My eyes snapped open, and I took in a quick deep breath. The sound that had awakened me was that of a fifty-caliber machine gun firing at close range. The crack of it, with following cracks and echoes, assured that I was downrange from the muzzle blasts and the shockwave reflecting off of the projectiles exiting that muzzle at supersonic speeds. I was downrange. It could only be enemy fire. I came alive, jerking my sleepy slow body upward, the adrenalin beginning to kick in, as I pushed aside the water streaming mess of my poncho cover to face up into the pouring night.
“They’ve got their fifty-caliber set up,” Fusner said, needlessly, his face only inches from my own, like he’d been there waiting for me to come out all along.
“The Ontos,” I replied, my mind coming fully online. I held out my right hand in the dark. “I’ve got to talk to Hutzler.”
The Ontos was our only protection against something like the fifty. I grabbed the handset and transmitted. Hutzler came back over the radio immediately, as I turned, crawled to the other side of my hole and stared into the night. The fifty opened up again but there were, unaccountably, no tracers visible. The Gunny plopped down on the squishy matted jungle to my left.
“They’re not using any tracers,” I said to Hutzler. “What can you see with the scope?”
“They’re using pre-registered fields of fire,” the Gunny said, “so they won’t give away the weapon’s position.”
“They’re firing from inside the mountain itself, sir,” Hutzler replied, “but I can see the muzzle flashes faintly anyway, from the angle I’m at.”
“Can we hit them?” I asked, controlling my voice and breathing.
One well-placed fifty caliber machine gun could make the coming attack either an overwhelming success or at least cause heavy casualties on my two rifle companies.
“I’ll never hit the opening with a single H.E. round, but with our own .50 spotter I might be able to get a flechette round, fused just right, to go off just at the entrance to the opening.”
I imagined what it might be like to be inside the cave behind that opening if a fifteen pound 106 mm flechette round went off only a few feet inside that opening. Thousands of tiny darts would be showered at twenty-two thousand feet per second throughout the interior cave complex.
“Okay, fire one of the spotters and see if you can get a tracer round into the opening,” I ordered, as the enemy 50 Cal fired again.
I held the microphone to my ear, Hultzer was leaving his own handset with the transmit button depressed. I heard the short-barreled fifty caliber spotting gun go off and then watched the streaking ‘burning beer can’ of a tracer round arc over to Hill 975. Three more rounds followed until I heard the command “fire the one oh six,” and then a giant explosion went off and I knew the 106 main round was on the way. There was no tracer attached to it, however, the fiery boom of its detonation was readily apparent, lighting up the entire southern side of the hill, when it went off. I was surprised to hear screaming coming all the way across the open area, right through the dense rain, as the night returned to full dark. Hutzler fired another 106 round into almost exactly the same spot, and then another. After the third round, there was no more screaming, or noise at all, radiating out of the mountainside.
“We might have affected them, sir,” Hutzler said, into the radio before the line went dead.
“Yes,” I breathed to myself, "we affected them, all right.”
Fusner and I stayed huddled under my poncho, the rain blessedly coming down hard but channeled away by the small creases around the hole Nguyen had made with his E-Tool. That he was outside, without the benefit of a poncho liner, was discomforting to think about, but I understood it was his way. He was native to the valley, not going native. The A Shau was his home territory, and the weather in it was the home weather he’d endured for a lifetime.
I tried to reach the radios through the operators I’d pried loose from the lieutenants, but there was so much chatter on the combat frequency that there was no getting through. The enemy fifty-caliber had been silenced by the Ontos, but I knew the attack we were expecting had to come. It would be along some path or trail very close to the western canyon wall where I’d sent the extra radio operators to, in order to act as constant communications nodes back to my command.
If the enemy didn’t make its attempt near the wall, then the fire mission I had on hold with the 175 battery would wipe them out, as well as maybe some of our own Marines. With only a two hundred meter range safety margin I knew we’d have to be really lucky to avoid friendly casualties.
The Gunny stuck his head under the poncho cover. I knew it was him from the cigarette smoke on his breath. Fusner’s Prick 25 gave off a small bit of light but not enough to make out facial features.
“Stop,” the Gunny hissed across the short distance.
“Stop what?” I asked, truly surprised by the comment.
“Stop trying to lead from the god blessed rear,” the Gunny said, louder this time. “You led them this far. Now let them be what they are. You can’t see a damned thing anyway, but you’ve gotten into the command habit, and field command isn’t your talent. So, stay off the net and let them go at it. The Ontos can’t see that far in this rain hell of a night, even with that magic scope, and it can’t use flechettes against attacking infantry because they’ll hit us too. This is going to be hand to hand stuff and you’re no good at that either. I’ve pulled you out of some holes, but now I’m telling you to stay in this one and stay off the combat net. Here, get your energy back. We’ll need you later.”
