The Skyraiders broke the dawn, and everything else, apart, as they came in over the river at an altitude that had to be less than a hundred feet. First light was upon the valley, and the smoke coming up from the still-burning dried mud of the river bank could be seen, its pungent smell able to be inhaled all the way across the water. The four Skyraiders had come down from higher altitude to arrive almost soundlessly until their giant thundering radial engines became the only thing any animal could hear up and down the valley. Cowboy’s plane had to be among the four, but it was impossible to tell in the low light by trying to see through the canopies of the fast passing planes. And then, the sounds grew even louder with the roaring fire that came out of the Skyraider’s 20mm cannons.
I knew the pilots could not see any activity below them. The light was simply too bad for that. I also knew why they were firing anyway. The NVA would not only be diving for cover in the jungle beyond, but they’d now be fully on notice that airpower had arrived, and it was of the kind that was going to remain on-site for some time to come. Cowboy was merely giving the enemy a taste, and letting everyone know that nothing would happen in the valley that escaped any notice from the huge deadly aircraft constantly overhead or within seconds of being called to be overhead. That the enemy threat was no longer from the jungle mattered little, until I could get on the radio and advise Cowboy otherwise. There was no missing or ignoring the Skyraiders when they were down in the valley, and that applied to both sides and just about everything else wanting to stay alive.
Medevac and resupply were coming, I knew. Battalion could not have missed the frightened and emotional communications made on the combat net during the battle. I hoped they sent a CH-46, or preferably two of them, along with plenty of Cobra gunships. Hill 975, the hill that had so frightened me, to the point of never wanting to get near it again, was back in play. The hill could not be attacked and taken because our forces, even with total air cover, heavy artillery support and plenty of resupply, were not capable of penetrating deep down into the earth to root the NVA out. Aside from nuclear weapons, nothing in our current inventory I knew of could penetrate that deeply into the planet. There would be problems later in the day with the landing zone because of where it had to be. The only clear place for the choppers to put down was near Hill 975, not far downriver from where the old airstrip had been allowed to go fallow.
The Ontos backed through the remainder of mud and sand that was piled up behind it, almost up to its armored double doors. The raised and angled front tracks were much more effective in plowing through debris, and almost anything else, rather than the very low single follower wheel rear tread. Once fully backed into the outer layer of jungle behind us, the machine stopped, rotated toward the upriver area where Hill 975 rose in the far distance, and then came to a complete stop, although the engine continued to idle. I heard the rear doors slam open, and watched as Hultzer, its new self-appointed crew chief walked around the Ontos’ front edge. He saw me, although the light was still fairly dim and not very diffuse, bent low, and sprinted across the thirty or forty meters of distance to the top of the hole I was perched.
“Sir,” he began, making a move to salute but not following through. “We’ve got to have fuel and more flechette shells by the end of the day. Air can only hold them back so long. Fusner said the enemy would be attacking from upriver by the time nightfall hits. If we have gas and about twenty more rounds, we can hold the night.” Hultzer stopped talking, yet remained breathing hard as if he’d held his speech inside for some time before being able to let it all out.
“You got a gas can?” I asked, working to unbutton, and then get my blouse off. I slunk down a bit made sure I wasn’t exposed to potential sniper fire from across the jungle south from the damaged bridge.
Marine snipers were able to pick off individuals almost as far away as a kilometer, or more. I wasn’t certain, but I suspected the NVA had such long-range weapons and accurate death technicians, as well.
“Gas can, sir?” Hultzer asked, his face screwed up like one big question mark.
“The leeches,” I said, turning slightly to show him an angle of my back. “Gas is best and immediate,” I went on, although I wasn’t certain of the conclusion I’d presented.
I’d never used gasoline to get rid of the creatures before.
Hultzer didn’t reply, instead turned to run back toward the Ontos.
Fusner’s radio belted out another tinny rock and roll song, no doubt introduced by Brother John, although in the euphoria of being alive and sadness of the loss of Carruthers my usual reaction to night combat, I hadn’t heard him. The only improvement I’d recorded in that respect was that my hands didn’t shake as much anymore.
