There was nothing more to be said to Captain Carter, so I handed the handset back to Fusner. I wondered why we never heard from battalion about anything except occasional and outlandish orders to move somewhere, occupy wherever that was briefly, and then move on. The orders to drive deep into the A Shau Valley to assist Army engineers in building an ARVN artillery support base were as bizarre and downright looney as the others that had come before. How a South Vietnamese Army unit was supposed to survive all alone at the bottom of the killing Valley to fire anything at anybody was not even in question. It couldn’t be done. The firebase might be put in but that would be it. If territory could have been defended and held over time in the valley, then the old runway would still be in use, especially since it had at one time had the full power of the U.S. military behind it.
I laid down flat. It was late afternoon and I had to think and rest. We didn’t have our rations and water was becoming an issue because of running like we had in the heat and moisture. For some reason, I thought of Captain Carter’s umbrella, and how if it was turned upside down it could serve to collect fresh water from the misting rain. The Gunny came out from deeper within the bracken clustered area around the base of a single huge stand of bamboo. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were with him. They threw themselves down close by, neither sergeant meeting my angry gaze.
“We can move upriver if they’re going downriver along the wall,” the Gunny pointed out, ignoring the issue of Sugar Daddy and the missing outpost as if it wasn’t important because of the potential for enemy contact.
I took off my helmet and wiped my face with one hand, using the falling rain as rinse water. I worked at it for a few minutes while I thought. I had some semblance of command, but only at various times under fire. I had to hold onto what power I had and try to gain some more, and I couldn’t do that by going directly at the two noncoms who’d managed to gain control of the veritable spine of the company. But I couldn’t let the treasonous act go, either. Sugar Daddy’s direct disobedience of orders could have cost the company the life of every Marine on the roster, including my own.
“Captain Carter’s going to have his hands full in short order because he’s dead set on meeting the NVA head on along that wall,” I said, my tone flat and analytical as if I was lecturing in some university ROTC class. “You can’t ambush a force larger and better equipped than your own if they know you’re there, and it’s very unlikely they don’t know Kilo’s there.”
“So, what’s the plan?” Jurgens blurted out.
“The man has a title,” the Gunny said, his short phrase, delivered gruffly without his looking at Jurgens, taking me by complete surprise.
That the Gunny might demand that I be called by my rank or ‘sir’ was such a change that I couldn’t take it in. I looked at Jurgens and waited, not even blinking my eyes.
“So, what’s the plan, Junior?” Jurgens replied.
“There, that’s better,” the Gunny said, nodding his head as if Junior was some sort of rank or term of respect.
My hopes plunged again, and with that descent came anger.
“That’s the third incident of treason under fire you’ve committed Sugar Daddy,” I said, turning to speak directly at the big black sergeant. My hand went to the butt of my .45, although I didn’t’ unstrap it or snick the safety off.
Sugar Daddy carried an M-16 but he’d laid it down next to him when he’d joined our little command post meeting. It was on his right. I waited to see if he’d grab for it.
Would I be able to unsnap the Colt, bring it up and release the safety in time, I wondered? I saw the look in Sugar Daddy’s eyes, as he seemed to read my mind, and I saw fear. I wasn’t afraid. Not this time, even though I was unsure who’d win the race, if it came to that. Sugar Daddy looked away, and I knew it wasn’t going to come to that.
“It wasn’t me,” he murmured, quietly. “It was you.”
I involuntarily barked out a low, nearly silent laugh, my surprise and shock as deep as it was evident.
“Me?” was all I could say.
“There was no way a fire team with one M-60 and two M-16s was going to stop hundreds of NVA soldiers coming up that river.”
I stared at the man. The rain and dim light of the jungle must have been too much for his purple sunglasses, I decided. We lay in silence, listening to the racing water of the nearby river and the constant flow of water dropping from collected bits of the jungle growth above us. I could hear the Skyraiders in the far distance but couldn’t make out their position. They and the rest of our company set in on the other side of that river made it almost certain the NVA hadn’t moved so far north, across the big open area, to steal or destroy the packs and supplies we’d left there. I looked at the Gunny. Where was he going to be in the discussion?
“He has a point,” the Gunny finally acknowledged, “but we can’t let it go.”
