Dawn was breaking as I tried to stuff a can of Ham and Mothers down my throat. The rain was gone, taking what cover it had provided, but permitting an open opportunity for supporting air to operate with full application using the clear visibility to accurately guide its deadly payload. I finished the can by gobbling down a few big mouthfuls, after loosening the sticky mess of ham, beans and grease with Fusner’s borrowed K-Bar. When I was done I jammed the knife blade repeatedly into the mud to clean it before handing it back. There was no clean where we were, of course, not the clean we’d all grown up with. A knife cleaned by shoving it repeated into the earth was about the best we could expect.
There was no time to prepare anything else because the strange deep drone of piston-powered aircraft engines came echoing down the valley minutes before the planes appeared. I was taken a week back to my first encounter with the ferocious example of modern warfare although not on such a close and fearful basis as I was in, being at the bottom of a confined valley it was ordered to fire down into. A big brown and green cargo plane came lazily floating over the center of the valley, appearing to move about as fast as a city bus but being much bigger and noisier. The two Skyraiders hung back behind the bigger plane at a slightly higher altitude, all three aircraft moving so slow and low that they gave every impression that they were begging to be fired on from below. The flotilla flew over our heads, but nobody fired up at them.
Fusner pushed the AN/323 headset at me, and then rushed to get my helmet off and the wire holder over my skull.
“Got your ears on, Flash?” Cowboy himself said.
“Five by five,” I answered.
“We’re doin’ a low pass, just to make sure we got your position down pat. On count, pop a smoke. Kilo’s already fired up.” Cowboy started to count down backwards from ten.
“Pop a smoke,” I said to Fusner.
I hadn’t thought of marking our positions with smoke grenades, even though I’d learned about the obvious and practical means of noting a unit position in training. In training we’d done it all the time although it’d never been necessary. Training was about as far from my mind, I realized, as cleaning eating utensils with soap and water.
“What color?” Fusner asked.
When I delayed for a few seconds, Zippo handed a small cylindrical grenade to Nguyen. I realized that the color didn’t matter and Cowboy was fast approaching zero in his count.
“Throw the damn thing,” I ordered Nguyen.
The Montagnard ran a few steps up to the side of the berm, went down on his knees and pulled the grenade’s pin. He looked back at me, holding it to his chest tightly.
I nodded at him.
The grenade flew out, but didn’t go far because it didn’t bounce. It immediately sank into the wet mud of the river bank. But it went off, and billows of green smoke began to grow and swirl around where it fell.
The drone of the two big engines on the cargo plane made the valley seem to vibrate with their chattering drumming sound. It was like I could hear all the cylinders of the big engines going off individually, although I knew that was impossible.
In seconds the planes were wheeling back, still holding their relative positions except for the ugly giant guppy of a cargo carrier. It turned in a way that seemed impossible, arching first up and over the lip of the nearby cliff, then leveling out and coming back into a tight corkscrew circle. The plane seemed pasted to the sky above us, too big to be real, but too loud and close not to be real.
I stared up in awe and surprise. I could see the guns sticking out of side of the fuselage and the big cargo door gaping open just to the rear of the line of them.
The C-47 seemed so close that I felt like waving to a man standing bent over, leaning out the door while peering back at us.
Fusner pulled the radio headset off of me and jammed my beaten helmet back onto my head.
Once the cargo plane reached a point where its wings seemed to be entirely perpendicular to the earth the guns sticking out its sides opened up. But they weren’t machine guns. They weren’t anything I’d ever heard or seen before. A lashing red and yellow tongue of fire shot down from the side of the plane, joined as one, and began to weave some sort of pattern on the jungle area we’d run past in our haste and terror the night before.
What followed changed my surprise and awe into stunning shock. The sound that came a few seconds after the moving tongue of fire swept down was so delayed it didn’t appear again, as if the winding, firing and low-flying plane was unreal. The sound was that of a frighteningly loud chainsaw running wild, and somehow mixed in with that of a very rapid air hammer. It was a monstrously raw and physical sound like nothing I’d ever heard.
My hands went to cover my ears and I scrunched down with my pack pushing me up from the mud. I was unable to tear my eyes away from the dazzling display. We were too close, I instantly thought. Everything was too close. I wondered if the smoke was blowing the wrong way giving the plane a bad position, but I couldn’t take my attention away from the low orbiting monster of lashing fire to look.
