I awoke in darkness, bringing up my Gus Grissom watch more for the tiny bit of illumination emanating out through the crystal than to see what time it was. I quickly oriented myself to where I was and how I’d come to be there. I heard the wind and river sounds wafting by the entrance to the cave. I breathed deeply in and out, gently sitting up and pulling away from Fusner, who’d apparently slept next to me unmoving through the night, or at least until five a.m., which it was. I remembered that Gunny said he was going downriver to pick up the remaining Kilo bodies just before dark the night before. I hadn’t heard anything since quieting Fusner’s crying and falling unconscious myself. I blinked my eyes rapidly. I felt vital, alive and so filled with an energy I wanted to get up and move about. I needed food and water, and I needed to get out of the cave. I hadn’t heard the CH-46 leaving or return, if it had returned. I’d heard nothing, and that fact was hard to believe since my nineteenth night had been the first I’d truly slept through since I’d been in Vietnam.
I almost whispered behind me to wake Stevens but then remembered he was dead. Zippo was there but I decided to let him sleep as long as possible, and Fusner too. The boy had shown me his age and how much he was holding inside himself. Why I had thought of him as a stoically tough figure I didn’t know, but I had. That he was just another young scared kid bothered me, although I knew it shouldn’t. My job, not his, entailed being the stoically tough figure, and I had to get better at playing that role.
I rolled away from Fusner onto my stomach and crawled prone toward the opening to the outside. I felt the sandy muddy loam of the cave bottom. I felt for leeches like I was searching with my fingers for tiny landmines, but there were none that I could feel or find in the dark. I ran into my helmet and put it on. I knew my pack was somewhere behind me, and inside of it was a box of C-Rations, but I wasn’t going to disturb Zippo and Fusner just for a bite or a drink. I could wait. I stuck my head outside. A bare glimmer of light illuminated the river in front of me and Nguyen’s shiny poncho-covered side. He’d wrapped himself inside a cover against the rain, but he’d stayed right where he’d been when I entered the cave earlier. I wondered if it would be possible to take Nguyen home if I made it back to the world. I smiled ruefully about how great it would be to have the silent Montagnard at my right hand, at my beck and call, around my friends and family, and maybe let him out if some angry motorist wanted to mix it up. But the smile rapidly faded with the reality of the wind, rain and fetid heat penetrating my current reality. If I made it another week and a day then I’d only have a year in the A Shau Valley left to serve. I would have laughed out loud but I couldn’t dredge up any real appreciation for that kind of humor.
I reached behind me and fumbled around until I came into contact with my poncho cover. I’d learned enough to know that poncho covers were dangerous in the night, if it was raining and the slightest bit of light. The rubber surface of the cover would begin to sparkle like Christmas tree tinsel. There could be no threat directly across the river, however, because the cliff face came straight down to enter the rushing water. What was positioned in the highlands above was lost in the wet misery of low cloud cover, invisible at this hour of the early morning.
I moved past Nguyen on hands and knees until I found a flat place to stand, where I could grab the bank for support. The sandy mud wasn’t slippery, except in a few places. I moved slowly. I didn’t want to collapse the bank and fall into the passing water. Nguyen would probably save me but the embarrassment wouldn’t be worth it. I leaned back toward Nguyen.
“Gunny?” I whispered.
Nguyen nodded his head and then used it to motion back over his shoulder up toward where the edge of the tarmac stuck out a bit from the berm.
I was relieved. The motion meant that the Gunny was either back or hadn’t gone at all. Either way, he was nearby, which meant he’d be found in only one place. Where the Ontos was. It would be dry as a bone underneath and the little armored monster wouldn’t sink down on him in the mud because it was set on the concrete not far from the cave.
The tarmac was uncomfortably open and flat, without any flora to provide cover or concealment. I decided not to crawl the hundred and fifty meters or so to the blotch of blackness that had to be the Ontos sitting there near the far wall of the valley. I climbed over the berm and ran, my boots sounding loud, making splashing rebounds at every footfall. I didn’t realize until I got close that I might be mistaken for an attacking enemy sapper.
