I stayed in my clustered hooch into the dark hours, whiling away the time it would take for the NVA to begin their own H&I fires. The concept of H&I (harassing and interdicting fire) created back at Fort Sill, had been used in Vietnam for years without any proven success. Another questionable strategy involved making totally random artillery drops. Since friendly units set up in supposedly known locations every night, the idea was that artillery could be dropped on paths, roads and intersections, limiting the enemy’s night operations and keeping them off balance, or from moving comfortably anywhere. But there had never been any results of such fire doing anything other than making sure no allied forces moved very far in the dark at all.
I also wanted to see if, even given the fear of snakes everyone seemed to share, Jurgens would send out a team to finally eliminate the lone officer problem standing in the unit’s way. I thought about the snakes, of which I’d seen none. It defied logic to believe that a specialized band of Vietnamese troops caught, and then strategically released, violently poisonous snakes, but rumors in combat raged everywhere about everything. The Bamboo Vipers that struck the two men earlier in the day were called “two-step” snakes. Anyone struck would supposedly get only two steps before falling over dead. The fact that both Marines bitten had been loaded onto a medevac Huey seemed to have blown right by the gossiping members of my scout team. After reviewing all the body bags that had been flown out during my short stay in country, I figured the snake dangers might be a bit overblown compared to other, more deadly threats. But I was still left to wonder what other poisonous snakes inhabited the hills or the dreaded valley ahead.
Two letters to send home. I clutched my pocket. What if the resupply chopper in the morning didn’t come in? How many letters would I get backed up? I hadn’t thought to date them. I pulled the envelopes out and then turned on my one-eyed flashlight. Using my black government (cheap) ballpoint pen, I carefully put dates on the back of the envelopes so my wife would know which order they’d been written. I wondered if they went on the same chopper whether that meant they’d arrive on the same day at her door.
just after I replaced the letters and put away my flashlight, Stevens pushed gently with one foot against my leaning elbow. I moved the few feet toward his prone figure. He was on Starlight Scope duty. The only area he could see was through the thin bit of vegetation we had between us and the big open area we’d walked across without incident. The area behind our hooches backed right up to the jungle, with only a small buffer zone laboriously cut for protection from snakes coming to get us in the night. I was thankful for the slight wind and cool temperature, but any relief the weather provided at higher altitudes came at the price of reduced security. An enemy coming at us from the jungle side wouldn’t be encountered before he arrived. And although it was unlikely that any NVA would be out on the mud surface of the open area, Stevens insisted on setting up the scope to cover it.
“Nine o’clock,” Stevens whispered, leaning away so I could stick my head behind the scope.
I liked the scope. It seemed so high tech. The science behind it, the sleekly different nature of its construction and the feel of it when I held it gave me confidence. I looked through the single lens, my eye pushed into the rubber grommet sticking out of the viewing end. A round green world came into existence.
Moonlight streamed down that I hadn’t really noticed above the scudding dark clouds. The scene through the scope looked brighter than day, and only two things moved across the mud surface. Jurgens, with one of his henchmen, or ‘shake and bake’ squad leaders. I could see the sheen from the Slavic slab sides of Jurgens face gleaming in the dark. The two Marines didn’t look like the last group that had come very slowly and low under ponchos. Both men crawled along at a good clip, able to move relatively unencumbered and not vertical enough to stand out against the jungle backdrop in relief. Neither Jurgens nor the man accompanying him sported M16 rifles, and that obvious fact surprised me. The company was deployed in the middle of a vicious pit of enemy occupation, probably surrounded on three sides, and that was only if the far side of the clearing wasn’t filled with NVA who’d filtered in after we’d crossed. Marines didn’t spend any time anywhere in such an environment without arms. The two crawling figures stopped their forward progress at what I thought was about twenty meters distant.
“Hey, Gunny,” Jurgens yelled in a suppressed voice, cupping both muddy hands over his mouth.
Zippo replied before I could adjust to the fact that Jurgens appeared to be wanting a visit with the Gunny instead of coming for me. “What’s the password?” he hissed back toward the men from his unseen position a few yards away.
