There existed no corridor through the jungle, like the one that cut through the undergrowth located on the other side of the river. There, the night before, it had been easy to move back and forth through that protected passage to communicate, supply, reinforce, attack, and even defend against the opposing enemy. The jungle Nguyen, Fusner, and I crawled through was something else again. The ‘floor’ we moved over consisted of packed fern leaves, stalks, bamboo, palm fronds, and much more in the way of mashed fetid flora and infesting small fauna. The mass was packed down to the point that it allowed for working across its surface but that surface also came apart in awful rain-soaked handfuls when it was attempted to be grasped or pulled at. The only way to proceed at all was to push one’s body forward with legs spread, using that lower pressed down weight to surge in waves, allowing only hard-fought inch by inch forward progress to be made.
My decision to immediately dive into the jungle and make for where Kilo Company was somehow pinned down against the river had been instantly made and without notification. The Gunny would not have approved, I knew, and he’d probably have been right. But I was driven. Kilo had been ‘sacrificed’ twice before by my actions, and giving them up to save myself, or even my company wasn’t something I could live with, and I knew it way down deep. I’d told Hutzler and he’d come up with the idea of giving us some covering fire, as long as we moved in a straight line from the Ontos to the river. There was no let-up from the steady rain. I was reminded of some old writing I’d read in my youth about Chinese water torture, wherein drops of water were beaten steadily down on a victim’s forehead until that victim went insane. Was I going insane? Was I already insane? I grasped my muddy wet hand down to my muddy wet pocket, where my letter home to my wife was tucked inside of its sealed and protective plastic bag. I had a home. I had a wife. I had a daughter. I could not afford to be insane. I could not afford to die and let them be turned loose in a world that was much more dangerous and unforgiving than they would ever comprehend. They would never comprehend if I lived. I gave no orders to Nguyen or Fusner. I knew I didn’t have to. I simply told them where we were going. Neither man said anything. If I lived, I wondered at that second, whether I would ever have more willing, more loyal, or more trusting men around me in my life again.
The non-stop raindrops beat down on my helmet, blocking out all sounds except those of the AK-47 fire being generated all around us. There was no real seeing of anything, in our punishing reality. How some leaves and other debris gave off a bit of sparkle or nuance of stop-action visibility was a product of reflected muzzle flashes that somehow crossed the distance to illuminate them with tiny packets of light. I tried to move as fast as possible through the smelly decaying mess, not to get through the other side, and Kilo, so much as the distance to us from the guns of the Ontos. Hutzler was preparing to cover our rear and flanks by firing flechette rounds behind us, and getting hit by the horrid tiny darts that terrified the NVA so badly, now terrified me. My body is instantly penetrated through and through by many hundreds of darts, almost too tiny to see, was an image I could not get out of my mind. I pulled at the undergrowth, feeling leeches’ slime through my hands. It was like swimming in hardening jello, a slippery jello substance layered with strangely sweet and sour mud, as well as other small unrecognizable creatures.
I scrabbled and ‘swam’ through the muck of ages old, yet still fresh muck, pulling handfuls of the sludge through my cupped fingers and then casting them aside. The Ontos fired, the blast coming from directly in front of its powerful shells overpowering all other sounds. I buried myself down into the jungle muck as deep as I could, the analytical side of my brain knowing that I was digging down too late because the shells had already gone off. My body reacted on its own, however, digging deeper, as I was more afraid of the flechettes than the enemy or the collected population of mud, old plant matter, and the parasitic animals I was sheltering down among. The Ontos fired again. I had one side of my face pressed down in the muck, my right hand clutching my helmet when I heard the thundering explosion. I pressed down harder, forcing my face deeper before the secondary explosion of the flechette round going off well past the recoilless rifle’s barrel cracked the air. What seemed like a very brief, but fast hard wind passed over me. Only seconds later, as I surged forward again, did I realize what the sound and the feeling of that wind had really been. A cloud of flechettes had passed right over where I’d been laying. I’d heard the passage of the thousands of tiny darts, traveling well past the speed of sound, as they were delivered to an area just ahead of where I’d lain, trying to hide. I knew I wasn’t hit, however, as there was only the pain of the nightmare muck in my nose and eyes, and wet misery spread everywhere else along the length of my body. That pain I was used to, and certainly nothing like what I would have felt if the little darts had impacted up, down, and then through my legs and back.
