Captain Carruthers settled into one side of my cleft, which wasn’t really wide enough to have two sides, but he wedged himself in anyway. There were clefts like my own up and down under the folded rock and he could, with his rank, have stayed in any one of them, but I understood. He wanted to be alone and somewhere else on the planet. Anywhere else on the planet. But he was in the A Shau, and death was lurking everywhere, with living bodies falling to become dead ones all the time. Captain Carruthers didn’t want to be alone, and he wasn’t alone inside my cleft. I was wedged deep, where the rock roof slanted down into the dry river sand. Fusner was pushed inside the opening just above me, while Nguyen lay next to him. Piper and his charge, the remainder of my scout team, were half exposed to the outside, just inside the outer lip of the opening. Sardines could not have been fit closer inside one of those roll key cans they came in than we were, and that’s only when we could get a can in a care package, which was almost never.
“When’s resupply coming in?” Carruthers asked, working to drop his pack and get into it with almost no maneuvering room.
“Fusner will alert us when its five minutes out, sir,” I replied.
“You call the fire mission in at that point?” Carruthers continued.
I didn’t really want to engage in a conversation with regard to what I was about to do but saw no point in alienating the man further. I just wanted to write another letter home about the wonders of the river sand, the beauty of the metamorphic rock, and how it all had come to form the wonder of the A Shau Valley.
“Timing is everything on this one,” I said, speaking slowly, working out the plan once more in my own head, as I delivered it to him. “It’ll take the choppers about ten minutes, or a bit less, to drop their loads. It’ll take another ten to get the stuff from the exposed landing zone to near where we are undercover. That’s almost twenty minutes wherein the NVA have to be kept down. The zone fire will cover about half of that, and I’m depending on the remaining Ontos flechette ammunition to hold them for the second ten. The Cobras will not stay on station after that and they have no night vision capability that might help for air to ground operations. After that, we’ve got the M-60s, M-79s, sixteens, and grenades. That’s the plan. If the barrage starts early then the choppers will wave off because of encountering a hot L.Z.”
“So,” Carruthers replied, stopping his actions in getting whatever he was trying to get out of his pack, “As the ranking officer between our companies, I’ll likely be held responsible if you ‘accidentally’ shoot our own helicopters down.”
“There’s no such thing as a ‘ranking officer between companies’ down here, or anywhere else in the military,” I responded, shaking my head in the near dark at the bottom of our cave.
I sighed deeply in frustration, but I understood what he was saying. He was still worried about combat in the A Shau might have on his career after we got back home.
“You haven’t gotten it yet,” I grated out. “That’s why you have the nickname you do. The Marines give you a nickname to fit, and they’re pretty good at it.”
“They call you Junior,” Carruthers shot back. “How’s that accurate in any way? Seems to me like ‘Little Attila, or Count Dracula’ might fit better, and what is my nickname. I didn’t even know I had one?”
“They call me Junior because that’s what I was,” I replied. “I was a kid. I didn’t know anything but I thought I did, just like a teenager. So, they named me Junior, and it stuck.”
“You shouldn’t let them call you that,” Carruthers said, althoughthe tone of his voice was more sympathetic than anything else.
“A lot of dead Marine officers have told me that,” I said, the words coming out fast and hard, but my voice so low that I hoped the others wouldn’t hear.
The cleft fell into a dark silence until I got Jurgen’s flashlight out and turned it on. I quickly muffled the bright light with my other hand. What I really wanted was a pinch of Composition B to make some coffee but the stuff burned so hot that it would eat all the air we had.
“What’s my nickname,” Carruthers asked, going back to rummaging in his pack now that there was some limited light.
“Captain Crud,” I said, wanting to smile but somehow not being able to.
His comments about Attila and Dracula had hurt, even though I knew he probably meant them as funny. The fire mission weighed upon me, and I wondered briefly about what or who I was willing to sacrifice to save my own life.
“What?” Carruthers said, stopping dead in his rummaging. “How in hell does that fit me? Crud. I’m the last thing from being cruddy,” he argued.
