The third time, I thought. The third time in so few days that our company had been called in to be saved from an attacking enemy, but in every case having to save Kilo Company, while they were being sent to do the same for us. The helicopters had flown an unlikely resupply mission at night and dropped in observers who quickly became dead bodies, but the intent had been to try to do something about the terrible mess we were in. I could not fault the attempts on the part of the powers in the rear back at battalion, and maybe above that level. But the results were proving to be similar in every case. Our Marines and those of Kilo, and anybody else they sent into the A Shau Valley, were being decimated by an enemy force nobody would believe was really there.
I moved through the waist-high jungle debris. The rain had come back with a vengeance. Our attack, or push south through the enemy, since the occasionally smattering contacts on both sides could hardly be considered classically conducted attacks, continued. I moved slowly but determinedly in the path left by the still advancing Ontos. The flechette rounds found on the mud flats had been delivered to the guns and the Ontos was loaded to fire on anything while it moved.
That it moved along the jungle floor at all was a function of its lightness and how well the tracks gained purchase to climb over instead of plowing through the jungle. I carried my .45 Colt in my right hand. I’d changed magazines, even though I hadn’t used up the first one completely in shooting the surprising, and surprised, NVA soldier. But it was dark, wet and a mess of leaves mud and my itching-irritation-under-the-blouse leeches kept me from counting how many bullets I’d used. It was easier just to change magazines than to try to count what was left in the used one. I didn’t know for sure how many men I’d killed with the .45, but I was willing to bet nobody back in training, where the automatic sidearm was considered more a decorative sidearm rather than an effective weapon, would have believed it was more than six.
The company moved for another twenty minutes without taking or giving any fire at all. The platoons on line along the base of the cliff didn’t radio in any suspicion of contact, much less real contact, and the platoon on line coming down the river bank of the Bong Song didn’t either. I was scared, but my fear was a controllable thing, living inside me and a part of every bit of my being, but it was like the Gunny had told me on that first night. The fear would never leave but it would become something I could accommodate and even perform well while holding at bay. The Gunny had also said that if I stayed in a combat situation long enough then I’d come to massage and enjoy it, and there was no coming back from that. He hadn’t said if, given that I somehow lived through it, that there was any coming back from the near continuous deep and core-affecting fear.
The Ontos moved ahead, it’s progress slow, while there were no more satchel charges to be set because Cowboy had gone for rearming, and even when he returned it wasn’t likely he’d get lucky enough to hit another underground bunker. If only the 105 or 155 batteries could reach the bottom of the valley. The 175 didn’t fire concrete piercing rounds. If it did then the safety of calling in rounds, even at red bag distances, would have been assured. The rounds would go off under the mud and higher jungle debris. But there was only the Ontos for supporting fires until the Skyraider returned unless some other air branch squadron was freed up to stop by.
I had no letter home. I had one but it was all in my head. The detail of the muddy river bed, the hole I was held up in, the Ontos and how it moved over massive chunks of the jungle by simply riding up and then grinding away until the body of the beast slid down to work its way up and do it all over again. For the most part, the thing could not fire its guns. Even the marginally useful movement of the turret could not be used to adjust to the steep unstable rises and falls, twists and turns.
Kilo was coming down the glacis they’d descended before, and took so many casualties while doing so. Fusner monitored the radio and it was obvious from overhearing the exchanges that the move was going well. Lima had been pinned down by snipers in its bid to move down the Bong Song. I was amazed that the entire company had not been wiped out because of the size of the forces occupying Hill 975. If we could continue our move down the valley then it was possible that the NVA forces between us and Kilo would go to ground instead of engaging.
The night had closed in and full darkness, along with hard rain, had descended on the valley. Moving was not nearly as difficult as it was uncomfortable, to the point of being downright painful. So much of the jungle debris was hard-edged and sharp. My hands and face were constantly suffering from small cuts. With my leeches still sucking on my skin under my blouse I was in a sorry state, but moving determinedly. There would be some solace when we made it and joined up with Kilo. The cleft formed under the edge of the nearby cliff face would still provide cover from the rain as well as from fire that might originate out from the jungle area.
