Nguyen was gone into the night with the 106 round. I hadn’t given any thought at all as to whether the ammo box was marked with a flechette designation for its contents or not. There was no way to tell by feel, and there was no way I was going to use the flashlight with a .50 caliber firing on us. I’d counted four rounds to the box which left three of whatever kinds of rounds they were. I lay behind the box, the thing useless as cover but sufficient for concealment, since it was sitting up perpendicular to the enemy occupied jungle to our front. The .50 had stopped firing which was good news for Nguyen, and myself. I heard only a few single rounds coming from a gun I couldn't recognize right away by the sound. Then it came to me, Zippo was trying to suppress the .50 caliber gun crew by giving the snipers locating data from the night vision scope. The guns the snipers used were 7.62 millimeters, like the M-14 I’d trained with, and also the M-60 machine guns, but the sound was just a bit different. I’d loved the heavier M-14 but the 16 had already been issued to combat troops and Marines by the time I was shipped out.
I realized that I could lay where I was or slip and slide my body back toward the spider hole.
The spider hole was safer by far, and the trip to get there would become increasingly more risky with the coming of the light. The .50 opened up again, the sound of its nearby frontal discharge almost enough to make my ears ring. I had no time to make earplugs or do anything else except getting as far down as I could. The .50 was shooting back at the location where the sniper fire was coming from, however, and not sweeping my position. I moved back from the ammo box, pushing directly away, taking my helmet off when I was far enough to angle toward where I thought the spider hole was. I left my helmet behind. It was no protection against anything except the smallest fragments from artillery or grenades anyway. Against the power of a .50 caliber, it would be about as effective as tissue paper in stopping a bullet.
I didn't realize I was lost in the darkness until I’d gone further than I knew I should have. I was in the open, on an exposed flat surface of the mud, and I couldn’t find the hole.
Shuddering, near tears with frustration, I stopped moving and lay flat, pushing my face into the mud so it would not be a white beacon in the black backdrop of the night. I breathed in and out into the mud, taking the rotten vegetable kind of aroma directly into my lungs. I tasted the river mud jammed into my teeth. I wondered fearfully whether they’d find my body with my mouth full of mud with a startled look of terror in my cold dead eyes. I had to go back. The only guide I had to get there was the river and the occasional burst from the .50. The big gun which was directly to my front. I turned, scrabbling away, with the river on my left and the heavy machine gun to my rear.
My right ankle was suddenly pulled backward. I kicked against the pressure surrounding my ankle but to no effect. My body slid back, increasing my panic until I realized it had to be Nguyen who was pulling me, trying to get me back to some relative safety.
Slithering around to confront him helped my deep level of near-paralyzing fear. I was moving in the right direction. I was doing something to stay alive. Anything to stay alive. Nguyen was invisible in the night mist but I felt his presence like he was still touching me or as if I could see him. I slithered straight ahead, following in trace of him, ashamed of myself. I wasn’t ashamed for being afraid. I was used to that if getting used to that was possible at all. I was ashamed because I’d figured out that Nguyen didn’t really need me to get him the other rounds out of the ammo box. I could have stayed in the hole and been temporarily safe. Would I have stayed in the hole when he returned? That I’d been thinking about doing just that, hiding out while he was taking all the risk, bothered me deeply. I plunged ahead, so low and close to the surface that my chin plowed through the soft fetid mud like the prow of a tiny destroyer easing across a calm flat sea. I hated the smell but the taste in my mouth was worse. I was glad I’d taken my helmet off, as the mist collected and flowed down my face as I went giving my some sense of cleanliness.
I moved until I plowed into one of Nguyen’s boots. I could hear him just ahead, easing another 106 round out of the box. He didn’t need me, but there was no way I was going back to the hole. I wondered if he just needed me to be there, like I needed him to be there, so badly. Being all alone under fire on a field of flat mud with no cover was worse than the terror I felt in being in direct contact with the enemy. I didn’t want to die alone like Tex had died alone right next to the Bong Song, not that far from where I currently was.
