I had the leg strength. I’d always had the legs. The records that had fallen to me in the obstacle course, running, and other military skills during officer candidate school and the Basic School had all been functions of lower body strength and agility. The glacis was a challenge more of balance than it was strength or agility, however. Each step sideways, face and the front of my torso pressed hard into the flat rock, had to be negotiated hesitantly but with pressing haste. There were Marines higher up than and many lower down the angle of our climb.
Climbing in the night was a risk, since the enemy, once it figured out that we were doing, could fire indiscriminately at the rock face, and be almost certain to hit Marines unable to gain any cover or move much of any distance in any direction from where they would be trapped. However, even though supporting fires would be on station, active, and very effective, a single sniper during daylight hours could decimate the company in a much more devastating way. Plus, hunkering down at the base of the face, which at its lowest point where they were, lacked the cave-like fold of undercut earth that the canyon wall had provided further up the valley.
The firing from the enemy started when I figured I was halfway up the glacis. There was nowhere to go. With the pack strapped tightly to my back and my helmet securely on my head, I could not turn from my cliff-facing position. I had to slither along the angled and chiseled path, hammered into solid stone. It was unforgiving in its thin rough presence beneath my boots. I could only slither upward, inch by inch, flinching when I heard bullets actually striking the rock face but I was unable to do anything about it. Nobody had yet been hit or fallen and I didn’t want to be the first. The climb seemed to take hours although I knew it was more likely only a matter of many minutes. I reached the top and was grabbed and grappled up over the lip by many hands. Nobody said anything, as I moved to crawl quickly away from the edge toward where I knew the jungle started.
The top of the cliff was a large open area of jumbled, artillery-shelled and bomb cratered rocky ground. It was as if the entire football field-sized chunk of high ground had been cleared to allow for a sizeable landing zone the largest of the supply helicopters could land on. The helicopters weren’t there or coming unless some kind of arrangement could be made to suppress the many avenues of fire the enemy could concentrate on the place. The 105 battery back in An Hoa was again available for fire, which was the best news, although buffered by the fact that the jutting chunk delineating GoNoy Island from the canyon below was also within the range of the North Vietnamese 106 mm guns.
Previously, when the company had occupied the area before descending down into the valley, we’d set up camp just inside the scrubby jungle area between the open flat land near the edge and the double and triple canopy full jungle that covered the entire interior area like a hundred-foot thick and layered layer of shag carpeting, seemingly hanging upside down. Without consulting me, Kilo had made it up the face of the glacis to occupy that same exact position my own company had abandoned so many weeks before. In the back of my mind alarms were going off. Never occupy the same ground twice in a guerilla environment, particularly not in a jungle environment where the enemy has become more expert and faster at tunneling than the toughest and most persistent of moles. I also realized there was nothing to be done for it until the first light. The entire top surface of the ground in and around the outer edge of the area was occupied, or open to fire, from NVA troops located deeper in the jungle. The only safety at all was from fire that might be generated from down in the valley, as up to now the NVA hadn’t used the kind of heavy mortars it would take to accurately fire from below and deliver death-dealing injuries up top, while what RPG rockets they still might have, were also useless against such a high shielded target.
I re-established contact with the eleventh regimental battery located just to the east of the An Hoa runway. The maximum range of the 105s was about twenty-five kilometers, using charge 8, which the battery didn’t like to use much, as the wear and tear of the chambers of the weapons was much higher. Our position wasn’t that far from the maximum range, although that would change as we moved inland toward the firebase on the following day. The 106 Soviet-supplied guns could reach out farther but were likely much closer in range on the top of the other side of the canyon, although it was anybody’s guess at any given time just how much of an ammunition inventory they had, compared to the near-endless supply available for the 105s.
I registered five grid coordinates for a thousand-meter stretch of the interior jungle running north and south about a thousand meters inland. I wanted whatever forces were in that jungle, probably preparing to attack us, to pay more attention to their own survival rather than ours. The battery was well supplied with concrete piercing shells, the kind that worked best because of the ability of the fuses to be adjusted to go off just milliseconds after the rounds encountered the very top of the jungle’s canopy.
Most of the company, just up from climbing the glacis, were on our stomachs, crawling across the clear but broken area, thankful to be away from the edge and actually looking for some safety inside the jungle itself. Somehow, the Gunny found me in the dark, and stopped my forward progress by grabbing my right ankle.
