My body remembered each and every turn and drop, as I literally fell toward the fast-approaching bottom of Hill 975. I let the mashed mess of fern fronds, dead leaves, twigs and mud mix possess me like I was a well-massaged larva just popped out and plunging toward the earth from the cocoon of some giant insect.
I’d lost track of the sounds from higher up, or whoever was coming down the slide after I had finally figured out that yelling in the middle of the A Shau night was an open invitation to instant death or they had become used to the frightening high-speed sleigh ride without a sleigh.
I knew the ride was over when the bottom of my stomach dropped out. I was in mid-air, just like before. The wait to be caught by my fellow Marines was longer than I knew it should be, and then I hit. There were no loving arms to catch me or any other kind. I impacted the surface of the water hard and then plunged butt first into the mud just beneath, my panicked lungs bursting out the last of my breath. The water was only waist deep, however, but instead of standing up to get clear I slithered along on the surface using my arms and a frog kick to reach the edge of the pool. I laid under what cover I could that was hanging over the edge of the water, the scene not a scene at all because I was in a stygian dark night under cloud cover with heavy rain. Where were the Gunny and the rest of the company, I wondered, before hearing what sounded like a bunch of logs coming down a timber sluice up above the other side of the pool. Nguyen touched my back with one hand and then pushed me outward and down until I was once again fully immersed under the surface of the water. In spite of the fact that I knew I was in the same mud hole, I’d landed in before, being under the water quieted my heart thumping fear of whatever might come next.
I heard the gunfire from beneath the water. It didn’t sound like close in combat gunfire because of the near totally deadening effect of the water. I stayed down; the thump, thump, thumpity thump of fully automatic gunfire impacting inside me more than beating against my eardrums. I surfaced to breathe. The muzzle flashes all around me as harsh as the ear-splitting sounds, immediately taking away any night adjusted vision I’d had. I sank willingly back down, hoping to wait out whatever was going on above. Bodies had followed me down the chute. I believed them to be NVA soldiers in pursuit, and not understanding what they were involved with until it was too late and they were in the chute. My mind swirled with fearful probabilities. What if some, or all of the men who’d somehow gotten into the slide, were Army? There had been no way for Nguyen and me to find, much less count, all the bodies of the Army unit members in the dark up at the top of the hill. Had some of the Army guys survived, and then attempted to follow us down to safety? That the company was obviously firing, or returning fire from whoever had come down the mountainside, was ominous to the point of possibly being terrible, but there was nothing in my current situation to be done about it. I was unarmed and defenseless. I had to wait for the firefight to cease, or very likely die in the crossfire or because of mistaken friendly fire.
Nguyen pulled me up again. The firing had quieted down to a few very short bursts from the M-16s. There was no AK-47 fire that I could discern, although my ears were filled with water and I was night blind. We moved away from the drop off where the chute exited out over the water.
We surged more than swam or walked. The water was much deeper than I’d remembered it from the first time down but the monsoon rain had been pretty continuous.
Nguyen half-dragged pulled and carried me along through the mud until I ended up face down where Fusner and Zippo waited. With shaking hands, and their help, I got back into my gear, the .45 being the only piece of equipment that pushed back the fear at all. What had happened and how far from whatever it was could I get in how short a time and still remain company commander or whatever the hell I really was? There was no running away in combat. I’d somehow gotten away with that on my first night but, in the real world of open combat, it was a quick road to death by fire from either side. There was only survival in sticking together although sticking together was nothing at all like it had been in training or in the presentation by other veterans who I now knew had been to a combat area but very likely not participated themselves. Every vet seemed to have an opinion, and most of those opinions were about being tough and aggressive when in real combat. I wondered if I survived, whether I would ever be able to listen to war stories like I’d heard before coming to Vietnam, about how that macho crap worked. None of us in real combat were tough. We were all afraid, wet, thirsty, hungry and eaten by insects. We spent most of our hours trying or hoping not to be in actual open combat. Real combat was all nearly the opposite of what I’d thought it to be.
