I knew that our real registered position was known to the two Army batteries we’d used for fire, and Cowboy and Hobo had to have our position fairly well marked, but the jets coming in would not be quite so accurately informed. I was also concerned about the company’s position up across the drying river bed, as the fast airplanes would carry a lot of ordnance and probably drop it all on one run.
I reached for the AN 343 headset and called Cowboy’s A-1 Skyraider.
“Have you got an ETA?” I asked.
“Ten out, over,” Jacko shot back.
Their response was coming fast. Ten minutes out meant that the planes had been in the air for just under half an hour already, which was fast response for any air support, no matter what.
“What have you got to mark us with, over?” I sent. “I don’t trust the map readers on those planes.”
“Well, Flash,” Cowboy said, coming on the radio himself, “We’re gonna make a pass across the river from you, and do a little suppression fire there. Hobo’s got a couple of napes but you shouldn’t have to worry. You’ve got an upside-down tank sticking up out of the river and those kinds of water features are kind of hard to miss in this part of the valley.”
I moved, staying low, working my way back toward where Zippo lay, still prone on his stomach. Fusner moved with me, holding the radio. I was thinking of Zippo’s unmoving when he was steadying the Starlight the last time I looked through it. We were still under sporadic fire from the enemy across the river, although nothing much was coming from the company any longer. It was like they were out across the open area just beyond the water, and hiding out in the jungle to await whatever pain it was the Skyraiders were going to administer. There was enough light to see the two dead Marines halfway back to the company perimeter, both laying face-down with their LAW tubes nearby. I stuck a finger into Zippo’s side and he jerked back.
“What?” he whispered, scrunching back defensively.
I looked at his eyes. No wonder he’d been so still. He’d nodded off into sleep, I realized. Impossible as it seemed, in combat and under fire with the threat of a tank attack only yards away, he’d gone to sleep.
“Pack up the scope,” I ordered. “We need to get ready to get the hell out of here. Our only chance is to run for it when real air support arrives.”
A wave of my own fatigue swept over me, which wasn’t there only because of having no time to rest. Some of it was relief that Zippo hadn’t been hit, as I’d feared. I was so beaten down I wondered if, when I finally got some opportunity to rest or sleep, it would work to bring me back to a feeling of real life. I handed Casey’s helmet to Fusner without saying anything. I could tell by the look he gave me that he felt the same way I did, like we’d both lost a friend we hadn’t really known we had. I realized that Casey, so far, had been the best company commander I’d experienced in the Corps. He sure as hell wasn’t Major Kramer back at the Basic School.
We were finishing getting our stuff ready for the move, when Cowboy and Hobo came roaring in, less than fifty feet above the river. Their pass was incredibly fast at that low altitude, but their strafing and bomb-dropping so devastating and close that the attack seemed to go on for minutes. Nguyen, Fusner, Zippo and I huddled together, peering over and through the berm foliage to see what we could of the other side of the river.
The tank lay upside down in the very middle of the river. The passing current heaped up one side and then broke in half to slice around it before reforming as if the big chunk of dead metal was anything more or less than some misplaced glacial boulder. I wondered if any of the crew had gotten out of the thing. Maybe it had one of those trap doors on its bottom like I’d seen in war movies when I was a kid, but even using my binoculars I couldn’t see any evidence of that. Maybe the crew was still in there, trapped to await a slow death by suffocation. I shuddered physically at the thought of being trapped to die like a rat in a sealed can. But there was nothing to be done by either the NVA, being scattered and battered by the Sandys, or by us to save them without heavy equipment, not likely ever to see its presence made in the lower part of the valley we were in.
Hobo dropped his two napalm tanks in passing. The twenty-millimeter strafing run had been loud enough, but the concussion of the nape going off was deafening. It wasn’t the loudness that caused all four of us to clutch our hands to our ears. It was the force of the giant thump. I shook my head, trying to clear my ears. My fingers were too filthy to stick them in the canals.
The Sandys pulled up further down the valley and swept off toward the east. I tried to spot them coming back around with my binoculars but it was useless. The glasses were too powerful, which meant they had a very limited view area. I was just bringing the lenses back down when the fast movers made their pass. The jets, four very distinctive Phantoms with funny markings all over their tails, came straight down the river, just like the Skyraiders had, except they were side by side, their wingtips nearly touching. I didn’t see how many bombs they dropped because I quickly buried my face in the bracken and plugged my ears. I couldn’t afford to be deaf on the battlefield again or we’d have no radio contact at all. The four of us clustered like four frightened little kids. The bombs went off in a rapid string of huge explosions, jarring us inches apart from one another and then slamming us back together. The roar of the plane's huge turbines whined in octaves above the sharp rumbling shocks of their bombs, and then they were gone.
