My scout team took apart my hooch and packed me out while I went forward to the perimeter to lay in the defensive fire up and down the area of our travel. By the time I laid down on a poncho cover provided by one of the Marines on the line, the sun was fast rising over the jungle.
“Do your thing, Junior,” the Marine said. I saw Fusner wince and frown at the man, but I did not react at all.
I laid down and brought the binoculars from their case. The path leading up into the A Shau Valley was thousands of meters long and, the start of it hidden in the jungle brush and low-lying trees. The cleft between the peaks leading up to the ridge that stood up over the valley could be viewed for almost half its distance. I focused in and studied the terrain. Even though the glasses didn’t give me much more to work with in terms of adjusting fire, having them made me feel better. With range always the hardest thing, by far, to attempt to gauge, not having to adjust the glasses on a single point made things easier. In single target firing, over and under fire had to be used to ‘home in’ on the target. Creeping up on the target shot by shot had been the norm in early artillery, but range had proven so difficult to judge that the French were the first to dump the creeping system, followed by everyone else prior to WWII.
I called Russ and revealed my plan in detail, hoping that the battery would have plenty of concrete-piercing and high explosive shells on hand. I asked for a lot of artillery support that wouldn’t be going elsewhere, but I needed it badly for my own survival. The Marine’s comment, even though he used my disparaging nickname, had been revealing. I seemed to have developed a reputation for my ability to call in artillery for anything necessary to protect the unit. That in doing so I, first and foremost, managed to protect myself in several different ways, didn’t appear to matter much, if at all.
“Got it all dialed in?” a voice from behind my back said. I didn’t have to turn to recognize the Gunny.
“Roger that,” I replied, having received an assent from the battery that it could and would do the job.
Russ had wanted to know what was going on but I didn’t have any way to explain things to him because of the open nature of the radio system. Any Prick 25 radio could receive the transmissions. We didn’t have encryption, although that had been discussed for years by the Defense Department.
Having the enemy hear anything didn’t frighten me nearly as much as what higher ups might think about what I might say.
“When?” I asked, wondering just how drunk the Gunny was.
“Probably kick off in an hour or so,” he replied.
Guantanamera began to play over Fusner’s little radio. The words weren’t what I remember from the Seekers song, since they were in Spanish.
“That’s a cool song,” Fusner said, “but what does it mean?”
“Cuban,” the Gunny responded, before I could say anything. “It’s a song about the Cuban revolution.
If memory served me from a college discussion, the lyrics told of a lost or unreturned love from a peasant girl, but I said nothing. I’d never been sure about the lyrics, anyway, even though I loved the song.
“I’m going to walk a running series of zone fires up the path all the way to the top just before we start, and then as we move up,” I said, pulling my glasses down and turning to face the Gunny. “What about flank security?”
“That’s a laugh,” the Gunny replied, laughing out loud. “Hill 110 is on our left flank full of the NVA we didn’t clear out or kill, and the other hill is unknown. What do you recommend?”
“How about sending First Platoon out on patrol along the flank of Hill 110 and then Fourth Platoon up the other hill?”
The Gunny laughed some more, my attempt at humor weak, but my meaning reaching him in spite of his inebriated state.
“Variable Time,” I said, swinging my glasses back up to examine the hill sides bordering the path. “The 155’s can reach out this far and if we keep the V.T. stuff up a bit on both sides, we can rain down shrapnel kind of at will. We can’t neutralize booby traps that don’t operate off of detonation, so we have to watch out for them. Other than that, the biggest fear ought to be the big bore machine gun. If they get that set up on the left flank, then they could play hell back and forth across our strung out line.”
I leaned down to check my map, noting that I didn’t have a map for the A Shau Valley or even the ridge area where we were supposed to end up.
“How long will it take the company to hump the distance?” I asked the Gunny.
“About four hours, give or take,” he said.
I grimaced. Even being inexperienced I knew that the trip would probably take much more time, particularly since it was likely we’d be hit in some fashion and have to set in along the trail. Medevac among the bigger thicker forest was out of the question, which meant any wounded or dead had to be hauled along. To be caught trying to move the last few thousand meters in the dark was too horrid to even consider.