And then it was over. Puff the Magic Dragon was now much closer to earth, as it leveled out and headed back down the valley. The Skyraiders followed, coming down even lower than the cargo plane, with their twenty millimeter cannons firing. Even though their guns were bigger the attack more resembled two tiny models following the real thing.
The C-47 strained to climb back to altitude. I looked around me, and all my Marines were in the same position as I, facing upward on their backs, like we were all watching some sort of drive-in movie without our cars.
The big brown guppy fought for height, got it, and then curved back.
“Oh shit,” Fusner said, pressing his hands back to his ears, his shoulder touching mine. I felt his shaking and wondered if he felt my own.
Suddenly, I realized that we had to do something. Puff had come to our rescue but we had to move or lose the advantage we’d been lucky enough to secure. We weren’t there for the show.
The Gunny ran by, headed for the water. I wasn’t far behind, running at full speed, one hand on my helmet while using the other for balance, as I raced across the rough muddy surface of the river bank. I looked over my shoulder and up, as I ran. The C-47 was beginning to turn into its distinctive, almost impossible curving posture, so the guns sticking out of its side would point straight down again. I ran by, and then through, the billowing smoke, happy for its camouflaging protection. The giant buzz saw of guns went off again, and the braided string of their lashing tongue of rotary cannon fire seemed to go on and on.
I came out of the smoke before Puff’s second run was done, to see Marines on the end of the bridge tossing ropes to our element’s Marines who had already reached the edge of the river before me.
The Gunny caught me with one arm as I tried to run by him. He took me straight down to the mud on my right side. He laid there with me and hissed into my ear. I’d hit the soft mud hard, taking my breath away. I fought for air.
“Stay down. Let the men get across first. You lead your Marines by waiting until they’re all safe.”
He released me while I worked to breathe. Puff’s second run ended, as I finally got some air into my lungs. Unaccountably, the Gunny ran to the side of the rushing swirling river water and leaped out to catch a rope. He worked his way across without regard for what any of the men might think of him being among the first to cross.
Then Jurgens crossed with his Marines right around and behind him. Sugar Daddy followed. His Marines didn’t get across until Puff’s third run was underway. I watched the show of fire from my back again.
There was a haze over the whole area of jungle the plane was firing down into. It wasn’t smoke I realized. It was haze caused by the chewed up particulate of jungle matter driven up into the air by the huge multitude of high velocity bullets impacting everywhere through and into it.
I’d never seen anything like it. I wondered if I’d ever see anything like it again.
“Come on, sir,” Fusner yelled down at me.
Zippo grabbed one of my arms and Nguyen the other. They raced me toward the water, like I was some sort of invalid. I let them.
The Skyraiders came in again, following Puff, except this time they didn’t fire their rotary strafing cannons. They dropped big casings filled with jellied gasoline called Napalm. The canisters went off behind me with a giant ‘whump,’ and I suddenly couldn’t breathe again. All my air was sucked away, and I staggered. But Zippo and Nguyen would not let me go down. Then I felt the back of my legs and my neck flash with uncomfortable heat. It was impossible that the nightmare fire created by the Napalm could send heat almost instantly all the way to the river where I was but there it was. I was glad again for my flying poncho, my helmet and the protection of my pack.
Zippo tied one of the river-crossing ropes around my waist and motioned to the Marines holding the other end. There was no crossing using static lines. The Marines just pulled anyone across with brute force. Each man was dragged over in seconds, the rope untied and then thrown back for another Marine.
“Marco,” Jurgens yelled from the edge of the bridge, and then laughed loudly.
“Polo,” Zippo and Fusner yelled back, laughing too.
Pretty soon the Marines on both sides of the water were yelling the words back and forth.
I thought the children’s swimming pool game was all about an “it” that was supposed to yell and get calls in return, but any rules for the game had apparently been set aside.
Suddenly I was in the water, having to use one hand to hold my helmet on and the other to grasp my .45 Colt to make sure it didn’t unsnap and disappear into the roiling raging water. The Marines pulled madly, still yelling the children’s game words and laughing. They pulled so hard and fast that my body slid and bounced across the top of the water. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy plucked me from the surface when I got to the other side after only a few brief seconds.
