The West Pointer Captain Mertz’s plan to wait for resupply and take credit for the kills, along with any wounded NVA left behind, made logical sense. Neither I, nor any of the Marines in the company, gave a tinker’s damn about who got credited for anything, or who was decorated for it, either. I was concerned, however, about what condition our equipment would be in when we returned to our position back up on the mountain ridge. I tried to convince myself that it wouldn’t be a problem, at least with respect to whatever was left of the supplies when Kilo got done going through them. If our belongings were gone, then resupply would at least make up for some of what was lost. Our dead were another matter, left on the ground and stacked like black plastic cord-wood for the Huey pickup.
We began the hard hike back by going straight into the climb. It would be a gently-angled climb until we made the turn west to the much higher ground where we’d left most of our gear. The Marines took the forced march in silence, except for the tinny blare of the small transistor radios. Brother John came on to announce what he called an ‘appropriate song’ to start the morning. It was called White Rabbit. The lyrics played and I listened. Brother John was right. The song was all about Alice in Wonderland and Alice falling down that proverbial rabbit hole. “When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, and the White Knight is talking backwards, and the Red Queen’s off with her head, remember what the dormouse said; feed your head, feed your head.” I walked fast, agreeing with Brother John at the same time I tried to get enough traction to avoid slipping backwards with each step. In training I’d learned the art of the forced march the Marine Corps was famous for. No running. Running burned energy four times faster than walking, even really vigorous walking. Fast, long-legged strides were what was required. Once into the gait of it, great distances could be covered rapidly without expending too much energy.
I stopped moving and went to one knee. The second song of Brother John’s set drove me down, breathing hard. It was Alfie. The night before, and time with Lance Corporal Alfie, came crashing in. I’d managed to put those events into a separate compartment and set them aside for later, but now they hit me hard.
“Sir?” Fusner asked.
I got up unsteadily, knowing I could not say a word to anyone in the company. They all had to know about Alfie, but I knew if I showed weakness I would very quickly become more prey-like than I already was. And I could not fall back. The training in Quantico had been valuable in teaching that. There, on long unbelievably demanding marches, if a candidate fell back he was placed on a gurney to be hauled by selected Marines along for that purpose, on the same march. A demerit was assigned for falling out of the unit, no matter what the reason. Three demerits and an officer candidate was shipped to Camp Lejeune to become an enlisted recruit. I watched the backs of the men of the rest of the company moving in front of me. I could see them disappearing through the foliage. Falling back on the field of combat would result in no demerits. It would result in death. I moved, forcing my feet to plunge down into the jungle growth and mud. I pushed with my legs, one after another, catching up with the rear guard of Marines, working at it so hard that the physical exertion made remembered thoughts of Alfie almost impossible. Then the song was gone and the surfaced horror with it. I gained on the men and began passing one after another. My place in the unit was any place I chose it to be, unless the Gunny himself told me otherwise.
The company made it to the ridge, and then turned without stopping or discussion to work up the miles along the ridge, retracing the forced march down the day before. There was nothing but muscle searing and bone aching work to be done. The Marines were built and trained to perform such hard work without complaint. The march took four hours, or so I calculated by a returned sun. The temperature dropped and a slight wind came out to celebrate the arrival at our former position. The company stopped just before reaching the exact point where all the packs and other loads had been left.
“Arty up,” came down the line, the words passed quietly from one man to another.
I moved forward, knowing that I would encounter the Gunny before long. As expected, he lay crouched behind some sort of overhanging tree, peering through the foliage at what seemed to be nothing.
“You got those binoculars on you?” he asked, as I went down to my knees next to him.
“No,” I answered. “Left them here with my stuff. Why?”
The Gunny pointed straight ahead. I focused my eyes and finally saw what looked like a light brown cloth-covered helmet — a Vietnamese helmet with its flattened rice farmer look. The helmet sat atop a short stake. The cloth had a gold star centered pin, set into a small shiny red background.
“Shit,” I whispered, “they found our stuff. I was afraid of that. Now we have nothing.”
