“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do, they’re really saying I love you…”
The lyrics gently streamed from Fusner’s small radio, the last song of the day, according to Brother John, before the Armed Forces network signed off. Louis Armstrong sang the words, in his strangely awful and broken voice, the tone so warbled and deep that it sent shivers of reality straight into my heart. I felt the emotion and was surprised. I wasn’t used to feeling much of anything except fear. Macho Man knelt in front of me, deep inside the protections offered by the cleft, an expression of sadness having replaced his usual fearsome tough expression.
Jurgen’s flashlight reflected off the jagged roof edges of my darkened stifling cleft. The rain outside had returned with a vengeance, saturating the hot fetid air of the monsoon season with water, insects and tiny spots of flittering mud. The smell was sweet, with decaying vegetation and the aroma emitted by the bodies of past animal life buried under the shifting sands that formed the floor of the cave.
“They left me, Junior,” Macho Man said, the words coming out like the man’s life was exiting his body with them.
“Yes, they did, and we both know they had little choice in the matter,” I replied, sitting with my back to the curve of the wall, bent forward toward the man.
I wondered about the necessity of leaving the three men for a few seconds. The gross lift-off weight of the CH-46 helicopter had to be tremendous. What difference would three or four hundred pounds make? And then I thought about just how great most of the chopper pilots were. The men had most probably been left because the pilot had serious reservations about ever making it back to the base, or likely going down terminally hard somewhere in between.
“They’ll be coming tomorrow?” Macho Man asked, his tone turning to hopeful.
“Not likely,” I replied, not wanting to raise the expectations of the staff sergeant too high. “You can hear the rain outside. The intensity has gone way up, which means the visibility has gone way down. Your crew might want to come back but they’ll first have to repair their bird, and then get the permission of higher command.”
“What do I do here?” he asked.
“You’re now my scout sergeant, and these are your men, or your team, so to speak until your own people return to fly you out.”
“I’ve never fought on the ground, ever, sir,” Macho Man replied, finally easing from his knees to a sitting position.
“Oh, you’ll catch on,” I assured him while finding it vaguely comforting that Macho Man called me sir, from time to time. “Nguyen, the Montagnard here, doesn’t speak Engish but he’s vital to the team and he’ll guide you along unbelievably well with Fusner to help to the best of his ability.”
I looked at Macho man, who had changed his entire orientation in only a matter of minutes. I was watching him go through that metamorphosis and I felt like the Gunny. I’d been in country for something under a month, but I felt I’d somehow gained twenty or more years of age. I knew the Staff Sergeant in front of me was older than I was, although there were no records available out in a combat zone, and I wasn’t going to ask him, but I felt more like his grandfather rather than just his father or his commanding officer.
Carruthers crawled into the opening of the cleft, soaked through, wearing no poncho cover, a trail of water preceding him down the packed sandy slope to where Macho Man and I sat facing one another.
“Who’s he, and where did he get that?” Carruthers asked, sliding down on his belly, his helmet rolling off and his eyes going straight to the Thompson submachine gun held by Macho Man across his lap.
I explained the situation as succinctly as I could to the captain, but for some reason, his main interest was in the Thompson.
“What good is that thing in combat here?” Carruthers asked, but then went right on without waiting for an answer. It and its ammunition weighs twice as much as an M-16, and there’s no real resupply of the pistol ammo. What do you carry, a couple of twenty round magazines?”
“The Staff Sergeant’s taking over as my new scout team leader,” I replied since Macho Man didn’t seem like he was going to say anything.
The Gunny appeared at the upper edge of the dim glow put out by Jurgen’s flashlight, and I briefly wondered how many more members of the company would show up before I could curl up and catch some more sleep.
“We have two platoons being commanded by Buck Sergeants, Junior,” the Gunny said but didn’t go on.
What he was intimating, I knew, was that the proper place for the Staff Sergeant was in command of one of those platoons. I thought that until I looked closely at the Gunny’s facial expression. There was the faintest hint of a smile on the man’s grizzled facial features. He knew Macho Man was straight from the rear area and would almost certainly be going back at some time during the following day.
“What’s his name?” Carruthers asked as if the staff sergeant wasn’t sitting right in our midst.
