I made it back to my cave under the rock wall of the cleft I was holed up in, the one I’d spent some time hoping to get back to. I laid in the darkness, shedding outer pieces of my wet rotting uniform, and wondering about the reality of the combat I was hopelessly engaged in. The moving, moist, noisy and miserable tomb of the A Shau Valley gave nothing back. There was nothing to give. I thought about the movies I’d seen growing up. The troops and Marines in the field had litters and stretchers for the wounded. Cruikshank had come back inside a poncho cover, looking like nothing more or less than a giant moth pupa. In combat, Marines carried everything, and there was no way to order them to carry more, and nobody was going to carry an extra twenty pounds in case somebody else needed to be carried. If the Marines didn’t want to carry a load or disagreed with what was in it, then they simply dumped whatever it was into the jungle around them. Punishing them didn’t change anything. When a punishment, even as extreme as immediate death, is commonly administered among a human group the members of that group get used to it. The Gunny had been very peculiar and particular in how he’d described accommodating combat weeks earlier. Actual ground combat teaches, with death as its primary tool. It doesn’t teach by killing the Marines around you. It teaches by killing you.
“You need to come,” the Gunny said, from just beyond the outer edge of my hideout.
I knew why he was there. His premonition, when he’d resupplied my syrettes of morphine, about his own mortality in heading out onto the mud flat in the middle of the night had been just a little off. God had swooped in and taken the battalion executive officer instead, and in exactly the same way the Gunny had most feared would happen to him. I pulled my wet trousers back on, and then my stinky mess of a utility blouse. There would be time for the engorged small leech removal procedure later, or in the morning. The little leeches I’d taken on didn’t suck enough blood to weaken my body. It was the big ones in the back eddy waters of the Bong Song river, or those to be found deeper inside the middle of the thicker jungle, that sucked out one’s real life’s blood. Those had to be rid of as quickly as possible.
I crawled out, running into Fusner instead of the Gunny.
“I would presume the six-actual has been heating up the combat net about Cruikshank,” I murmured to him.
“No sir, nobody’s told battalion yet. The Gunny thought you had been the one to do that, being company commander and all, sir.”
“This way,” the Gunny said, keeping his voice low.
The NVA hadn’t fired a shot since the recovery effort had been started, but that couldn’t last and everyone in the company had to know it. The NVA held the huge chunk of jungle that ran between the cliff face and the river, running at least a kilometer or more down south toward where we’d originally come down into the valley. Hill 975 was loaded with another force, probably of equal size, not far from our position up north. The company was trapped between the river, the vertical canyon wall, and then between two nearly overwhelming enemy forces.
Nguyen appeared nearby, looking like the Gunny, Fusner and myself, the wetness of all of our ponchos glistening in some kind of light that didn’t seem to come from anywhere but from the ground and jungle outgrowth itself. I moved in behind the Gunny and headed the few meters north along the cliff face until he ducked under the lip of the rock and disappeared. I went to my hands and knees to follow him. A flashlight, covered with some kind of material to mute the light, gave off a dull red glow ahead. The cave-like cleft was bigger than the one I’d adopted as my own a few meters south along the wall. Jurgens was facing me deep inside by the light, and a larger figure who had to be Sugar Daddy was squatting next to him. One of the corpsmen worked on the battalion XO, who lay back down in the center of the cave. It was difficult, in the muted light, to make out what the corpsman was actually doing.
After a minute, or so, the corpsmen rocked back on his heels, squatting like Nguyen did when he was relaxing.
“Seventeen or eighteen rounds,” the corpsman whispered. “Took one of them right through his lights. There’s no coming back from that, not out here so far from a medical station. He’s alive but there’s no way.”
At that the corpsman quickly got his stuff together and pulled slowly toward the cleft opening, moving backward, like he was bowing out.
The lights. I remembered the phrase all the way back from a frontier novel I’d read years before. Lights were lungs. The XO had taken a round through both lungs. A double lung shot. Certain, but not necessarily instant, death.
"You’ll want this,” Tank, the Gunny’s radio operator said, moving from the darkness at the back of the cleft to hand the flashlight to Nguyen, who’d somehow squeezed past everyone to press himself bent over into the crease where the floor and the ceiling of the cave came together and ended.