“Well, not really,” the Gunny said. “Look deeper to where we left everything.”
I stared beyond the helmet, gently moving atop the stick. As my eyes focused in I saw packs and equipment. It all looked untouched, in a rather shabby way. Maybe it had been gone through, but it was too far away to tell.
“They were here,” I said, my tone one of question. “They were here but didn’t take our stuff, and then put up that helmet to let us know they were here.”
“What do you think about that?” the Gunny asked.
I looked over at him with surprise. The Gunny didn’t usually ask my advice unless it was about our position or artillery related.
“Booby trapped?” I replied.
“Why the helmet alerting us then?” the Gunny said. “Why bother to let us know they were here and found our stuff? Doesn’t make any sense.”
“How do we make sure?” I asked, with no idea about the disarming of booby traps. Explosive ordnance training at Quantico had consisted of throwing one grenade and then blowing up some blocks of Composition B. That was it. At Fort Sill if anything blew up in the battery you didn’t want to be around for it.
“Nguyen,” the Gunny said, quietly.
“Send him out like an FNG?” I asked in amazement, keeping my voice low as well. “I don’t think he’ll go.”
I turned to look around but didn’t have to look far. My scout team was right behind me, having come forward when I was called. Stevens spoke softly and rapidly to Nguyen, and then stopped to listen.
“No booby traps,” Stevens said, after a few seconds. “That’s a sapper regiment helmet. Nguyen says they left it out of respect.”
“That’s a new one,” the Gunny said, getting to his feet. “Tell Nguyen to go on over there and make certain.”
“No,” Stevens said. “I’ll go. I believe him.”
Stevens walked toward the roughly hidden piles of stuff we’d left behind. I got up and went with him. I didn’t trust Stevens fully, but my trust, for whatever strange reason, was nearly complete in Nguyen.
It took only seconds of pawing around to discover that there were no booby traps and it appeared that everyone’s things, although roughed up a bit and strewn about, seemed to have nothing missing from them.
“Unfuckingbelieveable,” the Gunny kept saying, over and over. “Respect my ass. These clever gook assholes have something up their sleeves.”
“What would they respect us for, if that’s really it?” I said to Stevens.
“Don’t know,” he replied. “Nguyen’s not saying or doesn’t know either. I don’t understand a lot of what he says, but he thinks you are somehow special. Maybe it’s the tracers or the artillery or how we fooled everyone, even our own battalion, in coming up here. Maybe he thinks it’s good for us to have you so we’ll lose.”
“Here, you can have this while you contemplate your greatness and their respect,” the Gunny said with a laugh, reaching out to spin the sapper helmet into the mud at my feet. “We need to have a command post meeting now, like we did before Hill 110.”
I moved to my things and assembled what I had, vowing to never leave my binoculars behind again, no matter how heavy they were. Zippo had hauled the Starlight Scope all the way to the saddle and back because it was on the list of things that could never be surrendered to the enemy. The binoculars were a whole lot smaller and lighter. I thought about what the Gunny said and grew ever more uncomfortable.
The CP meeting was some sort of sham, mostly because the shake-and-bake platoon leaders were mostly a sham, as was I, as company commander. Hill 110 had been a direct disobedience of orders I would never be comfortable with. Why had the Gunny used it in reference to the defacto leaders of the company getting together? I decided to say nothing. After a few minutes, almost the entire company had recovered all of its stuff. There was not one complaint about anything having been taken by an enemy that should have stolen or destroyed it all, and certainly, barring that, not have left everything behind untouched. Once again there was something seriously wrong with what was going on, and I had no training or experience about how to evaluate, or do anything with, this bizarre information.
The Gunny squatted next to his stuff in a small clearing nearby, with Pilson as attached and close by as Fusner was to me. Sugar Daddy and Jurgens arrived at the same time as the other two platoon leaders. I waited a few minutes before walking over, trying to assume some of Captain Mertz’s air of authority and command. I realized my mistake in delaying, immediately. The circle of supposed leaders had closed before I got there. And nobody moved to accommodate my arrival. I stood just uncomfortably outside the circle, with Fusner at my side.