“Stop,” I heard ahead of me, so I stopped dead, then went down to lay on my stomach in the puddled mess of cracked concrete.
“It’s Junior,” I said, into the darkness ahead.
“Proceed,” the voice said, and I knew it was the Gunny himself. No other enlisted person in the company would likely use that word.
I crawled under the hull at the front of the Ontos. The space was confined, with the armor slanting slightly above my head, Angling down from front to back, it was barely visible in the dark at all.
“What happened?” I asked, unable to wait for his report.
“Recovered the bodies without incident,” the Gunny replied. “Seven of them. They dropped us here about two hours back. You got some sleep.”
He pushed a can against my shoulder.
I grabbed the can, realizing it was a C-Ration container. Heavy. It had to be Ham and Mothers. I pulled my P-38 miniature can opener out from under my utility blouse. The can opener was the only thing on the chain other than one of my dog tags. I never took my dog tag off because it was the only thing I possessed that had my blood type on it. I gently opened the can, working the opener slowly around its upper lip, making sure not to cut myself on the sharp edges of the top.
I didn’t have utensils so I simply turned the cold can up and began letting the heavy grease and beans fall down my throat.
The Gunny pushed a canteen into me.
I drank deeply, and then finished the can of food as best I could, working to not cut my mouth on the sharp metal.
“You have something to say, I presume,” the Gunny said.
I could hear bodies behind the Gunny shifting to pay attention to him.
“Clews is going to call us up on the radio after dawn like he said and we’ve got about three hours to make time.”
“Make time?” the Gunny asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “when he calls the NVA will know we’re leaving to join him, because he’s not going to use code over the radio. He’s too new and he’s only got Johnson and Johnsen with him to advise.”
“Ah, yeah,” the Gunny replied, with a question mark in his tone.
“We’ll be a third of the way there if we leave now, in the dark. We’ve moved several times like that and we’ve never taken heavy casualties. They don’t expect us to move in the dark and they don’t much like it themselves.”
A full minute went by, and neither the Gunny nor anyone else said anything during that time.
“You expect us to be there tomorrow afternoon?” the Gunny asked.
“If we hustle. If the Ontos can make it all the way up the river on this side since we have no ability to cross the Bong Song. We can’t leave it and it’s our only mule for carrying the extra ammo, the new mortars and rest of the crap we appropriated.”
“Why?” The Gunny asked.
“Why what?” I replied, surprise in my voice.
“Why move fast?” the Gunny asked. “The outcome’s a given. We can fire and maneuver our way along at our own speed. Their situation’s done.”
I tried to see under the Ontos but it was too dark. I didn’t know who was there, but every Marine who was there was listening intently to our exchange. I wanted to talk to the Gunny alone but realized that he didn’t want to talk to me alone. He was speaking for the company and I was left in the position of selling to the company.
“We took their stuff,” I said, saying the words gently and not as an attack.
“We let ‘em go knowing they were going to an impossible position.”
I waited by the Gunny, but he didn’t reply.
“We went back for your dead,” I said, not wanting to say it. “We went back for Kilo’s dead. Those living Marines on that hill may make it through the day. We might save them if we hurry, and we’ll risk fewer casualties ourselves if we move now.”
“They’re mostly Army pogues, not Marines,” someone further back in the dark said.
I recognized the voice of Jurgens.
I wanted to kill the man so badly right then.
“We’ll be back under supporting fires, not just air,” I said, ignoring the combined forces nature of Clew’s unit. “I can call one of three firebases as we get close, and make any attack on us living hell for the NVA.”
“Doesn’t seem worth it,” Jurgens responded, still invisible in the dark.
I waited, and the slow dark seconds went by. The rain hit the Ontos and then rolled down the raised armor plate, and then over its rounded front fenders. The sheet flowed across my lower legs, but the space was so low under the thing I couldn’t pull my feet up any further to get them out of the way.
“They know,” I finally said, my voice as quiet as I could make it.
I knew the Gunny could hear me, even with the ever-present rush of the river’s water and the rain coming off the surface of the vehicle.
“What?” the Gunny asked.
