The sounds of the Bong Song’s nearby rushing waters, the whap whap whap of the descending chopper’s supersonic blade-tips rotating, and the rest of the valley background sounds all faded into non-existence, as four Skyraiders came down the valley from the north, no more than fifty feet off the surface of the river. It was like the jungle peeled back to let them pass, the deep quaking thunder of their huge radial engines spitting out life-threatening noise even a close-mounted fifty caliber machine gun could not compare to. When the Skyraiders were on top of us and the thunder didn’t seem like it could get any louder, Cowboy and his wingmen opened up with their twenty-millimeter cannons and swept the A Shau’s lower surface like four brooms shaking the sawdust to pieces on an old saloon floor. Dust, dirt, and debris sprayed from one side of the narrow valley to the other before the monster planes were gone. There were no Marines still standing when that occurred.

I stood up and brushed myself down, knocking the crap from my helmet with one clenched fist, but avoiding hitting the sharp chunk of shrapnel that was sticking out of it. I still didn’t like having the word “Junior” written under the single magic marker black bar on its front surface, but there was little I was willing to do about it. What was, was, and if I’d learned anything at all it was that the only way I had any chance at survival was to go along when I could, and adapt at every opportunity I was given, and forget about the fact that I was a valuable or a valued human being. I was just another jungle creature trying to get by, no better or worse than a venomous viper, the crocodile we’d killed earlier, or even the leeches and mosquitos I’d so hated in the beginning, before life had changed.

The sound of the chopper blades grew and grew. I looked up to see the two big birds orbiting at about five hundred feet. It was a sight I was becoming used to. I looked lower down near the top edge of the jungle. They came right over that fake green horizon. Six Huey Cobra gunships. They didn’t come like the Skyraiders, lined up and delivering a wall of rolling fire. Instead, they came as an ever-changing interlace of dancing dark creatures. No fire came from their machine guns or cannons. They were clearing the landing zone by observation and reconnaissance. They’d only fire if they needed to or if they were fired upon, which wasn’t likely, and that fact was the only reason I wasn’t back face down on the vegetation with my chest pressed into the mud. It took several moments of intricate weaving, and near-magical flying, for the sleek predator choppers to assure that the supply ships could come down. There was only one regular Huey, so I knew it had to be flown by Blackbird, which meant that Captain V.C. had to be aboard. My replacement officers would be in one of the 47s.