My chest and face hit the mud at the same time, the impact so hard that water was pressed out of my uniform blouse and sprayed up into a fine mist around me. My helmet and liner landed a good five feet away, but I didn’t care, as I fought to take any air at all into my blown-out lungs. If I had been hit then the bullet might well be a terminal blow. A double lung shot with a high velocity bullet was an almost instantly fatal. I’d witnessed the awful damage personally several times. A bullet passing through both lungs left no chance that one of them would ever be re-inflated or repaired in time.
Air sucked back into my lungs in one long inhalation. I breathed again before I could think to do anything. Nguyen’s face appeared out of the dim light and through the misting mess of my water-filled muddy impact.
“Nguyen,” I squeaked out, looking around for the Gunny. I knew it had to have been the Gunny who took me down. How he’d figured out I was about to make a run for it across the open flats I had no idea, as I hadn’t even taken my first step before he hit me.
“The Gunny,” I worked to get out, before breathing in deeply again and going on. “My helmet,” I croaked, trying to scrabble forward.
Fusner slithered across the mud and retrieved my helmet and liner.
“He’s gone, sir,” Fusner said, matter-of-factly, “he came in at a run, put a shoulder into your back, and then ran on out across the flats like you tried to do.”
“He put me down, and then ran himself?” I asked incredulously.
Fusner worked with his bare hands to clean off as much mud as he could from the helmet, before going to work on the liner. He handed both to me, one at a time, the liner first, before answering.
“Looks like he intended to draw whatever fire you were about to get hit with,” he replied.
I looked out over the almost bare clearing, leading up to the front of the canyon wall. There was really nothing to see. I hadn’t heard any AK fire from the enemy or even anything from our own M-60s and M-16s. The Ontos was right where the team had left it, with a few of the company Marines, unidentifiable in the light, looking like they were bent over and working on Rio and Panda. I felt a ray of hope, and then the turret on the Ontos moved to bring the six barrels down a few degrees. The barrels were pointed at the jungle where the damaging small arms fire had come from, but I knew the chambers of the guns were empty.
“The Gunny,” I hissed out. “He’s in the Ontos. We’ve got to get there and load.”
Two more RPG rounds screamed across the flat of mud, their rockets sounding more like jet engines than rockets. One struck just short of the Ontos, throwing up giant chunks of mud, while the other went a bit high, exploding against the face of the cliff wall, tossing out rocks and debris that rained down all around and upon the machine. I started to crawl forward, getting my helmet shakily back on my head.
“We can’t make it without cover, sir,” Zippo said, pulling me back easily, with one hand tightly grasped around my ankle.
“Hell, we’re no better off without cover here than we are crossing to try to get there,” I replied, trying to pull away from his strong securing grip.
“Here, sir,” whispered Fusner, thrusting the radio microphone out to my face.
I frowned and then got it. I wasn’t thinking straight. We had to have covering fire, and the Ontos wasn’t going to provide that in time, not with the disorganized mess of the dead crew, the Marines working on them, and the Gunny inside it and trying to figure out how its controls worked. He hadn’t gotten back out of the Ontos to load himself, and none of the Marines nearby had moved to get rounds and do that either. All we had was the Army 175s.
I called Firebase Ripcord, pulling the map from my right thigh pocket and quickly opening it up. I found the grid coordinate number I wanted still penciled on the surface map. The number I had used before but needed again. I calculated our position. There could be no games played, as to letting the battery know where we were, not with the inherent ‘out beyond maximum range’ inaccuracy of the big gun’s rounds. We were on the gun target line and down in the valley. Any rounds that came in might strike the top of the edge of the valley wall and then bounce down if they didn’t explode from the impact. And we were right where they’d land. Even if they came in ‘red bag’ accurate, the plus or minus circular error of probability was more than likely to be about half a kilometer or more. Missing by half a kilometer within the narrow confines of the southern A Shau Valley wasn’t something to be taken lightly. But the front glacis facing the jungle on the Ontos was only two inches thick. The armor could handle anything up to, and including, .50 caliber machine gun rounds, but it couldn’t handle a direct hit from an RPG. And the Gunny was inside the Ontos. I quickly sent the grid numbers in the clear. The NVA knew where we were and where they were. Using codes no longer mattered. They were going to get plastered by artillery fire and it was best if they knew it was coming, for your needs. Killing them wasn’t nearly as important as keeping them down and from hitting us mid-crossing with even a single RPG round.
