I sat in my hooch, waiting for the sound of choppers distant in the air. I thought about all of what had gone before, since I’d arrived. It felt terrible to know I would have to sit and wait for orders to move from Hill 110, which we would not be taking, in direct violation of orders. My very first orders in combat. My only decision was to go along. To stay alive. The platoon commanders did not gather in front of me like they had to give me the message.
The Gunny could have done that quite easily. No, they’d met in the mud right in front of me to send me a different message. Don’t screw with them or get dead. Go along to get along and even then get dead. And then there was the enemy. I had yet to review our own dead or even the wounded. I felt that the Gunny was waiting for my maturation, my coming of age, my ability to handle even more bad news. I had to admit he was right. I wasn’t ready for more bad news. I was scrunched backed into my poncho cover, like it was my blanket at my parents’ place at home. And I could no more stay there than I had been able to in that home. I knew I was supposed to review the carnage I’d called in on the enemy. I knew there was a vital, hard and tough enemy too. How could the Company not be united to fight that enemy? I didn’t know. I wasn’t going out to count the dead or try to put body parts together. I had no interest whatsoever.
I’d seen the tracers from the enemy and fired out at them in the night before dawn. I’d seen them the night before. They were so impressive, possibly their effect increased by the density of the fetid hot air. Tracers were death. And tracers might be life. I would ask at resupply, not that I was being given an opportunity yet to actually order supplies. My primary mission was to mail my letter. My first objective to accomplish my mission was tracers and my second was to order size eight jungle boots. It made no sense but the plan seemed sensible to me.
“Fusner, up,” I commanded.
Fusner almost literally jumped to the opening of my hooch. “Sir,” he said. He made me feel like a Marine officer and I was thankful, although I showed nothing.
“Who orders the ordinance for the company at resupply every morning?” I asked him.
“The Gunny,” Fusner said, right back.
“Is it verbal or does he use a requisition form?” I continued.
“Requisition form,” Fusner answered.
“Get me one,” I ordered, not knowing if he would be able to accomplish that part of the objective to accomplish a mission that had no relationship to tracers at all.
“I think Stevens can get one,” Fusner deferred.
“Have him do so, then,” I said, becoming a bit irritated.
“He’s a sergeant and I’m a corporal,” Fusner replied. “I can’t order him.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, amazed. “Someone is actually mentioning rank in this bunch of fucked up misfitted asshole Marines?” I let some of the acid that had brewing deep inside my belly for three days and nights come spewing out in my tone and words. “And then the rank is supposed to mean something?” I would have laughed when I finished. It was funny. I knew that but I could no longer laugh. Laughing was for another life.
“What are we going to do all day since we have to sit here and make believe we’re taking Hill 110?” I asked.
“I think we’ll do all the things that make it look and sound like we’re taking the hill,” Stevens said.
I peeked out from under my poncho cover. Stevens was squatted down, no doubt tracked down and brought back by Fusner.
“You want a requisition form?” he asked.
“Roger that,” I replied, rolling out of my hooch. It was dawn. It was time for coffee and a shave and some useless but necessary deodorant.
“What do you want to requisition?” he asked.
I filled my helmet with water from one of my full canteens, thanking the great helicopter god of resupply for fresh water almost every day. My Scout Sergeant did not have the faith and confidence of his non-English speaking counterpart. I glanced at my bracelet, and then looked around to see if I could find the Montagnard. Something moved in the jungle. I saw him. He looked back at me, invisible to everyone else. I knew he’d moved in response to my looking for him. How he knew to move was beyond me. The more I learned of the enigmatic silent man the more I liked him.
“I want tracers,” I said, guiding my Gillette around my cheeks and chin, dipping the difficult to hold little tool occasionally in my helmet water.
“They don’t make tracers for the .45,” he replied. “Too short range.”
I wondered if he was making a joke. I stopped shaving and looked into his eyes. He was serious. That was funny too. I thought about laughing. Of course they didn’t make tracers for the Colt. I didn’t laugh, funny as it was.
