The smell of blood would not leave me. A coppery tasting mess of cloying sweet aroma that was invisible, yet overwhelmed every other sense. The sound of Stevens' body being wrapped inside a slippery wet poncho to be left, like that of the others, along both sides of the killing Bong Song. The river hadn’t killed any of them but its presence, like Charon, the ferryman of Hades, guiding his boat across the death river Styx, was always there, in the middle of life, but holding out constant and ever-changing invitations to go over to the other side. I tried to huddle against the relative cold comfort of the mud but there was nowhere to hide or go. I was the company commander who wasn’t a company commander. I was the one to be followed but not to be allowed to know I was being followed.
The darkness approached. I had to prepare myself and what was left of my team. There was no way to avoid taking the point. Usually, the exposure of being in that lead position went to some expendable new guy, but the entire plan depended upon surprise, and that meant not giving away our arrival. The amount of cautionary sensitivity required wasn’t something I could trust anyone to apply or really understand. The Starlight scope was going to be our oddest but most useful tool once again. I pulled myself from my muddy protective cocoon, knowing full well that our exposure to any fire from across the river might end the same way as Stevens had encountered. One single small arms round, or even a displaced rock, and it was over. Medivac wasn’t in the cards until we were back upriver near, or at, the concrete pad where the old airport still lay abandoned.
The Gunny came up behind me, settling himself into the side of the berm, with Jurgens and Sugar Daddy just behind him. I continued to wash what I could of myself with some of the generous water provision resupply had furnished us with. I had gallons, most of which I’d have to leave behind, and reclaim on our way back upriver, if we ended up on the same side of the fickle wandering thing.
The Gunny took out a cigarette. While he went through the process of lighting it, he stared into my eyes, his brows furrowed.
I knew he was waiting for me to talk first. I also thought he might be waiting for that as a show of dominance, since his verbal admission that I might actually be of real value to the company’s survival was so fresh and unexpected. I didn’t know how long the Gunny had been the real commander of the company. I hadn’t gotten around to discussing recent combat history. There’d been no moments of comforting reverie to kick back and talk like real men about our situation, and how we’d gotten to be in the deep mess we were constantly in. I was now sure that the company’s communication system for transmitting rumors, and anything that might affect our lives, was nearly instant and mysteriously pervasive, however. The Marines would all know what he’d said. What effects his admission might have, however, were beyond my ability to calculate. I controlled myself, and didn’t turn to look at Steven’s wrapped body when I thought about what the future might hold in store.
“We move after dark,” I instructed, laying out the only possible plan I could see we could have that might work. “We stay single file right up against the wall, or as close as we can, considering the mess of jungle between here and our objective. Flank security runs in parallel down by the river’s edge with Zippo, Nguyen and the Starlight scope. They move first and we follow, from point to point like fire and maneuver. Anything that’s going to happen will have something to do with the river. I’m willing to bet they haven’t tunneled under the water.”
“You’re taking the point?” the Gunny asked, his tone of voice indicating he didn't approve of the idea.
“Not a wise move,” Sugar Daddy agreed.
“I don’t know,” Jurgens said, lighting up his own cigarette, and then leaning forward, as if to check out the other side of the river from our position. "Seems to be the smart move to me. There won’t be anything set between us and them because they haven’t had time, and there’s been plenty of action where we are. Besides, they’ll be sitting there expecting to take out Kilo when they come down the path.”
“The point is the point,” the Gunny replied. “It’s high risk, no matter where we are in this damned country.
“Well, hell, Gunny, it’s not like we have any supporting fire we can call,” Jurgens said. “If we’re lucky the Skyraiders will be back at dawn but we don’t need Junior for talking to them.”
“Actually, that’s not true,” I said, having instantly decided to ignore the fact that Jurgens was all too willing to sacrifice me, no matter how that might be done.
“Arty can’t reach us, even the one-seven-fives,” Sugar Daddy argued. “The artillery battery at An Hoa is out of range and we don’t have any 81mm mortars, only the sixties and they’re all but useless in this heavy jungle.”
“The Ontos,” I said.
