With Fusner boosting me from behind I got out of the hole I’d taken refuge in. The Gunny’s words had bitten hard, and I wished he hadn’t said them in front of Fusner but there was nothing to be done for it. It was hard to leave the protection of the wet muddy redoubt, dug as a refuge against a deadly outside world. The hole was the only respite I’d had since arriving in country, except for the under-runway cave carved out by the river so many days and nights in the past. That under-the-runway place, with the brief period of time I had there was all that had passed for sleep since I could remember. It seemed as if it existed only in some half-forgotten dream. But the Gunny was right again. I watched him walk away, toward the Marines getting ready to follow the details of my latest plan. I would not be coming out of the A Shau, if I ever did, resembling the young nubile and dumb-as-an-ox young man I’d been when I entered. I moved toward the edge of the jungle, not far from the burned-out wreck of the truck Tex had brought with him to support the Ontos. The site of the low-slung little monster of multiple-barrel recoilless fire reminded me of how ticklish our current situation was. The machine could not be left unattended, so there would have been no moving the whole company down the valley to get Kilo across even if I hadn’t modified the plan.
The Gunny came to where Zippo, Nguyen, Fusner and I were huddled near the jungle’s edge getting ready to begin the operation.
“If the Ontos is left alone, then its ammunition would have to be destroyed and the machine itself permanently disabled,” the Gunny said, starting a cigarette but making no move to join me in brewing a cup of coffee.
I swished my canteen holder around and around over the burning explosive, noting that the Gunny had used the word ‘would’ instead of the present tense ‘will.’ He had no intention of destroying the Ontos and neither did I. I’d missed it though. I hadn’t thought in terms of what to do with that vital piece of weaponry we’d need when we worked our way upriver toward the end of the highway where the abandoned airfield was located. I knew he knew that too, so I just waited, sipping the coffee gently.
“Your new plan takes that into account because we’re leaving one gun with the fire teams right here but you might want to let the Ontos crew know that they need to be ready to fire at a second’s notice or if the NVA attempts to overrun them because we’re gonna be stretched a bit thin.”
The Gunny was throwing me a bone and I knew it. I’d forgotten about the Ontos and what to do about it, much less the fact that it was our own ‘pocket Puff’ in a way. The enemy was afraid of it and it was indeed particularly effective in close situations. There was no outside authority or force that was going to check fire the weapon if we were ‘danger close’ either. The area of the bank that followed down the valley on our side of the river was way too narrow to allow the Ontos to accompany us, and firing indirectly with the untrained crew and no cliff wall to spall chunks off of made no sense. The Ontos had to stay put and it had to be protected.
“Yes,” I replied, acting like it was all part of my plan.
“We’ll go down valley fast when Puff hits again, but probably not quick enough,” the Gunny said, and I knew he was going to go on about it so I stopped him with a comment of my own, and took the whole operation right to the heart of the matter, and beyond the specifics we both knew.
“Can we handle Captain Carter if he’s not agreeable?”
“The only one that’s got any relationship with that man is you, Junior,” the Gunny replied, finally taking his canteen out so he could make some hot coffee of his own.
“Relationship?” I asked, in a bit of mild shock. “He hates me. Hell, all three of them hate me, and I don’t even know them.”
“Well, that’s a relationship, of sorts, or passes for one down in the A Shau, if you haven’t noticed a bit of that… with Jurgens and all. No matter how quickly we get down there and get them across the river it’s going to be too dark to come back, unless we want to risk that kind of move.”
“Six of one, half dozen of another,” the Gunny continued, stirring his hot coffee. “The jungle will be a mass of mangled junk and flesh after Puff comes through again with what’s left of the Skyraider ordnance. Will the NVA have a shot at recovering quick enough to have at us when we move back upriver or will they be better able to hit us after they’ve had a night to recover?”
Even though I’d witnessed up close, almost too close, the stunning capability of Puff to lay waste to a huge swath of land under it, I wasn’t at all certain that the enemy would be as fazed as the Gunny felt. One of the truisms I was learning was that the Vietnamese were much tougher than anyone had led me to believe and much smarter. I’d been lucky to be so unconventional in my amateurish stupidity that they hadn’t been able to figure out what we were going to do next. None of their failures, however, had been because they could not take the heat of harsh killing combat. What’s more, I had no idea how the whole field of play, down at the very bottom edge of the A Shau, had somehow come down to a war against two leaders. One was the leader of the enemy whom I presumed to be tried and true, seasoned by long years of war, while the other was a young second lieutenant who had almost no experience at all. Me. On top of that the NVA units were probably responding with a discipline to everything their leader ordered them to do while my own did mostly what suited their own survival, and if that meant going along with me, then fine, and if it didn’t that was fine with them too.