I felt Fusner to my left and Nguyen to my right, both struggling along on my flanks. I tried to see them but there was almost no light at all and I was night blind from the faint but steady flashes from the enemy’s rifles and the fact that the night was the blackest night I could remember in all of my life.
“Fusner, let the Gunny know where we are and what we’re doing,” I ordered, in a hushed whisper. “We’re deep enough in so we don’t have to worry about the flechette rounds anymore but we don’t need high explosive stuff hitting us that Hultzer might choose to send along to help.
“Yes, sir, but I don’t know where we are,” Fusner replied, keeping his voice low. “We took off into the jungle with you. We went straight out from the Ontos, but where are we now? What do I tell the Gunny?”
“Tell him that we’re about six to eight hundred meters from the glacis and proceeding perpendicular to that cliff face on our way to join Kilo on the river bank. We should be traveling along a direct straight line from where the Ontos was when we left,” I said, not sure of our real location at all, but wracking my brain as to where we had to be.
How ironic it would be l, I thought, if we failed to avoid being killed by our own Ontos fire but I said nothing further.
Fusner relayed the message.
“Are we really sure of our direction, sir,” he asked when he was done transmitting, his tone one of trepidation more than fear. It was obvious to him where we were going, just not where we were in our course of travel and why we were going at all.
“Kilo’s stopped moving,” I breathed out, ceasing my struggles against the surface of the jungle for a few seconds, before getting ready to attack the rotten undergrowth once more. “They’re all dead if they stay where they are. I don’t know why they stopped. The only hope is to get them moving again.”
“The new lieutenants wouldn’t stop, I don’t think. They seemed like okay Marines, for officers, I mean, sir,” Fusner answered.
I didn’t reply. The new lieutenants were FNGs, which meant that, under fire, they might do anything at all or nothing at all. I would never get past, for the rest of my life, how I had reacted to being under fire the first few times it had happened. The lieutenants didn’t have a seasoned Gunny with them to get them, or Kilo Company, through, however, all they had was me, trying to reach them before everyone was dead.
I surged ahead, struggling to get purchase and fighting to gain as much forward momentum as I could. I thought about answering Fusner, but there was no point. If the lieutenants wouldn’t have stopped willingly, then there were other factors at play that I didn’t know about. I had to find out what those factors were if they existed, and then get the company on the move again. How radio contact had been lost at such a short-range was unexplainable. There were at least a dozen PRICK 25 radios in Kilo, if not more. Those radios were all tuned to the same combat net frequency, yet nobody in the company responded when called. The grim conclusion I’d come to, that had motivated me to do something as terminally dangerous as we were doing, wasn’t something I wanted to keep centered in my thinking.
If all the Marines in Kilo were dead when we reached the river, then so would we ourselves be in very short order. Instead of pursuing that set of grim thoughts, I turned to plan the next move we’d have to make once I was in the presence of the officers and non-coms running the company. It seemed to take an hour to reach the riverbank, although I knew it was more like minutes. The sound of the Bong Song’s rushing floodwaters finally overpowered the beating of the rain down on my helmet, and the small arms fire all around us, but not by very much. The river had become a personal river Styx, running its deadly but all present existence straight through the very center of my life. I would never come out of the A Shau Valley as the man I’d been; the Gunny was right. In thirty days, if I was able to reach the top of the ridge atop the difficult glacis climb, I would have died and been reborn any number of times. My letters home were written with the hand of a fictional person I’d created so that there might be a home to come back to if I lived. They were not written by me, this new me scrabbling through leeches, mud, and the very stench of the valley life that I inhabited.
We pulled our way onto a mud flat not far from the river’s fast-moving current. Kilo wasn’t expecting us and I had fears that we might be mistaken for attacking NVA troops, but that fear was quickly dispelled. The Marines were dug in and we found that out by physically running into several laying half in and half out of the mud.
“Who are you?” one of the Marines asked in a whisper, as I crawled right into him, before backing off a few inches.
“I’m Junior,” I replied, “where’s your commanding officer?”