The Gunny would not look me in the eyes either. There was a point to Sugar Daddy’s defense but the main point was being overlooked. Everyone had a job to do to keep everyone else alive, no matter what the risk or the danger in doing that job. I knew from studying history, going through training and even trying to live through the hell found at the bottom of the A Shau Valley that our only hope of getting through alive was by sticking together and depending on one another whenever and wherever possible.
I eased my hand away from the Colt. I believed Sugar Daddy but that created another problem.
“What are you going to do with them?” I asked.
If it wasn’t Sugar Daddy who’d pulled the fire team, regardless of the risk, then the members of the fire team itself had to be called into accountability. The entire company either already knew what had happened or soon would.
“You were wrong,” Sugar Daddy shot back, deep emotion showing in his facial expression.
We stared at one another angrily, although I felt no threat from the sergeant.
“Yes,” I forced out. I had been wrong, I’d been thinking of other things, trying to figure out how to attack the enemy and busy being frightened. I hadn’t given much of any thought at all to the size of the outpost that might have been needed.
“I’ll take care of it,” Sugar Daddy finally said.
“I’ll see to it, as well,” the Gunny followed. “What about moving back to our old position and getting our stuff?”
I was happy that the Gunny was stepping in to make sure something happened with the fire team. I knew I should care more about those Marines, or even get their names, but I couldn’t summon the motivation to do so.
“We wait until we hear gun fire,” I said.
“Gunfire?” Jurgens asked. “Gunfire, like when the enemy runs smack into Kilo and opens up?”
“That would be the plan,” I answered, cautiously, wondering about Jurgens’ aggressive tone when he should have remained quiet with the recent history between us.
“They hit Kilo, and vice versa, and we’ll know they’re committed downriver. It’ll only take us about twenty minutes on the open bank to make the hike to our stuff and then figure out how we’re going to cross the river.”
“So you’re pulling the same routine, Junior?” Jurgens said.
I watched the Gunny tense up as emotions began to become evident in our expressions again.
“What routine?” I asked, actually a bit befuddled. Waiting until Kilo and the enemy made contact was the only sensible course of action. Even if the NVA had left some sort of element behind to prevent our return upriver it wouldn’t be nearly as dangerous as encountering the full strength of the force we’d ambushed that morning.
“You set Kilo up last time to be guinea pigs and it worked,” Jurgens said. “We didn’t take any casualties, but Kilo took a bunch. Now here it is again, the same play. Kilo gets hit hard while we use their dead to get away. Why should we go along with this plan?”
As much as I hated the man, he had a good point again. I realized that Jurgens probably represented a much bigger part of the company than I did when it came to applying any long term thinking to anything. It was all black and white to them, even between their platoons. And any authority was a threat to his authority, and that very definitely included my own. The fact that our company had taken no casualties in executing the plan was somehow dimmed by the number Kilo had to absorb, even though it was Kilo’s leadership that put them in the exposed position in the first place. And it was Kilo’s leadership that was leading them to attempt a frontal attack on a larger, better equipped and more knowledgeable enemy force. And the enemy force that no doubt was listening to Kilo’s radio traffic.
I didn’t respond to Jurgen’s comment, instead, I turned back to Fusner and held my hand out. Fusner filled it in less than two seconds.
“I need to talk to Kilo,” I said to him.
“You want their position, sir?” he said back, without making a move.
“How in the hell did you figure that out?” I asked, but under my breath. Fusner was seventeen going on a hundred. “Yes, I need to know where they’re going to set up their ambush along the path and I need to know when.”
Fusner eased the handset away from me and spoke into it for a few seconds.
“You want to let El Producto know about the enemy coming down at them right now?” he asked, waiting to speak into the microphone again.
I wondered why Fusner would ask such a ridiculous question. I’d informed Carter myself that the NVA would be coming down the wall. I looked at Fusner smooth young face. His expression told me nothing. Was it likely Captain Carter hadn’t even told his own Marines what he was doing?
“Tell ‘em,” I said. “I need position and time to use the Ontos. I can put up to twenty rounds into the wall higher up over the enemy’s head when they go into contact, but it’s useless if they’re set up too far down the river when they come together. And tell them to use the map codes.”
