The company proceeded along the eastern base of the sheer cliff rising a thousand feet above it. My arrival in the midst of Kilo’s Marines, and reaching the base of the glacis changed none of that. The fire from the other jungle inhabitants, the enemy, remained sporadic, muzzle flashes buried in the night, and in the rain and broken nightmare of decaying bracken that made surviving on the jungle floor an exercise in enduring misery.
Kilo company had come together once more, the loss of the two lieutenants with their radio operators, had been taken by the Marines of the company as a welcome movement of the hand of whatever God they believed in. I couldn’t watch them moving about in preparation for assaulting the glacis and reaching the top of the ridge some distance in front of us, as the night was one of total blackness. There wasn’t a single speck of light that reached my eyes from the moving Marines around me. There was no lighting of cigarettes or hooded tiny glows of hand covered flashlights. Kilo was a rugged weathered company, having been down in the valley without relief for more than a month, just like my own company. It took some time to finish the move downriver. Enemy fire had been sporadic and effective only in slowing our progress trying to assure that no more of our Marines were lost.
Once reaching the face of the wall Kilo had spread out. I’d pushed into the cliff, with my butt forced into the crack at the base, my back pressed into its solid flat surface. I thought about giving my letter home to Fusner to post, or maybe the Gunny, but discarded the idea without giving it real attention. I’d been in combat long enough as a commander to know that each and every move I made was watched, judged, and then shared with every Marine around who might be dependent upon my decisions. If I gave the letter to anyone else then everyone would know in no time at all. The act would be seen as a surrender, on my part, to my lack of confidence in the plan’s chance of success. The Gunny had been right so many times in the past. I was the company commander and the Marines, although driven through with fear and terror themselves, couldn’t ever be allowed to see or feel my own. Giving the letter to anyone else to deliver would be seen as an act of weakness I couldn’t afford to show. I had to be certain of my own survival, in appearance, or the Marines would lose the hope they held for their own.
I was relieved to have one bit of good news. The medevac was on. Homan and Turk were coming through, and they were coming fast.
I tried to keep my eyes closed, to experience at least a few minutes of meditative relief from the awful pressure of command and the equally awful fear of failure, not to mention the physical misery of my body, literally being eaten alive while I waited out the time required to reach Go Noi Island once more. When I’d last stood atop the rim high above me, a month before, I’d thought of the place I looked out upon down below as a cool welcome relief for the stinking mess I knew the island itself to be. I tried not to smile one of my secretive cold smiles at the remembrance. How quickly things had changed my life, my opinions about it, and my circumstance within it. Go Noi Island, if I reached it, would be a place that was heaven-sent, compared to the death-dealing misery I experienced down in the valley.
The Gunny was right, I decided, in finality. Kilo had to go up the wall while our own company waited below with the dead and wounded for the medevac Turk had no doubt arranged. He was called Turk for reasons unknown to me, but Homan, the A-6 bombardier/navigator, a friend of his, had informed me that the man was not ‘The Turk,” but only Turk, and getting that wrong, which I was prone to do, was a sore point with him.
As if the thought had somehow been translated into stark reality, the Gunny appeared. I heard him crawling toward me, but didn’t know it was him until he whispered my name.
“Junior?” he asked.
“Affirmative,” I answered briefly, while he centered himself against the wall next to my right shoulder.
The Gunny’s face lit up briefly with the guarded release of light from under the cup he’d made of his other hand in lighting his cigarette. The tinkling mechanical sound of his special Zippo I found to be vaguely comforting. His ability to show any light at all in the stygian blackness where NVA small arms could come alive at any time in the jungle area around us didn’t so much scare me as filled me with a strange wonder. How could a man, who’d been through so much combat in his life, risk making such a seemingly careless revelation of our position to the enemy? I knew it was a question that I’d never ask him, however. I’d come to accept my place as a commanding officer, however uncomfortable I was in the acceptance. The Gunny’s role, as the ‘father’ of the company, was much easier to go with.
“Jurgens doesn’t want to stay,” the Gunny said, his voice low, after taking in and releasing his first inhalation of smoke from the cigarette.
