I looked at Nguyen. His features remained as impassive as ever in the face of our dire situation. We could not get to the end of the bridge without being carried down past the tank into the rapids below that led deep into enemy held territory unless Kilo Company had moved in to support our rear and there was no indication of that. We had no radio. I had my .45 and my K-Bar knife while Nguyen had an M-16 and his own exotic knife. We didn’t have our packs, or anything else, and we were laying on the flats next to a river that was about to become the most perfect and deadly field of fire the NVA had ever seen. The light was fast improving, and it wouldn’t be long before we started to take the kind of fire we would not be responding to, other than to get hit and die. The Skyraiders would come back but they’d be too late. What remnant of my company was left on the other side of the river couldn’t be expected to hold the fire back from what gave every evidence of being an entire regiment of well-equipped and experienced enemy troops.
Nguyen’s limited English didn’t call for my coming up with a cool sounding plan. There was no plan, and Nguyen didn’t need one. Without saying anything he eased to his feet, crouched down and headed off across the open sand and mud flat toward whatever crease might exist between that surface and the bottom of the cliff to our west. I followed. Both of us ran low and bent over at first, but after only a few yards abandoned the idea of trying to avoid bullets that would be delivered by automatic weapons, if they were to be fired at us at all. No zig-zagging was going to save us from machine gun fire at close range, and the longer we were exposed the more likely it would become that we wouldn’t make it to any kind of cover.
There was a small berm made up of jungle debris and rock fall near the cliff wall. With an E-Tool, a near perfect protected area could have been dug out behind it in minutes but we had no tools of any kind, other than our knives. Nguyen sprawled behind the inadequate barrier and I followed, flipping around to lay flat on my stomach and see what I could over the top lip of the berm. I could have used my binoculars to some effect but those were back with the rest of my gear.
The sun was coming up and would soon make looking directly across the rushing water difficult, as the cliff wall ran almost directly north and south. The sun would come up right over the top of the hill the enemy occupied. I studied the terrain across the flat surface we’d come across. I did not look at the bodies laying still on the riverbank, and realized, in averting my gaze, that I was not as immune to emotion as I thought I’d become. The thought was as upsetting as it was welcome. I hadn’t known anyone in the company for more than a few weeks but the enormity of losing those I had met, no matter how passingly, was becoming more daunting all the time.
Nguyen tapped my right shoulder lightly and then pointed toward where the bodies of Tex and the boy lay sprawled. I grimaced inside but concentrated and focused my attention. There was a patrol crawling toward us, making no effort to fire and maneuver or change direction in any way. My hand went to my .45 and I carefully unsnapped the leather strap securing it in my holster.
“Fusner,” Nguyen whispered into my ear, pronouncing the name as ‘Fuzzner.’
I stared out, my eyes wide. It was Fusner, and Stevens, with Zippo in the lead. They didn’t bother to snake across the muddy sand surface. They just slithered toward us, using their elbows to pull themselves along. Fusner’s back was covered with one small billowing piece of plastic.
“The radio,” I whispered back to Nguyen, without taking my eyes off the advancing scout team. I realized I was holding my breath. How could the NVA miss them moving across that flat in that perfect field of fire, well within the range of AK-47 or RPG fire? But there was no fire.
First Zippo, then Stevens, and finally Fusner crawled over the slight protection of the berm, rolled, and then positioned themselves facing out toward the river like Nguyen and I had done before them.
The wall behind us exploded before we heard the shots. Small chunks of displaced stone rained down on us. I clasped my hands behind my neck for useless protection and pressed my face into the lush smelling but thin layer of debris lining the back edge of the berm. The stones hurt but didn’t penetrate. The fire became sporadic but didn’t stop completely. I checked up and down our small line. Nobody appeared visibly hit. I tried to look up at the face of the cliff, wondering why the bullets had not ricocheted and killed us. All I saw were a few holes. The rock was too soft. The bullets penetrated but threw off little bits of the surrounding stone as they went in. The effect was painful and irritating but not that damaging unless the NVA had a rocket-propelled grenade, in which case one well-placed round would kill us all.
“Air?” I asked, holding my hand out toward Fusner.
I could not keep the hope I felt out of my tone. Hope that he’d brought the AN/34.
