I lay in my hooch, dug into the side of the hill through the effort of using Fusner’s entrenching tool. The hill was too slanted to lay against without a step being carved into its side. Fusner was just down from me, while Stevens and Zippo were over to my right. How the scouts had managed to get away from being under the direct eyeballs of the new officers I had no idea, and I wasn’t going to ask. I felt a depth of rotten care toward the new officers. Rotten because I knew I would trade their survival for my own in a heartbeat.
I knew that was not right. Not just very few months before I’d gone to Basic School with men just like them. I’d liked them better back then. A lot better than they’d liked me. I smirked at the thought. At least I didn’t have that problem now. But I knew there was going to be trouble from them, and more trouble from Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. Men like them did not take coming to anyone like a Mafia Godfather, with their hats almost literally in their hands. There would be a price, and it would be one I could not want or be able to afford. I realized, shifting around on my poncho uncomfortably, that I didn’t want to kill them. But I did want to kill them. Not kill them exactly. Just make them gone away to somewhere else. I didn’t care where.
I took out my pen and doodled on the back of my map. I liked my Kamehameha plan. It was simple. I knew the 122’s would come in at some point. The enemy battery had to be holding its fire, waiting for the tattered outfit we’d tangled with before to get ready for their attack. Again. So that part of the plan should work, depending on timing, which I had no control over. There had to be some guy on the other lip of the valley staring through his own lenses at our position, waiting. He’d walk the artillery fire inland once he confirmed that the battery was dead on target with the registration point. That part was simple logic unless the hardscrabble band of Vietnamese was too beaten to counter-attack. If I was a laughing man anymore, I would have laughed. The NVA were tough as French snails, and about as prolific too. They were everywhere. They’d come. My own use of Cunningham Firebase to drop rounds behind the attacking force was simple too.
Cunningham had proven its worth. If they had about sixty High Explosive rounds laying around, then bringing the fire down and walking it into the rear of the attacking force would be child’s play, with my guidance. That left only where the NVA could go. And that was my weak point in the plan. They could only come down the slopes in either one direction or the other, or both. If the company was properly set up, with two lines of machine gun arrangements, then it would be a slaughterhouse if the NVA advanced down either side. If the Marines in the company believed me enough to be really on guard and ready. If the blacks and whites, and God knew whatever else we had, could get their shit together long enough to act like a real Marine company. I knew how unlikely that eventuality might be. I could only do so much, though. I laid down, with the backs of my hands crossed over my forehead. The sun was penetrating through the double canopy of trees but there was still a little wind making its way through the bracken close to the ground. The wind held the mosquitos off and provided some cooling.
“Sir,” Zippo whispered from near my right shoulder, just as I heard footsteps squishing through the jungle muck near my feet.
I sat up and rubbed my face to clear my head. One of the First lieutenants stood like he was some sort of Civil War statue, one hand behind him at parade rest and the other holding out my binoculars.
“The captain says these are junk and would like the real ones,” the lieutenant said, before tossing the binoculars into the mud near the left edge of my poncho liner. I retrieved the binoculars and tried to brush the mud from the lenses, before setting then down to pay attention to the man in front of me.
“Jappo specials that don’t focus properly, the captain says.”
“We don’t have any real ones,” I replied, wanting to defend my Japanese binoculars, but figuring it wasn’t worth it.
I could see the man’s name, printed in black over his left breast. Keating, it said, in big black letters printed in bold. Against the bright green, gold and brown of his new utility blouse, the name looked like a perfect aiming point. I thought about being at a distance and holding the front sight of my .45 just above the line of letters. Perfect.
“What’s going on with the company?” Keating asked, looking around nervously. “Why is everyone down here and not up on the high ground? You don’t look like Marines, he said outward in a loud voice. You look like a load of tacos stuck into the side of a hill.”
Fusner started to laugh, and than tried to stifle his giggles with a fake coughing fit when Keating glared over at him.
“Yes, sir,” I replied.
“I’m a First Lieutenant", Keating replied, instantly. “You don't call me sir.”
I just stared up at him, wondering what he would do if I said ‘yes, asshole.’ I shook my head. ‘Never give warning’ was becoming an applied mantra in almost every situation I was living through.
“We’re going to get hit on the high ground tonight, Mr. Keating,” I said, as patiently as I could. “The company’s set in on both sides of the high ground because the landing zone is going to be alive with enemy cannon fire walking itself west while I’m going to be bringing in artillery east behind the NVA and driving them into their own falling rounds. Or our own. They can take their pick.”