“Stay where?” I replied, not wanting to predict where the strange conversation was going to go. Nobody in his right mind would want to stay where we were.
“Down here, with the rest of us, while Kilo climbs to the top of the cliff,” the Gunny continued. “He wants to take his platoon up the glacis in order to fire effectively from above to support our climb when its light since we’ll be fully exposed on the full face of that cliff in broad daylight.”
Not for the first time over the period of the last month, I felt like I was being sold something. Not something that might cause immediate harm, but something that still wasn’t quite right.
“Why?” I asked, ignoring the Gunny’s weak explanation of covering fire.
The snipers, with their special weapons, equipment, training and experience, could provide some covering fire effectively. From the top of the cliff, but regular Marines, leaning over the lip and shooting down would be hard put to deliver any accurate fire, even machine gun fire, at targets they couldn’t see. Muzzle flashes could be used for targeting at night, but the NVA used the same smokeless powder we did to fuel its small arms cartridges. Their AK-47 assault rifles produced a muzzle flash, but not one that was easily visible from a great distance in daylight.
“He’s trying to make it on into An Hoa,” the Gunny finally replied, dropping the sales pitch tone he’d started out using. “He’s a short-timer, with only about forty days left on his tour.”
“I understand,” was all I could think to say. I realized I knew less about Jurgens than I’d thought. We didn’t need Jurgens and his platoon in our current circumstance.
We didn’t need them primarily because of the presence of the Ontos and, I felt, the softening up the ‘carpet bombing’ of 175 artillery rounds had provided. Small arms fire originating from the main body of jungle, where the enemy was ensconced, remained light, although that could change at any time.
“I say, let him go, Junior,” the Gunny recommended, when I didn’t reply.
“How the hell did he end up with us in this valley, having that much time behind him,” I couldn’t help asking.
“How did you end up down here?” the Gunny countered.
I thought about Jurgens, knowing I wasn’t going to answer the Gunny’s question, and also knowing that he wasn’t expecting me to. Sergeant Jurgens, I’d come to know, but only with great difficulty and even more danger. I could see how the man had likely let his mouth get the better of him with the wrong officer in the rear area. I didn’t believe for a minute that most of the Marines in the rear areas lacked enough clues about the kind of fatalities and wounded outfits like our company took on a very regular basis, but that knowledge wouldn’t, and didn’t, stop them from sending Marines they found to be disagreeable out into such combat situations, and, in fact, as illustrated by my own assignment to the company, it probably encouraged them to do so.
“Okay,” I replied, after about a full minute of silence. “He goes, but his platoon goes up last, and he last of all. Get them here and ready. Things are going to heat up with the coming of the light, rain or no rain, air support or no air support, and Kilo has to be up there by then.”
The sound of helicopter blades cutting the night into supersonically driven pockets of compressed air began to overpower all other sounds.
The CH-46 came in unlike any other landing I’d witnessed, even though I couldn’t really witness it with my eyes because of the darkness. It dropped out of the night onto the LZ not far from where I sat, but remained invisibly embedded inside it. It dropped straight down, not coming in at an angle at all, as was almost always the case with helicopters. Blown jungle debris, lifted from the floor by the chopper’s high speed whirling blades, combined with the water they compressed out of the air, hit me like small bits and pieces shredded off some tattered nearby wall, swept up and then down, driven into every exposed part of my body. I dug in closer to the wet muddy ground next to the wall, using raw hands that Fusner had carefully removed the leeches from with a series of burning cigarettes, to press my face down. I sheltered my head as best I could under the edges of my helmet. I inhaled lightly, waiting out the chopper’s artificially created storm, smelling the strangely clean-smelling odor emitted by the lichen covering the bare rock face.
