Hill 110 lay quiet in the distance. I realized for the first time that I lacked a forward observer’s most important tool, a pair of binoculars. The Army had Leica German range-estimating binoculars back at Fort Sill, but any pair at all would be better than bare eyes. I lay prone on a bed of dry reeds, astounded that anything in the pre-monsoon lowlands could actually be dry. The sun beating down, even in the early morning hours, was hot and relentless. No mosquitoes though, and I wasn’t about to overlook that blessing. Little bumps still dotted my wrists, face and neck, only the daily ration of anti-malaria pills probably keeping me alive.
My memorized artillery registrations were only approximations when it came to the hill itself, since I’d not been able to adjust fire on it since before the company supposedly took it. I’d be firing on it intensely, however, once we got the order to move on, if for no other reason than I felt bad about disobeying orders in a cowardly way and also guilty about what another unsuspecting outfit might come upon, thinking the hill was subdued and clear prior to their encountering it.
I felt the low drumming beat of distant chopper blades well before I could hear them through the air. I made my way toward the landing zone with Fusner at my side. Everywhere I went my team went, straggling behind except for Fusner who hovered only feet away no matter where I was. We reached the cleared area in minutes, my right hand clutching the letter I’d written in the dark.
Two Huey Cobra gunships swept in from opposite directions, diving in low and then swooping back up and around. It was like watching big sharks hunting above from the bottom of a huge fish tank. Two transport Hueys followed, both sinking slowly down from higher altitudes without encountering any enemy fire. I stood with one hand guarding my eyes and the other securing my helmet against the wind from the rotors. Would there be an officer with the air crew? A real Marine officer — not one like me. A captain or a first lieutenant. Maybe an officer transferred from another field unit who knew about all the stuff. The real stuff. I looked down at the fat little packet in my trouser pocket, bulging slightly outward. Morphine. I could give it to a more senior officer. Almost any officer in the entire Marine Corps would be senior to me. Maybe I could pass it over to him and then disappear, like every member of my team had done when the Gunny gave it to me, even Fusner. I didn’t blame the men. What kind of upstanding disciplined Marine would want to be a part of anything like the morphine thing? Their instant departure revealed the fact that they all knew, however. They all knew. The Gunny had taken out Haxton during the night. If he’d lived, would there be some investigation back home in twenty or thirty years? Would some aging veteran talk? Haxton’s family would sure never forget his dying, or the manner of his dying, if they knew it.
The lead supply chopper dived in nose down before jerking up and plopping down forty yards away. The wind almost blew me over. I forced my eyelids to squint down to the thinnest of slits, leaning into the prop wash. The macho man from days before, with the great outfit and the Thompson, stepped out to stand guard. Other Marines began dragging boxes of stuff out the side door of the Huey, the boxes thudding down soundlessly below the unrelenting roar of rotor blades still spinning at near flying speed. I rushed forward, nearly arriving at macho man’s side too late. I handed him my letter home and a short folded note requesting a set of binoculars from supply. He stuck both items into his own pocket with the hand not holding the Thompson. He turned around to grab something while I admired the wonderfully machined weapon slung from his shoulder. It gleamed with a layer of thin oil. The gun looked like it had never been fired. The man turned back and handed me a pair of jungle boots. I gathered them in with both hands, unable to speak or be heard. I thanked him with my eyes. Then he was gone, back inside the helicopter. He waved one hand downward several times before I got it. I threw myself onto a clump of reeds as the chopper’s engine spooled up to maximum and the Huey lifted out under emergency power. The powerful rotor pulled up little spalls of mud and splattered them all over everything. I crawled away, back to where Fusner waited, wisely distant from the chopper’s landing position. The second chopper came in at the same place. It brought replacements and prepared to lift out the casualties and body bags.
No officer. I could tell immediately. Six men clambered out of the hole in the side of the Huey, then ran awkwardly, dragging their huge packs with them as they fought to get as far from the down-blast of the chopper’s rotors as they could. I knew they’d be covered with the same layer of speckled mud that adorned every part of my body. I looked down and realized that in only five days I looked exactly like the vacant-eyed deadly silent men I’d circulated among at the Da Nang Hilton. A young square-headed Marine with a clipboard stood just beyond the effects of the helicopter’s artificial hurricane winds, waving to the new guys who all changed directions to arrive in front of him.
The second chopper, stuffed with bodies, pulled up from the LZ and backed away before diving down slightly and flying off. The two hovering shark-like Cobras made one more curving pass over the company before disappearing. They hadn’t drawn any fire. Marines loved and hated the choppers. They were the company lifeline and if you were hit they could save your life, but on the other side of it they drew death dealing fire almost whenever they showed up, and they were grossly undependable. Not the aircraft, but the crews. Some crews came any time you needed them and would endure heavy fire to save the wounded. Other crews would simply wave off if things seemed too hot in the LZ they were supposed to land on. Huey Cobra gunships were exceptions. They never landed and drew little fire simply because even the NVA were not often stupid enough to get their specialized sort of terminal attention. There just weren’t enough of them around, from what I’d seen so far.
