Fusner gently shook my shoulder. I inhaled sharply, suddenly realizing he’d been doing it for a while, but the depth of sleep I’d gone into would not allow me to think that I was in the A Shau Valley of South Vietnam commanding Marines in combat. I awoke slowly, no panicked jerk like I’d heard so much about at home, from guys supposedly returning from the shit and flinching at backfires that never occurred anymore in my sixty’s world. Maybe the uncontrolled jerk would come over time, and I wondered about that. I yawned and breathed deeply again, stretching my arms out until the pain of my leech wounds forced me to pull them back in. The wounds hurt in a nasty surface way. Not deep enough to keep me from functioning, but deep enough so that I was never without them at the very edge of my consciousness. I wondered if Morphine worked as a topical. Maybe I could just slather some on and the pain would go away, although I didn’t really believe it. Pain is what the A Shau dished out, and if you missed the breakfast of leech wounds then lunch would be served with something truly hurtful and more permanent.
“Puff is going to come down and make four pylon-turn passes, at your command, sir,” Fusner said, speaking quietly, his head bent down so his mouth could be close to my ear. “We don’t have much time. I let you sleep as long as the Gunny would allow. But you have to decide where Puff will lay down its fire. Here or there?”
My mind roiled and tossed. Here or there where I wanted to ask but instead took a few seconds to clear my head. I wanted coffee, some crackers and maybe part of a cigarette, but knew I wasn't going to have the time, or the immediate availability, to get any of those things.
“Here,” Fusner said, patiently, “over what we believe is their current position, or ‘there’ where we are going to attack up along the river, and maybe into the jungle patch just north.
I looked at my watch. It was 1415, or a quarter after two. The resupply would be coming in at three. I shook myself fully awake, pulling my hand back from its grip on Macho Man’s dog tags and the M-16 cartridge. How was I ever going to solve the mystery of his death in the A Shau Valley under the horrid conditions we were fighting under? One of my Marines killed him and I felt driven to know who. I could not think beyond that because beyond that was a place of bleak dark death. If I knew, then I would act. I would have to act. I reached into my pocket and took out my heavily taped letter to my wife. I handed it over to Fusner. I knew that the likelihood of me actually getting close to the CH- 46 was slim. Fusner would be much more able to take the few seconds to make the run and deliver the letter to one of the crewmen, although there were no guarantees if the chopper came under fire.
“I’ll make sure it gets out, sir,” he said, folding the letter carefully into his right breast pocket.
“How long can the C-130 orbit?” I asked, knowing Fusner didn’t know but wanting him to find out.
The enemy knew Puff, like it knew the Ontos, and it feared the fire-breathing dragon of a monster. The longer I could keep the plane on station, the longer the enemy would keep its head down and remain stationary, but I couldn’t wait too long. The 46 would not land in a hot L.Z. and Puff couldn’t do its thing if the air was filled with Huey Cobra gunships and Skyraiders under it or too close to the cone of fire it would deliver.
“Give me the arty net,” I said, holding out my hand.
Fusner took only seconds to comply. I held the microphone and called in the zone fire mission I’d calculated earlier. The battery would give me 30 155 mm rounds, 6 on target, and 6 on four targets designated as the cardinal points of the compass, but fifty meters (the kill radius of a 155 on flat terrain) out from the target. The zone fire would be followed by the same call, except using 105 mm howitzer rounds two hundred meters left and right of the target as I called it in. I had not adjusted for the 155 mm howitzer weapon before, and I couldn’t remember if the bigger guns were set up in a battery circle of four or six guns. The 105s were set in a circle of six. If the 155’s were only four to a circle then their zone fire volley would be less than what I had planned, but still devastating. I timed the opening of fire to be at 1500, or 3:00 p.m. exactly. The resupply chopper would be on final approach, coming down in the flat L.Z. by the river, while the protective swarm of Huey gunships would be swarming well away from the gun target line where the artillery fire the battery was about to deliver would, hopefully, take out any forces on the eastern ridge where the still-beating drums had been relocated to.
I wouldn’t be adjusting fire on the barrage. It would come in on terrain I’d already registered, and the battery was fully capable of hitting that particular spot using only half the maximum load of powder bags. There were other issues I had to deal with, however, and once the artillery rounds were fired and then laid down I could always do a quick adjustment up or down the top of the escarpment, as long as the shells did not strike too far west, and encounter the face of the cliff again. Two companies of men and a crewed Ontos would be down from the top of that cliff face, I among them.
