The Ontos blew a hole in the jungle where the NVA fifty caliber had opened up from. With the resupply chopper down, Hultzer pulled all the stops out, firing both flechette rounds and high explosives. Two of the Cobra gunships slowly approached the edge of the jungle, moving just fast enough to keep their noses down and their rotary cannons firing on target. My thoughts about Sugar Daddy’s survival were mixed, about probability and also about concern, but my thoughts and concern were not as great as my surprise that the penetrating .50 caliber had not gone for the CH-46, a target so big, loud and nearby that it could not have been ignored or missed without deliberation. Why had they not fired at the chopper?
Sugar Daddy had gone over the northern edge of the bridge or been blown over that edge because of being hit with rounds from the fifty, but it had all happened in just a few seconds. The only certainty was that there were Marines laying dead or severely wounded in the water near where the Ontos had recently sat.
There were no orders necessary to give, as a team of men was already crawling along the muddy approach to the near end of the thing, but they didn’t move out onto the exposed surface, instead entering the rushing water and using the upriver side of the bridge to slowly head toward the other side of the river.
“He’s alive,” Fusner whispered to me, across the few feet of the open hole that separated us.
“Is he hit?” I asked back, knowing Fusner was on the command net with what had to be the Gunny’s radio operator.
I could see nothing of the rescue operation that had to be going on, as somehow Sugar Daddy, even with the for show ammo belts weighing him down, had managed to hold on until help arrived.
Slowly they worked together, a clump of men, no individual distinguishable among them, as they eased their way back to the near bank. They then crawled toward the nearby fox holes. I realized that they’d basically stripped Sugar Daddy, because the dramatically crossed ammo belts were gone, and except for his great size and black skin, would have been impossible to tell from the others. Fusner was right, the sergeant was alive and moving to safety, although small arms fire had stopped after the firing of the 106 recoilless guns mounted on the Ontos.
There would be no writeup for courage under fire, nor would there be an after-action report, unless someone other than I wrote it. Sugar Daddy had made an uncommon mistake in judgment and the result was three more dead Marines. The penalty for that would be paid through his continued service in the company, and the ultimate result for every Marine in the company was very likely going to be the same.
The new officers assembled and moved toward my position, their new poncho covers glistening in the waning light, brief shafts of sparkly flashes penetrating the misty winds generated by mild temperature shifts created by the coming of night. The Gunny had sent word through his radio operator that they were coming, having been offloaded by the supply chopper that had landed up near the old abandoned airstrip. That the chopper had come in, dropped its load, and then be able to pull out without being destroyed was a likely function of only two causes. One was the surrounding beehive of Huey gunships battalion had sent to accompany it and the other was the ominous ever-present threat transmitted throughout the entire expanse of the valley by the deep beating thrum of Cowboy’s Skyraider force.
“They’re coming,” Fusner needlessly warned.
At least Sugar Daddy was about to become someone else’s problem, as there seemed little doubt that I would be relieved, I thought. I harbored a tiny hope that the new ruling officers of the companies would require that I be somehow sent to the rear in disgrace, to either be repatriated home like a coward or sent to Okinawa for trial.
I watched the three officers proceed down the informally beaten but muddy riverbank path. Each officer had a personal RTO. The three radiomen trailed behind, the officers were probably unaware that the many meters of separation of the two groups was of no purpose. The radio operators were allowing their officers to be the point in their movement. I sighed, waiting for their arrival, now long experienced in the fact that in real close combat men did not help other men. They used them. If helping other men allowed for better survival odds, then help was provided. The officers were FNG’s, revealed by the tiny nuance of their oblivious conduct alone. Their radio operators wanted as much distance as they could get from the FNGs. I knew I was not going to be so fortunate to avoid them, as all three would no doubt outrank me.
“Junior,” the lead officer yelled, from some distance away, performing another function, raising one’s voice in a jungle combat situation, that indicated what he was, but the tone of his voice was filled with mirth and I could not help feeling a positive rush course through my mind and body.
I had become inured to the deadness of emotion combat had induced within me.
“Captain,” I responded, assuming his rank because he wore none visible anywhere on his helmet or uniform. I expressed no emotion and made no move to climb from my hole to greet him.
“I know the story about your helmet,” the big officer said, his two associate officers having fallen back as if to give the captain sufficient room to dominate the scene.
