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.
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 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.
A line of tracers came out from the jungle. The bombs had fallen, their detonation causing a minor seismic disturbance in the valley, but leaving no following trace that they had gone off at all. The blanketing rain crushed whatever smoke or flying bits and pieces of the jungle, or men there might be, dragging it all back down onto the jungle floor. The NVA were finally figuring out that the Ontos was attempting to cross the bridge. The small arms fire wasn’t from a fifty caliber, however, meaning that the Ontos armor could easily handle any rounds that struck its angled surfaces.
Another sortie of Skyraiders came in this time involving two of the aircraft. They seemed to follow one another at an altitude that could not have been more than a hundred feet off the surface of the fast-moving waters of the river. Cowboy had either seen or had reported to him, that the Ontos was at the most critical part of its journey. Once atop the flat steel surface of the bridge, it would transit to the other side of the river in seconds, where it could turn and direct its deadly 106 mm recoilless rounds against anyone, or thing, that fired upon it. The threat of the beehive rounds would do more to suppress enemy fire than the launching of the missiles themselves, I knew.
The Ontos rocked back and forth near the top of the woodpile that I could not consider, even using my imagination, as any kind of ramp. Chunks of jungle spit backward from its grinding treads, Hutzler was keeping his RPMs at maximum so as not to lose what momentum the ungainly vehicle had. There would be no opportunity for Hutzler to escape the Ontos if it plunged into the river and was lost to its fast-flowing and deep currents.
“Another Silver Star,” the Gunny had murmured before the Ontos had begun its run. “I wouldn’t drive that thing anywhere near that damned river.”
To me, it wasn’t a Silver Star performance. It was Medal of Honor stuff, but that kind of recommendation would die on some officer’s desk somewhere in Washington. The Medal of Honor was awarded politically, and we all knew it. The greatest thing about the award was that the person receiving it was immediately pulled from combat, although the processing of such an outrageous decoration probably took longer than anyone might have left on a combat tour.
It was nearly high noon when the Ontos crested the top of the pile and then lurched forward onto the end of the bridge. From my foxhole, I heard the cheer from the Marines gathered at the river bank. The Gunny came back to my hole at a run, his radioman trailing a bit behind. Everything seemed to be happening at once. The enemy opened up with a serious barrage of small arms fire, two more Skyraiders screamed down the valley and the Ontos built up speed as it crossed the bridge in order to jump the small gap it would need to cross at the other end.
“Idiots,” the Gunny hissed out as he slithered under the poncho covers and crawled on hands and knees to my side... We knelt together, taking in the scene before us.
“There’s nothing for the NVA to shoot at except for our cheering Marines, but I could not stop them from exposing themselves and cheering. The Ontos is impervious. The enemy might as well be shooting BB guns at it.”
I didn’t reply, as none was necessary. I presumed that Jurgens and his platoon were dug in on the far side of the bridge, as they’d been ordered to do. Once he and his men had crossed the bridge near dawn, they’d simply disappeared. There was no point calling them on the combat net because there was nothing to say, except wait, and they were already doing that. Their mission was to remain inactive unless the enemy stupidly chose to mount an infantry attack on the Ontos, and then to provide as much counter-fire and boots on the ground support to get the supplies from the expected chopper and up into the clefts under the face of the far canyon wall. Jurgens would also have to provide machine gun coverage for the crossing and arrival of the remaining Marines in both companies.
“I don’t want to wait,” I said to the Gunny, who had taken out a cigarette and was lighting it. I noted for the first time that his hands shook a bit. The project had taken a toll on him, I realized for the first time and his slightly shaking hands had an effect on me that ran deep. The Gunny was my rock and it didn’t feel good at all to think that he might be scared, or deeply affected by what was going on.
“Yeah” the Gunny replied, “Sugar Daddy and the wounded have to be over there when that chopper comes in. There’s no way the choppers are going to linger around on such a hot landing zone,”
“What is it?” I asked gently, not looking at the Gunny, concentrating on the final run of the Ontos as it came up to speed, and then quickly drove across the bridge to jump to the other side.
