I made my way back to the Gunny. The Corpsman lay still, breathing shallowly with a poncho cover wrapped around him. The poncho covers served as our blankets, since they easily separated from the rubber liner. The air mattresses most everyone had, like mine, were filled with holes. They served as immediate ground cover for the hooches thrown up inside the perimeter every night.
“Morphine?” I asked the Gunny.
He briefly turned to stare at me, as he readied the other wounded Marine for storage until the morning’s medevac. The wounded FNG to be stored for care by the two remaining corpsmen and the other body bag moved to a nearby clearing to wait. The morphine addicted Corpsman finally was receiving morphine for the purpose it was intended instead of for escape, I thought, although he was in fact escaping. The corpsmen worked, ignoring my presence. I wondered if there’d be another corpsman on the morning chopper to replace the one we’d lost.
I retreated back toward the area not far from where I’d called in the artillery. There had been no more incoming small arms fire. My mind replayed the cracks the weapons made when they’d gone off outside the perimeter. The Gunny was accurate. Not sixteens or AKs. Different. Like the choppers were different. You didn’t have to see the chopper to know what it was. Even the Huey Cobra attack helicopters sounded distinctly different from the supply ones.
Stevens and Nguyen had set up the hooches, mine too. I couldn’t remember dropping my pack. In officer candidate school and then the basic school I’d never worked in the field with enlisted men. The work, and obvious care for me the small team exhibited, kept me in a state of disconcerted surprise.
I pulled out a box of Ham and Mothers, as Fusner called the particular B-2 Meal. “Combat, Individual” was printed on the box. I checked inside and found a pack of sugar and one of cream. I’d thought the boxes gone through but maybe I was wrong, I thought. And then I thought of what might have been done to the food, given that the company had such little regard for officers and absolutely no fear of killing them. I shrugged, reading the little cream container. There was nothing to read out in combat conditions. I was so used to reading. In spite of having no time to do anything but be afraid, fight the awful conditions and try to survive, I missed reading. The package said that the four grams of powdered cream inside was made by Sanna Dairies in Madison, Wisconsin. For some reason I felt like visiting the company if I ever got back to the world.
“Why do they take the sugar and cream out of the C-rations?” I asked Stevens, sitting nearby under his own lean-to. “Cut drugs, or something?” I went on, after he didn’t reply.
“Hot chocolate,” Fusner said.
“What?” I asked, not believing his answer.
“B-3 units,” Fusner replied. “The B-3 units have cocoa powder packets instead of the John Wayne crackers you have in the mother box. The cocoa powder tastes a lot better with extra sugar and cream.”
“I suppose you got a B-3,” I said, tearing open a brown envelope of crackers. The John Wayne crackers, no doubt, but I wasn’t going to ask.
“No, sir,” Fusner responded, holding up two small discs. “I’m a B-1 man, myself. Pure chocolate. No powder.”
I’d never seen C-rations before, or Charlie Rats, as Fusner called them. That the codes on the boxes meant something made sense. That there was no training about the subject made no sense at all.
It was closing on full dark. I was eating the Ham and Lima’s without shaking, having been supplied a small hand-formed pyramid of the explosives for heating. So far so good. Suddenly I realized I had better use the bathroom, or what passed for one in the field. I put my cans back in my B-2 box, set it aside and grabbed my E-tool, the little folding shovel that was irreplaceable.
“Be careful out there,” Stevens whispered to me, as I got ready to go. “Don’t go far and stay low. No booby traps in here or we’d have set ‘em off already, but there’s other stuff.”
Other stuff. I was learning about other stuff. During my entire time on the planet I’d never been to a place where I was so disliked so quickly without almost anyone knowing me, or even having met me.
I moved very slowly away from the small fires of my team. I realized immediately that I’d also forgotten to bring the cigarettes and the bad smelling lotion. The mosquitoes were back in full force. I stopped no more than thirty feet deep into the nearby bracken, got down on my knees and quickly dug a calf-deep hole. I set the shovel down, being sure to be as quiet as possible, and then did what I had come there to do. The little pack of toilet paper in the B-1 accessory pack did the job. I covered the mess carefully, and then stopped. The overwhelming aroma of marijuana wafted through the chest-high ferns. A small group of Marines moved in and began setting up not ten feet from my position. For some reason I froze in place, dropping to the prone position near my covered hole.
The Marines started a single large fire, apparently also fueled by the plastic explosives, and then sat around it, working through their own C-ration boxes.
“What do you think Jurgens?” one of the Marines said. “This new clown we got.”
I held my breath, wondering if they could possibly be talking about me.
“More of the same. Another ring-knocker, most likely,” a deeper voice answered.
My mind whirled. Ring-knocker was a derogatory word used to describe a West Point or Naval Academy graduate. I knew it was a phrase also used to describe officers in general. They had to be talking about me.
“So what do we do?” another Marine asked. “Is he going to side with us or them? And does it matter. We’re doing fine on our own.”
“Yeah, we’re doing just great,” the deeper voice responded. “Four KIA yesterday alone, not counting the doc, who that asshole took out.”