Then all outside sound disappeared again, as Puff started its fourth run. This time I simply laid face down on the hot metal surface of the bridge, just back from the end. I didn’t need to see the rope of killing fire again. I knew the moving red and yellow tongue was forever burned into my memory banks and would remain with me as long as I lived, however long that might be. Fusner, Zippo and Nguyen were quickly hauled over to join me. Puff pulled up and out of the valley, as I got my bearings again, trying to find where Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were. That they’d pulled me from the water personally bothered and scared me. What were they up to and what was the Marco Polo game thing all about? My right hand never left the handle of my .45 as I lay there breathing deeply, trying to recover myself.
I got up and I moved with my scout team to the other side of the river. The platoons that had stayed across the river had dug in while they’d been waiting for us to return. I was gently pushed by the Gunny into a foxhole that was at least five feet deep. The Marines on the bank had dug right down to the river’s water line because the bottom of the hole had several inches of water covering it. I didn’t mind. I was used to wet moldy feet and had extra sox in my pack. It felt silly to crouch in the bottom of the hole and think of soap, a shower and clean dry socks while the jungle blazed a couple of hundred yards away from my position.
The hole was big enough for Fusner to crouch next to me and the Gunny to slide down along the far muddy wall. I stood up to see Puff headed up the valley, gaining altitude as it went, its motors obviously pumping out maximum power. I felt a sense of regret. The Skyraiders remained, however, and I watched Cowboy and his wingman come in low and waggle his wings, like you’d see in some WWII movie. It was a signal but I wasn’t sure what it meant.
“Okay, so far so good,” the Gunny said, lighting up a cigarette. “Puff’s coming back just as soon as those Air Force guys can reload. They fired every last round they had. We’ve got maybe an hour to get ready to go downriver, and then about twenty minutes to make the trip and get Kilo across further down, saying there’s a place to get them across at all.”
“Shit,” I said, in a whisper, slinking back down to the bottom of the hole.
My plan was impossible. We’d gotten ourselves out and quite likely sacrificed Kilo…again, to do so. There was no time. Following my initial plan, we’d be coming back upriver with possibly only the Skyraiders still on station, but they’d also dumped a lot of their ordnance to give us the time we’d needed so far. We had no time.
I stood up once more and looked across the river from the edge of the hole.
“We’ve got to get our boys out,” I said.
The Gunny handed me his cigarette.
“What boys?” he asked.
“You know what boys,” I replied, coughing after my usual one puff.
I handed the cigarette back.
“We’ve got living Marines to consider,” the Gunny said, before taking a couple of long drags on the cigarette. “The dead are dead. They’re good at waiting.”
I didn’t want to think about going back down the river. Getting our dead out by using a bunch of Medevac hops of impossible timing was easier to think about. Or maybe it was enough to be back across the river. I knew that was ridiculous thinking though. I looked at the Gunny and I knew he was reading my mind.
“Don’t even think about it,” he said, puffing some more on his disappearing cigarette. “You’re making your way, earning every bit of it. Don’t toss it all out.”
“Is everyone on the same page for this?” I asked, in resignation.
We had to go down valley for Kilo and there wasn’t going to be any getting around it, much as I hated Captain Carter and had trouble getting by my own terror of going back again.
“Danger Close Cool, so far,” the Gunny said. “The men all think you’re an idiot, but lucky as hell. They’re willing to go with lucky. So they know where we’re going. And they’re in. Maybe for the first time since I’ve been here. Better call Cowboy and his weird partners up there.”
The Gunny looked up, like he was going to see the Skyraiders fly over on cue, but they were patrolling somewhere else nearby and not within sight or sound.
I looked downriver. The edge of the clearing, between the hill to the west we’d taken fire from days before and the river, was narrow and the open bank area on the other side, leading up alongside the burning dusty jungle was too close to the impact area of Puff’s fire. If the C-47 saw us on the move so close to their beaten zone they’d scrub the mission, but there was nothing to be done for it. Going downriver was traveling back into hell and I could not think clearly enough to figure out what to do. I slunk back down to the muddy water-covered floor of the fox hole. I breathed in and out deeply, and almost laughed out loud. I was thinking of the lower valley as some sort of worse hell than the one I was in and there wasn’t much possibility of that. It seemed I could not go forward, back, or stay where I was, and that took care of any potential I could think of for staying alive.
