I crawled toward where I thought the cliff wall was in the darkness. The rain was unpitying and the drums were driving me insane, as the sound was magnified, bouncing back off of the cliff face. All of a sudden, I was out of the rain and the jungle floor turned into a packed and mostly dry mat under me. I’d reached the wall, to discover that the cliff face was worn away at its base. The rain could not reach me directly. I scurried up one way and then back the other. The seemingly beaten path, no doubt invisible from anywhere, unless you were a few feet away, was not mined. It was another indicator that, so far, the only casualties suffered in the Night Moon Plan had been from our own fire. So far. The patrol still out there on the other side of the river plagued me. Three fire teams and a squad leader. Ten men, or more. Were they still making their way upriver thinking the company had remained on the move or were they hunkered down as well? And then there were the drums. I’d seen drums used in old cowboy films. Some Indian tribes used them against the settlers and cavalry. The drums had meant almost nothing in the movies. But the reality of having the vibrations reach right inside of my very core was something else again. I didn’t shudder at the thought, but I wanted to. My hands were not shaking either, but maybe that was a function of my movement to get away from it all. There was no getting away from anything, however. Fusner, Stevens, Zippo, and Nguyen all wedged in against me at the bottom of the wall so closely that we were all touching.
Click on ‘arrow’ and listen to the drums
I moved away from the rock wall and felt the berm of jungle bracken in front of me with my hands. The berm was possibly eight or ten feet in distance from the base of the wall. It was perfect. Any fire from across the river, or even from this side of the river would impact the berm, if fired low, and thereby not be able to strike the angled rock above us. Without the berm, our position would have been untenable because of the danger of ricochets spattering down.
The Gunny crawled into our midst. I only knew it was him because of his gravelly “make a hole,” comment as he rolled.
“How serious is the captain’s wound?” I asked the Gunny.
“He’ll live,” the Gunny replied. “Took a hell of a bong on his helmet but he’ll be back.”
“Medevac material?” I asked, trying to keep a note of hope from seeping into my voice.
“Nah, but his cage is going to rattle for quite a while.”
“Zippo, I want you to go up and down the line and tell everyone to dig in as best they can,” I ordered, once again feeling like I was somewhat in command. “This night is a long way from over.”
Zippo dropped the scope case and his pack and was gone, or at least that was the appearance in the darkness the sound indicated.
“The radio was lost in the river,” I informed the Gunny. “Our squad’s over there without communication and they can’t know we’ve stopped. What do we do?”
“Who told you that?” Fusner asked, his voice seeming like it was coming from far away, but he was only a few feet from where the Gunny had forced his way between us.
“What’s wrong with your voice?” I asked back.
“The drums,” Fusner replied.
I realized that Fusner, a kid who’d been through so much direct fire and carnage, was more terrified of the drums than he was actual combat.
“Easy,” I said, softening my tone. “They’re only drums, and they’re beating them to scare us.”
“I know,” Fusner replied, although he sounded a bit less shaky. “And it’s working.”
Stevens laughed softly out loud. The Gunny joined in, and I went along because I thought making humor about it might help.
“Jormo’s over there,” Fusner said, “I talked to him on the frequency after all the explosions.”
“You were there when Sugar Daddy said that the radio was lost in the river,” I replied, my forehead a mass of frown lines.
“How would he know?” Fusner shot back.
“How would he know what?” I asked, not getting it.
“How would anyone know that the the Prick 25 was lost in the river unless they were along on the patrol? With the radio gone there’d be no way to call back.”
That stopped me. Fusner was right. There was no way Sugar Daddy could know. I breathed in and out deeply. Was there a squad across the river at all? Had Sugar Daddy disobeyed my order, to preserve his men? Was it like what he’d allowed at the listening post the night before?
“Can you bring Jormo up on the radio now?” I asked, strangely hoping Fusner was right. If the squad was not across the river, then they didn’t need to be brought back. And there was no need for having flank security on the other side because of how solid and fortified the company’s natural position now was.
“Batman to Jormo, over,” Fusner said, into the handset I couldn’t see.
“Batman?” I whispered. “Who’s Batman?”
“Me, sir,” Fusner replied, in a tone that told me he was slightly embarrassed by the question.
