Casey should have been restrained by force, if necessary and held until resupply arrived, no matter how long that took, but that wasn’t going to happen. Casey wanted to go on the mission down to the river and confront the tank. In the dark. With a small band of men armed with little more than tiny and undependable LAW anti-tank tubes. And the Gunny wanted him to go. Our reinforced scout team, without machine guns, was to go against what was likely a Russian main battle tank. I would lead the mission, while Captain Casey would be the make believe commander, or the other way around, depending on the perspective.
“Big planes are called Sandys,” Casey said, kneeling on my spread out poncho cover. “The Gunny says you have sand. Does that have something to do with the planes?”
I hesitated, while preparing my hooch. It was too dark to see Casey’s face, and his back was to me. The man was like an idiot savant. I had no idea how the Skyraiders had come to be known as Sandys. For some idiotic reason, though, what he’d said made me feel a bit less scared, like when he’d said that I was ‘his’ Junior.
I called my scout team together to prepare for the move we had to make down toward the river bank.
“Stevens and Nguyen,” I said, looking at both men, “there’s no point in your being along. When that tank comes across, your being there won’t make any difference. I need Zippo for the scope and Fusner for the radio, and that’s it. Let’s limit our exposure. You stick with the Gunny until we come back.”
I pulled the two letters I’d written home from my left thigh pocket, and rolled the envelopes carefully together before sticking out my hand toward Stevens. He looked down at the rolled letters in the dim light, and then back up at me, before taking both in his right hand. Neither of us said anything. We both knew it wasn’t very likely I’d ever be coming back for my stuff. I hoped he and Nguyen would make sure to give my last letters to Macho Man, no matter what, and they’d get home. For some reason, I felt that it was vitally important that my wife get my last words, although I hadn’t written anything truly meaningful in the body of the letters.
I continued getting my stuff together. I wanted to make sure everything I had left was protected, in case it rained while I was gone.
“Okay, Fusner,” I said, “I want to be up on the command net. We can’t use artillery, although I’m going to call in a maximum range shot upriver just to sow some confusion while we're making the crawl down there. “Get me the codes for Ripcord. Maybe those Army guys can give us a red bag.”
“Red bag?” Zippo asked as Fusner went to work fiddling with his radio.
“Howitzers fire projectiles using bags of powder,” I replied to Zippo, while I worked. “The longer the shot, the more bags of powder they stuff into the chamber. It’s worked that way since Napoleon invented the system. The first seven bags of powder come in white and green colors. Charge seven or eight can be a big red bag though, packed in to reach maximum range. I’ll ask for some red bag rounds to make it seem like the artillery is going to be adjusted in closer, even though we can’t get it closer. Maybe some rounds will drop close enough to keep some heads down, at least until we get near the river’s edge on our side.”
Fusner held out the radio handset toward me.
“Whiskey, Whisky Red Ball, at your service, over” came out of the small external microphone on the body of the radio.
Before calling in the mission, I identified myself and our unit code, giving the firebase radio operator our location. I asked for the GPO (Gun Position Officer). The radio went dead for almost a full minute before coming back up.
I told the GPO our problem and asked what kind of maximum range fire we might get since our position was almost thirty-five kilometers from their mountain-top base.
“Hey, Cunningham’s been firing for you guys. They said you were alright, Junior” the guy said. “You know we got a two-gun element of 175s here. You’re in defilade for Cunningham, but we can reach you with some H.E. Slow though. One shot a minute from each tube.”
I looked around and thought deeply for a few seconds. The news was good. The range of 175 was a little more than forty kilometers, outshooting anything in our theater on either side, except maybe naval gunfire from the New Jersey. The shells weighed almost two hundred pounds or four times the size of 105 ammo. The problem was, using the red bag to get out as far as we were, made the guns inaccurate at range, especially in our situation, which was beyond the enemy and right on the gun target line. The 175s fired only high explosive rounds and chemical. I asked the battery to stand by for an adjusting round.