“You can’t complain about a nickname or you just burn it in,” I replied. “When I saw you scale down that cliff wall the Marines around me saw the same thing. You looked like Boy Wonder on a scout outing in your starched and pressed utility uniform. Down below, we were just a mass of dirt-encrusted urchins compared to you. Hence the name.”
“Yeah, but how am I supposed to let them call me that to my face?” Carruthers complained.
“That’s up to you,” I said. “An old movie called Hondo had it down about that. John Wayne said to another guy who was threatening his dog, which was really a wolf: ‘A man’s got to do what he thinks is best.’”
“I don’t like it,” Carruthers continued, but I physically turned to face the bottom crease of the wall next to me.
I pulled out some damp folded stationery and muffled the light so I could write home again. I doubted the Marines would call Carruthers ‘Captain Crud’ to his face. There was quite a distance between how they felt and regarded second lieutenants compared to captains. Whatever they did, however, it wasn’t going to be my problem unless, or until, Carruthers got himself killed.
“I don’t much care for it either, sir,” I replied offhandedly, trying to concentrate on the letter I was writing.
“Why don’t you ask them to stop calling you Junior, then?” Carruthers continued.
“I meant that I don’t much like your nickname, I’m okay with mine, sir,” I replied, trying to ignore the man.
The weight of the fire mission was crushing down on me. I didn’t want to call it in, then wait, tucked deep into my hiding hole, while the air guys flying in to help us took the very real chance of being blown right out of the air because of what I ordered. I wished that I could have gone on the patrol to get the supplies with Jurgens, but I knew that would have been a bad decision. I had to survive to command the unit and the Gunny had to survive with me. I wondered where he was holed up, waiting like the rest of us. Any second Fusner was going to announce that the choppers were dropping and hand me the arty net handset. Meanwhile, I had to listen to the captain being concerned about his future career and how awful his nickname was. The man had taken fire coming down the face of that cliff with his men, so he wasn’t exactly an FNG, but still, I felt resentment.
“I’m sorry,” Carruthers whispered to me, leaning over until he was no more than a few inches from me. “I’m sorry. I can’t stop talking. I’ve never received artillery before. Will we make it in here? I think I’d rather be out there. I don’t like small spaces.”
I stopped writing, slowly folded my uncompleted letter up, and place it and my pen back into my thigh pocket. I was reminded of my other thigh pocket, the one with my resupplied morphine. I hadn’t had to administer any of that for many days and nights, but the thought disturbed me even more than the fact that Captain Carruthers seemed to be coming apart at the seams right beside me. I turned over to confront him, our faces only inches apart.
“What you’re going to do, sir is exactly what I tell you,” I said, very low and quietly, but also as forcefully as I could.
There was no way I could let Carruthers come apart inside the small cleft we were all trapped in. Not under the circumstances.
“You can talk all you want, but you’re not going anywhere until this is over or you’ll risk the lives of everyone here getting out, and then you’ll likely be blown apart out there and I’ll have to explain that.”
“I outrank you, lieutenant.” Carruthers hissed back, which made me feel better.
He was showing anger and spine. There might be hope in getting through the mess we were all in after all.
I didn’t answer, instead I reached down with my right hand, unsnapping my holster, putting my hand on the butt of my .45 and clicking the safety off. Any murmuring sound from the others in the cleft stopped. There was no missing the sound of that distinctive click. I laid next to the captain, our eyes visible to one another because of the flashlight I’d left on next to my left side.
“Jesus,” Carruthers finally breathed out. “Is that it, down here in this horrid valley? Everything is about death, dismemberment or the threat of either or both.”
I wanted to say sorry to the man, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t kidding and he had to know that, just as I had to reinforce myself to know that. I liked the man, as I had some of the officers that had come before him, but I’d sacrifice him as quickly and harshly as I was about to possibly sacrifice some helicopter personnel. The company lived or the company died, and a whole lot of that responsibility for that had fallen on my shoulders, with almost none of it being the kind that I was trained to expect or be able to handle.
The captain had made no move for his own weapon and, other than venting some emotion of exasperation about the conditions we were in, hadn’t come totally unglued, as I’d feared. I clicked the safety back on just as Fusner said the words “fire mission,” and pushed the handset down into my left shoulder.
