There were fifty bodies, and right away everyone in the joined companies knew that the enemy soldiers were not NVA troops, or really soldiers at all. The uniforms were wrong and the ages were wrong. The bodies were of very young men and women dressed in peasant attire, carrying AK-47s with mostly empty magazines. Their bodies all looked the same, like nothing had touched them. The only thing out of place was the tiny little x marks all over every inch of them. The ‘x’ marks had no blood. There were no entry and exit wounds from the flechettes, like would have been normal to witness from almost any bullet passing entirely through any human body. But the flechettes weren’t traveling at bullet speed when they struck the peasant’s bodies. They’d been traveling about ten times faster. Twenty-two thousand feet per second instead of around twenty-two hundred. Hundreds of nearly microscopic darts had gone through each body, regardless of uniform, clothing or bone.
“They took the farmers and made them charge us,” the Gunny said, examining the bloodless penetrated corpses as closely as everyone else.
“Why?” I asked, kneeling at the Gunny’s side, no longer curious about the damage the Ontos had wrought but instead beginning to worry about the odd move on the part of the NVA.
“In preparation?” the Gunny asked back.
“I know,” I responded, “but preparation for what and when?”
The Gunny didn’t answer. I got up and made my way back to the Ontos. Whatever we did we had to do it quickly. No matter what the NVA were planning it was evident that they were planning something. They’d just tossed a hundred human beings at us as if they were worth nothing, which to them they must have been.
I pushed my back against the front of the Ontos slanted armor plate and stared up at the front face of Hill 975. The side of the mountain to the east, where I’d considered scaling the rip-rap to reach the highlands before heading north was no longer a consideration. The NVA surveillance from their tunneled in mountainside positions was too pervasive to risk having all my Marines exposed, first in single file getting to the rocks and then more exposed making the climb up. We were going to have to go around Hill 975, as planned, but we were going to have to use the riverbank and the hard-crusted dirt road called Highway 548. The maps showed the road as passable all the way to the DMZ. Resupply would have been easier once we reached the highlands but we would have to make do with the Highway 548 plan as best we could.
The Ontos had 15 rounds of flechette ammo and five of high explosives. How far could the companies get with artillery support and the Skyraiders until we reached some secure position to be resupplied could not be calculated. The A-Shau Valley was twenty-five miles long and we’d come only about six miles north since dropping down from the mountains separating the valley from Ga Noi Island. The valley would not climb out of the lower elevations for about ten more miles, in checking out the contour intervals on the maps I had. In truth, my maps didn't go far enough to reach the DMZ itself. I’d need more at the next resupply.
The choice to move in toward the river and move north between the rushing water and the old damaged highway wasn’t a difficult one. It had some of the same downsides of heading north the other way, with the exception that we wouldn’t be moving up a dead-end valley with a difficult climb into an unknown fire at the end of it. The surveillance by the enemy forces drilled and tunneled into the very body of the mountain outthrust of Hill 975 would be the same, however. There could be no surprise move on our part, not in the daytime, and not in the night with the Ontos growling its way up what was left of the old highway.
The idea of building another likely-to-fail firebase down in the very bottom creases of the valley had been abandoned by the command in the rear, but the fact that Hill 975 had not been taken and held would not go down well, if at all. We were heading north for no good reason I could figure out and I knew neither the Gunny nor anybody else had a good idea either. For the time being, moving anywhere but where we were made sense, and the north flatter terrain and area of operations would allow for full use of the whole arsenal of artillery supporting fires.
The Gunny came running across the open, followed by Sugar Daddy, Jurgens, and Obrien. When they went down into the mud it was almost impossible to tell what or who they were, other than higher lumps than other lumps nearby. The rain returned in earnest, pummeling down on my helmet. It wasn’t entirely unwelcome, except for the fact that it was too warm. The mild rinsing effect it had made a dent in the mess we’d all become, although nothing was going to clean us off entirely without some sort of full immersion.
