I finished the letter home. It wasn’t my best work because I kept nodding off. Nodding off but not sleeping. I nodded through the letter, forgetting about what I was going to tell my wife, instead going into detail about how much Casey reminded me of Kramer, the major at the Basic School who’d hated me. And I him. Upon graduation, that mutual hatred had cost me becoming a Regular Marine, as opposed to the Reserve Marine I was. Certain benefits accrued to regular Marines that did not to reserves. I realized in writing that I still didn’t know what those benefits were. Kramer was Regular so I did not want to be whatever the hell he was. I turned down the regular commission I was entitled to because of winning the Military Skills Award in my class. Casey, like Kramer, didn’t like me from the get go, on sight, and we both knew it. He liked Billings, and probably even Keating, but not me. It came out of him in waves of negative energy washing over me whenever I was in his presence. I knew he saw me as an ‘unconventional officer’ creature. A non-Marine. A Marine who did not obey the rules, and that was no Marine to him at all. And yet, at the Basic School, I’d been deeply disliked for being so strict a Marine. So strict and so reviled for having a ‘stick up my ass’ that my fellow class members had stolen my overcoat. I knew it was not another officer in the class.
It was them. All of them. The expensive piece of gear, required to graduate, along with the Mameluke Sword, was a prized possession. They’d trashed my coat to let me know that I was out in the cold alone, as far as they were concerned. And it had hurt, as they intended it would. I wondered what any of them would think about the wet, muddy, miserable and leech-scarred mess of a lieutenant I’d become in only eleven days. They’d laugh no doubt and, the phrase “I told you so,” would pop out all over. And they’d be right. Except for the ones like me that went into the shit. They’d say nothing. They’d be creatures of the jungle night like me. Silent. Deadly silent.
I considered the move we were about to make. A Night Moon move with no moon. No moon was good for concealment, but it was lousy for seeing where the hell we were going and sticking together but not so close together that we died together. And I was not giving the orders, or even in any line of command, as I’d been so clearly apprised of by Casey. I wanted to talk to him about calling me Junior in front of the men, but given up on the idea while writing to my confidant at home. My wife had real wisdom. She’d tell me to just get over the small stuff and get my ass back home alive. Good sense. Better sense than I had, so I decided to follow her sense.
The Gunny appeared out of the near dark, his pack loaded and ready to go. He dumped the pack at my feet and hunkered down to brew a cup at the end of our waning day. I didn’t like the mild flare of the Composition B lighting up, but he’d dug a little hole in the foliage floor to hide the actual flame.
“He has no plan,” the Gunny whispered, as we were close to where Fusner, Zippo, Stevens, and Nguyen were getting ready for the move. “He’s got SMEAC (Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration/Logistics, Command/Signal) and BAMCIS (Begin planning, Arrange for reconnaissance, Make reconnaissance, Complete the plan, Issue the order, and Supervise) and more, but no plan.”
“Those are acronyms from the Basic School, so nothing will be left out,” I said, and then saw the Gunny’s expression. He’d heard all that before and, of course, knew what each letter stood for.
“There’s no ‘R’ in any of it, and it’s the ‘R’ we need the most,” the Gunny said, looking relieved that I hadn’t tried to tell him what all the letters stood for.
I stared at him over the small flame and waited, but he didn’t go on. I got out my own holder, filled it with water from my canteen, and made myself a cup, with his fixings. The Gunny always had the stuff and I never did, no matter how often I scoured the C-Ration boxes and hunted for the powdered cream and sugar packets.
“Rest,” the Gunny said, finally. “We haven’t had any rest for three days. We’re all running on empty, except for you. God knows what you’re running on.”
I sipped and thought, finally thinking about what to do for the move. I’d blurted out the night move plan from my usual repository of nowhere at all. I just wanted to keep from doing the same things that were getting everyone killed all the time. I prayed for another single day where no Marine in the company died of any cause. I’d only had one day like that.
“I’ve got artillery for the ridge above us,” I said, making my plan as I went along. “I’ll sprinkle some along the ridge as we move, like those candy bits they sprinkle over ice cream cones. We’ll send a squad across the river, Marines that can swim, and have them work along the hillside of that swale running down that side of the valley. We’ll give them a Prick 25 for commo, and hopefully, they’ll warn us if we're going to be hit from the flank over there. I want Jurgens to lead that patrol and I want Rittenhouse to get out there too, so he has a good idea of what materials might be needed to supply such forces in the future.”
