I wasn’t quite right and I knew it. Even with the rags pulled from my ears I could not hear much of anything. The noise had been too great. Counting wasn’t working either because this night was not about getting through, it was about living through. Living through, I knew, was going to take some sort of action, in addition to what had already taken place. Some of the silence of the battlefield was internal, and I had to have more information. I didn’t know if the Kamehameha Plan had worked at all. Just because the enemy artillery had come in on target as planned, and my own as well, did not mean the enemy was vanquished. People lived through unbelievable carnage and staggered on. I had to get up, but the mud held me like a sardine inside the lip of its oily can. I surged upward but the attack and my recovery had somehow made me physically weak. I struggled like a worm under the jungle floor cover, and the layer of sticky mud, until Fusner pulled me free. The sound was similar to, but much greater, than like that of one of the Marines pulling a leech from his neck without the aid of a cigarette.
“Back to the hooch, sir?” Fusner asked, in a whisper I could hear because he cupped his hands over my left ear.
I tried to wipe the muck from the side of my face I’d tried to drill deeply into the mud, and mostly succeeded. I nodded, dumbly. I didn’t want to go back to my hooch, but I also felt too helpless to act like I needed to act in front of the company. Stevens came to my side, and then fell in behind me as I followed Fusner. I looked around for Zippo and Nguyen, but could not see them. I presumed they’d survived, or somebody on the team would have apprised me. I pulled my .45 out from the back of my trousers, glad it was still there, and glad that I’d thought to put the safety on. The web of the hand safety on the butt was effective, and the two safeties together made the Colt one of the safest weapons of any kind made. Unless the barrel was full of mud, like mine was. No pen or small implement was going to get the mud out of it this time. I’d have to break it down later with a canteen of water and dirty socks to clean it. I shoved the gun into my pack, with a deep feeling of misgiving. I was effectively unarmed until I could take the time and have a place to clean the weapon.
“Great,” I said to myself, sitting down on the edge of my poncho to consider my next move. I could move, see by the light of the moon, and my hearing was improving dramatically. I knew that because the sound of small arms fire came crackling down from up on the hill. Apparently, there were plenty of people still alive, because the fire was coming from both AKs and M-16s. For some reason the company’s M-60 machine guns were silent, however.
Vaguely, out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement coming from Captain Casey’s hooch.
“Over here,” Casey hissed toward our small scout group.
I immediately began crab-walking over to the C.O.’s hooch, as the second hooch opened up and someone stepped forth. It was too dark to make out who it was, but since the man came from where Lieutenant Billing’s shelter-half sat right next to the captain’s, I presumed it to be him.
“Keating’s not here,” Billings said, “and I can’t find my boots.”
“Where’s Keating?” Casey asked, raising his voice.
I ducked down all the way to the jungle floor again. Small arms fire continued sporadically only a hundred meters away, or so, and I didn’t want to be a target if someone shot in the direction of Casey’s voice. I wanted to tell the man that the fire was not gunnery practice but thought better of it. The elation of surviving the battle had worn off, and all I felt was deep fatigue and being very tired of trying to bring the new officers up to speed. I wondered if the Gunny’s work on me had been as difficult for him, or still difficult for him.
“Where could he have gone without his boots?” Casey asked, in a quieter voice, going from a standing position into a squat, where Billings joined him. “Who in hell took our boots?” he asked, more softly, almost as an aside.
The captain’s question was a good one, and the potential answers to it worried me. There was no good place to have been in the battle except for downslope on either side of the kill zone. And, if the lieutenant was out there in the night, then how was he supposed to show himself or be found if pockets of the enemy were hunkered down waiting for relief, or whatever? I had no answer.
A Marine came running at full speed down what little evidence of a path there was. At the last minute he careened to a stop, and then fell heavily into the mud at Captain Casey’s feet, his M-16 sailing over Casey’s head and right into the captain’s quarters.
“Wow, that was cool,” Fusner whispered, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Arty up,” the Marine gasped out, moving onto his knees and crawling past the captain and into the hooch to get his rifle back.
I pulled myself to my knees. I didn’t want to go back up there but I had to. The new idiot lieutenant was up there somewhere. I just knew it. He was too good an officer to do what Casey and Billings had done. I breathed in and out deeply, getting myself together. I knew it wasn’t just incompetent officers that got themselves killed. Sometimes it was just the luck of the draw.
“I need your .45,” I said to Captain Casey, sticking out my hand.
Casey just looked at me like I was some foreign creature. His hand went to the butt of his Colt but he made no move to pull it out.
I noted that the man had an old leather holster that possessed a clip cover. The covers were practically impossible to pull up under difficult circumstance, although they kept the gun cleaner than the open ones like my own.
