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.
“What does Changjin mean?” I asked him, trying to change the subject.
“Chosin,” he replied. “It’s pronounced Chosin.”
Every living Marine knew that word. The Frozen Chosin was a legend of the Korean War. A legend among the greatest in Marine Corps history. Marines trapped on a mountain ridge had fought their way through a killing cold blizzard and twelve divisions of Chinese troops to reach the sea and safety.
“They’re going to hit us from either the point or the left flank later on. The right flank’s too mushy,” the Gunny instructed. “They’ll set up a base of fire from high up on the hill to use plunging fire on us while establishing another base of fire on the far side of the right flank swamp. What can artillery do?”
I smiled in the dark, but not in humor. I clutched the letter to my wife, folded into my right front pocket. The Gunny was talking about the kind of war I’d trained so long and hard for. I’d figured out the same likely strategy without even knowing about the swampy mud. I calculated an attack from the left flank simply because the ground sloped gently downward toward our position and had enough scraggly scrub to cover a rapid approach by ground troops.
“Seven registrations on the hill,” I answered, needing no reference map or planning materials, as he’d guessed. “Fusner reached 2/13 out of Da Nang. 155s can reach out to the hill from their position. They’re good for almost fifteen miles while the 105s at An Hoa are limited to seven. The circular error probability is about the same at our range though, because the 155 round is inherently more stable. The 155s will give us a hundred pounds of throw weight over the forty or so of the 105.”
“And that means what exactly?” the Gunny asked.
“I’ll start some harassing and interdicting fire in a bit so there won’t be anyone crawling about on this side of 110 tonight.”
“Did you run into Jurgens?” the Gunny asked, burying the stub of his cigarette in the mud next to my little running moat.
“Why do you ask?” I countered, not knowing where he was going but uncomfortable again with the direction of the conversation.
“Would you mind not dropping anything out of the night onto that platoon?” the Gunny asked. “Could you just leave them to me for a bit?”
I realized that the Gunny was a very bright and sensitive man at that point. He’d picked up on my simple request for the platoon position and then figured out what I might be thinking. What I was thinking.
“What’s my nickname, since everyone seems to have one here?” I asked, delaying a response to his question.
“Junior,” he answered. “From the initials in your name.”
“Fine,” I said, although it wasn’t fine at all. The derogatory name reduced me to the status of a child. I had a baby face it was true, to the point of embarrassment at times in high school and college, but I knew they didn’t give me the nickname because of that fact.
“They haven’t made up their minds about you yet, most of the them,” the Gunny went on. “Don’t make it up for them.”
I’d been about to tell the Gunny to handle whatever he thought needed to be handled with First Platoon, as I was not about to tell him what had transpired in the little meeting in the mud on the other side of the bushes. But his comment made me realize something. Whether I lived or died could depend on what the unit thought of me — not that I was going to live anyway — but The Gunny made me even more aware that I did not want to die at the hands of my own men.
“Well?” the Gunny said, still waiting, as he rose to his feet in the dark and stepped out into the fetid mist.
“I’ll let you know,” I replied, truthfully.
“You might want to dig something shallow if you have to bring fire closer in,” the Gunny replied, obviously giving up on his other line of questioning. “I’ll be back when the shit hits the fan to check on you. Call the artillery right from here.”
As the Gunny walked away, the sound of two sucking plops came from right next to my hooch, “You might need these for later,” he said, his voice almost too soft for me to hear.
I reached out and pulled in two round objects. M33 grenades. The new ones, like the one I’d used to give me cover in my escape from the Jurgens group. I wiped them down with my used socks. Smell didn’t seem to matter much anymore since everything I ran into, or had nearby, smelled to high heaven of one kind of awful aroma or other. I sat in the dark, wondering if the Gunny knew about my little escape and was resupplying me, or whether he had merely picked up some extra grenades when everyone else had enough. I didn’t rate an M16 or a Tommy Gun. The M33s seemed the next best thing since my .45 only held seven in the magazine and one in the chamber. I only kept five in the magazine because my dad had shot the Colt for the U.S. Coast Guard pistol team. He’d taught me years back that the upper right tang at the top of the pistol had a tendency to bend and jam the action of the automatic if seven rounds were loaded and then left to remain in the gun’s handle for any period of time.
I agonized for a shower or a bath. Anything to relieve the heat, the itching from the insect bites and the ever present muddy film coating my body, boots and clothing.
“Fusner,” I whispered, “Aren’t we close to the Bong Song?”
“Yes, sir,” he whispered back, the glow of his cigarette tip going on and off like a blinking traffic light.
“Can’t we swim in the river?” I asked him. “Can’t we bathe in the water there?”
“No, sir,” he answered, with no delay at all.
“Why not?” I responded, in frustration.
“You’ll see,” he said back.
I wondered what arcane rule of engagement required that Marines not swim in the rivers and streams of the country they were supposed to be trying to save. The rivers had to be fresh water, their deep moving waters driven by the rains in the mountains. To have so much water in the area, in the air itself, but not available for drinking or bathing was more than vexing. I determined to swim and bathe in the Bong Song no matter what the rules said, as soon as I could get there.
I didn’t think I’d slept but my combat watch said three a.m. when the first incoming mortar rounds sounded in the distance. The distinctive “thoop” of their launch awakened even the most poorly experienced veteran, of which I had to be considered one. At least seven or eight of the loud fear-inducing thoops pierced the night, giving us between forty-one and forty-five seconds before impact.
For unprotected troops with no place to hide, the mortar represented a terrible field weapon. Hiding in holes didn’t totally work because the rounds came straight down out of the sky, and digging holes in the lowlands of South Vietnam, without supports to hold back the mud, was precarious. You’d have to dig five feet down to harder earth, and there was seldom time when on the move for such protective preparation.
I started the night defense regimen I’d designed earlier. I’d lied about our position earlier when I’d communicated the plan to the batteries, as usual, so there would be no problem pulling fire as close in as it might be needed. The area between our position’s perimeter and the steeper rise of Hill 110 was pretty open and bare. Illumination rounds, although difficult to see accurately under because the burning rounds swayed so much in their parachutes, might give any attacking force real pause.
The mortar rounds came in, probably 82 millimeter, but they didn’t hit close to where my team lay squeezed down against the mud, tense with anticipation. After I recovered enough to roll back into my hooch, I breathed deeply, covered in even more mud than usual. I wasn’t afraid. That thought buoyed me up for almost an hour before the night broke open like a crack in a black granite wall, and terror came rushing through.