“Okay,” the Gunny replied. “We only have one company clerk though, and finding another one might be a bit tricky. Plus, Captain Casey will be just a little resistant to sending either of those guys out there at all, since he is the company commander.”
“I don’t expect him to agree,” I replied, not missing the little shot about Casey being the commander. “I don’t expect them to go. What I do expect is that they’ll know that I wanted them to go.”
The Gunny finished his coffee, lit a cigarette, grabbed his pack, and then headed back to see the captain. I got my own stuff together, opening and finishing off a can that said “M-2: Meat Chunks with Beans in Tomato sauce” on the outside but tasted like cardboard and ketchup on the inside. I wolfed it down, each bite reminding me that I was running on empty too, like the rest of the company.
The Gunny was back after only a few minutes. He eased down beside me, his pack probably heavier than it looked. The light was almost gone, so I couldn’t really read his facial expression until I heard him laugh.
“I thought Rittenhouse was going to have an epileptic fit when I told Casey about his going on the patrol,” the Gunny said. “He couldn’t even talk. Jurgens, meanwhile, is, of course, ordered to stay with the command post to provide security. Sugar Daddy has to supply a squad from the weapons platoon for the patrol.”
“Oh great,” I whispered. I still had little confidence in the black Marines, as the problem of them all gathered in a single platoon had not changed. “Why is Fourth Platoon called the weapons platoon, anyway?” I asked. “I thought weapons was supposed to have 81mm mortars like Kilo Company. And what about a 106 recoilless rifle? That’s supposed to be Op/Con to a weapons platoon, as well.”
“The 106 is a joke,” the Gunny replied, derisively. “It weighs in at four hundred and fifty pounds. Who’s going to lug those pieces up and down these mountains? First Platoon has the 60mm mortars because Sugar Daddy didn’t want them, and the 81 ammo is too heavy.”
“So, what good is a fourth platoon then?” I said, not really comprehending the organization of the company, or how it had come to be. “We’re not supposed to have a fourth platoon. Three platoons to a company. That’s it. Never heard of this kind of crap.”
The Gunny got to his feet, using the bamboo stand to pull himself up. I knew he wasn’t going to answer my question so I strapped on my pack, with Fusner moving in to help me adjust it to my body. Zippo, Stevens, and Nguyen gathered close to hear any word about the move.
“Single file,” the Gunny said. “We’re going all the way along the edge of the river in single file, like the French did back in history.”
Nobody made a sound for half a minute. I was in too much shock to say anything.
“The French?” Zippo finally asked. “What French?”
“Can’t do it,” I stated, flatly, overriding Zippo’s comment.
“Thought you might say that,” the Gunny replied.
“We take the Starlight forward to just behind the point and move in clusters,” I went on. “Fire teams, pressed close in to the face of the cliff so our backs are covered. The Starlight gives clearance and then our successive fire teams move one after another and we hopscotch all the way there, staying away from the exposed bank near the river. Sugar Daddy’s squad stays in view on the other side. If they get hit, then they can cross under a base of counter fire we provide from this side. It’s slow but sure. I don’t expect booby traps because they know we almost never move at night. I’ve got H.E. up top to call along the way. The overhang up there is fairly extreme, so we shouldn’t have falling rocks or debris, as long as we stay in close to the wall.”
“Where do you come up with this shit?” the Gunny asked, when I was done. “I can’t go back and countermand Casey’s orders, or there’s going to be even more trouble.”
“Don’t” I replied, dryly. “It’s night. There’s no moon. He won’t be able to see shit and when the rounds start impacting up on ridge he’ll be too scared shitless to care. Nobody has to know anything except their job tonight. Unless, of course, you want to take the point and lead the company along the river in single file.”
“Very funny,” the Gunny replied, without acting like my comment had been very funny at all. “Jurgens will tell him if I don’t.”
“Nope,” I stated as if I really knew. “He wants to live. He’s a toady and an asshole but he wants to survive like the rest of us. If we follow what Casey says then everyone’s going to get dead or wounded before we get halfway there, including Jurgens, and he knows that. Later on will be a different story.”
“There’s going to be trouble,” the Gunny replied, his voice almost a whisper.
