I moved across the surface of the mud, with what was left of my scout team just ahead. Fusner and Nguyen trailed just behind. We crawled low, the light of the day beginning to die and provide some sort of camouflage, if not cover. The Ontos lay ahead, sitting like a big solid Sphinx of a thing it so didn’t resemble, but could be imagined to be in the bad light. The Gunny was already there, as I came around the side of the Ontos’s right track edge. I noted immediately that the six recoilless rifles of the armored machine were directed off at an angle back toward where the jungle was heaviest on our side of the river. The river’s rush blocked out what sound might have otherwise penetrated the area, only the overpowering beat and thunder of Skyraider propellers got through. But they were on their last run with the coming of the night, I knew. The Skyraiders were not equipped to fight effectively in the dark, at least not to provide the kind of pinpoint support an infantry company like our own had to have.
The mist had converted itself back into a hard rain, and the leech population had approved. I realized I’d picked up some more ‘friends’ when the pain of the previous wounds on my torso lessened. The new leeches were leaking a deadener into my damaged skin surfaces, acting more like symbiotes than the parasites they truly were. It was a bad deal, I thought grimly, trying to adjust myself to some position of partial comfort on the mudflat. I was uncomfortable but it was okay for the time being.
I crawled forward, sloughing my way through the top layer of watery mud, swirling loosely atop the deeper harder mud base of the river’s wide-flattened edge. The rain was ceaseless, and beat down upon my helmet like God was playing me as some sort of weird percussion instrument. I slithered around the back edge of the Ontos’s right track and then along the distance of its right side. The Ontos was facing the river directly and it took a few labored seconds to get all the way to the front of the track. The mechanical beast vibrated its dangerous existence through the mud, to let me know it was alive and idling, waiting to deliver whatever kind of awful death needed to be delivered.
The problem we faced was one that seemed to be a dilemma without a possible solution, given the tools and conditions at hand. The Ontos had to go with us if we were to cross the river, survive and keep the NVA from pursuing us. We had to cross the river because our welcome had worn so thin that the Gunny and I both knew we could not possibly survive the night, much less the next day, or longer, where we were. I lay in the mud, looking out over toward what I couldn’t really see well, but knew was there in front of me. The heaping waters of the fast-moving river, encountering the poorly laid portable bridge, shown shadowy white, as the moving water burst out over its surface. The river’s rush, and the rain coming down on my helmet, prevented me hearing the crashing sound the plunging water had to be making.
Another sound penetrated through all the rest, but it was felt rather than heard. The drums. The NVA had remounted their drums, probably up on top of the cliff to our rear, and the drums were intent on sending their message of doom. The Mexicans had played the Deguello outside the Alamo until it had fallen. Twenty-four hours a day. The effect had to have been similar to what I was feeling now, from the drums varying, but never-ending, vibrations of evil.
I knew Nguyen was just behind me and was surprised when he surged forward to pull himself up to view the river from right next to my shoulder. I turned my head but didn’t see Nguyen. It was Gunny. He stared outward like I had been doing, looking for something that might offer a solution to our life or death problem. I waited, hoping he’d see something, anything, but he just continued to wait and stare.
I looked back over my shoulder, feeling the achy sting of the voracious leech bites when I moved. The smell of the river was a relief from the fetid aroma of the jungle, mixed in with tendrils of sweetly sour stuff coming up from the mud. I felt that if I could just get clear of all of it, stand on some high rock somewhere naked, the rain would wash me clean, but I knew that was not to be.
Some small arms fire opened up from downriver, but I couldn’t see the tracks of any tracers, although the body of the Ontos blocked most of my view in that direction.
“Can’t stay here long, Junior,” the Gunny cautioned, needlessly, from my right.
I pulled myself forward until I was able to see around the right front track edge of the Ontos. I reached up with my left hand to find enough purchase to raise my torso so I could peer over a slight berm that lay between our position and the jungle, where the enemy fire had to be coming from. I knew, unless the A-6 Intruder was somewhere above us, that there would be no air support in the night. I called back along the edge of the Ontos for Fusner, and was surprised when I heard his reply come upward from someplace under the Ontos.
“Yes, sir,” came his muted response.
“Front and center, Corporal,” I ordered, wanting him out from under the armored vehicle, just as fast as I could get him out of there..