My mouth formed a wry humorless smile. Password? There was no password. There’d never been any discussion about a password. I kept my eye glued to the eyepiece of the Starlight Scope.
“There’s a password?” Jurgens’ squad leader asked, his voice one of complete surprise.
“Are you nuts, or just an idiot?” Jurgens whispered to the man with him, grabbing him by the upper arm.
“This is Jurgens, from First Platoon,” Jurgens said, again directing his quieted words toward where my scout team lay.
“Okay, that’s the password, you can enter,” Zippo replied, instantly.
“What word?” the Marine with Jurgens said, crawling forward.
I watched Jurgens shaking his head in frustration, as he followed the smaller Marine in front of him.
“Jurgens is the password,” Zippo said.
I smiled again, knowing Zippo had his M16 locked, loaded and aimed at both of the moving men.
“Jurgens can’t be the password,” the Marine whispered, finally approaching close enough that I could pull away from the scope. “Nobody would make that a password,” he went on. “You’re making that up.”
The Gunny appeared from behind me, as I prepared to receive the men, my right hand naturally resting upon the heel of my .45, the click of the safety lever being moved down to the off position unheard over the noise being made by the men crawling forward. Just because the two men were not sporting M16 rifles didn’t mean they were unarmed.
“What are you doing here?” the Gunny asked, suddenly, taking full control of a situation I was too slow to react to.
“We have to talk,” Jurgens replied. “We’re unarmed so no idiot will shoot us without us saying so much as a word.”
The reference to killing the three men from his platoon earlier was obvious, as was the potential threat that went with it. Why Jurgens chose to make even the slightest reference to it made me wonder about his real motivation in coming here. I turned my flashlight on suddenly, making Stevens swear. The light, aimed at the downed knees of Jurgens and his squad leader, must have blanked out the phosphor screen of the scope, I realized. Good to know, though, that Stevens was still scoping out the open area even if the two men appeared to be the only ones coming. The scope would take a few minutes to reset, but only if I turned off the light.
“Turn it off,” the Gunny instructed, his mouth only inches from my right ear.
I followed his order, my mission accomplished. I knew right where both men were. If I drew and fired it would only take two shots to disable and two more after moving forward to finish the job.
“Talk about what?” the Gunny asked. “We’re going up the mountain in the morning and then along the ridge all the way to the A Shau just like Chesty did at the Frozen Chosin.”
“It’s about the two-steps,” Jurgens said, his voice indicating uncertainty.
A Prick 25 radio hashed twice and then clicked twice more. The radio was very close behind us. I half-turned in time to hear Pilson whisper into the Gunny’s ear.
“Battalion six-actual, Gunny,” he said, his voice low, while sticking the handset between the Gunny and me.
The Gunny looked at me, then took the mic and punched the button. “Six-actual,” he said, his eyes too dark for me to see, although I knew he was looking into my own while he was waiting for a reply. But he didn’t reply, instead holding out the handset toward me.
I took the microphone in my hand. The battalion commander, Colonel Bennet himself, wanted to talk to me, by name. He’d bypassed the Gunny completely.
“Six-actual,” I said, proudly, so everyone near could hear me.
And then I listened. I listened to the battalion commander berate me for demonstrated incompetence in avoiding a direct order by not attacking Hill 110 and then lying about it. I looked around at the Marines in my company. I could not see any of their eyes, but everyone waited. The colonel went on about how I could expect a bad fitness report on my next rotational review and an immediate entry into the daily report for my poor conduct. After ‘six-actual’ I never got to say a word, much less ask about any officers who might be assigned to the unit or what orders the battalion had for the A Shau, or anything. And then the line went dead. The man had not even said “over.” I held the handset in my hand. I knew that one day, if I lived, and that wasn’t real likely, that I would laugh at being told I would get a bad review when I was frightened to death of being killed in any of a variety of ways every minute of what was left of my life.
