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.