“What?” the Gunny asked.
“The Ontos can fire indirect, without seeing us, for almost four thousand meters,” I replied. “we don't have that far to go, and what we face in the way of the enemy is likely to be either their backs or along the clearings atop the flat banks of the river. The 106 can fire right down the river if we can adjust from a decent first round.”
“How many rounds do we have for that thing?” Sugar Daddy asked.
“Not a whole lot,” I answered, “maybe twenty rounds, but it ought to be enough to get us back here. Cowboy should be on station overhead by dawn, which should be after we hit them.”
I knew the 106 could be used for indirect fire but I wasn’t at all certain the Marines manning it would be able to do much in the way of handling the necessary first spotting round, or any adjustments to deviation and range necessary thereafter. I’d been honest about the range but I hadn’t added that we’d be moving twice the distance beyond any effective range of the weapon. The Ontos had a Prick 25 built into it for communications, but I wasn’t sure anyone without experience would know that, and there was no time to train anyone using the command net.
“Well, I hadn’t thought of that one,” the Gunny concluded.
Relief ran through my body and mind. The Gunny was buying into the plan, almost as if it was a real plan instead of a partial element of the company hiking and running willy-nilly down the valley to hopefully surprise a sleeping or dulled enemy too busy paying attention to its own ambush to realize it was also the subject of one.
The plan was a stretch in many ways, but I couldn’t let Kilo walk right into what I knew they were almost surely walking into. I also knew exactly what it was like up in the highlands where they had to be set in, just where we’d been and taken so many casualties. The NVA had tunnels everywhere, up on top of the mountains and down in the valley. It was the only way their troops could pop up, shoot and then disappear so completely, taking bodies with them. Blood and pieces were about the only evidence we ever found of either their presence or our contact with them.
The Gunny and Jurgens finished their cigarettes together, and then with Sugar Daddy along, began to crawl away without further discussion. I motioned to the Gunny.
He stopped, while the other two went back to their men.
“I don’t want Jurgens anywhere near me on this move,” I said. “I want him guarding the rear.”
“I don’t think you have as much to fear from him as you think,” the Gunny countered, keeping the volume of his speaking down, so Fusner and Zippo, both nearby and making believe they weren’t listening, would not hear. “He’s mostly all mouth, and behind your back he’s pretty impressed with what you’ve done.”
“It’s the ‘mostly’ part that bothers me,” I shot back.
“How about if I keep him in sight the whole time,” the Gunny offered. “His men are the best we have and he’s also the ablest platoon leader I’ve served with in a long time.”
I pulled my battered helmet off, and then massaged my newly clean face with newly clean hands, making sure to stay as low as I could. It was still light enough out for a sniper to get in an accurate shot. I looked up into the Gunny’s black eyes. I marveled, without saying anything, at the man’s ability to hold everything together in whatever form he saw the company as having. Both Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were awful men, and noncoms, in my opinion, but the Gunny had places for them in the company that somehow worked to keep the whole thing going in an oddly shaped and weirdly effective way.
“Expecting a full moon, or something?” I asked, feeling the slight rain and mist come down about us and knowing how dark it was going to be in the night for the Gunny to see anything, much less a skulking and lurking Jurgens.
I noted that unless it really rained heavily I didn’t bother to get under my poncho cover anymore. There was no point. Our very existence was one with water. The water we had to bring in to drink, the water in the river and the nearly constant rain, mist or both. We had a bit of waiting to do. I turned from the Gunny and went under my poncho to finish my letter home, and to eat more ham and mothers. I smiled to myself at the scene I’d just left, one with Zippo trying to show Nguyen how the Starlight scope worked, and Fusner fiddling with his transistor radio to try listen in for the last of whatever Brother John had to offer from Nah Trang.
My letter home would contain no reference to Stevens. The Marines that died along the way simply disappeared from my correspondence. There was no way to explain their absence. Maybe one day, if I lasted long enough to get a letter in return, I might feel guilt over that if my wife questioned me about it. Fusner had his radio turned way down. I could barely make out the lyrics of the song that was playing. “Magic, magic, magic, magic, this magic moment, so different and so new, was like any other until I kissed you, and then it happened, it took me by surprise, I knew that you felt it too, by the look in your eyes…”
It was a strange choice of songs to close out a day that had been dedicated toward attempting to generate a ‘magic moment’ to save another Marine company.
