The day would not end. The hike to where the objective was supposed to be, that Sugar Daddy’s forward reconnaissance team said wasn’t there, was one of overwhelming fatigue and staggering inattentiveness. The first sign that something was wrong with the company came when the Gunny, moving just in front of me, pulled up a 60mm mortar base plate. The thing weighed about twenty pounds.
“What’s going on Gunny?” I asked him, as he set the round iron object back down on the path the company was making through the beaten bracken.
“We need a break,” the Gunny replied. “Pretty soon they’ll start dumping E-Tools, food and anything else, short of guns and ammo.”
“60mm mortar bases are parts of guns,” I replied, watching the Gunny discard the heavy chunk of steel. I was stunned.
The company was moving through the miserable mess of clustered jungle crap, and dropping vital combat equipment while it went. Except for the thick wet foliage, mud, and heated misery, and a million insects, the company might as well have been staggering across a desert scene in some Gary Cooper movie. I’d never heard of such conduct before by any military, much less members of the United States Marine Corps. I could have ordered Zippo to carry the base plate but just how much other stuff of more importance were we going to run across before we reached the now non-existent objective? There was no way to reach the entire company and scream at the men to hang onto their equipment.
“Get them there, stopped, set in and rested, all we can do,” the Gunny said, sounding as disgusted as I felt. “We’ll get resupply for everything we lose, if we can get across the river and get them down. We’re out of ammo for the mortars, anyway.”
Waking through the vertical standing jungle mulch, I tried not to think about another reality of real combat. Somehow I had to accept the dropping of the company’s equipment as quite normal under the circumstances. I trudged through the eight-foot tall lower jungle of massed debris, with an occasional tree trunk or bamboo stand thrusting up above it. My living environment was reduced to a wet hurtful mess of harsh salad vegetables mixed up with bits of moving little animals inside it that were not edible and, in fact, trying to eat me at every opportunity. My Marines were dumping equipment and supplies along our path to the river and there was not one damned thing I could do about it that wouldn’t lessen my own chances for survival. That was another little detail I wouldn’t be writing home about in one of my letters.
Captain Casey walked in front of me, stumbling and twisting his way through the four-foot wide hollow the Marines who preceded him had punched through the jungle. Every once in a while he’d bend down to pick up some piece of discarded junk, and I’d have to delay behind him for a few seconds. Pilson, without comment or orders, had reverted back to being the Gunny’s radio operator. Captain Casey had attached himself to my scout team, more like a damaged mascot than an actual participant.
“Amazing,” Casey said, turning a small red and black box over and over in his hands. “I’ve always wondered why they didn’t send us these, and now here they are, a gift from the jungle.”
He shoved the box of kitchen matches into his pack. Some member of the company had no doubt received in a care package from home since the matches were not government issue. That the company possessed plenty of cigarette lighters and C-ration matches apparently didn’t matter to the captain.
“Thank you, jungle,” he exclaimed out to the unending piles of sticky wet brush around us, before proceeding to move back into the narrow corridor and catch up to the Marine in front of him.
There was good news and bad news in Casey’s being totally out of it. The good news was that he wouldn’t get in the way of the rest of the company trying to rationally survive while he wandered through whatever mental playland he was caught up in. The bad news was that from what my map said, and from what Sugar Daddy’s forward scouts reported, the company was headed to a dead end where the river butted up against a cliff face, and a shallow revolving pool had been formed where our objective was supposed to be. The next spot to rebuild and fortify, from what I could see, which wasn’t much from where we were, was across the river and another hike about ten kilometers north. The further we went north the closer the company came to the demilitarized zone, across which North Vietnam lay. Khe Sanh was a huge firebase up north but it was located too far east to be of any help. Firebase Ripcord was new, but had both 105s and 155s. It might be in range of where the company had to move next but the two steep sides of the lower A Shau prevented Cunningham’s low angle direct fire from reaching us, and the firebase was too far away to use high angle fire.
I moved with the company, my passage through the rotted parts of the lower jungle faster than I might have thought earlier. Nobody wanted to stay inside the deadly embrace of the awful patch we were in. The fresh cool air of the mountains seemed years behind us, and the open spaces of the river’s banks below beckoned dangerously. The danger being the enemy, although having seen how many large crocodiles had fled the river’s edge earlier sent a shiver up my spine, even in the heat.
