Fusner found me with some difficulty, as I’d gone pretty deep under the camouflage provided by the packed down plant debris that served as the jungle floor. Although the stuff allowed me to hide from the gunships above, it did nothing in providing any kind of cover. A .22 bullet would go through it like it was made of butter. Fusner pulled my right arm out of the jumbled mess, and part of my torso followed.
“Sir, I’ve got them check-fired,” he said, leaning down close to my left ear. “The supply birds are coming in. Zippo and Jurgens are working their way upriver where they’re going to land.”
I crawled out from under the pungent smelling mess I’d hidden in.
“Get one of the supply choppers to pick up Tex on the other side,” I ordered Fusner, trying to clear the mess of jungle crap that had gotten into every part of my utilities.
Only a moment earlier I’d been cool and swept clean for the second time in less than an hour. The cloying heat, dirt, and misery were back, along with the drums. Either my hearing was gone again, I was getting used to them or the drums were not as loud as before. Their message of our hoped for death was the same, however.
The Skyraiders came in one more time, the light in the valley fading fast as the sun was long set over the farther cliff face to the west of the river.
“Binoculars?” I asked of Fusner, when he was done transmitting. I hadn’t thought to carry them with me across the river, and now I was glad. They’d probably have gone to the bottom like my .45. I reached down to the Colt and slid my hand into the perfectly made butt of the gun. It wasn’t my .45. It was better.
I laid on the berm like I’d done before, trying to focus on the same scene, but the waning light and the fact that I couldn’t see anybody down near the bend of the river where Tex waited for medevac, bothered me. I checked the lens surfaces and peered downriver again. After concentrating for almost a minute I found where Tex lay. He was still there, but there was nobody with him.
“What the hell?” I whispered out into the drumming air.
I moved the glasses to concentrate on the end of the bridge. Only two men crawled along the bridge’s surface. I knew it had to be the Gunny and the corpsman. How could they have left Tex alone? The instant the question appeared in my mind, I knew there could only be one answer. They would not have left him alive. Tex didn’t make it, just like the corpsman had predicted.
“The chopper’s not going over there, is it?” I asked Fusner, keeping my attention on the bridge while my insides began to churn.
“No, sir,” Fusner replied, softly.
Stevens came out of the jungle to lay down next to me. In spite of the fact that he’d somehow managed not to come across with the rest of us it was still good to see him.
“We lost Tex,” I said, needlessly, knowing he had to know. I looked around me, wondering where my pack was so I could put the binoculars away.
Then I remembered that Zippo, who had my pack, was hopefully guiding the choppers in not far from where we lay. I felt the need to get to the resupply area but I knew I needed to wait for the Gunny. Instead of moving I checked out my scout team. I had Stevens back, with Fusner, Zippo and Nguyen.
The Gunny crawled through the brush, coming to a stop in the middle of where the rest of us lay.
“Tex didn’t make it,” I said to him, knowing there was some blame in my voice I could not get out.
“Left him out there for too long,” the Gunny replied, saying it in his own accusatory tone, as if I’d left Tex over there to die. “We couldn’t see him. Who’s Jones?”
A flare of outraged anger burst in my brain. I listened to the drums beating, and looked up to the darkening sky. I could hear the Huey supply choppers coming in further upriver and I had no idea who was going to be there to meet them. I had no letter to my wife buried deep in my left thigh pocket because I’d not been able to find one waking minute to write. All I could do was breathe in and out and stare at the Gunny. I tried to think it through before saying anything. What was the man up to, since what was apparent seldom dictated what the man was planning or pulling off? The Gunny had been angry with me ever since the company got to the river, and every encounter with it just seemed to make him madder. It didn’t blow right by me that I’d been unable to call in any artillery support since we’d moved into an area where we had none, and therefore my likely importance was diminished, whether I wanted to accept or accommodate that or not.
“Everyone hit in this latest operation was hit on this side of the river, not mine,” the Gunny added when the silence stretched out without anybody filling it.
“Stay with me,” I said to the Gunny. “The rest of you get your asses to the choppers. Barnes and Tex will have to wait until tomorrow unless we’ve got other casualties.” I stopped, letting my comment hang there.
The Gunny shook his head, almost imperceptibly, before taking out a cigarette and going through the ornate process of lighting it with his special lighter after tamping the pack, that had to have been well tamped several times before.
