Once the artillery barrage of Hill 110 was over, the surrounding low growth jungle area subsided into a windy silence.
The hot air wafted, like blown cobwebs sweeping slowly back and forth across the face and body of anyone standing. I lay in my hooch, waiting. The night was coming and my fear was rising once again. I hated that the Gunny was right and that I was starting to get used to being terrified to death, not that the terror lessened. It didn’t. Somehow I could maintain control while going through it. Maybe, for the first time, when the sun went fully down, the terror would not be as bad as it had been every night before. It was only my fourth night but thinking back to the airliner ride into Da Nang was like mentally going back a year in relative time. The only good thing about the night was the coming of the next day, if I lived. Resupply, with tracers. Another day closer to getting a letter from home, or even a package or tape. Anything. Home was in the music from the radios and from the notes in the cigarette cartons. And the letter hastily written to Mary in my front pocket. That was it.
“Stevens, front,” I ordered, leaning out toward my little dry moat. There was a scurrying sound before my three scouts appeared before me, each looking compliant and ready for whatever I might order. They resembled the Marines in combat I’d been led to believe I’d be leading. But in only four days and nights I knew better. They were each independent thinking machines making decisions based upon their own survival strategies. How to get them to do what I wanted or needed them to do because they wanted to do it occupied much of my thinking.
“Stevens, go on over to First Platoon and tell the commander of that unit that he’s going to have his men carry the Marines who can’t walk when we leave here,” I ordered.
“The Gunny’s not going to like that,” Stevens replied, not moving an inch. I was ready for his response, however, so I showed none of the mild exasperation I felt at not being instantly obeyed. My mission was to lead to the extent that I survived, nothing more and nothing less. I too had quickly become an independent thinking machine dedicated to my own survival strategy. The other Marines in my unit kept their strategies secret, for the most part, unless they were dumb enough to frag or injure themselves to the point of attempting to get out. I had to go along to get along. I had to keep my own secrets, even from the Gunny.
“Then tell the Gunny on your way, but don’t come back here until you’ve told Jurgens what I ordered,” I said, my voice going soft and casual. Stevens still made no move, as he considered his options, not wanting to be the bearer of bad news to racially volatile First Platoon’s command post. Mentally, my right hand slid marginally closer to the butt of my .45, but physically I made no move. I could not openly threaten any of the men under my command, not with full darkness on the way. My mind worked as if on two levels, one deadly lethal and wanting to kill anything that was the slightest threat to my potential survival, and the other totally shocked at being able to think such awful and foreign thoughts about any other human being without hesitation or regret. Stevens stared into my eyes. My eyes did not blink as I looked back. I tried to soften my facial features while we stared back and forth, so the man would not understand the battle going on in my mind. Suddenly, Stevens got to his feet, motioned to Nguyen and was gone. The last glance he’d given me told me I’d succeeded somewhat. He hadn’t picked up on my conflict although his frown indicated he wasn’t happy with my leadership decision. Nobody was being evacuated, not without having their ass literally shot off. Zero moved to join the departed scouts.
“Stay,” I ordered, before the man got fully underway.
“Why do they call you Zero?” I asked, as he settled his huge bulk back down in front of me.
“Wrestling,” he replied, looking wistfully after Stevens and Nguyen. “I wrestled at 285, what they used to call Heavy Weight. But I was so big they said I was off the chart so they called me Zero. My wife lives in Japan.” I looked over at the giant child. The wife comment came out of nowhere so I pursued it.
“What’s her name and where does she live?” I asked, not really caring but trying to come to grips with what I had to deal with in the man and why he would not participate in whatever was going on in Fourth Platoon.
“Yokosuka,” he replied. “Namika.” I frowned. Which one was the place and which one was the name? I didn’t know and didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking.
“I’m a Private,” Zero went on. “A Marine Private. Is Scout a higher rank than Private?”
“You have to be a Corporal,” I answered, having no idea.
“So I can’t really be a Scout?” he asked, his voice disappointed.
“You’re now a Corporal,” I answered, wondering if I was being funny or serious with myself, much less the Marine in front of me. “Combat promotion. The needs of the unit. Heroism in being real when everything and everyone else is shit,” I finished, no humor in my tone.
“Thank you, sir,” Zero said, rising to his feet and coming to attention. I looked up at the man mountain.
“What are you doing?” I asked, a bit befuddled.
“The ceremony,” he said, staring straight ahead, his facial expression as rigid as his body. I rubbed my face with one hand, feeling the oozing remainder of repellent oil from the night before. I was down the rabbit hole but Alice’s Wonderland was a whole lot more sane than where I had landed. I stood up.
“You are now officially a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps.” I saluted him, even though I wasn’t wearing any cover. He saluted back.
