The NVA Russian-made fifty caliber opened up, and the heavy green ‘flying lantern’ tracers tore through the thick air over our heads. I popped my head up for a micro-second to confirm that they’d moved the weapon lower down on the mountain’s front slope. I adjusted my plan for an in depth response, this time for thirty-six rounds on each of the four points of the zone “X” I’d recorded earlier. It was a simple “drop two hundred, repeat in depth” mission, but I had bigger problems closer in than that. Instead of reaching for Fusner’s handset I crawled up next to Zippo.

“Get the Starlight out,” I ordered.

“How you think I see ‘em,” he whispered back.

“Where is the damned thing?” I asked, unable to see the black instrument in the dark.

“I’m slipping it on my back,” Zippo replied, continuing to whisper, although the Marines or NVA approaching had to know exactly where we were anyway.

I got hold of the slippery scope lying across Zippo’s right shoulder, then eased myself half way up onto his broad back. I stuck my left eye onto the rubber mount and my world turned green. I blinked, and then looked out into the night. I pulled back and blinked. The scope was an all or nothing night device, and I realized my night vision was shot. If you used it, then one eye would be night blind for some time and, since human eyes acted in sympathy for the most part, that meant night blindness. The bright green vista revealed by the scope drew me back. I used the focus knob to sharpen the flat area between our position at the back of the berm and the area out to the forested jungle. The scope moved slowly up and down, distracting me.

“Hold still,” I ordered Zippo.

“I gotta breathe,” he replied.

“No, you don’t,” Fusner whispered, from behind us. “We don’t stop them right now, whoever they are, and they’ll kill us all. No witnesses.”

The scope stopped moving as Zippo held his breath. What looked like three blobs of mud moved slowly across the open grassy field. One would move and then another, and then the third.  ‘Fire and maneuver,’ the movement was called in combat. Here we had a similar situation, without the ‘fire.’ The three blobs had worked together in the past, I realized. They did what they were doing too well and too soundlessly. With all the mud and no head gear, we couldn’t tell if the slowly moving blobs were Marines or the enemy. I breathed deeply in and out, Zippo still holding his own. It didn’t matter who they were. They weren’t moving toward us to share rations, warn us or to give us a message. They could only have one intent, and that made them the enemy, regardless of their originating outfit.

I’d briefly examined the scope earlier and it didn’t have an attachment for any rifle in our company. The bottom screw holes on the device’s one flat side would probably allow it to be mounted on a sniper rifle, but I hadn’t seen any snipers since I’d joined the company. If snipers had been attached to our unit, they no doubt would have taken the scope to use on their own. Rittenhouse wouldn’t have had to pack it.

“Breathe,” I ordered Zippo, speaking very quietly into his right ear, the scope sticking out over his big burly shoulder.

I eased my .45 from my holster and brought it up. With no way to slave the automatic to the scope, in order to fire I’d have to parallel the scope with the short barrel of the gun. With one eye looking through the scope and the other out to steady the Colt, I’d have to accurately get the rounds down range with my night vision shot — a task unlikely to have positive results. But there was no other option.

“Stop breathing,” I commanded, and Zippo stopped moving.

I stared through the reticle of the scope with my left eye and brought the Colt up experimentally, to see what it would be like. Then I lowered the gun and re-inserted it back into the holster. We’d have to wait. In order for it to work, the blobs needed to be almost upon us, or I could call in an illumination round to light up the area. That would mean the blobs would be able to see us, too. And then there was the Battery problem. The Battery wouldn’t fire that close in upon our position anyway. I started to think of the three moving blobs as a puzzle.

“Breathe,” I ordered Zippo.

I still had unused pieces of my sundries pack in my leg pocket, jammed in with the killing morphine. I rummaged in the pocket, nervous about waiting for the mud blobs to get closer. I found what was looking for, a small box of Chiclets chewing gum. I threw the little tabs into my mouth and discarded the box. I chewed rapidly, waiting for the gum to soften before removing the wet mass from my mouth. I pulled it into three parts and leaned onto Zippo’s back again.

“For your right ear,” I said, before sticking half the wet mass into his right ear canal.

The .45 going off so close to his ear would deafen him, possibly for life, without some sort of ear plug. I stuck the other two smaller wads into my own ears.

“Stop breathing,” I instructed, leaning onto him, jamming my left eye into the rubber grommet and then pulling my Colt out again.

