I had the place and the time but I could not sleep. The NVA had brought its .50 caliber equivalent heavy machine gun up on line. The gun laced our position up and down every twenty minutes or so. I couldn’t figure it out, laying curled up in my cleft. What was their point? Keep us pinned down until the morning, and then what? They didn’t have supporting fires capable of reaching our position, and they didn’t have any air support at all. Why get to the morning? I had instructed the Gunny earlier to stop firing back at them. It was a waste of ammunition and it gave their leadership power in being able to conclude that they were actually getting a response. The Ontos, with one of its high explosive rounds, could have reached out and taken the .50 down, except for the fact that the gun fired, and was then quickly moved to a different location. The night was remaining active and I couldn’t sleep through it.
They were going to attack before dawn, I knew. How much before dawn is what caused me to be unable to sleep. The Gunny was right. The NVA was an angry force now, after being bloodied so many times, and they were still very powerful in position and troop strength. That they had no clue as to what and why we were still sitting in front of them, a great immobile target, was apparent, but meant little or nothing. They were where they were and we were where we were and that was it.
The Gunny came into the cleft with Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, as I had requested earlier. The fact that the night was half gone, that Carruthers had taken his two platoons down valley to form an effective firebase, was beside the point. The firebase the NVA had set up across the river remained strangely silent. And why was their .50 caliber set into the main portion of the jungle opposite the Marine positions?
“This is a strange night,” Sugar Daddy said, stripping off his wet poncho cover.
The other two men did the same, and I realized my dry sand bottom cleft wasn’t going to stay dry for much longer.
Nobody said anything in response to Sugar Daddy’s comment, although it had shown that he, and probably the rest of the Marines up and down the cliff base, didn’t know what to think either, and that could be very dangerous in a defensive position like the one we’d backed ourselves into.
The Gunny ignited a small chunk of Composition B. The cold white light from it radiated around inside the cleft. I looked at the faces of the men inside with me. Sugar Daddy looked tired, Jurgens looked pissed off about something, and the Gunny was impassive, his facial features impossible to read. Fusner, just above and behind the Gunny, stared over his right shoulder at me, his eyes seeming big and round in the wavering strange light reflections. Nguyen was out protecting Macho Man if such a thing was possible. I hadn’t sent Kilo’s Marines, along with the captain, to form the firebase, in order to send them on a suicide mission. There were plenty of very protected clefts along the base of the cliff where they had taken up position, and they could fairly easily move back to the main element of Marines up valley, even under fire. That he was so terribly inexperienced bothered me. He had his own NCOs however, and I wasn’t about to send Sugar Daddy or Jurgens to be his advisor. My trust in Carruther’s experience was near zero, but my confidence that Sugar Daddy or Jurgens would take the captain out if they thought it would improve their own survival potential was nearly at one hundred percent. I thought about the two sergeants, and that I had gone for days and nights not thinking about seriously killing one or the other of them, and that thought surprised me.
The Gunny lit up a cigarette, as he heated his canteen holder of water over the small brilliant fire. I laid on my side, facing the men, my helmet propped up under my ribs instead of letting my elbow and shoulder bear most of the weight of my elevated torso. I kept the sharp chunk of artillery metal still embedded into the steel cover out from me, wondering if, like my Uncle Jim from years ago in the attic, I’d be showing it one day to my nephews like he had shown his war souvenirs to me. I almost smiled at the sudden knowledge that my nephews wouldn’t believe any of my war stories any more than I had believed Uncle Jim’s. I thought about the company’s predicament. Whatever was happening in the night just outside had gone from being under some kind of reactionary control, using my plan, to something that was a complete unknown. Suddenly, the enemy’s Planet Mongo Plan seemed to be overcoming my Planet Mars Defense.
“What are they doing?” the Gunny asked, exhaling a long heavy stream of smoke.
The smoke ran down to the very bottom edge of the cleft and formed a small cloud all of its own and floated there. It seemed unnatural, as I considered the Gunny’s question. The question had been directed at me, even though the Gunny hadn’t looked in my direction. Unconventional. The smoke was acting unconventionally. My own unconventional moves and reactions to the NVA forces opposing us had been the same way. And then it came to me. The NVA leaders were learning. From us. From me.
“Their firebase has never fired a round,” I whispered more to myself than to the Marines assembled around me. “The .50 caliber is facing the open area like it’s there to support some kind of attack from dug in troops in caves, tunnels, and holes.”
I stopped for a few seconds, before going on. “How did the NVA firebase get across the river. They can’t do that any more easily than we can. And since they did, why didn’t they cross a whole lot more troops than a single firebase would require?”
“And then?” the Gunny asked as if he already had guessed the answer.
“And then, to cross them back,” I breathed out. “The .50 isn’t there to cover an attack coming at us from across the open mud flat, even if coming up out of holes and tunnels might make it appear that way. “The .50 is set there to pin us down as best it can and draw our attention to it, and having us expend time and ammo taking it out.”
