Dawn would not come. Again. A slight change in the dead blackness of lower jungle life was the only clue that dawn was in the offing. I looked at my combat watch only to realize that I could barely read it anymore. I rubbed it to see the luminous hands better but, after fruitlessly drying it using toilet paper from my Sundries Pack, I gave up. The problem wasn’t moisture or dirt. The problem was Agent Orange. Somehow the mix of repellant and retardant formed a substance that melted plastic. Everyone said both substances were harmless but how could a solution so powerful it melted plastic be anything but dangerous, I wondered. In my short time in country, I’d come to find that the sun always rose at about ten after six in the morning and set at about twenty after six every night. From the artillery registration data, I knew the equator was almost exactly eleven hundred miles away. Sunrise and sunset would not change much throughout the year because of that short distance. My melted plastic watch told me it was a quarter after five, or zero five fifteen in military time. The night had been filled with small arms fire and some thundering artillery explosions. I’d called fire using Russ and the battery back at An Hoa. The company was beyond the effective range of the 105 rounds, but Russ had agreed to fire anyway, in spite of the rules of engagement that were supposed to govern the potentially suicidal results that could occur.
We were on the wrong side of the mountain to call in Army supporting fire from Cunningham. There was no sleep in the company area inside the perimeter, not with shells that screamed in only a few hundred feet in the air right above everyone’s head at over a thousand miles per hour. In the thickness of jungle growth, a high explosive shell’s circular error of probability (the area of terminal destructiveness) was less than fifty meters. Dropping shells down little more than fifty meters from our perimeter had done quite a bit to dampen the enthusiasm of NVA snipers, but it had also added an additional edge to everyone’s fear, including my own. I knew the A Shau Valley was going to be a different deal altogether because I’d heard, all the way back at Fort Sill, about the supporting fires the NVA had covering that area. The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran curling back and forth across the river that flowed fitfully along the bottom of the valley. That trail was the North’s lifeblood of supply and they weren’t going to surrender it without expending every round and all the personnel they had.
The Gunny approached with Pilson, his radio operator, right behind him. He squatted and began his usual coffee preparations. Dawn was closer, I knew because I could see the two of them. I moved to squat next to the Gunny. If the choppers came in at dawn, then there’d be no time for anything except distributing supplies and getting rid of any and all stuff that was not necessary for the forced march up the mountain and then along its snaking ridge to the A Shau’s western lip.
I noted once again that there seemed to be no verbal ‘good mornings’ or good anything else’s in combat, at least not in the combat unit I was assigned. I hunkered down and lit my explosive fuel. The Gunny tossed me a packet of instant coffee from his never-ending supply. I never had any, but he seemed to be able to gather in every extra packet laying around, or he simply got it because he was the Gunny, and I was Junior.
“So, Fourth Platoon is going to take the point?” I said, as a statement and not really a question. “How in the hell did you pull that off?”
The Gunny sipped, while Pilson looked away. From Pilson’s expression, I knew there was something wrong. I decided not to push the Gunny. I sipped my own coffee and waited.
“Nope,” he finally said, his voice low and broken up from his saying the words in the middle of a coffee slurp.
“Last night,” I began, but he cut me off.
“That was last night. This is, or will soon be, today.”
I shook my head in frustration, and with a complete lack of understanding. “Why in the hell did you tell Jurgens that then?”
“To settle him down, confuse him, kick the problem down the road,” the Gunny said, stringing the words together without comma delays. “Fourth will follow up like they always do, Chambers and will lead with the Second. Jurgens backs up Chambers with Evans, and the Third Reinforced, between those guys and the Fourth.”
I understood what he was saying and it made sense, except for the direct and unsupportable lie to Jurgens. “What about the First and what you said?” I asked again, in a slightly different way.
“Sugar Daddy already paid the price, not that he or his Marines will see it that way,” the Gunny said, looking out over the open area we’d come across so easily.
“Price?” I asked. “What price?”
