Picking out who was who or what was what from the cluster of men who hit the end of the bridge was impossible.. I worked the focus knob on the side of the Starlight scope to no avail. I couldn’t get a decent enough resolution to allow the green wispy moving creatures to have any identity. I prayed that Jurgens, being as close and highly positioned as he was atop the Ontos, would have a better ability to determine friend from foe. The flashlights screwed everything up because the diffused light blanked out key portions of the scope’s ability to reproduce an image. The image I was looking at was not reality. It was an interpretation and then enhancement by the addition of interiorly generated photons to make a picture on a very small television screen. The flashlights waving about created a bunch of what seemed like giant fireflies batting around all over the place. The Starlight Scope, probably without enemy intent, had been rendered all but useless.
Jurgens opened up with the Browning, firing one long continuous stream that had to consist of a complete belt. How long could Jurgens maintain that kind of fire, if it was Jurgens, I didn’t know? I wasn't fully convinced that the totally self-serving man I’d had to deal with, to the point of sociopathic action, was capable of standing to face down the enemy and then stick it out. Could the unrecognizable Marine on the Ontos be someone Jurgens had paid off with the Thompson to stand in for him? It would be just like him.
At first, the volume of fire was spattering until the enemy .50 Caliber opened up, and then the Marines began hammering the entire area, from the end of the bridge to both mudflats on each side. A minor berm would allow for just a bit of cover on the other side if someone laid totally flat and pressed himself into the soft mud. I’d done it several times myself.
The M-60 fire streamed yellow tracers, with the first four dedicated 60s opening up, and then just about every automatic weapon in the company. The M-16s fired all tracers to the point where there was almost enough light to see the other side of the river without the Starlight Scope. I wondered about a cease-fire to save Kilo’s men but there was no stopping anything. Kilo still had men over there, including Carruthers. There was no ability, with the confusing, near carnival strangeness, of the whirling flashlights, the beating of the big fifty and then all the supporting fires from both sides. The AK-47s didn't fire tracers, for the most part, except for the special ones the NVA used that had drum magazines. Their white streams were crossing the river, but not many of them.
The Ontos opened up, firing three rounds, all together, into the position occupied by the .50 caliber. The range was nearly point-blank and the initial blast of all three timed distant explosions, setting loose the many thousands of flechettes they carried, allowed for a flash of light that illuminated great fan-shaped furrows that ran out from where the flechettes did their work. It was hard to see what was going on, as the AK fire was beating up the entire face of the much higher berm on our side of the river.
Jurgens opened up again from the Ontos, the Browning’s red tracers distinctively different from the other weapons.
I reached for the scope and studied the end of the bridge. The Gunny had told me earlier that one of the Marines had found a letter on the dead body of an NVA soldier, and that we were facing the 206th Sapper regiment, one of the most elite units in the entire North Vietnamese Army. The word sapper had caught me then, and I tried to think about it. Explosives. Sappers carried satchel charges everywhere, like the ones we’d used to clear the tunnels so many nights earlier, not far from where we were fighting this night.
I studied the other side of the river, but it was hard to make out anything. The flashlights were gone. Most of the men were gone. What had been the route of Kilo to get across the bridge, combined with a full-frontal attack by the enemy was over. The intensity of the fire from both sides had been so high that nothing could live in that maelstrom of a nightmare that the bridge end of the area had become. I could not see them but I knew many men had died in the last few minutes. I could only hope that not many of them were from Kilo Company and that Carruthers was not among them.
The drums still beat, as if to let everyone know that the action wasn’t over. What more was coming? What had the flashlights been for? A force attacking at night did not use flashlights. It was almost entirely suicidal, given the modern weapons of warfare that everyone on the battlefield was well aware of.
And then it came to me.
“Get everyone off that bridge and move the Ontos to the very edge of the back of it,” I said to Fusner, wrestling the Starlight Scope around to look upriver.
Fusner got on the radio, calling the Gunny and the Ontos crew. It took no time for the Gunny to reach the hole. He dived right in, causing my leech bitten back to arch in agony. The leeches were still there but their pain-deadening symbiotic serum was fading away in effectiveness.
Where and when was first light, I wondered. Cowboy might come with friends at first light, and the enemy would know that too. So, what were they doing? Why the near-suicidal attack? Unless the attack was a diversion. Unless the sappers had not been trying to cross the bridge at all but hauling heavy satchel charges to blow the thing up? The NVA wasn’t trying to come across and kill us. The enemy was trying to deny us any place to retreat to when the attack came from the forces ensconced inside Hill 950.