I was taking a risk but I didn’t want to talk to Jurgens or any of the rest of them about the move. A decision had to be made and it could not be made by committee.
“They know we don’t do what they order us to do back at battalion,” I said, now speaking so every Marine under the Ontos could hear me. “They know we’re fucked up. I talked to battalion and once we reach Hill 975 all Kilo personnel will be flown out to the rear to regroup. We’ll stay in the field where they leave us because we’re fucked up. If we go get Clews, and those guys are still alive, then they’ll pull us out with Kilo and we’ll get time in the rear.”
“What?” the Gunny, Jurgens and a few others all said at the same time.
I waited. I was lying my ass off. I hadn’t talked to battalion and was hoping Tank wasn’t up on the command net where he might have known that, or any of the rest of them with Prick 25s. I didn’t know what battalion knew or thought and there was no order to pull Kilo out. I knew in my heart of hearts, however, that the company, battered and broken but not beaten, was at a crossroads. If we didn’t go to try to save Clews and the Special Forces guys we’d never make it as a unit no matter what the odds against us. Racial tensions and more would be as nothing if the unit lost its identity as a Marine company and Marine companies did not leave their men.
Not their dead, and never those alive and imperiled.
Jurgens lit a cigarette and I saw his face. His eyes met my own for the brief seconds of the flare and then through the pure yellow burn of his Zippo. My hand was already on my .45, and I wanted to shoot him right there, but the space was crammed with other Marines. I clicked off the safety as quietly as I could, remembering I hadn’t cleaned the weapon in too long. Was the barrel still clogged with mud? Would Tex’s more delicately made Colt even go off? The burn of the Zippo was gone and complete darkness returned. I knew where he was. If he said one more word to convince the Gunny and the others not to go I was going to draw and put five rounds where I knew him to be.
There was some murmuring from the Marines whispering among themselves. I waited. The Gunny had to speak and I wasn’t going to say another word until he did.
The Gunny lit his own cigarette. I saw that his body was only a few feet from my own. He lay on his stomach facing me, his elbows bracing himself up. He looked into my eyes across the light formed by the burning flame of his lighter. The light was gone then, like it had ended so quickly when Jurgens snapped his lighter shut. But my knotted insides, twisted in fear, settled almost instantly. I’d seen a very slight wisp of a smile on the Gunny’s face. He knew I was lying. He knew what I was doing. He knew he’d let Jurgens run off at the mouth because he didn’t want to go after Clews either. But somehow, I felt he was going to side with me.
The time passed. The rain stayed exactly as it was, as did the river noise. A slight wind picked up and gently laid into the sheet of water coming down off the Ontos, and the water’s flow moved all the way up my legs and onto my buttocks. It was almost cold. I didn’t move in the slightest. I could get my Colt out, but I’d have to roll slightly onto my left side to do so. The Gunny was almost directly between Jurgens and me, but if I recovered by rolling to my stomach before I squeezed off the first round, I’d miss him, although the supersonic shock wave of the bullet going by so close would be damaging in a way I couldn’t predict or do anything about.
“What’s this plan supposed to be called this time?” the Gunny said, his voice loud enough for everyone under the armored vehicle to hear.
I breathed out gently for many seconds, making certain I did so silently. I also waited a few more seconds to see if Jurgens was going to seal his own fate. I realized I didn’t want him to speak. I wanted to kill him but I didn’t want to kill him, at the same time, and I couldn’t understand how that could be. Each force within me was just as powerful as the other. I realized it was his call and I was waiting for him to make it. If he spoke, I would fire. But the Gunny had made his decision or he wouldn’t have asked me for the plan.
“The plan,” the Gunny said, his voice becoming a bit forceful. “We’re all waiting.”
“Little White Dove,” I said, knowing the Gunny must somehow have understood that Jurgens’ time on earth was very close to being over.
“Little White Dove?” a Marine said, quizzically, as if trying it out.
Then the other Marines began passing the phrase uncomfortably around among them.