The Gunny followed closely by Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and their three radio operators, slid bent over into our little-cleared area of jungle. The pond, or chute exit, was only meters away, but once inside the outer edge of the jungle bracken it seemed almost over in another world. Sporadic single shots came from where I’d landed but that was almost like total silence compared to the intensity of firefight I’d been trying to survive under only minutes earlier.
“Who in hell came down that chute after you?” the Gunny hissed out, his tone making it evident that I had to have something to do with whatever had happened.
I was stunned. I knew nothing. I’d gone up the mountain under the most difficult of circumstance, performed the grisly reconnaissance, and then exited down the same way I’d gone up. There had been no contact with the enemy and my contact with the Army had only involved feeling around a few dead bodies to unsuccessfully determine how they’d come to be dead.
Still in shock, and trying to let the old snake of fear recoil back to its less painful part of my belly, I took a few seconds to think about the question the Gunny had asked. Obviously, he was speaking for Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, as well. If he was asking who had come down the chute then none of them knew. The company had fired away and whoever was found in the water come daylight would be counted and identified. Nobody was going into the roiling wet pit of death to count anyone or anything in the night.
I hadn’t reported to anyone. Only I and Nguyen knew for certain that either all or most of the Army recon contingent was dead. The company had opened up when it heard the screaming and yelling of the men following Nguyen and me down the chute. That was combat typical. Shoot and identify later. The Gunny was beside himself with concern that the men who’d come down had indeed been the Army team, and if that was true then there would be hell to pay. It was one thing to lose or kill your own. Between the Services, there would be a whole lot more trouble over friendly fire directed from a Marine unit toward an Army one, especially if there were no survivors.
The correct analytical answer to the Gunny’s question was “I don’t know,” but there was no way I was running with that.
“They were NVA,” I lied.
“That solves that mystery,” the Gunny said, relief in every bit of his tone.
“We’ve got to move, and move in the night before they get organized up there and figure out what the hell happened to their men,” I said quickly. to change the subject
“We’re going down into a set-in force with another force in pursuit to join up with them. The Army’s probably going to come boiling down this valley ready to kill anything that moves in very short order, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if battalion doesn’t send another company of Marines up from the south at the same time. But that’s not going to save us in time. We need to hole up and wait, using air and the 175s to beat the NVA back in the day and the Starlight Scope and Ontos to fight them at night.”
“The Army’s going to come ‘boiling down the valley?’ Jurgens murmured.
I realized my mistake in not mentioning that the recon team members on top of 975 were all dead. Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t, and the last thing I wanted to do was wait around until first light and find some U.S. Army soldiers among the dead in the pool at the bottom of the chute. There was no requirement that we wait for an NVA body count. That could be hypothecated. I was convinced that the Army unit had been wiped out, just as had the one before. Remaining in the area when the sun came up, even with Cowboy and the artillery for daylight support would cost a lot of Marines lives for little or no return, and probably my own. It had been one thing to go up and try to make sure but I wasn’t going to stay around in such a likely kill zone if I could help it.
“There was no way to make contact in the night,” I said, inventing a story as I went along. “The rain and wind up there were much stronger than down here. We scouted the peak and, finding no one, realized that the NVA were all around us. That was it.”
I glanced over at Nguyen’s shiny bright eyes, two reflecting pools in the backdrop of another dark night. He didn’t blink. I knew Nguyen understood enough English to know that I wasn’t telling the Gunny the truth, and, even if he spoke understandable English, I knew he would say nothing.
“I don’t want my people to have the point,” Sugar Daddy said, coming from almost nowhere. “We’ve done enough,” he said, finishing into the weather-beaten silence his first words had caused.
“Gunny, I need to talk to you for a second about reporting to battalion before we do anything,” I said, getting unsteadily to my feet and walking a bit deeper into the blackness of the jungle.
Nguyen disappeared, as I walked away, and I knew he’d be somewhere nearby, invisible but there. My fear level dropped again.
