I lay in the muck of oozing mud seeping slowly up through the packed, cracked, and broken debris of jungle and aging decay. The smell was of the damaged sort I’d come to know as my home away from home down inside the A Shau Valley expanse. I wondered if the smell would ever leave me, should I somehow have the good fortune to survive my experience in actual combat. I’d come late to discover that I, inadvertently, had built the confidence of the Marines around to such an extent that they had gone from being ‘dead men walking’ to believers that they might make it through the Vietnam war experience and one day go home without serious disfigurement or injury. I had, however, not built up that belief system inside myself. No matter what I did in the few moments of rest or reverie that I had it was impossible for me to believe that I could survive another year under such conditions.
The dawn came creeping up and over the far eastern wall of the canyon rim, with the first tendrils of light visible only like a faint glow across the clouded sky that had to signal a return to monsoon rains. The respite through the night had been too long and too good. The enemy would be able to use the monsoon rain during the next night to cloak another of its relentless attacks, and very likely a fully coordinated and successful one. I peered upward, toward the top of the western lip of that canyon wall but could see nothing. It was time to move from our position, I knew, and a plan was beginning to form in the back of my mind for our next survival attempt.
I knew also that the upper edge of the western face of the cliff that hung over us could not remain out of the building series of coming attacks for long. Supporting artillery fire could reach up to, across, and deep past that rim, but not accurately. Once the 175 rounds were fired they did not have the arc to go over or to one side or the other of Hill 975. The rim was basically untouchable by artillery. Air support was only truly available in the daylight hours, and then only if the monsoon rains were not at their heaviest. The enemy had time on its side. The NVA commanders could wait for the rain, risk the inaccurate fire of the 175s, and then take and settle onto the top of the rim. From there, all night long, they could fire at a high angle downward into our position. That kind of uncommon fire was called ‘plunging fire’ in training, and it was to be avoided at all costs, at least being on the receiving end of such devastating fire. The enemy wouldn’t have to be able to see well in such a position. All the machine gunners had to do was point down at the darkness of the jungle below and fire away.
Our ability to truly dig in, as the enemy did so well, to prevent getting hit, was actually non-existent. We had neither the equipment nor the time to get deep under the jungle’s surface. Since the rim would eventually fall to the enemy, or they would decide to risk high losses in acquiring it at some time, that meant the only way out was to attack up the valley until reaching either friendly forces or the DMZ itself. Surviving such a charge did not even bear considering. It wasn’t an option unless suicide was a part of the bargain. No, the only way out was in crossing the Bong Song once again, while the bridge was still there, and then preparing and executing a plan to move from the relative safety from under the lower lip of the wall, climb the difficult but scalable cliff further downriver, and then return to the area of Go Noi Island whence we’d come. At least there, and possibly only there, could our advantage in having artillery always on hand and on target allow some of us to survive until we might finally be relieved. Our orders were to remain where we were and wait to be reinforced, but it wouldn’t make much difference if the enemy continued its current buildup with its concentration on us in our trapped position.
We’d not only lost Sugar Daddy in the night at the bridge, but we’d also lost twenty-seven more Marines from his platoon KIA, as well as six wounded. We needed another medevac and resupply. If we made it across the river once again, then we’d need more beehive ammo for the Ontos, which brought up the Ontos subject front and center into my thinking.
When night fell on the 29th of September there would be no supporting fires able to be of much assistance, save the A-6 if it came in to bomb the hell of the same jungle it had become accustomed to the bombing. But, even recurring flights up around and back into the valley by Homan and Thompson in the A-6 were not going to prevent the NVA from attacking in force across the open area. The NVA had shown no resistance at all to facing machine gunfire out in the open, no matter how suicidal such attacks might seem. At night, everything was changed. Without a Starlight scope on every M-60 covering the mudflat, the machine guns could only approximate where the enemy might be as they came at us.
I brought Nguyen and Fusner in close and let them know we were headed back toward the river. I hoped that my protected foxhole there was still undamaged and available. The move was uneventful, as we crept low past the Marines who’d emplaced themselves in jerry-rigged foxholes made from gathering the jungle debris and surrounding themselves with it. The Skyraider's early first pass had shut down all fire from the enemy and their fifty caliber machine gun had not been heard from since the last strike of the Ontos against it. The foxhole was dry and Sugar Daddy’s body was nowhere to be seen. I was unsure of what I would have done if it was still there.