I crabbed my body around Nguyen’s legs until I was directly behind the box and close to him. I knew he had a round out and ready to haul back up to the Ontos.
The Ontos, and particularly the flechette rounds, being the only thing that might save our lives. Nguyen had to go but there was no way for me to order him to do so.
My helmet was slipped onto my head, and I felt Nguyen’s hand patting it down so it’d stay. The mist had partially filled it with moisture, and the slight pool formed in its basin poured cooly down my face. Nguyen pressed my right shoulder with his left hand for a few seconds, and then rolled over and was gone back into the misty blackness.
I could not return to the hole where the Gunny, Fusner, and Bates hunched down in relative safety. No sappers from the NVA force in the jungle would make it across the mud flat without Zippo, using the Starlight Scope and snipers, picking them off, but I envisioned the force that might easily succeed in killing all of us, the NVA scurrying flatly across the mud just as the earliest rays of dawn shown down over the eastern face of the high canyon wall. Such a force could not be easily or fully identified from a distance, unless the mist diminished, which wasn’t likely. Air power would not be on station to stop them until after dawn, or if it somehow came earlier, limited by the same visibility problems as my own company’s machine gun teams. I didn’t try to look over the edge of the rough side of the wooden ammo box, although I wanted to. Was the enemy coming? I didn’t take my .45 automatic out because I knew there would be no point. It was nothing against a .50, and little more than that against attacking infantry across open terrain in the dark misting rain.
I reached in to pull another round of 106 ammo out of the box, then cradled it to my chest while laying on my back, licking the mist from the area around my lips. The round was bigger and heavier than it seemed it should be, but I knew how effective and valuable it was. The APERS round it was called and I remembered, although I couldn’t recall what the letters of its designation stood for. Each round had six thousand flechettes jammed inside its warhead with an adjustable fuse for a distant explosion at the tip. Five hundred meters the fuse should probably be set for, I thought, trying to recall exactly how far the jungle area occupied by the NVA was from the Ontos. Five hundred meters and the nearly ten pounds of high explosives would go off when the round arrived, showering the flechettes forward in a cloud moving at four to five miles per second. In the night the moving round would be visible in flight because of a tracer element drilled into the back of the casing.
Nguyen was back so fast it seemed impossible that he’d crawled all the way to the Ontos, delivered the round, and then returned in almost absolute darkness. I needed Fusner and the radio. The stand-off distance setting on the rounds had to be close, or the effect on the NVA, whether anyone in the outer layer of the jungle was hit or not, would be too negligible to matter. The enemy needed to know that the Ontos was firing its most fearsome weapon. And, the Ontos needed to start firing soon, as early dawn was less than an hour off.
“Fusner,” I whispered, as Nguyen began to take the round from me.
“Fusner,” he repeated, in almost the same tone and inflection, making me wonder again just how much English he understood and spoke.
He left without taking the round, barely making a sound. One second he was there and then he was gone. I held the round to keep it out of the mud and wished I’d been able to follow Nguyen back to the hole. Fusner wouldn’t have to be exposed with me behind the ammo box in that case, and my own safety would be vastly improved. I breathed out slowly, taking more misting rain into my mouth, my eyes closed, the shell rising and falling on my chest, as I clutched it to me with both hands.
I could not lead the Marines from the rear, and I could barely lead them from out front. However, I had to be able to see. I had to adjust the rounds for the Ontos, even though they would be fired using direct fire. That meant I had to be in constant communication with whoever was operating the Ontos rifles. The mist and darkness were bigger impediments over distance, although Zippo had the Starlight Scope to help slice through the night. What I really wanted to do, even more than adjusting rounds in their placement was to control the rate of fire, holding off the NVA until Cowboy could make his appearance. The box of ammo I’d found held only four rounds. Three of us searching through the flooding mud for any more boxes would be more effective than doing the job by me if there were any more boxes. There was only one way to survive, and that was to get through the remainder of the night until supporting fires would give me the cover I needed to get back to the main elements of the company and the safety of my cave.
