The river was a good four hundred meters away, and it was impossible to miss. The jungle between the swept river bank and the side of the cliff we’d made our way over from was dense but impossible to get lost in because of the ever present penetrating sound of that river. The continuous rain, even though it wasn’t that dense, added to the swollen water flow to create a jumbled rushing sound in the distance, no matter where we were in the Valley. My exit from the packed down area where I’d been confronted by the three officers of Kilo Company had been so quick and determined that I’d ended up walking point once more, and I didn’t feel like slowing to let someone else take over. I knew in my heart of hearts that I’d rather walk point for a Marine company in hell rather than face those three officers again.
Just before reaching the edge of the jungle growth, Nguyen eased out from inside a seemingly dense stand of bamboo just ahead of me on the right side of the barely distinct path, abruptly letting me know that I wasn’t really walking the point at all. He dropped to his knees in the center of the path, facing the direction of our travel. I held up my right fist, indicating to everyone behind that we were silently stopping. I went down on hands and knees, creeping to Nguyen’s side.
I moved close enough to the bare flat bank to survey what I could of the area up and down the river. The river was a sight to behold, running fast and hard, its waters streaming by so quickly and deep that the water seemed raised up in its center, in defiance of gravity. Nothing was crossing that water unless it did so without touching the deadly sucking attraction of its roiling surface. I once again regretted leaving my binoculars back with my pack because I couldn’t make out much in the distance, either way, further than a hundred yards. The mist blurred everything. There was no evidence of the two posted Marines, living or dead, or any evidence that there had been a machine gun position set up anywhere along the bank. There was a chance that we were either too far upriver, or down, to see such a position but I didn’t think so. At the same time, something tugged at the back of my mind the Gunny slithered up alongside me.
“What’s the situation?” he asked.
“We can’t stay to work it out right now but there’s no outpost where there ought to be one or at least have been one,” I informed him, before breathing in and out deeply, not wanting to consider the whispering thought that had risen up out of the back of my mind. “Whose Marines were supposed to man it?” I asked after a few seconds of silence.
I turned my head to look the Gunny in his eyes. He ignored me, staring downriver as if to survey the river scene in front of us.
“Sugar Daddy,” I breathed out, “again.”
“Jesus Christ,” the Gunny said, shaking his head.
“Yeah,” I added. There was nothing else to be said for the moment.
I hadn’t seen Sugar Daddy or Jurgens since the ambush, and I wondered if the lack of the outpost was the reason. Usually, the two were always involved in some way or another with the Gunny and their men. The fact that they’d seemed to be more able to accommodate each other, both the sergeants and their platoons, I’d taken as a plus, but the company could not function for long if it didn’t work together in some fashion. Flank security wasn’t everything until it became everything. If the machine gun had been set up as ordered and properly manned, then the part of the company I was tentatively commanding would not be totally at risk, once again.
“We stay low and close in along the bank,” I said to the Gunny.
There were no paths through the dense jungle that ran right along the edge of the bank, and if those had existed they’d most probably have been booby trapped in expectation of our advance, even given the little time the NVA might have had to set them up. There was no choice. We were going to be exposed from taking fire from across the river and also from our direction of advance of the enemy was moving with rear security attentively in place with the thought of stopping or delaying us.
“We’ve got to move fast,” the Gunny said. “If they get set up then we’re the ones moving into an ambush.”
“Four clicks,” I agreed, “we’ve got to push them at least four clicks upriver. They can’t cross that water. We drive them right into first the Ontos fire and then the M-60’s of the rest of the company.”
“Sounds like a plan,” the Gunny replied. “What about the valley wall?”
I’d forgotten about the wall. The side of the cliff we ourselves had come down along to save Kilo. We were back to extending an outpost position into the flank security position again. The good news about the one that had never been set up along the river was that the company hadn’t taken two more casualties. The bad news was that the company would likely suffer a whole lot more from the coming contact than it would have if the enemy had been held down the river.
“No Sugar Daddy crap,” I said, knowing that my saying it was needless but I couldn’t stop myself. Inside, I was enraged that the sniveling high-threat low-performance man had once again put the entire unit at risk in order to save two of his own men, and quite likely look good to the rest of the followers in his platoon. It was a constant toss-up in my mind about which of the platoon commanders, Jurgens or Sugar Daddy, I would have to shoot first.
“I’ll go myself,” the Gunny said, pulling back and getting ready to leave.
Both of us knew it was the only logical solution, although under fire I always felt a whole lot more comfortable with the weathered and experienced sergeant close by.