Fusner called again. We waited for some reply, while I thought about the fact that I was Junior while my teenage radioman was Batman. There was no justice in the combat universe.
“Got you, Batman,” came over the small handset speaker, barely loud enough to be heard.
“You want to talk to him, sir?” Fusner asked.
“No, just get a position from him,” I replied. “Tell him we’ve stopped temporarily since we don’t know who may be listening in.
Tell him to get his squad back across the river if he’s over there.”
Fusner talked back and forth for a few minutes before stopping to talk to me again.
“They’re over there he says, sir,’ Fusner replied, “because Jormo says the river’s higher now and they’re going to have trouble crossing.”
“We’ve got to go and get them,” I said.
“Go and get them?” the Gunny, Stevens, and Fusner all exclaimed, at the same time.
“They can’t stay there alone for the night,” I said.
I didn’t say anything further because I couldn’t think of anything. How to get the men back? In the Basic School, our trainers had spent a lot of time making us do these awful tests after hard runs. The tests had secretly been to see who would take over as a leader and not about how the Marines officers handled accomplishing the tasks together. But one of the tasks had been similar to what we were facing. That test had been about getting a wounded Marine across a raging stream of water. There had been props though. A rope that reached across the water and some sealed five-gallon buckets that floated, and one long pole. None of us who were in the experiment were allowed to touch the water because it was highly radioactive. My idea of having one of us pole vault over was rejected but the real leader of our group. Ten minutes later we were all declared dead by the course instructor. The instructor told me that the pole vault idea had been brought up before in other classes and had not worked because no regular person was good enough in pole vaulting. It was not good leadership to sacrifice one Marine to save only one other Marine.
“Do we have any rope?” I asked.
“We don’t need any rope,” the Gunny replied. “You screwed up with the artillery fire, so let it go.”
I stopped trying to come up with a workable plan and turned to face the Gunny in the dark.
“What?” I asked, not understanding what he was getting at.
“You want to make up for whatever casualties we took here by saving the squad,” the Gunny repeated. “You’re the company commander right now. It’s not your job. You have a whole company of Marines. It’s their job to take your orders. It’s not your job to rush off into the night and make another mistake, especially if there’s no squad over there.”
“What makes you so certain those men aren’t there?” I asked, with my trepidation, with anything Sugar Daddy was involved in, fully returning.
“The river’s not higher yet because it’s too soon,” the Gunny said, “and how would anyone know if it was higher in this darkness? The radio could be anywhere, and it’s supposed to be at the bottom of that river. Do the math.”
“Shit,” was all I could think to say.
“If you want proof then have them fire a few rounds,” the Gunny went on, “then you’ll know for sure.”
“Fusner,” I ordered.
“They’ll give away their position if they’re over there,” he replied, waiting for my answer.
“Do it,” I ordered.
Fusner made the call several times but there was no response. After the third attempt, I stopped him.
“They’re not over there,” Fusner said very quietly.
“What now?” I asked the Gunny, feeling like an idiot.
I was out of ideas, my mind so wrapped up at being angry at Sugar Daddy that I couldn’t think straight.
“You were right about the fact that they’re planning an attack,” the Gunny said, changing the subject. “It makes all the sense in the world. We’re in the middle of their playground. We haven’t had a successful LZ or firebase in this valley since I was here last time. They’ll hit us tonight, just like they do almost every night. They didn’t have time to get set up properly, but that won’t stop them.”
“Maybe we should have kept on pushing to the old LZ,” I said, remembering how natural it had seemed to stop when I’d found the natural protective position of the wall overhang. “If they attack they have to come at us from upriver or from across the river.”
“I’ve got to find out how many casualties we have before we think about moving,” the Gunny said. “The captain’s down, but he’ll be back in rare form sometime soon. We’re not in a bad place here and time is no issue, so making that call was a good one. Like we’re going to have a hell of a mess trying to get resupply and a medevac down here no matter where we are, anyway. And the gooks won’t come from upriver,” the Gunny concluded.
“Their point of ingress there would be too narrow, and Fourth Platoon will have that area covered with half a dozen M-60s. No, they’ll come across the river. It’s their river and they know it well.”
“So we use overlapping machine gun fire?” I asked.