“This is a mistake, Junior,” he said, keeping his voice modulated to a loud whisper.
“We’ve been here before,” I acknowledged and was about to tell him that we’d done the same thing several times before down in the valley and been okay.
“This is all soft ground, not like the stuff along the bottom edges of the canyon wall down there,” he said, blunting my argument before I could get it out. “They’ve had plenty of time to dig.”
“We don’t have long before first dawn,” I replied, knowing I was handing him a weak excuse for my decision but the alternatives to setting up for the remainder of the night in our current position were severely limited. Either we stayed in the open area where one salvo of enemy artillery could take us out, or penetrated deep into the complete unknown of the thicker jungle the enemy was known to heavily occupy. I found both those alternatives unworkable. We could also keep moving right on through except the Marines had had no rest and no sleep for some time, and once again, the companies would be moving right through an occupied enemy position, and there was no surprise the enemy would likely fall for this time. Once again, I felt we had no choice about what we had to do. Every move we could possibly make was high risk.
“I don’t like it,” the Gunny finished, “okay, let’s get the hell off this beaten zone, no doubt registered to untold numbers of artillery batteries.”
The trouble brought me awake in an instant. I was crouched into the half-hole Fusner had dug for me, with my pack wadded up between my knees and my chest. I was not truly aware of falling asleep but I was fully aware that I was awake, as small arms fired opened up all around me. The company was pouring out fire. The tracers crisscross over my head everywhere, which caused me some confusion. What was everyone shooting at? There was no direction to anything. It was like the company was being attacked from all around at once.
I tried to raise my head to peer about, but the blackness was complete and I could see nothing. The rain had stopped, which was a great relief but everything remained totally soaked, from the mud lining the bottom of my hole to all the foliage around. I unsnapped the strap, releasing my .45, but didn’t move to put it into my hand. I had to know what was going on first. I dug through my pack until I found the M-33 grenade I had kept, pulled it out, and made sure the pin was still in it.
Once more I raised my head, staring out from under the wet lip of my damaged helmet. The tracers could still be seen, racing everywhere but the brilliant white light of them blinded me from being able to see anything else since the hot fast-moving bullets were too distant to illuminate anything close to me.
I needed Fusner in order to bring the pre-planned zone fire online.
“Fusner,” I whispered, knowing he would be nearby.
I didn’t see or hear him until suddenly the area in front of me lit up and a scene was revealed in stop-action like I’d never seen before or even imagined.
An NVA soldier was half-crouched inside a hole, holding the edge of some hinged cover with one hand and a firing AK-47 in the other. The reddish-yellow of the muzzle flashes lit everything in front of me and to both sides. I heard Fusner scream from only feet away. I turned my head but was only able to marginally see him go down, sideways but almost on top of my position. He continued to scream.
I had to get to him. The firing stopped and the night took my vision once again.
I had to get Fusner into what little protection my small hole offered. I crawled toward his downed body, pushing the M-33 down into the left pocket of my utility blouse pocket. Pulling on his feet, I dragged him toward the hole, the tracers still flying, closer and lower now, allowing me to see more of Fusner’s body. He was stitched up and down his torso by so many blood pumping bullet holes that I was stunned he was able to use his voice at all.
“Mom, mom, oh mom,” he cried. “I’m hurt mom.”
I finally got his feet to the hole, knowing deep inside me that I was wasting my time while risking my own life, but I could not leave him in the open. It just wasn’t in me.
I felt the ground suddenly opened again, and immediately fire came from the hinged hole. I reached for the grenade, dropping Fusner’s feet as I turned my body to try to avoid the firing coming from only a few yards in front of me. The bullets took me in the right side and I went instantly down, but I didn’t fall toward where Fusner still lay, screaming for his mother. I fell sideways into the hole.
In spite of what had happened to Fusner and all my time in the A Shau, the bullets took me completely by surprise as did the level of pain. There was no comparing it in my life. It was like someone had inserted red hot rods through my body and they could not be removed. I am not sure if I cried out, as Fusner had. All I could do was curl up into a ball, the M-33 falling out of my pocket, landing on the side of my right hand. I clutched it, using one of the still working fingers on my left hand to pull the pin. Only then did I realize I was incapable of getting the grenade to the hole, even if it gaped open waiting. A pain paralysis froze my hands and arm. I lost awareness of my surroundings for a period of time. A voice nearby brought me to.