“Thirty minutes,” I said, looking back at him, and then checking my watch. “Double time. That’s four thousand meters. Two and a half miles. We can do that unless we get hit. Take a whole squad. If you are in contact, we’ll come to you. If we get hit you stay where you are and wait.”
I was gambling on time. Even the finest rested Marine company in the corps would be hard put to average marching ten-minute miles through the jungle, even without packs or heavy supporting gear. Running that far under such conditions would also degrade everyone’s ability to deliver fire when the objective was finally reached, at least for a period of time.
“I’ll deal with Sugar Daddy later,” I said, unable to get by the outrage of the man’s mutiny and traitorous act, even with the danger imminent right in front of us.
“If he lives through this,” the Gunny added.
“There’s that,” I replied. The Gunny and I exchanged cold smiles.
I knew he had to be on the same page as me under the circumstances, but I also knew that the Gunny was the finest game player of a Marine I’d not only ever encountered, but ever imagined I might encounter. I couldn’t be certain of anything with him, except he always seemed to be working somehow in my best interest. He was as likely to take Sugar Daddy out as he was to independently forge some new alliance with him, and I knew it.
“Fusner, up,” I commanded, not seeing my radio operator nearby, which was unusual.
“Here, sir,” Zippo said, handing me the Prick 25 handset. “He had to go.”
Zippo dragged the radio along like it was an athletic bag instead of putting it on his back. Probably the straps weren’t big enough to fit over his huge shoulders. I motioned to the Gunny with the handset.
“Fill them in,” I said, “and have the crew of the Ontos set the barrels for maximum elevation straight downriver. The exact target doesn’t matter; the rounds won’t be that accurate at the maximum range if we do need them.”
The Gunny got on the radio. Fusner came out of the jungle, carrying his E-Tool. I was again amazed at the privacy all the Marines respected when it came to relieving bodily functions. There was no urinating on bamboo stalks or doing more than that, around the other Marines. What was also surprising was that even traveling light under the harshest combat conditions, Fusner had somehow managed to bring an E-Tool along.
“Can I turn on my radio, again?” Fusner asked, with Nguyen at his side. Nguyen, who’d probably provided the same hidden form of security for Fusner in the bush as he’d used to help me stay alive. I looked at the Montagnard, but he didn’t look back. He was more like a vertical cat than a human, I realized. A very bright and experienced cat playing at war in his own backyard.
“And they’re coming,” Fusner added.
“Okay, it’s not exactly like we’ve got a stealth plan here,” I replied. I paused for a few seconds, thinking about Fusner’s last comment.
“Who’s coming?” I asked, my mind somehow disconnected as if I was asking about extra guests at a Thanksgiving get together.
The Gunny handed the handset back to Zippo, while Fusner worked to strap the radio onto his back for the coming move.
The voice of Brother John came out of Fusner’s transistor radio after he fiddled with the knobs for a few seconds. The song he played was a new release called Dance to the Music.
The song blared out, making everyone smile for a few seconds.
“What’s the name of the plan?’ Fusner asked while the music played and everyone got ready for the coming run.
“It’s the ‘dance to the music’ plan,” I replied, thinking the name was as appropriate as any other. “Who’s coming, Fusner?” I asked again.
“Kilo,” Fusner answered. “They’re coming now to support our move.”
“Shit,” both the Gunny and I mouthed together.
“They’re going to be coming up the path alongside the cliff wall?” I asked, in shock. “Forget flank security. If we don’t move now and fast they’ll drive the NVA right back up, and then downriver on our side, right into us without our supporting fire. Get Cowboy on the air,” I said to Fusner. “We’ve got to move right now and those guys in the air need to make their first pass, and tell us what they can see.”
I couldn’t be sure but guessed that Carter had reached out to battalion to complain about me, and then told them he was going to have Kilo stay put. Anyone with a map of the A Shau back at battalion, and an understanding of high and low ground advantages would have figured out the slaughterhouse Kilo Company would be setting itself up for. Kilo’s good fortune was that the enemy hadn’t gotten it together enough to fire and pin them down into their untenable position, and that apparently Captain Carter was willing to listen to what battalion told him. That fortune could easily turn into my and my company’s misfortune, because Kilo’s leadership was as arrogant as it was unpredictable, from what I had witnessed.
The Skyraiders came out of nowhere. One moment there was only the sound of the water and jungle and the next the big birds’ deep beating engines caused us all to hunch our shoulders in surprise, before looking upward. The four big planes screamed, not ten meters over the top of the rushing river waters. They blew by one after another, each sucking a great waft of wet rainy air from around us and then blowing it back, just before the next came through and did the same thing.
