I moved back down the river bank, my mind spinning in contemplation of executing the Gunny’s plan, and feeling a bit sick to my stomach at the idea of it. Zippo and Fusner took their E-Tools and dutifully began to dig holes near where the other radio operators worked, but further back from the edge of the bank. I realized that both men were digging in closer to the jungle so when they left it would be less noticeable, but I didn’t want them to sneak away, no more than I wanted to. Nguyen hung back in a low crouch, watching everyone around him but primarily focusing his attention on staring intently across the moving water of the nearby river. The splash and chop of its rush permeated everything, as the sounds came at us and then faintly bounced back from the forward edge of the jungle.
I had no E-Tool of my own. When I needed one for bathroom business I borrowed it from Fusner, always feeling guilty because the ‘baby’ Marine radioman had a much heavier load to haul than I did. I knew my team would dig a hole for me without having to be told, but I wanted to spare them the extra work. I stayed low, knowing that, if the Gunny was right, then the night was going to explode into crisscrossing tracer fire sometime soon. Captain Carter was examining the far side of the river from his half-dug hole, while El Producto, his radio operator, continued to dig around him. I noted that Carter was using brand new Leica binoculars, the kind with a ranging reticle built in and synchronized focus capability, unlike my Japanese knock-offs that didn’t have and wouldn’t do any of that.
I lay just behind the stiffly built big captain. Howard Carter was the cutting edge of how a Marine Officer should look. His square jaw set well with his widely muscled shoulders, reducing down to an unnaturally thin waist. The fact he was six inches taller than I was didn’t bother me, although my not being bothered when he’d loomed over me in the past seemed to irritate him. Sensing my presence, he turned his torso to partially face me.
“Junior…or is it Flash, or maybe Johnny Paper,” he said, lowering his glasses. His tone was light but cutting. “I presume you want something other than to cost me a few more dead Marines?”
I’d been going to fortify what the Gunny had said earlier, let him know that it was terminally unsafe to stay where we were and try to convince him that moving upriver into the night was a hell of a lot better plan than what he’d decided.
I breathed out in a light silent sigh I hoped he couldn’t hear. Instead of arguing with the strange captain I rolled out the litany of lies the Gunny had prepped me with.
“My scout team is going upriver a bit to chow down at the company CP. We’ll be back before it’s the black of night so make sure your men know it’s us coming and don’t shoot us.”
“Like you need my permission for that?” Carter asked, with a laugh, before raising his glasses to again look across the river and dismiss me at the same time.
I pulled back, noting that Zippo, Fusner, and Nguyen had stopped what they were doing and moved closer while the captain and I’d been talking.
“Oh,” Carter said, without turning, “when you get with your other company leaders make sure they understand that the gun positions you set up remain the way they are in case we draw any fire. Your company can damn well do and take its share of any heat.”
I didn’t know how to answer the man except to agree.
“Aye aye, sir,” I responded to the back of his head, noting he’d left his helmet off in the face of potential incoming fire.
I realized it was no worse than half the Marines under my command because most of them wore bandanas or the flattened bush hats. Helmets were cumbersome and hot. Still, it looked funny to see the dying sun reflected off the man’s perfectly formed and shaven skull. We’d definitely be leaving the machine gun emplacements my Marines had dug into the berm of the higher mud of the bank. It was just that there would be nobody manning those holes through the night.
El Producto ceased his labors while the captain and I had been talking.
“Vaya con Dios,” he whispered over to me, his expression concerned and sincere.
A shudder went through my body, and I suppressed the urge to answer him back. I knew that he’d told me to go with God but I didn’t know how to tell him that he was being left to stay where he was and die by the hand of the same God. Or was it by my hand? I unconsciously slithered back a few feet.
Nguyen somehow sensed the depth of my feelings, leaned down from behind me and lifted me to my feet. Without saying anything he then pushed against my back until I was unwillingly headed upriver. I walked but I didn’t really want to go. I walked because I couldn’t stay. I walked because I didn’t really know what else to do. The company was pulling out, with or without me. It was my company. I belonged with my company, but I felt like pure shit. Why should any of Kilo’s Marines have to die because of the fact Captain Howard “Howling Mad” Carter was a completely inexperienced idiot, or because he didn’t have a Gunny like my own and probably wouldn’t have listened to him if he had? It was all wrong.