I wasn’t commanding anything and that obvious fact bothered me, although I knew that communications were terrible under such conditions. The Gunny was out there somewhere, while Jurgens and Sugar Daddy commanded the flanks in their own limited ways. With Marines moving through the brush in heavy rain at night there was little in the way of instructions or directions to give. But the fact that I simply moved along behind the Ontos, my .45 out and ready, didn’t seem to be enough. I had no more M-33 grenades. There’d probably been a box in resupply but, except for the satchel charges and reload of flechette rounds for the Ontos, nothing else has been brought forward to add to what was carried into the attack.
The A Shau Valley was not a quiet place. The river’s rushing sound was ever-present, the rain beat down with drops of water bouncing about from everything they hit. My helmet was a constant background buzz of rain strikes and there was no hiding from it. Fusner made his replies to conversations unheard on the other end. And the Ontos ground ever-onward toward the cliff face where real combat was likely to take place. The fear in my belly did not dissipate as I moved along, although moving helped to hold it down.
The battle began only moments after I’d been thinking how loud the natural sounds of the valley were to anyone awake inside it at night. Small arms fire began to the front and then increased in crescendo. I went down and then got back up to move forward in a semi-crab half-crawl half-run. I could see the flash of tracers but not the tracer rounds or trails the flaming bullets made. Normally, the AK-47 tracers were green in color, compared to the yellow and sometimes red of our own, but the NVA didn’t always use tracers in the combat rifles. Either they didn’t have them or they didn’t want to give away their position. Muzzle flashes were more dependable targets but they were not distinctive in color, so many times muzzle flashes might be from friendly arms.
The battlefield began to light up, as the Marines on both sides of the jungle fired into the area the rest of us were approaching in the jungle center. The company fired all tracers, except for the M-60, wherein those gunners used one tracer to every three or five rounds. The enemy fifty opened up to my front and I saw real green tracers close up for the first time since making contact. The fifty was firing at the Ontos and getting hits because the tracers would bounce directly upward and then die out as their chemical deposits in the point of the rounds burned through.
I realized that my position, moving not too far back from the Ontos wasn’t a safe one. The fear that the NVA had for the little lethal machine caused some of the enemy to avoid it but attracted others like bees to honey. I went down again when several rounds screamed through the air over my head. I knew the rounds did not really scream but the faint whoosh of displaced air was emotionally disturbing enough. The .50 went through everything. There was no cover from it except inside the Ontos and that wasn’t truly safe either. The side armor was too thin.
There was no place to run. I got back up and started pushing forward again. There was only one direction I could go and staying close to the Ontos was vital simply because it was our only supporting fire. Without supporting fire being as outnumbered as I knew we had to be was potentially terminal. That it was night and raining down upon the NVA wasn’t something to be ignored, either. Water in tunnels, no matter how well formed in the dirt and rock under our feet, was a bit more than a bother when torrents poured into the entrances. NVA communications had to be as bad as our own, if not worse. The enemy had been in the valley fighting for a long time but our own experience was growing by the passage of every night and day.
The fire poured in from both flanks. The Ontos continued its churning forward motion. Suddenly, several of the guns on each side of the Ontos went off.
The sound overwhelmed all other sounds. I felt the back blast and knew I’d been lucky. I’d not been concentrating on the need to keep quite a distance from the back of the deadly beast. The backblast had reached me but not injured me, except for the fact that I was deaf again. Nguyen was on me, checking me out to make sure I was still alive. He pulled Fusner close. Fusner was trying to clear his ears with wet fingers but I knew it was hopeless. Our ears would clear for normal conversation over time. Nothing else would make any difference. I lay still for a brief few seconds. It was peaceful being deaf and the night flashes of bright light from muzzles and tracers had made me night blind too. I was deaf and dumb and a Marine Company Commander in real combat in Vietnam. The reality of that hit me but the humor, I knew, would take a long time to seep into my consciousness.
I climbed back to my hunched over feet. The Ontos was still moving. The attack was still going on and the fire was changing. I could see it in the distance. The green tracers were being redirected to the south. We’d come far enough in that direction to be close to the glacis where Kilo was attempting to descend down the wall, and they were taking fire from the NVA. I surged forward, as the Ontos did the same thing. I felt it in my core. The NVA were leaving their backs open to attack in order to inflict as much damage on Kilo as they could. The NVA were not covering their six and that meant we could have at them with abandon without taking true defensive fire.