I breathed out in relief. The bombs from the Sandy and the Phantoms were falling no more than five hundred meters from our position, which was closer than even ‘in contact’ and ‘danger close’ rules of engagement allowed, unless our position was uncertain, which I hoped was not the case.
I put my hands down and pulled up the binoculars to review the damage they’d inflicted across the river, but never got them all the way to my eyes. Four more Phantoms came in hard and fast. I saw the snake-eye’d bomb fins spinning as their ordnance was released. Before I could get my face back in the mud and my hands back over my ears I’d also caught sight of more planes. The new planes were weird ungainly things that seemed to be floating along slowly compared to the Phantoms they followed in. I scrunched back down, weathering more penetrating concussions. I wanted to see the planes. I’d never seen the A-6 Intruders in the air before, only once in a static display at Travis Air Force Base the day I flew out from the states. The things flew half-pancaked in the air, working their way down the river and loaded to the wingtips with bomb after bomb on their many pylons. I was in too much pain and fear, rocked by all the explosions to rise up and watch them slowly sweep over, causing more explosions. When their strange ‘whistling’ jet engines were gone I finally surfaced to view the carnage. The whole jungle on the other side of the river, more than a mile of it that I could see, was a mass of fire and flattened bracken. There was no longer a triple canopy or single, for that matter, covering the churned up mess of what used to be a jungle.
“Sir,” Fusner said, his voice tense, pushing the air headset next to my head.
“Tango Tango Charlie,” a tinny voice said just outside my deafened left ear. I pressed the small round plastic piece into the side of my head as hard as I could.
“Buff run begins in four point two minutes, south running north, fifteen hundred west of your registration. Flight of twelve, glad we could help.” The line went dead. I pulled the headset off, stared at it, and then looked at Fusner’s concerned face, only inches from my own.
“Buff? I whispered.
“Arc light,” he replied softly. “They sent B-52s. 84 five hundred pound bombs each, maybe more. Twelve times 84 in four minutes. How many is that? What do we do, sir?”
My mind raced. More than a thousand five hundred pound bombs were about to come down. Over 250 tons. Cowboy had not been kidding about the world coming. The 52s had to have been flown from Thailand because Guam, their only other base, was five hours away. There was nothing to be done, except for our ears.
“Get something in your ears,” I ordered all three men, as I grabbed my pack and searched for the tattered sock rag I’d used days before. I found it and ripped pieces from it; licking , twisting and then inserting them into my ear canals. “Lay flat on your stomachs,” I said, noting that Nguyen, for not speaking or understanding English, was following along with the same speed as Zippo and Fusner. “Cover the radios with your poncho.”
We lay face down, hands covering our ears, as if we were doing one of those atomic attack drills from my childhood. I tried to listen through my hands and the rags but I could hear nothing. I could feel the vibrations of the close-by river water swishing but nothing else. I’d heard that the B52s flew too high to hear and too high to see from the ground, anyway. Waiting for something I knew was coming, and with the most minor of course mistakes, could blow us all to eternity, was more scary than awaiting the arrival of ‘who knows where’ artillery rounds from the 175s.
I didn’t have to check my watch, because I’d started counting my breaths as soon as the air radio guy had told me how much time we had. Four point two minutes was four minutes and twelve seconds. About sixty-seven and a half breaths. It took ninety-three. I didn’t have any more time to think about the fact that I was breathing too fast, because the rolling carpet of the concussion waves started coming through the ground. They didn’t come from across the river where I knew the bombs had to be hitting. The waves came from the center of the earth, or so it seemed. They struck upward into my chest, stomach and legs, tossing me a foot into the air before I slammed back down. The waves came in waves. After the fourth set of waves I suddenly knew I had eight more I had to get through. The planes were lined up and dropping in succession, not all at once like I thought they would.
Finally, after what seemed to be about five minutes, but had to be much less, it was over. I checked out my scout team. I realized my offhand comment to cover the radios had been a good order. Our backs were all covered in water, mud and jungle debris, like someone had mixed a very fine mess of a salad and dumped it from the sky. Fusner pulled the debris covered poncho off the radios. All of us had to find our helmets and get re-oriented mentally. I could see the shock in Zippo’s eyes, and I knew he had to be able to see the same thing in mine. I pushed forward to view the other side of the river, only to discover that it had moved. The strike had changed the course of the mighty river. Low whitish smoke covered the entirety of the distance from the river to the far canyon wall, which had to be at least a mile away. The water no longer flowed heavily around the sides of the tank. The bombs had come a lot closer than fifteen hundred meters to our position. The tank now lay in about two feet of barely moving water. The river had somehow gone right into the mess of churned and battered foliage the bombs had fallen on, jutting in just before the tank’s unlikely bulk, as if the tank had something to do with or served as a marker for the course change.
“Sir,” Fusner said, again, handing me the headset I’d discarded to hide from the bombs.
