When the company came to a slowing halt, I was more than ready to rest. The straps of my pack burned where they pressed down over the narrower suspender straps that held up my web belt. We’d made it back close to where the company had veered north and gone to the aid of Kilo Company the day before. I stripped off the pack and collapsed to the jungle floor. I checked my canteens but both were empty. Fusner pushed his own toward me, and I accepted it willingly. I drank down about a third of the warmly awful, but so welcome, liquid before giving it back. I looked around. Even though we were moving downward along the ridge we were still high enough for the temperature to be cool, the wind slight and the mosquitoes limited to occasional bites not important enough to warrant slathering on the nasty oil repellent.
My scout team rested only a few feet away. I leaned over to ask Stevens about the sapper regimental helmet affair. Zippo had discarded it when others around him had taken to calling him a black gook.
“I thought the Montagnards were on our side,” I said, motioning for him to put the question to Nguyen. It took almost a full minute for Stevens to counsel with the Kit Carson Scout and reply.
“They are advisors to the sappers, as he is an advisor to us,” Stevens said. “They don’t call themselves Montagnards. That was the French. They call themselves the Moi. Nguyen is Jarai Moi and the advisors to the sappers are Mnong Moi.”
“Why do some choose the NVA instead of us?”
“They help so that their villages will not be burned and their people killed,” Stevens said, without counseling with Nguyen this time.
“We don’t burn their villages, I don’t think,” I replied. “Why does Nguyen work with us?’
“His village was already burned.”
I looked over at the Moi scout. He stared back at me with his usual expressionless eyes. I knew if I blinked that he would too, though. I turned back to Stevens. “His family?”
“Shit,” I said, softly, wondering what it was like to lose your whole family while you’re gone somewhere trying to do the right thing and take care of them, too.
In the back of my mind, in spite of the loyalty I felt from the strange man, I wondered just how much communication he had with other Moi around. The sappers would have had to hear about us, and me specifically, from someone, if that was really the point of the symbol.
“Arty up,” came whispering in from around me.
“Shit,” I said, wondering whether the Gunny needed artillery, which seemed unlikely because there had been no small arms firing or explosions of any kind. I began crawling along the jungle floor. I thought of snakes for the first time in three days. I found it kind of funny that I’d been too afraid of other things to be afraid of snakes, or maybe that was as it should be because the lack of them seemed to indicate that any snakes around were smart enough to stay high in the trees or underground.
I felt more than heard Fusner behind me, since my own noisy progress over the moist but solid ground kept me from hearing anything else. I found the Gunny thanks to many silently pointing fingers. This time I’d brought my binoculars, as the jungle near the edge of the ridge was more open and I hoped to be able to look out over whatever valley lay beyond it to the south toward, the American artillery fire-base.
The Gunny turned as I approached, holding an index finger over his mouth and pointing down to the south.
“There’s somebody out there,” he whispered. “And then there’s that…” He pointed downhill in the direction of our travel.
I couldn’t see anything in either direction. “What?” I finally asked in frustration, keeping my voice as low as his.
“I don’t know who’s there,” the Gunny said, pressing his head down behind a small pile of leafy bracken. “I just know that these Marines have been doing this for a while and they’re pretty good about knowing such things.”
I pulled out my binoculars and scanned the area down to the south. We were about a quarter of a mile, I guessed, from where we’d turned to head toward Kilo the day before. There was nothing. I swept down toward the second area the Gunny had pointed out. I silently cursed the stupid individual focusing of the eyepieces on the Japanese binoculars. Each had to be adjusted for distance individually whenever focus was needed. Regular combat lenses had one lever to quickly make that adjustment on both lenses, not to mention meter scales to approximate distance. I finally got the focus right and saw what concerned the Gunny, and helped bring the company to a halt. Two Marines lay next to a dark spot. Just beyond the spot, a bamboo reinforced slat of leaf weaved matting leaned up against the trunk of one of the larger trees. Without the Gunny saying a word, I knew I was looking at the entrance to my first tunnel. At Quantico, they had created a field of tunnels to train enlisted Marines how to find and fight the enemy below, or destroy underground supplies. The Marines who went down in the holes were called tunnel rats.
I put my binoculars down. “Okay to check it out?” I asked the Gunny, “or have you already sent in the tunnel rats?”
Both Fusner and Pilson snickered right after I made the comment. I caught their laugh but didn’t understand.