“Waldo,” Macho Man replied, probably intending to add his last name, but never getting the chance.
“Waldo, now that’s a fascinating name, indeed,” Carruthers said.
“Fusner,” I said, projecting my voice to reach up toward the cleft opening, “get the Staff Sergeant properly equipped.”
“Go with Fusner,” I instructed Macho Man, wondering if I should at least mention his last name of Vanilli to everyone inside the cleft, but then thought better of it.
Accommodating the field forces, when you were dropped in to visit for a very short period of time wasn’t necessarily a good thing I instinctively felt, and giving everyone more information wasn’t going to change that. Waldo was an uncommon dweeb name and it was likely, for as long as he was in the field, he’d be known by that.
Macho Man got the hint and scrambled up the incline to follow Fusner out into the heavy rain. Fusner pushed a poncho cover back toward the man. No matter what lay ahead for Sergeant Waldo, part of it was certainly going to see the end of his starched and pressed utilities.
Macho Man turned, as he reached the outer edges of the light. I saw his eyes gleam, looking back at me, unblinking. I read the question in them that he couldn’t ask.
The man had delivered plenty of Marines down into the A Shau. He knew what happened to most of them. I knew he was waiting for me. Nobody said anything, Carruthers, the Gunny, Nguyen, and Fusner; all knowing the question that Macho Man couldn’t ask.
“You’re going to make it,” I said, my voice almost too low to hear over the mild drumming sound of the rain hitting the jungle mud just outside the cleft, and then the deeper more distant sound of the Bong Song slithering by. “All the way, up the hill,” I continued and then stopped. Macho Man blinked.
I blinked once back, and the man was gone, following Fusner outside the cleft to find what was needed to get the man at least through the night and next day. I sat back against my sharply curving cleft wall. I hadn’t been able to get my letter home aboard the chopper, which made me feel worse than the lie I’d told to Staff Sergeant Waldo Vanilli. Because the ‘airdales’ would eventually come for him, the sergeant had a much better chance than the rest of us, marooned down inside the A Shau wasteland, but I was no magician, and, in fact, couldn’t even spend much of my time assuring the sergeant he would live if he followed my advice. I advised the company, the artillery, the Ontos crew, and even the enemy, in my way. I had no time to do what the Gunny had done for me, and the kind of core twisting fear Macho Man was hiding inside himself wasn’t something that any outside force or advice was going to minimize. You lived with that kind of fear and, in the A Shau, you generally died with it.
“Nguyen,” I whispered to the Montagnard.
Nguyen stared into me.
I nodded off in the direction Macho Man had gone.
Nguyen disappeared out into the rain, moving away low and silently under his own poncho like it was a second skin. I’d done the best I could for Waldo, in return for his having taken the time and trouble to get me a decent pair of boots and giving me his own care package from home. And, I had to admit to myself, because he was now one of my Marines, no matter how short his time at that might be.
The Gunny had brought a bag full of C-Rations, care packages from home and some six-packs of beer. The beer was Schlitz and rationed, according to the Gunny, at one can per Marine. I gave my can to Carruthers. The captain drank down two cans in two long swigs, and then promptly arranged himself and quickly fell into a deep sleep. The man was amazing in many ways, I realized, not for the first time. If he could last long enough to learn more about what we were all faced with in the A Shau then he might be the kind of company commander I could follow.
The Gunny moved closer, avoiding the captain’s stretched out body. The air was thick with moisture but the heat was strangely bearable. I wondered if it was the cooling of the stone composition of the cleft that made it so. With so many humans in the space, the rock tips along the roof of it dripped small drops of water incessantly, although the sound wasn’t as annoying as the sound of the rain beating in from the outside.
“They’re going to come at us again tonight, probably well before dawn,” the Gunny said, his voice low and conversational. With Carruthers down and Nguyen gone the only ears close enough to hear belonged to Piper and his charge.
I knew the Gunny was right, although I hadn’t known it until he said it. It made all the sense in the world, or at least the valley. The NVA had been taking it on the nose for many days and nights and they wanted to strike back. What better time to strike back than after we were resupplied with food, beer, ammo and everything else we needed. Plus, we’d pulled off the resupply without taking a single casualty. The Marines in both companies would all feel the same way I did. Finally, a night’s sleep could be had. But the A Shau wasn’t going to be that accommodating and that made sense too.
