There was no question that I needed a plan. The company had no equipment for crossing any stretch of water that I knew of, and since the NVA had gotten a full blown battle tank down the river, or some road paralleling it, the likelihood of a U.S. Navy Seabee unit getting a bridge-laying vehicle on site was pretty grim. Unless I could somehow figure out a way, using daylight and available air power, to secure a beachhead on the other side of the river, the company was tied to the dead end wedge at the bottom of the A Shau Valley like a staked goat. Technically, I knew resupply Hueys could fly down onto the rough, but navigable, surface our patrol had crossed the night before on our way back to the company position. That muddy ground, made pretty solid by a healthy content of river sand, would handle the choppers’ weight, but the gentle slope of it, and its exposure to the hills on the other side, would make the helicopters sitting targets. No, the solution was to occupy and establish a decent perimeter around the old airstrip where the valley walls rose up while coming closer together, and have resupply and medevac come in there. The tops of the cliffs on both sides would be perfect places for the NVA to have positions to shoot down, but if they opened up from there then those positions would be nothing but deadly charnel plains strewn with the results of air power’s scathing attacks. We could hold the low ground with air and artillery, and low ground was all we were going to get.
“Get Pilson,” I said to Fusner. “I need the company clerk. The key to this problem is rope. Do we have anything that resembles climbing line in the company?”
“I don’t know,” Fusner replied, taking his helmet off and scratching his head.
“You don’t know about rope or you don’t know where Pilson is?” I said back, irritated. The number of men I’d lost on the patrol was hitting me hard in every area.
Analytically, I knew I’d not caused their deaths, and that casualties in the environment around us in the lower A Shau were going to continue to be high, but their lost lives, being lived only hours before at my side, and now gone forever, were hard to accept. And along with those feelings came the fear of my own demise. I had to get my mind back on to figure out how to solve the problem.
The river was about fifty to sixty feet across, running fairly fast at six to eight feet deep. It was a natural killer for any Marine fully loaded and immersed in its waters without help. The tank, its type still unknown, was probably about twenty feet long. Its existence out there would split the crossing in two, plus minimizing the overall distance across. The Marines I had to somehow assemble for the assault force would be more likely to see the river crossing as safer, and a lot easier, than it might be without the flipped-over tank in its center. There were those who couldn’t really swim to consider, not to mention the fear of crocodiles and the enemy opening up on men helpless to do anything to fight back.
I looked up from scratching away on the back of my map to see the Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy come out of the bush. Pilson and Fusner walked just behind them. As they approached, Marines began to emerge from everywhere around me. I got to my feet but said nothing. Whatever was going on would speak for itself soon, I knew. The Gunny stopped in front of me but didn’t squat down. Whatever was going on wasn’t a general assembly of the company for social purposes. I looked out across the top of the berm toward the river, instinctively. Although we hadn’t taken any fire since the combined air forces had devastated the area across the river, the enemy fifty caliber was still out there somewhere. When everyone stopped moving around I realized that I was seeing more of the company in one place than I’d seen since I’d dropped in two weeks before.
“They’re here for the service,” the Gunny said, stretching out both hands to me as if to say that that was all he knew.
“What service? I replied, frowning, not understanding.
“For Captain Casey.”
I looked at Jurgens, and then over at Sugar Daddy. They’d once more positioned themselves in direct opposition to one another, with their platoons filtered in about them among the bamboo stands, fern fronds and other jungle bracken I couldn’t name. There appeared to be no friendliness between them, unlike before. I wondered if they could only come together as distant allies to oppose officers or kill them off.
“There’s no Captain Casey left to have a service for,” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “He was blown to smithereens, as far as I know.”
I knew when I said the words that I’d made a mistake. The phrase “who the fuck do you think you are?’ popped into my mind, as I caught the changing expressions of the Marines. I was Junior, not the commanding officer, except occasionally by title.
“Of course we’ll have a service,” I said, recovering myself as quickly as I could. I needed the company to survive, and any one of them could and would kill me at a moment’s notice if they thought it expedient for their own survival. It was too easy to fall back into my old way of thinking about how the Corps functioned. I turned, bent down and picked up Casey’s helmet. Walking forward to stand in the middle of the small clearing where we’d dumped our packs I carefully set his helmet down on the mud.