Nguyen grasped the flashlight like it was some sort of diseased object, carefully suspending it in the air by making a web of the fingers of his right hand.
“Battalion command,” Jurgens said derisively aloud, moving toward the cleft’s entrance. “Just terrific. They send one idiot after another to accomplish what? Our supplies are out there on the mudflat, no doubt shot through with hundreds of holes. Idiots.”
I crouched by the side of the XO. Cruikshank lay flat on his back with his arms at his sides. An I.V. needle was inserted into the elbow of his upturned right arm, the bag held up by a C-ration can opener stuck into a crack on the cave’s ceiling. I couldn’t see his chest rise and fall in the bad light, with the mud all over adding to any ability to make out anything inside the cave in detail. I heard his breathing and I knew, as the corpsman had, there was no medevac that was going to save the major. If the man had been shot through the lungs inside an ER he might have had a chance, but even the severity of the ‘lights’ injury probably didn’t matter that much, as that deadly bullet was only one of many that had gone through him.
I leaned forward and peered into the major’s face. His eyes blinked and he gurgled in and out instead of breathing properly. His lips moved as if he was trying to say something but his lung damage was too severe. For some reason, his condition, and the fact that he was still alive and struggling made me angry.
“Get out,” I hissed to everyone around me, gesturing for them to exit the cave by pointing with my right forefinger back toward the entrance.
Jurgens and Fusner crawled away, and the Gunny faded out of the light, as well. I swung my arm around to bring my finger to bear on Nguyen but then dropped it, as the gesture was unnecessary. Nguyen held the light steady and stared with his black unblinking eyes over it. He wasn’t going anywhere.
I pulled out the packet of morphine syrettes with my right hand, opened one end of the small cardboard container, and very carefully let three of the syrettes fall into my other hand. There was no ceremony to be followed, and no reason to delay. Cruikshank continued to groan and croak softly, and it appeared in the bad light that he was turning his head back and forth slightly. There was no way to interpret anything from his moves, nor any point to it. I punched a needle from a syrette into his right thigh, through his utility trousers, then followed it quickly with two more. I sank back to wait, dropping the empty morphine tubes to the floor of the cave.
Nguyen put out the light, and the three of us sat in the dark, listening to the sounds of life in one of us slowly ebb away until there was only silence. The distant roiling of rushing water down the river came back, and the ever-present sound of the monsoon rain remained where it’d been all along, although unheard over the dying sounds of the major. I recognized the returning sounds as the basal backdrop of life in the A Shau. I looked over to where I couldn’t see Nguyen in the dark although I knew exactly where he was. He didn’t move, and I knew he wouldn’t until I did.
I replaced the morphine packet in my pocket. I had seven syrettes left, and I wondered when I’d be called on to use any or all of them again. My left hand went down to the outside of my left thigh pocket, where my wife’s letter was folded inside, ready to go out on any chopper that would stop long enough to let me get it aboard. I breathed in and out deeply and tried to relax. So far, in my thinking, I couldn’t come up with one part of one task I had to perform as a company commander of Marines in combat that I could ever tell my wife about.
“Sir,” I heard from behind me. The voice was Fusner’s.
“Battalion?” I replied, turning about to face the cave’s entrance.
There could only be one reason Fusner was asking for my attention.
“The six-actual, sir,” he replied.
A six-actual to talk to a six-actual. I was living an even worse version of Catch-22 than Yossarian had.
I couldn't see it, but I knew the Prick 25 handset was pushed out between us. I stood to take it, while Nguyen passed from out of the cave, unaccountably rubbing up against me as he went. I pulled away a bit, and then realized he’d slipped the valuable flashlight into my back pocket as he went. I didn’t know who the thing belonged to but whoever it was in the company, he wasn’t getting it back.
“Six-actual,” I said, flatly into the microphone, going down into a squat, wondering it the conversation would be very long.
“Put the XO on, Junior,” the battalion commander ordered.
“He didn’t make it, sir,” I replied.
“The choppers didn’t come in?” the commander exclaimed. “I knew it. God damn it. They had plenty of cover and pretty damned good intel.”