The enemy would certainly know Kilo was downriver somewhere but there was no way in the weather and in the depths of the wet miserable jungle to tell exactly where they were unless they transmitted in the clear.
I tried to ignore the Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, but they didn’t move away. I sheltered part of my map under my helmet against the ceaseless rain. My calculations about the range of the Ontos rounds was subjective. I’d heard the range at Fort Sill and again somewhere else I couldn’t remember, but dumping rounds based on such anecdotal evidence bothered me. If I dropped the rounds too far behind the NVA force it would just force them to move harder and faster into Kilo’s inadequate defenses. If I fired over their heads then, like with what had happened with Stevens, there would be chunks of deadly cliff debris raining down on the Marines in Kilo below. The mist was becoming thicker which would mean that the Skyraiders would lose visibility and their deadly effectiveness.
I did the best I could with my stub of a grease pencil atop my half-hearted plastic-covered map. Finally, I looked up. Jurgens lay as before, looking at me like minutes had not gone by. He was still after getting his question answered, but I knew all he wanted to do was diminish me in Sugar Daddy’s and the Gunny’s eyes. I looked straight into the Gunny’s eyes. They reflected back dark pools of obsidian blackness, giving me nothing back, while his facial features were more expressionless than an American Indian.
“Jurgens needs his question answered Gunny,” I said. “Why don’t you give it to him.”
I scrunched up to my knees, folding my limp mess of a map back into my pocket, wondering if the letter to my wife was going to survive long enough to get on a chopper. I turned to Fusner to get the position information I’d requested. The map, from our own position down to where Kilo was still struggling, was photographed into my memory.
I knew from my exchanges with my non-coms that we weren’t going to be able to wait to make our own move until the contact between the NVA and Kilo took place. That had been my plan. But my small strike force was a mess of screwed up contradictions, dysfunctional leadership and obvious piss poor performance. Sugar Daddy supposedly fixing his own intra-platoon problems, the Gunny fixing the situation with Jurgens and everyone without cover, food or packs were problems that would quickly begin to fester if they already hadn’t. Resolutions were not going to wait until dark, at least not any resolutions I wanted to deal with until the company was whole again, and across the river.
I called in for a pass of the Skyraiders before giving the order to head out.
The fast move to the location we’d left our stuff needed cover. Cowboy was up there and on station. The bottom of the valley was obscured and it was getting dark, but he indicated through Jacko that he and his friends were quite familiar with our area of operations and would orbit and come down on command.
Sugar Daddy and Jurgens had disappeared back into the heavier jungle, no doubt to tie up with their men. The Gunny had left but returned, as if expecting the order I gave him to move out.
“You want to call our own Marines and tell ‘em we’re coming?” he asked, casually, but I could tell my forcing him to deal with Jurgens hadn’t gone down well.
I sighed, before turning to Fusner, who already had the handset waiting.
“We’re twenty minutes out,” I said, waving for Fusner to make the contact himself. “Tell them that we’ll be moving to our point of origin, and to keep their heads down. The Skyraiders are coming up the river to support our move.”
I gave Fusner instructions for the Ontos crew. I wanted the 106 rounds to impact with all six rounds at the same time and then wait for further orders. I would send the grid and fire order when ready.
“You sure you want to give away our position?” the Gunny asked, but there was really no question in his voice.
The enemy knew exactly where we were and likely where we were going. Either they’d left a rear guard suicide force behind to interdict us or not. The ‘not’ answer was much more likely, given that the NVA didn’t much go in for suicide missions of any kind.
I had Kilo’s position, at least if El Producto was correct. Fusner had been unable to get through to Carter himself, as he’d claimed to be too busy to come to the radio. If the position was valid, and if I could get the untrained Ontos crew to give me maximum elevation of the barrels and accurate deflection angle, or something close, then I might possibly turn a bloody battle Kilo might not win into a rout they couldn’t lose.
Fusner turned on his transistor radio to catch Brother John’s last song of the day. The kid was psychic in being able to figure out nearly the exact second of Brother John’s first transmission and his last. The song was Surfin’ USA and the lyric came squeaking out of the small radio’s speaker: “Let’s go surfin’ now,
everybody’s learning how; come on and safari with me…”
Fusner sang along with the words with Zippo grinning away. Even the Gunny smiled. The song broke the dark mood that had come over me.