I pulled out my map. The map was my key to the lock I couldn’t seem to open. At least it was something to concentrate on. I scanned the layout I’d made with my grease pencil in the dark a few hours earlier. The plan had been sound, and so far, as the Gunny had mentioned, it was working. What was the problem? Time. We had to have more time. To buy time I needed supporting fires. When Puff was gone from the last run we’d be down at the lower crossing, if there was a lower crossing to use. I’d have to worry about that when we got downriver though. I looked at the stretch of four thousand meters we’d run up the night before on the other side of the water.
And then it came to me. On top of the Skyraiders, we also had our own fire, and we’d been resupplied. The Skyraiders could bring fire onto the hill to our right flank in the west but it was the ripped, torn and burned jungle on the other side of the river that worried the hell of me. The company had four platoons of more than two hundred Marines, and among those Marines were twenty-seven M-60 machine guns. I didn’t have to take the whole company downriver. I could install two fire teams to support one M-60, and emplace another gun unit every hundred and fifty meters to extend almost all the way down the river. The machine guns could cover the jungle from one end of our journey to the other, and their crisscrossing fields of fire would make them a whole lot more deadly than just about anything except a load of B-40 or RPG rockets the NVA didn’t seem to currently have in great supply. If they’d had those rockets, then our position through the night would never have remained tenable. They’d have blown the cliffside behind us down on our heads.
Once down river I knew, somebody who could really swim was going to have get back across that water and run a line to some big strong tree trunk. I could really swim but I didn’t want to go back into that awful killing river. Regardless, of who went over, a single heavy rope or two would do the job because time would no longer be quite so critical if our retreat was protected. I dotted the map with little black grease circles for each gun emplacement.
The only hole in my plan would be the small team of Marines I’d be left with to get across the river and bring the Kilo Marines back over. There’d be no company of Marines on our side to pull everyone across the water, like we’d experienced, and it would take trying to work with Captain Carter and his two lackey lieutenants to get Kilo company set up and installed to do that same setup once enough Marines were across. If Carter would cooperate. I sat back, and looked at the Gunny. I wished we were in a dry environment, or at least somewhere we could light small fires to brew some coffee. The only home in my life I had left was my bogus letter to my wife resting in my thigh pocket. I held the map out to the Gunny with my plan variant, wondering what our 7.62 mm machine gun ammunition supply was like, but then realizing, as I laid out the modifications, that it didn’t matter. Fire control had to be exercised with what ammunition was on hand, and my company of Marines were experienced enough to do what needed to be done without interference, or so I hoped. At least with the company strung up and down the side of the river our and Kilo’s survival would not be totally dependent on air support that might not be there.
“The men are going to be unprotected along the bank unless they dig in, and we don’t have much time for that,” the Gunny concluded, handing my map back.
“Then we have to move out the second Puff makes it back and starts its runs.”
The bank was soft mud and the Marines all had E-Tools. How fast they could dig in would be important but not vital to the survival of the whole operation. Losing some men strung out along the river was acceptable. I sighed at my own conclusion. I still wasn’t over losing Rittenhouse, Stevens or the rest. What kind of cold creature was I becoming? I turned to Fusner.
“Get air up on the net and get us an ETA on Puff’s return. As soon as we hear those engines coming down the valley we leave the line of departure, moving fast.”
“What’s a line of departure?” Fusner asked, reaching for his air AN/323.
I didn’t answer, realizing once again that Fusner was a teenager more than he was a combat radio operator. Line of departure had been an expression I’d learned and liked in training. It was used to describe an imaginary line a unit crossed to make its attack.
“I need to get the platoon commanders together,” the Gunny said, climbing up and over the edge of the muddy foxhole. “I don’t think this part of Danger Close Cool is going to go down as being so cool with the guys.”
“We’ll make it work,” I said up to him.
“It’s not going to work with you at the bottom of this hole. I didn’t have you come across that God damned river as the last man out for nothing. Now get your Junior ass out of this hole. It’s Marco Polo time up here, again.”