I had no idea how the attack into the tree line on the other side of the Agent Orange clearing would go down. Once more, as with each day’s move since I’d been in country, things just seemed to happen without a lot of verbal orders, command post meetings or formal preparations. In training, everything had been carefully choreographed in order to make sure no details were left out, or open questions, unanswered. The Marine Corp was known for being experts at the frontal attack. Their ‘fire and maneuver,’ method involved a squad of men taking off with the fire teams roughly splitting up behind the squad leader. The squad would leap-frog across the exposed area, with one fire team dropping down to lay covering fire for the fire team nearby that was up and moving forward. That moving fire team would then drop, the process repeating itself over and over again until the whole company was safely, or unsafely, across.
My scout team surrounded me, all wearing the heavy packs we used to transport everything. In combat situations, the main packs would usually be discarded until the fighting ended and they could be retrieved. For reasons the Gunny had not shared with me, that wasn’t being done for this crossing, which could be damaging to everyone in the company, to say the least.
The Gunny reappeared, moving smoothly through the hardening mud toward my position. I noted once again the mild but cooling wind of higher altitude and the lack of mosquitoes. Possibly, without the war and combat, parts of Vietnam could be considered places of comfort and beauty, but I couldn’t imagine this battle zone infested with hiking tourists and day campers. I squatted down and dumped my pack next to me. Noticing that my hands and arms looked vaguely whitish, I rubbed my left hand up and down my right forearm. The mix of junk on my skin felt like an oily lotion but smelled like a mix of gasoline, diesel fuel and rancid milk. Whatever was in the mix would probably kill me down the line, but I wasn’t too worried about down the line.
“The defoliant combines with the repellent and turns a strange milky white,” the Gunny said, dropping his own pack next to mine and lighting up a cigarette with his neat looking Zippo lighter. “Probably a bad mix. Up here you shouldn’t use the repellent, not close to that Orange shit, anyway.”
“What’s our plan?” I asked, wishing I didn’t have to ask but no longer embarrassed in asking.
The Gunny had accepted me into the company, although that meant little to First or Fourth Platoons, and he’d also convinced me that I could not function as a commander of anything. At least not until I knew more. Watching the Gunny smoke his cigarette and looking at the open area beyond where we had to go, I knew at that moment that if I hadn’t done things exactly as I had so far, under his guidance, I would not be alive. I couldn’t afford to reflect on what the company was supposed to be all about, or how it was run. I had to think about the next right thing to do to stay alive.
The Gunny finished his cigarette, taking one last long drag before tossing the remains into a nearby stand of bamboo. He looked like a real warrior I might have seen in one of those war movies back in the States, except he was way too dirty and his eyes looked like pools of flat black obsidian.
“We’re going in right behind the initial squad approach First Platoon is making,” the Gunny said, working his way back into his own heavy pack. “We’re wearing full packs because we can’t be moving back and forth in the open, not with the tunnels they’ve likely got running under this whole area.”
“I thought we’d be in the back with Fourth Platoon,” I said, since neither the Gunny nor I carried anything but Colt automatics, and those were all but useless in making a full frontal assault on anything or anybody.
“You can’t lead from the rear in this,” the Gunny said, looking me straight in the eyes, before softening his expression, “and I sure as hell don’t want to be anywhere near Sugar Daddy when you start calling artillery.”
“What about Willie Peter?” I asked.
“What about it?” the Gunny replied, getting ready to move.
“I can call in a battery of six up and down the tree line before we cross,” I told him. “The burning phosphorous will still be burning in little spots all over there by the time we make it.”
“Will it burn our guys too?” the Gunny said, his expression serious as he weighed the odds.
“Some,” I replied. “Not much, maybe a second degree patch here and there, but the effect will probably keep a lot of NVA heads down while we cross.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a great idea,” the Gunny said. “That shit’s like napalm. If the guys get some on them then they’ll hold it against you.”
“Really?” I replied, with a cold smile. “I wasn’t too popular in training and my peer evaluations here seem pretty goddamned low, as well.”
I held my hand out toward Fusner without looking, my eyes locked with the Gunny’s own. The radio microphone filled my hand but I didn’t move.
The Gunny shook his head almost imperceptibly, a look of resignation on his face.
I made the call back to Russ, making sure to fire the first round deep, or over where I thought it might land. At fifty meters in the air it would blossom so huge and bright it would be impossible to miss, even with the naked eye.