The song lyrics crossed the short distance from where Fusner lay next to Nguyen, not far from the hole: “You once thought of me, as a white knight on his steed. Now you know how happy I can be. Oh, our good time starts and ends without all I want to spend, but how much, baby, do we really need?”
“Daydream Believer,” I whispered, thinking again about my wife, as I looked back out over the now very evident damage to the bridge. It seemed too strange to think about sitting in a battered hole on the edge of raging river, not wearing a shirt, back covered with thumb and wrist-sized leeches, and waiting for a high school kid to come back with a gallon of gasoline I wanted to use as a beach tourist back home might use a container of Coppertone.
I slunk down in the hole and pulled out my stationary. The folded pack was secure inside the plastic bag I kept specially for it alone. My cheap black U.S. government pen still worked, as I pressed it into the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima envelope, intending to address the letter to my wife and home. Resupply was coming, which meant I could get an envelope aboard a chopper if I was aggressive and persistent. But I didn’t address the envelope to my wife. My hand moved across the blueish military envelope, but the address I put down was that of the colonel, our battalion commander, and not that of my wife. The effect Carruthers had on me could not be simply laid down like a second corpse next to the bagged one I knew was only yards away. I had to write something about him for whatever record might exist about him on into the future, even if it was unlikely that I would survive to see any of the effects. And then there was the company’s greatest enigma, after the Gunny. Jurgens. I hated him and wanted him gone, but I could not ignore him or, in truth, take action to get rid of him.
I pulled out one single piece of my precious stationery and began to write.
I wrote short passages about both men. I detailed Captain Carruthers’ decision to remain on the other side of the river to assure that all of his men were able to cross over under fire. I went so far as to state that the captain had no intention of crossing if even one of his Marines was down or disabled. With Jurgens I was not as generous, although there was no way to disguise the fact that the man had stood and fired under great danger, at great risk and without flinching or retreating to great success, possibly saving most of what survived of Kilo company, and also possibly preventing a much worse sapper-planted explosion that would have cost us the Ontos and its crew. The after-action report was my first ever, in training, or in actual combat, and although I was uncomfortable with doing it, I simply could not go on without responding to a certain sense of justice in life that I was afraid that I might lose forever.
I folded the amateur after-action report into a shape that was about the size of my right palm. I pushed it toward Fusner.
“See that this gets on the chopper and back to the battalion,” I ordered, making sure that the colonel’s name and identification were printed on the outside.
I hunched back over and went to work writing a letter to my wife. I wrote of Carruthers and the fact that he didn’t make it. I gave her no details, however, and also wished that I was strong enough not to have to mention him at all. But there was no avoiding the loss of the captain, and I knew part of that was because I now commanded Kilo company again, and also that there would be a new officer crew coming in with the resupply. What would that new crop of inexperienced company-grade officers bring, as far as my own survival and that of the company was concerned? I wrote on about the weather, the river and let the rest go. I finished and got the sealed envelope safely tucked into my thigh pocket.
I sat for a few seconds to think about our situation. My discomfort at constantly returning to the same positions we’d vacated not more than days and nights before had begun to bother me to the extent that I called the Gunny over to discuss it.
“We keep taking up in positions where we’ve been before,” I began, but got no farther.
“Yes, like we’ve had a choice,” the Gunny responded, lighting a cigarette and hunkering down by the side of the hole to begin lighting a chunk of Composition B with the same match he’d lit the cigarette with.
“My point,” I began, trying again, but getting nor further.
“Your point is that it’s dangerous,” the Gunny finished.
“I had a captain who taught me about what happened in other modern wars, like a couple you’ve been in. His name was Hrncr, and he was a real combat vet, as I’ve now come to understand. He said that to return to the same position was a form of willful and accepted suicidal behavior. No enemy, no matter how seemingly dumb, inexperienced or ignorant, would long miss the opportunity to mine or place charges under the ground or inside the redoubt of a key position likely to be reoccupied by a returning enemy force.”
