Dawn was breaking somewhere over the high parapet beyond the hill to my back, although the jungle down in the valley only glowed slightly with the coming of the light. The rain was gone. There would be sun.
The radio handset hung down from my right hand, the dangling cut cord swinging gently in the early morning breeze. I knew it was Pilson’s handset and I knew what that had to mean. What kind of mission had I sent Nguyen on with just a word and the nod of my head in the dark? What had made Casey move out toward the river bed without proper flank security or support when incoming fire had been taken just moments before? Was the man completely crazy or possessed of a courage I knew I lacked? And, what could possibly have been accomplished, even if it proved that my artillery strike hadn’t killed every member of his scouting party?
I crouched against the trunk of some unknown jungle tree spreading out above me. The gentle breeze, impossibly making itself so deep down near the jungle floor, shook large droplets of the night rain loose from the leaves. They came down singly, making it seem like God was selecting small certain targets for his own artillery. I bent my head back and waited. It took only a few seconds for a big drop to smack me right between the eyes. First Platoon had established a perimeter while Second had gone through to head west toward the river and find out what had happened to Casey and the men with him.
As the light slowly improved I could see the Marines around me not looking at me, as if by looking they might cause fire to be rained down on their heads too. The Gunny came out of the jungle, up from the point of the company established not far from where I was. I had more questions than I could think to express but I said nothing. After setting Pilson’s handset on my pack I detached my canteen and poured the holder half full. I used the bottom of the cover to smooth a spot on a small area of uncommonly bare mud. Several leeches stuck up out of the mud like flowers waving back at me. I took a chunk of the composition B, stuck it next to the little creatures and lit it. The leeches retreated back into the wet ground. I wondered where they came from and how they could possibly be so numerous where I was when I’d never seen one in my entire life before.
“I didn’t know they went out there in time,” the Gunny said, squatting in from of me.
“Must have been some reason,” I answered, the water in my holder starting to boil.
The Gunny produced a package of the coffee and tossed onto the mud in front of me.
“Three KIA and one wounded,” he said, finally getting out his own canteen holder.
I had a million questions but I didn’t want to ask him any of them. Where had he been? Why was there so little radio traffic on the command net about anything and everything they were doing? Who were the dead and wounded? Was Casey one of them, and how did the Gunny know? Dread of knowing who was hit overwhelmed me.
My hand holding the heating water shook. I willed it to stop but that didn’t work. I knew the Gunny was noticing but there was nothing to be done about that.
I didn’t feel afraid. I just felt like I was at the end of some emotional line and would not be able to cope with any of what was going on.
“No incoming,” I finally said, pouring in the coffee mix and stirring the near boiling water with my right index finger. The pain actually felt good, and I knew that wasn’t right either. And what was a bit more dirt in my coffee, anyway.
“No,” the Gunny replied. “That zone you dropped straddled the river and probably took out a good many more of the gooks than our own Marines. They’re trying to get their act together. Should have been an attack following the rocket attack but nothing. They’re scared shitless of the artillery you can bring in, and you better get ready to call some more.”
“When’s Second Platoon coming back in?” I asked, sipping my coffee but not enjoying it.
The Gunny waved Fusner over to him and then spoke into the handset. Seconds later he handed it back. The speaker on the radio was on, so I didn’t have to inquire about what was going on with the recovery.
Casey was missing and Rittenhouse was dying. The dead were from First Platoon’s squad. A Second Platoon squad was staying with Rittenhouse, with a perimeter set up to wait for Casey to show up. The platoon was returning with the bodies in ponchos and the living remainder of Casey’s squad.
“Casey’s dead out there somewhere and Rittenhouse’s dying?” I said, more to myself than to the Gunny. The simple battery of six artillery mission had turned out to be the most disastrous I’d ever called. And nobody had said anything about Nguyen. Where was Nguyen?
“Not dead yet. We need to move the company out there to provide security and cover until we know what the hell’s going on,” the Gunny said, which surprised me.
