I slipped McInerney’s flashlight into my right side pocket, its end sticking out a bit and rapping back and forth against the hard leather of my Colt .45 holster.
“Fusner,” I whispered, turning back toward the foxhole I’d left, but making no move to retreat there.
“Sugar Daddy,” I ordered, and then waited.
Fusner quickly moved the dials he needed to move in order to isolate Sugar Daddy’s frequency on his PRICK 25.
“Six actual,” I stated, and then went on when he responded by using my Junior nickname.
He was in a bad spot with his platoon and I could hear the tension in his voice just by reading it in the strained tone of his single word reply.
“We need the ropes you intended for the other side and we need them now. Have your men string one single long linked line along the side of the bridge that’s upriver. The only cover you had at all, the last time we did this, was from getting into the river and moving along low on the other side of the bridge. The 106 rounds mean everything,” I added.
“How long do we have?” he asked, rushing the speed of his words as he’d never done before.
“About twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes,” I replied, knowing I was probably going to be caught short.
If the A-6 made its last run sooner than that then the cost would be in Marines taken down by machine-gun fire from the jungle area that Jurgens' platoon, unloading, and the running supplies to the company, would be in no position to suppress. The supplies had to come first or all was lost, and the only men to facilitate and receive the supplies, from the more dangerous position of the bridge since it’d moved, were Jurgens' Marines.
“I’ll do my best, Junior,” Sugar Daddy said in such a way as I’d never heard him before.
It was almost as if he was transmitting a message of respect toward me, as well as a deep measure of fear. I stood for a few seconds, surprised and holding out the handset before me. I didn’t reply. There was no reply necessary. All Jurgens and I could do was to wait for the ropes and then go to work building a makeshift cargo net to get the heavy supplies down and across the deadly gulf that had formed between the river bank and the rear of the bridge structure. And we had to move as fast as humanly possible, given the short suppression period the Intruder could give us and the likely continued and unpredictable movement of the structure.
Marines appeared at the top of the metal wall that was the back of the bridge, visible from the reflected moonlight suffusing up and out from the thickness of whitewater the fast-moving liquid threw into the air all around us. I was drenched, and I hadn’t come within feet of the river water itself, which I didn’t mind because the fresh feeling of the river water did a lot to revive and keep me going. The Marines began throwing coils of rope across the distance. Fifteen feet was not a great gulf between us, but the coils were wet and heavy. Many made it, to land in the nearby mud, a few others were retrieved as they struck the near edge of the water and about to be swept away. A few were lost altogether.
“Knots, we need knots, and fast, and we won’t have time to make a proper net either,” I said quickly to Jurgens. “Any of your men who can tie knots I need right now.”
My mind raced back to my time aboard the Daniel J. Morrell when I’d served as a deckhand before it went to the bottom of Lake Huron. I’d spent two summers between college years spending most of my off time learning seaman’s knots and lore from the other sailors. The running hitch was about the fastest knot anyone could tie that was secure and could be continued, one knot after another, without having to cut the rope to build the lattice, and it was easy and fast to tie.
I gathered a small group of Marines Jurgens had ‘volunteered’ and showed them how to tie the simple knot, using an arms-length distance for the placement of each knot at the crossing point where the ropes were brought together. It was too dark to show much of anything, however, so I pulled out McInerney’s flashlight and lay it on the mud. Its angled head pointed sideways and provided enough light. I took the chance that it also could attract fire if the enemy wasn’t crouched down in holes or hiding in tunnels waiting out the Intruder’s deadly explosive runs.
I finished my quick course in the showing the Marines how to tie the lines together to form nets that had squares of about three feet in size, way too big to haul or rest cargo on, particularly as it came across the round racing water. We had no time, and the wet ropes were cumbersome and difficult, but they’d probably serve for the Marines to climb onto and haul the supplies over themselves without ending up in the river, either being spirited downriver to some gloomy ending or drowning outright.
