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.