I’d made it across the river, even after struggling to drag Barnes to the bank. I was dressed back out and had my gear and my .45, none of which was in bad shape. My self-inventory had been done before the big fifty-caliber had opened up again. My team, positioned flat on the mud between the rushing water and the jungle, consisted of Zippo, Fusner, Nguyen, Barnes and Pilson. I held both radio microphones, the air headset in one hand and the PRICK 25 handset in the other, as I tried to come to terms with Jurgens stuck out at the tank, invisible from our position, but screaming my name every few seconds.
I tried to figure out the beaten zone the .50 Cal was laying down up and down the river, and along the far bank. Nobody from the company was going to be able to cross the river until something was done. I noted that no great spouts of water were spewing up from the near side of the river. In fact, none had ricocheted off the armor of the tank, not that I could tell through my damaged ears very well, anyway.
The Skyraiders were up above us, but night was coming on fast.
Whatever we did was going to have to be done quickly or my little patrol was going to be left on one side of the river to spend the night without any kind of support or even a machine gun. My hands shook again, as I contemplated the fact that that there was no real way to get back to the other side of the raging river without abandoning my Marines and all my equipment. Even if I did that I’d end up somewhere way down the river without boots or anything else. Things were getting grimmer by the minute.
“No tracers from the fifty,” I murmured to Fusner. “Why no tracers?”
“Too close,” Zippo said. “Like before.”
“How close?” I asked, not having much of any experience with the heavy machine gun, except in the classroom.
“Tracer ignition is probably a couple of hundred meters,” Barnes piped in. “I fired the quad fifty back at An Hoa, and those things didn’t ignite for quite a ways from the ends of the barrels.”
“Smart,” I whispered, more to myself than my team.
The crew of the fifty, torn apart by previous air strikes, was keeping the gun close enough to do serious or terminal damage, and not far enough for the tracers to ignite. Either that or they’d laboriously removed all the tracers from their belts and were aiming by adjusting off the beaten zone alone. That would be ineffective at night, though. There’d be no going after the gun by a direct infantry attack though, unless Jurgens made it over with the full platoon. Without bloopers, LAWs or even the dependable M-60s, my scout team couldn’t take the chance of entering and gaining some protection in the jungle undergrowth to organize an attack. Additionally, it was only our exposed position on the bank that allowed Cowboy and Hobo to know where we were, and for the rest of the company to drop in a base of fire without it taking us out with it.
I keyed the command handset and asked for the six actual, since my own title as company commander was a bit less than honorary.
The Gunny came on. “What you got yourself into this time, Junior?” he asked, although I knew he was in a position to see the entire landscape of ongoing events.
“You gonna leave Jurgens out there to dangle?” he added.
“The fifty can’t depress,” I replied. “They’ve got it up there behind us on the hill to our west and downriver a bit. It can only cover half the river. So far Jurgens isn’t in much danger, unless he drowns with a full mouth of water from all his yelling.”
“They can hit us over here but they’re not firing this way yet,” the Gunny responded. “What about the Sandys?”
“Can’t see where the rounds are coming from to guide them in. If you guys can, then lay some 16 tracers in there and Cowboy will have a target. The NVA’s not shooting at the company because they’re busy keeping us from crossing.”
Neither of us was using the word “over” to end our communications, which meant it took longer to wait to see if the other person was done, but the informality seemed to be a tradition in the area of operations I’d ended up in.
“Jurgens?” the Gunny asked. He was asking me if I was I going to leave Jurgens out there to be chewed up by the enemy, I knew.
Was I going to leave him there to his own devices to rescue himself? The Gunny was asking me if I was going to get rid of my Jurgens problem by simply letting the scene play out how it likely would, without some kind of intervention.
