The monsoon day wore on, its rain relentless, the river mildly rising in the volume of water passing, and in sound, but nothing we weren’t used to enduring down in the bottom of our own private hell, known as the A Shau Valley. The new guys weren’t ready, of course, just as the FNG’s before them hadn’t been either. V.C., and his Romeo Oscar radio operator had died only hours earlier.
I wished that the wind would stop or at least die down. I wished that there was some contact with the Army special teams up on top of Hill 974, but there was nothing. They had not pulled the yellow ropes back up to the top of the cliff. The yellow ropes, cut by the RPG explosives a little more than halfway up, blew up and then dangled back down as they danced against the wet surface of the cliff face. I wasn’t concerned with the safety of the teams, as I’d already consigned them to death, I just couldn’t stand looking up at the blowing ropes or trying not to look up at them, peering out from under my poncho cover and looking up at them until I couldn’t do it anymore, which didn’t seem to help.
The NVA had fired the three RPG rounds to great effect and then disappeared under the clouds of debris I’d rained down upon and around them. Whether they were dead up on top of the opposing valley wall or had successfully run off, I knew I’d never know. In real combat, I’d learned, if there was any risk to it all, nobody went out to check and see what the body count was from the effect of our fire. If forced to file an after action report I simply lied about it. It was like learning about ‘confirmed’ kills a sniper might make. Who was going to go out there, a thousand meters or more into Indian Country, to confirm anything? The sniper took the shot and his sidekick confirmed it. End of story. Dismount and move on to set up for the next shot.
According to Fusner, listening in to the combat net traffic, our company was verbally ordered down valley three times before the Gunny couldn’t take it anymore. We hadn’t moved an inch.
“We’ve got to move back down the valley,” he said to me, kneeling like some sort of unwilling supplicant on the edge of my exposed poncho cover. His own poncho was being peppered with rain. The Gunny didn’t wear any kind of head cover, his jet-black hair, with a few gray sprigs, looking almost like a helmet of its own.
“How long do you think Kilo is going to last with those children as their leaders?” I asked, sidestepping the fact that we had not responded to the battalion orders.
“You were one of them three weeks ago,” the Gunny shot back, with a note of derision in his tone.
I stared into the man’s dark eyes, hooded under his thick, even darker, eyebrows. The man seemed oblivious to the water running down his face. Occasionally he’d wipe his eyes with the back of one of his brown hands or swipe his hair back, but that was it.
I wanted to comment on the fact that he’d said I was special, earlier, but thought better of it. In truth, I was frozen in grief and terror. The grief was not over the death of V.C and his radio operator. It was over myself. It was Alice’s letter and the premonition. I touched the outside of my helmet. The letter to her from V.C. that had so unsettled me was only micro-millimeters from my brain. I felt it was an omen, a premonition, and I was frozen in terror. In spite of the fact that I knew it was stupid, I felt like that if I didn’t move then nothing could get me.
None of any of that could be discussed with the real warrior in front of me. Without that man’s goodwill and help I’d have been long dead, and I knew I couldn’t possibly go on without him. Another thought had struck me, the only thought that gave me any impetus to obey battalion’s shitty orders at all. If the Gunny went with Kilo to help save them like he’d save me, then I would be alone and lost, and probably quickly dead.
I could see that the Gunny was just about reaching the point where he’d either say something really crummy to me or quite possibly hit me with some nearby object. I broke from my trance and moved.
“Head em up, move em out,” I said, quoting the character Rowdy Yates from the television show called Rawhide.
I stood up, for the first time in hours, my body feeling like it had been put through one of those manual washing machine ringers.
“Those guys cut the Kilo Marines out?” I asked the Gunny.
“Still a mess,” he replied. “Everyone wants to claim they’re part of Kilo, of course, since they know where the rest of us are going.”
I felt so relieved that my shoulders actually sagged. The Gunny was coming with me. He’d said the word ‘us,’ not ‘you.’
