Our return to the company was without incident, although Casey would not shut up. His incessant chatter was more than bothersome, because it couldn’t be listened to for long without the listener realizing that something was seriously wrong with the man. Some of what he was saying was painful to hear, and potentially damaging to any ability I might have to command the company around him. The Gunny had agreed to a slight delay in our departure toward the objective.
“I need a new helmet,” Casey said, plopping himself down next to my laid out poncho cover, the Gunny having gathered his stuff and placed it next to my own without saying anything.
“You’re going to the rear on the resupply chopper,” I told Casey, trying to ignore the man and write my wife a letter home to go aboard that same chopper.
“Give me your helmet,” he said, “so I won’t look like a circus creature.”
I looked over at the man, sitting like a lost child in the jungle, fingering his battered helmet.
“Mine says Junior on it, and I’m sure you don’t want that,” I replied, hoping he’d shut up and let me finish my description of how the raging river reared up onto the opposite bank, and then slowly carved that bank away into nothingness.
I wrote about the beauty and purity of the sand, the moving water left behind.
“It just says that on the cover,” he said, holding out his grasping fingers toward me. I handed him my helmet, which I seldom took off. I then lost myself in the letter, only surfacing after I was done, and then addressing the envelope. My stamps had turned to mush, so there would be no postmark on a regular stamp to collect on the other end. I’d instructed my wife to keep all the envelopes for my collection, in the hope they’d become worth something later on. Typically, the glue on the seal part of the envelope had also disappeared. The thing flapped open, but it would have to do. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to read my letters home. Maybe Macho Man would return on today’s run and have some sort of weird interest, simply because he was such a weird man.
“Sir?” I asked, when I looked over.
Casey was working my helmet cover over with his knife.
“There,” he said, handing me his old helmet with my cover covering it. He’d carefully cut a hole around the dent on one side of the cover and then pierced the canvas so the embedded piece of shrapnel could stick through.
I took the helmet and stared at the mess he’d somehow made look even worse. My shoulders sagged. What did it matter? There was nobody in the field who gave one damn how I looked, including me. I put the helmet on. The dent didn’t penetrate through the liner and neither did the chunk of shiny metal.
“I need Rittenhouse,” he said, settling in under what had been my protective steel pot.
“Rittenhouse didn’t make it,” I said, knowing he knew that from our previous conversation. I looked over at his expression, and I sighed, waiting for what he was going to say next.
“Yes, you killed him,” he said, staring at me like I was some sort of monster.
“We’ll have a new clerk soon,” I replied, not wanting to pursue the subject, and growing ever more fearful that Casey’s mouth could hurt me with the Marines around me more than the enemy right now.
I had the Jurgens meeting to handle, and I needed to talk to Nguyen and Stevens privately before that took place.
“You, Junior are not a nice man,” Casey said, continuing where he’d left off.
“How is the next clerk supposed to do his job if the criticism for what he writes is death?”
“I need to meet with my scout team,” I said, ignoring the nasty comment. I climbed to my feet and stuck the letter to my wife in my left thigh pocket.
“You don’t have a scout team,” Casey said. “They’re my scout team. All you have is a radio operator. He has a radio that works. Somebody stole the microphone off my radio so it doesn’t work anymore. My RTO is gone, probably looking for the microphone.”
I looked down at my pack, where Pilson’s handset lay in full view of Casey, only a few feet away. I knew he was refusing to look at it.
“We’ll get you a new radio,” I replied, not knowing what else to say. Whatever had happened in the contact down by the river, or the close strike of the shrapnel to his head had changed Casey completely. There was none of the ignorant arrogance left in the man. He was like a bright teenager with a strange sense of hope in his expression and seemingly careless attitude about life going on around him.
“Don’t need a radio,” he said. “I’m getting the Silver Star. Junior’s Silver Star. They’re going to send me here to the company with my Silver Star. You can have it when I come back. I’ll trade you for half your radio.”
I looked over at Fusner and Zippo, sitting only a few feet away. Both were smiling, and then I was smiling. It was quickly becoming impossible not to like our obviously damaged company commander.
“Okay, sir,” I could not keep myself from saying.
“Deal,” Casey replied, coming to his feet and sticking out his right hand.
“Deal,” I said, shaking his hand.
“You helmet looks funny,” he said, before turning to walk toward where the Gunny was getting his pack ready for the move. “You should get a new one” he said over his shoulder, as he went.