I called for the Gunny and Jurgens. Sergeant Trath had immediately stepped into Sugar Daddy’s overly large shoes, or so I’d heard. He was the senior Buck Sergeant in that platoon and, although I could over-rule the decision promoting him, I was not about to.
The jungle did not offer anything resembling cut timber, or the ability to make such from the wood of the many species of trees growing around us. The Bishopwood was our best hope, I knew, as it was the dominant species in our area of the A Shau. The trunks of the trees, referred to as ‘bitchwood’ trees by the Marines around me, due to its nature of splitting after being felled over a period of time, were our best hope to build a structure strong enough to allow the Ontos to climb up on the high end of the bridge and then cross over into its new position. The work of gathering enough fallen trunks, since we had no chainsaws or even conventional manual saws, had to be undertaken immediately, since there was no guarantee that the bridge, in its current precarious position, would stay where it was until the work was done, the Ontos was moved, and then the remaining two companies crossed onto the other side.
My foxhole was as it had been and I felt the first relative comfort that I had felt in some time.
“We need another Starlight scope and batteries on resupply,” I murmured to Fusner, my eyes raking back and forth across the river, and then up and down its length, that was barely visible in the astronomical dawn that was taking place. It was hard to make out what was real, and I was left wondering if I was adding things I could not see but could remember from my former views of the river scene, a scene that changed but that I could never seem to completely escape from. The Bong Song was not only running up and down through the middle of the A Shau Valley, but it was also running up and down through the very center of my being.
“Get Cowboy up on the AN 323,” I ordered Fusner, knowing that I had to somehow bring the Skyraiders in on my plan. It would take their relentless suppression in the coming daylight to not only make it possible for us to build a bridge to the bridge but also to prepare enough cover for the resupply chopper to come back in and deliver what we needed, as well as take out wounded and the dead. I wasn’t sure where Sugar Daddy’s body was. As the company commander, I was supposed to certify that he was dead, and then sign off for identification and his body’s removal from the field of combat. Since we’d lost Rittenhouse, so many days ago, however, the responsibilities for clerk-type activity had fallen to Fusner and some Marines in the individual platoons themselves.
Fusner removed my helmet and the liner under it. The Cowboy’s voice came through the tiny speaker from the left side of the headset, as Fusner gently pushed the device down to cover my left ear.
“We’ve got to do the Mersey thing with the beast while we prepare to build a way for it,” I transmitted after Cowboy and I exchanged our normal strange greeting. I did enjoy being called Flash, and I waited for that. I could hear the Skyraiders orbiting high above, and I presumed they were orbiting waiting for us to contact them to let them know what we were doing and for the light to improve. The NVA were not going to miss our attempt to build a ramp to the bridge end but the longer it took for them to figure that out, and then to weigh their own survival against delivering full daylight fire against our effort, the more chance we had in successfully completing that part of the plan.
I waited for a reply from Cowboy. It came in seconds.
“Flash, gotcha, in this place I’ll always stay. I presume Godzilla to be that many tongued dragon thing. There will be three of us on station with twenty sorties each if we manage the system. I am also presuming the target as long as you can keep the other end of the deal.”
I smiled to myself. Cowboy had gotten it all. He knew the Gerry and the Pacemaker’s song so well he’d quoted the first line following mention of ferrying across the Mersey in the song. And he was also saying he couldn’t adequately cover the mudflat leading toward where Hill 975 lay toward the west while his planes lined up and delivered near-continuous fire on the jungle where we needed suppression the most.
“Roger that,” I replied. “Give us full dawn support and we’ll go to work.”
“Busy little beavers down there,” Cowboy answered. “Standing by to cross the line of departure.”
I pulled the headset off, breathing a sigh of relief. Cowboy was using infantry jargon, as there was no ‘line of departure’ for air support. The Skyraiders could stay in the air for three to four hours without refueling and, if they were judicious, they carried enough ordinance to keep any intelligent enemy’s head down. Cowboy was telling me that he would wait for word on when to begin their runs. With three planes they could be overhead, moving down the valley, about every five minutes.