My image of the medevac hadn’t included visualizing the giant twin-rotor machine. I’d thought of a Huey coming in, but a Huey could only carry a very few Marines when it lifted off, especially in the fetid aircraft unfriendly atmosphere existing at the bottom of the A Shau Valley. A Huey would be lucky to get out with three bodies, and maybe three wounded on stretchers, but that would also be only if the chopper didn’t fly with two door gunners, which wasn’t likely under the ‘hot LZ’ nature of our situation. The 46 could carry as many as 25 Marines, dead or alive, but it’s signature on the ground was much larger, and night landing down into such a small space had to be precarious and terribly dangerous. I pictured in my mind, with my eyes tight shut, the helicopter blades impacting against the trunk of one of the larger nearby trees, or the face of the cliff itself. If that happened, parts of the machine would penetrate every part of the enclosed battlefield space just as effectively as any anti-personnel artillery round.
The chopper reached the ground unimpeded and unfired upon, however, the proof of that being that the choppers turbines were quickly spooled down and the big twin rotors could be heard reduced to rotating slowly, but regularly, as it waited.
Suddenly, there was activity everywhere. In the air, Turk and his cohorts swooped around, their Huey Cobras twin-blade rotors sounding much more aggressive and louder than the CH-46’s many bladed propellers and turbines. The Cobras orbited very close to where the chopper was down and waiting, firing occasional volleys of chain gunfire down toward unseeable targets. Although it was still full dark down in the deepest part of the valley, up above, beyond the top of the precipice and to the east, the sun would be starting to reveal itself as astronomical dawn, the early precursor to civil dawn. The coming sun’s light would be all but invisible, although it would send a vague hint, more a hopeful feeling, of its coming identity surging up from below the distant horizon.
The chopper’s blades whirled nearby, not fifty meters from my position. Suddenly, from high up in the air I heard the strange whistling roar of the only airplane I’d heard with that kind of exhaust signature.
“Get me up on the air radio,” I turned to instruct Fusner. I didn’t have to turn far, as he was so close, right next to me, that I could have touched him easily, simply by moving my right arm a short distance. The complete darkness, the unrelenting rain, the sound of the chopper coming in, and then continuing to run its turbines as it offloaded and then waited, made the night so inscrutable that I didn’t really know where anyone was without either touching them or having an indicator like that of the Gunny’s lit cigarettes.
“He’s got his ears on,” Fusner said, letting me know that Homan was there.
Homan’s A-6 Intruder maintained its dominating whistle overhead. I knew he had to be up there flying low, slow, and making the tightest turns he could while still maintaining a safe altitude.
“You up there, Whole Man?” I asked into the headset microphone, once I got my helmet off and the little batched wire rig over my head. I quickly clamped my helmet back onto my head, the rain so hard that its impact on my bare skull was much worse than the sound of the hundreds of drops impacting onto the surface of the thin steel shell.
“Why do you call me that, Flash, over?” Homan replied, as if we were back in training, and certainly not in a combat zone under fire ten thousand miles from wherever we would have trained together, which we had not. “It’s not whole man. It’s Homan. I’m not the whole man, whatever that is.” He spelled out the word ‘whole.’
“No, it’s hole, not whole,” I replied, spelling the word ‘hole.’
“What is it you need?” Homan asked, no laughter in his tone. “Why am I here?”
“Right,” I replied. “This entire circus was brought in by you and your insane pal up there in one of those Cobras.”
“He can hear you, you know,” Homan said.
“How long can the Cobras rotate on station?” I asked.
“With fuel to and from,” Turk’s voice cut in, “remaining supplies gives us about an hour on the station, maybe an hour and a quarter, but we have orders to depart with the 46 when it lifts off for An Hoa.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said, unable to keep the disappointment out of my voice.
“What’s your plan, Flash,” Homan asked, hesitantly.
Only the Cowboy, the Skyraider pilot, called me Flash. I assumed that the air units operating across the board in support of us probably communicated as Fusner did with other unit radiomen when nobody was around or listening. I was glad of it this time, as the nickname Flash made me feel like maybe I could live up to such a compliment.
“I need some time to do our mountaineering thing in a bit,” I replied.
“That’s up to the chopper pilot,” Homan said. “Captain Craig Jackman’s got this run. He volunteered. Good guy. I’m sure he’ll be reasonable if you send somebody onto the chopper to negotiate.”
