The night was going to be one of the dark nearly moonless things, without much of any glow through the misting rain to see by. The rain wasn’t a problem, and in fact might be better to have since it covered so much in the way of sound and visibility on the ground. But it was a two-edged sword in that it limited those same things when it came to detecting the enemy. Our element was at a crossroads, as I tried to figure out what to do based on what Jacko had reported before the Skyraiders made their last run and bugged out. Supposedly the NVA had proceeded down the trail next to the cliff wall and then, for some unknown reason, possibly reports about Kilo being set further down in an ambush, had turned and headed back up the valley.
“They’re not headed for the confluence,” I said to the Gunny, turning down another hit on his C-ration cigarette.
“Confluence?” he asked, handing the radio handset back to Fusner following his abrupt ending comment to Captain Carter.
“Where the river runs along the wall,” I replied. “Where our stuff is.”
“They could see them from up there,” the Gunny replied, his head rotating upward. “They’d have told us.”
It was getting so dark I could barely see him crouched down only a few yards away.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I went on. “There’s nothing for them out in the open and our stuff is in a small secured area that won’t hold many more men than we already have. Plus, come daybreak, they would be fully exposed to fire from where the rest of the company is set up across the river.”
I motioned for what was left of the Gunny’s cigarette but didn’t smoke the remains. Instead, I touched the hot coal end to the backs of a few leeches that had found a home on the back of my hand. I’d left it leaning down on the mud for only a few moments. The last leech fell away at about the same time as the cigarette went out from contact with the moisture. I shivered, as I imagined the darkly invisible creatures squirming around nearby, alive and happy about having had a meal of my blood.
“So?” the Gunny asked.
“They’re going into the jungle between us and the wall. They know how to deal with it, or there are trails and tunnels we don’t know about. It’s the perfect solution. In the morning they can attack outward from there in any direction and our supporting fire, either from the Ontos or air, can’t open up without fear of hitting us or Kilo because we’re too close.”
“I know where you’re going with this,” the Gunny said, letting out a sigh.
“We’ve got to move back to our stuff in the dark, Gunny. We need ammo, food, and more water. It’s all there. We’ve got to take the chance.”
“And we can’t very well tell the rest of our company over on the other side or we get hit from the jungle if they are in this dense thicket of shit,” the Gunny said. “That’s if they aren’t where you don’t think they’re going, and then we’re dead. This is getting way too complicated.”
“We can have the Ontos open up closer to the open area as we’re headed up,” I offered. “They’ll figure out we’re on the move and that’s why we need the covering fire but I think they’re afraid of the Ontos shit so they’ll keep their heads down.”
“Let me get this straight,” the Gunny replied. “Either the enemy is out there in front of us and we get killed when we run into them or our own company figures it’s them moving up the river at night, opens up, and kills us. I mean, if you’re wrong.”
“The enemy isn’t stupid and the only stupid things I’ve seen them pull have had to do with having the shitty equipment, no equipment or short supplies. My plan takes all that into account. They can hold their forces in protected comfort in the jungle waiting to attack, and then concentrate what they’ve got instead of risking it all out there in the open.”
“The Skyraiders can come back in the morning,” the Gunny offered. “If we stay where we are then they can cover our move to the area where we can cross the water. God, we’ve just got to get across that cursed river.”
“Maybe the Skyraiders will be there in the morning, and maybe not,” I said. “If the weather’s worse they won’t come in, and it doesn’t seem to be letting up.”
“Where’s the greater risk?” The Gunny replied, staring at me as if to convince me of something he didn’t really want to convince me of.
If we hunkered down for the night, in the rain and misery without our gear, or food, or fresh water, other than what could be licked from our bodies or sparingly collected in our helmets, then we would be much closer to being prey when dawn came than if we successfully made the move. Captain Carter’s decision to stay where he was had merit, but only for Kilo. He was also self-sufficient as a functioning unit hauling all of his own supplies. We’d strewn bodies up and down the part of the valley we were in and I hated the idea that our men, and Kilo’s, were laying out there and that we might be adding more before resupply could get to us or us to them. We were spread up and down the narrow region of lighter jungle foliage near the top of the twenty or thirty-meter wide flat mud surface that ran down to the flowing water. The enemy was deeper inside the jungle, or so I thought, but there was no telling how far deeper in.