The Gunny approached close, staying down close to the wet earth and beaten down jungle bracken. The company hadn’t yet taken any fire in the darkness. I felt an uncommonly cool wind beginning to blow downriver from the north, as if the elevation of the deep valley had been raised up to the top of the mountain we’d descended earlier. I was aware of the rough slurry sound of the river’s flowing water, as well as the usual buzz of hungry hunting mosquitos. The water level had to be dropping quickly I realized, as only an hour before the sound of it had been closer to a dull rumbling roar. The lower the river ran, the more likely the NVA would cross, and the darkness of a nearly moonless night would only act to encourage them, I knew. The company had become a non-moving target and there was no place for it to retreat. We would stand or we would all die. For some reason simply thinking that thought deadened the terror inhabiting my core. It was my United States Marine Rifle Company even if I wasn’t the company’s choice as a decent officer.
The Gunny dumped a pack stuffed full of something in front of me. I bent back slightly, the pack rolling heavily until it was only a few inches away.
“That’s all of our Comp. B.” he said. “Gathered it all together. About twenty-five pounds or so, with a pull action igniter and half minute fuse. I don’t know what it’ll do to a battle tank, but it’s something, at least.”
I grasped hold of the pack and examined the pull-type igniter attached to its side. I knew the fuse cord would burn brightly in the night once the igniter was pulled, making the carrier of the pack an illuminated target running across the night. Would that make any difference? Twenty-five pounds of Comp. B. was nothing to be taken lightly. Even if tossed atop a tank, however, the blast would almost entirely be directed away from the armor. But if the pack were thrown under the carriage, well, that might be a different story. Even a forty-ton tank could be blown several feet into the air, and the effect on any crew inside the rolling ‘metal coffin’ would be devastating, if not outright fatal. I moved the pack so I could complete closing the poncho I’d used to cover my own pack, and what little belongings I possessed.
The pack of explosives lifted into the air in front of me, as if pulled up by an invisible cord. But there was no cord. It was Nguyen’s supple arm, invisible in the night. He and the pack of explosives were gone before I could see anything more than a passing riff of white teeth from his thin smile. I felt better, again, wondering why most of my hope in staying alive was becoming founded on the feelings and actions of one crazy person and one native I couldn’t possibly understand. Stevens wasn’t coming on the patrol, but Nguyen was. Nothing was as it was supposed to be.
Four Marines, hauling LAW tubes slung down from their shoulders, came out of the blackness behind the Gunny. They hunkered down nearby. I couldn’t see their expressions, but I would have bet a lot they weren’t happy to be going out into the open and likely facing the first tank they’d ever gone up against, with a weapon not well regarded, even for anti-personnel use. The enemy’s RPG tubes fired six and a half pound rounds, which would have been much more effective, if we’d had any, which we didn’t.
I moved past the poncho cover, guided my dying flashlight beam down onto the mud, and cleared a small area free with my right hand. I drew a curved line to represent the river, another for the cliff to our right, and then stuck small stones in the places where the enemy positions were likely to be. I used a bigger stone for the tank. Casey moved up to my left shoulder, took off his helmet and stared down at my mud battle map.
“It’s the color of night,” he whispered.
“More like black as the ace of spades,” the Gunny whispered, more to himself than those around him.
I breathed deep and then laid out the simple details of my plan. We’d crawl down to the brush just back from the moving water. Fusner and I would remain with two LAW operators, while Casey would proceed fifty yards, or so, upriver to hopefully be in a place where the tank had to cross to get to us. First, we’d all stay together while I examined the tank and its supporting elements on the other side. I was afraid of what might happen if the tank crossed outside of the area between where our two positions would be. Tanks were a hell of a lot faster than men trying to move armed across the wet sandy mud.
“No,” Casey said, sticking his finger in the mud.