“But the command post is encamped on that high ground,” Keating said, showing a bit of fear in his eyes.
“That’s probably a bad idea,” I replied, and then waited.
“You know all this because you're Svengali, or what?” Keating demanded, getting control of himself by becoming aggressive.
“Is he an officer?” I asked, innocently.
“Who?” Keating asked, his voice almost cracking.
“Svengali,” I said patiently. But I didn’t give him a chance to answer because I was bone tired and didn’t want to banter further.
“The captain wants to see you,” Keating said.
I stretched and clasped my hands behind my head.
“Ask him when he wants to come down and see me,” I replied.
“I don’t know who you think you are or who you think you’re dealing with,” Keating fumed. “Casey’s going to chew you up and spit you out when I tell him what you said.”
I breathed deeply in and out a few times and closed my eyes, hoping the irritating lieutenant would be gone when I reopened them. But he wasn’t.
“At least I know where I am, Keating,” I said, softly. “I’m about four hundred meters from the edge of the A Shau Valley. Marines who’ve gone in there call it the Valley of No Return. The reason it’s called the Valley of No Return is that the man who goes in is not the one who comes out. Tonight you’re going to experience your first full contact combat. You don’t seem afraid, and that’s to your credit. Tomorrow morning I’ll come find you and if you’re not huddled in a puddle of terror then it’ll be because you’re dead.”
Keating stood wavering a bit in front of me, maybe from the slight wind, I thought. He didn’t say anything but he didn’t leave either.
“You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy, so trot on back and inform Casey that he needs to haul ass off of the high ground if wants to avoid getting a Purple Heart and being bagged up in the morning. Seeing me is the least of his problems.”
I closed my eyes again and wished the lieutenant gone. Keating waited for a full minute before moving.
“Thanks for the advice,” he whispered in such a tone of sincerity that my eyes snapped open.
And then he was gone.
“Shit,” I said to myself. I didn’t want to feel sorry for the man, or worse yet, like him. But his last comment made him sound like a twelve-year-old, and a twelve-year-old in trouble. His tone had taken me backward ten days in an instant.
I wasn’t the Gunny. I had no time or inclination to teach an FNG officer how to survive under conditions I wasn’t really doing very well surviving in either, except on a wing and a prayer. Besides, Keating was too tall, too good looking and too much of what passed for a real Marine officer, while I was none of those things. I didn’t think much of myself for thinking that, either.
“That was pretty tough, sir,” Fusner said, from down below me.
I knew he was right but there was no response I could come up with that made sense.
I sat up again. I knew I was not going to be able to avoid the captain for long. Even though we were all tired, down to our very cores, I had to get cleaned up. We had extra water, and if we were headed down into what I’d seen of the A Shau it wasn’t likely we would get resupplied for some time.
“Zippo, get a bottle of water,” I ordered, getting to my feet after scrounging inside my pack for a crummy little bar of white surgical soap. I stripped down a bit away from where I was dug into the hill, making sure the five gallons of water poured over my head would not run into anyone else’s hooch. Zippo was perfect, being big and strong enough to hold the bottle firm in the air, even while I took a few moments to lather up. When it was done, I looked at my miserable combat gear. The only good thing about it was that it blended in with everything around me. I dressed, wearing the same sox for the third day and night. I was trying to get three days to a pair because when I was done the socks were too. If you washed your governmental issue socks in Vietnam, you had nothing but filmy threads left when you were done. I laced up my boots and felt a whole lot better until I saw the safari headed my way.
An entourage appeared out of the bush, with the three new officers in the lead. All three carried M-16s, which I thought uncommon, but certainly allowed if they wanted to add that weight and bulk to their loads. Except they didn’t have any loads. There were five enlisted Marines carrying all of their stuff. No matter how I felt about their near childish naïve behavior so far, I had to admit that they had enough leadership ability to at least get some of the company to do their bidding.
The three approached, with Pilson just behind the C.O., and felt nearly as much trepidation as I had felt when the door opened in the back of the armored personnel carrier ten days ago. I stayed where I was, thinking about how trepidation wasn’t nearly as bad as the terror I was accustomed to. I realized that I didn’t know where the Gunny was and that bothered me a bit. I’d seen him earlier, carrying a whole box of the mosquito repellant. I presumed that the nasty little monsters would be much worse an affliction down in the valley. The men started digging into the side of the hill nearby. I let my breath out slowly, as it came to me. The officers were coming down to stay where I was.