I got up fully and ran, waving my Colt and running right past the Ontos.
I was hoping that others would see me, but I need not have had that hope because I saw other Marines running too. Running and firing their all tracer M-16s while they ran. It was a beautiful sight. Both flanks moved and opened up while on the move. The firing against the unseen wall in front of us subsided. There was no return fire because we were among them. Fusner was at my side, Nguyen was just ahead of him, as I looked for something or someone to shoot. But there was nothing there. I wanted to beat the bracken around me to find the enemy but I knew that would be useless.
The firing from the cliff-face died out but the firing by the Marines coming down the Bong Song on the right flank increased. I knew the NVA, those not down deep in holes turned into dangerous muddy havens of death were making a break for the right flank.
A blasting series of green tracer rounds raced in just above my head and struck the Ontos. I heard the rounds hit, rather than saw them. My hearing was coming back. I went straight to the jungle floor, flying spread-eagled to land flat on my torso. I’d almost been cut in half by the .50 Caliber. It had been a close thing. The NVA were firing it while on the move or I’d be dead, I guessed. It was very difficult, even for a very large man, to fire a .50 while on the move. The recoil was ungodly. A regular hunting rifle put out a bullet that developed almost two thousand foot-pounds of energy at distance. The .50 put out nearly seven tons of that same kind of on-site energy.
The Ontos crept forward again, passing me on the left. I rolled right, even though it wasn’t that close, my fear of being run over by a tank in the night nearly overcoming me. Fusner and Nguyen had stayed right with me. The rain continued to pound down and the leeches sucking the blood from spots all over my torso were beginning to cause me pain. My pack was weighing me down. I wanted to strip out of it but I knew that when I finally got to some protected cave under the lip of the cliff I’d need everything inside it pretty desperately, and I’d never find it again come the next day.
The Ontos went by and then turned to face the right flank. The brush was thick, I knew, too thick for the flechettes to penetrate. But then I remembered the fuse settings available on those rounds and covered my ears tightly. The guns went off and the boom of the after-blast shockwave rolled over me, and also drove the rain painfully into the skin of my exposed face. I let go of my ears and plunged my face into the wet mud under me for relief. As I’d guessed, the rounds were set to go off after penetrating the jungle growth. I never heard their detonation but presumed they’d done something to help.
Fusner was right next to me, his ears a mess, I knew because he kept his hands over them while laying still on his side. I could barely see him in the rain filled night without much of any light at all. Nguyen was fine because he was the one pulling my head out of the mud, and then wiping the chunks from the crease that ran between my helmet and my forehead. I knew I was a total wreck of a mess.
The Ontos was stopped, and unaccountably, its engine had stopped.
Although the battlefield was anything but quiet, that particular sound disappearing was unsettling.
The Gunny appeared out of nowhere, leaned over as he passed and then ran toward the right flank where the firing had been most concentrated. I wanted to leap up and follow him, but I could not.
I moved forward toward the rear of the Ontos with dread, the darkness coming over me on the outside but a deeper blackness creeping up to layer itself over my heart. Zippo had been hit. He’d been hit at the start of the attack. One of the enemy armor-piercing .50 caliber bullets had found a way in through some crack or imperfection along the front slanted angled armor of the Ontos’ forward plates.
“Zippo’s hit, fifty got through,” was all the Gunny had whispered as he went by. He hadn’t stayed to accompany me, as I moved toward the back of the Ontos, which had started to move again. There was no stopping the attack, so the Ontos would not come to a halt for long unless everyone inside was dead. A stopped Ontos was a target Ontos. The NVA had to believe it was still coming for them for the attack to succeed to the end. There would be no medivac until we arrived at our objective, and then quite possibly not even then depending on the amount of contact we might be under and the potential of a safe clearing big enough.
Zippo was hit. But he wasn’t hit in my mind. If he was hit and wounded the Gunny would have said he was wounded. I knew that in my heart, but I still had a small tiny edge of hope in my soul.
I didn’t catch up to the Ontos. A hand grabbed me from the darkness of the thick dense jungle I was making my way through. I knew that hand, that grab and I knew why I was being stopped in my tracks.
The strong hand wrenched my suspender strap to the point of breaking. I went down on my chest, to find myself lying next to Nguyen once again. How he’d gotten in front of me, far enough the work his way back and lay in wait for me I didn’t know. His powerful stringy arm pulled me close.