“Like we’re not in trouble?” I said. “Stevens, you take Zippo and get up to Sugar Daddy’s platoon and let him know what we’re doing. Use his radio to stay in contact here. Fusner can give you a frequency so we’re not overheard on the combat net. Make sure you tell him about the arty coming in. I can’t fire down across the river because Cunningham can’t depress enough, so we’re dependent on the machine guns to cover the river and our flank patrol on the other side. Have him pull all the tracers out of the links if we have time, and then pass the order not to use M-16s if it can be helped. If Charlie’s out there, and I’m dead sure he is, then all we’re giving away is that we’re moving, and not exactly where we are on this side. Tracers would reveal that.”
“That’s it?” the Gunny said.
I saw him shake his head in the dim light. I knew the plan sounded too complicated, although it wasn’t really. We were going to mosey on up the canyon to the target area and wait for the dawn to move in. The sticky part would be making sure that no artillery rounds somehow ended up down among us. The slightest short round would blow the hell out of the rock face and send shards of rock and debris raining down unless I called it in just perfectly and just in front of where we were moving. It was a night with no moon though. It was going to be pitch black.
There was only one place I could be, to effectively use the Starlight scope and see the top of the ridge ahead of us to adjust fire, as well as make sure we weren’t running into an ambush. That was at the point of the company’s advance, with the other FNGs. That was where I didn’t want to be, humping a load in the dead of night, frightened of booby traps, having to call extremely accurate artillery, and doing all that while I was inside a racially charged platoon that had little use for keeping me alive.
“I’m going back to tell him we’re moving out,” the Gunny said, cupping his hands to light a cigarette, even though it was dark enough that having any light at all wasn’t a good idea.
In watching the Gunny take a few seconds to inhale and exhale smoke, I realized he was very good at hiding the cigarette's dim flare. I didn’t know how long he’d been out in the field with the company but I knew, by almost every move he made, that he had a load of combat experience. I had a whole eleven days.
“I’ll stick to your plan because it makes sense,” the Gunny finally said. “I’m sure he, Jurgens and Rittenhouse will be tickled to play tail-end Charley. I won’t say a word about what’s really going on unless this whole mess turns to shit. If that happens you’re on your own.”
I nodded. I’d been on my own since I joined the company, except for the Gunny’s handouts here and there. I had no expectations of a good fitness report following my service in the conflict. It wasn’t that kind of war. We didn’t get to take Utah or Omaha Beach, and then move on to lesser objectives. We just stayed and did what we were going to do tonight. Fight for the chance to fight further into the night, and then into the following day. And then we’d repeat.
I left without further comment, presuming the Gunny would remain with the command post group. Being last in the company wasn’t the safest position because the NVA were known to pick off security squads in rear action attacks, but it was a hell of a lot safer than the point.
I worked my way through the platoons toward the front of the company. The Fourth Platoon was strung out along the river along more territory than I’d thought. Sugar Daddy was impossible to miss because he was sitting with his legs stretched across the narrowly beaten elephant grass that passed for the only path through it. I settled beside him, stripping off my pack for a few brief moments of relief.
“I’ve got three fire teams, where the men can swim,” he said, only his eyes and teeth visible in the near blackness. “People think blacks can’t swim but the truth is that they never get a chance to learn because of where they come out from. But right up the way ahead it don’t matter anyway. They can walk across, their packs and weapons pushing them down enough so they don’t get caught in the current.”
“When are they going across?” I asked him, uneasy in his presence and with the conversation.
I knew nothing about the black culture except what I’d learned in parts of a couple of courses at a small Catholic college, which was next to nothing. Regardless of race, the man I was hunkered down with at the side of the makeshift trail had attempted to have me killed at least once.
“They’re already across,” Sugar Daddy replied, “with one slight problem.”
I waited, but the big man, barely visible, but at least not wearing his awful sunglasses, didn’t continue.
“Alright,” I said, unable to keep the impatience and frustration from my tone, “what is it?”
“They dropped the radio in the river, so we won’t have communications,” he finally admitted.
I didn’t know what to say. We’d just lost one-sixth of the company’s entire communications capability, and there was no resupply likely for some time. No choppers, even the Army hot shot dudes, were likely to fly down into the bottom of the pit of hell the A Shau was known by everyone to be. I wanted to say “shit, shit, shit..” but would not in front of Sugar Daddy, who should have been inconsequential but wasn’t. All I kind of knew for sure was that he didn’t want to lose the Marines on that patrol any more than I did.
“Carry on,” I said, unable to think of anything more. How in hell were we supposed to know if there was trouble across the river? Wait to hear the gunshots, and then not know what those gunshots were about? Hope to see our men in the Starlight Scope?