“Junior,” I heard, coming from out over the water. Jurgen’s voice was growing hoarse, and a plaintive quality have come into it. The longer he stayed out there the more likely it was that something would float downriver, discover his presence. and go for him in spite of the heavy current. The beating metronome of metal on metal being played out by the trapped tankers inside the armored body of the upside down vehicle he was pressed into couldn’t be reassuring, either. There was nothing the company could do on the other side to help Jurgens. None of the rest of the Marines in his platoon had made any attempt to come down the rope after their platoon commander and no one could fault them for that.
“It’s not that kind of war,” I whispered, not realizing I’d keyed the microphone.
“No, it’s not,” the Gunny said. “It’s your call. We can lay down some fire on where we think that fifty shit’s coming from but there’s nothing we can do for Jurgens. That’s on you.”
“Big of you,” I said, my tone bitter, knowing that the Gunny was setting up the scene for Jurgens getting dead and my being assigned the blame. As if the members of First Platoon had not been aching to take me out from the beginning, and no doubt especially following the failure of three of their number to finish me off earlier.
“Part the waters and pull Jurgens out of there, Junior,” the Gunny came right back, actually seeming to express a note of care and concern in his own tone.
“Get him the hell out of that mess. Nobody else can…and that’s what I meant, God damn it.”
I felt better with him adding that, as I gave the command net microphone back to Fusner. I put the air radio headset on. I knew the Gunny sincerely wanted Jurgens saved, as unlikely as that eventuality was becoming, moment by moment. If the NVA got the big gun moved forward at all, then it would be able to depress the few inches it needed to spray the entire river, instead of just the east side. The tank would protect the sergeant for now, but eventually the giant bullets raining down all around him would find an opening. It took only the slightest of fragments of one of those huge fast-moving bullets to mangle and kill a man.
“Cowboy,” I said, into the mic.
“Five by Five,” Jacko replied, indicating my signal to him was very clear.
“Got a guy out there stuck at the tank,” I told him, no longer worried about anyone overhearing the radio transmission since the enemy could see Jurgens as well as we could. “The Gunny’s going to have the company open up with some tracers into the fifty-caliber base of fire. We need suppression if you can manage it so I can get the sergeant out of there.”
“Same asshole that holed Hobo’s ride?” Jacko asked.
“No doubt,” I responded, wondering what difference it made, but slowly coming around to the idea that all the men in combat were very superstitious, and hence their need for plan and mission names, not to mention misplaced vendettas against things instead of living beings.
My Skyraider guys hated the gun itself without thought of the ever-changing and invisible enemy behind it.
“When you requesting service, Flash?” Cowboy himself asked.
I thought about how to transmit the time. Actually, there was little to be done. I’d use Barnes to help me get the extra rope over to the tank, pull Jurgens loose and then have my remaining Marines quickly pull all three of us onto the bank and safety. I noted that Jurgens had stopped yelling for help. I was of mixed feelings about whether I was happy or sad that he’d shut up. If he’d been hit then he was dead and one more problem was gone, although I knew deep down that I’d almost irrationally mourn his passing. The Marines in the company were all I had in my new world and I knew deep down that my raggedly torn emotional center was trying to make the best of a rotten situation. The Marines, no matter how fucked up, were all I had, except my letters home.
Jurgens screamed, even though the fifty had stopped firing.
“Shit,” I said.
“That’s not a time,” Cowboy replied.
I’d been pushing on the transmit key again, I realized. Was I losing it I wondered, or was I just so overtired I’d never catch up on sleep again for the rest of my short life?
I couldn’t hear the Skyraiders, but I knew they were up there somewhere. How far away? Also, the Gunny hadn’t opened up on at the base of the fifty. Would he wait until the big lumbering planes were audible or visible to do what he’d promised?
Jurgens screamed again. It was a blood-curdling scream. I wondered if he was hit after all. I felt down for my remaining morphine packets in my right thigh pocket. The bump of their presence gave me some comfort, but not much.
“Fuck it, Cowboy,” I said into the headset, “we need you yesterday.”
“On me,” I said to my team, tossing down the headset. They surrounded me in seconds, all of us staying as flat as possible on the hard muddy sand.