“What’s the butcher’s bill?” I asked the Gunny, pulling back as far as I could under the raised front edge of the Ontos’ armor.
“Can this shit get any worse?” Jurgens asked, to no one in particular.
As if he’d hit a switch the drums began beating again. They were louder than they’d ever been before and caused every Marine in our combined unit to go silent and listen. The beat was strangely attractive but it came with a message of deep fear. I now knew that the NVA only used the drums when they thought they had us in a weakened position. They were doing what the professional football teams did when a field goal kicker was about to make his effort. They were icing us. Which also meant that they were getting prepared to hit us again, although, with the losses they’d taken from the flechettes, civilian as those losses were, they’d probably wait until after dark to set up some bases of fire before attacking under their protection.
“We didn’t lose anybody, amazingly enough," the Gunny replied to my question, “But they sure as hell took it in the ass.”
“I still don’t understand why they used the villagers?” I asked, the feeling of helpless sorrow almost overcoming the winding fear the drums recreated and send coursing up and down the insides of my torso.
“So you’d feel the way you feel,” the Gunny replied instantly. “The way you look. The way we all look. And maybe they wanted to see what we had and quite possibly to get us to spend our inventory because we aren’t getting any more supplies until we get out of this hell hole.”
I looked down at hundreds of small leeches, their thin bodies searching upward in waving curves from the mud. I realized that the leeches were fighting for space, air, and to survive. They were a lot like us.
I laid out my plan to move the Ontos up the highway with the rest of us accompanying the machine, covering the miles north move by using the brush and light jungle terrain between the road and the bank of the river. The 175s could safely fire over our heads to cover the rear, at least once we were a couple of clicks north of where we were now. Artillery from both Army firebases would be able to reach out and hit the highlands on either side of the valley, and Cunningham could even adjust fire up and down the eastern face. Hill 975’s entire length could be kept under near-constant fire while we passed by while Cowboy, and whatever other Skyraiders he could gather together, could orbit and drop down from above. The only real safety we would have, however, was in moving. Staying where we were would lead to our eventual annihilation.
The drums were horrid, the sounds seemed to come through the rain in waves, and the malevolence in their constant beating was impossible not to feel and concentrate on. We needed to get away from the drums as badly as we needed to leave the area for tactical reasons, and we needed to do it immediately.
“What position do we need to arrive at up north and when?” I asked the Gunny, still feeling a strangeness in the asking. I knew that feeling was never going to leave me as long as battalion command chose to ignore me as the only officer commander it had in the unit. Command still called to talk to Gunny on the combat net, as if he was the six-actual and not me.
“Just a grid coordinate that will become an LZ when we get there. The 1st Air Cavalry is going to be flown in to spearhead an operation heading back down here into the southern part of the valley to clear it out once and for all.”
Jurgens started to laugh and was quickly joined by Obrien and Sugar Daddy, with the ancillary radio operators and my own scout team joining in.
That they could laugh at all with the drum beats rolling over us like shifting clouds of doom, surprised me and I wondered if I was anywhere near as tough as any of the Marines who’d managed to survive to be where and when we were.
The Gunny and I looked at one another, neither of us even cracking a smile. The rear area, whether of Army or Marine Command, just could not accommodate that fact that the A Shau was riven with tunnels, split by a ferociously powerful and deep river and populated by a supplied NVA force that most likely was as large as the entire allied military structure available to I Corps in the northern part of the country. Even if the Army division brought in all of its men it wouldn’t be enough, and it wouldn’t bring in all of its troops. The Gunny wasn’t laughing because he knew what I knew. A lot more Marines were going to die in such an operation, although they wouldn’t die alone because they’d have plenty of Army company.
“Give me the grid position where we’re headed,” I said.
The Gunny read off the numbers he’d somehow, even with the heavy rain and miserable humidity, written down on his palm and managed to keep legible.