“You’d be Rittenhouse?” I asked, reaching the stocky blond man working on the clip board held before him.
“That’s right,” he replied, not looking up, while he checked off any number of things for each Marine coming in.
“You do the paperwork on the dead and injured?” I asked.
Rittenhouse stopped what he was doing and looked over at me. “Yeah, I do, and on everything else in this unit, too.”
I saw him look at the jungle boots tucked under my arm.
“Don’t have a record of those coming in,” he said, making no move to write anything down, however. “And I don’t remember you coming in, either.”
I didn’t say anything, watching the interesting young man frown, searching his obviously excellent memory.
“Who are you, and what’s your rank?” he finally asked, unable to identify me.
“Second Lieutenant,” I answered, without going further.
The man changed before my eyes, snapping to attention like we were back at some Marine barracks.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, staring straight ahead, right through me. “So, you’re him…sir,” he added.
“Breathe, Rittenhouse, and stand at ease. We’re not on some parade ground.”
“Sorry, sir,” he got out, physically relaxing.
“And stop saying you’re sorry,” I added.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, not being able to stop himself.
I liked Rittenhouse right off the bat. It was like I’d finally landed in the middle of the unit I was supposed to be in. Rittenhouse waited, not turning back to his charges, just like he would have back home. He wouldn’t turn until he was ordered or dismissed.
“As you were, take care of the men,” I said. “And assign them to Fourth Platoon. I don’t care where the men we lost were from.”
“Can’t do that sir,” Rittenhouse said.
I just stood there staring at him, wanting to say the words ‘say again?’ but holding myself back.
“The dead and injured were from First Platoon and Fourth Platoon, it’s true, but these men, well, none of them can go into the Fourth.” Rittenhouse returned to a squirming sort of attention after he was done talking.
“Because they’re Caucasian and the Gunny said so?” I asked, speaking slower and softer than I had before.
“Yes, sir,” Rittenhouse replied.
I noted that the squared away bright Marine in front of me was a corporal. Talent didn’t always get a high rank in the Corps. I was willing to bet, in having listened to the man for only a few seconds and watching his comportment, that he was at least a high school graduate and most probably had some or all of college too.
“Let me guess, Corporal,” I asked, sidestepping the authority issue. “Three of the them were from First Platoon and the rest from Fourth.”
“Did you read the tags, sir?” Rittenhouse shot back. “I think it I got it all right.”
“Three of them had foot infections, did they not?” I asked, not really expecting an answer.
“You’d have to ask the medics, sir,” Rittenhouse replied, looking down at this clipboard and moving around in such a way that it was apparent he wanted to get back to checking in the new guys.
I wondered about Private First Class Thomas Haxton. Which among the casualties was he? Why had I been unable to counsel the Gunny in his obvious grief over what he’d done? What he’d had to do. Awful thoughts would not stop once they started running through my mind. What was Haxton’s dog’s name? What kind of dog was he? What difference did it make whether First Platoon had killed the malingerers rather than carry them or simply shot them in the ass, like I’d done to the corpsman? Haxton would get a Purple Heart, but that was it.
“How do you put somebody in for a medal?” I asked Rittenhouse, wondering why that hadn’t been covered in training either.
“You put him in the dailies, along with a citation draft, sir,” Rittenhouse said, still working with the new guys. “Division edits and rewrites it if they approve the medal. What medal? For what?” he finally asked, this time turning with a questioning look on his face.
“Bronze star for valor in the taking of Hill 110,” I said, thinking that I would normally be laughing inside but couldn’t quite do it. I knew I couldn’t laugh out loud either. That had gone away. How can a person lose the power to laugh, I thought, growing slightly fearful. What was happening to me?
“But we didn’t take the hill, sir,” Rittenhouse said.
“We were ordered to take the hill,” I said back, my voice low and hard. “We told Battalion we took the hill and soon we’ll be leaving the hill we didn’t take but said we took. And Haxton gets the only real thing in the whole deal. At least his parents and siblings do. Write it up and send it in.”
‘I don’t know what to say, sir,” Rittenhouse replied, shrugging his shoulders, the new guys having moved on.
“Figure it out, Corporal,” I ordered. “He died attacking the hill with his fire team, the rest of the Marines on that chopper died with him in the attack. Put that in your dailies.”
“What about the new guys?” he replied, after going silent for a full minute, while making some notes on his clipboard.
“What do you mean?” I said, in surprise. “What do you usually do with them?”
“Assign them to platoons where the platoon leaders put them in squads and fire teams. But these are P-1 T.O. special guys, sir.”
“Would you mind a little English, Corporal?” I said, frustrated.
