The shelf running just down from, and alongside the top of, the mountain’s descending ridge eventually played out. The company once more trudged through the jungle under a barely seen double canopy of heavy brush, bamboo stands, hanging vines and cutting saw grass with umbrella-like layers of tree foliage. The moon glowed distantly above, hardly visible through the mess of foliage and flora.
My body and mind were run through with deep fatigue. If I had been hunting alone, headed back to my car or truck in the real world, I knew I’d drop my pack and belt and leave them behind, intent only on making it back to safety. But I was bound for the A Shau Valley and if any, even one, of the reports I’d heard about it were true, then it was one of the ugliest and most perilous destinations on the planet for a human being to go and attempt to survive. When I’d read Dante’s Inferno in college, I’d laughed at the old English language descriptions of gargoyles, devils and demons. What I’d never felt was the reality of a fear so deep that it was powerful enough to drive back the brutal fatigue, and even reason itself.
“Not so bad…it’s not so bad,” I whispered to myself, thankful that I could hear myself again following the hours-old artillery barrage I’d brought down further up the mountain.
“Sir?” Fusner said, scurrying up from behind like an eight-year-old kid trying to take care of his dad.
“Nothing,” I said, making sure there was no bite in my tone.
My armpits hurt from the old layered sweat dried, and re-wet in my utility blouse. My crotch hurt the same way. I was covered in old oils and mud, and we were coming down out of the cooler air accompanied by slight, but oh-so-welcome, winds. The mosquitoes were back, although not in force. I’d had no food or water all night long and what passed for rest up on the plateau, waiting to be attacked, could not be defined as rest at all, no matter how it might have looked. Every time I thought of myself as a miserable mess, I knew I was soon to become more of a miserable mess just by thinking about it.
The Gunny appeared in front of me, easing back, probably to see if I and the scout team were still there. The Gunny was herding his chicks along, I knew, which just added to the feeling, or lack of one, that I’d ever command anything in the Nam.
“Do we have flank security out on the left?” I asked him. Small patrols of Marines were supposed to be extended out from the main unit along the line of travel of any moving combat unit.
“Right,” the Gunny said, across a few feet of passing jungle, as we moved. “Nobody’s going out there. This isn’t the open wooded and pastoral Virginia land of your training. Nobody’s going out there to die.”
I looked behind us, realizing right then that there was no rear security either. If the angry half-mangled enemy had sent out a party to attack the rear of the company while we traveled toward the A Shau Valley, the place they had to know we were going, then I and my scout team would become the first very vulnerable targets of their attack. I wondered how it was possible to put into practice any of the principles learned in training, principles there because of bitterly hard-learned lessons of the past, if the Marines could not be ordered or commanded. If survival considerations were only applied to the present instant, then what of the future, even the near future? I determined that I would attempt to not only make future moves in a different place deeper inside the company, but would find a way to make sure that flank security was always out. Without flank security, warning of an impending attack, the entire company could be totally wiped out.
“Probably less than an hour out,” the Gunny said, before moving ahead to check on the rest of his flock, or so I thought.
My spirits began to lift as I moved, the waning light of the partial full moon fading to be replaced by an invisible dawn diffusion of light coming from up ahead. We were heading due east into the rising sun, toward a dead end that would be defined by the lip of the river cut A Shau chasm.
“The A Shau can’t be as bad as this,” I murmured to myself, only to draw another inquiring “Sir?” from Fusner.
The mosquitoes loved perspiration. They had no problem biting my face and hands while I moved. I pulled my repellent out of my helmet rubber band and ‘cleaned’ my face and neck with the awful stuff. I looked at over-burdened Zippo, lumbering along not far from me. He didn’t use the repellent. He slathered on the mud from under our feet. He claimed it worked better, but he looked like some creature from the Blue Lagoon movie. Whatever discomfort I got from wearing the utility blouse in the heat was returned in some comfort by the fact that the mosquitoes couldn’t bite through the tough cotton of its manufacture.
