The rest of the night passed in mud, a penetrating mist returning to add some sort of cutting liquid thinner to the blood being sucked in by the feeding mosquitoes. As I lay in my semi-comatose state replacing real sleep, I couldn’t hear any more firing. There were no more explosions that I was aware of.
I didn’t need an alarm clock because I was always conscious, but never truly conscious. I could move if I had to, or was called upon to move, but I chose not to. I counted for the dawn to come. One, one thousand, and on up to the hundreds, finally keeping track of thousands with the fingers of both hands. Seconds to live. Light was life, if only I could get there, or the world could get there around me and take me along with it. When there was enough light to see my hands, I unwound them from their counting positions and stretched. There was enough light to stop the counting and push back the blackness of night and fear.
I stood and looked around me, my boots sunk inches deep in the mud. I pulled one up a bit and it broke loose with a faint sucking sound. It wasn’t the kind of mud that stuck in inch deep patches to the soles, like mud back home would do. This mud was more like a wet putty that let my feet go after a delay, just so they’d know they were working through mud and not on solid ground.
Nothing moved, but I couldn’t see very far. Slight movement could be seen if I held myself very still. The mist collected on the edges of the leaves and ferns around me. Slowly the mist came together on the surfaces to form drops. The drops ran to the centers of the vegetation and slipped off to fall to the mud. The surfaces of the plants and tree leaves lightly rebounded and slightly bobbed from losing the water’s weight, and there was my movement.
The Gunny came for me before the dawn. My scout team rose up to form around me, as the Gunny and Pilson squished through the mud and then squatted down next to my wet poncho cover.
“Cup of coffee?” the Gunny asked, not bothering to wait while he went through the process of making his own.
I wondered why Pilson never prepared anything for himself. Fusner was a Mormon and didn’t drink coffee. Stevens didn’t like instant stuff and Zippo was an unknown. What Nguyen drank in the morning was anybody’s guess. For all I knew the man was nuclear powered because I’d never seen him eat or drink anything. But I was only entering my ninth day. I lit my own explosives and waited with my canteen cup of water over the small but powerful little fire. I was proud of the fact that my hands were not shaking. It was light, and I could function in the light.
“Seven,” the Gunny said, without adding more.
“Kilo?” I asked, using the alpha-numeric letter for ‘k,’ meaning killed.
“Roger that,” the Gunny answered.
“How?” I asked, befuddled. As far as I knew the company had fired into the bushes until it was nearly out of ammo. Then Kilo Company had fired into the other side of the bushes from across the saddle and inflicted more damage on the enemy thought to be there.
“The one,” the Gunny said, stopping for a few seconds. “Then the other six who didn’t get down when Kilo opened up.”
“Friendly fire?” I said, in shock. “All friendly fire?”
“The six? Yeah, kinda think so, unless the gooks are using 16s.”
“Kilo Company Commander wants to come over for a pow wow,” the Gunny said. “He sent over a runner. Be here at dawn. So will supply and medevac so it should be a regular cluster fuck.”
“Their resupply, or our own?” I asked, concerned about getting all the way back to our own supplies we’d dumped to make the forced march down to save Kilo. Our ammo had to be very low and probably everything else, as well. Plus, we’d be crippled in not having packs to put things in from the resupply stockpile until we recovered our stuff.
“They had five wounded,” so the medevac’s all theirs. Our bags will go out on the slick.”
“All that shit we went through, and they only took five wounded?” I said in near disgust. “We lost seven Marines!” Where my anger had come from, now directed at Kilo about not having as many dead as we had, I couldn’t figure out. But anger was the first emotion I’d been able to dredge up since landing in the shit.
“Not the way to think, Junior,” the Gunny said. “Your action saved their ass, after your action put them in the shit in the first place. We never told them we were diverting from the plan so they walked right into what was waiting for us.”
