Wet muddy foxholes rapidly became repositories for almost everything the combat company Marines usually carried on their backs. There was nothing to effectively hide or cover the holes with when they were abandoned, as they’d been there so long that both sides of the conflict knew their locations down to minute detail. There was little choice in leaving the gear behind, however. The only success the rapid maneuvering of the companies, and then their attack into the rear of the NVA regiment could possibly hope for, was based upon speed, a good bit of deception and then surprise.
I watched the three new lieutenants prepare for their first contact, none of the three appearing to show any fear or real trepidation. I wondered if they were made of sterner stuff than I was like I thought Captain Carruthers had been. They were wearing the new jungle utilities only recently issued, along with the lighter jungle boots that had special triangular metal pieces in their soles to avoid being injured by punji sticks. The boots and the utilities also, supposedly, dried a lot faster as well, not that it mattered much during the monsoon season when there was no such time, period or state known as dryness. I noted that the new utilities were a whole lot more noticeable against the jungle backdrop than the tattered remnants and dirt layered skin the other more seasoned Marines sported, like myself. The A Shau Valley would, however, tailor everything to its own design in almost no time at all. Mud, mosquitos, mosquito repellant, herbicides sprayed from the air, leeches, rain, and more mud would take their toll soon enough.
Try as I might, I could no longer remember the name of the third new officer, and that omission bothered me.
I waited with the three officers by my side, their radio operators redistributed by the Gunny to Jurgens' and Sugar Daddy's platoon squad leaders. Squad leaders didn’t rate radio operators, but heavy communication in the jungle, on the attack and on the run in the rain, might be the difference between victory and death during our attack. Sugar Daddy would have his own RTO’s Prick 25 accompanying the Ontos and the armored 106mm recoilless rifle carrier would have its own, with Hultzler buttoned up inside. The Starlight Scope had been retrieved from where it was kept inside the Ontos. Upon receiving it, I handed it to MacInerny as one piece, without its normal accompanying tripod.
“You learned to handle one of these in Basic School?” I asked him, as he gingerly accepted the heavy black tubular ‘gift,’ encased in its thick plastic box.
“Starlight?” MacInerny said. “Don’t we have some enlisted personnel capable of handling one of these? Yes, we used them on patrols in Virginia, as you must have, but it’s supposed to be Op/Con to an NCO or even a Marine of lower rank.”
“Dead,” I breathed out, somewhat lying, as Hutzler was capable but necessary to have commanding the Ontos. I continued to breathe in and out heavily, working to reduce my fear and get ready for the hard physical task ahead. I checked both hands to make sure they weren’t shaking. I’d not had a return to the shaking for many days but still feared to show myself to be weak in front of any of the Marines, much less the three new officers.
MacInerny worked the scope out of its case and then extended the tube out to take in the scene downriver in front of the assembled companies. Nguyen stood at my left side with Fusner poised right behind me. The Gunny had moved up to stand a few meters away, with Jurgens at his side. The Ontos idled in the background, although I knew Hultzer would be applying plenty of revolutions to the small motor and riding the clutch to give the enemy the idea that it was there and coming at them as soon as we pulled out.
“We only have sidearms,” the lieutenant named Russell stated, almost in a whisper from just beyond where MacInerny stood.
“That’s correct,” I replied, between breaths, wondering if I should ask the name of the third lieutenant. I decided that it didn’t matter.
“How are we supposed to shoot anyone without proper weaponry since you won’t let us lead the men?” MacInerney asked.
“I don’t want you shooting anyone,” I replied.
“He doesn’t want you getting shot, even more,” the Gunny said, across the few meters in distance from where he stood. “Leave your .45 holstered with the flap open.
You’re here to observe, this first time out, and your life’s about to change along the course of this move.”
I knew the Gunny was trying to prepare the new officers for being shot at for the first time. There was no preparation that would suffice, that I had figured out, anyway. The terror of facing immediate and painful death delivered with intent and malice by an unforgiving enemy at close range wasn’t something that could be trained for.
