There was nothing to be done but to sit with Keating’s body. I’d wanted to carry it myself but the guys would have none of it. Surprising me, Stevens said it all with a strange statement, coming from a noncom in a unit that hadn’t tolerated officers well, to say the least.
“He was our lieutenant, too,” Stevens said, as if the dead officer, so new he hadn’t had time to experience one resupply, had been shared by all.
That Keating hadn’t even been allowed to assume command of Fourth Platoon was, apparently, no longer a part of the company’s history. I sat among the smoldering ruins of the jungle I’d brought about by dropping tons of white phosphorus down from one end to the other. The Gunny hadn’t said how many men we’d lost in the NVA attack, but I knew the number was not good and I also guessed that a lot of the men had died because all artillery was indiscriminate when it came to killing, with its large flying chunks of twisted metal. The 105 rounds could generate shrapnel as small as the head of a needle and as large as grapefruit. The grapefruit-sized tumbling nightmares could travel more than a mile from the impact area.
I walked back to the command post behind my team that was carrying Keating’s body. There’d be bags aplenty when dawn came, I knew, but in the meantime, Keating would spend the rest of his last night in his hooch.
The night was quiet for the first time, I realized. The smell was of burned vegetation. Pungent and smoky but not acrid. Whatever wind there’d been had gone away in the night, so the smell hung down like a layer of invisibly annoying fog.
I moved to Captain Casey’s hooch, and knelt down on the poncho cover sticking out from under his closed shelter-half. I didn’t understand why he was still inside, if he was. The death of Keating had to have reached him.
“Skipper?” I whispered my lips almost against the rough canvas.
As before, the canvas was immediately brushed aside, and Casey sprang forth. I fell on my back, before recovering into a sitting position. Casey turned on his flashlight and shined the beam down on me.
“What the hell’s wrong with your face?” he asked.
My left hand went to my chin where I felt the beginning of the big cucumber-like lump that was my leech. I put the captain’s .45, that I’d been clutching since before Keating’s death, down on the poncho next to the shelter-half’s opening.
“Turn off the light,” I said, slowly getting to my feet. “Keating’s body is in his hooch until the choppers roll in at dawn. Your Colt is at your feet.”
The light went off with a click, but not before I saw Billings come out of the hooch behind the captain. I wondered what kind of parlay they’d been having, while the world above them volleyed and thundered, or if they’d simply needed one another’s company to get through it.
“Body?” Casey asked.
I knew then that the captain didn’t know that Keating had gone down. The Gunny came in behind me, put his right hand on my right shoulder, and then gently pulled me back.
“Fusner’s going to heat up a cigarette and take care of that leech,” he said, easing me away from the stunned company commander.
“Keating’s dead?” the captain said, his voice going hoarse with emotion.
“Yes, sir,” the Gunny said, now standing between me and the two officers.
“He was on the perimeter with me and caught an AK round in the chest. Heart shot. He was gone in an instant.”
Fusner lit a cigarette, puffed on it for a few seconds, and then motioned me down to one knee. He put the burning end against the tough carapace of the thing’s head, and held it there.
“Keating’s dead,” the captain restated in a quieter voice, before going on, “just how many other Marines died in this Kamehameha plan?” he asked, his tone growing softer as the question ended.
“Ten KIA on our side, mostly from Third and Fourth Platoons,” the Gunny answered. “About the same number wounded. We won't know for sure until it gets light. Might be a few more, and there’s probably NVA out there in the bush still so there could be more before the night’s done.”
“Ten percent casualties in one short action?” Lieutenant Billings asked.
“How in the hell did that happen, and how many of the enemy did we get?”
“The artillery drifted a bit to the south,” the Gunny reported, keeping his tone low and flat as if delivering a boring lecture to a bunch of college students. “The rounds strayed across our perimeter there,” he pointed toward where Marines, invisible from our position but probably still gathered, were no doubt getting their stuff together and getting ready for the next move. “It’s either that or the enemy 122’s bit too far beyond the open area at the cliff face and moved upslope toward our own positions.”
“Why didn’t our men retreat down the avenues guarded and left open for that purpose?” Casey asked, his voice going up in tone and sound for the first time.
“What avenues are you talking about, sir?” the Gunny said.