“Shit,” I replied, pulling the rag from my left ear and pressing the handset to it.
“How about that shit show, Flash?” Cowboy said, laughing. “Man you better ‘đi đi mau’ your asses out of there right now cause the planet Mongo is going to be taking a few more hard hits.”
“Man, I can’t thank you, Jacko and Hobo, enough,” I said, wanting to get off the radio and back to the company’s more distant location just as quickly as I could.
“How many?” Cowboy asked.
“Five, including the six,” I answered.
“Shit,” Cowboy replied, “we got more guys orbiting, just waiting their turn so those guys won’t be standing at that gate alone.”
I felt bad for our losses and wanted to thank Cowboy some more for saving us but my fear overrode all of that.
“Where are you?” I asked. “We’re about to make a run for it and we’ve got like two hundred meters of open ground to cover.”
I didn’t want to make the run back to the company. I’d thought of calling the Gunny on the combat net and telling him to bring the company down to our position. I knew in my heart of hearts, however, that it was the wrong move, and the Gunny would find a way not to do it, anyway. I also knew that I’d not been exposed to the naked open-field position of being a defenseless target for Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. One M-16 bullet or M-79 round, and I was done. But I had nowhere to go. I could not go forward or back and the flanks were covered. I could not remain where I was. I breathed in and out a few times to gain control and get ready. I wished I was sitting in the mud up along the broken path by the Gunny, with him taking a puff of his cigarette, and then handing it to me. The enemy wanted to kill me, but could not. My Marines could kill me, but did they still want to?
I tried to put my pack on, but Zippo grabbed it from me, with a smile. “Gotcha covered, sir,” he said, climbing to his feet, the rags still sticking out his ears and Casey’s helmet under his left arm.
I waited in a crouch. I was ready. I’d channeled Captain Casey and gotten his take on what I had to do. “High ho Silver,” I felt him whisper into my ear. I smiled to myself. The Sandys came screaming back in, then pulled up abruptly, like they’d hit a giant air wall, before bending back to curve around and cover the open area we had to cross.
Springing to my feet, I straightened. I could do it. “We’re going to run balls out,” I announced. “High yo Silver,” I said to the team, my smile gone, wondering if the secret of having Casey on my side was noticeable by them.
I ran. I would lead from the front, not the back, just like Casey would have.
There was no fire from either the enemy or our company. I stared intently at the line of jungle we were headed for, my eyes sweeping from south to north, and then quickly back again. I wasn’t afraid of enemy fire. I was afraid of Jurgens and Sugar Daddy and how much of a needful presence I’d made on the company. In Basic School, I'd failed to be popular. If the other officers in my class had had their choice, I’d never have stayed on as an officer in the Corps. Now, I was running a gauntlet which was nothing more or less than the most important peer evaluation I’d ever experienced, or would likely experience, in my life. The Basic School had been a game. Not real. The southern small section of the A Shau Valley I was trapped in wasn’t a game, and the reality it dished out was in measured doses of death. It had taken five members of my patrol and, even though those members had not been fans of mine, they’d been Marines of mine.
I felt a growing ember of anger that was beginning to burn inside my belly as I ran. “High yo Silver,” I shouted, pulling ahead of my three younger and tougher scout team members. If I died I’d die at the hands of Marines and not some hiding, underfed and under-armed mess of local militia. I realized that I hadn’t even checked my .45 before we’d taken off. It didn’t matter, I knew. The Colt wasn’t going to save me if one of my Marines fired.
The Sandys flew in sharp arcs around us as we went, pulling such tight turns that I would have sworn I could see the entirety of their cockpits, like I was looking down inside them. The Skyraider's wingtips seemed little more than a few feet off the broken rough sandy mud of the old river bottom. There were no shots fired from any weapon I could hear, and I realized that my own Marines might be just as intimidated by the giant outrageously-noisy aircraft as the enemy had to be.
I reached the big berm our patrol had come down from the night before. I was up and over it in seconds, literally jumping down on the other side between two perimeter guards, and then crossing the few meters to where the path ran north and south.
I went straight down to the jungle floor, falling into a crouch to begin catching my breath and getting my bearings. The relief at making it alive to be where I was made me giddy with some kind of strange fractured joy. I tried to settle down, as first Zippo, then Nguyen and finally Fusner settled beside me. I knew I wasn’t quite right. I knew that I’d been very serious with myself in wanting to be killed by my own men rather than the enemy, which wasn’t a sane way to think. I took off my damaged helmet, now precious to me because it had been Casey’s, and placed it gently between my ankles. I rubbed my face and bowed my shoulders to inwardly stretch. I needed to be clean again. I needed rest.