It was closing in on an early evening before the company came to a halt. The Gunny had gone forward sometime before. I presumed the call of “arty up” that came back was a call for Junior, less as company commander than as the man who could call accurate fire and not be listened to about other things unless it suited some, or all, of the rest of the company.
The Marines I worked through were all beating their way through the heavy brush, moving sideways from the path as I went by with my scout team and Captain Casey, who’d somehow attached himself to me like one of the paired Project One Hundred Thousand FNGs. After traveling another five hundred meters I found out why the rest of company was turning and moving through the brush toward the river. The river was well down in the valley from the edge of the bracken we were moving through. A dense flatland of elephant grass grew from the moving water to an extended sweeping hillside that swept up to meet the jungle. The green low mulch-like plants growing on the hill illustrated the valley scene perfectly. With the river running down its center, the flat green surface was like some sort of exotic outline in a coloring book. The plant life making up the ‘grassy’ area was less than boot tall. It ran down from the jungle about three hundred meters before reaching the elephant grass. It was a beautiful scene, with some sort of light smoke or fog lazily drifting above the brown moving water below. I stared, entranced by the view for a few minutes, taking it all in, before paying attention again to the Marines around me.
The Gunny lay next to Pilson, stomach down on top of the berm, peering out from the edge of the jungle at the scene below. I moved up behind him before squatting down. I stayed a bit back and low. If we could see the rest of the valley, then the rest of the valley could see us. The placement of the NVA fifty caliber had never been resolved. On top of that, with the land leading up to the other more distant side of the valley flattening out, the likelihood of enemy artillery being dropped back down on us again wasn’t out of the question.
“Binoculars?” the Gunny asked, without turning, instead of sticking out one hand behind him toward me.
“What are we looking for?” I asked back, delaying because of his tone. I knew he was attempting to reassert his control of company after the Casey debacle.
The Gunny didn’t answer, leaving his hand stretched out behind him.
It was a test, I knew. It was a test that was adolescent in theory but potentially deadly in practice. Everyone within hearing distance was involved in the test, even though they remained silent, making believe they heard and saw nothing.
“Shangri La,” Casey said, walking to the edge of the jungle and standing fully exposed on the other side of where the Gunny lay.
Zippo jumped from behind me, grabbed Casey around the waist and pulled him back, and then down to the jungle floor right next to where I was crouched.
“Sorry, sir, but you’re the company commander, and we can’t afford to lose you,” Zippo said, before retreating back to where the rest of my scout team huddled.
“Binoculars, yes,” Casey said, crawling up to me and holding out one hand.
The Gunny turned his head to look back, meeting my eyes for a brief second before retrieving his own hand. I pulled the binoculars from my pack and handed them to Casey, feeling a sense of relief that the confrontation with the Gunny had been avoided, at least in the short term.
Casey didn’t bother to look through the lenses. He handed the glasses to the Gunny in a move that rocked me back a bit. Captain Casey had somehow read the contest going on between the Gunny and me, came up with a solution and then applied it, with success. I examined him closely, wondering whether he had ‘surfaced’ again, and what that might mean.
“It’s a movie,” Casey said, with a big smile.
I thought the name Shangri la was a place in a movie but I wasn’t sure, although his comment made me breathe easier about the state of his mind.
“Check it out,” the Gunny said, holding the binoculars out to his side, his attention not leaving the scene below him.
I plucked my binoculars from the Gunny’s hand and brought the lenses up to my eyes. I scanned the river up and down its course. I noted how there was a slight bend to the north, where the river disappeared against the side of a nearly vertical embankment. I knew the eddy, or whatever Sugar Daddy’s Marines had seen, had to be near there, but I didn’t have a good enough angle to view that water. Not that it mattered. Without the low flat land that had once been there our mission to build a firebase was pointless. There was no reason for the company to remain on the east side of the river unless the mission was changed.
“On the other side, up across from the cliff,” the Gunny said, lighting a cigarette.
I scanned the bank on the other side. And then I saw it. A road. An honest to god improved road coming down from the north, and appearing to end at the edge of the water not far from where the river came away from the cliff. I knew there was no road on my map or I would have seen it earlier.
“Whose road?” I asked, talking more to myself than the Gunny.
“Robert Coleman Road,” Casey said, from behind me. “It’s the road to Shangri La.”
“Lost Horizon,” I said absently, finally remembering the name of the movie.
