The Ontos moved forward, with the Gunny swinging both armored back doors of the tracked vehicle closed behind him. I followed, slowly dropping back as the vehicle picked up speed, to stay clear of any back blast. I’d wanted to ask the Gunny if I could use a spare M-16 left over from one of our casualties but hadn’t pursued that request. I felt naked on the mud flats with only my holstered .45, even if its leather hold-down thong was unsnapped. There was no enemy fire as the attack began. I watched the dawn bring evermore light through the misting rain, with all the Marines in the company moving forward. There was no crawling and no zig-zagging back and forth to attempt to take advantage of available cover, because there really was no cover. A six-inch high clump of bamboo or other assorted jungle plant growth, would not hide a sizeable raccoon, much less a Marine with helmet, weaponry and carrying a full kit on his back.
The company was properly spaced, each Marine just about equidistant from those around him. Not like in training at all. Trying to get Marines in training to stay out of clumps, or naturally congregate together, had proven impossible for training officers. But down in the A Shau, with the chips all on the table, where winning meant getting to stay alive to see light dim and pass into full dark, the Marines acted like the kind of Marines I’d never known back home. They weren’t organized in any kind of orderly fashion and they were so tattered and dirty they were almost unrecognizable for what they were, but they were quietly effective in almost every way, from movement, to fire control, distribution of supplies and more. And the fire they delivered was amazingly accurate since I seldom saw anyone actually stare through the fixed metal sights set on top of the barrels.
The Ontos wasn’t mired down, as I’d first thought once it stopped moving through the fairly dense jungle growth. The jungle growth was thick but not too thick to inhibit tracked movement. There would have been no possibility of the small but heavy armored vehicle cutting through or crushing past the kind of triple canopy jungle that existed up on top of the canyon walls and descending down almost all the way to the eastern sea shore. The Ontos had stopped to reload 106 rounds. The team of supply handlers the Gunny had sectioned off to recover the strewn mess of the night helicopter run, were being quickly effective in getting to the flechette rounds and getting them loaded into the empty chambers of the long guns.
The NVA Soviet or Chinese origin .50 caliber firing had stopped after the Ontos had unloaded the last four flechette rounds into the jungle area where the heavy machine gun was suspected of being placed. The Ontos only had 13mm armor, but the front of the small beast was slanted, thereby doubling its stopping power. An armor-piercing heavy machine gun round would penetrate the sides or the bottom of the Ontos easily but not the front glacis, which was the primary reason that, once the NVA .50 opened up, the Ontos went directly at it.
I felt more than I heard Cowboy’s first pass. The low giant of a noisy aircraft did not come speeding in, which normally would have had its radial engine blasting and reverberating back and forth between the canyon walls. The plane was almost quiet as it came down. I looked up and behind me, when I felt the plane, and then quickly coming to understand what Cowboy was doing. The Skyraider was dropping down at near idle, it’s big beastly shadow descending like some monstrous bird of prey. I ducked down and shivered slightly at the sight, but could not look away from its approach. The plane was descending with its nose higher than its tail, all of its flaps fully extended, moving through the dense air and rain so slow it seemed to be a giant artificial prop being added onto the set of a Hollywood war movie. I understood what Cowboy was doing. He was giving us as much time and cover to cross the mud flat as he could, instead of speeding on by after spraying a few hundred of his deadly but sparse 20 mm cannon rounds of ammunition, and, while doing so, he was able to see us making sure he wasn’t hitting us instead of the NVA.
The plane fought to recover itself in mid-air, still dropping, until it was only a few meters off the ground before it leveled off and seemed to float right into the jungle in front of me. The feeling the Skyraider gave me was one of core-penetrating terror. All I wanted to do was smash myself into the mud until it passed. But it was Cowboy, and the Skyraider he flew was U.S. Navy. The enemy had to be feeling the same fear that was running up and down my spine, but even more so since they knew the weapon was intended to kill or maim them. I got up and ran forward, staying low but moving fast. There was no order to run that I heard, but every Marine in the company, not riding in the Ontos, took off with me.
