I was wrong and I knew it by the time the company had proceeded less than an hour into its rain-flushed mud-slogging move into an impossibly dark night of trying to break through abusive jungle bracken while attempting to be careful not to set off any booby-traps. The move was not going to be a night move because there wasn’t going to be enough hours left in the night to make it. I moved with the company in slow syncopated motion, surging ahead and together, one Marine after another, in each other’s footsteps, while stopping frequently because the men in front stopped. There were no reasons given for stopping because nobody talked during the move, but it was apparent that getting to the abandoned landing zone was going to take a whole lot longer than I’d predicted, and that meant we’d lose the cover of darkness at some point before we made it.
The rain drowned out everything when it came to sound, and whatever very limited visibility that had been available up on the side of the hill was completely lost inside our jungle, paralleling the river. I moved into a near trance, and then stopped patiently and frequently to await advancing a few more yards. Running to daylight wasn’t going to have any running, or even moving quickly, as part of the plan I realized, and that obvious fact meant trouble. The enemy would be figuring out what we were up to, and then moving to parallel us across the river. The smaller force we’d hit earlier, now behind us, would serve as the ‘stopper’ in our metaphorical rear end, slowly moving with us but staying far enough back to prevent us from retreating, or evacuating, or whatever we might try in that direction.
Since it had become unlikely that the company would reach the objective before daylight there was, however, at least some hope of air support coming in to complement what Cunningham could offer in the way of fire support. Firebase Cunningham was off at a western angle from the northerly direction we were following up the valley. If we needed fire, along the length of almost our entire exposure, we’d be right near the gun target line, if not on it. Range was the most inaccurate measurement in artillery, so I would have to be fully aware of exactly where we were at all times, and that might prove difficult with a company on line in near single file stretched out and winding its way through a jumbled jungle for the entire distance.
At one of our ‘stop and rest for a few seconds along the way’ things, Fusner stepped close to where I leaned against a stand of unidentifiable stalks after trying to examine them to make sure no bamboo vipers were about, at least not at head or eye level.
“King Cobra,” Fusner said, his face not far from my left ear. “If you’re worried about the vipers you don’t have to. Not many down here. King Cobras are more likely to turn up, but at least they run from people.”
“Run?” I asked, not intending to be funny but realizing that Fusner’s statement that called for the question was funny indeed.
“The grenade,” Fusner said, changing the subject, as I tried to look down and around at the mud beneath my boots for any stray King Cobras, not that I knew anything about them or had ever seen one. “It must have been Rittenhouse. I heard you say his name to Nguyen before he took off.”
“Was it?” I said, not wanting to confirm what I didn’t know for certain. I was not sorry I’d done whatever I’d done with Nguyen, but in thinking about the affair I still wasn’t sure.
The Gunny had not come outright and stated that Rittenhouse had thrown the grenade. But the main problem I couldn’t get over was that there just were not any other suspects. But then, I thought, Rittenhouse hadn’t seemed to be a real suspect either at the time. Rittenhouse was going to the rear with the captain, and that spoke volumes. If the captain knew and was protecting him, then more trouble would be coming up on the horizon.
“Do you trust me, sir?” Fusner asked, his voice a whisper I could barely hear above the gently blowing rain.
I turned my head to look at the young man. Young kid, I thought, revising my snap judgment about his manhood. I was about to ask him why he’d asked that question or what bearing it had on anythin until I stopped myself. He was serious, and the question had merit and, given the grenade incident, it was applicable. I didn’t respond quickly enough, however.
“Why not, sir?” he went on, before I could reassure him.
“I trust you,” I finally said back. “Completely. I’m sorry I might not have let you know that. You’re like family. I thought you just knew. You trusted me first, when nobody else did. I won’t ever forget that.”
“Do you trust Stevens and Zippo?” Fusner asked, after half a moment of silence.
I breathed in and out slowly, thinking. I noted that the rain was lessening for the first time in twenty-four hours. The Gunny was right. The rain was getting ready to give us a break. A break that would make us more visible, and just about end our ability to move along the wet and squishy jungle floor without being heard. The enemy would certainly be all over us before we reached the objective, I knew. I wondered what other combat units were like and whether they were hit all the time like we were. I tried to recall one of my earlier days on Gonoi Island when we had a few hours of peace during daylight hours, and couldn’t.
“Yes, I trust Zippo,” I finally replied, leaving Stevens out of the equation, and hoping Fusner would let it go.
The company began to move again, and I stepped away from the bamboo stalks.