The rest of the company had crossed so it was likely that everyone was proceeding to the choppers, without direction or control. The company and resupply and command of that area would have to wait. I stared at the Gunny, my eyes enflamed with rage, and waited until he’d blown one inhalation of smoke out into the now misting air.
“You want the radio?” Fusner asked, standing and holding the straps a few inches out from his chest, as if he was going strip out of it and drop it down by my side.
I shook my head. What was left of my scout team crawled away. I turned to the Gunny and our eyes locked. And my rage was gone, as if a switch had been turned. I was back. In the real world. The world I was coming to know. Hating it had nothing to do with surviving it. I needed the Gunny. I had to make the Gunny need me again, and that meant moving the unit to get under the umbrella of artillery fire that lay just north of the airstrip. The Army was trying to build a new firebase for the local Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which should have been a humor skit on some television show, except for the fact that it was real. Our company was going to have to work with that ridiculous killer of a mission, but I would try to keep my Marines as far from the old airstrip as possible while it was being done. I would keep as many of them alive as I could, and myself, above all.
The Army might have learned something from sending a forward contingent to the hell hole of a death arena and losing everyone, but maybe not. If not, then a whole lot of Army personnel were going to die. It was my intent not to die with them.
“It’s not working out,” I said to the Gunny, across the short distance between us.
“What?” the Gunny replied, blowing out another long streamer of smoke.
“When you speak to me in front of the men, it’s not working,” I said, trying to broach the subject as carefully as possible. “We’re either in this together or we’re not. Being in it together was your idea, or I wouldn’t be here anymore.”
“I’m impressed,” the Gunny replied, surprising me. “You’re right hand isn’t sitting on top of that automatic.”
Suddenly, the drums stopped and we both looked up as if their constant deathly reminder and harassment had come from above. Only the darkening sky was there, with a mist condensing and beginning to rain down.
“I’m no threat to you, and you know it,” I answered, and then waited in silence, broken only by the sound of distant chopper blades and the ever-present whistling rush of the nearby water. Finally, I had to say more. “You were on the other side of the river with the company and I was over here. Now we’re both over here together, or are we?”
“I’ll handle Jurgens and Sugar Daddy and you do what it is you do,” the Gunny replied.
It was a weak comeback and his response didn’t answer anything about the mess we were in, but there was one thing I could not let go.
“Why didn’t you send someone down to where Tex was?” I asked, almost wishing I hadn’t asked, but unable to stop myself.
“Everyone saw Tex take the hit in his chest,” the Gunny said. “Nobody comes back from that kind of chest wound without a chopper being right on the scene. There was no way he was going to make it, and I wasn’t sending my Marines down, and out into the open to go after him. He was Army. Let the Army come after his body.”
“Your Marines?” I asked, my voice going cold. I didn’t move my hand to rest on the butt of the Colt but, for the first time, I felt like it.
“Our Marines,” he finally corrected, his voice low, as if the words had been forced out of him.
“Those are Army choppers coming in to supply us,” I said. It’s their gunships protecting us while they come, and it’s their artillery that’s going to be firing to save us once we get back in range.”
The Gunny buried his cigarette stub in the mud before climbing to his feet.
“A man’s got to do what he thinks is best, Junior.”
“What about the Ontos at the airstrip?” I asked, understanding the Gunny was going back to the company without helping me, but not interfering either. “We’re probably going to have ammunition but we need somebody who can fire it.”
“Got that covered,” the Gunny replied, turning his back and heading out into the near dark in the direction the others had taken.
I followed, wanting to say some things to his back, but not being able to think of how I would phrase anything that might have real meaning. There was no contest in the unit. Some of the Marines had come to respect me but nothing like the popularity the Gunny enjoyed. My scout team might do what I ordered if it differed with what the Gunny wanted, but I couldn’t count on anyone else. Which meant that I could not afford to alienate the Gunny no matter how overbearing or wrong he might be. Tex and I had gotten the company across the impossible river but there would be no credit coming to either of us for that extraordinary feat. Combat only paid back in the shortest of terms, before fear came rushing in to fill the void and replace normal emotions with its crawling, cowardly and frightened singularity. I couldn’t threaten the Gunny. I could only ask and encourage him to do the few things I’d found to be most beneficial for my own survival.
