I waited, my body spread face down and flat on the jungle floor. It would have been a time of rest and relaxation if an attack by unknown numbers of wily, capable and well-armed opponents weren’t also waiting somewhere out in the night. Counting breaths and numbers to hold back the terror of the night wouldn’t come. Staring ahead into the dark, a useless task, could not be avoided.
Every U.S. Marine is trained for guard duty, even officers. Guard duty is conducted continuously by the Corps all over the world. All U.S. Embassies and consulates are guarded by Marines, as well as many military bases and commands of military services, not Marine related. Marines guard the White House. The applied science and art of guarding involves two conflicting actions. Total vigilance and total boredom. Total vigilance is impossible to accomplish while total boredom is impossible to avoid, at times. Waiting for an attack that might not come should not have been boring but it was, like guard duty, although with an element of terrifying fear that was indescribable. And there was nothing to do in a darkness that had to be maintained as near to being complete as possible, in spite of a blooming full moon behind us. No flashlights or lighting of cigarettes.
The company wasn’t a total loss or mess, I realized because there was almost no sound coming from anyone or anything, as the massed company was one. That silent exhibition took training and experience. There was no clearing of weapon actions, clicks of lighters, flashes of light or anything else to give away our position, even though everyone knew the enemy had to know exactly where we were and the fact that we were stationary out ahead of them in the night. It was unlikely the NVA knew we were low on ammunition, however, because American units were so vastly over-supplied compared to Vietnamese forces.
I’d mentioned semi-auto to the Gunny, but I didn’t know if he’d carried the idea down the line. M16 rifles could be fired on full auto or semi-auto, depending upon where a small selector on the lower left of the firearm’s receiver was placed. All combat troops and Marines were known to favor full auto, but ammunition was low. Semi-auto was more controllable and wasted a whole lot less ammunition.
I didn’t know the actual state of our ammunition supply but I knew the Gunny would not be worried unless that amount was critical. I figured that my plan was probably acceptable to him because it involved the most sparing use of small arms fire if everything went according to the way I hoped it would. Since I didn’t have any idea of what the ammunition situation really was and no effective way to find out, there was no point in going on about fire control any further. Either there was enough to hold the enemy back when they attacked or there wasn’t. I’d also learned that individual Marines don’t necessarily do what you want them to do when they are alone in the night.
It was too dark to see my map unless I turned on the tiny-holed lens of my taped up flashlight, so I did the best I could to recall our ridge position in my mind. The registration grid for my initial ranging round could be worked back and forth across the ridge, as I planned, with a full battery fire. I hadn’t planned for the other option, however. If we ran out of small arms ammo and were overrun, then bringing the VT fire down along the cliff position we ourselves occupied would be required. I decided that that suicidal plan was really no solution at all, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Finally, I went through the process of designing that alternate plan as well, since I had nothing else to do with the slow-moving time. Would I have a better chance of living if the place was swept by shrapnel up and down the cliff, or if at night I might be missed by an enemy working from downed Marine to downed Marine, shooting everyone they found in the head? The artillery ‘ultimate solution’ began to seem more and more like it was the best course of action if we could not stop the NVA long enough to blow the hell out of them. If the artillery fired at all. My worry made me physically uneasy. I crouched to rub my thighs and try to get rid of the shaking. I’d need my hands to call the battery with the handset. No matter what I thought or tried, however, I couldn’t stop fidgeting and moving around on the jungle floor.
“Sir, you’re making too much noise,” Zippo whispered over to me, his right eye glued to the rubber grommet of the Starlight Scope.
“Too much noise to see by?” I whispered back.
Zippo sighed loudly and I was immediately sorry for commenting. But I couldn’t stop moving around a bit either. I wasn’t built for combat and I knew it. I was a mess, mentally and physically, but all I could do was hide that fact as best I could. Whatever narrow chance I had for survival was dependent upon not becoming more prey-like than I already was.
The Gunny came in out of the night, climbing up and over the edge of the cliff rather than working through the jungle along its upper lip.
“Anything out there?” he asked, keeping his voice almost too low for me to hear. I leaned close to his prone figure. I sensed Pilson nearby but couldn’t see him. I realized that my shakes were gone again. I wondered if it was the Gunny’s presence or the fact that exercising my hands had been effective again. I hoped it was the exercise.