“Make the call,” the Gunny breathed, after it was too late.
The radio speaker said “splash, over,” and I moved with Fusner to the back side of the berm to observe. In spite of being beyond effective range, the round blew itself to bits fifty meters above where the path should take us through once we crossed over. And it was about five hundred meters over. I dropped four hundred and fired for effect. Battery of one, and then adjusted the fire left and right, moving up and down the tree line in three hundred meter increments. I needed no map or numbers. It was child’s play.
I pressed the transmit button after the last smoking pile of rounds burned its way into a thick mound of bamboo, high trees and jungle cover. The entire tree line was a smoking mass of little burning fires, and the smoke clouds just kept getting bigger. A great white and gray mass seemed to be moving over the entire exposed area the company had to get over.
“Yes,” I breathed into the open mic.
“Not bad, eh?” came back over the radio, Russ having heard my approval.
“Thanks Russ,” I said back, softly. “You just took some of the fire out of Troub City by putting some real fire into it, and the smoke would cover a battleship attack up here.”
“Let’s go,” I said to the Gunny, handing the mic back to Fusner.
“A fucking smoke screen,” the Gunny said. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The Gunny pulled something out of his utility top that had been hanging around his neck. My first thought, ‘dog tags’, until he blew it. A whistle, of course. Everyone began to move along the line. Men I hadn’t even known existed climbed over chunks of bracken and through stands of bamboo to move out into the open and then on into the cloud. I knew the phosphorous would burn for about another ten minutes and then the smoke would be gone, the wind making sure that any residual smoke left behind by small fires would be quickly scudded away.
I wanted to run across the open ground as quickly as possible, but instead I waited with the Gunny, counting on the fact that his superior knowledge and combat experience would allow him to pick just the right moment. I knew that time had come when the Gunny spoke a few words to Nguyen. Almost before I saw the Kit Carson scout rise to his feet, he’d taken off into the cloud. Nguyen’s ease of movement through the jungle, his tough endurance and silent accommodation of everything around him, made me fear for any success of the United States in this war. The enemy was like Nguyen. Like a bunch of Nguyens: bright, tough, loyal and dedicated, fighting in its own back yard.
This time there would be no hiding. I knew that right away. My pack had to weigh almost sixty pounds and that didn’t include my automatic, full canteens, extra ammo, K-Bar bayonet and everything else. Naked, I’d probably be down to about a hundred and thirty pounds. No loads in training ever approached what I carried now. There would be no running across the open space. There wouldn’t even be firing. I could not hear a single shot of small arms fire come back out of the smoke cloud, AK or M16. Maybe the clever wily NVA soldiers were simply dug in and waiting until the company was fully committed, like the Japanese holding the inland mountains on some of those island campaigns during WWII.
I trudged behind the Gunny, unable to see anything or anybody else, although I was aware of Fusner, Stevens and Zippo right behind me. I had no idea what the Gunny said to Nguyen, or what my native scout might be up to. That the Gunny knew some Vietnamese surprised me. I should probably be upset by being left out of almost every decision, no matter how big or small, but I wasn’t. I knew the only way I’d manage to stay alive was by taking one step after another forward through the covering cloud of my own design. I heard two distinct M16 round bursts, maybe three rounds of fire in each burst, but there wasn’t any way in the thick smoke to see if the rounds were tracers, or what they might have been fired at.
There were no other shots. It took less than ten minutes to reach the tree line. The smoke cleared as we approached the line of jungle not killed off or eaten away by the aerial spraying months earlier with Agent Orange. The many little fires burning everywhere seemed to be burning off the natural smoke from the phosphorus being broken open and exposed to air.
My eyes and lips began to burn. I moved toward an area with less smoke. Some Marines in front of me had stopped to cough, leaning on the butts of their M16s, the ends of the weapons’ barrels sticking into the mud. I knew why they were coughing. The smoke from white phosphorus was not usually dangerous. The Navy used it for making smoke screens for its ships. But in very humid conditions the gas changed chemically from a rather inert smoke to something called phosphoric acid. I breathed the clear air deeply in and out and opened one of my canteens to swab my eyes and wash out my mouth. Mucus membranes were the most at risk. Nguyen came from nowhere, seemingly unaffected by the smoke, while Zippo, Stevens and Fusner followed my example with their own water supplies without my having to warn them about the exposure.
