The Ontos sat on the bridge, it’s dull presence barely visible across the distance, through the murk of the rainy night, with only the slight radiance of a full moon shining on clouds unseen above. I waited, as the battlefield in front of me across the fore drop of the river remained quiet. The .50 had not opened up again, and small arms fire had become non-existent. Dobbs peered through the Starlight Scope, the device now mounted atop his M-16, which was set to selective semi-automatic fire in order to shoot the first NVA soldier injudicious enough to attempt to cross the bridge. Captain Carruthers waited for me to transmit the order for Kilo to begin making the crossing.
“Now,” I said into the microphone Fusner placed in my waiting hand.
“Make sure you can tell the difference between our Marines and the NVA in this atmospheric crap,” I said to Dobbs, hunched over next to me.
“Atmospheric crap,” Dobbs repeated. “I like the sound of that.”
I could not help wanting to smile, but I didn’t. The fear, the guilt, the hope and the angst of it all made me wooden inside, unable to demonstrate the least emotion. I could move my body freely, give orders, discuss the plan or whatever was necessary, but I could not express anything close to real feelings, although they roiled up inside me. Between giving the order for Kilo to advance to and across the bridge, and their actually initiating action, my insides were all about emotion, but not about the company or the situation we were involved in. I thought of my wife and home, and how I had neither written nor sent anything in days. I felt my connection to the ‘world’ pulling away from me, like some soft but giant rubber band stretching itself to the limit until some breaking point was reached at some unpredictable time in the near future.
“Where the hell are they?” the Gunny said from back over my shoulder.
The Gunny was supposed to be supervising his two fire teams to make sure they laid their fire down on whatever bridge end position Dobbs identified with his own single tracers.
“Wait,” was all I could think to respond.
I tried to think about why the Gunny was so on edge, given that he rarely showed any emotion at all.
“Jurgens,” I said.
“Jurgens?” the Gunny asked.
“Send him back to the Ontos,” I whispered. “The Browning .30 sits unmanned on the top of the turret. It’s got plenty of ammo and the thing is less than fifty meters from the end of the bridge. There is no way any enemy, no matter how big, can charge directly into a Browning .30 caliber and survive.”
“With the M-60s and the NVA .50 that can open up anytime, sending someone over to stand and man the .30 is a near-suicide mission,” the Gunny stated, flatly.
I didn’t answer, instead turned my head to talk to Dobbs.
“You are named after the lead character in Treasure of Sierra Madre?” I asked him.
“Last name is Dobbs,” he replied, after a few seconds. “British.”
“We don’t need no stinking’ badges,” I quoted from the movie, trying to ignore the fact that the Gunny, although he had not spoken again, also had not departed to give the order to Jurgens to proceed to the Ontos.
"' I don’t need a badge,’ is the proper quote, sir,” Dobbs replied, his voice showing no emotion. “The line you quoted is made up, not the real line from the movie.”
My opinion of Dobbs went up, once again. I didn’t know the real lines from the movie but I presumed Dobbs, with his last name, had heard plenty about in his lifetime.
“This is about the Thompson, isn’t it?” the Gunny whispered into my right ear, as I turned my head back, still trying to see into the unseeable darkness. The Thompson. It was not about the Thompson, as the Gunny damn well knew, and I knew that he knew. It was about Macho Man and his rather obvious murder, but there was no point arguing about it where we were.
“I want him to man that .30 caliber, and then lay down about thirty or forty rounds right into the bank near the end of the bridge as a signal to Carruthers and Kilo.
“So, he not only has to set himself up to get killed, all by himself up on top of the Ontos, but he’s also going to have to reveal his position in doing so?’
“If he lives, I’ll let it go,” I whispered back.
“Big of you,” the Gunny replied, but he moved away and let the words fade behind him.
I wasn’t certain at all that I would or could let Jurgens live after the Macho Man incident. The whole company had to know what had happened. If I had learned one thing about a Marine Company in combat it was that everyone lived or died based upon how each and every other Marine felt about the value of keeping someone on the planet. I could not show any of my Marines disrespect, either in public or in private, and I could not afford to allow any of the Marines to show me disrespect either. There was no command in combat, there was only the exercise of leadership where it was allowed, and death, which was everywhere and always immediately available.
“Sergeant Jurgens is climbing back up on the back of the bridge, or at least I think it is him,” Dobbs commented, drawing my attention back to what he was seeing through the Starlight Scope.
