavier rain but so used to the warm dripping liquid I hadn’t bothered to cover myself. The Gunny pushed my poncho up to someone else I presumed to be Tank, and the poncho slowly became our roof. When that was done the Gunny turned on a light and blinded me.
“What the hell?” I said in surprise and exasperation.
I noted, when my eyes adjusted, that the Gunny was using Jurgens’ flashlight. I prayed silently that there were no holes or cracks in the Gunny’s poncho liner, or mine. The two bodies just a few feet away could not be totally ignored, in light of what had happened to them.
“I’m moving the bodies out,” the Gunny said, pointing the light at what was left of Captain Carter’s head and the shattered mess of his lieutenant who must have taken the explosion full force in his torso.
I looked into the Gunny’s eyes as he shone the light back toward the bottom of the hole, careful now not to aim it at my face. He waited, saying nothing more. It took me several seconds to get why he was delaying, as if asking my permission to remove the bodies. I’d come back for Kilo and not him. He was consigning the bodies to me and the right was mine about what was to be done with them. I looked up at his expression, and read what I knew was behind it. He regretted his decision to not support me and in leaving Kilo behind. I also knew, deep down, that it was the same decision he’d make if circumstances were the same at some time in the future.
“Proceed, and I need the light,” I said, holding out one hand while pulling my map from my thigh pocket with the other. “Tell me what the casualties are when you know and get Kemp back down here to me.”
I worked over the map while Marines climbed in and out of the hole getting the bodies up onto the jungle mud above. I knew exactly where the enemy was now, although there would be some movement. I hadn’t fired any more rounds from the Ontos because there’d been no more enemy fire. I didn’t want to use up the Ontos supply if I didn’t have to because of our coming move in the morning. The Ontos gave me a strange feeling of relief, if we could just get back under its real protection. The beehive rounds, of which we had plenty, were totally deadly at short range.
Even if the Skyraiders came in we would need all the help we could to suppress fire. The NVA had to know we’d left, and then come back. They’d also know we would be heading back up the valley. We could not hide that. If Puff could make one more trip to our position then our move up the valley was almost assuredly a success. The Skyraiders, I knew, would come through the worst weather crap and stay overhead as much as they could, but there were physical limits. I knew nothing about what conditions Puff flew in. Holding the tight cone it held in the air, to get its guns down on target, would be difficult depending on how low the cloud cover ran, but that was the extent of my knowledge about the impressive weapon, and that was only supposition.
Just as I was wondering whether Fusner had made the call on the AN/323, he slid into the hole from above, followed immediately by Zippo. The Gunny didn’t return, which surprised me. The hole was big enough for two more without crowding. The Kilo officer radio operators had put their back into their work the day before to make the hole pretty big, and my thoughts went to El Producto.
“The radio operator,” I began, shining my flashlight over toward where Fusner crouched across the short distance.
“His name was Ruiz,” Fusner said back, his voice soft but firm.
“Was,” I whispered, more to myself than Fusner, and then regretted not keeping my mouth shut, the memory of the boy’s voice immediately brought to the forefront of my mind.
“What’s the word?” I said, to change the subject, although something inside of me was a bit off.
I’d somehow liked the radio operator, more because of his assumed name than anything else. El Producto was a stupid name taken from a lowly cigar box but it had endeared the man to me in a way I couldn’t explain.
“Cowboy will be back but the weather will determine if anything else can fly,” Fusner replied.
I was reflecting on being right about Puff, and the diminishing likelihood that we’d get him back for an early morning departure, when Lieutenant Kemp eased himself under the poncho cover and down into the hole. The Gunny followed him in. I turned off the flashlight and folded up my map. The Gunny immediately lit his Zippo so the hole would not be totally black.
“What’s your situation?” I asked Kemp.
“Kilo wants to integrate into our company,” the Gunny said, thinking I was talking to him. “I don’t know what battalion’s going to think of that although the numbers aren’t good right now, and the leadership is in flux.”
I thought for a few seconds about what the Gunny was telling me. Nobody had called battalion yet and the casualties were high. Kilo had been a smaller company than our own reinforced outfit in the first place. If we were to work as one unit instead of two companies then Kemp, being a First Lieutenant, would also be officially the company commander until relieved.
“Where’s your Gunnery Sergeant?” I asked Kemp, looking as closely at him as the very dim flicking light of the Gunny’s Zippo would allow.
“Back there,” Kemp said, pointing down valley.
I looked at the Gunny. He shook his head once.
“If we work together as a unit then you’ll be the commander,” I said.
“Where are we?” he asked, which brought a total silence to the inside the hole.
“We’re in the A Shau Valley,” I replied, trying to figure out where the man was coming from.
“Why are we here?” he went on, “and where are we going next? I’ll do whatever the captain orders me to do.”
“Gunny,” I replied gently, “Lieutenant Kemp is going to need to get upriver and get some rest, as quickly as possible.”
“Ah, I was trying to tell you that, sir,” the Gunny replied, calling me sir more for Kemp’s sake than my own, I thought, before grimacing.
It was looking like I was about to become the official, but less than accepted or effective, commander of half the battalion.
