I went to work on my stuff, just outside the exposed rock area where the choppers had come in. The area wasn’t that large, having hardly the footprint of an average small home back in the real world. The jungle that sprung up right near its edge looked like it could have been put together by a Hollywood set-building team. The Gunny finished his coffee and headed back into the bracken. I presumed he was going to talk to Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. I couldn’t think of anyone I would like to see less of, but then the three officers getting their stuff together at the edge of the stone landing zone came into focus. Rittenhouse was taking notes among them and the supplies while some of the company Marines were going through them.
Fusner caught my attention with a small wave of one hand that he held down near his waist. I frowned, thinking he might be ready to shove the radio handset at me. From behind him stepped Nguyen, who stopped and seemed to be waiting for something.
“What does he want?” I asked Fusner.
“Oh, well, it seems that the new officers don’t want him as a scout,” Fusner said, squatting down while he talked.
Nguyen squatted with him, both men looking me straight in the eyes.
“They don’t trust indigenous gooks, or so Stevens said,” Fusner whispered, as if there was someone around to hear or care if they did hear.
“So, I have my scout team back,” I said with a big sigh. I didn’t mention that my scout team was one seventeen-year-old kid and a local Montagnard that didn’t speak English.
“How are we supposed to talk to him?” I asked, in exasperation, knowing Fusner would not be able to answer the question, but letting my frustration force me to ask it anyway.
“Sign language,” Fusner said, with a big smile. He turned to Nguyen and made an okay sign with his right hand, and then pointed at me. Nguyen held up one finger before closing his fist again.
“He says you are number one,” Fusner said, laughing, before pointing out to where the new officers were having Stevens build their hooches. Stevens was hunting around trying to find some way to put pegs into the hard stone.
Nguyen flashed ten fingers up very briefly. I didn’t need Fusner to translate the hand sign. Number one was the best, in pidgin Vietnamese, and number ten the worst. I knew some of Nguyen’s differential analysis was based on the fact that I’d already survived for ten days and the other guys were FNGs. Some but probably not all.
Stevens looked back at us and beckoned with one arm. Nugyen took off at a trot. He knelt by Steven’s side, and then got up and loped back.
Nguyen went to work brushing the jungle cover from atop the ever present, but mostly dried up mud beneath. He drew two small circles far apart. He connected them with a line forming a long arc. Then he put a big “X” next to one circle, and pointed out where the officers were getting set up.
I looked out at them and then back at the diagram. While I was thinking, the back of my mind marveled at the officers bringing full canvas shelter-halves to the bush. Shelter-halves were like partial tents, but weighed about three times more than the simple structures we generally made using ponchos. I knew it was unlikely that they planned to carry the equipment themselves when the company had to move.
Suddenly, I stood up.
“Shit, I got it,” I said to Fusner, looking down at Nguyen with even more respect. “We’ve got to get away from here. Come on, we’re moving deeper into the bush. I don’t give a shit about the perimeter or the enemy that might be there.” I began to quickly gather my things.
The Gunny showed up, stepping out of the jungle like he’d been close by all along, or been called.
“What’s going on?” he asked, staring out at the supply pile being worked over, and the new officers standing around and looking out into the A Shau valley.
“Registration point,” I said, throwing my stuffed pack over my right shoulder and carrying my binoculars in my free hand. “The landing zone is pre-registered for range. Stevens and Nguyen spotted the marks on the stone.”
“That’s gotta be for mortars,” the Gunny said, “but we don’t have any infantry around here, at least not that we know of. It’s quiet as a church, except for a bit of wind, and that valley is good six miles across, maybe more. We’re out of range of their stuff.”
“Out of range for the 105s. Howitzers have way less range than cannons. The NVA have 122mm long guns,” I replied, beginning to work my way into the denser part of jungle. “Those things reach out to seventeen, sometimes eighteen miles. That lovely open area of rock is registered and everyone in the world can see us. The only reason we got away with the resupply is because they didn’t know we were coming, but they sure as hell know now.”
“Junior,” the Gunny said to my departing back.
I stopped, and waited.
“Aren’t you going to tell them?” he asked.
“I’m not in the command structure,” I said, not turning to face him. “I’m staff. Forward observer. That’s it.”
“We can’t just leave them out there like that,” he replied.
“A man’s got to do what he thinks is best,” I said, wondering about whether the Gunny was right. But, was it my responsibility to warn Rittenhouse and the new officers?