I knew the Gunny used the nickname to make a point. If I was going to act like a Junior he was going to call me that, or so I presumed. I also knew that he’d used the word ‘we’ in stating that Kilo had not been informed. Once again I was getting little credit and a good load of blame. I delayed a few seconds by drinking some of my scalding hot coffee.
“When?” I asked, hoping the subject would change without my asking for the change.
“There’s enough light for a body count so I imagine any time now,” the Gunny said, lighting a cigarette to go with his coffee. He looked over at the bush we’d fired into so enthusiastically the night before, or at least most of the company had fired into. He held out the cigarette.
I looked at the narrow white cylinder. I didn’t smoke, or hadn’t until I’d come to the Nam. I knew though that the Gunny wasn’t holding out a cigarette. He was holding out a peace pipe. I took it, puffed, didn’t cough, and then returned it. I blew the smoke out slowly. It did nothing for me except make my throat a bit hoarse and my mouth taste even worse than it did. I grimaced slightly and then swallowed. My toothpaste was back up the mountain in my pack.
The bushes were wedged aside by a Marine smoking his own cigarette, his 16 slung over one shoulder and an M79 over the other. Across his chest were two bandoliers filled with the big grenade-thrower rounds. The image in my mind, of another Tarzan book cover, was broken when another Marine stepped through the opening, followed by a few more men.
The Gunny came to his feet quickly, leaving his canteen holder sitting next to his little fire on the mud.
“Captain, this is the CO” the Gunny said, waving one hand down to me in a strange form of introduction.
The Captain’s cleanliness was the first thing I took in. He wore the uniform utilities as they were meant to be worn, and one of the useless flak jackets on top of it. His helmet had the proper two bars on its cover.
I sat on my helmet in the mud. I didn’t get to my feet because I didn’t know how to present myself after the surprise of being introduced so abruptly.
The Captain squatted down next to me. “Mertz,” he said, “John, Captain, out of the Point. What’s your date of rank?”
A ‘pointer’ from the academy. I’d only met two before, both back in Quantico. I looked for his West Point gold ring but didn’t see it. Maybe it was too valuable to wear in combat.
“I don’t know,” I replied, hesitantly.
“You don’t know your date of rank?” he asked, in obvious surprise. “When did you get promoted to Captain? We need to establish who’s senior to who. What’s your serial number, then?”
I gave him my seven-digit number; a number no Marine ever forgets.
“That’s too new,” the Captain replied, his forehead screwed up in thought. “That number wouldn’t have been issued until very recently.”
“Yeah, about six months ago,” I replied, getting the idea where the conversation was going.
The Captain stood up, almost coming to a position of attention. “Jesus H. Christ, you’re a second lieutenant,” he said, making the word ‘second’ sound like an expletive.
I would have smiled up at him if I smiled anymore. “Yes, I believe that’s right, unless they gave me a combat promotion I’m unaware of.”
“Jesus H. Christ. You’re that second lieutenant, and there aren’t any other officers to call a meeting of the CP. You’re that company.”
I got to my feet slowly, watching the Gunny back up a bit. I pulled my helmet out of the mud and brushed it off as best I could. Next to the West Point Captain I looked worse than a street bum staggering up after a night of drinking cheap rum. I put the filthy helmet on my filthy head.
“Actually, they call me Junior,” I said, with a smile as wide as it was fake.
“You call your commanding officer Junior?” the Captain said, turning his head to face the Gunny.
“Ah, no, sir,” the Gunny gasped out, not expecting the question or the Captain’s fierce turn of direction. “I mean, yes, sir, or no, sir, or…” the Gunny got out before giving up and going silent.
“What’s your MOS, Lieutenant?” the Captain asked, turning his attention back to me.
“Oh eight oh two,” I replied, leaving off the sir. For some reason not calling him sir made me identify with my own company better.
“We don’t have an Artillery Forward Observer,” he said, as if I should somehow volunteer for the vacant job.
“I don’t have any platoon commanders,” I replied.
“Not my problem,” Captain Mertz said, two more Marines coming out of the bush behind him. They both wore helmets with one black bar on them, but no nickname printed underneath their bars.
