“If you go chasing rabbits and you know you’re going to fall, tell ‘em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call…” played on Stevens’ little shoulder-mounted radio. As usual, Brother John’s fatherly deep throated introduction made me feel better just hearing it. Fusner had the same transistor rig stuck in his helmet band and as I listened to the apropos lyrics, Fusner and Stevens got onto the subject of how stereo radio worked. Fusner argued that that if a person stood between their two radios, listening to the same transmission over the Armed Forces Radio Network received by both, then the listener would be hearing the song in stereo. Stevens argued that the song had to be sent over the airwaves in separate frequencies from different positions around the singer for that to be the case. I saw where the discussion was going and decided not to step between them to be a part of it.
“Stevens is right,” I said, my tone decisive, I hoped.
“See, I told you,” Stevens said, the dialogue of both men giving away their young ages.
I got out of my hooch and stretched, more to cover my examination of everything around me than out of a need to flex my muscles. I’d killed three men. Three young and frightened men. And I’d done it without one speck of resistance from my internal moral code. “When the White Knight is talking backwards,” came through the little radios, and the lyrics seemed to describe my life and how it had all changed to run quickly and violently right off the rails.
I could hear the choppers in the distance. Heading for the landing zone I hurried through the brush, concerned that if the choppers landed in the same place again as before, the spot might have been preregistered by an enemy very diligent about doing such things. But I could not stop myself from going anyway, even if the zone took fire. I had to mail the letter and nothing else had any real importance. There would be no mail coming to me. My wife was not the writing type and my genetic family, a ‘lifer’ Coast Guard family, wouldn’t be writing either. Mary would send a package with the things I’d asked for earlier, but that would be it.
The utility Huey dropped out of the air, both of the usual supporting Cobras flitting about hungrily, waiting for something to chew up and spit out. This time there were three gunships, however, instead of the normal two.
“They always fly in pairs,” Fusner said from behind me, the whine and roar of the chopper blades not close enough to cut off conversation completely. “Wonder what happened to the other one?” he went on, until the roar of another helicopter swept across the landing zone in front of us.
The fourth Cobra opened up on the relatively bare and muddy ground of the landing zone, its nearly flat surface covered with shredded bamboo stands, pieces of small ferns and broken.reeds. The gunship opened up with twin pylon-mounted miniguns. We stood there, neither Fusner nor I having time to get to any real cover. All we could do was hunch over from the intense wind and the screaming fiery roar of the rotary cannons strafing the zone. And then the thing was gone, seeming to flow over the edge of the landing zone, disappearing into some unseeable valley.
I pulled my hands down from my ears, knowing they would ring for the remainder of the day. If I could have called in a fire mission on a moving gunship at that moment, I would have done so. I knew, even with what little experience I had, that the gunship was showing off and trying out its brand new weapons. I’d heard of the rotary cannon, scaled down to fire 7.62mm NATO rifle rounds, but had never heard or seen one in real life. It was bad enough to be nearby when those exotic weapons went off. I could only imagine what it was like to be in front of them taking fire. How the Vietnamese had been able to resist, fight back, and even pull ahead of some U.S. combat units was almost impossible to conceive. The enemy had almost nothing in the way of truly modern or quality arms, yet it persisted to the point where American casualties were in three figures each and every day of the conflict.
Zippo, Stevens and Nguyen stood roughly back from where Fusner and I waited. I wondered if they were waiting for anything in particular from the resupply, or was it that the small scout team had, for whatever reason, become a tribe within our bigger tribe that wasn’t a tribe at all.
The Huey sat nearly still on the two skids running the length of he aircraft, the pitch of its blades reduced to zero, although they whirled around at high speed. Macho Man appeared, jumping down from the craft’s open side door past a gunner moving the barrel of his M60 machine gun back and forth across the scene in front of him. Macho Man carried his precious Tommy Gun slung over his left shoulder. In his right hand he held a black leather package. I approached, automatically ducking down under blades that whirled safely at least six feet over my head. The man held out the package, which from its shape could only be a set of binoculars. I smiled and took the package, handing over my letter home at the same time. Macho man didn’t smile back. Instead his eyes swept the landing zone looking for potential trouble spots that might call for him to use the Tommy gun that appeared to have never been fired. I instinctively knew that he could not smile for fear that such a human reaction breaking across his combat charade might spread like a terminal crack running through safety glass.