The Gunny was gone before I could collect myself enough to answer anything he’d said. He’d tossed something that hit me in the chest and then fell to the bottom of the hole. I pulled it up. It was a box of C-Rations. I knew it would be Ham and Mothers.
“Command isn’t my talent?" I whispered aloud, trying to understand what the Gunny was talking about. “How does he know I’m no good at hand to hand, and what the hell is hand to hand combat in the jungle, anyway.”
“I don’t think he wants you to get killed, and I don’t think hand to hand means what it sounds like,” Fusner replied, although I hadn’t spoken aloud to elicit a response.
The poncho cover edge was lifted once more, but there was nothing said. I knew it had to be Nguyen. Fusner had given me new batteries from the last supply run for
Jurgens' flashlight. I pulled the little device out and turned it on, muffling the light with my free hand. Nguyen’s expressionless face appeared. A sparkle of light darted off something he held in his left hand, dangling over the lip of the hole until he quickly withdrew it. I knew the item had to be his special Montagnard Kon Tum Fighting Knife. The knife looked like a large American butcher knife but was handmade and the steel polished with sand and dirt instead of any special solution.
Nguyen had been right behind the Gunny and maybe had not known who it was in the dark and rain of the miserable night. I wondered briefly about that until I looked into the shiny blackness of the man’s eyes. That flat unemotional stare back into my own eyes filled my center with warmth. I was being looked out for, against all enemies, even if that included the Gunny. I wasn’t certain, but the feeling was there and I was going to go with it. I turned my flashlight off and curled back up. The Gunny was right, and I knew it. There was nothing I could know from my current position, not yet, and there was little I could do in attempting to actually engage the enemy personally. I closed my eyes, trying to think about a coming time when there was no rain and the sun would beat down between scudding clouds. I briefly wondered if my teenage radioman ever slept, but consciousness left me before I came to any conclusion.
I awoke once more, this time with no doubt about what was happening. Heavy small-arms fire came from the west where the wall was situated. Contact had been established, the M-60 fire mixed in with M-16 and AK fire. I pushed the poncho aside and stared out over the battlefield. The fact that the Marines in my company all fired tracers the direction of fire was easy to determine, and that direction extended much further down toward me than I had guessed.
I reached for the handset Fusner had already pushed into my shoulder and called in the fire mission, wishing the 175 ammunition had either illumination rounds or white phosphorus. I asked for one round, paid close attention to the ‘shot, over’ reply and the ‘splash’ indication. Five seconds later the round went off with a flash that was so strong that it showed like a very temporary beacon through the dark night and hard rain. The round had impacted somewhere on the other side of the water, not far from where the base of Hill 975 climbed upward to form the southern tip of the western canyon wall. The mountain was blinking. I realized I was looking at small arms muzzle flashes from AK fire being directed all along our front from holes exiting up and down the outward curving expanse. I decided to start with the exposed eastern side of the mountain's slope.
“Drop two hundred, right one hundred, a battery of four,” I requested.
The “shot, over,” came only seconds later. The battery was prepped and ready for whatever I was going to call in, and that rapid response improved my confidence and reduced my fear considerably.
The sixteen heavy rounds began impacting up and down the side of the mountain. Even though the battery could not reach the southern part of the slope facing us, the ‘firefly’ blinking coming from that slope stopped completely.
I adjusted the artillery fire to add three hundred, allowing another battery of four (16 rounds, fired one after another from the four big guns) to traverse over the mountain’s flank and strike down into the area over the water but short of our jungle line.
The small arms fire generating so many tracers slowed to only occasional single shots or short automatic bursts. I realized that nobody on the battlefield had any good idea of where or when the big artillery shells were going to land. I called for more fire, trying to continue the suppression of fire from the mountain and also hold off an inevitable decision by the enemy to proceed with the attack because the artillery could not reach back as far as the western wall.
“Get me Sugar Daddy on the net,” I ordered Fusner, handing the microphone back to him, my eyes never leaving the open area in front of me that was almost completely black, except for occasional small bursts of brightness from small arms fire.
The detonation of the 175 mm rounds coming in had been hugely explosive, their quick flares of yellow light ending with sharp lightening-like cracks of thunder, transmitted back to me in seconds but still with noticeable delay in covering the distance to me.
“I can’t get through,” Fusner said, with disappointment in his voice. It was the first time, while in a full radio coverage area, that I had not been able to reach a combat command radio.
I turned around to study the area behind me, the incessant rain beating down on my bare head. I reached down for my helmet, but instead pulled the poncho cover back up and over both Fusner and I. Nguyen, whom I’d been seeking, appeared by slipping onto the matted jungle surface next to me, squeezing under the other side of the cover and looking outward, like I was, and likely seeing the same lack of a recognizable vista.