“Are they ready?” I asked the Gunny, dumping the remains of my coffee onto the mud.
He started talking to his radio operator, so I had to wait
I squatted in my oriental knee-stressing position near the mud. I had come to understand why the locals all used the deep squat so handily and often. It kept the torso low for minimal exposure yet still allowed for rapid movement and escape in an instant if necessary. The leeches burst forth from the mud to revel in the remains of my coffee.
“Why do leeches like coffee?” I asked idly, while I waited for the Gunny to finish his whispered conversation with Tank.
“It’s the cream,” Zippo answered. “You drink that creamer in your coffee and they come out to lap it up.”
I watched the leeches fight over the small pockets of liquid. For one thing the leeches didn’t ‘lap’ anything. They just covered the tiny motes of coffee and absorbed them. I also realized that there was no reason for leeches to like cream. Maybe it was the caffeine I thought. Maybe they wanted to get some sort of energy boost too. I didn’t disturb the small group that had surfaced to join the Gunny and I in having some coffee. We were all in it together. Killing one another or sucking each other’s blood whenever or wherever necessary but we were one, in a way.
“No sense delaying,” the Gunny said, turning back from his radio operator.
“They’ll still be in shock over there, or they’re not human. Puff should be back in minutes for a final run. Get Cowboy to make a run following that and we’ll head on down, laying in the M-60 positions as we go.”
Fusner called Cowboy and got Jacko instead. The Skyraiders were only five minutes away.
“He said that Puff was only a few minutes out but they’d make the run,” Fusner reported. “He said if you kept calling in the other guys then you can’t be Flash anymore, sir. You’ll have to be Jackie Paper, and you can’t be that because that’s who he’s named after.”
The Skyraiders roared over the edge of the eastern carapace in what seemed like less than a minute. This time they dropped regular bombs, littering the torn jungle as they went, the snake-eye paddles slowing the bombs so the planes would be gone when they hit and went off.
The company moved. Once moving it was like working inside a well-made, but greasy and dirty machine shop. The Marines broke off in patches to emplace machine guns as we went. Some of them dug holes along the bank and then moved on while the men who were going to get down in them finished the job. Sugar Daddy, Jurgens and O’Brien, three of the platoon leaders, moved quickly up and down the bank. I didn’t see the other platoon leader and was mildly disturbed that I couldn’t remember his name, and didn’t want to ask anyone. I could remember every dead Marine casualty we’d taken but remembering the living was strangely more difficult.
The Gunny moved with me and my scout team. We took what cover we could from any fire that might come out of the jungle across the river.
Since we were backed right up against the jungle on our right side there was little point in doing much at all with that except hoping nothing would come from the nearly impenetrable mess. I realized, in looking at it go by, that if the NVA had an inkling of what we were up to then even the smallest force inside that mess of twisted foliage would ruin our whole operation in a very terminal way. But nothing came from either side. The going was slow but not too slow. I watched the light start to diminish. I knew we’d actually have a couple of hours of strange twilight because, although the sun would set behind the high ridge, it would still radiate light out over and, by reflection from the clouds and the atmosphere itself, give us enough light to move by.
Fusner turned on his little transistor radio but I made him shut it down as soon as I heard Brother John’s voice. The jungle rising up on our right flank was just too fearful to tempt fate that obviously. There was no way that anyone was going to hear anything we did from across the rushing water, but the jungle next to us was a different matter. The enemy had to know we were on the move, but where we were going, how far we were going and why we were going there would probably remain a mystery until we arrived downriver.
The entire company stopped when the sound of Puff’s deeply throbbing engines filled the valley. The smoke had not cleared from the pall it had made over the center of the jungle when it began its strange conical turn.
“Move,” the Gunny yelled, and we all moved.
I hadn’t thought to give the command, but the Gunny was absolutely right. From its last performance we all knew that Puff could only make three full runs before heading back to base. That gave us a bit less than an hour to get where we were going. Four kilometers along the cleared and flat mud surface, semi-hardened since the rains had stopped, didn’t seem like much of a distance for a Marine company to cover in an hour, but it was. Delaying to emplace guns and dig holes took time. The shattering roar of the first attack began. The company picked up its pace although nobody could possibly not look over across the water to see the giant flaming red and yellow fire hose sweep back and forth, and then around the center of the jungle area.