I memorized the number, knowing the map of our area so well that I had a good idea of where we were headed. From the way the photo/contour map was displayed when I had it out earlier, I knew that we’d likely be gathering together on a flat and level plain pretty far from the river. A great field of fire for the enemy but also well chosen for being dead center at close range for at least four allied artillery firebases, if not more when I included the 155s and eight-inch guns bunkered in closer to the DMZ. I knew that, at least if the Army was involved, then resupply was going to be heavy and qualitative. We needed 106 ammo and Claymores if we were coming back south again.
“I’ll take a couple of minutes to lay out our defensive fires,” I said, without further comment on or preamble to my plan. “I’ll call in Cowboy and then start to soften the east side of this hill for our departure. We should be able to depart in twenty minutes with Sugar Daddy’s platoon walking point, with the Ontos taking the lead.”
“No fucking way,” Sugar Daddy said, even before I finished my last sentence.
The syncopation of his words was somehow linked to the drums. The ‘no,’ followed by a drumbeat, and then ‘fucking,’ another drumbeat, and then the final word.
I didn’t have to move my right hand. I’d kept it on the handle of Tex’s .45 automatically. I kept the cover of his closed-style holster folded open unless I thought I might go swimming again. I wondered briefly what it would be like to serve in a stateside Marine unit and not think about shooting any of my own men as a response to either threats, denials or other rotten conduct.
I realized that there was nothing to be said that might lead away from a violent confrontation that could only compromise the plan. We had to get out of where we were and we had to do it quickly, not be mired down in some sort of intra-company firefight. Instead of saying anything, I slowly got out from under the Ontos and stood in the full press of the heated rain. The thousands of drops striking my helmet acted like a melody to the dull hateful lyrics of the enemy’s death song.
Fusner, Zippo, and Nguyen moved with me, as I walked toward the back of the armored vehicle. I glanced behind and noticed that Nguyen was walking backward, and I realized at that point that the Montagnard's trust in Sugar Daddy was even lower than my own.
I called in the zone fire I thought we’d need to the front of our moving position and also the 175s to chew up the rear. That left only the problem of the jungle-covered side of Hill 975 and the wall of the plateau that extended miles back from it. Cowboy would arrive in an hour with his wingman for additional support. Before we moved I wanted 105s and 155s to churn the side of that hill to a mess of chewed vegetation and crushed tunnel entrances. Nothing could reach down deep enough into the mud and rock to destroy the body of subterranean chambers and paths the Vietnamese had dug down there over generations of occupation and fighting, but if the NVA couldn’t use the entrances and exits until they did more digging then we’d be gone by the time they came out. Nobody was going to live if trying to remain above ground protected only by the dense, but by no means impenetrable, ground cover.
The Gunny came around the back of the Ontos and stood next to the three of us. I handed the AN/323 air radio headset back to Fusner.
“Sugar Daddy has a point,” the Gunny began, taking half a minute to light a cigarette before he went. “There are only two ways to go. The NVA know we can’t stay here so we have to move north. South is a dead-end street. We won’t be going up the cliff, and they probably know it. That leaves the highway, and the Ontos and all of that.”
I watched the Gunny masterfully keep his cigarette burning in spite of the mildly blowing wind and rain. I also noticed that the more it rained the more I could begin to make out facial features as the mud from our slide down the mountain continued to wash off.
“So, what’s your point?” I asked, taking a puff from the cigarette the Gunny held out like an olive branch.
He was in a bad position and I knew it because I’d left him in it. My reputation as ‘Junior, the miracle artillery and map reading expert’ didn’t extend to allowing me the full leadership of the outfit. Sugar Daddy knew it and used it or the Gunny wouldn’t be sharing a cigarette with me and trying to come to some accommodation that would satisfy Sugar Daddy and his Marines.
“Kilo’s with us and has almost three full platoons,” the Gunny said softly, before looking away.
He waited, using the time to accept his cigarette back and snap the remains off toward where the river still ran so strongly. Even the beating of the awful drums could not overpower the sound of that deep rushing water.