“Get the Gunny, Jurgens, Trath, the other platoon commanders, and the new lieutenants down here,” I ordered Fusner.
The Marines on the line guarding both our rear area and the mudflat, where another attack was bound to come from, wouldn’t need any leadership or supervision to do what they did so well. With daylight coming, the NVA was not about to rush willy-nilly across a flat open surface area covered by several machine guns. Only soon to be dead people charged machine guns in the real world under such conditions.
I listened to Fusner calling in for the medevac and the resupply and was surprised by the detail he was able to give off the top of his head. There was no mention of Sugar Daddy or the identities of anyone being Medevaced, although the black sergeant’s entire being was resurrected before me in the near dark. If I lasted through the years I wondered how I would come to consider the man or any of the Marines around me, and still live. Humanity was a term that could only be applied loosely to any of us, I realized. Training, and even my college major in anthropology, did nothing to explain the descent of modern man and all of his social values when placed in the circumstance we had come to know in the A Shau Valley. Humanity wasn’t the proper word at all. The phrase ‘wounded, agonized moving protoplasm of the walking dead’ was a better fit.
The Gunny was the first to arrive with Jurgens at his elbow. They descended into my expansive foxhole and crawled forward to where I was wedged up against the narrow wall that faced the river. I brought myself down and then turned to face them. Trath showed up but didn’t enter the hole, instead choosing to rest up on the bare ground, where Nguyen and Fusner were already ensconced. I began laying out my new plan, hoping that some solution as to how the downed trunks of the bitch trees could be found, somehow hewn to fit, and then transported to the river bank for installation. It was going to take a lot of tree trunks to make it work because the Ontos could only be expected to climb a certain grade, and although I didn’t know that maximum grade I presumed it wasn’t too great, given the weight distribution of the tracked vehicle.
“We’re going to have to move a lot of dirt here,” I said, without any preamble.
The Gunny stared at me, making no effort or sound in response. I could barely make him and the other men out in the poor light, but I knew I had their full attention. I breathed in and out deeply. I had to bring them into the plan, not just order it I realized or we’d never make it by the time the light of day came and then went into the next deadly night.
“We can’t stay on this side of the river and live,” I began. “They’re going to eventually take and hold the top of the rim. We can’t survive plunging fire from up there and I don’t have accurate enough artillery to destroy them. Airpower works in the day but this next night might be our last unless we get across the river, hold up under the cliff, as before, and then fight our way back to the glacis downriver and beat our way back up to the top of the cliff. From there we return to Ga Noi Island and move toward An Hoa. There’s no relief coming down the valley that’s going to get past Hill 975. The NVA has had too much time to dig, fortify, supply, and then dig and fortify some more. Today we build a buttress to get the Ontos up onto the bridge and across. The Ontos is the key to our night time success on the other side. Resupply and the medevac are coming in this afternoon.”
“How do we build this buttress?” Trath asked.
I looked up at the sergeant intently. There was the glint of intellect in his eyes, and I realized he was not going to be any Sugar Daddy in leading the platoon, and the platoon had lost so many it was also little more than two squads, way down in number from what it had been when I’d joined the company.
“We use Bitchwood fallen trees to form a lattice platform frame. We fill that with dirt. Eight feet by eight feet by three. Then we build a second platform just beyond the first, this one six feet high. The bridge edge is about eight feet off the riverbank. We can lay trunks from the bottom up to the edge using the two platforms to have an angle the Ontos should be able to power up and over.”
I waited when I was done. The AN 323 headset was still on my head but there was no radio traffic.
“You think there are enough fallen trees in this jungle?” the Gunny asked into the silence.
“We have explosives to make more,” I replied, hoping we had enough and hoping the Gunny would buy into the plan.
The two lieutenants finally appeared, moving to lay next to Trath at the edge of the hole.
“You know,” the Gunny said, “if we just blow down a bunch of these trees and then dragged them to the edge and packed them down with the Ontos we might not need to haul any dirt at all, particularly since the dirt is really more mud than anything else.”
I pictured the Gunny’s solution in my mind for a few seconds, not nearly so happy with his variation of the plan as I was that he appeared to be all-in when it came to crossing the river again and making our way back to An Hoa without any orders to do so, and likely orders that would be coming to not do so.
