The Skyraiders came in again and again, each run spaced ten minutes after the last, according to my Gus Grissom wristwatch. They came in low, right down the river, opening up on whatever they saw there, then pulling up and making their way back around. All of that activity I judged by sound alone. There was nothing to be said over the radio because there was no enemy fire, and nothing to be seen of the enemy except now dead bodies hidden by the heavy undergrowth. There was no way to see through the jungle from where we’d taken up positions. We were there to secure the base of the cliff while Kilo company continued to climb down in single file on the switchback paths that had probably been worn into the faces of hard stone well before any force was at war with any other force in the region, if there was ever such a time.
I pulled back from my view of the carnage at the bottom of the cliff. I was in a small clearing that was nothing more or less than a beaten down spot cushioning the actual ground an unknown distance further down. If needed at the base of the cliff, I’d be called soon enough, I knew.
The ambush had gone off without a hitch, at least not one I knew about, although the killing off of the injured enemy soldiers bothered me. I told myself that there was nothing I could do but in truth I’d done nothing, even if it might have made a difference. There were no prisoners taken in the A Shau Valley, by either side. There were no considerations for taking prisoners ever discussed. It was simply one of those things that once the A Shau bit into you, and the venom from it flowed through your blood, actions and life, you just knew. We all knew. It was not a thing of mercy. It was a thing of predation, survival or death, and it needed no words to either define it or administer it under any man-made rules.
There was work to be done. Command at battalion had to be brought in on what had happened. Kilo leadership, somewhere on the cliff face, or just above waiting to make its descent, should to be counseled with before they arrived. Medevac had to be called. Flank security had to be checked and the air support confirmed for the time it would be on station. And then the two companies together had to get the hell out of the exposed position and move upriver. That river had to be crossed in order to rejoin the rest of the company and then get to the old barely defensible position the abandoned airstrip might provide.
I took out the makings for coffee. I’d kept one green foil packet of powder in a chest pocket, but there was no creamer or sugar. The acrid black coffee, with its bitter aftertaste, would have to do. The Gunny appeared out of the jungle to hunker down next to me. Fusner crouched nearby, waiting for a request by me for one radio microphone or the other.
“They’re all KIA, every last one of them,” the Gunny said, almost under his breath. He pulled out a cigarette, lit it and then went to work making his own coffee using my lit chunk of explosive to heat the water.
“Ours or theirs?” I asked, using the same tone, keeping my distaste for killing the wounded out of my expression.
I was no different than my Marines who’d done the killing point blank. I knew that but couldn’t quite accept it.
I felt the Gunny catch something in my voice, anyway. He didn’t reply to my question for almost a minute, taking several puffs from his cigarette while bringing his water to a boil. I knew somehow he’d picked up on my disapproval, probably reflecting on his own disapproval of my disapproval. The words lay there like a moldy wall between us. I waited, not looking at him, instead checking out the little area we were in. When my eyes swept by the Gunny’s squatting position to my right, it hit me. His M-16 was gone. He’d carried the 16 like it was a part of him since I’d been with the company. I turned my head to look behind him, and caught sight of the very back edge of the butt of a .45 protruding from his right side. I turned back to pay attention to hot coffee, and went to work sipping it carefully in the silence. There was no enemy fire at all, only the sound of the distant river, the mild misting of rain that none of us guarded against because it didn't have enough substance to make an effort over, and a few wafts of morning wind coming down from up above the top of the nearby mountain.
Was I having an effect on the Gunny, I wondered, thinking about the potential ramifications of such a thing. The Gunny was no longer depending upon an M-16 for personal defense. He’d gone to a .45, as I preferred, because the 16 was too bulky, ungainly and his job was supposed to be getting his Marines to use their 16s effectively, not to shoot one himself. Outside of asking him whether he’d changed that approach to his leadership, and changed it because of my influence, which I wasn't going to do, there was no way of really knowing.
