Ham and Lima beans. Nobody wanted them so I took all four boxes. It was preferable to the sliced ‘spam’ I’d had before. The boxes had already been picked through for sugar and fake cream packets. I got a carton of cigarettes. Lucky Strike. I sat back against a big bamboo tree, waiting for Gunny’s order to move out. I opened the Lucky Strikes and found the hand-written note I’d been told would be there. “What you are doing means so much to my husband and I. He fought in the big war. Here’s our address. Come visit when you get back and we’ll make our best stew.” It was signed William and Maude Collins, with an address somewhere in Iowa. I wondered if Vietnam would end up being a ‘little war’ later on. I’d have fought in a little war. Not a real one. Certainly not a big one. I folded the piece of notepaper from home and put it in my wallet.
“Don’t do that, sir,” Fusner whispered in my left ear.
“What?” I replied, surprised.
“Don’t save the note,” Fusner said, actually holding out his hand. “We’re here for a long time. There’s going to be a lot of notes. We don’t save ‘em. It’s bad luck. We burn ‘em at night, after we read them.”
I got my wallet out and gave him the note. The plaintive quality of the way he asked compelled me. He cared about me and my survival. I felt it emanate viscerally from him. Fusner put the note in his pocket, for burning later that night I presumed.
At the chopper I’d also gotten more insect repellent (type II), a brownish green can of Mennen foot powder, one tooth brush, one tube of Pepsodent, a box of .45 Colt bullets (ball), and a cardboard container without markings about half the size of a shoe box. I put everything except the cardboard box into my pack, wondering why I needed fifty bullets for an automatic I wasn’t likely to ever use, what with all the automatic rifles surrounding me. I opened the container and then quickly closed it. It was a box of lead tubes with plastic tip covers. There must have been forty or more of them inside. It was morphine. Ten milligram morphine tubes. The corpsman problem came rushing back at me. What was I going to do? Nobody had said anything once the issue was dumped in my lap. What had the corpsman done the night before with all our ‘friendly’ dead and wounded? I didn’t know. Maybe nothing would come of it at all, I thought. The order to move out came down the line. Nobody issued any order that I heard. Everyone just somehow knew and started the process of getting up and going. Fusner and I returned to the other two on my team.
“The leeches, sir,” Fusner said, handing me a burning cigarette.
“What leeches?” I replied, looking at the extended cigarette but not taking it.
“From lying in the mud out there last night,” he said. “On your neck,”
I hurriedly put my hand up to my neck, and then stopped. I felt some rounded growths. Four or five of them. I pulled my hand down. I almost threw up.
“Get them off,” I ordered, my voice hoarse.
Fusner approached until he was inches away, bent over and began applying the burning tip of the cigarette to the backs of the leeches. One fell off, and then another. I looked down. Black finger-long things lay squirming on the ground in front of me. I shivered openly. Fusner puffed on the cigarette a few times, and then went back to work. After several minutes he was done.
“When we get set in tonight check the other parts of your body. The heat from the cigarette will make any you have drop off without you having to tear their teeth out. Gasoline works too but they only have that in the rear area and we aren’t going there. Still, you’ll have scars. Little white round ones.”
Stevens began packing up my stuff. I tossed in what I’d gotten from resupply along with the boxes of C-rations. I held the morphine in my right hand. I had to give it to somebody but I wasn’t sure who. The Gunny would know.
Fusner’s Prick 25 radio squawked. He turned away to speak into the small handset. “It’s for the six-actual,” he said, holding out the handset. I just looked back at him.
“That’s you, sir,” he replied.
I took the handset and pushed the button down.
“Six-actual here, over,” I said, loudly.
Fusner made his hand go up and down. I got his message to lower my voice.
“Casualty report,” a tinny voice said.
I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea how many we’d lost, in reality. I hadn’t seen the bags shipped out or the wounded medevaced. “What do I tell them?” I asked Fusner in a whisper, holding my hand over the microphone part of the handset.
“Make it up,” Fusner replied, also in a whisper. “We do it all the time. It’s for Battalion daily reports. They don’t mean anything. They don’t care. They don’t check with anybody.”