The Skyraider’s monstrous radial engine screamed up to full power, as it accelerated to maintain its low altitude. There was still no strafing fire, instead, bombs were pickling off the plane’s wings, one after another from each side. They began to explode behind the plane, as it sped directly over the center of the jungle vegetation.
The shaking tremor of the explosions ahead drove me forward toward them instead of down again. Wherever those bombs were going off I knew the NVA would not be quietly and lethally waiting. They’d be down flat or underground inside their snaking tunnels and cave complexes. I was a lot more fearful of being killed by the NVA coming out of their holes than I was by being damaged by the bombs.
Once in among the debris, still filtering down through the morning’s moisture and rain-laden air, I slowed to avoid overtaking the Ontos and becoming more of a target or injured when one of its 106 recoilless rounds was fired.
There was no crawling through the kind of jungle we were in. I moved huddled down, my knees bent down as far as I could bend them and still get ahead, while my torso was slanted as far forward as it would go. I could not keep loping or running as the load I carried was too heavy to support anything but short stretches at maximum output. I followed the Ontos in its left track as best I could, although the jungle growth, even at my distance, still snapped painfully back and forth. I realized that the part of my plan that had both platoons opposite one another, one against the face of the cliff and the other moving down the river bank, firing into the center-placed jungle to suppress the enemy, was impossible to implement, not without killing Marines in our element moving up the center. I’d forgotten about the speed of the Ontos. The machine could move through the thickness successfully, but it had to maintain speed and use momentum to make it over and through the heavier areas.
The center attack group, of which I was a part, led the attack and had to depend on the flanking forces not to fire into the center if at all possible, which was the opposite of what they’d been instructed to do.
The whirling Wright engine of Skyraider quieted as it gained distance from our position following its run. I knew it would be rising to gain altitude, make its pylon kind of turn, and then return to dive into another run. Each pass would come in as we moved ever deeper into the jungle’s interior, giving Cowboy less and less visibility of exactly where we were because of the weather and the increasing density of the foliage. The jungle had to be fast becoming a roiling messy mantle of concealment, at least from Cowboy’s perspective. It also provided concealment from those on the ground, and that meant recognition problems about whether the personnel was NVA or Marines.
Small arms fire, mostly muffled but still loud, sputtered up and then died down around me, as I moved. Brilliant muzzle flashes burst across the area just to my front, the passage of bullets themselves unheard, but their presence so physically evident that my body needed no instructions to hit the ground. My face went into the stinking smelly debris first, the aroma almost welcome because of the gut wrench of fear that had returned, like white-hot lead being poured up and down through my core. The rest of my body wedged down, trying to reach the center of the earth, or something close to that.
I went down soft, however, because there was nothing hard under me. The weird sticky layer of mud cradled the broken, hanging and half-crushed foliage, allowing every obnoxious smell of the jungle to be opened like an aged-out tin can filled with bad fruit or putrid sardines. The firing had come from my left, automatic rounds sounding more like a chainsaw than a machine gun. I knew the NVA were only yards away and I couldn’t figure out how they’d missed me moving by. I wasn’t moving by anymore. The rain beat down on my helmet. There was no point in looking up because the brush was too thick to see through, and looking up might draw more fire. If I still had any M-33 grenades I knew I’d have thrown them, no matter how undependable the fuses might be or how close the detonations might occur. But I had nothing more than my Colt, which was so inadequate that I still hadn’t drawn it from my holster, even in the face of nearly direct fire. I was more afraid of losing the only weapon I had than using it to shoot back at anyone armed with a submachine gun. There was no screaming, so I presumed that nobody nearby was hit. Nguyen came out of nowhere to slip in beside me. I looked at him across the few inches that separated us. His eyes remained black and unblinking. He pointed back behind us. I felt more than heard Fusner creeping forward. Nguyen pulled something from his blouse, fiddled with it and then threw it upward and out in the direction the AK fire had come from. He didn’t bother to duck so I didn’t either. The muffled whump of the grenade’s explosion threw debris back over all of us.