“What about Jurgens and Sugar Daddy?” I asked, looking for any kind of support.
It wasn’t the kind of situation, and there hadn’t been many, where I was going to issue an order and expect that it would be followed. Where there was a danger of death I knew the Gunny’s very early advice fully applied. If the danger of risking lives was too great to the men, then the solution became one of changing the decision by changing the decision-maker. Or by ending his life, which in this case would be mine.
“They’ll do what I order them to do, Junior.”
I noticed that he hadn’t said that they’d do what I ordered, but that didn’t bother me any more than accepting the fact that I was Junior, and probably would be as long as I lasted in the country.
“Let’s call them in,” I said, but not in an ordering way.
The Gunny was too bright and experienced for him not to know that I was hoping to gain allies in my newest plan, but I knew he was fully resigned to the fact that we were all Marines in this mess together. Our success, what there was of it, had been expensive, but our losses were less than what we’d been experiencing back on Gò Nổi Island when the company had been mostly killing itself.
The Gunny nodded at Tank, who quietly rose up and disappeared along what existed of a trail through the edge of the jungle. I stared at the dark wet main mass of vegetation, rising up eighty or ninety feet into the air. It was too dark to see much, and I wasn’t going to have Zippo haul out the Starlight Scope to concentrate on trying to make out dark moving bodies in the dark moving intensity of the jungle. I realized that I was coming to accept and even like the rain. It now ran down in rivulets from my helmet and into the space between my dirty blouse and my neck. The good of the rain was that I’d figured out that the enemy seldom attacked in the rain. And they never came out of their holes when there was lightning. I didn’t know whether that was because of fear or superstition. It would be interesting to know that information one day if I lived, but for the time being, I had come to not mind the complete mess the rain made of everything, as long as it helped me to stay alive.
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy came crawling out of the darkness, the Gunny’s small coffee fixings producing only a minimum glow of light, as the explosive mixture burned tiny but hot. I was out of water so I didn’t respond to my own urge to go for my canteen holder. Right now all I wanted was Gunny’s agreement to the plan and nothing else.
But he wouldn’t have it that way. He mixed the coffee in, while the three of us waited patiently, with Tank and Fusner lying nearby, and Zippo not far back. Only Nguyen wasn’t present in any way that I could see. I knew if I scanned the jungle long enough I’d find his shiny eyes somewhere in there and that fact alone made me feel warm inside. The rain wasn’t cold water but for some reason, I felt cold all over. The Gunny handed me his canteen holder filled with coffee.
“A couple of creams but we’re out of sugar,” he said, with a genuine smile.
I took the handle. I had no choice. I didn’t like the dominance he was showing in front of the others or had earlier, but for some reason I always came back to the fact that the Gunny had saved my life more times than I could count and he’d had no reason at all to save me on that first night or the morning right after. The leech wounds on my left wrist bled several lines of darkness against the white of my skin but I ignored them. I took a sip of the hot coffee and more warmth suffused my insides. I looked over the lip of the cup at everyone present but made no effort to let them know I was paying attention. I didn’t belong in Vietnam or the A Shau Valley and I knew that. There was no training of any kind that was going to prepare me to make a decision to come here before I got here. I knew that. I also knew that everyone else present probably felt the same way I did but none of us would ever say it. Could ever say it. Even if we made it home, any of us, we wouldn’t say it.
“The Lieutenant wants to move tonight,” the Gunny said, quietly to the surrounding group.
I knew that whatever I said after that would be quickly transmitted to every Marine in the detail within seconds, although I didn’t know how that was done. The Gunny had addressed me as the lieutenant. He was going to let me take my best shot, and the admission told me that he’d likely go along if they went along. I didn’t know what I’d do it they didn’t.
