I examined the great stone wall, the wall that rose up from the bottom of the valley for a full thousand feet, vertically rising without big enough cracks, hand-holds or other features to allow it to be climbed without serious mountaineering equipment. The 175’s had done their job by blowing the hell out of the jungle portion of the valley nearby but what worried me was the amount of debris that had impacted against the lower part of the canyon wall, along its lower edge, where the company would be strung out and moving. I’d examined the wall before we’d pulled out with my flashlight (muffled using a pair of socks over the lens). Calling in another fire mission on the jungle, what with the inaccuracy of the rounds fired beyond the gun’s effective range, had resulted in plenty of blown bamboo, fern and tree trunks being driven into the side of the lower cliff with such force that much of it had struck at speeds that left bits seemingly glued into the stone itself. Much of the debris, if I fired another zone while the company was pressed against the wall and trying to move downriver, might cause serious injuries, if not death, to many of our own Marines.
The Gunny was there, and he was close to me, but not saying anything.
I felt that he was looking up, but the only visible thing in the night was the red tip of the cigarette he held down at his right side. I didn’t like that he smoked when we were so close and exposed to a hidden enemy, but I said nothing. Some 175 rounds had fallen short. I’d felt their explosions down through the thousand or so feet of rock all the way into the cave. It was too much to hope that the drummers had been killed and their barrels blown to pieces, but whatever damage had been done had at least caused them to pause, maybe long enough for the entire company to get far enough down the river to never hear them again.
“It’s not your fault, it has to be done,” the Gunny said, taking a hit from his cigarette. “It’s a good plan and you’re going to pull a lot of Marines in this company through.”
“Thank you,” I replied, hoping the Gunny wasn’t talking about what I suspected he was talking about.
“Kilo’s over there and beginning to move downriver,” the Gunny went on, filling me with a sense of weary trepidation.
“They’re going to be hit on their left flank from the jungle, no matter how much firepower we put into trying to suppress that,” the Gunny said, waving the burning tip of the cigarette close to me. “They’re going to take heavy fire from the NVA across the river I helped prevent from coming over. And you can’t call in any more 175s for them because the fire mission would likely kill everyone in the company rather than protect them.”
“That’s one analysis,” I said, but my voice had gone to a whisper all on its own.
“You sacrificed Kilo to save us,” the Gunny continued, his words beating into me like the strokes on the drums from above had but with much more agonizing force.
“Nobody else is going to thank you, and not too many will be around to even figure it out.”
I couldn’t say anything. I looked and listened over my shoulder for Fusner but he was too far behind me to have heard what the Gunny said, and Nguyen, was as close as the Gunny was on my other side, gave no indication he’d heard anything.
“Thank you,” I replied to the Gunny, again.
I hadn’t planned to sacrifice Kilo company. Two companies of Marines, strung out along the base of the cliff, would have taken a terrible beating, even with the ability to call in 175s for covering fire. At the very least, the blown bamboo stalks, blown off branches from the trees, and other shrapnel-related debris would have taken a terrible toll. Splitting our forces made all the sense in the world to me, although I had to admit I hadn’t considered the NVA across the river who would be able to set up and fire across the water and right into Kilo’s right flank.
The artillery and the volume of machine-gun fire sweeping the smoking remains of the jungle had done their work. The Ontos had fired some high explosive rounds but had no target for the flechettes. The southern end of the A Shau had fallen into a silence unbroken by high-velocity weapon fire or exploding pyrotechnics. Only the sound of the misting drops of rain, falling on the stiffly brittle material of ponchos, and the faulty cushioned metal of combat helmets made any noise at all. That and the General Motors six-cylinder puffing and pouting its way along – half on the path and half in the jungle just in front of me.