The words “stay with us” burned their way into my consciousness, as I fought to comprehend the awful condition of my body and even my state of existence on the planet. The words kept repeating, as I tried to see through a distorted return of fuzzy imagery, the hot pokers penetrating and rifling into the very center of my being. The pain came in waves that I rode as an unwilling surfer, each wave coming at me intolerably and inexorably, my stuttering breaths fighting to somehow survive by willing the troughs of those brutal waves to be something less than the outrageous unsurvivable pain the waves themselves brought.
“Look at me, Junior, and stay with us,” a face said, the being’s beady eyes trying to bore their way into, and then right through, my own.
I tried to mouth the single word “okay” back, but nothing would come out. My breathing was only capable of riding the waves of red-hot pain to bring me to seconds of minutely relieving but never-ending pain.
“You are hit bad through and through and you’ve got to fight it,” the moving mouth inches from my face said. “You’re going out on a Huey right now. You’ll never make it waiting for the big bird.”
Some sort of consciousness, real thinking now foreign to me, came over me as the pain attempted to occupy every shred of every bit of any kind of rational thoughts I might otherwise have. I knew I was hit. I’d seen the NVA soldier rise from his spider hole not ten feet from my position. I’d been moving to try to save Fusner’s life, when the NVA soldier came out of the earth.
In that instant, when the soldier had opened up with his AK-47 the second time, I knew the enemy was coming out of the earth. They’d been waiting, after digging like fiends to prepare, since we’d sheltered down in the same position prior to coming down the face of the wall almost a month before, and they’d been ready. The fire I was trying to find the source of was their fire, as they killed my Marines from the rear while the unit fought against what it believed was fire coming in from outside the perimeter.
The yellow and white blasts from the AK had been like a string of Christmas tree lights coming at me, much slower than bullets were supposed to go. I’d turned a tiny bit to begin attempting to evade the string, but I’d only made that turn with my upper body before running out of time. The bullets hit my side and then were gone. The soldier disappeared as I went down. I wasn’t knocked down like I’d seen in the movies. I’d gone over sideways, but slowly, like a damaged building collapsing from the bottom up.
“I know the pain’s bad, really bad,” the small moving mouth with beady black eyes that wouldn’t leave my own said, “but I can’t give you morphine. Your system will simply shut down and let you die. The pain’s keeping you alive. We’re going to have you on the chopper and out of here in minutes.”
I thought of the morphine in my pocket, the pocket that still held the letter home to my wife I hadn’t been able to get aboard any helicopter since coming to the end of the valley. As the face moved back and away from my shortened visual field of view I managed to get one hoarsely whispered word out. I had to speak. I had to get the face to understand and then take action. I could not access the morphine the face would not give me without being able to use both hands and in my right hand, I held tightly, uncontrollably to something that prevented that hand’s use for anything other than what it was doing. I had to have the morphine and I didn’t care one whit about whether I died or not. I could not take the pain. I would not take the pain.
“Grenade,” I hissed across the short distance to the face.
The Marine stopped his retreat and leaned back down.
“Grenade?” he asked, his wetly smooth forehead furrowed with a deep frown.
“Right hand,” I got out, trying to gesture by nodding my head to the side and down toward my uncontrollably clutching hand, but my head would not move, any more than my hand could or would let go of the M33 grenade I’d pulled out of my right front pocket as I’d gone down from the effect of the bullets striking my torso. Once the hits registered right into the central core of my being, however, my ability to do anything other than pull and discard the pin had been taken from me.
The face disappeared and I went back to trying to ride the scorching awful waves radiating into and out of my shattered body. I was hemmed in. The bullets had to have gone in one side of my torso and out the other because the waves of pain came from those sides into my interior and then seemed to reflect and bounce back to those sides. Time after time, with milliseconds between them.
“Jesus Christ,” a voice I recognized but could not place breathed out. “The pin’s pulled. Easy, easy, use the K-Bar to pry his fingers loose. He’s not going to give a damn about losing fingers at this point.”
I wanted to shout that I did give damn, that I wanted all my fingers, but I couldn’t say anything as the pain waves stole my voice, my breath and even most of my ability to see.