The results of the second of the Intruder’s runs blew us all into a moment of frozen inaction and silence. The concussive waves crossed the river almost instantly but were partially blocked by the steel corner of the bridge itself. We plunged back into the knotting work after they passed. We finished most of the net before the fourth A-6 bombing run, just as Sugar Daddy’s Marines began arriving at the bridge’s upper rear edge with all manner of boxes, bags and uncovered mortar tubes and plates.
We were out of time, so I ordered the knotting work to stop. Just as I was about to have a line thrown across the distance to attach what we had of a cargo net, a coiled rope landed right in front of me. I looked up to see a dark figure waiting to haul the end of the net up. It had to be Sugar Daddy.
A single gunner fired a line of green tracers from the jungle area we all feared. The tracers came in well over everyone’s head, but still forcing everyone down.
“The light,” Jurgens hissed, brushing by and knocking me out of his way. He didn’t turn off the fire attracting light, instead, he buried the flashlight deep into the mud not far from my left boot. He said nothing, immediately turning to tie the thrown line to the cargo net, and then yelling for the Marines on the bridge to haul it up.
I eased the flashlight loose from the mud by feel, getting the sliding switch on the side to the off position before I brought the waterproof lens up from the muck. I wasn’t willing to give up the flashlight. The light had proven that the enemy would survive the bombing runs and eventually direct heavy fire upon anyone left in the open while they would be making the supply move attempt. I had wished at one point that we could use the old runway further upriver, and also a bit down from Hill 975, but the river water had done its work as it had increased in volume and speed with the increased rainfall. The old runway was all but gone, it’s great concrete squares eaten out from underneath by the racing water and then broken up as they failed in pieces instead of being plopped down to rest flat on the river’s underwater bed. Two of Jurgens men had bravely gone upriver earlier to check it out.
The Marines worked to get the net up and secured with three of Jurgen’s men assigned to hold the riverbank edge down and tight. I watched them work, no orders or instructions being necessary. Somehow, none probably ever working as a merchant seaman other than myself, they knew instinctively what to do. They didn’t talk, they just got the job done.
I waited for the next bombing run, hoping that Homan would make sure to hit further down in the jungle area. The Marines crossing the exposed flat surface of the bridge carrying the supplies would be at real risk from the concussive waves of the bombs if they landed any closer at all to where they’d come in earlier. I thought of calling Homan on the radio but then realized he and his pilot knew exactly what they were doing, and very likely their advanced radar could take in the situation we were in as they made their runs.
I carefully replaced the flashlight back in my pocket, this time freeing up my left front pocket so the head of the light wouldn’t whack against my automatic. I watched the Marines work, as supplies began to flow first to men struggling to balance as best they could on and in the net, and then as other Marines grabbed the supplies and ran back toward the open area running all the way to the cliff, not far from where my foxhole had been dug. The makeshift cargo net allowed for the transfer, although almost two squads of Jurgen’s Marines had to be stuck among the knots and ropes to ferry the stuff down.
The flashlight incident brought a lot of stuff rushing back to me, as I waited to see what had to be done next, and also for the return of the Intruder.
I wasn’t made up of anything of my own. I was the creation of others. My helmet was a bruised and battered relic from officers who had died before me. My gun was from a dead lieutenant I’d shared so little time with that I had to concentrate to remember his name. My used boots came in from a chopper crewman who felt sorry for me, and then died hours after being stuck on the ground, and then going immediately into combat. My watch was taken from another officer who’d passed on earlier. The flashlight I’d lost had been owned by one of my platoon sergeants and then replaced by the flashlight owned by another officer killed because he was too new to understand the near-instant mortality of combat to men exposed without any experience. I was like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, a collection of bits and pieces, although different from that fictional character by being gifted, or cursed, with a great memory. There was no making any mistake in my own mind, however, that I was as entirely fictional as that movie creature. I had made myself up, with the Gunny’s help, to become something I could not look twenty-eight days back and recognize at all.
I realized that the 106 ammunition was coming across the water first, with Sugar Daddy’s large presence visible up on the bridge’s end to make sure. It was that touch and understanding that burned deeply into me about the man. I would write Sugar Daddy up for the Silver Star he had somehow come to crave. I wouldn’t do it for his heroism in any action or activity he might be performing. I’d do it for his knowing and doing the right thing at the right time to save two companies of Marines from annihilation.