“The choppers came in, sir, but the team was lost,” I reported, as succinctly and flatly as I could. “The choppers came into a hot L.Z. and if…” but I got no farther.
“If, my ass, Junior,” the commander screamed into the microphone, making me pull my own handset back from my right ear a few inches. “Don’t tell me Tommy’s dead, just don't tell me that whatever you do…” he said, as his voice trailed off.
I waited, knowing now that the major’s first name had been Tommy and the commander’s use of his first name meant they were close.
“You and that ragtag company out there in God knows where. God damn it! What did you do to him?”
I held the handset out before me. I couldn’t think of anything to say. It came to me that the surprise nature of the XO’s visit had been concocted by the commander himself, so he could have a surprise inspection team analyze what was going wrong with a company that lost five to ten percent of its T.O. strength every single day.
“What did he do, Junior?” squawked out of the handset I held. “What did you do, Junior?” the commander screamed after that, each sentence accentuated with my nickname.
Suddenly and impulsively I brought the handset quickly up to my head. “He came down in the A Shau to learn about combat, that’s what he did, sir. And he learned all right, just as you wanted him to, sir.”
I held the microphone, pushed so hard into the side of my head that my ear hurt, but I could hear nothing. I waited, but the commander or the connection, or both, were gone. I didn't know whether he’d heard me or not. I looked around. Only Nguyen and Fusner were nearby. The others had fled when the combat net exchange with battalion had begun, just like they’d fled when the major had to be put down. I slumped down a bit and sighed. I knew I’d have fled too if there’d been any way to do so that didn’t involve lessening my already tiny chance to survive. I was the ‘shit jobs’ officer and I knew it, and so did everyone in the company, and probably even back at battalion. Sadly, I also knew that my willingness to be just that was helping keep me alive, but it wouldn’t be something I could ever write home about or tell to any after war buddies I might make back in the states.
I handed the handset back to Fusner. The Gunny appeared out of the wet raining night. I’d left my helmet behind me in the cave, but as I turned to get it he stopped me.
“I’ve got it,” he breathed gently moving me aside with one powerful but gently applied hand. “There was no way for me to maintain if I took that call,” he said with his back turned.
He rummaged in the dark for my helmet. I thought of the flashlight in my back pocket where Nguyen had slipped it but I didn’t say or do anything.
The battalion commander had called me. I hadn’t placed the call and neither had Fusner. Someone had alerted the commander that there was bad news awaiting him. I also didn’t understand what the Gunny meant when he used the word ‘maintain.’ The sentence he’d obviously and carefully crafted sounded an awful lot like one I’d heard used in humor back at my college; “you’ve got to go there to get there, and get there to be there.”
The Gunny put the helmet gently down on my head.
“You’re a Marine Officer, Junior,” he said, too quietly for anyone else, even Fusner close by, to hear. “You’re maybe the best one I’ve ever known, or at least the only one who’s ever really listened worth a damn. Right now, you can’t believe that to be true. If we live, someday, you will.”
The Gunny straightened up, and then spoke louder, using his normal gravelly tone. “We’ve got to get those supplies. We need the ammo, especially the flechette stuff because those gooks aren’t going to stay quiet forever. We need you to man the Ontos.”
He said the last to me.
Another shit job, but this time there was some relief from the gnawing fear that had come back to make a nest inside the center of my being when I’d been out on the mudflats. I would be staying back inside an armored vehicle the NVA feared more than just about any other Marine Corps weapon, except maybe Puff the Magic Dragon.
“Unless, of course,” the Gunny continued, lighting a cigarette and sounding like he was talking to himself, “first light isn’t far off and they see Junior himself out there in that distinctive helmet…out there collecting our dead.”
I knew I wouldn’t be staying with the Ontos, and I almost smiled as a shiver of fear just lingering nearby, invisible to everyone but me, came charging back to entwine my core. Of course, I wasn’t staying back. I was maybe one of the best Marine Officers the Gunny had ever known. That was the part that made me finally smile, and coldly. The Gunny was a master player and I was but a pawn. The only good thing I could think of about going back out there on that open field of fire was the number of spider holes the enemy had dug earlier and then been forced to abandon. At least they might provide some cover if the light was good enough to see one or more of the well-disguised things.
