Breakfast in the mud pit was ham and lima beans served with canteen cup holders of instant black coffee. I didn’t ask the Gunny why the other men bothered to pull the cream and sugar from incoming C-rations. It didn’t matter. I remained so scared I was unwilling to impart more of my ignorance by asking questions that probably had no rational answers. I crouched and sipped the coffee from my holder. My Scout Sergeant was named Stevens and I found out that his job was to check around the perimeter and with the platoon leaders to keep me informed. My Kit Carson Scout was Nguyen, pronounced ‘new yen’. He wore no rank, although he had on a utility jacket. His job, Fusner said, was mostly to serve as an interpreter to members of the local civilian population we might encounter and also questions any prisoners we might take. He didn’t speak much English.

“How’s he supposed to interpret when he can’t even understand me?” I asked quietly.

“That’s up to Stevens,” Fusner replied, his voice a whisper, as the rest were nearby. “Stevens speaks the gook lingo.”

Stevens was supposed to interpret my interpreter. My shoulders sank with the continuing insanity of all of it. I ate a few more spoons of the awful C-ration fare before looking up at the rising sun, coming up over the lip of the shell crater.

I realized why I was there. I’d dumbly stood and accused my commanding officers of being Marine scum. What could I possibly have expected, other than to be sent to my death? In truth, I would never have expected anything like that before coming out to the field. Suddenly, I was not only willing to believe it but I understood it. Nobody in the rear area wanted to come out to the field and face maiming or death.

The way they prevented that from happening to them was to send new people coming in off of ships and commercial liners. The Marines who occupied rear area positions, by good fortune or because they somehow served in the field long enough to get out, never left the rear area, I was coming to realize. They kept the best of everything that came into the war zone simply because they understood that the best stuff was wasted on people who were going to die anyway.

“How many?” I asked of the Gunny, sitting a few feet away.

“How many what?” he answered, working on his sliced ham and cracker meal.

“How many casualties are we taking a day?” I inquired.

“Eight KIA last night and three WIA.” Chopper will be in soon to pick up the body bags and the wounded guys in ponchos. You have to sign off on them.”

“Eleven,” I concluded, more to myself than to him. “And how many Marines do we have?”

“Reinforced company. Two hundred and twenty-two, including you and the dead and wounded last night.”

“Eleven out of two-twenty-two,” I said. “So, we’re losing about five percent a day,” I went on. We have twenty days left, if my calculations are accurate.”

“Twenty days for what?” Fusner asked.

“Before we’re wounded or dead,” I answered, my voice without emotion.

“I’ve been here for almost two months,” Stevens said. “I’m still here,” he went on with some enthusiasm. “So what does that mean?”

“Not good,” the Gunny said. “You guys scram. I want to talk to the actual.”

Fusner, Stevens and Nguyen moved quickly out of the crater, leaving their stuff behind.

“Don’t tell them shit like that,” the Gunny said, staring into my eyes. “They’re fucked up enough. None of us are going home. Not in one piece, anyway, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Those guys, and the others, killed the last two sets of officers,” I hissed back at him. “What am I supposed to do? Let them kill me too?”

“It wasn’t them,” The Gunny said wearily, sitting close to me and pulling up his knees. He took out a cigarette. “Funny, we get more cigarettes than we can ever smoke. I wonder if that’s because they know back home none of us is going to die of lung cancer.”

He offered me one. I shook my head in reply. I’d tried cigarettes in high school. They’d made me sick every time. I was in enough trouble without getting sick to my stomach.

“We’ve got a race war going on in this unit, but you’ll find that out real soon for yourself,” the Gunny said, spitting out a bit of tobacco. “The only way out of here is in a bag or on a medevac. You figured that out. You can do whatever you want for as long as you have left. We’re moving out in about an hour.”

“Moving out to where?” I asked, surprised. We’d just been under fire. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere until a secure passage could be figured out or arranged.

“We move by day and then get hit every night,” the gunny said, pulling out a photo grid map layered over in plastic tape. “They don’t shoot at us in daytime because hell from the air would drop down on them. It’s the way of it out here. We’re on what’s called Go Noi Island, although it’s not. We’re trapped by three surrounding swollen rivers about to get more swollen with the monsoons coming. We move inland under our supporting fires, mostly artillery and retreat toward the ocean under their supporting fires. We’ve got to get seventeen clicks up the Song Bong River, across from Duc Duc, before dark.”

“Who’s laid out supporting fires?” I asked, looking down at his nearly unintelligible map, half covered with black magic marker.

“Outside of me, and now you, nobody has or reads a map, much less can call artillery,” he said. “Accurate artillery fire might just save your life, although I doubt it.”

My stomach would not uncurl. I wasn’t sure I could even stand up when the time came. I looked at his map, my own still tucked into my pack. I knew he was right. Go Noi Island Map Vietnam WarCalling artillery was an arcane science passed on down by the French from before World War II. A fire direction center in the rear, all the way back at An Hoa processed calls for fire and then sent the data to the guns so the battery could fire accurately. The language required to be used on the artillery net was as complex as it was inflexible. Call in, using that radio, without the language and knowledge and you wouldn’t get anything in return no matter how dire your situation or how badly you needed support. You didn’t pick up artillery ability in the field or on the job. You either went to Fort Sill and were trained for six tough weeks or you could forget about artillery support.

“They can’t call artillery?” I asked, my voice very soft, almost asking the question to myself. “You can’t call it either, can you Gunny?” I asked, looking the man straight in the eyes for the first time.

“In a pinch,” the Gunny said, his own tone softening for the first time since I’d been dropped in. He looked away.

“Call Fusner and those other guys back,” I said, giving my first order. “Do I call Nguyen a gook too?”

The Gunny got up, climbed to the top edge of the mud pit and gestured before sliding back down. “Nguyen’s a scout. He’s on our side. Only the NVA are called gooks. Some of the men call all Vietnamese gooks but it’s not a good idea. Nguyen’s invaluable when we’re in contact, which is pretty much every night.”

I noticed my hearing improving. The distant ringing was going away. It was a tiny thing but that little fact made me feel a bit better. I grabbed my pack and took out a small stack of folded maps and my compass. I realized I’d need a supply of the plastic tape. Everything around me was wet all the time. I also needed a rubberized flashlight instead of the pitifully cheap metal thing I’d been issued. I found the one to twenty-five thousand quarter map I needed. I realized a second problem about why the unit lacked artillery support, other than the battery I was supposed to be assigned to might have heard about Mike Company and not wanted to provide any fire. Two Eleven was the unit,  Second Battalion of the Eleventh Field Artillery Regiment. The maps had very few contour intervals on them. There was almost no rising and falling topography high or low enough to merit a twenty-five-meter difference in elevation. I oriented the map north and south. I’d worry about true north, the math calculation closing the difference between grid north (where the map pointed north) and magnetic north (where my compass pointed). The difference was important for accurate fire but not for what I was going to do.

The Gunny was about to put away his map when I stopped him. “Where do you think we are, precisely,” I asked,

Fusner, Stevens and Nguyen assumed their former positions nearby.

“Where do you think we are?” the Gunny replied, surprisingly.

I looked up from the map toward where he sat concentrating over his own. And then it hit me. He didn’t know exactly where we were, not for incoming artillery fire purposes, anyway. I let him out.

“We’re right here,” I reached over and dotted a point on his map above the Song Bong River.

“Yes, I thought so,” the Gunny replied, quickly packing his own map away.

I took one more compass reading, re-oriented the map slightly and took bearings on two distant peaks to make certain.

Calling in artillery during Vietnam War

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“Give me the arty net, Corporal,” I ordered, holding out my hand for the mic.