I stood with my right-hand flat, the dirty index finger of that hand slightly glued to my head by a light bond of drying mud. I stared into Clews’ eyes, waiting for an answer. Was I going to live, or die with him? Was I going to do something terrible to everyone inside the cave in order to allow me to live just a bit longer?
“Are all the supplies aboard the 46 or you want us to unload the 47s?” the Gunny asked, the tone of his voice matter-of-fact, like all of us jammed into the cave were sitting at some warehouse desk instead of tensely standing and closely facing one another.
“We’ve got our own stuff,” Clews replied, looking away from me. “We’re going to drop onto the top of Hill 975 just up from Highway 548. This ragtag bunch of whatever the hell you are can make the hike in two days…maybe. Use the 46 to get your dead and wounded back to the rear. We’re done here. When you make it to the hill, get ready for inspection. A lot of the problems I’ve heard about, now that I’ve been here myself, are the result of piss poor leadership and slovenly-looking conduct. This is the fucking United States Marine Corps and you’re damned well going to look and act the part when we meet again.”
I slowly brought my hand down to my side, letting it rest on the butt of my Colt. I was staying. I wouldn’t have to shoot any of them. My relief was so palpable that my shoulders drooped as I slowly breathed in and out.
“Yeah, you ought to feel exactly the way you do, Junior,” Clews said, misinterpreting my body language entirely, with his voice resonating deeply throughout the cave. “This is nothing more or less than your screwup from one end of the valley to the other. If lieutenants weren’t in such short supply back at battalion you’d be attending a court martial back on Okinawa.”
“A court martial on Okinawa,” I repeated, my voice less than a whisper, only the Gunny apparently heard.
He grabbed my upper left arm and gently pushed me toward the opening in the side of the riverbank.
He pushed me through the opening, and then quickly lit a cigarette. Without taking a puff he handed it to me.
“Stay,” he hissed, his dark eyes penetrating my own.
I frowned slightly but accepted the small smoking cylinder. The Gunny turned and stepped back inside. I could hear him talking, but the rushing of the nearby river water blurred out my ability to comprehend what he was saying. I was relieved to be where I was. I put the cigarette to my mouth and inhaled, before bringing it down and examining the mud my fingers had instantly transferred to the white paper. Would I smoke when I was back in the world, I wondered? If I did, would I ever smoke a cigarette and not leave muddy prints all over it? I looked up and across the runway toward where the helicopters sat. Behind me, the Skyraiders continued to pound the jungle area, like they never had before the coming of Clews and the Stars and Stripes guys. Their attacks were like old news to me since I no longer felt any real threat from the area they were working over. The Huey Cobras had all joined together to form a buzzing flock, like high-flying blackbirds, buzzing higher above the valley and no longer firing down onto the jungle below.
The Fort Bragg Special Forces guys, looking like real combat veterans, had gathered the media people and gotten them down, forming a round perimeter around them that was more like a circus ring inside the bigger ‘tent’ of my Marines’ larger perimeter surrounding the whole end of the airfield.
I looked over toward where the choppers sat, and watched Marines working quickly to unload supplies. The Gunny came through the opening and joined me. I handed him the rest of the unfinished cigarette, which he accepted gratefully, before handing it back. He glanced across the tarmac and exhaled mightily.
“Shit, just one more thing,” he said, ducking back inside the cave.
More unintelligible conversation went on inside. I waited, finally flicking his cigarette out into the raging brown waters of the passing Bong Song. I had no idea of what was going on inside the cave and I had a feeling I didn’t want to know. I wasn’t going with Clews and I was coming to understand that that was why the Gunny pushed me out and why he was still talking to the officers inside. He was saving me from myself again, unlike my inability to do the same for Clews and his officers.
All of a sudden everyone from inside began to file out. I backed up and then moved to the side, where Fusner and Zippo squatted in the mud, having dug shallow trenches in case of any incoming fire from across the river, as unlikely an event as that might be. Nguyen was further down the bank, standing in a weak eddy of the passing water, a sharpened stick in his right hand, his attention fully upon the water flowing lightly around his calves. He was fishing but I didn’t see how he could catch anything since the water was too murky to see through.
“I’ll get my guys and we’ll do a quick photo op,” Major Whittier said, he being the last to exit the cave.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, knowing I had no real choice at all, and not giving a damn about that either.
Moments later the major returned with his officers and some enlisted men. They set up some tripods while the Gunny smoked another cigarette, his full attention on the waiting choppers for some reason I couldn’t fathom.
