I came awake instantly. Crashing roars, with distant but shaking explosions, moved me out from the cleft down along the side of a mud wall I’d been sitting up against. I blinked my eyes in fear and nervousness. I was in a cave. I was in the cave. The cave made by the overhang of the concrete runway, routed out by floodwaters as the Bong Song moved about like a living snake in the bottom of the A Shau Valley. My brain fought to take in the dusky damp smell of rotting jungle earth, the shaking pieces of mud and debris falling from the underside of the pavement that had obviously been laid down atop a badly cleared and poorly graded surface. Even in the gloom, barely illuminated through the gaping wound of its opening facing out toward the river, I could see I was alone. Where was Fusner?
I was Junior, the company commander. I climbed to my knees. I didn’t know how long I’d been out, but out I had certainly been. The gloomy sun outside was leaving a shadow stretching along the broken bottom of the cave floor, like the saw-tooth edge of an old woodcutting blade. It had to be afternoon. I got myself together and came to my knees. The cave roof wasn’t high enough to allow me to stand, and I wasn’t sure I was stable enough to manage it anyway. I realized that I’d just thought of myself as Junior. I wasn’t Junior. They called me Junior. I’d never be Junior again if I made it back to the world, which wasn’t likely, as it dawned on me where I really was and what the situation was. I was at the bottom of the life-sucking A Shau Valley, a place nobody back home had heard of, or would ever likely hear about. I pulled my helmet to me, and quickly checked the handle of my .45 without taking it out. The Colt and I counted on each other. I knew it would work when I needed it, and I somehow had come to believe it knew I’d know when that time was right. The Colt being there made me breathe easier. I was okay.
The sounds coming from the outside permeated the cave from through the door-sized opening. Except for the bombs, or whatever the explosions were. Those sounds came right through the walls of the cave. I’d been comatose for a time, but even my near dead state had been no match for the force of those vibrations. There would be no more sleep. I crawled to the cave entrance, wondering if Fusner was dead. He’d never left my side without orders before, and I’d grown accustomed to his presence without knowing I’d grown accustomed to it. He was like a part of my body I’d gotten so used to that I only understood my craven need for it when that part was gone. How could I go on if Fusner was dead? I couldn’t picture it in my mind. I pulled my canteen out and poured water into my muddy hands. I rinsed them, hoping to delay the results of having to deal with whatever was happening outside, by performing the meaningless ritual. I washed my face, using the last of my water.
I was thirsty but I had to think. If I’d had a cigarette, I’d have lit up, in spite of my hands shaking so badly. I clutched them across my stomach to get them to stop.
I remembered the Army combat engineers showing up. They’d gone off to lay down their vintage bridge across the river and bring over the rest of the company.
I looked at the placement of the jagged shadow line running across the floor of the cave. It was mid-afternoon, at least. The company hadn’t made it across, or there’d be Marines all over the place.
I could hear the faint whine of the big Pratt and Whitney engines of the Skyraiders flying at a distance, punctuated by rapid short roars of their twenty-millimeter guns. The explosions had stopped, however. Maybe those had come from a couple of runs of the Sandys dropping their loads. I put my canteen away, going through the motions of doing so very slowly. My job was outside, no matter what was going on, but I didn’t want to leave the cave. I wasn’t sure I could leave the cave.
Somehow, I’d found a pocket of safety and sanity away from the inner walls of the A Shau Valley, running up and down both sides of the what had become the river Styx at its bottom. The Styx was an old mythical river of death I’d read about in college. Was I Charon, the ferryman, taking those from one side of life to their demise on the other side, or was I just one of the passengers, eventually doomed to ride in Charon’s boat?
I made up my mind. I wasn’t leaving the cave. The instant I made the cowardly but intelligent decision, the outside of the cave came right in through the entrance. It was Tex, plummeting through the opening, to sprawl, and then go flat on his stomach right in front to me. His helmet was gone and his fatigue uniform, so spic and span and knife-creased earlier, was literally smoking. I stared down, as he turned his head and stared back at me, his unblinking eyes about the size of golf balls.
