I tried to relax for a few seconds, so I could get the Heart of Darkness Plan organized in my mind. The night and rain were everything, along with our speed of movement. It had taken me almost three weeks to figure out that the Vietnamese were slow, compared to Marines, when it came to covering ground. Marines moved fast and didn’t stop to take breaks. The Vietnamese had tunnels, supplies and support people buried in spider holes, caves and tunnels. They took their time about planning and moving. Every success the company had experienced since I’d been in country had had something to do with moving unexpectedly and quickly. Slowing us down would be towing along the wounded and the dead, but there was no solution to that problem. We weren’t leaving any more Marines behind to supposedly come back and pick up later. There were enough of those strung out along the Bong Song to consider and try to retrieve, if that was to be done at all, given what resources we had to draw upon.
“I’m not using the first emperor of Rome’s name to talk to that man in the future,” I said to the Gunny. “What’s his real name?”
“No idea,” the Gunny replied. “He’s in Kilo. We don’t have a table of organization chart on them. He calls himself Char, so I suppose that’ll have to do for now.”
His resistant answer made me think of Rittenhouse, our former company clerk. I wondered if our company was making daily or after-action reports, or if we possessed a T.O. for our own company of Marines. Hell, did we even have a resupply request or order that was sitting in the rear area? I’d once again lost touch with a part of internal operations that might prove vital to the company’s current survival, and to my own, if I ever made it back to the real world.
“We’ve got to move out fast and right now,” I said, knowing the Gunny already understood that, but I was still a little irritated about his “that’ll have to do for now” comment.
“Resupply’s coming in with multiple choppers,” he replied, moving to the river side of the hole and beginning to work his poncho cover out from where it was stuck over the RPG hole, “maybe because of the hit Kilo’s taken.”
I realized, once again, that there was plenty of radio traffic going on that I got to hear nothing about while it was going on. I had to hope that the big resupply coming in wouldn’t tip off the NVA to another of our night moves, although if they were listening in, how could they draw any other conclusion? I began pulling down my own poncho cover, fighting against my longing to leave the hole just as it was and stay buried down at the bottom of it. But there could be no staying. To stay was to die when the light came. We had to move and there was only one direction remaining to move in.
“There’s got to be a relief force of officers aboard those choppers,” the Gunny said, as the rain began to beat down upon us again.
I stuck my head through the poncho cover hole and put my helmet on, which gave some relief but also made it a bit harder to hear. The rain was coming down hard enough in volume to overpower other nearby sounds. The Gunny leaned toward me.
“We can expect a load of FNGs, officer and otherwise. Command will want the two companies to operate separately again, which should at least take care of the black problem for a while, although that’s never really going away.”
“Seems to be a black and white problem to me,” I answered, wondering if it was worth discussing the subject at all, since there was little to be done about it.
“Let’s move out,” the Gunny said, avoiding the issue. “If the Gooks don’t fall for this one then it won’t matter much.”
I got my pack on under my poncho before climbing up out of the hole. Fusner and Zippo stood ready, the rain glistening off the material of their own protective poncho covers. I wondered what the military had used for rain gear in other earlier wars. Somewhere I’d heard that the trench coat had been invented to shelter troops in WWI, but I’d never seen that information confirmed anywhere. The open ponchos were too hot for the bottom of the A Shau, but there were no other choices.
Once again I was surprised, as Marines moved past me, heading upriver at a mud bank-eating fast walk. The Marines pulling ponchos did so like they were carrying litters, one Marine to each corner, but instead of lifting the loaded fabric into the air they dragged the center of it across the surface. It was only possible to see, with the dark and bad weather, that the ponchos were filled with heavy loads There was no real way, without stopping and encountering them, to know whether the Marines they were ferrying were dead or alive, or even if the loads were Marines.
There were no orders to be given, supporting fires to be called or any use for the radios at all, unless the enemy opened up and the remaining rounds of the Ontos needed to be expended to suppress that fire. Trouble was going to come from across the nearly invisible river, its sound of angry rushing waters almost totally extinguished by the constant drumming of the rain, if it was to come at all.