Fusner worked with the AN-323 air radio while I got into my gear. I had to take everything, as we would not be coming back to the caves again, not unless disaster struck and we had no choice. I would miss the total security the many feet of solid rock gave me in the cave. I hoped the days of paralyzing fear were behind me, for the most part, although the coiled snake of fear that could curl around any internal organ at will, never left my insides. The cave had gone a long way toward giving me much needed sleep and a feeling of security enough to allow me to carry on. I knew I would miss the cave badly and wasn’t likely to have the gift of such a fortified position protecting me again.
The beating of the enemy drums became more physically present, as I crawled up out of the cave, pulling my pack behind me until I was clear of the hanging poncho cover. Even with my experience and knowledge, I hated the sound of the drums. It wasn’t just the sound, somehow reverberating right through the joined drops of falling rain. It was also the naked intent the drums dully transmitted. The NVA wanted us dead, with myself very probably at the very top of a short list.
My own poncho cover rustled and sparkled as it became almost instantly wet. I settled my helmet firmly down to cover the back of my neck. The rain was going to be both a help and a hindrance in the coming attack. In the very inner sanctum of my mind lived the hope that the NVA had taken a beating so badly at the river the night before they might have gone underground to lick their wounds. I let out a sigh, as I moved out, knowing in my heart of hearts that the NVA was not built that way. Their soldiers thought they were fighting for their families and country, I knew. I was fighting for my country and family, as well, but in reality, I was actually fighting as much for the men around me as anything or anyone else. I didn’t love all my Marines. They were like my arms and legs and other body parts. I didn’t love my body parts either, but the sum of them made up who I was and how they obeyed my commands and moved determined how I moved through what I knew of the universe. I could no longer imagine what it might be like to move through the A Shau Valley without the Marines who surrounded me at every point. If by some bizarre turn of fortune, I made it back to the world, then I wondered what it might be like to move through that world without them?
The drums beat right on through the deep-throated, but the distant roar of what I knew had to be the turbines of the C-130. The Skyraiders were up there in the clouded-over sky, as well, and, in spite of the fact that we’d soon be engaged in unpredictable and bloody ground combat, I felt a strange warmth for the amount of firepower that was being brought to bear on our behalf.
Fusner pushed the small headset of the air radio toward me. I pulled my damaged helmet off, put the headset on, and then replaced the helmet to keep the water from ruining the electronics and dripping down my face.
“Flash, is that you?” A scratchy voice asked into my ear.
“Affirmative, Cowboy, over,” I replied, a small smile creasing my lips.
“Man oh man, but you’ve got some crap flying around up here, with more coming I presume.”
I knew Cowboy had to know about the choppers coming in, but he’d never say anything other than what he’d just said.
“Amen to that,” I replied.
“Where are you going to want us for the Thanksgiving feast?” Cowboy said.
“Up and down the alley,” I replied, the alley being the river, which I also knew he would understand.
The landing zone was going to be congested in bad visibility and heavy rain. The Skyraiders would provide cover and fire from a few feet above the raging water, running up and down the river, but they’d only able to remain directly on station for very brief periods. The Huey gunships surrounding the CH-46 like a cloud of bees would have the higher air, but not much higher. Puff would fire and then move on before much of any real action began if any real action began. Would the CH-46 come in on time? Everything was targeting the arrival time of the resupply chopper to be exactly on time. What if it was early or late? There was no way to communicate with the machine while it was on its way. Any communication at all with the choppers would immediately tip off any listening NVA troops that the birds were coming in.
We moved through the edge of the jungle, retracing steps I’d taken so many times I had stopped counting. We moved along the edge of the berm that was set out about five to ten meters from the front face of the eastern cliff wall.
The jungle was to our west, or on my left hand as we moved, and would only draw away as the huge mud flat below where the Bong Song slithered and roared expanded outward. The water hit the wall’s flat bottom somewhere below the old airport and well downriver from Hill 975. In the past, the company had jammed itself into the slight clefts that were formed further downriver and within full visibility of the flats, but this time would be different. The companies had to cross the river after the resupply and they had to cross immediately, or the NVA would be able to bring up their .50 Caliber machine gun and a load of shoulder-mounted RPG rockets.
Finally, a good distance from the river, and snuggled in against the outer edge of the heavy jungle growth we came to rest. I knew other Marines were swelling out and up the base of the cliff where we’d taken up defensive positions in the past. Their movement and setting in bothered me, the thought of just how much damage and death a few short artillery rounds, impacting near the top of the escarpment, might generate as they had before.
The chopper came out of the south, dropping in from high up to avoid as much risk from ground fire as possible. The cacophony of engaged combat filled the air around me, although the misting rain was so heavy it was almost impossible to make out any details of the river in the distance, or what was really happening there.