“We know you trust Nguyen,” Fusner said, moving to catch up with me.
I didn’t have to avoid the subject or change it. A series of B-40 rockets did that, with much more effectiveness than I could conjure up.
The rockets roared across the river with their twizzling scream, reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s phony spaceship, but much louder. The explosions that followed were neither lessened in impact or shattering noise by the dying rain. We’d been hit hard on the left flank from across the river, I sensed even before the rockets struck. The explosions had occurred well up toward the point of the unit. Why Casey was up there at all I had wanted to ask the Gunny, but was afraid I’d get another of his “the boots need to be taken off and aired out” kind of story. Casey’s FNG status, in spite of his rank, was fully illustrated by the senseless and unknowing exposure his position at the point revealed.
There was no sense in waiting for an “arty up” cry to make its way back down the line after the rocket attack. The message had too far to travel and the point would have taken me too long to reach on foot, although I was surprised that the radio remained silent. I was not as afraid of more rocket fire nearly as much as I was of the fifty-caliber that had to be on the way to being set up somewhere across the river. The enemy had to know the company was on the move. That had taken place faster than I thought possible, and that meant the big gun was on the way. The only good news was that the attack made it less likely there was an ambush waiting at the objective. If the NVA had a force there waiting, then they would have allowed the company to quietly and easily walk right into it without any attacks along the way.
I reached out for Fusner’s handset. Without delay, it was snapped into the palm of my hand, like a scalpel provided to a surgeon in an operating theater.
I called in my fourth night defensive fire coordinate. I indicated in the call that we were in contact, although it was likely that the battery at Firebase Cunningham would be able to hear the explosions in the distance from their location high up on an ‘island-like’ ridge on the far side of the valley escarpment.
The river’s location was well illustrated on my map, so I pulled my poncho over me to get some light on it. I had to make sure where that first round was coming in because I’d be calling for the Willie Peter in its warhead to go off almost six hundred feet in the air. With the clouds beginning to lighten up I thought I’d be able to see the round go off. I could then drop high explosives along the far side of the river, just as I’d done to silence the fifty-caliber earlier. The river had to be at least a hundred meters across, as the valley floor was flattening out, so I knew the safety margins for the forward elements of the company should be acceptable.
The poncho pulled back a slight bit, and I saw Steven’s face reflected by my tiny light source, its glow getting dimmer by the minute, because I had no replacement batteries available.
“Do you want me to run forward to make sure of First Platoon’s position?” he asked.
I thought for a few seconds. First Platoon was likely hugging the crease near the bottom of the hill we’d all been near since leaving our previous location a few kilometers back. The river was a known feature running to our left on the move. The distance from the river to our hillside varied from about three hundred to six hundred meters. The six hundred, given the river was about a hundred wide, was a pretty safe margin for calling in fire. Knowing the captain’s and Jurgens’ exact position would be helpful but not really necessary. I waved Stevens off, and then called in the single spotting round. I climbed from under my poncho. I moved quickly toward the side of the hill and scrambled up a few meters, as best I could on the slippery surface. Fusner and Zippo stayed right with me.
“Where’s Stevens? I asked Fusner, wondering why the sergeant had taken off like a man on a mission after our short exchange. I prepared to attempt to see where the round I’d called in was going to go off. If my calculations were right, then the round would explode just across the river, and a few hundred meters beyond were First Platoon had to be down and waiting.
Fusner wondered aloud about whether the high explosive shells would be effective if they hit the water. I spent a few seconds explaining how the new ‘super-quick’ fuses worked. Two surfaces, of what was essentially tin foil, were stretched a millimeter apart, like two very thin wafers, and set into the tip of the round. A small and thin plastic cover was placed over them. When the round spin-armed and hit something it would explode because one of the tin foil sheets touched the other. Water wasn’t a negative factor. The round spinning in would go off with only one inch of its body penetrating the water instead of having to go through only half an inch of solid ground. Either way, the shrapnel would be devastating to anyone nearby, unless they were deeply dug in. I doubted if the enemy had had time to do much digging into the awful slimy mud before they launched their rocket attack. But they had to know artillery would be on the way. They’d dealt with our company for some time and they’d been decimated more than once. Why draw our fire over a few rockets delivered into a jungle setting that would absorb ninety percent of their killing effect before possibly reaching any sensitive target? I didn’t know and was left to wonder.