I clicked the safety off, the sound much louder than I intended. The three approaching blobs froze. I waited, gauging the distance at about fifteen feet. I wondered how long Zippo could hold his breath. I knew the blobs were not going to back up so it was a matter of time before they moved again.

I raised the .45. I didn’t want to hold it up for too long since it was a heavy piece and accuracy diminished rapidly when muscle tension began to give way. I’d been raised with a similar Colt, although highly accurized. I was an expert on the Marine Corps course, but even better than that range test had called for. Even un-accurized, the weapon was plenty accurate at fifteen feet. The longer I could wait, the less would be my chances of missing.

Pinned down by Viet Cong machine gun fire, a U.S. medic looks over at a seriuosly wounded comrade as they huddle behind a dike in a rice paddy, near Phu Loi, South Vietnam, August 14, 1966. (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

I steadied on the first hump, my sight going back and forth from focusing through the scope to lining up the gun. The humps moved. The Colt was no doubt sighted in for twenty-five yards, I thought, which would be standard sighting from the factory. I’d have to hold a bit low since they were closer than that. I aimed, if I could call it that, just short of the first advancing hump. I squeezed slowly, not knowing when the heavy trigger would release the sear, just as I’d been long taught to do. And then Zippo breathed and the gun exploded.

“Shit,” I whispered, wondering if I should squeeze off another round. I stared through the scope, but it was moving up and down with Zippo’s breathing, screwing up the scene.

My Colt was down to five rounds. I’d kept one in the chamber and five in the magazine, even though the magazine held seven. Dad had taught me that loading seven might cause the upper tang on the magazine to bend, making the normally dependable automatic a one shot device.

The humps didn’t make a sound that I could hear with the gum stuck in my ears. The Colt going off had been loud anyway, but not ear-destroying loud. The humps did not move. Zippo took a deep breath and held it. The scope steadied. The two humps behind the leading one began moving in toward the front blob. Even with Zippo’s jarring breath, I knew I must have gotten some kind of hit.

Then I realized that I was adjusting fire, and it was just like calling in artillery. I’d used the first round for a spotting round and it had been dead on. I held the .45 up again, just as before, then gently eased it left a little bit and at about the same angle the first shot had gone off at.

“Left five feet,” I whispered to myself. The Colt exploded again. This time I kept my left eye right in the rubber grommet. The left hump stopped.

“Right ten feet,” I instructed myself. The gun went off again.

Zippo took a breath and I briefly lost the scene.

Just at that instant the heavy machine gun on the hillside opened up again, raking green fire over our heads. This time the flaming bullets raced lower than the last. The berm was not going to stop the horrid gun from killing us. Moving the machine gun up there after the last artillery barrage must have been difficult for the NVA,  I knew, but I was also certain that the gunners would get in the groove soon and home in. The company had nothing of size except the 81 mike mike mortars to retaliate with, and their ammo was expended until the morning re-supply. I reached back for Fusner’s handset and wonderfully it filled my hand.

“Fire mission, over,” I said, and called the mission in from memory, thinking about the fire I’d adjusted with the smaller hand howitzer a few seconds earlier. I set down the handset and, not waiting for the rounds to land, turned my attention back to the three humps.

“Stop breathing,” I ordered Zippo, and then used my left eye to look through the Starlight scope at my three targets, hopefully still out there in the mud.

They hadn’t moved. That was either good or bad I decided, with nothing yet to be done about it. The green tracers started up, but only about ten rounds came out of the heavy machine gun before the assorted forty-six-pound variety of high explosive, variable-time and concrete-busting rounds started to tear Hill 110 apart. The artillery fire went on and on. The ground shaking thunder and cracking atmospheric noise of well over a hundred rounds pouring onto the mountain drew and held every bit of attention on the battlefield. And then it was over. Distant cries of seeming protest came across the stilled misty air from the mountain. The enemy would not be destroyed by carpets of artillery fire, no matter how dense those might be, I knew. The enemy soldiers, used to being out-gunned and out-numbered in every area, were dug in deep. But anyone near the surface had paid a price, those bodies and souls still alive, but quite possibly wishing they weren’t, broadcasting some of that price.

I thought of calling in a carpet of variable-timed white phosphorus, just to keep the underground enemy from coming up for awhile, but I had other business to conduct first.

“Nguyen,” I whispered to Fusner, more as an order than a request for his presence.

The small enigmatic Montagnard appeared in the dark without having to be summoned further.

