I ate ham and lima beans while the mosquitos ate me. The repellant backed them off but there were plenty of FNG mosquitos to replace the ones who flew away. I wondered if the drugged mosquitos flew out over the A Shau, and then finally spiraled in after not being able to fly over the wide expanse. If a mosquito fell from the sky what kind of impact did it make? I finished the can and stuck it into the little hole I’d dug next to my big hole for such garbage. I’d almost asked Fusner about how much stuff was left along the way by moving combat units of men. We had two hundred and some odd ‘swinging dicks,’ and the NVA opposed us with at least that many. So, if every man ate, and then went to the bathroom, without there being bathrooms, twice a day, then how much garbage, to include cans and wrappers and other used up papers and junk, got buried along the way every day? I knew it was one of those vexing questions that nobody would have an answer to, and the asking anyone of would only lead to frowns and shaking heads.
The night came and the Gunny along with it.
“What’s the plan?” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
I knew he was keeping the sound level down because of the nearby command post officers and not how close we might be to the enemy. I looked at him in the growing darkness. The moon was up, but not far enough to add much light to whatever was left of the sun’s waning rays. The Gunny already knew the plan so I wondered what he was really asking.
“What plan?” I replied, knowing I sounded stupid.
“Kamehameha,” the Gunny said. “What’s going to happen first, the artillery coming in or them attacking. I’ve got a listening post out so we’ll be warned. Good guys from the First Platoon, not FNGs. And where are you gonna be to call in our artillery?”
“How far are the listening post guys out there?” I asked.
“About fifty meters, so they can get back in time, if the shit hits.”
The Gunny was scaring me. We’d have fifty meters of running time to get out of the way when the NVA were coming, and that was it? I’d come up with the Kamehameha Plan because there seemed no other way to get through the night if we were attacked. I had no advance notice of an attack, or whether the 122 mm cannons would fire. Yet the company was on pins and needles, ready and becoming dependent upon me to predict what might happen next. All I saw was a terrible pitfall, once again, if things went wrong. What if there was no attack or enemy artillery? What if the NVA attacked behind our backs, because they’d figured it out. I was just a forward observer, when it was all said and done. I was only supposed to call and direct fire on command, and then get it on positions where it was needed without killing our own men. The word Svengali came to my mind again. Who did I think I was? My hands started to shake. Just when I thought I might be able to stop being afraid of my own Marines it looked like my credibility was about to be flushed down the drain. What if the 122’s fired inland too far and then went left or right or both? Goodbye company. Maybe the smart move would have been to move straight down the narrow path set against the cliff wall, one Marine at a time in the dark, hoping to make it down to the valley floor by morning.
“I’m going to the phony perimeter to wait,” I said, clutching my thighs with both hands. “I’ll take my scout team and call the artillery if it’s needed from there.”
“Your scout team?” the Gunny said, with a short laugh.
“You know,” I replied, weakly. I had no scout team, but the command post was making no demands on Zippo or Stevens.
Suddenly, the shelter half of Casey’s hooch was batted aside and the captain came forth, first in a crouch, looking around, until he saw the Gunny, Fusner and I.
He then stood to his full height and advanced.
“What’s the plan?” he said.
I glanced at the Gunny, my eyes getting bigger. I stuttered a bit and then began to lay out what we hoped to do if attacked.
“Not that Kamehameha thing,” Junior. “I’m not an idiot. I mean what’s our fall back plan in case we’re overpowered, if they do attack?”
I was at a loss for words. I just squatted there, a few feet away, looking up into his expectant eyes. I didn’t have a fall back anything.
“Go ahead, lieutenant, fill him in,” the Gunny said, standing up to face the captain. “You know, what we talked about.”
The light wasn’t good enough for me to read the Gunny’s expression, but everything he was saying had to be a joke. We’d discussed no plan at all, if we were to be overpowered.
“Ah,” I started out, getting to my feet to stall for time. The Gunny lit two cigarettes and handed one over to me. I puffed and then coughed, stalling some more.
“We will fall back orderly to the east, toward the valley wall,” I said, taking another puff of the welcome cigarette and trying to think. “There are two traces that run down from each side that can fit two squads side by side. If necessary we’ll make our way down each side of the face, pulling artillery behind us to cover our retreat.”
“Sounds like a plan,” the captain said. “I’d have a scout posted at the head of each trace during the night so that those ways will be secure, and everyone will know where to go. I mean, if needed.” The captain looked at Zippo and Stevens. “You two follow those orders and station yourself at the heads of those traces.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, cutting the reactions of both scouts off, and hoping they’d say nothing.