The Gunny looked at me across the distance with a furrowed brow and pain in his eyes. I would have smiled at the burden he had to know was walking toward him, but instead took out my Colt for one last check of the action. I was not going to let the sun set with Jurgens in the company, knowing that he’d managed to make it look like I’d deliberately killed some of my own men for whatever personal gain or because it gave legs to some conspiracy theory about me floating around and running through the company.
The rain was gone and the sun was out. I knew that same sun would make it nearly unlivable later in the day, as far down in the valley as we were, but just then it was a welcome relief from the night before. There was no fire or sign of the enemy at all. But then, I was finding that not uncommon, as the supporting fires a Marine Company could command during daylight hours were pretty extensive. The enemy was fierce but they were also not stupid.
There was a feeling of relief and mild exhilaration that flowed through me with being alive when there were body bags waiting for pickup. Fusner turned his small transistor radio on and there was Brother John’s soothing deep voice. Nah Trang. I wondered if it was always quiet and peaceful wherever down south Nah Trang was located. The first song of the day played, but I ignored it, finishing my work on the .45, until all of a sudden the words in the sing-song piece penetrated my brain. “From the village hidden deep in the valley, one rainy morning dark and gray…a soul winged its way to heaven… Jimmy Brown had passed away…” Rittenhouse hadn’t had a name even close to Jimmy Brown’s but it was straight to Rittenhouse where my mind went.
I looked around me. The scout team and the Gunny were all looking at Fusner, like I was. Fusner reached for the little knob but the Gunny stopped him.
“Let it play,” he said, “but keep it low.”
The song played out. I waited for it be over, trying not to think of the Rittenhouse I’d knelt in the mud with, and his damning look of childish appreciation for my removing his pain. And his life. I worked to get my mind back on the moment. The company was about ready to move out but I wasn’t ready yet.
“Where’s Jurgens?” I asked the Gunny. The Gunny ignored me, as did the rest of the scout team, everyone staying low in fear of the horrid fifty being brought back on line by the enemy from across the river.
“Gunny?” I asked, quietly, but forcefully.
I wasn’t going to let the mystery of the totally out of place and stupid expedition everyone had let Casey lead into obvious disaster go unexplained. The Gunny moved toward me, and I could see by his expression that we were about to disagree again.
“We need him. Casey’s flying out, probably never to return. Resupply is screwed up because we’ve lost our company clerk and nobody knows shit about ordering anything. The NVA’s right across that river or we’d be under attack right now. The landing zone is gone, whatever the hell that means, and we’ve got four more dead bodies.”
“I didn’t send the company to the objective because you didn’t want me to,” I replied. I knew that he and I both knew, however, that I couldn’t have made any of the Marines, except maybe my scout team, go anywhere without his approval, but I wanted to make a point of the fact that I’d gone along with him, as in the past.
“We need him,” the Gunny repeated. “What do you want from him?”
“Answers he’s not going to give you,” I replied.
“He didn’t do it and wasn’t behind it,” the Gunny said, squatting down next to me.
“You side with the whites in this thing going on, and you know it. You and Sugar Daddy are about as close as Jurgens and me, which isn’t close at all.”
Casey got up and walked over to sit on the edge of my poncho cover.
“Steak,” Casey said. “When I get to the rear I’m going into the first restaurant I can find and order a steak.”
“I was,” the Gunny said, almost too softly for me to hear.
I tried to figure out what he meant by those two words, but couldn’t.
“Maybe they’ll let me bring one back for you.” Casey continued like there was no other conversation going on.
“I sent them out there, that’s why you don’t need Jurgens,” the Gunny said, still speaking almost too low to be heard.
“I can put one into a plastic bag just before they ship me back here,” Casey went on. “I wonder if I get the medal over here or if I have to wait until I get home. If I get it here I can bring it back and give it to you, or if they send it to my house I can send it to you.”
It finally dawned on me that the Gunny was talking about Casey, and the other men being sent out on the riverbed unprotected and without support.
“Why in hell would you do that?” I asked, my tone revealing my complete bafflement.
“Hey, it’s really your medal,” Casey answered.
I stared over at the side of Casey’s head. He was toying with a stick in the mud just beyond the edge of my poncho liner. He’d become a child, somehow, like Rittenhouse had become a child again at the end. What was the Gunny’s game and what other questions did I need answers to that I really didn’t want to know? Was the Gunny telling me the truth or was he simply running interference for Jurgens?