“That’d be Sergeant Sweet, sir,” the Marine answered, “I’m Lance Corporal Tennison,” he went on.
There was no point in asking about where the two lieutenants might be. If they’d been still living, or functional at all, the lance corporal would have so indicated, I knew.
“Take me to Sergeant Sweet, Lance Corporal,” I ordered. The Lance Corporal didn’t respond, instead merely crawling away downriver. I followed, knowing Fusner and Nguyen would be right with me.
After a few minutes, the Lance Corporal stopped. I discovered that by running into his boots.
“Right here,” the corporal said, and then turned away to crawl back the way we’d come.
“Sergeant Sweet?” I inquired into the darkness in front of me.“Junior?” he replied, “thank God.”
“What’s the situation?” I asked, buoyed by his spoken relief and welcome but filled with a bit of trepidation about the poignant crying need his words also conveyed.
The sergeant poured out his story. Casualties had been high once Kilo reached the river and began its journey down the slippery but hardened mud bank. The two lieutenants had been ‘relieved of command’ by a single errant 175 mm shell going off at point-blank range right on top of them. Their radio operator had died with them. There would be no remains to be brought out, according to Staff Sergeant Sweet. Sweet had assumed command over the company until I’d arrived on the scene. His decision to stop and go down to await any help had cost Kilo dearly but the sergeant wasn’t far from being an FNG himself. He’d only been in-country and attached to Kilo for a week.
“They never told me where we were going or why,” the sergeant said. I couldn’t keep going to someplace I didn’t know we were going to.”
The sergeant’s story and the reason he’d stopped the company’s progress made sense, and there was nothing I could say to him about the nature or effect of his decision. Over time, I knew he’d figure things out if he lived, and then possibly have to deal with his decision later on in life.
The snipers, two teams, were still with Kilo. Getting them up the face of the wall was vital. The snipers, if properly positioned up on the ridge, would be able to fire at every muzzle flash below them. Accurate, pin-point, and powerfully delivered sniper rounds, plunging down from on high, could be more devastating than what air support brought in. The teams would be set in atop the ridge long before light came with the arrival of civil dawn if they made it up the cliff in the night.
“Why have all your radios failed?” I asked the sergeant, speaking gently, as it was obvious that the man was shaken to his core.
“Radio silence,” Sweet replied.
“Radio silence?” I repeated, unable to keep the wonder out of my voice.
“The lieutenants thought that the enemy might be listening in,” the sergeant replied. “They thought that our only hope of making it down the river, to wherever we were going, was to move in silence without the enemy knowing we were here.”
“Would you please have all your radio operators turn on their radios?” I asked gently, keeping full control over the feeling of total exasperation I wanted to scream out into the night.
The enemy always knew where we were. They didn’t always know the direction we chose to move in or when or where our supporting fires would rain down from or on. Radio silence and codes were only called for in order to keep them from knowing where rounds were going to impact where our ground attack planes were going to strafe or bomb and the time and location of helicopter resupply and medevac. I was certain that the NVA knew that Fusner, Nguyen, and I had moved directly through their area of operations to reach the river, but it was likely they had no clue as to why or what we might be up to. One of the main lessons I’d learned from day one, and the Gunny didn’t have to teach it to me, was that the NVA leaders were almost impossible to predict in almost every area.
“I want everyone moving as quickly as they can get their stuff together,” I ordered. “I want a forced march to the canyon wall that runs across our front about four hundred meters away, or a bit more. We’ll definitely know when we reach it.”
“The men want to carry the dead and wounded in poncho covers to get them to the choppers coming in,” the Sergeant replied. “Is that okay?”
“Affirmative,” I replied, not telling Sweet that I had no idea if a medevac could be accomplished once we reached the bottom of the glacis.
In minutes the company was moving, using fire and maneuver, with the first platoon at the point to clear the way for the rest of the Marines, Fusner, Nguyen, and I among them. I waited until the rear elements were proceeding by, like black moving statues through a dark black night before we joined in.
The company’s movement through the lighter growth near the edge of the jungle itself was fast and as silent as the Marines could make it. There were few rounds fired, and even fewer received from the bank of the jungle to the company’s east flank. The company reached the wall and then spread down along the length of it, settling behind a low berm that ran parallel to the line of rock located along the bottom of the cliff.