The captain whirled around and disappeared into his cave-like hooch so fast it was difficult to follow. His poncho cover was immediately pulled down. The five of us stared at the unmoving cover without saying a word.
The Gunny led us up the hill toward where the fake perimeter line was established.
“What’s a trace?” Stevens said to the Gunny.
“Tell him, sir,” the Gunny said.
I suspected that the Gunny did not know the word. “Trace is a course or path to follow,” I said, so everyone could hear.
We approached the line, which was nothing more than some thrown up bamboo stalks with brush and leaves made to look like some weird farmer scarecrow junk. I looked at the strange collection, disappearing off into the distance as the light dropped. And then I looked at the Gunny, in question.
“In full dark, it’ll be fine,” he said, like he designed phony machine gun perimeter lines all the time.
“There aren’t traces down the face of the cliff,” Stevens said, having remained silent since leaving Captain Casey’s hooch. “There’s only that one trail barely able to handle one Marine with a pack on.
“Correct,” I replied. There were no traces, paths or trails down the face of the Pali on Oahu either, but there just seemed no sense in telling Casey we didn’t have a way out. If the artillery worked out wrong, or if we were overrun then we were dead. Presupposing that we got attacked at all, of course.
“Zippo and I aren’t going over to the cliff?” Stevens asked.
“You’re with me right here tonight,” I said, “at least until we know something for sure.”
“From here,” the Gunny said, extending his arm back the way we’d come, “you run straight, just like you came up and then get the hell down because when these defensive fires open up on both sides this is all going to be a kill zone here.”
“Where are you going to be?” I asked him, when he was done.
“With you,” the Gunny replied, and as the words came out of his mouth a Marine came out of the brush from the downhill sides. I saw immediately that it was Jurgens coming up from the north, where the CP was located and Sugar Daddy up from the southern side.
“We’re all going to wait together,” the Gunny went on. “Thought it would be best if there was some sort of activity on this perimeter, just in case.”
I thought about the listening post only fifty meters to our west, as we all strung out a bit and got down. I motioned to Stevens and when he approached close by I told him to get Nguyen out there, but make sure not to alert and get shot by the guys at the listening post. His face was only inches from mine and I watched his eyes when I was done talking. His eyes were mirrors of my own. We both trusted Nguyen, probably more than we should, but when it came down to it, he was a Montagnard and not an American. Potentially, he could simply head on out to a waiting enemy and reveal everything about what he knew. Which was everything. It was another risk. I looked over Stevens shoulders toward where Nguyen stood, almost fully blended into a nearby bamboo grove. I stared into his big dark eyes, and he blinked, just like before. I knew I had his trust, and I had to give him mine. No matter how aware the Listening Post Marines were, our company was in Indian Country and we only had one Indian.
Stevens said nothing, instead turning and going over to talk with the Kit Carson scout. And then Nguyen was gone, like he’d never been there. For a few seconds I regretted that Steven’s didn’t bother to offer an opinion about the man’s loyalty, but then realized that he had, by saying nothing, and then simply instructing the man.
“We’re at risk here in the dark. They could come at any time although probably not before their artillery hits. Let’s head back to our hooches,” I instructed Fusner, Stevens and Zippo.
I headed back, not sure what the Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were going to do because there was really nothing more to be done from the way I saw it and both platoon commanders made me nervous to be around. Either the company was ready to take the hit or it wasn’t, although the difference was life or death. I would never have deliberately planned to be dead-ended at the edge of the ridge cliff face, but I was fast learning that all the planning I had done back at Quantico had been based upon predictability and knowledge of where the enemy was and how much it might bring to a battle. But here we were, more boxed in with almost nowhere to go, than Kamehameha’s opponents had been up on the Pali of Oahu so long ago. We’d also been moving hard and fighting sporadically as a unit for two days and a full night. I wasn’t sleepy but I was jittery, seeing strange things out of the sides of my eyes on occasion, and unable to stay still. I was way past fatigued. I checked my hands while I retraced my steps back to what Casey called the Command Post. My hands were fine, but then they and I were moving, which always helped.
“They’re in their little cubbyholes quite comfortably,” Fusner whispered, after going over to listen at the exposed canvas side of all three snapped-down shelter-halves of the real officers.
I pulled back my own poncho liner, thinking I might be able to hide underneath and get a third letter home going, still carrying the two undelivered envelope in my left trouser pocket. I fell backward as a man rose to his feet and surged forth through the opening. I went to one knee in surprise, not even going for my .45 because of the shock. With the partially full moon’s light I looked up and recognized Lieutenant Keating’s face above me.