I called in the mission with a good bit of fear and trepidation. The Army firebase had been around for a while, and they weren’t dummies running it at the battery’s fire direction center, which meant they kept a pretty good record of what was going on in their fields of fire. They accepted the previously planned and prepared zone fire mission I activated without comment. If they knew about the choppers landing further up the valley they weren’t saying anything, and they weren’t checking the fire, which is what I feared most. Without the artillery barrage bombarding the general region, the resupply and pick up of our dead was doomed to costly failure. Under a barrage of that magnitude nobody in their right mind, no matter how courageous, moved through the area working to deliver small arms fire. That included the NVA soldiers. The air above us was about to be filled with chunks of hot metal screaming through the jungle, and every open area, at twenty-two thousand feet per second.
“The 46 is down,” Fusner said, obviously switching his radio frequency quickly from the arty to the combat net as quickly as he could.
I breathed in and out deeply. The choppers had to be down. If they weren’t down they wouldn’t land because of the exploding artillery below. If the rounds impacting weren’t too close, they’d stay down rather than risk getting hit by one flying through the air. If the rounds came too close they’d risk it and lift off. If they lifted off then we lost the supplies and our Marine brethren would never make it back home. I had no control over how the red bag 175s would spread themselves throughout the southern valley area we were inside. The mission was over for us waiting in our clefts even before the words “shot over,” came through Fusner’s tinny PRICK 25 speaker. Only the results of that mission would come in over time.
I scrunched myself into a ball and huddled against the hard rock surface to my front. I waited for the ‘splash’ alert. When it came, I held my breath through the five seconds, counting them off, before the first giant explosions would take place. I waited. It took a bit longer. The explosive concussions had to travel at the speed of sound to get to our cleft. But when they came they came with withering blasts of compressed air, from nearby shock waves, and then cindered rock chunks and dust shaken from the roof of our small hideaway. I rolled a bit and the flashlight ominously went out. The explosions and the shocks from them continued to reverberate, closer and then further away. I feared for Piper up near the lip of the cleft opening because the shock waves seemed so strong, even way down near the bottom of the cleft where I huddled.
Nothing was said throughout the barrage. Time stopped, punctuated only with the time indicators of more explosions going off. I knew the firebase was firing just about all the inventory it had. If one of those rounds hit one of the choppers then I would never recover, even if I lived. I would never be forgiven by the battery or the air elements supporting us, or by myself. I wanted a drink of water, and to wash the awful dust from my face, but there was no way I was going to unclench my body. I’d become a rounded knot of wood, the tension so tight that when I tried to unclench one of my hands it wouldn’t do anything. I realized I was breathing, but very gently. I tried to breathe harder and succeeded. I concentrated on my breathing.
And then it was over. No more sounds came in through the opening of the cleft. I won control of my body functions again. I unclenched my midsection, turned onto my stomach, and began to crawl up past Fusner.
“Butcher’s bill?” I asked as I passed. Fusner knew the phrase, as I’d used it before. I was a fan of old sailing novels about the British Navy in the seventeen hundreds.
Butcher’s bill was the term the nautical crews had used for those killed or wounded in a combat action at sea.
“Nothing yet, sir,” Fusner whispered back, his voice so low I could barely hear him. I realized it wasn’t him. The concussion waves had penetrated all the way into the cleft, and my hearing was damaged. I knew I wouldn’t have to ask Fusner again, either. He’d keep his ear stuck to the radio until he knew what had happened, and then get the information to me as fast as he could.
I reached the lip of the cleft. Nobody was visibly hurt that I could tell, although with my hearing not quite right I had to depend on my eyes. Darkness wasn’t quite over the battlefield when I looked out.
“Jesus Christ, that was something,” a voice, filled with awe, came from behind me.
I turned my head and was immediately impressed. It was Carruthers.
“My first artillery barrage,” Carruthers said.
The man had just gone through a brutal barrage that could have easily killed us all if a round had landed too close to the lip of the cleft, and the captain wasn’t in the least bit afraid. He was like he’d been coming down the cliff. I was afraid, although my hands no longer shook when that happened. I didn’t feel the less for being afraid, and I felt glad to have the captain at my side.
“What now?” Carruthers asked.