“Like I said,” the Gunny concluded, blowing out a great puff of smoke toward me but not directly.
The Gunny was making his point in his usual way. Indirectly, without embellishment or wasting time.
“Yet, we keep doing it,” I replied, my voice showing some of the frustration and irritation I felt.
“Like I said,” the Gunny repeated, maddeningly.
Hultzer returned, lugging a five-gallon jerry can at his side, dragging it more than carrying it.
I climbed out of the hole, went down on all fours, and exposed my back. “Pour it over them,” I instructed the Ontos’ crew commander, “and Gunny, you mind getting rid of that cigarette?”
“You can’t kill them with gas,” he murmured but snapped the lit cigarette off toward where the river ran.
“I don't give a damn if they live or die, I just want them off of me,” I replied, cringing with the pain, as he poured the gasoline liberally onto my back from my neck to my butt, and then from side to side.
The pain was so great that it felt like my entire back was burning up, but I held the screaming gasps inside.
“Man, sir, but you’ve got a case of them,” Hultzer whispered.
I slowly climbed to my feet, the fiery pain beginning to fade into an almost unbearably deep ache. I grunted and then coughed, but I began to feel the leeches dropping away. I stood erect, and the things feel in numbers, bouncing on top of the packed mud, but making no move to crawl away, stupefied by the gasoline, as I’d been told they would be by Zippo, seemingly so long ago. Next to the smell of the earth, mud, and mist, the sharp gasoline aroma almost felt healthy.
“We’ve got to provide a perimeter and ground support for the medevac and resupply,” I said to my small scout team, with the Gunny remaining standing nearby.
It wasn’t necessary to inform or instruct the Gunny about such things, although in looking at his languid relaxed state, leaning half-propped up by a thick bamboo shoot by the side of the hole, he was probably relieved not to have to order every Marine around that he encountered.
Hultzer came back, after returning the gas can to wherever it was stored aboard the Ontos. He squatted down in a manner that was almost identical to the Gunny’s usual resting position.
“You’re the crew commander of the Ontos,” I said to him, needlessly, but then went on. “You’re also now a part of my scout team, the one that Sergeant Dobbs is leading. I want your radio up on the net at all times.”
I had to pause for a few seconds, as the Skyraiders came down the valley low over the water once more. Cowboy was doing a flyby every twenty minutes, or so, and the effect was evident. No drums, no small arms fire from the NVA, and certainly nothing in the way of rockets or the .50 caliber, if it had survived the onslaught earlier by the Ontos salvos.
“Let’s get to a position closer to Hill 975, where we can see what’s happening when they come in,” I ordered. “How much time do we have?” I asked Fusner.
“Just about any time now,” he replied.
We moved, but we didn’t move far. The edge of the jungle was pretty much of a straight line along the western side of the almost non-existent path. A thicket of heavy brush with a bunch of bamboo shoots sticking fifteen feet out of it served as our new position.
Without any warning, other than that of a turbine’s piercing whine, a small OH-6 Hughes helicopter, called a Loach, came down fast, seeming to drop out of the air more than angle in, as was commonly done when arriving at landing zones, particularly those considered to be ‘hot’ or compromised by enemy fire. The Loach hovered ten feet off the deck, its tail slowly moving around to complete a full circle before starting the rotation again. All the choppers had a frequency on the PRICK 25, so I asked Fusner what the evacuation and resupply plan was since there’d been no pre-discussion before the mission. That they were coming with two CH-46 helicopters were coming was welcome news but I still had no clue as to their intent or the detail of any plans.
“What’s the Loach doing, sir, and where are the big choppers?” Fusner whispered
I watched the Loach rotate, and reflected about what I knew of it. It was very fast, able to hit over a hundred and seventy-five miles per hour, and it was very agile too.