“I’ve a place for him,” the Gunny said, grasping Kemp by the arm, and then flipping his lighter closed.
I listened to the rustling assisted climb of Kemp’s departure, feeling bad inside my very center to hear his questioning of the Gunny about the place they were going as they departed, like they were going to some picnic at a park back home or maybe to a coffee shop. Either the concussion of the RPG strike in close quarters or the traumatic effect of losing his fellow officers right in front of him had unhinged his mind. I shuddered to think about whether people who went over that edge ever came back and whether I would become one of them.
I sat alone with Fusner and Zippo, none of us saying anything. Air would have to be called again before dawn to see what was going to be put together to cover our coming move. There was no way to surprise the enemy because there was no place else to go and staying where we were for another night was to remain in positions already registered for fire by the NVA. I had heard the Gunny ordering the men to dig more holes, as far back from the bank as they could. The enemy wasn’t wasting what rockets it had left in firing at old positions they’d already hit. If I was the enemy commander I’d have my remaining RPG teams buried as deep as I could get them into the edge of the jungle on the other side of the river, ready to hit us at first light when we began our move. I would gamble that the weather would be too bad for Puff to come in and the Skyraiders would also lose their deadly effectiveness. It was all coming down to the weather.
Would the rain intensify and would the cloud cover drop to ground zero?
“What about these amulets I’m hearing about?” I asked, of both men, to get away from the subject of Kilo’s losses and Lieutenant Kemps obvious condition.
“Ah, they’re really nothing at all, sir,” Fusner replied, weakly.
“Just where would the guys get anything of mine from, anyway?” I asked back, using a non-accusatory light tone.
“Just bits and pieces of stuff you cast off, sir,” Zippo said.
“Now, how in hell is having some cast off bit of mine supposed to protect anyone in this nightmare hell? Like I haven’t come close to dying how many times?”
“Yes, sir,” Fusner replied. “But you’ve never been hit. It’s like magic.”
I breathed in and out slowly. Superstition was powerful and it was also dangerous. Expectations were built up and when the goods were not delivered because the expectations were undeliverable then the object of the superstition got taken out as a false god or leader or whatever. I thought of the Savior’s eventual crucifixion, and shuddered.
“Tell me you’re not wearing one of those things,” I said.
There was no answer from either man.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered to myself. I’d never been so important in my life, and it was for all the wrong reasons.
The rain seemed heavier, beating against the Gunny’s poncho cover over our heads. I thought to brew myself a cup of coffee for some kind of comfort, but I didn’t want to use any of Fusner’s or Zippo’s remaining water supply, as I was out. The knowledge that no matter how much I tried, the more I moved to save the Marines in Kilo company the more Marines died in those attempts. The Gunny was out there in the rain trying to haul dead and wounded bodies from the blown apart holes. I knew I should be out there with him but could not pull myself physically away from the side of the wall. The mud was form fit to my torso from when I’d pressed into it before.
A hand shook me gently. I came awake in relief, knowing I hadn’t dreamed of the captain or any of the Marines of Kilo Company. I’d been out again. I wanted a drink but had no water. I wanted a cigarette but didn’t smoke. I wanted food but our C-rations were all back at our upriver position. My eyes cleared enough to look through gloom. A flickering light appeared before me. I thought it was the Gunny coming to get me for something, but it wasn’t. I was staring through the wavering small flame into darker eyes. Nguyen’s eyes. I jolted myself into full wakefulness.
“What is it?” I asked, surprised that the Montagnard was inside the hole. I’d never seen him inside anything before.
Nguyen folded himself down into his compacted squatting position, letting his lighter remain up in the air, illuminating the inside of the hole like ancient cave dwellers used to do to illustrate their wall murals. The hole danced with movement that wasn’t really there. The rain beat down like before on the poncho’s rubber surface while Fusner and Zippo slept sitting up against the mud, just like I had.
Nguyen didn’t speak. His unblinking eyes stared into my own.
“What is it?” I asked again.
Slowly, with his free left hand, he pointed behind him, before dropping the hand to grasp his ankle. I could tell he was waiting for something.
“Behind you?” I asked, in surprise. “Out there? What in hell is it?”
Nguyen waited without moving. We stared at one another without expression. As if to put a period on the discussion that wasn’t a discussion, he clicked his Zippo off and the hole fell into total darkness.
I didn’t want to go back to sleep. I was wide awake and fully energized. I thought about Nguyen’s gesture in the darkness. If he’d wanted me to see something outside of the hole he’d have led me there, or at least to look. Instead he’d merely pointed. I got it. He was pointing to indicate the direction we had to go. Up the valley. North. He meant for us to leave now, in the dark, and not wait for first light.
“We leave now?” I asked, wondering if he’d get the meaning of my words in English.
Once more I sorely missed Stevens and his translating skill.
The lighter came back on. Nguyen extended himself upward and tapped the pool of water that had collected and weighted the center of the Gunny’s poncho cover down. His lighter went back out.
