I took my binoculars and played with the focusing knobs to bring in the landing zone far below. I was trying to get a clearer view of why there was stuff piled up around the edges of the zone, but I couldn’t make out what they were. The Gunny walked over and took out a cigarette, offering me one.
“I don't smoke,” I said, bringing the glasses down.
“So you say,” he replied, lighting up. He blew his first puff over the nearby lip of the canyon but it blew right back up and over us. He held out the cigarette.
I moved my binoculars to my left hand and took a deep drag on it, before handing it back.
“I did that for you,” I said, almost coughing but not quite.
“So you say,” the Gunny replied.
Fusner’s radio opened up with Brother John in Nha Trang before I could ask the Gunny about the strange stuff down in the LZ.
“Hello darkness, my old friend, I've come to talk with you again…” the Sounds of Silence played and none of us present made a sound until the song was over. It reached into the depth of my soul and made me extremely uncomfortable but I there was no way I could ignore it or pull away from the meaning of the words. Whoever had written the lyrics had somehow caught the spirit, and served up the language, of the war-torn jungle depths I was in. It was darkness we fought in, and we either became friends with it or we died in it. The song finally ended, and I asked the Gunny about the stuff down in the LZ.
“It would have been pretty dumb to unload everything up here, and then have to haul it all down there after only a few hours,” he responded, making me feel like a total idiot.
“How do you want to do this Mudville thing?” the Gunny asked, flicking his cigarette butt over the cliff. It came back and over us just like the smoke had.
“Four at a time,” I replied, having thought the descent through during the time I’d been standing there. “One fire team at a time, spacing each every ten, fifteen or twenty seconds. We’ll send a couple, or sometimes three or four.”
“What about the 122s over there?” the Gunny asked, pointing out in the direction where the sun had just risen.
I checked my watch just because I had a watch. It was almost eight in the morning.
“They may fire, or they may not,” I replied, checking out the far wall with my binoculars again. “The Army put around three hundred and fifty rounds in here last night. I’m guessing the NVA battery over there probably fired a hundred, or so. The NVA doesn’t have our depth of supply. I’m betting they don’t have a lot more rounds, and they won’t want to waste very many on elusive Marines moving across an extremely difficult target.”
“The wall of this cliff looks pretty damned easy to hit from over there,” the Gunny said. “And I don't like the sound of that ‘betting’ stuff.”
“The cliff face is vertical. Hitting a vertical target of that size, somewhere specific along its face, is damned near impossible, even for a battery as advanced in fire direction and ammunition as one in the U.S. inventory. Their artillery complex can’t be of that caliber. Adjusting on flat ground is fairly easy, given an accurate map, compass and good communications. Trying to adjust incoming rounds up and down and then over and across that rock face isn’t something I could do accurately, and I think I’m better than them.”
“So you don’t think they’ll shoot at us,” the Gunny concluded.
“No, I didn’t say that,” I replied. “Actually, I think they may, but I don’t think they’ll hit us.”
The Gunny moved to the edge of the precipice and stared down. He pulled back after only a few seconds. “Doesn't make it any more appealing to head on down there,” he said.
“I was thinking of sending Fourth Platoon down first, given the problems we’ve had getting them to do anything,” I said, but leaving some leeway in my comment for his opinion.
“First Platoon,” the Gunny replied, immediately. “Then Second and Third. I’ll be up here to play tail end Charlie. Sugar Daddy’s got a radio, so I won’t be out of communication.”
“Why First?” I queried, more out of curiosity rather than disagreement.
“Because you’ll be leading Jurgens’ platoon when you come marching out of the bottom of the trail and up to that perimeter. You’ll be leading a platoon Billings could not when you walk in.”
“It wasn’t his fault,” and we both know it,” I replied, and then started thinking deeply about what it might mean to be the first man down that difficult trail. I knew I could call artillery from down below, but not along the way. Once we began heading down there would be no stopping or turning back. We would be committed. If artillery was called for I could only use it when I got to the bottom, but that wasn’t what was really bothering me.
“What about booby traps?” I asked, my voice a bit lower than before. I leaned over to look down, and imagined my body blown away from the wall and spinning endlessly into the canopy of the jungle below, minus a few limbs here and there I’d rather not part with.
“You’ve only been here eleven days, by my count,” the Gunny replied, looking like he was getting ready to head out and inform the rest of the company about the plan. “You’re still an FNG, and you were the one who called this the “No Joy in Mudville Plan.”