“We’re going up river a few hundred yards from where the tank is,” I said. “Barnes and I will swim out, and then tread water out there until the current drags us all the way down to the tank with the rope. The rest of you hold the other end of the line. When we grab Jurgens you guys pull us in. Simple.”
Jurgens screamed again.
“Why’s he screaming?” Fusner asked.
I didn’t answer. It didn’t matter. Jurgens was at the tank. Barnes and I were going, and whatever was left of the sergeant was coming back to the bank with us.
“Dump your gear,” I ordered, “but we are all staying in full utilities this time. Stay close to the very edge of the jungle but don’t go in and don’t tie the rope to anything. You may have to ease on down the bank to get us across once we’ve got him. Fusner you’re commo, but keep low with the rest. Stay up on the air net.”
My team got up from their stomachs long enough to fumble at unstrapping their packs and belts. I heard the Skyraiders at the same time the company opened fire. The Gunny was as good as his word. The tracers came screaming across the river, igniting about sixty yards from the barrels of the Marines laying along the berm perimeter, but looking like they were created in mid-air half way across the water.
“Move,” I said, jumping to my own feet, scooping up the half-coiled rope and racing upriver. Barnes stayed with me stride for stride. I looked over at the tank as we came abreast of it and almost stopped in my tracks. Jurgens was huddled on the upriver side of the tank, looking like he was trying to cram his body between the tracks and upside down fender. Just beyond him a big dark object looked like it was trying to do the same thing, at the opposite end.
“Holy shit,” Barnes hissed, “Jurgens’s gonna be eaten by a crocodile.”
I couldn’t believe my ears or my eyes. My eyes hadn’t seen the reality of the reptile until Barnes said the word, but there was no doubt. In my brief passing view as we ran past it didn’t look to me like the crocodile wanted any more to do with Jurgens than he wanted it to.
I stopped Barnes about a hundred and fifty yards further up the bank. The rest of the team was catching up. Fusner came last, following Pilson, who’d left his radio downriver.
I swept the rope up over my left shoulder. I wanted to keep my right hand ready with the .45, even though the mud, sand and roiled water made it unlikely the normally dependable weapon would fire. Maybe one shot, I thought, but one shot might be enough. I looked at Barnes and got ready to enter the river. There was no hesitation in the Marine. His eyes were big and round. He looked excited to be attempting the rescue, and his look gave me more confidence.
“You afraid of him, Junior?” he asked me, in a voice too low for the rest of the team to hear.
“Which one?” I asked back.
Barnes smiled and I smiled back. The kid had sand, as the Gunny would say, and his attitude gave me some, as well.
“You got the rope,” he said like he was leading the operation. “I go first with my 16. I got twenty rounds of hot tracer. You follow. I take the crocodile and you take my commander.”
I didn’t miss the slight of him saying Jurgens was his commander, but I wasn’t going to say anything to change what was going down. The kid had grit and I was going with it. I took a big loop of rope and ran it around Barnes’ midriff. I tied it off with a granny knot. Lousy knot but it was quick and would hold. It’d just play hell getting out later. Barnes didn’t wait for me to say anything. He eased out into the water, holding his 16 at present arms across his chest. Using some sort of frog kick he began slowly moving out until the current caught him. The fast-moving water grabbed his body, then the rope, and then me. We went downriver fast, Barnes constantly and perfectly moving into the very center of the rapids. The tank came up in what seemed like seconds.
Barnes hit the tank, not two feet from where Jurgens cowered, wedged between the tracks, his upturned facial expression looking like he was viewing the returned Jesus Christ.
“You came,” he gasped out, beginning to work his way out of the tracks while I grabbed hold of a sprocket and hung on.
“Of course I came,” Barnes replied, before using the current and his powerful leg stroke to push him right onto the bottom of the tank. He pulled on the rope but I hung on for dear life. I wasn’t tied to the rope at all, only holding on so I could pull it away from me once we got Jurgens secure.