“The jungle growth here’s low but heavy,” the Gunny replied. “It’s our friend for cover and concealment, but our enemy for allowing open fields of fire. I hate to send out posts closer to the water because the area of the bank is pretty narrow, fully exposed to fire from the other side, and it’s black as hell out there. Our position is solid but still not the best.”
“Artillery,” I whispered. “The same shit that fell on us can be brought down on them.”
“Yeah, if push comes to shove, but it sure as hell won’t help your popularity if the whole cliff wall comes down on everyone’s head.”
I didn’t bother to respond to the Gunny’s blunt conclusion. His reply seemed right in line with the thrumming evil of the distant drums. I reached out my hand and touched a nearby hanging branch. The vibrations of the awful drums radiated through the wood. Without even being close to us, the enemy had figured out a way to make contact and to drive its message of impending death home. My hands started to shake. I was glad I’d written my letter home. I felt down my leg to make sure it was in my thigh pocket. I couldn’t write properly when my hands were shaking and now wouldn’t have to until late in the following day.
“I’m going to start with Fourth Platoon. I know damned well he never sent that squad across, and I’ve got to talk to him about that to make sure. If they’re over there, by some bizarre chance, then they can stay hidden there until it’s light. Visibility and sound detection is down to zero.”
“Talk to him?” I hissed at the Gunny. “This is a whole lot more serious than talking to him is going to fix. That asshole directly disobeyed orders under fire for the second time, risking the whole damned company. He ought to be shot on the spot.”
“Yeah, like you,” the Gunny said right back.
“Me?” I replied, startled by the vehemence expressed in his cryptic answer.
“You countermanded Casey’s orders,” the Gunny said, going back to his normal voice. “It was the right thing to do, but Casey’s not going to think so. Sugar Daddy’s trying to save his own men, just like you.”
“This shit can’t work,” I declared in exasperation. “Everyone can’t just do what the hell they want, or we’ll all get killed. Somebody has to be in command.”
I was talking to myself. The Gunny had slipped away when he finished saying what he had to say. Was Sugar Daddy right if he hadn’t sent a squad? Was I right to overrule Casey? Were the two of us really any different? The rain and the drums, and the thought of God knew how many casualties we’d taken from the short rounds, made me even more miserable than normal. I laid with my back pressed into the rock, feeling the idiotic drum beats, wondering if my life could get any worse.
Fusner and the team put up ponchos, somehow hanging them out from the outcrop to give protection from the ceaseless and permeating rain. I worried about the poor visibility and not being able to hear an approaching enemy with the company’s extreme fatigue thrown in. I checked my Speedmaster to discover it was midnight.
A single shot rang out from the direction of the river. It’d been an AK round I knew instantly. The stygian black of night was gone along with the pouring rain. Only a heavy moving mist blew in from under my suspended poncho. I checked my watch again. It was almost five a.m. I’d been gone for almost five hours. I’d slept. Somehow, in the depth of my misery, I’d slept. Then I noticed that the drums were gone. There was the sound of more enemy fire until an M-60 opened up.
I pulled out my .45, my hands no longer shaking. Fusner pushed the radio handset into my side. More machine gun fire began up and down the line. The attack was on. The NVA must have crossed the river I knew, but I was hesitant to call Cunningham with a contact mission until I was certain. Whatever the damage to the company I’d caused earlier I didn’t want to repeat. There was also the density problem to consider, as well. If the air density was less, with the mist instead of the torrential rain, then the incoming fire might not explode against the side of the cliff. If I dropped the rounds to make that happen, and I dropped them too far, then they could possibly explode as far down the wall as our position.
The firing increased in volume. Grenades started to explode up and down the line. I surged forward to the mound of jungle bracken in front of me, dragging Fusner along. Suddenly, it occurred to me what I had to do. I called in the contact mission but asked for illumination rounds to be fired, dropping the distance by two hundred meters. The night was about to become a swinging shadow version of the day up and down the river. The NVA was coming at us in a frontal attack with a deep river at their backs. I felt some semblance of confidence overriding my deep terror of being trapped against the base of the cliff with a bayonet thrust into my stomach. For the first time, I felt the power of being part of a Marine rifle company. There was going to be no quit and no quarter in what was coming.