The Gunny hesitated a few seconds, blowing out a puff of smoke into the rain, which was now coming down hard.
“I don’t want to cross that damned bridge again,” he eased out, the words coming slow, “and I don’t want to hole up in those caves like a rat waiting to be ferreted out and killed.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see Fusner and Nguyen pressed against the back wall of my foxhole. I was uncomfortable with what the Gunny was saying but I was even more uncomfortable that not only were Fusner and Nguyen hearing it but that the Gunny didn’t care that they were hearing it.
I knew it wasn’t the Gunny’s fear that was bothering him. He’d been very close, in his way, to Sugar Daddy and was most assuredly so with Jurgens. I didn’t know about myself, but it was difficult, in spite of his distant attitude and sometimes insulting behavior to ignore the fact that he had taken me in, guided me and taught me everything he could to help me to survive. I sensed that there was no solace or succor I could give him that would not cause even a worse reaction. We had to get back to the plan and we both had to endorse it enthusiastically, or none of it would matter.
“Fusner ordered a hundred rounds of the 81 mm mortar ammo, which should stand us well at the clefts,” I said, changing the subject completely.
We were all going over the bridge and we were all going to hole up on the other side until we were ready to once again take on the NVA in a full-frontal attack. We had never failed when attacking them. We took most of our casualties when we were on the run or exposed, like with Sugar Daddy and his Marines at the bridge. Under the curl of the canyon wall, the enemy could not reach us even using the sparse RPGs they had or their version of our fifty caliber machine guns. The 175s from the Army firebase couldn’t reach us under there either. With luck, we would be able to draw on Puff once more, lay waste to the jungle with one zone fire after another with the 175s and then attack while the NVA was down, hurt or at least in complete shock. Our attack would be to pass through them, not wipe them out or engage, except where they engaged us.
“When?” the Gunny asked, finishing his cigarette and snapping the small remainder out into the open air, which was mostly falling water and not air at all.
“Resupply comes in at 1400,” I replied. “We cross over at 1300, and then get our defensive fire positions set up during the ensuing hour.”
“Fusner told me about your brother,” the Gunny said, pulling the subject out of mid-air like it had been floating there all along, just waiting.
I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared at him.
“Who was he with?” the Gunny asked.
“The Big Red One, and I presume he’s still with them,” I replied, not liking the past tense being used on my brother, at least not yet.
A prognosis of ‘fair’ was not good, I knew, but, according to Fusner, such assessments were invariably written as worse than the reality might be. I knew nothing about Naval or Army procedures or actions at their military hospitals. Mostly, we sent the wounded out on choppers and that was the end of that. We never got them back and never even got to know if they survived or not. The Army hadn’t notified me about my brother. They’d sent the telegram to my parents and my parents had forwarded it to me with an address change.
“You get along?” the Gunny asked, no emotion in his voice.
I was growing increasingly uncomfortable but could not avoid the Gunny’s direct questions, and at least it took us away from the fears he had mentioned, although I knew those were just a substitute for his not being able to grieve openly over the loss of Sugar Daddy.
“Not all the way along the line,” I answered, truthfully. “Only my senior year in college when both of us had to move home to save money. At that point, I think both of us agreed that we were really pretty good brothers compared to what was out there. Yes, we got along.” I only realized as the words left my mouth, that I too was referring to my brother in the past tense.
“We get along,” I added, knowing the words sounded weak.
“I’ll get everyone ready, and I don’t want to wait either,” the Gunny said, suddenly energized as if the talk of my wounded brother had somehow done something to pop him out of his depression.
“Fast. We have to move fast. Call Cowboy and see if all three Skyraiders can come down the valley one after another, about three minutes apart and tell him to drop plenty of ordnance. That will give us nine to maybe twelve minutes to cross and get under cover before the enemy recovers and pays attention. And we have nine flechette rounds left for the Ontos. When the Skyraiders come in the Ontos can stand by to take out anything that opens up if we’re not fully undercover in time. Then it can back its way up to our position, like before.”