There was no CP where the Gunny was, of course. We’d only stopped a couple of hundred yards from Kilo’s CP position to strap on packs, not have a meeting. Nobody around Carter had bothered to notice that we’d taken all of our gear except El Producto, who’d stared at each of us with his big black eyes as we departed. For the first time since landing in the country, I was more ashamed than I was afraid.
Zippo asked me if I wanted to unload the Starlight Scope and check out the direction we were moving but I shook my head. There was no sense delaying at all, and the company was only minutes in front of us. The Starlight Scope wasn’t going to reveal anything of value. It would just delay us. Sighting it in across the river would also be fruitless because the distance was too great to allow sharp focusing on anything as small as an enemy soldier.
We moved fast but stayed as low as we could. It was becoming almost too dark to see the holes that had been dug along the way and it would be treacherous for any of us to mistakenly step into one of them. Nguyen automatically took the point, and my worries dropped away. The Montagnard was like a human Starlight Scope for moving through the bush and night. Instead of spreading out as we should have the remaining three of us followed in trace, one after another, our confidence in Nguyen complete.
“One grenade,” I breathed out, but not loud enough for any of the men around me to hear.
The move upriver took almost half an hour and it was full dark before I felt we were close to where Tex’s burned out truck hulk had to sit. It was the upside-down tank out in the middle of the river I sensed first, however. The rushing current heaped up and made a white-water geyser on one side of the heavy beast, and then came over and down in a noisy waterfall on the other.
“Who goes there?” a deep male voice asked, from not much further ahead.
“Nobody says that kind of thing,” Zippo yelled back through cupped hands before I could think to stop him.
Jurgens stepped out of the dark and forward to where we could make him out. He laughed openly.
“The Gunny’s over by the wall near the Ontos,” he said, pointing meaninglessly at an angle off to his right.
There was only one cliff wall on our side of the clearing and no place else the Gunny could be.
I moved past Jurgens, without comment, my hand automatically falling to the butt of my .45. The Gunny was right where I expected. His lit cigarette guided me in, although I carefully looked behind as I went.
“Good that you could make it,” he said, offering the cigarette to me.
I shook my head, not quite sure he could see the move because of the darkness. I wasn’t feeling like smoking, eating or even sleeping, although hunger and fatigue almost overwhelmed me. Instead, I slunk down before him and worked my way out of my suspender straps. The pack had begun to weigh me down badly, I realized. If I didn’t get food and sleep soon I was going to collapse, and I knew it. But I could not shake my depression brought on by what we were doing.
The Gunny pushed a box of ham and mothers at me. I took it and tore the cardboard apart. I was about to search my pocket for one of the tiny can openers we all carried, but one was extended to me out of the darkness. I only saw the reflecting opener and not the hand that held it out. I knew it had to be Nguyen’s dark brown hand unless Sugar Daddy had crept up silently and slipped in alongside me.
“Eat,” the Gunny said. “Rest. There’s nothing you or anybody else can do. Maybe the night will be quiet. Maybe it won’t rain again for a while. Either way, we’re back into our secure situation with the Ontos locked and loaded with six rounds of the beehive. The men have your hole fixed up for you.”
The hole. The hole the Gunny had had to shame me out of and now I was shaming myself back into. I got up slowly and headed toward where the bridge had just about made it across the river. I remembered exactly where the hole was and what bodies were behind me up near the wall and down across the river. No matter what happened to Kilo we were going to get our Marines back, put them on choppers and sent home. We weren’t leaving anyone and that was about the only solace I had. We would not leave any Marine on the field, dead or alive. Zippo led the way, as my scout team walked in front of me. I had my broken box of food, some water, and the hole to wait in. I wondered how long the wait would be.
The hole was a surprise. It was bigger. It was big enough for my whole scout team and me. The bottom wasn’t water anymore. It was covered in sandbags. The hole was seemingly as dry as a bone. I slipped my pack off, tossed it down into the almost black well of security, and then jumped in. My scout team came in after me. I dropped my torn box of, Combat Meal, Ham and Lima Beans as I hit the soft bottom, and the opener too, but I didn’t care. I was unconscious before my body, of its own accord, huddled itself into a round ball of dirt, mud, leech wounds and God knew what else.
