It was an impossible mission but there was no other way. Nobody in the company was going to make it up the backside of Hill 974 without getting blown to smithereens no matter how it was done. The first time they’d gone up the back side of the connection plateau had probably worked because NVA forces occupying the outside and inside of the tip of the plateau never dreamed there was a rapid, nearly impossible, way for anyone up there to get back to the bottom unscathed.
I could not take Zippo with me because he was simply too big, and Fusner wasn’t going to be able to move up through the muddy, slippery, dark and forbidding chute wearing a radio, and the other junk he needed to stay in communication. Therefore, he wasn’t necessary. There would be no communication. Nguyen and I would go alone and we could wear nearly nothing. When things were slippery then only slippery worked. Slippery with plunging fingers and digging toes. No boots. No Colt. No M-16. Not even a K-Bar. My biggest worry, after the gnawing fear of going up that chute in the dead of night, was making sure the Army reconnaissance teams located at the top, if they were still alive, would not shoot us on sight, or even without seeing. There had been no fire from or on the top of the hill since the RPG incident claiming Captain Chance’s life, however. It was likely that the force at the top was following radio silence, or only keeping their radios on in a receive mode.
“What about my getting hold of the Army and then the frequency,” Fusner had asked earlier before darkness began to fall. “I can let those guys up there know you’re coming.”
“How?” I’d responded. “In the clear? In some kind of screwy code revealing the chute and our climbing up it in the middle of the night looking like goblins from some bad movie? Radio isn’t going to work and neither is any other form of communication I can think of.”
Fusner had no further comment, but I knew my own answer disturbed him a lot.
We would have to take our chances, and possibly the biggest chance would be in trying to make contact in the middle of the night without getting killed by our own men.
I remembered the base of the chute wasn’t climbable. Nguyen and I prepped for the assault in one of the holes dug and left in our earlier time at the bottom edge of 974. The tributary of water was more swollen than it had been but the elevation of the holes just above it was plenty sufficient to keep the holes fairly dry. Maneuvering the Ontos into a position where it could face the slope sweeping up to the north while remaining close enough to back into the water and allow Marines to cross without rappelling or swimming over was critical. The rain kept its solid-seeming fall onto everything that wasn’t covered while that was going on. The noise of the rain, the mild wind that accompanied it, and the NVA’s own incessant drumming might well be all the cover from passing noise we might need in making the difficult climb.
I used the two different camouflage sticks the Gunny had handed me earlier. One was green and one was dark brown. I used them on my face, neck and then the tops of my hands and arms. Mud would have to do for the rest of my night disguise. Nguyen wore his ancient issue trousers and me my own, stopping short of cutting off the legs simply because I was unlikely to get another pair in short order from one of our most dependable, but strangely laden, resupply flights. Neither of us would wear boots, which was also a difficult decision because I wasn’t climbing up Tantalus Mountain in Hawaii with my old school friends. When we came back down the chute, if we came back down the chute, we would not need boots, as long as we impacted into the rather deep pool at its base.
But up on the mountain? And if circumstances demanded a different descent from the peak, then what? Coming down in bare feet didn’t seem to feel appealing, as I considered the complexity of the whole thing. But, I also knew there was really no consideration to go through. There was going to be no climb up through that messy flowing muck in boots. Nguyen and I were reduced to our primal states. Toes and fingers would dig in and allow slow constant advancement up the hill or they wouldn’t. There was no chance that flat-soled boots, or even if we had the new cleated jungle boots, would allow for the depth penetration it was going to take to dig and move upward, repeating the process all the way up.
“This is a stupid mission and an even dumber plan than the ones you’ve come up with before,” the Gunny hissed into my right ear. “They have Army back up, Army air and Army units up and down this forsaken valley.”
I picked up my web belt, wrapped into a ball around Tex’s .45 and handed it to him, followed by my damaged helmet. My insides weren’t quaking but I was filled with inner terror. My hands were shaking but it was thankfully growing too dark to see them. It was the curdling fear that ate at me. I knew the Gunny was right, but there was no alternative, except pulling what we’d pulled back in my first days of combat. We could violate our orders and say we went up the hill, and then sit at the bottom and wait it out. Even that, given the fact that we were almost totally surrounded, wasn’t viable. The Army guys were up there in silence and in deep trouble, they didn’t have a clue about. We could not do anything. Assaulting the hill with the full brunt of the company would cost us half of the company, or more, and that assault could not be done at night. Only the Ontos could provide any supporting fire on the surfaces of the slope, and it was limited in range for its mightily effective beehive rounds, not to mention it was the night. Chance’s death weighed heavily upon me, and my shoulders slumped slightly in the dark, as I stood there. The movement was almost imperceptible but not to Nguyen.
