A cacophony of open combat fire sent me as deep into the jungle floor as I could get. The sound was pure small arms fire, which at close range, with the Marines around me firing outward, didn’t sound so small. I crawled forward, eventually running into the feet, legs, and backs of the Marines laying down the fire upon the exposed enemy. The only explanation for the spiderweb crawling of the enemy across the surface of the roiling water, extending out from the end of the abbreviated bridge ending to the near riverbank, was a knitted mix of rope lengths and knots. The NVA had put together landing nets of rope, effective but nearly impossible to control balanced movement across. The enemy soldiers crawled across the length of cargo nets and were easily picked off by Marine fire. There was no enemy base of fire to suppress the Marine M-16 and M-60 fire.

The Ontos ground its way to the top edge of the forest, the sound of its metallic geared tracks almost fully muted by the rain. It fired as it appeared, driving everyone nearby down into the jungle floor or the sticky mud. The rounds impacted short of the river, but the effect was just as great as if they had approached any moving enemy figure and taken him down individually. For one bright moment there were standing, climbing and running figures and the next instant, with the explosion of another round, they were gone.

I was deafened again, being too close to the muzzles of the 106 guns not to be seriously affected. I waited for my hearing to come back. The guns fired some more but I’d had the time to jam my muddy hands over my ears, the fetid smell of the sticky stuff making my headache. The guns fired some more. I could see the effect down at the river’s edge. The NVA was taking tens of casualties, but most of the troops that had been ready to leap onto the cargo nets they’d painstakingly tied and then tossed from the end of the damaged bridge to the shore were running back into the deeper jungle on the other side.

The Gunny had appeared, laying down next to me in the mud, just adjacent from the jungle’s edge. From that position, I could see what was going on, although the night and the rain made visual observation extremely limited, at best. I stared into the night, the sound of the rough, wild and roiling floodwaters sounding like there was a living monster just ahead instead of merely a torrential river in flood.

There was a stench of death in the air, as I inhaled, in an attempt to get the mud smell from my lungs and mind. The smell was of real death, which I knew because I’d smelled it before when we couldn’t get bodies air-lifted out for days.

Our men, including Zippo, had not gotten out to the resupply chopper. The 46 had had to leave without them because of the hydraulics. The bodies were somewhere nearby. I knew, given enough time, I would be able to place them fairly accurately but I didn’t want to think about that. I couldn’t think about that.

“Have the company cease-fire,” I ordered the Gunny, lying face down on the rutted mud surface of the bare riverbed, my head turned sideways so my words could be heard. My hearing was rapidly returning, I realized, except for a ringing buzz. I wondered if I was somehow getting used to being deafened by gunfire.

The fire, mostly from Marines shooting at the remaining individual soldiers trapped in the cargo nets and trying to get back across the river they’d just attempted to cross, was deafening and nearly constant.

“We’re putting it to them sir, and we need to keep doing it,” the Gunny replied, laying close in beside me, the pounding miserable rain making his voice, even though his head was only inches away, hard to hear distinctly, as the millions of drops impacted on my helmet and splashed everywhere around us.

“Ceasefire,” I ordered again.

“Not a good idea, Junior,” the Gunny replied, turning his head to attempt to make out what was going on further out near the very edge of the river.

“Fusner,” I rasped out.

“Sir,” Fusner replied, crawling up my right side, opposite from where the Gunny lay.

I grasped the wet handset he held out firmly in my right hand.

“Fire mission,” I said, loudly into the microphone, pushing the transmit button down sharply when I spoke.

“What fire mission?” the Gunny asked, surprise registering in his tone.

“Zone fire, repeat,” I transmitted.

“What the hell?” the Gunny said, his tone going from surprise to shock. “What in hell are you doing? We’re fully exposed out here. Artillery now will kill half of the company or more.”

I listened to the redirect from the battery, asking for me to complete the order to fire the rounds. It came in seconds. All I had to do was whisper one word into the microphone and hundreds of 175 mm artillery rounds would once again blanket the entire southern end of the valley we occupied. Except for this time, none of us were neatly tucked into clefts folded under the base of the nearby cliff faces.