“Yes, sir,” I said into the dead microphone, “I’ll get right on it. We should be at the edge of the valley by late in the day unless we run into contact. I’ll tell the men about the support we’ll be getting.”
I handed the microphone back to Pilson without further comment, and brought my attention back around to my real world. Maybe, if I lived, one day I would meet the colonel in some private place back home. It would be a very short meeting.
“The two men were medevaced, I said to Jurgens,” speaking before the Gunny could. “The snake bites are painful but not fatal,” I lied. “Both men are doing fine at the First Med Station in Da Nang.”
“Once we get off the beaten trail we’re going to be in the forested shit, and that crap is going to be full of snakes,” Jurgens said.
I didn’t know what else to say. I’d invented what I could. My hand fell back atop my Colt. Killing the men might be the best solution to a number of problems. I thought about imagining they were the colonel and his major executive officer. The Gunny finally filled the silence that hung over us like a little thick cloud.
“Tell your men the truth about the vipers,” the Gunny said. “If they get bitten they get a free ticket home after a bit of pain. And we’ve got plenty of morphine. They get to go home.”
I turned my head to look at the Gunny in wonder. He’d picked up the phony ball I’d metaphorically thrown and run right down the field with it. His tone and command ability impressed me even though I knew it was all based on a lie.
“What about Sugar Daddy?” Jurgens asked, surprising me again. The inter-company rivalry or war, take your pick, was ever on top of the table and never to be overlooked or forgotten.
“They’re not afraid of snakes,” the Gunny informed him. “They’re afraid of the enemy. They’ll take the point and clear our way to the top.”
The two Marines said nothing further, not even goodbye, and certainly not “yes, sir.” And they didn’t ask permission to be dismissed, as even field protocol required. They simply backed up and disappeared the way they’d come. I was sure that Stevens could see them in the scope but their departure wasn’t important enough to bother watching.
Neither the Gunny nor I moved for a couple of minutes. I waited for him to ask me what the colonel had said but he didn’t speak. Finally, I decided to say something.
“Sugar Daddy’s men aren’t afraid of snakes and they’re going to take the point tomorrow?” I asked, my tone more one of wonder than disbelief.
The Gunny did not reply, but he didn’t move away either.
“Let’s have a cup,” he said, moving to take his canteen out of its cover.
“Aren’t you a bit concerned with the light the fire will cause?” I asked, determined to come back to the Fourth Platoon issue in a few minutes, since the Gunny wasn’t crawling back to his own hooch right away.
“You weren’t going to be able to keep the flashlight on,” the Gunny said, softly, lighting some Composition B to heat his water. “The NVA are out there and I’m sure they’ll be a pain in the ass but not right here and right now because we’ve got a pretty good perimeter and they’re not going out into the open.”
“I just wanted to place exactly where they were,” I explained.
“People move in the dark and it’s very subtle,” he replied, in a tone that made it sound like he was talking to a child. “From the second you turned on the light and for a few minutes, we were both night blind. The trade-off wasn’t worth it. You can do a better job at measuring risk when both of our lives may be on the line.”
I knew he was right. I knew it by the time he got to his second sentence. I’d risked us both needlessly. There was little question where the men were in front of us. Their shapes were visible, even if their features weren’t. I should not have needed confirmation of anything, and I’d given up advantage in getting it.
The Gunny’s water boiled after only a few minutes. He mixed in the coffee and then began sipping, slowly and lightly.
“So he found out already,” he said, between sips.
The Gunny had figured out the substance of the colonel’s call without even being able to see my reaction while the man had been on the handset. I thought about the shitty, unjust and truly outrageous radio call.
“Why didn’t he talk to you?” I asked, finally.
“He needs me,” the Gunny replied.
“To do what?” I said, knowing I was not thinking anything through but still upset by the call from our commanding officer.
“To train the next officer they send,” he replied.
“After me,” I whispered, not wanting to give that answer.
The night erupted in small arms fire. The Gunny tossed his coffee and crawled away. I reached for the artillery net handset that I knew would be there, sticking out in the dark. It was. It was time to use what night defensive fires we had available to beat the enemy back again.