I made one last attempt to stay back with the Ontos.
“You know, Gunny, they can’t make it at all without one of us."
“Hell,” the Gunny laughed. “They can’t do without either one of us anymore if you haven’t noticed.”
“Who’ve we got?” I asked in resignation, knowing the Gunny would fully understand what I meant.
Getting me to go out there again was a lot easier for the Gunny than getting Marines from any of the other platoons to do so. And there would have to be at least two squads to haul all the junk back, not to mention the four remaining bodies.
Fusner messed with his radio nearby and then walked the few feet over to where the Gunny and I stood behind a stand of bamboo down from the berm. He stuck out one long gangly arm with the handset gripped at the end of it.
“Six-actual,” he said to both the Gunny and I and then waited.
I looked at the Gunny, but he only looked back at me through the smoke curling up from the end of his cigarette, without making a move. His expression, that I could only barely read, seemed to be one of a question, like what was I going to do? He puffed once more and again made no move to do anything.
“It’s Sugar Daddy’s turn,” I said, ignoring Fusner’s outstretched hand. I had nothing to say to the battalion six-actual. The major was dead, and the team that accompanied him was dead too. The Battalion wasn’t going to provide any assistance in getting our supplies off the mudflat and everything else in the valley, or out in the world, would wait until first light.
The Gunny grinned grudgingly and walked away into the night. His first objective to accomplish his mission, getting me to go back out, had been very successful. His second objective had been to avoid dealing with battalion directly. He’d accomplished that, as well. Now, all he had to do was convince Sugar Daddy that it was worth it for him to risk his platoon, probably for a healthy slice of whatever was laying out there shot full of holes.
I crawled back into my cave to get ready to go out. I found my pack and carefully pulled out the two M-33 grenades I kept there. They had a reassuring weight and feel to them, as I cradled them in the dark. I placed one in each blouse pocket on the front of my utilities. The grenades would make crawling along over the surface of the mud more discomforting and problematic but they wouldn’t cause me as much fear as carrying the small deadly things in my trousers. I wouldn’t need the pack for my return to the landing zone and I’d already determined that I’d never again go anywhere without Tex’s .45 and my K-Bar. They stayed on my belt. I didn’t need anything else.
When I came out of the cleft Fusner, Zippo and Nguyen were waiting. The night was different than it had been only minutes earlier. I knew I was sensing astronautical dawn, although there was still no distinguishable light to see by. Fusner had to accompany me, and I knew I didn’t have to discuss the plan with him but did mention that we’d need the AN-323 for air support. Zippo needed to stay with the Ontos and work with Sentry to follow our progress in the night, while it was still night. The Ontos was the only supporting fire we’d have, and there was no telling about air for the following day. Nguyen would do what Nguyen did, which was many times a mystery but was always something that ended up making me feel somehow more secure.
The crawl out across the mud was uneventful. More misting rain, the loud burbling rush of river water nearby, and the persistent presence of the small irritating leeches. The Gunny led with his radio operator and I followed. Sugar Daddy had chosen to string out his entire platoon, leaving one Marine every four or five yards, to relay stores back from the zone man-to-man instead of simply load up and carrying as much back possible. I didn’t like the idea of having one long line of Marines subject to enfilade fire (shooting straight through one man after another in a line with the same bullet) but there wasn’t any safe covering part of the mudflat to provide cover, anyway. The slope was faintly downward toward the thick jungle area, with the violent river to the right. Slipping and sliding along through the mud wasn’t much of a problem. I just hoped that getting back, if there was to be a getting back, would not be much more difficult.
Nautical dawn, that first tiny sliver of pre-dawn light was rapidly changing the landing zone from a completely black area into a grayish blackness that revealed not much more, but let me know that a brighter civil dawn was only minutes away.
The NVA didn’t open up until the Gunny and I were among the dumped supply canisters. I plastered myself face down into the thick mud, before realizing that the tracers were not intended for us. They were firing high.
As I’d feared, Sugar Daddy’s men were about to take some terrible losses, with the rest of us to follow, unless something could be done and done fast. It wouldn’t take them long to lower their fire and there was no way we were getting back to the berm before full daylight.