I stared through my binoculars. The road was something out of place in my Vietnam experience. There had, up until now, been only the jungle, the awful muddy rivers, and the mountains, always active with enemy activity. But a road was different and while staring it occurred to me how different it could make things. The road was a way to get real supplies down, including armor and heavy-duty weaponry like a quad fifty which it would take to hold a firebase set so low into the valley. Was there any wonder why my maps showed so many former firebases as ‘destroyed?’ To take advantage of the road, however, the company was still going to have to get across the river. How that fording could be made was a mystery I had to solve. I watched the water flow out from the cliff. It was at its narrowest point, so the river was deep and fast. Probably a good twenty percent of the company was comprised of either lousy swimmers or those who couldn’t swim at all. Then there was the equipment problem, not that the company hadn’t taken care of a bit of that along the direction of its travel earlier.
No matter what happened, the company would not be crossing the river at the end of this day or on into the night, I knew. It was already too late to do anything but set in where we were. The position was a lot like before when we’d made the move to the hillside to try to escape the fifty, except the berm was a lot thicker where we were now. Even a fifty caliber round wasn’t going through the solid mess of bracken and mud that separated us from the river. The flat area Casey had taken his team out onto had withered way upriver to the field of elephant grass we saw before us. It was head high elephant grass that was anything but grass. The thick razor sharp bundles of fronds were impossible to run through, without getting cut to ribbons, and walking gently through took forever. Machetes were useless, and the only thing that worked to clear a path at all was lots of explosives which we didn’t have. There would be no accessing the river from the near bank below our position. Hopefully, the area where the eddy had formed with the flooding rains would allow us to get across in some way or other.
“This place is as good as any to set in,” I said to the Gunny, putting away my glasses. The elephant grass would act as an effective a barrier against attack as it did to our company if we tried to work through it without special equipment and attire.
“So ordered,” the Gunny said.
“So ordered,” Casey repeated, immediately going to his pack and starting to work on setting up a hooch just off the path.
The brain injury the man had obviously suffered had changed almost everything about the man’s personality, and how he went about things. I’d not seen him lift a finger to do any real work until after he’d been hit, but now he took to doing almost anything that required physical labor. I realized that having Casey around was like having a dumb but good child around. I also realized that I was becoming fond of the new man he’d become while remaining fully aware of what extreme risk he was exposed to out in a field of combat among a bunch of weathered, worn and merciless Marine Rifle Company veterans.
From his tone, I gathered the Gunny had already given the order to set down for the night, but I said nothing. Whatever was going on with the Gunny, Sugar Daddy and Jurgens was going to have to wait.
“Pilson,” I called.
“Here,” he said, coming out of the bush not far from where Casey was working.
I stared at him as he approached, then looked over at the Gunny when the corporal stood before me. The Gunny ignored us and went to work to prepare some coffee. He did manage to murmur something to his Pilson when he’d walked close but I hadn’t heard the words.
“Here, sir,” Pilson corrected, uncomfortably, before going on. “Junior.”
I presumed the Gunny was behind the ‘sir’ part of the comment, followed by Pilson’s addition of “Junior’ which took any respect out of the prior word.
“You’re company clerk until we get a new one,” I announced, knowing the news was going to upset the corporal. “You can remain as Gunny’s radio operator and still get the job done.”
“I lost my radio operator,” Casey said, trying to work his poncho cover into some kind of tent, “in fact, I lost my radio too. You owe me half your radio,” he finished, sticking his head through the center hole of the poncho.
“You’ll need his paperwork and the air frequencies to communicate back,” I said to Pilson, while trying to ignore the words and antics of the captain.
“I can’t go into his pack, sir, you know that,” he replied.
“Too bad,” I shot back. “Get Nguyen to do it or somebody else who doesn’t hold nonsensical superstitions.”
“I can’t touch his helmet either. No helmet, no pack and no boots,” Pilson went on as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Work with him,” I said, over to where Stevens and Zippo worked next to Casey in getting their own hooches dug in.
I presumed because the Gunny had nothing to say, that my order to have Pilson fill in for Rittenhouse wasn’t going to be a problem, particularly since he had a relationship with him. The daily reports were going to be an issue, as they’d already been. I had a strong feeling that Rittenhouse hadn’t been killed because he’d been writing shitty things about me. Not being liked had its advantages, I presumed. But both not being liked and being feared at the same time was a combined recipe for disaster. It was too easy to get rid of problems in combat, as I’d become so rottenly aware. I moved over to where Casey worked and took out my canteen holder. I asked Zippo to go over to the Gunny and make me a cup.
Keeping low I made my way across the path to where Casey was digging in.