I backed up to where I’d been and looked around. I realized that I didn’t know what to say. Even in training, I’d never spoken to a collected mass of Marines before. At the Basic School, through the six months of my officer infantry training, they’d had a program where the entire student body was unofficially commanded by a staff of us new lieutenants. The ‘student-lieutenants’ were chosen by popular vote every week. I’d never spent one day as either commander or served in any other honorary position in the class.
But I was Catholic and my years of Catholic schooling took over.
“Our father, who art in heaven…” I began, bowing my head and clasping my hands together, peeking down at Casey’s helmet, glad that I’d remembered to press it into the mud so no one present could see its interior. Most of the company mumbled along through the prayer.
“Captain Casey was a good officer, a good commanding officer, and a fine man,” I said, before coming to a stop. I looked across at the Gunny for help. His expression seemed to indicate that he understood that I had nowhere else to go.
“A hymn would be fine,” the Gunny said. I saw a few nodding heads.
“I don’t know any hymns,” I whispered back, knowing it was so eerily silent, except for the rustling sound of the river in the background, that most of the men could hear my words, anyway.
“Yes you do,” he whispered back, before gently breaking into song.
“From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli,” he sang softly. One after another the other Marines in the company began to accompany him in singing the hymn. “We will fight our country’s battles…” they sang, and on into the full body of the hymn’s lyrics.
I sang with the men, in the same soft way, as I had done while marching on the parade grounds of asphalt dotting the grounds all around Quantico. Whenever Sergeant Baines felt the OCS platoon I was in might be doing too badly or too well, he would start the hymn in the same manner and timing that he counted cadence. Soft, smooth and with a light, but telling, southern drawl. I sang the hymn my father had made me memorize when I was five years old. He’d made me learn it for the Marine Corps, the military service he so badly wanted to be a part of but, because of World War II, had somehow ended up in the Coast Guard instead.
The hymn moved me, as it had come to do in training. When I was a child I just repeated the words to the melody by rote. In training I came to love the Corps, and after two weeks in the living hell of Vietnam and the A Shau Valley, I realized that I still loved the Marine Corps, no matter what its failings or many of the downright lies I’d been taught to take as gospel. I finished the stanza in my own form of southern dialect, the words of the hymn burned into me like the distinct sharply cut moves and cadence of close order drill. The hymn was the Marine Corps, and the company, and me. We were one, whether we wanted to be or accepted being that, or not.
Nothing was said to dismiss the men. They simply moved and blended back into the surrounding foliage under the canopy of the jungle we were in, like Nguyen, but not as silently or invisibly.
Fusner led Pilson over to where I was. I squatted down to receive him, my map stuck out in front of me, with our position on the multi-folded paper very visible. Pilson squatted down. Two Marines accompanied him. One was white and one was black. Both men wore helmets like me, which was uncommon. Both used Fusner’s big rubber bands to hold repellant bottles, looking like bizarre ears, to the sides of their heads. Both had coils of rope over their shoulders. They remained standing, as if uncertain as to what they were there for or what to do. I motioned for them to squat down and join us.
“Corporals Albrecht Barnes and Abraham Lincoln Jones, sir,” Pilson introduced, surprising me by using the ‘sir’ honorific. “They carry the ropes in case we need them for the mountains and cliffs, although in most places, like down here, we really don’t need them.”
“You swim?” I asked, looking from Barnes to Jones. I assumed Jones to be the black corporal since Pilson hadn’t mentioned whom was whom, and neither men had responded to the introduction.
“You want to use the ropes to cross the river I’ll bet, Junior,” the Marine I thought to be Barnes said.
“Yes, sir, we both swim, sir,” Abraham Lincoln blurted out, frowning at the corporal next to him and pulling a few inches further away.
I immediately wondered if Jones’ formality and manners meant that Sugar Daddy’s platoon was backing my command, while Jurgens and his platoon was not. For the moment it didn’t matter, I knew, but that would all change when darkness once again fell, the enemy came alive and friendly fire was much more likely.