I checked my Gus Grissom watch. The move should take less than two hours. It would be near dawn by the time the last of both companies made it to the open area where the Ontos sat waiting to fire across the river. I hung back, the remains of my scout team automatically waiting nearby without comment. If I had to adjust the Ontos fire then I would have to do so from a rear position. I hated our night moves. I had no idea where the Gunny, Jurgens, Sugar Daddy or anybody else was. The moving Marines all looked alike when anything other than dark glistening shadows could be seen at all.
The move was another tiring one. Although there was no running, and the hardships that went with doing that in the darkness, mud and miserable weather were things that could be accommodated, I still hated it. It was the fear of being exposed to close range machine gun fire at any moment, the lack of sleep, water and food induced fatigue that was nearly overwhelming. Without anything more than my pack, .45, helmet and other stuff, my knees kept giving slightly away after twenty minutes or so, of slogging through the four-inch-deep mud. The Marines under my pasted together command had to be in the same shape as I was, I knew, but carrying considerably heavier loads. Some were doing that while towing bodies along in poncho covers. I straightened my back.
But there was no fire. No accidental discharges from our side and no attack from across the river from the NVA. Thanks to Nguyen, we’d been able to do the unexpected once more. It was amazing to consider that, while in training, I’d been taught a wide variety of ways to engage and destroy the enemy, while in actual practice, under combat conditions, I spent most of my time planning and implementing operations to avoid, flank or withdraw from whatever enemy forces I might encounter.
I slogged through the mud, sometimes whispering to my legs. It was my legs that had gotten me the top award in the Basic School. It took great legs to master the obstacle course, confidence course, excel at the force reaction course and, of course, to outperform everyone in the map and compass competitions.
I only stopped once on the move, when I saw the tiny brief glare of a Zippo lighter inside the deep jungle undergrowth just to my left. It was gone as soon as I saw it but I stopped to consider, anyway. There was some kind of little area, even blacker than the night all around. Was some enemy in a spider or fighting hole waiting to ambush us? If so, then why hadn’t he struck? Marines bumped by me. Zippo reached a hand back and pulled me forward. If I didn’t move fast I’d be the last man. and I didn’t want to be the very last man.
It was six in the morning when we finally made it back, not that the light had changed much with the heavy overcast and continuing rain. Nguyen guided me to the same hole the Gunny had shamed me out of earlier. This time Nguyen came inside the hole with Fusner, Zippo and I. They had no need of my poncho, so I carefully folded it so I could put it under me. There’d been no cover over the top of the hole while we’d been gone and the dry bottom was now damp with moisture. I wondered in the blackness, while the others worked to cover over the top, whether there’d be a flashlight in the resupply. Working with the light of Zippo lighters and burning Composition B wasn’t much good for map reading, writing letters or examining my new binoculars closely. For some reason, the glasses gave me a feeling of worth and quality totally out of place in the living hell I’d fallen into.
When Fusner awakened me, I couldn’t remember having fallen asleep. Once again, I was inserted into the side wall mud, my back pressed inches deep. I twisted and struggled to get loose. If there were leeches I knew they’d have penetrated right through the cotton of my blouse, even though the material was pretty thick. I also wouldn’t feel them, so I quickly unbuttoned, stripped the top off and checked. But the muddy mess of material was clean, or at least clean of animal life. To my muddy fingers, the muddy material didn't feel like material at all. It felt like the felt from a pool table soaked in axle grease. I hated to put it back on, as the moist heat was oppressive and the muddy blouse was repulsive, but I did. In truth, I wore the helmet and the blouse more to try to look like an officer than for the protection it might give me.
There’d been no fire in the night or I would either have awakened or been awakened by my scout team. I was relieved that no valuable Ontos rounds had been expended. Resupply was due but it probably wouldn’t be coming in with extra 106 rounds, depending upon who in the company had put in requests.
I got myself organized, patted the left thigh pocket to make sure my soggy letter home was still stuck inside and considered what was to come with the light. If resupply came in then it would arrive north of where we were. The old runway was only about a click from our present position but a thousand meters could be a very long stretch to cross if the open area was under fire from the enemy across the river. How big the supply force would be was anybody’s guess. The Gunny felt we’d be overrun by FNGs and new officers, and his experience had proven pretty valuable in making such determinations. I wasn’t so sure though. The amount of care battalion command had showered on our company had been about as sparse as could be. In fact, the only real care we’d had shown to our unit was by the artillery batteries and air support units.