“Double time,” the Gunny yelled, and the order was repeated from all over the jungle around us. I ran out onto the flat surface of the river bank and found it to be fairly solid, which had been one of my fears. We didn’t run fast; we were too burdened down for that. Marines poured out through the edge of the jungle and headed up the river. Some were carrying machine guns crossways over their shoulders, while others had strapped the M-16s they clutched close to their bodies to keep them from swinging during the run.
We ran for a good ten minutes before the Gunny waved back toward the jungle. Everyone blended into the undergrowth, most going down to knees or into prone positions where it was possible. I realized after the first run just how bad off I was physically. I was in the best condition of my life, but I’d had no food of any sufficient nutrition for some time. Ten minutes of running was about all I could take. Only weeks earlier I’d completed a twenty-two mile run with a rifle, helmet, boots and a full pack. I’d never stopped once on that run, and I’d been fine when it was over. After ten minutes of running at the bottom of the A Shau, however, I was beat, dizzy and not too enthusiastic about repeating the exercise. I knew we’d moved a bit less than a thousand meters, which meant we had at about four more runs ahead of us, after which we’d probably be in immediate contact.
Fusner handed me the air headset. I removed my helmet and put it on.
It was Jacko. They were coming back around and the next run would be in seven minutes, according to him. I breathed in and out deeply. Seven minutes of rest wasn’t much. The Skyraiders hadn’t opened up at all because they’d seen nothing to open up on. Jacko wanted to know if they should strafe anyway so the enemy soldiers would keep their heads down. Normally, I would have found humor in his comment. What sane human being at the bottom of a valley, ducking down from those frightening aircraft flying only a few feet above them, would not be keeping his head down whether they were laying down fire or not? I told Jacko to hold fire until there was confirmed movement.
The Gunny crept back to where I was.
“So far so good,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
How some people could smoke under heavy exertion astounded me, as I watched him. I drank what was left of my water from my canteen.
“I don’t like the distance everyone’s pulling away from the brush when we run,” I mentioned, screwing the lid back on my canteen and putting my helmet back on for the next run. If we got hit from either direction, across the river or from upriver, the only thing that would keep casualties down was the speed at which we could get ourselves buried back into the jungle. I heard the Skyraiders make their turn far in the distance. They’d be back before the seven minutes were up. I sighed and got ready.
“So far so good,” the Gunny repeated, letting me know that we couldn’t control everything. We were lucky to get all our Marines up and running in their condition at all. It was out of all rationality to think that we could somehow get them to follow the river bank in an organized and rigid order.
“Double time,” the Gunny yelled, after discarding his cigarette, jumping to his feet and pumping his right fist up and down with a huge smile.
The Gunny was at least fifteen years or older than I was, smoking like a chimney and loving the move we were making. It was hard for me to believe.
“Dance to the music,” the Gunny yelled, running back out onto the river bed. “C’mon you lazy assholes, if you’re gonna dance then you’ve got to pay the piper.”
I ran. Fusner, Zippo, and Nguyen ran with me, all of us too far from the edge of the jungle, the way I saw it.
“What’s a piper?” Fusner got out, in question, as we ran.
“That’s the enemy Fusner, the enemy,” Zippo replied, laughing when he said the words.
I ran. I had never heard the Gunny’s expression before and didn’t really have a clue as to what it might mean. I did know that we could not keep up the pace we were moving at without eventually coming upon the remnants of the ambush force we’d hurt so badly only hours before. They’d slept, we hadn’t. They had to be angry as hell and looking for some kind of revenge. Once they knew we were coming there was going to be contact, of one kind or another. The Skyraiders gave us a tremendous advantage but they could only be up in the air on station to deliver their stuff for brief moments.
We rested, and then repeated the exercise three more times, the last under fire. Cowboy and the rest of his flight hadn’t fired a round until then. The last segment, taking us to within striking distance of the Ontos, had been a real hike simply because nobody could run anymore. We walked fast, taking long strides in the true Marine tradition of covering long distances. Running in the Marine Corps was done mostly to condition and train. Covering long distances was done by fast, nearly unbroken and unrested walking. Holding tight formation while walking was a learned Marine talent, and it was drilled into every unit of Corps from fire team on up to division.
The Skyraiders had time for a second run before we went to cover, and that turned out to be fortuitous for us. The twenty-millimeter rounds cut into the jungle to our right, just beyond where we were proceeding upriver. Their fire ended our move. When they flew by, and without order or even thought, all of us turned and wedged ourselves as deep into the foliage as we could, for whatever cover and concealment we could find.
Fusner pushed the air headset toward me without my asking for it.