I had not crawled down to the two holes nearby where the southernmost M-60s were supposed to be emplaced to fire on the end of the bridge when it came to be time. I knew without having to check that Jurgens would have properly prepared the fire teams he was responsible for. That fact illustrated the infernal part of dealing with a Jurgens. The man performed under the harshest of circumstance, and so did his Marines.
“Get me Carruthers,” I said over and down to Fusner.
Once more the microphone appeared up and out from the hole.
“Give me the six actual,” I said when the captain’s radio operator responded.
“Captain, you need to move out on the signal,” I said. “You’ll get that from the Ontos in a couple of minutes. If the .50, or anyone else, opens up on you the Ontos will begin to fire and not stop until the enemy is in pieces. You’re going to have a ton of supporting fire, over,” I transmitted, and then waited.
The message I’d sent was stilted and dramatic, just in case, the enemy was listening in.
“Ten-four, lieutenant,” Carruthers sent back. “Rear action is going to be vital as I don’t imagine it’s going to be really easy to tell us apart.”
The captain was thinking Kilo’s dash to safety through, I knew. Only his Marines would be able to tell anyone apart from anyone else, so they would have to do just that when they made their run. The conditions also make it likely, in the night, the rain and with all the sounds of drums, fire, and river, that it was very likely that some NVA troops would get across if they attempted to do so, and I knew in my core that they were going to try.
“I’m going to cross last, lieutenant,” Carruthers transmitted.
The microphone dangled in my hand, as I waited to give it back to Fusner. The captain was going to be a real company commander and get his men over or die in the process. After only days in combat, the man had more moxy than I would probably ever have, and certainly more naked courage. I decided I’d have to write home to my wife about the captain, although I could not and would not compare myself to him. The captain had never run or hidden in any holes to avoid combat or leadership in combat conditions. He was from a different school than I was. A school I craved to be from.
Kilo began crossing the bridge with no warning. The radio traffic had become non-existent. Battalion wanted to know what was going on but nobody was responding because nothing was going to come from the battalion that could provide anything at all to help the situation. I knew Carruthers wasn’t communicating with them either, simply from the shrill demands made by battalion radio operators, as described by Fusner. Battalion had five instead of four companies and one of those companies was strictly a paperwork company in the rear area. That meant that half of the battalion’s entire strength was totally at risk down in the A Shau Valley.
The Marines crossed in fire team sized groups, three and four at a time. They ran to the bridge and then went down to a combat low crawl across the fully exposed and flat surface of the wood cover of the structure. It only took a few minutes for the enemy to open up but they didn’t do so with the .50 as we’d expected. They opened up with RPG rockets, none of which were directed at the Marines of Kilo. All of them were aimed at the Ontos.
The distance was great for the rockets. They had to fire from the jungle area downriver, which meant that the rockets had to travel almost six hundred meters to reach the bridge. The maximum effective firing range of the Chinese made weapons was only seven hundred meters, although the rockets if launched at a steep enough angle, could actually travel eleven or twelve hundred. The RPGs fired one after another in rapid sequence. I counted six. The thin white lines of their rocket exhaust came out of billowing white burning clouds the weapons threw up behind them. Several rockets came near the Ontos but none struck it directly.
The Ontos wasted no time hitting back. The RPGs made noise when they launched but nothing like the 106 rifles of the Ontos. The Ontos crew first fired their .50 caliber spotting rifle shots very quickly. The yellow .50 tracers ignited about halfway to the jungle and then homed right into the clouds of backblast still visible from the rockets explosive launch. Three 106 rounds left the barrels of the Ontos with a single sound so loud it caused my ears to ring. I flicked my eyes downrange and was rewarded with three great explosions occurring right at the very edge of the jungle. That edge was visible for only seconds in the flash thrown out when the rounds simultaneously exploded. I knew then why the crew had fired off all the spotter rounds first. They’d been gauging the range to the exhaust plumes and then setting the fuses for the flechette rounds to explode just short of those plumes.
There was no more fire from the NVA position. The Ontos continued to fire spotting rounds, its tracers reaching out to other parts of the jungle as if to inquire as to whether there was anyone left alive there to fire at.
Kilo’s Marines continued to come across. Dobbs reported what he saw in a constant series of whispers, endearing him to me, even though some of what he said I missed because the rockets, and then the Ontos fire, had hurt my ears again.