Fusner produced the headset.
“Thank Christ,” I whispered, fingering the tiny microphone button, before calling Cowboy. I called and waited, and then called and waited five more times, trying to space my calls between enemy fusillades. My mind roiled in worry. The fifty caliber machine gun had disappeared from an earlier airstrike. Would the NVA have had time to bring up another? Were the RPG rounds they had to have laying around nearby in some tunnel or cave storage area?
“Zero eight hundred, Flash,” Jacko said, his voice almost undecipherable with static. “We’ll be on station, locked and loaded with a liquid breakfast stinger.”
I looked at my watch. Air was half an hour away. Somehow the radio had reached all the way out to wherever the Skyraiders flew out of. No wonder there was static. But half an hour wasn’t going to get it.
The berm could not take sustained fire, not even from the relatively weak 7.62 bullets the AK’s fired. Not at close range.
“How did you guys get across the river?” I asked Stevens, my relief at my scout team not only failing to desert me but in braving the swollen river water to get to me.
“We just jumped in like you did, and it took us to the same spot,” Stevens replied.
I pushed the air radio headset back toward Fusner, as I studied all three men. Occasional bullets impacted the wall above us but the enemy hadn’t thought yet to simply concentrate their fire on the outside of the berm and blast right on through. The three men had done something truly extraordinary, in crossing the river, and I was amazed, in spite of our dire circumstance. One Marine coming over would have been something, but all three was beyond belief. The river was a fearsome thing to behold, just standing on the bank and looking at it or listening to its deadly flow. To leap in and cast fate and life to the winds, or waters, for all three of them wasn’t truly believable, although here they were.
“Where’s the rest of the company?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
It was obvious that there was no one on the other side of the river other than the enemy. No base of fire, no fire at all from our Marines. My fear was confirmed, although the depth of that fear had more to do with the future than any present of fire suppression might provide. Air was thirty minutes out. Surviving for that period of time was my immediate concern but when the air came, what then? How were we supposed to get across the river? No matter how much support I might be able to bring in, time was not on our side. If the NVA kept firing, or got hold of one of their seemingly plentiful RPGs, or got another fifty caliber in place, then our ticket was punched, many times over.
I held out my hand toward Fusner. He knew not to give me the air radio headset again. We had only one choice, just to get through the short term.
I said the call sign code for Firebase Ripcord into the artillery net microphone. I explained the situation to the fire direction officer on duty. We needed some ‘red bag’ 175 mm rounds. Nothing else could reach us. Ripcord was located right in line with the slice the A Shau Valley made down between two mountain ranges. Because of the valley’s axis being right on the gun target line, any rounds fired would impact the valley floor without being blocked by the cliff walls located along both sides. As when the guns had fired before, however, the range was a problem. At beyond the weapon’s advertised maximum range, the gun’s rounds were inaccurate. They could come in over or under by several thousand yards. Even deflection from side to side became a problem, but the cliff wall was some protection against that unless the wall’s top edge was hit in just the right spot and huge chunks plummeted down upon us. The range problem brought risk to the company at the old airstrip. The range probability for extreme error meant that the old airstrip could take rounds, and the 175mm rounds were nothing to make light of. Ninety-three-pound projectiles the guns fired were twice the size of 105 rounds, and more than twice as effective if experienced at close range in the open.
The battery could give me forty rounds spaced out to cover the thirty minutes I needed. We’d get four rounds every three minutes, as long as they or we didn’t check fire, but I didn’t call in to execute the fire mission. I couldn’t do that without warning the Gunny, and thereby the company, that incoming friendly rounds might show up at the complex where they were dug in.
I switched over to the command net and called for the Gunny. While I waited I listened to battalion making contact with Captain Howard Carter in Kilo Company. If that conversation was to be believed, then Kilo was soon going to be moving upriver fast on our side to support us, which would have been laughable if it wasn’t so frustrating. Coming up our side of the A Shau, with the river in flood led nowhere. It led to the same dead end we were already stuck at because the river still remained to be crossed where it curved in against the western cliff face a few hundred meters to the north.