I felt sorry for Fusner and the other radio operators, carrying their Prick 25 radio gear, on top of M-16s with some extra ammo. The going was to be hard, with the mud, normally not difficult to negotiate if one stepped lightly and slowly but cruelly demanding physically if run through. I began the attack by running forward.
The only command I gave was a very short “come on,” to MacInerney. The other Marines would need no orders or instructions. I couldn’t run on top of the mud. Each boot plunged down at least four to six inches into the slimy, sticking muck. Withdrawing the boot to make the next plunge was harder than the plunge down in the first place. I ran, the rain grew stronger as if to let me know that it was siding with the mud.
“There’s nothing ahead,” MacInerny kept whispering until I told him to shut up unless he saw something.
“This is harder than the Hill Trail back at the Basic School,” he got out, “and back there enlisted men carried the equipment like this.”
“No more talking,” I gasped out, still working hard to control my breathing and stay with the Marines around me. There was no sound of the poncho material rubbing against poncho material because the ponchos had been shed and left back in our foxholes.
“Some of those enlisted men will be dying for you tonight. In the future you might want to refer to them as Marines, now shut up.”
I knew the first three kilometers would be the toughest because the field of mud and shallow water was wide open for running. The jungle would be tougher to move through, and therefore the going slower, but not as physically demanding as the mud run. Would we be fast enough, quiet enough and really fool the NVA was the question I wondered? The Ontos groaned and moaned away to my rear, the sound rapidly dropping back the further I ran. The move itself was being made in near silence when it came to anything the enemy might hear, as the sound of the river rushing by, only a few meters to the left, covered my own sucking boot steps and those of the Marines running with me. I was running the point with the three new officers and the Starlight Scope, which was more than uncommon in any combat move a Marine unit might make. The Gunny’s last words, before we’d taken off, had been ominous.
“When you’re running the point just go for it since there’s no way you’ll be able to see if there’s a tripwire or some other device to impede you. I’ll be back a bit making sure everyone’s following and maintaining as much silence as possible.”
I had no misgivings about leading the attack until the Gunny’s words settled into the forefront of my mind. I’d not thought about being the point or booby traps, punji sticks or any of the rest of the exposure being out in front as the point entailed, but there was no turning back.
We ran the distance, a little less than two miles, without incident, other than that the rain continued to increase in density, becoming more penetrating as a strong wind sweeping across the river also kicked up. The weather was a two-edged sword, however. The rain covered any noise the companies were creating as we moved down the riverbank, but the wind would carry what noise got through would make its way in reduced form through the jungle and over to the far canyon wall eventually. The rain began falling so hard that the sounds made by the Ontos disappeared altogether, and I felt better about the noise.
“That small cave entrance you wanted to know about is coming up on the right,” MacInerney said, his own breathing being nearly as forced as my own.
I staggered the last few meters to where the nearly hidden cave entrance I’d once taken cover in was supposed to be, although without the benefit of the scope I could see nothing through the curtain of rain that fell in front of me and also poured down and off the front lip of my helmet.
I finally stopped, putting out my right hand to let MacInerny know we’d gone as far downriver as we were going to go. The other two lieutenants moved in closer until the four of us were clumped together, while I considered crossing up and over the berm to reach the open stretch leading to the far wall that I knew had to be there. The rest of the Marines had also stopped, I knew, using their learned ability to predict what was going on in the combat zone they occupied, an ability I didn’t understand but accepted as part of my physical existence in the A Shau.
The Gunny moved up from the rear, as Nguyen came down over the berm, almost falling into our presence. He pointed back over his shoulder, somehow having been able to perceive what I was looking for, and the vital part of the plan that had to be there for the plan to succeed.
“He has, apparently, learned more English than anyone gives him credit for,” the Gunny whispered, his own breathing a bit labored, as he stood recovering with the rest of us.
