The night was coming on fast, what with the west wall of the valley rising up only a few yards to our backs. The question was not whether we would make a rapid advance down the valley to attack an expected and hopefully unprotected enemy rear, but how and when we would do it. Arriving on site in near or full dark would be a disaster for any such force as ours, no matter how powerful or total the element of surprise might be. The earlier question that had to be answered was where to set in to wait for dawn’s early light without giving away our intent to move down the valley any more than we already had. The NVA complex, above and below ground along the hill across the river, had to be extensive for its troops to keep coming back time after time no matter how hard they were hit with powerful supporting fires.
In the morning, our force and Kilo Company would have the Skyraiders back, and the Ontos could lay down direct fire into the side of the hill. What communications were like, between the forces we’d already faced and those likely set in near where Kilo had to come down from the mountain, would no doubt remain unknown.
“We have to talk to Kilo about what they’re planning,” I said to the Gunny, still delaying in my telling him about the details of a plan I didn’t have, other than getting down valley as fast as possible and laying into any enemy we found along the way or waiting in ambush.
I needed something better. If nothing else, other than confirming just how accurate and effective artillery was to use in real field conditions and just how loosely held together a Marine combat compaay really was, I’d learned that the men liked some drama and meaning in undertaking any following of orders, especially when those orders were issued by a junior officer.
“Kilo can’t come down the face of that cliff in the dark,” the Gunny replied. “What’s the point in alerting anyone listening in to what we might be up to in supporting everything to Kilo?”
The Gunny was telling me that we weren’t going anywhere until first light and that he wanted radio silence during that time. I didn’t grimace or show any emotion. I waited while he lit one of his cigarettes, and then waited some more, as he prepared a canteen holder of coffee. I tried to concentrate and beat down my impatience. Our current position was too exposed, even with more than half the company set in across the water and the Ontos waiting to blow anything to hell that opened up on us. A couple of tunnel end AK-47’s could pin our whole force down with a few magazines of ammunition. We needed the concealment of heavier jungle growth and the cover it would provide, and that cover and concealment was available just a bit further down the valley. The entire move to the base of the switchback where Kilo had to come down was only about four clicks away, but the density of the jungle undergrowth and the ever-changing instability of the river’s course down the narrow corridor of the valley floor made any movement unpredictable in physical difficulty as well as time. Added to that complexity was our obvious inability to predict where the enemy was exactly or what it might do in response to our own movements.
“We don’t know,” I said, lowering my voice so those around us would have greater difficulty trying to figure out what we were saying.
“Know what?” the Gunny replied, going along with me by lowering his own voice.
“Whether they’re down there waiting or not,” I said, uncomfortably, knowing he was going to be upset by my admission.
“I don’t think there’s much chance they won’t be waiting,” he surprised me by responding, and then going on. “It only makes sense. Why they weren’t there when we came down I still wonder about. They aren’t stupid and they’ve fought in the bottom of this damned valley before, over and over again. They probably made that path, not the French or us.”
I slowly worked to brew my own coffee while the Gunny drank sparingly from his own, while taking out a pack of Old Gold cigarettes.
The package had the words Filter Kings scrolled across its front. I’d seen them advertised on television, and enjoyed the big TWA jet they’d used in the background of the commercial, even though I didn’t smoke. Back in the world I didn’t smoke, anyway. The Gunny worked one of the little white tubes out by tapping the end of the pack against a nearby rock. He tore the filter off the cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply before commenting again.
“So, what’s the plan, since we can’t exactly move directly along the river and run right into an ambush ourselves?” he finally asked.
I shifted my canteen holder full of water around and around over the remains of the Gunny’s small burning mound of Composition B. The Gunny didn’t want to move into any security the denser jungle further down the river might offer, for reasons he wasn’t saying. Our small force, little larger than a single reinforced platoon wasn’t easy pickings for any NVA force, as the enemy had discovered, but staying too exposed in an open area was an invitation to disaster.
“We stay here for the night?” I asked, finishing the heating of my coffee and bringing the cup up to my lips. As usual, I noted, there was simply no way to predict what the man in front of me was going to do or say at any time.
The Gunny threw his cigarette into the wet undergrowth nearby and stood up, leaving his canteen holder on the ground next to where our fire was slowly going out. He nodded his head toward the face of the cliff not far behind us, and then made his way through the thin bamboo thicket separating us from the stone wall itself. I looked around for a few seconds before putting my coffee next to the Gunny’s. I got up and followed him, hesitantly, wondering what he was up to.
