The vibrations from the low-flying Huey choppers beat the mud, the low jungle debris, and even the pebbled cliff face into a mixed frenzy of anticipation. That state was nothing compared to the feelings of anticipation I and all the Marines were feeling inside our minds and bodies, I was certain. The sound of beating blades was nearly overwhelming, and I couldn’t quite take the scene in full because of the darkness and rain-blown particulate. I sheltered myself against the swell of the berm, curling my body gently into its surface while pulling down on my helmet with both hands.
I waited, listening intently. There were more Huey’s than I’d ever heard in one small place before. After a few seconds, I picked up on the fact that there were ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ choppers in the mix. That meant Cobra Hueys were flying close in circling security while the main transport Hueys dropped down like they landed in the center of a hurricane of their own making. None of it made any sense to me. The only night vision equipment any forces in Vietnam had was the Starlight Scope and that device, only a few feet away, was not designed to be used in the air. It was too short-ranged and its field of view was tiny. What sense did it make for Cobra gunships to fly security around heavy-lift Hueys in the middle of the night if they couldn’t see?
The Cobras opened up, and fear lashed through me again, only having eased a bit during the short period of time following the rotary ship making mincemeat of the entire mud flat. The smaller rotary mini-guns of the Cobras swathed back and forth across the mud flats again, this time fired by pilots who could not see much of anything except possibly the general area above where they fired. I cringed deeper down into the hardened mud of the poorly protective berm. The rotary fire swept close but not across the company position. Either the pilots were experienced savants of their deadly trade or me, and the company had been lucky again. Before thousands of rounds of 7.62 bullets could find us, the attention of the Cobras was drawn to the denser jungle across the flat. The NVA had been taken by as much surprise as we had but finally recovered. They fired their own machine guns at the sources of the red-rope tracers hosing the area.
I heard the Choppers accept the fire and quickly dive to deliver their own hard and killing bites back down into the jungle. They fired while charging toward the target, their sweeping deadly approach invisible in the night but revealed when they fired. I stared out in wonder, part of my attention was on the choppers already landed.
The Cobras, what seemed like a dozen of them, flew, hovered about and then rose up to do more of the strange maneuvering and firing. How they kept from hitting one another was beyond me but it was a show of awesome firepower and wonder almost exceeding the deliberate devastatingly lethal fire the rotary supply plane had delivered earlier. The Cobra rotary rounds didn’t explode but their pervasiveness over the entire valley floor was evident and fearfully impressive.
The heavier choppers were down on the mud, their blades still rotating at high speed, but not throwing up so much debris it was almost impossible to look up or breathe, as before. The disturbed tumbling rain returned, steady, with slight wind drawn curtains wafting back and forth across the back of my body.
Resupply, a new command, Army engineering, or maybe some sort of selective evacuation was in progress, and I didn’t have a clue as to what it was or why it was happening. I knew the Gunny didn’t either. Since his original exclamation of shock, he’d done nothing but do the same as me, tunnel face down into the mud for prayerful protection.
I could not keep my right hand from creeping down to my thigh pocket. My letter to my wife was going to get out on one of the choppers even if I had to sprint across the mud flat to deliver it before the choppers pulled out.
“No,” the Gunny hissed at me, grasping my right hand with his powerful left. “They’re dropping, not staying, and you’ll never make it in time. Take the risks we have to, not the ones you want to.”
The Gunny’s words reverberated back and forth through my mind. I pulled my hand from his grasp, feeling like a spoiled child. The risks I had to instead of the risks I wanted to. What risks did I want to? There were no more risks I wanted to accept, not that I could think of.
Getting my letter out wasn’t a risk, it was a cry inside my heart and being for survival, for another chance at a life I’d somehow lost or been convinced to give away. But I knew he was right. There was no risk to be taken because it was too late to take it. The choppers were spooling up and getting ready to leap back into the night.
Maybe whoever had offloaded down onto the mud would have answers. That was, of course, if anyone at all had offloaded.
The birds pulled out, as if on the Gunny’s command, their blade pounding whups growing in intensity as they leaped into the air, then they slanted forward and down before pulling out to curve back and fly their return route heading north through up the bottom of the valley. Only seconds later, the gathering of praying mantis-like Cobras formed up and followed.
A great base of fire from down in the jungle didn’t start until the Cobras were all nearly out of hearing range. M-60s in Jurgen’s and Sugar Daddy’s perimeter platoons opened up in return. The mud flat gently sloping down in front of the berm I laid behind was quickly covered in plaid pattern of green, yellow and red tracers, interlacing but not appearing to impact on the mud itself. But it was so dark there was no real viewing of any of it except the blazing neon spewing out, around and down from the tracers. The helicopters had been mostly invisible in the dark and continuing mist, but in my mind, they’d been so plaintively visible that I’d have sworn I could read the Marine insignia printed on their sides. In reality, I wasn’t certain of whose choppers they were, however, until the Gunny spoke again.