The rain. It was going to be too heavy for any decent air cover come daylight. But it was perfect ground cover. It was loud and thick. It was both cover and concealment from the hundreds of meters across to the enemy positions on the other side of the river. The noise and vibrations of the flooding waters would also serve as camouflage for our move, and the mud would make dragging bodies atop poncho covers, both dead and wounded, a whole lot quicker and quieter.
I felt more than heard the Montagnard depart. He climbed from the hole and under the Gunny’s poncho tarp without disturbing or spilling its collected pool of water down upon me.
Only a few moments passed before somebody slid into the bottom of the hole across from where I sat to replace him. I only knew it to be the Gunny when he lit his own lighter. I wondered briefly how the U.S. would be able to conduct a jungle war in the night again without Zippo lighters. I took a few seconds to examine my new binoculars. Somehow I’d come by the watch and the binoculars, two pieces of personal equipment I’d never be able to afford back in the world. Here I was, in one of what had to be the shittiest places on earth, and I had this really neat stuff.
“Char wants to have a word,” the Gunny said, smoothing some space on the flat mud bottom of our hole and laying down a tab of Composition B.
“Char?” I asked, putting my new glasses to the side.
“As in Staff Sergeant Char leading Kilo’s First Platoon.”
“Okay then,” I responded, “but not for long. We’ve got to make a night move as soon as possible and get the wounded and dead upriver. We’re not going to get the air we need because the weather’s just getting worse. Too bad to fly in but not too bad to see across the river though. We don’t want a repeat of what happened here.”
“Yes,” the Gunny agreed, pouring water into his canteen cover and beginning to stir. “A plan that didn’t exactly work.”
I was stung by his comment. Turning tail and running had been his idea and he’d left me little choice, but now the whole debacle was becoming one of my plans that didn’t work.
“The plan didn’t work,” I agreed, biting back saying anything else.
I needed the Gunny too much to confront him, which he probably knew. For the first time I felt tears well up in my eyes. Carter had been a prick but he was a Marine. I couldn’t even remember the name of his lieutenant, who’d died not two feet from where I sat. More of the wounded of Kilo would die on the move and in the night.
“The plan didn’t work because it didn’t have a name,” Fusner said, obviously having been awakened by the Gunny’s arrival.
My tears changed into a gurgled series of choked out laughs. The name of a plan was somehow supposed to have something to do with its success. The name that came instantly into my mind for the plan of the night before was “The Chicken Little Plan.” I fought to control myself.
“I’ll speak to the platoon commander, of course, but I want everything ready to go in the next fifteen minutes,” I got out. “We have about two hours of full dark left and we don’t want the weather to lighten up until we’ve made it.”
“Another plan?” Zippo asked.
I could feel that the Gunny was growing exasperated as I looked over the lip of the canteen holder into his glinting eyes. I realized he had eyes like Nguyen’s. Dark pools of mystery and depth. For some reason that gave me heart.
“The plan is ‘Out of the Heart of Darkness,’ so get Sergeant Char and we’ll proceed.”
The Gunny handed me his unfinished canteen holder of coffee and I accepted without comment. The explosives continued to burn, casting a whitish moving glow against the dark shovel-etched walls of the hole. The Gunny stretched to reach up and behind him. Another Marine slid down the wall. A big man, about the size of Sugar Daddy or Zippo, but when he turned I saw that he was white.
“Junior,” he said, his voice deep and rough.
“They call him Charlemagne,” the Gunny said.
Great, I thought. Emperor of the Romans. They called me Junior, the emperor of nobody. For the hundredth time, I thought about just who might be in charge of assigning people names out in a combat zone.
“What is it sergeant?” I asked, my curiosity up, but with a wave of fatigue sweeping over me again.
“Surprise me,” I added, immediately wishing I hadn’t.
To cover my low class comment I took a few sips of the coffee, finding it cool enough to drain in four or five deep swigs. Charlemagne waited patiently while I drank.
“We’ve got twelve blacks and they all want to join Sugar Daddy’s platoon.”
I looked at the sergeant over the lip of the cup, my arm frozen in the air.
“Well, you surprised me,” I said, “I’d have never guessed you were black.”
Char looked at the Gunny. The Gunny rubbed his face with both hands, like he wanted to be anywhere else but where we were.
“He’s not one of them,” the Gunny said, finally and needlessly.
The racial battles went on no matter what the casualties from the enemy or what kind of dangerous move we were about to undertake. Once again, I was astounded by how seemingly little and inconsequential things kept coming up to turn the big things to complete shit.
“This isn’t the Boy Scouts,” I replied, my hand automatically coming to rest upon the handle of my .45.
I wished that the hole was bigger. If I had to fire inside the enclosed space then everyone who survived would have damaged hearing for quite some time to come, including me. “This is the Marine Corps and we don’t do joining crap. But, we’re not about the Marine Corps mission right now, we’re about the objective to accomplish that mission, which is to get upriver or die hiding in these mud holes. Anything else, sergeant?”
I stared across at the man, not about to call him Charlemagne, ever, but wondering what the Gunny would say if I shot him.
Sergeant Charlemagne looked over at the Gunny again.
“So, he’s what they said,” he murmured, before standing and climbing back up into the dark, and then out into the night.