Dawn was breaking by the time we reached the natural edge of the jungle. A clearing extended out from that broken line all the way to the edge of a great cliff. The Gunny set up the company’s first security perimeter since we’d left the position up on the mountain. I was relieved. I’d already learned how hard-bitten tough the Vietnamese enemy was, and I didn’t doubt at all the capability of its leadership or ability of NVA units to take hard hits. The company had only escaped taking heavy casualties by pulling bizarre and unexpected moves, and getting some perfectly fired artillery. How long that might be continued was anybody’s guess.
I shed my pack near the tree line, and threw down my poncho before walking over to the lip of the cliff to stand next to the Gunny.
“Holy shit,” I breathed out.
“Looks are deceiving,” the Gunny replied, cupping his hand to light a cigarette against the light wind rising up over the edge.
“Holy shit,” I said again, the scene so stunningly beautiful that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I’d been raised in Hawaii, and because of my father’s Coast Guard position, I’d traveled to all of the islands. There were some beautiful valleys on those islands but I’d never stood at the top of one of them and looked down the expanse of the whole thing at one time. The river below was a brown and blue ribbon, glinting occasionally as the water shifted and moved. The walls of the great gently sloping sides of the the valley were covered in green growth of all kinds and hues. There were little canyons feeding into the main canyon in many places, and heaving round-topped mountains rose up from different points along the valley’s entire length.
“Resupply is going to roll in,” the Gunny said. “It’s a weird run because command said our mission to enter the valley will be on the chopper. Usually they just tell us. What shitty crap do they have up their sleeves this time?”
“It looks empty down there,” I said, having nothing to add about the coming resupply drop.
“B-52’s have dumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of bombs down into that,” the Gunny said, blowing smoke out to let the wind sweep it back over our heads. “You see any evidence?”
I ran my eyes slowly up and down the valley, and then did it again, even slower. “There’s no evidence at all,” I answered, shaking my head.
“The A Shau eats everything that enters,” the Gunny said, snapping the butt of his cigarette into the air. Unlike the smoke, the butt went up, out and then plunged down, like it’d been grabbed by a small invisible hand.
“ A Shau is a dead valley predator and it wants more dead for company, except mosquitoes, snakes and crocodiles.”
The Gunny turned and walked back toward where the company was setting up to receive the hoped and prayed for resupply chopper.
“Crocodiles?” I whispered into the wind.
“Crocodiles?” Fusner repeated, from just behind me.
I didn’t know there were crocodiles in Vietnam, but I didn’t want to let Fusner know that so I let it go. Each day in the Nam was like getting a barely passing grade in some arcane and painful college course.
“If you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes back at you.” I quoted from some philosopher I’d read somewhere.
There was a delay of a few seconds before Fusner replied. “What’s an abyss?”
I felt the throbbing beat of distant helicopter blades working their way toward us. Even at a great distance, I could already tell that there was more than one chopper, and that one of them was a big CH-46 or 47. The welcome resupply was about to come in. I pulled myself away from the gorgeous vista and hurried toward my stuff, to secure it from the hundred-mile-an-hour winds that would blast out from under the big chopper when it landed.
For the first time since I’d landed in country there were no body bags stacked and waiting for the chopper, and I smiled a very faint smile of pride. The giant twin-rotor helicopter came gliding in, moving a lot faster than it seemed. Two Huey Cobras flew shotgun, the crews obviously enjoying diving down into the valley and then screaming upward to veer in low and fast over the landing zone. Debris flew about, as the CH-47 flight engineer set his crew to work running boxes and other gear down the rear ramp that had flopped down on the hard lichen-covered rock surface below. The twin rotors kept spinning at high speed. The process of unloading only took a few minutes. At the end of that time three Marines in rear area utilities, including flak jackets, walked down the ramp before ducking down as the monster chopper spooled up and lifted from the flat surface at the top of the cliff. In seconds all the choppers, plunging down into the valley, were just fast-fading blade-slapping echoes.
I stared at the three men, my eyes going wide. The first real smile of my tour began to stretch its way across my face. The black bars on the Marine’s helmets were clearly visible. A captain and two lieutenants. The company was getting real officers. I didn’t move. The Gunny came out of nowhere, strode past me, and went out to greet the new officers. I heard Captain Casey, and First Lieutenants Billings and Keating, introduce themselves. The Gunny pointed back to where I stood, still gaping, with Fusner, Stevens, Zippo and Nguyen lined up next to me.