“They’re Marine aircraft and we’ve got to get down there and get whoever they dropped back up here,” he whispered, leaning over while he spoke in an attempt to look through the single big lens of the Starlight Scope. “Those guys don’t have a clue as to where we are and it’s not likely they can read a compass to get here, in this pudding of a night, even if they knew.”
“Who are they?” I asked, leaning away and letting the Gunny stare into the rubber grommet.
“Shit, I can never see a damn thing through this,” the Gunny grimaced out. “How does anyone see anything with all that glowing crap going on?” He pulled away in disgust.
The shooting died down. The NVA began firing single sniper shots every few minutes. The Marines on the perimeter didn’t bother to suppress with return fire and I’d come to understand why. Until there was proof that the choppers had dropped some ammo supplies then ammo had to be conserved. Mama bear ammo. If there was too much (Papa Bear) then it was too heavy to hump up and down the hills, through the mess of jungle crud and the cloying deep mud. If there was too little (Baby Bear) then there was the very real danger of running out and dying like helpless landed fish. The calculation to arrive at the just right “Mama Bear” amount was ongoing and always argued over.
I wasn’t that good in the night, and I knew it because I had Nguyen. He could see in the dark, almost as good as the Starlight Scope. I knew where I was spatially at almost all times. It went along with my gifts for artillery calling and map reading, but the wet blackness of night was confusing if I couldn’t see, no matter how oriented one might be down deep inside the valley.
“I’ll go,” the Gunny said, moving away from me to get ready.
“I’ve got to get the word out that friendlies are going be out on the mud.”
“I would suppose whoever’s out there under that umbrella of fire isn’t too friendly anymore,” I replied, knowing that our Marines had adjusted their M-60 fire for whoever was lying flat as pancakes out in front of us.
Whoever it was that had come in, however, it was unlikely that they were combat vets before this very time and in this very place. Combat vets didn’t come visiting in the middle of the night. Marines who didn’t know any better came, and I could only imagine what they had to be going through out there in the misting rain with their faces and stomachs shoved as deeply down into the leech-infested mud as they could get them.
I sighed to myself, remembering that it had been the Gunny who’d come for me during my first night when I’d been dumped from my own chopper. It seemed like so long ago.
“I’ll go,” I said. “Nguyen and I’ll go and bring them back.” I shifted over so I could make sure that my letter home was secure in one pocket.
As I moved the Gunny leaned in and gripped my arm up high. He shoved a package into my right hand.
“We’ll go together,” he whispered. “Take this stuff, just in case.”
I felt the package with my fingers, almost instantly recognizing the case for what it was. The morphine syrettes could be felt through the cardboard like the narrow columns of chalk in the boxes the Maryknoll nuns of my childhood used to store their own ‘ammunition.’ I shoved the box into my right thigh pocket, thinking that the Gunny was preparing me for another time of grueling violence and blood until he whispered again.
“I’ve got a bad feeling,” he said. “If things go south then you do what it is you do, and without delay.”
I tucked the package carefully into my thigh pocket and buttoned it closed. That pocket also contained my maps in their plastic bags and my compass. Some of the Marines carried the smaller M-33 grenades in those pockets but I had my two in my pack. My trust in grenades was low, having watched how ineffective they were in training except in closed environments. In the jungle foliage, they were little more than a muffled bump in the night unless the proximity to one exploding was only a few feet.
The Gunny crawled away into the night. I knew he was going to Jurgens and Sugar Daddy to let them know he was going out, which pleased me. The Marines would not risk shooting the Gunny, and I would be with him all the way. There was no sound from the area of the drop. I went back to staring through the scope, now fully used to adjusting the tube and focus to make up for Zippo’s breathing and fidgeting around, but there was nothing to see. Nothing moved and the misting rain made a muck of trying to define anything out of blurry shades of back and foreground.
The Gunny came back and the four of us slithered across the berm and down onto the slimy surface of the mud, Nguyen, the Gunny, myself and Fusner. I’d decided at the last minute to make sure we had a radio, and therefore we wouldn’t be dependent upon anyone offloaded from the choppers for staying in communication.
The mud was slick and also difficult to grasp since the rain had been falling for so long. Muck was a better word than mud to describe it, and it also had a distinctive putrid smell of decay. Whether that was being exuded from all the nearby dead enemy soldiers who had to still be interred in their holes from the rotary cannons aboard the C-130 or whether it was simply a function of the nature of the stuff down close to the river. It was unknowable, not that that made any difference. My .45 remained in its holster. I’d left everything else normally attached to my web belt back under the lip of the cave, marginally dry and waiting for my return. The leeches were everywhere, but for reasons known only to them, they seemed to slide away from my hands as I worked to clear the mud before me before pulling myself forward about a foot at a time. Occasional small arms fire came out of the jungle area downriver where The NVA had stopped firing from their protected positions. I knew that if the enemy had a Starlight Scope we’d all be very quickly dead or severely wounded.