The Gunny waited with his back against the gray stone, patchy with lichen running up from the ground like flames painted on the side of an old hotrod.
He slunk down the wall until he was squatting, and carefully lit another cigarette.
I joined him. He held the cigarette out toward me without looking away from the scene barely visible out through the bamboo, over the top of the sparse berm and across the clearing to the river. I inhaled once, coughed, and then handed the thing back.
“It’s your plan and we can’t talk about it in front of the men,” the Gunny said, his voice low and contemplative instead of critical. “You have to sound like you know your own plan or they’ll never buy it. We have to move at night to get in place, as difficult and risky as that’s going to be like you had them do before. If we pull out now then word will run ahead of us. Our only hope is a surprise. If they know we’re coming up their rear, then we’ll be the ones ambushed.”
I couldn’t remember the Gunny speaking as long and steadily on any subject since our first days together. At the same time, he seemed to be criticizing the only possible plan we could have, he also seemed to be joining in my effort to save Kilo company. I knew he was right. We had to take the risk of staying in our poorly covered position or any attempt at surprise would be lost, and not only that but we had to move in the night with some degree of stealth. Getting through the remainder of what was left of the day was going to be harrowing, but moving silently in the night through heavy jungle growth and debris right next to the unpredictable river would be even worse.
A waft of brief cool wind blew down and away from the cliff wall as if to fill the sudden silence while the Gunny and I both thought about what needed to be done. The wind died down but was quickly replaced by a falling sheet of rain. I looked out over the berm in front of us but could see very little as the rain, the mud, and the remains of the day appeared before me merely as different shades of gray. Glistening poncho covers covered some of the Marines quick enough to get them spread over them before the Monsoon moisture began falling again.
“God provides,” the Gunny laughed, flicking his cigarette butt away.
I understood the comment and didn’t reply, as both of us moved at the same time to rejoin my scout group laying on the back side of the berm facing the river.
The rain would make our coming move a bit more difficult and uncomfortable but it would also provide the kind of concealment the enemy would not likely be able to penetrate. Once our attack element moved downriver in the dark, reaching and entering the heavier growth only a couple of hundred meters away, there’d be no evidence of our passing or what we were up to. Seeking shelter from the elements might be any observer’s natural conclusion, including the enemy’s, as to what we were up to.
The Gunny had spoken his piece and I’d said nothing, I realized. There’d been nothing to say. My supposition that Kilo was going to be in trouble, and had to have relief, wasn’t mine alone anymore, and the plan wasn’t mine alone either. I’d wanted to discuss how we might implement the plan in detail but, once again, detail discussions seemed distant from reality in an outfit that was constantly alive only at the very edge of survival. Somehow, even in that state, the Marines seemed to know what had to be done at almost every given place and time. How were we going to move, and in what order? What gear were we going to haul along, and what was going to be left behind? How were we going to know when we’d reached just the right position to launch an attack on the enemy’s rear once dawn was in the offing?
I crawled under my poncho cover where the scout team had placed my pack, a jug of water and two boxes of C-rations. The battlefield across the river was quiet, except for the incessant hissing of the rain, as it crossed the mud flat in sheets, before hitting the side of the hill and dissipating into the distance beyond.
The ham and mothers tasted particularly good, even cold. The grease made my fingers slippery but the lubrication reminded me to check the Colt. I hadn’t cleaned or lubricated the automatic yet, and I was worried about the fact that the pistol wasn’t a rough field piece like my first one. I consumed a whole tin of crackers, then opening the cheese and eating it straight instead of coating the crackers with it.
No matter how much I ate I knew I was still losing weight from the exertion of our moves and the intensity of survival. The fear that had eaten at me so badly in the earlier days wasn’t the same anymore. It was a constant brutal fear but it didn’t reach the depth of my soul except when I was under direct fire. I was getting used to the fact that I was a dead man living while waiting to die. I shivered at the thought, turning my full concentration to checking out the beautiful blued weapon Tex had left me. The action worked perfectly, although the slide was more resistant than it had been on the old grizzled Colt from before. I removed the magazine and the single round in the chamber as carefully as I could in the near darkness under my poncho. The conditions for breaking the weapon completely down were impossible. I’d just add more dirt to whatever might be there. I reloaded the .45 and replaced it in my holster, for some reason thinking back to Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. I had to count on them but couldn’t count on them. If I took them out, then who would replace them?