“He needed to go,” the one they called Jurgens said, forcefully. “He stole the fucking morphine.”
Who were ‘they,’ I wondered. The enemy? North Vietnamese Army? The VC? I couldn’t figure it out.
“We ain’t goin’ home Sarge,” the first Marine said.
“Let’s just fucking take him out like the rest,” another Marine said, his voice low and deep. “Why risk anything? What are they going to do, send some more? We’ll take them out too.”
“This one’s no dummy,” Jurgens said. “He can read a map and call artillery pretty damned good, and something had to be done with doc. That was pretty slick.”
“We can use the ambush trick. Like with Weathers in First Platoon. We’ll just set up an ambush for tomorrow night after we deal with 110. Just like before. We’ll give him the wrong location. The Gunny can send him out to check on us and when he walks by we’ll let him have it. Hell, remember Weathers? I called him on the net and told him we had activity in our kill zone and he said to open fire.”
It seemed that they all laughed together from my perspective a few feet away. I pushed myself down into the wet ferns. They’d just admitted killing an officer, or making him kill himself. If I was discovered I knew I would be dead on the spot.
“The Gunny was pissed about that,” Jurgens said, when the laughing died down. “We can’t afford to piss off the Gunny. He’s all we’ve got. Do what you gotta do but leave the Gunny out of it. He’s kind of soft on the asshole anyway.
“Screw it,” the deep voiced Marine said. “That clown is nutty as a fruit cake. He called in that phosphorus round right over our heads. If it’d gone off a little lower, we’d all burned to death. And that little artillery display before, to kill a VC sniper? That was way too close and I think he did it on purpose. He’s nuts.”
“No Gunny,” Jurgens said, flatly. “You can pull the ambush trick tomorrow night but no Gunny.”
“What about the radio jockey and Stevens?” deep voice asked.
“Whoever shows up,” Jurgens replied. “Fortunes of war. Maybe he’ll bring Sugar Daddy along and we can finally finish off that son-of-a-bitch too.”
I had to get out of there but I couldn’t move. If I moved, the battle-tested and sensitive Marines nearby, only a few feet from me, would be alerted and then they wouldn’t wait for an ambush. I had my .45 but they all had automatic weapons. I felt in my lower back pocket. I’d taken one of the brand new M33 grenades, just to check it out, when I was at the morning chopper. I pulled it out very gently. It was smaller than an orange and perfectly round. The safety pressure lever stuck out and down from the side, almost as big as the device. I thought about pulling the pin and tossing it in among the Marines nearby but I knew I couldn’t do it. Maybe they weren’t all in on it. Maybe they were kidding and wouldn’t go through with it. But I had to get away and I was frightened down to my boots again. My whole body was tensed up. I had the grenade in my right hand but wasn’t sure I could control myself to pull the damned pin.
I eased the grenade under me. I’d trained only part of one day with the older M26 model. When the lever, or spoon as it was called, was released, it made a loud mechanical noise when the striker hit to start the fuse. They would know my location instantly when I let the pressure off the spoon, so I did it while I had the grenade under my stomach in the mud. There was almost no sound, my body muffling almost all of the grenade’s action.
I rolled over and threw the grenade as far over the group as I could, my whole torso whipping up and then back down. I prayed there was no Marine doing what I was doing in the brush on the far side.
“What the fuck?” came from one of the men just before the five second fuse burned through and the grenade went off.
I vaulted up and ran.
“Grenade!” a Marine screamed, but I was moving low and fast back toward my team’s position. I’d thrown the grenade pretty far, and the M33 seemed like it wasn’t too big for a grenade, anyway.
When I was within a few meters of my hooch I slowed down, took a few breaths and moved in.
“Incoming?” Stevens asked.
“Didn’t sound like it,” I responded, as matter-of-factly as I could.
“Maybe a triple play attempt,” Fusner added, “since it sounded like it was one of ours. I’d say M33, not 26. Too sharp. That was Comp B.”
I was amazed that a seventeen-year-old kid could observe such a thing with great accuracy.
“What’s a triple play?” I asked.
“You get three purple hearts awarded here and you get to spend the rest of your tour in Okinawa,” Fusner said. “They throw grenades nearby after digging in, usually when there’s incoming later in the night. They hold their hands up to get hit by fragments. Three and you’re out. Triple play.”
I listened to the hubbub in the distance but nobody came in our direction except the Gunny. Moments after I returned he appeared, moving easily and quietly to sit on the edge of my poncho.
“Grenade,” he said. “Likely friendly. Don’t know. We’ll get hit later, of course, but we’re in a pretty good position. One KIA and two wounded before the sun goes down though. Not a good omen. The Corpsman’s going to live. Thought you might want to know.”
“Thank you, Gunny,” I responded.
“You did want to know,” he came back.
“Of course,” I replied, wondering where he was going.
He got to his feet. “I’ll be just a few meters over there all night. Tomorrow, before we engage with whatever we have to engage with, I want you to meet somebody. The other problem we got, like the doc, the knuckle-knockers. I’ll arrange it.”
“What’s his name,” I asked, before he could walk away into the night.
“Sugar Daddy,” he murmured over his shoulder.