The base of the cliff face I called the ‘glacis,’ was the only part of the wall located anywhere down in our part of the valley that could be scaled, and then only by using a chiseled narrow and angled ledge that rose up, crisscrossing back and forth, across the face as it went up. I scrunched down at the base. In the dark and constant rain, even with the sound of sporadic small arms fire in the distance, I felt relatively safe. The movement down the riverbank had been precarious, although since the last 175 mission was completed, and things had quieted across the battlefield, the exposed transit was made without much of any organized enemy opposition, other than small arms fire that proved uneven, poorly aimed and ineffective.
“Where are you now, Junior,” Fusner whispered squatting down to lean in close to my right ear, draping his poncho cover over both of us to fight off the rain.
I knew he was speaking as the Gunny, rather than telling me what the Gunny said indirectly.
“Where we had to be,” I replied, as if I was talking directly back.
“Did you make it?” Fusner went on.
“We’re having this discussion, aren’t we?” I replied, feeling funny talking to the Gunny through Fusner, but making no move to take the microphone in my own hand.
“Why didn’t they answer us?” Fusner asked.
“The radios are all live now,” I replied, leaving out the explanation, which didn’t matter at the moment, but might make an interesting part of the story later on.
“You’ve got to take what’s left of Kilo up in the dark,” the Gunny said. “I mean if you’re going up with them, instead of waiting for the company.”
“That depends on air support,” I said back, looking at my watch.
The white slices of hands pointing at the little illuminated dots around the face told me that most of the night was still before us, and the darkness was, and would likely remain, complete. The Starlight Scope would be as useless up on the ridge, if Kilo made it to the top of the ridge, as it was in the high density undergrowth of the jungle. The cliff was too high, beyond the range of the scope to see that far through the rain and also maintain sufficient vision while the muzzle flashes from NVA weaponry would be ‘flashing the tube’ destroying any ability to make anything out on its tiny CRT screen.
Fusner handed me an open can of C-rations. My spoon was in my pack. I was so hungry I didn’t bother to unpack and pull it out. I turned the can up and sucked down the contents. It was Ham and Mothers, my favorite. I felt the energy flow through me even before the thick grease and mushy ham and beans made it fully into my system. When the can was empty I clutched the letter in my pocket, the one that could not be sent because the resupply mission, intended to be more of a medevac mission because of our casualties, was scheduled to arrive at dawn up on the ridge. The decision had been made at the battalion, not to attempt any kind of landing zone medevac until, or if, the companies reached the top of the ridge. The initial decision made by our battalion commander had been for both companies to remain in the valley, and that some modification of that decision, in receiving new orders about the medevac, gave me hope that I might not, after all, be court-martialed for disobeying direct orders while in combat.
Kilo company prepared to assault the face of the glacis. The Marines in the company acted on their own, or seemingly did so, as I’d come to observe in the past.
I tried to nod off for a bit, scrunched up and wet, but the discomfort at being wet through to the bone and the feeling of leeches attached to me in many places kept me awake. My attachment to home seemed to grow more distant with each passing day and night. What sleep I got was occasional, very short, and tossed and turned with emotionless drivel that played the next morning as downright scary. What was I turning into, I wondered. My most common dream was about a road. A twisting road that snaked back and forth down a slope. It was a road, unpaved, that I’d never been on, but it was in Vietnam. Along the road, local Vietnamese men, women, and children sat, squatted, or knelt. I didn’t know any of them. I was not on the road in the dream. I was standing below the road and looking at everyone along the road. The people next to the road all stared at me without any expression at all. Their black eyes never blinked. I had expected nightmares about the things that had happened down in the valley, and deep in my mind I knew I wanted the nightmares so I could get through them before I got home, but the one that kept coming wasn’t a nightmare, it was just terribly unsettling.