The three stood looking down at me, their poncho’s dripping. Somehow they’d found little sprigs of jungle material to stick into the webbing laid over their helmets, and the ends of them dripped small drops in different directions as they moved their heads while talking or looking around. Most of the Marines in the A Shau had long ago dropped such attempts to be in disguise or hidden from the enemy’s detection.
In fact, I was one of the few Marines in either company to wear a helmet at all. There was little point. Helmets were most effective for using as a water basin or keeping harder falling rain from directly contacting one’s head. They did not stop bullets or artillery shrapnel or much of anything else. Combat Marines wore rough bush hats or rags tied with four knots to form a tight strange-looking skull cap. They wore the coverings against the rain, bugs and to keep their hair flat. There was no hiding from enemy detection in the A Shau. The NVA always knew where we were but their own limited availability of ammo and weapons supply and their constant fear of our massively killing supporting fires kept them from overwhelming attacks.
“There’s a story about my helmet?” I asked, surprised, resisting the temptation to take it off and examine the damaged thing.
The chunk of shrapnel still stuck out of the front of it, accumulated by its previous owner, not to mention a plethora of other dents and scratches I’d managed to add. I stared at the three men, the light waning from day into misty dusk, making them look like they were apparitions from some Christmas movie shot in all black and white.
“I’m not a captain,” the lead officer said, brushing aside my question.
“Okay,” I replied, assuming the three were lieutenants, “who’s senior?”
My serial number in the Corps was 0104328, which meant that I was the officer commissioned who was the hundred and four thousand three hundred and twenty-eighth since the beginning of the Marine Corps. Officers of the same rank demonstrated seniority by date of rank but the serial number comparison was more definitive because everyone in the Corps memorizes that number for life and the lower number is always senior. However, no recitation of serial numbers was required.
“You are,” the officer responded. “We came out to assist you, since the casualties from this area have been so high, until such time as both companies can be retired to the rear area for necessary rest, recreation and retraining.”
I had a hard time believing what the man was saying. The Gunny appeared out from a position below and behind me, up from where the river ran nearby. He spoke without introduction or preamble.
“Why are your RTO’s laying on the deck?” he asked, as all three officers looked around to where their Marines lay sprawled behind them.
“Did you fail to hear the fire that was just directed back and forth across this river?” the Gunny went on, his tone flat, low and hard. “Get your asses in the hole and drop those packs.”
“Yes, sir,” one of the officers replied, not understanding that the Gunny was not a superior officer, and also letting me know, by that lack of knowledge, they didn't have much idea of what the companies were composed of in personnel. As upside-down as everything was it didn’t seem too out of place that the Gunny was addressed as sir while I was Junior.
I wanted to shake my head in wonder, however, over the incongruity of what I’d come to know about sending Marines down into the valley. No experienced ranking company-grade officers could, apparently, be coaxed or sent in, so three brand new officers, officers like I’d been, were quickly ushered aboard choppers and sent out, with some flimsy excuse that they were being sent to help in a difficult situation.
Nguyen and Fusner immediately emerged from the hole, as the officers approached, the opening of the hole being plenty large enough for them to get by me without any problem. They listened to every word said around them I knew, and usually without comment. How Nguyen understood so much and so quickly I had no idea, but the look in his eyes was always the same. He backed me to the hilt, all the time and at any time, and that look sometimes was what kept me going. The three officers gingerly climbed into the hole, also taking great pains to not touch or disturb me. I turned back to the river to take in the scene before me as it was beginning to slowly dim in the waning light.
The supply choppers had come and gone from both sides of the river, as had the Cobra gunships and the Skyraiders. It was the approach of night, with mist and more rain on the way to be delivered from above in the darkness. One moment the sky had been filled with screaming turbines and propeller blades and the next it was quiet except for the ever-present rush of the river’s raging waters and the patter of falling raindrops coming down on the surface of my helmet.
There was no fire coming from the jungle or anywhere else and, at first, that seemed ominous until I realized why. The NVA hadn’t left a firebase or rear guard. They were headed downriver. Downriver was the only way they could get to us, and there was no Marine force across the river to pursue them, so they had no need of a base of fire or rear guard. It would be a hammer and anvil situation. Our companies would be driven upriver and then trapped up against Hill 975 in the night, with no supporting fires available except from the Ontos. Somewhere downriver, further than I’d ever ventured, there was a place they had to be able to cross the raging waters. They would cross and come up on our side, flanking us as they came into a full attack because there was no way we had the personnel to saturate the heavy jungle that lay between the river and the eastern canyon wall. That flanking attack would cause us to have to move upriver one step at a time. But there was nowhere to go upriver unless we could somehow get past Hill 975, and their troops that had to be filling it like bees in a beehive, knowing that we were coming.