I looked down into Jurgen’s eyes. I knew he’d been talking to me and not Barnes about coming to get him. I nodded and reached out a hand to pull him to me. Barnes stood up on the bottom of the tank. I jerked my head up, wondering what he was doing. He was pointing his M-16 down into the water at the other end of the tank.
“That’s all for you, bucko,” Barnes said, before his torso dissolved in a blown red cloud of mist and chunky bits, as a single round from the 50 found his spine and blew out his chest…
The big fifty’s continuous fire followed instantly, turning the water around Jurgens and me into a spray-covered mess.
The noise was awful. The company’s 16s, being so close and shooting over us, were bad, but the fifty was close enough to gout out giant blasts of rapid repetitive explosions that were much more ear-shattering. I didn’t hear the Skyraiders come in. I saw them. I realized that they had to be less than ten feet above the water as they went over us. In the thick of the attack either Cowboy or Hobo waved down with left hand extended. I couldn’t remember later which plane it had been. I did hear their twenty-millimeter cannons open up, and then the explosions of big bombs not far away.
I looked beyond Jurgens at the crocodile. It lay with its side against the tank’s track. I looked into its unblinking dark eyes. I couldn’t get any message but I had a deep-seated feeling that the animal wanted nothing to do with us. I pulled on the rope hesitantly.
“I’ll cut him loose,” Jurgens said, moving toward the boy’s body, half on, and what passed for the other half, off the side of the tank.
“No,” I said, the word coming out of me automatically. “He goes with us.”
“He’s dead weight and we’re in deep shit, if you haven’t noticed,” Jurgens replied.
“I came for you,” I said, my hand down under the water, gripping and unsnapping my Colt .45. “He’s a Marine, and he came for you too. He stays with us.”
The A-1 Skyraiders passed on down the valley and there was silence, as the company had stopped firing when they flew in. Only the water rushed, gurgled, and splashed over parts of the tank making plenty of noise as it curved around it.
“Fine, Fucking “A” fine,” Jurgens said, “whatever you say, Junior.”
I read his tone. The old Jurgens was back, not the crying and screaming Jurgens, who’d been alone in the middle of a rushing river with a fifty shooting at him and a giant croc for company. The man had an act, I realized. Whether that act was backed by the sand Barnes had shown was still an unknown to me.
The fifty opened up again. Both Jurgens and I crouched low in the passing water, only the area from the top of our mouths to the tops of our heads above water. The fifty caliber rounds were impacting the river all around us. They’d moved the big gun in order to depress and reach our position. Jurgens and I were trapped. My team could pull us across, but they’d be pulling three riddled bodies instead of just one.
“Great,” Jurgens said when the fifty stopped firing for a few seconds. “Just fucking great. How in hell are you going to get us out of this one, dead weight or no dead weight?” he asked.
I tried to think about what could be done. I looked over at the staring crock, and then at Barnes’ face, hanging over the side of the tank. His head wagged lightly with occasional brushes with the current below. His head tilted slightly and I saw that a smile was on his face. He’d smiled down to view the croc before he was about to kill it. The smile was still there.
“What’s the name of this plan, Junior?” Jurgens asked, “The plan to get us the hell out of here?”
I stared up, the image of the boy standing fiercely up on top of the tank with his 16 at the ready position.
I thought of an old Jimmy Cagney movie called White Heat I’d seen many years before.
“Top of the World, Ma,” I said.
“Top of the World?” Jurgens repeated, without the “ma” on the end.
Just giving Jurgens a name caused his voice to marginally change. There was just a hint of hope in it, for the first time.
“No, it’s ‘Top of the World, Ma,” I corrected, knowing the “ma” part would blow right by him. He could think about that instead of the simple fact that it would soon become apparent that I didn’t have a clue as to how to save our asses from certain death in the middle of what was fast becoming the river of death running down inside the valley of death.