The Willie Peter round went off, and the show was distantly beautiful, as usual. The umbrella of particles showered down in almost exactly the place I predicted. That was possibly half a click south, but within tolerable parameters.
I went back to my map under the poncho and used the grease pencil to check my work. Firing for effect would drop the rounds near the far side of the river, allowing plenty of room for any deflection error. Being on the gun target line didn’t matter in our case this time because ranging errors would be easily absorbed by how stretched out the unit was and by the distance involved.
“Call Pilson and ask him if the Willie Peter round came down far enough across the river from them for me to fire H.E.” I ordered Fusner. It took only seconds for him to report back that there was no response on the command net. It took a few more seconds for Jurgens’ RTO to respond when Fusner diverted to First Platoon’s radio.
“The spotting round came in directly east of their position,” Fusner reported, holding the handset to his ear. “They didn’t take any casualties from the rockets, but they’re not moving anymore.”
“What’s wrong with Pilson’s radio?” I asked.
Fusner talked some more before reporting that nobody at the other end knew, which seemed odd to me but I let it go, intending to check later. I used the artillery net to call Cunningham and asked for a battery of six. Cunningham accepted the mission. From where the rounds in the full battery spread impacted I’d adjust up and down the other side of the river like I’d done before, by sound if necessary. As long as all elements of the company were far enough away from the river the impacting rounds wouldn’t have to be adjusted with pinpoint accuracy.
Steven’s came plunging through the night to land in heap between Fusner and I.
“Don’t shoot!” he hissed out, between labored breaths.
“Shoot?” Fusner and I asked, at the same time.
“Shot over,” came from the Prick 25 radio, as if to answer our question.
“Shit,” Stevens breathed out slowly.
“Splash,” came from the radio, as it dawned on me that Stevens was talking about stopping the fire mission.
There was no checking fire once the rounds were in the air, however, so I didn’t bother to make the attempt. Cunningham would not fire a second volley unless ordered.
The explosions from the fire rippled through the sprinkling night air like small distant and closely spaced links of thunder.
“What happened?” I asked, knowing I wasn’t going to like whatever it was my scout sergeant was going to tell me.
“Casey, Pilson and a squad headed west to the river,” Stevens said, still breathing hard from his run back through the thick mess of jungle he’d beaten his way through to get to us as fast as possible. “The river moved its course eastward with the heavy rain, and they went to see if it might be easier to approach the objective by using the empty riverbed.”
“Shit,” I said, repeating Steven’s comment.
“Now why in hell would they do something basically that stupid?” was all I could think to follow up with, my mind racing over the probabilities while I climbed out of the mud and got ready to move out as quickly as I could. I’d adjusted the fire of the battery of six to impact close to the eastern bank of the river, and I knew that some of the rounds would likely have landed on the water, as well. But the river had moved out from under my fire, and apparently the captain, along with Pilson and a squad from First Platoon, might have walked right into it.
I started moving faster, bumping aside Marines in front of me, losing all regard for moving silently or gently through the jungle. The rain had turned into a mist and the first light of morning was already beginning to eat its way through the canopy branches above and the spindly but heavy brush below. I could not get the images of Pilson’s and Casey’s likely mangled bodies out of my head. I looked back to see my scout team following close in trace down the path the rest of the company ahead had forged through the bottom of the jungle.
Why would Casey, Pilson and the squad from First Platoon have moved and, worse yet, why would they have moved without consulting me? Casey knew he might need the only supporting fires he had available, and that meant he would need me.
“Try Casey on command again,” I said to Fusner.
Stevens bumped into my right shoulder, as I tried to listen to Fusner’s call over my left.
“He wanted you to have this, sir,” he said.
It took several seconds for Stevens words to penetrate my feverish mind. “He?” I asked, turning my full attention to him. “Who the hell is ‘he’ and why would he want me to have anything?”
I stopped abruptly when Stevens bent down to rummage in his pack. I moved closer to him, with the rest of the team gathering around me. Stevens pulled a dark canvas case, about the size of child’s football, from his pack and handed it to me. I carefully began to open the snap and raise the cover of the small package.
“Nguyen, sir,” Stevens said.
I stopped again, my fingers going numb. I stared down at the gaping flap, holding the body of the case in my right hand. I pulled out a rounded object with a small tail hanging from it.
My eyes went round and my ears back. I looked at Stevens but his own eyes were blank, staring down at the object. I held the thing out to rest on my palm. I wanted to drop it into the mud but my hand wouldn’t turn or let it go.
The object Nguyen wanted me to have was a radio handset.