The three officers walked toward me. I inhaled deeply. I didn’t know what to say. Would they want the company’s condition explained, or knowledge about the night’s countering of the NVA attack or even the state of our supplies?
“You’d be Junior,” Captain Casey said, his face hard and his tone even harder. The first lieutenants formed up behind Casey, spreading out slightly, like fighter planes supporting the leader of a combat squadron. I noted the Gunny slowly backing away, until he disappeared from my focus.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, almost coming to attention, but not quite.
Casey turned his attention to the scout team. “You’d be Sergeant Stevens, I’m told. Stand at ease, Sergeant. You’re now my Scout Sergeant, with your little assistant there.” The Captain pointed toward Nguyen, before turning back to me. “You can keep the radio man, Junior. The Gunny won’t need one anymore so I’ll take his. And you,” he pointed toward Zippo, “you’ll be heading for one of the platoons just as soon as we take care of this racial thing. The Captain scowled at me again. “How in hell you managed to get a race war going in this company, Junior, is the kind of stuff that’ll be written up for future training commands.”
The Captain pointed at me with his right index finger extended.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, nearly struck dumb, my mind having gone blank as he finished the last few words about the problems with First and Fourth platoons.
“We need to talk,” Captain Casey said, approaching to within a few feet of me. I had to lean back a bit to look up at him. I was a little less than five nine, which put him at about six foot three, or maybe a touch more, I calculated. He wore the new jungle utilities and boots I’d only hoped to one day acquire, as did his supporting lieutenants. “Step this way,” he ordered, and then walked back toward the edge of the cliff.
I had already assumed that my place was to say nothing. I walked next to the captain, knowing I wasn’t going to be asked any questions. I was going to be told what to do. That was the way it was supposed to be in the command structure of a regular Marine unit. There were no excuses. You did what you were ordered to do or paid the price.
When we came to the edge of the abyss he stopped and turned, staring deeply into my eyes. He said nothing, instead pulling a pack of Camel cigarettes from his blouse pocket and a small box of C-ration matches. I waited, glancing surreptitiously down the face of the cliff. I figured it was about four hundred feet down to the forest bracken below. It was not a survivable fall. I looked back at the Captain and figured he probably weighed about two-twenty, or so.
“You fucked up your first, and probably only command, Junior,” he said, facing out over the vastness of the valley below. “Now we’re going to run this company by the book. You disobeyed a direct order to take Hill 110. You refused a direct order from Captain Mertz by ignoring it, and you’ve used up about a quarter of all the artillery supplies in the whole damned area, plus calling in the Army to do Marine Corps work. How can I say this? You haven’t even had a decent kill ratio. Your company has more casualties than all the other companies of the battalion put together.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, not knowing what else to say. The Captain inhaled and blew out smoke three more times, before going on.
“Finally, this whole war is being fought using the rules of engagement. Have you ever even heard of the rules of engagement?”
“I heard that there’s a copy of them on a special podium in Division Headquarters,” I replied. “I think I saw them there on my first night.” Unlike the Captain, I kept my voice flat and emotionless. I looked at our relative positions on the lip of the crevasse. I was just to the left and a little behind him. I knew I could handle his two-twenty fairly deftly. I looked back toward where I’d tossed my stuff and saw almost the whole company making believe it wasn’t watching the show at the edge of the cliff. What would happen to the company if Casey took a fall?
“You’re now the forward observer,” the Captain said, turning to face me.
“And that’s all you are. You can have your radio operator to reach the artillery net but you don’t fire a single round without my pre-approval and you don’t fire on anything or anybody I don’t order you to, and that sure as hell includes our own men. Am I understood?”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, wondering how many times I’d said the only words I’d spoken to the man, and how many times I’d have to say them again.
“You’re dismissed,” the captain said, but I didn’t walk away because he kept talking.
“I’m going to separate and blend in the blacks with the whites in all the platoons before nightfall. The two problem platoon commanders, the shake and bakes, are reduced to squad leaders or even fire team leaders if their new commanders so choose.”
I stood waiting, again not knowing what to do or say.