I didn’t reply. Homan was telling me that there would be no change of departure orders unless I found something to convince the captain to stay while Kilo climbed the rock face. The combined effects of the Cobras whirling around overhead, the A-6 screaming above them and then the Ontos on the deck with us was all I had to assure that Kilo would have a fair shot of getting up the face without being wiped out.
I realized that my choices were limited in selecting who might be able to accomplish the ‘negotiation’ with Jackman, in order to keep the 46 on the deck until Kilo was up atop the ridge. I couldn’t use the Gunny. He would be needed with me, to plan and defend the base of the wall and prepare our remaining platoons to assault the rockface at first light. The Ontos had to be taken out, as well, although Hutzler was probably perfectly suited to accomplish that on his own. The Gunny might also have his own ideas about what I was planning. In my mind, there was simply no other choice. We had to have the support of the Cobras buzzing all over that face and waiting to blow anything down below to hell and back if the enemy fired at the wall.
Jurgens and Nguyen were all I had. Nguyen spoke little or no English, although his ability to know and understand things without a lot of language was astounding to observe and be affected by. Nguyen was also one hundred percent loyal. Jurgens was Jurgens. He’d do what had to be done if it suited his own purposes, and sending him to the chopper instead of going up the wall with his own platoon was not going to be something he found that fit his idea of ‘own purposes,’ I knew.
“Stand by up there, my friends, Everest awaits us, over and out,” I said into the headset, before stripping my helmet and liner off to give the rig back to Fusner.
Homan and Turk were bright guys, and they’d understand what I was doing, and that we were getting ready to ‘leave the line of departure,’ as the assault would have been called if we were conducting some combat training mission back in Virginia.
“Get me the Gunny, and have him bring Jurgens,” I added, to Fusner, after thinking about the situation we were in for a bit.
I had to have the Gunny in on the plan, I realized. He had to know that Kilo would have every opportunity to make it, and also that Jurgens had to go along, which might prove complicated if we were not all on the same page. I couldn’t go against the Gunny if he opposed me, either directly or indirectly.
I waited for Fusner to get off the radio. “Nguyen,” I said, keeping my voice low.
Fusner didn’t answer immediately, and I felt the reason why. Nguyen’s hand closed on my left bicep. He was there already, like always. Since the arrival of the Cobras and the Intruder, there had been no small arms fire coming from the NVA, so it was impossible to see even the slightest glimpse of the Montagnard so close to me. I felt his support through his touch, however.
“Tell him, that I need him to go with Jurgens to the chopper and make sure that it doesn’t leave the ground until Kilo’s up the cliff and safe along the rim,” I ordered.
“Yes, sir,” Fusner said.
Nguyen removed his hand and I sensed his departure. I heard nothing more, certainly no conversation between the two men.
In seconds Fusner came back “He’ll be here, there and then here again.”
I wondered if Fusner had ever read the Scarlett Pimpernel: “They seek him here, they seek him there, those Frenches seek him everywhere.” The quote from the novel prompted to run through my mind by his words.
The Ontos arrived, to be run backward into the wall not far from my position. I listened to Hutzler position the main part of the small tank so that the recoilless rifles, mounted on the moveable turret, could cover the area around the chopper. There was a certain warm comfort in having the dreaded machine so close by. Earlier in my combat experience, I’d thought that the armored vehicle would attract rocket fire, but had since discovered, at least down in the valley, that the NVA took no chances at stirring the beast. But, they would have RPGs, and they’ likely attempt to fire several of them, or more, at the naked surface of the rock, where the chiseled path crisscrossed up to the top. Hopefully, the chopper had come in by complete surprise, since helicopter missions were seldom conducted at night, especially at night under the weather conditions we were experiencing. One single rocket, striking anywhere on the chopper, would destroy it. The exhaust smoke from the Ontos’ idling engine filled the air around me, making me wonder for a few seconds how smoke particles managed to travel through the pouring rain, and also if the smoke made it through the air all the way to me than what else might, as well? Even with the supporting fires building up to a morning crescendo, we had to be huge targets of opportunity for the NVA, and I could not see them missing the opportunity we were forced to present to them.