The Gunny got up and climbed out of the foxhole without another word or waiting for a response. Nguyen followed him out into the rain for no good reason I could think of. Fusner turned up his little radio as I went back to my position against the rough hardened mud wall of my foxhole that faced the river.
Brother John introduced a new song that he said was going to be an international hit, whatever that meant. International because it had come from some sort of Russian folk song. I waited for the song to come and watched the Ontos reorient itself carefully on the other side of the river, its six deadly tubes aimed directly at the jungle area where real trouble always came from and probably would always come from.
“Once upon a time there was a tavern, where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we laughed away the hours, and think of all the great things we would do…” came out of Fusner’s radio.
I knew in seconds that the song would be a big hit. There was something longing about it, longing for a younger more positive past. When the chorus hit “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…” I was convinced. Whatever the melody, the lyrics were about all of us serving in the war, particularly those of us not likely to survive.
The Gunny reappeared the two newer lieutenants at his side, with all three radio operations behind them. He didn’t enter the foxhole, instead, he went to one knee and sticking his head under the tarp.
“You’re going over with the first wave before the NVA truly grasps what we’re doing. The planes are due in five minutes. Get your stuff together and go for it. Jurgens is waiting on the other side. Get his men up to the cleft with the Ontos. We won’t come until you let us know the defensive M-60s are in place and the Ontos ready to open fire.” He pulled his head out and was gone.
“Okay, Fusner, it might be my plan but the Gunny’s running with it. Let’s do our part and get the hell over there. At least the makeshift mess of a ramp will let us run up and right over.”
I scrambled for my helmet, liner, and pack, having already checked to see that my letters home were securely in my thigh pocket, along with the supply of morphine I hoped to never need again. I felt more than heard the Skyraiders in the distance, so I knew they had to be racing toward us down the valley. The one sound that never left, and immediately came to the forefront, even though the murky misty rain, was that of the lone drum, beating its single solitary sound every half a minute or so. Sometimes it could be tuned out, but it always came back to all of us living under its implied threat. I wondered if maybe the Skyraiders might save one bomb to dump on the top of the ridge again.
The Gunny had left the two lieutenants behind. I climbed out of the hole, detaching my poncho from the others, as Fusner and Nguyen sought to do the same thing. The lieutenants stood like lost children in the rain as if school was out and they had no idea of where to go.
“Follow me,” I said, waving one arm toward the river as I moved out.
I almost smiled at the ridiculousness of the command. Seldom, if ever, in real jungle combat, do officers physically lead their Marines. The point is simply too dangerous a place to be and, aside for officers thought to be so incompetent that they are removed by their own men, generally, officers are too valuable to risk by having them right out front as fully exposed moving targets. Nevertheless, I moved fast down the berm and right up onto the pile of wood and debris with the lieutenants, Fusner and Nguyen being trailed by a massed group of Marines. I looked over my shoulder as I climbed the pile. I was finally leading Marines in combat.
The crossing was fast, low and without incident. There was no fire from the jungle, but then we’d lain down on the hard steel surface of the bridge to await the arrival of the first Skyraider. When it passed rapidly overhead, I got up and ran for the other side of the river. When I exited the bridge by jumping across the three-foot opening between it and the bank, although at the same level, I was no longer leading anything or anyone. The Marines went by me as if I was standing still, each of them carrying packs at least three times the size of my own. The second Skyraider was coming in. How could it have been three minutes I wondered. I felt like I’d left the other bank only seconds before. The Marines ran full out toward the far wall across the hardened mudflat. I passed the place where the battalion delegation had died, the holes where the NVA had set in to surprise us. I ran on toward the canyon wall at a trot, ridiculously hopeful that none of the Marines passing me would take my particular cleft, the one that had been the most comfortable and safest place I’d spent time in since being in country.
The mudflat, and then the berm before the wall, became a hotbed of activity, as the Marines went about setting up machine gun positions against the backside of it.