“Any questions?” Captain Casey said, although he didn’t say the words like they were a question, or that he welcomed any.
“How do you know what’s going on in the company, sir?” I asked, truly befuddled. The radio contact with battalion command was extremely slight, and controlled up until now by the Gunny.
“The daily reports, of course,” the captain snorted. “Rittenhouse has filed very accurate and detailed reports on all of this crap.”
I was stunned to silence, once more.
“You’re dismissed…again,” the captain said, with a wave of his hand, which had to mean he really meant it this time, I guessed.
I walked over to my gear, which had been blown about ten feet by the chopper’s down draft. I gathered my stuff together, aware that Zippo and Stevens were getting their own together. I didn’t know what to say to them so I just made believe I was working away setting up my own hooch. When I looked up both men were gone. I felt an ache inside me I could not quite place. Fusner built his own little hooch next to mine, placing it closer, like he’d done when he was afraid of the snakes. Nguyen sat on one edge of his laid down poncho in his tight cross-legged pose that only natives could pull off for any extended period of time. I wondered if he’d gotten the word that he wasn’t my Kit Carson scout anymore.
I finished building my hooch by myself. I laid out my poncho cover like it was a little flat porch. I was thankful that the ground was not wet mud for a change. For some reason, possibly because of the wind coming up over the edge of the cliff, the mosquitoes were all but gone. I could not see where the Captain and his two First Lieutenants had gone off to bivouac, and I didn’t much care either. It was daytime, but the company wasn’t going anywhere without some kind of rest. Fusner hauled in a big plastic bottle of water and a load of my ham and lima beans. I had water but was no longer thirsty. I had food but was no longer hungry. And I could rest but I could not rest. I sat with my legs up and knees spread, with my elbows lying on my knees. Fusner’s transistor radio played some blues piece: “…sittin’ here resting my bones, and this loneliness won’t leave me alone, two thousand miles I roam just to make this dock my home…” while I stared out over the beauty of the A Shau stretching out below.
The Gunny came striding through the bush behind me, and then sat down on the other edge of my poncho liner. He immediately went to work making a canteen holder of coffee. He tossed a packet of the instant stuff at my feet. Fusner appeared next to him with a holder filled with some of the new fresh water. I didn’t really want coffee, but I wasn’t going to interrupt whatever was going on. I began to make a cup for myself, using the Gunny’s flaming explosive chunk when he was done with it.
“Rittenhouse,” I said, softly.
“Yeah, I heard,” the Gunny replied. “That’s a problem that’ll be taken care of post haste.”
I knew then that the Gunny hadn’t thought about the potential of daily reports going back to command and the necessity of making sure of what was in them before they went off. It wasn’t the Gunny who’d filed the reports. I tried not to show my relief.
“The three knights of the orient look real good,” the Gunny said, between sips of his too hot coffee.
I checked out the Gunny’s gear, taking a sip of my own coffee. He looked a bit more tattered than I did, if that was possible.
“Nice boots,” I commented.
“What size do you wear?” the Gunny replied.
I laughed out loud for the first time since arriving in Vietnam.
“Jurgens and Sugar Daddy want to see you,” the Gunny said, after he stopped laughing himself.
“You’re kidding,” I said, with a sigh. “Now what? Are those guys ever going to lighten up, or do I have to climb into a body bag to make that happen?”
The Gunny lit another cigarette instead of answering right away. I waited. In only a few minutes I’d lost my whole scout team, been reduced to even less of an officer than I’d been before, and then blamed for every misstep of the company, past and present. On top of that, it was all on paper back at battalion, not that it mattered much with my lousy prospects for continuing to live.
“There was an old Chinese general who once said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Gunny said, blowing a big cloud of smoke out toward the lip of the A Shau.
I drank my coffee with my right hand. My left started to shake a bit so I reached down to massage my thigh with it. I felt the letter inside the pocket. I’d forgotten to send my letter home when resupply lifted off. For the second time. I looked out over the beauty of the A Shau and became afraid again. I was afraid that Vietnam was claiming me. Slowly, ever so slowly, back home was being pried loose from me like one narrow board after another in the disassembly of an old farm house.
End of the First Ten Days