I stared up at the unlikely and ungainly monster of a loud propeller-driven airship. The Skyraider didn’t look like it could even stay in the air, but there it was, orbiting dependably not more than three hundred feet up. The Gunny nodded toward the 323 radio, also looking like it was from WWII, and held out his hand. I gave him the handset. I could tell right away that the Gunny had never encountered Cowboy because he winced every time the pilot referred to him as Zarkov, the mad doctor from Flash Gordon. I preferred Flash to Junior, but stood without expression listening to the exchange. The Gunny instructed Cowboy to fly the ridge all along our direction of travel to see what he could see and then report back. The 323 apparently had even less range than the Prick 25 we used for command and artillery nets, so I presumed we would not be able to get reports when the plane was at a distance.
“Look, Cowboy, or whatever name and rank you really are, I’m the Gunnery Sergeant down here, not some character in a movie. This is real.”
The Gunny handed Fusner the handset by tossing it to him in obvious disgust, but the communication from the disappearing airborne dump truck wasn’t over.
“This isn’t Cowboy,” a voice said, sounding almost exactly like Cowboy’s. “This is his NFO. I’m Jacko. You know, like in jack o lantern.”
The Gunny walked away without saying another word.
“Jacko’s not from Flash Gordon,” Fusner said to no one in particular while he stowed the 323 back into its canvas sack. He threw the heavy little bag over his left shoulder, since his M16 was strapped over his right. I wondered if Fusner ever shot the rifle because every time the company was under fire, he was so busy with the radio his gun had to be set aside.
The hump down the ridge was harder than if it had been a hump up from the valley floor. Night dew covered all the foliage brushed aside to hold position close up onto both sides of the ridge. Although the temperature wasn’t what it had been in the lowlands, the dew soaked everyone’s uniforms and made moving on the slanted mud covered with fern, bamboo and other jungle growth debris, difficult and exhausting. The first four hours down the ridge had started out okay, but from then on the forced march had become agonizing. Finally, the company stopped. No orders were issued. Everyone simply stopped and went to the earth wherever they were. I went down with them but not for long.
Distant voices began calling and I was up moving with Fusner before “arty up,” came echoing down the line. Whatever stopped the company had been some kind of threat. In moments I had worked through all the downed men to reach a small group of Marines peering over a hedge of bushes just back from a clearing that lay at the apex of the ridge. I dumped my pack behind the Gunny and took out my Japanese binoculars. Nobody said anything as I covered the line of heavy jungle from one side to the other across the clearing. I saw nothing. There had been no explosions or gunfire of any kind as we’d worked our way down the mild decline of the ridge.
“What is it?” I said, still out of breath from the long hike.
I turned back toward Fusner, but unaccountably the handset I reached for wasn’t there. Instead, Fusner knelt staring out toward the center of the clearing. I followed his gaze. A large tiger sat in the center of the clearing staring back at me. A very large tiger. I’d only seen tigers in the zoo. This tiger didn’t look anything like a zoo tiger. Although it sat on its hind legs, its body language seemed aggressive and possessive. I brought my binoculars up to my eyes again. The tiger stared right into my lenses, his head filling my view.
“Unhappy tiger,” I breathed out, causing the Gunny and the men around him to snicker.
“No shit,” the Gunny replied.
“Nobody’s shot him,” I said, now fully aware that everyone was listening to me.
“Not a he,” the Gunny said, while he and everyone else continued to stare at the beast. “If it was male it would have taken off long ago. Females are territorial and we’re definitely in her territory. Probably got young nearby. She’s not going anywhere.”
“Still, nobody’s shot her,” I repeated, changing the animal’s sex. “How come? And what do you want me to do, call in an artillery round? The clearing’s too small and we’re too close.”
“Respect,” the Gunny said. “Nobody’s going to shoot her. We’re in her jungle, not the other way around. We’re going around her. I didn’t bring you up to call in artillery. I brought you up because I thought you’d want to see this.”
“We’re going around her?” I asked, in surprise. These Marines who were killing each other every night and who would not think twice about pulling the trigger on any enemy that could harm them, were averse to killing a wild animal in the jungle? That hundreds of combat-hardened men could come to that same conclusion and let the animal live, jolted me to the core. The tiger’s situation and the company’s decision was one of humanity, and that display of humanity in my now inhumane life jarred me badly.