The sound of Skyraiders flying in the distance rolled down the valley like a light continuing thrum from a bass guitar, or maybe the lower keys being held down on a piano. Cowboy was back with Hobo in tow. Fusner pushed between the two corporals and handed me the air headset, without my asking.
“Flash, you still kickin’ around down there?” Jacko said into my right ear, as I pressed the plastic receiver to my ear.
“Roger that,” I answered. “Can’t thank you boys enough.”
“We’ve got about twenty tours in our tanks for some afternoon duck hunting if the little shits will stick up their feathered heads,” Jacko said, before laughing.
I got up, turned, and then moved the few feet it took for me to reach the berm. I leaned into it and studied the river. The tank lay there in the river like a giant upside-down turtle, the current going around it, much like it had done before. The river had changed its course again, closer to where it’d run before the bombing. I wondered if the bombs had opened up a dead end canyon that was now filled with water. There was no way to explain the strange movement of the water’s course, which made the river all the more fearful. What if it changed its course when we were crossing? I noted that no NVA troops had made any effort to attend to the tank, or its likely occupants, since the air attack.
The two Skyraiders flew low over the river as if trying to draw the enemy’s fire. But there was no fire. The planes flew down the valley, and then banked out to the west like they’d done before. Their presence was going to mean everything, and I had to figure out a way to let them know what we were up to without sending the information in the clear. While out in the water, our patrol would be fully exposed, with no camouflage or concealment and almost no cover at all. We would be seen, but would we be fired upon, I wondered.
Someone was going to have to swim across the river, and the only way that could be done, in order to make the mission possible, was for someone to enter the river higher up, navigate across, as the water took him downriver, and then get out on the far bank. The rope had to be secured on our side, the swimmer makes it across beyond where the tank lay, and then he would have to land and secure the rope on the other side. If that was done, then it became a rather simple angled exercise for other Marines to grasp the rope and be pushed downriver and across, using the power of the water going by to accomplish that. The tank would serve as an oasis to stop and hang on to if incoming fire needed to be suppressed. In other words, crossing Marines could cower behind the metal behemoth until the Skyraiders were done exiting the bottom of the valley, before coming around for another run to cover them.
“One hour, on your mark, Jacko,” I transmitted.
“You planning some kind of 4th of July shit, Flash?” Jacko replied.
“Roger that. Some heavy metal Moses shit,” I said.
There was a silence. I knew Jacko was probably consulting with Cowboy. Would they figure out we were planning to cross the river, using the tank as a mid-point? If I sent the message in the clear the chances of an intercept were simply too high. We’d be better off just making a shot at the crossing and hope the Skyraiders were on station and figuring it out from what they could see, than sending a clear message to any NVA with a captured radio.
“The parting of the sea,” Jacko finally said. “You religious types confound we above, who orbit up here closer to God and His willing pleasure.” He cackled once again.
“One hour from now,” I said, holding up my Gus Grissom watch to make sure I kicked the mission off right on the minute. If we did it right, we’d have a heavy duty patrol on the other side, with a perimeter set up before the sunset. I stared at the river, and then up to where the two big airplanes orbited in the distance. I knew our chances of pulling the mission off without a hitch were basically non-existent, but that wasn’t my worst fear. My worst fear was in being the first one to swim across with the rope into a swarm of the crocodiles I’d seen earlier. I didn’t want to die, but I sure as hell didn’t want to die inside the belly of one of those monsters.
“We’ll be there for the party, Flash,” Jacko said. “If that asshole Ming shows his ugly little Asian head, then we’ll take it right the fuck off.”