Instead of continuing the fire mission using the normal formal command structure I spoke in the clear to the fire control officer.
“We’ve got a tough situation here, Bob,” I started. “We’re down in the valley near maximum range. Your battery is angled off a bit to the west so you can put some stuff down here, but we’re on the ‘GT’ line at max range. We’ve got to take the risk. Can you fire three spaced ranging rounds at maximum elevation? If we get the range we need then I can creep back onto the target.”
“Roger that, Junior,” Bob replied.
I’d called myself Junior at the start of the transmission. Instead of sticking to rank he’d said his name was Bob. From that little bit I knew, he was going to try his heart out to help us if he could.
“We’ve got a ton of ordnance here, Junior,” he said. “Just been waiting for the call. Don’t hold back.”
“Roger that,” I replied, smiling ever so slightly at the Army I’d only heard terrible things about in training but discovered, so far, only wonderful things about.
“Shot over,” came over the radio.
I waited the seconds out, counting on my Omega. The time was too great to bother counting the seconds away in my mind. The 175 had a muzzle velocity of about three thousand feet per second, I knew. Three thousand divided into the twenty-five miles we were distanced from those muzzles. I watched the 40 seconds sweep by before the radio came back with “splash over.” I pushed the front of my body back into the mud. I didn’t have to say a word of warning to my scout team. They’d gone down at the first announcement from the battery. One hundred and seventy-five-pound rounds coming in from distant one hundred and seventy-five-millimeter artillery barrels was frightening.
The four impacts came five seconds later, as if they were one explosion, with three more echoes. I’d asked for three rounds, forgetting the 175s were organized with four guns to a battery instead of six, like the 105s. The fire direction center had fired a battery of one instead of trying to break my request up among the guns.
“Far enough,” I breathed out in relief, pulling my muddy face up and hitting the radio transmit button. The rounds had come in much more than a thousand meters down the valley. “Battery of six,” I ordered.
“Shot over,” came back from Bob. “R.O.T.?” he asked.
“Right on target,” I replied, knowing he already knew that his previous shots had hit with accuracy, but wanting to hear it over the net.
“Drop five zero on the GT line and repeat fire for effect,” I ordered, even before the ‘shot over’ command from the first salvo had been sent back to us.
I knew the FDC knew we were on the gun target line but I didn’t want anyone to forget.
I waited and watched the skyline over the jungle where smoke and debris still settled well to the south in the jungle where the initial rounds had impacted. There were more than a thousand meters separating our company from the impact area. We had to move under what fire we could call. There was only one way to do it.
The six rounds came in, like explosive layers of cake being laid down. Four, and four and then four more. A battery of six took about six minutes, normally, to load and fire that many layers of a ‘cake.’ Ripcord was doing it in three minutes. The Army artillery grunts were extending their personal care right down into the A Shau with us. I could feel it through the radio, and from the effect of their work.
“We’re going to move under your fire, Bob,” I said into the microphone. “You can safely drop five zero ten more times and still give us about 700 meters left over by the time we get to cover.
The ground shook as the second series of salvos came in. The white coronas of condensed moist air and shock-advancing sound blew up from the back of the jungle like giant Chinese lanterns. They were brilliant white in their instantly created and near instantly gone existence. Whatever was under those ‘lanterns’ was living in a deafened and miserable wet hell.
“You’re crossing open ground, over?” Bob asked, but then didn’t wait for my response, “so how about a battery of two continuous, dropping five hundred first, and then working south fifty meters at a time. On my map, it looks like danger close won’t be from our stuff, but from that deep foliage further south of your position.?”