I retreated out from under the chopper to let others approach and do the actual work of unloading supplies. I watched the scene, with the swooping gunships flying and all the men running around below. Jungle bracken wafted upward, sucked into the sky, and then whirled about by the powerful blades of the helicopters. I watched the boxes of tracer ammo being unloaded. Soon tracers would be all the rounds left in the unit and then there would be no more secret shooting in the night, or so I hoped. Unless it was with Colt .45s, I thought, remembering the question the Gunny had asked in humor. Tearing my eyes from the wildly active but strangely hypnotic scene in front of me, I opened the binocular box. I pulled out huge binoculars manufactured by “Nippon Kogaku”, an outfit I’d never heard of. The field of view, at 7.3 degrees, was good and 7X50 power was okay, too. They lacked caps, a strap, and they had no range estimator, like the expensive Leicas the Army used, but they would do.
The replacements piled off the chopper as I approached. I hadn’t given them a second look since I now knew there would be no officer among them. All FNGs. They’d be assigned by the Gunny. Hopefully, there’d be no more of McNamara’s Project 100,000 Marines. We had three. I had no idea what the allotment might be for disbursing the non-reading undereducated privates. As usual, with resupply, all anyone could do was requisition and then hope. The Gunny appeared with a line of Marines behind him carrying body bags. It took three men to a bag. Bodies were heavier and harder to transport in the field than anybody might guess. They didn’t cover that in training, either. I watched the moving bags while slowly grinding my teeth. Training made Marines look and act like they were ready for combat. It did almost nothing to prepare them for real combat, however, and not one person back in the real world had ever bothered to mention that.
I went over to the Gunny, leaving Fusner and the rest of the team to meet with Rittenhouse and scavenge what they could from the supply load.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, as I walked up.
“We’re not taking any fire,” I responded, thinking he was concerned for my well-being.
“Sugar Daddy’s platoon is going to be right behind me and they’ve taken your involvement last night a bit personally,” the Gunny said, pointing toward a spot he wanted the body bags placed. “Shit, where the hell are they going?” he went on, leaning around and looking upward before putting one hand up to shelter his eyes from the morning sun.
The gunships had climbed to altitude and were quickly becoming invisible in the distance.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Where do they usually go?”
“You gotta get the hell out of here,” the Gunny said, heading for the crew working at getting the supplies unloaded.
“I don’t see anybody from Fourth Platoon,” I murmured to his departing back.
The Gunny turned his head and yelled. “The gunships are gone.”
My team ran by me, back the way they’d come, with Fusner saying: “Come on, sir, we’re going to need you,” as they passed.
“What for?” I shouted at their fast departing backs, starting to lope after them until some sounds hit me like thudding drum beats. The extremely distinctive sounds that could only be one thing on earth. The sounds of mortar charges going off and launching their killing loads high into the air. Forty seconds, on average, before impact. I ran like hell, shouts of “incoming” behind me.
In seconds I made it back to the area of our hooches. Fusner waited on my poncho cover, his radio already on the ground with the handset held out toward me.
“Where?” I said, grasping the black plastic tube in my right hand.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “With mortars we never really know. They don’t smoke and they move them all the time.”
My team looked up at me from their sitting and squatting positions nearby. They looked at me like I would know. I took the handset, having no clue as to where to direct the fire.
“Fire mission, over,” I said, knowing Russ would be all over my call. I thought for the three seconds it took for him to come back.
“Contact fire. Repeat last zone then repeat right three hundred, up three hundred, left six hundred, down three, and give me HE super quick with confirm reception, over,” I finished.
And then I waited. I ordered a lot of ordinance covering a lot of real estate. Were others commandeering the fire? Was I ordering too much for supply to handle? Did I need to intersperse fuses? While I waited the incoming mortar rounds impacted in and around the LZ behind us. Every explosion made all of us wince, although none were close to our position. I wondered if the Gunny had made it out, or the men hauling bodies and after the supplies. I hadn’t even gotten resupplied with water or food, much less anything else. I thought about the water and food and then felt bad because I cared more about losing those than losing the Marines, and I knew it.
“Shot, over,” came through the tiny speaker on the Prick 25 in Russ’s voice. So much for confirmation, I thought. I’d laid out fire all around the mountain, figuring that the cover of the wooded region just distant from our position would be the likely launch point rather than the flatland more visible from the air. I had two more areas to take out if the mortars fired again, but I would wait.
“Splash, over,” came in just when the mortars stopped exploding.
The sound of the express train rounds came first and then the real explosions began. They seemed to go on forever, but in the distance, like the artillery in some war movie. Unlike in a movie, where the sound of the rounds was instant with the appearance of a blast, in real life when you called artillery the sounds came back so late that the whole battle scene became eerie and off-worldly. If I’d been positioned to adjust fire at the perimeter, I’d have experienced that but I wasn’t on the line and wasn’t going near there either.
