I crawled to the lip of the berm and fell straight into an empty hole that had to be six feet deep if it was an inch. Fusner cascaded down upon me with Nguyen slipping down next to him. The sound of the drums and the NVA fifty followed us right down into the bottom of the hole. The Ontos was not firing because it was set up with its flechette loaded rifles aimed to cover the bridge, which meant it could not fire at all until the area was clear of whatever survivors there might be from Kilo company trying to get across the bridge. I could not ignore the rapid thumping of the fifty-caliber. It was like each explosion, powering each round, ate into my very being. I climbed to see what I could see from the top of the hole, but the night consumed almost everything except the ceaseless arc of green tracers coming from the 50.
I ached to call in a 175 mm howitzer mission. The company was dug in, but the material of the bank consisted of soft and loamy dried mud. Even dug in, the protection the fox holes provided was next to nothing when pound-sized chunks of hot torn metal would surely be flying around. All of I could think of was how to stop the .50 caliber from decimating Kilo even more than it already had. I could see nothing of the far bank. Even the water heaping up and flying over the top of the upside-down Russian tank was invisible, although I knew it was still there. The scene burned into my mind, almost as if it was lit by huge Hollywood Klieg lights, although there was next to nothing for me to really ‘see.’ I stared into the dark, listening to the machine gun fire, the horrible drums, and feeling a sense of loss and guilt so powerfully that I could not move. I was not frozen in terror. I’d been frozen in terror before. I was frozen by something else I couldn’t understand. I was frozen by a raw cloying agony of not wanting to be alive anymore. I’d been in the A Shau Valley for about three weeks, and I’d retreated up, down and back and forth through it more times than I could count. I had not planned or provided for this, the worst retreat of my life, with any kind of an active or passive thought at all. I realized that I’d thrown myself into being too busy working out a technical problem to pay attention to the fact that the stupendous size and potential effects of the overall situation needed to fully occupy me, and not the detail. Anyone in the company capable could have made the swim out to the bridge, but I’d wanted to do it myself. Anyone could have worked with the Gunny to secure the chain, and then supervised the Ontos bridge operation, but I’d enjoyed the brush blocking avoidance and temporary escape it gave me instead of paying attention to what was happening on the larger scale. I’d led nobody anywhere, instead I allowed myself to be diverted, or in reality, diverted myself from what I should have been doing, and consequently, nearly a whole company of men was having to pay for my potential failure to pay attention with their lives.
I stared fixedly out at the end of the bridge, where the Ontos sat, not twenty feet from the rear edge. Twenty feet. My mind rolled the number I’d come up with out of the blue, around and around in my head. The distance I was approximating for the Ontos to reach the end of the bridge was about the same distance that the bridge was wide. I knew the Ontos was a bit less than ten feet wide itself.
“Get the Gunny on his radio,” I commanded Fusner, without turning, my mind running at top speed, calculating distances and measuring the potential for effects if my formulating plan was to be implemented.
“The Gunny,” Fusner said, holding out the microphone.
“We turn the Ontos on top of the bridge, right where it is, and then take out that fifty,” I said into the mike, without introduction or preamble.
“Interesting idea, Junior,” the Gunny transmitted back, “but I’m not sure the surface of the bridge will tolerate how much gripping friction the tracks will put down in the turning. The surface of that thing is wood and not that thick of wood either. The Ontos weighs ten tons, or a bit more.”
“It’s not an idea, Gunny,” I shot back. “We’re not going to leave those guys to die over there. The .50 has them pinned down so the NVA can take them out one at a time. They’ll all die slowly on that river bank and that’s not going to happen unless we lose everything, including the Ontos. Turn the Ontos or I’ll take my scout team back onto that bridge and make it happen right now.”
As if to punctuate my order, the .50 opened up again, after being silent for a few seconds, the gunner probably having to put in a new ammo belt.
“If the bridge comes apart then there’ll be real hell to pay,” the Gunny replied, “and the Marines in the Ontos are not going to want to turn it, even when you order it. They’re sitting up on top of that bridge staring into that moving current they won’t survive falling into, and they know it. They have the Browning mounted on top but all it will do, if they use it, well draw fire from the .50.”