The attack by Puff was over in seconds, with the plane pulling out of its circular run and heading down the valley, low above the jungle but climbing to higher altitude as it went. I wondered if it was my getting used to the outrageous noisy and deadly attack that made it seem shorter than before.
Fusner nudged me, holding the AN/323 headset as we walked.
“They’re going to make more passes than before so we’ll have more time to make the move.”
I realized that somebody other than me was doing some serious thinking about what was going on. The guys in the air weren’t missing too much, even if it seemed that they could only catch glimpses of our company below, and get snippets of our actions over the radio.
Puff continued to fly in and out, raining down fire in one of its pylon turns, bailing out of the valley, and then arching back to come in again. It was brilliant. There was no fire from the jungle or anyone else anywhere in the valley, and it was giving us the time we needed to get where we had to go. I felt the radiation of the air and jungle mixing in with the vibration of the water that penetrated into the mud from the fast-moving river.
The company stopped just as Fusner announced that Puff was headed back to base. The Skyraiders were still up but holding their ordnance in reserve in case we were under fire when Kilo came across the river. But we weren’t downriver far enough to hunt out a crossing, I knew. Why had we stopped?
Jurgens came running back up the bank, staying low and moving like a cat in brief cuts into the border bracken of the jungle, and then down toward the river, like some ship at sea zig-zagging to avoid a lurking submarine. He came toward me as the Gunny approached from behind.
“They’re there,” Jurgens said, sprawling full length between Zippo and I, breathing heavily while looking back downriver.
“Who the hell is there?” the Gunny asked.
Jurgens didn’t have to answer. Captain Howard “Howling Mad” Carter and his two lieutenants emerged from around a slight jutting mess of foliage spreading out from the jungle growth. They looked like strange creatures from some black and white horror film because of the coming of darkness and the exotic conditions we were all stuck in.
I looked at the three officers moving toward me, all crouching low, and all too tightly grouped together if any enemy soldier was nearby with a single grenade. Their radio operators clustered right behind them. Make that two grenades.
Carter reached my position and crouched down, instructing his lieutenants and radio operator to dig in without speaking to me. The radio operators accompanying the officers went to work with E-tools and mud began to fly.
“This will do as a CP since there’s no way we can reach that Ontos we’ve got upriver before dark. We’ll just dig in and wait out the night.”
I studied the captain closely while he talked and ordered the men. Carter was soaked to the skin, as were all of his Marines. They’d made it across without our help and I was shocked. For some reason, I’d forgotten Kilo was made up of mostly hardened Marines, just like my own company. Adapting to conditions was what they did and they’d done it well.
“You made it,” I whispered, more to myself than to the captain, not failing to note that the man had assumed command of both outfits with his orders and his assumption that the Ontos was now his as much as it was our own.
“Digging in and staying may not be the best idea, sir,” the Gunny said from behind me.
I was surprised. Surprised that the Gunny would offer a criticism that would have to bite deep into the captain’s leadership position and also because, once again, the Gunny automatically referred to Carter using the honorific ‘sir.’ He’d only called me that twice in nearly three weeks and both times I’d earned it with blood.
“Well, Gunny, sometimes staying put is the best solution,” Carter answered, his tone not aggressive or negative in any way, unlike how his voice changed when he addressed me.
“The enemy will recover in the night and here, well, they’re only a hundred meters away across that water,” the Gunny said, this time omitting the sir. “We might move upriver into the night but we’d be doing so to a covered position with the Ontos supporting us and we’d do it while they’re still down and out from the beating they just took from Puff. The Skyraiders could still cover a move even into the dark.”
“It’s called a C-47 gunship,” Captain Carter responded.
“Sir?” the Gunny replied.
“I don’t approve of all these nicknames,” Carter shot back. “There’s no magic at work here, just some rotary cannons stuck into the side of a transport that’s long worn out its welcome in combat.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll have the rest of the men dig in for the night ahead,” the Gunny replied quickly, again omitting the sir and rising to his feet.
It was as obvious to him as it was to me listening that there was no reasoning with the captain.
“Yes, see that you do,” Carter commanded, this time his tone definitely showing he wasn’t happy with the Gunny’s criticism or his use of Puff’s name.
I didn’t know what to say. There didn’t seem to be anything to say, as neither Captain Carter or his two officers even deigned to look, much less talk to me.
