Two 106 rounds went down range, both visible from the distinctive contrails they left behind as they barreled through the thick rain soaked air. The guns were fired from outside the Ontos by the crew. I didn’t know why they’d fired two instead of all six or only one. The crew was outside and fully exposed to the tremendous back blast the 106 produced behind it. The guns were not truly without recoil. They simply used a brilliantly designed hot gas escape at the back of the guns to allow the rounds to be launched without a heavy recoil mechanism, but those gases were deadly to anyone standing within fifty yards behind them when they were fired.
I adjusted fire by adjusting the physical angle of all six guns using the reticle cross hairs and twisting the metal wheels. The process was much faster than calling in for artillery adjustments. The crew fired the guns as I called out to them, with only a few seconds’ delay for everyone to get clear before two more rounds exploded from the barrels outward across the river.
“They’re coming,” Zippo yelled into the back of the Ontos.
By that time, I’d gotten into a groove. I could adjust the guns in about twenty seconds to guide the big rounds in, and then it took about another twenty seconds to give the order for the crew to get everyone out of the way and actually fire the weapons. There was no more firing from across the river so I adjusted up and down the bank, losing track of the number of rounds we’d expended.
“Let’s go,” a voice shouted through the vehicle’s open rear doors.
I knew that voice. The Gunny was back. I wanted to remain inside the Ontos and fire as we retreated upriver but I knew it wasn’t my place. I pulled myself regretfully from the fold down seat, but the Gunny was gone when I turned around.
“Load with the flechettes and cover our move,” I instructed the remaining crew as I lowered myself from the back of the vehicle and out into the rain and down onto the riverbank mud. Zippo helped me strap my pack on and then get my poncho over my head.
I looked up river to see Marines lying flat atop the mud, lined up and facing the river.
“Why aren’t we moving out?” I asked of Fusner and Zippo.
The Gunny appeared from around the side of the Ontos, Sugar Daddy at his side. Between them a wet and miserable looking Lieutenant Kemp was guided and semi-dragged along.
“Put him inside,” the Gunny ordered Sugar Daddy, stepping away and then turning to face me with a strange expression.
“You were right,” he said, shaking his head instead of nodding it. “He found himself a hole and was going to wait it out.”
I remained. There wasn’t much to be said. I could have asked him what he meant by ‘waiting it out,’ but I realized it was pointless. The phrase was a general one and needed no real explanation. We were all waiting it out down in the A Shau. We were all hoping to live while waiting to die.
“We’ll move slow, backing our way upriver, as the Ontos withdraws,” the Gunny said.
I realized the wisdom of his comment immediately. I’d only thought of me riding inside the Ontos in safety and not about how the feared armored vehicle could be used to protect the entirety of the platoon in its retreat. I looked at Kemp, who sat huddled into the back of the small quarters provided by the interior of the Ontos.
“He only responds to one thing,” the Gunny said, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and lighting two, one right after the other.
He handed one to Kemp, who reached out greedily before pulling the smoking cylinder to his lips and inhaling deeply.
The Gunny held his own cigarette out toward me. I took it and inhaled once, as was my custom, this time exhaling without coughing.
“Seems we all respond to that one thing,” I murmured.
A crewman must have gotten into the driver’s section on the forward front slope of the machine because the engine kicked over and started with a quiet roar. The sound was that of a large Jeep engine, which seemed pretty small to me for a heavy armored vehicle. Another crewman saw my expression and commented.
“GM six-cylinder,” he said. “A hundred and twenty-seven horsepower. It’s not much, but dependable as hell. Almost out of gas though.”
Gasoline, I thought. Where in the A Shau Valley were we supposed to find any gasoline?
“Tex’s truck,” the Gunny said, pointing at the twisted wreck of the truck Tex had come down the valley in along with his portable bridge.
The Gunny sent one of the Marines ahead to check and see if the fuel tank of the Six-by, which also ran on gasoline, still had anything in it, while the rest of the platoon moved slowly before the retreating Ontos.
Fire once more erupted from the far bank and everyone went down into the mud. There was no missing the deep rolling thunder of a .50 caliber machine gun. Even the Ontos could not absorb that kind of directed fire. I crawled toward the back of the Ontos but knew before I got there that I wouldn’t be effective in time. The 106 guns were loaded with flechette rounds, which were too short-ranged to reach across the river and do any real damage.