The slight, but whipcord tough Montagnard leaned into me, and then pushed something harshly into my mouth before I grasped what he was doing. I choked and would have spit the substance out except Nguyen had his left hand covering my mouth and his right behind my neck.
“Chew,” I thought he said, followed by some Vietnamese words I didn’t understand.
I chewed slowly, and then almost wretched, as some of the bitter liquid squeezed out from whatever solid Nguyen had shoved in my mouth, flowed down my throat.
“Don’t do that shit,” the Gunny said.
I wasn’t sure whether he was talking to Nguyen or me. My hands grabbed Nguyen’s but he held on for dear life, his reflecting, but otherwise invisible, eyes eating into my own, only inches away from his face.
“Chew,” he commanded.
“That’s Betel Nut,” the Gunny said, with a sigh, letting me know that he was talking to me, and not the seemingly crazy Montagnard. “That’s what the villagers chew. Turns their teeth purple before they all fall out. Crazy shit.”
Nguyen released my mouth and neck and backed away. He pointed downward. I understood immediately that he meant for me to spit whatever it was out on the ground. I did so, only then realizing that I could spit. Only minutes earlier my mouth had been so dry with fear that spitting would have been impossible. I spit several times, saliva flowing like mad. All of a sudden my body was infused with an energy I hadn’t felt since landing in Vietnam. I breathed deeply in and out, the night seemed to come alive around me. And then it hit me. I was afraid of what we were about to do. However, I didn’t have that core of terror running up and down my center anymore. It was just gone. And I had energy. I wanted to move, no matter where that movement took me. I had to move.
The Gunny, Zippo, Fusner, Nguyen and I made our way back where water fell down from the falls that indicated the bottom of the chute sticking out above us. There was plenty of thick plant growth along both sides of the sluice coming down. I chose the eastern side to begin working up through simply because it was closer. I said nothing to anyone because there was nothing to say and also because I was suddenly consumed to get to the top of the hill. Without boots the early going was hard. I had to make sure nothing penetrated the skin on the bottoms of my feet. I’d been in wet boots for a long time, and I lacked the thick calloused pads I’d enjoyed from running around the Hawaiian Islands barefoot.
The climb wasn’t so much of a climb as it was a sinuously winding upward digging crawl, back and forth, from one side of the denser jungle growth to the other. We had to take the rather narrow chute as an off-road vehicle would switchback up a slope, to lessen the degree directly in front of it. The movement wasn’t nearly as laborious as it was slow. The constant rain provided plenty of noise for cover, beating down on the upper parts of the foliage like tiny feathering beats on a million snare drums. Nguyen was there but it was too black to see him, and my own movement dampened almost any chance for external sounds penetrating. Could the NVA be so well positioned and alert enough that it could observe our entry onto the surface of the chute, just above the drop-off, I wondered? If fired upon, and not immediately hit, there would be no defensive return fire from Nguyen or I. There would only be one course of action if we were attacked on the way up, and that course was very obvious. Back down the chute would be the only choice we had with any chance for life in it, only this time the transit would be with the likelihood that grenades would accompany our wild ride down.
I knew I was going to be covered with leeches all over, but I didn’t care. In fact, I noted almost absently, as I carefully climbed until I could move over onto the surface of the chute itself, I didn’t care about much of anything except not writing home enough. Was I losing my distant touch with the only thing in the world that mattered? Had I written earlier and was that letter in my pocket as I climbed? I didn’t know. I hadn’t even checked. Once I’d chewed the Betel Nut everything had changed. I dug into the mud just to the side of me and made my entry out onto the very surface of the chute. And then I smiled with what I knew was one of the few genuine smiles I’d generated in all of my time in combat. I was suddenly in a bit of home.