I was still struck by how seemingly easily Carter had gotten Kilo across the river. If we’d had to go get them then I’d have had to go back in that river. I shivered and then relaxed at the thought, leaning to the side on my back so I could get my pack off. The crocodiles and snakes in the river and the definite danger of drowning were in the past. I smiled weakly and breathed deeply, even though I knew in my heart that it was potentially bad news that Carter had taken over and, at least temporarily, I was to be under his command.
The Gunny bumped me on my left shoulder with his boot and motioned upriver before walking away with Tank following him in that direction.
I got out of my suspender straps, roughly folded my poncho and followed without saying anything to Carter or his men, who were busy ordering M-60 emplacements to be put in facing the river on each side of the command post.
The Gunny had stopped to wait about twenty meters further on, making it look like he was doing so to smoke one of his cigarettes. I approached and he immediately handed the lit thing to me.
I took my obligatory puff, and coughed my obligatory cough, before handing it back.
“Dig in and get the hell away from them,” the Gunny said, before taking his first inhalation.
“What?” I asked, having no idea what he was talking about.
“You and the scout team, and then the whole damn company in the night, are going upriver,” he said, looking back to where Captain Carter and his men milled about and dug into the side of the river bank.
“What?” I asked again, like an idiot.
“Our M-16’s are all firing tracers and the M-60’s fire one tracer for every four rounds. What’s going to happen is that the NVA are going to shoot across that water and Kilo’s going to return fire. There’s no point, but that’s what they’ll do because they’re new to the A Shau.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. “We’ve got plenty of ammo and we’ll be resupplied later in the morning when we get up to the old airstrip.”
“There’s no point in firing at all because nobody can cross the water. The NVA are going to open up to get shot back at. Then they’ll register every fire hole and every machine gun by watching the tracers, and fire RPG’s over into each one. They haven’t used any rockets, not because they haven’t got them, but because they wanted to save them for just the right time.”
I stared at the Gunny, my mind racing. I hadn’t thought of it. I’d have never thought of it. But it had to be, and if it wasn’t then why take the risk he was right, especially with the full jungle at our back and not knowing what might come out of there at any time? The defensive position was potentially the worst one I’d seen since I’d trapped us on the side of that hill earlier.
“You’ve been here before,” I said, my voice low. “They did this to your unit, didn’t they?”
The Gunny didn’t answer.
“We’re going to be disobeying direct orders in combat,” I finally said. “Again. And what will happen if Kilo gets decimated and we abandoned them?”
“I know you felt really relieved when you realized Kilo made it across on its own. I saw that sympathetic look on your face laying there. I admire that in you, but, slim as the chance is, we may make it out of here alive. The only way we do that is by staying alive through this coming night. Doing what that idiot says we should do is crossing that famous river to the other side. Dig some holes back there and then bring your team upriver to have some chow, or whatever, and the company will wait for you. And that alone, that they’ll wait, is saying something, sir.”
The Gunny walked upriver without turning back, his big radio operator just in back and to the side of him. I could barely see in the distance that Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and O’Brien were waiting for him. I was relieved the Gunny had read me wrong. I hadn’t felt relief for Kilo at all. I’d only felt relief that I was not going to have to die in the river trying to save them. I’d been relieved for myself.
But he’d called me sir again. He didn’t want me to stay and die with Kilo.
“What are we going to do?” Fusner whispered from only a few feet away.
I turned in surprise. I hadn’t been aware of him, and then I saw Nguyen and Zippo only inches from him. All three were staring at me.
“Get back there and dig in,” I ordered, keeping my voice very low, “then we’re going upriver to have a bite with the rest of the company.”
Zippo and Fusner just looked at me before heading back to the CP area. Nguyen paused for a brief second before following. His deep black eyes stared into my own, and then he nodded ever so slightly and was gone.
I pushed myself into the jungle a few yards to relieve myself, and then sat nearby the spot for a few minutes, wishing I still had the Gunny’s cigarette.
What had I turned into? What had meaning anymore? I looked up into the night sky, fast closing in and prayed to God. I prayed that there would be no firing in the night, that the Marines in Kilo would not fire back if fired upon. That Carter would relent and let his men flow upriver to follow the cowardly retreat by my own company. And me with it. God did not answer. If he did then it was through Fusner’s tiny radio speaker. Captain Carter had traipsed off somewhere with his minion lieutenants.
Only their radio operators worked at digging into the bank. Brother John, speaking for God, introduced the last song of the day. The words flowed up to me and then right on by: “Every day’s an endless stream, of cigarettes and magazines. And each town looks the same to me, the movies and the factories,
and every stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be…homeward bound...”
Although I knew it was the voices of Simon and Garfunkel, I prayed it was God.
Simon and Garfunkel