“Not yet,” I murmured back. If the movement had been spotted there would have been no need for the Gunny’s question or my answer, I knew. The Gunny was nervous too.
“What’s the ammo situation?” I asked, more to make conversation than because my knowledge might make any difference. The die was just about cast, as far as I saw it, and making slight changes wasn’t going to affect the outcome. The Gunny remained silent, so I changed the subject.
“If we moved quietly down the ridge in the dark that might just work,” I said.
“They fight at night, not us,” the Gunny replied, his voice having more timber but still remaining low. “And then there’s the moon.”
I looked over my shoulder. I saw Pilson’s head sticking up over the edge of the cliff, illuminated from behind by the full moon. I felt like a complete idiot. The Gunny could not be more correct. We were hunkered down at night, and even though we had the Starlight Scope the night belonged to the Vietnamese. If the company moved through the moonlit night through the NVA controlled jungle it would probably not last long.
“Maybe it would be best if you climbed down over the edge and waited there,” the Gunny said.
“I’ve got to see the first round in order to adjust fire,” I replied, “and I’ve got to be up here to be able to tell when it’s the best time to call fire for effect.” I looked over at him and waited for a few seconds for him to answer. When he didn’t, I added, “If they’re out there.”
“They’re out there, but they know how to wait for just the right time to strike,” the Gunny said, cupping one hand over his mouth to light a cigarette which he shouldn’t have been lighting. “They know we have to be beaten to shit, and we are. Some of the guys are probably asleep right now. They would know that too. When they hit you call in the artillery and then get over the edge as fast as you can. The only way out of here, if the arty doesn’t stop them, is straight down, going from ledge to ledge, but that’s presuming one of the ledges isn’t a forty footer, or so.”
I thought about trying to go down that side of the mountain into whatever unknown valley was below and I cringed. There were no good options if Cunningham and the Army didn’t come through according to my plan. I’d gambled everything for everyone on a plan that had been created out of nothing at all. There was little evidence for anything I’d based it on, except the deadly enemy was very real and probably more deadly than I even wanted to think about. They’d taken heavy casualties from our company, and that of Kilo. They’d be in no mood to spare anyone.
I turned to look over the moonlit valley behind me. The fact that it was a gentle valley at all was barely visible, thanks to the limited light the full moon radiated down. The moon was high in the sky and would not set until near dawn. I examined the orb closely and discovered that it was not full at all. It was close to being full, but instead was something I knew to be called a gibbous moon. I wasn’t sure exactly what that term meant but I was comforted in knowing the word.
The shelf of outcrop just below where I lay was filling with Marines. There was no doubt that when the NVA attacked the shelf would be a safer place to be, protected by the abrupt cliff of solid volcanic rock. I couldn’t make out the features of any individuals. The light was too low and diffuse.
“Zippo, take a scan up and down the shelf behind us,” I whispered, nudging the big man.
Zippo shifted about, making barely audible complaining sounds, but finally complied. “What we looking for?” he asked, examining the area up and down the line. I moved to position myself next to him.
“Let me have a look,” I said, gently assuming control of the bulky black cylinder. It took me less than ten seconds to identify Jurgens among the Marines setting up along the shelf behind us. I pushed the instrument back toward Zippo.
“Go back to checking out the open areas,” I ordered, keeping my voice from breaking with an effort.
I tried to relax as best I could. I had the enemy in front of me and First Platoon directly to my rear. I’d managed somehow to be put right between two forces that had every reason to kill me at the earliest convenience. I knew Jurgens had to know about the plan. He had to know that the artillery was the key to making the plan, and thereby his own survival, the key. That meant he and his men would not shoot me in the back prior to calling the artillery barrage. It would be afterward, if I lived through the NVA attack. I grew more frightened. How had I trapped myself into such a position so easily? The Gunny was next to me in the same position, but not likely any kind of target for Jurgens and his men. Did the Gunny know?
I motioned toward Fusner. He immediately held out the artillery handset but I waved it away. “Stevens,” I whispered. In seconds Stevens plopped himself down between Fusner and me. He said nothing.
“The NVA are in front of us and Jurgens has set up behind us with First Platoon,” I whispered low, my lips close to his right ear. I knew the situation placed the whole scout team right in the middle of a crossfire, not just me. If the enemy opened up on us, and then First Platoon did the same, there was no way any of us would survive the exchange. The company being low on ammunition was not going to save us.