The Ontos could only rotate its turret thirty degrees in either direction. That meant that to aim the 106 recoilless rifles beyond that short arc, the Ontos would have to turn using its tracks. The last time we’d had the same problem, the crew had been able to release and reset two pins, allowing the turret to be rotated and set to swivel in a different thirty-degree arc, but the pins, once the turret was returned to battery, dropped and sealed into place. There would be no removing them from the thick armored metal without heavy duty drilling or torch equipment, and there was none fo that available in the valley, or even anything close. The left track since it would have to power the turn, would churn in reverse while the right would be moving forward. It was the only way the Ontos could turn left to face incoming fire if the driver and gunner felt it necessary, like if the .50 came back online. If the Ontos turned with Fusner underneath it then his remains might never be found, as they’d be so deeply ground into the mud.
Fusner surfaced and crawled around the right track to get to me. I ordered him to call in air support if we could get it. Whatever effort we made to get across the river would have a much higher chance of success if the enemy was either wholly or partially distracted by being forced to try to burrow back underground to survive.
I was about to let go of whatever I’d grabbed on the front of the Ontos when I felt the bar in my hand give and sway. I pulled and released, then grabbed the bar and pulled again. It took a few seconds for me to realize I’d grabbed onto a link of heavy chain. I moved to the front of the machine and ran my hands back and forth across the swinging arc of the chain. The front of the Ontos was covered in chain, but I’d never paid enough attention to notice. I slunk back down in order to avoid being a target, although the small arms fire from the jungle had abated. I stared out across the short distance toward the gray whiteness of the water rising up and then cascading down from the front area of the bridge.
I laid down flat on my stomach and eased over where the Gunny still lay, unmoving.
“How much can it pull?” I asked, in a heavy whisper, although there was no one to hide anything from.
“How much can what pull?” the Gunny replied, not whispering at all.
“The Ontos?” I said.
“How much can the Ontos pull?” the Gunny repeated, more to himself than to me. “How in hell would I know? It’s a tracked vehicle with some pretty low gears for getting out of tough situations. I’d imagine it could probably pull ten or twenty tons, depending on whether what you want to be towed was on wheels or not.”
I lay thinking. The idea had come out of nowhere. I’d held the chain in my hand and it was like it had spoken to me.
“The bridge,” the Gunny said, whispering loudly this time.
“Yeah, if we got enough chain,” I replied.
I smiled in the night, at about how quick the Gunny was. He’d figured out my plan as I had been developing it. If we could pull the bridge the rest of the way across the river then there might be a chance.
The Gunny moved, climbing to his knees, before calling Nguyen forward to help him. Nguyen was there like he’d been hovering above, just waiting to be dropped in when invited. Both men moved to the front of the Ontos and began to work the chain loose from the Ontos.
It took several minutes for them to get it free. I spent the time getting closer to Fusner and listening to his dialogue on the air radio. The back and forth went on for what seemed like a long time, although I doubted it was more than a few minutes. I didn’t need to wait for Fusner to tell me the result. The tenor of the conversation had been all one way. There would be no Puff, no A-6 Intruder, or any of that. Air Support was down for the night. The artillery 175’s could reach us, as I’d called them in before, but with us on the gun target line, fully exposed, receiving red bag rounds was more likely to assure that the company would be fully wiped out more quickly and effectively than if the looming NVA regiment was confronted in direct engagement.
“There’s enough, I think,” the Gunny said, moving low, back to my position flat on the mud. “I think the Ontos might be able to pull the bridge but I’m not sure, and then there’s the problem of the other end. If we pull too much then won’t the other end be caught by the current and swing around and over to our side?”
It was a rhetorical question, I knew. There was no way to know what might happen when the chain was attached and physical events were brought to their own conclusion.
“Getting it across…” I began, but the Gunny cut me off.
“We use a light line,” he said. “There’s one inside the Ontos, but somebody’s got to swim it over, and then pull the end of the heavy chain up onto the body of the bridge.”
My mind went instantly to the alligator I’d encountered earlier out in the center of the river. That one had gotten quickly dead, but there had to be a whole lot more lying down at the bottom of the rushing water waiting for prey. I also knew there was nobody else to make the swim whom I would trust, and I longingly wanted the cleanliness that the fast-moving water would provide, along with the cooling effect I knew it would have on me. I wasn’t worried a bit about going upriver, diving in to swim and then encounter the end of the bridge as I was being whisked downriver. I also wasn’t worried about getting up on the bridge from the water either. There were plenty of holds and torn away line segments left from previous crossings to alleviate that concern. Getting the chain pulled across and then up onto the flat deck was going to be a problem, however. It was heavy and the current was powerful. I mentioned the situation to the Gunny.