I nodded at the two Lieutenants but they only stared back, making no move to join their CO or engage in the conversation.
“You’re to take your company and proceed up the trail to the lip of the A Shau,” the captain ordered, as if reading from a written directive. “Once there, you are to hold and wait for further orders. I lost some good men because you failed to stay on this path so let’s not go there again.”
“Seven,” I said, my voice going lower and quieter.
“Seven what?” he replied, leaning in closer to hear me.
“Seven dead this last night, this last action,” I said, my voice a whisper, the new found anger coming over me and combining with the dead flat analytical expectation of combat and death.
“Jesus H. Christ,” the captain replied. “How in hell did you manage to lose seven men? I doubt we got that many of the enemy when our body count is done.”
“We’re going to hike back up to the position we left to get down and break the back of that ambush that was waiting for you,” I said, my voice low and without any emotion. “Then we’re going to come back down here to lead you into the Valley of No Return. You send your body count back in to battalion with our compliments, and wait until we return.”
I watched emotions scroll across the Captains face. I waited, my right hand falling to the butt of my .45, the Colt sending a shiver of support back up through my arm. I knew I could not click off the safety without anyone hearing so I left it on, knowing my thumb was on it and ready, however. The Captain suddenly turned to confer with the two officers who’d appeared behind him earlier. They talked for several seconds.
Captain Mertz spun around suddenly, but I made no move. I got no sense of physical danger from him, but I knew by instinct he was dangerous mentally. Dangerously out of place for his own survival and mine.
“Yes, you are ordered to take the point,” Captain Mertz declared. “Kilo Company will wait until you return to organize the resupply and medevac. My radioman will coordinate to get us a side frequency so you can receive orders outside the combat command net.”
I nodded, but said nothing.
“You’re dismissed,” the captain ordered.
“Ah, you’re inside our perimeter,” I responded, raising one eyebrow and shrugging my shoulders.
“Of course,” the captain said, recovering himself. “Do you need anything?”
My eyes locked with the Gunny’s. He was standing just off the Captain’s shoulder. The Gunny shook his head, ever so slightly. I noted Nguyen just behind the Gunny but buried deep in the brush. I blinked once. He blinked back.
I held out my left wrist. “I could use a new watch. The face on this one melted from the defoliant back there.”
The captain peered down, the two officers behind him frowning at me over his back, their frowns obvious expressions of anger for something I didn’t understand.
The captain showed his own wrist. “This is a Rolex. The face is made out of a thin sheet of clear sapphire. Hardness factor is seven. Harder than steel. Pick one up at the base PX when you get to the rear area next time.”
He leaned forward, bringing his arm down. “Don’t let them call you Junior, or any of that. They don’t have to call you sir in combat, but they should at least refer to you as Lieutenant.”
I looked the Captain in the eyes and suddenly felt old. I’d been in Vietnam for less than nine days but I felt like I’d been there for years. The Captain was not in my Vietnam. He was someplace else, and he might live, although probably not. There was nothing to be learned or expected from him that would benefit my survival or that of my men. There was no point in talking any further to him, so I merely turned and walked away.
When I got to my poncho Fusner appeared, another radio operator who I presumed was the Captain’s knelt on the poncho edge next to him. I turned away while they whispered their radio jargon to one another. Suddenly they stopped talking. The mist had gone away and the air was warmer down at the lower altitude, and there was an uncommon clarity to it that made it more comfortable. It was clear enough to hear Fusner whisper to the other radioman.
“Whatever you do, don’t tell him your grid position on the map.”
Minutes later the sound of choppers could be heard in the distance. A lot of choppers, which was comforting because it meant that the slicks would be accompanied by Huey Cobras. Not as good as having a Skyraider overhead all day, but good for as long as they were able to stay on station. The hike ahead would be almost fourteen miles round trip, only to arrive right back where we started, and then to make off before nightfall on up to the edge of the A Shau Valley.