“I’m sticking with you,” he said, quietly, and then reached over to help me back to my feet.
“Okay,” I squeaked out, my throat trying to unconstrict.
“What are we doing?”, Keating asked.
“Ah, waiting here until something happens,” I said, truthfully. “Resting as best we can. Once something happens I’ll head back up the trail to where the real perimeter is set up on this side of the slope so I can adjust what artillery we might need.”
I sat on a flat portion of the poncho laying across the jungle floor, wondering what I was going to do with the FNG officer. He sat down beside me.
“I didn’t really understand your plan and the captain has the map in his quarters,” Keating said, near whispering, so the captain would not hear.
I sighed deeply. There’d be no additional letter to my wife. Possibly the last chance I might get to say anything in this life. Instead, I had to go over the plan in detail with a man who wasn’t going to understand any of it when the sky began to fall, if it began to fall. But I had to try. The Gunny had not returned. There was no way to fob the lieutenant off on him. But then, I wasn’t sure the Gunny really understood the plan as much as he thought I did. I spent the next hour going over every detail of the plan, even explaining who Kamehameha was and why I’d named the plan that in order to give it more credibility to the men around me.
“I still don’t understand why you can’t just order these Marines to do what you want them to do,” Keating said, when I was done.
“Really?” I asked. “So, who did you see in your first effort to become a combat platoon leader, Sugar Daddy or Jurgens?”
“Sugar Daddy,” Keating said, not meeting my eyes. “He’s a real piece of work. I knew there were racial problems in the rear, and saw some of them, but I thought all that would have to disappear in combat. We’re all in it together out here.”
“Well?” I said, after a few seconds.
“Well, what?” he answered, actual puzzlement in his voice.
“Well, did you assume command of Fourth Platoon or did you just come on back to the command post?”
“You know,” Keating said.
I said nothing, instead opening one of my breast pockets to get a cigarette out. I didn’t make it. My hands were shaking too much, and I didn’t want him so see, so I clutched them together in my lap.
“Oh, I get it,” Keating finally said. “Yes, I’m back here with you. They didn’t do what I told them to do. And you can’t get them to do what you want them to do either. So, why is everyone following your strange plan?”
It was an intelligent question, and one that would have made me smile sincerely, before I’d lost that ability.
“I tricked them,” I said, flatly. “Remember when you were in Basic School and there was that definition of leadership most of us didn’t pay attention to? Hell, I didn’t even understand it. Leadership is getting other people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.”
“Sort of,” Keating replied.
“Well, you better understand it now. That ‘because they want to do it’ phrase is about to become the most important phrase of your life. If you live.”
I looked down at Keating’s feet, as he sat with his knees pulled up, like me.
“Your feet are white,” I mentioned, having trouble seeing in the bad light.
“Oh, those are my socks,” Keating said, his tone one of mild embarrassment.
“I had to put on three pair because it’s so rough out here. I put my boots out next to my shelter but when I came out they were gone. All of our boots are gone.”
“Shit,” I said, slowly, breathing in and out deeply, before saying anything else.
“Stevens,” I said, over and down toward his hooch. Stevens unaccountably appeared from somewhere behind me, knelt near my left foot and waited.
“Find the Gunny, and be quick about it,” I ordered him.
“Got it, Junior,” he replied and took off back up the path toward the higher ground.
“See, he called you Junior,” Keating pointed out. “The skipper can call you Junior, and maybe even me, but enlisted men should call you sir or lieutenant.”
“Enlisted men have boots, especially when they’re about to go into full on contact,” I hissed back at him, not hiding my anger.
I heard the explosion at the same instant everyone else in the company heard it, although there was no general alarm or sign that such recognition had taken place. It was a distant explosion but it hadn’t fooled me. I leaped to my feet.
“Let’s go,” I ordered. Fusner was already out of his hooch moving toward me, and Zippo wasn’t far behind.
“Need the Scope, sir?” he asked, in a tone that said he wished I wouldn’t.
“Leave it,” I ordered, “the jungle’s too thick anyway, and I need you to be able to move. Combat gear only.”
“Where we going?” Keating asked, getting to his feet and joining me.
“You’re not going anywhere without boots,” I told him. “You’re just so much cannon fodder at night in the jungle in your bare feet. Get back inside your hooch and stay there until I come to get you.”
I turned to what was left of the team.
“That was a short round,” I said, moving quickly up the path, knowing they were behind me and hoping the lieutenant was smart enough to do what he was told.