“The bad news is we’re going back down into the valley,” the Gunny said, stepping back to allow me to gather my things. “The good news is that we can’t go far because we’ve got the problem of those guys up on the hill.”
The Gunny was right and I was cheered a bit. I could place artillery rounds all around the base of the hill, except for the hillside directly facing south, and for that, we had the fearsome Ontos, no doubt filled to the hilt with 106 beehive rounds from the morning resupply dump. I immediately began to pray that the guys up on the hill would last for a while up there. The longer they lived, the longer we got to hang around in the better part of the south valley. Moving further down would take us back into that killing hell where the snaking Bong Song, the predatory animal life, and the NVA waited with panting breath and drooling lips, whispering ‘come my pretty’ through the weeping jungle bracken.
I strapped my pack on, but not before pulling a can of Ham and Mothers out and working the tiny P-38 can opener around the top edge. The cans were dark green with black writing, no doubt designed for maximum camouflage, but making it impossible to read the writing in anything but the brightest light. I squatted down and poured the unheated greasy mess down my throat, gulp after gulp, knowing I was somehow being reduced to a lower order creature on the animal scale. I also knew that I wasn’t thinking clearly. Not caring one whit about the lives of the Army troopers stuck up on top of Hill 974, but being badly hurt about losing V.C. on the cliff wall, didn’t make sense, and I knew it. How had I become so calloused in such a short time, and would I change into the old me again if I made it back to the world? I finished the meal, not wiping what was left from the lip of the can for fear of cutting myself on its rough edge. I wanted to walk over to the river and throw the can in to watch it float away, like when I was a kid, but I knew I couldn’t. I was the company commander. What I did might be copied and the company couldn’t afford to have hundreds of C-ration cans floating downriver to reveal how many of us were left and where we might be on the river. Not that there was much mystery to our position, as far as the enemy was concerned. I put the empty can back into my pack and prepared to move out.
I followed the Gunny, and my scout team followed me down what vaguely passed for a trail. I looked at the fairly beaten mud path, putting one wet boot after another, making sure not to look back and up at the swinging blowing ropes I knew were still hanging down from the top of the plateau. I would have to write my wife about Alice, but I knew I’d have to write in such a way that what really happened hadn’t happened at all. My wife was in San Francisco and Chance’s wife was in San Diego. Five hundred miles separated them. Even if they were next door it wouldn’t matter, I realized. What possible good could come if the two women met one another? My wife had our baby girl. Did Alice have anybody? I brushed the side of my helmet with the letter inside it like I was brushing aside a cobweb.
“You have to let them go, each and every one, like prying bad teeth out of your mouth,” the Gunny said, turning his head slightly so only I could hear him, as we walked.
I grimaced at the image. The captain didn’t fit into it. It was a terrible analogy, but I understood exactly what the Gunny was saying in his rather crude and brutal way. Prying the bad teeth out would end that never-ending pain and replace it with a duller throbbing thing that would eventually go away. But would it go away? I knew the Gunny was telling me, because he was so much older and more experienced, that it would. Was he saying it to make me feel better in the moment, or was he telling the truth about the way life would be if I made it? There was no way to know, other than the simple fact that the Gunny never seemed to say anything at all to make anyone feel better.
The Gunny stuck one hand behind him, holding out a dull metal object. I automatically reached for it.
I held the object up in front of me, as I walked. It was a climbing tool, although I’d never climbed or been around the serious technical equipment. Climbing during training had involved obstacles, rope nets and thick hawsers with knots, but no equipment.
“It’s called a carabiner,” the Gunny said. “Used for clipping on to ropes. Found it down at the bottom where they fell. You can use it as a key ring back home. Remember the ring and the climb and the fact that you did not die, and let him go.”
I slipped the strange oblong object into my right thigh pocket where I’d kept the morphine I was blessedly out of. I didn’t like the thought of replacing the captain’s memory with a ridiculous keyring object. I was already a walking museum of the dead. I carried Tex’s Colt, wore Keating’s watch and a previous company commander’s damaged helmet. My boots were from someone else, identity unknown, who’d died, courtesy of Macho man, and now I had Chance’s carabiner, for keys I didn’t have.