I was worried about what had to be coming. There was no missing the small arms fire that was growing in volume from straight across the river. The NVA didn't’ use tracers in its AK-47 weapons, as a matter of normal combat load, so there was nothing much to see through the night and murky rain. Only Dobb’s scope could penetrate the dark soup.
My worry was that Kilo’s surviving Marines were being herded to the bridge while under attack. The ground ‘attack’ was more designed to allow the NVA to mix in with the running Marines, and then cross the bridge using them as cover. That conclusion didn’t seem logical at first, until the weather, the night, and the covering sounds of the river and the gunfire were considered. That, plus the obvious fact that the Starlight scope was not clear enough under the conditions to be able to tell one dark running figure from another. The confusion down on the bridge, and just to the far side of it, had to be terrorizing and near-total, for both Kilo’s Marines and any NVA soldiers trying to use them to cross.
I realized too late that the Starlight Scope and the M-60 positions we’d set up were great, theoretically but could not work in practice. In practice, if Dobbs fired at the end of the bridge because he could see it, then the M-60 fire teams would open up blind. They’d use their tracers to adjust fire and make a beaten zone out of the whole far side of the bridge. That would take out many Kilo Marines right along with any enemy soldiers. The problem was that even Dobbs could not tell the difference between the moving men. I knew the fear that lodged inside each of my Marines core. I knew it because I shared it. My Marines would fire at the bridge without compunction or mercy once they were allowed, or if they felt threatened. There was no greater fear in the night, inside the bounds of the company than that the NVA would cross and wipe everyone out to a man.
But I was out of plans. Thermopylae was a bust, but there was nothing else to be done that I could conceive of. Until the Browning opened up. The distinctive sound of the 30-06 bullets leaving the barrel of the Ontos top-mounted machine gun were distinctive and impossible to forget once heard. The beat of the guns fairly low cyclic rate of fire made it like the mama bear of guns. It was just right, as it hammered away using short staccato bursts. The gun had to be manned by Jurgens, I knew.
The Browning overheated easily, and Jurgens had to know that. How the sergeant had come to be a machine gunner of some distinction was just another part of how strangely complex the man really was. I knew Jurgens would have been dead if one of the RPG rounds had impacted on the turret or the front glacis of the Ontos while he was climbing up or aboard. The concussion for someone on the outside of the armor would have been too great to survive, even if no part of the body was hit.
“Dobbs,” I said, across the top of the hole.
“It’s Jurgens all right, sir,” Dobbs went on. “He’s firing from on top of the Ontos directly down the expanse of the bridge. He’s close enough to be able to see what’s going on, sir.”
Jurgens eased up on the Browning’s trigger. I knew our Ontos had at least a couple thousand rounds of ammo, but a couple thousand for a machine gun was not that much, not if that single gun had to hold back an entire NVA battalion.
The Gunny was suddenly back. I knew he was there because Nguyen moved to my side as if to protect that exposed area of my body. The Gunny scrambled over the mud and laid down between myself and the hole where Dobbs and Fusner were tucked down into. The Gunny’s radio operator went straight into the hole without saying a word.
“You were right to put Jurgens on top of that thing,” the Gunny began. “How did you know he was a machine gunner at one time? I thought you were sending him down there out of spite and anger. I was wrong.”
I lay next to the man I could not comprehend. I didn't know what to say. Having Jurgens where he could see and control the access to the bridge was indeed a masterstroke, but the real fact was that the only reason I had sent him there was because I was enraged with him for killing Macho Man. I couldn’t admit that aloud, and I knew it.
“Damn good thing the RPGs didn’t get him, Junior,” the Gunny said, taking out and lighting a cigarette.
He didn’t take the first puff, extending out his hand and the lit cigarette to me.
“You can sure make the most cold-blooded calls when those are called for,” he finished.
I inhaled the smoke from the Camel and exhaled without coughing, trying to understand the ‘cold-blooded’ decision I’d made without knowing it. I hadn’t guessed that the NVA would risk some of their precious supply of RPGs to take out the Ontos at a distance too great to be truly effective. They’d paid the flechette price, and I didn’t expect to see any more of those weapons unless the NVA got a lot closer and off to the flank. The Ontos had the jungle registered for range, and the crew no doubt had already set some of the flechette rounds for the exact distance they would need to be terribly effective again.
