The Skyraiders came out of the low level pre-dawn light, the sun still out and down earth somewhere on the other side of the valley’s eastern lip. There were four of them, and the drone of their big powerful propellers and engines built from a faint buzzing to a resonating roar, as they dropped from the heights of the valley wall, coming in low, pulling level just above the A Shau Valley floor.
“Three hundred gallons of special lemonade, times four,” Jacko said.
“The fifty’s back up,” I warned.
There was no more time for talk. The big planes came over us at what seemed like ten feet in altitude, but had to be more. Each carried externally mounted bombs, as before, but unlike before they also each had one huge centerline tank attached to their bellies.
I immediately presumed that they had been on station in the dark, waiting for the dawn in order to make out the situation. Cowboy knew we were in deep shit down below, and didn’t want to drop anything on top of us by mistake.
The four Sandy’s dropped their tumbling loads, the white bodies of the bloated white canisters tumbling briefly through the air, before falling into the jungle. Four distinct deep ‘whumps’ vibrated across the space between us and the deadly hill the NVA had taken so much abuse in defending, and then refortifying every time their position was destroyed. The wump’s vibrated their way through the jungle debris and more solid growth, the shudder of their ignition felt, more than heard. Red and yellow fire exploded upwards, the last of the Sandy’s flying right through the thick rising mass of its fury. Black clouds came next, and then the radiant heat of the fire spreading out as the planes banked in the distance and turned to make another pass.
“First the enchiladas and now a little hot sauce to make sure everything’s nice and spicy,” Jacko yelled, his faintly suppressed glee coming right through the speaker pressed into my ear. The Skyraiders twisted down, seeming to dive straight into our position from on high before abruptly pulling out and heading directly back to the mess of burning jungle they’d left behind only seconds before. This time the planes lined up with two in the front and two in the back, wings almost touching. Their twenty millimeter wing cannons opened up, and then a mass of bombs dropped from the first two planes was followed with the bombs of the other two only an instant later.
The planes flew through the smoke like it wasn’t there, and then the bombs went off. The five hundred pound bombs threw parts of the burning jungle in all directions, including toward us.
I rolled toward the water where Jurgens still lay, groaning and trying to recover himself. Great chunks of flaming tree parts, fern fronds and indescribable debris rained down around us. I knew I’d never make it to the water, and even entering the fast moving liquid would not save me if some part of a tree trunk descended and struck me. All I could do was cover up, and push the front of my newly clean body as deep as I could into the combined sand and mud mixture under me.
The Sandy’s flew off, the faint buzzing of their existence dwindling down the valley. There were no sounds coming from the jungle area they’d torn to burning shreds. I pushed myself up to my knees and stared up and over the tops of what was left of the jungle area that lay between the river bank and the hill where the fifty had been. The whole mess burned and seethed with billowing curtains of black ugly smoke. I looked upriver a few meters to see Fusner and Zippo recovering, while Nguyen slipped from the edge of the jungle, walking carefully but confidently toward us. I realized that the headset still hung from around my neck, the jack end dangling down to the sand. I’d pulled away from the radio in panic, without noticing my electronic connection. I suddenly realized that if Cowboy was trying to reach me I couldn’t hear him. I moved toward Fusner, as Zippo stood and moved toward me.
Before I reached Fusner, I stopped. Zippo handed me my cartridge belt with the Colt still attached to it. I flopped my helmet on, happy to have the damaged thing back, pushing Casey out of my mind. I pushed the jack toward Fusner, shaking myself into my gear fastening the belt clasp and feeling like I was me again
Fusner took the headset and tried to reach Cowboy, or any of the air group that had saved us again.
“Nothing,” Fusner reported, after trying for five minutes. “I think they’re out of range because the radio seems fine.” I walked to the edge of the forest to get away from being so exposed on the flat bank. I looked back at the tank through the clearing mist. It was like the rain and mist were clearing, so the jungle could burn properly, although I knew deep down that the jungle was so laden with moisture it would never truly burn.
I ignored Jurgens behind me, letting the man get warm again, while also recovering from being certain he was a dead man. I had no expectations of the man. His character was set in my mind. There was little doubt that once he regained his composure he would return to being the manipulative, violent and dangerous man he’d revealed himself to be. I really didn’t care if he lay by the side of the river all day long, fully exposed to whatever remained of the burned out NVA position the Skyraider’s had hopefully taken out. I’d risked everything to save the rottenest noncom I’d ever met but I hadn’t done it to save him. I’d done it because I knew in my heart of hearts that First Platoon would find a way to do me in if I left him to die out in the middle of the river. Coming to that conclusion caused me a shiver of regret. What had I become? I didn’t know, but left to my own devices I knew lousy Marine Sergeant Jurgens would certainly have become dead lousy Marine Sergeant Jurgens.