“The tax,” the Gunny replied. “Two dead knuckle-draggers while you were dumping shit all over the jungle. Didn’t you hear the grenades?”
“Maybe the grenades were from the other side?” I said, knowing my logic was way out there. The sound of Chicom grenades was nothing like the real stuff, M33s made in America.
“Really?” the Gunny said, thick sarcasm in his voice. “Let’s see, the enemy is out there, probably no closer than fifty meters from the perimeter. Sugar Daddy’s lovely crew is down there close to the edge of the open area. Do the math.”
I knew from my single day at Explosives Ordinance Disposal School, that throwing a grenade seventy or eighty yards across flat bare land, much less heavily wooded jungle terrain, was near to impossible.
“Tracers don’t show much in the jungle, either,” the Gunny finished.
I mentioned nothing about how the idea of using the tracers had become his. While I’d been totally involved trying to direct inherently inaccurate artillery against an engaged enemy, the life and death racial war in my unit still raged on. I wondered how that internal war could possibly be resolved. The black Marines should have been distributed evenly through all the platoons long ago but somehow that had all become screwed up. Equally bizarre, the southern white Marines had apparently assembled in one platoon, as well. Would the internal war simply rage on, with all casualties blamed on the NVA, or would one side win over the other? It also seemed like not one other soul in the company had picked one side over the other. Including the Gunny. I noted that he’d called Fourth Platoon Marines “knuckle-draggers,” but not referred to the First Platoon as the Crackers they certainly had to be. Had the Gunny really chosen after all, but remained outwardly neutral, waiting for a change in time and conditions?
Rittenhouse showed up with his clipboard in hand.
“Enemy fire?” he asked the Gunny, squatting down with only a nod toward me.
I didn’t take offense. I had come to realize in my first week that everyone in the company was in a difficult position when it came to my presence and my role in the unit. My specialties were being accepted but my leadership was judged to be incompetent and unwanted. Indicating favor or deference to me could easily mean a sentence of silent death in the night for anyone showing it. Or quite possibly, a place at the point of the coming very dangerous move only hours away.
“Of course,” the Gunny replied, finishing his coffee.
I knew that none of the dead would ever go out as being the result of friendly fire. A friendly fire report had to have the source and nobody in the company was going to allow anyone else to put them down as a source.
The distinctive whup, whup, whup of Huey helicopters could be heard faintly in the distance. I checked my melted watch. It was almost exactly six a.m. Not first light, but close enough. Everyone moved. Fusner stayed with me, as I headed the few yards it took to move through the bracken back to the open area where the choppers had to land. I crouched down, as the usual four choppers became visible, the two Cobra ships in front, skimming nose down and low, while the two utility ‘slicks’ followed a few hundred yards behind. There was no firing of any weapons I could hear, but I’d learned about that from the scout team. If there was going to be fire, then it would come while the choppers were on the ground. Moving helicopters were a whole lot harder to hit than most inexperienced people might think, and shooting directly at the heavily armed gunships was nearly suicidal, at any time.
The blade wash struck with its usual cyclonic velocity. I shielded my face and eyes. Little pieces of mulch and other debris impacted on every exposed part of my body. My left hand was inside my pocket, gripping the letters to be sent off to my wife. Macho Man leaped out of the lead chopper as its skids touched down. I knew his real name but couldn’t remember it from atop the cookie box, if that had been his real name. He was just Macho Man, although I found his stoic and cat-like attention to me kind of neat. I wondered as he took his strange semi-formal parade rest pose next to the Huey if he knew I wasn’t really the unit’s commander at all. How much information got aboard the choppers, what with the fact that so few of them made contact with the ground, and when they did it was for only a few seconds or minutes. The homemade black bar on my helmet cover would have told him that I was an officer, although the Junior printed in magic marker under the bar would be in conflict with the officer designation.