“When you find the company clerk, if we have a company clerk, then report yourself in on the daily,” I ordered before returning to my hooch. The new corporal saluted again and then moved back to where his own hooch was under construction near where the other departed scouts had their stuff. I thought about the big man. He was the first Marine I liked, other than the boy Marine Fusner was, since I’d landed in country. And he called me sir. I had the feeling that he’d always call me sir, no matter what, and the thought was somehow comforting. I gestured to Fusner by holding out my right hand. In seconds the radio handset was plopped into it.
“Rittenhouse, sir,” Fusner said. I looked at him in surprise. “Rittenhouse, the company clerk. We have one. I can get him.”
“No, later,” I said. “I’ve got to set up night defensive fires for the hill we aren’t going to be on. I silently wondered what the battery FDC might think if and when we got hit later in the night. All of the fire I’d be calling would form around a small perimeter circle some distance from the hill that I’d preprogrammed defensive fires earlier. They were cool, dry, just out of Fort Sill and not dummies in the Fire Direction Center. They’d figure things out if we needed too much help and then check fire. The Gunny and the Company was playing an extremely dangerous game I was being required to try to work them around and through without them being aware of what I was doing.
Trying to talk artillery ballistics to someone who’d not been trained in it was almost useless. The detail was everything. Back at the Battery, when their rounds started going out charge six and seven they had to begin calculating for the earth’s curvature and even its rotation. The density of air the shells would be moving through was vital and the shells went up thousands and thousands of feet through different densities. The Company wasn’t playing chess, it was playing dice, with every night being another throw. I finished setting up my layered defense with both the 105 battery and that of the 155s closer to Da Nang, knowing the 155s would be much bigger rounds but less accurate because we were out near the edge of their effective range.
The Gunny appeared, bringing with him somehow a cloud of the evening mosquitoes. I reached for the repellent bottle held to the side of my helmet by the big rubber band Fusner had found for me earlier. The Gunny squatted down but made no move to make coffee or be social in any way. I slathered bug juice on my face and neck, and then my hands and wrists. I put the bottle back where it belonged and waited.
“That’s a bizarre solution and not really a solution at all,” the Gunny began. “That just means we’ll have to deal with them later on or other problems because of them.”
“So, Jurgens is unhappy over there in First Platoon,” I said, without making the sentence a question.
“As you knew,” the Gunny answered. “I don’t know what you’ve got against him, anyway, but there’s something between you. He’s probably going to kill those kids. You know that.”
“Couldn’t ship ‘em out and couldn’t keep ‘em here,” I intoned, ignoring the Jurgens thing. I realized how hard it was to hide anything in such an emotionally charged environment. Everyone was watching and judging everyone else while lying about watching and judging. I felt absolutely nothing for the ‘kids’ who’d damaged their own feet in an attempt to get out of the same hell I’d have done anything myself to get out of.
“He may not do it,” the Gunny mused. “Jurgens just may leave them behind for us to deal with when we pull out of here. If we pull out of here.”
“Then he can lead the way in the taking of Hill 110,” I replied. “I’m playing along with this charade, as is everyone else. I presume you’ve got Lima Company’s 81s under control. If somebody wants to break ranks, then up they go and we all assault that hill or call Battalion and tell Bennett we’re refusing to attack because we’re a bunch of chicken shits.”
“Well, mister new tough guy, what if Jurgens simply decides to take you out?” the Gunny asked, his voice little above a hissed whisper. I looked over at Fusner, who all of sudden was drifting outward into deeper vegetation.
“First Platoon is registered,” I replied. “Are they coming now?” I picked up the handset to the Prick 25 Fusner had shed and left lying on my poncho liner.”
“Jesus Christ,” the Gunny swore, raising his voice. “No. I don’t know. This whole thing is fucked. Leave it alone. I’m trying to help you. I’m trying to help all of us.” I heard the sound of mortars leaving their tubes and flinched.
“Outgoing,” the Gunny said, getting control of himself. “The 81s are firing around the hill we just took, to make it look good. Lima’s okay.”
“Thanks, Gunny,” I said, softly.
“For what?” he answered.
“For everything,” I said, being careful not to sound paternalistic or commanding, but trying not to sound weak either. “This is impossible and you’re doing the best anybody could.”
“Shit,” he said, forcefully, and got to his feet. “They’re going to fire down on us tonight because we’re sitting targets and they know it. Use that underground crap you called in before when it starts. I think it shakes them down to their little gook asses.”
He disappeared into the brush without further comment. Fusner reappeared, as if by magic, as Stevens and Nguyen returned to report back. They both squatted down before me but neither said anything. I gave Nguyen one slight head nod, motioning toward behind me. He moved quickly and silently, like he was made of liquid, and disappeared behind me. I faced Stevens, wanting a cup of coffee, but it was too late in the waning day to light anything.