I outlined the plan, about laying down Ontos fire with more than half the rounds the crew had left up and down the edge of the cliff on the opposite side of the jungle. I was depending on the rain, the 106 fire and the concern the NVA had to have that attacking us in the night would prove too costly to undertake. I knew that I was weak on that last point because, so far in my brief experience with the enemy, they hadn’t back off out of fear, ever. They came like Marines, smaller, less well equipped but hard and motivated. And most of them weren’t going home. They were home. And there were no thirteen-month tours. They stayed to die or to live, for their country, for their families, and for their fellow warriors, just like us down in the valley.
“What if they come out of that shithole anyway, from our flank?” Jurgens murmured, pointing at the deeper face of the jungle next to him.
“Speed,” I replied. “Like before. We run. Fast. This time it’s only a couple of thousand meters. The Ontos will be firing and the rain should cover the sound of our running on that dense mud.”
“What about in the morning?” Sugar Daddy asked. How do we get across the river if they’re in there at our back within AK distance?”
“The Skyraiders will be back, or we wait for them. The berm under the wall is fully defensible, as long as our platoons across the river have the open field of fire covered. The enemy will get slaughtered if they try moving through crossing fields of machine gun fire.”
“What’s this plan supposed to be called?” Zippo asked, from behind me, as if the name of the plan meant everything.
“Di di mau up the river, motherfucker,” Jurgens said.
“Sounds good to me,” the Gunny added. “Di di mau,” it is.
“When?” Sugar Daddy asked.
I handed the empty coffee container back to the Gunny, killing the last bit of home in a cup before doing so.
“Now,” I said. “Take five minutes and let everyone know, and then we’re back out on the mud running until we can’t run anymore. If anybody can’t make it then our rear element can drag them along.”
Fusner handed me the microphone. I called the company and got O’Brien, the Buck Sergeant running Second Platoon, and ran smack into a problem. He didn’t know the codes for the grid coordinates to fire against the wall. I couldn’t adjust fire for the Ontos because we were on the other side of the jungle. Adjusting by sound with the rounds impacting against the wall’s surface wasn’t going to get it. Which didn’t much matter because when I took my dying flashlight out it wasn’t dying anymore. It was dead. I couldn’t see the map in the little light we had.
Jurgens reached for the map I’d smoothed out on my thigh and pulled out a tiny flashlight of his own. He put the end in his mouth, and then took the microphone in his right hand.
“What are they?” He rasped out of his half-full mouth.
I realized Jurgens wasn’t reading the map or he’d have seen the numbers I’d already written in. Instead of trying to point out the grease pencil numbers I started to read them off slowly. I had no idea what Jurgens was up to.
Jurgens thumbed the mic and then read off the numbers, but he got them jumbled up. When he was done I didn’t know what to say.
“Our own code,” he said, pulling the flashlight out of his mouth and turning it off. “Backwards, except for the first and, the last number is reversed. When do you want them to start firing and how much time between rounds?”
I realized I didn’t know how long Jurgens had been in combat, but I knew it had been for longer than I had. He knew how to make things work that might not work without him.
“We can do this whole operation in ten minutes at an easy lope so have him give us ten rounds a minute apart. The last round should impact the wall not far from where we come out.
Jurgens sent the message and handed the mic back to Fusner with a white-toothed smile.
“I know that code too,” Fusner said, for no reason, I could figure.
“One other thing,” I said to everyone there. “If we pull this off and get back to our old position we’ll be loaded for whatever they throw at us and now they are going to be caught in that jungle between us and Kilo Company down the river. There’s going to be hell to pay in the morning if the weather holds or lightens up. Fusner calls the company again and tell then we’re starting out so they don’t think we’re the enemy. You have a special code for that?”
“Sure, Junior,” Jurgens laughed, taking the mic from Fusner’s hand again.
“We’re gonna di di mau up the motherfucking river in the mud, O’Brien,” he said before handing it back, and crawling back up the trail.
