A fifty caliber machine gun opened up in short bursts again, but this one wasn’t pouring in tracer rounds from the hill further down south on the other side of the river. We were too close for the tracers to begin to light up from this one, and not far enough away to remain anything but frighteningly aware of the huge flashes of fire and cracking thunder of every round coming out of the heavy gun. It was firing from the top of the tank turret, as the tank made its way very slowly through the heavy fast-running current of the Bong Song, with those waters sluicing partially over and all around it.
The 175 round I’d called in came down. I tried to see the tank in the Starlight scope, in spite of the flashes from the machine gun that blanked everything in and out, as they blossomed from the end of the barrel. The two-hundred-pound projectile exploded with a monstrous, but somewhat muffled boom, followed immediately by a wave of cool rain coming down upon us. The scope was useless, I realized. Only the LAWs could stop the tank, but with the machine gun operational, on top of the turret, there would be no Marines left alive to squeeze the levers atop the LAW tubes, and thereby send the projectiles into the tank’s right tracks.
The 175 round had gone off in the river, and blown tons of water all over everything within several hundred meters. The ‘rain’ had been water reduced to mist by the explosion.
Firing continued to come in from the other side of the water, only the AK-47 rounds identifiable as to what they were because our position directly in front of them. The company fire from our side had lessened, but not gone away entirely, instead dribbling away to a sporadic but steady staccato of snapping sounds. I knew our patrol was in the very epicenter of an active kill zone. I’d known that when I came up with the plan. The only protection we enjoyed down near the river’s edge was the berm of earth built up over the bracken and brush we tried to burrow under and hide within. There was, however, no hiding from the big fifty.
Then I realized that there was one battlefield sound I was not hearing. The diesel on the tank had stopped its high-pitched roar. The sound of its huge engine should have increased when it began its climb out of the water, but that hadn’t happened.
“The 175,” I whispered, as I began crawling toward Casey’s position with the LAW operators and Nguyen. “Move with me, Zippo, and bring the explosives,” I said behind me, as I struggled to get through the mix of broken branches, moss and leaves, all layered sporadically over a bed of sandy mud.
Leeches tried to find purchase on my hands, but I’d used some of Fusner’s heavy rubber bands around my utility blouse sleeve ends to keep them from getting inside my uniform. I brushed the leeches off, almost absently, no longer finding them creatures of horror, so much as nasty little jungle critters, like the nearly ever-present mosquitos. I was in their home and they didn’t like me any better than the enemy or most of my own Marines. But they wouldn’t kill me. The enemy damn sure would. The Marines were a mixed bag when it came to that.
I slid along the mud on my belly until I was next to Casey, who was lying next to Nguyen. I noted the two dark unmoving humps further back, obviously the two LAW operators hit by the fifty that had gone silent over on top of the opposing hill.
“The tank’s stuck in the river,” I said to Casey, trying to peer through the darkness of the night, but only able to spot the position of it by seeing flashes coming from the turret-mounted machine gun.
“The high explosive from the 175 must have drowned the damned thing’s engine.” I got back down in the mud, turning my head toward Casey.
The fifty could fire through the berm if the gunner figured out just where we were. He hadn’t so far, but it was only a matter of time. The incoming fire from the company might reach him, but since most of the gunner’s body was protected, with only a bit of his head and torso sticking out of the turret hatch, getting a hit wasn’t likely. If the combined guns of the company did get a bullet into him, then it was highly likely that another gunner could pop up from inside the tank, anyway.
“Tanks don’t float,” Casey said, gripping Fusner’s shoulder-mounted LAW tube and pulling it toward him. I watched Casey fiddle with the simple aiming mechanism, as if it would function for aiming in the dark, which it wouldn’t.
“We can’t go forward and we can’t retreat,” I said to him, knowing how damaged the man was who I was talking to, but unable to contain my fear and frustration in total silence alone. “The tank’s stuck in the river but with the machine gun on top we’re screwed anyway.”
I was no longer worried about the tank coming up out of the water and attacking the company. If I was dead it wasn’t going to make any difference to me, and I hated having that kind of selfish thought, but I couldn’t shake it.
“Fire in the hole,” Casey shouted.
I didn’t move, the words not translating properly in my brain. What hole? What fire? I heard a light pop next to me, and then the distinct clicking sound of a grenade pin being pulled out. Casey threw a grenade. There was another louder pop out by the river when the thing hit. I pushed my face down in the mud again, but there was no explosion. A radiating light surged up from the darkness. I stuck my head up. The tank was fully illuminated, the grenade having landed in the muck near the water’s edge. The big tank sat there, stuck half way across in the very center of the rushing water. Why illuminate the thing before it reached the river bank, I wondered, and then realizing Casey had thought to bring the illumination I’d forgotten. A hard object landed on my back, and then rolled off my right side into the mud. I reached over and grasped it with one hand. I knew what it was. The long cylinder was distinctive, with the equally long spoon running up and down its full length. I was holding either an illumination or smoke grenade, and I wasn’t going to have to bother to guess which one it was. Casey, even in the condition he was in, had known and remembered to bring the grenades.