“They re-cross the river further up, and then come attacking down through the jungle along the very edge of the cliff we are occupying,” the Gunny went on.
“The Ontos is pointed in the wrong direction and becomes useless,” I said. “Their firebase opens up on us if we attempt to escape down south along the cliff, like Carruthers and Kilo, or attack back across the mud flat as we did before. They take us on the flank. They’re deliberately leaving Carruthers and his Marines be.”
“They are getting all set to attack right now?” Jurgens asked.
“No kidding, I have to get with my platoon,” Sugar Daddy replied, starting to rise to his knees in order to crawl out of the cleft.
“Stand fast,” the Gunny ordered, his voice going low and filled with solid timber.
“What’s the plan?” he asked, turning his head to face me for the first time.
“The Planet Mars attack,” I replied, almost instantly, my mind racing at near light speed. “There’s no place to cross that river except the one place, and we made that crossing possible. We know it. It’s our ground. The Clay People attacked out of their caves eventually and Queen Azura was vanquished. Get everyone ready. We’re moving out. Call in Carruthers. The Ontos will have to follow us up the path here between us and the berm along the cliff. His two platoons have to provide rear protection. Once we’re on the move, the NVA will figure it out but hopefully be committed to crossing that horrid killing river while their jungle emplacements will be to set in to allow them to quickly vacate and come after us.”
There was a complete silence inside the cleft for several seconds. I wanted to ask the single word question: “well?” but remained silent, waiting.
“Who are the Clay People?” Sugar Daddy asked, finally.
The Gunny laughed out loud, only the second time since I’d known him that I heard the brief barking sound.
“We are,” he said, after a few seconds.
“Jurgens, you have the southern platoon. Move out as fast as you can. They’ll be thinking of coming at us not us coming at them. Move light, fast and hard, leaving your packs and gear back in the clefts. Open up a base of fire on the river area where the tank remains, as well as the bridge, as soon as you get to the upper edge of the jungle. There is no other place for them to cross. It’s dark and raining like hell.”
“I think we got this one covered, Junior,” Jurgens shot back, grabbing his poncho and crawling quickly up toward the cleft opening. “That’s Indian country and we know it well,” he whispered over his shoulder. “We’ll use the Clay People attack plan.”
In seconds the cleft was almost empty.
The Gunny extinguished his fire, never having heated his water enough to make coffee. The light fell off, with only the weak yellow glow of Jurgens flashlight dully shining against the wall behind me.
“You know,” he said, slowly turning to leave, leaving his unfinished cigarette still glowing from the side of his mouth. “If you get this wrong, then Carruthers and his men will be attacked from the rear and left flank by overwhelming force. The Ontos will be moving and pointing in the wrong direction with no ability to help them.”
I didn’t miss the fact that the Gunny, who’d helped me figure out the likely logic of what the enemy had to be doing, was assigning the entire responsibility for the plan’s result to me but using the words ‘if you get this wrong’. I was relieved that he’d waited for the others to leave before he’d made the directed comment, however. The Gunny said nothing more before leaving.
“Fusner,” I said, deciding to pull all the .45 ammo I had from my pack, while I talked.
“Find Macho Man and get the scout team together. I want him right next to me and Nguyen even closer. We’re moving out now, headed north. I need to talk to Carruthers on the combat net and let him know what we’re doing.”
“He already knows,” Fusner replied, “Captain Carruthers, I mean. Everyone knows, even battalion.”
Once again, I was stunned at how fast news could travel through Marine units under the most trying of conditions. I pulled my extra box of Colt ammo from my pack.
The cardboard box was falling apart but it would do. It said ‘Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation’ on its gray cardboard surface, barely readable, but it might do to help Macho Man stay in ammunition. He hadn’t been but a few hours on the ground in the A Shau Valley and he was about to go into direct enemy contact.
I put my poncho on, made sure my own .45 was solidly where it was supposed to be, adjusted my damaged helmet, and came up from my knees to stand in the dense falling rain just outside the cleft. Water glittered everywhere from puddles and jungle debris. I wondered where the light came from to make it visible. I’d remembered to turn the flashlight off. I had my letter home, half-finished as it was, in one thigh pocket and my supply of morphine in the other. I didn’t need any maps. The entire area was burned into my brain, from geographic features and distances to the grid coordinates of every registration point I might want to adjust fire from. The 175 mm support was all that we could get and I knew I was going to be very reticent to call that in again unless our attack went badly, or I was wrong about the whole thing. And I would never call the big guns into the area again without both companies being buried deep inside the clefts. I wondered if I was wrong about the plan. Maybe the 175 zone fire effects and terror had been too much for those NVA soldiers exposed near or on the surface. Maybe the enemy was hunkered down and simply glad to be alive and waiting for us to move on. But, I knew I couldn’t take the chance. I did not want to die, and have my Marines die, shot to death like rats in caves while we holed up inside the clefts.