I explained the situation to the Gunny.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” the Gunny asked, but not in a tone that called for a reply.
“They’re sappers,” I replied, “that’s what they do.”
“What kind of force can they have up there?” The Gunny went on.
“They brought a tank down here before,” I noted. “They have to have some pretty extensive infantry units holed up, spoiling for a fight.
Khe Sahn and Tet had come and gone. There was no firebase left where Khe Sahn had been, and the Tet offensive, although a failure tactically, had only made the resistance of the NVA that much stronger. Plus, the troops dedicated to taking Khe Sahn had to be roaming around the upper part of the A Shau Valley, as only about twelve miles separated the upper flattened end from the valley, where the hamlet and now closed base were located.
“They’re not in the jungle behind us,” I said, trying to think my way through the problem. “They crossed the river to attack us on the other side. When we moved, that left them over there with no way to get back, not without going a whole lot of kilometers south and then crossing. If they pull that off then they have to come upriver again and attack across that high ground or use the narrow gap between that and the river. The Ontos will eat them alive if we still have an Ontos.”
I could see nothing to the north, so I swung the tripod back around to stare at the bridge. The Ontos had no choice but to turn again, which meant that if it had not taken out the fifty it would be exposed to that fire and not be able to fire back. With armor-piercing bullets, it was not inconceivable that the Ontos might be taken out with that weapon alone. But there was no choice. It was either go along with what I thought the NVA was up to or likely lose it all and not have the Ontos to hold off any enemy soldiers when and if they came down the river.
The Ontos turned. I heard the ripping of the boards that were layered over the top of the bridge rather than saw it. After only a few seconds there was nothing. The noise had penetrated through the sporadic fire still going on, the sound of the drums and those of the river too. But the bridge was still there. The Ontos backed slowly, its rifles again pointing across the river. Jurgens was done with his frightfully effective work using the Browning and was directing the machine so it could get as close to the lip as possible. There was just a little bit of light. Enough for me to tell it was indeed Jurgens doing the directing. I wasn’t sure about whether I was happy or angry about that fact. Jurgens was the easiest man to hate I’d ever known.
Marines were running the length of the bridge, back and forth, to carry wounded men who’d been hit by either the M-60s, the Browning or enemy fire. I watched through the Starlight scope, wondering if Carruthers would be among the wounded. There had to be bodies on the other side, and how many of the wounded would die was anybody’s guess, what with medevac and resupply having to come in on our side of the river, and with an imminent attack expected to flow down through that very position. We needed air, as fast as we could get it, and then we needed more suppressive air to halt any enemy in its tracks from attempting a daytime attack.
The small arms fire died out completely. Jurgens climbed off the back of the bridge and made his way back. I wonder what Fusner had told the crew of the Ontos because they were obviously staying with their tracked vehicle. The Ontos could be protected from being taken by the enemy by the M-60 fire on our side of the river so there was no need for the crew to be inside when and if the sappers set off their charges.
The drums stopped beating.
“What’s that mean?” the Gunny asked, taking out a cigarette and lighting it.
“We’ve got to get to the dawn,” I replied, which was really no reply at all.
If I was right, then the drums had stopped because the NVA were going to blow the bridge. There was likely no time to get the crew out of the Ontos, and I couldn’t imagine how big an explosion we might expect. Until it came. The bridge was clear of Marines, bodies and just about everything else when the far end blew sky high. The entire bridge could be seen with the unaided eye as the end rose up into and then immediately fell back into the raging waters. But it didn’t go anywhere. They didn't wash it downriver where the tank still lay upside down. The Ontos was still on the close end, although the bridge had been pushed backward by the force of the explosion, to the point where the top of it was only a few feet from the edge of the berm. The Ontos would not need a ramp or any propping up of wood to get off the thing.
I studied the Ontos with the scope.
“Get them on the radio,” I said, without turning.
The concussion wave would have been stopped by the armor, but spalling might have occurred, where everything inside the tank that was not welded or screwed down could fly around and kill or badly injure the crew.
“They’re okay, but they want to know what you want them to do,” Fusner said, holding the microphone out.