The flat wooden boxes, each with two 106 rounds inside, came over quickly. Although weighing about fifty pounds per box, the wooden crates handled easily when a rope was run through one of the hemp handles and then tied to the other. They bounced easily across the shaky net, guided by the Marines over the holes in the net and the rapidly moving water below. The ropes on the boxes were untied with great speed and the rounds spirited away into the night. I knew they were being run to the Ontos at top speed. In only minutes the Ontos would be fully resupplied with both high explosive and flechette ammunition.
The next run of the Intruder came in, low enough to see the exhaust plumes from its strangely angled turbine engines. The Marines on the bridge all went prone on the deck when the explosions took place, and then popped back up almost instantly when the shock waves had passed.
The C-Rations were difficult to work with. They were easy to toss across the distance but then had to be reassembled on the riverbank because the cardboard boxes were immediately soaked through by the water. They broke open easily upon impacting the shore and the dozen smaller meal boxes had to be piled into poncho covers to be transported.
The 81mm mortar barrel and plate assemblies came over the lip, carried by hand, with no coverings. The mortar ammo boxes came next. They were made of soldered
tin, unlike the boxes of the 106 recoilless rounds. The tins were a good bit shorter but just as heavy. Everything about the mortars was heavy, and each element weighed about the same. The tin ammo boxes of three rounds each weighed fifty pounds, while the tube and base, individually, weighed somewhere in that neighborhood too.
I knew the Marines loved the power of the mortar rounds but they also hated to have to carry the ammunition or the mortar body parts. The normal pack load carried into combat weighed between forty and sixty pounds, depending upon when resupply provided more or less stuff, and how much water was necessary to get by on. Two mortars and a dozen boxes of ammunition amounted to six hundred pounds that would normally have to be redistributed among the men for humping up, down and across the devilishly difficult terrain of the valley.
The good news, in our current situation, was that we were in a static position waiting to be relieved. We weren’t going anywhere the mortars would have to be hauled. Their passage, as I watched the mortars go by, gave me an idea.
“Set up the mortars and get ready with two teams to register, and then fire on that jungle area when the Intruder is done with its work,” I ordered Jurgens, grabbing him by the arm and pulling him back from the river. “Act fast. We don't have that many runs left. Have them fire one round every thirty seconds until half the ammo’s gone once they are set up. We’ll save the other 18 rounds for another enemy attempt to cross the mudflat.”
The mortar round’s ten pound loads of highly fractured metal shrapnel and high explosive would be window dressing in the jungle but it might give an additional nine minutes, or so, of additional cover before the enemy resurfaced and really became a destructive threat.
I noticed Nguyen at my side. His presence was closer than he’d normally chosen to accompany me, in combat or otherwise. I noted that his shiny ebony eyes were not on me. His attention was on Jurgens. He didn’t trust Jurgens, for reasons that I thought were already buried in the past, but evidently the mysterious but deadly Montagnard didn’t agree. Nguyen’s impassive and nearly inscrutable facial expressions were such that it was hard to tell, but since Macho Man’s murder at Jurgen’s hands, the small deadly warrior treated Jurgens as if he was a hand grenade rolling around with the pin already pulled.
The A-6 made its last run, as McInerny’s bagged body was sent the other way up our jury-rigged cargo net and onto the main deck of the bridge. The huge explosions came as before, and everyone on the bridge and behind it was ready for them. The enemy was ready for them too because light fire began to come from the jungle in spurts of short automatic fire. How the enemy somehow knew how many of the big bombs the Intruder carried was beyond me, but somehow they did. The first mortar round was launched from its tube with the characteristic ‘thup’ in the distance. A mortar launch comes with a delay that can be from twenty to over sixty seconds long, as the round climbs high in the atmosphere, and then plunges back to earth in its very steep arc of descent. The round didn’t explode in the jungle itself. It exploded like a 4th of July fireworks above the jungle, and then a big swinging light descended down from the cloud of smoke surrounding the explosion. Somehow a few of the rounds that had come in were illumination rounds. I watched the 500,000 candlepower swinging light slowly float on down into the jungle, where it still burned for a while, generating a yellow glow up from the place it had gone down.