Suddenly, the end of the bridge lit up with muzzle flashes. Jurgens began firing the Browning again, and the front of his of Browning gun barrel lit up with a constant stream of tracers going straight across the bridge, burning bright yellow into the distance just beyond the far edge of the structure.
I had to get back in the hole and peer through the scope. I could not stand not being able to see anything except what happened in the near distance, or simply following the tracers which allowed me to make almost no conclusions at all. I had to move around the Gunny, and then slip into the hole, which was now tightly packed since the Gunny’s radioman was so huge.
“Out,” I said, to the Marines face.
The Marine didn’t reply, instead quickly reaching up and then vaulting out of the hole, the whip of his radio antenna swishing back and forth as he went up and over. I was surprised. For some reason, I hadn’t expected the Marine to obey me.
“Re-set the scope on the tripod,” I said to Dobbs.
There was no point using the scope to aim the sniper weapon because the M-60 fire was only likely to be used if the NVA got fully across the bridge, not as a follow up to sniper fire that could have little effect on anything next to the withering cloud of head-on Browning rounds Jurgens could lay right on target.
Once Dobbs had the scope set up, he moved backward and eased me around him. The more I talked to the corporal and observed him in action, the more I was impressed.
I peered into the side-mounted eye grommet of the scope, the soft rubber comfortable on the outside surfaces of my eye socket. The end of the bridge came into view. Occasional streaks of bright green lines ran right down the middle of the scene. Everything in the scope was green. Marines, or faintly visible and ghost-like figures I assumed to be Marines, continued to move straight onto the bridge, and then go down to crawl at angles forward until lost to sight behind the Ontos. I adjusted the scope and focused on Jurgens. The .45 Thompson submachine gun was stretched across the sergeants back, no doubt held in place by the belt he’d taken from his M-16. It bothered me that the man looked exactly like the perfect Marine, holding the bridge against all comers, like Audie Murphy in WWII. I tried to wipe the man’s many transgressions from my mind, as well as his attempts to outright kill me and other officers.
I realized that Jurgens was firing over the heads of the Marines advancing onto and then across the bridge. The Ontos was turning out to be a place of protection that once reached would allow Kilo Marines to scurry away from and safely make it to the lip of the bridge on our side, and then make the jump down into the mud and sand. A lot of the men from Kilo were making it across, and my spirits began to rise. The Gunny came down into the hole behind me. I smelled the smoke from his cigarettes emanating like an aura about him. I didn’t have to turn in order to know it was him.
“Jurgens is doing the job,” he said, his presence so close I wanted to squeeze closer into the mud in front of me.
“Take a look,” I answered, understanding that he wanted to see Jurgens in action but would not ask.
The Gunny stared silently into the scope’s grommet for what seemed like a few minutes. Nguyen bent the top of his head over the lip of the hole, only visible because of the glow that came for a few seconds each time the Gunny inhaled from his cigarette. I looked up into the man’s inscrutable eyes, and then he was gone again.
“How you knew is a mystery, but you sure as hell did,” the Gunny said.
I didn’t answer the Gunny’s open comment, although I knew he was looking for an answer. There was nothing to do but wait. Dawn was not far off, and once the first tendrils of light began to penetrate down into our part of the valley any attack from the other end of the bridge by unarmored infantry would be suicidal.
“Gunny, I think you should get down to the M-60 positions and let them know what’s going on. They have to wait until Kilo’s across. Somebody’s got to get to the Ontos with a radio. The crew has commo but I don't think they are coming out to see anything across the bridge. They’re too taken up with watching downriver for anymore RPGs if they have any sense at all.”
The Gunny flicked out his cigarette and then climbed out of the hole without saying anything. Nguyen slipped inside like he’d been waiting. He immediately crouched at the back of the hole, disappearing down into the dark.
Minutes went by, and nothing changed until it did. Suddenly there was small arms fire coming from everywhere, and the drums picked up their beat to nearly double the speed they’d been beating at all night. The NVA regiment was attacking Kilo’s rear and Carruthers was among the few Kilo Marines left over there, probably only with a small protective squad or two.
I stared intently through the objective lens of the scope, not even breathing. I could see movement. Jurgens had stopped firing. I knew he was husbanding his ammunition, sensing the same thing I was. There would be no time to get a radio to Jurgens. There was no time to properly prepare the M-60 fire teams. The enemy came. They all came, and there was not going to be any surprises because they ran at the end of the bridge in jumbled mass, turning on their flashlights as they came.