“Fire in the hole,” Casey yelled again, this time risking coming to a seated position up beside me.
I cringed down and away, realizing that he was going to fire one of the four LAWs, thereby diminishing our chances to take the tank out if it made it up out of the river. Instead of trying to stop him, I rolled half a body-length, let go of the extra illumination grenade, and clamped both hands over my ears, before sticking my face in the mud. The thunderous whoosh of the LAW going off blasted right through my hands. The explosion of the four-pound anti-tank round hitting the armor of the vehicle followed the projectile’s launch so quickly it was like a double clap of intensely loud thunder.
I rolled back and stuck my head up. There was a small fire going on top of the tank. I realized it had to be the burning uniform of the gunner. The big machine gun was silent, but the fire was moving. Slowly, the burning mass tumbled down into the river. I didn’t hear any hiss of the fire being extinguished because of the sound of the rushing river and the sporadic high velocity fire coming from both the enemy and my own company. I could still hear, but the sounds that had been agonizing earlier were now not uncomfortable at all. But it didn’t matter much if I could hear or not. Our patrol was dying out in the middle of the giant cacophony of a mess that the middle ground on our side of the river had become.
The big diesel in the tank started up with a huge stuttering roar. A physical shiver of fear went up and down my back like a confused bolt of lightning. I though we were going to be dead before, but now I knew we were about to go through the process of dying for certain in only a few moments. The remaining LAWs were not going to stop the tank, and even if the three tubes had the effect of disabling it we were dead anyway as soon as another gunner for the fifty came up through the hatch to take over for the one Casey had killed.
The radio! I had forgotten to drag Fusner’s radio with me. The only thing that could save us would be risking everything we had left on another 175 strike. If the impossible to predict round hit us we were no worse off than we would be in only a few minutes, when the tank reached our side of the river.
The tank’s diesel continued to roar at top RPM, the sound overpowering even the sound of high velocity rifles firing in front of and behind us. The creak and clank of the tank’s treads became increasingly louder. I knew the tank had to be in low gear and climbing the bank. We had no time left.
I got up to my knees and thrashed around to get my bearings before realizing Fusner and Casey weren’t where they’d been. Just as the panicked thought of not being able to reach Firebase Ripcord raced through my mind, Fusner appeared out of the night. He dropped to his knees, with the radio handset extended right into my chest. I fumbled with the instrument before seeing the flash of light back near the bushes where we’d first sought cover and concealment from the enemy across the river.
The flash of light wasn’t a flash. The light began burning brighter and then heading straight for me. I held the handset frozen, unable to bring it up to my lips, my fright of the unknown overcoming my terror of what I could hear happening in the near distance with the tank.
Casey ran up to where Fusner and I crouched low in the mud together. I was stunned again. He stopped, swinging the pack loaded with Composition B clutched to his chest, the fuse cord dangling and sparkling away in front of it. The moving reflection of his facial features burned into my mind, racing in deeper than the fear and terror already finding a home there. His expression was one of wild rapture.
“High yo Silver, off into the color of night,” he yelled, and then ran directly out toward where the illuminated tank was roaring and climbing less than a hundred meters away.
“The fuse is only for thirty seconds,” I finally got out, shouted to his fast departing back. “Only thirty seconds,” I said, my voice dropping off to a whisper, knowing he could no longer hear me.
All I could see was the bright yellow fuse swinging and racing across the beaten down bracken in front of the berm. The Gunny’s instructions came back to me clearly. In truth, I hadn’t expected to be able to use the explosives, anyway. Approaching an armed and active main battle tank as an infantryman without heavy firepower was totally suicidal. I hadn’t told Casey about the length of the fuse, or anybody else.
The tank roared, the tracks of it clanked and clattered loudly, and the enemy small arms fire and our own company’s tracer fire continued, until the fuse on the explosives pack went out.
I blinked my eyes rapidly. What had happened? As that question began to form in my mind there was a huge explosion. The whumping sound and shock wave hit me at the same time, rocking my head back. There was no follow up of anything. The night and river swallowed the instant fireworks show whole.
I pulled the pin on Casey’s additional illumination grenade, squeezed the cylinder of its small bulk tightly, and then got to my feet. I eased the pin out gently but firmly, as I’d been taught in my one experience back at the Basic School's Explosives Ordnance Disposal School, and threw the grenade with all my might in what I hoped was the direction of the river. I was night blind from the explosive flash of the detonation seconds earlier and I was almost totally deaf from everything else.