Whatever came in would somehow have to be sufficient to get us the hell out of the position we were in. If command hadn’t become convinced that no ARVN firebase was buildable then they could send somebody else. The threat of court-martial or even summary execution wasn’t going to keep me in our current position no matter what orders were issued. At least a firing squad would come later, after some hot chow, a shower and some sleep on a real cot or mattress. Staying where we were would provide none of those things and death was going to be pretty immediate and probably a whole lot more painful.
The Gunny and Sugar Daddy slid under the poncho covers and into the hole, almost entirely filling the space. I was pushed back into the mud I’d carefully pried myself out of.
“Dawn’s an hour out,” the Gunny said in the dark, before turning on a flashlight and shining it directly up onto the bottom of the covering poncho liner.
The hole lit up.
My eyes quickly moved from man to man. I looked at each Marine and then went on to the next, until the Gunny spoke again.
“We can stay here for maybe half an hour, or a little bit more before pulling out and moving to the old runway. The Ontos can cover our rear. If we get air, they can roll on in and take over from there.”
It was a good plan but it had one hole. A big one. We had to pull our dead out. Tex was across the river. Stevens was laying there and the others, on both sides of the river. If we pulled out and headed north we wouldn’t be coming back. Nobody would be coming back. And there were Kilo’s newly wounded, as well as those dead. And there was the matter of Lieutenant Kemp.
“Where’s Kemp?” I asked.
The Gunny snapped the flashlight off and the instant blackness surprised me for a few seconds. I pulled myself from the mud, a bad feeling coursing its way through my whole body.
“Where’s Kemp?” I asked again, this time my voice was low, steady and without any emotion.
“He wandered away on the move,” the Gunny replied
I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t happy with what he was telling me, but I also picked up that his tone was intended to be a final decision, as well.
“Who was assigned to him?” I asked, accepting that he was gone, but not ready to consign the battle-damaged officer to death on his own in the bush.
“Jurgens,” the Gunny said.
“Jurgens, again,” I whispered.
“This is combat, Junior,” Sugar Daddy said. “It’s one thing when somebody gets hit doing what we do. We try not to leave him. But when a guy walks away, what are we supposed to do? Start searching the jungle calling his name?”
Anger burning inside my torso surged upward and rage nearly overcame my mind. The blackness held a tinge of red that flickered in my eyes. A hand reached out of the dark and settled on my left thigh, right over the pocket holding my letter home. I breathed in and out quietly. The hand withdrew. I knew it had to be Nguyen. That thought calmed me.
“The guy’s a Marine,” I said, my voice flat. “That Marine’s wounded and back there alone. We don’t leave wounded Marines behind because they took one in the head, or anywhere else. I wonder if you’d have said what you said if the Marine was enlisted or if he was black.”
I knew the words I was using were fighting words and that the hole was too tight for almost any combat that didn't involve a sharp knife or K-Bar not already out and ready. I unsnapped the Colt, pulled it out and clicked off the safety. I held it down, the barrel’s nose in the mud, to the point I wondered if a round fired wouldn’t blow us all up. I didn’t care.
There was no movement or sound inside the hole except the sound of stressed men breathing and holding themselves still.
“So, we’re going back to get him,” Zippo whispered into the dark thick mass of muddy Marines.
“How?” the Gunny asked.
“I’m taking the scout team,” I said, feeling the old fear suddenly surge into my belly and slowly rip its way up to my chest. “Leave Sugar Daddy and his platoon back to wait. If we haven’t returned just before dawn then he can pull out and leave us. We’ll nestle into the brush and wait for air if we can’t find him, and then run like hell.”
“It’s got nuthin to do with black,” Sugar Daddy said. “It’s about living. He walked away.”
“Not your place to go, Junior,” the Gunny said, ignoring Sugar Daddy and the whole racial issue. “You’re commander of two companies right now, not one.”