The illumination sailed in, the canisters whooping through the air, one after another, and then impacting with great metal clangs against the side of the cliff, the sound similar to that of pealing bells. The illumination created a crazy kaleidoscopic moving mess of everything. The volume of fire increased, and then fell back, and then increased again. I peered out across the top of the berm in front of me. I could make out the band of water that was the river down in the distance, but I couldn’t see the expected running figures of an advancing enemy. But then I saw something moving. The enemy troops weren’t running, any of them. They were crawling forward like slow-moving ants in the distance, only visible when small yellowish flashes came from the barrels of their rifles. And they were getting close. I pressed the button on the handset and called for high explosive rounds. There was no way I could get fire down on the advancing enemy, but I sure as hell could blow the face of the cliff to hell-and-gone again.
The battlefield was about to receive the harsh impact of a torrential rain heavier and a lot more damaging than what it’d been receiving earlier.
<<<To the Beginning | Next Chapter >>>
Really into this.I was not a Marine but stationed at Dong HA Combat base,first of the 40th Army artillery ’67and 68. Your graphic description of the rain,mud and leaches made me want to go shower and check my self for leaches even though I am setting in my comfortable home.Looking forward to next installment.
Glad you are home reading and not back at Dong Ha. What interesting pits some of
those places were. I wonder what it would be like to go and see what the Vietnamese made
of it all. It was pretty primitive up in most of inclined I Corps back then. Nothing
but a rough path and river through the A Shau with a bunch of blown up communications
and fire bases. Now I look at the Internet and the damned valley is all developed!
Listening to the sound of those drums is addictive but I doubt I’d want to hear them while crouched down waiting to be attacked at any moment . I really enjoy reading these installments , thank you for sharing .
Thanks. The drums were beyond unsettling and when I hear tribal drums I still have a few problems, like
when I was with Buthelezi, Chief of the Zulu Tribe up in Ulundi, South Africa. His drummers played to welcome me and I perspired so badly
I had to blame the weather, which wasn’t that hot!
Just a quick note to say that your story telling prowess has definately got me hooked! I am eagerly awaiting the next instalment. I read as many “true stories” of all conflicts that I can find, but the way you make the sounds, smells & atmosphere ‘come alive’ is quite unreal!
My father told me stories of how his father, granddad, was after coming home from WWII, & I imagine great-grandfather who served in WW1 had similar issues.
My hats off to everyone who has ever served in the shit & I am glad I was born a few years too late.
Keep up the writing, more of ‘us’ need to hear how it really was, & not choke down the ‘recruitment’ stories of most Hollywood productions.
Thank you Bob. It is the strangest endeavor, working from the old manuscript and letters, plus new maps and stuff
from the Internet. I keep surprising myself with what I find that I remember but not maybe the same way as when
I use the references. Memory is such a strange thing when burned in by the intensity of the time. I am at it this
day working on the next segment while finishing the details of getting the first book out. I will continue to do all the
books chapter by chapter on here though because some of the guys won’t want to or be able to buy the books.
The extra’s available here are quite extraordinary. They amplify the story. Hearing the songs & sounds that you are writing about adds an experience that no other format could provide. I’m looking forward to the paperback, but am grateful to have this added touch, it really brings life to the written word & adds an element to the story that is quite profound.
The work to make the chapters more ‘alive’ has been that of my friend chuck Bartok.
He reads the chapter and then puts his creative mind to work to tie things together with
the emotional response he gets back. I just write on, mostly unaware of what effects the
telling might be having.
Thanks for that bright spot of a comment.
Very good and real
hope that you never have to go thru that again in your dreams. It is over but will not be over as long as the vets are alive. My Dad was a ww2 vet. He died at the age of 89 last July. His war is over now No more bad dreams no more night sweat He is resting now.
The dreams are not so bad anymore. Not like they used to be.
The trick is to get up immediately and realize you are back in the real world
of the round eyes and made it…
I don’t hear any Drums. We had a Chopper flying over playing Charg . Looking like a Dot in the Sky. We were pinned down for three Days and nights.
If you don’t hear any drums Fred, you are taking the wrong shit!
I saw the choppers in Apocolypse when they flew in playing Wagner but that was a movie.