“They’ll be on the Prick 25 when they get dropped atop 975,” the Gunny said, between puffs, “and we’ll get our orders to start our own hike.”
Clews, and both Johnson and Johnsen led their unlikely collection of Marines and Army Special Forces back toward the rear CH-47, its tandem rotors already slowly turning, as if the machine had sensed the approach of the combined arms outfit.
“Fusner,” the Gunny said. “Turn off your Prick 25. Tank’s already shut his down.”
I looked from the Gunny to Fusner and then back at the Gunny. He’d never ordered Fusner to do anything since I’d been with the unit. I waited for the Gunny to explain himself while Fusner obeyed the order, but all the Gunny would do was stare out over the lip of the river bank to intently watch the departing chopper. I moved to stand closer to him.
“What was going on in there?” I asked, not wanting to countermand or question his order to Fusner, but wanting to figure out what was going on that seemed to be causing such unusual conduct.
I looked out toward the CH-47, its blades whirling at a speed that made it seem it would lift off at any moment, but it didn’t move. A single figure came down and out from the still lowered rear ramp of the machine. It began moving toward us, but its steps grew half-hearted before stopping entirely. Finally, the figure turned and walked slowly back to the helicopter. Half a minute later the giant Praying Mantis of a machine closed its ramp and leaped into the air, its rear rotor rising rapidly at first, before the one in front. Once off the tarmac, the machine accelerated rapidly, rushing toward us as it gained altitude and moving right over the top of the approaching media team. The Stars and Stripes personnel went face down on the concrete to wait out the wind storm. The Gunny waited until the climbing bird made its turn to fly back up the valley before commenting.
All of the Huey Cobra gunships dived down and flew around the departing chopper like it was a queen bee and they were the guarding drones.
“I was stalling,” the Gunny said to me. “I was telling them all the reasons we needed you right here instead of at the top of Hill 975. I was lying my ass off.”
I was shocked, at first, that the discussion had been all about me, before the first part of what he said clicked in.
“You can turn your radio back on, Fusner,” the Gunny instructed.
“What the hell?” I said, knowing the radio and the stalling, and probably even the departing figure’s strange behavior at the CH-47 were all linked, but not able to figure out how.
“We unloaded most of their supplies,” the Gunny said, still staring at the disappearing chopper. They had 106 rounds, 81-millimeter mortars and about twenty Jerry cans of gasoline. They won’t be needing any of that shit, but we will, once they change our mission again.”
“We’re not going to Hill 975?” I asked, wondering how the Gunny could possibly know such a thing.
“Oh, we’re going alright. We’re going to go there to bag that whole lot up, and then get the hell out of there if we can.”
“We stole their supplies?” I asked, still trying to take it all in, “we stole our own commander’s supplies?”
“Appropriated,” the Gunny replied.
“I don’t like stealing from our own Marines,” I said, flatly.
“Call it whatever you want. We’ve got gas for the Ontos and a full load of rounds. The NVA fear that thing and we’re leaving Indian Country to head up into Delaware.”
“Delaware?” I asked.
I waited for the Gunny to reply, not that it mattered, I knew. I’d figured out what was going to happen when Clews had been talking to me in the cave. That the Gunny would figure it out and then take action I should have guessed, although the action he’d taken I’d never have thought of.
“Operation Delaware, right where we’re going. Just down from Hill 975. The Army got its ass handed to it five months back. A thousand casualties in two days. Choppers, trucks and more, all lost. We’re going to Delaware.”
Major Whittier appeared above the cave entrance, followed by his entourage of officers and technicians. All wore the latest jungle utilities, possessed by none of the combatants of my company or Kilo. Their utilities were starched and ironed. The technicians hauled camera tripods and equipment, as well as being armed with CAR-15 Commando assault rifles.
I’d heard of the short little versions of the M-16, but with better suppressors, shorter stocks, barrels and with larger magazines. They looked really cool.
I climbed up the bank with the Gunny and my scout team. Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and even Charlemagne gathered, with some of their Marines. I looked around, as Whittier walked toward me. It was getting to be late in the day and, although there had been a lot of fire across the river and down valley there was no gun fire audible anywhere, although I still felt uncomfortable standing vertically in such an open area.
“That’s quite a helmet, lieutenant,” Major Whittier said, holding out his right hand. “Mind if I take a look?”
I pulled my helmet off and handed it over.
The major examined it closely.
“Wow. This is something. Did you make it yourself?”
The Gunny started to laugh, and then went into a laughing fit, joined by Jurgens and Sugar Daddy.