“My truck, it’s gone,” he whispered, batting at the parts of his blouse with one hand to get rid of the tendrils of smoke still coming out of it. A tear formed in his left eye, and slowly ran down his muddy smoked cheek. “My men, they’re gone too.”
Tex was a wreck. I’d left him a big strapping character only hours earlier, with a personality as big as a railroad car. What lay before me was a man reduced to elemental form. His eyes had a look I’d seen before, usually in the eyes of the dying.
I didn’t reach down to him. I felt like if I touched him his disassembling would be complete. In only a few hours, the A Shau had taken another human being and reduced him to little more than moving biological plasma, stacked vertically, and waiting to be laid down for fertilizer.
“Did you get the bridge over the river?” I asked, as gently as I could. In spite of the man’s condition, I had to get some information out of him. “Is the Ontos okay?”
I followed when he didn’t answer. If we had the Ontos, then we had our own version of field artillery. The truck had two fifty caliber machine guns, and I wondered if we still had those, although the guns themselves, without ammunition, were useless.
“The Ontos,” he whispered, looking down at the mud floor of the cave only a few inches from his face. “They came and blew up my truck and my men. I should have had my men come here to this cave. How did you find this?”
I was losing the man, and I knew it. I couldn’t afford to let him go.
“Get on your feet,” I ordered, my voice going from a whisper to the most commanding tone I could summon up. “Stand at fucking attention, and report in like a fucking Marine officer and not some driveling fool.”
The man was six inches taller than I was, and I couldn’t stand in the compressed space, but we both tried. Hunched over, we faced one another.
“The fucking bridge,” I said, glad about the Ontos still being there, and wanting to get outside and check to see if it had six rounds chambered and the eighteen it could store inside, but first I had to know more.
“Army officer,” Tex replied, wiping his wet eye with one dirty hand. “I’m an Army officer.”
“You were a fucking Army officer but not anymore. Until this is over, or you are over, you’re a Marine officer. I’m the company commander and you’re the executive officer, until further notice, got that?”
I had no precedent. I knew nothing about inter-service rank or how any of it really worked when mixed military ranks were together. Tex was a first lieutenant in the Army, and likely a senior one. Did that mean he was company commander of my company? I had no idea and I didn’t care. We were in the A Shau. The river was the Bong Song, although it was not. I was company commander although I was not. And now Tex would be the make-believe Marine Officer XO, or he’d be dead. Those were the choices currently offered by the A Shau, and there was no negotiation. A Shau complaints were handled by Charon aboard that ferryboat.
“What do you want me to do, sir?” Tex asked, total compliance coming off of him like a strong aroma.
“You don’t call me sir, for one thing. I’m Junior in the A Shau, so you might as well call me that too. I want to know about the bridge, right fucking now.” I waited.
I wasn’t much on using the ‘fuck’ word but I knew, for some of the men, it was vital and necessary. For some reason, it worked in circumstances where nothing else would.
“We got the bridge out there fine, but the bank fell apart behind it. The chassis is an old tank chassis, and it’s too heavy. When the cantilever section operated and extended the far edge of the blade fell short. There’s still twenty feet of the river between the machines front edge and the far shore. What with the bulk of the chassis, the river heaps up around the downside end as it goes around. With the velocity and mass of the moving water, there’s no way anybody can cross far enough to reach the bridge.”
“How much rope you got?” I asked, thinking about the only two sections the company had.
One was laid from the far side out to the upside down tank, where the end was tightly tied. It wasn’t going anywhere. The other end was on the bank where we’d left it after rescuing Jurgens. That rope still had to be there, or so I hoped.
“None,” Tex replied, his tone disconsolate. “It was all on the truck. Our food, water, extra ammo, everything, all on the truck.”
“Fuck the truck,” I said, “Where are my Marines?” I’d almost said Fusner’s name but changed at the last second. I was company commander again, at least until God and Gunny threw the dice one more time and changed the point again.