“No enemy?” I said to the assembled group, the Gunny nowhere to be seen.
“Nothing yet, I guess,” Stevens said, between tossing handfuls of water into his open eyes.
I looked around at the clear area. The fires were quickly going out as the phosphorus burned itself out and the wet jungle plants, ferns and trees provided no tinder for any kind of fire. After looking around, the whole team acted as one and eased down to the fern covered mud floor of the jungle. Either the enemy was dug in and waiting, which began to seem unlikely, or they had run away from the artillery barrages, the Willie Peter quite possibly being the last fearful insult to drive them out.
The Gunny came out of the jungle by pushing aside some young bamboo shoots and emerging only a few feet away.
“Sent out scouts,” he said, squatting down to begin making his habitual preparations for a cup of coffee. “We’ll wait here until they get back. We’re losing the light so might as well stay for the night. Doesn’t look like they waited around to try to take us out, or maybe they’re just laying up to come at us from a more defensible position.”
I looked around. In training I would have spoken up, as there was no better place I could imagine to defend from than a thick tree line with nothing but dense jungle behind you — a jungle that you knew way better than the veins on the back of your hand.
“We’re gonna need a medevac, anyway,” the Gunny said, talking in a way as if he had to talk to somebody.
It wasn’t like the Gunny at all. I looked around and could tell that Fusner and Stevens had picked up on his odd tone, too. Zippo obliviously worked to begin the clearing and building of a hooch.
“I had Pilson call it in,” the Gunny went on. “He’s over there helping Jurgens out. Seems somebody opened up in the smoke, thinking they were shooting at the enemy but hit Jurgens’ radioman instead. He’s in a pretty bad way so we’ve got to get him out of here.”
Nobody said anything. Something in the back of my mind bothered me but I couldn’t quite identify it.
“He’ll be back in a little bit and we’ll get on with command and make sure they know we’re across,” the Gunny said, sipping from his canteen cover every four or five words, or so. “Mike Company will be coming up the trail in trace tomorrow so we’ve got to be out of here early. That means no resupply until we’re a whole lot closer to the valley.”
“Jurgens’ radioman, hit?” I asked, trying to figure out how a man so close to the platoon commander could take some rounds of friendly fire when nobody could see anything, and there was no incoming fire.
The Gunny didn’t answer, shakily taking out another cigarette to smoke with his coffee — also unusual. From what I’d learned in my first week with him, the Gunny had specific and succinct habits. I looked over at Fusner, wondering whether Sugar Daddy and the Fourth Platoon crossed with us or whether I should get ready to lay down a carpet of artillery fire on top of our former position. Fusner diddled with changing the battery in his radio, which I presumed he would have changed just before we went into combat, and not after. Stevens made his own coffee and Zippo worked away. None of my team would look at me, no matter how hard I stared from one to the other. Then I noted that they took great pains not to look at Nguyen, either. I climbed to my feet without warning.
“Gunny, got a second?” I said, beginning to walk down the tree line we’d just blown to hell. I made sure not to step back out into the open area, however. The Gunny followed me, taking several minutes to do so. He carried his cigarette between two fingers of his right hand and his canteen holder handle in the other.
Once we were out of hearing range I stopped and turned. “He missed,” I said flatly.
“Who missed?” the Gunny asked, his tone just a bit too incredulous. “Missed who?” he followed up. When I didn’t answer right away he got a bit confused about whether to smoke his cigarette or drink the coffee. I waited.
“Jurgens,” I finally said, knowing he was going to admit nothing. “Nguyen missed Jurgens in the smoke and hit his radio operator.”
The Gunny stood with his cigarette and canteen holder, both half way up to his mouth.
“Shit,” he would have said, but nothing came out. I read his lips.
I waited and he waited, neither of us moving.
“We need the artillery,” the Gunny finally said. “And we can’t get lost. If we get lost in these fucking mountains we’re dead. And who in hell can call Army artillery, anyway? I didn’t even know they had artillery in that god damned valley.”
I massaged my forehead with my right hand. With nothing else to be said, I began to walk away. But after only a few steps I had to stop. I didn’t turn around to process the words coming from behind me. After a slight hesitation, I moved on back toward the area where the team worked on making our home for the night. I rolled the words I’d only caught vaguely around in my mind. They sounded like “De nada.”
“Thanks,” I said to the Gunny, my voice a whisper.