No fewer than fifty Marines worked to drag the downed trees and jungle foliage up to the end of the bridge, and then secure it to the structure using the ropes that had been tied to make a cargo net for unloading the last resupply chopper and getting the supplies across the bridge and onto the near bank. The Gunny guided the Ontos, while small explosive sounds came across from behind my foxhole position, in one staccato run after another. There would be plenty of trees, but would the wildly chaotic structure that was being assembled be enough to allow the Ontos to ride up on the bridge itself, and then cross to the other side?

The twelfth Skyraider sortie was coming down the valley. Each of the giant-engined beasts flew as low as possible over the churning floodwaters of the Bong Song.

The rain had begun coming down in a steady series of sheets, with a mild wind driving the sheets over the lip of the eastern wall and then down into the valley and right across the river. It was hypnotic to watch the sheets approach. Fusner and Nguyen had worked to get our poncho covers linked and pegged down, with shallow runnels of water tracing their way around the foxhole to make sure the mildly flooding mud bank did not fill the bottom of the hole.

There had been no fire from the jungle, nor had any fire come out of the dug-in tunnel exits of Hill 975 across the free fire mudflat near the canyon wall on our other flank. First light had come and gone an hour earlier, although the sun had not risen high enough above the dense cloud cover to allow great visibility down in the valley. The rain sheets came and what light there was seemed to lessen appreciably when they struck. The hard-working Marines were fully visible to me but would most probably remain still unseen by the enemy filling the jungle area just downriver from our position. The NVA would know by now what we were doing, but possibly not why, and it was still unlikely, I felt, that they would have figured out we were about to come back across a river we’d crossed only a short time earlier.

The Gunny rushed up the small berm from the back of the bridge where the Marines worked with the Ontos to my foxhole. Both he and his radio operator slipped under the poncho tarps. With Fusner and Nguyen already occupying the hole, along with myself, it was decidedly crowded, and the Gunny and his radioman were both sopping wet. I motioned with my eyes toward the back where Nguyen was pressed against the far rough surface. He caught my look and was gone in seconds, his departure only noticed by Fusner and me.

“This part may work, as long as the Skyraiders can stay on station pounding them down,” the Gunny said, unloading a dry towel from his pack and then wiping his neck and face.

“It’s got to work and work pretty fast,” I replied, peering back out to try to take in the mess of piles of trees and other debris that seemed to heap up and cover the back end of the bridge.

“What about the water rushing three feet deep around the back of the bridge?” I inquired.

“We intertwined a lot of the smaller tree trunks into the cargo net you made,” the Gunny replied, working to light a cigarette and then hunkering down to the bottom of the hole to go to work and make a cup of coffee. “When the Ontos goes up the pile, which is going to be higher than the lip of the bridge, it’ll press down everything. It weighs almost ten tons.”

“I worry about the center of gravity,” I replied. “The guns weigh about three hundred pounds each, not including the fifty caliber siting rifles. That’s a ton of weight added to the turret. If the Ontos goes over, then it is lost and we may be lost with it.”

“It’s your plan,” the Gunny said, finally getting his cigarette lit. When he began heating his water the explosive we all used in place of heat tabs gave off its smoke and odor. Between the cigarette smoke and the burning Composition B fumes, the foxhole was almost uninhabitable.

“It’s my plan but you’re working hard to implement it,” I replied, trying to be as diplomatic as possible. “Will the modification you made, of simply heaping all that jungle trash in one place, serve to allow a ten-ton vehicle to climb up and reach the back of the bridge?”

“There’s no telling,” the Gunny replied. “They’re working away at it. We didn’t have the time to build platforms and then lay down carefully cut tree trunks for the Ontos to drive up on. The riverbank mud would never hold anyway, even with what forms we could fashion. Either this works or it doesn’t.”

“What if it doesn’t?” I asked, at wit’s end.

“Then you’ll come up with another plan,” the Gunny replied, sipping his coffee, puffing on his cigarette between swigs.

I had no other plan, as was generally the case. So far, in my time in the valley, there’d usually been just one way out or at least the chance of one way out, and we’d been lucky. Now we had almost a full complement of two companies of Marines, run by three junior lieutenants and a salty war-experienced Gunny, but with very little room in which to operate. Battalion had little knowledge, that it would accept, about our situation. What’s more, it didn’t seem to care what we did or where we were. Only a little less than a month earlier I had terrible trepidation and fear of not obeying battalion’s orders, but now I really never even took the time to think about it. The battalion command post was in the rear with the gear area and its sum total of understanding had been well illustrated when the six actual had sent his best friend, with a delegation, to check on us. The body bags he’d received back had been credited to me personally. The Gunny, and all of the other Marines, save maybe Fusner and Nguyen, didn’t understand. We were never going to be relieved, nor taken back into the rear area for rest and recovery.

Jungle Rain

The Gunny was true to his word, as I watched the Marines work right on through the onset of new waves of heavy rain coming down. The pile grew and lengthened. I realized that the plan might work if the current didn’t destroy the base of what was being built before the Ontos could press down hard enough on the whole thing to gain traction and climb the distorted mess of a pile.

The Ontos finally began its run, Hutzler hitting the gas. The tracked vehicle ground its way into the pile of tree trunks, stumps and other jammed together debris the Marines had so painstakingly blown, pulled or scraped from the jungle area near the river. The ten-ton tracked vehicle, powered only by its small 145 horsepower GMC engine, moved very slowly, as it began to climb the mess of the pile that was supposed to act as a ramp.

A-1 Skyraider

A Skyraider flew low through the rain, the air misting when it was between the heavy wind-blown sheets. The Skyraiders huge radial engine grew louder and louder until the Ontos motor could not be heard at all. There was a pattern to the Skyraider sorties and this one, whether it was piloted by Cowboy or not, was impossible to ascertain without getting back on the radio, followed that pattern precisely. It let go with a brief shattering stutter of 20 mm cannons mounted in its wings, and then dropped two five hundred pound ‘snake-eye’ bombs. Then it was gone back up above the thick clouds. The Ontos fought to remain upright as it climbed the pile of wood-studded debris while I literally held my breath.