“They’ve got three Prick 25s up there. There’s no way they can be out of communication with us,” I mused to myself, knowing Fusner, close behind, was hearing every word I said.
“Dealing with recon is that way, sir,” Fusner said, keeping his voice as quiet as he could, given the sliding thunder of the nearby river and the irritating patter of rain impacting on our helmets. “They don’t communicate unless it’s deemed vitally important. They don’t want to be spotted or triangulated or have their transmissions translated.”
“Brilliant,” I said, not bothering to turn my head. “Like the enemy does not know where they are. Like they had at least a tiny chance of staying alive before. Now they get to die in silence.”
Fusner didn’t respond again, or if he did I didn’t hear him.
It took only half an hour to reach the fork where the tributary running down into the Bong Song slanted and curved around the promontory of the plateau that all of us referred to as Hill 974. The tributary had been waist deep, and although running strong enough in the days before it had still been fordable without equipment or assistance. The monsoons had changed that. The level of the water, as we hunched down and back from it to keep our exposure from the hillside rising up behind us to a minimum, had risen about two feet. Fast moving water traveling at armpit level was no longer fordable, as before. Whether the Ontos could enter the water and serve as a mid-point stepping stone to get everyone across was questionable, at best. We could not afford to lose the Ontos, or even have it out of commission once we got across the water. The only security available would be digging in just beyond the jungle line on the other side of the tributary. Even that would provide more camouflage than a true cover. There was no reason to believe the NVA weren’t set up in force further back inside that thick, nearly impenetrable, jungle and it was a given they were established in force inside the tunnel complexes they’d dug into the side of Hill 974. The drums continued to beat, as they had since the dramatic execution of Captain Chance earlier, somewhere up and just over the lip of the cliff face.
The Gunny, and his radio operator made his way through the light scruffy cover to my side. We peered down at the moving water together, the wind picked up and was now blowing the rain nearly sideways down the tributary and out over the Bong Song it joined nearly in front of us.
“There’s that,” the Gunny said, nodding out toward the moving water before lighting one of his cigarettes, the tinny snap of his lighter sounding familiar but out of place in our exposed position.
“We’ll be trapped between two forces again,” he said, matter-of-factly, “and how in hell are we supposed to get up that hill again to claim another crop of dead bodies, much less back down should we accomplish the mission?”
“Lightner and Kilo took off north, I presume,” I said, having no credible answer to the Gunny’s questions.
“Yeah, they headed north,” the Gunny replied, and then laughed a derisive laugh before inhaling again. “Those lieutenants sat the non-com platoon and squad leaders down and gave them an hour of the five-paragraph order. I stayed for five minutes. It was just too funny not to have missed.”
“A whole five paragraph order?” I asked, in surprise.
The ornate battle planning presentation, drilled by memory into every Marine Officer, detailed every bit of an attack operation. It was effective in training, especially when delivered to other officers who were acting like grunts. The reality of combat was way different.
“BAMCIs and SMEAC, and the whole Kit-in-Kaboodle,” the Gunny laughed, taking in and blowing out more smoke. “You should have been there. Never seen so many living Marines with unblinking round eyes and nothing at all behind them.”
“Who are they attacking?” I asked, not being able to quite take in what had occurred.
“Who the hell knows?” the Gunny said, not as a question. “They’re headed north, attacking a direction, the river, the crocodiles or maybe a water buffalo or two. The NVA are down here, comfortably living among us, and they don’t give a shit about those lucky bastards led by those young fools while they jabber on meaninglessly.”
I waited and watched the Gunny smoke his cigarette down without offering it to me. The Gunny was mad as hell. I knew he wasn’t mad because he’d stayed behind. He was mad because Kilo was going north and it had no chance of making it on its own. The smallest under-equipped NVA forces would take it apart piecemeal, probably in one night, unless there was a Gunny-type among the non-coms and unless those four matching second lieutenants were somehow taken out of the equation. The Gunny had stayed, I realized, not because he was loyal to me or the company. The Gunny had stayed because his chances were better with the racially divided, embittered and embattled elements of our company, and he had someone he could mostly control who called accurate artillery (most of the time) and could read a map.