And then, of course, it started to rain. The company was on the move, and it was raining. Not that misting stuff we’d had before, but the torrential crap only the tropics can deliver. The stuff that hurts your head when it hits and makes it near impossible to do much of anything but plod on into it, or hide out until it passes. There would be no waiting to let it pass for us. I moved to where my scout team had formed up to be the point element. We moved through the jungle for almost an hour, making very little headway through the rain pounding through the top of the single canopy jungle. I ordered Zippo to stop and see what might be seen of our patrol across the river.
“Not good,” Zippo said.
I moved closer to try to understand what he was saying, only my helmet protecting me form the punishing big drops, but making it hard for me to hear.
“No Starlight, not in this. Doesn’t work in heavy rain. All we’ll get is just a bright green haze.”
I noted that the normally dependable hulk of a Marine hadn’t even bothered to pull the device from his shoulder slung case.
We had a nearly useless patrol across the river, providing nearly non-existent flank security. And now we were blind, as well. I had to get the artillery up and cover the ridge. The last thing we needed was fire plunging down from above while we moved through heavy rain without security and inside a jungle mess that was painfully cutting, difficult to get through, and pocketed with venomous animals and poisonous plants. There was no sense calling for adjusting rounds either since I’d be unable to see or hear them from their impact over the edge of the ridge. I called the mission in and asked for a battery of one. I gave four more grid locations from memory that stretched along our course of travel. If the rounds came in with any accuracy then any ambushing force up top would be dying or running for its life.
The first sign of trouble was when Firebase Cunningham added something at the end of my call for fire. “We can’t run any meteorological data in this weather so we’re approximating wind and density.” I had no answer to make. Cunningham was all the supporting fires we had, except for the nearly useless small mortars First Platoon carried.
The 105 rounds came in, and from the first explosion, I knew the barrage I’d plotted was a disaster. The rounds weren’t impacting on top of the ridge. I held Fusner’s radio handset in hand, calling the battery to check fire. Then I buried myself in the jungle floor. I knew what had happened. The bad weather and high density caused by the torrent of rain had caused the shells to fall short and impact the wall of the cliff face itself.
A murmuring sound came winnowing its way through the rain. It followed the last of the exploded artillery rounds that had impacted far up on the side of the abyss. It was the sound of falling chunks of cliff wall rock and assorted pieces of plant debris. They rained down for what seemed to be minutes, stones hitting my back, and a minced foliage mat descending to form a blanket over my entire body. Finally, everything stopped. I lay unmoving. The brutal punishing rain of material was followed by the whispering silence of real rain, until the earth vibrated.
My helmet and pack had saved me from real damage but I was in some pain anyway. The pain diminished as the vibrating sound grew. The deep vibrating pounding thrum grew into something aggressive and dangerous. It was the sound of something terrible coming my way. I stayed down, as buried in the bracken of the jungle floor as I could get. I realized that the sound I was hearing was the beating of many drums. Only when they reached a higher and deeper crescendo had I recognize them for what they were. I knew I should feel less apprehension in the knowing; less trepidation and considerably less fear, but I didn’t. There was something about the drums. They kept beating from somewhere not far across the valley, the beating rising and falling like the awful heartbeat of some giant from hell, waiting out there, as if impervious to machine guns and artillery. Who had bass drums of that depth and character? Who could beat them continuously on into a stygian night of fearful wakefulness and quivering unrest? Who had drums that could be made to function in heavy rain? I knew who it was. The enemy. The weather, the black night and the misdirected artillery should have been frightening enough, but then there was the implacable ever-present enemy, easily putting the other fears to shame when it came calling, as it was now.
“Company halt,” I croaked out to anyone close enough to hear me.
The Gunny appeared from somewhere, helping to pry me from the mess I was under.
“Get everyone pressed back into and under the cliff wall,” I ordered. “We’re not going any further tonight. Somehow we have to recover the patrol. Where’s Casey?”
“Seems that he got hit with a particularly large rock broken loose in your artillery strike,” the Gunny answered.
I was unable to see the man’s expression in the dark, although I would have bet that the faint edge of white I did catch was a suppressed smile.
The night had proved to be a disaster. I had no idea of how many casualties we’d suffered, most of whom would be either dead or wounded because of my own misdirected efforts. Night moon, and there had been no moon. The name of the plan should have been a clue, but I’d missed it.