“Let’s move out,” I said to the Gunny, but I didn’t move, instead I waited for him to acknowledge it, which he did but only when the flight of Sandys came screaming up the river and blasted low and fast toward the position we were headed for.
The song’s lyrics were drowned out by the deep beating sound of the plane’s engines but the playing of it, in conjunction with the Skyraiders guarding us against above, changed things around us, no matter how much it might have cost us in security. There was a spring to the step of the Marines that came forth from the undergrowth around me. Once out on the flat mud surface, our element of the company moved quickly up the river. The rushing waters resembled the waves from the song, and the unheard lyrics played in our minds long after Brother John signed off.
Our force was spread out fully when the gunfire I’d predicted came crackling up the valley. There was no distinguishing between M-16 and AK-47 fire but the amount of it indicated that both sides were firing at one another.
“Find out if Kilo’s engaged,” I ordered Fusner.
Seconds later I knew. I had Fusner raise the Ontos crew. I took the mic and gave them the grid coordinate and the deflection necessary to make the shots. In seconds the giant whoosh of the missiles launching was followed by the sound of their passing low overhead. They were so low I wondered if the crew had gotten the elevation right. The six hit seconds later but there was only one huge explosion. The Skyraiders unexpectedly came back down the river and raced toward the red and yellow glare of the exploding rounds.
I didn’t have the combat radio frequency up to listen to or even the AN/323, because we were running for the cover and concealment of our old position, and the night was about to take away what little visibility we had left. It took a couple of minutes to reach the berm we’d crouched behind only the night before.
Fusner pulled out the air radio and handed me the headset.
“Jacko, what’s going on up there?” I asked, fearing that the airstrike might have done more damage to Kilo than it did to the enemy, since the angle of attack, with the planes going down the valley, seemed to favor that.
“Good news and bad news Flash,” Jacko came back.
“What’s the good news?” I asked, quickly, hoping Kilo was okay.
“Your fire was spot on and our own wasn’t too bad either,” Jacko replied. “We lit them up, no question about it.”
“And the bad?” I asked, holding my breath.
“The bad is that there are sure a whole lot of the little buggers,” Jacko said.
I let out my breath in relief. “We kinda knew that already,” I concluded, ready to hand the AN/323 back to Fusner.
“That’s not all the bad news,” Jacko said.
I caught my breath, but said nothing, waiting.
“They’ve turned tail and they’re headed straight back up to you, and we’re low on fuel and time.”
The night of rest I’d hoped for wasn’t going to happen. We had half the company across the swollen river. Their fire would be important but the same berm that had protected us earlier would protect the enemy from their fire as they made it closer to our position. Our own ammunition, even in getting back to our stuff, was limited in holding off a large force with any kind of sustained fire. The Ontos was vital but I didn’t know how many rounds the wonderful deadly machine had left. The other strength we had was Kilo, attacking the enemy’s rear. With the Ontos and Kilo, we had a better than even chance of surviving the night.
“Get me Kilo’s six actual,” I ordered Fusner.
We’d stood twice for Kilo and it was time for Captain Carter to understand that his company had every chance in the world to strike back at the NVA soldiers that had killed so many of his Marines, and he also had a chance to help us.
“I was waiting for your call, Junior, over,” Carter said, his arrogant tone just as evident over the radio as it was in person.
I gave him the situation we were both in, succinctly and with the conclusion that his attacking up the valley immediately was vital to our survival.
“We’re set in for the night, Junior, already filed an after-action report,” he said, his tone indicating that he was enjoying giving me the news. “We’ll be up there to support you at first light, and battalion agrees. Too risky to move through this dense a jungle in the dark. Our Starlight Scope’s on the blink, over.”
“Kilo’s not coming,” the Gunny said from nearby. I breathed in his cigarette smoke, turning to look at the bright glow of its tip.
“You’re wasting your breath talking to him, here,” he said, handing me the cigarette.
I inhaled and kept from coughing with an effort. The Gunny took the radio handset from my hand.
“The six actual’s stepped out,” he transmitted and then waited. I couldn’t hear what Carter replied, only what the Gunny said in return.
“He’s gone surfing, sir.”