“We can drag the trees with the Ontos and we’ve got plenty of Marines to manipulate the things into a great growing pile near the end of the bridge,” the Gunny stated, obviously thinking his plan through.
I pulled the headset off and handed it up to Fusner. The light was good enough to see everyone.
“Let’s go to work,” I said, hoping that the Gunny’s plan would be at least as good as my own when it came to getting the Ontos across the water, given that the bridge didn’t move again and the enemy could be kept sufficiently suppressed to allow the Marines doing the work to survive while they did it.
“Call Cowboy,” I instructed Fusner. “Tell him to begin his runs in half an hour. "And you two,” I said, pointing at the two new lieutenants with my right index finger. “One of you get back to the Ontos and let them know what’s going on and the other one go to the wall and make sure that end of things is not coming off the rails.”
“I’m not sure about this crossing of the river, Junior,” Jurgens said when the lieutenants were gone, his voice almost too low to hear.
“Other than I need you to go over and provide security at the other end of the bridge and for the coming resupply, what don’t you understand?” I replied, with an edge to my voice, wondering what was going to happen without the strange balance of Jurgens and Sugar Daddy fighting over just about everything.
Jurgens simply glared at me, his eyes tiny shining pools of light coming out of the near darkness.
“You get over and dig in at the other end of the bridge,” I went on. “No more using the bridge for protection, and dig in well enough so that fifty, should they get it up and operational and should we be unable to suppress its fire, can’t get to you.”
“What’s the name of this plan?” Fusner asked, hanging over the lip of the foxhole, hanging onto the headset of the air radio.
“Ferry, Cross the Mersey,” I replied, thinking of Cowboy and how easy it was to communicate with him, and he wasn’t even in front of me.
“What’s a Mersey?” Fusner asked as if reading my mind.
“Think of the Bong Song and the rock and roll song,” I replied, patiently, but wanting to move on as quickly as we could. I had little confidence that we would be able to build what was needed to get the Ontos to the other side before nightfall, and I had a bad feeling about the coming of night.
One single thump and then radiating vibration came from across the river. It was a single drum beat. The NVA was rebuilding its drum base, although not likely in the same place the old location had been. The single thump was followed seconds later by another identical thump. It was going to be a long day, I realized.
“Gunny,” I said, between drum beats. “I want every bit of fire we take today answered by M-60 fire of our own, so distribute the man accordingly. The NVA is
going to figure out what we are up to and that’s going to make them pretty mad since I’m certain they have an extinction plan for us they can’t wait to apply tonight.”
“Okay, that’s it, let’s go,” I said.
Gunny and Jurgens didn’t move.
I didn’t move either, having expected some blowback on my decision to get us out of our current situation by changing positions again so dramatically.
“Call battalion and tell them what we’re planning,” I said to the Gunny.
“Can we talk about that, Junior?” the Gunny replied, although his tone wasn’t argumentative in the least.
“Talk,” I said.
“That glacis, the cliff, just how in hell are we supposed to get up there without losing half our Marines?”
“The 175s,” I answered, before going on. “The 175’s cannot fire down along the face of the eastern wall, so we can’t take any hits there unless an errant round impacted all the way up on top of the plateau. I’ll rain a zone fire down into the valley while we're climbing out and that ought to play hell with any concentrated sniper or machine gunfire.”
“I don’t like it, Junior,” Jurgens said.
“You know they’re coming tonight,” I replied, trying to keep the tone of my voice unemotional. “And you know they’re coming in force. We have no Starlight Scope and our mortar ammo supply is extremely limited. We get across and then get resupplied and wait for just the right moment to go downriver. They’re not going to be expecting this since they’ve likely been listening to the promises of battalion along with us. There is no way they’ll think we might disobey orders and go the other way or fail to hold our position. If you call battalion it’s up to you, but I wouldn’t say anything about our plan over the radio.”
“I didn’t think of that,” Jurgens murmured. “Everyone knows what happened and nobody wants to cross that bridge, including me,” he went on.
“We’re Marines,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. “Tell your Marines about the attack were going to put together, and how we’re going to go through that jungle-like shit through a goose.”
“We’re going to get even for Sugar Daddy?” he said, some level of strange hope in his voice.