All I could do was wait. The fifty would open up every few minutes and then, after only a couple of rounds being expended, it would go quiet again. The rounds were all being directed toward where Zippo’s snipers were trying to do their own work. It came to me that I’d would already have been dead if the NVA had our kind of supplies. The only reason the heavy machine gun had not swept back and forth across the mud flat had to likely be because of a lack of ammunition. Zippo was having an effect.
The snipers might not be hitting anyone but they were certainly drawing the enemy’s attention and the big gun’s fire.
“Sir?” Fusner asked, from right behind my head, causing me to jerk around so hard I almost dislodged my helmet.
I didn’t answer him right away. Nguyen had returned with Fusner. He slipped through the mud to lay right next to me, before gently removing the 106 round from my grasp and taking off again.
“Combat net,” I said to Fusner. “I need the Ontos to fire one beehive round intermittently with one round of H.E. on my command. The beehive needs to be set for five hundred meters, but I’ll adjust based upon a first-round strike of the H.E.”
“Yes sir,” Fusner said, laying down flat while removing the thick heavy radio from his back and shoulders.
I felt the boy moving about and getting lower and marveled at how aware and combat proven he’d quickly become at his young age. The radio would stick up over the edge of the ammo box as dawn’s early light came upon us, drawing the fifty’s fire. He knew that. Fusner turned and pushed the radio handset into my left shoulder. I realized that he needed me to give the orders, as I’d been pretty point specific. I held the handset to my right ear but didn’t say anything. There were transmissions flying back and forth on the frequency. I listened to the combat communications between the other two companies and battalion.
Lima company was being ordered to come across from the east and then turn down into the A Shau, until interdicting our own company, while Kilo was being sent back to the eastern edge of the canyon down near the valley’s southernmost extremity to, once again, climb down the escarpment and move north to join up with Lima. There was obviously no intelligence available to the battalion with respect to what lay between those two infantry elements or else nobody back in the rear cared. My company was the center of whatever pincer movement battalion was planning, but there were no inquiries flying back and forth, with any attempts or comments about contacting us.
I listened until the back and forth died down a bit. I was not understanding the coding for locations being used but what was about to happen seemed pretty obvious. I waited for a few seconds of silence before calling the Ontos, remembering the clear Oscar November Tango Six designation. The ‘six’ was written under the U.S. Army printing on the sides of the vehicle, it’s meaning unknown to anyone in the company so far as I knew. But I didn’t make the call because another body slid into the spot Nguyen had vacated. I couldn’t see who it was in the darkness and rain but I knew it was the Gunny.
“What about Bates?” I whispered across the few inches that separated us.
“Leave him, Junior,” the Gunny replied, “he’s dead meat up here, probably like the rest of us, but what the hell, and you can’t adjust fire in this shit unless you have something to adjust from. The Beehive’s got a tracer but the jungle foliage will eat the explosion up. The Ontos can’t see through this crap all the way to where we need to hit them, even with the scope, but we can. It’s maybe a hundred meters in the range from where we are right now.”
Fusner eased the radio handset out of my hand. “You want me to call them, sir?” he asked.
“Okay, but wait for a second,” I replied.
“What do you suggest?” I said to the Gunny, trying to put it all together in my head, also surprised that I could have thought the Gunny was hiding out in the hole that I so wanted to hide out in with Bates. The Gunny was right again. The Ontos was a good five hundred meters from the jungle's edge, but the beehive shots had to be spot on to have the effect we needed. It wasn’t their causing death and injury that was important. It was the fear they’d generate.
“You brought those grenades of yours?” the Gunny asked.
“Yes,” I answered, moving to pull out the two M33s, understanding what the Gunny was getting at. The grenades, when thrown, would only fly a maximum of about 30 meters through the air, which meant they’d go off just before the edge of the jungle. The Ontos wouldn’t need spotting help if Zippos was alert to when the grenades would go off. All that had to be done was wait for the flash of fire from the M33, make minor range and declination adjustments, and then beehive rounds could be placed right on target. The cloud of small speeding flechettes would blast forward into the jungle.