I only knew I had been out when I came to. I didn’t know what roused me, but I was no longer so fatigued. New energy thrummed through my body. I raised myself up to stick my head out of the hole. It was as black outside as it was inside the hole, except for the river’s whitewater heaping up at the end of the bridge and over the top of the tank further down. There was no firing. My Gus Grissom watch told me it was three in the morning. It was misting again because I was covered in a fine film of liquid. But the mist in the air was the same temperature as the air so I didn’t feel it as a real rain of any kind. It was just that hot thick and crappy air of Vietnam. But there was no firing. Maybe the Gunny had been wrong, which would be the best news I could possibly get.
I crouched back down and searched around until I found the B-2 cans. The opener was long gone. I searched my own breast pockets, remembering the letter home I had on my thigh. Home. Homeward Bound. The lyrics of the last Brother John song echoed in my mind. I opened the ham and mothers and ate the whole can in only a couple of piggish gulps. Then I went to work on the biscuits and some kind of awful but edible cheese. The men around me in the bottom of the hole didn’t move, and I made no attempt to disturb them.
Setting the cans, and rest of the box, up atop the edge of the hole, I eased myself back down. It was three to four hours before dawn. I could fall asleep like a normal human being. I wasn’t afraid and I wasn’t deeply worried about anything except having a night of peace.
I didn’t even get my eyes closed when the firing began. I rose to my feet in an instant, pushing the C-ration junk aside as I cleared a field of vision that was no field at all, but only blackness. Machine guns were firing downriver, thousands of meters in the distance, so there were no tracers visible, but the volume of fire told me all I needed to know. The rest of my scout team came alive behind and around me.
“Sure glad we’re not down there with Kilo,” Fusner whispered.
I waited. I knew what had to be coming. The Gunny had been right here and done all this before. It was the only way he could have known.
I waited some more, my fear returning, but not for myself. And the feeling that I had let Kilo, Carter and the United States Marine Corps down. That the Corps might be the defender of the citizenry of the USA I no longer thought about anymore. The USA was in my left thigh pocket but had ceased to exist as an embodied cause.
My life was my wife and my daughter. Where they were, as long as it wasn’t in Vietnam, was my USA.
Then the first explosion came, followed by another, and then another until there were too many to count.
I climbed out of the hole and ran back toward the wall, looking for the Gunny in the night. We could do one thing that might help if any help could save someone at this point. I’d only thought of myself earlier and I was surprised again by my own selfishness.
Tank found me and guided me in toward where the Gunny had jammed himself into the crease at the bottom of the cliff wall. He flipped his Zippo and we had a small wavering glow of light to see one another in.
“What have we got left in the way of Ontos ammo?” I asked, breathlessly.
“Hell if I know, the guys manning it are under it.”
I left the Gunny at a run, knowing roughly where the Ontos was in the dark and would have run smack into at speed if a hand hadn’t gripped my bicep and stopped me dead. It was Nguyen. He gentled his hold and guided me around the metal beast that might have broken some of my bones if I’d run into it hard enough. I crouched down under the machine, explosions still going on downriver behind me.
“What kind of ammo do we have left and how much?” I asked, making no effort to keep my voice low. Kilo was getting all the heat and the NVA wasn’t going to waste a single round on us way upriver.
“It’s stacked in the back of the machine,” a voice said.
I moved to the back of the vehicle. I knew the armored double doors released with two latches. I turned both downward as hard as I could. The doors slowly swung open while I got out of the way.
“Lighter, I need the lighter,” I said into the night air since I could see no one.
A flame appeared a few feet to my left, and I saw Tank’s face behind it.
“Shine it on the ammo boxes,” I ordered, moving closer and taking the lighter from his hand. I leaned down and pointed at eight wooden boxes. The boxes all had the same “M346 H-T” printed on the back of them. I knew those rounds. The flechette canister rounds were great for close in work but had a range of only a few hundred meters. The M346 was high explosive and would reach out to six thousand. “Pull these out,” I said, hold the light close, pointing and then helping get them out as much as I could with my free hand.