“You have a plan for all this?” the Gunny asked, his tone indicating that he knew I didn’t.
“You won’t like it,” I answered, knowing my wispy idea of about the only thing we could do to survive had about as much chance of being implemented as it did of being successful if it was undertaken.
“I haven’t liked any of your plans,” the Gunny replied, his voice flat and seemingly filled with bitter truth.
“The company crosses the tributary using the Ontos,” I said, thinking fast. “The Ontos is set to fire up the slope with plenty of rounds to reload. The beehives at maximum range adjustment of the fuses can scour that whole hillside. Two or three Marines go up the chute we slid down. They move wearing cut down trousers, and nothing else, not even boots. We carry our boots around our necks for the trip back down and if we have to move up there to get the bodies. The chute doesn’t look like it but it can be climbed. Just under the ferns and tea leaves is thick tough mud, interlaced with sticks and debris. We dig in with bare feet and toes and climb, with any slip being, of course, a nearly instant sleigh ride to the bottom again. We reach the top of the hill, grab the Army idiots and toss them down the chute, dead or alive. You and the company grab them and us at the bottom, and then we make it across the tributary. After that, we get the hell back down to the airfield and get ready for the assault.”
“That’s it?” the Gunny asked a slight tone of awe in his tone, however.
“Jungle Junior and the Lost World. Where do you come up with this shit? What then, we still all end up back here in the same shitty old airfield. We make an assault on what after that insanity, if anybody’s alive, I mean.”
“The assault on the river,” I answered. “The old bridge is probably still there. The tanks gotta be there. We cross the river again and retake about the most secure area we’ve been in ever since we’ve been down here. We hold the area under the lip of that cliff. I use the 175s red bag, up and down the valley, plus Cowboy and his Skyraiders pack a lunch every day and orbit our small world. And we wait, taking every bit of heat the NVA can throw at us.”
“What about our orders?” The Gunny asked.
“We wait for new orders, I replied.
“They’re not going to put up with this make-our-own-rules bullshit much longer,” the Gunny forced out in frustration.
“What about the plan?” I countered.
“So, we’re going to do the usual and ignore battalion,” The Gunny said, unable to let the formality of our command situation go.
“Like this is becoming normal? That can’t go on, you know.”
“We get the Army guys off the hill, and maybe even save their lives,” I replied. “Then we hold up and survive. They’ll want us to go back down the valley at some point, and at some point, we have to decide on that. But we’ll be alive.”
“The Army gives its own orders to those guys,” the Gunny said, trying to poke holes in my plan, “and those recon types may not want to abandon their post no matter how much trouble they’re in…that they may not know they’re in…until they are dead, anyway.
“They stay up there and die, or they’re dead already, or they come down with us,” I replied. “Three doors. Pick one. The rest flows from there. We do the same thing no matter which door they pick. We make contact and get the fuck out of Dodge as quickly as we can.”
“You think they’re going to let you come down that sluice again?” the Gunny asked.
“Hell, they probably don’t know where we went or how we got down,” I replied. “That hill is a rabbit warren of holes and tunnels carpeted over with a jungle almost too thick to move around in.”
“We can’t get the Ontos across the river and we can’t leave it unprotected unless we spike it,” the Gunny said as if that was a deal breaker.
“Really?” I said. “How about if we use the Ontos to drag a bunch of trees and bamboo across the bridge and dump it between the far bank and the bridge. The Ontos drives across the dumped debris and there we are. The Ontos serves as our base of fire to protect resupply coming in on that open area between our protected positions at the base of the cliff and the river.”