I held one spherical grenade in my right hand, ready to throw. The M26 I’d trained so briefly with had been oval shaped with a smooth curving spoon that ran up over its surface from top to bottom. The M33 felt funny in my clutched hand. It seemed too small, too round, and the spoon had a distinctive bend in the middle.
I began to roll over onto my back, holding the grenade to my chest like I’d held the 106 round.
“What are you doing, Junior?” The Gunny said, the tone of his voice one of quiet bafflement.
It was like I could see him shaking his head, but, of course, I couldn’t.
“What?” I asked, not understanding.
“You think you can lob that thing a hundred feet, laying in the mud on your back?” he asked, just before I felt both of his hands, clutching my own right hand with the grenade in it. He carefully pried my fingers loose and took the small weapon.
“Tell ‘em to get ready,” he said, more to Fusner than me.
I heard the pin come out of the M33, and then the Gunny standing up right next to me. I felt more than heard or saw him rear back and fling the small globe toward the jungle before he fell back onto the surface of the mud next to me.
“Tell them ‘splash, over,’” the Gunny hissed to Fusner.
The grenade went off with a sharp crack, like a nearby stroke of lightning might make. That was followed seconds later by a much great crack. The Ontos had fired. I crawled the few feet to Fusner, where he had the microphone waiting for my grasping hand. I knew the first round had been H.E. because the Beehive round exploded with more of a thudding crash rather than what I’d heard.
“Fire the beehive on the same registration, but only fire again on command” I ordered and then laid down flat again.
Although our position was not directly on the gun target line for the Ontos, it was close enough that the smallest error in deflection might be deadly to the three of us. The flechettes flew out from the exploding composition B at over four miles a second in velocity, but the tiny mass of each little dart was so slight that each one decelerated very quickly in the dense atmosphere.
The crump of the beehive round came seconds later. There was nothing to communicate whether the NVA was getting the message I was trying to send or not, except the .50 caliber remained ominously silent.
I tucked the other M33 back into my pocket. I didn’t like carrying the small deadly little packages, as the stories of accidental injury and death circulated among the Marines all the time. No Marines I ever saw ever carried grenades clipped to the front of their utility blouses, like they did in old war movies. Only someone in the rear area, posing for photographs to be sent home, might be so dumb or inexperienced in real combat to do a foolish thing like that.
The night was no longer the same night. I peered up over the ammo box we were hidden behind. It was still too dark to make out much of anything. I knew from my high school astronomy club days that late September was an equinox month. The three kinds of dawn would take the full twenty-four minutes or so each to go through. Astronomical dawn was beginning. We were about an hour from full daylight, or maybe a bit more because of the depth of the valley we were down inside.
I figured we had about twenty minutes to scour the mud flat for more flechette ammunition boxes before it got light enough to see.
“Call Cowboy,” I whispered to Fusner. “We want him in here with as many of his friends as he can gather, as early as possible.”
I didn’t mention my great fear that the Skyraiders would be tied up elsewhere. Artillery was so much more dependable than air support, but I could not risk firing the 175s again. One slightly short round on the gun-target line and our own company would be wiped out. I tried to think about all the variables potentially impacting our survival. The company was considerably better off than the four of us were, but it was too late, in reality, to try to crawl back up the slight slope to their position or to send Nguyen back and forth. Even with the misting rain and darkness, nautical dawn, and some visibility was rushing down upon us. The NVA might or might not attack in force, knowing our small unit was a sitting duck, cut off from the rest of the company. Nguyen pushed a wooden box smaller and squarer than the 106 ammo boxes between the Gunny and I. The Gunny worked the latch loose and the lid opened with a metallic sound, unlike the recoilless round boxes which were latched and also stapled shut. The Gunny handed me another M33 grenade to replace the one we’d used. The box was filled with thirty, or so, of the compact little grenades.
Something grabbed my foot. I felt hands moving up my leg.
“I’m here, sir,” Bates said.