“You going?” I asked.
Silence once more settled over the inside of the hole, like the protectively layered poncho liners above. The rain sprinkled on their rubber surfaces while the sound of the river’s rushing waters and the vibrations of its passage were fully detectable, although only as background noise. I replaced my .45 in the holster, feeling the squish of mud being pushed in with the barrel housing. I’d have to somehow clean the weapon before it would be serviceable again. I’d reacted automatically. There was no real threat, only the usual high-threat relationships, and communications that seemed to lay at the foundation of all behavior between the subunits of the company.
“I agree, somebody has to go,” the Gunny forced out, without volunteering.
“Does Kemp smoke cigarettes?” I asked, suddenly thinking about our tough night move up the river bank to get to where we were.
“I think so,” the Gunny replied.
“I’ll take Nguyen, Zippo and Fusner. I think I know where he is.” I explained passing the small alcove, or hole in the bush, not far from our current position, making that case that someone mentally damaged would attempt to go to ground or hole up somewhere in fear of everything.
“Jurgens ought to go,” the Gunny said.
“No, I’ll take a squad at double time,” Sugar Daddy said. “If he’s there we’ll find him. If he’s not we come back and that’s the end of it. ‘Cause he’s white don’t mean nuthin.”
The Gunny turned Jurgen’s flashlight back on and I was surprised again, blinking my eyes rapidly to see. The Gunny was looking at Sugar Daddy and the big black sergeant was returning his stare with an expression of defiance.
“I’ll go with the squad,” the Gunny replied, saying the words like an order instead of like an offer. “You take the companies upriver to the landing site with the Ontos, Junior. We can’t stay here to guard the dead bodies, or we’ll be pinned down come daylight, and we can’t cross the river to recover those bodies unless what’s coming is what I think is coming. Big choppers and gunships might change everything. And we have to move now. I’m not getting caught on this bank when then the sun comes up.”
I wondered what the Gunny knew that he wasn’t telling me. This was his second reference to a large force coming to our assistance or relieving us in some way we hadn’t so far experienced since I’d been in the country.
The Gunny and Sugar Daddy climbed out of the hole, pushing aside the poncho liner covers without replacing them. The decision was made and I’d had little part in it. I was to be left with Jurgens, Obrien, Charlemagne and whatever other non-coms were running the ragtag platoons we’d formed together in melding the companies into one.
I got my pack back on with Zippo’s help and the rest of us climbed from the wonderfully protective hole. The rain beat down and it was still full dark. Our protection from taking fire from across the river was holding but I knew everything could change in an instant. I heard the sound of the Gunny departing with Sugar Daddy and his platoon but didn't see anyone except Jurgens, whose face appeared right in front of me like a whitish apparition.
“I didn’t leave him behind on purpose,” he said.
“No, you left him because you didn’t give a shit,” I replied, although my right hand did not fall to my Colt when I said the words.
“I came back for you,” he replied.
The rain beat down and I tried to look around, anywhere but into the strange man’s strange eyes. I couldn’t see much of anything. The glistening of water somehow reflecting back from little puddles in the mud. The occasional gray whitish appearance in the distance, as the river water heaped up and over the end of the inadequately laid bridge. It was entirely conceivable that Kemp had, indeed, simply slipped off to find a place to hide from everything. I knew how hard it was to climb out of my own hole back into the living nightmare I’d somehow been consigned to.
The man had a point. He was right.
“Get everyone on the move,” I ordered. “Sugar Daddy and the Gunny have gone back for Kemp, no thanks to you. We’ll make the airfield before dawn to set up a perimeter for resupply if we can get a break in the weather.”
I washed my face with one hand, by rubbing it all over with the rain flowing down from the top of my head. I put my damaged helmet on when I was done.
Jurgens hadn’t moved, even after hearing my command.
“I’m not the man you think I am,” he said, standing like he couldn’t move until he heard some sort of response from me.
“I don’t know you,” I replied, not being able to think of anything else to say.
“That’s my point,” he replied, beginning to turn away, like I’d answered him by saying something important or truly rational.