The leech fell from under my chin and struck the mud in front of my knees with a faint thud. I turned my head from the position I’d been holding it for Fusner, took the still-burning cigarette, and put it between my lips. I sucked in some smoke, my lungs not making their usual protest. I breathed out and then back in, waiting for what I knew had to be coming.
“These avenues,” the captain stated, dragging the rough plan I’d drawn on the back of one of my old maps from behind his back. “These avenues here in Junior’s Kamehameha Plan.” He thumped his forefinger down at the two arrows I’d drawn, indicating the areas the company could retreat into if my plan failed.
The Gunny looked down at the map, barely visible in the low pre-dawn light, and then turned his head so he could look back at me.
“Your thoughts about that, Junior?” he asked me. I watched his normally shiny but opaque eyes and saw life in them. The Gunny not only didn’t know what to say, I thought, but he was giving me some reason to think he thought he’d be entertained by whatever I came up with.
“The boots,” I said. “Did you bring their boots back?”
The Gunny’s eyes went big for just a brief second, before he recovered himself, and then he smiled a very brief fleeting smile, as he turned back to the captain.
“Your boots are dry and next to your shelters,” he informed the captain, who received the information with a questioning frown. “The men got them dried out and oiled up so you don’t have to take them off for a while.”
I waited for the captain and Billings to pursue the subject of the avenues I’d made up that didn’t really exist, but neither man did. Both went toward their boots, while I wondered what kind of oil the Gunny was talking about. The company’s small arms required lubricant, small arms, or LSA, as we all called it. But LSA was for metal lubrication and never used on or in boots. The boots, particularly the new cloth jungle boots both the captain and Billing wore, were not supposed to be exposed to any oil at all, that I could think of.
I backed away from the scene and went to work getting my things together before laying down on my poncho. It was getting light enough to write, so I took out my pen and went to work writing a third letter to my wife. I would not miss sending my stuff out when the choppers came in this time. After the letter, I got out my clogged up Colt and took it down to clean it as best I could. When it was done, having used my government pen as a cleaning rod, I knew it would work, although it was a long way from passing a Basic School inspection.
“How many guys can a Huey hold?” I asked Fusner, while writing about the new officers relieving me as the leader of the company. We had a lot of wounded and dead and I wondered if command had been notified that we’d need some rugged carrying capacity. Fusner didn’t answer. I hadn’t mentioned Keating’s death in my letter, or just how new the new guys were. It was almost as if both the captain and Billings had been more harmed by their time back in the rear with the gear than if they’d come to the company directly from one of the flights to Da Nang as I’d been on.
I folded my letter, jammed it into one of my crumpled envelopes and put it into my pocket before looking up to see Nguyen squatting nearby. Nguyen never squatted nearby. I looked at Stevens, who stood next to the Kit Carson Scout. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded toward the scout. Stevens approached me, and then leaned down so he could speak quietly into my left ear.
“There was nobody in the listening post,” he said, before standing back up.
I looked him in the eyes, my mind trying to take in the information.
The Marines manning the listening post, and responsible for warning the company as to the enemy’s approach, had left their posts. Without Nguyen’s warning of the NVA coming I would not have brought the artillery on line soon enough, and we might have been overrun and killed to a man.
I stared at the side of Nguyen’s head. I knew that he knew I was looking at him. The man was a human and cultural enigma. He’d lost his family to the revolutionary cause, whether it was VC or NVA that had killed them I didn’t know. I felt that he was somehow in contact with other Montagnards who worked for the enemy. But he’d clearly saved our lives, and probably not for the first time.
I didn’t know what to do about him or with him, but I knew I needed him as much as I could not understand him. I pulled out my wallet, which had almost nothing but some worthless military pay currency, my military identification card and a few photos of my wife and new daughter. I took out one of the pictures, looked at it closely to make sure it wasn’t my best, and then held it out to Stevens.
“Ask him if he will carry this photo in case something happens to me,” I said, not really understanding what I was doing, but knowing I had to identify with the man on a tribal level, as well as one where we were both warriors of equal stature.
Stevens leaned down, spoke a few words to Nguyen, and then handed him the small photo. Nguyen held the photo and stared at it for a full minute before finally turning his head to look at me. I used the fingers on my left hand to tap the elephant hair bracelet on my right wrist. Nguyen made no move, nor gave me any indication he understood. Finally, he took out his tattered version of a billfold from his back pocket and tucked the photo into it before turning to stare blankly out into the jungle again.
