I’d lost something indefinable, aside from my illegally promoted scout sergeant. I’d lost something like a loyal friend, but it was deeper than that. I moved through the jungle, low and almost on full automatic. How had the young black man eaten his way into my very being? Had it been the innocent acceptance of any plan I came up with, as long as it had an interesting name? Had it been his willingness to do any job assigned without complaint or comment?
I went down at the sound of gunfire just ahead, and to my right. Over toward the river. But I had seen nothing, not even the flaring brightness of tracer fire or muzzle flashes. I waited a full five minutes, with Fusner and Nguyen at my sides, hunkered down flat, the same way I was. We got up, almost as if there had been some signal, but there’d been none.
We moved forward, once again having fallen an uncomfortable distance behind the Ontos. We followed the Ontos, but actually, I was following Zippo, unable to get the boy’s lack of presence in my existence out of my mind. I’d known him for twenty days but it was like I’d been with him my entire life. How was I to proceed with that kind of void in front of me? More fire and I was down again. The night was beginning to wear on me. The Ontos stopped and sat in front of us idling. It hadn’t fired a round in some time. Was Zippo’s body, contained somewhere inside the armor plates, an impediment to firing? The enemy was all around us, and I knew they were taking casualties. There was no way they could have avoided being decimated by the placement of the satchel charges set in tunnel openings only revealed by the smoke released by our most outrageous good fortune.
The night was once again filled with more than just the blowing rain and irritating mist. Small arms fire seemed to come from everywhere. Some of it was laced with yellow tracers and some with green. I moved forward but then went down again into the heavy mangled jungle undergrowth the Ontos was spitting out behind its ever-churning tracks. I was afraid, but not of being hit by any of the rounds crisscrossing the area. I was primarily in fear of not knowing what was going on. Fusner was at my side. He’d said nothing since discovering that his companion and friend had become a casualty. Nguyen, Fusner and I followed behind the Ontos like it was a really odd funeral hearse, but one that could deliver more death than it received. In my own mind, somehow, Zippo fought on, guiding the deadly machine along to face the worst the enemy could dish out.
My misery seemed just about complete, so bad that I finally unbuttoned my blouse, and then twisted over on my back. Pulling the plastic bug juice container from my thigh pocket, I began slathering it all over my torso, My fingers bumped along, over unfeeling ridges I knew were leeches that were sucking my blood and my life away. The feel of their presence on me was no longer tolerable with everything else. I tried but didn’t get them all. The relieved feeling of having so many of the reachable ones fall away was not truly describable. The mosquito repellant stung badly, but I was beyond being disabled by that kind of minor pain. I buttoned up my blouse, but couldn’t make the attempt to unbutton my trousers and tuck it back in. Not with my slippery fingers, anyway. That would have to wait.
Fusner pushed the AN-323 headset into my shoulder. I heard the static and some broken communication attempts before I could get my helmet off and the headset on.
“Whisky alpha tango six,” a deep male voice said, its tone so husky that it made the small earphone ends buzz in an irritating way. “You down there, Flash?” the voice went on. Captain John Rolfing Hotchkiss and my Rio, checking in for the night.”
Before I could respond, a deep whooshing roar began to grow in volume, coming from the northern end of the valley behind us. The sound was ominous, and nothing like I’d ever heard before.
The connection between the deep voice and the approaching sounds of doom came together in my mind, as I rolled over and looked up into the mess of a night sky. There was nothing to see. The rain was light and wind even lighter, but the sky was impenetrable when it came to seeing anything.
“What’s your call sign, Whisky Alpha Tango?” I asked.
There was no way I was going to talk back and forth to whomever, and whatever was up in the night with that kind of name.
“Peter Pan,” came back through the earphones, “and I’m Fireside Joe, bombardier-navigator, not Rio, over.”
“Not Peter Pan,” followed, almost instantaneously, in the deeper resonating voice.
I would have sighed if I could, trying to roll over into some position that didn’t make the raw bloodsucking wounds all over my torso hurt like hell. The pilot and second crewman aboard whatever aircraft had flown in to support us were arguing about what they should be called.