I wondered how to say “tell me when you’re going to toss a grenade” in his language, but I knew it was a waste of time. Nguyen had calculated that we didn’t need to duck and he’d been right. Again. He motioned me forward. I crawled. I wasn’t getting up to my feet again until I was out of the hellish jungle, although I also knew immediately that the Ontos was pulling away in front of me. I didn’t want to lose the Ontos. It attracted the heaviest fire but it seemed charmed to be able to kill without being killed. As some of the men carried charms with my stuff inside, I wanted to remain in the close aura of survival surrounding the fierce little machine, even if it was an illusion or based on nothing more than hope.
Suddenly the rain stopped like it was controlled by some heavenly spigot. But there was no sun. With the rain stopping, even with the gray overcast of the cloud cover allowing for only a bright twilight sort of existence down in the valley, I realized I had not seen the sun in what seemed like a week. That the rain was gone, at least temporarily, made two things immediately apparent. There would be no dryness resulting throughout the length and breadth of our move because the jungle was so full of absorbed moisture that anything dry that touched any part of it would instantly become soaked through. Everything, from ferns to the leaves and all around, and on any overhanging bamboo fronds, bled water. The second thing was the smoke. Separate tendrils of thin blue smoke rose twisting and turning in the mild wind from different spots in the jungle around us.
The Ontos stopped its forward progress, and the two heavy armored doors on the rear of it sprang open. The Gunny jumped out and loped toward me. I noted that he didn't carry an M-16 either or anything but his sidearm either, and he had no pack on his back.
“Resupply,” he said pointing back the way we’d come. “The satchel charges. We need the charges.”
“What?” was all I could manage, my position crouching down in the jungle debris for cover, making my question more of a plea than I meant for it to be.
“There are satchel charges in the resupply,” the Gunny indicated, dropping his finger.
“Jurgens,” the Gunny said, as the sergeant approached from behind where Fusner had taken up a position just back from me. “The smoke. The smoke is coming up out of their tunnels. The Skyraider pass bombed the shit out of some underground supply cave down there, and its burning. The smoke is coming from the tunnel entrances.”
Jurgens disappeared, as I rose up to higher crouch to look around. I could see four tendrils rising, although not exactly where their bases were in the rough foliage.
“Holy shit,” I breathed.
Without having the flanking fire of both platoons moving south on each side of the jungle area I’d once again lost hope of making it alive to where Kilo was about to descend to ‘relieve’ us. The NVA, confronting us directly, could face our small arms fire, machine guns, Ontos fire and even the strafing of Cowboy’s Skyraider, and then go right back down underground to wait until one of us, or more, passed by a tunnel entrance. Firing from their hidden entrances would be lethal. We would be defenseless.
Marines came from behind us, carrying green cloth sacks. The sacks were different from the containers explosives usually shipped in. The sacks were about the size of briefcases except made of green-dyed canvas. I looked at one bag closely. The black stenciled printing on the broad side of the bag read: “Large Assembly, Demolition, M-183.” The Gunny undid the straps quickly on the side of one of the bags and pulled the top open. I saw white demolition cord sticking out of eight rectangular tubes wrapped in a brownish paper. I knew the sticks were composition B because of the color. I also knew the sticks were probably one pound each. Eight pounds of Composition B was a lot of explosives.
Jurgens re-appeared, carrying more canvas sacks. He set them next to where the Gunny worked. The new sacks were thinner and wider than the satchel charges and they had two flaps each instead of one.
“Claymores,” Jurgens said with a grin. “Finally gonna get some with these babies.”
The Gunny worked quickly, his hands moving almost too fast to follow, as he opened sacks and adjusted the contents of the satchel charges.
“Forget setting these off conventionally,” he said to Jurgens. “Let’s use the Claymores and command detonate. Simple and safer.”
Jurgens opened a claymore bag and pulled the green plastic device out. It was molded smoothly and curved attractively. I remembered well the look of it from training at Quantico. 700 small steel spheres, embedded behind the plastic face, were driven forward by a pound and a half of explosives. Both sides of the device had raised plastic print with instructions about which way the device was to be placed or pointed.