“Gone,” he whispered into my left ear, his hand still holding my rotting ratty blouse tightly.
The rain pounded down, striking Nguyen’s upturned face so strongly that it sent visibly little sparkles cascading away, back into the darkness around us.
“Hit. Before. Did not want you to know. Number ten hit. Gone now.”
The words came in whispered gasps, like delayed and individually gaseous expressions of horror.
“He’s dead,” I said, not framing the phrase as a question.
Nguyen let go of my utility blouse. I didn’t move away. I felt again, as in other times of dire danger and fear, like I had nowhere to go.
Fusner fell to my side, twisting his face toward me, only inches away.
“You hit, sir?” he asked the note of worry in his voice so great that I wanted to hug him close.
There was no point, I realized, in telling him that Zippo was dead. I knew by the brightness in his eyes and the expression of his normal exuberance that he didn’t know. The two of them had been close, like high school or college buddies, I knew. Or even closer, because that is what combat did. You became brothers or you became dead, and Zippo had become both. The Ontos would carry his body. I wondered if the Starlight Scope had survived undamaged but hated myself for thinking about it with the wonderful, out-of-place, black as night kid now dead. Not wanting me to know. Not wanting me to worry and possibly mess up the attack because of him. The kid who loved my plan names so much. The kid who accepted my plans, orders and everything else without question or doubt.
The Ontos was pulling away. I had to get up. I had to move. I hadn’t written my wife. I had to have a letter ready to go when the medivac that would be coming in for Zippo’s dead body touched down. I realized that my wife did not know about Zippo, either alive or dead, like she didn’t know about anyone else in the company except Fusner and the Gunny who were anything but the characters I’d portrayed them to be. Even Rittenhouse and Tex were known to her, but I’d never mentioned the black kid who’d treated me like a Dad when his own racial members in Sugar Daddy’s platoon rejected him. I hated the race war inside my company and Zippo was a glaring and perfect example of why it made no logical sense whatever that one could possibly exist in such rotten circumstance, but it did.
The Gunny was back. He grabbed me by one arm and jerked me to a standing position.
“Can you hack it, you weak little college wimp of an officer?” he hissed in my right ear, too soft for anyone else to hear.
“Zippo,” I tried to say, but he cut me off.
“Did you hear my question?” the Gunny asked, still holding my arm up near where my bicep joined my shoulder so tightly that the pain was palpable.
“Keep moving,” he said to the night around me.
I pulled as gently as I could from the Gunny’s grip. I knew what he was doing. It was what he always did. He was making certain that I went on, no matter what the pain, the loss or the sentiment. I tried to look into his eyes, to communicate just how enraged I was that he was presuming to somehow manipulate me once again, using Zippo’s now dead body as a tool.
I stepped forward, before realizing I’d lost my helmet and liner when Nguyen had taken me down. Nguyen wasn’t there anymore when I looked down, but the helmet liner slipped over my head before I could do a search for it. Fusner plopped my war-damaged mess of a helmet on the liner right after the liner settled in.
My .45 was still in my right hand but I’d accidentally stuck that hand into the muddy bracken I’d used to break my fall when Nguyen had dragged me down.
Would it fire? I didn't know, but for the moment I didn’t give a damn. If the opportunity rose up then I’d fire anyway and worry about my hand or other body parts later.
I moved forward. The Gunny had disappeared in the night, like Nguyen, but not like Nguyen. I knew the Montagnard was close by, very close. He knew I was hurt badly and he was concerned. I’d felt the emotion radiate out of him like a long slow gust of heat. The Gunny was worried in his way and Fusner in his. Everyone was worried about me, but Zippo was dead. I vowed to write to my wife about Zippo and make certain he was not forgotten in my or her memory. Did he have a wife? Japanese was the rumor, but I had not paid enough attention to know. I had a little daughter who meant most of my world, that part not taken up by my wife, to me. Did Zippo have that? I hated myself for not knowing, and for not checking on him and getting him the hell out of the Ontos, no matter how much he loved the small tracked vehicle.
War machines killed men in combat and they didn’t respect one bit which side the warrior was on.
Image provided by the talented artist, Trieu Hai Hoang
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