I looked at the microphone like it was some sort of alien device. If I went on the combat net and described our position it would also reveal our position. Ripcord would not fire their 175s if they knew we were ‘danger close’ at only a couple of hundred meters. They’d certainly never fire red bag for fear of being blamed for our deaths. I hadn’t given them a position reading since the last time they’d helped us out, but they wouldn’t fire until I updated that information.
I called the Gunny again. This time he came back in seconds, as the six actual, of course, even though he had to know it was me calling.
“Air will be on station in twenty minutes, give or take a few,” I told him, wondering what to add about the potential of raining short 175 rounds down around his head. If Ripcord was listening in on the combat frequency they’d also know where the company was. Was the company’s position too at risk for short rounds to allow us, further up the valley, to receive fire?
“Dig in,” I finally said.
“We don’t have the air radio, Junior,” the Gunny replied.
The Gunny damn well knew we had the air radio, and he knew we knew he knew that, so what was he really saying?
“Three minutes,” I said, figuring it out. The Gunny was telling me he understood that I was going to use artillery, and there was only one artillery round that could reach us.
“Give us five,” the Gunny replied.
I put the microphone down next to my head, which was pressed back into the surface beneath me, canting my helmet at a weird angle.
I switched the frequency back to the artillery net and prepared to give Ripcord a position report, hoping Gunny had gotten the message and that the FDC wasn’t feeling too investigative. Before I could transmit I heard a panicked voice over Fusner’s small radio speaker. Kilo company was calling in 105 support from the An Hoa firebase. There was no mistaking Russ at that firebase, responding in his cool, collected and analytical voice. Kilo was up on the high ground taking the same kind of hit we’d been taking up there a few days earlier when Keating had bought it. Kilo would not be coming down to support us anytime soon if its tattered remnants came at all.
I waited for Kilo’s ‘danger close’ mission to run its course, both batteries being on the same frequency Bullets were still impacting the cliff face over our heads but, other than causing stinging bruises, doing no other real damage. We had not returned fire. Among the five of us, we had about fifteen rounds of .45 ammo and maybe ten twenty-round magazines of M-16 stuff. There was simply no point in shooting at the thick jungle that made up the hill we were being hit from.
I called for the fire mission, after looking at my map and creating a fictitious position up above us, where the cliff face topped out before coming down to our position. It wasn’t likely that we, or anybody else, would be way up there but they could not know that back at the battery for certain. Adjusting fire wasn’t an issue because there was no way to do anything with the big rounds when they reached their maximum trajectories unless it was to drop them closer to the battery. And the company was the only thing close to the battery, by about three thousand meters.
Ripcord didn’t answer after I gave them our position. I looked at the second hand on my Gus Grissom watch. The second hand went around for a full rotation. We took fifty to a hundred more rounds in that time. I looked across the river up toward where the company had to be but there was no chance I would see anything. The brush was too heavy and the distance too far. Then I noted that the NVA were shooting upriver occasionally, on their side of the river, like remnants of the company were still there and they could be seen by them. But there was no chance of that, or the Gunny would have mentioned it. What was the NVA doing?
Ripcord finally approved the fire mission. I’d modified the order to include all the rounds being delivered in a ten-minute period of time. Air was coming, but something had to be done as immediately as possible, or statistics alone would take us apart. If they kept firing at our poorly protected position it was only a matter of time and ammunition expended before they took us out. The time between the “shot over,” and “splash,” transmissions was almost half a minute. The 175 rounds had to travel that far, moving at just under a mile per second. Four rounds exploded atop the very apex of the hill, their fire and debris not visible but for their compression waves, and the sharp cracking sound of their vicious explosions beating down and cross the rushing river water.
Four minutes later another four came in. There was no inaccuracy. The rounds impacted in nearly the same spot.
All incoming fire from the hill ceased. There was nothing but tendrils of smoke rising slowly from the jungle.
I raised my head fully for the first time since cowering behind what could only generously be called a berm. I felt my neck. Leeches. At least three of them. My back ached with bruises from the spalled rock that had been split from the cliff face. We were still trapped without help on the wrong side of the river with no relief in sight, but I felt a sense of warm welcome relief. I was still alive. Fusner applied salt to my leeches and they fell away, one by one, while the information I’d learned earlier came together in my mind.