At first, I was surprised and then delighted. The small arms fire had died out again, while Sugar Daddy’s Marines made their last run to the chopper, and then began returning carrying the last of their load, the big plastic water bottles we needed so badly in the heat. Thirty seconds later, another illumination round came in.
The Marines were not using the high explosive ammunition. They were saving that for using when the sappers would make another assault. I smiled to myself.
The Gunny. He had to be there. Only the Gunny might guess that the illumination rounds would likely be taken by the enemy as a targeting designator for even more powerful airstrikes than the A-6 could deliver. And he was right. The enemy was keeping its head down while Jurgen’s remaining Marines raced as fast as they could to get back to the bridge. The 81 ammunition could not last, however, and soon there was again a silence, except for the river’s great beating deluge of water passing by, and the sound of the chopper’s whirling blades and the constantly passing Cobra gunships.
The CH-46 went to full power and pulled upward, tilting its nose down, and then flying off at top speed up the valley, barely staying more than ten or fifteen feet above the river’s fast-moving surface. The Cobra’s disappeared with it, never having chosen to fire a round at the enemy, even when some assault rifles had opened up briefly. The tracers crossing the distance had not been directed at the supply chopper. The Cobra’s sole mission was to protect the chopper.
The choppers weren’t gone more than a minute before the enemy’s .50 caliber heavy machine gun opened up. The enemy hadn’t cared to fire on the resupply helicopter, as might have been imagined. They were after wiping out our entire force, and they had more than one heavy machine gun. There was the 50 in the mountain, and now the one located near the center of the jungle area. I retreated back to my foxhole, crabbing up the bank and then standing vertically to run the last bit of distance over the curve of the berm. I went straight down into the hole, followed nearly instantly by Fusner and Nguyen. I reached for the radio handset, propping myself once again against the side of the hole facing the river. I stared out at the occasional bursts from the fifty. It was shooting at the bridge. I knew Sugar Daddy’s last Marines, and probably Sugar Daddy himself had to be in the water and on the other side, trying to move toward our side of the river by working hand over hand along the distance of the rope.
“Bring the Gunny up,” I ordered Fusner. After some adjustment, I was about to transmit my usual ‘six actual’ when the Gunny replied, using my name.
“Junior,” he said.
“Load one round of high explosive,” I said low and slow. “From your last position with the illumination round, drop one-five-zero, left one hundred, over,” I said, and waited.
“Roger that,” the Gunny came back, understanding that I was adjusting fire for the mortars. “Not certain,” he went on, “the light’s so bad.”
“Prepare four rounds for effect,” I followed up a few seconds later, wondering if anyone in the hastily assembled gun crew had a flashlight.
The ‘thup’ came only seconds later. I waited, counting. Twenty-four seconds went by. The gunner was no doubt using one charge for the short-range since the weapon was capable of firing well beyond two miles. The round landed short of the fifty’s position, but the machine gun’s firing stopped with the impact.
“Right five zero, add five zero and fire for effect,” I ordered.
I couldn’t use bracketing, the most accurate way to pinpoint a target under fire, because we didn't have enough ammunition. I had to use ‘creeping,’ the favored artillery observer tool before Brewer came along in 1931 at Fort Sill’s artillery school, inventing the fire direction center and bringing bracketing into effect as the artillery’s best aiming tool.
Four ‘thups’ came from the two tubes in rapid succession. I waited the twenty-four seconds of their flight through, understanding that the Gunny knew so little about adjusting artillery that he didn't use any of the correct radio jargon or back and forth communication usually required for accomplishing an accurate fire mission.
But the mission was very accurate. The four rounds impacted exactly into and closely around the machine gun’s position, or what I had gathered was its position from my viewpoint. Without the mortars, I knew we’d have lost a lot more men than we already probably had. Only the fifty was powerful enough to shoot right through the thin but sturdy steel that covered both sides of the bridge. Without the .50 caliber online, the enemy could only aim at those Marines who hadn’t made it to the other end of the bridge or who might expose themselves at our end.