I turned away from thinking about the disgusting man to think once more of surviving the day, and surviving my scout team with me. I knew I wouldn’t feel safe from the fifty until I was under the concrete end of the eaten out runway pad. Before we could pull out and get back I had to talk to the Gunny. I didn’t have it in me to go back upriver, swim out and then let the current return me to the body of the tank. Once there I would have to tie one end off and work my way back to shore downriver. I couldn’t do it without rest, and neither could any members of my team. The Moses Plan was a failure, with one fatality and the entire company still trapped on the other side of the damned unforgiving river.
“We’ve got to move upriver,” I said to the Gunny, once Fusner got him on the radio.
“Jurgens alive?” the Gunny asked.
“Five by five,” I replied. “We only have a rope half way across, to the tank.” I glanced back to where Jurgens was laying but saw that he was no longer there.
I didn’t know what else to say to the Gunny. I had no plan except somehow getting back to Pilson, and getting down before I fell down. In turning my head to look out at the tank I saw things near the edge of my vision. I jerked my head back and forth. The things went away but then came easing back, almost invisible but there. Fatigue was coming for me and I knew I didn’t have much time left. And I had no plan. Nothing. My patrol could not stay on our side of the river, even in a fortified position, and hope to survive long with only a few small arms for protection. The only thing we’d have going for us is the mighty reach of the 175mm guns firing at more than maximum range from Rip Cord, and using them was a tough call all the way around. The company could not stay where it was forever, either. Without resupply for ammunition, water and food, it was a tossup about whether our situation was worse than that of the rapidly deteriorating situation of the hunkered down company across the river.
“What’s the plan?” the Gunny asked.
It was the question I was dreading. The relatively flat area between the river and the company perimeter was so exposed it didn’t deserve any thought about landing choppers on it. The old airfield, particularly the northern part of it, was the only solution. But there was no way to get the company across the river that I could think of.
“We’ll cross later in the day,” I lied.
“You better move out,” the Gunny replied, like he believed me. “We can cover your traverse for quite a ways if you stay close to the river’s edge. To a point. We’re trying to cook up some bread here but we’ve got little or no flour.”
I pulled back and looked at the handset, as if the Gunny was somehow visible inside it. Bread? Then it came to me. The company was almost out of ammo and the Gunny didn’t want that broadcast in the clear.
“Call command and get resupply onto the runway,” I said to the Gunny. “I’ll let you know the plan as soon as we’re up into position.”
“Roger that,” the Gunny said. “Knew we could count on you.”
“Great,” I whispered, not keying the microphone. “Just great.”
Out of ammunition. What got the British massacred in South Africa and Custer’s company by the Indians. I looked around, wondering what had happened to Jurgens. I finally saw him, sitting on the backs of his ankles by the poncho-covered body of Barnes. I looked at Fusner, but he shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. Zippo was getting his pack ready to go. Only Nguyen gave me anything at all. He looked slowly from where Jurgens sat, and then back at me with his expressionless eyes. He took his right fist and gently tapped his chest over his heart. I got up and headed to Jurgens position, but stopped just before I reached him. He’d pulled the poncho back, exposing Barnes boyish smiling face. He held the kid’s left hand in his own hands. Jurgen’s eyes were closed but his lips were moving. I slowly backed away, more in shock than respect or care. I knew what he was doing. Jurgens was praying.
Fusner and Zippo ignored the man. Only Nguyen and I kept a vigil over Jurgens and the boy. Once again the silent Vietnamese seemed to know things nobody else did. He sat like a statue, watching closely but making no move to do anything but wait. I determined to do the same. After a few minutes Jurgens recovered the boy’s body, stood up and walked toward me. In spite of the light mist still falling, and leftover water still dripping from his being submerged in the river, I knew Jurgens was crying.
Jurgens stopped in front of me and crouched down. I joined him. He didn’t look me directly in the eyes.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked, making no move to wipe his eyes, the tears obviously bothering me more than him.
I hadn’t been expecting any ‘thank you’ or demonstration of gratitude toward me on the man’s part. For some reason I didn’t see his obvious grieving state as a weakness either. Once again my mind whirled in conflict. I wanted to hate Jurgens so badly I could taste it but I couldn’t. There was a twisted complexity running through the Marine I didn’t know how to deal with.
“Well, for one thing you can call me sir,” I replied, my voice soft and not commanding, however. “And then you can help me figure out how to get the company across this goddamned river. But, before that we’ve got to get to a secure position upriver. Pilson’s holding down a fortified position all by himself under the old runway located up there.”
Jurgens wiped his eyes for the first time. I looked away and waited.
“I didn’t make you Junior,” Jurgens said. “You did. As far as the rest is concerned I got your six.” He stood up. “I got nuthin. No pack, no gear and no gun.”
I stood up in front of him, wondering what he wanted me to do. Fusner and Zippo had hung onto their 16s and I had my .45. None of us had much in the way of ammunition. I’d lost my knife like Jurgens had lost his. I stood facing the man uncomfortably, and then he did something that stunned me again. He held out his right hand.