The NVA were shooting up the valley in order to dissuade the company from coming back. But not for me. They couldn’t possibly care about me or my scout team. They were after bigger game. Kilo company. When our company had been hit up on the high ground we’d fled down the face of a steep slope to escape. Kilo was in the same situation we’d faced, and the NVA were planning a little surprise when that company escaped to the bottom of the valley floor like we had.
I keyed the microphone and told Fusner to give me the combat net. Since being in Vietnam all I’d been was attacked, from inside the company and from outside except for the single time we’d attacked and fired to support Kilo company. I wasn’t going to cross the river to get to the company. The company was going to cross the river to get to me. For only the second time we were going on the attack. With what we got from Cowboy, Jack and Hobo, what we could carry from the resupply and little else, we were going to relieve Kilo company again. The NVA would be laying in wait to ambush Kilo while we would be right behind them, again. It would all come together with chopper support to medevac our dead on both sides of the river, the Ontos held in reserve for our eventual retreat, with the Skyraiders and Huey gunships paving the way.
The Gunny came on in seconds, just like before. I explained Kilo Company’s difficulty and what I intended.
“It might be better to simply stay where we are ordered to be,” the Gunny said as if trying to think his way through a problem that called for a committee decision. “We have a firebase to build and Army guys coming down the highway to reinforce that effort.”
I’d never heard the Gunny sound so formal. I also felt a deep burning anger suffusing my body. I looked out at Tex and the kid laying next to him, and at the hump that used to be Barnes across the water.
“Those were 175s that just screamed over,” I said, enunciating each word like he’d done. “Drop three thousand, fire for effect,”
I went on, letting my voice trail off, waiting to see what he was going to reply.
While the Lt stares into his screen, probably with a cool beverage in his hand, here’s a commentary on NAVY air.
Thanks a lot SCPO. I got a good chuckle out of something else in Vietnam that I did not know.
And much appreciate…
Morning Jim, You doing OK? Digging up the past can be rough, Been there and done that, Yes, actively dealing with PTSD and trying to keep it under control for 45+ years, Hope things are going good, My prayers for you brother, Hope all is well.
I am working one a project, If it turns out I would love to send it to you.
Semper Fi/ This We Defend Bob
Yes, this is quite an exercise in true grit. Some segments are easier than others and the there is
regular life that keep son intervening! Thanks for the care and please send me the project!
When will Book Two be available at AMAZON ?
The second book is still underway, being written as you may observe if you go to the front page
and check out the Second Ten Days. I am on day sixteen part III…so there are a few more segments to do.
Sorry about the time but these do not come out very easily….as you might have guessed.
Sorry I missed the party , but tradition dictated that I stayed in the DFW area !! We touched off over $1,000 worth of fireworks !! Kids had a ball !! Sounds like y’all did also !! Interesting segment !! Was gunny going upriver or headed back to cross the river where you are !! I’m kinda confused!! You’re doing good !! Keep on keeping on 🏈🍉!!
I am asking the Gunny to come back across the river but he does not want to,
obviously. We’ll see in the next segment…
How long before the next segment James?
J. It will be up in 24 hours or less.
Getting back from the rendezvous was more time consuming
than I thought.
I live a really active life and when I push the ‘hold’ button, everything stops all right,
like the water behind a dam…
and then when I get back the spillways open up…
Thanks for asking and caring…
I give up
When does the book come out???
The second book will come out in August. I am sorry that I have not been quicker or more regular with the segments
I’m writing but this is no ordinary series of novels, as you no doubt already figured out or you would not be so frustrated
with me. Thanks for the unmentioned compliment!
I’m working as fast as I an able under the circumstances…
Mr. Strauss, I received your book The First Ten Days as a gift from a retired Marine Colonel Glenn Dyer. Glenn and I have had a couple of afternoon discussions about Nam, he’s one of the few people I’ve opened up to about some of my experiences in Nam. I’ve read all the chapters you written to date and will say I’ve truly enjoyed what I’ve read. My experiences do not mirror yours but we were in different parts of the country and I was a Ma Deuce gunner on a Weapons track in the U.S. Army. Here’s a website of the unit I was with http://www.1-5th-m-25th-inf-1966.com .I wasn’t in Nam until 1968,things sure hadn’t changed much from what those before me said it was like in 66 and from what I experienced in 68. Keep up the good work, I can’t wait for the next story. Welcome home and thank you for your service, Sir.m
Glenn ia class act all the way around and it was wonderful to spend all the time with him I could.