My feet sank down inches into the muck and my toes curled to gain traction, while my fingers reached out forward and just above me. I moved upward in a catlike spider sort of animal wending motion. My feet and hands took over, as I traversed back and forth across and up into the chute, the limits of the foliage on either side of the thick leaves and mud and my movement ever upward were my only directors. I cared if Nguyen was behind me, but I didn’t care at the same time. The climb was a personal thing. I was climbing for Chance. I was performing a climb with a bit more sense than his own actions had demonstrated and I was climbing up to get his men. The three yellow rope ends played back and forth in front of me, not real, but then nothing except the mud, leaves, and rain were real. The distant drums, still barely audible, were sounds made, as if by some distant Hollywood special effects outfit. They beat to spur me on. They beat to assure that my own heartbeat was still beating with them.
I’d decided to keep my watch. I knew that the mud covering me might not be effective at blocking every glint of light that might glint from the watches more reflective surfaces, but I felt it was a vital tool Nguyen and I could not do without. We were on a night climb and dawn was our worst enemy. I made twenty sinuous slithering moves, and then looked at the face of the instrument. The tiny luminous hands, gleaming gently through the crud on its face, told me that the moves had taken about five minutes. The hill was, based on that guess, a five-hour climb, and that’s if we didn’t tire from the continuous energy-consuming effort of having to move every second of every minute while in the chute.
I finally stopped, my breathing coming slow but deep and hard. The work was suddenly almost too much. I didn’t look at my watch because I didn’t want to see what it showed. The top would be the top and we’d know it when we got there. There was nothing else. Nguyen pulled his way up to my side. I didn’t turn my head to look directly at him, although I knew the glistening rain made him partially visible right next to me.
This time he didn’t force the Betel Nut into my mouth. He held the drug to my lips and I immediately grasped it in and bit down. The bitter juice flowed once more. I didn’t spit. I chewed and chewed until the energy came back. And it did. Whatever was in the nut had a magical power that I knew had to be illegal and addictive back home. Not only might I become an addict but my teeth might turn purple and all fallout, according to the Gunny. Finally, I spit the remnants of the nut husk down into the mud only inches from my face. I wondered if Nguyen was chewing the Betel too but I wasn’t interested enough to attempt to find out. I went back at the mud with my talons extended and biting in. There was no smile this time, even though the idiocy of worrying about my living long enough to become a drug addict deserved one.
The top end of the chute didn’t end with any drama. The mud just seemed to dry up and my fingers and toes dug into bits of bracken but then bit into the hard ground. I uneasily and weakly got up on my hands and knees. Nguyen pulled me back down. I had to think clearly, I realized. We were a long way from being in any safe position. The most dangerous part of the plan was upon us. How to make contact with a very deadly, but horribly inexperienced, unit of special forces troops on guard against attack in the middle of the night. In a jungle. In a jungle filled with beating drums, blowing triple canopy tree growth and densely falling rain.
Nguyen and I both began to inch forward together, threading our way through a loosely held bamboo thicket. There was nothing on the other side, but there was almost no visibility to see anyone, friend or enemy if there was anybody there. I wanted to whisper out and identify ourselves as Marines, but I knew that was beyond foolish. The one known element of our mission up the hill was that the mountain was run through with tunnels and alive NVA troops filling those tunnels.
We lay still, trying to catch the slightest of sounds or recognize anything familiar, only inches ahead of us in the night. But there was nothing. I rubbed my hands up and down my arms, leeches falling away immediately as I did so. I marveled. Was it the Betel Nut coming out of my skin, I wondered. Leeches never just fell away. Leeches bit instantly and hung on. It was what they did to survive. But there was no time to consider. Nguyen punched me on the right shoulder, before sliding one of his hands to take mine. He pulled me toward him, and then placed my hand on something soft, with wet clothing on top of it. My mind recoiled slightly but my hand did not. I was touching part of a human body. We had to know more. I moved closer and began exploring upward until I got to the body’s upper chest. I felt the “T” shirt under the blouse just under its neck. The body was one of our own. The NVA didn’t wear undershirts, and neither did seasoned American combat troops. Undergarments simply didn’t work out in the field, not in the jungle, anyway. I rolled the body slightly. The man was wearing a Prick 25 radio. There were no lights to indicate it was functional, or on. I didn’t have Fusner to operate the thing for me and, even if I had, there was no way I was going to say anything out into the deadly night we were in.