The radio on Stevens’ shoulder was turned way down but I heard the announcement by Brother John that the next song would be the last until the morning. The song began to play. “I know you want to leave me but I refuse to let you go…” came across the short distance between us. I thought about the lyrics of the song and my wife, and Stevens and the Gunny. It was like God was talking to me.
“Please don’t you leave me girl, don’t you go.” I needed these men and yet the circumstances of my needing and the circumstances of their own seemed so divergent. How could it ever be possible to bring them together? I had my third letter in my pocket. How many letters would I get off before there would be no more letters?
“Call the other guys,” I said to Stevens, as there was no point in discussing what he’d been ordered to do, what the result was or even how the Gunny had become involved. I waited while I heard the hustle and bustle behind me meant they were coming. My scout team. In the Basic School, one night a week, each platoon got together to play a game before calling it a day. The game was “What now, Lieutenant?” The phrase driving the game was ‘any decision is better than no decision.” Decisions were supposed to be what lieutenants did. A problem would be trotted out by a trainer. A problem impossible to solve. Like the Lieutenant and his unit had to get across a bottomless chasm where there was no bridge or rope, or they’d die where they were. A few pieces of junk, like stakes, hooks, some fishing poles and a few planks too short to do the job would be provided to be used in solving the problem. The trainer would make sure everyone understood the problem and the only tools. Then he would point at one lieutenant, of those gathered before him, and say: “What now, Lieutenant?”
My team squatted down before me, except for Fusner who sat next to me in radio cord distance. Stevens, Nguyen and Zero. I thought about how much fun it would be to describe where we were and what our situation was and ask the ‘What now, Lieutenant’ question. But I was the lieutenant and the problem was worse than some chasm or canyon that could not be crossed. I lit a cigarette, ostensibly to let the smoke drift over my face, before talking.
“Things are going to heat up tonight and there’s no predicting what’s going to happen. We’ll get hit with whatever they’ve got up on that hill because they think we’re going to attack at dawn anyway. I’ll use arty to suppress what I can. First Platoon isn’t happy with me and there’s nothing I can do about it. So, we may have visitors from them, as well. I want you guys to move to another location until dawn. Leave the radio here so I can call in the night fire.”
I looked at them through the smoke and in the waning light. They were good men, all four of them. God hadn’t been fair to them. I was going to be.
“I registered First Platoon earlier,” Stevens said. “I’ve got friends there. Are you going to call it in if they come in the night?”
I stared back at the ambivalent sergeant, torn between his friends, being a standup Marine and trying to stay alive.
“I don’t know,” I answered, truthfully. The nine-digit grid coordinates of First Platoon’s position were at the forefront of my memory. I could even see the code conversion on the map, burned into my mind like blackened letters burned into a wood board.
“Does it have to be this way?” Fusner asked, his voice a whisper from my right. I puffed on the cigarette without inhaling. I didn’t want to go into a coughing fit in front of these men.
“One night when I was thirteen years old my uncle, who was in the Army and had fought from Normandy all the way across Europe, took me up into the attic of his house. He opened a big wooden box and showed me his souvenirs from the war. Daggers, helmets, and even an old non-functional Luger impressed me mightily. I could tell my uncle was drunk. He smiled at my enjoyment until I asked him a question. I don’t know where the question came from. It just blurted out. “What was the worst thing you had to do in the war?” I asked.
Uncle Jim’s smile disappeared, like it had never been on his face. He stared at me so furiously I became slightly afraid to be up there in the old attic with him alone. He took a long time to answer, but he finally did. ‘The worst thing was killing the young officers assigned to us. I was the senior sergeant. It was my job to get rid of the officers who might get us killed.’
I looked at the men in front of me, and then over at Fusner. I puffed on my cigarette some more, even though there were no mosquitoes.
“I never believed his story and we never spoke again of the war he was in,” I said. “He died years back. It wasn’t until four days ago that I found out Uncle Jim had told me the truth that night in the attic.” I looked from one Marine to another, waiting until I thought they might have had enough time to absorb what I’d said, before I went on.
“I don’t make the rules out here and neither do you. This was all like this when we got here. We’re here and we’re trying to go back home, just like Uncle Jim. We’ll do what we have to do to accomplish that, all of us together or each of us alone. Now, go find another place for the night and return at dawn, if there’s anything to return to. No matter what, I hope you make it home.”
Like that they were gone in the night, none of them even stopping to pick up gear or equipment. I had the radio, some C-Rations, clean clear water and the radio. I was surprised to find I wasn’t terrified. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t anything.