I went straight down into the mud again as the sound of monster engines passed a few feet from me. I tried to look up, but my brain processed the sounds before I could get my face out of the mud. It was the sound of Skyraider Wright Cyclone engines. But I’d never heard that many together before. I got my eyes up and saw the planes descend down so low it looked like the lead two would strike the old bridge. But there weren’t two of them, there were six, flying in three packs of pairs. The front two flew in and opened up with their six twenty millimeter cannons each. The wing mounted guns left lines of gray smoke, visible through the rain, as the powder burned out from expending thousands of rounds. The next two pairs of planes did the same thing seconds later. With their strafing runs completed all six planes climbed steeply before starting a left wingover to fly back between the valley walls and make another run.
There was no longer any fire from the jungle, including from the fearful fifty.
The quiet that followed the Skyraiders on their first run gave me some comfort, as it likely did every Marine with me in the valley. It also rather assured that I wouldn’t need to call any supporting fire before we made it safely to the end of the old runway.
Four Huey Cobra attack helicopters came sweeping over our heads. They flew four abreast, extending from one valley wall to the other. It was a sight to behold. All four had their shark teeth painted noses angled toward the jungle below, and all four flew at a much lower speed than the Skyraiders could ever hope to manage.
I could not stop to watch the show, as the Cobras opened up with rotary guns and Zuni rockets. We had to get away from the open and exposed field of fire the area all along our side of the river presented to the NVA forces taking so much fire. I glanced back to see the deadly looking helicopters slowly rotating around and around the entire area, selectively opening up and then shutting down their nose-mounted cannons, unlike Puff when it had delivered its load in long continuous bursts. I also felt relief that I might not have to call in the 175s again. Being under the gun target line of those giant rounds, launched beyond accurate range limitations, would have been terrifying.
The good news kept coming, as the Skyraiders came screaming down the valley once more, while the Cobras literally backed their way up above the eastern lip of the valley cliff to wait their turn when the fixed-wing were done.
The Ontos backed slowly, well beneath the maximum speed of motivated Marines getting the hell away from fifty caliber and smaller machine gun fire. But there was nothing to be done for it. In spite of my sleep-deprived fatigue I felt like going to double time to finally get to some relative safety. None of us could afford to outrun the Ontos, however the cave-like safety of the hole eaten away under the edge of the runway appeared in my mind like it was a mirage just up ahead. But we weren’t there yet. I physically swept one hand across my eyes to brush the too comforting image away.
I heard the sound of deeper turbine engines ahead of us. As I cleared an area of brush and bamboo I saw the source of the new sound. Three tandem-rotor supply choppers were coming at us head on. I breathed deeply. Three of the huge things, not one, or any number of the much smaller Huey machines. Finally, we could lift our bodies out. Finally, if the air stayed on station we could send an empty chopper to get the remainder of the dead we weren’t dragging along with us.
The Gunny appeared before me, moving slower to allow me to catch up with him, I knew.
“Three choppers, Gunny,” I gasped out in my enthusiasm.
“Yeah, three,” the Gunny agreed, but there was no enthusiasm in his voice.
“What gives?” I asked, wondering about his lack of expressiveness more than why we were getting three choppers.
“They don’t send three to a unit our size, even with Kilo added on,” the Gunny said, his eyes fixed on the approaching machines just like my own. “If they don’t send three, but they did, then what’s coming next isn’t necessarily good news. And two of those three are Army 47s that can carry as much as twelve tons each.”
I couldn’t believe the negativism of his attitude. How could three choppers, no matter what U.S. military service owned them, be anything but the best of news? It made no sense to me.
Jurgens, Sugar Daddy, Obrien, and Charlemagne moved toward where the Gunny and I walked, just ahead of the noisy backing Ontos. Their facial expressions mirrored the Gunny’s dour look.
I felt myself change inside, like a switch had been thrown. These were my men, my Gunny and my platoon commanders. I had seen and known them to do terribly violent, unethical and even murderous things since I’d been in country. But I’d also remained alive by being fully aware that they were experienced warriors compared to me. If my Marines were worried then I was worried, even though I couldn’t fathom what there might be to generate such concern.
