I had to put my binoculars down, as the Skyraiders came in much faster than I thought they would from the higher altitude. Seconds before I’d looked in the direction the Sandys were dropping down from, and seen the end of the day’s sunlight glint off something near the end of the road, but I wasn’t certain what it was. The giant three-thousand horsepower engines of the planes screamed and roared at the same time. They jinked and jerked around and through the big green tracers being fired directly at them, blasting by at maybe twenty feet above the canopy, which was no more than sixty or seventy over our heads. The sound of the plane’s engines, and the constant sharp clatter of the Russian fifty-caliber were suddenly drowned out when the Skyraiders opened up with their own twenty-millimeter cannons. The wing-mounted canons sounded like giant chain saws for a few brief seconds, and then the planes banked hard into the sun and swept down the river, before veering upward and pulling themselves out of range.
The sounds of combat died out completely. I could hear the planes departing. The hustling swish of the rushing river water returned, as the Skyraiders got further away, but there was nothing from the Russian fifty-caliber. Fusner pressed the AN 323 headset against my left ear, until I replaced his hand with my own.
“Coming back at you, Flash,” Jacko said, his voice crackling out through the small speaker in the headset. “We’re going to dump ordnance and head on back for some R&R though, ’cause Hobo took a few of those green Mambas through the skin of his cowling. Nothing serious, but we’ll have to retire and return.”
The sound of the Skyraiders slowly increased. I realized the planes were not coming in right off the deck, like before. They were flying higher, probably to gain more accuracy in dropping their bombs, and also to avoid ground fire.
I pulled up my binoculars and checked out the area I’d been looking at when the planes came over for their first run. I was staring at the end of the road, and then over at the area just before that dead end and the river. It was like there was another road there, but not a road. I brought the binoculars down and pulled out my maps.
The Skyraiders interrupted my research by diving into the same area they’d strafed on the prior run and dropping two or three tons each of five hundred pound high explosive bombs. The planes pulled up, their bombs floating eerily down, metal tail-dragging wings extended out from the rear of each. The bombs turned lazily in their passage toward the jungle, disappearing seconds before actually touching down. A white cloud of condensed air preceded the violent eruption of their broken but combined explosion. The concussion, from the impact less than half a mile away, was tremendous. The ground rocked and shook violently upward, and then back down, followed by a smaller sharp shock. I’d gone flat, the AN 323 headset sailing away, and my face pushed down into the small pile of my maps strewn out over the poncho cover.
The thundering reverberations of the bombs going off died away. My ears weren’t ringing though. We hadn’t been that close. I pushed myself back into a sitting position. I heard a small tinny voice.
“Flash, how about them apples?” Jacko said, seemingly in the distance. “We’re going back to the barn to reload and find Hobo a new ride.”
“Who’s Flash,” I heard Casey say.
I turned to my right, where the headset was thrown by the concussion of the bombs. It wasn’t there. Casey was talking into it, the microphone with the wire headset assembly thrown around his neck.
“Who are you?” Jacko responded.
“I’m the company commander,” Casey said, his voice deep and official.
I didn’t know whether to grab the radio back or not. I chose to do nothing but wait.
“Well, gee gawd something,” Jacko laughed, “A real god-blessed officer down there making sure Flash does his job. We just dropped that ordnance and saved your bacon, oh great commanding officer.”
“I like bacon, over,” Casey said.
“Say again,” Jacko replied, the sound of the planes fast disappearing into the night.
“I like bacon and eggs, but the eggs have to be just right or forget it,” Casey said.
I gently grasped the wire headset support and slid it from Casey’s neck, and then removed the microphone from his hand. He stared up into the darkening night, obviously looking for the planes that were now well away from us.
“Flash here,” I transmitted.
“Who in hell was that?” Jacko answered.
“Captain Casey,” I replied. “He really is the company commander, not me.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
I looked at Casey but he’d gone into one of his reveries and didn’t appear to be listening.
“He took a piece of shrapnel through the skin of his cowling,” I said.