“Sugar Daddy,” I said to Nguyen, “bring him to me.” I pointed at my own chest.
Nguyen rolled out and left at a run.
“You’re bringing Sugar Daddy in, while this is all going on?” Fusner unaccountably asked.
“A walk in the rain,” I replied, “the whole line has to shift massively toward the wall. The enemy’s going to figure out the artillery can’t reach them there and the Ontos can’t fire enfilade fire into that mess without taking out our own Marines.”
I couldn't read my watch in the rain, although I tried. I estimated that it took Nguyen ten minutes to return with Sugar Daddy in tow simply because I knew that’s how long it took to adjust and bring in two more 175 battery of fours. I could not keep firing the big rounds endlessly, although I was getting no ‘check fire’ indications from the army battery. The night was going to be long and even the U.S. Army’s supply of 175 ammo had to be limited.
Sugar Daddy knelt by my side, with Nguyen behind him, not leaving, again seeming to guard me against the possibility of one of my own Marines attacking me. I looked at what I could see of the big man, thinking about what the Gunny had said about my staying out of the action until it was over. I was not the 2nd lieutenant who’d arrived that first night in totally mindless terror. I was Junior now, and I was in combat with everyone else in the company. I could not hide in a hole, as I’d been so willing and wanting to do in earlier days and nights.
“I need MacInerney, those other two officers and the Starlight Scope back here now,” I said to Sugar Daddy, and I’ve got to have you shift most of your platoon and then successive platoons as you encounter them while you proceed through the jungle and across the open path toward the wall. The enemy’s not going to attack on this flank. The artillery is too accurate and too pervasive, plus they’re going to figure out that I can’t depress the rounds enough to reach them. Those guns aren’t howitzers so the western side is protected by the elevation of the hill.”
“What do I get out of this?” Sugar Daddy asked, making my hand automatically come to rest on the exposed butt of my Colt.
I breathed deeply in and out, and then it came to me. Sugar Daddy wasn’t interested in disobeying orders, or me. He was still bitten by the fact that he knew Jurgens had been written up for a valor decoration and he had not.
“The Silver Star,” I replied. “Not for stupidly getting your men killed on the bridge though. I’ll write you up for getting to the gear and supplies on your own while also bringing the Ontos into position without orders. And now you are going to mass toward the wall and bring all the units together as you go, so that enemy force is met with overwhelming Marine force when they come at us again.”
“A Silver Star?” Sugar Daddy breathed out as if he was thinking about it, although I knew his mind was already made up.
I could almost see the wheels turning in his head through the blackness of the rain and windswept night. He was thinking that, although Jurgens had been written up he probably had been written up for a lessor decoration. The Silver Star was a big deal, just below the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. I remembered the Gunny shaking my hand when we’d concluded our deal with respect to Jurgens. I took my right hand off the butt of the Colt and waited to see if the handshake thing would be repeated, but Sugar Daddy merely grunted.
“You’re okay, Junior,” he finally said, “and your word is good."
I felt a thrill of satisfaction and acceptance flow instantly through my body and mind. I couldn’t believe that I was deeply affected by Sugar Daddy’s words of approval.
My hand did not stray back to the automatic, as Sugar Daddy got to his feet, turned around and disappeared into the night. I put my helmet back on and called in the next battery of four, bringing that adjustment as close as I could to where the wall attack had to be in the planning and forming stages. I kept my head out from under the poncho cover. I wanted to get up and move toward where I knew the Gunny had to be, right with the Marines waiting for the worst the enemy could throw at them. But I waited where I was. I wasn’t in my hole, hiding, and waiting for the combat action to be over, but I was also not at the point of contact with my Marines because I knew that part of what the Gunny said was true. I was the company commander and the only time I might be engaged in hand to hand combat was if I wasn’t being the company commander.
MacInerney and his two junior lieutenants arrived just before the Marines I’d ordered, or negotiated, Sugar Daddy to move began infiltrating and then snaking through the jungle around and behind us.
“Good idea to project our force forward to the line of departure,” MacInerney said, sounding as if he was in some sort of Basic School exercise with people around him who understood such language.
Regular Marines in combat simply moved to where they were ordered or where combat survival might serve them best while giving as much hell as they could to the enemy. There were no five ‘paragraph orders’ prior to an attack operation, as there had been in training, and the extensive planning I’d been taught, using contraction reminder words like BAMCIS and SMEAC, were all but useless in real combat. The Marines moved as silently and efficiently as possible, humping almost everything they had with them. Packs would be dropped when they went down to a prone position on the matted jungle floor, so they could operate and adroitly and rapidly shift positions later when needed.
“Set up the Starlight Scope so we can tell what the hell’s going on at or near what we can see of the wall where the inlet water comes through,” I instructed, ignoring the lieutenant’s compliment.