“What happened?” I asked him, squatting down, and pulling up the edge of his poncho. The captain was digging away, quickly working up a sweat from not pushing the poncho aside.
“To who?” Casey said, breathing hard and taking a break.
“You went out to the river back there,” I whispered. “Why did you go?”
“Sergeant Jurgens,” Casey began, shaking his head slowly. “He told me it’d be a great idea to reconnoiter that area so we could take out those rocket positions. Gunny sent Nguyen along as our guide. He said Junior sent him to help and if we lost communications he could run back. Nguyen was born not far from there you know.”
I rocked back a bit. Casey was a child. He was telling the truth of a child. I believed every word. Nguyen thought I was in on the plan so he’d cut the microphone wire to make sure they couldn’t call for help or get the message that artillery was coming in.
“And you’re Junior, so you’re it,” Casey laughed, before turning to go back to his digging.
“You better dig deep, sir,” I replied. “It’s going to heat up a bit tonight if they get that fifty-caliber online again.”
Casey twisted around and laughed. “Nah, I called in for help.”
I realized the captain was gone back into his world of Ronald Coleman and Shangri La, not a bad thing except for the extreme danger of the place he really was.
I crawled back to where the Gunny squatted, his face blank, a cigarette dangling from his right hand and a container of steaming coffee in the other. Zippo put my own hot holder down on a bare chunk of mud and then moved quickly back to join the rest of the scout team.
“The man’s around the bend, you know,” the Gunny said, casually.
“Would seem so,” I replied, just as lightly.
I wasn’t conducting an investigation. I was trying to understand the deep dark undercurrents running through the company, and then try to avoid them. I had no explanation yet for why Sugar Daddy had sent an advance party to check out the objective. The same man who’d twice avoided putting his men in jeopardy in very important, even vital, listening post positions was taking that kind of risk? Why? It didn’t make any sense. And what of the second and third ‘ghost’ platoons? What was at the bottom of their seemingly cloaked existence?
Gunfire erupted from across the river. I hit the deck and crawled to the edge of the berm pulling out my binoculars. At least it wasn’t rockets, I thought, staring out into the coming night and looking for muzzle flashes. Seconds later the Russian fifty caliber opened up, but the tracers didn’t come in from across the river. The heavy machine gun was firing from our side of the river. Somehow the NVA had gotten the gun across the river somewhere behind us. The fifty couldn’t penetrate the berm, but if they got the thing well positioned behind us and parallel to our position, then they could fire it right down our path, from south to north. Enfilade fire, the most dangerous kind, where single bullets could take out multiple targets by firing the length of the company’s axis. Once again, we’d been outmaneuvered. I’d planned no artillery fire for our side of the river because of the limits of the Army battery in getting rounds to us, with the nature of the cleft topography we were stuck in.
I heard the sound of aircraft. Not jet aircraft. It was the Skyraider, coming back with the day fast disappearing.
“Fusner, I need the AN 323,” I yelled back toward him.
Fusner scrambled about and then ran to me.
“I need Cowboy, if it is Cowboy up there.”
Fusner spoke into the small handset and then handed it over to me.
“He wants the six-actual, sir.”
I took the handset and put the little earpiece to my head with one hand.
“Is that you down there, Flash?” Jacko’s voice crackled through the static.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said, not being able to think of anything else to say, other than that we needed help.
“I’ve brought Hobo along and Cowboy’s riding this bronc, of course. Thanks for calling us back, we were just laying around and drinking at the An Hoa bar. What you got?”
“I called him back?” I whispered to Fusner, not keying the mic.
“Casey called them earlier,” Fusner answered.
I was startled for a few seconds. Casey had called for help. The man somehow knew we were going to need back up and we wouldn’t be able to get it from artillery. So, the damaged man, in terrible condition, had not only thought about the problem we were now in, but had done something about it.
“You guys fly those things at night?” I asked Jacko, afraid to hear his answer.
“Sure do, Flash,” came right back into the headset. “We’re loaded for bear. Every hear of IFR? Well, Cowboy is here and that’s his favorite way to travel. We’re good until dawn.”
I knew the Skyraiders could stay on station for a long time, maybe seven hours, but dawn was many more hours away than that. I smiled a cold smile. The NVA must have the AN 323 radios, as well, and our ‘air angels’ had to know that.
The fifty opened up again, shooting high into the air, the big green monster tracers going well over our heads. The NVA had heard the Skyraiders too.
“High Yo, Silver, away!” Jacko yelled.