“Roger that,” I replied, using his own radio jargon again.
Bob and his battery support team were smart, and they were removed enough to be objectively logical. We had to cross an open area and needed cover since concealment was out of the question. Bringing the fire closer initially would do a better job of immediately getting the enemy down before creeping the big rounds slowly into their most vulnerable positions.
The rain increased, as if attempting to foil our plan, but the 175 rounds wouldn’t be much affected if at all, I knew.
We waited for the “shot, over” message. We were the remnant. Half a platoon of Marines and our scout team. It was obvious that everyone else had already crossed using the benefit of the lower pre-dawn light. The light level wasn’t low anymore, however, even though the rain might provide some misty concealment. A tiny line of leeches danced before me, their little thin bodies sticking up about an inch from the wet mud, seeming to wave at me.
The ‘shot over’ message came through the radio speaker Fusner had unaccountably turned on. We waited the length of time for the rounds to leave the cannon muzzles and get to our position. I watched the leeches in front of me, knowing I didn’t have to stay attentive for 175 rounds that would be impacting less than a click away.
“One of these days I’m going to leave these clowns,” I whispered, paraphrasing some famous movie line or song lyric I’d heard.
I didn’t crush myself face down again into the mud, although I wanted to. I had to be ready to jump up and run for the cover of the berm three hundred very exposed meters distant.
I held up my right fist, gripping the radio handset firmly with my left, in order to yell “check fire” if the 175 rounds came in among us, not that I would probably be around to make the call if that happened.
“On five,” I ordered, quietly, more to myself than those around me.
“Splash, over,” came from the speaker.
I held up my thumb and then counted off the seconds, putting up additional fingers as I silently thought of the numbers. Upon raising my last finger, I jumped up, and then went immediately back down, dropping the radio handset while cringing into the mud, crushing the little dancing leeches in front of me. Then I was back up, Zippo and Nguyen pushing and pulling at me. I realized I was deaf. The aftermath of the first 175 rounds plummeted from the sky all around me. I knew we’d been at least two hundred meters from the initial hits because we were still alive. I found my balance and ran for all I was worth toward where the Ontos sat, ominously not moving, with several Marines lying face down along the unexposed northern flank of its right track.
I felt the following 175s come down, swearing as I ran, that I would never call such heavy stuff in so close to my own position again. I’d received fire from the NVA by small arms, heavy machine guns and even the Russian provided 106 guns up on the ridge, but I’d never had to endure heavy artillery fire what the U.S. military could provide in the massiveness of explosive killing size or overwhelming delivery in volume.
The bodies of Rio and Panda lay side by side, as I passed by, headed for the cover only the armored body of the Ontos could provide. Both bodies looked like they’d been worked over by the corpsmen, and both lay back down with their permanent stares directed up into the falling rain that had effectively taken away the bloody signs of their mortal small arms injuries.
“Junior,” I heard, as if from a distance, but it wasn’t. Sugar Daddy grabbed my left arm and pulled me behind the Ontos, and then down onto the surface of the mud.
“How long we got? The artillery’s pounding the hell out of them.”
I tried to clear my head and think. The Gunny. Reloading the Ontos. My scout team. The disjointed mess of where I was and what we were trying to do came cascading back.
The double doors at the back of the Ontos opened fully, and the Gunny stepped out, carrying one tubular boxed round of 106 ammunition. From behind me Sentry appeared and took the tube from the Gunny’s hands. He pressed his back into the door, held in place by its hold-open latch, and pulled the long 106 round from its black tubular box. I knew from his facial expression, or rather the lack of it, that he’d passed by the dead bodies of his teammates right after I had.
We began to work like a silent machine, the sound of the distant rushing river, the pounding of every more distant artillery rounds and the constant pattering of misty rain on our helmets the background ‘music’ for what we were doing. We all worked back and forth across the sloppy mud; reaching in, pulling out, and then stripping the recoilless rounds out of their cardboard sleeves, before moving to feed them to Sentry for loading. Only Sentry was familiar with the guns themselves. The Marines working around me made no move to touch the guns unless at Sentry’s instructions.
