I could not believe I was flying into my first field experience wearing crummy Korean War utilities. I wished fervently that I’d brought my own from training. At least they would have been green instead of whatever color I now wore. Being colorblind as a Marine Corps Officer wasn’t allowed, but then the Navy Corpsman I’d bribed to pass me on the lantern test needed the fifty bucks I’d paid him. Fifty bucks to get into this Catch 22 mess…
The Huey banked sharply and I grabbed for a bit of nylon webbing to avoid falling right out the wide open door. Looking through the big rectangular space to the ground below, I saw how helicopters landed at night. A smoke grenade had been popped below. Obviously the up front chopper crew was in radio communications with the unit below. The smoke from the grenade billowed around while the burning flare of the ignition device turned it into a big glowing lantern. The chopper continued its sharp turn and dropped into the jungle below. Except it wasn’t jungle. When we touched down I saw that it was more like great scrub mired in variously hardening chunks of mud . And we didn’t actually touch down, either. We hit hard on the skids. At that same instant, the crew chief literally threw me from the machine. I never saw the outside of the Huey. I was too busy pulling my face from the mud and trying to find my pack in the slimy bracken. I heard the chopper pulling away and up at full power, though, and then I heard and felt the incoming fire. Several bursts at a time flew over my head. I stopped trying to find my pack. I stopped trying to get up, instead burrowing back into the mud. I’d never been on the receiving end of a gun before. Not in life before the Marines or in Marine training. Live fire exercises had ended years before I began my service.
The bursts of gunfire were loud cracking sounds, almost loud enough to make my ears ring. But it was the light from the tracer rounds that scared me near to death. The enemy had seen and heard the chopper, I reasoned. They were shooting at the chopper, I argued. Yet the tracers continued to fly right above my head. They looked like fast-moving illuminated beer cans. I knew that each tracer was only one of a three or five bullet string. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t terrified. It was something deeper than that — something that wrapped around my insides and then compressed them to the point that I felt like I couldn’t breathe. How was it possible that I was lying in the sucking mud during the misting blackness of a night from hell, when only twenty-four hours before I’d been asleep on an Air Force base in California? I was brand new. This couldn’t be happening! I knew I was in shock but I didn’t know how to get out of it.
The shooting finally stopped. The Huey must have flown out of range, I thought. I worked at crawling. To anywhere but where I was. I didn’t care about my pack, my gun or anything else. I knew I had to get out of there, wherever there was. I didn’t get three feet before a pair of strong hands grabbed me by the shoulders from above.
“Who in hell are you?” a gruff voice, only inches away, said directly into my left ear.
“Second Lieutenant Strauss…” I answered haltingly, allowing the hands to turn and pull me into a low sitting position. I looked around for more of the flaming beer cans but there were none.
“They flew you in at night? They don’t fly anybody in at night, specially not lieutenants,” the man said, letting go of my shoulders.
“Who are you?” I asked, wanting to lay down and get back into the mud but resisting the impulse.
“Gunny Socorro,” the voice said. “I was the company commander, but you are now…sir.” The Gunny stood up and helped pull me into a standing position.
“I can’t be the company commander,” I said, trying to twist my neck and shake off some leftover hearing issues from the chopper and gunfire.
“My MOS is artillery. I’m the forward observer. I didn’t even get to check in with my artillery unit. Hell, I don’t know who the artillery unit is. I’m here as a forward observer, I’m sure. I can’t be a company commander. I just got out of Fort Sill.”
The Gunny hustled me off into the night by one arm, dragging my pack along and acting like he could see in the dark.
“Two eleven,” the Gunny said.
“What’s two eleven,” I asked, so tired of the mysteries.
“That’s the name of our supporting artillery unit. One-oh-five howitzer outfit. I’ll put you on the command net with the six actual back at battalion about the company commander thing if you want.”
“Thank you,” I breathed, feeling like finally I might be able to talk to someone who would understand.
“Get down and stay down until I come back,” the Gunny said. “This hole is designated as the command post.”
“There’s nobody here,” I indicated, being able to establish that even in the dark. “Where are the other officers?”
“There are no other officers,” the Gunny replied. “That’s why you’re the company commander. Wherever you are is the command post. I’ll find your radio operators. We have command, artillery and naval gunfire when the navy forward observer is around, which he rarely is.”
The Gunny left. I was alone in some old shell hole with my pack. I slid down from the lip until I ran into a small pit of water at the bottom. I searched the small outside pockets of the pack until I found a little bottle of the mosquito repellent I’d gotten some relief from earlier. I slathered the weird smelling liquid all over my bare skin, rubbing right over all the small bumps swelling from previous bites. I pulled my helmet and the liner under it off. It was too hot to wear a helmet. Too hot to wear the body armor I’d been told in training wasn’t effective against anything moving faster than a BB. Too hot for a long sleeve utility jacket. I pulled them all off and then layered on more repellent.
The gunny returned with another Marine after only being gone a few minutes.