The Skyraiders, three of them, didn’t need to be seen because they were so loud. Their thunderous engines bit and plowed through the mist, making mincemeat of the rain and mist, as they made pass after low pass over the river. Somehow the big CH-46 was able to drop onto the river bank without hitting or being struck by one. Each pass of the Skyraiders, several minutes apart was punctuated by staccato strafing runs as they sprayed the sides of the river with their 20 mm cannons. Higher above, split into two revolving groups of three, were the Huey Cobra gunships.
The artillery barrage started after Fusner confirmed the 1500 target time to the battery for the zone fires, and then repeated the order to fire. The crump and blast of that zone fire exercise began less than a minute later, with the noise and feeling of heavy explosions reverberating across and down into the valley area where the companies lay waiting to attack, unload the chopper and then build a temporary ramp over to the remains of the bridge still extending most of the way across the raging river. Everything seemed to slide way into the distance, however, when Puff opened up with its rotary guns. Flying the first rotation of the pylon circle tightly, the rotary guns sticking out of its side roared out their superior death-dealing firepower, and the tongue lash of the concentrated bullets poured into the jungle just to our south, and a bit inland from where the river bank extended up to become a heavy jungle.
I cringed down, although I was not as close to the dragon tongue of fire as the last time I’d been on the ground nearby to observe Puff’s effect. The last time my face had been buried too deep in the mud for me to see much of anything. I peered upward, even though my body remained hard-pressed into the fetid stinking mud. I tasted the aroma of the dead, which was strong, it’s sugary bitter smell never leaving my awareness, even as I tried to take in the sweeping combat scenes all around me, as I tried to see what was going on. The Gunny lay on my left side and Fusner on the other, both doing the same thing I was. The play of weaponry, the chopper dropping in, blasting debris everywhere, and the flitting in and out nature of the giant wasp-like and heavily firing Huey gunships was overpowering. I heard the Skyraiders begin another run, this time from the north, and I prayed that the CH-46, touching the mud not more than a few meters from the river, would not be so close as to have its whirling rotors strike one of the passing aircraft while it was making a run.
An M-60 opened up to my left, set back up higher on the berm near the cliff wall to our backs. Then another opened up, both appearing to fire ten or twenty shot bursts several seconds apart. I’d ordered the fire and was relieved to hear other machine guns joining the first two. There was no margin for error in bringing all of our weaponry, ground, air, and artillery into play at once in order to assure that the CH-46 did not take rounds and either abort the resupply or be destroyed. The NVA could still fire at it from their hidden positions deep inside the jungle, especially if they’d brought their fifty to be set up for just such a target of opportunity. But would the fifty crew, and individual NVA troops, come out to face the kind of fire they were receiving from all quarters? A few solid hits into the body of the big helicopter and that would be it. There was no alternative plan to crossing the river and moving as rapidly as possible to the north. It was vital to hit Hill 975, in passing, as quickly as possible before the burrowed in soldiers there could be ready to receive us.
The Ontos was the key to our attack on the ground, just as it was the key to our survival while holding off the NVA while the ramp was constructed to get the armored vehicle to the other side of the river. I heard its motor straining as it negotiated the last bit of path along the side of the cliff and then climbed the berm to begin its travel toward the resupply chopper.
The artillery barrage played out and not long after the last pylon pass of Puff was made and the C-130 disappeared downriver so fast that it was like it’d never been there at all. But the gentle wind, blowing upriver brought the smell of burned jungle debris, and it also helped blow the smell of the dead to some other place, at least for a while.
There was a brief respite while the big double rotor chopper began to set in. the noise that usually accompanied it was somewhat muted by the heaviness of the misty rain. I turned to the Gunny at my side, rolling slightly over.
I removed Macho Man’s dog tags from my thigh pocket. I did not have time to write my next daily letter home so there was nothing to interrupt the passage of the dog tags and the M-16 cartridge between the inner pocket and my hand. I handed the dog tags to the Gunny without delay or any ceremony. He dangled the two identical tags from the cheap government issue chain. I watched him stop the tags from swinging. He gripped the one tag with the fingers of his right hand. I held out the cartridge but he waved my offer back, as he stared at the tag. I knew then that he didn’t need the cartridge to compare. There was only one weapon in the A Shau theater of combat that fired a round even close to that as illustrated by the hole in Macho Man’s dog tag.
“Who,” I asked, my voice flat and without emotion, my eyes fixed on what I could see of the landing chopper
“Don’t know,” he replied, replacing the dog tags back into the open and extended palm of my left hand.
“Who has it?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
“Who has what?” the Gunny replied, lighting a cigarette and then blowing smoke up into the rain and mist, out from under the lip of his helmet.
I caught something in the delay of his answer, however. It was indefinable, but there. I could tell he wasn’t looking at me either, instead of concentrating and working to get some bit of tobacco from between two of his teeth and then spitting it out. I watched him closely out of the sides of my eyes, and purposely waited, without answering his question.