“This whole thing is beginning to sound way too complex,” the Gunny said, scratching his head before pressing his hair and brushing the collected water from it. “We don’t have any clue about the deadly silent Army teams on top of the hill, we have no idea whether the Ontos can ford the river, and what’s the NVA supposed to be doing while we’re trying to pull all this off, not to mention that battalion is going to want us to return all the way down south to welcome another bunch of idiots they’re no doubt planning on sending in from An Hoa.”
I hadn’t missed the small part of his presentation wherein he’d used the word ‘you,’ instead of ‘we’ when it came to coming back down the sluice. The Gunny wasn’t going back up the hill with me. I had no choice in the matter if anyone was going at all. I was the only one who knew how to navigate up the twisty slippery mess of of layered debris, using the semi-solid mud just underneath to dig into with bare toes while staying so low anyone viewing the scene would think they were seeing thick brown snakes creeping up the mountain.
I didn’t need the Gunny for the hill. Fusner and Nguyen would do. Zippo was just too heavy and thick. There was no way he could sinuously imitate a sidewinder to get up the muddy mess of 974’s sluice.
I looked over to where Fusner sat, fiddling with his private radio, a very low version of Proud Mary coming from its ridiculously inadequate speaker. My wife’s name was Mary. The song had to be a good omen.
“What do you think?” the Gunny said toward Fusner, lighting yet another cigarette in the rain by cupping both hands over it, as he somehow used the Zippo to ignite the thing.
I couldn’t believe the Gunny was asking Fusner anything. The kid was way old beyond his teenage years, but generally, radio operators and low ranking enlisted were only ever asked about things that directly related to any specialty they might have.
The Gunny waited for the few seconds it took Fusner to turn his radio off, indicating just how important the kid felt it was to be asked his opinion about anything by the Gunny.
“I like that part,” he finally said, after taking a few moments to rub his chin and give the appearance of thinking very deeply.
“What part?” the Gunny asked, as perplexed as I was by Fusner’s answer.
“The Three Doors Plan part,” he said with a big smile, before going on, “Jungle Junior and the Lost Word is cool but too long.”
The Gunny made no reply, and neither did I because there really wasn’t one to make.
The drums beat on, and only at that moment did I realize I’d gotten used to them. The powerful deep jarring vibrations through the air and coming up from the ground didn’t bother me in my very center anymore. The drum beats had become like the leeches. They were just another part of my strange dangerous world. The grunting whiney sound of the Ontos moving slowly toward us from upriver, the tracks being carefully supervised so they wouldn’t bog down in riverbank mud, was also becoming part of my life. I didn’t’ have to turn to look at it. I knew where it was and how it was doing in the mud just by the sounds it made. I pulled my canteen out for a drink of hot water, and for a brief few seconds, the fetid liquid washing down my throat, I thought of home. I didn’t think of my wife or our baby, or even my used up, so precious, GTO. I thought about a coke. A cold coke in one of the hourglass-shaped bottles. No ice, the dark liquid just so cold it was almost ice.
I snapped my canteen back into its holder, hearing the second distinct snap at the same time as the cry of “incoming.” I heard the thudding ‘thupe’ of mortar rounds being launched against me for the first time. I’d been very briefly trained in our own sixty mm mortars and also the 81s Kilo had earlier, but for some reason, the sound of the cheap light munitions launching into the air was much more threatening and foreign when it was heard from a distance, and you knew the rounds were intended to kill you.
My body hit the Gunny’s side as I went face down into the mud. I bounced slightly back up and then a bit away from him. I hadn’t counted the launch sounds, as they had been very rapid and the rushing fear again was scattering my brain. Everything was silent except for the beating of the distant drums and the rushing waters of the Bong Song. I pushed my face into the mud, not caring about leeches or anything else. The mortar rounds were coming down and death would be dealt out mercilessly from above.
“They’re only eighty-two millimeters” the Gunny whispered almost jauntily from nearby. “Not the shitty 120s.”
I didn’t have time to evaluate just how that was such seemingly great news. The Ontos, before the explosions, began to rip across the unprotected course of our travel.