How the Gunny had come to his conclusion, that left me as the coldest killer working to save some remnants of the company, I had no idea, and I was cut to the quick that he would arrive at such a result in his thinking. My hand swept briefly to the outside of my thigh pocket where my letter home to my wife was securely and safely tucked away. I was a good husband and a good man, no matter what had happened or what I had done. I had to gamble that somehow, the tattered, dirty and nearly unprincipled officer I’d become was not descriptive of the man I really was, and hoped to one day be again.
The volume of fire was too significant and continuous for the artillery to have been truly effective in providing suppression, and that small arms fire was flowing almost exclusively toward the river, where Kilo, having made it to the mud bank, was trying to move down and arrive at the glacis near the bottom, where the jungle ended.
Our company’s base of fire was ineffective, as the M-60 7.62 mm bullets could only reach into our side of the jungle’s interior before being absorbed by the mass of the triple canopy jungle. The radio contact I’d thought to have with the lieutenants running Kilo was there but communications were heated, disjointed mostly broken and many times not really there at all. Kilo had to be partially pinned down on the far riverbank, and there was no way we could relieve or even reach them. The jungle was too thick, and the ages-old fallen debris that served as its floor was impossible for the Ontos to get through or over. I pushed my back carefully and with light pressure against the brush gathered in dense but thin stalks alongside the path that ran close to the undercut face of the cliff. The vertical bracken was taller than me but not by much. Fusner and Nguyen came through the opening I made and quickly squatted down near me as I forced myself under the lip of the lower cliff. There was no deep cave. like I’d inhabited higher up and closer to the river, but my position would have to do for what I had to do.
“Call Kilo and let them know they need to get down, and possibly dig in a bit, as support is coming in,” I ordered Fusner. Tell them that they’ve got to move and move fast once the firing is over. Then call the battery and give them the second fire mission. It’ll take about ten minutes for the battery to be up and firing though.”
“Unless they’re waiting by their guns to pull the lanyards for you, Junior,” the Gunny said, as he wedged his way through the hole I’d made. “They don’t have time to dig in and that’s not the call they can make and live. They’ve got to run for it down the river while the barrage is coming down, and we have to give them as much covering fire as we can from over here so the enemy keeps its head down. It’s the only chance they have.”
“You’re right,” I replied, as soon as he was done talking.
“We go down our side when the fire mission is over,” the Gunny said. “Kilo will still command most of the attention of the NVA, and they’re still afraid of the Ontos, so we should have an easier time of it making the transit.”
I wished I could turn the flashlight on, even in its most muted state, so I could read the Gunny’s expression or look into his unflinching black eyes. Kilo was being sacrificed, just as the Gunny had predicted, and just how he’d described the awful sacrifice as being something I intended and planned from the beginning.
The fire mission rounds came in, on and off-target, and they came in after only a delay of about three minutes. The Gunny was right, again. Some rounds struck the top of the rim above our position and rained small, and not so small, broken off pieces of stone down on much of the valley below. Some rounds also struck the Bong Song river, unseen in the night, but the sound of tons of water rising up and then plunging down again had a certain eerie quality all of its own. There was no longer any understandable radio traffic with Kilo. Our company was on the move, Fusner, Nguyen, and I following the Ontos, its guns angled in toward the jungle but not firing. With the artillery going off everywhere to our right flank there were really no targets to shoot at and the ability of 106 rounds fired on a flat arc from so low wouldn’t have enough of a shocking effect to accomplish anything.
Parts of the jungle debris splattered everywhere, forcing every Marine in the company to hunker down low as we moved, use the limited cover of the lower eaten out complex at the base of the cliff, and count on ponchos, poncho covers, and metal helmets to stop whatever impacted on them personally. For the first time since being in country I sorely missed the flak jackets that had been issued in the rear, but quickly discarded by one and all, including me, because of their weight, the heat they held in close to the body, and their ineffectiveness at stopping any kind of personal weapons fire.