I eased up onto the whitish floor of the Ontos, it’s interior stained with splashes of reddish-brown mud. There was no seat, and the extra rounds Rio had substituted for it had been pulled out the back, so I squatted down, my knees bent just enough so I could press my right eye into the soft rubber grommet of the gunsight. I stared out through the brilliant scene of wet green and yellow jungle to the front of the vehicle. The mud was a hazy out-of-focus brown rug. The motor was still running I noted, with the return of most of my hearing capability. I hit the turret handle and rotated the guns a few degrees each way before adjusting up and down. The range increments were painted into the inside of the sight reticle. Each one I presumed to be indicative of one hundred meters, but I wasn’t sure.
I waited, once I’d adjusted the little white sighting lines for three hundred and fifty meters, or so. I thought about the Gunny, and why he’d holed up in the Ontos for so long without moving, not that he could have done much to load or fire the guns by himself. The inside of the Ontos was a complexity of buttons, knobs, and handles, with only the tall white track-braking handles being self-evident for what they did. I couldn’t drive the Ontos, or service it anyway, but I’d figure out how to operate the turret and aim and fire the guns. If the Gunny had stayed inside to hide out from the enemy like I had a time or two in holes, caves or under nearby brush, then why had he chosen the Ontos to hide out in, what with the more protective frontal cliff berm just to its rear? It made no sense. The Ontos was total protection against the small arms fire that had killed Rio and Panda, but it was a magnet for much more dangerously terminal hits from the RPG B40 rockets.
I waited until Zippo slapped me on the back. I turned to see him holding up two hands with six fingers showing. The guns were loaded, but I could not fire with any Marines directly behind the machine within fifty meters. Sentry pumped his clenched fist up and down twice from his position behind Zippo. I instinctively knew I was cleared to fire.
I waited. I stared into the large single lens sight, the jungle across the relatively short stretch of open flat mud fully visible in spite of the misting rain. The company’s Marines were getting set into the shallow natural cave crease that ran along the crack at the cliff’s bottom. We’d made it across the river, and then across the mud flats and, following the end of the artillery barrage, there wasn’t much the NVA could do. Except to attack. If I was the leader of the NVA forces, deafened, hurt and angry inside the seemingly decimated jungle density beyond, then I’d be preparing to attack at the earliest opportunity, before enemy machine guns were properly emplaced, field mortars set up, and the Marines focused and ready to receive an attack.
There’d been no fire attempted or delivered onto us when we were reloading the Ontos guns, and we’d been as visible as the earlier crew.
I presumed we’d not been fired upon because the NVA was readying its attack in force. I pulled from the sight briefly to look out the back, through the two open doors of the Ontos. I saw four heads sticking up over the berm, off to the northern side. Zippo and Fusner stared out, with the Gunny set between them and Sentry. Sentry saw my look and held up first six fingers and then two thumbs. I got his message. He was ready with two loads of six more rounds, when needed, for the 106 guns.
I returned to staring through the sight, seeing the jungle and the mud before it, and thinking about the two bodies of the Ontos crew, now staring forever up into a raining sky they’d never see again. They’d accepted the danger and gone anyway, across the bridge, over the mud and then out into it to fearlessly load more rounds. For the first time, I wondered how a company commander wrote up Marines for decorations. The two men deserved big ones.
And then they came. Three broken lines of brown and black-clad bodies, hunched low but moving fast. They moved directly at the position where I sat and then began veering to one side before coming back and to the other. They looked like giant centipedes.
I eased the turret down to hold the range steady at two hundred meters, the stock setting for the flechette rounds to explode. The fuses were adjustable, but I hoped and presumed nobody, in the haste to reload, had changed any of the fuse settings. The enemy maneuvered. No Marines fired. Everyone along the bottom of our cliff was immobile and ready.
I waited, my right eye sealed into the rubber grommet of the gunsight, my left hand poised over the six big firing buttons.