I wanted to say “No, what?” but held back. I’d seen enough of Casey’s strange behavior to give him a chance, and he was still the company commander. The Gunny pulled out a cigarette and lit it. The rest of us did nothing but fidget under the mosquito onslaught and wait. The Gunny took a long pull and then blew the smoke off to the side before offering the thing to me. I looked him in the eyes. Was the cigarette an olive branch, because I wasn’t at all sure about where the Gunny really stood. I took the cigarette and inhaled once, before handing it back. I coughed the smoke back out.
“All stay together,” Casey finally said, erasing the position I’d designated for the ‘pincher’ team of LAW operators. “Better to hit the treads with four on one side. Better chance to take out the track and then the tank can only spin around like a top. Tank top.”
It took me only a few seconds to realize the captain was right. If we stayed together we would make it much more likely that we’d get all four rounds on the target, and a tank with one track was pretty useless, except for the gun turret's capability to turn and adjust fire, even if from only a static position.
“What about the alligators?” one of the LAW Marines asked.
“Grenade,” Casey replied, instantly. “Poof,” he said, throwing both his hands into the air to simulate an explosion. Then he leaned down and appeared to pick up some small bits which he then moved toward his mouth. “Mmmm, tastes like chicken,” he said.
In spite of the tension, everyone except me laughed. I recorded the fact in my mind that sanity might not be a very important qualifier for being a good company commander. I couldn’t laugh and I sure as hell couldn’t make anyone in the company laugh, even if I got the ability back myself.
The loosely gathered band of Marines, formed into a dedicated and poorly armed patrol, got ready to move out. From different directions, but arriving on the scene at the same time, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy showed up, each with a small entourage of Marines from their platoons. Jurgens crouched on one side of the Gunny and Sugar Daddy on the other. The Gunny nodded seriously toward me, flicking his cigarette and blowing more smoke, as I motioned for Fusner to pass me the handset. I’d scrapped my plan to come up on the command net once I found out the 175s could reach us, even if it they’d be firing out near the end of their accurate engagement envelope.
I laid down on the berm with my team behind me to sight and, and then adjust the first round. When “splash, over” played into my ear (I’d motioned for Fusner to switch off the external speaker) I alerted everyone around me to lay flat.
The big round came over, and I knew right away it was trouble. I’d called in a registration point nearly five hundred meters north of where I thought the tank had to be, so there should have been no express sound of the round going over our heads. The two-hundred-pound high explosive shell went off across the river, but only about three hundred yards from our position. And it was south of our position. Not good. Willie Peter hadn’t been needed to see the results of its effect however. The monster yellow explosion cost everyone who looked up to lose night vision. I was one of them.
“Shit,” I hissed out, calling for another round, blinking rapidly. I knew it was the wind. If the wind across the ground was picking up and running south, then the winds aloft had to be blowing more fiercely, and the effect of that had been pretty obvious and potentially deadly. But we had artillery, no matter how inaccurate, and the enemy wouldn’t know I’d called it in to land much farther away.
I motioned for everyone to start crawling toward the river, as I used adjustment by gun target line to drop one thousand, hopefully placing the next round where the first one had been calculated to land.
The last thing I saw when I looked back, before going over the berm into the riverbank mud, was Gunny’s eyes, reflecting back at me from the still burning mess the first round had ignited further downriver. His eyes were big and round, no doubt in expectation of where the next incoming might land. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy lay on each side of him. The enemy didn’t know I was pulling adjustments out of my ass, but the three non-coms certainly did.
The crawl down to the brush and bracken just back from the sand leading into the fast-flowing water was without incident. The second big round came in upriver but, except for the vibration and distant thundering sound of it going off, I couldn't tell where it landed. I still felt it had impacted too far south for comfort, however. Calling any more fire in might prove as iffy and dangerous as dealing with the tank.
Once marginally safe by jamming ourselves into the camouflage provided by the brush I got the Starlight whirring and running atop Zippo's flat broad back.
“Stop breathing,” I instructed.
“Everyone gets to breathe,” Casey whispered, plopping himself down on his belly no more than few inches from me. I ignored him, peering into the single green lens.