The small hundred and forty-five horse engine of the Ontos puffed away, its double muffler system making the machine quiet enough but the baffling, or the design of the 302 cubic inch GM engine itself, made the moving sound of the small but vicious tank a bit eerie and threatening. The NVA seldom fired on it directly, preferring not to have the 106 rifles fire flechette rounds back.
I took in the bluish exhaust through my nose as I walked behind the slow-moving tank, able to move along quite easily at an angle because of having one of its tracks atop the hard narrow path and the other pressed into the soft vegetation the jungle’s edge offered under the other track.
The Gunny appeared from behind me.
“Drums have quit,” he said.
I hadn’t noticed, my mind on other things, but in noting his words I was relieved. One small thing, but it was enough to make me feel better about the whole, nearly hopeless, mission we were engaged in.
“You’re right,” I whispered out, but then realized the Gunny was gone.
All three of us immediately behind the armored vehicle worked at not coughing from its fumes, while at the same time blessing the same fumes for covering the obnoxious sweet-sour smell of rotten river-bottom mud, old plant matter and also, vaguely, the sharper copper smell of human blood. That aroma revealed to me that the NVA had not all gone down into their tunnels and caves to avoid the barrage. Some had stayed up to man weapons and fire into the left side of Kilo’s unprotected flank.
The Gunny showed up again, from somewhere in the night, and grabbed my left arm at the bicep.
“Over here, Junior,” he said, making no attempt to keep his voice low.
He pulled me toward the cliff face, through the brush beyond the very low berm it grew up on, and then alongside the Ontos.
“Keep the Ontos between you and the fire, artillery or otherwise,” he said. “They don’t shoot at the Ontos at all.”
The Gunny was gone as soon as he stopped talking. I moved with the Ontos, like I had done behind it, the exhaust aroma gone and a bit of a relief for that being the case, but the torn dead and dying smell of the jungle fully replaced its discomfort. Fusner and Nguyen were right along with me, I knew, in spite of the fact that I couldn’t see or hear them. Blind, with hearing only for obnoxious overpowering sounds, having a sense of smell so dominated that my sense of taste went right with it, I only had touch left as a contact to the real world. My hands remained free, my map returned to my pocket, and my Colt automatic never having left its holster. There was nothing for me to shoot at, and not likely to be, although in the back of my mind that I had felt that way before and had to use it. My mission was to move and save both companies to the best of my ability. Thinking those thoughts, I realized, and for the first time, it occurred to me that I really was a company commander and not whatever it was that I’d been before.
Kilo had to be moving because the fire that rose up again as the artillery rounds stopped falling increased. There was no fire coming into my own company’s right flank at all. The company was moving rapidly down the path along the base of the cliff almost unopposed.
I moved to the side and a bit back in the dark to where I thought Fusner was until I ran into his left shoulder.
“A lot of the fire over there is coming from the other side of the Bong Song,” I said, in a forced whisper.
The lowering of my voice was probably not necessary, given the penetrating loudness of the exploding artillery rounds and then the sharp chattering of small arms fire in the near distance, but the ending of the barrage had created a sort of strange shattered silence all of its own. I knew the effect wasn’t real but my reflexes responded to it anyway.
“Have Nguyen get into the back of the Ontos and stop the thing for a minute or so.”
Fusner scrambled away. Almost instantly the Ontos stopped, although its little six-cylinder motor continued to idle away.
I got down on my hands and knees and eased myself forward. I didn’t need to get into the vehicle. I needed to crawl under it. Once there I pulled my poncho over my head, reached into my right thigh pocket to retrieve my map, and then turned on the flashlight. I was ready for the bright light, my eyes slit down to cracks in order to be able to quickly take in the map I spread across the packed wet mess of path mud. The Bong Song River ran down straight from our former position where the bridge had been. It flowed past the upturned tank and then curved toward the east, toward where we were now, before sharply curving back for a bit before straightening out and flowing all the way down to pass the glacis where we were all headed. The quick glance was all I needed. The distances and perspectives automatically clicked inside my head. I turned the flashlight off, pulled back from the Ontos, and then got the poncho situated where it needed to be to allow me to see, although I could see nothing. It wasn’t only dead dark blackout but I was night blind, as well, from the effects of the bright flashlight.