“Nguyen,” the Gunny replied. “Once the line is there, instead of pulling the chain we send Nguyen hand over hand using the line to join you. Both of you together should be able to manage it.”
My relief at hearing the solution was palpable and my breathing slowed, as I began to strip my uniform off. Nguyen I trusted. I also wondered why I had not thought of such a simple and effective resolution. I stayed close to the Ontos, realizing that my white skin would stand out in the night with the rain glistening its way down from the top of my head to my feet. I wasn’t going into the river with my uniform on. That was a recipe for suicide if the slightest thing went wrong. As soon as I was down to my underwear I pulled my boots off. I didn’t want to lose the boots but I could not swim with boots on. I had to count on Fusner to protect what I was leaving behind. My confidence was high, although the .45 Colt I’d promised never to be parted from again lay folded up in its holster inside my blouse, giving me a bit of uncomfortable pause. I would be basically naked and unarmed for the whole operation.
I was about to take the end of the line the Gunny was holding out when Nguyen grabbed me. He began rubbing the worst kind of river mud all over my body. The mud was so awful the rain didn’t wash it away, and the rancid smell of it was terrible. I had to keep blinking my stinging eyes, and breathing through my mouth. The Gunny gave up trying to hand me the line, instead squatted down to tie it about my waist.
“Hope we have enough rope, Junior,” he offered, the tone of his voice not at all convincing. “If you don’t make it on the first go around we’ll pull you in and you can try again.”
I didn’t answer, instead began moving upriver, staying as low as I could while still making good speed. I didn’t have far to go. The rope around my waist went taut after about forty meters. That distance upriver would have to do. Nguyen stayed right with me until I was ready. Without warning, I sprang fully erect, ran the few steps to the river’s edge and dived in. I didn’t go deep. The current was just too great. I flopped onto the surface of the water, and then was grabbed by it and dragged away. The speed of my travel was frightening. I didn’t have time to swim at all. I could only reach out as the end of the bridge seemed to rocket by. I caught a bit of ragged old rope right at the very last second when I thought for sure I would fail and be making a second attempt. My right arm was almost pulled from its socket, but I held on, the water tossing me back and forth, and then up and down. I held on for dear life, finally gaining enough strength to pull myself into the lee of the current behind the side of the bridge structure. I fought to find purchase on the metal edges and against the downpour of white rushing water. I was worried about cutting my bare feet up, but I made it up without injury. I got aboard the bridge and lay flat, gasping huge amounts of air, in and out of my lungs. I stayed flat on my back until I could roll over. I looked down at my body. I was totally white again. The river had taken the mud off like it had been a mere layer of water-color paint. If I stood I would become fairly visible, depending upon range. Laying there, I pulled the line firm, and jerked on it three times, before untying it from my waist and securing five loops and using a couple of half-hitches, around a nearby stanchion.
I lay and watched the water where the bent rope was dragged to form an arc by the downriver current. I could see nothing of the shore. The wait was short, however. Nguyen came across the water almost atop the rope, moving more like a giant water spider than a human. I didn’t have to help him, as he leaped upward and seemed to fly onto the surface of the bridge and catch hold unaided. We lay together, side by side. I wondered if I would ever be around a man like Nguyen again, attached to me in his strange way, in whatever I might have left as the existence in life if I was to have a life. The thought of my own mortality jarred me into action. I grabbed the rope and began pulling. Nguyen joined me on the other side of the line. We pulled slowly but strongly, feeling the weight of the chain, along with the jarring jerky resistance the current induced. The oscillating grew worse as the end of the chain came closer.
I finally saw the end of the chain surface and move toward us. I was relieved to see a D-ring shackle attached to the first link. I had begun to worry about securing the chain to the bridge, but the D-ring changed everything. The stanchion I’d used to tie off the rope had to be welded solidly to the bridge structure, possibly it could to take the kind of load we were about to put on it, but there was no guarantee.