Jurgens unloaded the Claymores, quickly but efficiently wrapping their attached wires around the body of the satchel charge bags. His men crawled forward, each clasping one of the combined packages in his arms, making no effort to be gentle or handle them like the terminally deadly devices they were.
“All right, get out there,” the Gunny ordered. “Jam one package down every hole the smoke is coming out of. Run back ten yards, drop down, and then crush the Clacker detonator twice. If you shove the whole thing down the hole you shouldn’t have to worry about getting hit. Then, get back here and get another charge.”
I watched from my position flat on the jungle floor. I knew the small lever detonators had to be levered shut twice to set off the Claymores, as a safety measure, but I hadn’t known they were called Clackers. The Claymores added to the already significant number of explosives in each pack. I hoped that the ten yards was far enough to be from them when they went off.
“We’ve got to move fast,” the Gunny yelled, standing to be heard by everyone, “that smoke won’t last forever. Let the M-60s and the Ontos take care of anyone dumb enough to remain on the surface.”
I crawled up to my knees and got to my feet, the fear from my close call with what I assumed to be an NVA trooper above ground, not dissipating at all. I knew my right arm was shaking but I didn’t think the effect was visible.
The Gunny came close to my side.
“Get your sidearm out,” he whispered. “We’re going to move fast behind the Ontos. Those underground rats are going to be coming up, coughing, blind and probably deaf. Shoot at the center of mass, no matter how good you are with that thing.”
I pulled out the Colt, my hand closing over the butt as I withdrew it from the wet slimy holster. My arm stopped shaking once the Colt was firmly in my grasp. I caught the Gunny’s glance down and realized he’d seen my shaking. He was helping me cover the shaking so nobody else would notice.
“That was AK fire,” he said. “The crack and no tracers. Not one of our guys.”
I made no reply, remaining silently thankful that the Gunny had bothered to relieve my mind. I knew he was correct in retrospect. The sound of the AK was very distinctive and the NVA didn’t use tracers in their submachine guns.
The Gunny ran forward, his own sidearm out, flocked with a small group of Marines surrounding he and his radio operator closely before they almost magically split away to blend individually into the bush.
The explosions from the satchel charges began to go off, each one exploding sharply, throwing mud, water, and foliage high into the air. I walked fast, the sky falling around me. Fragments of the jungle had replaced the rain pelting my helmet. I scanned the area in front of me, Nguyen to my left and Fusner just back on my right. Nguyen’s M-16, held out in both hands, pointed wherever he looked, while Fusner’s weapon remained under his left hand at sling arms. Fusner’s right hand was holding the radio handset in case it was needed, with the headset to the AN-323 spring tensioned to his upper arm.
The Skyraider came in, luffing through the air like before, in the strange flying style Cowboy was a master of, allowing the giant metal monster to get lower and slower so the pilot could see and then drop more bombs. When the big radial engine kicked back in, the noise was overwhelming until the Ontos fired two rounds and more satchel charges went off.
My ears hurt but, for some reason, my frightened insides weren’t quaking in terror anymore. Being in the center of the combat I felt like moving through a sunken stage where just around and above me, all different symphonies of raucous music played. It was as exhilarating as it was frightening. I was half blind from the flashing of muzzles, explosives, and particulate in the air. I was half deaf from the booming sounds of coming from just about everything, but I was also moving, thinking and not running away. I hunted for anything I could see that might need my attention, as we worked our way down the peninsula of jungle growth.
I didn’t have long to hunt. The Ontos had veered to the east, as we traveled south down toward the cliff face where Kilo had to be considering its descent into the hellish A Shau Valley. A still smoking ruin of a broken messy crater was just to my left, which was remarkable but I didn’t give it a second thought because the satchel charge that made it would certainly have killed anything close when it was set off, below or above ground. But that wasn’t the case.
