The move was a long hard one. In training I’d literally run twenty miles with a forty-pound pack on my back carrying an M14 and wearing a full helmet and liner. I had none of those things going down the ridge, in hopes of coming in behind whatever units were set up to ambush and cut Kilo Company to ribbons. Without gear I felt cleaner and light on my feet, but the drop in altitude made me regret leaving my steel pot behind. The repellent was held to the side of the helmet by Fusner’s big rubber bands, and with my increasing perspiration and the rising heat, the mosquitoes were back. I knew they would be worse when we stopped to set in.
Moving through the jungle was nothing like a hard forced march in the Virginia hills. The mud, mixed with the undergrowth, made slipping and sliding part of the journey and sapped energy at every opportunity. By the time the company made it to where I thought we should turn and head north, I was beaten to near submission. As if hearing my unspoken plight, the company came to a halt. I reached for my single canteen and drained half of it down my throat. Fusner handed me a little plastic bottle of the repellent without my asking. I smiled one of my new plastic smiles back at him. I popped the malaria pill I’d forgotten in the morning, put my canteen back into its holder and then slathered the oily mess into the mixed mess of whitish agent orange and jungle dirt that my skin had turned into.
The Gunny came up through a bamboo thicket, prying two shoots apart and looking like a character on a Tarzan movie set. He squatted down but didn’t go to work making his usual concoction of coffee. Instead he drank deeply from his own canteen.
“I’m presuming this is the place you had in mind to head on down,” he said, when he was done drinking.
I passed Fusner’s repellent back without answering. I pulled out the correct map and located our position. I didn’t need my compass because I knew the ridge we hiked along ran almost directly east and west. Down the slope into the heavier growth was obviously north. There was no way to see anything from where we were, and the Sandy had not returned with it’s unlikely but seemingly dependable crew. Instead of reaching for the 323 microphone I went for the artillery net handset. Fusner interpreted what I was doing before I did it. I knew that the backside of the ridge we were on would prevent Americal’s artillery battery from giving us supporting fire, but the ridge would not block an airburst.
After registering our real position with Firebase Cunningham because we’d be moving from it rather quickly, I asked for a single ranging round of Willy Peter to detonate two hundred meters in the air. I gave the coded grid coordinate for the middle of the saddle where the path intersected its open space, hoping that the toothpaste and shaving cream code words were used by the Army in this area, as well as by the Marine Corps. There was almost no delay before “Shot, over,” came from the radio’s speaker. I peered downslope and upward. We were right on the gun target line again, and the range to Cunningham was pretty great. I knew the round would come in arcing low and therefore be a bit risky and dangerous. Right after the ‘splash’ transmission a boom of distant sound radiated up from far down in the valley. I couldn’t see the explosion because of the thick jungle growth.
Nguyen, predicting the arrival of the round, had climbed a nearby tree. He yelled from high above and pointed. Direction was all I needed. With direction back toward the saddle I knew where we were along the ridge and where we had to go. I glanced up at the Montagnard, coming down the tree trunk like he was more spider monkey than human. He let go of the tree from ten feet up, rolled and then jumped to his feet turning to face us while still in mid-air. An Olympic athlete could not have been more impressive. I stared, my eyes wide in amazement. His suppressed smile was almost invisible, but I caught it.
The Gunny hadn’t bothered to take in all that was going on. He lay with his back against a fallen tree branch with his eyes closed. I knew I was not the only exhausted Marine on the ridge. I hunkered down next to him with my map.
“We’re exactly here,” I said, waiting for him to open is eyes.
“More of your artillery map reading magic,” he said, barely opening one eye.
“We need to be here,” I went on, pointing at a spot just back of the saddle area and almost directly north down the slope. I knew the company, after being part of the recent move, would be able to get into place in less than twenty minutes if it left right away. There must have been more urgency in my voice than I intended because the Gunny groaned.
“I’m twice your age, if not more,” he said, closing the one eye again. “I’m twice the age of everyone else in this company.”
