They came back like they left, only slight movements of the nearby undergrowth giving any evidence of their reappearance. Like wraiths just outside the area of my hooch, they moved to where they were already dug in, although it was mostly useless to dig holes in mud that slowly filled back in without anything to reinforce or hold it out of the excavated area. I felt them more than saw them and it gave me a feeling of unaccountable warmth inside my very being. Warmth where I didn’t think I could feel warmth anymore. Fusner slipped across the mist laden outer layer of my strewn out rubber poncho. He pulled the Prick 25 radio slowly from under the cover I’d shoved it for protection from the elements. The mist and rain, Vietnam’s only and nearly ever-present elements anything could be done about. The heat was unremitting and nothing was to be done about that except when gaining altitude in mountainous regions.
“We’re staying, sir,” Fusner whispered, since I had not moved or given any indication I knew they were back and about our small area.
I didn’t reply, wondering once more about the mindset of the men I was among and how nothing in life had prepared me to understand or deal with whatever it might be at any given time. A shiver of fear went through me. It was a shiver because I might live and therefore feared I might die. Knowing you are going to die takes almost all the fear away. The unknown disappears and the process of dying isn’t nearly as fearful of worrying about the prospect of dying. I might live, at least through the night, and that scared me deeply all over again.
“Corporal Zero,” Fusner said, softly, “he says we live with you, which isn’t likely, or we die without you, which is almost certainly. So, we’re staying and if they come in the night they have to come for all of us.”
I remained silent. I had no ready answer. I was reminded of war movies back from WWII when such whispers bound warrior Americans together against advancing Germans. How unreal it was to have my small tribe of Marines banded together to face the prospect of an attack by other Marines.
Suddenly, the Gunny appeared from nowhere to squat down just outside my flowing little moat.
“It’s me,” he whispered unnecessarily, like who else would it have been. The list of visitors I received was short, indeed.
Without saying anything further he unstrapped his pack and began settling into the small area between my own hooch and the nearby bracken. Two other Marines soon joined him. After only a few moments of work, getting his own hooch set up, he squatted before me again.
“Rittenhouse and Pilson, Company Clerk and my radio operator,” he said, glancing to his right. “We’ll set up here if you don’t mind.”
I would have smiled if I really smiled anymore. Like my permission was needed for much of anything. And, it was rather apparent, the three of them were settling in for the night anyway.
“Come to protect me?” I asked, sounding confident while feeling anything but on the inside.
“It might be a difficult night,” he responded, after a moment of reflection. “You registered First Platoon’s position. No, I don’t think they know that, if you’re wondering whether they’ll move or not. There’s probably only one position our 105s probably won’t rain down on tonight so we came here.”
It should have been funny. I was afraid of what Jurgens might do while the Gunny was afraid of what I might do. Fourth Platoon was no doubt worried about what the crackers would do. The enemy outside the perimeter could strike at any moment but they’d be striking a force more divided and afraid of one another than it was of them. And I was back to being afraid of all of them. And the Gunny was wrong, although I was not going to tell him so. I had registered my own position and I had no reservations about calling fire down on it whatever, that I could think of, other than that I would miss not getting off a fourth and final letter home.
I heard the crackle, pop and hiss of the real command radio across the short distance to where Pilson, the other radioman, was getting set up to support the Gunny. He came scrabbling across the top of the mud, holding out a handset identical to the one Fusner was constantly sticking in front of me.
“They want you, Gunny, the six-actual,” he said, holding the mic out toward the Gunny’s right shoulder.
The Gunny took the mic, looking at me for a few seconds before saying anything.
“They think I’m you,” he said, waiting to answer the call.
“I guess, in a manner of speaking, you are me,” I replied, feeling relieved that he’d at least waited for my permission to pass himself off as me. I wondered, if I ever transmitted on the command net again, whether the operators at the battalion end would recognize the differences in our voices.
“Six actual, over,” the Gunny transmitted.
“Casualty report,” came right back through the little speaker on Pilson’s back.
We hadn’t lost any personnel or taken any casualties in the attack because there had been no attack. Battalion knew the hill was occupied and fully expected that the Company’s losses would be substantial in taking it, or at least I thought they presumed that. I knew for certain that they wanted low Marine casualties and high enemy casualties for their daily reports.
The Gunny cupped the mic to his chest, thinking.
“When does Rittenhouse send in his dailies?” I asked, in the silence.
“Every morning, just after dawn,” the Gunny said, his eyebrows going up.
“Tell them the situation is fluid, the hill taken, but a firm perimeter is still being put in place to repulse counter attacks,” I said, reciting training material and language learned in the Basic School back at Quantico. “Casualty report will be filed with the daily in the morning.”
The Gunny repeated what I told him word for word
“Roger that, over,” came back, after only a few seconds. “The actual says ‘nice work.’”
The Gunny went back to building his hooch and getting out of the rain.
“Fusner, have Zero come over here,” I ordered.