“Yeah, I guess he did just that,” the Gunny finally blurted out.
“Can I use it?” the major asked, obviously not getting the humor. “We’d like to try out your real combat stuff if it’s okay. Our new equipment doesn’t look just right in the final reels.”
Without saying anything further, Major Whittier and his men began exchanging weapons and attire with the Marines present. I wasn’t asked to give up anything other than the helmet in the eerie minutes that followed. Those of my Marines who got CAR-15s examined them closely and were impressed.
“We’re going to shoot a few rounds if it’s okay with you,” Whittier said, holding a belt fed M-60 with the hundred-round belt draped over his shoulder and falling all the way to the ground behind him.
I thought of informing him that no combat Marine would ever let his ammunition drag along the ground but said nothing. The major was truly impressed with the C-Ration B-3 can jammed into the slot next to the ammunition box so the belt feed could pass over a curved surface and therefore not jam easily.
The Marines present from my company and a few from Kilo squatted down and looked on in quiet awe, as the Stars and Stripes personnel set up their ‘stage’ next to the river. With borrowed dirty utility blouses, field worn machine guns and what real helmets they could find, including my own, they opened up, firing across the river until they were out of ammo. The officers did the modeling and firing while the technicians filmed repeat takes from their tripods. I wondered, in a sort of dazed shock, what any NVA from downriver, who might just be able to view the scene, might think. I also wondered, with considerable skepticism, whether citizens back home, viewing the films, would in any way believe that a bunch of clean Americans, laughing, carrying on and firing from open unguarded standing positions might be even close to being real. After something less than an hour, while we all crouched like Arabian statues and watched, the whole film collection broke up, exchanged out the equipment with thanks, disassembled the film stuff and headed quickly back toward their waiting chopper. Major Whittier shook my hand with a big glowing smile, and then walked quickly away.
I called to him to wait, and ran across the intervening distance, my helmet in one hand and my letter home in the other. I asked him to mail the letter in Da Nang when he got there. For some reason, I knew that particular letter would make it home, although it had been days since I’d written it and couldn’t remember what I’d written on the paper.
The big CH-47 lifted heavily into the air. I crouched over until it was well away, the Huey Cobras diving down and swarming around the media chopper. I realized that they had had time to first escort Clews upriver and come back for the Stars and Stripes people. I wondered if they’d come again for the 46 when it was time for the real Marine chopper to leave. I made my way back to the Gunny, waiting in the distance, not far from the opening to the cave.
“We’re going down river in the 46 to get the bodies,” the Gunny said as I approached.
“When do we leave?” I asked, looking up at the darkening sky, feeling the building of moisture that meant more rain was on the way.
“You’re not going,” the Gunny said. “You and your team need some rest and you’ve done enough.”
I was surprised by the admission that something I’d done might have had merit. I was more used to the kind of presentation Clews had made.
“Kemp,” I said, suddenly remembering the brain-damaged officer. “Where is he and what’s going to happen?”
“He’s down near where the chopper’s sitting on the tarmac with the rest of the wounded,” the Gunny replied. “We’ll lift off, drop down twice, once on each side of the river, pick up the bodies, and come back to get the wounded. I’m taking Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and a half dozen Marines. With your permission, of course,” he added, which surprised me.
I was going to argue that it was my place, that the risk was high, that although the Skyraiders were still on station orbiting around, which meant the NVA would probably keep their heads and bodies deep down in spider holes or even deep underground complexes, that they might take RPG fire, but it wasn’t in me.
“Go,” was all I said, before turning and walking slowly to the edge of the berm just above the opening to the cave.
I wasn’t at all sure that Kemp was even alive, how many wounded we had in total or even how many dead would be hauled out. My knowledge of almost everything about my own men, and now those of Kilo, was ridiculously shallow, and anecdotal, almost to the point of idiocy.
“It’ll get better,” the Gunny said.
I stopped in my tracks and turned to face him. I wanted to yell something back at him in anger but then saw that he was smiling a big smile. He was kidding. There was no ‘getting better’ in the A Shau Valley. I laughed for only the second time in my short tour and, once again, headed for the cave.
I stood by the cave opening and listened as the chopper’s turbines spooled up, and then the much deeper dig of the blades as the pilot guided the big machine into the air, took it out low over the water and headed down the valley.
The Cobras hadn’t come back for the 46. I hadn’t thought they would. We were Marines again. On our own in the valley of no return.
The day was dying as I stood there, with the rain coming back, washing dirt and bracken to flow down the cracked and broken tarmac and make its way over to the ever-raging waters of the wild Bong Song River.