“I sent them to the truck to recover what they could,” Tex reported, his voice finally calming, and his words coming out without stutters or long delays between them. “I was there when my men were killed. They died just like that. Standing there. They weren’t even hit by anything. They just fell down and were dead, just like that,” Tex reported, snapping the fingers of his right hand to make his point.
Concussion from being too close to an explosion killed by over-pressuring the lungs while also crushing internal organs. Death was nearly instant, with any personnel so openly exposed going from living to dead before their bodies hit the ground. There was absolutely nothing to be done for men killed that way, except bagging and tagging for pickup, which reminded me of resupply.
“Where are the choppers?” I asked, suddenly. “Did they come in while I was out?”
“No, too much fire,” Tex said.
“God damn it,” I whispered.
The Marine Rotary Wing had denied us again. That left only the Army’s crazy teenager band of warrant officers, if they’d come, and those chopper crews would have no idea what we needed or might want if they did come. Most probably, nobody had called them, but only Fusner could tell me that.
“Go get my scout team back, right now,” I ordered. “There’s no point in doing anything with what’s left of the truck. The truck got hit because you left it too close to the jungle edge there. The Ontos survived because the NVA regulars aren’t stupid enough to try to cross a hundred meters of bare concrete to get to it.”
Ever fired the 106?” I asked the question to redirect Tex from thinking about the fact that he was about to run across the same hundred meters of open concrete I’d just said the enemy was too smart to cross. And then, after getting there, he was going to have to cross back with the rest of my team.
“Ah, in training,” Tex started to say, but I stopped him.
“Yes,” I said, knowing where he was going. “Like me, you watched it fire, but didn’t operate it yourself.”
“Yes,” Tex admitted.
“Go get the men,” I ordered, “then get back here, get acquainted with that thing as best you can, and get ready to rock and roll.”
“Yes, sir,” Tex responded, running bent over toward the cave opening.
“And stop calling me sir,” I yelled at his departing back.
I was leaving the cave. I didn’t want to, but there was only one way to suppress high-powered small arms fire from being laid down by the NVA on Tex and my returning scout team. Air would help, but during my short discussion with Tex, the outside world had gone silent again. I had to get the Ontos online and see what I could do. I knew the thing had a turret that moved and axial mounts for both emplacements of the gun’s triple barrels, but I didn’t know how to adjust them to put fire where I needed it. I knew where the fifty caliber semi-auto spotting guns were, and how they worked, but the recoilless tubes were hard-mounted for adjustment. They could only be aimed and fired from inside the vehicle.
I made for the cave entrance but stumbled over something hard. I looked down. I saw the square metal box and immediately knew Fusner had left his Prick 25 radio behind. For me. The AN 323 air radio was right next to it. I had no idea of where the right frequencies were that I might need for either one. I reached down for the main radio handset and squeezed the transmit button, hoping Fusner had thought about how little I knew about radios.
“Gunny, you on here?” I asked, not expecting anything to come back.
“Where the hell have you been?” the Gunny screamed. I pulled my head back from the radio.
I instantly decided I wasn’t going to tell the Gunny I’d been asleep. I paused for a few seconds to think, before replying.
“Tex, the Army engineer who laid that bridge down across the river, is running across the tarmac to get Jurgens and my guys back so do what you can to cover them.”
I waited, while the Gunny processed that data. I hoped he’d get back to thinking and acting to survive instead of evaluating my conduct.
“Some engineer,” the Gunny said. “We can’t use the damned bridge. They laid it too short.”
“Call command,” I replied, thinking about the bridge problem while I talked. “Get those Army brats to come in and drop ammo, grenades, and anything else you can think of. We need C-rats and 106 rounds too.”
“Great,” the Gunny said, his voice evidencing disgust. “How’s that supposed to help us get across the damned river to get to it?”
“We’ve got a fully stocked Ontos over here,” I lied.
“The Sandys have plenty of light and time to get re-armed and fly cover. I’ll have Jurgens bring the rope from this side, get out on the bridge, and then throw the end over. Everyone comes across one by one, using air and the Ontos for fire suppression.”