My hand hurt from whatever they did, but that hurt didn’t matter one bit. The waves racking their way back and forth through my body like those of a shaken bottle of coke absorbed that hurt like it was a bit of remote matter too inconsequential to be anything more than being noticed in a minor way.
“Get the lid up and that thing down in the hole,” a loud voice screamed.
Through the waves of white-hot heated pain, I felt and heard a loud explosion. I couldn’t remember hearing the explosions that had to have been occurring when the bullets came out of the AK and on into me, but the sound of the grenade going off was unmistakable.
The face leaned back in for a few seconds, “Got any more surprises, Junior? By God, you were a piece of work in your time,” and then was gone.
My ears rang, but I was used to that. The face’s words; “You were a piece of work in your time,” ate their way through the pain, and on into some still open recess of my fractured mind. He’d used the past tense. Was my time of being alive over? I felt a familiar sickening bolt of fear rush its way from the bottom of my feet to the top of my roiling and shattered being.
The face was gone, the explosion far back in my somehow time-slowed existence. I was alone. There were no more sounds coming from Fusner. The corpsmen hadn’t even bothered with him at all. I knew he was dead. Nobody could live through the number of hits he’d taken at such close range. Taken for me. Taken because of me. Only bitter awful regret could power its way through and between the waves of racking pain that continued to penetrate and occupy every remaining bit of my living being.
I worked my left hand over and down with impossible effort, the surging power of its goal overcoming iron strength of attempted life-stopping power of the surf-riding, nearly overwhelming, force of the pain.
The morphine. I clutched the small box containing the styrettes. The face had said that administering morphine would kill me.
I felt the plastic bag next to the morphine box, as I worked to get it out of my wet pocket, with difficulty. I felt my letter home. I could not die. What would my wife and new daughter do without me? There was no money on her side of the family and my side of the family wasn’t likely to share a thin dime. My wife had worked three times in her life during college to help pay tuition. Once in a potato factory, once in a pet store, and once as a recess director at a summer park. She’d done remarkably well at those foundational and terrible-paying jobs. There was little hope that she might find something to support herself and our daughter without me. I could not die, but I could not take the pain. It was simply too awful, and, in spite of what the face had said, I knew, in what was left of my rationality, that the morphine was very likely the only thing that might keep me alive.
I fumbled the package out, shredding the cardboard box as I did so while bringing my freed upright hand over atop my agonized torso to grasp the tiny styrette. I breathed, and then breathed deeply again to get to a near-instantly passing trough between the giant waves of unbearable pain. I flicked the plastic cover off the top of the tube and then, as gently as my forced, cut and shaking fingers could do it, I got the tiny metal stopper out of the end of the needle, wondering at the same time about the fingers I couldn’t see that had to still be there if I was able to do what I was doing.
I punched the needle of the tube into my stomach. There was no way I could bend my torso to get the drug into my thigh. I knew from long experience with the company in combat that one styrette wasn’t going to be enough. I pawed with my left hand and found another stuck in the mud covering my stomach. I punched a second styrette into nearly the same place the first one had gone. I knew that three styrettes was death for someone of my size. If I was to die from taking the two then it was a death meant to be. I would not do the three. My letter home to my wife still had to be posted, and I was duty-bound to get it in the mail. She, and my daughter, were all I had to hold onto and I wasn’t about to let them go.
The waves of fire-hardened pain began to come down from their vaulting heights as the morphine began to do its job. My breathing began to change from the sucked and vacated packets of spewing jungle air it had been to a level where my torso no longer beat itself up and down against the jungle floor.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I worked my head up and eased my bleeding torso over the edge of the hole, creeping inch by inch to drag the rest of myself toward where Fusner lay. I ignored his body, the fingers on my undamaged right hand searching for the radio microphone. I found it, still clutched in his left hand.
I breathed deeply in and out, knowing that my life was most probably being very temporarily extended only because of the morphine deadening everything in my body. I squeezed the button on the mic.
“Fire mission,” I rasped into the thing, hoping Fusner had adjusted the frequency to the artillery net.
“Fire mission” came right back. Fusner had left the external speaker on. I nodded in my misery. If he hadn’t left the speaker on then I wouldn’t have been able to hear the other side of the conversation.