Captain Casey and Billings went back into their hooches to get ready for the dawn. Either both men were in total shock over being in such close proximity of the night battle and Keating’s death, or they were much tougher Marines than I gave them credit for. I went over to Keating’s hooch and opened the flap. He lay just as the guys had left him. The Gunny was as good as his word. Keating’s boots were right near the opening. I went to work to strip the bloody socks from the lieutenant’s feet and then carefully and laboriously put the Marine's boots back on.
“Size ten,” I said to Keating. “I’m an eight or I’d put mine on you and steal these neat new ones. I know you wouldn’t mind. You’re going home and you aren’t afraid anymore. That’s something,” I said, not really knowing what I was talking about but the words seeming, to me, to be important. I backed out of the shelter-half and got to my feet.
“You were doing fine,” I said. “You were going to do great.” I looked around. Only Fusner was close by, and he was making believe he was finishing the final adjustments to his pack with the extra Prick 25 batteries strapped to the outside, and not listening to me. There was no chaplain in the unit and nobody to say any words, nor even a gathering of Marines to send off one of their own. That was only in the movies. I was it. I made the sign of the cross.
I knew the scout team would take care of packing the lieutenant out and getting his body into one of the gray-black body bags that would come in on the chopper. There was no way that the company had enough for the awful butcher’s bill from the results of the Kamehameha Plan. That plan had worked, but the price had been high. I could only hope that my anger in bringing down the white phosphorous had not caused some of that price. I somehow had to control myself better. There was no place for real, or any, emotion in combat.
When my gear was ready, and the scout team assembled and prepared, I headed for the kill zone to see what havoc the combined fires and enemy interaction had caused. The scene was a scene like nothing I’d ever experienced or thought about. There was a carpet of destroyed jungle that lay like a thick mottled blanket over the entire area. Atop the mass of jumbled and torn vegetation was a mess of blackened and burned bracken, leaves and ferns, smoking in places and all of it smelling like some sweetened can of stale artichokes mixed with mushrooms way too old. My nose turned up, and I began to breathe through my mouth. My ears popped from time to time as the sounds of the night fires were finally worked out through my Eustachian tubes and ear canals.
And there were bodies. Plenty of them strewn about.
The enemy bodies were the first I’d seen. The NVA was expert at dragging their own wounded or dead away with them into the night, and that included their ammunition and equipment. I bent down to examine a Vietnamese soldier laying on his back. A slick brightness attracted my attention. It was like the man’s chest and stomach area were made of chrome plate. I knelt down and looked closer.
“What the hell?” I exclaimed, in surprise.
“Saran wrap,” Stevens said, softly from off to one side.
“Saran wrap?” I asked, my surprise not fading.
“I saw it before, down on Gonoi Island,” replied. “They hard wrap their bodies with the tableware wrap to contain the pressure and keep going.”
“What pressure are you talking about?” I said, not understanding.
“The M-16’s and M-60’s have such high velocity and unstable projectiles that they tumble when they hit something soft. That tears an attacking soldier apart.
The Saran Wrap put on real tight, makes the bullets go straight on through so the NVA can keep right on coming.”
I marveled down at the dead NVA soldier. The man’s dedication and courage could not be faulted, but he hadn’t died from small arms fire. He’d been run through with shrapnel from the exploding artillery rounds. Big chunks had gone through the soldier’s body, with no need to expand or tumble. They’d been the size of golf balls.
“Where in the hell do these guys get Saran Wrap from back home when we can’t get new boots or jungle utilities from our own rear area?” I said, knowing the question was rhetorical.
I walked around what had been the kill zone, which had gone from being that to a dead zone. There was nothing living anywhere in the still smoking area. Even mosquitos were giving it a wide berth. The soldiers killed by artillery shrapnel had all been penetrated from the back, fleeing from the flying debris and angry hot metal. The ones who’d remained were burned beyond recognition by the white phosphorus. Every once and awhile a blackened lump could be spotted like a small island protruding up from a sea of brown and black burned jungle. No tree had withstood the onslaught except one giant located closer to the edge of the cliff. That tree would not live, every bit of bark and branch burned to a crisp, but the trunk too tough to have been knocked down or shattered to the point of collapse.