I didn’t take it. “Just tell them to back off the bridge and reload. I can’t see what kind of a mess the other end of the bridge is, although I no longer expect company from that direction.”
I studied the other end of the bridge through the scope. It was a blackened torn up mess, with metal peeled back and broken boarding everywhere. I was amazed that the whole thing stayed together. Once more, thanks to the pushing effect of the explosives and the severe damage to the end of the thing, there would be no equipment or men transitioning from the far bank onto the end of it. It was a pleasure not to have the drums, although it was more likely that the coming of dawn caused them to stop rather than to put an exclamation point on the sapper job. The drums had to be located up on the cliff somewhere, and it would be a turkey shoot for either Puff or the Skyraiders, or anyone or anything else we could raise to help, so they would need to hide and abandon them until nightfall again.
“Have you got the AN-323 up?” I asked.
Fusner went to work without answering
I noted that the Gunny remained quiet, and had been since the drums had gone silent.
“You going to talk to Jurgens?” I asked, waiting for Fusner to reach our air support.
“More to the point, are you going to talk to him?” the Gunny said back.
“And say what?” I replied. “Tell him he did his usual great job of mowing down Marines and enemy alike…a sort of ‘one for all and all for one’ Browning murderous magician?”
“There was no choice, and I know you know it,” the Gunny replied, blowing a puff of smoke out into the night. “You just can’t stand him as a person.”
There was no argument from me. He was right. I was being unreasonable because it was Jurgens, and I did not want to praise him at all.
“The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the Gunny said, his voice very soft.
I’d read Sun Tzu while at the Basic School. It was impossible not to see the brilliance of the old Chinese general, and how he’d neatly laid out not only how to use war tactics and strategy but also how to apply a philosophy of life. I understood, but I could not take Jurgens into my heart and soul at all. What did it mean if we were merely animals ripping and shredding each other to death so that we could live for another day?
Was I going to end up the way the Gunny had talked about me during my first day in combat? I’d conquered the terror, as the Gunny predicted I would. I no longer felt the paralyzing fear up and down my interior when the enemy fire came pouring in. I could function. Was I nearing the point where I would grow to like it? I felt that Jurgens had. And the Gunny himself had said that there was no coming back from making that adaptation or passage.
“Cowboy’s coming and he’s bringing friends,” Fusner said.
“ETA on target?” I asked back, instantly.
“Twenty-three minutes,” Fusner replied.
I smiled sincerely for the first time since I could remember. I would never see or hear a propeller plane again in my life, I knew, without a great welling-up of gratitude and joy. We were going to get to live, at least for another while. We could make it through the twenty-three minutes.
“Get the Ontos swung around, loaded for bear and aimed up the river, just in case,” I ordered.
“You want me to get down there?” Dobbs asked, “or stay with the scope?”
“You’re a sergeant now, Dobbs, so get down there,” I replied. “You’re my new scout sergeant. Let the men know that we’re expecting an attack from up north while you’re at it.”
Dobbs didn’t move. He stood staring at me.
“Well, you just got promoted corporal, so you might celebrate a little,” I said, looking at the Gunny, who wore one of his enigmatic almost nothing smiles, with his signature Camel sticking out the side of his mouth.
“Your scout sergeants don't seem to do too well, think the new sergeant means," the Gunny responded, wryly.
The first light of dawn was beginning to slowly brighten the gloom at the bottom of the valley. Jurgens appeared out of the darkness and knelt by the side of the hole. He’d unstrapped the Thompson and carried it just like Macho Man had before him.
I didn’t get a chance to comment, however.
“They’re bringing Captain Carruthers up on a poncho liner,” Jurgens said.
I climbed out of the hole without saying a word. I could see the four Marines, each at a corner of the poncho cover, hauling their load.
By the time I reached Carruther’s side, it was too late. I didn’t need to examine Carruthers, because the corpsmen had quit working on him before he got to me, more likely to move to triage and help those badly wounded who might have a shot at making it. The expressions on the faces of the Marines around me were also telling. Carruthers had not been like me. He’d garnered some sort of strange respect from his first day in combat. He’d also led Kilo company, a company not so seemingly ferocious, inbred, and racially charged as my own.
“He took one in the lights, Junior,” the Gunny said, approaching me from the side. There’s no way any evacuation can get him to a lung surgeon in time.”
