Corporal Mike Riorden was the Ontos Commander, although everyone called him Rio, like the city because his roots were from somewhere down in South America. The Ontos crew loved the Ontos, and I was almost certain their love had little to do with the machine’s armor or its armament. They got to ride wherever the thing was going, and they always had a place out of the rain to clean up, dry out and hang together. Rio, and two privates named Panda and Sentry comprised the whole crew. Panda drove, Sentry loaded the 106mm recoilless rifles, mounted three to a side on the exterior, and Rio was the gunner. In spite of my hesitation at how the crew might react to my rather suicidal ‘straight through the heart’ plan, they took to it like ducks to water. Panda, a strange gangly kid from Kentucky, who chewed tobacco or whatever else he could get a hold of, (I suspected the Betel Nut but said nothing), was also the mechanic because the smallish but dependable GM six-cylinder engine required constant attendance. It ate oil, spark plugs and for some reason, air filters, all the time.
“It’s supposed to hit thirty miles an hour,” Rio said, “but if Panda takes the rev-limiter off, empties the thing out, and pulls the guns and ammo, he says it’ll hit forty or even a bit more. Can this piece of the bridge across the river handle ten tons, and is what’s left of the thing flat enough to make the run?"
I didn’t know the answers to Rio’s questions, so I avoided dealing with them until we had enough daylight so I could tell anything for certain. The Ontos might do forty miles-an-hour, as he said, but it was anything but a dragster, and its run-up approach across the bridge would be short. What speed it could manage in that short distance before it plunged off into the raging water was anybody’s guess. The Starlight Scope could tell me a lot before the light of day came on, but the resolution, what with the wind-blown rain, would not be great enough to commit lives to a project that might be doomed from the start. It was still too dark to see much of anything from where we were positioned by the idling machine. The Ontos had to have its engine running to be able to either power and therefore turn its turret or move its tracks to face whatever threat might arise.
Nearly half an hour passed, once we got set in along the side of the river. The machine was pulled back into a few feet of the nearby jungle scrub, from where the Ontos crew could maneuver the tracked vehicle properly to have a commanding view to the south and also out across the river. I climbed inside through the back doors of the thing but realized it would be useless to try to see anything in the dark in its daylight-only scope, so I climbed back down. I noted that Rio had somehow torn out his seat and replaced it with ammo boxes. How many extra rounds the Ontos now carried I had no idea but I liked the way Corporal Riorden thought.
It was uncomfortable to be so close to something that seemed to give away its position all the time, but I also knew that the NVA never seemed to shoot at the machine directly.
I instructed Zippo to unlimber the Starlight Scope. Dawn was not that far off, and the Ontos needed to make its move at first light or not at all. With Fusner laying at my side, I peered through the scope, resting comfortably across Zippo’s upper right shoulder. The scene was visible, at least the river part, with the bridge and upside-down tank still resting in the middle of the Bong Song some hundred meters further south.
The river, through the enhanced green light return of the scope, ran as before, possibly at a bit higher level, but not high enough, I noted, to rise up and cover the mud flats on the other side. I studied the end of Tex’s bridge, as intently as I could. Visibility wavered in and out with the passing sheets of rain, invisible in their passage except for the Starlight’s ability to see in the dark. The rain didn’t seem to change much to us, as it fell ceaselessly down upon us. It was just the regular, crummy and mildly disabling rain. The vital area between the extended end of the bridge and the far shore was as it had been before. There was simply no way to estimate the depth of water sweeping through the ten-meter wide stretch at the end of the thing. The Ontos was just short of five meters long. It would not take much in the way of momentum to allow the Ontos to pass through most of the water if it got up to speed. Any depth of that fast-moving water that it fell into, over three or four feet, would be fatal to the machine, however. The current would handle the Ontos even easier than it had when it tossed the much heavier tank around.
The water’s aggressive rushing sound made me even more uncomfortable than the rain and mud around me. It seemed to be whispering “come, my pretty…” words like the evil witch had spoken in the Wizard of Oz when she was going to attempt to do Dorothy in.
The Gunny joined me, grunting out “Junior” almost silently, as he slid through the jungle growth to take the position on my other side.
I pulled my head back and removed my right eye from the soft rubber grommet. I looked over at the Gunny, his glinting facial features wet with the rain. I could only marginally see his form through my left eye, the right night blind from looking through the scope.
“Jurgens has his Marines ready,” the Gunny said, moving his body around so he could get at his cigarettes. “They’re ready to disassemble the Ontos guns and get them tied up for transport across the water.”