The quiet curtain of light rain spread over the area as darkness prevailed. The sound of the falling water was overwhelmed by the steady quiet roar of the still raging river only tens of meters away.
The Gunny tapped against the outside of my poncho. I knew it was him because I smelled the aroma of his last cigarette even under the cover. His steady hand came to rest on my right shoulder while he waited for me to come out. I knew it was time.
Zippo and Nguyen took the actual point, as we rose up in the night to begin our movement down valley, trying to remain as close to the face of the western wall as we could. Crossing the open area leading to the heavier jungle was easy, and although there was no full moon, there was enough moonlight filtering through the sodden rain clouds that the flora could be made out in the distance. Once in and among it there was no ability to completely control our move. The debris was too ancient, accumulated and packed for that. We had to move down established paths, whether those had been made earlier by humans or lower animal forms. The going was slow because every few yards Zippo and Nguyen would stop to aim the scope down the expected course of our travel and check to see what could be seen. Nobody went down during those stops. They were too brief and there was no real place to huddle or crawl under or into. I was sure that the Gunny had flank security out along the river but I had no idea of who it was or what that small force was made up of. I’d given up on sending Zippo and Nguyen to the river, as soon as we’d gotten underway. The main body needed to know it wasn’t walking into the jaws of some waiting trap or ambush and the only way to be reasonable sure of that was constantly checking with the scope.
Fusner’s transistor was long off, and radio silence was maintained throughout the move. I was surprised at just how quietly, in spite of the covering rain, the Marines could move through the bush. We’d left all of our gear in the old position, which meant that somehow we’d have to get back there to get it. I had my wife’s letter in my thigh pocket with what was left of my morphine supply, but I still wanted my stuff back. Crossing the river lower down might have to be done but that would mean going back for our stuff the hard way once we joined up with the rest of the company again. We had weapons, ammo, full canteens of water, the scope and a few Prick 25 radios, and that was it. We’d even left our ponchos, as they made too much noise rubbing against the thick undergrowth.
The distance hadn’t seemed that far when I’d originally created the plan but we spent more than three hours simply covering the few kilometers to get close to the face that Kilo had to come down. The closer we got the slower we moved. I wasn’t leading the company. Nguyen was. He worked with Zippo to check out what might be ahead. The rest of our force traveled very closely behind. I could feel Jurgens behind me, no matter what the Gunny had promised. I had no trust in the man. Sugar Daddy was easier. He was interested in his own survival and that of his tribe, which was comprised of only the majority of a single platoon.
The distant face of the jutting cliff became visible before anything else. Nguyen steadied the strangely whirring scope on Zippo's right shoulder while I leaned forward to stare into the monocle. The switchback path leading up and down the face wasn’t visible at the distance we were at. The misty rain appeared like hazy snow across the scope’s green screen, making visibility even harder. We had to set in and wait for light. Kilo would not come down the slope until dawn, even if they had their own operating scope. The path was simply too slippery to negotiate in the dark and with the moisture. The smallest slip and there would be no stopping any Marine from falling all the way down the side of the cliff, and probably taking a few others along with him. If the NVA troops were there then they were set in, resting and waiting. Kilo had to be at the top of the path, in the same area we’d occupied only days before. They were waiting too.
“What’s it look like?” the Gunny whispered into my right ear making me jerk back in fearful reaction.
“Like you remember it,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. “We’ve got to set in and wait for first light. If they’re there, then they won’t hit Kilo until Kilo’s fully committed. We can’t get situated or open up until they go at Kilo and their attention is fully focused. There’s going to be some casualties.”
“Quiet,” the Gunny whispered. “Everything depends on quiet. Either the NVA aren’t there or they have no idea we’re here.”