A crew member unloaded the supplies, one box after another, like had been done before. There was no Army neatness and stacking, although I noted the Marine methodology allowed for the choppers to spend a lot less time exposed on the deck. I gave Macho Man my letters. He reverently stuck them in his own pocket, as before.
Four sharp cracks punched through the blade driven air. Cracks I instantly knew came from AK-47 rifles. Macho Man leaped aboard the Huey. I saw the far door gunner slump over his M-60. The rear door gunner left his position to dive across the chopper to help the other man. I ran forward, and then out in front of the chopper, more to get out of the line of fire than make myself a target. I reasoned that the gooks were firing at the most valuable target and that wouldn’t be me. I hit the mud on my chest, twenty-five yards in front of the wounded helicopter.
The two Cobra gunships swiveled in mid-air and the swept over the far tree line, raking the jungle with rotary machine guns. First, the rear Huey slick lifted from the mud quickly and began to pull backward with its rear rotor almost touching down. Macho Man’s chopper lifted straight up, but very slowly. I looked out across the open area to see if the gunships had suppressed the sniper fire when I saw two figures rise up out of the ground less than halfway across the open area.
I could see them clearly. I was surprised to note that they were both obviously female and wore the dark-colored uniform jackets of the NVA. Both also wore floppy bush hats, not unlike those of many of the Marines in my company.
And then I realized why they were standing. They stood to be able to angle their assault rifles up. They were standing to get a better shot at the wounded chopper.
I leaped to my feet in one arched rush. I stood under the chopper’s prop wash, turned sideways to the two women and pulled my .45 from its holster. I flipped the safety lever on the left side down automatically, the click was unheard with all the noise raining down from the Huey. I brought the Colt up until my arm was straight out, my combat training in how to use the weapon totally forgotten. I reverted to the many times my Dad, on the Coast Guard Pistol Team, had prepared me to shoot the children’s .45 course at the Camp Perry NRA nationals. I breathed in and out, knowing that the sights on the combat Colt had never been checked out by me or properly sighted in. As I focused my right eye on the post of the front sight through the now hazy square “V” of the rear sight, I saw the women about forty yards away. They were no longer raising their weapons. They were up and running for whatever reason, headed toward the far side of the clearing.
I got control of my breathing. Easy in and easier out. Once, twice and then a third time, while the women ran. I decided to aim over the head of the woman on the right and hope for a center of mass shot on her torso. The gun at the end of my fully extended arm shook slightly, but my breathing remained true. At the end of my fourth exhalation, the gun went off and blew back hard in my hand, bending my elbow slightly. I brought the Colt immediately back into battery and aimed at the same place above the second running woman’s back, glad she was running directly away and not at an angle. One more inhalation the then another slow release. The Colt went off a second time, seemingly all on its own.
I moved the automatic over toward the right in order to see what results I’d had but there was nothing to see. The women were gone like they’d disappeared up into the air.
“Shit, I fucking missed,” I said, now able to hear myself because the chopper was a good distance up and moving away fast. My ears were already ringing from the shock wave of the gun’s explosions, but I knew that would die down over time.
I went to my hands and knees and crawled into the bracken, pressing up on the safety lever to avoid an accidental discharge.
“You didn’t miss, sir,” Fusner said, holding my binoculars. “You hit them both I think, but the ground cover out there’s too thick to show them.”
I didn’t believe him and grabbed the binoculars. I could see nothing but very brightly colored foliage everywhere.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “There’d be some movement or something.”
“There’s no place for them to go, sir,” Fusner continued, pointing out at nothing.
The gunships followed the slicks and all four choppers were gone in less than a minute. Silence, except for the mild wind of the mountain highlands made any sound at all. The sound of the wind blowing through the trees of the jungle was muted but kind of rough, not the smooth calming sound of the wind through the pines across the Virginian countryside had provided while I was in training.
All of a sudden I saw a spidery figure scrabbling outward across the surface of the open area, disappearing for a few seconds and then reappearing a few feet further away. The figure made it to the spider hole the women had hidden in and was lost to view.