“What do we do, split in half and go around both sides of the clearing?” I asked.
“Nope, she’ll feel surrounded and threatened. We go around on the down south side where it’s not so steep.” The Gunny pointed down slope, in the direction we’d come up from.
I looked as far down the slope as I could through the trees and bracken. I knew we would be unable to receive fire from Firebase Cunningham because of the ridge in the way. We were beyond the range of high angle howitzer rounds fired in defilade, and we were now beyond even the furthest reach of the An Hoa battery.
All we had for supporting fires was the Cowboy and Jacko. Why they were up there in one lone Skyraider was unknown. To my knowledge, all combat planes flew with at least two planes in a squadron, or whatever they called it. But there he was and here we were, about to file down into unknown territory with no supporting fires at all because a tiger would not move. Even the small mortars we had would be of no use, along with the LAW anti-tank weapons and M79s. It was going to be hand-to-hand combat if the enemy lurked anywhere close below. Because of our outlandish move, however, it appeared that snakes and tigers might be bigger risks than booby traps or a well-laid ambush. Chesty Puller had been right, if Chesty had been at all behind the most famous Marine Corps retreat in history. Do the unexpected. Adapt. I’d applied a historic solution to a problem that lacked any resemblance to anything in Marine or any other combat training.
The company filed down along the northern edge of the clearing, staying out of the thickest jungle, but giving the tiger plenty of room. The tiger watched us intently, turning its head to the side as we passed, but making no move to slink down or rotate her body.
I watched the animal closely. She was close enough in passing to read her expression, which appeared to be one of interest and curiosity rather than predatory. I wondered if she realized that the most dangerous predators on the planet were passing only a few yards away. Predators giving another predator a pass, probably because there’s little to be gained by one predator killing another predator unless there’s a territorial dispute. The clearing belonged to the tiger and automatically the Marine predators knew and respected that. I felt a bond with the company I’d not experienced at all since first arriving. We, and the tiger, were all the same in certain elemental behaviors. We all fought to survive and killed without compunction to accomplish that mission.
The company moved by in almost complete silence, the transistor radios turned off for the first time since I’d come down on that dark night a week ago. I stared one last time at the side and back of the big tiger’s head, it’s one ear turning one way and then another, the only sign that it was alive and fully alert. I knew I would remember the animal’s visage for many years to come. And I also knew I could write something good home, about the fantastically strange creature and the honor of the men in leaving it as it was.
The pace of the march slowed a bit after the unlikely incident with the tiger. I could not get the animal out of my mind. It sat there in defiance of all logic and counter to everything I thought I knew about animals living in the wild. Stevens and Nguyen worked through the jungle on my left, with Zippo on my right. Fusner stayed only a few feet behind, ready with his handset at an instant’s notice. I leaned over to Stevens and asked him if he would get Nguyen’s opinion of what had happened with the tiger, since he was from the mountain region we were hiking through. They talked in whispers back and forth for a few minutes. I presumed there was some exotic native explanation for the tiger’s behavior. Finally, they stopped talking. Stevens scratched his head but said nothing.
“Well?” I demanded.
“Tiger sick,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
I was dumbstruck. And then it all made sense. The animal was sitting up, making its last stand. It was not being proud and guarding its territory or its young. It was too sick to go on and waiting for the death that comes to most animals in the bush when they are no longer physically able to go on. They get eaten by bigger predators. Yet the image of the tiger’s head, burned into my mind the way it was, would not change. I marched along, working my way through the bracken, going around trees while trying to keep the low-hanging branches from snapping back to hit Fusner. My mind remained on the tiger until it finally came to me why I’d so fixated on the beautiful predator. He was me. He was making the best he could of the inevitable death coming right at him. Just like me.
The distinctive droning sound of Cowboy coming back up the ridge penetrated down to the bottom of the jungle. At the same time, small arms fire came radiating up from the unseen valley below -- the same one we’d hiked up to take the ridge route toward the A Shau. Explosions reverberated from far below. The company stopped as one in its tracks, every one of us going down for cover onto the bracken or thinly covered mud.