Seconds later the giant of a man appeared, the moonlight gleaming off his black skin. He wore only the green undershirt. I wondered if he was impervious to the awful onslaught of the nightly mosquito attacks.
“Sir,” he said, squatting down, his comment sounding not like a question but more as a request for orders.
“You backed me,” I said, looking into the black pools where his eyes were supposed to be. “I back you.”
“Sir?” he asked, a tone of surprise in his voice.
“You heard me,” I answered. “Dismissed.”
The man scurried away, no doubt getting under his own poncho to get away from the cloying misty rain.
“The best combat promotion I’ve ever made,” I whispered to myself, in some twisted attempt to find any humor within me. I wasn’t even sure I could make battle field promotions at all. I’d heard of such things but presumed them to be the province of generals or admirals, and not lowly make-believe lieutenants.
“Fusner,” I whispered, knowing the Child-Marine would appear in seconds like some sort of magical ghost. And he did.
“Sir?” he inquired, ready with the radio handset extended.
“Not yet,” I said. “I need a rubber band, but a smaller one. Where do you get rubber bands out here, anyway?” I asked.
“Rittenhouse, sir,” he replied. “Company Clerk. I’ll get one. What do you need it for, I mean, if I may ask, sir?”
“Cover my flashlight lens so I can write something,” I said. “I can punch a hole in a piece of paper and see good enough. In fact, get Rittenhouse over here.”
Rittenhouse did not come because the night exploded with incoming fire. Small arms tracers began to arc from the mountain down into the Company area, effectively making it a beaten zone. I cringed. The whole team cringed. Even digging in would have been of little help unless digging deep down below the heavy layer of jungle mud and tough interlacing roots. I could not call fire on the hill because our company was universally known to have taken it earlier in the day. There would be no suppressing artillery fire and air did not fly at night, unless it was to dump officers like me into hell.
I crawled the few feet over to the Gunny’s hooch.
“What’s our plan?” I asked, wondering if there was any plan at all, other than to exchange small arms fire with the NVA occupying the hill.
“Nothing,” the Gunny said, sitting up calmly and eating from a C-Ration can. “We don’t return fire. They kinda know where we are but not really in detail, otherwise they wouldn’t be lighting up the areas we’re not at. All we can do is wait until morning. At least we know they’re on that hill in force. We’d have lost half the company trying to take it. Tonight we’ll lose some but nothing like that.”
I heard the distinctive ‘thwup’ of mortar rounds leaving their tubes. I went flat, face down into the mud at the Gunny’s feet.
“Outgoing,” he said, lighting a cigarette and looking down at me.
I knew he was trying not to laugh at my appearance. How I had gone from being the cutting edge of a wired-together highly trained Marine Officer to the piece of muddy flotsam laying at the Gunny’s feet was beyond understanding or accurate description. I plucked myself out of the mud.
“The 81s stayed for the night,” the Gunny said, as the big mortar rounds impacted on the hill and things got quiet again.
“Variable Time fuses on those things. The shrap will keep their heads down for awhile, but they couldn’t haul too much ammo on their backs alone.”
“So, we just wait?” I asked, feeling stupid.
“Sometimes God means it that way,” the Gunny said, making me wonder if his being Spanish also meant he was Catholic, like me. “We do nothing but wait.”
“And pray?” I asked, looking for a hint at his background.
“Sure, if you feel lucky,” he said back, giving me nothing.
“We wait for the red ball,” he went on, taking in a double-lungful of smoke, and then blowing it out slowly.
I noticed that the mist had relented. It was only oven hot, not wet oven hot. I wondered how I’d get my new layer of mud off. I didn’t want to use my precious half-canteen of drinking water. I lived for my coffee moments where I could read the cigarette box notes from home.
The last one I’d read had promised a farm breakfast of fresh eggs and salted bacon slabs from a farm couple in Iowa. I’d saved that one in my wallet with the address. H54 Nodaway, Iowa was the address. The Mulberrys. I would go and visit them for breakfast I promised myself, if I ever got back.
“What’s a red ball?” I asked, hoping I was not simply revealing more of my endless ignorance.
“Sometimes the medevac chopper is so filled with wounded that the fuselage bleeds red,” the Gunny answered, no derisive inflection in his tone. “Called the red ball. If the chopper comes in and leaves under fire it does it real fast. That’s called the Red Ball Express.”
I thought about the lucky ones. Aboard the Red Ball Express. I then thought about how bizarre it was to think about being shot as being lucky. I crawled on all fours back to my hooch to wait out the night. To make it from one bout of incoming fire to another, with the 81s providing the only release from the noise and paralyzing fear. And the cries of the wounded. No wounded yet. No cries. I girded myself to wait. No heavy machine guns or mortars on the hill or they’d have opened up already. That kind of ‘good news’ in combat was as bizarre to think about as hoping to get aboard the Red Ball Express.
I did pray but I didn’t feel lucky. I prayed that Jurgens’ men would not be sent to kill me in the night, and if they were sent they’d be put off by the Gunny being nearby, or maybe not able to find me in the muck of the night.