“You’ll have Billing’s .45 between you,” I said. “Mine’s jammed with mud, and I’ve got to get up there in case they need artillery and to find Keating.” I moved a bit closer, with my outstretched hand almost touching the captain’s.
The man’s expression didn’t change, until he finally made a decision seconds later. He took a while to get the flap off the gun, and then pulled it out.
“I want this back tonight, when you return, and I want it clean,” he said, slipping the weapon around so the butt pointed at me, like a slick border cross draw.
In spite of myself I was impressed.
“Six in the magazine but none in the chamber, as it’s supposed to be,” Captain Casey said, like he was reading the words from a military manual.
I jacked the slide back and let a round load into the chamber. I then quickly hit the magazine catch and slid it out. I flicked the extra round off into the mud and reloaded, snapping the safety down with an audible click. Nobody said anything. Without another word to the captain or Billings, I retrieved my web belt and suspenders. I threw them on as quickly as I could.
“Zippo,” I said out to the air around me. Magically, the large outline of the man appeared over Fusner’s shoulder. “I need the scope now, and Nguyen too.”
“Got it,” Zippo said, disappearing again.
I started off the trail with the fallen Marine, armed and recovered, leading me.
“He’s your responsibility,” Casey said after me, although this time softer than his first comment had come out. “And there’s going to be an investigation about our boots. You can’t have theft in a Marine unit. It’s all going in the after action report.”
I barely heard the last sentence, as I loped up the rail with the captain’s .45 in my right hand, followed by my old scout team. I would have laughed if I was back in the world. After action report? That was a radio call of casualties in combat. That was it. At about fifty yards out from the northern perimeter edge, where I’d lain with the Gunny earlier, we all went to our hands and knees. The sporadic firing was still sporadic but considerably louder.
We crawled to where the Gunny still lay, along the eastern side of the path. The broken growth was sharp, cutting and thick. I knew that Keating could not have gotten far off the path without causing his feet a lot of damage, triple socks or not, even on the path it was pretty awful.
“What’s the situation?” I asked, watching occasional AK fire burst above the bracken, only flashes of light, like instantly flaring and then gone Chinese lanterns, rising from different places in the kill zone.
“Some got stuck in there when the place blew up,” the Gunny said, an uneasiness in his voice. “They tried to come down the slopes, like you said in your plan, but that didn’t work. Now there is a few left in there, with nowhere to go.”
“What about a few more rounds from Cunningham?” I asked, wondering why the Gunny was being so reserved.
“That’s the thing,” the Gunny replied, pausing for a moment, before going on. “We lost some Marines, more than a few, because of our artillery or theirs. Don’t know which. We’re not using the machine guns because we don’t want to hit each other in the dark.”
I stared into the occasionally glowing distance. It was news to me that some members of the company were concerned about shooting others, particularly since the black Marines were collected on one side and white Marines on the other. Then I got it. The blacks and whites were kind of coming together because they had one common enemy, and it was not the NVA. It was me. Again. Suddenly, emotion flowed through me, and I almost reached for the artillery handset in red hot anger, but then stopped.
“Lieutenant Keating,” I said, “Where is he?”
“Haven’t seen him, but who knows if he was anywhere up here when all that shit went down,” the Gunny said. “I can barely hear now, and believe me I wasn’t looking at shit then.”
“So, there’s not a lot we can do until first light without finding Keating,” I stated, knowing there was no other alternative available, except one.
The Gunny didn’t reply.
“I’m going to use the scope and start moving into the kill zone,” I told him, deciding to exercise that only other option. “I’ll need a good M-79 man. If there’s NVA in there, then I need him to do his thing.”
“That’s Cooper with First Platoon,” the Gunny replied, getting to his knees, “and there’s no ‘if’ about them being there. That’s not the girl scouts lighting firecrackers you’re hearing and seeing from here.”
I moved to Zippo and instructed him about what I wanted. We would need a very careful analysis of each foot of progress we made through the brush. There would be little point in hiding the fact we were there. It was impossible to move without making noise on the crunchy mixture of twigs, leaves, spores, ferns and more, set atop a squishy layer of near permanent mud. Keating was either out in the kill zone alone somewhere, or he’d wandered off toward the NVA which meant he was dead. I could not leave him out there, if he was there. The risk to Fusner, and the scout team was not worth the effort, I knew, but I felt like Keating was me, and I could not shake the ridiculously misplaced certainty that if I was out there someone in the unit would come. The core belief that Marines did not leave Marines behind, ever, was burned deep into my psychology and, although other beliefs had been destroyed or shaken badly, I could not let go of that one.
I held the .45 loosely in my right hand, wishing I had enough light to see the captain’s gun, wondering if the original Cosmoline coating applied at the Colt factory was still on it. It was and that meant the weapon was brand new, which was a good thing. The captain had not had time to screw it up. If the Cosmoline was still there, it should feel sticky with its waxy composition coming through. But it was useless, everything was covered with a coating of dewy misty mud and slippery to the touch. If I had to fire the gun, then I’d know.