The Gunny came trotting up the path, followed by Sugar Daddy and Jurgens, with members of their usual entourages in trace. The Gunny crouched down next to me, as my scout team automatically withdrew a few meters. I noted that Stevens was back with us, like he’d never been gone. I hadn’t noticed his approach. I waited for the Gunny to say something, absently thinking about how Stevens might have the best survival strategy going of any of us. He was visible and then invisible. Available but not around. Right in the middle of things but not there at all.
“I spoke with command,” the Gunny said, “and we have to get across the river, somehow by the end of the day. Where’s Casey?”
I watched him go through his ornate process of cigarette tamping and lighting. I motioned toward Zippo. I pointed at Casey’s helmet, which sat by his side. Zippo stuck it out toward the Gunny.
The Gunny took the helmet in one hand, holding it out gingerly before pulling it closer to look inside. He jerked his head back, but then caught himself and slowly lowered it to the ground next to his left thigh.
“Casey’s dead?” the Gunny asked, holding his lit cigarette out over his knees in his right hand, without taking a second puff.
“Casey and the four LAW operators,” I replied, looking over to see Jurgens reaction. He stared back for a few seconds, and then looked away.
“Casey blew the tank,” I said, matter-of-factly, “The fifty took out two and the other two were hoofing it back to the company when they went down. We ran by their bodies. Hard to miss, really.”
I knew all of them had to have seen the bodies, because they were visible from the company perimeter and the Marines manning the perimeter would not miss anything out on their open killing field of fire.
We paused in our discussion when another squadron of jets flew into to make of a mess of the jungle across from our former position down by the river. The extra five hundred meters from the explosions made all the difference in the world. The explosions still thundered and reverberated, making conversation impossible, but they didn’t induce terror or cause any of us to burrow as deep into the jungle floor as we could get. Both Sandys still flew in huge circles, looking for more stray victims, but apparently not finding them, at least not finding them, at least not by firing their 20mm cannons.
“So you lost Casey,” the Gunny said, glancing behind me at Jurgens and Sugar Daddy.
“You sent him out with me,” I replied.
“You led the patrol, Junior,” Jurgens whispered, his voice barely audible.
I didn’t like having my back to Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, so I stood up and stretched. I moved in front of the Gunny until I was between where Fusner and Zippo sat. I turned and squatted down, facing the Gunny to my left and Sugar Daddy and Jurgens to my right. Only members of my own scout team were behind me. I presumed Nguyen was there but wasn't certain. If he wasn’t there I knew that he was back in the jungle watching from afar.
“We’re going to cross the river in broad daylight,” I said to the men in front of me. “Air has softened things up nicely but everyone here knows what we're really dealing with. There’s no quit in this enemy and no end to his resourcefulness. How did that tank get there?” I pointed down toward the river.
“First platoon and fourth are to move down to the patrol’s former position, secure it and form a perimeter to await the rest of the company.”
“I don’t think my men will go down there,” Sugar Daddy replied, as soon as I was done.
I watched Jurgens shake his head while Sugar Daddy talked.
I thought about Captain Casey and what he might have done in the same situation. I wasn’t an FNG anymore. I was seasoning into becoming a gruesome entity stuck inside a horrid Dante’s Inferno version of a guerrilla war, and the ‘entity’ was learning fast.
“I don't have any problem with those Marines,” I replied softly, trying not to rest my hand on the butt of my .45. I wasn’t ready to shoot Jurgens and Sugar Daddy just yet, and I’d learned that when I was ready to shoot them it had to be in a place and time where and when they didn’t expect it. “If they don’t want to go, or you can’t make them go, then let me know. But you’re both going down there, with or without your platoons.”
“What’s he talking about?” Jurgens responded to the Gunny.
The Gunny used his cigarette to delay his response. He stared at the ground in front of him, taking two full inhalations, and then blowing the smoke out.
“Take your platoons down there and do what he says,” the Gunny finally said. “Our orders are pretty clear and we can’t do anything from where we are, except become sitting ducks again when the enemy recovers…which won’t be long. Junior’s company commander until further notice. Check out the inside of Casey’s helmet if you want to know why.”
“Pick up the dead along the way,” I said, “two down by the brush and two up on the bared river bed.”
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy got to their feet.
“What’s to keep Junior from calling in artillery on us once we’re down there?” Jurgens asked the Gunny.
“Nothing,” the Gunny replied, before getting to his own feet, and walking over to me. He dropped his cigarette and stepped it into the mud. I stared up at him, but got no reading back from him at all. Was he still in my corner? Had he ever really been in my corner? Was I some commodity he used to his own advantage and then might cast aside for something of more value at any instant?
“That leaves the river in flood, a tank strewn in the middle of things and damned mess of mangled bodies and jungle on the other side,” he said, holding out one hand when I tried to interrupt. “You may be God’s own personal gift in getting supporting fires to rain down from the heavens, but those aren't going to get us across that river by nightfall. Whatever you figure out, let me know before we move out with Second and Third Platoons. Whatever it is we’ll call it the "Moses Plan.”