“Some would have made it from their wounds but the fall killed all of them, regardless,” the Gunny finally answered, ignoring the issue of the wounded enemy soldiers being killed after the ambush was over.
“How many?” I asked, looking down into the dark liquid in my canteen holder.
“Seven,” he answered.
“Enemy KIA?” I continued, asking mostly because I didn’t want to think about or discuss the seven.
“Probably be around twenty when we’re done searching in the full light of day,” the Gunny replied, breathing deeply in and out before going on. “Highest body enemy body count I’ve seen since I’ve been in country.”
I thought about what the Gunny said for a moment. He was now carrying a Colt, and tacitly giving me credit for the highest confirmed kill ratio he’d ever experienced. I wanted to believe that things had dramatically changed in the company, but couldn’t get past the racial mess the company was in or the high threat environment I was in with Jurgens and quite possibly Sugar Daddy. Stevens was dead, like most of the other possible allies I had along the way while the backbone of the company remained mired down, like the main feature of an inedible rotten stew.
The noise level was rising. I realized that the Marines from Kilo Company were beginning to occupy the jungle all around our small clearing. I tossed the remains of my coffee out.
“Flank security?” I asked, wondering if the enemy had encountered the single M-60 I’d left to keep them from flanking us and heading up river to lay their own ambush.
“Nothing on the radio from them, so far,” the Gunny replied, nodding toward a part of the bush where seconds later Tank, his giant radio operator emerged.
I looked over at Nguyen with a bad feeling. The ambush had been quick and loud, and the mopping up had taken some time. If the NVA had encountered and overcome the small out post I’d left, then the radio would be useless for communication. I motioned with my head toward the river. The distance wasn’t far. Nguyen should be able to lope to the outpost and back in a few minutes, and I knew I could depend upon him to exercise the kind of care and concealment Zippo could never manage.
Fusner, leaning back and stripping off his radio, turned on his little transistor rig to bring in Brother John’s early morning broadcast.
I was about to tell him to turn it down and then fill Zippo in about Nguyen’s mission when a group of Marines broke out of the jungle and walked into the middle of the clearing. I knew immediately who they were by the way they walked. I didn’t need to see their faces. It was Captain Howard Carter and his two lieutenants.
“Where’s Junior?” Carter asked, his voice too loud for the situation we were in.
“Down,” the Gunny hissed at the men.
The Marine officers obediently followed the Gunny’s orders, all three ending up crouching together in the middle of the clearing. I was reminded of the three legs of a stool.
The first song came squeaking out of Fusner’s radio, playing across the clearing into the silence following the Gunny’s order.
“Turn that radio off,” one of Carter’s platoon commanders said, his voice more a harsh hiss than a whisper.
“I’ve got seven dead, Junior” Captain Carter said, knotting his thick black eyebrows and staring fiercely at me. “I’ve got seven dead with nothing to show for it You opened up on my men. You’re a pitiful reminder of what OCS can turn out in time of war.”
“I said, turn off the God damned radio,” the other platoon commander ordered Fusner.
The song played out, with nobody moving or saying anything further.
“I will follow you, follow you wherever you may go. There isn't an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away. I must follow you, ever since you touched my hand I know, that near you I always must be, and nothing can keep you from me. You are my destiny…”
“Pretty good song,” the Gunny commented, “given the Marine officer everyone was following just saved your entire company from extinction.”
“Turn the radio off, Fusner,” I ordered, reaching over to one side and putting my helmet back on. Nguyen was back, although he only made his presence known to me by slowly raising his head above a thick cluster of reeds. He slowly shook his head twice. We’d lost two of our own Marines in what was fast becoming a very expensive rescue.
“Flank security at the river was taken down,” I informed everyone in the clearing, as quietly as I could, before rising to my feet and replacing the canteen holder to my web belt.
“I want full perimeter security established,” Captain Carter ordered. “I want everyone digging in for all they're worth.”