Never heard a chopper play music or anything else.
Thanks for the comment.
History often leads to irony, and these damn drums of yours Lt sent me looking. I’m not sure any of us will ever know why, but a few hours searching history we now know that certain areas of the beloved peninsula have had a fascination for drums in warfare back to the Bronze age. No indication if it’s ethnicity related yet, but I’ll look some more.
The Irony, our Australian brothers are currently using drums as a therapy for PTSD.
Jazuz, we are well and truly a fuked brotherhood.
Wow, interesting stuff on the drums. I’ve never researched
but I must agree as an anthropologist that drums have played a role in so many conflicts
and are so vital to so many tribal ceremonies of native peoples across the planet.
Thanks for the research.
PTSD drum treatments? Something else again…
James, the shit keeps hitting the fan. I thought we were in deep shit when we had a broken main engine in a typhoon in the South China sea and when we fought a fire on a commercial tug in Vung Tau harbor, but what you folks endured way eclipsed any of what we went thru. Keep up the writing!
Sounds to me like a failed engine during a typhoon in the South China Sea qualifies
as being damned close to combat. Thanks for the compliment and for commenting here.
Mr. Strauss, I have been riveted by your story. I find it amazing how each of our stories are so the same and yet so different. As a Force Recon Corpsman I never saw the river bottoms and never heard the drums. I have heard of them though. We stayed on the hill tops and ridge tops. Reading your story gives me a different look at the war in Vietnam. I enjoy your writing style. Keep up the good work.
The high ground and the low ground. So very different but with some deep and abiding commonalities, as well.
Thanks for liking the story and I shall endeavor to get the work out as fast as I can…
Even though I was in the Navy ’66-’69,Our ship patrolled the coast for enemy traulers suppling weapons and supplies to the V.C. I find your stories very interesting. Please tell me where and when this book will come out.
Thanks for the compliment and it must have been interesting
duty to be out there interdicting enemy traffic on the high seas.
Thanks for being here and saying something about that.
I know nothing about military strategy or maneuvering, but I’m fascinated by these drums and this deadly cat and mouse game.
Why did they start with the drums after the artillery barrage? Was it signaling of some sort? And also, How did they know where to attack, in the dark, in the rain? Were they setting up to attack where captain Casey’s tent got blown up and the officer killed, and had to adjust their plans when they realized you were moving? Or did they just happen to run into your unit?
Thank you, Daniel
When you are involved in another culture’s back yard engaged in a war against most of the indigenous population
then you can damn well figure that the enemy knows the terrain, night and day, the depth of the rivers and where
the enemey (us) is at all times. Just the way it is. And the rest you don’t get to know about. There’s no ‘after action’
report from the enemy. Thanks for writing an interesting comment and asking such cogent questions.
Jim, well stated. You commented on this in a previous comment. Your’e playing on “their turf”; a huge advantaged to the enemy. In the summer of 68, our wing was given a mission that involved close air to ground support. It was a dark night all over VNAM; monsoon season. Wing commander replied – Negative. Response from Macv – ok pussy cats. Commander stated they will never say that again. Which reminds me, you haven’t mentioned much about AF support other than “spookiest”. You are a very talented/gifted writer. Great artists are able to imagine or see something & later on able to perform a painting based on all or most of the details. As a writer, you have been able to are bring back memories of many years ago, plus keeping one’s attention. All I can say…..Well Done. GPA, Bien Hoa, tet offensive. Take care & God Bless
It’s only been twelve days! The Skyraider help earlier in the chapters was very much there and most helpful.
There will be more air interaction as time goes by. I presume you are talking about the dropping of ordnance
and not the near daily ministrations provided by the ever present force of choppers.
Thanks for the comment and the compliment.
WOW, damn , wow ,did not expect a brick wall to fall on me ,picking myself out of all the rubble , trying to figure it out and wow; I find it wasn’t as much the story (which is damn good as usual ) but seem to be ,caught off guard by the comments, I think about the motto of 62B we can fix anything but a broken heart and (its not for not trying) we put back together a few spirits anyway and that a fact!