Working as hard as we could, and trying not to have our hands lacerated by the bouncing jerking chain, Nguyen and I were able to get it wrapped once around the stanchion with some difficulty. While I held on for dear life, Nguyen unscrewed the shackle-bar and then inserted it between the first link and one further down. In seconds, the loop of the chain was secured. Only then did it occur to me that we had no communications with the Gunny, or Fusner, or anyone in the company, and they could not see what we had done. We waited together, but nothing happened.
I looked at Nguyen and nodded with a frown. There was nothing to be done for it, we had to use the chain to get back across to tell them the chain was on, but there was no sense risking both of us. I pointed at myself, and then the chain, and then across the water into the night. I crouched, slithered outward and went down the chain head first on the upriver side of it. The water secured me to the bouncing chain so solidly that I knew I wasn’t going to be torn loose, but moving down the chain, while still keeping my head above water proved difficult. After a few seconds, I relaxed, however. The cool water rushing over me was finally having the effect I’d wanted so badly. I was cool. I was clean and it seemed, at least as long as I clung to the chain, that I was safe. The going became easier as I slowed and got closer to the shore.
The Gunny and Fusner grabbed me and pried me loose from the chain.
“Nguyen?” the Gunny asked, looking out in the wet night toward where the bridge had to be.
Rather than respond, I crawled to the side of the Ontos, and worked to get my uniform back on, relieved that everything was just as I’d left it. I strapped the .45 to my waist and got my boots on. Each move gave me more comfort, although it also distanced me from the wonderful cooling freedom I’d enjoyed while in the grip of the river’s current. When I was done I went back down to a low crouching position.
“Nguyen’s on the bridge,” I said. “I told him to stay there and wait, or at least I think I told him that.”
“Let’s see if this thing’s going to work,” the Gunny said. “I let the men inside know about what we’re up to. None of them could tell me anything about our prospects.”
The Gunny moved to the back of the Ontos and worked on something. I checked out the attachment of the chain to the front of the Ontos. The vehicle had a huge ring welded to the very center of its hull. Nothing could have served as a better attachment point for the chain. Slowly the chain pulled up from the mud, as the Ontos clattered into gear and ground it’s way backward. The chain grew taut. Soon the chain was so taut that the part I could see was a straight line into the night. The Ontos stopped, although its small engine continued to roar. Nothing more happened.
“Can’t do it?” I asked, turning back to face the Gunny.
“Wait,” the Gunny replied, blowing out smoke from a cigarette he’d somehow found time to light.
He took two more hits from the cigarette before anything happened.
The Ontos moved backward very slowly, the movement so slow it seemed almost imperceptible.
“Mud,” the Gunny said, laconically.
Slowly the Ontos continued to move, faster and faster until it stopped again. I turned to the river, and then got to my hands and knees and crawled forward, feeling the enemy drums beats come up through my hands once more, and regretting the mud that I was again covering myself with. I crawled until I ran into the edge of the bridge, noting in amazement that the body of the thing had plunged slightly downward, as it had likely encountered some eaten-out portion of the bank. The Ontos would be able to drive right on board.
I crabbed myself backward to where Fusner waited, got my pack on and prepared for the crossing. One of Jurgens’ Marines came running up to tell me that the Gunny was holding a command post meeting. I thought the use of the phrase strange, as formalities had all but disappeared in the combat at the bottom of the A Shau. I kept my pack on but headed a bit upriver to where the Gunny was squatting and waiting for me to appear. I got down and pulled my helmet off, the rain now light enough to not be such a torturing bother on my skull, and wanting to hear what it was the Gunny had to say.
“Junior’s plan is for the company to cross the bridge first, and then set up a base of fire up and down on the far bank,” the Gunny said, while Sugar Daddy, Jurgens and then I, crouched in front of him. “There are still plenty of fox holes left over there so we shouldn’t have to dig in. Kilo crosses last, leaving it to us to make sure they have plenty of protection to make it on such an exposed run. The Ontos crosses right after us and before Kilo, to add to the base of fire from the far side.”
I was surprised at the plan, particularly the part about where it was seemingly my idea, since I’d gotten used to being the one to deliver my plans to everyone around. I was also a bit uncomfortable that the plan seemed too smoothly set up and delivered like the details had been pre-planned earlier. A tingling sensation stayed with me when the men broke apart. The plan sounded good, almost too good.
“What was that?” I asked the Gunny, once everyone was gone, preparing to make the crossing.