The Gunny got to his feet and then started moving low toward the hole in the ground guarded by the two Marines. I followed with Fusner and Pilson bringing up the rear.
“I’m more worried about what’s out there rather than down in this hole,” he said over his shoulder as he crouched low.
I laid on my chest looking down into the hole, surprised by its size. The round hole would have barely fit my body. If I crawled down into it, my shoulders would be pressing up against each side. The tunnels at the Marine Base stateside had been square, plenty big and dug into hard ground. I pointed my flashlight into the hole. It went down for about four feet before veering off in the direction of the company’s travel. I could not imagine a less welcome place to climb into. I stared for a moment more before deciding that I would never enter such a place if I could possibly help it. I noted that the cover of the tunnel appeared flimsy, but with cross-slatted bamboo strengtheners, it would probably hold the weight of a man stepping on its surface.
“Tunnel rats?” I asked again, still staring down.
“We don’t have any,” the Gunny said, accepting a green cloth-wrapped package from another Marine. “Nobody in this unit is dumb enough to go down into one of these tunnels. We find them all the time. The A Shau’s supposed to be full of them, but I don’t exactly remember.”
I realized the Gunny was priming several pounds of Composition B at my side. I eased back.
He glanced up at me. “You can write the words “tunnel rat” on each package if you want.”
Fusner and Pilson laughed again, this time not so secretly.
“So, we blow them in place,” I said, thinking about the ramifications. “We never find out where the tunnels go, and what’s down there?”
“Got a better idea?” The Gunny asked with a smile, while he worked away.
“But the explosives will only affect a small part of whatever the complex below really is,” I replied, not having a better idea.
“How about some of that concrete piercing arty shit you were dumping around before?” the Gunny said, getting to his feet and beginning to walk backward while unwinding a thin set of wires from a small spool.
I got up and moved with him. “The canopy,” I said, pointing upward. “The concrete-piercing will trigger in the tops of the trees and then detonate before hitting the jungle floor. The fuses are that delicate, even though the rounds themselves are called concrete-piercing.”
The Gunny squatted down behind a tree trunk and prepared a small metal box for transmitting the electric signal.
“Ah, the others you’re worried about, won’t this let them know exactly where we are?” I asked.
“Now that’s funny, Junior,” the Gunny laughed, stopping to light a cigarette. “We’re out here playing rock and roll across the jungle, and some huge regiment passed by and left a helmet dangling on a stick to let us know how much they respect us. And the enemy doesn’t know where we are? You’re killing me here.” The Gunny blew some smoke but didn’t direct it my way as Sugar Daddy had.
I took off my helmet and liner to scratch my head and think. There was really nothing to be said about how badly we’d had to let our position be known in coming to Kilo’s defense. If we’d all been killed, no one would have ever known about the company’s good intentions.
“Fire in the hole,” Gunny suddenly yelled out, dodging behind the tree trunk and twisting the little lever on the box.
The shock wave of the blast rocked my head and body back. I swallowed a few times to clear my ears. Bits of jungle and mud rained down for almost half a minute before subsiding.
The Gunny grinned while he pulled in and found what was left of the wire back around the little box. I put my helmet back on and prepared for what was ahead, although I didn’t know what was ahead of other than the fact that we were either already in, or just short of arriving in, what everyone called Indian Country. And that was all bad.
“Who do you think is out there?” I asked when the Gunny finished with his explosives task.
“Well, if it’s those sapper guys, and there’s a regiment of them, then we’re dead as doornails no matter what we do. What do you think?”
I looked out in the direction we were traveling and then down where we’d gone before. And then it came to me. They were out there alright, but it wasn’t the sappers if the sappers even existed.
“It’s the remnants,” I said. When we hit them down at the saddle, and then Kilo followed up, they took unexpected and big casualties. This part of the tunnel complex is probably part of it. They didn’t move down the mountain afterward. No, they followed us and now here we are. They weren’t expecting us to go get our stuff and come back because they didn’t know we left it there in the first place. Now, they’re waiting again for us to pass by on our new path to the A Shau.”
“Jesus, Junior, if I didn’t know you were green as a pea pod and been here for nine days I’d think you were a gook. You think like a gook. Hell, you’re about as tall as a gook.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I replied, as acidly as I could.
“So what do we do now?” the Gunny asked. “We’re damn near out of ammo, food, water and you name it. If we pass on by where they probably are waiting, then we get blasted. If we try to attack them first, we get blasted for sure.
“What’s the edge look like?” I said.