“I sent him to the river to see if it was fordable by us or the NVA,” the Gunny finally answered. “Nobody knew the riverbed had shifted. It was supposed to be a quick patrol fully in view of perimeter security.”
“Straight out into the teeth of where the rockets had come in from?” I asked, keeping my voice flat and level. “Straight into the only place everyone had to know I was going to land artillery shells all over?”
That the Gunny had been behind sending not only Casey and Rittenhouse out into such a terminal situation was tough enough to consider. That he’d sent his own radio operator, Nguyen and a whole squad of Marines was more difficult. Jurgens wouldn’t send his own people into that kind of charnel house. Neither would the Gunny. I wasn’t buying it. But why was the Gunny covering anyone else? And who was ‘anyone else?’
“Why the cut cord?” I asked, holding the microphone out with its wires dangling down between us.
“Nguyen,” the Gunny whispered.
“Radio won’t work without a handset, Junior,” Casey said, grabbing the severed microphone and spinning it by the remnants of its cord.
“Why?” I asked, knowing, but afraid to know.
“Stevens said you sent Nguyen to finish him,” the Gunny replied, telling me exactly what I didn’t want to hear. “Pilson heard the fire mission, told Casey, and then ran for cover. He was trying to check fire the mission but Nguyen cut the cord.”
“Rittenhouse stayed with Casey until the end, and Casey wouldn’t leave,” I murmured, wondering what I was going to do with that conclusion.
I looked over at Casey, still spinning the handset. He deserved the Silver Star. I could say whatever I wanted about the man’s incompetence or lack of good sense but nobody could say he lacked a kind of courage that I knew I didn’t have. I was ruled by fear, and I compromised everything in the face of it. Casey had not.
“Rittenhouse had to go,” the Gunny said. “You know that.”
“He was going with the captain to the rear, anyway,” I replied.
“To do what? Write more shit about you and I so if we ever get out of this shithole of a sand pit we have no life to go back to?”
I noticed Pilson hanging near a bamboo grove about fifteen meters north, up the path beaten down by the company’s movements. Nguyen was just beyond him, nearly invisible inside the bracken, watching me like he was always watching me. I noticed Pilson’s new radio, with the microphone in his right hand, like he was only waiting for the Gunny’s orders for the company to proceed.
“You got your radio operator back,” I observed, noting that the Gunny must have sent the amateur he had standing in back to whatever unit he’d been pulled from. “Pilson ran under fire,” I said.
“So did you, at one time,” the Gunny shot back, his voice a hissed whisper.
“That’s not what I meant,” I replied, quickly, holding up one hand. “Did anybody see him?”
“Like it matters. He’s my RTO.”
I knew he was right. He was the Gunny and I was Junior, whatever or whomever that was supposed to be.
“What’s the situation with the landing zone?” I asked, not wanting to go deeper into the morass of strange and deadly company politics. “Sugar Daddy sent a forward party and found out what? What was he doing sending anybody out there?”
There was no central command structure in the company. The Gunny wasn’t in command. Casey wasn’t in command and I certainly wasn’t either. We generally moved when ordered, generally took objectives we were commanded to, and certainly killed or injured many of the enemy at every turn, but the company was more like collected bunches of little baby chickens, sticking together while choosing whom or what they were going to follow on a moment by moment basis.
“I still want to see Jurgens,” I stated, when the Gunny didn’t say anything to my questions about our objective. “There’s the grenade.”
“The grenade missed,” the Gunny replied, picking some drying mud from his boots with his K-Bar.
“Then there’s the attempted ambush I was supposed to be killed in, back there earlier,” I added.
“That never went off either,” the Gunny replied, picking and spinning away chunk after chunk away from his boot. “We need him like I said. The river moved at the objective too. What was a landing zone is now a pool of slowly turning backwater. The river’s going down and we’re going to have to cross because that water runs right up against the side of a cliff now. And across that river, well, we know what’s over there.”
“You apparently spoke in detail to Sugar Daddy,” I said, making the flat statement instead of asking him a question.
The Gunny remained silent.
“Maybe I’ve got this all wrong,” I continued. “Maybe there isn’t a racial problem at all in this company. Maybe it’s deeper than that.”