“And that counts for exactly what?” I responded.
“Jeez, give the man a little bit of power…” the Gunny replied but opened his eyes and leaned forward to study the map. His eyes went all over the thing. I knew he wasn’t good with maps merely by the way he viewed them. I put my finger back on the target area, and then ran it back and forth from where our location was to the target point.
“The sooner the better.” I knew if we stayed where we were for any length of time the enemy would know, and it wouldn’t take a tactical genius on the other side to figure out we were pulling a potential deadly flanking maneuver.
“We’ve got to be in before dark and we’re running out of light,” I said, looking up and around.
“We get there, set in behind where they think they might be, which is iffy,” the Gunny said, pointing at the target area with his own index finger. “And then what? Call Kilo and have them do a frontal attack so the NVA is driven right into us?”
I hadn’t been looking up and around because of the waning light. I’d heard the very distant but distinctive drone of the Skyraider. Cowboy and Jacko were coming back, as promised. We had to get down in the valley and set in before the plane had to go home, wherever home was for it. We were seriously running out of light for the air crew to see the battlefield by.
“Nope,” I replied to the Gunny. “Kilo’s on the far side of the saddle. They know Kilo’s there because they’ve been shooting at them. We pressure the back of the near side. The NVA is caught in the middle. They can only go north or south to escape and they can only do that quickly, the same way we did back when we had the other open area. They’ll have to expose themselves on the open ground of the saddle.”
“Why do I get the feeling that there’s something more?” the Gunny said, taking another drink of water from his canteen. He got to his feet and stretched his arms and shoulders before he spoke. “Di di mao,” he said, raising his voice to everyone around.
I looked at Fusner in question.
“Means ‘let’s go’…sort of…” he replied, with his usual smile.
The mix of Vietnamese and French was befuddling, but the expressions I was beginning to learn were also indelible. Once heard, the strange words would lay there unused and unknown until someone said the expression again, and at that point understanding what it meant was instant.
The company moved after a very brief discussion, wherein the Gunny related that he’d let the platoon commanders know that the company was to flow down the slope in size, break into platoons and then squads. From there it would form itself into a single thick line of automatic weapons and machine guns, set to absorb the NVA troops when they were forced to back down from their likely ambush at the saddle.
When the company was on the move again, this time even faster than before, I wondered about the circumstantial evidence I’d used to come up with the plan. If we succeeded in hitting the NVA hard, not getting hit hard ourselves, the Gunny would no doubt get the credit. If the operation was a complete failure and we took any casualties at all, then the whole thing would drop on me.
“Cowboy,” I transmitted, using the 323 handset, my heavy breathing making my words hard to understand. The pace of our approach down the mountainside resembled a loping run. Although the growth had increased, the natural trails around the trees and bamboo stands became more pronounced and easier to negotiate. Darkness was fast descending. I could no longer see the illuminated numbers through my melted watch face.
“Jacko back at you,” came over the radio. “Cowboy’s indisposed using these infernal instrument things.”
I told Jacko my plan. I could hear the Skyraider orbiting overhead, but I could also hear the growing roll and then staccato fire of automatic and semi-automatic weapons in the distance. The dark, the Skyraider, the NVA and the saddle were all about to collide and I realized there was no predicting what might happen. What if the enemy troops were set in too far back? That would put them behind the company. What if there was nobody there at all, although the chances of that were pretty slim given that live fire could be heard coming up the slope while we talked.
“We’re gonna lay down some CBU’s for you, so don’t go walking around or sunbathing out there in that open area when we’re gone. Some of that shit blows up later on. We’ll orbit up here for now. We can see the saddle area and some of the dispute going on over that resort property right now. When you want us to come zooming down just use the code words ‘Dale Arden.’”
“CBUs?” I whispered to Fusner, handing the handset back to him.
“Cluster bomb somethings,” Fusner replied.
My scout team had dropped all the way to the rear of the company by the time we stopped. I laid down on the flat cushioning surfaces of a fallen bamboo stand with Fusner on my left and Stevens, Zippo and Nguyen lining up along my right. The Gunny appeared, barely visible, in the low light. I slapped at mosquitoes before turning and squatting down with him.