“You want to start again, Junior?” he asked.
I didn’t take his hand right away. My mind raced. What was he up to? It took half a minute, but finally I thought I had it. Jurgens was calling our experience together to date a wash. He’d probably let me live when I came back to the company earlier. I’d come back out to the tank for him. We were even, in his eyes. I gingerly took his rough hand in my own. His handshake was hard, like mine. There was no smile in either of us. I stared into his eyes and he into mine.
“Move out,” I ordered, dropping his hand and turning upriver.
I caught Nguyen’s look as I turned. I would have bet quite a bit that he smiled but it was a fleeting wispy thing if it existed at all.
“Fusner, give Sergeant Jurgens your weapon. You’ve got enough to do with the radios.”
I walked past Fusner, not looking at him. I knew just how seriously Marines were attached to their weapons, and my order was way out of line for normal conditions. But we were a long way from normal conditions.
The hike back up to the old runway complex took less than an hour. The coming light was everything in being able to avoid pits and rocks along the way. There was no fire from the enemy along as we moved, but I didn’t feel relieved until we arrived just above where we’d left Pilson, who was supposedly working away to make a camp for us.
I motioned for everyone to get down just before we reached the end of the concrete, where the worn away ground under the runway had to be. I was going to instruct Jurgens to check out the position when Fusner got up, walked to the edge, leaned over and yelled, cupping both hands over his mouth.
“Pilson, is your sorry ass down here?”
He got an answer but it wasn’t what any of us expected. Instead of a return cry from below, the sound of a diesel engine floated across the concrete extending out behind us. We all froze in place. The creak and clanking clutter of tracks on a hard surface followed the low roaring of the diesel.
“Not another fucking tank,” I whispered, jumping to my feet.
“Down under the runway,” I hissed at my patrol.
I ran to the edge of the runway, looked down at the sand about ten feet below and jumped. I landed, twisting to one side and rolling out onto my back. I immediately saw Pilson, standing in the cleft with his M-16 held at the ready position. The other men jumped, landing nearby. I crawled to Zippo and reached him before he’d stopped moving. He’d held onto my pack. I grabbed it and tore it open, dragging my Japanese binoculars forth, before climbing to my feet and making it back toward where the concrete stuck out over the eaten out riverbed wall Pilson had turned into a nearly livable cave. The top of the concrete lip was at at shoulder level. I placed the binoculars down on the hard surface after sweeping a thin covering of plant debris and dirt away.
I saw the lead vehicle coming down Highway 548, headed for the road’s dead end. I focused the lenses, until the metal clanking and smoking beast came into fully defined view. I breathed out heavily, only then aware that I’d been holding my breath. The tracked vehicle wasn’t a tank. And there were two tracked vehicles followed by a truck. I didn’t recognize the lead vehicle. It looked like nothing more or less than a combination of a portable drilling rig and a giant erector set put together wrong. But I recognized the second vehicle. I’d seen many of the little deadly things in Quantico and at Fort Sill. I was looking at what was called an Onto’s, which I’d heard was the Greek word for ‘thing.’ The vehicles were U.S. equipment painted dark green with yellow letters on their sides.
The other members of my patrol were lined up along the edge of the concrete, looking at that same sight I was.
“The cavalry has arrived,” Zippo laughed, as he started to climb the bank to get up to the runway.
“Stay,” I ordered. “They’re about to reach the end of the road, so they’ll have to turn, anyway.”
I was still worried about the fifty that had claimed so many. How the crew and hardware slowly passing in front of us had gotten down to where we were would be explained when they got closer. Until that time, the attention they had to be drawing was significant. The Ontos was armored, I knew, against light weaponry, even the fire of a fifty caliber, but I doubted the truck or the other vehicle could take such abuse.
I drank my last half a canteen of water while I waited. The liquid perked me up, as I stood and tried to think. It took an hour for the Ontos to come out from behind the overgrown undergrowth and appear on the other side of the runway.
“Okay, Jurgens, get up there and wave at them, since it’s not likely they are on any radio frequency we can get quickly. I was so tired I’d forgotten about the radio. The vehicles had had to come from somewhere further up the valley and the Army firebases would probably know where. But it didn’t matter. The Ontos was coming right at us. Zippo jumped up and joined the sergeant.
The loud, smoky mini-tank came skittering across the width of the runway, moving fast and looking light and nimble in coming. The six big barrels of its 106 mm tubes
looked menacing, indeed. Zippo was still waving at it when it stopped, broadside to the river edge of our position. The vehicle slowly ground around until its barrels were pointing at the far side of the valley. Its engine died and the two rear doors of heavy steel banged open in unison. A tall skinny man in light green Army fatigues stepped out. I laboriously climbed the short distance up the berm to meet him.