I pushed my right fist straight into the air and stopped in my tracks. The Ontos stopped immediately, probably more to keep from running over me than because of my silent command to halt.
The word went forward through and past the Gunny and the other non-coms. Everyone stopped. The Gunny turned and covered the short distance between us.
“We’ve only got a couple of hundred yards to go,” he hissed, “what in hell are you doing?”
“We’re not going in blind,” I said, squatting down to the mud.
The others gathered around the Gunny and I, along with Zippo, Fusner and Nguyen.
“What the hell’s going on?” I asked, not knowing what else to say or do.
“We go in, nothing else,” the Gunny said, not squatting or going to his knees, instead standing with his hands on his hips like he was impatient with a small child.
“Alright,” I replied, rising up to join him. “The frontal attack. I get it. I was looking for ideas or recommendations.”
I knew I sounded weak, and I knew part of the problem was that I was dog tired with my mind and body trying to decide between fall down fatigue and seemingly irrational fear. We were headed into our own position and people, so why did that seem like such bad news?
“Silence,” Jurgens whispered, in a tone almost too soft to hear. “We keep our mouths shut and listen until we figure it out. Go along. Get along. This is our valley.”
For some reason I couldn’t quite fathom, his words gave me hope and strength. Worse than any of what I had been through were the times when I was alone, or felt totally alone. In his way, Jurgens, of all people, had given me what I’d stopped the unit to get. I was not alone.
We moved out again, although with the Skyraiders and Huey Cobras working over the jungle area, I had a lessening fear of danger coming immediately from that area. The big utility choppers were coming in and, just as the thought entered my mind that the Cobras should have returned to add security for their touchdown, four more Cobras appeared behind the tandem engine supply birds. I watched the show ahead, as we were getting beyond visual of the show behind. Whatever was happening was big, at least in the miniaturized world I’d been driven down into since coming upon the A Shau Valley.
We made it back to the runway at almost the same time as the three choppers touched down. The Marine CH-46 was in the lead, looking like an exact
miniature of the bigger Army 47s, but very distinctive with the big Marine letters painted onto both sides of its light body just above very bright and distinctive WWII star and bar insignia. The bigger Army choppers were painted in jungle camouflage with no letters or identification anywhere visible.
The back doors of the choppers dropped to the earth but supplies did not flow out. Personnel did. I stood at the edge of the runway, holding my helmet on with one hand and guarding my eyes with the other, as the hundred mile an hour prop wash pounded over me. The Cobras rotated slowly around and around the area, as the big choppers engines unaccountably began to slow. I realized in surprise that the helicopters were spooling their engines down. I couldn’t believe it. Had none of them been to the A Shau before, I wondered, while at the same time thinking about how to get any supplies they might have out of them before they were blown to hell and gone?
A large contingent of Marines formed up roughly, bent over at the waist, and made their way toward us. Both my company and Kilo’s remnants had automatically formed a cordon perimeter around the whole landing zone but the men coming toward me and my small group neither joined in the establishment pattern of that security activity or seemed to take notice of it at all.
A tall Marine with a large black oak leaf painted onto what appeared to be a brand-new helmet cover led them. A veritable flock of lieutenants came behind, like baby goslings following their mother. I presumed the major to be the battalion executive officer but when he walked up to me I remained silent and motionless.
“You’d be Junior, I presume, lieutenant?” he asked, the sound of chopper turbines finally dying out enough to allow speech and only mild buffeting from the still turning rotors remaining.
I was surprised. I hadn’t heard the two words junior and lieutenant used together before, any more than junior and sir. Again, following Jurgens advice, I only nodded, although the situation was so odd I was prepared to salute the major if he saluted first. In combat nobody saluted, but back in the rear areas or in training lower rank officers always saluted higher rank, except lieutenants never saluted one another.
“I’m Major Charles Whittier, and I’m here with my team from Stars and Stripes,” he said, waving his hand backwards at his collected gathering of what seemed to be twenty or more Marines, half of them first and second lieutenants. “We’re here to cover some combat, and we’ve heard that you’ve seen some.”