“Peter Pan, and Fireside,” I transmitted, holding my finger down on the small button. "what have we got in support from you guys? We’re taking fire, as you can see if you look down.”
“A-6 Intruder, up here, carrying 24 thousand goodies, sir,” Fireside replied, “and we’ve got about three hours of loitering with full tanks. See you down there through our nighttime T.V., methinks, sir.”
I tried to think. I’d heard of the A-6 attack aircraft being the best there was, when it came to support aircraft, but hadn’t known it could carry twelve tons of ordnance. That was more than four tons more than the Skyraiders I was used to.
The plane passed over our position, making it too noisy to hear anything through the earphones. The sound was like that of some ungodly collection of hurricane-force blowing torches. Two spears of fire came down from under the craft as it seemed to lazily float through the valley over our position.
“Is your tracked vehicle the lead of your line of attack, sir?” Fireside Joe asked. “We can use that since it doesn’t appear you have a beacon along for the show.”
“Do we have a beacon?” I asked Fusner, before speaking to the Intruder again.
“Rittenhouse mentioned something a long time back, but I don’t know, sir,” Fusner replied.
“Shit,” I whispered to myself.
A beacon had to be something that transmitted our position up to the attack aircraft, thereby making certain the aircraft knew exactly where we were before dumping tons of ordnance. But the Intruder was passing overhead now.
“The Ontos is our lead, with flank support along the cliff bottom and river,” I sent, hoping that the crew could indeed see where we were through the muck of wet blowing atmosphere and the waving jungle flora between us.
I wasn’t afraid of radio security. The NVA knew our positions exactly, and that was evident from the direction of their fire.
“Got it,” Fireside, sent,” How about a selection of mixed 250 cocktails before the main course?”
“Standing by,” I said, wondering if I would be standing by after the drop.
The A-6 seemed to move almost as slowly in the air as the Cowboy’s Skyraider had, although the twin plumes from its jet engines made it much more visible than the prop plane. The volume of noise increased and the traveling plumes, now well past where the Ontos had to be, shot down like twin narrow torches. The aircraft was accelerating rapidly, I realized, and the reason followed right after my thoughts. Ground shaking bursts from ahead of our direction of travel. I counted eight explosions but there could have been more. The sound of the Intruder began to die away, and I instinctively knew Peter Pan was going around to make another pass.
If Peter Pan had dropped eight of his bombs then he had plenty more. The Skyraiders took ten minutes to conduct a second pass, disappearing from sight and sound as they did so. But not the Intruder. It’s raucous jet engines stayed with us and I could track its passage as it evidently had popped up out of the valley, and then dived back in.
“Gotten a little quieter down there?” Fireside asked.
“Roger that,” I replied.
There was no fire from anyone in the valley, that I could detect, anyway.
A warm feeling flowed through me. We were not alone anymore. The leech wounds were awash with the painful bug juice hurt but I could handle them. We had to move forward and regain our position behind the Ontos. It was near to impossible to figure out where all of the company’s Marines were located, as we streamed down the valley, however. I would have to gamble that they knew what they were doing, even though I had great doubts about that. The Intruder made two more passes but didn’t drop anything or fire any of its guns either.
“Whiskey Alpha Tango, rolling on around in the sky above you,” Peter Pan transmitted, his voice so low it was hard to make some of the words out. “Keeping heads down. My Rio can see them but they can’t see us so they don't know whether we’re releasing or not.”
I wanted to respond by saying “you’ve done this before a time or two,” but I didn’t. That the A-6 was there, rotated back into position so quickly and noisily, and that the enemy could not see it, was everything to the continuation and success of our attack.
The Intruder came in again, like a loud shark, diving in toward a reef filled with smaller hiding prey. The A-6 released a load of 250-pound high explosive bombs, and the jungle near the bottom of the glacis where Kilo was going to make its attempt to scale down, lit up in the wet night. The bombs were not high explosive. They were napalm. The searing heat of that much napalm, beating back from the cliff face and pooling at the bottom, exploded back at the jungle, penetrating so deep that any exposed skin within a distance of hundreds of yards would be singed, and any hair exposed melted away into heated dust.