“Cowboy, give me a sitrep,” I said into the microphone, panting heavily. Adrenalin was pumping energy back into my body, but it was slow in coming.
“The jungle ahead of you, all the way to where the river hits the cliff, is teeming with gooks. They’re headed for the cliff because they know we’re going to bomb the shit out of them on our next pass.”
Cowboy himself was giving me the report which meant that Jacko, riding with him, was readying the bombing part of their next run.
“Make the pass but don’t fire,” I said, thinking fast about a new plan.
If the NVA were clustered at the top triangle of the jungle down from where the tank lay upside down in the river, and they were headed for the wall, then they must have given up on the idea of either hitting the other half of our company (damn near impossible across the wild water) or lying in ambush for us. They were heading back down the valley to regroup, and they were going to run smack into Kilo Company coming up.
“Let them start down the valley. Orbit and let us know. You can’t get at them in the cleft along the bottom of that wall, but the Ontos is perfectly angled to do the job. When the Ontos opens up then you can follow and unload your stuff.”
I handed the headset back to Fusner and reached for the Prick 25 microphone.
“El Producto is already up on the air,” Fusner said, handing the instrument to me.`
“El Producto?” I asked, with a frown.
“Captain Carter’s radio operator, sir. He’s Spanish and smokes those cigars. Back in the world, I mean.”
I grimaced, but said nothing, as I knew weird names abounded in a combat zone. Either you had a nickname or you were called by your last name.
“El Producto, I need to talk to the six actual most haste,” I keyed in. I waited for a few seconds for the reply before adding, “and what do you call Captain Carter for a nickname?”
“Shovels, sir. I’ll get him immediately.”
“Shovels,” I whispered to myself, before breaking out in the first laughter I could remember.
Captain Carter had two huge front teeth, probably caps from his athletic pursuits at the Academy or some such. El Producto was accurate in that the teeth dominated his face, and they certainly looked like two small white shovel backs. Fusner looked away, although he could not get the smile off of his face after hearing what I’d said. I reached over to the radio and hit the switch to use the little speaker instead of the one attached to the microphone. Whatever Kilo had to say I wanted my whole team to hear.
“Go ahead and say your piece, Junior,” Carter said, his elegant tone totally out of line with the image of his ‘shoveling’ front teeth playing across my mind. I wondered if he was standing or laying under his umbrella.
“We’ve flushed them out and they’re headed down valley using the paths near the edge of the cliff wall,” I reported. “There’s a berm along there which should provide them some cover.”
“So they’re rushing right into an ambush we can set up?” Carter added.
I bent my head forward, holding the microphone before me. I had deliberately not mentioned Kilo’s move or even its placement further down the valley. The NVA knew Kilo was down there but not that they were moving north and likely to run right into them. That little secret was not likely a secret anymore if the enemy had a Prick 25 and was listening. There would be no ambush.
“Roger that,” was all I could think to say, however.
“You know, Junior, your disrespect is only exceeded by your ability to get Marines killed,” Captain Carter stated, his tone acidic yet grim. “We’ve lost how many now in two operations with you? And now here you come again, avoiding contact while we take it in the ass. The next time we meet you better have more than that Colt to protect you.”
I looked over at Nguyen. He stared back at me with his expressionless impassive face. His natural elegance and statuesque good looks reminded me of some old photos I’d seen at the Smithsonian of early American Indians. He blinked once before looking away, and then without saying anything or changing expression, blended back into the jungle undergrowth.
“The captain might be a problem,” I said to Zippo and Fusner, softly, “if he survives.”
The Gunny came rustling through the rain-soaked jumble of plant and tree life to crouch among us. I knew he wanted to know what we might do in our situation since he’d hadn’t heard the information Cowboy transmitted following his last pass. I needed the Ontos crew to get ready to fire and drive the NVA as quickly down the valley as possible. We all needed to advance and access our packs, ponchos and other equipment and then get across the ever-raging river. We also had to get our stacked bodies out of the field and on their way back home. But before I could fill the Gunny in and get our element moving again I had to end the contact with Captain Carter.
“A man ought’a do what he thinks is best,” I said, repeating the John Wayne line from the movie Hondo.
I gave the handset back to Fusner and turned to the Gunny, a new plan already formed inside my head. I realized that I wasn’t living in terror anymore, although I was afraid it would return. I yearned for the other side of the river and food, and any sleep at all, and finally for any escape from the horrid sticky unremitting rain I might be able to get. I felt the letter to my wife still crumpled in my thigh pocket. Home was in my pocket. The letter was going home on the next chopper that landed and took off but would I ever be able to follow it?