I knew the Gunny had every point down. Captain Casey and Lieutenant Billings had made a command decision to supposedly lead from the front but, in reality, every Marine life up on top of the twenty-four-hundred-foot high cliff had to feel like he’d abandoned them to make it down into the valley on their own.
If the Gunny and I followed the other Marines down, then their feelings of possible betrayal would only be magnified.
“Great,” I whispered to myself, letting the wind sweep up and over me, at least driving back the scourge of biting mosquitos and the wet fetid heat. On the one hand the Marines in the company might keep me alive if I continued to evidence talents they could use and oddball plans that helped them survive, but on the other hand, no Marines anywhere on the planet would be able to put me back together if even a small booby trap was tripped while I was nearby on the climb down.
“The NVA likely didn’t booby trap anything though,” the Gunny said.
“They probably don’t think we’re nutty enough to climb down the unsafe path and consequently didn’t spend any time fortifying it with explosives. Even if they got one or two men using a small charge or grenade, the company would still get from the top to the bottom relatively unscathed.”
“Unless that ‘one’ might be me,” I added.
“Yes,” the Gunny continued, in his maddening teacher’s lecture tone. “They probably thought we’d be foolish not to ride down in the choppers.”
“Some of us weren’t,” I said, not liking at all how the Mudville Plan was working out. “I’ll get the team saddled up and ready, and Fusner can turn to the command net so we can talk once you’re ready.”
The Gunny was back in minutes. I strapped into my heavy pack, wondering what the balance issues might be, given that a lot of the path was invisible from above. Would there be places along the route that didn’t allow for much overhang out into empty space. I could not get the idea of having a foot blown off by a booby trap, however. My hands had begun to shake and a coiled snake of disabling fear was buried deep inside my belly again. I didn’t think I was afraid. I knew, however, that my body was afraid. I massaged my thighs with both hands. The fear was not going to make the climb down any easier.
Fusner’s little transistor radio suddenly came alive. Either he’d had it off for a while or reception had been bad on the backside of the mountain slope we were on. I listened and then was forced to smile weakly. “Big girls don’t cry,” played. They were the opening lyrics of a Frankie Valli song. “Told my girl we had to break up, (Silly boy) hoped that she would call my bluff, (Silly boy) then she said to my surprise…”
"Big girls don't cry" Fusner and Stevens sang the four words into the wind.
I straightened up, letting my heavy pack pull my shoulder straight. I’d first heard the song when I was graduating from Maryknoll High School in Hawaii. I was driving down the highway next to Diamond Head, in Jimmy Dorrenbacher’s dad’s car. The car was a Corvair convertible, but it had a noisy supercharger we loved. Jimmy’d driven down Monsarrat slow, looking for girls to pick up, although we’d never found one on any of our other trips up and down that road. He drove slow to make the trip as long as possible, as his father would time us with a stopwatch to make sure we didn’t fail to pick up a hair-dye package for his wife at the beauty shop in the Moana Hotel and return home straight away. Big Girls had played on the radio and we’d sung it at the top of our lungs, not quietly like Fusner and Stevens. Jimmy’s Dad was one of the first Special Forces officers training under Aaron Bank, the meanest Army officer any of us had ever encountered at the Fort Ruger Special Forces training center.
The Gunny walked up and pulled on my pack.
“No pack,” he said, working to release the straps. “Your guys can carry it down or you can throw it. You’re walking into that compound looking like an officer, even if you aren’t really, Junior.” Fusner moved to help with the pack, as the song finished playing. Jimmy had enlisted in the Army to piss his dad off, instead of going off to college to become an officer. He’d come to the Nam years before me and died here, somewhere down south. I would do the climb even though I wasn’t good with heights. Jimmy would have done so.
“Big girls don’t cry,” I said, before realizing I was speaking out loud.
“Sir?” Fusner asked, but I ignored him, checking out the opening in the bushes near the very edge of the cliff. The path looked like the perfect place to install a booby trap I thought, getting ready to take my first step down.
A body came out of nowhere and inserted itself between me and beginning of the path. It was Nguyen.
“He’s going down first,” Stevens whispered into my ear. “He knows where they put shit if there’s anything there.”