I knew Captain Carter didn’t know what the hell was going on or even what had happened with his men, or quite possibly about the ambush at all. When Kilo had vacated the upper ground above the switchback trail down that left the upper ground open to occupation by the forces no doubt still ensconced up there. There was no way even the combined forces of our company element and what was left of Kilo Company could survive a counterattack if plunging fire was being delivered down from high up on the cliff. It would be shooting fish in a barrel for the NVA. All the enemy forces on the ground would have to do was contain us while the shooting took place.
“We’re out of here, right now,” I said to the Gunny, ignoring the other officers in front of me. “They’ve flanked us and came back up along the river but they won’t have had time or equipment to lay in a proper ambush.”
“We go right back up the way we came?” the Gunny asked, getting quickly to his own feet. “What about Jurgen’s men we left there to block them down by the river?”
“Nope, they’ll expect us to go back along the cliff,” I shot back, beginning to move toward where Nguyen waited with the river just beyond. “We go right up the river on their ass and run them into the rest of the company. They’ll be trying to get set in not too far from here to pull the same routine we just pulled on them. We can’t give them time. And we left two Marines along the side of the river. Two more. We’re taking them home along the way. I think we’ve only got minutes though and we have to move at double time or lose the element of surprise. Call the company and get them locked and loaded. Fusner I need the air radio.”
Fusner handed me the AN/323 headset, and I put it on.
“I gave you a direct order, Junior,” Carter said, his tone one of disbelief, at not only being disobeyed but being ignored as plans went on around him and his officer team.
“You and Kilo will probably be safe down here for a time because we’re going to be taking the attack to the enemy we already hit once,” I said to Captain Carter, stepping closer so our faces were only a few feet apart. “Now, you can stay here or you can take the attack to the enemy with us, either way, you may get badly mauled because they’ve probably got close to a battalion of men. Twenty less than they had earlier, though. It’s your choice. If you stay here we’re not coming back for you."
I turned to speak into the AN/323 headset.
“Cowboy, you up there?” I waited a few seconds, not looking at Carter, who’d turned to consult with his two lieutenants.
I could still hear the Skyraiders orbiting high and far away. I knew they could stay all day but they didn’t have unlimited ammo or ordnance. The Skyraiders were not only the key to our attack but were all we had for survival if the enemy totally outnumbered us or had brought in heavy ordnance of their own. No ground forces, including the NVA, wanted to face the planes directly, which meant that every time they came in low, slow and ready to rip and tear the NVA would be as far down or underground as they could get. Our moves against the larger heavily armed enemy had to be made when the Skyraiders were on the attack. It was fire and maneuver with the planes providing most of the fire. It would take a move of about four clicks up the river before we could come under the limited support of the Ontos, and that was if the Marines manning the thing had a clue about how to give us any indirect fire.
“Five by Five,” Jacko came back.
I filled Jacko in on the plan, giving him ten minutes to make the first pass. They had four planes with about half their supplies left. I hoped the enemy could hear our transmissions back and forth. That might give us an advantage because, in spite of Kilo company hunkering down the NVA had to be learning that our company wasn’t truly predictable. I returned the headset to Fusner and got myself ready for the coming hike, which would be more of a series of runs than an actual hike.
“Kilo Company’s going to dig in,” Carter finally reported to no one’s surprise, his voice restrained but longer expressing burning anger or outrage.
“Look, you guys,” the Gunny said, stepping around me to confront the three officers together. “You’re down in the A Shau now. You’re not in Kansas anymore.”
The Gunny pointed up toward the high lip of the cliff where Kilo had climbed down from.
“The NVA’s up there and you know it. If they bring a fifty caliber to the edge of the cliff, then you and the entire company will be gone by the time the sun sets. There’s no mercy in this place, and there’s no resting. Junior may not be the best leader in the world by any means, but he’s guessed right every time about what these assholes are going to try next.”