The company was moving fast, all of it. I was not so surprised as much as I was pleased. The Ontos was running and working to churn its way along. I knew Carruthers was probably very close behind, coming up from the south, having abandoned his firebase. He had taken my orders more than once without comment, and I thought about the likelihood of that continuing until I considered our real mission. Staying alive until the next dawn.
Macho Man blended in out of the jungle to join me, as I began walking fast up the path, hoping that the space between the cliff and the heavy jungle was enough to allow the Ontos to drive its way through, as the area down further south had allowed for earlier.
“Sergeant Waldo,” Macho Man said as if reporting into a training command.
I pushed the box of Olin Mathieson at him but kept walking fast.
“Good stuff, sir,” Waldo said, taking the box and putting it away somewhere up under his poncho. I noted that he carried his pack up under the poncho, as well.
“You were supposed to leave the pack back in the cleft,” I said, over to him. “We’re moving fast and hard and you’ll have to maneuver when we get there.”
“I’m your scout leader,” Macho Man replied. “You’re going to need some stuff once we get there, I think.”
The Thompson dropped out from under his soaking poncho cover, as we walked, swinging in his hands. I wondered how it would do in the rain and mud. I liked the gleaming little reflections that came off its highly machined surfaces. I was glad I’d given him my extra ammunition as if I needed more than the few bullets I carried in my own Colt. It was probably not going to matter, one way or the other.
The move through the wet night was somehow more invigorating than laying inside a dry sand-bottomed cleft. The cleft offered safety, but at the price of near total blindness to what might be coming at any time. And the jungle air inside the folded under mountain caves was hot, fetid and filled with insect life and floating sediment. The rain was cooler and seemingly cleansing. The poncho covers shed the rain almost completely, but the blowing moving rainproof material could not cover everything. Lower trousers, boots, face, hands and so much else became sopping wet over time, and the move consumed some time, although a whole lot less on my watch then it seemed to.
There was no signal when it came time to stop, or rather the signal was open gunfire ahead. Heavy small arms fire and small explosions filled the air around us, although nothing was close enough to allow flares of muzzle blasts or the actual fire from explosives going off to be seen. I knew the good news is that there had been no fire from our rear.
There was no full-frontal attack that had been sprung on our rear when the NVA had realized we’d up and left. That spoke more about the fact that the NVA was committed to having its main body of troops heading to make the upriver crossing rather than having it sit in the jungle or buried in the mud flats waiting to pounce. If my plan had not been right then there would be nobody at the river for Jurgens men to have opened up on, and that fire was heavy.
The Gunny and Sugar Daddy were suddenly there beside us, down on the packed jungle floor, while Marines in slithering noisy poncho covers flowed by on both sides.
“Looks like you were right,” the Gunny said. “Everyone’s got to get in and down to the edge of the jungle that approaches the river below the tank. I don’t know how fast the NVA are coming but they’re probably in such numbers that we don’t want to face them in the open.”
I heard the sound of the Ontos grinding away, coming up behind us.
“I don’t want them to face the NVA at all,” I said. “The Ontos can face them. The NVA won’t have time to bring the .50 all the way through the jungle and get it to the other side. Under direct fire, the .50 is no match for the 106 rounds, explosive or otherwise.”
“Alright, I’m going down with Jurgens to occupy the riverside,” the Gunny said.
“Okay,” I replied, “I’ll head back a little and wait for the Ontos and Carruthers.
“Let’s move out,” the Gunny said, jumping to his feet and running forward. Suddenly everyone was moving except me. In seconds I was alone, except for Fusner.
“What the hell?” I asked. Where’s our scout team?”
“Looks like they went with the Gunny, maybe to scout, sir?”
“To the front line in direct contact?” I said, not stating the sentence as a question. “Get the Gunny’s radio operator on the net and get them back here.”
I moved slowly back toward the approaching Ontos, with Fusner at my side talking on the radio handset.
“Well?” I yelled at Fusner when he lowered the microphone.
“He’s not with the Gunny, just yet, sir,” Fusner said, speaking more loudly, as the sound of the approaching armored vehicle began to drown out all other sounds.
“What are you talking about, he’s always supposed to be with his principal,” I said, anger beginning to force its way into my tone.
Carruthers appeared out of the rain, his own radio operator close by, with several of his Marines surrounding the slow-moving Ontos.
“It would appear that your plan is working really well, Junior,” the bigger man said, leaning forward, his poncho cascading and throwing great rivulets of water my way. “The Clay People Attack. Now that’s something. Who are the Clay People?”
“Let’s get this thing into position,” I said, taking him by one arm and directing him back to the machine. “We can’t just fire across the mud flat here because we can’t see where anyone is.”
Just then two huge fusillades of fire opened up, one from across the river and further north, and then the response from closer on our side and lower down. I realized that we didn’t have to see very well, the AK 47 pops were as distinct in their way as the sharp barking of the M-16s and then the deeper timbre of the 7.62 machine guns.