Fusner whispered into my left ear before first light. I blinked rapidly, once again not aware of having slept, but nothing could explain the passage of time from one waking moment to the next. I shook my head. Maybe I did sleep. If so, then it didn’t resemble, even remotely, the sleep I’d enjoyed all of my life up until one week ago. I eased up to near vertical position and rubbed my mosquito bitten repellent covered face. I brought my hands down, wondering when we would have enough water for me to take another jungle shower. Maybe it would pour rain again and I could run around in the mud naked, scrubbing madly with one of the small white bars of sundry pack soap.
Fusner knelt only inches away, already wearing the Prick 25 on his back, its flat field antenna folded over several times looking like a sheaf of palm blades. The shadows moved around me. I hated the moving shadows. Anything could come out of them or be them. Light was my friend and darkness, a tool of the enemy. I looked around me until I could get my bearings and overcome the night terrors. I breathed deeply in and out. The darkness had one good feature. Nobody could see me clearly, either — that I was busy being too afraid to be an officer, much less the company commander.
“On the seventh day God rested,” I whispered, my left hand going to my thigh pocket to feel my letter home.
I could make out Fusner’s young face hanging in the air only a few feet in front of me, his eyes big, round and somehow still filled with innocence.
“On the seventh day God created Fusner.”
“Oh, okay, sir” he replied.
I liked being called sir, even if my radioman was the only one who would use the word.
“Army’s coming in, sir,” Fusner whispered, as if warning me of the arrival of some devilish witch.
“On the net. I can get Army command,” Fusner replied. “I can hear the Hundred and First on their frequency, if nothing else is going on.”
I pictured Fusner up all night listening to whatever he could find on the small powerful radio that didn’t work nearly as well as the little transistors most of the men carried. That a multi-thousand-dollar radio rig, big as a suitcase, could be outperformed by a tiny cheap transistor job confounded me. The little radios invariably picked up both Da Nang transmissions and Brother John’s down in Nha Trang, hundreds of miles away.
“What army’s coming?” I asked with a frown.
“The 101st Screaming Eagles Army Airborne are on our right flank, over the hill on the other side, I think,” Fusner replied. “The Army guy running that company over there’s coming to see you, or the Gunny, or somebody here.”
I didn’t know what to say. A real officer, even if from a different service, coming here? That was big news to me. Would he know what was going on? Did he have similar problems? Did his company suffer horrid casualties? Were racial problems plaguing his unit, too? Did he carry morphine?
“Do we need to acknowledge, or what?” I asked,
“No, sir, I don’t think so,” Fusner replied. “Razzy, the radio guy over there, said his CO was coming over the hill at first light. I said it was okay, sir.”
“You said it was okay,” I replied. “God has spoken. Well, somebody ought to alert the perimeter. Isn’t there a pass code or secret sign to get through the line?”
Fusner started to laugh, but stopped when I glared at him.
“No, sir, no sign. It’s kinda easy to spot the gooks when you can see them at all, and so far none have tried to get inside the perimeter by asking.”
Another combat joke, I presumed, at my expense. I decided to get ready for the big event. I shaved, using the last of my water supply. The choppers were due in just after dawn, although if the open poisoned area was hot they probably would not land. I didn’t care. There was no point in saving for a future, even one that appeared just up ahead in the day, when moment by moment there seemed so little chance of survival. Water would be a problem for later in the day, since nobody I’d seen had humped the big plastic containers up the trail. The coming dawn and crossing the clearing without being killed were problems that had to be handled much sooner than water issues.
The Gunny came across the mud mess between our hooches. Reverting to ape-hood, I smelled him before I could really see him. I hating the smelling. Soon I would be swinging from the low-hanging branches nearby.
“We’ve got a problem,” he began, squatting down and lighting a block of explosives with his Zippo.
I waited, but he said nothing more. Finally, I squatted down, tossing a packet of the Coca Cola coffee to him. I’d dug through the pack and found my small supply.
“Thank you,” The Gunny said formally, as if we were in some mess hall back in America.
When I couldn’t wait any longer to for him to tell me about this new problem, I spoke up. “Fusner heard that the Army on our flank is sending somebody over to see us at first light.”
“That’s great news,” the Gunny replied, his tone suddenly one of excitement. The first excitement I’d heard in his voice since I’d jumped from the chopper a week before.
“They’ll bring hot food. They always bring hot food. The men will go nuts. The Screaming Eagles. Great name for an outfit, isn’t it, even if it’s Army? Do you think eagles really scream in the wild?”
I sat on the edge of my poncho cover, a bit befuddled. The Gunny’s enthusiasm seemed so out of place. We had to cross almost a quarter mile of flat muddy open area where the enemy had to be encamped on the other side after dawn. We had no water to speak of, unless somebody had worked to haul it up, and our artillery was all but useless as an effective accurate means of fire support. We were about to get shot to pieces, and the Gunny was excited about maybe getting a hot meal. I decided to shut up and wait, sloshing what water I had left around in my canteen cover over the Gunny’s fire.