“Can’t work,” I said. “Sugar Daddy and his guys have endangered the company twice if not more times than I know. I’m not personally concerned about this disobeying orders or even the cowardice of abandoning posts under fire. We’re the United States Marine Corps and we have only that to get us through. We get artillery, supplies, air power and even the Ontos because we are that. We’re not throwing Kilo into the charnel house. They don’t have a clue. We’re going to act like Marines this time, and Marines fight when they have to, not when they want to. Sugar Daddy takes the point or I’m calling in the first 105s on his unit over there by the river. You want that grid number because the battery has no idea we’re this close to the slope of the hill?”
The Gunny stood and stared at me through the falling rain, his expression more dead-flat expressionless American Indian rather than whatever extraction he was a combination of.
“They know where we are,” the Gunny, replied his voice low. “They won’t fire that close, knowing where we are.”
“Fine,” I replied, getting ready to pull my pack down from the rear of the Ontos and prepare for departure.
The Gunny was right. I was bluffing. The batteries knew exactly where we were, if not from my own registration, then from monitoring the air support frequency.
“Give Sugar Daddy and his platoon the tail end Charlie position. They should be safe there, and the batteries will never really know where their exact position is, once we get moving.”
“We need that platoon,” the Gunny shot back, shaking his head.
“As you said, we now have Kilo, and they don’t seem to have the racial mess we’re dealing with, at least not after we allowed eight more blacks to come under Sugar Daddy’s control.”
We’d made no attempt to guard our conversation against the Marines around us. The Ontos team was under the belly of the armored beast, but they could hear everything, even over the sounds of the river and drums. My scout team was right beside us. I’d not taken the Gunny aside on purpose. Sugar Daddy needed to know what I might be planning, not that I was caring as much as I might have at one time. Was my threat a bluff? I wasn’t sure myself, although mentally I had already begun to calculate just where the optimal beaten zone might be set up to excise the racial problem once and for all.
The Gunny walked away and I turned my back. Zippo helped me with the straps on my pack.
“They ain’t all bad, sir,” he whispered into my left ear, as he worked.
“Who?” I replied, knowing exactly what he was talking about but not ready to recant on my announced decision.
Zippo didn’t answer. He continued to help me adjust the heavy pack.
“It’s not about that,” I said with a sigh, not expecting Zippo, even though he’d come out of Sugar Daddy’s platoon at his own request, to understand at all.
“It’s about leadership, isn’t it, sir?” he replied, surprising me.
He was right, but in a different way than I thought about the problem.
“Inside the wire, Zippo,” I said, thinking about the complexity of the mess the entire unit was in. “Those inside the wire are friendlies. Those inside the wire maximize the survival of all those around them. Outside the wire is the enemy, no matter what uniform they wear or what they say.”
“So, if they won’t do what you tell them to do they’re outside the wire?” Zippo asked.
“You missed that part about maximizing survival,” I said, after taking a few seconds to try to put the words in a form he could understand. “If they won’t fight they then threaten everyone else. It’s their choice. I call supporting fires on the enemy, whomever that enemy might be. Everyone doesn’t have a choice here. I didn't’ make it that way, the Marine Corps did.”
The Gunny came back down through the small rivulets of water that had begun to form and run in every direction through the mud around us.
“The Ontos needs to fire up and get to the point. Sugar Daddy’s platoon is going to lead us past the worst part and then be relieved once we’re clear. They want to form up behind the Ontos and have it loaded with those flechettes.”
The Ontos started before the Gunny was done speaking. The driver had been listening to everything.
I looked at the Gunny, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes. A compromise had swiftly been worked out behind my back. The company had run on compromise too many times in the past, I felt, but the drums, the river, the mud, the hula dancing leeches near my feet, all beat me down. Once again, Sugar Daddy had been warned and once again, I knew in my fear-shivering bones that he would try to take me out at the earliest opportunity. After my threat, and the Gunny’s compromise, I couldn’t exactly drop artillery in on his platoon without losing the rest of the company in the process or even having them kill me in retaliation. Sugar Daddy wouldn’t be so open or constrained.