I watched the Gunny getting set up to smoke. It was comforting to watch him, once again. I came to a decision.
“We can’t pull the guns and ammo,” I said, going against my own plan. “The guns weigh about five hundred pounds each. That’s three thousand. The ammunition, at about twenty-five pounds per round, weighs about fifteen hundred, maybe a few hundred less. That takes the total up to forty-five hundred. The Ontos itself weighs ten tons. Two tons, or so, aren’t going to make enough difference, and then how do we get the stuff across the water, mated back onto the machine, and ready to go in broad daylight? We could move the stuff at night but there’s no working way to get the guns back on the Ontos in the dark, and we won’t have any close in covering fire until it’s fully reassembled.”
“Jesus, Junior,” the Gunny whispered out, cupping and lighting his cigarette before going on, “I thought you had it all worked out. What if the Ontos doesn’t jump the water? Then we lose it all, and maybe that’s the only thing that stands between us and them.” The Gunny waved back over his shoulder toward the heavy jungle in the south, where we knew the NVA were watching and waiting.
“I was wrong,” I replied. “The water’s not that wide, if you want to look,” I said, gesturing to the scope, although I knew it’s flat black paint made it completely invisible in the darkness. “If it’s too wide then we take up positions without it and take our chances with the 175s and how much air we can get down here to cover us during the daylight.”
“What if they don’t come, either the Army or our own battalion?” the Gunny asked, between puffs.
I noted that he didn’t offer the cigarette to me, which made me feel like I was running through heavy traffic all on my own again. I wasn’t worried about the Skyraiders coming. They weren’t subject to battalion command and Cowboy had somehow grown rather fond of our messed up tattered company.
“I just got off the radio with the Six Actual,” the Gunny said, conversationally, not as if he was building a case for some other plan. “The colonel wants us to hold our position until ordered to move back down there.”
“That means somebody is coming, Gunny, because there’s absolutely nothing down there except the river, the jungle, and the NVA if you will recall?”
“Yeah, Junior, I sure know that,” the Gunny came right back. “And now you know that, but I’ll be damned if I can seem to figure out why command doesn’t know that. They’re going to want an after-action report on 975. It won’t be long before they figure out the Army lost another entire unit. We haven’t filed a daily report in quite a while either. What do you want me to tell them?”
The after-action report would go out under my name, as ranking officer, but it was good to hear that the Gunny was still willing to write it or be involved at all. Maybe it was his belief, like my own, that we weren’t going home alive from the A Shau, but I didn’t really think so.
“Tell them that we attempted contact,” I answered, after almost a full minute. “Tell them that we could not establish it either by radio or physically. Tell them what we hope is the truth. Pray God that there’s no pile of Army Rangers lying dead at the bottom of that water pit.”
“No, I don't think I’ll bring up that part,” the Gunny said, snapping his half-smoked cigarette away. “So, when dawn comes they’re going to wind this thing up and let it fly.
“Rio’s going to go it alone,” I said. “When he gets to the other shore he can run it up to the edge of the cliff, flip it around and be loaded for bear until everyone gets across.”
“When it’s crossing you should have one more aboard in charge of keeping all six barrels pointed as close to south as possible in case they have to return fire on the fly.”
With that, the Gunny was gone. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of making sure the Ontos could fire at will while it went through the maneuver, but I hadn’t. The Gunny was right. Rio needed to man the 106s while Private Panda, the driver, did what he did best.
The arrangements were made and the Ontos ready. The company was in a line of battle up and down the west bank of the river, although invisible in the pre-dawn darkness, misting rain and low but dense jungle foliage. The Gunny had been up and down the line to make sure plenty of small arms fire could be directed to wherever it was needed to support the Ontos crossing. The Starlight showed no movement, although visibility through the single lens was anything but perfect or clear.
At the vaguest of first light, before nautical dawn, Rio engaged the Allis-Chalmers transmission and eased the small but heavy machine down over the slight berm and onto the hardened mud. It didn't take long for the Ontos to reach the leading ramp canted slightly up onto the main body of the mobile bridge.
Rio revved the small six-cylinder engine up to maximum and took off. Without the scope, all I could see was the dense dark mass of the moving object. The Ontos accelerated as it went, crossing the length of the bridge in less time than I would have thought possible. There was no delay at the other end. I saw no splash of anything, only the dark object disappearing and then almost instantly reappearing, climbing quickly up on the far shore. I let my breath out all the way, only then realizing I’d been holding it. The Ontos had made it. After all the thought, planning and worry, the heavy little beast had performed the operation like it was built for it. There was no cheer or additional sound from the Marines in the company but in my mind, I was cheering madly. The Ontos would be there to cover our own crossing, a crossing that without it might have proven impossible or terribly terminal. The light seemed to increase from second to second, full dawn only moments away. With the light came enemy recognition.