A uniformed NVA ran through the shoulder high bracken, seeming to slip through a crack in the reeds and tall elephant grass that couldn’t have been there.
His head was bare and across his chest, he held an AK-47. He stopped suddenly only feet away when Nguyen fired several rounds into his chest. The man stopped in his tracks but was still standing, his facial expression flat and unchanged, as if he’d run into a wall. I brought up my .45 smoothly, slowly squeezing the trigger as the automatic rose in my extending arm. As if by perfect design, the Colt went off just as it came level with my shoulder. The NVA soldier was literally blown back from where he came, his head tossing so far back it seemed to disappear. I moved forward after him into the reeds, pulling them aside with my left hand, using my right to point my weapon downward. Nguyen went low and slid under my extended arms. He leaned in close over the body before pulling back. He tapped his forehead when he stood. I understood. I’d hit the soldier in the forehead. Nguyen nodded so deeply it was like a bow, before pulling back and loping toward the Ontos. I followed because his left hand was pulling me powerfully along. He’d grabbed the sleeve of my right just back from my elbow and would not let go.
For some reason, I didn’t want to leave the scene, but I only took one glance back before crouching low again, pulling my sleeve loose, and then picking up the pace to pull even with Nguyen and catch up to Fusner. My ears rang from the M-16 and .45 automatic fire that had occurred so close. I couldn’t get the dead soldiers expressionless face out of my mind as I ran, but I also felt that I had done what I was supposed to do for the first time in many days.
The Gunny came up from behind me, moving fast to catch up with the Ontos.
“Nice work,” he murmured, as he passed. ‘You and Cowboy got lucky, thank God.”
I tried to remember whether I’d fired just the one shot from my automatic but couldn’t. Did I need to reload? And I hadn’t seen Zippo in some time. Was he all right? The battlefield was all blending together and I was having a hard time trying to take in the idea that we had no real visibility of the flanking platoons moving along the valley floor under the cleft of the cliff, and also down by the river. I couldn’t see most of the Marines who were attacking with me down the very center of the jungle area either. Quantico training in field combat had been so much easier in the open forest areas of Virginia where almost everything had been visible.
The enemy fifty-caliber hadn’t fired another round following the twin blast of flechettes from the Ontos and that was more than just a minor relief. It meant that the NVA was down, probably hidden away until we passed. I moved faster to get closer to the rear of the noisy roar of the Ontos’ engine. Cowboy came back for another run but this time he didn’t allow the Skyraider to slow and drop bombs. This time the 20mm cannons mounted in the thing’s wings poured fire down into the jungle ahead of us.
It was a satisfying sound but even more satisfying was looking up to see that the loitering plane still had what seemed like at least a half a load more of bombs and other stuff hanging from under its wings. Cowboy would be coming back time after time. We might make it to the end of the jungle area.
Small explosions came from up ahead and the Ontos slowed. I moved, with Fusner and Nguyen to flank the machine, fully aware that standing directly behind it could be disastrous if it fired any of its guns again. I tried to peer forward through the leafy brush and bamboo but it was useless. There were no easily visible smoke trails, as we’d passed that part of the burning underground tunnel complex. Marine M-60s opened up from both flanks. The explosions I’d heard had to have been grenades, and those hadn’t sounded like American models. The ChiCom grenades the NVA carried made bigger luffing explosions than U.S. inventory, but the weapons were plagued by duds because of their water sensitive friction fuses. The body of the German type “potato masher” Chinese variants were poorly machined and carried no fragmentation wire inside them.
Although I could not see all the elements somehow coordinating in our attack, I knew they were there and the attack was working. The good fortune of the underground fire, the brilliance of Cowboy’s single Skyraider performance and the dogged endurance of a tattered but hardened Marine unit made up of many deeply disturbed and frightened men was proving to be overwhelming. The NVA had, once again, underestimated just how tough and determined the company could be when backed into a corner.
The rain began pouring back down as Cowboy brought the Skyraider back down to start another run. I moved into the scattered mess of jungle behind the Ontos, more like an armed predatory spider than a uniformed human combatant.