The tank was indeed a tank. It sat under piles of hastily thrown together brush, but it would have taken half a jungle forest to truly hide it. Gunny’s impossible tank was there, as I knew it would be. Nothing seemed beyond the capability of the Vietnamese when it came to pulling off unlikely or even seemingly impossible combat tricks. I could see no support vehicles or any troops. Everything around the tank was hidden by jungle growth or the folds of river bank running west toward the invisible and distant valley wall on the other side.
The artillery rounds had done their work because we’d made it to the river without being fired upon, but it hadn’t kept us from being seen. The enemy opened up from the hill, where we’d calculated they’d set up a base of fire, more to support their coming tank attack than our assault down to the river, I thought. The hill was no more than a few hundred meters from where the first 175 had come in, so I quickly called for another round, adding the one thousand meters back and then moving the shot right two hundred. The 175 round was in the air between ‘shot’ and ‘splash’ when the big fifty-caliber opened up on us. The heavy machine gun got no more than about forty rounds out of it when the big shell came whooshing in. I didn’t wait to see what the results were. I called for a couple more rounds, left and right one hundred. The hill in the southern distance exploded again and again but no more enemy fire came from it. But then small arms opened up from all around where the tank was located, again targeting our position.
What seemed like a brilliant white waterfall dropped down over my head from behind. The company had opened up to return fire, with the tracers from M-16s and the M-60s racing over our heads. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy were back there, I knew only too well, but the fire seemed to be directed only at enemy positions on the opposing bank of the river.
Casey ran to the where the LAW team was spread flat on the mud nearby, then quickly returned. He yelled in my ear that two of the guys were dead. Having fired less than one full belt of ammo the big fifty had killed two Marines.
“Can you shoot a LAW?” I asked Fusner.
“Hell, I think so,” he replied, unstrapping his radio and handing me the handset. “Don’t touch any of the dials. I’ll get one of the LAWs."
Nguyen came out of nowhere, plopped the bag of composition B down next to me, and then scuttled the few feet back into full dark over to where Fusner had gone. Would he be able to handle the fourth LAW I wondered, not that it made much difference because there was nobody else?
Out of the agonizing muddle of small arms fire and the burning tracers racing around, the giant diesel engine of the tank fired up, and fear raced up and down my spine like out of control lightning. I tried to concentrate, and get my own breathing under control enough to look through the scope. I had to see where the damned thing was. The sound of the enemy fire in front of us and the company’s fire behind was awful but the roaring diesel sound made me quiver inside.
I focused the single optical lens of the scope on the tank, and realized I had no way to illuminate it once it got into the river. I’d forgotten to have the Gunny give me some illumination grenades. How were Fusner, Nguyen and the other two Marines supposed to see the damned tank once it began to clear the river and mount the bank we were holed up on?
I thanked God that Zippo was cool as a cucumber and remained totally still, as I stared into the Starlight scope.
The tank began to pull forward. It didn't move fast at all. It gently closed the distance to the water’s running edge, but it didn't stop when it got there. The clanking of its tracks became the loudest sound on the battlefield, as it eased into the water. I held the radio handset in my free hand, but I knew I could not call in any 175 rounds to try to hit the frightful thing because there was no accuracy at all in the big rounds, not with the windy meteorological heights through which they were flying.
The river was not too deep. I saw that right away. The giant green tank in my scope slowly moved from the far bank toward our own, the rushing water swarming up one side of it, and then creating a spume as it flew over the turret's top. I wondered why the big gun hadn’t already opened up while the thing was on the move or even earlier when our position had been spotted.
The color of the night wasn't black. It was green, yellow, red and whatever awful color the coming battle tank was painted. Out of pure fear I called in another round from Ripcord. I split the difference in range. The round was to impact somewhere around where the tank was, or we were, or wherever, I thought as I pulled back from Zippo’s back and pressed my face and body as deep into the brush and mud as I could get it.