“How do you know,” I asked, needlessly.
The Gunny’s logic and life experience were enough, but I wanted more evidence if I could get it. Another night of waiting in the rain when the safety of the cleft drew me so strongly I needed more proof.
“They’re visible over across the river, with flashlights,” the Gunny replied.
I thought about that. The NVA was using flashlights so we’d notice their movements. That meant that they were either developing an attack force and centralizing it or setting up a base of fire. Since there was no way they could attack across the swollen Bong Song that meant they were setting up a base of fire. The base of fire would open up to confuse us and also to pin us down and redirect our attention from wherever the attack might be coming from.
“Where are they going to come from?” I asked, dreading the answer.
The company was, once again, in exactly the same position it had been in two nights before. The inspection team from battalion had died across the mud flats directly out from where the opening to my cleft faced and the Ontos pointed. Only the adroit capability of the CH-46 had permitted the resupply to come in further upriver where there was no room for it to land on the bank and no other open area. The 46, thanks to brilliant piloting, had dropped its rear end on the bank and then hung the remainder of its 84-foot long body out over the river. The craft had been unloaded from the rear ramp. The NVA had been taken completely by surprise again. That trick would not work again, but that left only the jungle across the flats for the NVA to attack from. That was until the Gunny filled me in.
“The holes they dug earlier,” the Gunny began. “They filled them in. They dug deeper. They connected them. They’re probably sitting only a few meters from our own forces right now. We’ve got the Ontos, but it’s severely disabled in the night and rainy weather. The Starlight Scope can handle the night, but the heavy rain kills its night vision ability.”
I wanted to ask the Gunny what we should do, but the silence that fell over our conversation at that point said something else to me. The Gunny was waiting for me to tell him what to do. I didn’t know what to do but I had to respond somehow, I knew.
“Get me Fusner back here with the air radio,” I ordered. “I want Piper and the Starlight Scope and somebody from the Ontos. I need a count of ammunition. How many flechette rounds and how many high explosives. And you better get Sugar Daddy and Jurgens too.”
“Got it, Junior,” the Gunny replied, his voice giving away the fact that he’d received what he had come to me for.
I had no idea what to do. I was gathering everyone together with the hope that I’d come up with something before they assembled or after. I regretted that the Marines had all had a beer or more since I had no control over what had come in or how it had been distributed. Carruthers was a perfect example of what the company didn’t need in the night, and I’d been partially responsible for that. The Gunny disappeared from my cleft and sight.
My brain kicked into high gear. I pulled out my map and directed Jurgens flashlight to hover over it. Our position was secure as it could be, as long as we could weather a frontal assault from the edge of the jungle, or even up from the holes that had no doubt been dug to act as fighting holes. Only the A-6 Intruder could give us the kind of air cover that might totally wipe out the NVA advantage it might have from the holes and light tunnel structure in the mud. Since our visibility was reduced, the Ontos might serve much better as a counter-firebase element, using high explosive fuses, rather than blowing our limited supply of flechettes across uninhabited mud flats.
I stopped thinking about the plan forming inside my head. I pulled the letter I’d written to my wife back out and wrote the last page. It was a page devoted to the Marines around me. I wrote of Macho Man and how much he liked and admired me. I wrote of the Gunny’s loyalty and trust and how Fusner treated me exactly as if I was his Dad. I made it all up but smiled at how good a job I’d done when I was finally done. If air was able to make it in again, and that would only be possible if other heavy-duty air cover came with it, then my letter would get aboard the chopper and most probably make it home. For some reason, I felt it was important that my wife believes that the men really thought highly of me. That the reality of my life and relationships in combat was a broken twisted licorice kind of thing didn’t need to be revealed, at least not to her.
It only took moments for the Gunny to gather everyone and jam them down inside the cleft. It was night and my worry was increasing because the NVA could attack at any time. Commonly, they came at us just before dawn, but there was no reason they might not come sooner since they themselves had been caught off guard so many times. The Gunny’s prediction seemed totally valid, but how were we to respond to it?