Drums of War
The rain had passed temporarily, and the relief we all felt was palpable. Maybe, somewhere in the resupply goods, there’d be dry socks and underwear around, for those Marines who hadn’t given up the issue boxer shorts some time back. Any relief was short-lived, however, because the rain was replaced by the horrid beating of the enemy drums. The NVA never beat the drums in hard rain, probably because their low-frequency sounds didn’t penetrate the heavy moist thickness well enough. The drums began their distinctive, and endlessly repetitive and distant, yet close, pounding. The drums could not be ignored, at least not by me.
I reached for the AN 323 headset, poking Fusner in the side so he’d know I didn’t want the PRICK 25 for either the combat or artillery net.
“Whole man,” are you out there?” I asked. “Do you have any more ordnance left or are you guys done for the night?”
“Roger that,” Homan replied, strangely.
I sat for seconds in silence. Did that mean the Intruder had more ordnance available or not? I shook my head in the darkness. Sometimes the air support people were more inscrutable than Charly Chan in the old movies.
“One of those big bombs would be nice,” I said, neither of us bothering with the normal radio etiquette in using the monotonous word “over,” all the time.
“Roger, One,” Homan replied.
That had to mean that the A- 6 still had one of the huge bombs left. I knew the day/night and the all-weather plane had no machine guns or cannons and I couldn’t understand how the A-6 might carry an odd number of the bombs since it seemed to have the racks for the bombs under its wings. But I wasn’t sure of anything about the unusual plane, as I’d only seen it vaguely in passing when it had supported us in the past.
Up on that eastern cliff, about halfway south down along the jungle area, they’ve set up drums again,” I said. “Is there any chance your radar might make out what are probably stacks of old fuel drums, and then place something down there to quiet their effect?”
“The eastern rim of this God-awful valley, I presume you mean, and ‘quiet their effect,’ I like that,” Homan replied.
“Affirmative,” I transmitted back. “Maybe you can take a pass, and if you see what I’m talking about, then send them a message.”
“Drop them a message, I think is more to the point,” Homan shot back.
The A-6 completed climbing and curving out of the valley from its last pass, and came down the valley, but this time flying low over the eastern rim. The plane continued on down the valley without dropping anything.
“Tiny collection of something down there looking like a bit of a wasp’s nest,” Homan said.
“That’s got to be it,” I replied, hoping even a near-miss with one of the big bombs would silence the things.
“Coming back around,” Homan noted.
I waited for the whistling scream of the Intruder’s twin turbines to become audible, making no attempt to look up into the almost complete blackness of the new night.
Once the plane flew over, if it came close enough, then the exhaust would flare yellow and red, but even that would be almost impossible to make out unless it was very low. The bomb would not have to be delivered from a very low altitude, unlike the bombing of the jungle hit so effectively only a few minutes earlier.
There was nothing visible, as I watched the area where I thought the top of the canyon wall had to be, just across the river and then partway down the lower portion of the jungle area.
A great flash went up, followed by a crack of thunder. Showers of red hot sparks flew outward from the partially illuminated cliff wall and it hit me instantly what was happening. The bomb had been dropped close enough to the side of the cliff to shatter and blow much of the material from the rim down into the valley below. Great staccato rattling, thudding, and breaking branch sounds rolled across the river from the jungle area. If the big bombs hadn’t done their job when they’d been dropped, run after run, then the rock shrapnel, not dissimilar from the debris we’d blown from the other side of the canyon, might just have done the job.
There were no drum sounds, following the attack.
“How’s the music down there?” Homan asked.
“Thanks,” I sent back, not being able to describe how good it felt to have the A-6 do what it had done, from beginning to end.
“We’ll be back in a jiffy with a reload and carrying a box lunch,” Homan said, his dry humor there, but nearly undetectable.
The A-6 would take hours to reload, refuel and make the round trip to Da Nang I knew but it was still good to know the Intruder would be returning.