Talk about intelligent and erudite, not to mention just plain cool as hell.
thanks for reading and liking the book. I am hard at work in getting out the second…
Jim take your time and catch up. Writing can’t be forced and we will wait. This purposeful journey you are on definitely has to be like a roller coaster ride with ups, downs, twists, and turns of true emotion. God Bless you and protect you on this journey.
You are a joy and your concern makes me smile. I am doing okay. I stay really really busy, what with my weekly newspaper and all.
Thanks for the advice and the blessings…
Not talking about your book, I think, was an unspoken desire not to get tipped off about what might be next. Some of us may have heard bits and pieces we didn’t want to. The gathering was an experience I’d repeat in a heartbeat. I am so impressed with all of you that went, so welcoming, friendly and fun to be around. I heard a lot of stories about a dark place that you all excused me from sharing. And for anyone that didn’t go, you’ve got to meet Jim in person! We know the author, newspaper editor, warrior, but the standup comedian that drives all that will make your sides hurt! It would seem Keystone Kops follow everywhere he goes, driving skills foremost. What a great time, Jim, everyone!
Thank you Walt. It was a wonderful meeting and absolutely everyone who came was
a stand up guy, accompanied by wonderful women and even some kids.
What a delight, and it was much appreciated by me. That we could all laugh as much
as we did, my antics aside, is a credit to the healing we have experienced, those of us
who could get that far, in a culture not set up to comprehend, understand or respond to returning
combat veterans needs.
Glad you had a good time with the brothers on the 4th. It would be interesting to hear how that meet affected you once you got back home and had time to think about it.
You mentioned that one of the vets at the meet had been in your unit, how did he know about the meeting, had you been communicating with him previously?
I noticed on Facebook that your post were getting over 1K hits, so apparently the word is getting out on your book. The more the better!
Nobody from my unit was at the rendezvous in Kansas. I have communicated through email with three.
The rendezvous was wonderful, although catching up back home has been rather demanding because I let so much
go to go. Thanks for your concern and your interest, of course…
Really enjoyed meeting everyone at our gathering! The locals were truly amazing! I must say watching and listening to your stories of your time in the CIA was very entertaining! You’re a gifted storyteller my friend! I didn’t want to discuss the book because I for some reason it didn’t seem appropriate. If the gunny is playing chess with you “check “! Hanging in for the next chapter! Semper Fi Jim!
Thanks Jack, it was great to meet you too. Thanks for the comments about my storytelling. Life has been
pretty varied and wild for me and recounting the tales can be fun with the right people. You are certainly
the right people.
Lost a friend in Bong Song. SPC4 Butch Follett.
Good story telling.
So sorry dale, that river consumed a lot of men at the time.
Thanks for he compliment and writing it on this site…
Another rip roaring segment LT. thank you. Have you been back to the Nam..Just curious….
Went back with the CIA but they would not let me off the airplane. I sat on the tarmac
for nine hours of so before the plane left for Seoul. So I never made it back in any real sense of the word.
Thanks for asking and the compliment written on here…
Great read, thanks so much for writing, lost a couple great friends in 70. UDT. Very proud to know there are guys like you in the world.
Thanks a million Paul. Neat compliment and I don’t know what to say. My wife thinks I’m pretty neat
but there are some I’m living out my life in redemption about too!
Thanks for the neat compliment and for writing it on here where everyone can see it.
I am 53, have never been in the service. I just wanted to say reading these passages brings a little more understanding of the great duty and sacrifice fir those who have served. For a guy like me I can only hope to live a life up to the standards for what the military has sacrificed for. Humbly appreciative to all who serve.
Thanks Steve, really appreciate your comment and your thanks to all.
Thank you James for the get together at Winfield, it was excellent to get to shake your hand. I enjoyed meeting other vets as well, and laugh as we walk together down a memory lane that most of the time we avoid like a dark abyss. Sorry I had to leave early, I don’t have an excuse. Just that sometimes the unspeakable past is too close to today, and walk down memory lane becomes a slow crawl down a slimy dark unthinkable. Don’t mean nuthin. Semper Fi.