“Fire one round of white phosphorus like before and Kilo will open up,” the Gunny said. “That will drive the NVA in front of us back. Then we’ll open up and they’ll run out into the open.”
I sat listening to the battle plan. It made no sense. Professor Hrncr, my ROTC instructor, had once taught a class on combat tactics. “Never shoot at your own men, unless you are all dead anyway,” he’d said. I wasn’t about to be behind the NVA taking Kilo’s fire if I could help it.
“No,” I said, as forcefully as I could.
“We open up. Kilo doesn’t fire at all. The NVA react by moving back onto the edge of the open area. Cowboy comes zooming down and drops cluster shit all over them. Let Kilo pick off the survivors. The survivors will head down slope but we don’t have time to set up anything for them as a reception party.”
“We could use the combined fire,” the Gunny said grudgingly after a few seconds.
“Our fire will be plunging down and almost none of it will get over where Kilo’s at,” I argued. “If Kilo opens up they’ll be shooting straight through this brush and we’re going to take plenty of hits. Screw the NVA. Let’s take care of our own.”
“You’re the company commander, Junior,” the Gunny said, a subliminal anger laying there deep between the words. “We’re out of time. Call the damned fire. I’ll tell the guys to open up.”
Fusner held the arty handset out. I called for the round to be put down on the same target as before. I then used the 323 to call Cowboy. Jacko indicated that they would be on target in five minutes and make a single run, releasing sixteen five hundred pounders and plenty of 20 millimeter cannon fire. The Willie Peter came in less than a minute later and the company opened up with so much tracer fire it looked like there was a moving bridge of fire extended out between the strung out company position and the thicket lining the back of the saddle’s open area. The cluster bombs sounded like huge popcorn kernels exploding, sometimes one or two and sometimes ten or twenty of them. I had my Colt out and I tried to see into the Stygian blackness in front of me. What if the NVA plunged backward instead of forward? They would run right over or through us, killing us as they went. My terror returned.
The sounds of combat deafened my ears and the brilliant bursts of light overloaded the rods and cones in my eyes. I realized I was blind, and then I could not hear. But I did feel the roar of the amazing night-flying Skyraider going by. It must have only been a few feet off the earth to transmit its deep propeller drone right into the ground. I felt the explosions and then the second roar of the plane’s 20 millimeter cannons swept by. I tried to talk to Fusner but nothing would come out of my throat. Fusner’s lips moved but there was no sound. I’d forgotten to make field ear plugs. Minutes passed and everything began to die down. The plane was gone, there were no more tracers and my hearing came back, although the ringing in both ears would be a long time in passing.
The Gunny was back. My night vision had not returned enough to see him. He grabbed my upper arm and squeezed to let me know he was there.
“Is it over?” I asked. “What happened? Did they run? Was there anybody there? Did we hit anybody?” My questions flew out, one after another, my adrenalin running so high that I felt the hairs sticking out on the back of my neck and on my forearms.
“Don’t know. There was a whole lot of movement. Get the damned Starlight Scope online just in case, not to mention it’d be a great time to get rid of the asshole lieutenant causing all this trouble. Nobody’s moving until first light. At least we’ll have the saddle to get medevac and supply.”
Medevac, I wondered, but had no time to ask as the Gunny was gone as suddenly as he’d appeared. I, my team and the company would have to lay in among the fronds and mud all night, waiting for dawn, before we could start hiking back to get our packs. I was more worried about how the Marines in my company would feel if they’d done all that work for nothing than I was of anyone coming in the night to kill me. If medevac was coming, then we’d taken casualties.
My scattered mind tried to reassemble itself into some sort of rational condition. Was that it? A whole battle. Just horrid loud sounds and flashes in the night? My left hand reached down to massage the single tiger letter that wasn’t written and not there yet. I didn’t have to massage the right pocket. I knew the morphine was there.