“If they’re set in, covered up from the rain and the night, then they only have one place to go in the morning when we hit them,” I said. “The river. They can’t go up the wall, they can’t go up that slope with Kilo coming down, and they won’t be able to attack into us. The river. They have to bail out to the river.”
“Got it,” Jurgens said, from just beyond where the Gunny stood. “I’ll put three M-60s along the bank with enough of a field of fire to cut them in half.”
“Don’t,” I replied, immediately. “Let the river have them. We take no hits. They can’t go too far down river because the water pushes back in against the face again, and they can’t cross it. They’ll be sitting ducks for Cowboy and the air guys. One M-60 dug in ought to keep them from coming upriver and flanking us.”
“Gunny?” Jurgens asked.
“You heard the man,” the Gunny said, almost sounding like he was disappointed. “It’s his plan, his show and I like the sound of none of our Marines dying if it can be helped.”
“It’s about ammunition,” I corrected. “We’re either a few hours from rejoining the company or we could be here for some time. It’s all about ammunition. I want the sixties shooting those guys in the back when we attack and then having plenty of ammo left over.”
“That sounds more like you, Junior,” Jurgens said.
“We hunker down, right here,” I ordered. “We don't move until they open up on Kilo. That means nobody moves or opens up, or the ambush is blown.”
“Got it, Kilo’s the bait,” Jurgens replied. “And you thought I was a son-of-a-bitch, Gunny.”
“Get down to the river and make sure they know the score,” the Gunny told him. “Meanwhile we wait, like Junior said, for the coming of the light.”
I slunk down next to Fusner, with Zippo and Nguyen still working the scope to see what they could see, which was nothing. The wet misery and the pungent aroma of the nearby jungle mess of old vegetation was not conducive to sleep. We waited out the two hours until first light fitfully, trying to find positions of comfort, while trying to be as quiet as possible. The longer we waited undiscovered the more I was becoming convinced that there was no enemy there. Kilo would come down the switch-backed cliff unopposed and unfired upon. It might work out to be the company’s most boring morning since I’d dropped in sixteen days earlier.
It was exactly two hours later, by Keating’s Gus Grissom watch, that my suspicion was proven wrong. Although we could not see the slope through the misting rain in the dim light we didn't need to. AK-47 fire erupted with a vengeance, and then began to lessen until it was a sporadic staccato of individual fire. Kilo was under attack, no doubt fully exposed, probably half strewn down the mountainside with no ability to descend or go back up.
My Marines reacted nearly instantly, forming up and then spreading out as they all worked their way through the jungle toward the bottom of the cliff where the firing was coming from. There were only a few flashes and cracks of M-16 fire coming down from the path. I realized that I hadn’t thought about taking fire from Kilo. They had no idea we were here and visibility was awful.
“Call Kilo and tell them we’re here, right now,” I said to Fusner.
I rested my injured hand on my .45. The Gunny was right. The feeling had returned in my hand, but with a vengeance. My hand hurt like hell, although it felt better to grip the butt of the Colt then have it dangle around running into things.
The earliest light of morning was spraying across the top of the cliff face, making it look like the top part of an unfinished painting. It was still mostly dark where we were, although I could see Jurgens and some of his Marines, as he eased back toward where the Gunny was waving guys forward and setting up the unit to proceed through the bush toward where we now knew the enemy lay in ambush. I was afraid and excited at the same time. The enemy troops, up to now, had been elusive and mostly invisible, but they were very real and might soon be very visible as we proceeded toward them, trapping them between our fire and the basically unclimbable cliff wall. A cliff wall that had more Marines pouring down its face.
I pulled my automatic from the holster, having to unsnap it by bringing my left hand across.
“Put it away,” the Gunny whispered in my right ear, appearing as if out of nowhere from just behind me. “You’re the company commander, so act like it. Your Marines have real guns and besides, you probably can’t pull the trigger yet.”
I relaxed my hand on the butt of the .45, but left it where it was. The Gunny was calling me the company commander not long after he’d indicated that I might be the only hope the company had. I didn’t know what to say or think, other than to do what he told me to do as I’d mostly done for the past sixteen days.