I stood just outside the cave entrance, my battered ‘self-made’ helmet beating like a Caribbean steel drum, the drops providing no rest, no music and no message. The grim presence of the A Shau Valley pounded down upon my head with hundreds of little liquid hammers. I stood in the rain to see across the flatness of the old unused runway, to see the Ontos sitting ready on the far side, its six gaping gun barrels directed back down the river from where we’d come.
Everyone who’d flown in was gone. They’d all flown out into the night and on to their fate. Only the company and the remnants of Kilo remained, dug in, chained together by machine gun fire teams in a perimeter of flaming steel that could be launched with no notice at all. I was visually checking the perimeter, although it needed no checking. I was among Marines, and they’d been consigned to their valley fate long before me, although they’d likely suffer the same fate as me, they’d not go quietly, but rather surprised, deliberately kicking and screaming into the night. I watched the light wind play across the fronds of distant bamboo, waving across the tarmac at me like a bunch of thin overly tall stick men.
I knew I’d fall instantly asleep once I was able to get back into the cave, like Zippo and Fusner inside. Nguyen squatted not five feet from where I stood. We exchanged our usual secret and knowing look. It was all either of us needed of one another, to let each of us know that anything either one of us needed from the other would be provided. How the Montagnard could squat motionless in the rain, without head cover, his back against the riverbank mud wall, and do that during all hours of the night was beyond me. I was no longer inexperienced enough to invite him under cover, however. We were in his valley of the A Shau, Indian country, headed for Delaware.
I heard a faint brush of movement emanating from inside the cave opening. I bent down slightly, the water from my helmet cover running down the back of my neck. It was Fusner, on hands and knees, his face barely visible inside the cave’s near darkness. I saw liquid running down his cheeks and I was momentarily taken aback. The boy had seemed bullet-proof ever since I’d been with the company. His transistor radio was playing softly again, after having been eventually silenced by command of Lieutenant Clews. The light was fading all around me. I wondered if the song was the last of the day for Brother John. I bent and went to my knees.
“What is it?” I said, keeping my voice down so as not to awaken sleeping Zippo.
“It’s me,” Fusner got out, his tone one of misery.
I wanted to wipe his cheeks, but withheld my hand.
Fusner looked about ten years old, and my hardened heart suddenly broke with a shiver of pain.
“What’s you?” I asked, shaking my head gently and then looking around briefly so make sure there was no threat I was unaware of.
“What’s you?” I asked again, when he didn’t answer right away.
“The song,” he replied, sniffling, before wiping his face with a mud-stained hand.
The song. I listened to the lyrics and the gentle wonderfully calming melody: “Just a lonely bell was ringing in the little valley town, twas farewell that it was singing to our good old Jimmy Brown. And the little congregation prayed for guidance from above, lead us not into temptation, may his soul find the salvation of thy great eternal love.”
“What about it?” I asked, after the song ended and was replaced with Brother John’s calming bass timbre beginning to deliver his ritual good night.
“It’s about me,” Fusner whispered, wiping his tears away again. “I know it. My parents live in this little valley. I’m Little Jimmy Brown.”
I didn’t know what to say. Premonitions of death were so regular for me that I couldn’t distinguish from dreamed thoughts of my own demise to conscious speculation of the same.
“Is your name Jimmy?” I asked him. Before he could reply, I went on. “They’re only about forty million little valleys across the expanses of the United States. It’s not about you or your valley. Get back in there and get some sleep.”
Fleetingly, as he turned, I thought about the fact that my own name was Jimmy.
“Will you come?” Fusner said, his voice almost inaudible over the sound of the rain, the river and the fact that he was crawling away from me.
Of course I would come, I thought bitterly to myself. I was coming anyway.
I glanced over at Nguyen as I entered the opening. He didn’t turn his head, water running down his face without resistance. I knew he felt my gaze but he didn’t turn his head. I knew also that the opening to the cave would have a guard more powerful and silently voracious than any tiger or lion.
I crawled in through the opening, stripping off my wet poncho cover and helmet as I went. I laid down next to Fusner, uncomfortable to be needed by my radio operator whom I thought of as being so tough. He scooted over on his back until our shoulders were touching. I thought to pull away, but couldn’t do it.
My mind would not leave the earlier lyrics of Brother John’s last song: “One rainy morning dark and gray a soul winged its way to heaven; Jimmy Brown had passed away.”
My body shook for a few seconds. I felt Fusner’s shoulder against my shoulder. I closed my eyes, feeling better having it there.