But the thing was made out of very thin aluminum and had no armor at all. It was for observation only, no real combat.
“It’s waiting to take fire,” I replied, looking up into the cloudy sky that still bled moisture but now, in the thick cooler heat of the early morning, on misted down upon us. I could not see the Huey Cobras up inside the cloud cover, but I knew they were there. The Loach was their stalking horse. If it took any fire at all then a whole flock of killer Cobra attack choppers would descend and blast away. My admiration for the courage of the two men piloting the Loach made me think of Carruthers. I brushed the thought aside as best I could.
Hultzer had positioned the Ontos to aim its six weapons at the landing site, which would allow for short-range shooting at a gentle downslope that tailed off south along the river. It was a compact LZ because the rivulet that forked into the river wasn’t far down that slope either. At one time the company had set in that position for the night, but the looming enemy stronghold of Hill 975 had brought about a pre-dawn departure and a necessary move further south.
Small arms fire came from somewhere ahead, but the source of it wasn’t identifiable. The Loach jumped back, seemed to almost turn over on one side, and then took off so fast it was low and level crossing the river rapids before there was time to even blink. The blast of its single spinning rotor blew up dirt, dust, mud and then water spray as it flew under maximum power. I heard the Skyraiders thundering down the valley again but saw the Cobras first. Six of them came out of the clouds surrounding Hill 975 and went right at the southern face of it with their nose-mounted rotary cannons.
The Skyraiders dropped five-hundred-pound bombs on first the area right next to where the Cobras were working and then, minutes later, down on the jungle area across the river where the 206th Sapper Regiment had to be ensconced, as deep down under the thick jungle matting as they could get, without a doubt.
The two CH-46 choppers flew in low, not visible in the northern distance because of the low down-in-the-valley morning light, and also the heated mist that made everything beyond a distance of ten feet blurry and drearily depressive. As the two double rotor, big choppers came in, just over the top of the Bong Song’s rushing waters, one veered off to land on the planned landing zone just down from the old abandoned airstrip. Surprisingly, the second chopper headed toward the river until it reached the bridge. There it turned gently left and eased down onto the mudflat just beyond the blown up end of the structure.
The choppers had split up. One to deliver the supplies further north and one to pick up the Kilo dead across the river. The Cobra gunships split with them and very quickly four of them circled the resting chopper, it’s blades still whirling at a furious rate, but the aircraft going nowhere.
I reached into my pocket, not thinking about the clever resupply and medevac moves made by the airmen, but only of getting my letter aboard the only chopper that was reachable, and it would not be in position long.
“Let’s go, I said to Dobbs, Fusner, and Nguyen. I knew Hultzer was inside, commanding the Ontos, and making certain he had a flat enough field to turn and fire in the direction of either landing zone, with only seconds notice of incoming from either. He wouldn’t likely need any instructions or orders.
The run was relatively easy and quick, as the path was clear and we had dumped our packs back into the hole behind us at the berm. I’d replaced my blouse after Fusner had rubbed Weapon Oil, Number 01-58 all over my back. The green plastic container he’d found somewhere had “do not handle around food or keep in constant contact with skin” printed in yellow, on the reverse side of the green bottle. My back, after the heavy application, felt better immediately, however, just as Fusner had said it would.
The chopper sat there. No Macho Man stood by to stand guard. Two-door gunners, with hard-mounted M-60s, performed that chore. I pushed my letter into the hand of the gunner located on the choppers least exposed flank. After the few initial bursts earlier, however, and then the overwhelming reply by the Loach and the Cobras, there had only been silence from the hill.
There was no point in remaining in such an exposed position so the four of us ran back to where the protective hole waited.
The Gunny had come by, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, as Fusner was convincing me to try the healing properties of the gun oil.
“He’s just a teenager, you know,” he stated, between puffs, and wearing one of his smiles that wasn’t a smile.
“I suppose it’s probably as dangerous as smoking,” I fired back.