“What am I supposed to do?” Stevens asked, his voice rising a bit as he began to realize the precariousness of his own position.
“Leave the Starlight scope and the radio,” I ordered, after a few seconds to complete a Plan B. “Take Fusner, Zippo and Nguyen down the line fifty meters, or so. I can use the scope and radio myself.”
“What are you going to do, sir?” Stevens asked.
I felt the first tiny warmth inside myself that I’d felt in days. Stevens had surprisingly referred to me as ‘sir.’ I thought furiously about my options. I had nowhere to go. I didn’t even know where Sugar Daddy’s platoon was, but it certainly wouldn’t be any better to be in front of them. The topography I’d so carefully chosen to survive the company was being turned into a death trap for me personally. I thought of telling the Gunny about my fears but decided that was out of the question. If he knew already, then it didn’t matter. If he didn’t know, what was he supposed to do, go beg Jurgens to get behind somebody else? That solution could not be made to fly either.
“All I’ve got is the artillery,” I said to myself, and then realized I was answering Stevens’ question. I didn’t go on to mention that I might well have nothing at all, because I had not called to see if I could get the artillery support I now had to have whether the enemy attacked or not.
There was no time to lose, as Stevens gathered the scout team together to fill them in. I pulled loose the straps holding my rolled up poncho cover to my pack. I pulled the cover up over my head, took the map from my morphine pocket and turned on my flashlight. To pull off Plan B I was going to need precision. I could not use my original registration point for the first ranging round. And I needed nearby grid targets for subsequent fire. My brain, operating at flank speed and cold panicked efficiency, committed the grid coordinates and code words to memory automatically, and so accurately that I knew I did not have to check my data. If I was wrong about our position, or what I was about to call in, then I was dead, and my calculating brain knew it.
I clicked the flashlight off and came out from under the poncho.
“They’re not coming,” Stevens said, confronting me in the moonlight.
“Who’s not coming?” I replied stupidly, my mind still on the numbers.
“They refuse to leave you.”
“Ah, that wasn’t a request Sergeant Stevens, that was an order,” I replied flatly while rerolling my poncho and getting it back onto my pack.
“They’re not going,” Stevens replied as if he hadn’t heard me.
Fusner was down next to Stevens and he still had the radio on. Zippo was staring through the Starlight scope, just like before. Nguyen had slithered in close like he was waiting for some news in a language he didn’t comprehend.
My shoulders slumped again. Why in hell had the Basic School trainers neglected to tell new officers, about to go into combat, what to do if their men would not obey orders? The Marine Corps was not supposed to be organized that way.
“Problem, Junior?” the Gunny asked, having moved a bit closer, probably because of all the conversation.
“No Gunny,” I said, determined not to share any weakness at such a critical time.
The Gunny retreated to light another cigarette, the glow each time he pulled on it lighting up his face like a small red lantern, and quite possibly visible to a lurking enemy.
“Why?” I hissed, turning back to Stevens.
“Fusner says you can’t operate the radio alone because the frequency is different and it’s too dark to see the knobs. Zippo says you can’t look through the scope and do the radio thing at the same time. Nguyen won’t say why he’s staying. He just is.”
“What about you?” I asked.
“I’m not crazy,” he replied. “I’m going.”
I sensed a tightness in the boy’s voice. I knew he didn’t want to go but was being driven by the same forces fighting to keep me alive.
“That’s the smart move,” I told him. “But get maybe a hundred meters down there if you can. This could turn very ugly, and very bloody back here.”
Stevens pulled on his pack, and then strapped his M16 to his right shoulder.
“What are you going to do, sir?” he said, calling me sir for the second time.
“Chicken,” I said, rather absently, turning slowly to look out over the silvery valley behind me. “I’m going to play a game of chicken.”
Stevens was gone in seconds. I turned to the remaining members of my team, knowing Nguyen could not understand me because his interpreter was gone. I didn’t know whether to thank the remaining team members or be furious with them. I wondered how many more days I’d have to spend in Vietnam before anyone would obey an order from me simply because I gave it.
We waited, and then waited some more. The Starlight scope should have been called the Moonlight scope I realized, after a few hours. The light of the gibbous moon made the machine perform so well that it was like looking through the lens at the brightness of day, except the day was all green. Zippo spotted the first anomaly on his own.