“ Shit, man,” Jacko replied, “we can come back on station at dawn unless somebody else in this oh shit valley needs us a bit more,”
“What’s our chances?” I replied, feeling fear in the pit of my stomach again.
Artillery, where we were, was pretty much out of the question until we somehow got over the river and away from the ledge of wall that prevented Cunningham from dropping 105s in. The further up the valley we went, the closer we would get to the outer range of Ripcord’s 155s, but simply remaining in the area before that, and where we were now, could be the death of us all. The NVA were in the valley in great numbers, and it was only a matter of time before they brought in heavy stuff to deal with the new threat our surprise presence had to appear to them.
“Hell, don’t worry,” Jacko transmitted, “Cowboy’s listening to your ‘little boy lost’ routine, and you’ve sold him. We’ll roll on down the valley just after dawn. Your resupply choppers will need cover anyway, and the Cobras don’t much like to fly down there.”
I signed off, with another bit of bad news. Why didn’t Huey Cobras want to fly down in the valley? Whatever the answer was, I knew it couldn’t be good.
I left Fusner to entertain Casey, as I lay down to go through my maps. I had to access the one-to-twenty-five-thousand I had of the area up higher in the A Shau. I found the right one after a few moments of shuffling. The map was a much better rendition of the whole valley than the one I’d used to get us as far as we were, and it extended down to the end of the road. The road was called Highway 548, although no origin was listed about who had built it or when. The reason for its end was what had attracted my attention in passing. There was a destroyed air strip located between the end of that road and the river. I knew that was both good and bad news.
The bad news was that the strip would be registered for God knew how many enemy mortar and artillery units. The good news was that it was a perfect place to bring in choppers, get out our dead and get resupplied. Cunningham could cover the eastern edges of it, if the contours on the map, between the two locations, were correct, and Firebase Ripcord should be able to reach all the way down to the northern edges. If we could get a 106 recoilless rifle of our own, the other companies of the battalion could handle western and southern approaches. We needed new 60 mortar tubes and bases as well.
I pulled my head up and looked over to where Fusner and Casey sat silent.
They were eating.
“Scrambled eggs and ham,” Fusner said, pointing at Casey.
“I like eggs,” Casey replied, with a laugh, before digging back into the contents of his C-rations can.
I sagged back down to the poncho cover and carefully put my maps away. I’d lain in what I needed in the way of limited artillery help we might need from Cunnningham. I was slathered up in repellant, no leeches were stuck to any parts of my body I’d been able to find, and there wasn’t enough water for another plastic bottle shower. I took out some of my frazzled Marine stationary to pen another letter home. I’d decided earlier to write home about Captain Casey, and the good guy he’d become, leaving out the times he seemed to totally wig out, like with Jacko. I looked over at Fusner and Casey, who seemed to have formed some sort of bond since the captain’s injury.
“Armed Forces Radio still broadcasting?” I asked Fusner.
He fiddled with his little transistor for a moment before music quietly began to play.
“Those schoolgirl days, of telling tales and biting nails are gone…but in my mind, I know they will still live on and on…” The song was To Sir With Love from the movie of the same name. I listened to the words play out, occasionally looking over toward Casey to get a description of him just right. The theme of the movie had been about a school teacher supposed to be teaching kids what he thought they needed from his own training, only to discover that he had to teach them more about how to survive their own situations than whatever text material he’d brought to class. Deep down I felt it was a song about me and the company, in a much more screwed up way.
The song was the last of the day from the network. I finished one page of my new letter with Brother John telling me it was going to be a good night before he packed it in at Nah Trang.
I put my writing materials away and began to get ready to build my own hooch for the night, but before I could drag my pack across the path a Marine came running down it
He threw himself onto the berm next to the Gunny. Breathing hard he tried to whisper into the Gunny’s ear.
I came to my knees, wondering what new threat the company might be facing. I was not disappointed. Even in the failing light I could see the Gunny’s expression change to one more matching my own. He wore an expression of fear.
“What is it?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Ham and eggs,” Casey replied, holding out his can toward me.
I eased past Casey toward the Gunny, as the Marine rose up and began to walk back in the direction he’d run in from.