Still, the Gunny remained silent, as I thought about the players I was surrounded with. There was nobody else. There was me, the scout team, Casey, the radio operator’s underground radio network, Jurgens, the Gunny and Sugar Daddy. Rittenhouse had been conveniently removed by me, but not at my order or desire. That he’d thrown the grenade was no longer in question. Dying men begging for morphine to go out in less pain do not lie. At least I didn’t think they did, and I was fast becoming something of an expert on the subject.
“We spoke very briefly at Rittenhouse’s side and then you were gone,” I said, not really knowing where I was going with my point, but unable to just let it go. “You were right there so you heard Rittenhouse apologizing for listening to Jurgens.”
“We need him,” the Gunny came back, like a broken record or some kind of snick on a wagging metronome. Snick, snick, snick.
I thought somehow Jurgens, Sugar Daddy and the Gunny were tied together in ways I could not yet understand, and the Gunny wasn’t going to tell me about, which meant that I was not inside the wire. At an artillery battery, the perimeter is made of concertina razor wire. The density of it, coupled with the power and speed of delivering howitzer rounds at close range, had resulted in no artillery batteries being overrun since World War II.
The phrase “inside the wire” had become synonymous with trust. Everyone inside the wire was automatically trusted and everyone outside the wire fired upon without regard. After almost two weeks of sporadic and questionable command, and numerous plans and artillery barrages that had killed many of the enemy and saved a lot of our Marines, I was still outside the company wire.
I heard a distinct click come out of Fusner’s radio. Everyone started to move. I was figuring out the arcane and very quiet form of communication the rest of the company took as normal. I came to my feet and then cocked my head to one side.
“Cowboy’s back,” I said, heading toward Fusner and the air radio. The sound grew in volume. There were two Skyraiders, although it took a short exchange on the radio to determine it was indeed Cowboy, this time flying as the leader, with “Hobo” backing him up. I told him we were headed to the pole and that the New York side of the Hudson needed some eradication and fertilization.
The Skyraiders flew over our heads, from north to south. Both pilots waved from their open windows, the back windows where their flight officers sat were closed and impossible to see through.
The enemy was on our flank, behind us and no doubt up ahead somewhere. I wasn’t worried about the rear because our problems were about to become serious when the right bank of the river ended somewhere up ahead where the objective was supposed to be.
The Skyraiders turned in one long arc and came back in low over the opposing bank of the river. The large objects under their wings were not bombs. Not ordinary bombs, anyway. The first Skyraider released, and his ‘bomb’ floated and tumbled through the air until it struck. The jungle just beyond the river bank exploded in a black and red nightmare of fire and smoke. The distance was too great to feel the heat, but the show was enough. Napalm. It was my first napalm. I’d been told about the unlikely mixture of gasoline and jello, but the reality of it was nothing like what I expected. It just burned on and on with the smoke getting blacker and blacker, as the jungle below consumed itself, covered in the sticky smelling burning jelly.
The company began moving more rapidly.
“We need a place to cross,” I said to the Gunny’s back. “What did battalion say about the missing LZ?”
“Just need a flat surface on the other bank,” he replied, without turning.
“They’re going to bring some Seabee stuff down from Hue and build a new firebase and LZ to go with it.”
The sun was up and the heat was back, but the ever-present mosquitos and avoiding leeches wasn’t what bothered me. We’d reached the place where we could see across the flat sand plain all the way to the river. The small ‘island’ where Rittenhouse had died was in the distance, but so were a bunch of black low-moving objects.
“What the hell?” I asked, reaching for my binoculars.
The objects were flat and moving way too fast to be enemy soldiers.
“Crocodiles, running from the napalm that flows into the water,” the Gunny said like he was used to seeing such things every day.
“Oh, great,” I murmured, putting my binoculars back in my pack. “Just great, like it hasn’t been bad enough.”
I knew our tit was so in the wringer. The enemy were all there, as before. The Skyraiders were burning up the other side of the river, and would probably be back to remain on station for a good part of the day. That part of the day when the enemy slept or lived down in tunnels. We were hiking on into an area where there was no landing zone and we couldn’t get supplied or Casey or our bodies pulled out without at least a good-sized chunk of flat secured ground.
We were headed north up the A Shau Valley, probably outrunning whatever elements of support battalion might send, and once the Skyraiders pulled out all we’d have was artillery, until I could somehow get the 106 recoilless ordered, delivered and set up.
“Marshmallows!” Casey yelled out, to no one listening, with a giant smile and one hand pointing at the patches of burning jungle on the far shore.
Featured Image by Angel Trancón ARTS