Pilson dropped his radio and went to work digging his own clam shell hole into the side of the mountain. I watched him work, liking the fact that, for the first time I’d been dropped out of the sky, the company was actually digging in. Underground was protection from so much, including the RPGs the enemy would have, and any stray rounds from either artillery battery. He didn’t make much headway before the captain stepped close and talked to him. Pilson put down his entrenching tool, strapped on his radio and headed in my direction. That he put on his radio first, before traveling only a few yards impressed me. I realized that a lot of the Marines in the company had learned and applied good survival skills and practical field experience.
“The captain wants to see you, sir,” he said, almost apologetically.
“I can see him over there from right here,” I replied, knowing I was being adolescent and irritating.
Pilson looked down at me, and waited.
“Jesus Christ,” I whispered, more to myself than Pilson, wondering if I wasn’t bringing the wrath of God down to join the wrath of Vietnam that had landed on my shoulders. I got up and put on my wet utility blouse I was trying to dry a bit. I’d washed as much mud off it as possible without more water and real detergent. I buttoned up and walked the ten-yard distance. The captain was sitting cross-legged on his poncho liner. I wanted to tell him to layer his poncho cover under it to avoid the liner getting wet for the night ahead but I didn’t.
“Forward observer, reporting in, sir,” I said, standing in front of him, and trying not to look like what I really was. In Basic School they had a phrase for what I had to look like. It was called a ‘soup sandwich.’
“That’s right lieutenant,” Captain Casey said, his tone flat and commanding.
“You’re not the company commander anymore. Certainly not when it comes to planning to respond to an impending enemy attack. What’s this Kamehameha crap I’m hearing about?” He pulled the section of map I’d drawn the outline of the plan upon. I’d given it to the Gunny so he could inform the platoon leaders.
“I’ve been to Kaneohe Marine Base on Oahu. I know about Kamehameha. What is this crap?” he finished, tapping his right index finger on the map laying over his thigh.
I looked up into the trees over my right shoulder. The sun had already set over the ridge so the light was beginning to die. I understood why the two lieutenants were back with Casey. They’d been sent packing by the existing platoon leaders and none of the three of them knew what to do about that, although they’d exercised good judgment in leaving.
“They’re going to hit us tonight and they’ll probably bring their own artillery fire onto that open area near the edge of the cliff,” I said, as plain and simple as I could sound. “The Kamehameha plan is to draw them into the kill zone on the map there, and then slam the door behind them shut with our artillery.”
“I don’t want you calling in that Army artillery shit,” the captain said. “It looks bad in the reports. Use our own artillery.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, wondering whether the captain had any knowledge of the codes used by the Marine and Army batteries to direct fire. My answer was given betting he didn’t. It was useless trying to explain that at the end of the An Hoa battery’s maximum range the rounds could land anywhere within a thousand-meter diameter circle, or worse, where they were targeted. We were in a situation where each Marine perimeter was only two hundred meters from the middle of the kill zone. There would not be any play available for inaccurate rounds.
“This will be the command post for our time here,” Casey said, looking around him, “and I want you in the CP unless I tell you otherwise.” He aimed his last sentence directly at me.
“If you want my advice, sir…” I began, wondering if he’d cut me off, but he didn’t, so I went on, “you’ll stay inside your hole here from now until the sun comes up in the morning. The Marines will shoot anything that moves in the night, the artillery will be impossible to judge where it is, and the enemy is going to be a bit bloodthirsty too. I have to adjust the artillery so I can’t go underground like I’d love to.”
Casey turned and began talking to the two lieutenants that huddled right behind him. Pilson looked at me, and slowly shook his head without showing any expression on his face.
“This is all bullshit,” Captain Casey said, pointing at me instead of the map. You expect the ‘kill zone,’ as you call, it to be perfectly rectangular?”
My mouth dropped open in amazement. The rectangle I’d drawn was a representation of an approximate area. Such representations had been used in every military text I’d ever read or studied. I realized that there was very little to say.
“Yes, sir,” I replied, wondering if the captain would see it as an answer as dumb as what he'd said.
“Whatever, carry on,” Casey said, waving one hand at me, and then tossing the piece of map down on the poncho liner next to him.
I noted then that all three officers had removed their boots, placing each pair neatly next to him.
“Ah, you took off your boots?” I asked, in more wonder. We never took our boots off in combat unless it was to change socks, and then we put them back on as fast as we could. There was no way to move along the jungle floor without boots. The bracken would cut regular skin to shreds in seconds.
“The Gunny said to air them out and dry them every chance we get,” Keating said, from his position off to the left of Captain Casey’s.