Sugar Daddy burst out laughing, and was quickly joined by Zippo and Char.
All I could do was stare and wait.
Three of the lieutenants walked around the major and stood between us, setting themselves into some kind of formal triad I hadn’t seen before. They were quickly joined by two Army lieutenants. All of them were First Lieutenants. The entire collection of officers in front of me wore not only the blacked-out rank on their helmet covers but also small silver bars on their collars.
“You can stand down,” the lead lieutenant with the blackened name of Clews painted over his pocket said.
“Stand down?” the Gunny asked, next to me on my left.
“Stand relieved,” Clews said, “and please call me sir. I’ve heard there’s some informalities that need to be handled here.”
“Informalities?” the Gunny asked.
I was happy the Gunny was asking, because my questions would have been exactly the same, although I certainly knew what the word ‘relieved’ meant. I was no longer company commander of either my own unit or Kilo. I didn’t know whether to be sorry or happy or both.
I noted the second CH-47 unloading more men, all Army. Only the 46 was beginning to have its supplies hauled down the back ramp and stacked on the nearby tarmac. Marines from my former company and Kilo ran toward the supplies to get them under some sort of cover and off the flat exposed concrete.
“Have you got a secure area we can establish a CP and talk?” Clews asked, his face unable to hide an expression of distaste.
I wasn’t sure whether the new company commander was angry with the Gunny for not calling him sir or whether he was finding that our combat operation wasn’t run ‘high and tight’ like a barracks outfit. I held to Jurgens’ advice and said nothing.
“This way,” Fusner said, surging past me, and then angling off from everyone still standing there.
I knew where he was going, and my spirits fell a little bit further. The cave. The eaten-out hole under the concrete I’d been dreaming of ever since I’d left it so long ago. The new brace of officers was going to see it and take it over instantly. Why was Fusner leading them there, I wondered, of all places? We could have all crawled under the Ontos and done quite fine, and saved the cave for ourselves.
The entourage began to move. There were at least twenty men, I realized, gathered into two distinct groups. The Army crew looked rough and tough. None wore helmets, instead they used the flat wrinkly brimmed bush hats favored by some of my own company Marines. Or what had been my company. The Stars and Stripes people looked uncomfortable, all wearing utilities and new helmets, mostly without covers. It was good to view so many clean human beings and I suddenly felt bad about my own appearance, from black fingernails to leech wounds and the misery of ever present dirt I’d once more accumulated in layers.
I caught the blackened names of Clew’s two accompanying first lieutenants and quickly looked away. My eyes ran into the Gunny’s. He smiled a deep but faint enigmatic smile, and then looked away. He’d seen the names too. Lieutenant Johnson and Lieutenant Johnsen.
The cave was as before, a welcome haven. It gaped open on the edge of the Bong Song river that was still sweeping by with a depth and speed so great that nobody was going to cross it to attack. It was a cave fortress the Germans in WWII would have been proud to occupy, I felt. Only the officers entered the opening, as if some cue had been given. I motioned my scout team away. Fusner took up a position near the entrance with Zippo stationed on the other side, both resembling very disheveled and young Palace Guards. The Gunny was the only non-com who came inside the hole. The afternoon sun provided plenty of light. I was about to squat down until it became apparent that nobody was going to sit or squat on anything. The hole was muddy, all over. I could read the distaste on all the other officer’s faces. I stayed standing.
“Here’s what’s going to happen,” Clews began, paying no attention whatever to the fact that the major outranked him by a considerable degree.
I nodded, having no reason to say a word.
“Johnsen is going to take over Kilo and I’ll command your company,” Clews said, pointing at me. “Johnson will be my XO until we get platoon commanders in here later in the week. The mission’s scrapped. You and Kilo were unable to provide the security for an ARVN unit to come in and form the firebase. And then there was the incident with the engineers you were supposed to protect. None of that happened. So, because of that, the mission’s changed.”
The man stopped talking for a minute to look between the Gunny and I, but we didn’t look at each other. I nodded again, not knowing why, but I felt it seemed to be the right thing to do.
“We’re going north up the A Shau twenty-four clicks from here. Once there, we’ll establish a communications center to direct a coming attack near the DMZ to squeeze off the Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
I liked the sound of heading north, where supporting fires were much more plentiful and the narrowness of the southern valley would be a thing of the past.