I realized, from the last plan that had no name that it was important that I give meaning to the new plan by naming it. The cleft I was in, along with the others up and down the lower cliff edge, was grounded in hard rock. There would be no chance that sappers might work their way up into where we were staying, but the company was also occupying a whole lot of jungle and river mud positions out from the clefts. We’d attacked right through the jungle to reach Kilo Company, and we’d done so without taking almost any casualties. But the circumstances had changed. There would be no tying up with the force attacking down the valley because that had been a disaster, as I knew it had to be. We had no orders from the battalion, except to hold our current position. That order turned our companies from attacking Marine companies into statically placed targets of opportunity.
I reached out for Fusner, who extended the radio handset. I didn’t need the handset, however.
“The Planet Mars Defense,” I said. “We’re going to call it that. I want everyone to dig in on the outside to make sure nothing’s been dug out from under them. Our objective is to get to dawn and air support. Get the Gunny back.”
I waited, Jurgen’s flashlight beginning to grow dimmer. I switched it off to wait in the dark for the Gunny’s return.
In moments the silence, broken only by the rain and the rushing sound of water going by in the distant river, was interrupted by the Gunny’s entrance. Carruthers had nodded off sometime earlier but was awakened by the sound of the Gunny sliding down toward us in the dry but slippery sand.
“Who goes there?” Carruthers asked as if we were in some old war movie standing guard.
The Gunny ignored Carruthers and lay waiting in the near dark.
“Have everyone dig in outside their clefts,” I ordered. “I want a couple of Kilo platoons to head back down the path toward the jungle and set up a base of fire from there.”
“What?” Carruthers said, fully waking from his stupor.
“What’s the point?” The Gunny asked.
“They are moving against us with a plan of attack,” I said to both men. “I want to have a counter-plan in action against them. It doesn’t have to be something that works.
They just have to be observing something they don’t understand. We’ll take some heat from being so close to their lines but the result is that they won’t just be able to move around at will without regard for what we might do.”
“Why my Marines?” Carruthers asked.
“We came to rescue you, remember?” I said, forcefully. “It’s time to earn your keep. We went for the supplies and got them. Now you guys go down there and interdict the enemy.”
“You can’t order that, Junior,” Carruthers said, his voice tone flat and angry, and placing an emphasis on the word ‘Junior.’
“No, I can’t,” I replied.
“The Planet Mars Defense?” the Gunny asked, as the silence in the cleft drew out.
“The Clay People, from the Valley of Desolation, come out of the walls of the canyon, if you recall,” I replied.
“Flash Gordon?” Carruthers asked. “What in hell does Flash Gordon have anything to do with this? And what Clay people?”
“Got it, the Clay people, of course,” the Gunny replied. “I’ll need two platoons from Kilo to head down that path. “We’ll give you reinforced machine gun fire to establish and support the position.”
I knew the Gunny was playing with Carruthers. The Gunny probably had never seen Flash Gordon and knew nothing about the Clay People. It didn’t matter. Drawing the attention of the NVA by establishing our own base of fire was sound tactics and the Gunny got that, The best defense was a powerful offense, and the base of fire positioning was a startling offensive move.
“This is crazy,” Captain Carruthers breathed out. “There is no Flash Gordon and probably no Clay People. I don’t understand any of this but I guess I have no choice. We’ll use the first and second platoons. I better get out there and let them know.”
Carruthers got his gear together and crawled past the Gunny, exiting up and over the lip that led down into the cleft.
“At least that went well,” I said to the Gunny when he was gone.
“Did you pay attention to what he said?” the Gunny asked me, lighting up a cigarette with his special Zippo lighter.
I thought about his question, playing back Carruther’s comments in my mind. The cigarette smoke blew across me and I liked the smell. Cigarette smoke, the heat, and the moisture laden air were becoming home to me, and that wasn’t making me comfortable. I knew I would never get used to the fetid smell of jungle decay all around me, however, and leeches would never find any popularity in my psychology, no matter what.
“What did he say?” I finally asked, not being able to recall Carruthers exact words.
“He said ‘probably no Clay People.’”
“And that means what?” I asked.
“That means he’s as nutty as we are,” the Gunny replied, putting out his cigarette and clawing his way back out of the cleft.