“The bushes are moving, sir,” he said softly.
“Bushes don’t move on their own,” I replied, moving to look into the grommet.
“These are,” he replied, before backing up a foot or two to wait.
I stared through the scope until my eye fully focused. Zippo was right, I realized. Many of the bushes in the open area were moving. Some would move and stop, and then others would do so.
“Fire and maneuver, without the fire part,” I whispered. “They’re coming,” I said, a bit louder.
“You sure?” the Gunny asked, moving over to look through the scope.
I backed up and then held my hand out toward Fusner. I pushed the transmit button, said a brief prayer in my head, and then gave my pre-established radio code. The battery came right back.,
“Fire Mission, over,” I said, feeling deep relief.
The Army officer on the other end repeated the words and then reported that the battery had four tubes active. I let out another sigh of relief. Although Cunningham Firebase had two guns down they could give me a battery of four without difficulty. I could live with that. We might all live with that.
I called in the first round of Willie Peter, to explode a hundred meters in the air, but I didn’t register it at the pre-established position I’d chosen earlier. I knew I wasn’t going to have any trouble seeing where it would go off. I simply turned around and looked out over the valley behind me, when the words “shot, over,” came through the Prick 25 speaker. The Gunny looked over at me strangely, after pulling himself away from the Starlight Scope.
“What?” he began but was interrupted with “splash, over,” coming from the radio.
The round went off about three hundred meters from our position, but over the valley behind us, instead of over the enemy position to our front. The light show it provided glowed down on the Marines strewn behind us along the shelf below the cliff. I could see the Marines below all looking at one another, and out at the showering phosphorus.
“Left two hundred, Hotel Echo, repeat,” I ordered into the microphone, asking for a high explosive round.
Seconds later the next round came in, but it was anything other than a load of white phosphorus burning up in the atmosphere high in the distant night. It was forty-seven pounds of a high explosive going off at a position against the slope of the mountain only a hundred yards away. The shock wave shook the trees around and blew debris blasted from the mountainside undergrowth all around us.
I flinched and ducked, along with everyone else.
I raised my voice, holding the handset firm, I yelled out, “Left one hundred,” and then I stopped. I didn’t push the handset transmit button this time. I waited.
The line of Marines below wasn’t a line anymore. It was a bunch of clumps of departing Marines, running up and down the shelf for all they were worth.
“What the hell?” the Gunny said, but staying low, as small arms fire was beginning to come from where the enemy was attacking.
“Withdraw everyone Gunny, and get them over the edge,” I said. “In thirty seconds I’m calling in full battery fire and it’ll take about a minute more of adjusting and flight travel time. Anybody up top is going to be full of holes.
I brought in the first round of white phosphorus, as planned, adjusting from the last high explosive round I’d called in nearby instead of starting anew. The round came in perfect, and also initiated a full-scale attack by the NVA. It took only a few seconds to get the first battery of four of VT rounds on target. I rolled off the cliff and onto the shelf with the Gunny and my scout team. There was nobody else there. The first four rounds came in as ordered, off to my left. I began walking more battery fire across and down the ridge. The rounds were so close that, even down below the lip of the cliff, my ears were starting to ring. I had forgotten to put the tissue in my ears. I did six batteries of four and then swept six more across the plateau above. I heard screaming from above before my hearing went almost entirely.
The Gunny came to my side minutes later.
“That was something,” he said, almost yelling into my face to be heard. “Screw the night, let’s get the hell out of here now. They had to take one hell of a bashing. Let’s not wait for them to regroup.”
He didn’t wait for my confirmation. I strapped on my pack. Stevens rejoined us from below, as we prepared to leave.
“That went pretty well, sir,” he said, his tone one of sheepishness.
Nguyen leaned close as if to check on me.
“Thank God for the United States Army,” I said to him.
Nguyen nodded as if he understood.
We followed the Gunny down the shelf of rock and wild grass, moving into the night I feared so badly, but behind First and Fourth Platoons, and with a deadly enemy torn and tattered apart on our left flank. The moon was going down and at some point, I knew the sun would have to be coming up. The A Shau awaited us in the morning as if placed out there as a bleak macabre gift, given in return by a heartless god, for the carnage I’d strewn across the top of the ridge.