I’d watched the company march together and the effect on me was something that had taken me back in time while it also gave me hope. I ate into the second box of cold C-rations. I wasn’t sure I wanted any hope. I had to be afraid of my own Marines in order to stay alive, but I also had to depend upon them almost totally. There was no rationality to my own survival, except moment by moment and second to second action and reaction. I couldn’t even think the Gunny’s support through because it wasn’t always there either.
Rummaging through my pack I finally found my stationery and government issue ballpoint. I went to work writing a letter to my wife. I peered out from under my dripping poncho to watch the river beyond. The mess of the bridge stuck out across the river. The Gunny had mentioned that resupply had brought in ropes although I had no idea who ordered them or how word had gotten back to the rear so quickly that we needed them. We’d be able to pull ourselves back across the river once we got back if we got back in any kind of physical condition to do that.
I wrote about my scout team and how much they cared for me and took care of my needs all the time. I wrote about how neat the sound of the nearby rushing river was, and about how we’d had no contact with any enemy forces for some time. I thought hard, but couldn’t remember if I’d ever written about having any contact before, but nothing would come. My lies to my wife were becoming hard to keep up with or keep straight.
There was a warning. A few sniping AK-47 rounds struck the berm not far from where I lay with the Gunny, Nguyen, Zippo, Stevens and Fusner. The Gunny’s new radio operator, a big Marine the others called Tank, lay just beyond and back from our position. The AK rounds impacted harmlessly. The Gunny scurried backwards to tie up with Tank. I was sure he was calling the guys manning the Ontos but his call didn’t come in time. A single RPG round came zooming in over the berm near where the AK bullets had impacted. There was no other warning, not even the tell-tale trace of the rocket’s smoke as it had to have come all the way across the distance between the hill and our position.
The mighty explosion came from our rear. The round had hit the cliff face but, unlike the high velocity bullets the enemy had fired at us hoping for ricochets that had instead been absorbed, the RPG explosion blew great chunks of the wall out and back over and upon us.
I couldn’t hear. Everything went deadly silent, and my right hand hurt badly and then went dead. I knew it wouldn’t move because I’d instinctively reached for my Colt when the round went off. Nothing had happened. I looked down to see that although there was a little blood, my hand appeared relatively uninjured. It just would not follow my instructions to move it. Terror gripped me once again, as I buried what I wondered was left of the rest of my body deeper into the mud. There seemed to be no more fire although I could hear almost nothing. After a few seconds, a heavy high-pitched ringing replaced the lack of sound. I could hear the ringing and then human screams from nearby.
I crawled toward the screams on my left. It was Zippo, I quickly saw that he wasn’t screaming from the pain of his injuries. Instead, he was crying and screaming while clutching what was left of Stevens’ torso to his own chest. A chunk of the canyon wall had been blasted backward and gave every appearance of having gone right through Stevens’ torso. Zippo clutched Stevens and then released his grip before clutching him again, as if trying to give the sergeant artificial respiration and bring him back.
Stevens wasn’t coming back. The front of his body faced me, as Zippo continued to issue forth his strange other-worldly scream while pressing and releasing the body over and over again. I crawled closer. His eyes were wide open and glassy. His tongue hung from his open mouth. I could see the rock that had gone completely through him from back to front laying bloody on the edge of the berm. It was half the size of a bowling ball. There was not going to be any rescue or saving of Sergeant Stevens. Nguyen moved to help me separate Zippo from Stevens’ body. I tried to put my bloody right hand across the big man’s mouth once we got him back and down, but the hand still wasn’t working. Getting hit with another RPG would certainly kill anyone upright, as Zippo was. Screaming almost always drew some kind of fire. Prey was prey, and prey identified and targeted was usually dead prey when the predators were as close as they were in our situation.
Nguyen separated Zippo from Stevens’ body and then held him down while Fusner used a field dressing to plug his mouth.
The 106 fired, and the valley shook. I didn’t see how many rounds the weapon let off but it was enough to raise a giant plume halfway up the hill in front of us, and throw jungle debris everywhere, some of it landing not far from where we lay. No more fire came from the burning position.
Nobody else was hit. I couldn’t believe that a single RPG round hadn’t done more damage, impacting as close as it had. I laid down again to think, listening while Zippo gurgled away through the bandage. I’d lost my one and only scout sergeant, a ranking position I hadn’t known existed until arriving in Vietnam. I had not really known the man, although he’d been nearby for all the days I’d been in the country. He’d gone through it all with me. It was like I’d known him for years, but not at all. I knew he hadn’t ever committed himself to me, but I didn’t blame him for that. We were frightened near to death together, and I was coming to understand the utter lack of logic or caring emotion that overwhelming deadly force roughly created and then intently applied.