I knew in my bones that Stevens was out of there too. The wily scout knew how to weasel his way out of danger, rather than confronting it directly. He’d probably figure it out. There was always the chance that the NVA wouldn’t fire on the location, as well.
“You can’t kill officers just because you don’t like them, Junior,” the Gunny said, his voice low.
I finally turned, lowering my pack to the jungle mat at my feet. I looked the Gunny straight in the eyes.
“What am I, the example? You didn’t kill me because you didn’t like me, so I shouldn’t do that either?” I asked.
“I still don’t like you,” the Gunny said, and I knew from his expression he meant it.
“What do you want of me, Gunny?” I asked, my shoulders slumping. “You want me to order you to go tell them that they’re as ignorant as they are?”
“You’re an officer, when it’s all said and done,” he replied, his eyes unblinking. “They’re officers, like you, except they haven’t been lucky enough to run the table for ten days.”
The Gunny hiked off, his own pack bobbing behind him. He didn’t head back out to the exposed area. I knew he was leaving it to me, and I resented him deeply for that. I was only a commander when the shittiest jobs had to be done, and only an officer if it meant someone had to be blamed for something.
“Come on, Fusner,” I ordered, letting go of my pack and heading back. “I’m not doing this one alone, but there’s no reason for Nguyen to risk his ass. Sign him somehow to stay here.”
Fusner held one hand up to Nguyen, with his two smallest fingers bent while spreading the other three. Nguyen sat down atop my pack to wait. I walked toward the landing zone, wondering why I was complimented by the Montagnard sitting on my stuff, and also wondering how Fusner knew so much about hand signs, and Nguyen too.
We got within ten feet of the group before anyone noticed us.
Rittenhouse looked over one shoulder from the supply pile, and said “Sir?” when he noted my approach.
I looked the young man in the eyes, feeling strangely detached. It was like I was in chemistry class looking at an interesting specimen, except none of those had been alive. He looked away, and then back. I bent my head a bit to one side in examining him from top to bottom, my expression turning to one of question. Who was this boy and why was he in my life?
Rittenhouse backed up four or five paces but I didn’t move.
“What is it Junior?” Captain Casey asked.
“You’re making camp on an artillery registration point,” I indicated, pointing at the strange carvings on a chunk of nearby stone. “The 122mm rounds from NVA guns can reach out all the way from Laos, across this valley. The mark means that they’ve fired on this position many times before and know exactly where it is.”
“I know what a registration point is, lieutenant,” Casey replied, his tone one of irritation. “I don’t know why any of this should be of concern to you.”
I took a long deep and slow breath. “It’s not really, except I know artillery, and with Rittenhouse being killed with you I’ll have to write the letters home about how you died.”
“You know, Junior, you have a real smart mouth.” Casey said, glaring at me. “What Basic Class were you in, and who in hell was your battalion commander back there?”
I just looked at all three of the officers and waited. Rittenhouse seemed frozen in place next to the supplies, his pencil not moving on his upraised clip board.
After a few seconds of the sound being the wind coming up over the edge of the cliff the captain spoke again.
“There may be some merit to the registration thing,” the captain agreed, after conferring for a few seconds with his two lieutenants. We’ll move over to the edge of the LZ.”
“The company’s moving half a click inland and setting up a perimeter,” I replied. “You may want to be inside it when darkness comes.”
I turned to go. Fusner was already gone.
“The company moves when I order it to move, Junior,” Captain Casey said, his voice going hard again.
“I understand, sir, and you have that right,” I replied, knowing I was going to walk away in a few seconds no matter what else was said. Any inbound artillery would not announce itself. No ranging rounds were needed in firing on a pre-registered target, and the rounds would be traveling beyond the speed of sound.
They might even already be in the air, I realized uncomfortably. I looked beyond the clumped officers, and out over the valley, as if I might be able to see something coming in.
“You’re aware, of course, since you’ve obviously been briefed, how the officers who served before me died.”
The captain pointed down at my left hand, where my binoculars dangled.
“Let me have those,” he ordered, holding out his hand.
I reluctantly handed the Japanese instrument over. My need for them, as long as we remained up on the ridge high on the wall of the valley, would be greater than it had ever been if I had to call in artillery support.
“You’re dismissed,” Captain Casey said, turning back to stare out through the binoculars over the wide expanse of the valley to its other side.