I let the exchange fall into silence while I thought. The Gunny had said that the Ontos crew would be reacting to my order, which meant that either he had merely been using a figure of speech or that he was not intending to force or back my order if it came to that. The crew was also likely refusing to man the Browning, which made sense but still did not improve the situation at all, or make me predisposed to feel anything but more anger. I wanted to get to the bridge, climb up the back and man the Browning myself, but that would simply be more of my avoidance in trying to handle the overall nightmare myself.
“You know where I am, come,” I said, then handed the handset back to Fusner.
“I want the Starlight Scope back up and operational,” I ordered, for the first time truly missing the fact that I had no scout sergeant or any real scout team members left.
That lack illustrated just how I could not do without the constant attention, and even companionship, that Fusner provided. I could not afford to be sending him out to perform necessary administrative details or on missions to assemble equipment or personnel.
“I need somebody to operate the scope and I need that Marine able to mount that scope on his rifle and provide sniper fire across the river.” I turned to make sure Fusner had gotten the gist of my message, but he was already gone.
The noise of the combat going on across the river penetrated everything and everywhere, along with the beating of the drums and the variations of sound the nearby rushing waters constant made in the foreground. I had not heard Fusner climb out nor the Gunny slip down into the hole with me.
“I need a scout sergeant and some men for the team,” I said, once I realized he was there, making no mention of what I saw as our cowardly debacle of a retreat across the river. We were committed, and there could be no going back. The only thing to be done was to lend as much support to Kilo as was possible with what we had. Kilo was a Marine company, and Captain Carruthers commanding it was no slouch himself, so there was hope, but the company could not move under fire in the open with a .50 having a complete and total field of fire between the trapped Marines and firing across an entire expanse of the open flat bridge deck and the mud flat extending out from it. Kilo could do nothing about the .50 but I felt we could.
“There was nothing else to be done,” the Gunny unaccountably said. “No plan of yours, no matter how brilliant some of them have been, could have saved the situation here. Without the Ontos we can’t keep the NVA from crossing the river, and losing it would be the end of everything.”
I stared at the man, although I could not see the Gunny’s eyes because the poor light was insufficient to make out any of his facial features.
“How long is the Ontos?” I asked, ignoring the fact that the Gunny had not responded to my previous order.
“Around thirteen feet, I think,” the Gunny answered. “What’s your point?”
“You know damn well what my point is Gunny,” I responded right back. “That leaves about five, maybe six, feet for the men of Kilo to move past it on the bridge when it is turned to face the jungle.”
“If we lose the Ontos, we lose everything, Junior, and I don’t want to risk it,” the Gunny said.
“I’m not leaving Kilo over there to die,” I replied. “They can’t make it through the night. The .50 will keep them pinned down, and the NVA, probably not long from now, will simply crawl across the mud flat and take them out one by one, or in small groups.”
“You don’t know that,” the Gunny said, his voice low but even and well- modulated. He lit a cigarette I hadn’t seen him holding, or getting from his blouse pocket. “Jurgens’ Marines alone won’t let you get up on the bridge and force the crew to make that potentially deadly turn. The top of that the bridge is wood, and the wood’s not exactly new. I don’t want to see the men of Kilo die any more than you do, but saving the company has to be our first priority.”
I unstrapped my pack and rummaged around in the dark, finally pulling out Jurgens’ flashlight. I hit the button on the side, and a very slight illumination filled the foxhole. I looked into the Gunny’s eyes.
“Jurgens,” I replied, my voice nearly a whisper. “I noticed Jurgens was carrying a weapon slung over his shoulder at your little command post meeting over there. I’ve never seen him carry anything but an M-16. I wonder about the 5.56 mm hole made in one of our Marine’s back, back when Jurgens carried an M-16.”.
The Gunny smoked for almost a full minute, the puffs coming at about fifteen-second intervals. Jurgens’ flashlight dimmed and then brightened. I knew the batteries were on their last few seconds but held it steady at my side, waiting.