And we did have some good and a few great leaders in 1/4. 1st Lt. Noel of Charlie company sticks in my memory. He earned his purple heart in March before I got there, and a Navy Cross to go with it.
I remember you distinctly Randy and would have loved to have spent more time with you but
fully understand how hard these things really are. Hell, I was surprised anybody at all showed up!
I really enjoy Your writting. Thank You for inspiring me to continue writting my own poetry and short stories.
Regards and Semper Fi
Thanks John, your words and compliment mean a whole lot to me, and thank for writing them for all to see on here…
I am sorry to miss the gathering, but the big C, courtesy of Agent Orange, prevented it…..my best to all.
A small thought: the NVA 50 cal that is your nemesis, might more likely be a .51 cal, or 12.7mm…..just spitballing!
We had a terrific time Bill and I am so sorry I missed you. Next year.
This time we’ll plan it a little better and hold it where the scenery is a little more stunning
and hope to get the same wonderful people, not to mention the locals who were superb!
I wish I could have made it, but life gets in the way. Don’t worry about writing and getting it out. You know the old saying, hurry up and wait. The wait in this case is well worth it.
You might want to drop in a segment about the get together. It would be fun to read.
Take care, be safe and we will, like always, be here.
Yes, there will indeed ba a segment and a photo of the event, not to mention video!
Thanks for bringing that up…
My dad was a combat medic at the Battle of the Bulge. He is 94 and healthy as a horse, but since he expects me to write and deliver his eulogy, I have been working on it and sharing it with him. To describe his service, What an impossible burden to put on a young man’s shoulders will be included. Your story moves me deeply, and the combined weight of the enemy threat and the violence from your own fellow soldiers is hard to fathom. Glad that there are men like you, and my dad. Live long and keep writing.
Thanks Jim, and thanks for what you wrote about your Dad and me.
Means a lot to me…and likely to him…
Another good read James!!! But I got to thinking. It really don’t matter how much one of those artillery rounds weighs as long as it kills the enemy!!!! That being said my Gramps hated those 88’s the Germans had. He said they killed more of his guys than German soldiers did. He told me they had those damn things everywhere. But he knew we’d win the war when his outfit ambushed a column of 88’s being pulled by horses and wiped them out. He did most of his fighting in a place he called The Gap. He died years ago but his stories made me love and admire the U.S. soldiers because of there bravery and devotion to each other no matter what branch they served with.
Thanks Russell for you comments written on here and for the compliment inside them…
Well Jim, another great segment…and Nguyen, always there, he was the stuff…you left us hanging again…I hope all went well for your festivities today…I salute you all and wish I could have been there…keep up the good work and have safe travels back home…
Hey, it was great to be with those guys and so many had so much to say
when I wasn’t talking…which wasn’t often!
I was not in Vietnam during that war, but I was in college and listed as 1A and ready to go at the end of the draft. Your writing has helped to make me more aware of the sacrifices that you and your brothers made for me and I now wish I had left school and enlisted to help. Being older makes one reflect on what they should have done years ago. I just wanted you to know how much we respect you and the others who sacrificed so much to help keep us safe and alive in our own Country. God bless all soldiers still with us and those who have gone on for us. John
Glad you missed the show! One of the guys who came to Winfield talked about missing it. I was overwhelming in my happiness that
he was there to talk to me and not laying down next to the Bong Song in the bottom of that valley.
Thanks for the comments and compliment in your writing here…
One of two things must have happened to the Gunny on hearing those words. His hair stood up, or that sick feeling in the stomach. Actually probably both. I know I wouldn’t want to hear those words knowing exactly what they meant. Great writing. Have a Happy 4th of July!
The 4th was great in Winfield!! What a group of guys, mostly from this site!
Thanks for your well wishes and making the comment on here…
Have a great time, Jim. Wanted to make an appearance but a death in the family, and with my wife having Shingles, travel is not possible at this time. Hope y’all have a blast and everyone has a good time. Stay safe and know we are with you in spirit.