I knew the ‘one in the lights’ meant that the captain had been hit in both lungs. There was no hope for survival after such a wound, as there was not enough time to reach a surgical unit, even if the captain had been aboard a chopper at the time of his getting hit. But he was still laying in the mud alive, refusing to give up, to die or to even admit that there was no hope. His blinking eyes told that story, as I bent down over his prone body. His eyes focused and drilled into my own.
I leaned down, somehow knowing he wanted to say something, but lung shots didn't allow for much in the way of verbal communication.
“Get me back to a hospital,” he whispered, “and it hurts so much more than I thought it would.”
I looked at his left lapel. One morphine syrette was sticking out of the material, its short needle buried in the weave of the tight cotton. I knew he’d received one syrette. There were no markings on his body that I could see, however. If he was going out in the coming medivac then the corpsmen who’d given him the shot would have written down a time, probably on the back of his hand or right across his forehead.
Suddenly, the captain and I seemed alone, as all the other Marines had pulled back, including the Gunny. Only Nguyen knelt by my side, looking slowly around instead of at the captain. I pulled the single syrette from his collar and tossed it away, before reaching down to the cargo pocket located on my right thigh. I hadn’t gone into that pocket for some time. I made sure the captain could not see what I was doing, even if he might no longer be able to understand.
I got out two syrettes and took no time in punching them right through his trousers, just below his hip. I squeezed twice and then threw my own empty syrettes after the first one.
“I’m taking you all the way home, captain,” I whispered, leaning down so my lips were only inches from his right ear.
“Thanks, Lieutenant, you’re a good man and I wish I could stay to do my part,” Carruthers murmured, but his eyes were already closed.
I waited. There was nothing else to be said. I didn't know where the captain was from, who his wife was or whether he had children or not. I assumed from his wedding ring that he was married. I felt a great loss and a sense of guilt for not knowing. The captain had treated me with respect and friendliness while I hadn’t had the time or inclination to spend any time with him. I was all about trying to survive myself and for those who might help ensure my survival.
I placed my left hand on Carruthers gently moving chest. There was no drama. His chest simply started to move less and less, each breath just a tiny bit smaller than the one before. I looked around me. The Marines were there, Fusner among the closest, but they paid no attention at all to Carruthers or me. Before coming to the Nam, I would never have believed that most humans die alone, even when they are doing so among other humans. I wondered if there was a natural, likely genetic reaction, that almost all humans have about death. My ‘taking care’ of Carruthers, and others mortally wounded, no longer bothered me. It was simply something that had to be done, as the occasional cleaning and oiling of weaponry, and it was one of those rare jobs that was my own and no one else’s.
I looked over at Fusner, the morning light just bright enough to allow me to see his features from ten meters away. The scene was uncomfortable and strange, even by A Shau standards. Fusner pointed at his private radio, the one he’d taped to the Prick 25, and then carried everywhere we went.
I nodded at him. The battle was over, at least for the time being, and we had to try to move on. I pulled my hand from Carruther’s unmoving chest, feeling like I was pulling what life was left in him with me.
Fusner’s little transistor radio immediately came alive. Brother John’s comforting deep voice introduced a song ‘coming at you’ from Nah Trang, a place I knew I’d more than likely never see or ever hear of again, should I survive, but it didn’t matter.
The song that began playing was ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ by the Beach Boys. I’d heard the song for the first time when I was having coffee in the student union of St. Norbert College in West DePere, Wisconsin. The Beatles were a really big deal at the college but I loved the different surfer groups better. Back then, and all the times prior to landing in country, I thought I’d worried a lot. I worried about tuition, about whether I’d ever get a date, about my appearance and more. After less than a month in Vietnam, all I could do was to wish fervently that I might get home to have such ridiculous worries again. A single line of song lyrics seemed to leap across from the tiny speaker to where I’d risen up to stand over the captain’s body: “She makes me come alive, and makes me wanna drive, when she says "don't worry, baby, don't worry, baby, don't worry, baby, everything will turn out alright…” and my mind once more went back to thinking about my own wife and small daughter.
I looked for one last time down at the body of Captain Carruthers. Two Marines from the company stood nearby with a black body bag. They waited for me to move on, which surprised me. I took only a few more seconds to wonder about the song lyrics. Was Carruther’s place now, where there was no worry that anyone knew about, not in fact the best place to be?
There was no answer forthcoming to that unspoken question, and I knew there never would be.