The radio went silent for a bit. I waited. I hadn’t had time to call Cowboy and Hobo so the ‘air’ part of my plan was all conjecture. The Ontos had an unknown supply of rounds inside its turret, but I had no idea how many, or if there were any more than the six in the tubes, and I hadn’t even checked those. It didn’t seem to make logical sense to drive one of those lethal looking little monsters all the way down Highway 548 with rounds in all the chambers. The Ontos might not have any ammunition for its guns at all.
“We saw the truck go up,” the Gunny finally said. “You got anybody left that can operate that Ontos? It’s not like firing a 106 on a tripod. Have you talked to anybody about air support? What’s this new plan going to be called? How about ‘On a Wing and a Prayer,’ since your Moses Plan didn’t seem to work out to well, except for Moses himself, that is.”
“You can sit over there, right where you are for as long as you want, Gunny,” I replied, in anger.
The man was infuriating. His implication that I’d gotten myself across the river and left the company behind went through me like a red hot poker. I’d been in country for two weeks and wasn’t even an officer in name, much less role, yet I was being required to come up with one solution after another for problems that could not have been conceived of in training or anywhere else in my background. On top of that, the Gunny took credit for any successful result and I was enthusiastically blamed for each and every failure.
“I’ll call in the Army,” the Gunny replied, no friendliness in his tone, either. “Command is gonna be pissed. Fuck ‘em. It’s on you, anyway. This plan better work or there’s going to be a whole lot of your dead Marines dotting the landscape.”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t miss the ‘your’ in his comment. I looked out of the cave entrance. Suddenly the dull sunlight shining through the murky monsoon clouds looked more attractive than where I was. But I had to try to get through on the AN 323 first.
“Cowboy?” I transmitted, not knowing the codes Fusner used to initiate contact with them.
“Roger that, Flash,” Jacko replied immediately, like he’d been waiting for the transmission. “How’s things down there on Planet Mongo? Doctor Zarkoff seems to have made a slight error in laying that bridge.”
I couldn’t help but smile. The references Jacko liked to make, using the Flash Gordon series as a model, weren’t as inaccurate as I’d originally thought.
“We’re about to be all in the open down here Jacko,” I began, trying to be careful, because I knew transmitting in the clear, and that had the likely potential of being overheard and understood. “Going to cross the big brown ribbon, insane Army Huey drop to follow, and one Ontos holding off the mud people. What can you do?”
“When’s the party set to begin?” Cowboy himself transmitted. “We packed a lunch and can set the table with a Colt automatic. Three hour loiter, gone for an hour, and then back to serve dinner. What time is it, by the way? Forgot my watch.”
The code was childish but effective. I knew Cowboy was telling me to give him the time I wanted the clock to start ticking. Forty-five minutes later the Sandys would make their first strafing run, and drop God knew what else as they went by. Then they’d stay on station, needing only an hour to leave and get back with more ordnance. We had air.
I held up my left wrist and checked out my Gus Grissom watch. I spit on the crystal and rubbed the mud off its face with the cuff of my right sleeve. It was two-thirty.
“A single trey,” I said into the headset microphone.
Three o’clock. That would give me half an hour to get my scout team back and then forty-five minutes to recover the rope and get ready to get it out to the end of the bridge, and also try to figure out how to use the Ontos for direct fire. I knew we’d need all the fire we could bring to bear. The NVA knew our company was across the river trying to cross, and the bridge failure had no doubt given them hope that they could wipe out everyone if they did it right.
“Roger that, Flash, we’ll be lookin’ at you kid before you know it.”
I reached for the Prick 25 handset, tossing the AN 323 rig aside.
Instead of trying to figure out some other way to communicate the information to the Gunny I simply repeated the conversation to him I’d had with Jacko and Cowboy.
“So, you got air, anyway,” the Gunny replied, letting me know, in his way, that he’d figured out the details buried in the message. It would have been more comforting to hear him use the word ‘we’ instead of ‘you,’ but for whatever reasons, our relationship was frayed and strained.