“We can’t just flat out lie to Battalion, for Christ’s sake,” I hissed back.
“They’re back there and we’re out here,” Stevens piped in from behind me. “Fuck ‘em.”
I looked over my shoulder at him. Nguyen stood next to him, grinning, like he knew what we were talking about. I sighed, loudly. “Eight KIA and four MIA, friendlies,” I reported into the handset. Twenty-seven KIA NVA, no wounded, over.”
“Roger,” the handset said and then went dead.
I looked down at the ground where the eight squirming leeches were in their last throes. I felt my neck. Blood came back, all over my hand. I looked up at Fusner in surprise. He held out an old “T” shirt. I staunched the blood with one hand and, with Stevens help, got into my pack.
Stevens taped his little transistor radio to his shoulder. Brother John announced the first song of the day. “If you hear this song, then you’re okay. You’ll get back, and there she’ll be…” The song ‘Angel of the Morning’ began to play. “There’ll be no strings to bind your hands, not if my love can’t bind your heart…” We walked back out onto the muddy drying surface of the paddy dikes, all silent and listening.
The song had been the one my wife used to laugh at, and I used to sing, while she waited to deliver our first child back home. In those very last days before I left. A chill went through me in spite of the morning heat. I wasn’t going home. I knew I wasn’t going home ever again. Wherever I’d landed and however it happened that I’d come there, I’d come to a place that wasn’t survivable. I couldn’t describe it in my mind in words, but the feeling ran up and down my spine like a brilliant Tesla coil of blazing fire. A coldness radiated out from the fire and ate itself into my body and mind.
The move would be a brutal one, even though the sun came out and a slight breeze blew the cloying misty rain away. The mountains lay ahead of us, with Hill 110 at the top. The company’s direction eased toward the west and ever so slowly we left the paddies behind, along with most of the mosquitoes. The brush began to grow thicker and thicker. Plenty of paths penetrated the bracken, bringing about more risk from booby traps. The most common trap, according to Stevens, was a simple ‘soup grenade.’ The M26 fragmentation grenade carried by all Marines fit perfectly into a Campbell’s soup can with the top cut off. After inserting the grenade into the can, the pin would be pulled. The can would be tied to a tree several feet off the ground with a string or wire running from the the top of the grenade to some other tree or bush. Anyone passing on the path would push against the string and the grenade would be pulled from the can. Five seconds later a medevac chopper would have to be called in. If the grenade was American, then a body bag would likely be taken out. If it was Chinese, then injuries might be treated for transport.
The tough part of the hike was enduring the low-level hill climbs leading up the mountain to Hill 110. Training in Virginia we carried packs weighing twenty-five pounds, one canteen of water, a weapon and some ammunition. In Vietnam the packs weighed seventy pounds and were filled with a lot of ammo, food and as much other junk as could be accommodated for long stays in the field without full relief. We needed four canteens of water, sometimes six. In Virginia the paths were all hard ground and rock. In Vietnam, even the mountains were made of mud.
I noticed a lot of nasty looks sent my way by Marines I didn’t know. Just looks. Nobody outside of the Gunny and my team spoke to me. The Gunny made his way to near the rear of the moving unit by mid-afternoon. We stopped under the trees of the single canopy jungle. The heat-relieving trees were a godsend, as around noon the sun had cooked all metal surfaces to near boiling temperatures.
“I gave a bogus report to battalion,” I started out, once I’d dropped my pack and we were crouched to enjoy our explosive-fueled coffee.
“Yeah, I heard,” he replied with one of his smiling non-smiles. “The right thing to do. You’re learning.”
“Really?” I asked. “I presume that most in the company know about last night and aren’t too happy. From the looks I’m getting, I mean.
“Oh, they know everything,” the Gunny replied, laboriously rolling one of his battered looking little cigarettes. “But it’s not what you think. They’re mad because they know you can call artillery in and you didn’t. Some good guys bought the farm last night. Everything’s a trade-off.”
“Trade-off for what?” I asked, wondering how I could possibly misinterpret everything every time.
“I left you in the mud so you might live long enough to become a real company commander,” the Gunny said.