“What do you think?” he continued, which surprised me even more.
I stared at him over the lip of my canteen-holder, with raised eyebrows.
“You’re the company commander again,” he finished, looking away.
I’d been company commander before but that hadn’t seemed to matter back then. Now, here I was, in command again, and not really knowing what to do. I stared down at the burning explosive under my cup, and then at the little holes, the leeches had left in their downward retreat. The NVA needed to be kept in their holes, like the leeches.
“No, the company’s going to accomplish Casey’s mission,” I finally said. “I’ll take the scout team out to Second Platoon’s squad and bring Rittenhouse’s body upriver to the objective. We’ll meet you there. Call in a medevac and resupply. If we’re going to be at the site for any time I want a 106 recoilless, and plenty of ammo. Direct fire across that river will stop anything on the other side. The recoilless rifle rounds weighed just a bit less than 105 howitzer rounds and could reach out almost three miles. Five hundred pounds was too much for the company to move around in the field, however. The gun would have to be evacuated or destroyed if the company had to move.
“The objective’s not going anywhere,” the Gunny replied, disagreeing with my plan, but not saying so directly for some reason or other I couldn’t quite fathom.
“The riverbed is flat and open,” I said. “If they get that fifty set back up they might take out the whole company before I could get a single round on target.”
“You don’t think your place is with the company?” he replied.
“I called that strike myself and Nguyen led them out there. I’m going. I don’t have a place in this company and we both know it. Take them to the objective, secure it and get resupplied. We’ll be along or we won’t.”
“We’re pretty secure right here,” the Gunny said, sipping his own coffee, his eyes finally meeting my own. “If they’re waiting for us I don’t have a plan and I can’t call in your kind of artillery. We both know that too. We’ll wait here, so we can go in whole and not leaving anyone behind. The objective will still be there, and nobody back at battalion gives the slightest shit.”
“I presume that’s at on my command?” I replied, putting an edge to my words.
“Why are you going out there?” the Gunny countered.
“You know damned well why ” I replied.
“I’m going with you,” he said, surprising me once again. “Sugar Daddy and Jurgens can hold the perimeter without my help.” He poured the remains of his coffee onto the fire we both used to heat our drinks. I followed suit. There was really nothing else to be said that either of us wanted saying.
The leading elements of Second Platoon moved back through the perimeter and into the broken jungle and mud area that had become the company position. After watching the men come through carrying the silently swinging black bags of the dead, I got my stuff together and moved toward the rough edge of the clearing made by the retreating river. The sound of river’s passing was still a low rushing thunder in the distance. The river had become our friend because it was apparent, even without seeing it, that nobody was going to cross it without special engineering equipment not available to anyone deep down in our part of the valley.
I started out with Zippo, Stevens, and Fusner spreading out behind me, the Gunny following in trace twenty meters back, or so, with another enlisted Marine right behind him. From somewhere in the company the Gunny had glommed onto a Prick 25 and someone to carry it.
It took only a few minutes to cross through the broken bracken of the light jungle density to move out onto the flat sand where the river had once run across. The sand was dense, but not hard and it was runneled through with ribbons of green fronds and small broken branches. Sprinkled around were varying sizes of rocks, some as small as a thimble and others as large as bowling balls. I followed the tracks Second Platoon had pressed into the sand in making the recovery effort. It took another five minutes to reach a position not far from the river’s rushing waters. Just before the fast-moving rapids was a stand of bamboo stalks and a mass of trees that must have served as a small narrow island when the river ran less powerfully on both sides. I saw a slight tangle of poncho covers with a pair of boots sticking out.
Dawn had arrived and the light was increasing all the time, as the sun rose to the point where it would soon appear over the lip of the eastern canyon. The squad left with Rittenhouse was spread out with the Marines lined up facing toward the river, all peering through the slight brush at the far shore. I knew immediately that we had to move off the exposed former island as quickly as we could. There was nothing that served as cover from a fifty-caliber heavy machine gun if the NVA got it back into action.
