Booby traps that weren’t made with detonators or explosives subject to sympathetic detonation couldn’t be destroyed, disabled or damaged by the rolling artillery barrage I’d designed, and that the battery had applied so effectively. The machine gun had caused significant casualties before the artillery had blown it and its emplacement to hell. And now three lowly punji pits, along with one sniper, had brought the company to a dead stop. Punji pits were made by digging a shallow hole and then inserting sharpened up-pointing sticks into the mud at the bottom of the little pits. The sharpened sticks layered in human feces, and generally barbed as well, penetrated the bottom of any Marine’s boot unfortunate enough to plunge through the disguised hole covering. I’d heard rumors that the newest issue of jungle boots had a triangular aluminum bar built into the soles that made them punji pit proof, but nobody had seen or been issued such a set in the company.
The Gunny called me up to the point in order to attempt to deal with the sniper. The company came to a halt as the sun set. The evening mist and the lugging of casualties, along with packs and the other equipment necessary to operate a reinforced Marine company, had already slowed our progress to a snail’s pace before the sniper showed up and stopped it completely. As I moved forward the going became more difficult. Walking became climbing and the mist on the forest floor made the strewn plant life and blown-apart wood pieces as slippery as the mud. I labored toward the point, with Fusner cursing behind me as he carried the twenty-pound radio with extra batteries. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the company itself would never make the ridge before dark. The Marines I climbed around to get to the point were all digging in and setting up for a night that had not come yet.
I finally arrived near where the Gunny lay talking on the radio, Pilson not far away with his Prick 25. Each platoon had small radios called sixes leftover from the Korean War. Most didn’t work at all unless the operators could see one another. They looked like giant bent bananas, green in color. A Marine with one of the six radios talked on it. I presumed him to be the acting platoon commander, probably talking to one of the other platoons over the limited range radio.
A shot rang out from somewhere in front of us and everyone ducked down, even though anyone I could see already squatted, or lay under or behind, some sort of cover.
“Anybody hit?” the Gunny yelled.
No answer. I reached for the artillery net handset and Fusner complied instantly. I really appreciated his ability to sense my needs from a single gesture.
“Fire mission, over,” I sent.
“A lotta good artillery’s going to do when you can’t see shit,” the guy with the six radio said.
“This sniper hitting anything?” I asked, surprised by the sniper’s last shot being placed to hit no one in particular.
“He’s a lousy shot,” the Gunny replied. “Hasn’t hit shit but we can’t move past him until we take him out. They’re probably stalling us so they can set up an ambush ahead. Can’t flank him successfully because of the size of the clearing in front of us. If we’d taken Hill 110…” his voice trailed off.
“In contact, one round Whiskey Papa,” I said into the handset, and then read off my second to last zone fire coordinate key, with code from memory.
“Your position?” Russ asked, his voice coming over the little speaker built into the top of the Prick 25.
I hastily calculated where we were likely to be, and although the body of the company lay strewn behind me for nearly a thousand meters, the battery only ever asked for one grid coordinate. The FDC would approximate ‘check fire’ radius using its own numbers and approximations. I could have taken a bearing on Hill 110, visible on our left flank across the valley, but after my run through fire, however inadvertent it had been, I was in a wild guessing mood. I gave the battery a number and seconds later the Willy Peter lit up over the top of the path about a thousand meters in front of us.
“Told you,” the six radio man said, as the sniper fired another round into the jungle bracken somewhere nearby.
I motioned for Stevens to come, as the scout team had followed me in my move forward.
“Watch the trees up ahead,” I said. “We have visibility for about a thousand meters. The sniper’s using an AK that’s well beyond its effective range, and he’s probably using metal sights. Spot the muzzle flash when he fires again.”
“But when’s he going to fire?” Stevens asked.
“The muzzle velocity of his rifle should be about six to seven hundred meters a second,” I said. “He’s such a shitty shot because he’s using shitty equipment. If I walk slowly and turn then he’s got to figure out where I’m going to be a second and a half or so before I get there. Watch the tree line.”
I stood up, handing the handset back to Fusner, and walked forward toward a thick-trunked tree. I abruptly stopped, turned and then went back the other way. A bullet seemed to whisper past the back of my head, the sound of the shot coming out of the barrel arriving a few seconds later. I dropped to the jungle floor.
“You hit?” Fusner yelled.
“You get his position?” I asked back.
“Yeah,” Stevens said. “He’s about two fingers to the left of the smoke from that last shell and maybe a bit forward.”
I grabbed the radio handset and called it in, dropping fifty meters and shifting the fire of the spotting round two hundred meters left, figuring that a finger held up translated to about a hundred meters at a distance of a thousand. I called in a battery of six.