But Clews didn’t stop there.
“Right now, we’re not making any changes to your structure,” Clews went on. “Junior, you’ll hold the fort right here while we’re gone and until we get back.”
“Gone?” I said, finally opening my mouth only because I was surprised.
“We’ve brought elements of the Army’s elite Special Forces to conduct a combined operation.”
“Combined operation?” I asked, knowing how stupid I sounded, but unable to stop myself.
“Yes, we three are going to fly up there with the Special Forces, secure that hill and then bring in the engineers while you advance both companies up on command along the river. All we have to do is hold the hill until you arrive. Once we get there, I’ll call down and give the order.’
“So, I’m to be company commander again?” I asked, in shock.
“No,” Clews answered, uncomfortably. “Or yes, at least temporarily, until you get the men upriver and join us. Meanwhile, when we depart in a few minutes, after mid-day chow, you’ll cooperate with Major Whittier and give him your gear and weapons so he can film some combat and get out of here before dark. The chopper crews don’t like to fly after dark down here. Thanks to Stars and Stripes we got all this extra cover and support.”
“Mid-day chow?” I whispered, my initial shock worn off only to be replaced with more.
I didn’t know how to ask Clews about my company or Kilo giving up weapons and gear. That was insanity and I thought he’d had to have misspoken himself. Just then Fusner turned on his transistor radio and musical lyrics began to play in through the opening to the outside: “Bend me shape me anyway you want me, as long as you love me it’s all right. Bend me shape me anyway you want me, you got the power to turn on the light.”
“What the hell is that?” Clews exploded, angrily.
“Brother John,” the Gunny answered, before I could say anything.
“Well, tell Brother John to turn that damned radio off. This is a combat zone and combat situation.”
“Would you handle brother John?” I asked the Gunny, my mind roiling with stunned turmoil and twisted humor.
“You got the power to turn on the light, sir,” the Gunny said, his voice so low as he passed me I wondered if any of the other assembled officers heard.
“Have you been to the A Shau before, sir?” I asked Clews, using the sir honorific even though it wasn’t required except possibly by his iffy command position.
“First time,” he responded, again sounding faintly uncomfortable. “Special Forces just came out of intensive training though back in the States, and they damned well know what they’re doing.”
“Don’t go, sir,” I said, the words coming out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“What did you say, Junior?” Clews asked, his uncomfortableness quickly converted to anger.
“Don’t go, sir,” I repeated. “This is the valley of no return. You won’t come back and you won’t understand until you, well, don’t come back.”
“One more word out of you and I’ll leave Johnson or Johnsen here with this motley collection of filthy Marines, if you can call them that,” Clews said, his voice set in a deadly tone. “Your conduct out here is legend and you’ve been here what, three weeks? Everything you touch turns to shit and everyone around you is worse than that.”
I snapped to attention in front of him, bringing up my right hand to salute smartly.
“You’re the commander, sir, and I don’t know what came over me. I haven’t slept in days and I apologize for my conduct and that of these Marines. I’d like to stay and get our bodies aboard the 46. Is there any chance, with the pounding your people are giving the enemy, that I could use the chopper to pick up Kilo’s dead downriver?”
Clews did not return my salute, so I held it, the other officers in the cave growing visibly embarrassed. The Gunny hadn’t quieted Fusner’s radio. I gritted my teeth, my guts in a fearful uproar of terror. Crews had sent me into a panic and I was having a hard time controlling myself. If I went up the valley with the men in front of me, and their FNG Army Special Forces I knew I would die. There was no doubt in my mind. I could not shoot everyone else in the cave and push their bodies into the river. I could only stand and listen to the song, with my hand stiffly frozen half way through a ridiculously out of place salute. I waited, trying to breathe in and out and not show my inner terror. The song played. It was Merilee Rush. “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can’t bind your heart. And there’s no need to take a stand, for it was I who chose to start.” I see no need to take me home, I’m old enough to face the dawn. Just call me angel of the morning…”
I waited while Clews considered my fate without knowing he was considering my fate. My wife’s song played on. I knew I could do it. For her. I could stand saluting, and wait for his decision without making any more mistakes.