“Here’s Corporal Fusner. Other operator was killed a few days back with the officers, when they met to plan ahead. Fusner can access both nets on his Prick 25.”
“Corporal,” I said, noting that Fusner also wore only a dark “T” shirt, with no helmet or liner on his head. Maybe I was doing some things right.
“Sir,” Fusner replied, sliding down the muddy slope to rest next to me, as the Gunny walked away.
“How’d the officers die?” I asked, keeping my voice soft, like the Gunny’s and Fusner’s own. It was night and an active enemy was very definitely nearby.
“Rather not say, sir,” Fusner replied, to my surprise.
Reality was beginning to dawn on me. A reality I didn’t want to accept. Was I to be in command of a unit in combat that had killed all of its leaders? That simply could not be. Not in the Marine Corps.
“Get me the six actual,” I ordered. The six actual was the commander of any unit, not the radio operator, duty or executive officer.
“Colonel Bennet, make it quick,” a voice demanded from the small speaker in Fusner’s telephone mike.
“Sir,” I said, nervously, “I just got dropped into Mike Company and there are no other officers alive. I’m the forward observer. I’m sure of it. I can’t be the company commander. I just got here from the states.”
“You’re the only officer. You know how this works. Stop calling me for stuff you already know. You’re the company commander until I tell you otherwise or you’re relieved. Got it?”
I nodded, hesitantly. Fusner poked me. “Got it,” I said, handing the mic back to the Lance Corporal.
“Mike Company six actual over and out,” Fusner transmitted, before clipping the mic to the radio frame he wore on his back. “He’s the battalion commander. He doesn’t have to use radio etiquette, but we do. And no profanity on the combat net. He gets very upset.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was out in the mud after almost being shot down and we were talking about swearing over the radio. Nearby gunshots and explosions seemed to come plunging down into the pit we were in. I scrunched even lower into the mud.
“They hit us every night,” Fusner said, his voice calm. “They only get guys at the perimeter, and that’s mostly with grenades. Except for the mortars, ‘cause they come right inside. I don’t think they have mortars tonight. They would have fired them first. It’s just the way it is.”
“Where do we sleep?” I asked.
“Sleep? We don’t sleep much, sir. When we get back closer to An Hoa maybe. No sleep here.”
“No sleep?” I said, still trying to adjust my ears to the horrid loud noises of incoming fire. “Everyone has to sleep. It’s not like it’s an option.” I pulled my hands into my body, bringing them up to my face. They were shaking. I tried to stop them but I couldn’t, which added to my fear, if such a thing was possible.
“You’ll see,” Fusner said, in his usual matter-of-fact tone.
“How old are you?” I asked, sensing something.
“Seventeen,” he replied. “Or at least I will be soon.”
“You have to be seventeen to be in the Corps,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” Fusner came back.
The hell, I thought. Sixteen. I was serving in combat with a sixteen-year old. A sophomore in high school. How he came to be there didn’t matter.
“How’d the officers all die?” I asked him again, “and don’t give me that crap about how you would rather not say. We’re in this together and I’m the company commander.”
“They killed ‘em, which was a shame because some of them were okay. I mean in the second set.”
“Second set?” I asked, not truly surprised at his answer but not fully understanding either.
“Yeah, that was two weeks ago. They killed the first bunch a month ago. Now nobody will come out here to our unit anymore. Back there they must all know. We only get mistakes or FNGs.”
“Fucking new guys,” Fusner answered. “Like you. No offense, sir.”
We waited together for the coming of dawn. The sporadic fire went on through the darkness. Fusner was right. There was to be no sleep. My body vibrated with energy and terror. I was relieved when my hands stopped shaking on their own. I didn’t want the men to see me like that. But I couldn’t think. My brain would not work right. Every shot in the dark or explosion in the distance blanked me out. The dawn came with the Gunny and some other Marines. The men looked exactly like the ones I’d seen at the Da Nang Hilton.
“Your scout sergeant and Kit Carson Scout,” the Gunny said, squatting down to plop a small box next to my side.
The two men squatted down beside him while the Gunny took out some heat tabs and lit them with one flick of a Zippo. He broke the box in half with both hands. An assortment of small cans and green envelopes fell into the mud. “Coffee,” he said, holding up one envelope before tearing it open. “No cream or sugar. The guys take those out of the C-rations before anybody gets them.” One of the men squatting down with the Gunny was buck sergeant while the other was Vietnamese, but wearing old Marine utilities like my own.
“The guys?” I said, in surprise, not really understanding.
The Gunny didn’t reply, instead taking his canteen holder apart and pouring the holder full of water.
“Scout Sergeant and Kit Carson Scout? What kind of titles are those,” I asked the Gunny. I’d never heard of the either unit designation in training.
“In due time,” the Gunny laughed, for the first time.
“I’m an officer,” I shot back without thinking, “it doesn’t seem like I’ve got an awful lot of time left.”
All four men stared at me with no humor in their expressions.