“On the banks of the river stood running bear young Indian brave, on the other side of the river stood his lovely Indian maid,” I said, quoting exactly the lyrics of Running Bear, as I remembered them to be. I didn’t know what the men would think. It was the only thing that came to my mind when the Gunny had put me on the spot for a name. The water flowing down my ass. The river. Indian country. The song.
“Fucking ‘A’,” somebody said. “Little Fucking White Dove. Yes, let’s get some.”
Everyone under the Ontos began laughing quietly, myself included. I would not have to shoot Jurgens, and possibly hurt the Gunny.
“All right,” the Gunny said. “Smoking lamp is out. Get the supplies and heap ‘em up onto our little armored friend here. Saddle up, night move, we’re going up the river to save Lieutenant White Dove.”
I backed out from under the Ontos and into the rain. I hadn’t worn my poncho cover because I was afraid the reflection would shine all the way across and down the river. I hadn’t forgotten the sound of the fifty caliber the NVA had been briefly able to bring on line before our air support had come swooping in.
The Gunny followed me, while the rest of the men crawled out from under the back of the six-barreled beast.
“Battalion, huh?” he whispered, cupping his cigarette against the rain and slight wind. “What’re you going to tell them after 975 and we don’t get pulled out to the rear?”
“What are we going to tell them?” I countered, but the Gunny had gone silent.
“If we stayed here until morning there’d be hell to pay,” I replied, without going further into the lies I’d told. “Air support may or may not come back, but Stars and Stripes are gone, our special combined arms command is gone, and we’re likely to be left as sitting ducks. The NVA’s going to be pissed as hell, and they’ll be chasing us up north once they figure out we got our asses out of here. In three hours, we’ll have light. I can call in the 175s to dump tons of shit back down here and not long after that I’ll have three fire bases within range of their 105s without the steep cliffs to block them out.”
“You don’t have to lay it out,” the Gunny said, handing the cigarette across to me. “You got a gift, and you’re using it.”
I inhaled the smoke and it felt good for the first time since I’d started my strange form of the nearly universal habit.
“Thanks,” I replied, handing what was left of the cigarette back. “I’ll have the supporting fires tap dancing on our dance floor.”
“Nah,” the Gunny said, flicking the remains of the cigarette out onto the mud. “Yeah, you’re good at that. I mean listen…”
I frowned and held my head up. Finally, I pulled my helmet from my head to cut out the noise of the rain striking it. It took a few seconds to hear what the sound the Gunny was referring to. The Marines were quietly singing while they worked to haul the supplies. They were singing the song called ‘Running Bear’ that I had quoted the lyrics from.
“Getting that from them,” the Gunny said, “that’s your gift.”
I moved low and slow back toward the cave. Although the hole in the side of the river bank running back under the concrete of the old airfield tarmac was secure against just about any incoming fire, getting back and forth to the position itself had to be done while fully exposed to sniper fire from the jungle area downriver. Although that distance was almost half a mile, snipers had been known to make much longer shots on both sides. In the rain and dark it wasn’t likely but the crossing still made me nervous when I had to make it.
Nguyen was gone when I slipped over the side of the berm and slid down the bank. The river was rising even further with the onslaught of the steady monsoon rain. If it kept rising at its current rate the cave would be uninhabitable sometime during the next day. Fusner and Zippo were still sleeping. I roused them and got ready for the move. I was energized for the first time I could remember. The pack I strapped to my back felt light. I wished I had better boots but had forgotten to try to swap out with the Stars and Stripes guys, like I’d forgotten to ask them when and where their film would be shown back home, or why they hadn’t wanted any of our names or information.
By the time we reached the Ontos again it was starting to move. The vehicle was perfect in one more way. It was quiet. With the rain, river and wind there’d be no engine noise making its way downriver to the jungle.
Nguyen appeared around the edge of the armored vehicle. That I saw his slippery wet figure at all told me that dawn was not that far off. We needed to move and move fast. According to my map the area between the river and the west wall of the valley would quickly expand out from a mere hundred meters to more than a thousand. That open area wasn’t shown to be covered with jungle. According to the map it was covered with scrub, which meant it had to be left behind each time the river went over its banks and scoured the flat area clear. Using the river’s rising toward the cave entrance as my gauge, that meant that we had to get the Ontos and the company across that open area as fast as we could. Even only a foot of fast moving water sweeping across a mud flat would be impossible to cross unless atop the Ontos, and then there was the problem of its tracks bogging down.