Kilo had taken the Gunny’s warning, and over-ridden battalion’s order to descend no matter what the conditions below. Carruthers was the name of the captain leading Kilo, I’d discovered, not by talking to the Six-actual, but through Fusner. The Gunny gave battalion its combat updates. Through the attack there had been no necessity, of the company’s elements on both flanks, to be in constant contact. The attack was in the rain, in the dark, through miserable undergrowth populated with mosquitos, leeches and the North Vietnamese Army. Through such conditions, our Marine company either moved or died and moved it had.
I eased forward again. Everyone moved again or kept moving forward. The attack was so unlikely, and yet so simply effective, that it worked. I felt it working.
The arrival of Peter Pan had been the single event that had made it truly possible, however. The A-6’s screaming presence, roaring up above the rain in the night, poking its two nozzles of fire downward like evil moving eyes of coming death, had taken out what heart the enemy had left. Silence followed after the Intruders went by. I knew there were plenty of enemy soldiers hidden under the debris, squirreled down into tunnels and holes they’d never be dug out of, and would not arise out of until we’d passed by.
The Ontos had stopped because the jungle had stopped. I couldn’t see the solid stone wall, but I felt it up ahead. A huge rising black presence inside a sodden night too black to see. But it was there. I moved past the Ontos, as it sat idling, having churned its treads through the jungle undergrowth to make a full circle. The six deadly tubes of the 106 recoilless rifles aimed back toward the jungle we’d all just come through. But I could not think about the defensive power of the mobile armored beast any more than I could allow myself to think about what was contained inside its thick steel exterior.
“Zippo,” I whispered to myself. I would write to my wife. I would. I tried to concentrate and make sure that memory was burned in. And I knew my memory was bright. Since the door had opened in the world of Vietnam, I had not forgotten a single small detail. From the shape and form of bugs, leeches, crocodiles, snakes, plants and more. I retained all my night defensive fire coordinates from that first night. I also knew that wasn’t possible and therefore I could not still be alive as a real human. I would go to wherever I was going but if I ever went home it would not be as a human being.
“Zippo,” I whispered again, as I moved forward toward the glacis of the wall.
Was he in some better place, or somehow still back here where the only proper phrase describing our circumstance was commonly referred to as ‘the shit?’
The company had to establish a perimeter, but first, it had to be assembled in communication to affect that end. Looking upward into the night caused me to note that the rain had suddenly stopped. The clouds above me were slightly breaking. The moon was sending its deadly black and white light to cast down some miserable illumination on my life, and wall in front of it.
The wall was as I remembered it, although the dim moon shining vaguely down through the clouds made it much more foreboding than it had appeared before. The rain glistening down it’s huge puffed out, a rounded slab of a side made it seem more like it was from a giant movie set than being real. I stared up at the wall for a good minute before leaning back down to proceed through the heavy brush and remaining jungle growth toward it.
We’d attacked through the enemy from one side to the other. The Marines in the company had taken casualties, I knew, but they’d acted like only trained Marines could do. Without effective communications or anything else to hold them together in the night while they came down the valley in their respective positions, they’d followed orders to the letter. They’d exhibited fire control so we wouldn’t run out of ammo in case we couldn’t get resupply anytime soon. And, although I’d not been able to see much at all, I knew they’d killed or beat back, with vicious efficiency, anything the NVA threw at them.
Fusner was to my rear, with Nguyen almost up next to me, when I fell forward. I fell because my right foot had plunged down into a hole. I struggled to come to my knees and pull my leg out but it was held inside the hole by something. Nguyen was all over me before I could bend forward to explore the hole with my hands.
Nguyen worked away for several minutes, finally cutting me free. As soon as I could pull my boot toward me I worked to get it off. I knew I’d stepped into a pungy stick hole. I was worried sick that I’d stepped onto one of the feces-smeared and razor-sharpened stakes that were jammed into the bottom. The thought of some feces-powered infection racing through my body was somehow more awful than the thought of what the future results of leech wounds might bring.