The Gunny came over to where I was gently making my way among the bodies and the bracken. Billings was at his side, with Rittenhouse next to him taking notes on his clipboard. Rittenhouse’s presence reminded me of the daily report. I knew the after-action report, about what had happened, would be meaningless because it was never in writing unless they put it in writing back at battalion, but I was determined to see and influence the daily no matter what else happened when the choppers came in.
“The daily report,” I breathed across the distance to the Gunny. He nodded. I knew the daily was not something he was going to let get past him again either.
“Twenty-nine KIA in this area alone,” Billing’s announced proudly as if there was a satisfactory score none of the rest of us knew about. “By the time we’re done and out of here there ought to be forty. I’ll bet that’s some kind of battalion record, I mean for having real bodies to count, rather than an estimate.”
Neither I nor the Gunny said anything in reply. I thought, just from the small bit of knowledge I’d learned so far, that the death toll for the enemy would run in the hundreds eventually, although we’d never know it. Torso wounds and deep limb injury wounds were invariably fatal without rapid helicopter evacuation and then very fast and efficient emergency surgery performed by trained trauma surgeons with the right equipment and medications. The NVA had attacked, or been attacked, three times in less than three days. Each time they’d taken serious casualties, these last being near-catastrophic in number for almost any sized unit.
Sugar Daddy came striding out of the jungle, his flat bush hat back in place, and his purple sunglasses once again balanced across his nose, making his eyes invisible. His transition back to platoon leader was apparent from his appearance and his stride, making his previous appearance only a few hours earlier seem like it hadn’t happened at all.
I squatted down, and Fusner squatted with me. My old habit of dropping my right hand to the comforting Colt returned. The Gunny stood back. Stevens and Zippo were nowhere to be seen but Nguyen, as usual, hung around the edge of the jungle that had not been tortured and destroyed. I did not make eye contact with him.
“You lost a lot of my men,” Sugar Daddy said, standing over me, his two large ‘minion’ Marines back on duty, one just back from each of his shoulders. “Your Kamkam Plan was a disaster and what did we gain? Nothing. Today we have to go down into that stinking valley of death anyway.”
I waited, my face expressionless, for him to run down. Finally, he did.
I expected the Gunny to step forward and make the meeting into a group powwow like he’d done last time, but he didn’t. He hung slightly back as if only there for witnessing or being available for advice or questions.
Sugar Daddy squatted down, finally, although his Marines did not. In spite of the threatening presence of the three men, I did not feel much of any fear or even trepidation. Keating had taken some of that out of me. The expression on his face when I’d gentled him back onto his poncho had been relaxed as if he had been trying to tell me that it wasn’t so bad.
“Your men left their posts and the company was defenseless,” I said, my voice low and soft.
“Nobody wanted to be out there,” Sugar Daddy bellowed. “My Marines are not nuts and I can’t be responsible for putting their lives at risk just because you think the enemy might be doing this or that.”
“The sentence for abandoning a post in combat is death, in this man’s Marine Corps, and it’s not a court martial decision,” I said, staring into the purple sunglasses.
“Now, wait a minute here,” Sugar Daddy said, fidgeting back and forth from one big boot to the other.
“The sentence for ordering your men to abandon their posts or allowing them to do so is death,” I added.
“You’re not the company commander,” Sugar Daddy said, but his voice cracking and became unsteady, as he said the last two words.
“You’re as much a platoon commander as I am a company commander,” I said, my voice held as flat as it had been since we started our dialogue. “If I ever see or hear of conduct like that again then I will come for those two men and for you. I’m also fully aware of why we don’t threaten each other out here in this nightmare world where none of us want to be and that’s why the Gunny’s here.
Sugar Daddy and his two men looked at the Gunny, as did Fusner and I.
“What he said?” Sugar Daddy asked.
A full ten seconds passed.
“What he said,” the Gunny murmured.
Sugar Daddy and his men left without saying another word, and so did the Gunny. I walked over to the edge of the cliff and stared down into the A Shau Valley, thinking about the problems of getting a fully equipped Marine Company down the side of a cliff that only possessed one narrow path, and that path run right below a fully known and measured enemy registration point for calling in deadly accurate artillery fire. I knew it was going to be a hell of a day.