“There’s no autopsy in this valley, you might have noticed,” the Gunny said between puffs. “There no Uniform Code of Military Justice, either, and the Rules of Engagement we were all supposed to be given were somehow missing back in the rear with the gear. Jurgens has served faithfully and we can’t do without him. What do you want to do? Ask for his sidearm? What about the Marines that follow him? Are they supposed to turn in their weapons too? You’ll get your scout sergeant, and probably from Jurgens’ platoon but the Ontos should not be turned. The survivors of Kilo can get by it easily where it is. If the Ontos is pointed downriver its gun will not be able to traverse to cover the other end of the bridge. The Marines of this company all know that.”
I waited to see if the Gunny was done. I noted that he wasn’t offering his cigarette to me. Cold blooded murder of ‘friendlies’ continued in the company, although somewhat lessened by the introduction of all tracer ammunition for the M-16s. The Gunny was right. There was nothing I could do about what Jurgens, for reasons unknown, had done to Macho Man. I’d suspected Jurgens and the fact that his motivation to take out Macho Man was ridiculous, and probably only about his getting the Thompson. I no longer had any doubts, following the Gunny’s tacit admission, without any real admission. The .45 Thompson had turned up, slung from Jurgens’ shoulder, as I had been certain it would turn up in the killer’s hands. The company was in deep trouble, however, and I knew the Gunny was right. I also knew that he knew that I would not let the matter rest when and if our situation grew less dire. I noticed Nguyen crouched down in the farthest corner of the hole, almost blending completely in with the mud. His dark inscrutable eyes stared up at me, unblinking. I stared back. Nguyen nodded slightly. I didn’t know what the nod meant, but I was willing to bet almost everything that Jurgens would soon pay for the acquisition of the Thompson he’d killed to get.
But Kilo was in worse trouble than we were and something had to be done. Fusner was back, sliding into the hole alongside the Gunny.
“Get Captain Carruthers on the combat net,” I ordered.
“Hold on,” the Gunny interjected.
“Hold on for what?” I asked, in surprise.
“What are you going to tell him?” the Gunny asked, and I knew right away that he was really asking me what I intended to do.
“If that crew won’t turn the Ontos, then I’m going to tell Carruthers to dig in as deep as he can. The NVA are probably very exposed, as they get ready to assault across the mud bed. When I call in the 175s Kilo will have a much better chance of surviving than if we leave them at the mercy of the fifty and coming attack.”
“You mean if I don’t turn the Ontos you’ll call the artillery, don’t you, Junior?” the Gunny asked, flicking his cigarette down into the mud at the bottom of our hole.
“I guess it really is your call Gunny,” I replied, taking my helmet off and brushing my matted down short hair with one hand.
“What in the hell do we do, even if the Ontos turns and takes out the fifty, about the fact that we won’t have it to stop the NVA from crossing the bridge?” the Gunny asked. “You expect that thing to grind its way back into battery and face the mud flat again once it deals with the .50? One turn it might make. The wood might hold, but it won’t hold for two maneuvers like that. It weighs ten tons.”
“Sir, Corporal Dobbs is just outside waiting,” Fusner said. “He’s got the scope and he says its working fine with a new battery. He’s got it attached to his M-16, but he’s never fired the gun with the scope on it so he doesn’t know how long it will take for him to get his dope down to be at all accurate.”
“He doesn’t have to be completely accurate,” I replied. “The range is fifty meters or less, and he can adjust fire as the NVA come onto the other end of the bridge.”
“You think that’s enough?” the Gunny asked, although I detected a slight tone of derision in his tone. “One M-16 on select fire, and you think it can hold the bridge through the night against a regiment?”
“The Greeks did it just fine thousands of years ago,” I replied, wondering if the Gunny was familiar with the battle at Thermopylae, where 300 Greeks had held a narrow-controlled pass against thousands of gathered Persian soldiers.
“That’s the name of your new plan?” the Gunny asked. “Thermopylae? You need a better name. Our Marines will giggle all night long if you use that Greek shit on them.”
“So, you’re going to order the Ontos to turn?” I came back, surprised that the Gunny might be giving in too easily and too soon, although his comment giving away the fact that he was angry and irritated to his core.
“We can’t take a heavy hit from the 175s and you know it. If the Ontos turns successfully, and the flechette rounds can take out the .50, or at least shut it the hell up, and Dobbs and that damned science fiction scope can stop the NVA, then we have a chance.”