The Gunny followed my lead. I stopped when I felt we were far enough away from the others to avoid being overheard.
“Give Sugar Daddy the tail end Charlie position,” I said. “There won’t be much of a threat to the point, because they won’t easily hear us coming, although they have to know we're coming anyway. If Sugar Daddy wants the rear, then fine. The Ontos and Sugar Daddy’s mess of a platoon. I’ll be there to call in fire, although the NVA loves to attack at night they probably don’t want to face the flechettes in the dark."
“So, no morning body count,” the Gunny mused, as if not inquiring anything of me, instead just making a revealing statement.
The Gunny was smart and experienced. I knew he’d figured out my lie if it was a lie. At least he’d figured out that I likely didn’t know anything. There was no question asked, so I chose not answer what hadn’t yet been asked.
“If we killed a bunch of Army Special Forces then the 101st sure as hell would come ‘boiling down the valley,’ as you said, but I wonder who’d they be after boiling when they got here.”
“There’s the problem of the Ontos,” I said, ignoring everything he’d said.
“What about it?” the Gunny asked.
“We’re back to the question of losing it or getting it across the river,” I stated, flatly. “There’s no way we can stay on this side. There’s nowhere secure to stay.”
The Gunny took out one of his cigarettes and somehow got it burning in the rain. The sound of his lighter trilled through me. The Gunny was all the home in combat I had, and when I was alone with him it was like having a steady, talented father at my side.
“So, what’s the plan, Junior?” he asked.
I breathed in and out deeply. He was going to let the whole Hill 975 mess go. He handed me the cigarette and I took it, my hand shaking again. I inhaled one long puff. I coughed, but only slightly.
“We get down to the partial bridge,” I said, and then laid out the plan that had come to me once I knew we couldn’t remain on the west side of the river anymore.
“We run it along that bridge at full speed and jump the rushing water at the end. The Ontos can run in six feet of water for a short time if it doesn’t make it fully across. Although the water’s really moving I don't think it’s that deep right near the eastern bank where we were. It’s going to depend on what’s been eaten away since we were there before. With the Ontos on the far shore, dug in just in front of that cliff overhang, we’ll be damned near impregnable from any attack, either frontal or from the jungle further south.”
“And, if the Ontos doesn’t make it?” the Gunny asked, taking his time to finish the cigarette before snapping it out into the night.
“Then we lose it in the river,” I replied, knowing he wasn’t going to want to hear that possible result but not having a choice.
There were no other viable moves for the company to make without suffering either very heavy casualties or utter destruction. If we lost the Ontos we’d likely lose the crew too.
“Sugar Daddy isn’t stupid, you know,” the Gunny replied, veering away from the plan I’d laid out. “He’s been around for a while and he knows what his men fear the most. It’s not the NVA attacking from the rear into the face of the Ontos darts.”
“What, then?” I replied, in surprise, not understanding what the Gunny was really talking about.
“Booby traps. His men don’t want to go home without their eyes, or whatever. We haven’t been plagued by booby traps lately because it’s been impossible to figure out where we were going at any given time.”
The Gunny nodded at me.
There was just enough light to see the slight movement of his head as he paid me one of his rare unspoken compliments.
“Now they know where we’re going and they’ve had time to get ready,” I said, not liking where the conversation was going, although I wondered at the likelihood of anyone getting out of the valley alive, wounded or otherwise.
“You got it,” the Gunny said, with an artificial laugh. “Put that bit into your plan before you give it one of those special names.”
“Got it,” I replied. “Thanks. Sugar Daddy’s right. When we get to the old airfield we’ll shift split the company down the middle and let the Ontos run through. The tracked machine takes the point, and any booby traps along the way.”
I didn’t like the idea of anyone in the company, aside from the Gunny, refusing to do anything when the chips were down, but I’d also learned that I was a long way from having the wisdom some of them could show from time to time that I didn’t have, and probably would never live to possess.