“Oh, we’re going to pull the bodies from this side along,” he went on, “we’ll just have the guys across the river and back down where Kilo took the hit at the wall to do something about.”
I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one thinking about our dead Marines.
“How many KIA did Kilo take downriver this time?” I asked, not wanting to really get an answer to the question I’d avoided asking the Gunny since the attack.
“Fifteen, with twenty-one wounded.”
We’d lost two officers, and thirty-four enlisted in one-night engagement. One-fifth of a company, just like that, in a matter of a few hours.
“I’m going to stay with the Ontos, and my scout team, about five hundred meters upriver. From there I can adjust 106 fire directly across the expanse of the open area to cover the Gunny’s return.”
I moved out, following Jurgens, with my scout team. I reached out to the firebase where the 175s were located. Once we were a bit farther upriver we’d be able to call those big guns back into action, although being right on the gun target line with them firing red bag rounds wasn’t something I wanted to do unless air wasn’t going to show up. Artillery didn’t care about the weather, although it was always a factor in where the rounds were going to impact. By the time I finished the artillery registration and gave them our position as being back at the old airstrip, we’d reached the new location of the Ontos.
The crew was huddled under the protection of the thing's low hull. They had to lay on the flat earth underneath because the body of the low slung armored vehicle only cleared the ground by three feet. I crawled under the heavy steel with my scout team following. The crew of three was digging away at making more room, and didn’t seem bothered by our jamming ourselves in out of the rain and away from the possibility of taking enemy fire.
I immediately felt secure. It was better than being in the hole. I was protected by twenty tons of armor and a vehicle the enemy was rumored to be afraid of.
Once more, Fusner shook me awake. I blinked my eyes open. I’d fallen asleep wearing my helmet, poncho, and pack. I came to my knees quickly, bumping my pack up onto the bottom of the Ontos. I could see. It was dim around me, but there was definitely light.
“Shit,” I said, “they’re not back?”
I no sooner asked the question when we heard fire. It was AK fire. There was no mistaking the sharp staccato automatic action of the poorly performing but very dependable weapon. I quickly unstrapped my pack and pulled my new Leica binoculars out.
“Prepare to fire,” I ordered, scrambling out from under the Ontos, but not exposing any of my body to the river or anybody on the other side. “What’s chambered in the guns?” I asked, finally sticking my head around the edge of the track far enough to look through the glasses.
“HT-P, like you ordered, sir,” one of the crewmen answered. “One round of Beehive on each side, just in case.”
I swept the glasses up and down the other side of the river, looking for flashes, but could see nothing through the heavy rain and mist. That I could see the other side of the river at all was only due to the brilliant German optics. I realized that it didn’t matter. The Gunny was on the run coming up river with Sugar Daddy and his platoon. The Beehive rounds would work, even across the river, but only if they were fired directly out from our position. That wasn’t going to help the Gunny.
“Load all HT-P,” I ordered. “Where are the optics?”
One of the crewmen broke from the back of the Ontos, ran over, and pulled on my arm. I followed him to the rear of the vehicle, where the doors gaped open.
“There,” he said, pointing to a white boxy part of the left corner. There was a fold-down seat. I pulled off my pack, helmet and climbed aboard, unwilling to part with my Leica lenses, however. I stuck my face up to the top of the little cubicle and put one eye against a rubber grommet. The scene down the river on the other side came alive, appearing even brighter than what I’d seen through the German binoculars. I saw a flash, and then more. The reticle I was looking through had cross hairs. Where the lines crossed was almost exactly at the spot where the flashes were coming from. I pulled my face back from the device and looked at the two levers sticking out of the bulkhead.
I turned my head to yell out the back of the vehicle but one of the crewmen was already standing there.
“Range on the left, deflection on the right,” he yelled, before disappearing.
It took only seconds to wind the cranks and bring two other lines to match the static ones. I eased the range wheel around slowly to the right, raising the red horizontal line up to where it rested on a small series of number that read ‘300.’ I presumed the number to mean three hundred meters.
“Fire the one-oh-six,” I yelled at the top of my voice, my eye sealed to the rubber grommet, a twisted grin beginning to form on my face as I stared unblinking through the lens.