I knew Jacko was talking out of his ass, but for some reason his banter, and the company of the Skyraiders overhead made me feel much better. I moved back to crouch down by the Gunny. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were back in the odd circle they’d been in before, adding O’Brien from Second Platoon. He’d turned up from somewhere. I wondered where Third Platoon’s commander was but figured there was no point in asking. I wanted to separate First Platoon from the Fourth so, as usual, Second and Third platoons would continue in their roles as strange ‘ghost’ platoons. I’d already decided on having the First crossover if I made it with the rope to other side. I wanted to talk to the Gunny alone, to get his take on the plan, but I saw right away that that wasn’t going to be possible without making too big a deal out of it. If there was going to be trouble, then it made sense to handle it right where we were, before any enemy incoming picked up again. I eased my hand down to my .45, and hoped the simple lube job I’d done on it earlier would allow it to function. At any moment I was likely going to need some new platoon commanders, or the company was going to be running with the Gunny as the commander again.
The Gunny accepted my plan after I laid it out, but refused to allow me to be the one who swam across the river. Barnes had been a high school champion in the freestyle, and I was, after all, the figurehead company commander. I knew the Gunny was right, although I hated to concede the importance of getting the rope across to anyone else. I was good in the water and I knew it. I wasn’t as sure that anyone else’s track record, even as a high school swimming champion, was as valid, or if it was even true. I conceded grudgingly, however, knowing I really had no choice in how some things were going to play out.
Although the company had supporting air power during the day we weren’t going to have the support at night, or have any artillery either until we got a couple of clicks further upriver. Resupply was another night away, with the company running low on ammunition and everything else it needed to survive in the field. The plan was formed. Fusner and Pilson would follow with their radios wrapped tightly in poncho covers, and then First Platoon. The Gunny would remain with the other three platoons in case our patrol needed a base of fire, and because there was no way the whole company could cross one at a time before nightfall. Barnes would go first, I would follow, and then Jones would be behind me with the second rope. A hundred feet would be more than enough line, but I wanted the second length along anyway. First Platoon would follow, one Marine after another, just as fast as they could move down line and get across. That left me the problem of being on the other side with the First platoon, the platoon that liked me least, and the platoon commander who’d tried to kill me more than once.
The only change I made in the end was to have Zippo, Stevens and Nguyen come right after me, behind Abraham Lincoln Jones. Fusner and Pilson would follow in immediate trace. I wanted as many Marines I thought I could trust if things got dicey on the other side.
Fusner’s small transistor radio somehow got turned on. Fusner fought to get it switched off again but not before “fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die…” came blaring from the thing’s speaker. The Ballad of the Green Berets was playing. I thought for a second before realizing that the song had to be from the worst John Wayne movie ever made. Once Fusner got the radio off, mid-lyric, everyone quietly laughed a bit. I’d heard that the Green Berets were a great outfit but the song was way over the top.
The reconnaissance upriver was done quickly. No enemy fire and no friendly fire. The Skyraiders flew in big huge circles overhead, no doubt patiently watching us, and figuring out step by step what we were up to. I had no doubt, once we started, that the enemy would be doing the same thing. I still didn’t trust that the fifty caliber was out of commission for good or that there wasn’t NVA backup weaponry and support for the tank Casey had taken out.
Barnes tied one end of the thin strong climbing rope to a huge rock near the bank, stripped off his utilities, boots and cover. His thin chalk-white body looked awful in the fetid heat and dying sun of late afternoon. He tied the other end of the rope around his midsection and plunged into the water without anyone saying anything. We’d both agreed that we would be the only ones to strip down to our shorts, while the rest of the company would cross in full gear, supported and guided by the rope.
Nobody said anything about crocodiles. I presumed that was like not discussing a perfect game in baseball before the game was over. Barnes made the effort in swimming look easy. He stopped briefly by the side of the tank before gliding past, using the heaped up current going around the thing to disappear from sight. I was in my shorts, and ready to go when he ran into trouble. What the trouble was I couldn’t tell at first because he’d moved out smoothly from the tank into the center of the river, and then disappeared around its body. But he hadn’t come back into view closer to the far shore. I was going to put my boots back on and tramp downstream to see what happened when I figured out what had to have happened. I sighed deeply, staring at the swirling water. Barnes was down beyond the tank but unable to swim to the shore or pull himself back to the tank because of the force of the current, and the rope secured around his waist. He didn’t have enough strength to overcome the rope’s power to keep the angle between itself and the shore as shallow as possible, no matter what Barnes did to try to get to the shore. If left where he was, the combination of the rope hung up on the tank, the heavy current, and the uncrossable distance to the shore, would wear Barnes down to the point where he couldn’t tread water anymore.
