Once again, backed into the open-sided ‘lean-to’ my ‘scout’ team had made for me, I took out my writing materials to send another letter home. It was getting too dark to write so I did the best I could since using the flashlight under a hunched over poncho cover was out of the question in the heat. The night mist had returned with the mosquitoes and I wished for a real thunderstorm like I’d experienced while growing up in the Midwest of the United States.

I wrote furiously about how the Company wasn’t a company at all from what I understood one should be. Training had been little preparation with only the physical conditioning, map-reading and artillery school seeming to matter. I wrote of the mystery Marine named “Sugar Daddy” I was about to meet, as if being introduced at some sales conference or maybe a fraternity get-together. And then I stopped. Not because of the diminishing light, but because my wife could not possibly comprehend what I was trying to tell her. Even if she could somehow, did I really want her to know what I was going through?  If they killed me, she would think I died in combat bravely, a hero. Instead of whatever the truth really was.  Mary could not know, would not know…

I finished  the letter without mentioning anything of consequence, focusing on the tropical weather and how much I missed our newborn daughter. I asked her to send me Hoppe’s #9 for cleaning my .45, instant creamer for coffee and a cassette tape of her voice. Some of the Marines in the unit had battery powered cassette tape machines to record or play back messages.

I eased off my leather boots. Because I hadn’t gone through combat supply on the way out to the unit, I didn’t receive the new cloth-sided jungle boots.  Issue socks with my boots weren’t thick enough to handle the moisture or cushion the long hikes. I’d have to send home for more socks.  I pulled out my scrunched up utility top, which I’d wear all the time the mosquitoes were so intolerable. The helmet, hot and heavy to wear,  provided little protection from anything other than low hanging jungle branches. But I’d wear that, too. I needed to find one of those big rubber bands so I could carry the repellent on the outside of my helmet instead of rummaging in my pack, when I had my pack nearby.

I tried to put Jurgens and the others behind the brush out of my mind. It curdled my stomach to know there were combat Marines in my own unit who not only wanted me dead, but were already devising plans on how to take me out. Maybe someone would shoot me in the buttocks and I’d get to go home like the Corpsman. I tried to laugh at my low humor but couldn’t. I must have made some sound because Fusner, folded neatly into his own poncho covered hooch, responded.

“Repeat, sir?” he asked, between large bites of what were supposed to be ham slices.

“Who’s Jurgens?” I replied. Maybe a core group in the unit had gone bad. I’d  noted from their speech patterns that there were no black Marines that I could tell . Probably a good thing. Without meeting him I presumed Sugar Daddy to be black, just from the exotic nickname.

“Platoon commander of First Platoon,” Fusner answered. Barely visible in the waning light, he bit off some more of the ham slice, seeming to avoid my eyes. I stared anyway, waiting.

“Sir?” he asked weakly, putting down his C-ration tin.

“Jurgens,” I said again, without expression.

Fusner fiddled with his ration box in setting it aside. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and took a moment to light one. I smeared some more of the mosquito crap on and waited patiently.

“He’s big and mean. Fair, but mean. The officers before didn’t like him because he does with his platoon what he wants, not what he’s ordered to do. First Platoon is like a company within the Company, like the other one.”

“Other one?” I asked, surprised.

“Sugar Daddy’s Platoon Commander of Fourth Platoon. It’s all black. They kind of do what they want too.”

My mind rocked. How could a five platoon company do anything as a unit if two platoons did whatever they wanted and all the Marines in the other platoons knew it? I watched the drizzle begin to gather in a fold of my rubber poncho and flow into the little channel one of the team had dug around my hooch. The water collected and then began to run toward a little outlet to a hole dug for collection purposes. It reminded me of being home when I lived in Hawaii as a kid, digging castles with walls and motes down near the water. I thought of finding a little stick to float down the channel into the hole but made no move. I knew I wasn’t going to run from any enemy fire that night and that thought was a relief. Like the terror of the enemy had been relegated further down inside my being because of a greater terror. Except my growing fear of my fellow Marines was a colder, more angry thing. I wasn’t supposed to be afraid of them.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way at all.

“Where’s First Platoon settled in?” I asked Fusner.

“Why?” a voice whispered out in the night.

I looked away from Fusner into the dark to see a vague shape low to the mud. The shape moved forward until it became the Gunny.

“Getting the lay out of the unit for night defensive fires,” I answered, defensively.

“I’ve only known you for a few hours,” the Gunny whispered, taking out his own cigarette pack to light one, “and in that time I’ve picked up on a few things.” He flicked the Zippo and the light from the small fire flared over it. I noted the lettering on it’s surface near where the hinged top snapped down. It said “Changjin.”

“Gunny,” I replied, since he paused longer than I expected.

“You’ve already got the night defensive fires laid out in spades, and you’ve no doubt committed them all to memory.”

I shifted inside my hooch and searched for my own cigarette pack. After a few seconds I found it. The Gunny’s observations made me nervous and I couldn’t figure out why. With slightly shaking hands I pulled out a cigarette. The Gunny lit it, the Zippo again making its distinctive little ring when it opened. The light flared. We stared at each other. I didn’t know what to say.

“Jurgens runs that platoon,” the Gunny said. “Within bounds he does okay. He’s got some good buck sergeants running the squads and his fire teams are the best in the Company. When it’s all said and done every night we’ve got the NVA out there in force, not to mention a slew of disorganized local gooks playing at being Viet Cong. We need that platoon. They shoot. They fight. They work.”

I listened carefully, wondering what units in the company didn’t do the things he  so purposefully mentioned.

Battle of Chosin Reservoir During Vietnam War

A column of the U.S. 1st Marine Division move through Chinese lines during their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir

“What does Changjin mean?” I asked him, trying to change the subject.