“The Ontos,” I replied, glancing back at Fusner, who gave me just a brief shake of his head. Nothing yet, that meant.
I crawled out of the cleft and was moving toward the berm that heaped up between the cleft opening the flat muddy stretch that ran out from it to arrive at the always flooded and rushing waters of the Bong Song river. I was immediately grabbed roughly and pulled to the side.
“Fire in the hole, Junior,” the Gunny’s hot breath and fierce hiss beat into my deadened right ear.
I rolled with the Gunny, hoping the captain hadn’t followed me all the way out. There was no warning when the Ontos, sitting just on the other side of the berm, let off a 106 mm round. The whoosh penetrated my already damaged eardrums and I felt the hot fiery blast of the back-blast blow by me on the left. I’d been about to crawl right into that killing blast when the Gunny had come along and saved me again.
The Gunny didn’t stay. I was alone on my stomach trying to recover my wits until Nguyen pulled me close to his side, his left arm wound around my right.
“Back,” he said, although I wasn’t quite certain I was hearing the word right.
I shuffled backward and down from the berm. I’d never gotten close enough to the Ontos to see it but my presence was obviously not needed. The Ontos was firing as had been planned. I had no idea how many rounds we had but whatever it was the limited supply would have to do.
With Nguyen’s help, I made it back into the cleft. Carruthers lay on the inner edge, looking out, impressing me again. He’d had the good sense to remain inside. I’d only gone out to make sure the Ontos did its job. There was no need for any command presence inside the torn jungle, where it was fast becoming night.
I moved downward back into the cleft, hoping my flashlight was where I’d left it. Trying to find the damn thing in the very bottom of the wedge that formed the pinched off end of the cleft might be difficult since the light was almost gone.
Fusner caught me by my left shoulder, as I tried to get by, just as the Gunny came sliding in along my other side.
“The 46 got hit,” Fusner said.
My breath jerked inward. The CH 46? The big loaded supply chopper? With it gone, that meant we’d taken terrible losses, including the supplies.
“Not by artillery,” the Gunny said, speaking into my right ear, so close I could feel his breath. “They lost the hydraulics to small arms, or whatever. They pulled out of the landing zone and pickled their load, but we didn’t get our Marines out. They said they’d be back in the morning to pick up the bodies and the rest of their crew. The skipper said they’d come in force, whatever the hell that means.”
I could breathe again. But one thing he’d said caught my full attention.
“Their crew?” I asked, “what crew?”
“They lost their hydraulics, sir,” Fusner started, but was interrupted by the Gunny.
“They couldn’t lift much at all, so they left the crew, except for the pilot and his XO.”
“How many?” I asked, wondering what the hell we were supposed to do with men who were only used to flying aircraft and fighting from the air. The ground was another war entirely. “And, what rank?”
All I needed was another captain who wasn’t a captain at all, like the one I had already. I looked behind me to make sure Carruthers was there, however, and felt better in seeing him waiting patiently to get down deeper into the cleft past our blocking bodies.
The Ontos fired again, its blasting hot air blowing directly into the opening to the cleft. Dust and jungle debris blew around the inside. Suddenly, I was hoping the little-armored vehicle wasn’t carrying as many rounds as I’d thought earlier. But it was firing, and the supplies were being rushed to our position without reported casualties.
The plan had succeeded, with some caveats that I hoped we could live with.
“Three Marines,” the Gunny replied when he could talk again. I knew from the way he said Marines that the men were enlisted, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I want to put them in the cleft to the north with me, but they won’t all fit,” the Gunny said. “Your scout team can guard the entrance off to the side of the Ontos back blast, which won’t go on all night, although the NVA are going to figure all this out and be pissed as hell, once again. These air-dales aren’t ready for what’s down here.
“You take the staff sergeant and I’ll take the other two,” the Gunny continued, not bothering to make the sentence into a question. I caught something in the tone or inflection of his voice when he spoke though.
“Why the Staff over here?” I asked, not certain why I was bothering to ask.
I couldn’t tell for certain, but I thought the Gunny was smiling slightly when he replied.
“The Staff Sergeant carries a Thompson,” he said, before crawling out of the hole, and then rolling to immediately away to avoid any backblast from the Ontos.