I turned my head to look into Stevens’ eyes. I knew without him saying it that Nguyen had volunteered to go down before me. I wanted to have Stevens tell the tough brave Montagnard that he should step aside and let me go first, as the Gunny planned, but I couldn't do it. It would have been the right thing for a real company commander to do but I didn't have it in me. My relief at not being point was just too great. My breathing stabilized and my shakes were gone. I hadn’t even known there was anything wrong with my breathing until that moment. I knew I must have been panting without realizing it. My image, as even a shitty company commander, was eroding rapidly. I wanted to say something heroic like “let’s go men,” or “onward into the A Shau,” but nothing would come out of my mouth.
Nguyen went into the opening and disappeared down. I followed, and that was it. I crept right behind the willowy leopard-like man, trying to move like him but failing. He made no noise but I made enough for three or four Montagnards, at least. The gray stone of the cliff was on my right shoulder and the path was narrow. I knew the Marines coming down behind me, humping heavy packs, machine guns, and even the mortar, we're going to have trouble getting down rapidly. And I knew that meant trouble if we were fired upon. I was useless to myself and the company, as long as I was negotiating my way slowly down the path, up and down, but mostly down along the face. I felt like the whole world could see me, although I was really only worried about the ridge across the valley where a forward observer had to be sitting.
I looked down for the first time, after checking my Gus Grissom Omega, and caught my breath. The landscape below was not survivable if I fell, booby trap or no. There were boulders half-hidden by the bracken and partially covered over by the high treetops waving gently in the breeze. The Speedmaster told me I’d been descending for only ten minutes. I was about halfway down I knew, but if tested I would have put down half an hour as the time so far expended. I wasn’t truly afraid of the danger of falling. I realized why. I was terrified of being blown up. I was afraid of the enemy artillery. I was even afraid of confronting Casey and Billings at the bottom. My fear of heights had been moved down to fourth place. I looked at Nguyen’s slightly twisting and turning upper body. His lower body never wavered, his feet automatically placed where I couldn’t think to place my own, except to try to mimic where his were going. Every few seconds he’d surge ahead, lean one way or the other to check something, and then surge back, but his forward progress never faltered.
I stopped briefly to gently turn my upper body and head to look back up to where we’d started, which was vaguely visible. Strung closely behind me was Fusner, then Stevens and finally Zippo, dangling my pack out over the precipice as if the thing was filled with cotton candy or Styrofoam. I turned back and moved to gain on Nguyen, trying not to move too quickly or jar against the face of the cliff and be propelled outward.
The Gunny had not started anybody else down the path. FNG. The Gunny was waiting to see if we would set off any booby traps or whether the enemy would fire a first few rounds at us to get the range. The Gunny was a better company commander than me. I felt it in my bones. He did what was best for the company, not for any of its individual members. He would sacrifice me and my team in a heartbeat if it meant saving the rest of the men. I hated the Gunny right then, I realized. I hated him for being willing to allow my sacrifice, if it came to that, but I really hated him because he was doing something I wouldn’t have done. And it was the right thing to do. I hadn’t understood the shitty company commander thing until now. The company needed more than a good leader. A good leader would lead you through difficult waters, up unscalable cliffs, and down impossible rivers, but a good, even a great, leader wasn’t all that was needed. A real company commander did a lot more than lead. He cared. He sacrificed. He judged. He chose. Most of all, I realized, he thought things through from the start for the benefit of his men. And I had not done that. I was one of the Gunny’s men, so he was looking out for me too, but he wasn't one of my men because I really didn't have any men.
I knew we were coming down closer to the bottom because the mosquitos were back, the wind was fading and the heat increasing. But nobody had fired a round. I could hear the gurgle of the river through the thick foliage of the nearby jungle. The river water sounded slow but powerful. From up top I’d been unable to see the water moving. I chose a place to stop that was down, but high enough to be able to see the opposing ridge up in the distance just above the trees.
“God damn it,” I curse out loud. “My binoculars,” I hissed. I could call in fire from Firebase Cunningham but I’d have little chance of seeing any shells hit that weren’t air bursts of nearly useless white phosphorus.
Fusner hit my back with his fist, or what I thought was his fist. My binoculars slid around from behind my body.
“Thought you’d need these, sir,” he said, without expression.
I quickly checked out the far ridge but, as expected, I could see nothing except the tree covered masses hanging over the edge of it.
I reached for the radio handset.
Fusner held it out. “Command frequency?” he asked, but of course already knew. There was no point calling in any artillery if we were not under fire.
“Gunny,” I said, after punching in the button.