“Some guys died just for that?” I replied, shocked and hurt a bit.
“Yeah, that was the trade-off and, oh, don’t get all teary-eyed,” the Gunny said, blowing out a huge lungful of bluish smoke. “I’m in a bad spot here. The worst of my life, and that’s saying something. I gotta get out of leading this show and you’ve gotta get into running it.”
“Is Hill 110 defended?” I asked, changing the awful subject.
“Probably,” the Gunny replied. “We’ll see, and then decide what we’re going to do.”
“Does that decision involve me,” I asked, dreading what he might say in response.
“I’m here to advise you and I hope to keep you alive doing it,” the Gunny said, putting out his cigarette by field stripping it while it was still burning. “Anytime you feel you can handle this then just say so and you’ve got it. You can read a map and god knows you can call artillery. What you’re going to do with the doc might determine a lot about the rest of it though.”
“No,” I replied, instantly, without having to think for one second. “You’re doing fine. Just tell me what to do.”
“Hill 110, you got it,” the Gunny pointed at me with one index finger when he said the words, like the last three were some lyrical mantra. “The doc is an issue you’ve got to take care of yourself though. Tonight, when we go down, would be good.”
I pulled the cardboard box filled with morphine syrettes from my left thigh pocket and held it out.
“Thought you’d know what to do with these,” I said.
‘Yeah, I’ll dole them out a bit more carefully,” the Gunny said. “These are supposed to go directly to the docs, not us. Somebody back there’s paying attention.”
“You know where we are, exactly?” he asked, holding the morphine box like it contained something much more delicate.
“Yes,” I replied. “Nine one nine six seven seven two two one,” I read off from memory. “Actually that’s a position about a hundred meters off our right flank just up ahead.”
“You remember that, just like that, without the map or compass?” he asked.
“Don’t need a compass,” I replied. “Hill 110 is due west at 4800 mils. North is sixteen hundred mils that way,” I pointed with my right index finger. “Then I just memorized the defensive fires I set up.”
“Ah, what’s a mil?” the Gunny asked.
“Sixty-four hundred in a circle,” I described. “Taken from the two radians, as a multiple of pie and then converted to thousands and rounded from 6283 to 6400. Sixty-four hundred mils in a circle. Lot more accurate than degrees.”
“Right,” the Gunny said, and then quickly departed back toward the point of the company’s advance.
“Where is he?” I yelled at his back.
“On the point with the FNGs that just came in,” he tossed over his shoulder before disappearing into the jungle.
“How could he not have known all that mil stuff, anyway?” Stevens asked.
I turned to look at him in question before he and Fusner burst out laughing.
The afternoon was a brutal slog ever upward, until going downward every once in a while into a pit of water and more rotten red mud. Even though Hill 110 was only five hundred meters high the hills between Mike Company and that objective were many and steeply sloped. At the bottom of one of those hills an explosion echoed back to my ears from the point.
“Booby trap,” Stevens whispered.
The immediate relief I felt about the possibility that my problem would be taken care of if the doc had set off the booby trap made me feel slightly guilty. I’d heard nothing more about the racial problem the Gunny had mentioned earlier. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone of color since I’d arrived in the unit. Where were they and what was the problem, I wondered.
Gunfire came back from the front of the column. Instantly I recognized incoming small arms fire. Not sixteens, AKs or the heavy stuff. Something else…
“Arty up,” came shouting back to where I was, yelled from man to man.
“Do you suppose that’s my new title?” I said to Fusner.
“I’m right behind you,” he said, knowing no other answer was necessary.
We hunched over, running up through the path and past a dozen Marines down in the bracken filled mud. It didn’t take long to reach the Gunny. He knelt near two men who lay on their backs. Several other Marines worked over and on them. Everyone stayed as low as possible. There was no more incoming fire.
“Hill 110’s hot,” the Gunny said. “Last year two Marine units lost their asses on that hill and it’s not going to be us this year. Up and to the left a few hundred yards there’s some kind of base of fire or nest of VC. That’s old U.S. surplus crap shooting at us. We give it out to the RVNs, and it comes right back to us.”
“Artillery?” I asked, laying as flat in the mud as I could get without exposing my neck to the horrid leeches.