I moved past the Ontos, expecting the rear armored doors to be closed, but they weren’t. The Gunny sat on the flat space of the thing’s floor with his feet dangling out the back. He jumped down at my approach.
“Ride,” he said, motioning toward me to get inside. “You’ll be able to see with the optics better than using your glasses. The crew loaded four flechettes and two HEAT rounds for range.”
Fusner stripped off his radio and pushed it inside before hopping aboard. He gave Zippo a hand. A crewman sat on the folding chair, talking through a hole in the metal wall. I realized he was talking to the driver located in the front of the vehicle. The driver could not see behind us. Nguyen climbed to the top of the Ontos and rode there, fully exposed to the rain and wind, as always. He looked down and our eyes engaged. I realized he’d been there in the dark with me earlier. I’d felt him, although I could not figure out how. It had been a good feeling.
Sugar Daddy came slogging through the darkness and mud, arriving as I was trying to climb through the open back doors. He grabbed me and threw me into Zippo’s waiting arms. Sugar Daddy made no attempt to climb into the now cramped space, however. I pushed against one hard metal wall but my arm ran over curved surfaces. The cabin was filled with extra live 106 rounds. I pulled back. Without being armed they weren’t supposed to be dangerous but their closeness made me uncomfortable.
“I need the eight black guys from Kilo,” Sugar Daddy said, slogging backwards, staying a few feet from the rear of the Ontos moving in the same direction. “I can’t take no FNGs and no more white guys. Just the way it’s gotta be.”
“So?” I asked.
The racial thing would not go away no matter what the circumstance, although there hadn’t been an internal killing inside the unit for several days that I knew about.
“We’re providing your rear-guard escort, the Gunny told us. He said to ask you if it was okay. I’m asking you.”
It was too dark to see the man’s eyes, or even his flat hat. The Gunny was shrugging off the responsibility and accountability again. But he’d supported me with the company when I’d needed him the most.
“Take ‘em,” I said. “I don’t like it and you know that.”
My tone reflected the anger I felt about being put into the position of having to decide something for which there was no decision to be made. I had no choice. And I didn’t like the spoken threat of having Sugar Daddy’s guys as our escort if I said no.
“We’re all Marines,” I said, petulantly, knowing any more comments could only hurt and not help me.
“This ain’t Quantico,” Sugar Daddy replied. “This here is the A Fucking Shau Valley, and I know you know that now. We gotta work it. It ain’t no free ride for nobody. We gotta work it as best we can. Like you do. Like we do. I need those black Marines.”
I would have agreed again but Sugar Daddy dropped away to the side of the slowly moving Ontos and was gone. I knew he and his men would be out there. I couldn’t kill him and Jurgens too. O’Brien was a nearly silent unknown force, like Nguyen, and Charlemagne was a complete unknown. And then there was my mystery corporal or buck sergeant commanding that last platoon I never seemed to run into.
The Ontos rocked and I jammed my back a little further inside until I was against the steel wall. I wouldn’t need the optics of the machine to stare through for at least a couple of hours. I thought about what Sugar Daddy said. I realized that his words were about the wisest words I’d heard put together since landing in country.
I pulled my boots in out of the rain and went to work stripping off my pack. I had a corner of the groaning little machine. It moved smoothly over the mud and debris with little fits and starts, but made good headway, always moving backward. The gunner, or whatever the crewman was, talked constantly to the driver.
“Zippo,” I said, “Break out the Starlight Scope and give the gunner a real set of eyes in guiding us along.”
I didn’t wait to watch him unpack the special instrument. Instead, I curled into a ball and pushed my way in among the 106 rounds I feared and closed my eyes. I thought to myself about Lieutenant Little White Dove and his two ‘Johnson’ officers. Johnson and Johnson was the name of a drug company.
I drifted off to sleep thinking that being named Junior by the Marines around me was a whole lot better than being called Little White Dove.