Marines came from all around us, moving quietly but in a determined way, staying low and using the terrain and bush itself to provide cover and concealment. I moved behind them, noticing the number of light anti-tank weapons that seemed to be everywhere. Resupply had brought in new toys. The LAW weapons were pretty worthless for hitting bunkers or anything hardened but, like their NVA counterpart B-40, they were extremely effective as anti-personnel weapons. Fusner and I crept along, with Nguyen at my right side and Zippo slightly in front, as if protecting me from potential fire or from setting off some undiscovered booby trap.
There was no fire coming from the Marines trapped up on the switchback path. Fusner’s radio call had been effective.
The light increased in intensity. The sun had risen above the edge of the eastern wall far in the distance across the river. The NVA fire increased in volume, green tracers from some of their AK-47s arcing up onto the side of the cliff.
The Gunny, just off to my right with Jurgens at his side, heaved a grenade forward. The M-33 went off with a muffled whump. I knew it was the signal, because nobody ducked down. The company surged forward, no longer hunched down or crawling through the bracken. M-60s on both sides and in front of me opened up. Many of them. Unseen tracer rounds lit the jungle up with a golden glow. LAWs began firing their single shot loads, the swoosh of their rocket engines overpowering the loudness of the high velocity M-16 and M-60 fire. Occasional ‘whumps’ could be heard through the loud ugly din. M-79 grenade launchers were also at work.
We continued to move forward, advancing meter after meter through the jungle, the cliff face getting closer but never appearing in front of us to stop our progress. Our progress reminded me of the Gunny’s forming up the company to march along the side of the Bong Song earlier, but with heavy outgoing fire replacing the singing of the hymn. I realized I wasn’t afraid for the first time since I could remember. I breathed deep, striding forward, my hand gripping the .45 but not pulling it, my full attention on finding and identifying the enemy. I heard screams but I saw no running figures or any enemy soldiers popping up to return fire or run away.
I flinched at the explosions of the LAWs when they encountered the base of the cliff or went off earlier from striking something hard in the bush. The smell of cordite replaced the rancid odor of molding jungle undergrowth. And then it was over. The battlefield wasn’t a battlefield anymore. It was a jungle floor again. The cliff was finally in front of us. I looked up at the crisscrossing paths of the switchbacks. Little dots of Marines were all over the wall, like green ants against a dull grayish black backdrop.
Navy Skyraiders came screaming down, and then past, letting go with their twenty-millimeter cannons. Then they pulled up, four of them together, to climb straight up the face of the cliff. It was a thundering awesome sight and experience.
“Down,” Fusner yelled into my left ear, his voice sounding like a whisper through the damage I knew my hearing had suffered, “they can’t see us in this jungle.”
I crouched down, and listened to the sound of sobbing, groaning and screaming of dying enemy troops. I realized that they made the exact same sound as wounded Marines, but my heart did not go out to them. Marine forms lay at the bottom of the cliff wall. Some of the Marines of Kilo, who’d been working their way down the path had either been hit or fallen to their death below. They were strewn along the base of the cliff. I had had to let them die to take the initial fire so our approach would not be detected. The tactic had worked. I stared at the bodies through the misty rain and blowing debris and smoke from the aftermath of our attack. I leaned forward and back on my knees. We’d won. Kilo was saved. I kept leaning back and forth slowly, unable to stop looking at the dead Marines.
Nguyen stopped my bobbing by putting one hand on my right shoulder and squeezing.
“Peine de morte,” he whispered, before letting go, and then he was gone.
I stopped moving and slunk down, not knowing what to do, even though I knew what I was hearing all about me. Single shots rang out, close and distant. My Marines were finishing off wounded NVA soldiers.
“The pain of death, I think he said,” Fusner informed me, gently. “I think it’s a French thing.” Another shot cracked in the distance and I jerked, before recovering myself. The pain of death. So many had died, but the pain of death didn’t seem to dull or become any easier to accommodate. More shots, but this time I didn’t jerk.
My good hand went to my thigh pocket, feeling through the material to make sure the letter to my wife was okay, and that I still had a supply of the morphine.
The Marines would not all be dead, yet.