I thought about crossing the flat open area, wondering about the chances of the letter in my pocket ever making it home? In Basic School one of the best training officers had said; “Take care of the big things and the little things will go to shit.” I didn’t really understand what he’d meant at the time, and I wasn’t entirely sure now, but the letter in my pocket was a big thing. The little things would have to dribble on down or take care of themselves, unless the choppers didn’t show up.
“We got a blooper problem,” the Gunny finally said, sipping his steamy brew. How he drank it so boiling hot I had no idea but, it impressed me.
“Blooper?” I asked, knowing I should know but obviously didn’t.
“M Seventy Nine thing,” he said.
The M79 was a grenade launcher. A 40-millimeter, shotgun-like weapon that shoots spin-armed “balls” or small grenades. The weapons were issued one to a squad, which meant that the company had a bunch of them. I hadn’t noticed any Marines carrying them. In the Basic School they’d shown us the weapon and then demonstrated it but, since we were officers, we didn’t get to fire it because, well, we were officers. Some Marines thought the weapon was terrific and others found it an underpowered, slow-reloading and heavy piece of crap. It was hard to justify a grenade thrower used in a jungle where bamboo and other heavy growth were seldom more than a few yards away, and the “blooper” round, named that because of it’s strange blooping sound when it launched, didn’t arm itself until it was thirty meters from the end of the tube.
“We out of blooper ammo?” I asked, trying to prompt the Gunny to explain his situation.
“Nah, one of the guys from Fourth Platoon fired some rounds last night and a Marine from First Platoon got hit.”
I wanted to scream “no shit,” in the darkness around me. Bloopers did not have tracers that I knew of, so there was no way to know where rounds fired came from, or went. The race war inside the regular war went on, no matter what plans I implemented to stop it.
“Wounded or dead?” I asked, sipping my own tepid coffee.
“Sort of wounded,” the Gunny replied. I couldn’t see his shoulders actually move but I would have bet that he had shrugged when he said the words.
“Sort of ?” I asked, in surprise. “How in hell does someone get sort of wounded out here?
“Well, it seems that the round went through the air, probably armed itself, and when it came down it hit this guy’s soft tissue just above his collar bone, and then entered the area around his lung or somehow got down into his abdomen. That’s where the round is now. Inside him. The Marine seems fine though, except for some bleeding and breathing shit, but he’s got that live round in there.”
“I’d say he meets whatever standard we have for being wounded.”
“That’s funny, right?” the Gunny replied.
“I don’t see the problem,” I said, ignoring his comment. “Medevac him and let the aid station work it out. Since they were shooting at each other inside the perimeter, it’s likely the damned thing never got far enough to arm, anyway.”
“The problem is that Medevac won’t come if he has this live round in him. If it goes off in the chopper, then everyone aboard’s dead.”
“Screw it,” I said, “don’t tell ‘em. This is a game of risk. Lousy risk. They signed on just like we did.”
“Pilson told them when he called for the chopper,” the Gunny murmured softly so Fusner, sitting by like a bird of prey, didn’t hear. “Even the resupply won’t come,” he finished, his voice trailing off. He took another swig of his coffee.
So here it is again, I thought. The company commander, but not the company commander. I get the ability to make the wrong decision handed to me, and if I’m wrong, I’m “that crazy fucker”, but if I’m right, then somebody else gets the credit. I only get to make decisions that have no solutions. We had to have medevac and resupply. What was the alternative? None. We needed water, ammo, food and more. Even the gunships would provide invaluable help by strafing the tree line before we crossed, unless they didn’t come because the other choppers wouldn’t. I clutched the morphine package in my other thigh pocket, massaging it gently. Was I supposed to kill the Marine with morphine to save the unit? Leave him behind? Take a K-Bar and cut the big round out of him? What?
“It gets worse,” the Gunny went on. “Jurgens wants to take his platoon and carry the man all the way back to the aid station. If he does that, then we won’t have our best platoon at point to get us across that open area or available to us as we cross down into the A Shau.”
I sat there just thinking about the problem, and drinking my coffee. I wondered if the Basic School ever offered to teach young officers how to handle problems like this, instead of how to cross a radioactive bridge or a raging river with no bridge. Once, in a college poker game I’d been forced to play in, that I didn’t want to play in because I had so little money, I’d bought the same kind of cards that they used to play with. I made up a ‘cold deck’ by stacking the cards, kept that deck under my right thigh and then substituted that deck with the one I’d just shuffled, dealt, and then won the hand and was able to quit. The situation I faced now was much the same, with no acceptable solution that didn’t have odds that were way too high to gamble. How could I cheat my way through?