A quick examination with my hands found no injury I could detect. In ground combat, mobility was just about everything. If I could not get around then I would be dependent upon the company Marines to carry me to some safer place for later evacuation. It had not taken many days for me to figure out that the company evacuated far more dead than it did wounded. I got my boot back on as quickly as I could, regretting that I couldn’t take the time to retrieve the one pair of dry socks I had left in my pack. No dry socks, no letter to send home, no food since early in the day before. The only thing I wasn’t was thirsty. The rain would not let up and how the wind found a way to constantly stir everything upside down inside such a deep valley was beyond me.
I moved back from the invisible hole, somewhere to my left, but now gone in the night and rain. There’d be no marking it or anything like that. All we could do was hope that nobody else would step in it and, if they did, that they’d have my kind of luck and stick their boot through the stakes instead of being penetrated by one or more of them.
The Gunny was by my side. Like the wall, invisible in the night but felt all the same. A force of nature.
“They’re setting up a perimeter and climbing partway up the wall. There are a couple of clefts we can put M-60 teams in. Plunging fire. It’ll take that if they open up with anything when Kilo comes down.”
The Gunny was way ahead of me, as usual. When it came to classical operations and tactics the Gunny, and the Marines in the company, young and old and of all ranks, just did the right thing, time after time. I knew part of that was the field experience they’d gotten in living so long in combat, but the bulk of it was from the deeply instilled and hard-bitten training the Marines had burned into them before combat with a foreign enemy was engaged.
There was nothing to be said, so I just stood next to him, trying to absorb some of the man’s seemingly superhuman strength and sober unemotional delivery under the worst of circumstance. The Gunny took out a cigarette and lit it with his special lighter. I couldn’t see the lighter but I knew its existence well, like the Gunny himself. Old, worn and boot tough, stretched and wet leather tough. I was none of those things. But I had the Gunny. I saw his face in the flash of the lighter, and then again when he pulled air into his lungs through the cigarette. A faint red glow reflected off the wet flat planes that formed his facial features. I knew the man was looking at me but there wasn’t enough light to see his eyes, or even a faint reflection coming back from their polished black surfaces.
“It wasn’t you,” he said, holding out the cigarette.
I didn’t move.
“Take it,” he said, this time his voice going quiet, low and commanding.
I took the cigarette, raised it to my lips and inhaled deeply. I didn’t cough.
I held the smoke deep inside me until it hurt.
“He wanted to help,” the Gunny said, accepting the cigarette back. “That was the way he was. Always wanting to help. His marker will read Staff Sergeant. I’ll see to it if we live."
“A Captain Carruthers has taken over Kilo,” the Gunny said, not knowing that I already knew. It was like we might be having some gentle business discussion back home over a water cooler. “He’s bright enough to hold his men back from the descent when I told him, and that’s a good sign.”
“Alright, what happened to the other guys?” I asked, in shock. It had only been days, and the command leadership of Kilo had changed for a second time.
“You have no clue, do you?” the Gunny said, with a gentle laugh, before delaying for a few seconds by taking one long inward breath of his cigarette. “You’re setting survival records down in the bottom of this death valley. A record for length and for brutal bloody success, but nobody’s ever going to know. Live or die, this story will never be told.”
“What’s the butcher’s bill for the attack?” I asked, not giving a damn about any records for anything.
“Zippo, and some others,” the Gunny replied. “Sugar Daddy and Jurgens are coming in. We’ll know more. We’ve got a bigger problem than covering Kilo’s descent. When they get down, there’ll be all of us and another whole company, besides. We can’t dig in here. Kilo’s coming down to join us, but there’s no place to go.”
I was about to reply when the Intruder flew over low, it’s burning engines so loud we could no longer hear ourselves. I still had the headset around my neck.
When the nozzles of the plane passed I heard the little ear speakers squawking away.