“Shit,” the Gunny said, the word turning into ‘shush’ by the time the rain finished with allowing it through its harsh falling curtain.

“What the hell,” the Gunny followed. “Alright. I’ll get them to stop, but there better be some damn good reason for all this bullshit.” The Gunny slid away, like an Anaconda working its way across a tidal flat.

“Ceasefire,” the Gunny started to yell to invisible Marines up in front of him and located in other positions hidden from my view in the night.

I pressed my face back into the mud, hoping there were no leeches just waiting for such a move. I pulled up to breathe and rubbed the mud and water from every area of my head I could reach without taking my helmet off.

Carruthers slithered up next to me, coming from somewhere in the nearby jungle. I hadn’t known he was nearby, and his near hugging touch surprised me. Everything about the captain surprised me, almost without end.

“What are we doing?” he asked, still appearing halfway neat, even though he was exposed to the same devastating weather elements as the rest of us.

“We’ve got to get back,” I said, “and right now.” I pulled myself up to my knees, and then slowly rose to my feet. “All we need is to leave a small following force in case any more NVA cross the river using the cargo nets.”

“Why are we retreating now?” Carruthers asked, staring out into the night, although the river’s waters were just beyond the distance we could see unless there were muzzle flashes from any small arms fire, and those flashes providing only instantly disappearing images hard to make out.

“We’re not retreating,” I hissed back at him, bending low and making my way into the outer edges of the heavy jungle cover before going back down to my knees.

Carruthers followed, as did Fusner. There was no sight of the rest of my scout team and that fact worried me deeply.

“We’re attacking in a different direction,” I said, before telling Fusner to let the battery know we were checking our fire and canceling the fire mission. I’d used the threat of another artillery zone attack to force the Gunny to do my bidding immediately.

There was no time to be lost.

“Why?” Carruthers asked, “the direction we’re heading is back to where we were? That doesn’t make any sense, not with the success we’re having here.”

“You don’t see it,” I said, “because you haven’t been here long enough. The Gunny should see it but he doesn’t either. They’re running back from the crossing and racing down the river. Where is this body of the enemy going in force?”

“Back to wherever the hell they came from,” Captain Carruthers replied.

“Damned straight,” I replied, “in force, where they’re crossing back over the river.”

“Okay?” Carruthers asked the question in his voice as real as it could be.

“Think it through,” I replied, getting back to my feet. “Let’s go. We’ve got to get everyone back. They’re running back and what do you think the NVA soldiers are going to do when they get across the river? Take a break? Have some chow, or are they going to attack up into the totally exposed and unprotected rear area?”

“Good God, we pulled the firebase and the Ontos is here,” Carruthers said, getting it.

“Yes, we did the job here, but only stopped them and dished out some serious but not huge casualties. Now we have no protection if they get over the river further down and come at us while we’re busy cleaning up whatever small change is left here.”

The Gunny ran through the debris sticking out and forming an edge against the river’s high-water mudflat.

“What now?” he said, joining Carruthers, Fusner and I, huddled together against the heavy fall of rain.

The Gunny’s voice was filled with anger, at having his hand forced in such a violent manner, and I wondered if our relationship, whatever it was, would recover.

“I want the Ontos loaded with high explosive rounds and firing to take out the bridge and what’s left of the crossing the NVA were attempting to make. Nothing can be behind us when we leave”

I explained the situation as quickly and succinctly as I could.

“Shit,” was all he said, before racing away. “We’ve got to get the Ontos back there as fast as we can after blowing the bridge, or what’s left of it,” he said as if talking to himself. “They’ve got the .50 caliber and they can move it right in if there’s nothing to stop them.”

I waited a few seconds before following. When I reached the Ontos, glad it had not fired another round yet, because I wasn’t far enough from the angle of its aim to hope for my hearing to survive, I stopped with Fusner and Carruthers to wait for the Gunny to be done ordering the crew to get the machine around and back down to where we’d pulled it out of.