“That’s right,” the Gunny joined in, “now get your Marines ready. You need to go now before its full light. Take them by surprise. The enemy knows full well it hurt the hell out of us last night and they won’t be quite ready.”
Jurgens climbed out of the hole without saying another word.
“Get even for Sugar Daddy?” I asked, total disbelief in my tone, once Jurgens was out of earshot.
“It works,” the Gunny replied, “not that I’m at all certain that Ferry Cross the Mersey will. How confident are you?”
“About the same as you,” I said. “But we can’t stay here and we can’t move up along the side of Hill 975 anymore. They’re ready for that, in spades.”
I pulled out MacInerney’s flashlight and turned it on, getting a 1-25,000 map of our area from my thigh pocket. I leaned close into the Gunny and then pointed down at our position, which I’d marked with a small black “X” days before. “We don’t leave our position tomorrow until we have plenty of air support. We attack down the river, through the jungle and along the lower base of the cliff, but this time we have almost four hundred Marines instead of what we had before. And we have the 81 mortars too, after resupply.”
“Is resupply coming?” the Gunny asked, which surprised me. Usually, the man was totally up on all radio traffic, especially on the combat net. Fusner had called it in, I was certain since I’d heard a good part of his transmission.
“You think they’d say they were coming and not show?” I asked, in shock.
“It’s happened,” the Gunny replied. “Our mortality rate has to be about the worst in this war and who wants to come to that party?”
I stopped talking and waited for more, but Gunny had stopped talking also. There was no way I was going to believe that the air guys, chopper pilots, the Skyraider team or even Homan and Thompson would fail to show if they said they were coming. They would have to be dead not to show. I wondered where the Gunny had been and what had happened when he’d somehow failed to get the promised air support he thought was coming, but I wasn't going to ask.
The Gunny pulled out a cigarette and lit it while I waited in silence, the light increasing ever so slightly down at the bottom of my hole. He took a couple of deep drags and then handed the cigarette to me.
“For Sugar Daddy and his men, and for the success of the Mersey thing,” he unexpectedly said.
I took the cigarette and puffed a few times without coughing. The Gunny climbed out of the hole, what was left of his cigarette snapped sparking up into the dim morning light.
I stood and motioned Fusner to me.
“You put the order in for resupply and getting the wounded out and received a positive response?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” Fusner shot right back. “I would have told you right away if they weren’t coming at 1400 sir. Can I turn on my radio?”
I replied in the affirmative, wondering what my next step was to be or if the Gunny was going to implement the taking down of the trees and the stacking process that would have to take place down near the end of the bridge. If the plan didn’t work to get the Ontos across the bridge then the rest of the plan would fall to pieces since we could not hold the clefts under the face of the canyon wall against overwhelming forces coming at us from every direction in the night without the Ontos and night vision gear.
“You have a letter that came in, sir,” Fusner said, handing me a folded over white envelope.
“What” was all I could say, taking the envelope in my shaking right hand, hoping it was from my wife, but it wasn’t I realized instantly. I switched on MacInerney’s flashlight once more. The letter was from the Department of the Army.
Fusner’s radio began its tinny play. Brother John introduced one of the first songs of the day. A song called The Letter played, and as the first words came through the air, driven with power by a strong melody of guitar chords I almost shook my head in weary disappointment: “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane, ain't got time to take a fast train. Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home, my baby, just wrote me a letter.”
I pulled the single sheet of yellow paper from the envelope. The letter wasn’t a letter at all. It was a telegram placed inside an envelope. Tersely, the letter explained that my brother, a second lieutenant in the Army, serving down in Bien Hoa much further south in Vietnam, had been badly wounded and was in the hospital in Yokohama, Japan. Condition Serious, Prognosis Fair.
The song played on, as I sat, leaning against the side of my foxhole, vaguely listening to lyrics that told me I had to get back, but there was no going back, not for me now, and quite likely not for me ever.
The drums beat again, the reverberating vibrations rushing through the air and down into the valley where I sat, pushed against the foxhole wall, alone in a world of hurt and loss, my hand clutching a cold uncaring telegram against my chest. My own letters home would be on the resupply chopper or I would die getting them aboard. It was all I had left. The drums beat again in the far distance and then again inside my foxhole.