He took out a cigarette and bent over to light it, his back to the wind, his body guarding against the rain which was falling harder than it had since I’d landed in country. I was beginning to think that the plan I’d devised probably was remaining effective and ongoing mostly because of the cover that rain provided. With their superstitious natures, I wryly figured, the Marines would probably come to conclude that I had something to do with the rain falling so heavily at just the right time.
I recovered enough to turn and climb the berm Nguyen had slid down from. The mud and jungle debris were so slimy that I had to dig the tips of my boots deep into it in order to gain enough purchase to actually climb over the upper edge. I gave no orders to the three new officers, so they followed, gaining the top after me much quicker than I had. I waited for Fusner, the Gunny and Jurgens, squatting down as best I could in the muck and rain. The three officers did the same.
“Help Fusner up,” I ordered the lieutenant named Russell.
“Fusner?” he whispered, crawling back toward the lip of the berm.
“My RTO, he’s got that heavy radio on,” I replied, wondering just how much the FNGs were really paying attention to anything.
It was hard to think only four weeks back when I was in their exact same situation. Nothing had made sense at all and without direction early on I would have been a month dead.
The Gunny, Jurgens, and Fusner came over the berm and joined me, although I could only feel them in my presence. There was almost no light at all that was perceptible through anything other than the Starlight Scope.
“MacInerney, can you see the path and the canyon wall at the other end?” I asked, holding my breath against the answer.
Without the existence of the path to get all the Marines on line and strung out in an attack formation, there was no way the plan could effectively work. The companies could not drive the attack home if they arrived near Hill 975 as a bunch of disconnected small pockets of fire.
“I see the path in front of me, as you described, but the rain is blurring out everything further on,” MacInerney replied, “ but I can’t see any wall, or anything else, really. Are we going to order the men to fix bayonets?”
I almost couldn’t believe my ears, MacInerney’s comment coming from out of the blue, and seemingly so bizarre. I sighed, but not so anyone could hear.
“We don’t fix bayonets,” I whispered over to the lieutenant. “We don’t use bayonets in combat and neither does the enemy. You go at someone in the bush with a bayonet and all that will happen is that you’ll get yourself shot dead on the spot.”
“Jurgens,” I said, partially to change the subject and keep anyone from knowing what the lieutenant had said. “You take your platoon, with the extra RTOs, and move all the way to the wall and report back on the combat net. Run your squads north in line of the file. The rest of us are going in lines to filter through the jungle, making sure nothing remains as we move until we encounter the enemy. Everyone has to remember to fire only forward because we're not going to be seeing much of anything in these conditions. Even the Starlight Scope is all but useless. If this works, then it won’t matter, however. The only time we’ve surprised the enemy is when we’ve moved, and right now in this night and rain I can’t see that they’ll be expecting us.”
“If this works?” Jurgens asked in the short silence that followed.
I didn’t reply. The silence stretched on while I waited for what might be next, once again wondering whether I should move my hand to the butt of my Colt.
I’d unstrapped the weapon when we’d stopped to climb the berm, but had not drawn it from its holster.
“What if your ‘Walk in the Rain’ plan doesn’t work?” Jurgens said as I guessed he might.
“We couldn’t stay where we were, and what’s more, you know that,” the Gunny said, smoke from his cigarette reaching my nostrils.
The smell was a pleasant relief. For some reason, I felt the smoke was a sign that the Gunny was with me all the way.
“I’d like to accompany Jurgens to the wall,” MacInerney whispered into the dark center of our informal group, his voice barely audible through the beating of the rain on my helmet.
“Don’t need company,” Jurgens hissed back.
“Lieutenant MacInerney will accompany you on his first combat patrol,” I said, understanding that MacInerney had somehow guessed the situation, with respect to Jurgen's lack of loyalty to me or the plan, and was willing to do what he could to make sure Jurgens complied.
“In fact, all three of you should go.”