“There’s a tank coming down the road,” the Gunny said, coming up to a sitting position. “Command says we don’t have any tanks in the A Shau.”
“Tank?” I asked, my tone one of shock. “The NVA have tanks?”
“A few,” the Gunny replied. “If it’s a Russian T-54, which it’s likely to be, then it’s got armor eight inches thick. The only weapon we’ve got is the LAW, and there’s no way it’ll penetrate that, even though it’s supposed to.”
“Tanks don’t operate alone,” I said, trying to get my wits about me. “There must be more, or at least support vehicles and ground troops. We’ve got to get to the head of the company and see before all the light’s gone. At least the river’s between us and whatever’s over there.”
“Shit, the river,” the Gunny said, shaking his head. “A Russian T-54 tank can cross water eighteen feet deep with a snorkel, and ten without it. I don’t think the river’s going to be much of a barrier.”
Bile rose in my throat, and my hands started to shake again, as I took in the Gunny’s words. We had enemy forces to our rear in number. We had the river on one flank and an unclimbable slope on the other. In front of us was an impenetrable tank with a hundred millimeter gun about to attack that we had no way to stop or defend ourselves against.
“We’re going to need the Starlight,” I said to Zippo, as I leaned down to go through the pack for my flashlight. I needed the maps, the flashlight and my binoculars. The Starlight scope was the only instrument that would give us any warning if the T-54 forded the river and came at us.
“How man LAW anti-tank units do we have?” I asked the Gunny.
“Hell, I don’t know,” he shot back, getting himself ready to move out.
“Four, maybe five of them. Never used any for armor before. Like the gooks, we use them against personnel, mostly.”
“We’re going to need all of them,” I said, loping onto the path and heading for the point.
The obvious course of action, what with Kilo Company coming up from the south, was to turn and attack the rear area where the probability was that the fifty had been taken out and only the smallest forces had made it across the river. With Kilo threatening the NVA rear guard and a strong frontal attack by our company the chances for success were fairly good. If the fifty-caliber was brought back up though, then such an attack might be quickly suicidal. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. An attack to the rear wasn’t really possible without a resupply. We had no mortars. We had only four LAW very light anti-tank or anti-personnel weapons, and our M-60 machine guns were running low on ammunition. We badly needed resupply and that could not possibly come until morning. Even in the dead of night a T-54 could sweep through the entire company area with onboard fifty-caliber machine guns punctuated by point blank fire from the turret’s hundred millimeter gun.
The Gunny ran along the path toward the front just in back of me, with Fusner at his side and Pilson just behind. The only plan I could think of on the run was getting the LAWs close to the river on our side, and then hitting the tank’s tracks from the sides, as it exited the river. If the T-54 could be disabled at the water’s edge, then its heavy machine guns and large caliber gun would be all but useless until dawn. The Sandys would be back then, and they’d make short work of an exposed chunk of armor as big and unmoving as the T-54 would be. But to get to dawn was going to take some difficult and dicey maneuvering and placement. Ambushing a main battle tank was no easy feat, especially without heavy anti-armor support, but there appeared to be no way around it.
It took several minutes to work through the broken and beaten down path to reach Jurgens. He stood waiting, no doubt alerted by the ‘radio underground’ Fusner had told me about. The overhanging mess of bracken sheltered us from any view of the river or anyone on the other side. The Gunny, Casey and I stopped. The Gunny and I squatted down in front of Jurgens, both of us conditioned to stay low at all times even when not under fire or much threat of it. My scout team formed a circle around us, as Jurgens came down to our level. Stevens put one hand on Casey’s shoulder and gently pushed him down to join us, before stepping back behind him.
“Can you bring artillery in close enough?” Jurgens asked.
“You’re not calling him Junior anymore?” Casey replied.
I looked over to where Stevens and Zippo afforded some help with the captain, but neither would look me in the eyes.
“Can you bring artillery in this close, Junior?” Jurgens rephrased without smiling or laughing at Casey’s comment.