“Shit,” the Gunny said. “Now we have to move and move like hell. If they know we’re on the move, then we won’t have ten minutes before they open up.
Sugar Daddy, the Gunny, and Tank got up and ran toward their units. I knew the Gunny would take the point on this one and that worried me, but not as much as being tail-end Charlie since Jurgens had given our move away. Could he possibly have known that me and my scout team were all there was left to bring up the rear and that the rear element was the likely one that would get hit? I wondered. The man was a pure son-of-a-bitch and I wouldn’t put any kind of serpentine rabid thinking past him. No matter what we seemed to have to do for one another he wanted me out of there as much as I wanted him out of there and that was only going to happen one of two ways.
There was no need to signal when to start our move. The first Ontos round came in higher on the opposing wall than I’d called it but it was almost impossible to angle anything correctly when firing from the crew’s position almost parallel to the wall. The explosion was huge, igniting pieces of the wall and sending them spinning into the night. We only had a minute until the next one, I knew.
We all got up, got out onto the mud bank and ran. This time there would be no stopping. I was winded before the third round went off but there was no stopping. By the fifth round, I thought I might have to slow but Nguyen was on my right and Zippo on my left. There was no way they were going to let me rest I realized when I looked into their shiny eyes. They were afraid I wouldn’t make it. I got my second wind and ran on. I also knew that the mud was dragging the energy out of everyone. If someone was hit what could be done? Any attempt to stop, provide first aid and then move on would be totally hampered by our sorry state. I wished for the energy and conditioning I’d had in training. I ran on.
We made it to the clearing as the tenth round came screaming in, missing the wall entirely and blowing up not a hundred meters from where we were. The final motivation for finishing the run rushed through me. The river was curving before me, shining in the slight reflections coming off the water. I could not see the body bags we’d left there before heading down, although part of my mind looked for them.
I collapsed over the berm, my feet hanging over the lip, with Fusner pushing them in behind me. We were all in and down. I careened around, my lungs gasping for air, my helmet missing somewhere in the mulch between the berm and the wall. Two glints of light told me that I’d somehow returned to my own stuff. My pack. My binoculars. I grabbed them up and peered out toward the river. And then the enemy opened up. The AK fire grew in volume until I had to duck back down and hide. I did my full frontal mud burying thing, pressing as deep into the wet bracken as I could get. The soft wall behind us thankfully ate the bullets that impacted there, with sucking sounds when they could be heard over the awful loud firing. The enemy had to have been moving right with us in the heavy jungle, hampered more by its heavy growth than by our problems with the mud. They’d come out second in the race, no thanks to Jurgens, and they were mad as hell or they wouldn’t have been wasting ammunition. My Marines did not return fire and that made me feel good. Firing in the night was fine to establish a base of fire or to cause the enemy to think you were up to something you weren’t, but it was mostly useless in trying to hit anyone unless they were right on top of you. A few bursts seemed to come from forward of the jungle area and that gave me a start. If they attacked right now, across the open area, we weren’t ready.
“Gunny,” I yelled, to no avail.
But the Gunny wasn’t needed. I’d forgotten about the crossfire of having the rest of the company on the other side of the river. The distance was only about two hundred meters, maybe three to the wall in the distance. That was nothing for an M-60. Crisscrossing machine gun fire swelled up with the area looking like some bizarre field covered with lines of fast-moving fireflies heading off in all different directions. Our Marines fired for only a minute or less. Hundreds of 7.62-millimeter rounds. Somehow it had all worked. There was no more fire from the jungle at all. We were safely tucked in. I wondered if the NVA commander had any idea of what was coming for him and his men in the morning.
I smiled a cold smile for Captain Howard “Howling Mad” Carter, as well. I’d deliberately failed to inform him of our plan and I would spend the rest of the night wondering if I should tell him what had to be headed for him in the morning. My ‘saving’ Kilo company was taking one hell of a toll on that company, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I’d call him before dawn. I knew I would.