I plunged back to my knees, keeping my eyes facing the direction where I’d last seen the tank. The river lit up with eerie illumination light, shadows dancing about in black, gray and white. The tank was there, but didn’t look like a tank anymore. The explosion had blown it upside down. The river still ran strongly around it but the only thing visible were the two tracks, and they weren’t moving, not that it would have mattered. Casey had single-handedly taken out the gunner, illuminated the battlefield, and then taken out the tank too.
“Silver Star,” I said, but only Nguyen and Fusner were there to hear me, the other two LAW operators having disappeared somewhere in the dark.
I nodded my head sharply, surprised I could see the dark native at all. I realized that the night was coming to an end. I handed the handset back to Fusner and crawled forward, right over and out of the protective berm and brush until I was moving rapidly on hands and knees across open ground toward the tank. I knew the coming light from the distant dawn would make it nearly impossible to survive out on the bank of the river without heavy covering fire. But I had to go. If Casey had survived, he would need help. I also felt like a total failure as a Marine Officer under combat conditions. What I was really best at, over and above calling artillery and reading a map, was burrowing deeply into any available mud to avoid combat any way I could. I owed Casey my exposed journey onto the bank and my effort to save him.
Nguyen crawled with me, moving more like a spider to my uncoordinated crab-like effort. We got to the bank of the river where the mud and sand mix gave way to a lighter swell of pure sand. The sand felt clean and good, but the blackness of the moving water was repelling. I had no intention of entering it unless to rescue the captain. I thought of crocodiles, as I searched up and down the bank, crawling first one way and then the other. Not finding anything, I realized I didn’t give a shit about crocodiles. The illumination grenade had burned out leaving me more night blind than I’d been after the big explosion.
The morning’s dim light, although I was aware of it, was of little help to me yet. The small arms fire from both sides of the river had died out following Casey’s placement and setting off of the big charge. I lay flat on my back, trying to think of what I must do next, with the eerie sounds of rushing water in the broken diminishing night making me want to stay right where I was until everything went away.
Nguyen punched me in the side, but it wasn’t a punch. I grabbed down on my torso and found the object he’d pushed into me. I knew instantly what it was.
It was one of our helmets. Only U.S. forces and close allies wore the round pots, as we called them. I brought it up to my face but I couldn’t really see it. A small object fell out onto my chest, and then off into the sand. I reached down and picked up the silver dollar sized piece. Without seeing it I recoiled, pushing it down deeply into the sand. It was a piece of skull with hair on it. I was holding Casey’s helmet, and he was as dead as you could get in a combat zone or anywhere else. I knew I’d find his black double bars on the cover of the helmet when the light improved.
Out of nowhere I began to cry. I suppressed the shudders as best I could. Not Casey, my mind tried to deny. He’d become a giant wonderful child embodying all those things I’d loved about being human before I wasn’t one anymore. I clutched his helmet to my chest. Nguyen came out of the dark to sit beside me, as if the enemy was not set in only tens of meters inside the jungle on the other side of the river. But there was no incoming fire. It was like the entire battle had been about the tank and once it was done for then the battle was over. From training I knew that crying in front of your men was about the dumbest and worst thing a commanding officer could do, but I couldn’t stop. All I could do was wait and be glad that Fusner had not crawled down behind us. Only Nguyen was there, and he couldn’t speak English, or so everyone said. Finally, I brought the Gus Grissom watch up to my face, and looked at the bright little dots depicting the hours. The little hand was at the bottom and the big hand near there too. Dawn was only half an hour away. I had to move or die where I was.
It took almost ten minutes to crab-walk back to where Fusner still waited with the radio. I didn’t reach for the Prick 25 handset because he held the little head piece for the air radio out toward me. I wondered how a sixteen-year-old, or whatever he really was, could think so clearly and brilliantly under such awful conditions, with two dead Marines not five feet away, a tank blown to hell in the middle of a raging river not a hundred yards away, and his company commander splattered all over the near river bank.
The light was fast increasing, allowing me to see the tank tracks and the other side of the river without using the Starlight scope. The enemy small arms fire began again, this time focusing in on and over our portion of the bush covered berm. The company opened up in return, making me even more uncomfortable than being under just the enemy fire. It was like each side was fighting to get the opportunity to finish us off, although none of our own tracer fire ever lowered or really came close to us. I clamped on the headphones, wondering how I’d gotten accustomed to thinking of high velocity bullets blazing only ten or twenty feet over my head as not being close.
“Cowboy.” I transmitted, not bothering to use any codes or formal notification or interrogatories.
“Vectoring into the north end, Flash,” Jacko replied, almost instantly.