“You believe I’d really call in the 175s?” I asked for no good reason I could think of.
“I believe that you’re not the kid who dropped out of the night a month ago,” the Gunny replied, bitterness in the tone of his voice. “I believe you’re not quite right, and I think you damn well know it, so I don’t know what you might do.”
“Are you going to call the men manning the Ontos?” I asked again, trying to take in what the Gunny had said, but having some difficulty.
“You’re plan seems idiotic to me,” the Gunny said, “but then, half your damned plans have seemed impossibly idiotic to me. Admittedly, some of them worked, but I don’t trust that damned scope, along with the known fact that Dobbs is as nutty as you, but then what can you expect from a Marine who’s been in the valley half a year? He might do great or he might be terrible. I hope you just may be wrong about the bridge being able to hold when the Ontos turns. Everything rests on that turn. What makes you so sure the bridge won’t just break apart and fall into that abyss of a rotten river? If the Ontos tears the thing apart, then Kilo has no chance at all, although it would certainly leave no way for the NVA to cross the water.”
“Tex,” I replied, the flashlight dying as the word left my mouth.
The dark was stygian and I could see nothing.
“Tex,” I repeated. “I can’t do better than that. It’s built Tex tough or he wouldn’t have brought it this far down the valley in one piece.” As I said the words, I reflected on the Gunny’s last sentence and understood why he was giving in. If the bridge was lost the company was saved. The Gunny wasn’t just willing to sacrifice Kilo, he was also willing to sacrifice the Ontos crew.
“Right,” the Gunny said, his exasperation reaching out through the darkness toward me. “This damned well better work is all I have to say.”
“Bring Dobbs down,” I ordered Fusner.
“Yes, sir,” Fusner replied, “and I think it’s a good plan sir, and Thermopylae has a neat sound to it.”
Fusner took only a few seconds to climb out of the hole and bring Dobbs back with him. The darkness was broken only by the weak rays from the dying flashlight so I could barely see the corporal.
“You think you can use that thing to hit anyone trying to come onto the far side of the bridge, corporal?” I asked.
“Yes, sir,” Dobbs replied, in a gravelly voice that sounded much older than his young years had to be.
“Good, get set up on the lip of this hole and draw a bead on the other end,” I ordered. “The weather’s bad and I know that effects how good the scope can operate, but we have to try.”
“Nah, the scope’s affected alright, but not a whole lot at that short distance,” the man replied, reassuringly. The rain is there but not that heavy. Just trying to keep the glass clear at this end is more difficult. I got a couple of boxes of regular ball ammo though, and I know you don’t like us to shoot that.”
“Why ball ammo?” I asked.
“I don’t want to give away our position if I start dinging their guys,” Dobbs came back. “The NVA’s mighty crafty and they catch on real quick.”
The more Dobbs talked the better I felt, at least about that part of my plan.
“Get the scope set up on its tripod before you transfer it over to the barrel clamps,” I ordered. “I want to be able to see the Ontos on the bridge just as quickly as you can get set up. And I think using tracer rounds is a better idea. The hits will register the end of the bridge. If I direct four M-60 fire teams to concentrate on the end of that bridge, then every time you fire a round they can open up. You might not be able to stop a mass charge, but they sure as hell can. It will expose us to fire when the NVA figures it out, but we’re pretty dug in here.”
It took almost no time for Dobbs to get the Starlight rig set up. He stepped backward until I felt his body squeeze on my own.
“Have a look, sir,” Dobbs said, and I didn’t miss the uncommon use of the word ‘sir’ he used to address me.
I peered with my right eye pressed into the rubber grommet protecting the rear lens of the device. The objective lens out front, near the other end of the scope, had a tube extending out from it to prevent the rain from destroying any chance of seeing anything. The field of view, when looking through the scope, was pretty narrow, as I’d experienced in the past. Unless you knew where you wanted to look with the thing, then you were likely to sweep all over the place and see nothing of consequence. But, in this case, Dobbs had sighted the tube in so when I looked into the magnifying lens I was staring at the other end of the bridge. I could not shake the feeling that I should be looking at the scene with the scope resting on Zippo’s gently heaving back.