“We’re going to need the Starlight Scope again,” I said, needlessly, to the Gunny, briefly thinking I’d need someone special to operate the device, and hoping we had someone like that.
Night was coming and it would be another dark night, with heavy monsoon cloud cover and the ever-present rain or drizzle coming down. Penetration of what light would be available would be amplified by the scope but would it be enough? In order for the plan developing in my head to work, we had to be able to see in front of us, and then also be able to peer into a part of the jungle I well remember from weeks before. Where I’d holed up hiding in a slot into the jungle growth next to the river, where the Gunny had found me, there was a sort of clearer area through the single canopy that extended all the way to the canyon wall. I’d not thought anything of the clearing in the quick glance I’d taken in recognizing it as different from the dense jungle area all around it. It was almost like a big bulldozer had gone through the debris and beaten down a flat track through the jungle floor.
“They’re going downriver,” the Gunny replied, ignoring my comment. “They’re going to take maybe three or four hours, or a bit more, and then come up our side and I don’t see any place for us to be. Dug in here, even with the Ontos and resupplied, we can’t hold against a regiment on the attack, much less a sapper regiment below and another regiment, no doubt, inside that hill.”
The Gunny took out a cigarette and began lighting it with his special lighter.
I hadn’t seen the Gunny look or sound quite so glum before and it shook me. I waited, trying to think about the developing plan in my head while at the same time getting it together so presenting it might make the Gunny feel better.
Fusner turned his little transistor radio up, to catch the last tune coming out of Na Trang over the Armed Forces Radio Network. Brother John introduced Del Shannon’s Runaway, by saying that everyone listening should pay attention to the lyrics. The song played. I listened, not being able to associate or make sense of much of what Brother John had meant until the middle of the song: “ I’m walkin’ in the rain, tears are fallin’ and I feel the pain, wishin’ you were here by me, to end this misery…”
All I could think of was my wife. I wondered if my letter had gotten aboard the chopper. I wondered how long it took letters to get all the way back to San Francisco from where I was. I wondered after I was dead, whether the letters continuing to come in would be a good or horrible thing. I suddenly snapped out of my reverie. The plan illuminated in my mind from out of nowhere.
“We’re going to move downriver in the shallows, low, light and fast, using the Starlight Scope to make sure we’re running in the clear,” I explained to the Gunny. “The Ontos will follow, moving real slow and noisy, with Sugar Daddy’s platoon strung out in layers between the bank and the jungle. The NVA will assume we’re gathered with and around the Ontos for protection, but we’ll be running out front, nearly naked, except for our small arms and the M-60s. No packs, no extra ammo, nothing. We blow right by them, and then hit that drift or break where you found me about three clicks down. We cross to the canyon wall and attack right up their rear. The Ontos then turns and heads straight back upriver, preventing the NVA from doing anything but running toward Hill 975. We have a ton of Prick 25’s to stay in close communication, what with our new officers. And that’s where it gets interesting. We pin them against their own hill and hold them there for the night. We’ll have our full ammo supply back for the M-60s and the Ontos. Hill 975 is a few clicks north of us. I’ll call in a series of fire missions to cause a diversion, firing well short to avoid taking rounds ourselves. We wait for the dawn and then call in all the airpower we can get.”
I stopped talking, realizing that some parts had come to me only as I had been laying it all out. The Gunny blew several puffs of smoke while I’d been talking, inhaling and exhaling fast and steady.
“What’s the name of the plan, sir,” Fusner broke in from my side.
“Walking in the Rain,” I shot back, pulling the name out of Del Shannon’s song lyrics.
“Where in the hell do you get this shit from?” the Gunny breathed out, snapping the remains of his cigarette toward where the river ran noisily nearby. “Sugar Daddy’s platoon?” he went on, “that because those guys are black as night?”
“No,” I replied, it’s because I don’t like or trust him, but there’s no quit in him, or Jurgens either, for that matter, and he deserves the danger exposure for what he pulled on the bridge. If he wants to earn a medal, as unlikely as that might seem, then he’s going to really earn it.”
I waited then, unintentionally holding my breath. A full minute seemed to pass.