“Nice trophy,” Sugar Daddy said, pointing at the sapper helmet I’d stupidly not discarded after picking it up.
Everyone laughed quietly for a bit. I handed the helmet to Fusner and waited through the expressed mirth from my place outside the circle.
“What are we doing?” Jurgens said, in his usual aggressive and forceful manner.
The Gunny stared at Jurgens, and then each other man at the meeting, except me, before speaking. “The apparent orders, issued by Mertz in Kilo, are for us to return to the scene of last night’s battle and then lead the way up the trail into the A Shau.”
“Shit,” Sugar Daddy said, lighting up a cigarette.
“What are we doing?” Jurgens asked again, this time losing a bit of his aggressive tone, probably because of the Gunny’s glare.
All of the Marines present had glanced at me when the mention of the previous night’s battle had come up. There would be no sharing of the blame for the losses, I understood. I knew nighttime would be problematic again, and hoped that the Starlight Scope had weathered the rough march up and down the mountain.
“We’re going with Junior’s plan instead,” the Gunny said.
My mouth fell open. My plan? What plan? I had no plan. Barring any word from battalion on the command net, the orders of Captain Mertz should be followed, or so I assumed. I waited without saying anything, enduring the looks of everyone around the circle, once again.
“Ah, what was that plan again?” Sugar Daddy asked the Gunny, blowing smoke out as he said it. The smell of the smoke was not from tobacco, however.
I frowned, but continued to take the meeting in without saying anything. I remained expressionless as possible, even though I knew Sugar Daddy had blown the marijuana smoke directly at me for effect.
“The plan to get off the trail and get our asses up this mountain. Chesty Puller’s plan,” the Gunny reminded them. “Then we were to move forcefully down this ridge until we hit the lip of the A Shau, catching the NVA off guard and getting us through without casualties.”
“I thought that was your plan?” Jurgens said.
The Gunny glanced once at me with a slight frown before continuing. “I don’t know where you got that idea. It was Junior’s plan all along and it’s not a bad one.”
“We took eight dead for casualties,” Sugar Daddy said. “Was it his idea to go pull Kilo’s fat out of the fire, too? And what about resupply? We’re low on water and almost out of ammo. Junior’s helmet there would seem to indicate that there’s a whole regiment running around on this mountain and it ain’t ours. What of them?”
“Lieutenant?” the Gunny stated, more than asked.
I was stunned again. Somehow, I’d instantly gone from Junior to lieutenant. I stared into the Gunny’s eyes and thought furiously. And then I had it. The Gunny was stuck with the question Sugar Daddy posed, and probably realized that no plan was going to work without artillery support and some decent map work, which meant my cooperation. He knew I was mad as hell about Hill 110. I read a question mark in his expression and knew what that was, too. Would I go against Captain Mertz and his quasi-legal orders? Mertz wasn’t in our chain of command and therefore did not have to be obeyed. But he was a real captain and real commander while I was an undetermined junior something-or-other.
I leaned down and took the sapper’s helmet from Fusner’s hand. “If that sapper regiment is waiting somewhere up here, then they’re waiting between us and the saddle. Resupply was at the saddle. They’ll know we need resupply because they looked at our stuff. The trail to the A Shau extends up from the saddle and they know we’re headed there, and whatever NVA unit was down there last night took a bashing and will need recovery. Our orders from battalion are to get to the A Shau and await further orders. How we do that is our affair.”
I tossed the helmet through the air. It landed at the Gunny’s feet.
The Gunny jerked back, but only a few inches. He didn’t touch the helmet or look up at me.
“So what do we do?” Jurgens asked, for the third time. “I don’t like doing anything Junior tells us to do. We lost a ton of good men last night on his say so.”
I looked at the platoon leaders of Second and Third platoons but neither man said a word. The silent platoons, I thought. Were they the workhorse platoons manning the perimeter and facing up the trails with point men? I wondered in my own silence. The things I didn’t know about my own company could fill volumes.