The Gunny came out of the dark, although I could not see it was him and had to assume by simple logic that nobody else would be showing up. He was accompanied by another man I assumed to be Jurgens.
Both moved in close, close enough to where I knew it was them.
“What’s on your mind Junior?” the Gunny asked.
I could tell, across the short distance between us, that he was taking out one of his cigarettes.
I launched into the foundation for my plan to get Kilo the protection it needed while making its transit up the wall to the top, finally getting to the part where Jurgens would have to remain behind until most, if not all, of Kilo and his platoon were atop the ridge.
“So, you’re planning on taking out the crew of one of our own choppers if that crew, or the captain himself, doesn’t agree to remain sitting ducks while Kilo climbs the wall? the Gunny asked, igniting the tip of his cigarette.
“Wow!” he went on after a few seconds, the cigarette lighting his face as he sucked in a double lung full of the smoke.
“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” I replied.
The Gunny held out the cigarette, the gesture he’d not made when he’d smoked in front of me only a short time before.
I took the lit cigarette and inhaled, but only lightly. I needed to be totally oriented. Sometimes the smoke from a cigarette made me slightly ill or dizzy.
“Yeah, he’s planning that all right,” Jurgens said, the tone of his voice close to a hiss, “but I’m the one who’s supposed to do the dirty work.”
“You’ve outdone yourself on this one, Junior,” the Gunny said, as I handed his cigarette back.
“If the chopper leaves, then the Cobra’s leave,” I replied. “If the Cobra’s leave, then we have one A-6 up there and the Ontos down here, plus whatever the company can bring to bear. Without snipers on the ridge and our inability to see into the jungle at night from down here, that means the A-6 has to carry the whole load of fire suppression. In which case Kilo is likely dead down to its last Marine. They lost 18 wounded and a dozen K.I.A. coming down the river. The chopper has a crew of five. There are about a hundred and sixty Marines left in Kilo. If I have to lose 23 to save a hundred and sixty, then there’s no decision to be made.”
“First the sacrifice of Kilo to save our own company, and now the sacrifice of the medevac, and the wounded to save Kilo,” the Gunny took another hit on the cigarette, once again illuminating his face for a few seconds. “What, or who’s next?”
“What about me?” Jurgens asked.
“Think,” the Gunny said to Jurgens. “You’ve taken bigger risks just to get a few silver stars. Think. You stay with the chopper. You never have to risk the climb, or worry about getting from the island on into An Hoa, which is a long way from guaranteed. You ride the chopper on into An Hoa and you’re home free. Junior can write you a note, like a doctor’s note. He’ll write that he ordered you to lead the advance party, awaiting the company’s arrival on the ground.”
“You’ll write that, sir?” Jurgens asked.
With that question and the addition of the uncommon ‘sir’ at the end of it, I knew the Gunny had sealed the deal. I also knew that if Jurgens didn’t live up to his word, or perform the mission acceptably, then I wouldn’t have to worry about the sergeant ever again, one way or the other.
“Kilo climbs in thirty minutes,” I said, “and Nguyen will back your play at the chopper. I’ll get under my poncho right now and write the letter to command.”
I covered myself with the poncho cover without saying more. Turning on my small flashlight gave me a feeling of relief, as I brought my little container of stationery from my pocket. My letter home would have to wait. There was no way I was going to entrust its delivery to Jurgens, or even Nguyen. The chopper crew, even if things worked out the way I needed them to, was going to be mad as hell, and not likely to deliver anything from me to anywhere.
The rain beat down on my poncho, the helicopter’s blades stirred the night nearby while the A-6, along with the orbiting Cobras could be heard higher up in darkened sky. The noise of all of it was something I could not write home about, as it was simply not believable. I scribbled the ridiculous ‘doctor’s note’ for Jurgens, hoping that when I pulled the poncho back to give it to him everything outside in the nightmare of the night would disappear. The silent road of my dreams, filled with expressionless but totally accusing civilians along its length, no matter how discomforting, was something I’d much rather step out into than that which awaited me.
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