For some reason, Nguyen wasn’t visible any longer. I wondered if the three new lieutenants got a pass when it came to the Montagnard’s suspicions about what the potential danger my own Marines might be to me. It was either that, or I was imagining the whole thing.
Once the scope was set up, and the Marines had completed their move through our position, I put my eye to the rubber grommet and looked into the inlet area down from the flat bottom where the mountain’s slope ended, across the water and then over toward the wall. Mercifully, there was some open muddy ground between the water and the jungle’s edge.
“Get me Hutzler on the net if you can,” I ordered Fusner.
I could not have the Ontos move forward out of the jungle in order to get a clear direct fire position to hit the open area the scope had revealed. If it moved out of the camouflage the jungle provided it might become the target for any RPG rockets the mountain might have a supply of. It would also become exposed to the undependable range of the 175 mm rounds I was calling in to make sure most of the attack area could not be used.
“Take the Starlight Scope back to the Ontos,” I ordered MacInerney, who hadn’t even had time to lay down, much less dig a defensive hole in the matted undergrowth.
“But we just brought it here,” MacInerney complained, not moving.
“You can either take that back like I’m ordering lieutenant,” I said forcefully, “or you can go back to the wall with Jurgens, fix your non-existent bayonet to your non-existent rifle and prepare for hand to hand combat.”
MacInerney and the two lieutenants took only seconds to disassemble the scope and take off. None of them said anything.
I reached for the handset Fusner was holding out.
“Hutzler, the scope’s coming back at you right now,” I said. “When it gets there, take it and crawl forward until you can see. I want to know if you can give me a tracer spotter round from one of your fifties every minute or so until further notice. The NVA knows how the Ontos works. If you can lay a spotter round near that flat area between the water and the wall to the west, then they’ll think twice before they attempt to launch their attack over it.
“They’re coming, sir,” Hutzler replied, “I’ll get right on it.”
I waited impatiently to call in the next artillery set, not wanting to expose Hutzler who would be laying too close to any incoming, and totally unprotected on the flat mud. I knew I couldn’t wait too long. With a regiment to throw at us, which meant about six times the men we had, the enemy could have two companies run across the open area in less than ten minutes. I knew, if I waited too long, they’d take the risk and try it. If they attacked, I wouldn’t be able to see since I’d sent the only scope we had back to Hutzler.
In minutes Hutzler was back. I felt like I could breathe again at his news. He could fire through the bracken of the bush the Ontos was idling behind. That also meant the 106 recoilless guns could be fired through the same overhanging leaves and branches since their fuses had a hundred meters of set back before the fuses were armed. I called in another battery of four from the army battery. The Starlight Scope would be useless again unless someone else was risked to crawl out again and view the area through it.
“Hutzler,” I called, having had Fusner get him on the radio again.
“Junior?” he replied, which almost made me smile.
Hutzler had been surprised by my call, as he was one of the few men in the companies, except for Fusner, who always referred to me as sir.
“I need someone to go check out the view to that free fire area every ten minutes, or so, and when he goes you need to tell me, and then when he comes back.”
“Aye, aye, sir,” Hutzler shot back, “I’ve got just the man.”
I wondered who he had that he felt was expendable, but I didn’t have time to let my mind dwell on that subject. I called in the next round of battery fire without changing the adjustment. The rounds might not cause death or injury to any of the enemy soldiers but they would certainly keep everyone in or around the mountain on edge and afraid.
I wished that I had spent more time with the Gunny when he’d angrily stuck his head under my poncho cover. The hand to hand combat comment had not gone down well with me. I wasn’t upset about the part about my own participation at all. What bothered me was our mission. It wasn’t to defeat the enemy in close combat. It was to hold it in place or roll it back until real firepower from the air could be brought in at first light, which wasn’t that far away. The only visual we had on the ‘beaten zone,’ where the NVA regiment had to cross in the open, was through the Starlight Scope, which was being operated sporadically by someone I didn’t even know. I had Fusner call the Ontos and relay my order for MacInerney to return to my side. I didn’t need to lose any more officers, and the ones I had were too new and green to have to lay out in the open trying to observe what such a cagey and natively savvy enemy might do.
I heard the fifty caliber spotter firing just before the next salvo of artillery rounds impacted. The rounds were not as well placed as the previous ones had been. The concussion from their landing only a hundred meters, or so, away bounced me out my hole, made my hearing go out again, and then sent a wave of compressed rain showering over into and over our position I rolled onto my back, trying to clear my ears.
Finally, I heard something, while I was trying to get my helmet back on and return to what cover and concealment the poncho-covered hole provided. I heard the 106 fire from the Ontos, then two more rounds. The enemy had to be attacking. Worry and fear claimed me again. Would our combined infantry forces, the nearly sightless Ontos and the badly controlled artillery be enough to stop a full ground attack from a seasoned sapper regiment?