The artillery fire stopped and everything grew quiet. We all sat unmoving. First the mortar round sounds coming in one side and then the artillery from the other was mind-numbing. There would be no ground attack. The NVA did not attack in daylight unless it was a sniper delay team or sappers laying booby traps along any suspected avenues of travel.
The Gunny appeared out of the jungle, with Pilson, his radioman, right on his shoulder. The Gunny stooped to drop a five-gallon plastic bottle of water while Pilson unloaded two armfuls of C-Ration boxes. Stevens and Zippo moved in to get everything while the Gunny and I squatted to make coffee. Nguyen remained hidden, but there somewhere, I was certain.
“Good morning,” the Gunny said, with one of his super-rare smiles.
“Thanks,” I replied. “For the warning back there.”
“Chopper made it out, but they blew the hell out of six casualties,” he said, taking out his fixings.
“Six?” I replied, in shock. “We lost six in the attack?”
“Nah, they blew the hell out of the body bags,” he replied. “The three wounded made it out on the chopper though.”
“Six?” I said, still shocked. “We lost six last night, then?” All I could really think about was the three I’d been responsible for.
“Machine guns are a bitch on the ground, and then there’s the other troubles,” the Gunny replied.
I thought about the ‘other troubles’ and then the landing zone being ripped up by mortars. I thought about Macho Man. Maybe he wasn’t fighting on the ground in combat but he sure had to be taking some fire in that Huey coming in and out of hot landing zones. Maybe his gunfighter rig, however affected, wasn’t so out of place after all. Was it easier to stay in the shit or be able to fly out every day but then have to fly back the next, day in and day out.
“Binoculars?” the Gunny said, waving one hand toward the case I still carried in my hand.
“Artillery,” I answered, not knowing what he was getting at.
“We’re always too close,” he said. “Where you gonna look with them?”
“A Shau,” I replied.
“Maybe so, but up there we’re out of range for calling fire.”
“Beyond maximum effective range,” I said. “Not beyond maximum range.”
“What’s the difference?” he asked.
“About five miles with the 105s,” I replied. “The Fire Direction Center doesn’t want to fire beyond 18,000 yards but I can get them to fire out to 23,000 in a pinch and from what I hear we’re always going to be in a pinch up there.”
“Artillery’s never fired over the lip up there before,” the Gunny concluded, taking a sip of his hot coffee.
I looked through the wavering heat waves the burning composition created, with no smoke. The Gunny wavered a bit in front of me.
“We’ve never had you before to call fire, right?” he said. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“What time do we cross the line of departure?” I asked back. Ignoring the question, I thought about how I would get over to the southern perimeter to begin calling the fire mission I’d designed earlier to clear our path of booby traps.
“You’ll have plenty of time,” the Gunny said knowingly, smiling his strange smile again. “Last night they got a pallet of Tiger Piss in here somehow. Most of the guys got shit-faced. Strong beer. They’re all moving pretty slow for a bit.”
“Just great,” I responded, with my voice gaining strength as I talked. “You let them drink? Out here? In this shit? With everything on the line every minute of every day?”
“Let them?” the Gunny shot back. “Hell, I drank with them.”
“At least you’re here and not hung over,” I said, exasperated and relieved at the same time.
“That’s because I didn’t stop,” the Gunny said, drinking more coffee.
“You didn’t stop?” I said, my tone one of apprehensive surprise.
“Nah, I’m shit-faced right now. Still.”
I put one hand on my forehead, set my old binoculars down and tried to phrase some question to the Gunny that made sense.
“So how are you going to lead this company up that path to the A Shau today, if your drunk as a skunk?”
“I’m not,” the Gunny smiled his drunk smile. “You are. You’re the company commander.”
That he’d said those words in front of other Marines was important to me. He’d not go so far as to call me sir, and I didn’t miss that, either. He’d been absolutely correct when he said that I was completely incapable of being the commanding officer only days earlier, and I felt he was still correct about that. But with everything else I was coming to understand about the situation, nothing followed any preset plan and day to day, hour to hour and even minute to minute survival was everything. Somehow I was supposed to get everyone to do what I wanted them to do, and absolutely no one wanted to do it. What now lieutenant, indeed?
“Tell me something,” I said, wondering if he’d tell me the truth since he was drunk. “Do we ever really kill any of the enemy, or is that all about as real as the hill we didn’t take?”