“I’ll need to be up near the point to call fire,” I said, although deep down I didn’t want to be anywhere near the point.
“Not likely,” the Gunny said, to my great relief. “You bring up the rear with the feckless Fourth. I’ll be up there. It’s my place. If we need you, we’ll call you.”
Stevens, Zippo and Nguyen joined us, all three wearing heavy combat packs with Zippo dragging mine along in one hand without it touching the mud.
“I’ll hump it up the path, sir,” he said, setting the pack next to me in case I wanted anything from it, although he didn’t comment on that.
“Nobody wants to go up there,” the Gunny said.
I put down my binoculars, turned and went to work lighting a chunk of the explosives in the mud.
“The A Shau is that bad,” I replied, wondering what he was getting at. “I’ve heard stories.”
“It’s a shit hole, one big long and beautiful shit hole,” the Gunny said, “but that’s not the problem.”
I tore open a great envelope of coffee and poured the small amount into my canteen cover. Somewhere in my pack I had sugar and cream packages but I didn’t know where. Nguyen slipped to my side and stuck two packages of each into one gaping empty pocket sticking out from my chest. The pockets were only usable if you didn’t wear the flak jacket that wasn’t a flak jacket. The jacket didn’t stop high velocity bullets or even hand grenade or rocket fragments. I’d never been issued one since I’d come to the field direct and I wasn’t going to try to find one. It was simply too hot and the loads we packed, too heavy.
“Artillery,” I said, after a few minutes, reaching for my hot coffee. I’d put my packets in with the coffee powder so I wouldn’t have to stir. The Marines around me had K-Bar knives, giant Bowie knives, but I hadn’t been issued one of those either.
The Gunny nodded, looking away, his squat so deep and native that he would have looked Vietnamese if he wasn’t so big.
“Me?” I said, finally connecting the little dots he’d laid out in front of me.
I would have smiled a real smile if I could have. The Marines in the company were afraid of me. It was the first good news I’d heard since the battery had gone along with all my zone fire orders. Admittedly, not too many forward observers called for concrete piercing fuses. They’d have a lot of those laying around, but still.
“I can’t call in any fire missions on the company location just now,” I said. “The battery knows where we are and they won’t shoot.”
“God damn it, it’s talk like that they’re afraid of…that I’m afraid of,” the Gunny replied, his tone a plaintive one.
“Oh?” I answered, surprised. “They didn’t want to take Hill 110, either.”
“And they didn’t,” the Gunny shot right back.
“Anybody mention anything to them about our flanking companies and the rest of the battalion, not to mention Regiment and Division?” I asked, my voice low but my tone scathing. “They just think we’re going to be left on our own to do what we want and move where we want out here?”
I held out my hand behind me and Fusner filled it with the radio handset. I looked first at it and then at the Gunny.
“There’s a village hidden deep in a valley…” started playing out of Fusner’s radio the lyrics to ‘Little Jimmy Brown.’
“Fire mission, over,” I said into the handset, to begin the series of zone fires that would guide the company up the path and into the dreaded A Shau Valley.
Pilson handed the Gunny the command net handset, but I couldn’t hear what he said. The company left as one, with Marines filing by headed toward the break between the two hills. I watched the move begin, wondering how it all seemed to happen automatically without the substitute platoon commanders yelling orders like would have been heard in training.
The rounds began impacting up and down the sides of the hills in another awesome display of distant firepower. I could not see the impacts but could certainly hear and feel the ground waves from their explosions. My plan was nothing new. I’d read of that in the German SS book, just like the tracers. The Germans had been nearly as good at possessing outstanding artillery guns as they were using them. Nobody on earth in the modern era, however, could match the power and precision of American artillery, and the American stuff had one other advantage: the supply of shells seemed endless.
I waited for most of the Marines to pass us by, the Gunny departing with Pilson, not saying a word when he left. It fell in easily with the Fourth Platoon, all black except for the few replacements I’d attached to it. I didn’t see them and wondered if Sugar Daddy had used the same solution to his additive problem that Jurgens had. Sugar Daddy appeared near the rear of his platoon, slowly walking by but not stopping as he passed.
