Relief flooded through me. It was over. I’d survived another of what my team called ‘fire fights’. There was no way to adjust to the change from combat to whatever this was. It was still dark. My ears still rang. But with my night vision returning, I could vaguely see a moon above the ever-present clouds. There was no rain or mist. Just the quiet after the raging sounds of screaming combat with tracers, bullets and explosions blasting the air everywhere. I hadn’t lain in the muck watching for movement, or looking for an enemy who might be attacking at any second. I’d lain face-down like that very first night, my eyes squeezed shut and my face buried in jungle debris and mud. But it was over. I got to my feet and unkinked my shoulders, hips and knees.

The scout unit formed around me, Fusner standing at my side and Zippo moving around absently trying to clear his ears by sticking his fingers in them and shaking his head. I looked up, wondering how to spend a night in the bush with nothing. I’d left all of my stuff back up on the ridge. I wasn’t at all ready, physically or mentally, to be struck by a fast-moving freight train of a Marine Gunnery Sergeant. I flew through the air, the Gunny’s shoulder buried in my right side as he dug his boots into the cloying muck. The weight of his body drove me down hard onto a bed of fern fronds and rough-edged branches. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t breathe even when he sat back and stared down at me, his anger all but paralyzing. Holding my sides I waited, panicked that I would never get my breath back.

“You dumb fucking new guy asshole,” the Gunny hissed at me, his face coming down to only inches above my own. “This is the same goddamned move you pulled when I saw you get off that chopper. I knew you were bad news then and you’re bad news now. You think this is over? Nine or eighteen holes and we all turn in our clubs and get showered up for the drive home?”

My chest heaved and I got in one sucking breath. It was enough to stay conscious to hear the Gunny go on.

“We’re not fighting gooks, VC, or the wooden soldiers in some toy movie. We’re engaged with the North Vietnamese Army and there’s no quit in these assholes. I wish they were Marines of mine, for fuck’s sake.”

The Gunny jerked back and up, bouncing to his feet. I noted that the whole scout team was back to being buried as deep as they could get in the mud, more to avoid the wrath of the Gunny than in fear of the enemy.

“That battery might not be able to do much for us, but they can sure as hell give us some illumination for what’s coming,” the Gunny said. “Get us some light and get the mud cleaned out of your weapon. This fucking night is a long way from over.”

“Sorry, Gunny,” I whispered hoarsely, finally getting my breath back but still trembling slightly at the likelihood that the enemy was nearby.

“They got hit hard,” the Gunny said. “When they get hit hard they counter attack, so get ready and get the goddamned place lit up.”

I rolled over and reached out for where I thought Fusner had to be close by. He was there. The handset was in my muddy fingers. I still held my .45 in the other but it was a black mass I couldn’t really see. I clicked it on safety and jammed the muddy thing into my holster.

“Fire mission, over,” I called, hoping Fusner had the frequency right and that the Army battery would recognize who was calling and not require all the registration crap again. I knew Illumination rounds were the most restricted fire missions because of where the uncontrollable canisters might fall.

I oriented myself. I didn’t want to take out my map because the little pencil of light might give away our position. I took a few seconds to think and try to approximate our position. We’d come pall mall down the slope, heading directly north about two thousand meters, maybe a bit more. We were not on the gun target line anymore so it didn’t matter where the canisters holding the little burning parachute loads might land.

I asked for an adjustment to the last round I’d called in. I moved the round two hundred meters right, which would be correct from where we were the last time I’d called in. Two hundred meters should be close to the edge of the clearing but it was anybody’s guess in the dark. The Starlight scope was useless amid the dense foliage and nobody was going to head into the open area in the dark.

Willy Pete White Phosphorous Vietnam War

Willy Peter exploding in Vietnam War

The round came bursting above the jungle, completely visible in all of its amazing technicolor splendor. The explosion went off, and then the white phosphorus draped down like the tines of a giant umbrella. The night sparkled with the sound of the round going off, booming seconds after it exploded.