I pulled the extra coiled rope from Jones’ shoulder, and gently eased out into the river. It felt wonderful. I frog-kicked out into the deeper flow, heading straight for the tank. The water was cool, refreshing and I felt clean for the first time since leaving the Air Force Base back home. Stevens had my letters in a plastic bag and Zippo would make sure my other stuff made it over. All I had to do was get Barnes to the far shore whatever way I could. I glided down the rope, and eased around the edge of the tank. As I went by, I heard the tracks of the tank making a constant clanking sound. The sound penetrated the water, seeming to bounce off my body as I went by. I saw Barnes immediately. He’d given up trying to reach the shore and was instead struggling to untie the rope from his waist.
When I was pushed into his body by the current Barnes ceased his efforts to untie himself.
“Hold onto me,” I said, over the sound of the rushing water. “I’ll tie this rope on to your rope and swim in,”
It took only seconds to throw a few half hitches around the other rope, and then push off, holding the other end while I paddled away. With the full hundred feet of rope stringing behind me I had no difficulty making the shore, before getting out and gingerly walking barefoot back toward the tank and slowly pulling Barnes to the shore.
I was working so hard to secure the rope around the trunk of a big tree that I didn’t take note of the Skyraiders diving in until they opened up with their twenty millimeter cannons. Barnes and I went down flat on the sand. Neither of us was armed. I hadn’t even thought to figure a way to bring my Colt. We both laid on the hot sand. There was no point rushing into the jungle naked and unarmed. Cowboy and Hobo had seen something and opened up, either that or they were providing interdiction fire.
“Oh, fuck, sir, they’re going to kill us,” Barnes said.
“Just lay flat,” I ordered, wondering if I was yelling. The planes had been so close, and the sound of their cannons so loud, I knew I was probably all but deaf again.
The planes were gone almost as quickly as they appeared. I rubbed my ears, once again feeling the heat of the sand and hot air on my body. I wished I had a reason to get back in the river, crocodiles or no crocodiles.
“Did you hear them?” Barnes asked me, quietly, or so it seemed.
“Who?” I replied, feeling uneasy.
“The guys in the tank,” he said.
I didn’t answer. I so wanted to believe that the sounds emanating from the tank had been the treads heaving and clanking in the water. Deep down I’d known it wasn’t the track parts. I didn’t want to think about those poor tortured souls who could not die but would not live.
My scout team made it over, with Jones and Pilson each coming out of the water looking like burdened struggling rats. I watched for crocodiles, not knowing what I’d do if I spotted one, except maybe run. I threw my utilities back on and checked the .45. The automatic would not stop a crocodile. It might not even piss one off, but it was all I had, and better than nothing. Jurgens had just reached the tank along the extended rope when the NVA fifty caliber opened up with a fury.
Fusner struggled to get his radio back on while trying to get flatter into the sand. I saw great gouts of the river splash high into the air, but nobody had followed Jurgens out into the water. For the moment, only Jurgens was the target.
“Go to the command net and raise the Gunny,” I yelled at Fusner. “Give me the air radio,” I added, holding out my hand. Fusner worked to obey both conflicting orders. I had to determine the location of the .50 Caliber. From our position at the edge of the river we were blind. The Gunny had to spot, and then I had to adjust Cowboy onto the target, unless the planes were in just the right place to actually see the gun’s tracers. I got the headset on, but waited for Fusner to get the Gunny up on the combat net so I would have a location.
“Junior!” Jurgens yelled out from the middle of the river.
He kept yelling my name over and over but I didn’t have time to reply, or anything to say. Eventually he went silent. I knew he hadn’t been hit because the fifty wasn’t capable of shooting through the armor of the tank. I waited for Jacko to respond to my call, and the Gunny to come up on the net. I wondered if Jurgens, trapped behind the body of the tank, was being forced to listen to the endless tapping that still had to be radiating out from its insides.