“I want tracers for the M16s. In fact, I want all tracers. No more ball ammo. Just tracers. It’s going to work.”
“What’s going to work?” Stevens asked after a minute or so of thought.
“You afraid of tracers?” I asked him.
“Yes, everyone’s afraid of tracers.”
“Right,” I said, putting a stick of Old Spice deodorant up under each of my arms. I loved the smell of the Old Spice until I put it on. I smelled like shit. I smelled like Vietnam all gooey with Old Spice deodorant.
“We’re going to light up the enemy at every opportunity and scare the shit out of them. Usually tracers are one of every three to five regular ball rounds. We’ll use tracers for all the rounds. That way the enemy will think that our rate of fire has increased tremendously. And they’ll keep their scared little heads down so we can kill them in their holes. And I’ll be able to see where inside the unit that every 5.56 millimeter goes.”
“I’ve never heard of this,” Stevens replied, surprise in his tone. “I don’t think anybody’s ever heard of it. We don’t even requisition any tracers for our M16s. The tracers we use are all 7.62 fired from the M60 machine guns.
“I’ll check with the Gunny,” he said, finally, when I didn’t reply.
“No, you’ll get me a requisition form like I ordered you, or you can walk the point next time we move.”
“The point?” Stevens said, real fear in his voice. “You’d put me at the point?” his voice began to rise.
I realized I’d gone a bit overboard.
“Just kidding, Stevens. Just get me the form.”
Stevens rushed off, to be replaced by Fusner, who squatted in the same spot as the Scout Sergeant had occupied. I thought of cokes in a coke machine, for some reason. I also thought that I had to get control of myself. I hadn’t been kidding with Stevens. I was fighting for my life but I’d already learned that you don’t threaten men with guns in combat zones. Period. Ever. Shoot, bomb, drop artillery on them but never threaten. A threat took power from the person threatening and gave it to the person threatened. What might happen next was up to the person threatened. And that’s the last thing I wanted. I could not build trust and loyalty by demanding it. I remembered the best training officer I’d had at Quantico. A funny guy who said things like “Irish Pennants” for loose threads, and “Troub City” for a difficult circumstance. He’d one day told us what real leadership was. I hadn’t really internalized what he said but I never forgot the words: “Leadership is getting people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.” I was finally coming to understand those words, and just how complex an undertaking it is to lead men in combat.
I knew it was likely that the rear area would have plenty of tracers for the M16s simply because it wasn’t commonly used. The Marines in my company fired mostly in jungle terrain, not across open fields of fire. In truth, I knew the idea of using all tracers hadn’t come to me on my own. A few years earlier I’d read a book about German SS soldiers who’d been allowed into the Foreign Legion to get away from being prosecuted as war criminals. Those Nazi troops had ended up fighting in Vietnam. The all tracer idea was from them. Whether it worked or not I was about to find out. At the very least, using only tracer rounds might cut down on many of the casualties I now knew we were taking from friendly fire.
I finished my morning preparations for the day by taking a malaria pill, eating a bag of dry cocoa and brewing a canteen holder of coffee.
The Gunny appeared in the jungle undergrowth, shadowed by Nguyen. I wondered if the Gunny knew he was there. The scout looked at me from under a palm frond of some species I didn’t know. He didn’t wink but I got the feeling of a wink from the strange silent man.
The Gunny pulled his canteen out and went to work building a small fire to make his coffee since my own had quickly burned out. The Composition B burned very hot but also very fast. He didn’t say anything while he worked.
I waited, knowing why he was there. Stevens was undoubtedly staying out of it.
“Tracers?” the Gunny said, sipping his hot brew, not looking directly at me.
I knew he was going to nix the idea if he could. I just felt it in my bones.
“Brilliant,” he said. “You’ve been here what? Three days and a wake-up, and you come up with that one. It might just help. These weathered Marines aren’t going to like revealing where they are when they shoot, though,” he added.