“The next round should be over, or dead on the registration point and it’s going to be a hell of a lot louder.” I changed my gait to a lope. I’d left my binoculars at the hooch and just about everything else including my web belt, after pulling out my Colt. Either we were going to make it through the night or I was not going to need water again or more than the six rounds I carried in the .45.
We broke into a run when the second round came in, as I’d predicted. It was a bit long, landing somewhere inside the kill zone, but not far. It did provide enough of a flash of light to reveal the perimeter line, with the Gunny laying down near the side of the broken trail, with Stevens next to him. We went down next to him like cords of wood, the sound of our impact blown away by the shock wave of the exploding artillery round. The 122 Soviet-built cannon round weighed about forty-five pounds and delivered ten pounds of very potent RDX explosive. The round was too distant to throw fragments or debris as far as our position but it was frightening to be taking close artillery fire under any circumstance. I burrowed in, knowing it’d take me a few seconds to be able to talk, but I could still use my hands. I slipped my left fingers into my right breast pocket, tossed the thin C-rations cigarette pack out and grasped two pieces of torn sock. I twisted the end of first one and then the other before sticking them deeply into my ears. The ragged ends hung down nearly to my shoulders I knew, but I didn’t care as the battery of two came blasting in. I knew there had to be twelve explosions coming in the two waves a few seconds apart but I couldn’t separate them. I bounced on the pliant jungle floor, and then kept bouncing, ever so gently, time after time. I pushed my .45 into my right trouser pocket after clicking it on safe. The Colt was not going to save me from artillery.
The first barrage was over in short order but it felt like it had taken ten minutes of time. I didn’t want to get up at all. I wanted to burrow in deeper. It was my first incoming artillery. The first in my life, anywhere. Fort Sill hadn’t put us down range to see what it was like to take fire, and now I understood why. Who would go into such hell, or stay in it, voluntarily?
“They’re going to wait a few minutes until the attack comes before they fire again,” I yelled in the Gunny’s ear, knowing he either had used some sort of ear protection of his own or he was temporarily near deaf from the shock waves.
No obvious attack came right way, however. What came was a whole load of RPG rounds. One after another the rounds rocketed into the faux perimeter. The fireworks of the show was more than anything I’d seen back home. The four pound rounds began detonating with fierce cracks instead of the deep earth-moving and shaking cracks of the artillery. I knew we were in living hell, and it’d just begun.
A body thumped down almost on top of me. It was Nguyen, the teeth of his out of place white smile gleamed in the reflected light of the explosions.
“They come,” he whispered, into my rag-blocked right ear. He held up four fingers in front of my face. “Four hundred,” I heard the Montagnard, who I knew didn’t speak English, distinctly say.
The RPSs continued to come in, but more sporadically. There was no return fire from any Marines, and I was surprised, not only by the terror of the artillery and the RPGs hitting so close but by the fire control of the unit. Like it was in training, but better. The four hundred was rotten news. We were badly out-numbered, and they’d brought up a load of armament. And they were coming. My stomach was curdling with fear, and I so didn’t want to climb out of the welcoming suction of the jungle mud.
I forced myself to my hands and knees. Nguyen was gone, as fast as he’d appeared. I didn’t doubt his report. I reached for the handset, and Fusner was there, knowing just when I’d make my request, but I didn’t call it in. From the time I made the call, it would only take a minute or so to get a ranging round to the registration point I’d picked. I’d have loved to have fired a round earlier or even clued in the battery, but I didn’t trust the enemy not to figure things out or for the radio transmission not to be intercepted. I kept breathing, as the RPG firing lessoned and another battery of two hit the open area near the cliff. The enemy artillery battery was in a tough situation. If they fired too deep they would take out their own attacking force. If they fired short then the rounds would smack uselessly against the face of the cliff. Unless they had a forward observer like me, which I prayed to God they didn’t.
I waited, handset in hand. To get the first battery fire after the ranging round, saying that round was accurate, would take about a minute or maybe two, depending on how good Fire Base Cunningham’s Fire Direction Center and howitzer gunners were. The timing had to be just right. If I got it wrong, then the NVA might figure out where we were set up and pull some trick out of their bag I hadn’t thought of. I waited. And waited. The artillery blasts ended, and the bouncing jungle subsided once more. The rounds had come no closer. They couldn’t come closer unless the battery was informed about where we were on both sides of the slope. I got control of my breathing again. My crotch felt warm and I worried that I’d relieved myself in my trousers, but then shoved that shameful thought aside. What did it matter and who would care, anyway?