Once again, I was speechless. The Gunny had told them that? I struggled, attempting to understand. Why would the Gunny say that when every one of us out in the bush knew that night or day we might have to move fast and far on an instant’s notice?
I wanted to ask for the map plan back but realized I didn't really need it. The combat company was amazing in that no five paragraph orders were needed to let everyone know what they were supposed to do, and when. They just somehow got the word and knew. Since we’d been engaged with the NVA, I also noted that our casualties had gone down.
“Anything else, sir,” I said, wanting to salute but knowing that might be over the top in expressing my disdain.
“Carry on,” the captain said, not looking at me while waving one hand as if to dismiss some sort of menial servant. The Marines digging the holes for the officers looked up at the same time but I looked away, not wanting to reveal anything of my feelings. I walked away into the bush and headed up the slope, hoping to run into the Gunny without having to ask around to see where he was.
Fusner, Nguyen, Stevens and Zippo trailed along with me, like no new officers had ever been sent in to command the company. The Gunny was not far from the more open area of trees and sporadic brush that comprised the top of the slope the company was divided down on each side of.
The Gunny looked back at our approach, then turned to await our arrival.
“I hear you’ve got a command post now,” he said, without a trace of a smile.
“Rittenhouse,” I replied, getting right to the point.
“Wondered when you’d get around to him,” the Gunny said, waving at someone I couldn’t see near the top of the ridge. “We don’t have a replacement you know, if you’re thinking about…well, you know…” his voice trailed away into silence.
I squatted down to wait. Fusner handed the binoculars to me with a clean sock he’d scrounged from somewhere.
“Thought you’d want to clean these yourself,” he said, with a smile.
The Gunny joined us, going to work brewing a canteen holder of coffee.
I began wetting the sock from some of the moist leaves flapping around us in the light breeze. I noted the lack of mosquitos that would return with a vengeance once the waning sun was gone and the breeze died out. I slowly massaged all the little pockets of mud out of the lenses, finally rubbing the outside of the worn outer coating clean.
Rittenhouse came through the jungle alone, carrying his clipboard, with a pencil stuck behind one ear on his bare head. He looked like a young clerk working at some stateside factory.
“You wanted to see me?” he asked.
“Do you have a daily form you use or do you just write something out in freehand?” I asked back, noting his complete lack of anything but a ‘can-do’ attitude.
“Of course we have a form,” he replied, slipping a sheet of paper out from some others on his clipboard.
I took the sheet and examined it. It was a piece of paper to be filled in, accounting for supplies, with KIA and WIA blank blocks for Marine and enemy casualties. There was one blank space, near the bottom of the form that was titled ‘miscellaneous.’
I frowned at the blank document, before handing it back. “And so how did the new crew discover that I was the evil genius behind all the company’s problems?”
“I don’t know,” Rittenhouse replied, looking a little perplexed. “I just fill in the blanks and use the miscellaneous box to let battalion know what’s going on as best I can.”
“So, how did my name come up?” I asked, beginning to wonder about the whole reporting process and who was being told what by whom.
“I never used your name,” Rittenhouse said. “The company commander is responsible for everything. You were the company commander, or so the Gunny said. Before that it was him.”
I looked over at the Gunny. He shrugged, his face a puzzled mix of frowning wrinkles and a smile.
“The miscellaneous box,” I said. “Do you have to put anything in it?”
“I suppose not,” Rittenhouse replied.
“Then leave it blank and make sure the Gunny or I see it every damned day before it goes on a chopper. And if those guys want to see it then make sure we see it after them,” I followed, pointing back to where the command post was being erected.
I sat checking out my binoculars after the boy-clerk was gone. It wasn’t Rittenhouse I realized. It was the war, Vietnam, the situation and a whole load of bad communication and piss poor leadership at all levels. I had no doubt that the name ‘Junior’ had come to Casey and his lieutenants from the daily report but Rittenhouse also had a point. Just who in hell’s fault was anything? Was I at fault if the whole Kamehameha Plan went into the toilet and we suffered heavy casualties? If it all came off as planned, then we’d simply move down into the A Shau in the morning. There would be no reward. If it went wrong, many of us would die and it would all be my fault. I stared at a bug sitting on a leaf through the right lens of my ‘Jappo’ binoculars. The bug didn’t know what was coming in the night and enjoyed a state of being at fault for nothing, no matter what happened in that night. I would not have that luxury.
Brother John came through with his last radio broadcast of the day. No homilies, no preaching, and no smarmy talk about going home. Just Jay and the Americans singing about this magic moment…forever, till the end of time…