MacInerny had no idea, I knew, of the danger he was placing himself in should he actually come into opposition with Jurgens in a combat situation, but his, and the other officer’s presence and movement at the wall, was a better possible resolution than my having to take out Jurgens, and then attempt to deal with a platoon of Marines dedicated to the sergeant and angry as hell. At the same time, I felt a slight shiver of guilt and fear course through me. MacInerny reminding me of Carruthers earlier bothered me. Could I have done more to save Carruthers? What was I doing to MacInerney now, and what would I have to do if Jurgens killed him? I thought of Macho Man, and how I knew what had to have happened, and then I’d taken no action.
“Take them,” the Gunny said, “and see if you can bring them back in one piece. This outfit has a pretty crummy record when it comes to surviving officers and if we get through this that could be more troublesome than getting written up for any decorations might buffer. And I want you to leave a couple of your best scouts behind, moving slowly north behind us in case we somehow got it wrong and the NVA regiment isn’t ahead of us at all.”
The lyrics to the song “You Keep Me Hanging On,” that I’d heard earlier in the day through Fusner’s radio kept rattling around in my head. “Set me free, why don’t you babe…” I couldn’t remember the rest of the lyrics except “you keep me hanging on,” but somehow, they seemed to apply to my situation. What was I to do with MacInerney and the other two new lieutenants? The A Shau Valley was an awful teacher and I had little time to be their guide. I was using them instead of guiding them and I knew it. I wanted to be free but I didn’t even know what I wanted to be free from anymore. And I hadn’t thought about the timing of the enemy’s move. I’d presumed that the regiment would move at first dark to flank us and then drive us north into the waiting force at Hill 975.
“Junior?” the Gunny asked.
I snapped back. I’d drifted off, trying to figure all the angles, and so tired I could barely stand. The rain was hypnotic, and thinking about the conflict with Jurgens, and the coming combat, those issues seeming so old hat that they were becoming weirdly comfortable instead of terrifying and fearful.
“Let’s move out,” I ordered, coming to my feet with difficulty. “Everyone’s tired and we’ve got three clicks to move south through heavy jungle, and then encounter the NVA if we’re lucky. We push all the way to the stream that runs out into the Bong Song at the base of Hill 975 if necessary, although I don’t think we’ll get that far. They’ve got to dig in at some point because I don’t think a whole regiment is going to fit into the rabbit holes dug into the sides of 975. Get ready for another salvo of 175s. We may not need the diversion but I’m not taking any chances.”
Fusner handed me the radio handset when I was done talking. I turned my back on the collected group, even though it was too dark and miserably wet to be able to see much of anything about them. I listened to their wet squishy movements as they moved away. There was no need for further commands. The Gunny would have the companies feeding into the path from the river bed, and then filtering into the jungle in organized files for the brutal jungle consuming hump to chase the NVA down from the rear.
The previously planned zone fire mission, firing red bag, was approved and the first rounds on the way before I was able to hear the Ontos again. It was closer, although moving very slow. There had been no small arms fire that I’d detected, which meant that Sugar Daddy and his platoon were as yet unencountered, and that was good news. Sugar Daddy had survived his grandstanding stunt on the bridge, losing two of the three Marines with him, no doubt causing him some grieving guilt if he was still human, but otherwise leaving him physically fit and able to remain in command of his platoon.
Marines swirled in the dark around the Gunny, as he organized them for the attack. The extra radios on the combat net had to be properly distributed to make them an effective advantage. The first rounds of the five-minute artillery barrage started coming in. The hard rain was no buffer to the sound of the big 175 mm round explosions. The jungle shook and the ground seemed to heave with every blast.
“Stay on the combat net,” I ordered Fusner, “and let me know what’s going on at the wall and out at the Ontos. We need to get the Ontos turned around and headed back just as soon as we pass parallel to its position.”
“What does parallel to its position mean?” Fusner asked, standing by my side.