I left the four of them standing there. I’d followed the Gunny’s advice, against my better judgment, and felt no better about having warned them, even as minimally as I had. I walked fast, almost breaking into a run. I passed one stack of boxed ammunition, mostly gone through, and the other of C-ration cases and water bottles. I hefted a box of C-rations from the stack Rittenhouse had been accounting for.
“Put that on my account, Corporal,” I yelled over my shoulder, to where Rittenhouse had retreated from the center of the landing zone. “Put it down with the rest of the stuff we’ll go over later.”
I moved away from the area as fast as I could, with the heavy case of C-rations on my shoulder. I didn’t know what circular error probable was for a Soviet 122mm round but a slew of them coming in would have to take out anyone alive. There was no cover on the open rock area.
By the time I rejoined Fusner and Nguyen, my hooch was up and waiting. I plopped the extra box of rations down next to Fusner’s poncho liner. I noted the company forming and setting in around us, all of them moving deeper into the jungle. Our position, about a thousand meters in from the lip of the ridge should be sufficient unless the NVA had a competent forward observer with a decent radio lurking nearby. I was fast discovering, however, that trained forward observers were about as rare in the field as decent company grade officers were serving in the chain of command.
I laid on my poncho liner and tried to rest, before taking some of my ratty stationary from my pack and beginning a second letter home. The beauty of the A Shau Valley was the substance of the body of the letter, and I didn’t have to lie about that at all. Completing that task, I went about setting up defensive fires on the west side of the perimeter, in case the night was active with NVA troops coming from that direction. I knew their commanders would be suffering from the two past run-ins they’d had with our company and Kilo.
Fusner leaned near, his too-close hooch almost touching my own.
“Where’d you leave the binoculars?”
“The new C.O. is keeping them for me,” I replied, not looking up from my map, while continuing to make small notations with my grease pencil on its plastic covered surface.
The Gunny forced his way noisily through the foliage, and squatted down to make coffee, not far from where my left boot stuck out from where I lay on one side trying to work with the map and marker. I only looked up when two more Marines came straggling along behind him. I sat up and put away my map very quickly, and then turned to face the men with both hands free.
The two Marines were Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, but neither looked like either man had looked before. Jurgens’ face was a study in saddened worry and Sugar Daddy looked entirely different without his flattened bush hat and purple sun glasses. Neither man had brought along bigger enlisted men to serve as protection or for intimidation. They were so non-threatening that my hand did not automatically fall to sit atop the butt of my Colt. Both men scrunched down by the Gunny, who was busy heating his water.
Suddenly two more Marines appeared from behind Fusner. It was Stevens and Zippo. They stood uneasily at the radioman’s side.
“Aren’t you supposed to be with the C.O.?” I asked, looking upward to Stevens. I was putting off the coming confrontation with the two former platoon commanders and I knew it.
“He said to go scout something, so we’re scouting this location,” Steven replied, as both men settled down to squatting positions.
“What do they want?” I asked the Gunny, who was working on sipping at his coffee with one hand and smoking a cigarette with the other.
“What do you think?” the Gunny said, not looking at me or the two former commanders.
“I’m not the C.O. here, but then they know that,” I said, although my curiosity was piqued.
“So what is it?”
“What do we do?” Jurgens broke in.
I noted that he didn’t use the name Junior in talking to me, plus the tone of his voice was actually almost polite.
“What do I get?” I asked, almost enjoying myself, not really expecting an answer.
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy looked at one another for a few seconds, and then both looked at the Gunny, as did I.
“They’ve been to the A Shau before,” the Gunny said. “A number of times, like me.”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” was all I could think to respond.
“We’re going to get hit tonight,” Jurgens said, his voice quiet and low. “They’re going to hit us from the west on the ground while the arty shit comes pouring into the landing zone in the east. We got nowhere to go except maybe down into the broken valleys on both sides, and they’ve probably mined those years back.”
“Why would they hit us tonight?” I asked.
“Ask your ‘yard’ over there,” Sugar Daddy said, pointing at Nguyen, who squatted just beyond our circle. Nguyen allowed no expression to cross his facial features. I looked at him, and he blinked.
“Okay, so we know that,” I agreed, part of my mind already beginning to design a plan to handle the expected attack.
“You’re right in the middle here,” Jurgens pointed out. When they hit you’ll be among the first to go down.”
I looked at the man, wondering why he’d terrified me for so many days and nights. He didn’t look terrifying. He looked like a tough kid on a high school playground, which he was not long from being on.
“So, for this warning you want something,” I stated, flatly. “What in hell am I supposed to do?”