Yes, Bill, I must agree that the comments have been as substantive as the story
itself and that came as a complete surprise to me. Like a lot of the vets writing in,
I thought my story was isolated and totally uncommon. And I presumed for years nobody would
believe it if I told it. I never did, until now. The comments are always worth staying up at night
for and I appreciate them mightily.
Thanks for your comment and your great compliment.
James I spent 11 months an 22 days living out of a rucksack. I was in the AnLoa Valley with the 173rd in 69. Most nights no sleep. 22NVA Div. operated in out area. I can tell you the drums are real. I now have PTSD after 48yrs.
The drums were real. Too many of us exposed to them, especially up in I Corps, for them to be figments.
Go in to the VA and tell a counselor: “I can still hear the drums,” and see how fast it takes for them
to either boot you back out to the parking lot or intern you! The stuff I am brining up in my story is
the stuff that penetrated deep into my own psychology over there, and it was mostly stuff I really did
think I would be able to simply let drop away as a bad war experience. I had no clue at all, of course.
None of us did. Thanks for the comment and support.
remember them well–had a few of the guys who took their own drum to the field and would answer them lol – 2/503rd inf 173rd abn bde – LZ English Bong Son area
Now that’s hilarious. God, I wonder what Charlie thought about drums coming the other way.
Thanks for the comment, the smile and having been along the Bong Song…
I was with the 1/12th 4th Div in that same valley working off LZ Tape in 69. Met some of your brothers at The Wall a few years back.
Yes, there are a few up on that particular block of the wall.
A whole lot of them, really. Hard to look at even that one time I did it.
I never experienced the drums in IIICorp.It must have been unnerving as hell. The gooks must have gotten the idea from those old black and white movies about British explorers in the african jungle, terrified by the ominous native drums signaling an attack. Imagine your story turned into a Band of Brothers type mini series filmed in the A Shau. It could be the definative movie of the Vietnam War.
Thanks for the Band of Brothers comparison. I absolutely love that series.
Bought the CDs. Now I don’t turn it on except for rare moments
because the people around me start feeling sorry for me and I don’t much care for that reaction.
Not their fault. Band of Brothers is for me like West Wing
compared to the real thing. One is the way you would love it to be or have been,
and the other is that gritty, crummy reality. My story is not Band of Brothers…
although there were certainly elements of it that ran through. Great series though.
I think the drums were an I corps thing and I have no idea where they
idea came from on the part of the Vietnamese. Brilliant though.
Thanks for the comment and the comparison!
Never had drums… but one time when we humped out of the bush and were put on bridge guard,,,was during the monsoons…we Haden’s been supplied for a few days and were wet tired and very Hungary…had a little vietnamese Babylon friend ..we were to kick them all outside our parimetor at night…but his parents had been Kia by NVA ,,, and had nowhere to go,,so we left him with us under our poncho tent..a few hours after dark we here a voice out in the jungle over a loud speaker inviting us to come out and see them…that they had lots of very good food,, even named off a few names of the grunts with us.. and also telling us that if we came out that they would make sure we would get to see our loved ones again…this went on for awile..then arty was called in on where we heard the sound…boom boom boom…then the voice agin …then more arty…finaly my little friend (called himself Tom ) told me he knew where they were at..asked if he could point it out on a map…said yes…so took him to the CP…told them Tom could show them where the gooks were that were transmitting …sure enough he looked at the map and after a little while he pointed to a spot quite always from where the speaker was.. so arty was called in on that grid,,, then the talking stoped and we heard a squeezing of the speeder…then quiet…
Was squealing on the speaker..this auto spell thing has a minde of its own
We got it Bill, like a lot of the corrections I have to make, necessary but the audience already knows…
Thanks for being a stickler for detail…and for liking the work and being my friend…
Another tour de force from Bill Hammond. The phrase “you can’t make this shit up” comes to mind. Only a kid you felt
sorry for helps pull the bacon out. Like Nguyen, talking to the enemy while taking care of the Marines. Go figure.
Thanks for the usual intense and so interesting insight.
Bill, interestingly correlating to my Unle Ed in Korea during that police action (all of it). He “drove a .50 cal.” most of the time. He “adopted” an orphan like a lot to others did. They knew the land and, the part that hurt him most, was that the GIs used them to keep warm during the winter. (It was mutual.). Doing what you had to do didn’t change. Thank you, much respect.