“We’re not ‘you guys,’” Carter sputtered out, “and that’s part of the problem with your whole screwed up company. We’re not taking orders from some errant throw-away second lieutenant playing Lawrence of South Vietnam or advice from Gunnery sergeants.”
The Gunny shook his head, his shoulders drooping, before turning to face me.
“I don’t know what else to do, sir,” he said, sincerity and a strange sorrow coming through from every expression of his words and body. “What do you think?”
He stepped to my side and turned around. We faced the three impeccable looking officers side by side. I noted that the two lieutenants didn’t wear gold academy rings, although they acted like they should be wearing them along with Captain Carter. I also noted that the Gunny’s hand rested on the butt of his .45 and I mentally smiled at the thought of what it meant when I did the same thing.
“A man ought to do what he thinks is best,” I whispered, quoting a deep meaning but simple line from a John Wayne movie I’d seen years before. “We’re moving out right now,” I ordered, speaking more to the Marines on my team, and those just outside our small packed down area than the officers in front of me.
“You’re not dismissed until I say you’re dismissed,” Captain Carter replied.
There was a tense moment, as the scene froze in place for a few seconds, only the rain coming down at an increasing rate interrupting what should have been a moment of dangerous intensity. One of the lieutenants pulled out a short black object, unwrapped a small cord from around it, and then spread a black umbrella out in front of him, before holding it up over Carter’s head.
The Gunny started to laugh out loud. I turned to shush him, as best I could. But there was no stopping him, or the Marines around us. The laughing built up before dying down a bit. I held myself together, containing my own laughter, and waited.
“You brought an umbrella to the A Shau,” the Gunny finally was able to get out, not phrasing the words as a question.
Quiet chuckling continued around us.
“That’s it!” Captain Carter yelled out. “Get out of my sight. You’re not Marines. You’re a pack of out of control scum, and you are responsible for plenty of support people killed with your schoolyard antics. You’re going on report, every last one of you.”
The Captain’s face was again red with rage; his right arm extended outward with its index finger pointing at my chest.
“And get rid of that helmet,” he continued, unaccountably taking note of my appearance. “You look like some combat clown from a cartoon.”
I removed my helmet and held it under my arm. I’d come to identify the damage to it as a reminder of the Marines who’d fallen along the way since I’d been with the company. There was no way, while I was still alive, that I would ever part with it.
The laughing stopped, as if everyone around us in hearing range was on the same page of a movie script.
“Let’s move out,” I said to the Gunny, as I walked directly across the area, passing almost under the lip of the captain’s umbrella.
I put my helmet back on as I passed, but kept my eyes forward, concentrating on the only path north opening up through the dense jungle before me.
“I demand some answers here,” Carter screamed at my back. “We’re not supporting you. We’re waiting for orders from battalion. There’s going to be hell to pay when the skipper finds out what happened here.”
Fusner caught up with me when I was only a few meters along the path, the captain’s yelling already beginning to fade behind me.
“What do you think will happen when battalion gets his report?” he asked.
“What’s going to happen? You already know. This is the A Shau. They’re not coming back. Nobody does. His report? It don’t mean nuthin.”
Further back I heard a deep low voice, singing softly. I knew it had to be Zippo. He sang quietly, but the sound penetrating through the blowing rain and flapping undergrowth was beautiful. He was singing the song Fusner had been playing on the radio when I’d ordered him to turn it off. “I will follow him, wherever he may go. There isn't an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep me away...”
I didn’t know whether Zippo meant the lyrics were meant to describe me by the way he changed the wording, but listening to him sing that Ricky Nelson song from back home, and having the others around me obey my orders to move without hesitation or complaint, made my chest swell with pride, and I felt the first stirring of any kind of real personal honor surfacing deep inside me since I’d been in the valley. The A Shau was a horrible place, but it was my place.
The Marines in the company were murderous, unprincipled, disrespectful and downright savage, but they were my Marines, and if I lived long enough I might become their real company commander.