“You boys going to play some billiards down there, or what?” Fireside asked in his sing-song voice. “The Marines on the ridge are coming down. They look like little insects on my screen, but then that’s how Marines always look to me.”
I instantly knew the Intruder supporting us was Navy.
“What’s your unit?” I asked, reflexively and coldly, bitten by his comment.
“The One-Ninety-Six, at your service,” Peter Pan’s deep voice came back. “Don't listen to my Rio. He’s an idiot. We’re remaining on station till dawn, or till the fuel’s gone. That’s what he meant.”
“Thanks, Captain,” I replied, knowing I’d reacted because of Zippo.
Zippo was a real Marine and I wouldn’t accept any diminishment of what he’d been.
“Carruthers is coming down with the lead element,” the Gunny said, Tank having appeared just behind him.
I noted that Fusner was even closer to me, making sure that I had plenty of wire to use the AN-323 mic and phones. I wondered, fleetingly, whether I could ever have been as capable a radioman as Fusner if our roles were reversed.
“Maybe he’s not as smart as I thought,” the Gunny said to me, flicking his cigarette away and accepting a radio handset from Tank.
I handed the air microphone back to Fusner and stood thinking. The Gunny could not have been more wrong about our position, in my estimation, but would he see it when I told him? Sugar Daddy and Jurgens appeared out of the jungle and joined us. There was no fire coming from anywhere, and there’d been none since the A-6 dropped its second load of napalm. The smell of burned gasoline and vegetable matter was bitter, but not truly awful. The most amazing thing about the sticky horror-laden napalm was how fast it burned. It was there, burning bright and billowing everywhere, and then, in seconds, it was gone. The flame extinguished almost instantly and the smoke drifted away. The heat flared and then died, almost too fast for it to be real, unless you were too close and then the reality was never going to leave you, whether your life was to be very short or long.
The Gunny finished his radio transmission. I hadn’t listened to any of it, squatting down with Jurgens and Sugar Daddy to wait. After a few seconds, the Gunny joined us, taking out another cigarette. There was no time or I was sure he’d have prepared a canteen holder of his instant coffee.
“What’s the plan?” the Gunny asked, which surprised me.
If he didn’t think I had a plan then why would he risk embarrassing me in front of Jurgens and Sugar Daddy by asking? I let the thought go.
“We’re going back the way we came in,” I said, watching as the others as closely as I could to gauge their reactions.
I went on. “So then I dropped it in the mailbox and sent it special D, bright and early next morning it came right back to me,” I quoted from an Elvis Presley song of a few years back. “We’ll call it ‘Return to Sender,” I finished.
Nobody said anything in the ensuing seconds, so I continued. “Return to sender. The A-6 is remaining on station. We attack right back up the river, along the base of the cliff and through the middle of this jungle hell, except we’ve got two companies of Marines, not one. We make this part of the valley our very own.”
Again, there was a silence, broken half a minute later by the Gunny.
“He’s a captain, Junior,” the Gunny said as if the word captain was an expletive.
“Yes?” I asked, not understanding.
“He’s coming down first and he’s going to be in command of the whole operation, and you and I and the whole company, when he gets here. We don’t know what he is or where he’s been, but the chances that he’s going to go along with ‘Return to Sender’ is slim and none.”
“Man oh man, Junior,” Sugar Daddy exclaimed. “Where oh where do you get that plan material from? "Return to Sender". Now that’s classical shit. I mean classical.”
“Yeah, well don’t fall in love with it,” the Gunny replied.
“We’re doing Junior’s plan,” Sugar Daddy said. “It’s the only damn thing that makes sense. We kicked ass coming down here and nobody thought we could do that, and now we’re going to kick ass all the way back up. I like the idea of having my own valley, anyway.
“Well, what in the hell do you expect to do when Carruthers gets down here and says something else,” the Gunny hissed, flicking his lit cigarette into the night beyond us.
“Junior said it all with the plan,” Sugar Daddy replied, getting to his feet and shaking himself. “If the captain doesn’t like it then we return him to sender.”