“I want another zone fire from the 175s,” I ordered Fusner. “I want it put down on the jungle along the other side of the river,” I continued when I realized that Fusner was so close we were rubbing against one another. “The battery will have less trouble with both range and deflection since it’s more of a straight gun-target line kind of shoot. Have them use a ‘right four hundred from the gun-target line’ and fire for effect with the zone extending seven hundred meters in range, and tell them to expedite the mission. Ten minutes of prep time to get it going won’t save Kilo.”
The Ontos began moving again. I knew Nguyen must have given them the word although, with all the noise of everything going on around us the sound of the Ontos armored rear doors opening or closing didn’t even make it partially through the membranes of my damaged hearing.
I moved, bent over, even though I enjoyed the protection of the Ontos on my right side. I wondered about the dead and wounded. There would be no evacuation when we finally made it to the glacis. There was no place for helicopters to land. That meant, since there was cleared open areas at the top of the climb, that anything that made it to the choppers from down below was going to have to be carried, and carried while more than likely under fire.
The 175s came whistling by, high in the night. I hadn’t heard the “shot, over,” or the “splash” warning alerts, but the whistling of the fast-moving big rounds had come through. I cringed a bit as the concussion from the impacting explosions began. They were so far away, at well over four hundred meters, that no debris was thrown through the night, not making it as far away as I was located, anyway. I knew that Kilo wasn’t being so lucky. They’d likely had no warning of the barrage, were subject to its effects, even if there were no rounds that accidentally crossed the river, and then the continuation of the fire coming from the jungle into their left flank went on and on and on. Our company was in a mess but Kilo was in living hell, soon to be a dead hell for so many Marines. Hopalong Cassidy, the plan, and its results were certainly not going to be comparable to anything seen or heard on a Saturday morning matinee for kids back home.
“We may have a chance at dawn, Junior,” the Gunny said, his voice the only notice that I had that he was again with me.
I wondered, briefly, whether what the Gunny was doing, circulating everywhere up and down our line of travel was something I should have been doing myself.
“Chance for what?” I asked.
“We cleared a good bit of jungle last time we were here, so it should still be pretty clear,” the Gunny replied, holding the red sparkling coal of his cigarette in front of my face.
I took a deep inhalation of the smoke, not really caring about smoking or its effect, but rather on simply accepting whatever the Gunny gave me. It was also a way to wait, without coming across as a questioning idiot, before the Gunny continued.
“We get choppers in, and then we get the gunships with them,” the Gunny said, taking the cigarette back. “Then we get what we can of our wounded Marines out and stall to keep the gunships rotating while we climb. Cowboy will be coming but he can only be overhead for seconds before having to rotate around again. The gunships can sit there and provide the cover we need to get up that damned rock.”
“What about Kilo, since they’ll be there climbing before us?” I asked.
“Your plan takes care of that, Junior,” the Gunny replied, taking in a breath of smoke into his own lungs.
I wondered if, when it was all done, if I was still alive, whether the plan to get out of the valley wouldn’t go down as the Sacrifice Kilo plan, no matter what my intentions had been, and still were.
“Let’s get the choppers in for Kilo when they reach the cliff,” I said, but with timber in my voice. “We’ll take our own chances with Cowboy and Homan. Those guys will work it out.”
The explosions coming from across the river finally stopped and the small arms fire died with it.
Was Kilo even going to be an issue? Had the enemy killed many of them and me the rest? There would be no resolution to those questions until we reached the top of the cliff, I knew.
“You heard what I ordered?” I asked the Gunny, but there was no answer. He was gone again. I was alone. With Fusner, Nguyen, Hutzler and the company Marines around me, but, even with that and them, I was alone.