“You keep that shit away from us,” he said, pointing at Fusner for some reason, like the artillery came out of Fusner’s radio.
My scout team picked up the rear. In training the rear guard was important to a unit moving in combat, but not in Vietnam. For some reason the Vietnamese almost never attacked from the rear, probably because all movements of American troops, barring special ambushes or recon patrols, took place in the daytime.
The artillery barrage continued up in the valley, splintering the wooded forest on both sides of the path and turning it into timber charnel houses. Craters from the concrete-piercing pocketed the area. Cordite, the smell of exploded munitions, clung to everything and a very thin layer of smoke floated up from the bottom of one hole and over to fill another. With the sounds of artillery becoming more distant, I moved around the blasted tree stumps, careful not to touch them, the shattered wood edges looking razor sharp.
The sound of the heavy machine gun firing came at nearly the same time as the call “arty up” echoed from Marine to Marine down the line.
“Come on,” I said to my team, breaking into a loping run through the broken forest where the central path, no longer visible, had to be.
I ran for several minutes without looking back, unsure whether at least Fusner followed me. I could use Pilson’s Prick 25 command rig to reach the battery but it would be so much better to have Fusner. The big green tracers became visible as the gun fired from high up on the side of Hill 110. Firing in five shot volleys meant that the invisible bullets, without tracer heads, probably numbered about twelve or fifteen more.
The gunners up on the side of the hill could see that I was the only thing visible and moving, every marine I passed either lying behind fallen trees or pressed hard into the forest surface. The tracers came screaming by me, some so close that I thought I could feel their heat. Instead of dropping for cover I increased my speed. Suddenly I found myself face down on the forest floor.
“Stay the fuck down! Without artillery we’re dead men,” the Gunny hissed into my ear.
I looked around. The tracers continued, hunting the bracken for Marines and occasionally finding one, if the screams coming from the bracken were any indication.
Fusner crawled up, the handset pushed out in front of him. I pulled out my binoculars before grabbing the plastic implement and shoving it under one arm. I leaned into the side of a fallen tree trunk, focusing in on the hill. Two thousand meters, I guessed, because I could actually see the gun and crew. It was as if the artillery before, and now the clearing operation, had made no impact on them at all. Four men seemed to man the gun, one doing the shooting and the three others supplying the ammo. I found it hard to see actual movements but I knew exactly what they were doing because the tracers, before they ignited, left the end of the barrel with a series of yellow flames, almost like a toy flame thrower if ever one existed.
“In contact, break zone and fire mission, over,” I said into the handset.
I wanted the 105 battery because the 155’s would be in defilade from the side of the hill I wanted to target. They wouldn’t be able to get down on the hill where I needed fire. I called for one round up over the very apex of the peak. I had that grid and code memorized. The round came in less than two minutes later, dead on target. The white phosphorus, or Willy Peter, exploded like a chunk of giant fireworks and then showered its burning contents down into a big beautiful fountain.
I dropped three hundred, hoping to establish a point between the machine gun and me. This time I asked for H.E. Due to my proximity, it would be easier for me to see the impact, even in the cloying clutter of the forest. The round came in about a hundred yards below the gun and I smiled a cold smile. The gun crew had stopped firing and started to pack up, but not soon enough.
“Battery of six,” I called, “up one hundred and fire for effect.” Russ had been waiting at the FDC and alerted the gun crews. The first six rounds came in only seconds later. Then six more and so on, until 36 rounds shredded the small area where the gun once sat. It was impossible, even with the binoculars, to see if there had been a gun there, or any humans nearby.
The Gunny crawled over. “Jesus Christ, you blew the living shit out of them and you only called in two rounds. Wow. I’m putting you in for a medal for that run. That was classic.” He got up and took off toward the front of the path where he’d obviously been before the unit got hit. I lay there breathing hard.
“A medal,” Fusner said, more to himself than me.
From behind him jubilant laughter came from the rest of the team. I would have joined them if I’d been able to laugh anymore. A medal. What use was a medal to a bunch of dead men?
I listened to the sounds of wounded men being cared for and shushed by their friends. My hand edged down and over the bulge in my trouser pocket. Would this be the first night I’d be called upon to use the morphine?