“Jurgens,” the Gunny finally said.
The Thompson submachine gun had found a home, and I was not surprised at all to understand where, or with whom, it had found that home. The question was, had that new home been made for it at the expense of Macho Man’s life? I had real reservations about a weapon so heavy and so difficult to resupply with ammo, but those feelings, I knew, were not shared by most of the Marines around me. The Thompson was cool, and although it wasn’t built to perform well in the jungle circumstance we were all in, the fact that it felt good to carry and be seen with, outweighed pure functional capability for most Marines who saw or encountered it.
“Look into it,” was all I could think of to say.
Of all the men under the strange command I provided to the company, Jurgens was the most dangerous, murderous and yet combat effective Marine I had, outside of the Gunny and possibly Nguyen. The Gunny made no response to my instruction, but then, I didn’t expect one. The Gunny had been dealing with Sugar Daddy and Jurgens long before I had come to the company. Somehow, and through a course where many Marines had died directly because of it, he’d found a way to straddle a hyper-sensitive course through a racial and cultural minefield to survive. I knew there would be no resolution in the death of Macho Man unless I applied it, but I could not apply anything unless I had the tacit approval, if not the direct participation, of the Gunny.
The plan was for everyone to stay down and provide whatever suppressing fire was necessary without exposing themselves to the open flat surface of the mud bank.
The chopper crew tossed stuff rapidly out of the CH-46 rear cargo ramp. I wasn’t close enough to see individual items but I knew the unloading was going without incident. Unfortunately, our combined force of Marines would not have the services of either Puff or the artillery when it became necessary to get the supplies to the water and then the ramp somehow designed and built to hold the Ontos' weight.
The attack wasn’t directed toward where the chopper was coming down, or the supplies were being offloaded and piling up. The attack was set to be a clone of the attack we’d made nights earlier when the company had been forced to move downriver to rescue Kilo and cover its descent down the cliff face into the valley. As before, except with the addition of Kilo’s support, the company had to take the whole length and breadth of the jungle and hold it. Unlike the previous time, where the company had merely swept through it, this time both companies would have to secure and hold the difficult enemy-held terrain in order to effectively suppress fire so the ramp could be built and the Ontos driven up and across the bridge.
The “Same Old Song” attack began silently, the Marines, including those of Kilo Company, almost automatically eased into the shocked jungle as one continuous force, using the rain and mist drifting over the area as cover. The air over the jungle was still filled with tiny bits of debris blown into the lower atmosphere by the rotary strafing power of Puff’s orbiting attack.
The Ontos motored down toward the river, making no effort to direct any of its recoilless rifles toward the jungle. Initially, I’d calculated that the applied mass of air power would provide all the suppression necessary to allow us to reach the end of the bridge. Once there, the Ontos was to serve as cover, since there was no other cover available at all, and provide its own considerable suppressing fire across the river. Taking the jungle on our side was one thing, but there was no way the high ground on the other side of the river, a bit further south, could hope to be successfully attacked or its fire suppressed. Carruthers and the Gunny were leading the attack into the jungle, and small arms fire began to rise in volume once the covering fire of the M-60s began to lessen. I climbed to my feet and, with Nguyen and Fusner at my sides, ran to get out in front of the advancing Ontos. No fire seemed to be directed at us, although it was almost impossible to determine whether that was really true or not because of the lack of visibility. The sound of the rushing river overpowered most other sounds, even those of high-velocity gunfire in the distance. We passed by the chopper, not stopping, and avoiding the twin stacks of supplies already offloaded. At some point, Marines from the company must have gathered the bodies of our fallen brothers because I noted those being loaded into the side of the chopper closest to the river as the supplies were still being offloaded from the rear ramp.
The Skyraiders came in over the river just as we reached the area I knew we had to somehow fortify in order to build the base of the ramp. The Marston sheets and the Ontos were all we had, as other Marines began to assemble, no doubt the team the Gunny had selected to do the actual work.
I went into the mud right at the water’s edge, where the stuff was solid but wet and messy. My body slipped into the stuff like it had been waiting for just such an intrusion. My helmet and eyes were all that was above the surface, as I thought about my .45, which I’d failed to get out of my holster. Was it better off inside and clean or out with me and filthy?
The chopper’s turbines went up to maximum, as the huge helicopter lifted off, rising up and then dipping its nose and heading straight down river, in the trace of the Skyraiders. The noise was deafening and the feeling of being stranded out on the mud flat with only the Ontos as any kind of cover and protection was frightening. My coiled snake of fear, so common to my interior was no more. I was a living, breathing and shaking body of fear, wondering how I’d gotten myself into an even worse mess than I had been in before, and how to command and direct the Marines around me to do what they had to do without the Gunny being there to back my every move.