The RPG rounds came in from the jungle’s edge, located a hundred and fifty meters south of the crossing. The Ontos was a sitting duck, it’s recoilless rifles facing forward towards the cliff face. I watched from the berm in front of the opposing cliff face, a relative place of safety that had momentarily shrunk back my belly full of fear.
I watched the early morning action on my stomach, the Japanese binoculars pressed into my eye sockets. I could do nothing. The plan was playing out with the participation of enemy forces and actions I knew had to affect it at some point but in ways, I could not predict.
The 175 long guns from the Army firebase could reach all the way down into the southern valley where we were, as they’d done before. But the ‘red bag,’ beyond normal maximum range loading, left so much leeway in distancing the rounds that I was afraid to fire them. Deflection wasn’t that great a problem, as the battery was outstanding in being able to keep the highly spinning rounds within very narrow limits when it came to adjusting left and right. It was the ranging distance that was the problem. Over such a long distance, the atmosphere slowed the rounds at nearly unpredictable rates and also, at the ‘beyond maximum’ range we were at, that slowing caused the fuses controlling detonation to become less dependable. If a round was moving too horizontally it could impact the jungle at some other point than its tip, and then skip to somewhere else close by. Close by to anything, including friendly forces.
Two of the enemy RPG rocket rounds struck the mud just before where the Ontos sat, blowing up layers of mud and fire, but the third hit the Ontos armor like a giant glancing spark. It was a flying hit on the angled side of the turret, quickly followed by the warhead going off. The turret top was covered with only one-half inch armor, I knew, so exactly where the rocket’s explosive had gone off was critical. Rio and Panda were inside. The question was, were they still alive?
Half a minute went by before the Ontos rifle turret slowly turned and fired back, to my great relief. The machine had to turn again to start moving toward the cliff, and the guns could not shoot when it was moving toward the cliff because the turret only revolved forty degrees in either direction. Another RPG round went skidding over the vehicles right track guard surface before exploding when it came into contact with the one-inch thick side armor. The Ontos angled around until the front of the main turret was pointing back at the river. Rio then turned the 106 mm barrel turret toward the southern mass of jungle where the rocket rounds had originated and slowly backed the machine up toward the stone wall.
“We’ve got to cross now,” I said to Fusner, who immediately began speaking into the microphone of his Prick 25. I assumed he was on the combat net because in seconds it seemed like most of the company was running toward the closest end of the bridge. I watched through the Starlight scope, as bleached out from the looming daylight as the images coming back to me were. Ropes were thrown and the Marines crossed the short turbulent and very dangerous stretch of rushing water.
Small arms AK fire came out from the jungle, although there were no tracers to give any of their true positions. It didn’t matter, because Rio in the Ontos fired round after round into where the NVA infantry had to be. The whoosh of the 106 rounds, first leaving their long barrels and then making triangular penetration of hundreds of yards of jungle debris with their thousands of flechettes in each round, was pleasing to hear and see the results of.
It was light enough for binoculars, and I wanted one last examination of the scene before I brought up the rear with the Gunny, Fusner, Zippo, and Nguyen and crossed the river to join the rest of the company.
I readjusted the binocular lenses carefully for maximum visibility in the early light. What I saw was at first pleasing, and then the import of the scene hit me. And terrified me. Half the company or more was spread out over the far bank, bent over and running. The Marines moved with practiced ease, keeping enough space between runners but not too much to deny room for the rest of their comrades. What I watched just beyond them was Rio and Panda out reloading the Ontos tubes with more rounds. The biggest disadvantage the Ontos had was not thin armor, although it was certainly not thick. The biggest single high-risk feature of the machine was the fact that the loader, or in this case loaders, had to go out the back doors, carry heavy rounds with them, and then painstakingly reload those rounds into the backs of the tubes without cover or concealment. The Ontos was the only real target the NVA had, and the Ontos, the weapon the NVA dreaded most, could not fire while it was being loaded. Neither Rio nor Panda were moving much except to stand and load the tubes on the right side. The south side. The side most exposed to the jungle mass where the NVA were held up and waiting.