“The Gunny said you did that Chesty trick,” Jurgens said, looking down at nothing in front of him. “We need a trick like that to get through, and we want to be the leaders of our platoons again. Breaking up the platoons won’t work. The guys won’t do it, and there’ll be nobody to fight the NVA tonight.”
I massaged both thighs with my hands. They weren’t shaking but I didn’t want to take a chance of showing weakness in front of the two dangerous predators. My left hand clutched my two letters home and my right the deadly morphine packet. I had to come up with something but I had nothing. I was now more of a nobody officer in the company than I had been before. With Rittenhouse writing the daily report, added on to by the three real officers, I was likely to end up in Leavenworth if I somehow lived through my tour. I thought of the magnificent cliff I’d stood next to once again and how far down the cliff face extended. A kernel of inspiration ignited in my brain, fanning itself into a fire, the more focus I gave it.
“Okay, here’s what you get back,” I said, clearing the bracken in front of me until I had a small section of flat mud to work on. I smoothed it with my hands, and then reached in my pocket for my cheap government pen. I didn’t click it to allow the point to be exposed.
“First, you two go back to your platoons and ignore the captain’s orders,” I instructed. “Run your platoons just like before. If the new lieutenants show up, you ignore them. You’re good at doing that to new officers. What are they going to do, make you go down into the A Shau?” I thought about the rest of my developing plan for a moment.
“Well, what about the attack?” the Gunny asked, as if reading from my special script.
“We’ll use the King Kamehameha plan,” I said, quickly leaning forward and making a drawing on the mud in front of me.
I drew an elongated oval around the landing zone, then a rectangular box running back and forth across the swell of mountain edge we were currently on. Finally, I drew arrows running outside and back and forth from and to the rectangle, reserving one giant arrow for the incoming sweep of the NVA that would attack from the jungle toward the landing zone.
“Soon to be King Kamehameha used this to capture Oahu and become the King of the Hawaiian Islands. He had his troops make believe that they were trapped between his bigger enemy and a giant cliff edge. The enemy thought they had him. But in the daytime Kamehameha allowed his forces to sneak away to each side and when the enemy attacked right up the center of where they thought his forces were Kamehameha had his men drive them over the edge of the cliff.” I looked up and pulled back from my diagram with obvious enthusiasm.
“Pushed them over the cliff?” the Gunny asked, skeptically. “The NVA have AK-47’s, not spears.”
“Oh that,” I said. Their artillery’s going to open up and then walk itself right into where they think we are. But we’ll be holding them there from the sides. We’ll force them right into their own artillery barrage since it’s not likely they have a forward observer with a radio that’ll reach out that far. Finally, we come in right behind them with our own artillery. It’s perfect.”
I waited as everyone present sat thinking. I had no idea of when or even if the NVA would use their artillery. I also had no idea about whether we would be attacked from the exposed western flank located at our front. Finally, it was a complete toss up about how the new officers would react to being told to go screw themselves. That last part forced a grim smile out of me.
“You heard the man,” the Gunny instructed, rising to his feet and snapping his cigarette into the bush. “Junior has a plan.”
In seconds the only Marines left at my hooch opening were Fusner, Nguyen and the Gunny.
“Get the hooches moved,” I ordered Fusner. “We want to be a bit down that northern slope before the fun begins.”
Fusner went to work, while the Gunny finished cleaning out his canteen holder.
“What were you thinking there, when you smiled?” he asked me, quietly. “About Rittenhouse?”
I didn’t answer his question, as there was no point. My mind was already on the other problem I knew I was going to have before sundown. Captain Casey wasn’t going to like implementing any plan that wasn’t his own, and his two officer lackeys might become difficult to deal with.
“Flank security. Part of the price is that these two clowns send out patrols to find out what’s down there, where we have to go,” I said. “If it’s mined, we have to know.”
“They’re not going to like that,” the Gunny replied. “Who are they supposed to send?”
“FNG’s, of course,” I said, flinching inside, but not letting the Gunny know.
“And what was that Kamehameha shit?” the Gunny came back. “Does he even exist, and if he did then did he really do that?”
“The place is called the Pali,” I replied. “He existed. What he did up at that pass is anybody’s guess.”
“Again,” the Gunny whispered, before moving back into the jungle.
I sat on my poncho cover and reflected on the simple fact that I was in the rotten position of having to hope that the enemy hit us.
Reference: King Kamehameha I (read section on Maui and O’ahu)