“Where’s your radio operator?” I asked Carruthers, mystified about why he wasn’t being as smothered by his Marine’s presence as I was by Fusner. As if on cue, a Marine in flowing wet poncho swept up behind the captain.

“Three casualties, sir,” he said, seeming to almost salute as he reported in.

“Two KIA and one WIA.”

“Kilo?” the captain asked.

“No, sir,” the captain’s radio operator replied, and my stomach fell.

“Names,” I whispered, not in question.

“Waldo’s the WIA, and the others I’d don’t know,” the Marine intoned, his voice dropping as he spoke, reading the depth of my own feelings that I could not hide in receiving the information.

“They’re moving Sergeant Waldo back with us,” he went on. “The other two will be left here for the next pickup.”

I didn’t have to ask who the other two were. Piper and the Project One Hundred Thousand Marine he’d been looking after were gone. Macho Man was injured, and probably pretty badly since even a normally non-life-threatening injury was serious if no immediate medivac was available. And no medivac was available.

The makeshift gurney holding Macho Man was placed firmly atop the dry sand of a cleft occupied by no other Marines. An I.V. was supported by a hook some Marine had cleverly embedded into one of the stone cracks just over his head. I eased into the enclosure, snapping off Jurgen’s flashlight as I went in. A small fire burned next to the sergeant’s prone figure, one of the Composition B fires but without anyone attempting to boil water or any of that. The white light of the hot little fire reflected everywhere, as the I.V. tube gently swaying downward, with the mild breeze wavering, the movement caused by my entry into the cleft. Macho Man’s feet angled down toward the bottom of the cleft, but his position was obviously beyond the man’s real care. I knelt by his side. The corpsmen had left so I was alone with him. There was no need for corpsmen to be present because there was obviously nothing to be done for the man. He’d been hit through and through with high-velocity bullets in the abdomen. Without immediate surgery, there was no recovery possible in a field situation. Even if the rear area could mount an emergency medivac, it could not possibly come in time to save Macho Man’s life.

The little white and harsh fire burned bright but its reflection across Macho Man’s countenance told the deathly story without emotion. I gently stroked the man’s face to remove the perspiration constantly pouring out of his pores

“Junior?” Macho Man whispered.

“Right by your side,” I replied, pulling my wet hand back.

“It hurts so bad,” Macho Man said. “So bad.”

I unbuttoned my right thigh pocket and pulled my morphine pack loose.

“I brought some morphine,” I told him, as I worked to get the syrettes out.

“They gave me some but it doesn’t seem to have much effect,” Macho Man replied, spacing the words carefully between the waves of pain that were overcoming him.

“It hurts so bad.”

“This is the real stuff,” I assured him, pulling the cover off one small tube and punching it into his left thigh. I sharply squeezed the tube of morphine into his muscle right through his utility trouser fabric. I followed the procedure three more times, successively.

The drug should not have been able to work as quickly as it did. Within less than a few minutes, as I tried to hug the man’s torn up torso closer to me, I felt the effects of the miracle drug. Macho Man’s muscles began to relax.

“Thanks, Junior, that’s better,” Macho Man whispered to me, never opening his eyes.

I waited, the time seemed to pass in forever seconds. One second and then another went by. I looked at my watch but the bright bluish-white fire of the Composition B made seeing detail almost impossible. I put the remaining supply of the morphine back into my right thigh pocket. I knew the dosage and had studied the effects over time on other Marines before Macho Man. I knew I wouldn’t need anymore. I wanted to say something meaningful to the man whom I had so identified with when I’d been newer in the country. He’d seemed bulletproof and ultra-tough. One mistake, of going into the thick of contact, had turned the great tough sergeant into a painfully dying human being with no hope for recovery in seconds…played out over many minutes and hours until I had reached his side.

The Gunny came crawling into the cleft to arrive at my side.

“He gone yet?” the Gunny asked.

I wasn’t offended. Macho Man’s passing was a foregone conclusion once the severity of his wounds was diagnosed. There was no time for grief, sentiment or consideration in a real combat situation. I knew why the Gunny was there. I was needed outside for some other momentous decision that might involve more Marines dying.