“Cunningham’s in defilade and Ripcord’s beyond range,” I replied, pulling the map from my morphine pocket and turning on my taped-up pinpoint flashlight, its beam close to being of no illumination help. I indicated where we were, as everyone in the small circle leaned forward to see.
“Here’s the end of that road,” I pointed. “The tank’s likely going to proceed directly to the waters edge before fording because of the mud. We set up all of our LAW launchers here and here,” I said, pointing again. “Using the Starlight for aiming, we take out the tracks, get out of there and wait for Cowboy to swoop in and finish the thing off in the morning.”
“Man, nobody’s going to want to lay there in the open with a LAW,” Jurgens said softly, like he didn’t want anyone else to hear, “not and wait for that tank, and no FNG’s going to operate one of those LAW rigs.”
“I’ll go,” Casey said, pointing at a spot on the map, “do tanks float?”
“I’m going to lead the patrol,” I said, trying not to groan at Casey’s remark. “Zippo will shoulder the Starlight, Nguyen can scout the water’s edge and Stevens will supervise the placement of the LAWs in the dark. You and the Gunny can hold the company in reserve as a base of fire to occupy the tank and the infantry that have to be with it. They’ll probably be riding on top to ford the river.”
“The company needs an officer with it, Junior,” Casey pointed out.
“If that tank gets across the water undamaged then the company isn’t going to need anything but body bags, sir,” I replied.
“How in hell could a T-54 make it all the way down from North Vietnam?” the Gunny asked. “It had to be driven on an exposed road, next to a well-marked river, and thirty miles along the bottom of the continuously observed valley. How could they have hidden it so well along that whole passage without it being taken out by our air or artillery?”
Everyone looked around at one another. There was no logical answer to the Gunny’s question. Everyone fighting the war on the ground and in combat knew the Vietnamese had pulled off deadly tricks and ruses much greater than disguising a tank and getting it as far south as it was. How they did it was always a shock. There was no need, however, to answer the question. Whatever was across the river had to be dealt with, and a plan implemented quickly.
“Tanks don’t float?” Casey asked again.
“No sir, tanks don’t float,” Fusner said, coming forward to whisper in his ear, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
“I’ve got to get out there with the scope and see for myself,” I said, ignoring Casey and Fusner, as best I could.
Sugar Daddy and his radio operator came in out of the near dark. Sugar Daddy plopped down, sweeping his rolled poncho cover under him, as he landed, like he was performing a gymnastics move.
“There’s a fucking tank over there,” he said, pointing toward the river, like nobody else in the company knew. “A fucking tank. We can’t face a tank. We’ve got to get the hell out of here, and fast.”
“The tank doesn’t float,” Casey said, pointing in the same direction. “Junior and me are going to have a look.”
“What the fuck is Captain Crunch talking about?” Sugar Daddy said, rubbing is forehead with one hand before looking at the Gunny.
“Crunch isn’t a good name,” Casey replied, nodding his head slowly, like he was thinking deeply. “Junior’s got a better name.”
“You’re Crunch because your head got caved in bro!” Sugar Daddy said to Casey, his voice more a hiss than truly tonal.
“Bro is better,” Casey replied lightly. “You can go with us to see the tank.”
“Wait a minute here,” Sugar Daddy exclaimed, his tone changing instantly from attack mode to submissive. “I got my platoon to take care of. I’ve got to see to them.” Sugar Daddy started to get to his feet.
“He’s the company commander,” the Gunny said, his voice flat. “If he says you go, then you go.”
“What about Jurgens?” Sugar Daddy asked. “His men have the only anti-tank shit.”
“It’s night,” Casey replied, lightly. “You are the color of night.”
“Jesus Christ and Holy Mother of God,” Sugar Daddy breathed out, climbing to his feet. “You’re all fucking nuts.” He stood but didn’t move.
“Get back to your platoon,” the Gunny ordered. “I think Junior will agree that you work better coming from behind. If they bring that fifty back into play, then you go out and shut it down.”
“No problem,” Sugar Daddy said, obviously relieved, before backing away and then running off down the path with his radio operator staggering behind.