“We stay on the ridge and head for the A Shau,” the Gunny ordered. “We exercise fire control and save ammo if we get hit. The top of the edges of the valley are pretty clear so resupply should be there in the morning if we can make it and set in before night falls. If he’s….” and there the Gunny stopped for a few seconds. “If things go right then the NVA won’t ever know we slipped by and Kilo can make its own way up to the A Shau.”
A moment of silence fell over the group.
“Good plan Gunny,” Sugar Daddy said, finishing his reefer and then putting it out in the mud at his feet, glancing once in my direction for effect.
I gave him nothing back, looking at the Gunny and waiting for him to adjourn the impromptu meeting.
“Alright, head ‘em up and move ‘em out,” the Gunny said, imitating foreman Gil Favor from the Rawhide television series.
Jurgens got up abruptly and walked over to me. My hand went to my .45 casually, so as not to alert the bigger and older sergeant.
“Just because you took care of Alfie like that don’t get you off the hook for the other seven,” he said in a whisper.
We stared into each other’s eyes for a few seconds. I wondered why both he and Sugar Daddy directed so many deadly threats my way. I fully intended to kill both of them when the time was right, and I was not about to threaten either man. Why would I ever want to warn them of what was coming? It made no sense I could understand for either of them to threaten me. When Jurgens and his small retinue moved off, I waved Fusner to me.
“Forget the frequency Mertz gave you,” I told him. “If the Six Actual comes up on the command net and orders us to the saddle that’s one thing. If he doesn’t, then we’re not talking to Kilo until we get to the A Shau.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Fusner said with a smile.
I moved to my stuff to get ready to make the hump to the A Shau. It was past mid-day and the hump would be another tough one with full packs, even though it would all be down slope. I sat down and unlaced my boots. I hadn’t had my boots off in five days. My socks weren’t identifiable as socks anymore, but I rolled them up and put them in an outside pocket anyway. I put on a thick pair of white socks and laced the boots up tightly. When I stood up I felt unaccountably like a new man. I joined the scout team, approaching Stevens from the rear.
“Why did Nguyen say the sappers respect us?” I asked, not satisfied with the sergeant’s earlier laconic response.
Stevens waved Nguyen to him. They spoke back and forth for a couple of minutes. Stevens turned back toward me while Nguyen stared over his right shoulder. Suddenly, the native Vietnamese moved forward and pointed down at my right wrist.
I looked at the elephant hair bracelet he’d given me earlier.
“Respect,” Nguyen said, very softly, in English.
“They’re Montagnards, sir,” Stevens said, “like him. They don’t think like we do. They’re pretty weird because you’ve made an impression on him and them somehow or another. He said they’re not waiting because they know they’ll see you again.”
I looked into Nguyen’s eyes but the man’s dark orbs didn’t give me anything back. I blinked and then he blinked, just like the times I saw him disguised in the bush. The man was inscrutable. The Montagnards were inscrutable. The Vietnamese were inscrutable. Even my fellow Marines were almost impossible to understand. Somehow, taking out Alfie was credited as a good thing while the seven Marines who’d died was a bad thing, for me, even though they were all veterans who should have damn well known to keep their heads and asses down when there was live fire about to begin. And then there was the Gunny’s responsibility, which didn’t seem to really exist. It was all on me.
I began the move down the mountain and on into the afternoon. The company was reinvigorated by the short rest and knowing that they did not have to go back to the saddle where we’d lost so many. The company wouldn’t have taken the point for anyone or anything. With this revitalized energy the company moved faster than it had in rushing to the rescue of Kilo company. I brought up my usual place near the rear, thinking about how I did not want the respect of the enemy, nor the hatred of my Marines. I didn’t want anything except to get through the afternoon and then endure another night.
Zippo passed me on the right. He was wearing the sapper helmet like it was his own. When I exchanged glances with him he grinned. I could not help grinning back.