I would carry my letter up the glacis and hope to get it aboard a resupply chopper there. We would no doubt need ammunition, as we fight to gain the top of the ridge
I closed my eyes and stared into my eyelids. I brought the Vietnamese road back from my memory and then wondered, at looking once again at the people I’d never seen, where my own dead Marines were. Not only were they not on or along the road of my dreams but I couldn’t even remember their faces from having been with them when they’d served and been wounded or died. The new lieutenants had no faces. The officers that had contributed my .45, my helmet, and other objects, and then died had no faces that I could remember. Macho Man, who gave me the boots I wore, had no face. I tried to shave every day, even in the worst of conditions, but I had no mirror. When I finally got a mirror in front of me again, would I too have no face?
When I opened my eyes I realized that I had come to another decision without giving it much thought. It was a decision like the one I’d hastily made to cross the battlefield in the thick of the dark, rain, and gunfire from the enemy. The space close to the wall was big enough to bring down a Huey.
I got up, moved along the wall to where I thought the open space had to be and then started to crawl. I moved back and forth across the open area, Nguyen and Fusner crawling with me, no doubt wondering what the hell we were doing out in the open on the very edge of a combat zone where it was too dark and rainy to see much of anything. We’d brought a supply chopper down into the LZ once before, I recalled, and the area hadn’t become noticeably more overgrown since that time, at least not to the feeling hands and body I pushed back and forth across it.
I couldn’t climb the face of the wall and leave the wounded and dead behind. It simply wasn’t in me. The battalion wasn’t available to communicate with because the very end of the valley was so wedged in, and the walls so thick and close by, that even the great penetrating power of the PRICK 25’s radio signals couldn’t get through. By now my own company would be too close to our position to use the combat net to reach the rear either. The Gunny had indicated that our best survival move was to climb the wall and depend on air support coming in at dawn to protect the collected wounded and dead until a supply chopper could make it down in the light. When I’d directly confronted him about that idea, the tone in my voice gave my negative feeling about his position away. To his credit, the Gunny backed down, saying that his evacuation plan was simply an option, and not one that he’d given serious consideration to.
The base of the cliff was not defensible, except by the snipers who were momentarily going to make their way to the top of the ridge, and that was if they made the ascent and stayed alive. Enemy fire continued to die down until the approach of the Ontos could be distinctly heard, as it chugged away along the eastern path, making that path ever wider with its grinding passage.
I had leeches attached to my hands, but only the top of them so it was no real bother to ignore the minor blood loss I was suffering. I knew I had them on my torso under my blouse again but the removal process would have to wait until we were all secure on the top of the ridge above us.
There was no way bodies of any kind could be put in poncho liners and dragged up the carved rock switchback trail to the top. The chiseled and pounded out rock path was only little more than a boot width in-depth and the slightest misstep carrying an unbalanced load would result in a fall, likely to be terminal in the result. The Marines in both companies had been ordered to shed all extraneous weight, especially weight that could be rapidly replaced when the supply choppers arrived atop the ridge sometime later in the morning.
Kilo had to move up the cliff face in the darkness, and there was nothing else to be done for it, as the collected assemblage of two companies at the foot of the canyon wall together would become nothing more or less than a large living target of opportunity. Air support at dawn might minimize that but it still was likely that casualties would be great if not downright terrible. However, with Kilo’s survivors on top of the ridge, their sniper and other M-60 machine gun fire plunging down, and the Cowboy, Homan, and then the Turk and his Cobras coming in to add to the suppression attack, our company would have a chance at making the climb relatively unscathed just after first light. Also, once up on the wall and making the climb it would be risky for the company, but worth taking the risk, to fire another zone of the 175s. A round or two might stretch out to reach the wall itself, but generally, shells fired beyond normal limits fell short and not long.
I ordered Fusner to call the medevac in immediately. If the Marines in Da Nang would not accept the uncommon night mission then the Army chopper crews might. I smiled to myself, as Fusner made the first radio call. The Turk, if he knew we were calling and in trouble, would assemble whatever it took to get here and cover us with the extreme and deadly fire of his own and his friend’s Cobras.
And then there would be Cowboy and Homan, probably bringing friends.
I waited for word from Fusner, crouched down into the bottom crevice, where the rock face buried itself into the jungle floor. I tried to imagine how I looked. I breathed in and out deeply, listening to the distant Ontos struggling to reach us, the rain pattering against my helmet, and wondering if I had a mirror whether I would be able to see a face in that mirror when I stared into it.