Nguyen and I moved forward coming upon more bodies. Whether all of the army unit that had been flown in were dead at the top of Hill 974 was unknown, but it was obvious to me that all the Americans who’d landed had been taken care of, just like the even larger force before. I caught hold of Nguyen’s arm and squeezed. I motioned my head back toward the entrance to the chute. We had only one chance to get down. My watch said it was three in the morning. There was nothing to be accomplished by remaining on the summit. Chance’s men had followed him into Valhalla, or wherever death had taken them. There was nothing we could do except try not to go and join them. Without light and some understanding of what had happened, it was impossible under the conditions to tell what had killed them.
Slowly we both turned and began a slow crawl back the way we’d come, or as close as we could tell in the night. We moved slower than when we’d come in. It was more important than ever not to be detected. We were in enemy territory and that had been fatally proven over and over again. I felt immense relief when I crawled through the loose bamboo thicket. I knew it had to be the same one. Most bamboo clumps or thickets were too dense to move through at all.
I stopped, and Nguyen instantly stopped with me. We lay flat and unmoving together. Something had been added to the elements that had subtly changed the area we’d come through earlier. I couldn’t make out what it was at first. I pulled Nguyen’s bare arm closer until his body was only inches from my own. When I could faintly see his facial features, I sniffed my nose repeated, as quietly and quickly as I could. Nguyen’s body stiffened. He smelled it too. The smell of cigarette smoke. American cigarette smoke. The Army guys were dead. The NVA had gone through their things and found America cigarettes and not been disciplined enough to avoid using them.
We both lay watching and listening. There were no telltale red dots of burning ash. There were only the tendrils of smoke drifting by, invisible except to our noses. The NVA were not only there and up, they were all around and among us. I couldn’t believe we’d crawled through the Army unit and back without being discovered.
It was also obvious that the NVA knew about the chute and were stationed at its head. But what were they waiting for? To think that they might have thought that two men of the opposing force would crawl up the chute in the middle of the night was beyond comprehension. If that was the case, then where had they been when we exited the top earlier? I couldn’t figure it out, but I knew it also didn’t matter. If the NVA knew we were there among them, then they’d be doing a lot more than smoking, I realized. Once again there really weren’t any options. We had to get into the chute and down. The distance to the softer mud was possibly no more than fifteen yards I thought, but what if I was wrong? I tried to clear my head of the Betel Nut drug and think clearly. It finally came to me. It didn’t matter. Nguyen and I had to exit the bamboo thicket, get up and then run forward for all we were worth. The chute would take care of everything else. There was no need to dive into it or onto its surface. Once in the slippery grasp of the dead fern fronds, old fallen leaves, mud and water that would be it. We were unarmed, so there was no need to protect our armament or postion
I looked over at Nguyen, wondering what he was thinking, hoping he was thinking what I was thinking. I nodded once and then looked in the direction we came from when we’d climbed the chute. I held up three fingers in front of his eyes. He looked at them and then back at me. I made a fist, looked toward where I hoped the top of the chute was, and then back. I rose up slowly to a crouch. Nguyen rose with me. I held up one finger and nodded, and then my second. On the third extension, I turned and ran like hell away from the bamboo thicket.
The shooting was instant but seemingly all over the place. I saw flashes as I ran, but I wasn’t on my feet very long before the chute claimed me. I was down, face first, and plunging back into the terror of night, but not with deeper terror inside me. I was leaving a lot of that behind, as my speed picked up and I began hitting the curves and bumps along the way.
Instead of shooting into the very blackest of the night and trying to traverse properly to get hits at targets impossible to see, I would have presumed that the NVA would have used explosives of one kind or another to hit us. Although the thick leaves and mud of the chute would absorb most of the concussion and fragmentation from grenades, some of the effects might have been telling or even terminal. Sending their own men down the nightmare of some Disneyland ride invented by a sick horror movie character made no sense, but the NVA rode with us, and they’d obviously, from their sounds, never done it before. I felt Nguyen jolting and slamming around just ahead of me in the chute. The noises, grunts, groans and near screams of the slipping and falling NVA troops behind didn’t cause me as much fear as consternation. What were they doing? They were no longer shooting and there were no explosions or flashes of fire. What could be their plan in coming down the chute after us? Only the Gunny and our company of Marines waited at the bottom of the chute, and they would be there crouching down, prepared to receive us, as we cascaded from atop the fifteen-foot cliff and down into the pool the chute ended over.
The ride down was longer than I remembered but I knew that might be tempered by the effects of the Betel Nut or the fact that I had no idea just how big the force was plummeting down the chute behind us, or if the Gunny would be able to deal with them when they flew through the air and landed in his lap.