“Who the hell is that?” I asked, bringing the binoculars back up, but finding nothing to see.
“Nguyen,” Zippo said, coming forward to where I was, with Stevens at his side. “He’s gone out to get your stuff.”
“What stuff?” I asked, my eyes glued to the rubber grommets of the big Japanese binoculars, waiting for Nguyen to pop up or slither out of the spider hole.
After a few moments I saw him get back into the hole I’d never seen him leave, and then begin to work his way back across the stretch of defoliated Agent Orange countryside. I brought the lenses down when he got close.
Nguyen eased into the brush and spore-laden fern leaves the rest of us lay in and among. He pulled down the two rifles he’d slung to his right shoulder and a small curled up cloth package.
“They’re yours,” Stevens said, avoiding using the word sir, unlike Zippo and Fusner.
“What is mine?” I asked, nonplussed.
“Their possessions,” he indicated, pointing.
I Looked down and noted the blood on the cloth. Nguyen had obviously torn one of the women’s blouses apart to make the sack. For a second I lost my balance a bit, digging my fingers into the jungle growth and mud I was laying on to better ground me. A wave of nausea swept up from my stomach to my throat and then subsided. I swallowed, heavily.
“It’s part of the rules of engagement,” Fusner stated like he was reading from some military manual. “Going all the way back to Grecian times, the combatant who kills another combatant in open fair combat gets the possessions of the one killed. We’ll itemize and tag all this for you, then send it back to battalion, who’ll itemize and send it to the division. They’ll keep it for you and either let you take it home or send it home in a box for you. Rittenhouse will take care of the paperwork.”
I wanted to say ‘you’re kidding me,’ or something that might let me in on the joke, but I knew in my heart that it was no joke. All three Marines of my scout team stared at me with flat expressions, waiting.
I wasn’t going to have the stuff sent home. I never wanted to see it again. I didn’t want it itemized and I wanted to get as far from it as possible.
“They’ll probably confiscate the AKs though,” Zippo said. “Can’t take automatic weapons home.”
I realized right away that there was some code that regulated this kind of thing, and it probably didn’t happen very often that one Marine was exclusively identified as the killer of another individual enemy soldier. I felt I could not just say no and hurry back to my hooch.
“Who wants the stuff?” I asked.
“What?” Stevens said, his voice indicating real surprise.
“I’ll trade you this stuff if one of you’ll build my hooch every night,” I offered, wondering if such a thing was allowed or acceptable.
“Jeez, sir,” Zippo replied. “We’ll all do it and split the pot.”
I watched Stevens brow knot up for a few seconds like maybe he should have gotten all of the spoils himself, but then he changed.
“You got it, sir,” he said.
I didn’t miss the sir and that word felt better at getting it out of him than it’d felt in hearing it in some time. I left the scout team to divide and claim the spoils in whatever way they did that and made my way back to my hooch, noting that it was the first time I could remember Fusner not being cloyingly attached to me like a baby in a tethered stroller.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Nguyen, who’d risked his life once again for me, or at least to get what he thought might be mine. Macho Man, Fusner, Nguyen and maybe Zippo were in my camp, inside my wire, as I’d heard other combat seasoned Marines say. Stevens and the Gunny were right there at the gate, while the rest of the company was, without a doubt, outside the wire.
I laid down in my hooch and wrote a letter to my wife, detailing the odd different cultural nature of Nguyen and his attachment for Americans, and me in specific, that didn’t seem to make much sense. I wrote fast and with poor penmanship. When I was done I sealed the envelope and addressed it before refilling my ‘letter home’ pocket. Then I closed my eyes to think about the fact that I’d killed the first enemy soldiers I really knew to have been killed by me personally. It wasn’t the same as calling artillery. I could see the women’s eyes and barely emotional facial expressions when they’d been targeting the Huey.
I wondered how long the memory of their existence would remain with me before I forgot about them completely.