I knew when to expect first light because Brother John, three hundred miles away down in Na Trang, told me with his first daily broadcast: “This is brother John, coming at you with Otis Redding from Na Trang.” The song began to play. “Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun, I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes, watching the ships roll in and then I watch ’em roll away again …”
What I would give, if I had anything to give, to be sitting on the dock of any bay anywhere in the world and watch ships roll in. It would have been more appropriate if John had started the day out with a “Chickenman” episode.
“They’re here, sir,” Fusner said.
“They radio in?” I asked, presuming he was talking about the Army visit.
“No, sir, listen.”
I picked up the sound of laughing and talking around me. An uncommon sound. A group of men came out of the waning darkness and jungle bracken, the mud-sucking sounds of their boots preceding them.
“Six actual?” the leading man asked, holding out one hand.
I looked at the Gunny. He shrugged but said nothing.
I climbed to my feet and faced the man. I noticed that he was clean, wearing a set of the new jungle utilities I’d only heard about, along with the duty flak jacket none of our Marines wore. A small group of men behind him brought forth a few big green canisters, which they plopped down in the mud next to where the Gunny squatted.
“Hot spaghetti and ice cream,” the man said, still holding out his right hand. “We gave out the rest back there to your men.”
I shook with my own repellent and Agent Orange smeared hand, feeling like an alley vagrant in comparison to the picture perfect officer in front of me. He wore double black bars on his helmet and on each shoulder of his green flack jacket.
“Captain Dennis Morgan, at your service,” he smiled. “West Point, class of sixty-six. How can I help you guys? It’s always good to have you Marines taking care of the flank. Where are the other officers?”
I sat back down on the edge of my poncho cover and motioned for the captain to do the same, wondering if he would because of his pristine condition.
The captain sat immediately, to my surprise. The Gunny and the rest of my scout team went at the canisters without comment, the captain’s men standing back to get out of the way.
“Thank you, sir,” I said, automatically.
“Sir? What’s your rank?”
“Second lieutenant, sir,” I replied, looking away.
“Stop calling me sir. We’re out in the field. I’m commanding Echo Company, Hundred and First. What happened to the other officers?”
I thought about his comment and his question. Maybe it was okay for my Marines not to call me sir. We were in the field. The other officers didn’t matter, so I set that part of his question aside without answering. Maybe the captain could help with something other than food.
“I heard that your choppers are piloted by young warrant officers,” I said.
“Crazy fuckers, every one,” the captain said, with a laugh like he was proud of their insanity. I noticed his gold Academy ring, worn where other men wore wedding rings. ‘Ring knockers’ the rest of us non-academy officers had called them in Basic School. “Why do you ask?”
“We’re headed into the A Shau and we gotta get across the clearing, sir. Our air won’t come in. I’m at the end of range from the An Hoa battery for supporting fire. The Cobras won’t be here to strafe the tree line if the Hueys don’t come in.”
The captain lost his smile and stared at me. I wondered what he saw. I knew what he saw. A ragamuffin officer covered in stinking oils and probably smelling like a cape buffalo straight from a wallow, and a second lieutenant to boot. The captain looked away without replying.
“Why no air support?” he asked.
I told him the blooper story.
“Larsen, get over here,” he yelled to the side when I finished. “Give me that,” he ordered, holding his hand out. Larsen, coming in out of the dark, proved to be the radio operator. He gave the captain his handset.
“When do you want them to come?” he asked.
“They’re coming?” I asked, incredulous.
“Are you kidding me?” the captain exclaimed. “To be a part of a story like the blooper thing? This is “Stars and Stripes” kind of shit. You want a Cobra dustoff and supplies too? What do you need on the resupply ship?”
I sat stunned. This was the Army? The Army that was supposed to hate the Marine Corps? Was nothing in the world the way I thought?
“Water, food, and some 60 mike mike ammo for the crossing would be good, maybe in an hour?” the Gunny piped in, talking between big bites of spaghetti he’d loaded into his cleaned out canteen holder.
“What’s a grid number where you want them down,” the captain said, dangling the mic from his hand and flipping it around like it was a ball at the end of a piece of string.
“They’ll take the Marine with the round in him?” I asked, just to make sure he’d fully understood what I’d told him.
“Hell, if he was going to blow up he’d have blown up already. That’s American ordinance he has inside him, not that Chinese shit.”
I gave him a grid number from memory, as I’d laid out fire for our attack across the open area earlier in the night.
“Okay,” the captain said, waiting to hear back from whoever he called for air support. “I’ll give your radioman the frequency for the Americal Division. They’ve got some of those M102 lightweight 105s on top of Cunningham peak a few miles down the A Shau. Dropped ‘em in by helicopter a few months back. I’m sure they’ll be happy to fire for you guys. Gotta air drop ammo though, so you might have to use them sparingly.”
I sat in front of the man in wonder. A real company commander. Fusner’s radio began to squeak out another song that seemed so appropriate for the coming of the light and maybe the possibility of living through the day.
“Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men who jump and die. Men who mean just what they say, the brave men of the Green Beret.”
The 101st weren’t Green Berets but they sure seemed like it.