A corpsman came up to his knees and waved me toward him. He was kneeling next to a mass that didn’t look like it was human at all. I leaned down before going to my own knees. I stared into Rittenhouse’s weakly blinking eyes.
His body was such a chopped mess that I could not look at it.
“Can you help me, sir?” Rittenhouse squeaked out, bubbly red saliva dripping from his mouth. He coughed, but not hard, as if any further effort would kill him.
The corpsman shook his head from a position just beyond Rittenhouse’s head. I could tell the corpsman was wrapping up and getting his kit together.
I wanted to talk to him but I was frozen in place by Rittenhouse’s pleading eyes. In seconds the corpsman was gone, leaving only Fusner the Gunny and I at the company clerk’s side.
“I shouldn’t have listened to Jurgens,” Rittenhouse gasped out. “I can’t take this pain, sir. I just can’t do it.” Tears flowed down both sides of his skull. “Will you help me, sir?”
“Gunny, take the men and get them ready to move out,” I ordered, without my eyes leaving those of Rittenhouse.
I wanted to tell the corporal that I hadn’t called in the artillery to get even or kill him. I wanted to lie and say I hadn’t sent Nguyen to somehow entice him out to expose him, but I knew it was pointless. The only thing that was important was the present, his pain and getting the unit out of the line of fire as quickly as possible.
I removed the morphine I kept in my right thigh pocket. I wanted to call the corpsman back to administer the dosage but I knew he’d left because he either didn’t want to do it or wouldn’t do it. I was the company commander and it was my call, for whatever unjust and strange reason.
“Where’s Casey?” I asked, my voice a whisper as I gently removed three morphine syrettes from my small case.
What was left of Rittenhouse would certainly require norhing more. The shrapnel effect of the 105s was evident. Rittenhouse had been carved nearly to pieces by razor-sharp shards of sharpened metal traveling at twenty-two thousand feet per second. His body had been as nothing against their onslaught. That he was alive at all was a miracle or a curse, depending on perspective.
“He said he was going on a walkabout, sir,” Rittenhouse said, his voice almost too soft to hear. “He wasn’t hit but he wasn’t right in the head either.”
I knew Rittenhouse would die if I knelt there and waited long enough, but every second I waited risked my life and those with me. I punched in the three syrettes, one after another, taking less than ten seconds for the entire operation.
“The pain’s going to be gone in a minute,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered back. “I didn’t mean it. I didn’t mean any of it.”
“I know, I know,” I said, meaning it, knowing I should be crying, or reacting in some emotional way, but unable to do anything but wait impatiently for the boy to die.
“Thank you, sir,” were his final words, and they went into me like three hot knives.
It took nearly five minutes. His frightened eyes finally closed on their own, and his breathing became labored until it was gone. I counted. Twenty-seven breaths from his eyes closing until his breathing stopped. I knew there was no point in counting but I couldn’t help it. Twenty-seven breaths. Less than two minutes.
I got up and walked to where the corpsman had disappeared in the brush. He was no more than ten feet away. I tossed the three empty syrettes to him.
“He’s gone,” I said, coldly, even though I knew the course of events wasn’t the corpsman’s fault. “Bag him and let’s get back to the company.”
I breathed in and out deeply and worked to shed whatever emotions were rising up inside me. We were all trying to stay alive and doing only those things that might enhance that effort. The corpsman was trying to save lives and it wasn’t fair to put him into a position where he had to take lives.
I moved to where the Gunny crouched with Zippo, Stevens and the two RTOs. I’d thought to bring my binoculars. I swung them up to take in the empty river bed from our position north and then downriver in the south.
“He’s not out there, sir,” Fusner said. “We’ve been looking.”
“What’s a walkabout?” I asked, never having heard the phrase before.