The Gunny pulled my face from the mud and made me look at him.
“Get a hold of yourself,” he hissed, so silently nobody else could hear him. “We’ve got another couple of hours to wait before pulling out. We either save Kilo or there’s going to be a lot more dead tonight.”
“I’m okay,” I whispered back, “except for my hand. I can’t feel it.”
“You’re crying,” he said back. “Stop it. They’ll see and your little plan will go right down the drain. Why in hell do you think I had them all marching back there. It wasn’t for me. You’re the first chance this unit has had for making it out of here alive. Now stop blubbering and get your hand buried in the mud and leave it there until we’re ready. It’s in shock from getting hit. The nerves shut down but they’ll be back with a vengeance soon.”
The Gunny left, heading back toward Tank, to no doubt discuss the situation with the other half of the company across the river. It was a job I should have been doing, or at least been involved in. I buried my hand. I was stuck right where I was until we pulled out. I realized that the Gunny might have had exactly that in mind. I would not be able to countermand or get in the way of any of his preparations.
“You all right, sir?” Fusner asked, speaking loudly because he either thought I was deaf or he was himself.
I shook my head and pointed at my buried hand. “Can’t feel it. Got hit by a rock.”
“That’s okay, sir, I’ll stay here and guard you,” he replied settling down right next to me.
I realized that he realized I was as defenseless as a baby with my Colt hand buried in the mud, and laying on the backside of the berm in plain sight. I watched Jurgens and Sugar Daddy appear and move to the Gunny’s side. All three noncoms were on their radios, talking back and forth to either the rest of the company or battalion. They couldn’t tell anyone what we were up to or the entire effort would turn into a slaughter. Our slaughter. The Gunny knew that but I felt like I needed to move toward the small command post he’d set up and remind everyone. The Gunny looked back, like he’d read my thoughts, and then slowly shook his head, before going back to talking through his handset.
Zippo had quieted down. Nguyen helped ease the big man down next to me. I looked at what was left of my team. It was down to the four of us, or three if we could not bring Zippo back to sanity.
“Zippo, you’re a sergeant now,” I said. “You’re our Scout Sergeant and Nguyen is under your command.”
“I can’t speak Vietnamese,” Zippo got out, his breathing ragged and broken.
“Sergeant Stevens took me in when nobody else would have me,” he went on.
“Nguyen doesn’t speak Vietnamese,” I replied in a low reassuring tone, happy that Zippo was starting to make sense. “He speaks his own highlands language and Stevens didn’t know it. He just made believe and Nguyen went along with the charade. Nguyen understands English, he just doesn’t speak it very well.”
I didn’t know what to say about the attachment Zippo had for Stevens. More than accepting Zippo into his scouting team he’d had me accept Zippo, as well. The loss Zippo had taken was substantially more than my own, but I had nothing to say about it. I wanted to be sympathetic but I also knew I couldn’t. I just didn’t have it in me with what lay just ahead for all of us.
“That true, Nguyen?” Zippo asked the Montagnard, in a tone so childishly innocent that I could not take offense.
Nguyen nodded his head once, looking first at Zippo and then at me. I couldn’t read the man’s expression, as usual. Either he was upset that I’d outed him, or he didn’t care. I knew I might never know which emotion he felt, but I also knew it really didn’t matter. Instinctively I understood that Nguyen had my back, as I had his, and there was no training manual in existence that would ever be able to advise about that.
Fusner pulled my poncho back over my head and body to hold back the pounding rain. I looked for my letter home that I hadn’t finished. I finally found it. The stationery had been damaged by the moisture but there was nothing I could do about that. I looked at the writing to see where I’d left off when we’d been hit. I’d been talking about my scout team and how much the Marines making it up were devoted to me. I’d written Stevens’ name in the last sentence. I tried to write more with my left hand but couldn’t do it. I could only weakly print ‘love you’ and shakily sign my name. That the whole letter ended in the middle with an illegible signature, she might or might not figure out, I had to risk. I hoped she wouldn’t get it. There was no way I could write the truth home to her or to anyone. I was alone among Marines, rain, mud, a nasty swollen river growing more swollen all the time and a not so distant enemy trying like hell to kill me. In spite of all that I could not get the Gunny’s ordered display of marching Marines out of my head, and their slow singing of the Marine Corps hymn. “From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
The A Shau Valley might one day have a place in the song, but it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that, in spite of everything, we were going to move through a difficult jungle night and attack the enemy to save some other Marines. I didn’t have much to hold on to but I had that, my letter home and what remained of my scout team.