“I told you to wait in the hole,” the Gunny hissed down toward the young sergeant.
“I can help,” Bates said with his voice breaking.
I realized that the boy was more afraid of being alone in the dark hole than he was of being out on the exposed mud flat with us. I fleetingly thought again how combat teaches by killing. Bates, an FNG, didn’t want to be alone in the hole while I, a grim veteran of combat, wanted only to be alone in the hole.
“Shit,” the Gunny said, more to himself than any of us. “Here, carry these, and don’t do a damn thing I don’t tell you to do,” he went on, pushing some M33s down toward Bates.
“Yes, sir,” Bates answered, his nervousness and fear causing him to break a cardinal rule in the Marine Corps.
Sergeants of any kind were never referred to as sir. Non-coms in the Corps took that designation as an insult.
“What do we tell battalion about Lima and Kilo coming into the valley?” Fusner asked.
Nobody said a word in reply to his surprising question.
“Lima will get taken out by the enemy inside Hill 975 and Kilo will get killed off by the enemy in front of us,” Fusner went on.
Once again, I was surprised by the young boy’s remarkable analysis of the combat situation.
“They can look out for themselves,” the Gunny said, his tone harsh and uncaring. “We’ve got our own problems. If the enemy comes, then everyone starts tossing these grenades, but not until we call the Ontos and let them know.”
I said nothing. My mind raced. Fusner was right. We had to let battalion know what Lima and Kilo were facing, even if the relief we were supposed to get from them wasn’t ever likely to appear. The battalion was at least trying to help us out. The colonel’s loss of his XO and friend had finally focused attention on our plight, rather than simply our terrible daily casualties. I was reaching for the handset when Bates spoke.
“I’ve got it, sir,” he said.
The distinctive sound of a pin coming out of a grenade penetrated the rain, the dark, and the air between the sergeant and the rest of us, like that of a small Buddhist gong. We all froze.
“Fire in the hole," Bates yelled, coming up to his knees and throwing an M33 over our heads toward the jungle. The grenade thudded into the mud just on the other side of the ammo box.
“You’ve got to stand up to throw the damn things,” the Gunny got out as the rest of us buried ourselves as deep into the mud as we could get.
“I’m standing, sir,” Bates unaccountably replied.
“The Ontos,” the Gunny said, his last words before the grenade exploded not more than five yards on the other side of the box, blowing pound-sized chunks into the air and then back down upon us.
A second whooshing explosion, like the thunderous clap of a hellishly loud cymbal, followed the first smaller concussion.
I cringed down even deeper into the mud. I now knew what it sounded like to be on the horrid receiving end of a beehive round, but I felt nothing. I moved my shoulders, trying to figure out if I was hit. My hearing was all screwed up.
I thought I heard Fusner.
“He’s gone, sir.”
“Who’s gone?” I replied, trying to unstick the front of my body from the cloying mud while using the heavy misting rain to try to wash some of it off.
“Bates,” the Gunny said, “the complete moronic idiot.”
The Gunny’s voice broke right at the end when he said the word ‘idiot.’ I wondered if only I caught it.
I crawled to where Bates lay, with Fusner next to him. There was no need to examine him in detail. The back-blast of flechettes had made mush of the boy’s entire upper body.
The Gunny had figured it out instantly, while I’d not been so quick. Zippo, waiting and watching with nervous impatience, must have seen the explosion, thought we were marking the target for the next 106 round, and then adjusted and fired. They were all dead, even the sergeant who’d amazingly cheated it the first time around. What the enemy didn’t kill, we Marines did. I also realized that Zippo had somehow ignored the ‘intermittent’ part of my first order. The round we’d received should have been High Explosive, which would have killed us all.
“They’re coming,” the Gunny hissed out.
“Who’s coming?” I asked, still trying to take in the young sergeant’s death, while also trying to get my full hearing back.
“Get all the grenades out, call the Ontos, and make sure the M-60’s are fully online with night defensive fires,” the Gunny ordered, without answering my stupid question.