“When we can hear it next to us as we go by, then it’s time to turn it around,” I replied.
Hultzer and Sugar Daddy wouldn’t really know where our force was but the Ontos could be heard so we would know where it was.
I tried to run into the black of the jungle to my direct front but that effort ended in only a few meters. The explosions of the big artillery shells seemed to draw me toward them. Their diversionary cover wouldn’t last for very long. But the jungle was not going to be run through by anybody. I began working my way through the nearly three-foot deep debris, around the currently invisible stands of impenetrable bamboo stands and bumping into and then around the bigger trees holding the main canopy of the jungle above.
Once into the jungle interior, it was good to have the guidance provided by the distant exploding artillery rounds. The direction was straight ahead, but with the wind sweeping the tops of the jungle all over the place, the rain pounding down, and the dead blackness of night, the direction was neither easy nor automatic.
A hard fast and forced walk with bent knees, already fatigued from the run through the mud, drove me forward. I’d heard no shots from the direction of the wall so I presumed that the three FNG lieutenants still lived.
“Turn the Ontos and start it back,” I said to Fusner after a while, “But keep the speed down so it’s not running with only Sugar Daddy’s defensive fires if the NVA figures out what we are up to.”
I felt Nguyen at my side and then ahead of me, clearing what brush he could, bending branches and then moving on when I passed.
“Are they moving along the wall?” I asked Fusner.
I’d thought about staying right on the radio with the earphone and headset while I moved but then realized there were no orders I could think of to be given to the Marines as we moved, other than the Ontos. Fusner could tell me what was going on.
“Yes, sir, they are,” Fusner said back. “There’s a trail right next to the wall and it is easy-going, according to the lieutenant, sir,” Fusner finished.
MacInerney had managed to get his RTO back which also meant that Jurgens was likely being pushed to his limit when it came to commanding a platoon with three lieutenants surrounding his every move and judging his every action.
“Tell them to move just aside of the path,” I ordered, thinking about how the NVA could so easily mine or place booby traps along such an easy access.
“I told them, sir,” Fusner said, “but nobody is answering on Jurgens or the lieutenant’s frequency.”
There was nothing further I could do. I moved forward with Nguyen’s clearing help. I’d had no food since the day before and my water supply was running low. I’d stripped off my extra canteens for the run, and I knew I’d be dehydrated by the time we got back to those supplies if those supplies were still there.
Bamboo vipers didn’t hunt at night, so there were some benefits to the long slogging attack and the mosquito population, usually so prevalent during night hours, had gone wherever the vipers spent their nighttime hours. The wind was noisy, scary but also refreshing, as it blew the falling rain coming down against every part of my body. The heat, generally so oppressive, was lowered to a tolerable, almost comfortable level.
I knew I was nowhere near the most advanced party in making my way toward the enemy’s rear, as I could hear the movement of other Marines ahead of me off to both sides. The Marines who’d survived in the valley for long periods of time were in unbelievable physical condition. All wiry, thin and tough as nails when it came to humping heavy loads or gutting through tough fast movements like the one we were on. The Ontos continued to run through gears and engine revolution changes off to my right, no longer dropping away in distance. If all things went as planned, then the Ontos would arrive near the inlet stream, or just short of it, at the same time the main elements of both companies did. The presence of those six barrels pointing right at the enemy would be intimidating, at the very least.
It felt good to keep moving, as the fear level dropped inside me, as I moved. There was no logical reason for that drop in terror because at some point we had to make contact with the enemy regiment in front of us. There’d been no reports at all from the scant rearguard we’d mounted, just to make sure that we had not somehow ended up in front of instead of behind the NVA sapper regiment, and that was a relief, the closer we got to Hill 975.
I was relieved to hear the first small arms fire, radiating back through the windy rainy jungle in front of me. The small arms fire was instantly identifiable as M-60 fire, which was also somewhat satisfying. The enemy was there, in front of us, and we were Marines on the attack once more.