“It don’t mean nuthin,” I whispered to myself. I’d heard one of the Marines say it back when Jürgens had been planning to blow me up in an ambush. I was just coming to understand the depth of what the simple phrase meant.
The Gunny returned with another shorter Marine, all covered with jungle crap. I stared in surprise. The small bandy-legged Marine looked like a cross between a scarecrow and rag doll, but I had to admit he was hard to see.
“Ghillie suit,” the Gunny said, like I’d for sure know what that was.
“Camouflage suit, sir,” Fusner whispered in my left ear. “Corporal Gilroy’s Scottish, sir,” he finished, as if that explained everything.
“Sar,” the man in the suit said.
I looked at him closely. He had stuff all over his face with bangs of some kind of palm leaves sticking down over his eyes like a sheep dog’s facial hair. I wondered how a Scotsman ended up in the corps, but I didn’t have time to explore the mystery.
I laid out the plan to cover the kill zone in grids about five yards square, then stopping to take account of every foot and inch before moving on. The Starlight Scope would serve as the alert eye, hunting every open space for the lieutenant, or his body, since it was unlikely any living NVA would stay in the open. I finished, indicating the northwest corner, near where the faux perimeter had been constructed, where we would begin, with Zippo in the lead, flanked by myself on one side and Stevens on the other. Nguyen would run free around, behind and in front of us however he saw fit. When I gave instructions to him, with Stevens present for the supposed translation, I spoke directly to the Montagnard. I’d not forgotten his use of English, however limited, when the shit had hit the fan earlier. Stevens was to carry all of our grenades at the rear with Gilroy at his side to unload into any brush, whether distant or near, that might appear to have an NVA soldier inside.
“Plan name?” Gilroy asked me, pronouncing the word plan as “Plon.”
His question surprised me. Plan name? We were combing a battlefield looking for a lost lieutenant, or worse, so what kind of a plan was supposed to be called for? I said nothing because I really didn’t understand the question.
“Ah, you know, sir, like the Kamehameha Plan?” Fusner said, leaning in close to say the words, and then to hear my answer.
Right then I thought about how everyone around me had gone crazy, and me along with them. I wanted to yell that at all of them, huddled around, waiting for some stupid out of place brilliance to describe an uncomfortable and dangerous battle cleanup task. They wanted a name.
“We’re executing the Keating Plan,” I said, my facial features as serious as I could make them in the light of the low hanging gibbous moon. There’d been the Chesty Puller Plan, and that had gone off pretty well, followed by the Kamehameha Plan, that had apparently not gone so well, at least when it came to taking friendly casualties no matter how many might have been saved. And now there was the Keating Plan. What would the cost of that one be?
“The Keating Plan,” Fusner repeated to the others. “Very good, sir,” he said, as if on a British Parade Ground.
We moved south along the path and cleared the first of three square chunks of jungle real estate. The scope was a help but not as much as I’d hoped. There was simply too much brush. I didn’t see how we could go on without expecting to take casualties of our own. Nguyen came drifting in from across the path, as silent as any human could be on the tough unrelenting bracken of the jungle floor. He moved directly over to Stevens and spoke, seemingly soundlessly into his ear.
“He let Sugar Daddy’s guys know that we’re out here, so they don’t open up,” Stevens said, keeping his voice very low.
I realized I’d forgotten that small detail. I could have gotten us all killed in one fell swoop. We moved together on all fours, with Zippo bobbing up to see what he could with the Starlight Scope.
“There,” he said, before scrunching back down. As he hit the deck an AK opened up with half a magazine from only ten or twenty yards to the east. All of us hit the mush of jungle mash and mud on our stomachs, except for Gilroy. He stood and launched a round from the M-79 grenade launcher. The distinctive bloop of the weapon was the only sound following that of the AK. Within a few seconds after he fired the first round, he fired a second before dropping down. The first round exploded with a small confined sort of roar, and then the second. We waited, but there was no more fire from the AK. Slowly we climbed to our knees and started forward. I rubbed an itch on my neck. Another leech the size of long mouse was attached to my body. I’d felt nothing but the itch. I was repulsed. I forced my hand down, fighting a craven need to pull the foreign monster from my neck and cast it back to where it belonged. I moved forward, trying not to think about another leech scar. If I lived, and made it back to the world, then how would I explain those big white leech scar circles on my neck? Maybe they would fade with time I thought, but then had another thought.
“What did you mean when you said ‘there’ Zippo?,” I asked in a low hissed whisper, having stopped in my tracks. There was no way the scope could have seen inside a bush to find much of anything.