“Ah, they’re Project One Hundred Thousand, table of organization exceptions, sir,” he replied, waiting for me to respond.
I felt angry at being so very ignorant about everything, and my facial expression must have shown it.
“Project One Hundred Thousand is Secretary McNamara’s program to help young guys succeed in the Corps, sir,” Rittenhouse said, like he was a schoolteacher and I was a dumb kid in the front row.
I just looked back at him with a waiting blank stare.
“They can’t read or write, sir,” the corporal said, his voice little more than a whisper. “And they are slow, if you know what I mean, sir.”
I stood in shock. I’d never heard of the program, and I was taken totally aback by the blatant insanity of providing damaged, untrained and unschooled young men help by sending them to a ground unit in Vietnam in full on combat.
“They can’t read an ammo or C-ration box, sir. They can’t read or understand a map. They can’t…” Rittenhouse went on but I stopped hearing him.
I plopped myself onto a clump of dry reeds and began pulling my boots off.
I moved as fast as possible. I was determined to die in my new combat jungle boots and not my old cast off Korean war specials. I rushed because I wasn’t sure, in the world I’d landed, that I would live long enough to get the boots on. I made it, heaving the old boots off into the bracken and standing up.
“Much better,” I breathed out.
“Sir?” Rittenhouse said, having talked almost the whole time I was working.
“Sir, what?” I answered.
“What do I do with these men?” he asked, tapping his clipboard with a long yellow pencil. I noted that he carried a spare tucked in above his right ear. The pencils were razor sharp. I wondered where he got pencils sharpened in a combat zone.
“Pair them up,” I said, inventing as I went along. “They’ve all got to be privates, right? So, pair them with Marines of higher rank and then make the ranking Marines responsible for them. We can’t have them wandering about on their own. In fact, put them all in Fourth Platoon. Sugar Daddy can teach them all to knuckle-knock, or whatever those guys do instead of saluting.”
“This isn’t going to be good, sir,” Rittenhouse said. “There’s going to be trouble.”
“Trouble?” I shot back. “Oh, we’re not in trouble here. How many wars are we fighting? The real one with the NVA? The fake one against Hill 110, or maybe the crackers against the blacks in First and Fourth platoons, and I don’t even have a clue about the others. Trouble, you say? Come again?”
Rittenhouse looked down at his clipboard. I breathed in and out deeply. Here was a kid trying his heart out to be a real company clerk in a Marine outfit that had become as phony as a three-dollar bill. It wasn’t his fault. I knew I was extremely fatigued and the knowledge that I was the least informed person in the company bothered me deeply. And yet, every time I found out something vital and new it was equally awful and about as far from what the Marine Corps was supposed to be about as was possible.
“Ignore that last, Corporal,” I said. “We’re probably set in for the day so the Gunny and Sugar Daddy will no doubt be taking this up with me sooner rather than later. Did the tracers come in? What about food and water?”
“Yes, sir,” he replied, turning and walking back toward the LZ. “Five gallons of water for you sir. You can have your men hold the big bottle up and sort of take a shower. You need a shower, sir. The Gunny ordered it special for you.”
“Who would have thought?” I said. “How nice. Not that I need a shower that badly.” I grimaced at the thought of how bad my physical well-being had suffered since arriving in country. I was one muddy stinking mass of ambient oils, stickers, blood and mud. My leech bites were infected and my socks had dissolved when I’d taken off my old boots. How could my socks dissolve in only four days, I wondered in amazement.
“Got any extra socks, Corporal?” I asked Rittenhouse.
“No sir, socks are in short supply here. Gotta requisition from Supply.”
“Get me a hundred pair,” I replied. “White, fluffy and new.”
“I’ll get right on that, sir,” he answered. “Four pairs of white athletic socks.”
I watched the kid write it down. I knew I’d changed because the kid was as old as I was but that’s not how I saw him, or anyone around me. I was growing older and older by the second.
I spent the next few hours moving from re-supply to different parts of the company, trying to find out who was who and where they all fit in, however they fit in. My scout team and Fusner followed, carrying boxes of tracers. I retrieved eight AK-47 rifles. The rules of engagement did not allow for the use of enemy weapons by Marines. In my case, I wanted no ammunition shortage problems and I wanted to be able to see where the Company’s rounds were going at night.
We returned to our hooch area just after mid-day, the heat building toward furnace conditions. Even with no mist, the moisture in the air was palpable. Everything felt greasy instead of wet. I saw the Gunny hunkered down for coffee between our poncho-liner tents. At least he hadn’t moved away from me yet, I thought with relief. He wasn’t alone. Sugar Daddy squatted to his left. The only good news was the clean looking big plastic container of water sitting up under my poncho liner. I knew that after dealing with the Gunny and Sugar Daddy, I would need the full five gallons for a deep cleansing shower.