“Give me the 323,” I ordered Fusner.
Cowboy was the only support we had, and he was close by. We couldn't identify the distant firing until the command net began to light up. The Gunny dropped at my side, with Pilson right next to him.
“Kilo Company is taking it right on the chin down in the valley,” he said, listening to Pilson’s radio.
“Shit,” I replied softly. “That’s my fault.”
“How in the hell can it be your fault?” the Gunny asked.
“The NVA were set up for us,” I replied. “Kilo walked right into their ambush without knowing anything. We didn't call it in.”
“They don’t tell us shit back at battalion,” the Gunny said. “How were we supposed to know? They tell us where to go but nothing about why, or who is going with us. I call the six actuals of the other companies but they don't know what the hell’s going on either.”
“Did you call them when we made our move this morning?”
“Nah, I’ll admit that one,” the Gunny said, grudgingly. “Kilo thought it was following us up a cleared trail. I should have picked that up. Not your fault. My fault.”
I reached for the 323 handset and got Cowboy right away.
“What’s going on down in the valley?”
“Flash, good to hear from you,” Cowboy replied. “Coast is clear all the way to that Ah Shit Valley, but there’s some disagreement going on just north of you. I’ll give it over to Jacko and steer this here Sandy right on down to take a look see.”
“Roger that,” I answered, understanding that from up in the air the pilot and his partner had a lot better view of what might be going on than we did.
“Sandies are what they call those funny planes,” Fusner whispered in my ear. “Sandy means like the sandy bottom of a tropical drink, you know, they fly so low and all.”
I didn’t believe a word of what Fusner told me but I also realized it didn’t matter one bit.
“Can we support them in some way?” the Gunny said, as I handed Fusner the microphone and pulled out one of my new Army maps. I studied the map of our area, letting the topographical contour intervals convert to shape in my mind.
“What if we attack back down the mountain?” the Gunny said, sounding shaky about his conclusion for the first time since I’d arrived under his care more than a week ago.
I looked at the difficult jungle area closely and then sat back. “How fast can our company move in this shit?”
“If we drop packs and carry ammo and water only, then pretty damned fast. Why?
“Seven thousand meters, or seven clicks,” I said. We can’t attack down slope because we’ll just run into Kilo’s flank and have the same problems they’re having. We have to go straight in the direction we’re going and then veer north and arrive behind the saddle. The saddle’s got to be where the NVA are set up," I concluded. "We take them in the rear.”
Fusner, Stevens, and Zippo laughed out loud until I looked at them. I didn’t get the joke but I knew there must have been one.
“We have to do it fast though before they figure out what we’re up to. In less than an hour. Can it be done?" I said. "Either that or let them take the hit and lick their own wounds.”
“I thought you felt it was your fault,” the Gunny said.
“What’s that got to do with it? What’s that got to do with anything?" I said. Can it be done?”
The Gunny nodded. “I’ll get to the platoon commanders right now.” He and Pilson disappeared in seconds.
I reached for the 323 handset, knowing Fusner would know what I wanted and when. He did.
“This is Flash, over,” I said, pushing the little white transmission button. Jacko came on.
I described how we needed the Sandy to revolve in a higher pattern over where the saddle sat across the path in the valley below. I had no idea about radio security so I didn’t say what our plan was. I told them I needed an hour to get into position, and I needed them to have all their ordnance on board without expending any before we were ready.
“You boys going to go head to head with Ming down there, we're betting up here?" Jacko transmitted back.
Zippo had turned his personal transistor radio on and I recognized the song Brother John was playing. It was called the "Battle of New Orleans" and it had come out while I was in high school. “In 1814 we took a little trip…”
I held out the 323 handset toward Fusner. “Play the song into the microphone for them.”
I stripped down to minimums on my belt. I kept one canteen, the K-Bar knife, the latest letter home to my wife, the loaded Colt and two magazines of rounds. I’d been in Vietnam for eight days, killed five human beings personally and many more with artillery support, but I was going into real combat for the first time. When I was ready I packed my stuff into a poncho covered pile, and then sat against it to await the Gunny’s return. I realized that I was less afraid of what might be coming than of almost anything I’d experienced so far.