“Australian,” the Gunny said. “Means walking around for a while, usually getting dead drunk for weeks, and then heading home like you’ve never been gone.”
“He went south,” I said, pointing. “I can see his footprints, so we go south down the river.”
“How far?” Fusner asked.
“As far as it takes,” the Gunny responded, coming up behind me. “We’re not leaving him behind. I’ll call Jurgens and fill him in.”
“Let’s settle in for a few minutes,” I said, sitting down on some jungle bracken and taking out my map.
My mind wasn’t really on setting defensive fires I already had the coordinates for in my head. The mention of Jurgens took my thoughts to other places, like my Colt. It’d been over a week since I’d cleaned it. Would it even function without a teardown and cleaning? I pulled it out and checked the action, ejecting the magazine and looking down the barrel. The .45 seemed okay. I knew it would fire under the direst of dirty circumstance, as it was built for rough combat conditions. I wasn’t worried about functioning nearly as much as I was worried about whether the action would work if the slightest rust sealed the slide or barrel to the receiver. I might need more than one shot for Jurgens when I next ran into him. And then there was Stevens. He was Nguyen’s translator. Why had he gone forward physically in the company when it would have been much quicker to call on the radio? What had he told Nguyen and what had Nguyen’s role been? My trust in everything had been shaken and my hands were reflecting that knowing fear. I had killed Rittenhouse first with artillery and then again with the morphine.
“There,” Zippo exclaimed, pointing toward a distant stand of jungle downriver.
I stood and brought up my Japanese binoculars. I instantly fixed them on the darker objects approaching. I adjusted the focus carefully. I didn’t have to adjust both lenses to see that it was Nguyen, Pilson and the captain approaching. Nguyen gripped Casey’s right bicep with his left hand and led him slowly toward us.
I brought the glasses back down and went back down to the debris-covered jungle floor. I noticed while I waited, that the entire stand of trees, bamboo and jungle bracken looked like it’d been through a vegetable chopper. The high explosive shells had left the little island intact from a distance but cut the heart of the place to pieces with giant shrapnel razor blades.
“Corpsman up,” I said, over my shoulder. The captain’s helmet, the one that had created the nickname of Captain Crunch for him, had added damage. I wondered if the piece of shrapnel sticking out the other side of the helmet had penetrated to his skull below. The corpsman raced down to the approaching men. The rest of the detail lay in prone position remaining undercover and ready to provide as much covering fire as possible if the exposed men needed it.
The four came in together, with Pilson peeling off to stand with the Gunny and his newfound radio operator. Pilson’s radio was still on his back, although I knew the handset was back laying on top of my pack at the company. Nguyen looked over at me in a meaningful way, but I could get nothing from his impassive expression. The corpsman sat the captain down where I’d laid out my poncho cover in expectation of his arrival. Casey’s helmet was off, and he appeared outwardly undamaged. Physically.
“How are you, sir?” I asked.
He turned his head to face me. “I’m not going,” he said, flatly.
“Going where?” I asked, a bit befuddled by his comment.
“I’m not going to get the Silver Star,” he said. “I’ve always wanted a Silver Star, but I’m not going. It’s your Silver Star, anyway. I just wanted it.”
“What?” was all I could say, in shock.
“I killed Rittenhouse,” Casey said, his voice quiet and listless. “I killed him for sure. I should have known you’d drop that crap on us before I could get him out of here. I was trying to get him to the objective before you figured it out.”
The Gunny tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to get up. I did so, my expression one of a question.
“Wait with the men,” he said, very softly.
I shook my head, but gathered the scout team and moved back into the cover provided by the chopped bracken island. We waited while the Gunny talked to Casey, and he talked back. Nobody could hear what was being said. Ten minutes later, the Gunny left the captain’s side and came over to us.
“He’s not right,” the Gunny said, squatting down among us. “He doesn’t want to go anywhere, or be here anymore, or be company commander. He says, anyway.”