I moved back a bit and turned around, telling Tank to stack the boxes behind the machine. I gave him his lighter back and went to where the crew remained under the Ontos. I crouched down in the dark without the lighter to see by. I laid out my plan, not knowing whether I had the right guys or if the crew was capable of doing what I needed to have done. Corporal Trevis identified himself when I took a breath. He indicated that his men could do what I needed but they had to move the flechette rounds first
The Gunny was standing by the side of the Ontos when I came out.
“What are you up to?” he asked.
“I’m going downriver fast with a Prick 25. The M346 ammo can reach the area where Kilo is stuck. I’ll lay in one round and then adjust up and down the bank with the few rounds we have that have that range. Meanwhile, Carter’s Marines can get their asses out of their holes and up to our position.”
“Do you ever just let things fall the way they have to, anyway?” the Gunny asked, sounding tired and a bit exasperated.
“I don’t have time,” I said, turning to head back to my hole. I was going to need both Nguyen for the run down and Fusner on the radio, and it was the kind of dangerous mission where I felt I had to ask them to go instead of ordering them. If necessary I could haul the radio myself and work slowly enough down to avoid the holes along the way, but the time lost and communications not so well practiced would cost Kilo lives, and maybe my own.
I crawled down into the wonderfully dug and so protective hole, wondering why I could not simply stay in it long enough to recover myself to the point where I could figure out what was really going on around me. Circumstances kept controlling me and all I was left with was trying to react to them. Trying to save Kilo was different though, I had to admit. I didn’t have to go, but I had to go.
After I quickly laid the plan out to Zippo and Fusner my whole team was in, although there was no point in Zippo exposing himself with us. There was no good way to say no to the man, however. Zippo was in. I knew Nguyen was in without having to say a word to him. His visage hung there up over the edge of the hole. How the man managed to communicate what he did, and so deeply, without saying a word was a wonder beyond my ability to grasp.
The Gunny’s head appeared not far from Nguyen.
“Fourth Platoon’s going with you,” he said.
“Sugar Daddy?” I asked, almost in shock. “You’re making Sugar Daddy and his platoon go with us?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Not my doing. I filled them in and it’s his idea. He thinks you’re some sort of idiot savant or maybe a damaged genie or a guru. Some of the men have made amulets they’re wearing with your stuff on it. Seems they think everyone around you gets killed but not you.”
“Stuff, what stuff?” I asked, the idea of an amulet in my name or honor feeling somehow repellant.
I wanted to ask the Gunny why I couldn’t just be a second lieutenant and the company commander, but I knew the simple logic of that could only exist somewhere outside of the A Shau Valley. Down where I was there was no logic. There was only basal survival at the most elemental and overtly rank level.
“You’ll see,” he said.
“I can’t wait,” I whispered, derisively.
I wanted to know what stuff and how this development had somehow gotten started, and then how to end it. The Gunny, however, misinterpreted my comment.
“They’ll be here in seconds, and don’t worry, the NVA is just softening Kilo up. They’ll get serious just before dawn, in order to blast them out of their holes. Once the Marines of Kilo are trapped into running upriver between the water and the jungle, then pre-set machine guns will make short work of them.”
“You were going to do nothing, knowing that?” I asked, climbing out of the hole, leaving my pack and other equipment behind.
I needed my helmet, my .45 and not much else except a poncho against the rain and for whatever cover and concealment it might provide.
“It’s about our company of Marines,” the Gunny said. “My job is to survive the company, not the allied forces gathered together to stop the domino effect of Asia falling to communism.”
I looked at the Gunny in wonder, as I would never have expected him to be able to expound on Vietnam in relation to the entire war zone. I hadn’t heard the phrase domino effect, or theory, since my time in college ROTC classes, well before my entering the Marine Corps.
Sugar Daddy appeared at the Gunny’s side.
“Ready to move out,” he said, going down to one knee and waiting.
I wanted to ask Fusner and Zippo about the amulets and what of mine some of the Marines might be using in support of their wild superstitions, but we had no time, and I wasn’t going to ask about any of it in front of the Gunny or Sugar Daddy.