“Marines,” a muffled voice called out from just ahead of where I was crawling. I stopped to listen, as did the others. None of us made a sound, although it was still difficult to hear anything over the rushing sound of the river and the constant patter of the misting rain.
“Marines,” came again.
I pushed forward, the Gunny with me until I ran into a metal canister. I knew what it was right away. The water bottles came in thick plastic bottles. C-rations came in heavy cardboard boxes. Only ammunition or explosives came in aluminum canisters, and very occasionally, hot food. I didn’t think battalion was sending us hot chow.
The Gunny took the lead in pushing through the canisters, boxes and some water bottles. The choppers had been on the ground so short a time that they hadn’t unloaded. They’d dumped what they had overboard into the moist mud. Many of the items were half buried by the impact of their fall.
“Marines,” came the heavy rough whisper again.
The tone of desperation and fear in the timbre of the voice told me all I needed to know. Another team of Marines had come flying into a hot landing zone and been introduced to combat on the ground. It was night, they didn’t have a clue as to where they really were, the enemy was shooting at them and it seemed that the friendlies were too. And they were mired down in heavy mud, it was raining, and the leeches weren’t being as kind to them as they’d been to us.
“Welcome to my world,” Fusner said to me from a few feet away, no doubt sensing exactly the same thing that I was.
“Marines,” the voice called out again.
“We’re here,” the Gunny said back, keep his voice down as far as possible, but still surprised me.
We were out in the open between opposing forces in the night. The best course, and generally only course for survival under such circumstance was silence. Silence without moving was preferred, and silence without moving in some sort of covered shelter was the ideal.
“Shit,” the Gunny whispered, hesitating before moving aside to go around something. I crawled forward onto a body.
“Marines,” the voice said again.
“Shut up, we’re here,” hissed the Gunny, knowing full well we were dealing with a remnant of whatever force had been sent out.
The firing by the NVA had been point specific. When the choppers landed the nearby enemy soldiers in holes had been able to register the position. The earlier fire we’d heard and the company had responded to, was site-specific. And now the four of us were in exactly the same position at the same registered site, although nobody was firing at us.
All firing had stopped and an eerie silence hung over the battlefield mud. There was only the sound of the river and the rain. The NVA knew where we were and they knew we were alive.
I crawled forward to where the Gunny had pulled up short.
“You’re going to be all right,” the Gunny said, talking to a figure I sensed laying in front of him. “You’re not hit. Who were you with?”
“Major Cruikshank, and his command staff,” the voice in front of the Gunny said.
“Shit,” the Gunny whispered again, before twisting back to face me.
“Battalion command just lost a good bit of battalion command,” the Gunny said. “Cruikshank was the XO, and I think they’re all dead.”
“What in the hell happened?” I asked, in shock. What was battalion doing sending out the XO without any warning or ground support, I wondered?
“They were getting oriented here on the ground, and then they were all dead,” the voice said. “Just like that. They were all dead. How could they all just be dead like that?”
“Who are you?” the Gunny said, his voice low and harsh.
“I’m Sergeant Bates, serving as aide to the major,” the voice replied.
“We’ve got to keep quiet or we’re going to draw more fire,” I whispered up near the Gunny’s left ear.
“Not likely,” the Gunny shot back, not whispering this time. “You don’t get it yet?”
“Get what?” I replied, perplexed.
“You, it’s you,” the Gunny said, “and this guy’s fine but his radio’s shot to hell. We need to get back up to the berm and wait until first light and supporting fires to come back for the supplies.”
“Me?” I said, with the same shocked tone.
“Like they can’t know we’re here?” The Gunny said, derisively. “These rear area guys got out of the choppers and wandered around like they were touring a park. The NVA registered the site and then put down a very effective base of small arms fire to take out whoever came out and dropped to the mud. I don’t know if our company helped things along, but we can’t stay out here for much longer. The NVA commander down there might not do the honorable thing all night.”
“Me?” I asked again.
“They’re letting us recover our wounded and dead because you let them recover their own,” the Gunny said.
A long groan came from somewhere in the near distance.
“How many Marines got off the choppers?” the Gunny said to Bates.
“Six of us,” Bates replied.
The groan came again, this time insistently loud.
“Shit,” the Gunny said, for the third time.
“Somebody made it,” I said. “We’ve got to figure out who, and then what we’re going to do.”
“Like we have a real choice here, Junior,” the Gunny replied, moving to begin checking the bodies.
“What’s he talking about?” Bates asked.
My hand automatically went down to clutch my right thigh pocket.
“Nuthin, Sergeant,” I replied, “he didn’t mean nuthin.”