My mouth was dry. I wished I’d brought my canteen. Could I even talk?
Fusner shoved his hand toward my free hand. I accepted a small package, and held it up to my nose. I could smell it. That gave me a tug of hope. I was still alive. The package was a folded stick of chewing gum. I put the stick into my mouth and chewed. It worked, as saliva began to flow again. I wondered if Fusner was chewing gum too, and how he knew I’d need it.
The enemy small arms fire began as the third battery of two came crashing in. The distinctive pops of the AK fire so different from the sound M-16s made. I couldn’t see any fire but I knew it was coming from my right, where the NVA had to be. The firing began to move. The NVA was using our own classic fire and maneuver tactics, attacking while thinking they’d either taken out the faux perimeter or shocked whomever was left manning it into uselessness.
I pressed the button and ordered the fire mission. I told the battery that we were in contact, once I coded in and gave them the first registered target. After ‘shot over’ and ‘shot out,’ I knew I was in trouble. I’d been unable to see anything up through the double canopy jungle in the dark. The moon’s wan illumination had been no help. I swallowed deeply and ordered a second round to the same point, to explode its white phosphorus fifty meters higher. I had to have a point of reference or we were all dead. Suddenly, my mind clicked and I instantly pulled the sock rags from my ears to be able to hear the round explode. I stood up, taking a chance. When the word ‘splash’ came over the speaker I stared up and counted “one, one thousand” five times, softly. And there it was. I heard the explosion and picked up a slight flash at the same time.
I plopped myself back down into the mud and stopped paying attention to anything around me. The small arms fire increased in loudness and tempo. Our faux perimeter was being overrun. I closed my eyes and began to see the six grid coordinate registrations I’d set up for a battery zone fire. I got the numbers into Cunningham’s battery, and then carefully stopped to get the adjustment for the first battery of six (or whatever they had) to begin. I had to adjust from the phony position I’d given Cunningham earlier. Instead of ‘left three hundred’ and ‘drop one hundred’ I had to order ‘up three hundred’ and ‘left one hundred.’ I would have loved then, when the battery indicated it was ready, to yell “fire for effect” into the handset, but I didn’t. I called for another ranging round on the first beaten zone I’d asked, for to begin the paraded of fire. This time I asked for one round of high explosive.
Another shattering set of rounds impacted on the open area near the cliff face, the shock of it making everyone duck except me. I was already as deep into the mud as I could get again, with my rags stuffed back in my ears. My H.E. round came in. At ‘splash’ this time I cupped my hands over my ears to help the rags do their job. This round hit five seconds later with a bigger impact than anything the enemy had thrown, as it was only two hundred meters away, almost within the big round’s deadly circular area of death or dismemberment. This time debris showered down for a few seconds. I took my hands off my ears. There was a momentary lull in the small arms fire.
“Yes,” I said to myself and then called for the ‘fire for effect,’ as I drilled myself into the earth as deep as I could, wondering too late about the fact that the battery fire would most probably be delivered by six guns in a circle that was about fifty meters in diameter. That would bring some rounds another fifty meters closer to both real perimeters, and me.
The first battery of six came in. There was nowhere to go except into a fetal position. I knew the first would be the closest and the worst. I unconsciously let go of the radio handset, trying to hide in my own world, as the jungle seemed to explode time after time, and then subside with leaves, branches and even mud plummeting back down. My head rang, and the gum oozed out of my mouth. I could not breath properly without panting and my shoulders quivered. And then the firing continued, but began to grow slightly more distant. I had to breath normally or I was going to pass out. I fought the fear, and strange smells of compressed jungle debris and something else even less pleasant. I knew before getting up that men were dying. I couldn’t hear them because even when the explosions stopped, and I’d pulled the rags from my ears, I still couldn’t hear.
I smiled, curled up on the mud. I was alive. Another distant crashing of artillery thunder came in and I could still hear that. It was enemy fire. Ineffectual and distant. Distant at only about a thousand meters away, but my world had been reduced to only the tiny area around my body. I celebrated at being alive, unaware of any responsibilities I might have or communications I should consider.
I lay there, knowing there would be no accounting for anything in the night. That there was complete silence after the last enemy salvo said everything. Whatever had happened had ended the attack. What the accounting would detail would occur in the morning. I was not aware if the enemy had attempted to charge down the slopes to get away from the awful carnage of the artillery, and I didn’t care. I was alive and it was dark and there was no sound. I could begin counting to myself and wait for the life-giving dawn.