It took about ten minutes to work through the foliage near the river and come upon the perimeter the company had set up around the temporary landing zone. The Gunny walked through and so did I, right behind him. The choppers had landed as far from the river as they could get without moving in too close to the wall that blocked on the western side of the valley. A dense jungle stood between the wall of the valley and the open area before the water. The company had penetrated the jungle and then radiated out in a semi-circle onto the mud and sand of another of the many areas that were once river bottom and probably would be again in the future.
The Gunny stopped at the edge of the jungle area near the center of the area where the perimeter was established. The Marines sat and lay with their weapons ready, but most were eating. C-rations had run out a day earlier for most, including myself and the scout team. Seeing them eating stirred my own hunger pangs. I went straight for one of the piles of supplies. My choice was easy. There were several boxes of discarded Ham and Mothers. I tore one apart and knelt down to open the can next to where the Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy crouched down.
“You’re going back in the morning for that officer’s body?” Sugar Daddy asked, without preamble.
I looked at the Gunny. How Sugar Daddy knew what I was going to do at all amazed me. We’d only been inside the perimeter for a few moments. The gunny opened his own cans and ate, however, without looking at me or entering the conversation.
“No, I’m going back tonight, in a few minutes,” I replied between bites of the cold greasy food. “The medivac can pick him up with Barnes at first light. He’ll wash away or maybe the Army choppers won’t find or bother to find him in the morning unless I bring him across.”
I waited for some argument. If the men knew I was going back, and the Gunny was against it, then it didn’t take a genius to figure that they’d be opposed to the idea, as well. Tex was also an officer and I now understood what most enlisted men in combat thought of officers.
“I’m going with you,” Jurgens said, shocking me to the point of stopping eating. I looked at him like he was an alien, but couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Barnes was one of my men,” he finished.
I looked at the man very closely. What he’d said didn't seem to make much sense. I wasn’t going back for Barnes. He was already on our side of the river.
“I’ll go too,” Sugar Daddy said. “We can take a squad apiece since we got plenty of ammo now. That Tex guy was trying to save us. He can come home.”
My knife remained in my hand, halfway through the opened C-Rations can. I didn’t know what to say, or even if what I was hearing was real.
“It’s a bad idea,” the Gunny said. “Let it wait until tomorrow. They’re all dead. They’re not going anywhere. The object is to keep as many of us alive as possible.”
The Gunny’s words brought me back to reality. Maybe it was a bad idea. I knew I was going, however, with whomever from my scout team would volunteer to go with me. I stayed silent, wondering how this new development would play out.
“You ordering us not to go with Junior?” Jurgens asked the Gunny.
Once again, the situation seemed surreal. The sergeants were asking another sergeant about permission to go with the company commanding officer and it seemed logical and normal. I waited for the Gunny to answer, along with the two platoon commanders.
The Gunny stopped eating, put his C-Ration can down, and took a cigarette from his left breast pocket. He lit up without answering, keeping the three of us waiting in silence.
“We lost a lot of men today,” he finally said, after blowing out his third puff of smoke. “Some Army and some of our own. All the casualties were on this side of the river, not our side.”
I realized that the Gunny was speaking only to Jurgens and Sugar Daddy like I wasn’t there, but I didn’t comment. Whatever was going on was important, although I couldn’t figure out exactly why.
“We could take a squad apiece,” Sugar Daddy replied, looking at Jurgens.
“I sent Tex out there to do what I was supposed to do,” Jurgens replied. “I didn’t think he’d get nailed.”
“None of you think here if you haven’t noticed,” the Gunny said, his voice rising slightly although not to the point where it projected anger. “You just do. I’m the one who thinks, and I think it’s a bad idea. We’re still losing the same number as before Junior came aboard if you haven’t notice that either. But Junior’s the company commander, again. I can’t tell you not to go. I just think it's a bad idea to waste living Marines on dragging around dead Army officers.”
“Junior promoted him to XO of the company after he lost his own men,” Jurgens replied, his voice almost inaudible in trying to face down the Gunny.
“What?” the Gunny asked, with a gasp, nearly choking on cigarette smoke.
"I made him XO after he lost his men,” I agreed. “What was he supposed to do, with nobody left?"
“An Army First Lieutenant?” the Gunny coughed out. “You made him a Marine XO of a fucking Marine Company in combat under a Second Lieutenant?”
“So he was like a real Marine when he got it,” Jurgens concluded as if what he was saying and hearing was not something out of a badly animated cartoon.