“I like some of it,” the Gunny finally said. “Walking in the rain? More like running in the rain. And what if they move to the river, behind the Ontos, as we come down, and then turn to attack back up? All of our stuff will be tucked into these holes, just waiting for them. What are our other options?”
I was taken totally by surprise. What other options? The one I’d thought up had come in as if inspiration from God Himself. That I had remembered the pathway from the river in toward the canyon wall was astounding, even to me, as I’d just glimpsed it in the misting rain at night. The wall had reflected back what little light there was at the time. The path or narrow clearing gave the companies a shot at making it all the way to the wall and then proceeding north with speed and the ability to take the enemy from the rear, or at least drive the NVA regiment to run and then take a stand. The enemy might figure, once the rout was successful, if it was successful, that the Marines would hunker down for the night and wait for coming massive air support the next day, but it could not know that. Stopping a night attack in the rain by a well-equipped Marine force would likely cause as much fear as the Marines receiving the same kind of attack by a full NVA regiment.
I also wondered about the fact that the Gunny had said nothing about my choice of Sugar Daddy and his men to isolate themselves as targets in order to make sure the Ontos was defended, not taken or destroyed. The Gunny’s inability to harness either Sugar Daddy or Jurgens to any kind of real disciplined existence had never really been there at all. It had taken me some time to figure that out. If it involved the Gunny risking himself over the loss of a few Marines then the Marines would be lost and not him. I’d somehow stopped a great deal of the friendly fire slaughter that had been going on in the company, but I had not done that with anything other than the Gunny’s approval, not his open participation.
And, in the final analysis, was I any different than the Gunny. The night the three Marines had come for me I had not hesitated to apply fatal force. There’d been no attempt at communication and no warning. One second they were alive and a few seconds later they were dead. And, I was alive.
The officers clustered inside the hole with me had not said a word, although all had remained erect and paying attention. Their conduct surprised me, as I was used to Marine officers almost always interjecting opinions or ‘assistance’ in some verbal form. I turned to them, noting that the Gunny had lit another cigarette and was preparing hot water using a chunk of Composition B. The acrid smell of the burning explosive reminded me of the physical nightmare we were all living, except for the FNG officers who were about to join us in our shattered and disheveled state. My back had stopped hurting where the leeches had bitten long and deep. Now it just ached, like it had been beaten with a baseball bat. The wet heat was awful and the mist did nothing to cool it. Somewhere there were C-rations because everyone had to eat in order to have the strength it would take for the attack.
“Who are you?” I asked the men just a few feet from me, using the diversion to avoid answering the Gunny’s question.
“Lieutenants Smith, Russell and I’m MacInerny, reporting in, sir,” the one nearest to me replied.
“You heard everything?” I asked, but not one of the three said anything. “Your first night in combat,” I went on, “and you’re in the A Shau and with a functional combat company of Marines. You don't call me sir. I’m a lieutenant like you. You call me Junior since everyone else does. If you live you’ll get your own nickname. All I can assure you is that you might want to let everyone call you by it and that you won’t like whatever name they have chosen for you. Astronomical sunset is at 1830, which is about now. Full night down here in the valley begins a bit early because we’re at the bottom of a canyon so we’ll be crossing the line of departure not long from right now. All three of you will be taking over Kilo. Our company is used to working without officers but Kilo is used to them, but not this night. This night you’re with me.”
“Why are we staying with you if the companies are attacking and we’re going to command Kilo?” MacInerny asked, his tone indicating that he was fearful of asking the question, or probably of saying anything at all.
“So you’ll be alive in the morning to take over,” the Gunny said, before taking a swig of his coffee and then a deep inhalation from his cigarette. “I’m the Gunny. You can call me the Gunny. If you do what we say, then you’ll stay alive until tomorrow, otherwise, you’ll be like the rest of the officers that leave on the next medevac in body bags.”
“Yes, sir,” MacInerney replied.
The Gunny sighed. “Not sir. Gunny,” he said, although his voice was almost too soft to hear.
“This is all happening right now, then?” MacInerny asked, shock in his voice, “we just got here.”
I looked over at the Gunny through a small cloud of smoke he’d breathed out, the little fire in front of his squatting figure tiny but burning bright, drops of collected mist collected on his dark forehead. Slowly, his mouth curled into the coldest smile I’d ever seen it form.
“Just going for a little walk in the rain,” the Gunny finally said, snapping his cigarette away and then grinding out the burning explosives with the boot of his right heel.