“Cowboy wants a sitrep.”
Situation report. I thought about our situation and there was nothing good at all to report. There was nothing to do but lay out our nearly hopeless situation because only some kind of air support was going to allow us to live.
“We’re in the same place Jacko, but we’re in deep shit,” I reported. “Had to run a patrol down to the river and we’re decimated and stuck here behind the berm on the east side. There’s a tank our company commander died blowing upside down so you can spot us just east of that thing. It’s in the middle of the river. We can’t get back to the company over the open area east of us. NVA fire from across the river and our own are trying to suppress from here. You might be able to get something on them over there but I don’t see a way out of this one right off Jacko. I think we may well be fucked.”
“We’ll do a fly over in a couple, Flash,” Cowboy himself replied. “Can you pop a smoke, and is that fifty they hit us with yesterday still up and running?”
“We got nothing except three LAWs left Cowboy, and the fifty hasn't come back up since I hit it with the big guns.”
“You fucking Marines,” Cowboy said, with a laugh. “The only force on earth that fights and wins wars with cap guns and rubber bands.”
“Can you help us out?” I said, forced to smile at such a compliment, not understandable by simply listening to its words.
“Back at you in a few. Got the afterburners raging on this thing. Sorry to have to bail last night. What was your skippers name?”
“Casey,” I said, wondering if it would be the last time I ever used the captain’s name. “He was supposed to get the Silver Star tomorrow.”
“Damned straight,” Jacko, replied.
There was nothing more to be discussed, so I laid down as flat as I could get again. The fire from across the river had increased. The company fire was dropping away, and I knew we had to be running low on ammo. If the NVA got the first fifty back online, then no supporting ordnance was going to pull our bacon out of the fire again. I had been extremely lucky with the 175s, but I could not call for any zone fire when the rounds were plus or minus a thousand meters, or so.
The Skyraiders came in, but high. They were wonderful to hear above us, although it was still too dark for them to be seen. The comforting roar of the engines caused the firing from the opposing bank to drop off, as well.
“Fire one of them LAW things off, since you got no more use for em,” Jacko instructed.
The Skyraiders flew past until they were beyond hearing again. I knew they had to be making a turn for a lower run. I motioned for Fusner to grab the one Nguyen had discarded.
“They want to know where we are exactly so make sure you shoot it across the water somewhere, and not up in the sky.”
Fusner pulled out the aiming device and armed the LAW.
I made sure to move well off to the side and clamp both hands over my ears tightly. It took only seconds for him to squeeze the big lever on the back and launch the loud little rocket. The impacting explosion into the jungle on the other side of the river was nearly instant, just like before.
“Got that, Jacko?” I asked into the headset.
“Roger, Flash, you're registered, now keep another one of those handy 'cause Cowboy says to tell you that he’s got the whole world coming. The carrier’s unloading every fast mover they have. We’re just gonna soften them up a bit down there with these here Sandys until the real Navy comes to save your asses."
“You want to have your old helmet back, sir?” Fusner asked, while reaching over to reclaim the AN323 headset.
I realized I was till clutching Casey’s helmet to my chest with my left hand. I looked down in the dim light to see the two black bars. I carefully placed the helmet on the mud. There was no way I was going to look inside it.
I reached up to touch my own helmet, lightly brushing the shrapnel ‘horn’ sticking out of the side.
“No, we’ll send that back with his gear if the Navy comes through,” I replied, bringing my hand back down.
“You're company commander again, sir,” Fusner stated.
“We’ll see for how long,” I replied, before my mind went back to the tank incident.
“Where are the other two LAW guys?” I asked.
With the light returning, even from my position down on the sandy mud and in the jungle filth I should have been able to see the two LAW carrying Marines.
“They headed back up to the company position on their own, sir,” Fusner replied, his voice taking on an apologetic tone.
I knew Fusner wasn’t feeling bad about them leaving. I knew he felt bad that he had deliberately not told me.
“Well, what the hell, corporal, I guess it’s just us guys. They have a better chance with the company.”
“Not anymore, sir,” Fusner said, his voice barely audible. “Why I didn’t tell you. That increase in fire from over there…they didn’t make it.”
I turned my head away. There would be two more bodies to bag up if we lived and got out of our own trapped mess. The two Marines had illustrated the enormity of our problem. There was no running across open ground against machine guns, or from them. Not if you wanted to live. I’d lost five Marines on a nine Marine patrol. Then it occurred to me, in the depths of my selfish need to survive, that we didn’t have two LAWs left, so there would be no signaling to the fast movers. The big boys, supposedly coming with the big bombs, wouldn’t know our exact position.
The color of night plan had worked. But the night would not let go, and the butcher’s bill was likely to continue to grow no matter how much light shone down upon it.