The Gunny had ignored my comeback, then, but reappeared a short bit later. “You put Jurgens in for the medal,” the Gunny said, without any preamble. “Sugar Daddy wants his shot at a medal too.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Only a few weeks back both men, and their units were killing each other without warning or mercy, and the only whispered talk there was about anything was concerning the fact that we were all going to die. I stared out across the river through the mist, barely able to make out the CH-46, located less than a couple of hundred meters distant. Was it a good thing that some of the Marines were actually coming to believe they might make it home, and a medal or two awarded for heroism might help them in some way or other back there?
“I sent that son-of-a-bitch out there to die, which he richly deserved,” I squeezed out, my voice very low so just the Gunny could hear, however.
“I know that, Junior,” the Gunny replied, puffing out more smoke. “He doesn’t know that and neither do any of the rest of them. We can send Sugar Daddy out on the bridge with an M-60 fire team, and then write him up, even if nothing happens. None of this has anything to do with truth, justice, and the American way.”
“Alright,” I said without bothering to give the matter deeper thought.
The only real Marine Corps thing I was doing in combat was beating the enemy while struggling to survive my own Marines and myself. The rest of it, and how it was playing out, was more akin to a single bad novel combining the most brutal and lying elements of Lord of the Flies, Voyage of the Damned and Dante’s Inferno. I could not conceive of getting any medals, having any that might help me in any way, or caring about having one or more of them, if I was so awarded. We were going to risk exposing a small group of Marines, by putting them out in an open position to cover a landing zone that was easily covered from the positions we held across the river, and by overwhelming air and fire support. I wasn’t going to deny the Gunny, however, and I still had not forgotten or forgiven Sugar Daddy’s attempts to kill me.
“If they take fire of any kind they need to get into the river on the north side and hold on for dear life so they don’t get sucked under the bridge,” I said, keeping the exasperation and frustration out of my voice.
“Baby I need your lovin, got to have all your lovin,” belted out from Fusner’s transistor radio speaker. The words were welcome until less comfortable lyrics strung themselves along: “Some say it's a sign of weakness, for a man to beg, then weak I'd rather be if it means having you to keep, 'cause lately I've been losing sleep…”
I breathed out deeply, too long for it to be merely another sigh. I asked myself why I always felt like a beggar and weak, but there was no answer. It was just a song, I told myself.
The Gunny went off to inform Sugar Daddy that his fake medal expedition was on, and, no doubt, that I was aboard. Less then two minutes later, Sugar Daddy led the fire team out along the bridge, the sergeant himself carrying the M-60 with two bandoliers strapped across his back and chest, which no machine gunner in the company ever did. The dirt, rain, mist, and debris would jam a dirty brass cartridge quickly, and the jam, without special tools, was almost impossible to clear.
The team reached the blown apart end of the bridge without incident, giving me the idea that maybe the plan wasn’t so bad, after all. What was the harm? And then the NVA .50 opened up. A line of green tracers swept across the bridge from left to right. Sugar Daddy reacted instantly, and with the ammo belts still strapped around his body, leaped backward into the river. The fire team was neither so quick to react nor so lucky. The three Marines went into the river backward but not because they leaped. The power of the .50’s two-ounce bullets, traveling at more than half-mile a second, tore the men apart as they literally blew them off the surface of the bridge.
The Ontos was in motion behind me, making its turn. I only had time to press both my hands over my ears before the giant explosions of the rifles going off shook the ground, and blew debris up into my face and everywhere else. I uncovered my ears, hoping there would not be more rounds coming from the 106 barrels.
“Get Cowboy on this right now,” I yelled over to Fusner, as I crawled down over the top of the berm to move toward the end of the bridge.
Sugar Daddy was going to need help getting out of his current situation, and nobody was going to want to cross that exposed bridge with a .50 caliber registered in on a target less than a few hundred meters away. I wondered, as I moved if what had happened would mean that I would not have to write Sugar Daddy up for a medal unless maybe it was for the Purple Heart, which I knew the other Marines who’d had to accompany him would be getting.