“Won’t,” I answered, speaking to his conjectured concern. “The 16 tracers don’t ignite until they’re fifty feet from the tip of the barrel. And most of the fire going on, I notice, is in the crap we’re in right now. They’re not going to like it when everyone knows who’s shooting who in the company though, that’s for certain.”
“Okay, I’ll give your scout a form,” the Gunny relented.
“No, you’ll order the tracers for us yourself,” I countered.
The Gunny put down his canteen holder, took out a pack of Camels, and then took his time getting one carefully out after tamping the pack down against his boot top for almost a minute. He lit one up and blew the smoke toward the position Nguyen had held moments earlier.
“Tell you what, sir,” he blew another big puff, “I’ll tell the guys that I agree with you and we’ll take less fire from the NVA because of the tracers scaring them off, if you place the order yourself.”
I stared at the side of the Gunny’s hard face until he finally turned to look back at me.
“That’s how its played when you’re in your third war?” I said.
“Re-supply will be at our little makeshift landing zone in a few minutes. The dead and wounded go out at the same time. Gunships can only be spared for one run so it’s going to get a bit busy.”
“Then you better get me the form,” I replied, knowing I had no choice. The Gunny was riding the middle all the way, stuck between the wants and desires of the errant Marines, the obvious race war going on, and me, the supposed representative of the outside world.
Stevens appeared out of the bush like he was following a Hollywood script. He carried a form in his hand, as he walked up.
The chopper came in from high up, dropping into the small cutaway zone the Marines had cleared. Two Huey gunships orbited around the big twin rotor CH-46 as it came down. The gunships, from my position below, looked like predatory and fast-moving cobra snakes. The wind from the landing 46 battered the remaining foliage on the ground until it beat those of us waiting half to death. Debris that had been chopped out took to the air in twin whirlwinds, striking down on everyone and everything below. There was no “Cisco Kid” commando in Hollywood attire to great me this time. I gave my letter home and the ammunition request form to a crew chief who looked tattered, battered and tired beyond the point of exhaustion. There was not one phony aspect to the man’s appearance or behavior. We didn’t speak. He took the letter and the requisition and stuffed them in one pocket of his utility trousers before going to work to wave aboard some of my company’s men assigned to unload the supplies. The wounded went in sacked up in ponchos like living burritos. They were unloaded gently onto waiting gurneys attached to the insides of the big chopper. Several medical personnel were there to receive them. The dead were dragged aboard in body bags, black in color and unmarked. The crew chief was handed a small cloth sack I presumed to be the dog tags of the fallen.
I stood watching the whole operation, wanting to see the Marines we’d lost but not wanting to make a thing of it at that time. The noise was daunting and a bit overwhelming. The chopper’s rotors never stopped turning, although they’d slowed considerably from the landing. The gunships rotated close in, sounding like hunting banshees, their rotor blades making the distinctive Huey “Whup, whup, whup,” but the sounds much closer spaced than regular Hueys. I’d never seen the Huey Cobra helicopters before. In training we’d used the old Sea Knight helicopters for transport and only heard about the ferocious Huey gunships.
The dirt and heat was oppressive. I crouched down to await the supply choppers departure so I could glean what I could from the supplies unloaded. The crew chief walked as far toward me as his communications cord would allow, and then waved me toward him. I scrabbled a few feet toward him, wondering what he wanted.
“What size boots?” he asked, yelling the question between cupped hands to penetrate the sound and short distance between us.
“Eight,” I yelled back, and then held up two hands with eight fingers extended.
He nodded, taking out a pencil and scribbling briefly.
“My name?” I asked, wondering how they’d know to get the boots to me.
“Junior,” he answered, giving me a thumbs up before walking to the rear of the chopper and climbing in the fast closing opening.
I watched the chopper pull up, dive its nose down and then pull away sharply into a curving departure making it look like it had to crash, but it didn’t. In seconds all the choppers disappeared. I went for the supplies. I was Junior, I thought to myself. Not Lieutenant Junior or Junior, Sir. I didn’t like it at all but I took some satisfaction in at least being something, and I was not yet in one of those black body bags.