Three forty-five was the real kickoff, and I’d have loved to confirm that with him, but knew I didn’t dare. The dice were being thrown down across the bottom of the valley and I couldn’t increase the risk adding anything more to the huge risks already present.
“Check out the Ontos,” the Gunny said as if I hadn’t thought of that. “We’re watching to cover your team but, well, you understand.”
The company was all but out of ammo, and then there was also the likelihood that the Marines with the Gunny would save what they had for covering fire during their own crossing. Giving Marines orders in combat was no way comparable to ordering them around in training or peacetime, as I’d so bitterly discovered, and was constantly being reminded.
I put my damaged helmet on my head, checked my .45 again, grabbed the binoculars and exited the cave into the mist that didn’t seem thick enough to be a real mist at all. It was more like vague rolling ground clouds sticky thick with water. At a distance, the faint fog-like quality of the hot dense air would provide some concealment when my scout team started its run I knew. There also seemed to be more light than the clouds overhead should have allowed through. I squinted my eyes, against the glaring brightness, and then crawled up the steep bank. It took only seconds to cover the distance and crouch behind the heavy steel body of the Ontos. I peered around the southern side of the armored vehicle and checked out the smoking pyre that had to have been the Army truck. It was still burning. The jungle growth was too thick and high for me to see the body of the vehicle itself. I didn’t see any movement anywhere around the area where the smoke tendrils rose up. Tex was obviously waiting for something. I checked the entire expanse of the heat-waving air, the heated concrete below causing the mist to roil and move atop it. Tex’s body was nowhere to be found on any of its surface. I hoped he’d made it. Our company didn’t survive officers very well, and I’d made him XO.
The big iron doors at the back of the Ontos were heavy, but well balanced and not difficult to pull open. I climbed up and into the small crew capsule.
“Shit,” I breathed. There were switches and buttons everywhere. I knew immediately that there was no hope I could operate the Ontos in combat, and I also knew the Gunny had known that when we’d talked on the radio. It would probably take me half an hour just to figure out how to start it up. But I also hadn’t missed the Browning .30 Caliber machine gun mounted on the top of the turret.
Instead of storing 106 rounds, the crew must have chosen to store those in the bed of the truck. They’d stored the machine gun ammo in the Ontos instead of the truck. All around me were boxes of .30 Caliber ball ammunition for the Browning. I counted. There were twelve of them. Three thousand rounds. At five hundred rounds a minute, if fired continuously, that gave me about six minutes of cover. More if I was able to fire in short bursts, to avoid overheating the barrel. I’d never fired a Browning machine gun before but I’d been able to spend time with it in training, where specialists had done the actual firing. It was a very simple gun. A cloth belt held the ammo together in discrete little open pockets. The lever top of the receiver opened up and was laid down with the end of the belt across the flat surface, feeding from left to right. The lid was closed, and the bolt handle pulled back with the palm of one hand, and that was it. That I could do. I carefully moved the twenty-five-pound boxes through the big doors at the back of the Ontos, and stacked them next to one another on either side of the Browning. I stood on the platform below, left by the open doors, and loaded the first belt. I then worked my old sock pieces out of my left thigh pocket and stuck them in my ears. The thirty caliber bullets were about twenty percent more powerful than the NATO rounds used in the M-60, and they were louder when they went off. I was ready. I wondered if Tex and the guys were ready, or if they’d understand. I had no way of knowing.
I pulled back on the operating lever, advancing the belt and getting the first round ready to enter the chamber. I pulled back again and the first cartridge was set into the barrel. The Browning, unlike the M-60, fired from a closed bolt. If the gun got hot there was always the possibility of the thing ‘cooking off’ rounds from a red-hot chamber, which is why the operating handle was always pulled back with the palm of the hand facing up. A cook-off would break the operators thumb if it was in the way. I aimed the big rough sights of the Browning so the tip of the barrel was pointing out and up, toward the far hill the NVA had used as its base of fire previously. I looked down at my Speedmaster. It was a quarter to three.
“On a Wing and a Prayer,” I whispered, and pulled the trigger.