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.