“Well, no shit, Gunny,” Stevens said. “Who in the hell wants to be here?”
“No, it’s a bit more than that,” the Gunny replied. “He’s lost it and we’ve got to get him to the rear before he gets himself and everyone else killed.”
I sat silently, trying to figure out what Casey was talking about. He was trying to get Rittenhouse out so I couldn’t get to him, and what was I supposed to figure out? That Rittenhouse had tried to frag me? That was it? Only that? I wasn’t buying it. And where had the Gunny and Jurgens disappeared to when Casey was out gallivanting around in a free fire zone right after a rocket attack? And finally, what was Pilson’s role in the whole thing?
The Gunny carefully put Casey’s helmet back on the captain’s head, and then turned and waved for me to approach.
I sat on the outer edge of the poncho cover, trying not to show my distrust.
“You need to convince him to get back and get the medal,” the Gunny unaccountably said, before standing and walking over to the rest of the scout team.
Casey stared at me. The scene was funny. I knew it was funny, and I knew one day I might laugh. Casey’s eyes were almost rolling; he was so out of it. His helmet was bashed in on one side and had a piece of shiny shrapnel sticking straight out of the other. Captain Crunch wasn’t a close descriptor anymore for the tattered damaged mess he’d become. I thought about his situation and our own, before speaking.
“Yes, you’re going to the rear to get the medal, and it’s not my medal,” I began. “It’s the company’s medal. You have to go to represent your company, your first command. Your men need you. It doesn’t matter who the medal should go to. It’s yours now and I think that’s great. For me it was just doing my job.”
I wondered if I was making any sense at all, as his expression didn’t change.
“Did you know I was there when you called that artillery in?” he said, his eyes suddenly focusing and staring into my own.
“I didn’t know any of you were there,” I replied.
“I don’t have to believe that, do I, Junior?” he asked.
“No, you just have to go to the rear and take care of your men.”
The captain sat there, looking down at his hands for a couple of minutes. I didn’t say anything, taking the time to think about the four ounce can of mineral oil, maintenance, I had in my pack. I’d get the oil out before we moved and pour it over the action of the .45. I didn’t need a long-term fix. I just needed to have the thing work when I met Jurgens later in the day.
“You don’t like me, do you, Junior?” Casey asked.
I was getting frustrated and the man was scaring me. Was he truly crazy or simply a little crazy?
“I don’t know you, sir,” I replied, knowing it was a weak reply but not knowing what else to say without sending him right off the deep end.
“Well, I know you, Junior,” he replied, “and nobody likes you except maybe that whacked out Montagnard native person, and you’re going to find that out.”
Casey got to his feet. “Let’s go,” he said, surprising the hell out of me.
I wanted to ask him at least one more question but he immediately started off walking toward where the company was still waiting for us.
The Gunny asked me if Casey would go back on the coming chopper and I told him I believed so, but that was all we said before following Casey back into the jungle and through the perimeter.
Sugar Daddy appeared near the point of our arrival back behind the line.
“There’s no landing zone left there,” he said. “Sent a point locating party out to scout our route. They came back. No booby traps, no enemy, and no landing zone, new or old. Where the hell’s the objective?”
I looked at the Gunny but he merely shrugged.
“I don’t know where the objective’s gone,” I replied. “Where’s Jurgens?”
I knelt down and opened my pack. The light maintenance oil was right there. I pulled it out and went to work on the Colt, working the action time after time. It was a great weapon, and I smiled to myself over its functioning. One round into the chamber and five in the magazine. No stress on the magazine tang.
“What you want Jurgens for?” the Gunny asked.
I looked up. Everyone was staring down at me with strange expressions.
The sun shone behind them, making the Gunny and my scout team into dark statue-like silhouettes.
“What?” I said to the Gunny, getting to my feet while shoving the .45 into my holster. “It’s morning. Jurgens and I need to have a brief discussion about the coming move over breakfast.”