After the ‘shot, over’ came through the speaker, I yelled for everyone to get down. “These are going to hit hard and close!” I covered my ears with both hands.
The battery of six came in, wave after deadly wave, the nearer rounds impacting, by less than five hundred meters, the relatively open area between our position and the forward tree line where the sniper lay. Peeking over the edge of the fallen tree after the ‘splash’ transmission, I saw the white blossom of a shock wave rushing outward and at me. I scrunched down to take the shock, but too late. The blast threw me a good ten feet backwards. Nobody moved to help me as the other six round impacts came down in waves with only seconds between them.
“You all right, sir?,” a voice I knew had to be Fusner’s said from a distance. Only Fusner called me sir.
I’d dropped my hands when the last of the rounds impacted.
“No more sniper,” the Gunny said, “and you are battier than bat shit,” he finished. “You never ever stand in front of a sniper,” he continued. “Not ever.”
“He wasn’t a sniper,” I defended. “He was just the delaying action. We can move now.”
In spite of holding my hands over my ears, they still rang, and my head felt like a big giant marshmallow from the shock wave of the round I’d been stupid enough to stick my head up to see. But I knew that I’d never ever forget what the white rolling shock wave looked like as it crushed the water out of the air in its passage.
“White water,” I said, a bit giddy to be alive. “It’s white water, like in the waves.”
“Water, give him some water,” the Gunny ordered, pointing at Zippo.
I lay on my back, not wanting any water but figuring it was better that they thought I needed some than for them to really understand what I wanted to say. My mind would not come back from Sandy Beach on Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. I wondered, if I made it home and back to that particular beach, whether I’d ever swim there and not see the white rushing aura of that artillery round’s expanding halo.
The man with the six radio walked by my prone figure, glancing down as he passed.
“You one crazy motherfucking dude, Junior…but you’re our crazy motherfucking dude.”
I wasn’t sure whether what he said was a compliment or an insult, or an insult inside a compliment. I sat up. No incoming that I could hear. The Gunny squatted down beside me to make coffee. I moved to join him, although I didn’t have my pack. I knew Zippo or Stevens must have it somewhere but I wasn’t going to ask.
“We can move forward,” I said, the Gunny sensing my predicament with the coffee and handing me a spare envelope.
I heated my water, sharing the burning explosive with the Gunny. I read the coffee envelope. Made by the Coca Cola Company, which seemed strange. Then the Gunny came up with a package of sugar. I didn’t know if California produced sugar but if I ever got home, I determined to support Dole, the only sugar producer left in Hawaii.
“We’re setting in,” the Gunny said, confirming my previous thoughts about the Marines digging in further down the path. “The open area out here can serve as a landing zone in the morning. Find a place a bit back down from here. The perimeter will run along the edge of this clearing and First Platoon will be on watch. They may attack across there tonight because they’ve had long enough and besides, the A Shau Valley is Indian country.”
I mixed the coffee and sugar and then drank the result, which seemed too wonderful to be what it was. I emptied the canteen holder and replaced it on my belt. Having my canteen full of water made me happy, too, although I realized that I was experiencing some kind of high from almost being dead but still alive and relatively unhurt.
When I was done I got up and moved down the path. I had no good reason to be alive. None of the danger I’d been in since I arrived lessened one bit, but I could not keep a certain bounce from my step.
My team struggled to keep up until I stopped about a hundred and fifty meters back the way we’d come. A small hill not far from the main course of travel looked like a perfect place to set up the Starlight Scope. I worked through wet messy undergrowth to climb to the top, thinking one man could view the small area around us quite easily. The flattened top of the hill would accommodate all five of our hooches.
I wondered who would be coming in the night, this night? The platoon of small-minded country racists or the platoon of angry black combat avoiders who still seemed to fight quite a bit, as long as it was inside the company. The platoon commanders were successful tribal leaders in the company, as was the Gunny. But I was not. I had no real place unless I could find a place, and the only thing I had to offer were my services. Those services had been badly needed, but mostly ignored or underplayed, before my arrival. Would I have enough to offer? Would I have enough to offer in time?
Fusner joined me on the hill, dragging my pack up and turning on his little transistor radio. Brother John came on immediately with his last offering of the day. Some sort of Native American Apache War Chant, he said. “Hena hawaya yo, hen na yo, hey ya hey ya a,” accompanied by beating drums with the same lyrics repeating over and over again. I had no idea what they meant but for the moment, I felt like an Apache sitting on a mountain top of the American Southwest so many years in the past. I thought about moving from the Go Noi Island area, called Arizona Territory by the men around me, and then on up to the A Shau, which they called Indian country. The Apache War Chant seemed most appropriate, indeed, and I wondered how Brother John, down country somewhere in a place called Na Trang, could know that.