The Ontos moved slowly toward us, backing, with its six deadly tubes always pointed at the jungle. No fire came from the enemy, but it was only mid-day and our air support was at its most effective and forceful. ‘
My cleft was deserted and I felt great relief, tossing my pack inside the cave and then turning to lay against the berm and consider what might be done, if anything. The third Skyraider came in. There were still Marines crossing the bridge, I realized. The crossing was taking more time than either the Gunny or I had planned for.
“Get Cowboy and have him swing back right away,” I yelled over my shoulder to Fusner, still unloading his gear inside the cleft.
“He’s coming back for another run anyway, sir, but they’re running low on ordnance,” Fusner yelled back.
I breathed in and out deeply. The Gunny still had to make it over and the enemy was going to be rearing its ugly head at any second. The two newer lieutenants joined me, laying down with their chests resting on the berm, like my own.
“What do you want us to do?” one of them asked. I didn’t bother to look over at the man. The two lieutenants were proving to be compliant and willing to do whatever they were told. I could not fault them for that. But the Marine companies, particularly my own, ran almost automatically, and I feared that the lieutenants might attempt to make modifications to procedures long-established and get themselves killed in the process.
“There’s nothing to be done here,” I said, my full attention on the bridge and the Marines crossing, worrying about how long it would take Cowboy to swing back around. The Ontos was there, idling away nearby, but every round we didn’t have to expend on the crossing we would have available for protecting the resupply choppers and then getting on through what was going to be a difficult night.
“Go on up and down the line and check the M-60 positions. Let me know how many we have and whether they’re set up or not.”
The lieutenants didn’t move.
“Now,” I hissed at them, still not taking my eyes off the bridge.
I saw the Gunny start across. I was shocked to see Nguyen with him, just off his right shoulder and a little behind. I hadn’t seen Nguyen in the crossing and now I knew why. He was looking after the Gunny as he looked after me. I wondered if the Gunny knew or even cared. They both ran, their bodies bent over, keeping them from running at top speed but offering a bit more security from getting hit from flying shrapnel blowing back from the Skyraider’s bombs.
Cowboy was back. I heard his plane beginning its run further up the valley.
I pulled myself from the berm and moved fast on hands and knees to where the Ontos sat. I crawled up to the back and opened the hatch.
“Hutzler, give me one round of flechette and put it right into the outer edge at the center of the jungle. I want them to know you're here and loaded for bear. When that’s done then back up to the face as close as you can get while still keeping your aim point.”
“Yes, sir, Junior,” Hutzler replied. “Get away from the rear and make sure I’m clear.”
I pulled back, closed the double steel doors and then raced back to my former position, wondering if I should have shared with Hutzler the coming 175 artillery barrage.
I covered my ears just as the 106 went off, the round tracking straight to the edge of the jungle and then exploding with a great fireworks display, as the tiny flechettes interacted with the falling rain at extremely high speed. Trails of vapor were everywhere. The Skyraider came in. The Gunny was crossing the mudflat with Nguyen at his side. The plan was working, at least so far.
If we made it back to Ga Noi Island I wondered if I would be able to get some sort of emergency leave to visit my brother in Japan. I doubted it but the idea gave me some hope. I’d only come to like my brother lately but since I had I now didn’t want to lose him in the worst way. The Gunny crossed the berm and disappeared up the trail that ran along the back edge. Nguyen came toward me. I didn’t have to signal him. I simply turned and headed into my part of the cleft structure that ran along under the cliff face edge. The Skyraider dropped its bombs. We’d made it and not lost a Marine in the process.
A great explosion came from the river area. I raced to the opening of the cave and ran back to the berm. A cloud of debris had risen right up through the falling rain. The bridge moved. I then knew why the Gunny had waited until everyone else was across. He’d blown the bridge. Ever so slowly the bridge moved downriver until it disappeared past the edge of the jungle area. There would be no going back. It was hole up, batter the hell out of the jungle. and then attack toward the glacis and escape up into the forest at the top of the wall. As with so many of my other plans, there simply wasn’t one other course of action to be taken.