The green image of the end of the bridge was not clear but it would do for using as a sniper scope. There was no one trying to get on the bridge as I looked because the .50 was still active, although its volume of fire had dropped considerably, probably in preparation of the infantry attack. The .50 was there to pin Kilo down, while the soon to be attacking troops would attack to kill them.
I moved the scope slightly to guide the view back along the bridge toward the near end where the Ontos squatted without moving. I was surprised to see a tendril of smoke coming up out of its rear end. The Ontos was idling. The scope picked up the strangest things that were entirely invisible to the unaided eye. I saw three crawling Marines approaching the machine from the rear. I wondered whether the Gunny had had to send a convincing squad up onto the bridge to convince the crew to turn the thing.
The enemy had spotted the movement, as well, because the .50 raked the water and the side of the bridge with a pounding spray of fire. I watched the lead Marine rise up and open the back doors of the Ontos and then disappear. The other two Marines lay flat. I wasn’t sure how the NVA had seen the team at all, but they somehow had, which meant that they also had someone very close to bridge or on it and in communication. The NVA did not have a Starlight Scope or an equivalent if there was such a thing. The Marine who’d gone in leaped out and then went down to join his companions, lying flat on the wood surface. The armored back doors of the Ontos closed, no doubt pulled shut from the inside. I sucked in my breath at what I saw next. The lead Marine brought his weapon up, as all three began to slither backward toward the drop off to the river bank at the back edge of the bridge.
There was no doubt that the weapon was a .45 Thompson. Jurgens. Jurgens had led the effort to get the Ontos to turn. I breathed in and out deeply, watching their rearward movement until they went over the lip one by one, Jurgens going over last, looking out for his men. I sighed to myself. Every time I wanted to flat out kill the man, he did something of extraordinary merit or valor or saved my life.
The engine of the Ontos revved up to the point where I could hear it while staring through the scope. Slowly, the machine turned to allow its 106 rifles to point downriver. The turn was smooth and without sound. I wondered if the wet wood was serving as a good lubricant for such a maneuver. I had expected some drama, but there was none. The .50, and all small arms fire from the enemy stopped completely. Except for the sound of the rain and river, nothing came back from across the river. Suddenly, I jerked back, turned and climbed from the hole, yelling at Fusner to get the Gunny on the net. All hell was about to break loose when the NVA realized they could rush the Marines of Kilo while also coming at the other end of the bridge. The Ontos might shut down the .50, which it obviously had, but that left open the gate of hell that could lead the enemy across the river.
I laid down immediately on the flat muddy surface of the berm, my movement bringing the pain of open leech wounds on my back. I grimaced but reached for the handset Fusner had already extended out to me. He wisely kept his body down in the hole, only the very top of his wet helmet and extended arm showing at all.
“Tell Dobbs to get the scope mounted on top of his sixteen,” I ordered, before talking into the handset.
I quickly informed the Gunny, using the radio, of the change in the plan, to have Dobbs mark the spot, indicate when there was enemy movement and then let the M-60s do the real work. The crews had to be told what was happening and what their job was, however.
“Call Carruthers and tell his radio operator what’s going on. Kilo has to be ready to move and move fast,” I ordered
In seconds, Marines of our own company began moving around me. I wanted two of the machine guns to be angled in from upriver positions and the other two from downriver. Four M-60s could rain down 2400 rounds per minute on the end of the bridge if they all fired at once.
The Gunny crawled up next to me. “I was right nearby, all you had to do was whistle,” he said. “It’s Thermopylae all over again.”
“I think you mean déjà vu all over again,” I replied, waiting to hear that Dobbs had his rifle ready and ready to fire.
“What’s Deja vu?” the Gunny asked.
I made no reply, mildly wondering why I had said what I said at all.
“I’m going over to the upriver gun emplacement and Jurgens is coming here to join you,” the Gunny said. “Communication is going to be everything on this because only Dobbs can see anything.”
“The Ontos made the turn,” I whispered across the few feet separating us.
“The risk was too great,” the Gunny replied, also in a forced whisper.
“The Ontos made the turn,” I repeated, this time without whispering.
The Gunny was gone, I realized. I had not seen or heard him leave, but I knew he wasn’t there anymore.