A rasping final breath exhaled from Macho Man’s throat and I knew he was gone. The morphine was merciful and brutally quick in its effect if administered in sufficient quantity.

“Yes, he’s gone,” I replied.

“What about the Thompson?” the Gunny asked, looking at the nearby weapon the sergeant had kept close to his side even in death.

“It goes back with his body,” I replied. “It was part of him.”

“They don’t let you take automatic weapons home,” the Gunny argued.

“I know,” I answered. “I don’t care. What they do in the rear with the gear is up to them. He goes out with his Thompson strapped to his side,” I said.

“Cool weapon,” the Gunny said, but I could tell from his tone that he wasn’t going to give me any grief over my decision.

I reached for the Thompson and pulled it close. I released the magazine from the body of the weapon and then began unloading bullets one by one. There were only twenty in the magazine and I had no box, so I poured the bullets into my left chest pocket.

“For your sidearm?” the Gunny asked, but I didn’t answer.

I knew with a fatal certainty that no helicopter would ever land in my life again and have such a supporting and stoically caring person stand guard while its blades whirled above our heads. That man had taken my letters, time after time, and very likely got them through to my wife. The fact he’d had no real understanding of what combat was like had killed him, for all the right reasons. He’d gone into the thick of it, like Piper and his charge, and he’d died. I’d been unable to stop him or them. You cannot charge into the thick of combat and live, but I knew that lesson was usually taught by death itself.

The Gunny withdrew in silence, only the rustling of his utilities against the sand apparent. I knew he would be waiting at the entrance to the cleft, some impossible decision having to be made.

I opened my left thigh pocket and pulled out my small pack of stationery. I usually reserved that paper only for writing letters to my wife. I pulled out a sheet of paper, one of the ones with the Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. I wrote: “this was a good Marine,” on it. I didn’t know what else to say or who might see the notation. I folded the paper and stuck it into Macho Man’s breast pocket. Maybe, over time, the inscription might have meaning to someone back home.

I slowly withdrew from the cleft. Macho Man’s eyes were open and dilated. I could see no point in closing them. The fire would burn out, as Macho Man’s life had burned out, in pain and nearly alone. That was the way of the A Shau and I knew it well.

The drums started immediately upon my withdrawal from Macho Man’s cleft, and although I felt their brutal vibrations right down into the depths of my very being, it was nothing like how Carruthers handled the action. He was waiting for me as I came up out of the cleft and into the rain. For some reason, the captain was taking the drumming, as muffled as it was by the rain, wind and external effect caused by the fact that we were all once again ensconced under the protection of the cliff understructure, as personal.

The Drums

“Why are they doing this?” Carruthers asked.

I had no answer for the captain that might make any sense. The NVA was drumming because it was an effective device to upset their enemy. We were that enemy and the device was effective or Carruthers would not be trying to pace up and down an interior cleft space that wasn’t high enough inside for him to walk in.

“Because it works,” I replied. “Look at yourself.”

“I’m not upset by the drumming,” Carruthers replied, finally sitting back down, but holding himself with clasped arms like his torso was in deep pain.

“What is it then?” I asked, not fooled for a second about the fact that the deadly thrumming beat of the drums affected all of us deeply.

“What does it mean?” Carruthers asked.

“It means that they’re there and that they’re coming,” I responded, forming the answer in my own mind to a question that had lingered since the last time I’d heard the distant threat.

“I don’t get it,” Carruthers answered. “It seems like such a waste of time and effort on their part.”

“This is their country, their land, and their valley, if you haven’t noticed. They want us to know that and the fact that they won’t quit, no matter what.”

“It’s their version of the Marine Hymn?” Carruthers asked, finally unclasping himself and working to control his breathing and emotions.

I lay next to him, considering. I’d never thought of the drumming in terms of what it might mean to the enemy doing the drumming. I’d only thought of being on the receiving end. The captain had a point and it was a telling point. We had the Marine hymn and our own solid standing belief system of honor and combat. They had their own, as well.

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