“You’re looney, each one of you,” the Gunny said, standing up, his C-rations spilling to the ground. “I’m going to lead the company back to the airfield and get everyone to a real position of security, at least for the rest of this night. Do what you want. I’ll be on the command net when Junior’s next little plan blows the shit out of all of you.”
The Gunny walked to the wall of jungle and forced his way through. Zippo, Nguyen, Stevens, and Fusner appeared as if they’d been waiting just outside the small circle. They formed a second circle around Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and I.
“Resupply fucked up,” Jurgens reported, pointedly ignoring the Gunny’s dramatic departure. “They didn’t know to give us all tracers for the M-16s, but we got about thirty rounds of 106 for the Ontos. I’ll take Barnes' squad, three fire team, and three 60s.”
It was almost night, and the mist was thickening, but the drums had not returned. I felt like there was a ray of hope that had somehow penetrated the stygian darkness of my life.
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were working together at something. What they were working on didn’t matter as much as the fact that they were together. Jurgens even sounded like he was disappointed that the tracer resupply wasn’t there, when only days before it was only tracers that had begun stopping First and Fourth Platoons from shooting at each other whenever it was dark. I looked from one man to the other, afraid that some exotic plot might be in the works to finish me off once we were far enough from the main elements of the company itself. I got no feeling or clue about that, however. We were going to recover the body of a Marine, the way they saw it. I wondered if Tex had made it whether that would have given him some satisfaction. I didn’t have to really think about it though. I knew it would.
“Finish with chow, drop your packs and let the other guys move them to the old runway with the Gunny. We move light, with guns and ammo only. Once we reach the bridge, Sugar Daddy’s squad forms a perimeter and protects the rear. Jurgens, you take your squad and hold the bridge itself. I’ll take Nguyen over, untie the rope from the other side, get Tex’s body tied to it and then Zippo and Stephens will pull the three of us back to the bridge.”
I looked at the two platoon leaders and I couldn’t shake a small growing fear that they had not worked together to do much outside of killing one another since I’d been in country. Here would be two smaller versions of the same racial problem, loaded for bear, distant from the company, and capable of going at one another without mercy or moderation of any sort. Was the Gunny right? Was the risk too great? And if Sugar Daddy and Jurgens decided to settle their differences on this night would not my scout team and I be right in the crossfire?
There was no answer to my question. I could not think of one thing to change that would minimize the risk or come up with any decision made by me that might stop a wholesale slaughter should one begin to occur. The other side of the argument, the one I was praying was happening even before we got underway, was that there seemed a glimmer of hope that the company might possibly be somehow melded back together into something resembling what the entire history and tradition of the Marine Corps trained for and indicated was the best infantry fighting unit ever devised by man.
I could not counsel with the Gunny. Fate had closed that door, at least temporarily. I had to go it alone.
“Go get your squads together before the Gunny gets everyone moving,” I ordered Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. "We meet back here in fifteen minutes.”
Both men moved out. Neither Marine had appeared with the usual bodyguards they’d always had accompanying them before. That seemed another good sign. Was a dead officer’s body really worth it? Was the possibility of healing the company’s racial rift worth the risk?
I turned to my scout team when the two sergeants were gone.
“Stevens, thank Nguyen for what he did on the bridge,” I ordered, as they gathered around and squatted down.
Stevens spoke to Nguyen. The Montagnard looked at me while Stephens talked but the enigmatic man said nothing, his stare into my eyes without any expression at all.
“The hard part will be pulling us back over,” I pointed out when Stevens was done. “Nguyen and I can handle getting the body to the rope, but the current is pretty fierce and you’ll be pulling against it with three of us in the water.”
“What if something goes wrong behind us?” Stevens asked. The other men stared at me with him.
I realized that they had the same misgivings and fears as I did. All of them had been with the company longer than I had. What might be happening between the whites and black elements of the company was something new, and in combat something new usually got you or somebody nearby killed.
“If things go south, then you only have one choice, and that’s to come across the water. There’s cover and concealment on the other side and it’s going to be a dark night. Live through the night and fight another day tomorrow.”
Only when I was done did I realize that my entire plan had little to do with the enemy or fighting the enemy. I was once more trapped inside a killing blender set to pulse, and I had no idea when the pulse button might be pushed.
“Eat some chow and get ready to move out,” I ordered.
“What’s our plan called?” Fusner asked.
“Throwing the Dice,” I replied, not having to think about that title at all.
Featured Photo: from Delta 2-7.org