I reached over instinctively for Fusner’s radio handset, but he didn’t extend it out to me, seeing what I was seeing without the benefit of the glasses. I slowly lowered my hand. The Ontos radio was inside its body. I wanted to run forward and start yelling for them to get the hell back inside the machine, but the distance was too great and I would have accomplished nothing.
Sudden automatic weapons fire from the jungle opened up with great volume. In seconds, it was over. Both Ontos crewmen were down. The whole company had gone into the mud in order to turn and deliver suppressing fire back into the bush the shots had come from.
“Let’s move,” I hissed, jamming the binoculars over my shoulder into my open pack. “Strap it,” I ordered Zippo, who was working as fast as he could to recover the Starlight scope and get his own gear ready.
My pack had to be secure. I needed the glasses, the maps in their barely protective plastic bag inside my thigh pocket, and Tex’s .45. I checked to make sure the automatic was on safe and as secure as I could make it inside the holster. The situation with my Marines was tenuous at all times, and now that resupply had brought in a fresh contingent of black Marines to join up with Sugar Daddy, I expected more interpersonal problems than there had been during the deflective events of the past week.
The image of the two Marines standing with arms raised, jamming a 106 round into a chamber, and then being literally cut down by a hail of automatic weapons fire, was burned into my brain. I could not take my eyes off the small plot of mud they’d fallen on. Their bodies weren’t really visible, but I didn’t need to see them to know they were dead. Marines were crawling toward them with the main elements of Jurgens and Sugar Daddy’s platoons headed for the cover only the berm in front of the recessed cleft at the bottom of the cliff could provide.
I had to get to the Ontos. Sentry was the only crew left. I wasn’t sure if I was the only man left in the company who had any experience aiming and firing the Ontos’ 106 rifles, but that machine was the company’s only thing capable of real close in covering fire that was going to provide any real security for any of us.
I dreaded crossing the water again. I felt I’d die if I entered the river again, although there was no solid evidence for why I felt that way. The river ran down the center of the valley and had come to run right through the center of my life. I hunched over and ran for the bridge. I’d figure out what to do when I got to the other edge and had to face the water. Rio and Panda were dead, but unlike the appearances of so many who’d fallen before them, I could still see their faces in my mind. Both men were smiling inside me, and I dreaded to see what expressions they’d died with.
The bridge was a wet sloppy mess of debris, the river running so high that it seemed to gift upward passing bits of flotsam and plant detritus. That the Ontos had gained purchase and run across the seemingly flimsy structure at speed was almost too much to believe. I was reduced to a crawl by the slippery surface. I heard no further enemy or friendly fire. I could hear only the hungry pulsating roar of the passing water, trying to draw anything and everything nearby back inside to take downriver to some more placid hell.
Jurgens waited at the end of the bridge, with his radio operator and another of his men. He smiled his big fake smile up at me as I crawled forward. I was already wet to the core and slimy from contact with all the garbage coughed up from the river. He pointed down at the bouncing arc of the heavy rope. The water made the line jump up and then plunge down like I would be doing as I crossed. I remembered the Marines we’d lost earlier at the previous crossing and shuddered. I wished I’d ridden inside the Ontos, but I knew that would never have gone over very well with my Marines. The company commander could not run from the enemy and he could never take the safer path. Not if it was safer than the way the rest of the company had to take. Not unless he wanted to face a more terminal danger than that he might be avoiding.
I grabbed the rope with both hands and slipped over the edge. The water was cold, like before, but I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten it all, and the memory of my last encounter came rushing back. My fear fled like it’d never been there. I was inside the rushing cold water and I felt clean and renewed. I didn’t rush to move hand over hand. Fusner easily passed me, using the second parallel rope. For all its risk, I knew in the depths of my mind and body that the water was a far safer place for me than the surface of the valley, particularly the muddy surface I was about to encounter and then have to run across. I was about to rise up and then run toward the dead without any understanding of why, if I made it, I was still alive.
I crawled up on the bank’s surface but lay low, checking my stuff. The .45 was wet and tight in its holster. I placed my hand tightly around the end of the grip and felt a slight bit of warmth return to my body. I looked at the field of mud in front of me. Some Marines had made it. I could see their round helmets sticking over the edge of the berm. Some Marines were hunched over and moving as quickly as they could in that position, and some were crawling slowly, elbow by elbow with their M-16s pulled to their chests. The Ontos was about fifty meters directly to my front. I got to my knees and then stood to make a run for it when a force struck me from behind, taking my wind and plunging me straight back and face down into the mud.