In spite of how fast I wanted to move down the bank of the river, I had no real control of our progress. Sugar Daddy’s platoon had taken the point and my scout team and I were left bringing up the rear. The Marines around and in front us moved like a gentle wind, threading their way along, avoiding the holes they’d dug earlier and heading toward the explosions coming from further down the valley. The last few hundred meters of progress were made by our scout team moving slowly through the downed platoon. Sugar Daddy was near the point when I got through to his position, with my scout team behind me. Nobody was firing anything anymore. I laid down on my stomach next to Sugar Daddy.
I knew the Gunny had probably told him about how firing across the river with tracers would likely only draw rocket fire in return, or at least I hoped he had.
The mist grew heavier while I lay there, trying to see through the night or hear something beyond the weak and obviously wounded vocalizations I could hear in the distance.
“What do we do?” I asked, wishing immediately that I hadn’t revealed that I didn’t know what to do in the situation.
“We wait,” Sugar Daddy whispered back.
“We wait for what?” I asked, once again at a loss as to what to do with what was likely a very damaged company of Marine infantry.
“The rain to get stronger, some time to go by and for orders from Kilo’s commanding officer.”
“Zippo,” I called, very quietly over my right shoulder.
“Sir,” he whispered back.
“The scope,” I said. My mind was already creating a picture of what lay in front of me, although I couldn’t make it out very clearly in the darkness ahead.
Zippo cradled the device, and then handed it gently to me, before going down on his stomach so I could use his thick back as my tripod. I pushed him around until he was pointing downriver instead of across the water. I knew the enemy was over there waiting for more fire, and if they fired again it would only be to draw fire. They were blind and becoming more so with the increase in the volume of the rain. There was no need to see them even if we could.
I confirmed my suspicions. There would be no consulting with or getting orders from Carter because Carter was in the hole in front of us and not moving. There were others in the same hole and I feared both his lieutenants had met the same fate, but I couldn’t be certain without moving forward. I checked out the area around the CP hole. The captain had made sure to have a machine gun emplacement dug on each side of his hole. The M-60s had opened up and the NVA had fired back, nicely splitting the difference between the two gun positions.
“Stay,” I ordered Sugar Daddy, before scuttling forward on my belly until I could slip into the damaged hole.
Or instead, what had been a hole. The riverside protecting the Marines in the hole had been blown out, or rather, inward. Obviously, one or more rockets had scored direct hits on the bank in just the right place. Sugar Daddy had ignored my order, instead of moving to hang down on the side of the hole. He flicked his lighter on for a few seconds. It was enough to see that Captain Carter was very dead, missing most of his head and one of his lieutenants was equally dead next to him. I thought the remaining officer was dead, as well, but then, just before Sugar Daddy’s lighter went out, the man’s eyes blinked. He was alive. I surged forward to where the hole was breached and pulled the man toward me by the outsides of his arms. He slipped from my grasp and I had to grip him around the torso to pull him up and forward.
“Kemp, lieutenant, United States Marine Corps, 0123596,” he said, his voice only audible to me because his mouth was right next to my ear.
“You’re not a prisoner of war,” I said back. “You’re Company Commander Kemp, now, of Kilo Company.”
Sugar Daddy reached down in the dark and pulled the lieutenant up toward him, just as an RPG barrage came rippling in.
“Fire the One Oh Six,” I shouted to Fusner, hoping he had his radio on, antenna up, and was already in contact with the Ontos team. Getting out of Kilo’s nightmare situation was going to be a lot harder than getting into it, I knew. A rocket hit the mud not far from the hole and I scrunched down, thinking that I’d just gotten the lieutenant up out of safety in order to take it for myself. To top it off I pushed Captain Carter’s body into the breach formed by one of the rockets hitting dead center earlier in the night. All of a sudden, the hole filled, as Sugar Daddy plunged down, still holding Kemp, followed by Fusner and Zippo. Fusner made the radio call from the bottom of the damaged hole.
“Not the kind of war story you’re gonna wanna tell back home, Junior,” Sugar Daddy whispered into the silence between RPG blasts and our own round coming in.
Featured image of Ontos from: Steve Zaloga and missing-lynx.com