“Is that you, Junior?” a familiar voice asked.
It was Russell, from my Basic Class back at Quantico. The same one who always asked how I was doing out in the field, and I couldn’t tell him.
“On the gun target line, Russell,” I replied, trying to concentrate. “Drop one thousand on the zone fire and fire for effect.”
I’d set the zone to run along the flank of our position a thousand meters to the east. I had figured out in an instant what had happened to the company and why Fusner was dead and I was dying. The enemy had tunneled under our previous position, in the hopes that one day or night we would return. The Gunny, who was also likely dead, had been right again. All the firing I’d been hearing, much of it died out and as likely gone as my Marines, had been coming from inside our lines. The enemy had been everywhere around us in the night, but only they had known that. It meant they were also everywhere in the night around me at that instant. The occasional shots I was hearing were the enemy performing cleanup. Killing any wounded they found in the night, which also meant they eventually get to me.
“What’s your position, Junior?” Russell asked.
I knew he was asking because of the artillery rules of engagement. He had to know the edge of the cliff was not far enough away to allow the fire.
“We’re still down in the valley, about to scale the wall,” I replied, hoping the battery had not been monitoring the combat net.
“Roger that,” Russell said, instantly. I knew he knew I was lying, just from the speed of his agreement and his light feathery tone.
“Bye, Russell,” was all I could get out before dropping the mic and beginning the short torturous agony of crawling back into my hole. The hole and my morphine were all I had left in the world, and hell was coming like a series of giant exploding anvils to take even those.
I heard the enemy, and then the rain. The enemy was talking among themselves nearby, which meant the decimation of the company had to be all but complete. The rain began to come down in sheets as I worked to control the white-hot pain, working against the morphine to reach deeper inside me. I heard a few very close shots and closed my eyes to wait. Then, as clear as the sound of two sharp peeling little bells, the words “shot, over,” come from Fusner’s radio speaker.
The voices of the enemy soldiers became louder. I knew they had to be gathering near Fusner’s body. There were more shots, this time deafening, but it didn’t matter because the next two radio bells spoke clearly across the short distance to me “splash over.”
I counted backward out loud, no longer caring about the enemy.
I never reached the word ‘one.’ The world exploded around me. Everything went white, then black and then white again and again. I was thrown above the hole and then out of it. I tried to crawl back inside but the morphine, in taking a good deal of the pain, had also taken whatever strength I had left. All I could do was lay on my back, the rain pounding down upon my face. I licked my lips as more explosions occurred around me. I knew I was deaf because I couldn’t hear the detonations at all.
The giant bright flashes let me see the many bodies strewn around my exposed position. I didn’t know if they were NVA soldiers or Marines, except for Fusner. I could also get glimpses of the hinged cover hanging near the hole the enemy soldier had popped up from to kill Fusner and grievously wound me.
I had to stay awake if I was to survive. I had to ride the pain, as it came in waves. I was a surfer and the areas between the great swells were friends to me. Up and down, agony to bearable misery. I breathed and worked to control my own blood pressure. I had to be bleeding terribly inside. Multiple torso wounds were invariably terminal primarily because of the loss of blood. I didn’t move my hands to feel the wounds. I simply lacked the coordination to make my hands react properly. All I could do was hold my sides as if I was holding myself together in some sort of death grip.
The morphine allowed me enough distance from the pain to reflect while I waited. I’d lost my company and probably Kilo, as well. As I waited for the sound of the helicopters that would eventually come, I thought of the Gunny, of Jurgens, Sugar Daddy, and especially about Fusner.
I thought of Captain Hrncr, back at St. Norbert’s, and one of his maxims of combat. Never ever encamp where you camped previously. The sin of my violating that inflexible rule would die with me if I died, or live with me for the rest of my life if I lived. There was no more activity that I could sense from the enemy. The rain came down directly on my face. I thought of taking more morphine but then figured that the arriving choppers, if they got there while I was still alive, might overdose me if I was not coherent. I could see no light but I realized my hearing was coming back. I heard the first sound of aircraft approaching. It was not the sound produced by great whirling blades and turbines. I finally recognized the sound as coming from a large supply plane. I laid my head to one side. They knew back in the rear what had happened. They were sending Puff the Magic Dragon to make sure the chopper teams were not encountered by an active enemy.
My war was over.