“What edge?” the Gunny said, taking the last drag of his cigarette before putting it out in the jungle debris at our feet.
“The edge of the mountain over here to the south,” I replied, pointing to my right. “The contours are pretty compressed on my map but if we’ve got any margin at all then I can use Cunningham to our advantage.” I pulled out my map and unfolded it to show him.
“Can we try that in English?” The Gunny said, his tone one of frustrated impatience. He deliberately looked away from my map.
I refolded the map and put it in my morphine pocket, wondering when I’d get a chance to write to my wife again. I could write about finding my first tunnel and what it was like, leaving off the rest, of course. “Come on, let’s just move a couple of hundred meters south and check it out.”
We walked past the tunnel entrance, which was a large smoking crater after the blast. I wondered how far down a surface explosion caused damage. If the tunnels were angled and blocked with anything at all then the shock wave would do little, beyond barely penetrating dirt cave-in stuff. It took only a few minutes for the Gunny and my scout team to arrive at the edge of the mountain ridge, although ridge turned out to be the wrong word. The edge of the mountain wasn’t an edge at all, except for a cliff that dropped about six feet down. After that the side of the mountain went down into a relatively shallow valley in flat steps, each about twenty feet long protruding from the side of the rock and dirt.
The Gunny studied the land around and below us as we stood on the top edge of the cliff. The view wasn’t stunning but it was pretty beautiful. The sun was low overhead but not close to setting, and the wind had picked up to make the warming air pleasant instead of cloying and miserable, as it always was in the lowlands.
“We can go one level down and just walk right by them if we keep our heads down,” the Gunny said, with one hand rubbing his chin.
I shook my head. “They’ve got Chicom radio crap and maybe even Prick 25s by now. If anyone spots us down there moving right along, they’ll attack and simply shoot down at us until we’re done, given that we can barely shoot back. Sitting ducks is the expression, I think.”
“So?” the Gunny asked.
“So, we climb down right here and move until we get about a thousand meters further along. That’s about where we detoured and headed for Kilo. Then we climb back up and set in right near the edge. We let them know we’re there. They’ll wait until the sun goes down and attack. When they attack we’ll quickly climb back down again. I’ll call in an artillery strike using variable time fuses. Should work like bug spray. The rounds will impact on top of the mountain while we’re covered completely by the lip of rock.
“Shit,” the Gunny breathed out. “Variable time, like in radar-timed?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “The gunners can set the fuses to go off from thirty to three hundred meters off the ground. The little radar waves will go right through the jungle and playback from the jungle floor. We can have them set for about a hundred meters. The shrapnel will spray down at about twenty-four thousand feet per second. Wonderful stuff.”
“I’m sure,” the Gunny said, sounding anything but sure. “Sounds a little bit complicated to me.”
“Well, it’s a plan,” I offered. “I can’t think of anything else right off the bat. Maybe you can.”
“Might as well try it,” the Gunny said, and then walked back into the jungle without saying another word.
“What do we do, sir?” Fusner asked.
“Let’s just hunker down here to wait and see,” I said. “I don’t imagine there’s going to be another CP meeting.”
We waited, resting next to the side of the cliff. It took about fifteen minutes for the company to begin pouring over the length of the edge that was visible. I watched in surprise. I had not seen the full company since I’d been in country, only bits, and pieces. Watching over two hundred men in full gear ease over and then drop down to the ground below was impressive. I felt more confidence in my plan although the idea that a scheme like I’d just dreamed up might prove so wrong that all of us could get killed nagged at the back of my mind. Would the company stop after a thousand meters? Would Cunningham have a supply of VT fuses on hand? Would the battery even be able to fire them, or fire enough rounds to make a difference?
When the company was over I moved to the edge, tossed my pack down and then climbed. The rocks were mossy but not too slippery. I let myself fall the last four feet, or so, onto the soft plant covered soil. It took less than half an hour, following the company lead, before we stopped to climb back up like everyone else.
Once back in the jungle, but not far from the cliff’s edge, we settled in to await nightfall. The Gunny joined us a few minutes later. Fusner had turned his little radio off, like the rest of the men, as we’d been making our way along in the defilade. He turned it on and immediately Brother John introduced Smokey Robinson singing ‘Tracks of My Tears.’
“The life of the party, right,” the Gunny said, lighting another cigarette. “Because I tell a joke or two,” he continued, after letting some smoke out. “Either this is going to work or there’s not gonna be much of a party.”
Tracks of My Tears