“What was what?” he asked, getting his pack on with the assistance of his own radioman.
“Why isn’t the Ontos crossing first, and then everyone just following as fast as they possibly can?” I asked.
“The enemy knows what we’re doing,” the Gunny said. “There’s no small arms fire anymore because they’re getting ready to attack. The NVA figured out what we’re up to and they’re coming, and right now.”
The Gunny turned and loped off toward the bridge without another word. His pronouncement that the NVA was coming had instantly brought my own fear bubbling up from the abyss where it had been waiting all along. Something was wrong, but whatever it was didn’t register on me. I ran toward the bridge and to escape to the other side, closing fast on the Gunny’s back. Fusner ran with me, Nguyen joining in as we ran by. I was happy to see the Montagnard, yet sorry that I hadn’t had another thought about him being left alone on the bridge since I’d left him.
The run across the bridge was without incident, except for the six-foot jump down onto the surface of the far bank once we were across. The mud and sand softened the fall, but once again, I was covered in mud and debris when I got back up. The platoons crossed and spread out, as the Gunny had laid down in presenting ‘my’ plan, although going back down on the jungle matting and wet surface of the more substantial ground beneath me, allowed the tingling feeling that something was wrong to rise again to the surface. I heard the Ontos. It creaked along, invisible at the other end of the bridge until it was more than halfway across. It slowly came across out of the night. Near the end of the bridge, where the drop-off was too severe to allow it to continue, the machine stopped. I noted that the crew had turned the armored vehicle around before they’d come onto the bridge, so that the flechette-loaded recoilless rifles pointed back toward the other side of the river.
Small arms fire on the other side started almost immediately, with green tracers streaming up from the downriver part of the jungle. Taking in the scene, marginally illuminated by the tracer fire, the situation came together in my mind. The Ontos could not traverse to fire at that part of the jungle where the firing came from. The supporting fires the company had set up on our side could not see across the river to provide fire support of almost any kind. The Ontos could not complete its journey until some sort of short supporting structure could be built to support its descent to the bank below. And the Ontos was blocking the end of the bridge, quite effectively, for the Marines in Kilo Company who would be attempting to run across and around it.
“You son of a bitch,” I whispered, my voice so low nobody could hear.
The Gunny was sacrificing Kilo to save our own company and the Ontos. Not only that, he’d known what he was doing, as had Jurgens and Sugar Daddy when he’d laid down what he’d called ‘my’ plan.
I got up and ran downriver, in the direction the Gunny had taken. I ran calling his name out loud. I got more than thirty meters before I was pulled down.
“Shut up, Junior, you’re just making a target of yourself,” the Gunny whispered intently into my right ear, while his hand pushed harshly down over my mouth.
I relaxed, as best I could, breathing deeply through my nose until the Gunny’s hand eased away.
“What have you done?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.
“There was no other way,” the Gunny replied. “The Ontos has to stay on station to prevent the NVA from crossing. Most of the guys from Kilo should make it. What did you want me to do, sacrifice the company instead, or maybe everyone?”
“Why didn’t we all just cross immediately?” I replied, trying to control my voice.
The NVA .50 caliber opened up, firing enfilade fire up from the jungle and straight along the line of the river, sweeping across the bank of the far side. I saw the stream of the green stuttering line before I heard the steady staccato roar of the thing.
“How are they supposed to get through that?” I said, my voice rising again.
“I don’t know,” the Gunny said, refusing to look me in the eyes.
“We’ve got to do something,” I said, finally watching while the enemy had to be inflicting massive losses on Kilo.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, my shoulders slumping, trying to will the .50 to stop firing.
The drums beat, their sound now able to be heard as the rain had lifted somewhat, the sound of the drums and the drumming of the .50. The running abandoned Marines of Kilo had to be taking a terrible terminal beating.
“Because you’d still be over there, and dead,” the Gunny replied.
“What can we do?” I asked, but the Gunny was gone.
Fusner looked at me, as did Nguyen, as if I might have some magical plan to save Kilo, but I had nothing. I stared into the green tracer-tarnished night. There were no yellow tracers being fired from our side of the river. There was no point. I shivered, experiencing a kind of pain I’d never felt before. It went beyond and right through the cloying ache of white-hot fear that had once more risen to paralyze and terrify me, to the point where I didn’t think I could handle it anymore.