“Five-by-five, Junior,” came back.
“You going to start them down?” I asked. “I’m standing by with a line of fire up and down that far ridge just in case we need to make their observer move about a bit.”
“Sending them down as we discussed,” he transmitted. “Assemble wherever before you take them forward to pass in review.”
“Who’s transmitting on this frequency?” came strongly through the radio’s small speaker.
I didn’t know what to say, so I handed the handset back to Fusner.
“You will use proper radio procedure on this net,” came through.
“Pilson, sir,” Fusner said, holding the handset limply in two fingers, like it was a small dead fish. “Probably being told what to say by the captain.”
“We don't need it anymore,” I instructed. “Switch over to the artillery and alert Cunningham as to our position."
Fusner looked at me without replying. I read his expression and pulled out my map and compass. I took one reading but it really wasn’t necessary, as the evidence about where we were was pretty glaring on the map alone. I gave Fusner the grid with codes. He called it in.
The Marines were coming down and they were coming faster than I’d thought they could. They knew they were exposed, and they didn't have to worry about booby traps. It took an hour for half the company to arrive. The first 122 round came in when my Omega told me it was almost exactly ten-thirty. The round landed on top of the cliff. I couldn’t see it but I knew the observer had used his first round to establish his adjusting point with some certainty. I reached for the radio handset again. There was no point calling the Gunny to see where the round had landed or what the damage had been. Neither thing mattered.
I called in the first of a series of single rounds. Before the enemy’s second adjusting round came in, Cunningham fired and dropped a high explosive round right near the edge of the opposing face. I felt the concussion of the next 122 round, as it fell short in the jungle, off downriver but a proper shot in order to attempt to bracket the center of the cliff.
I used the radio to call adjustments, all left of one another, each one hundred meters from the other.
The next 122 came in high up on the face, showering rocks and dust down upon the hurrying Marines below. The dust was too bad to see if any Marines had fallen to a traumatic death below.
Cunningham started its run, the rounds impacting along the ridge, one after another, about five to six seconds apart. I didn’t wait. Following the end of the first string I called for a repeat. After that I waited, counting off ten minutes on my Omega. Then I called for another run using VT fuses set to have the rounds go off at fifty meters above whatever the tiny radar transmitters detected.
Dusty Marines came down to collapse near the bottom of the path, just up from the heavier jungle between our position and where the unseen river had to be.
There was no more enemy artillery fire, although I waited patiently, handset up and ready to repeat the whole process, until I realized there would be no response from the NVA battery. I handed the microphone back to Fusner.
The Gunny came down last, with Sugar Daddy just in front of him.
“Junior,” Sugar Daddy said, nodding, as he passed me to join his down and resting Marines.
I ignored the sergeant, not really knowing how to answer a comment that was either an insult or a compliment. I couldn’t tell which, or if it was both.
“You ready for the big moment?” The gunny asked, without preamble.
“Roger that,” I replied, wondering what his plan was for approaching the new command post perimeter.
“Fusner,” the Gunny said, holding out his hand like I usually did.
“Command net,” Fusner answered, giving him the handset.
“Six Actual, the Gunny, over,” he transmitted.
“Six back at you Gunny,” Pilson said. “The Actual is indisposed.”
“I think he has a problem with artillery,” the Gunny said, talking to everyone around him instead of into the handset.
“We’re coming in from the cliff descent in a couple of minutes, so have the men on the perimeter stand down.” The Gunny tossed the microphone back at Fusner.
“Let’s go,” he said to me, with a big smile. “Fall in,” he yelled loudly behind him, as if we were on a parade ground instead of a rather narrow grassy path area.
Nguyen stood near the jungle area just beyond the hive of activity going on, as the Marines got ready to formally march into the command post. He blinked his eyes and I knew what he meant. We’d both done good jobs and we’d both understood what each was doing without our having to had to speak a word. My confidence built every time I was committed to doing something dangerous, and he was there.
“How do we do this?” I asked the Gunny.
“This is the easy part,” he replied, his big flashing smile back on his face. I realized it was only the third I’d seen cross his lips in the eleven days I’d been with the company.
“Where do you want me?” I said, not really understanding the drama the Gunny was unaccountably building into the coming meeting.
“You just walk on in,” he replied. “We’ll be right behind you.”
“You sure we’re doing this right?” I asked.
“Hell, I’d have them fix bayonets if we hand any of the damned useless things.”
The Sounds of Silence