“I saw something further up the trail,” he said, hunching upward to bring the big heavy scope back up to his shoulder, so I could look through it.
“What am I looking for?” I asked him, the scope moving around too much because Zippo wasn’t laying down.
“A flare of light that shouldn’t be there,” Zippo whispered back.
I concentrated, the green world bouncing about to Zippo’s breathing, and my own unstable movements. And then I saw it. It was a flare of light right near the east side of the trail on the deck. What could it be? I watched for a full minute but nothing moved.
“Screw it,” I said, releasing the scope back to Zippo’s control. “Gilroy, you’re with me. Fusner you stay put until I wave. Zippo will be watching. If we get hit, then all of you split back to the northern perimeter where the Gunny is.”
I crawled forward, with Gilroy, a moving part of the jungle, right next to me. We moved slow. I felt Gilroy there, and immediately knew I was a novice at the game. The man moved like a panther or a lynx. I couldn’t figure out how he did it, but he blended in with the jungle even though I knew his disguise.
I crawled until I saw it. There, next to the trail, near the southern end of the phony perimeter line we’d set up to fool the NVA, was a splotch of white.
“What the hell,” I whispered to Gilroy.
Gilroy brought up this M-79 and jammed the butt into his shoulder but I stopped him by pressing my right hand down on his left bicep, a bad feeling rising up out of my core.
I scrabbled forward until I knew, and then stopped to lay flat for a few seconds, deliberately breathing in and out several times.
“What is it?” Gilroy whispered, almost too silently for me to hear him.
“Socks,” I replied, softly. “White socks.”
There was an opening in the canopy above, and the moonlight flowed down through the hole like Hollywood was shining down a faint spotlight for dramatic effect. I crawled to Keating’s body. I knew immediately that he was dead. His body was riven through with small arms fire, all of it from close range because it had not torn him apart. The muzzle velocity of the AK’s had been so high at close range that the bullets had just gone right through, over and over again. He was lying face down. I sat beside him, making no attempt to take any cover. I noted that the bottoms of his socks were dark. I leaned to look closer. Dark with mud and blood. He’d wanted so badly to be where the action was, not to be left out of it. He’d wanted to learn from actual combat.
“What combat teaches,” I said, taking Keating’s right hand in my own.
“Sar?” Gilroy asked. “What do you want me to do?”
“Go get them, and bring the Gunny,” I said. “We’ll get the body back and ready to go out tomorrow.”
“With the rest,” Gilroy replied. The man disappeared, not waiting for a response.
I waited, holding Keating’s hand and talking to the man about how he could not have known that the perimeter was fake unless he’d paid very close attention to the plan I’d given to the captain. The captain hadn’t passed on the diagram, and I’d done a poor job of remaking one. I told him that it was my fault he was dead, which in many ways was true. I told him that I was sorry he’d followed me, trusted me and wanted to be with me. I tried to remember the Twenty-Third Psalm, but got to the part of the valley of the shadow of death and stopped. We hadn’t even made it to the valley yet. Where was God’s rod and staff? Where was He and His footsteps in our sand? I heard my team coming, and was unaccountably glad that I could no longer cry. They would not see me cry, and think me any weaker than I already was.
The Gunny came first.
“He’s gone?” the Gunny asked.
I read it all in his tone. I didn’t have to answer. He knew. The socks. No boots. Keating out here anyway, without boots, maybe in too much pain to hobble back. And the Gunny having taken his boots. It was all in the two words. The Gunny took Keating’s hand and removed it from my own, setting it down next to the young man’s side.
“I don’t always get it right,” he said, gently, as the rest of the team came up on all fours, moving as silently as they could but not very silently at all. “You’re here,” he said low enough to where nobody else in the team heard him, “and that’s something.”
Keating’s body was unceremoniously slid onto a poncho, wrapped, and then dragged along the jungle floor back toward the perimeter. Once we got to the line I reached my hand back to Fusner. It was the first time in ten days and nights he wasn’t expecting the move. Seconds later, I pressed the transmit button on the handset and called in the fire mission. Nobody asked anything about it, instead passing the word from one man to another to get down. I pointed at Nguyen. He raced off back up the path, somehow understanding that Third and Fourth Platoons had to be warned. I waited to execute the fire command patiently, my mind numb, knowing that Nguyen would be back shortly. I was not willing to lose another man if I could help it. In minutes he was back.
I called in white phosphorus, using the super quick fuse, knowing that what exploded up at the top of the double canopy would shower down burning phosphorus on the jungle below, and the stuff that blew up there would go up as a special blown to hell burning bonus. I would burn the kill zone from one end to the other, from the mountain, from the planet and from my mind.
When the battery sent “splash, over,” the Gunny spoke for the first time since coming down with the body.
“What’d you call in?”
“The final curtain,” I replied, and then adding, “the end of the Keating plan.”