First Jurgens and then the Gunny started to laugh.
“The color of night,” Jurgens repeated, trying to stop himself from giggling.
I waited, once again wondering about just how damaged the captain was and in what way. His comments were humorous but they were also accurate and right on for the most part.
“I don’t think Sugar Daddy is going to the river, sir,” I said.
“Tanks don’t float,” Casey repeated, causing the Gunny and Jurgens to break out laughing again.
I nodded my head toward Nguyen to move out. He didn’t blink or nod back. He simply blended into the jungle. I presumed he was headed for the river, since there was no mystery as to where it was. We couldn’t proceed more than fifty yards to the east or a hundred to the north without running straight into it.
“Zippo, we need the scope online as soon as we get close to the water,” I instructed. “If they know we’re there then that hundred millimeter will take us out with one round though, so we have to crawl across the open area near the bank. They probably know we don’t have artillery, and also that air is something we’re not getting until tomorrow.”
I turned to Jurgens. “We need all four LAWs, and the fire teams supporting them. Two on each side of the point scout team about twenty meters apart. When the tank crosses they wait until it starts to climb out of the water to hit the treads. If we can get the tank canted upward then its turret is useless. That’s the plan, anyway.”
“Plan,” Casey said, his voice that of a child. “I love the plan names. Kamehameha is my favorite. What’s our plan called?”
Everyone turned to look at me. I shook my head with disdain. What did it matter what we called it, since we were all likely to die in the next few hours, anyway?
“Color of Night,” I said. “It’s the Color of Night Plan.”
“Yes,” Casey said, pumping his fist. “That’s my plan. That’s my Junior.”
“Gunny, I need a couple of M-60s to light up the position over there. We can’t wait all night. The quicker we can get them to commit the less likely they don’t see us and start using that big gun. Once our sixties open up, then the company can fire with their tracers. The NVA don’t have a protected position over there, so the easiest way to suppress our fire is to come right at us with the armor. I’ll pop a couple of flares into the river water to give them the idea we’re making an attempt to ford and attack them then.”
The Gunny looked at me. It was too dark to see his eyes. He motioned with his head to one side, and then got to his feet. He walked away a few yards up the path, and I followed.
“You’re going to take our rounds over your heads and then their rounds from the front, and quite possibly from a base of fire along the rise downriver a bit. There’s no cover along the river. And you’re going to light some flares too.”
“Thanks for the concern, Gunny,” I said, understanding that he was worried about the danger I might be in.
“Right, but there’s no need to risk the machine gun fire teams. They’ll be just as effective back here, and the LAW can be used with one man operating each weapon system.”
I’d suppressed my fears to that point, and driven down my hand-shaking to slight trembles. Inside, however, I wanted to throw up at hearing his words. The Gunny was coldly writing me off, along with my whole scout team, and the four LAW operators as well. He was minimizing losses to the rest of the company. I breathed in and out deeply. The Gunny waited, taking out a cigarette and slowly lighting it. He took one hard pull on it, and then handed it to me.
“Sugar Daddy’s not going to like that name of this plan when I put it into the after action report,” he said, taking his cigarette back, as I slowly exhaled.
“You got sand, Junior,” he added, turning back to walk toward the group we’d stepped away from. “I’ll sure as hell give you that.”
I stood there. I didn’t have ‘sand’ or much else for a core. I had melted butter, if I was called upon to describe my insides. But what was there to do? We didn’t have enough ammo to really fight, or fire support, or even a decent company commander. And we were facing what was probably a full battalion of well-armed troops with at least one main battle tank preparing to attack. We were fucked no matter what we did unless somehow good fortune stepped in.
“Ready, sir?” Stevens asked, making me feel slightly better because he called me sir.
Casey got to his feet and put his helmet on.
“Gunny, you keep the skipper with you,” I ordered.
“Nah,” the Gunny replied, “He wants to go and what the hell difference does it make?”
“What difference?” I asked, in surprise.
“It don’t mean nuthin, Junior. It don’t mean nuthin.”
Featured photo by Ron Cole