“Straight through the heart, we’ll call it,” I went on, wishing it was morning and the Armed Forces Network was playing some song I could use for a better name by stealing the lyrics.
“Your scout team will be most approving,” the Gunny whispered, as he passed me heading back to where the platoon commanders waited.
No sooner was he gone when Nguyen appeared not more than three feet from where the Gunny had stood. I thought the Montagnard was smiling in the night but it was too dark and wet to see for sure.
I returned to Fusner and Zippo and got into my pack for the move. The Ontos fired up in the distance and I knew the whole company was quickly preparing to pull out. The invisible communication network of the seemingly broken and fragmented unit was amazing to observe in action.
At some point along the way, I was going to have to get aboard the Ontos and clue the crew in about the details of the move. Taking the point in the Ontos was riskier than many might assume. The armor on the bottom of the thing wasn’t thick enough to stop any sizable explosive fragmentation. A big enough booby trap, like a booby-trapped U.S. or Chicom artillery round, set off by tripwire or command, would kill everyone inside the machine. The crew would know that. Also, the run across the bridge Tex had laid down would be fraught with risk. That jump at the end of the bridge would be very risky. If the Ontos went fully into the river and was lost in the current, it would likely capsize and the crew would be unable to easily survive. The crew would know that too.
Backing down the riverbank path, close to the cliff wall didn’t give me any sense of security, and didn’t seem a bit like the company might be attacking the enemy’s set-in position. The old airfield, there but invisible in the night, wasn’t going to be used, even as a holding position for the company. The river had risen again and likely eaten away more of the bank that had provided a small haven of safety only days earlier. Moving in the darkness had proven to have many more benefits for survival that I had been first led to believe. The NVA were night creatures but only because they were generally the aggressors in the dark. They were not nearly as capable of dealing with enemy aggression under such circumstance when the aggressiveness was directed toward them.
Time seemed to have slowed, as I covered ground that I’d been up and down only a matter of days and nights earlier. It seemed like I’d been there before but weeks or months or even years before. I remembered Marines now dead, but mostly the ones I had gotten stuff from. Tex and his .45 automatic. I pictured Stevens and the tank but could not place his face in my mind anymore. I could remember nine place grid coordinates in detail, and direct artillery fire in the dark, but I couldn’t remember what Stevens looked like. That I wasn’t upset about the stark difference didn’t completely unnerve me because the only real emotion I lived with was fear. That fear was felt in my stomach, bones and always eating at the back of my mind. What awful thing leading to death was going to happen next fed the fear like a fireman stoking the coal aboard a cross-country steam train.
The Ontos made its way nearby. I’d decided to remain in the rear, as it was much more likely the NVA up on the hill would come down and pursue us rather than the southern force come up to meet us. I also had to pick just the right time to fill the Ontos crew in on their dangerous part in my plan. Sugar Daddy’s men were close in and all around me, as the river bank between the jungle glued up against the canyon wall and the river was fairly narrow. The Ontos took away all surprise just by the noise its engine generated and broadcast. The river was running hard, however, and the rain pretty intense, so the NVA forces further south would only have radio traffic, if they had that, to try to figure out just how far along the move we were.
Zippo and Fusner loved the name of the plan, for their usual secretive and unknown reasons. I wasn’t so much pleased by the chattering whispers I heard about the name by the Marines around me, as I was surprised about how simple drama so often worked better to gain support than a solidly strong analytical plan. My plan was a tattered mess, as usual, depending more upon luck than any analytical analysis and deep thought.
I made my way over to where the Ontos was backing slowly down the river. I climbed into the open rear hatch, wondering if I could gain the support of the crew for the mission ahead. They had to be all in, or there was no hope. We had to make it past the airfield without being hit from the rear and we also needed to not encounter any booby traps once past the airfield that might be large enough to destroy the Ontos. After all that we were going to need some real luck to make the rest of the plan work. Straight through the Heart might be the name of the plan but whose heart would remain in question until we were successfully across the river.