“That rise just ahead on the left… that’s where we’re taking some fire from,” the Gunny said as he raised one arm and pointed through the jungle toward some invisible position.
I knew the position from the map, relieved to have contour intervals again. My defensive fires had been easily selected. It wasn’t likely that enemy forces would choose dips or valleys to observe or fire from. A small hillock, maybe sixty meters high, lay just ahead. A ring of three contour intervals ran around it on the map in my head. A registration point. I smiled my new humorless smile and motioned to Fusner for the handset. He looked at me and clicked the frequency knob around before handing me the set.
After calling for a mission and inputting the coded data, I gave the final order. “Battery of six, H.E., fire for effect.”
“Battery of six?” Fusner said, as the radio squawked out “Shot, over.”
“Shot out,” Fusner said in return, looking at me with a vague frown.
“Splash, over,” the machine reported over its small speaker.
“Get as low as you can,” I ordered, before following my own advice.
The rounds came in, the first six of them spaced in a circle about a hundred yards in diameter, depending on how the battery was set up in An Hoa.
The forty-six pound rounds, with super quick fuses that blew on contact, exploded with a ground-shaking jungle-swaying intensity. Six more rounds came in six seconds later, exactly as before. And then six more. The rounds kept coming until 36 had been expended. Twisted pieces of jungle matter flew over our position and lay hanging everywhere. The air compressed causing a light weather misting just in our part of the jungle. The huge explosions seemed to reverberate long after they had stopped.
“What the fuck was that?” the Gunny yelled too loudly. “You’re not supposed to call that shit closer than two hundred meters.”
Everyone’s hearing had been adjusted, including my own. I scuttled through light bracken moving like a sand crab, more sideways than straight ahead. I reached the Gunny who had his back to me, bending over working on someone.
“The doc?” I asked, hopefully.
“Still with us right here, working on this guy with me.”
I looked around the Gunny’s body. A corpsman just finished a bandage wrap on the wounded Marine in front of his knees.
“That him?” I asked, thinking it was one of the dumbest questions I’d ever asked. But I had to know.
“Yeah, it’s him,” the Gunny said. The Corpsman made believe neither of us were right there with him.
“Where are the other corpsmen?” I asked, seeing no one else. The other wounded Marine needed no help. Part of his head was missing.
“Be here in seconds,” the Gunny answered. “Why?” he said, his voice still too loud to be normal.
I reached down, pulled out my .45 and pointed it at the Corpsman. “Get up and turn sideways,” I said.
“Huh?” he murmured, finally looking directly at me.
“What the fuck?” the Gunny exclaimed, half turning to face me.
“I said get up,” I said flatly to the Corpsman, thumbing off the safety of the Colt with a loud click, even to our damaged ears.
The man stood up slowly.
“Sideways,” I said, motioning with my automatic.
He slowly turned, a questioning look on his face.
I squeezed the trigger of my Colt slowly and carefully, my aim certain. The gun went off with a bang louder than the artillery shells. The bullet took the Corpsman through the side of his buttocks, and probably out the other side, too, but I didn’t see that damage as he was thrown sideways and down. He screamed at the top of his lungs.
“What the fuck have you done?” the Gunny said, his tone one of shock.
My ears rang from the close muzzle blast of the .45. I re-holstered the Colt while the Corpsman continued to roll back and forth on the ground and scream. The other two corpsmen came running up.
“Who’s hit?” one of them asked.
I pointed at the Corpsman. Both men went to work on their fallen associate.
“Medevac him,” I ordered them both.
The Gunny stared at me as I rose to a standing position I moved back past Fusner, and then crawled forward to the edge of the bracken. The little hill wasn’t a hill anymore. The thirty-six rounds had turned it into a ten-foot high plateau of vegetable salad and muck.
“Did you shoot somebody?” Fusner said, close enough to my damaged left ear so I could hear him.
“Sort of,” I murmured.
The night was coming and the hill we were supposed to take the next day was occupied. Would we get hit again when it was full dark?
Would I run again?
I didn’t know the answer to either question but I knew I wasn’t going to spend another night in the mud with the leeches.