I nodded my head over in the direction where I knew the three humps of the enemy lay, glancing through the eyepiece of the Starlight to make sure nothing had changed. It hadn’t. The shapes were in the same places as when I’d looked before.

I crawled away from Zippo’s side and Fusner crawled with me. I gripped him by the shoulder.

“You stay close,” I said, probably whispering louder than I thought because of the gum I’d left in my ears. “I’m going out there to check them out. I’m not going to lie here all night watching through that damned scope. Stay behind me, but not too far behind, in case that fifty opens up again.”

I drew myself slowly across the mud and reeds toward where I’d last placed the three humps. Without the scope, a flashlight or overhead illumination rounds, I couldn’t see much of anything in the dark, and none of those three choices were available. I felt Nguyen move in front, angling me off a bit to the right. I guessed  the Montagnard to be a lot more capable in the dark than I was, particularly since we’d reached the base of the mountains and were fighting virtually in his back yard. I could barely see the bottoms of his boots in front of me, but that was enough. When we got closer I could see the mildest reflection of the moon’s small sliver coming over at me from the three unmoving lumps to my left. About ten feet from the leading hump, I stopped to lay down for a few seconds. Nguyen continued to crawl or slide across the mud until he was beyond the forms.

“Are they ours?” Fusner said, from behind me.

I eased the Colt from my holster, hoping that the mud hadn’t jammed the gun beyond use.

“Are they wounded?” Fusner asked.

Taking great care, I brought the .45 up to make sure the barrel pointed parallel to the mud. I held it with the butt resting lightly on the ground’s gooey surface. I fired three timed rounds, each about three seconds apart, and each into the center of mass of each hump, as best I could gauge. There was no movement.

“They’re the enemy,” I said, answering Fusner and re-holstering the empty Colt.” And they’re not wounded.”

I rolled to one side on the muddy surface and turned around to begin crawling back to our original position. I had another magazine for the Colt buried in one of my back pockets. Only five rounds in that magazine. I eased over the mud, moving as fast as I could. I had to get out of the open area and back to some semblance of cover before reloading the Colt. For a few moments, getting the Colt reloaded was the only thing on my mind.

Somehow, Nguyen was already back when I slithered up to the raised mound we’d departed from. Fusner came behind. I reloaded carefully, slowly and quietly. I’d killed my first three men in combat. I felt nothing at all. I tried to think about caring but couldn’t. All that mattered was to have the Colt ready again, as quickly as possible, and then adjust fire onto the hill when and if the hill demanded to be struck again.

Zippo lay where I’d left him, still pointing at the unmoving forms with the heavy Starlight scope stretched across his back.

“Can I breathe now?” he asked.

I realized he was making a joke, and also that it wasn’t a bad one, but I couldn’t smile, much less laugh out loud.

“You can breathe, and then mount that thing on top of a pack or something so we can scan the area until it’s light. Do we have extra batteries, and how long can we keep it on without burning them up?”

“Rittenhouse thinks of everything, sir,” Fusner replied. “I’ve got the batteries with my extra radio ones. They’re not heavy and they last for about twenty hours if you leave the thing on.”

“Were those guys from my old platoon?” Zippo asked, working in the dark to fold something to rest the scope on.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Likely we’ll know everything when the sun comes up.”

I’d lay two more zone adjustments down on Hill 110 before that dawn. Once again, I had no recollection of sleeping, although I experienced moments, or even longer periods of time, where I wasn’t fully conscious. The battlefield grew quiet before the coming of that dawn, to the point where the four of us decided to move slowly back to where we’d located our hooches.  If Nguyen hadn’t been a part of our team, we’d have needed the scope for the return trip.

I laid down on my dry poncho liner to wait for the dawn. My hand slipped down to the hump resting uncomfortably in my right thigh pocket. I prayed there would be no wounded requiring that kind of pain-relieving morphine between now and then. I thought about meeting the re-supply chopper, mailing my letter home and counting the bodies when the time came.  There was little doubt in my mind as to what kind of enemy I’d been forced to make my first kills in combat, and I didn’t want to add any more. I worked the small wads I’d fashioned for ear plugs out of my ears. I’d need to be able to hear in order to listen to both the Gunny and Sugar Daddy after the sun came up. I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that there would be plenty of recriminations in the morning. I lay with my right hand caressing my reloaded Colt, my left squeezing my letter to be mailed home for all it was worth.

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