“Wait for Cowboy, before we pull out,” I said to the Gunny. “The first artillery should be impacting at about the same time. Cunningham and Ripcord are both firing for suppression, so the planes will be coming up from the south to stay off the gun target line."
I hunkered down next to the idling Ontos. It would only take the beast about five minutes to get to the point and start the move up the valley. The driver stuck his head out of the hole in the armor plate. I nodded at him, thankful that someone in the unit, other than my scout team, was accepting direction. The Ontos surged forward, spitting mud out the sides of its tracks, as well as behind them. More mud covered me. I wiped what I could away, more to make sure I hadn’t collected any leeches because I wasn't going to get any cleaner. I’d been clean all my life and hadn’t really known or understood that it was part of this life. Being abysmally filthy all the time wasn’t something I knew I was ever going to get used to no matter how long I lasted in Vietnam.
I moved toward the river with my scout team. Zippo and Nguyen kept their distance, as I’d taught them. One grenade was not going to get all of us, or one booby trap unless it was really huge. Jurgens appeared out of a bamboo thicket near the rapidly passing current.
“We’ve got your back, Junior,” he said, with a big smile.
“I don’t need your protection,” I shot back, still angry with the compromise and the seemingly dense and stupid men who had caused it.
“I meant that we’re covering the rear for the move, sir,” Jurgens corrected, his smile wiped from his face.
I almost rocked back in shock. Jurgens hadn’t meant what I thought he’d meant and he’d called me sir.
“Ah, thanks, got it, move out,” I replied, shaken by how badly I’d misunderstood him and also how much of a mess the race thing might continue to grow to be.
I was being made to think in terms of black and white Marines and I didn’t want to go there. We were dying. Our losses could not be sustained and allow any of us to survive even a fraction of whatever time the rear area command intended for us to be in the field, yet old and stupid prejudice permeated the unit from one end to the other.
I moved forward as quickly as I could. The Skyraiders approaching thrum behind us radiated up the valley, overpowering the drums, the river and the constant beating of the rain. I had to get far enough upriver to adjust the first artillery rounds. The Ontos was ahead on the highway, but too far up it to be heard. The Ontos was the company’s key to close in survival. None of the firebases would fire within two hundred meters of the highway, no matter what I called in. The officers in those batteries had their own careers to guard, and dropping friendly artillery on Marines in combat was a quick road to a court-martial and even prison time if it could be determined that they violated the rules of engagement. The batteries accepted my lies about our fictional positions because that data could be used to defend them if things went wrong. There was nothing to defend me, however.
The first artillery rounds came in, just as the Skyraiders hit the jungle with their twenty-millimeter cannons. The artillery rounds didn’t need adjusting. Cunningham and Ripcord knew exactly where Hill 975 was and understood that we were moving up the highway. The Skyraiders were always a relief to have on hand. They swooped away after making one run and disappeared up through the low hanging clouds. I had no idea how the pilots could see through their canopies, with the rain being fairly heavy and the light so limited.
Our first casualties didn’t come from the jungle or an ambush up near the point. It took a couple of minutes, once the sporadic firing began, to pin down what had happened. The western wall of the valley, the one that rose up high above the swirling river that ran right up against its stone face had been left out of my calculations. The NVA had put snipers up on top of the wall. There was no place for us to go. From sniper positions up on the wall, there was no cover. The snipers didn’t have to be that good since they could simply load and fire as endlessly as they pleased.
I’d gone down deep into the riverbank mud at the sound of the first shots. I knew where the drums were. The snipers were firing from whatever position they’d selected on the far wall to locate the drums for maximum effect. The snipers were succeeding where the drums had not. I knew Marines were being hit from the screams upriver.
I reached out and Fusner filled my hand with the artillery net microphone.
“Call Cowboy and get them on it,” I said, as calmly as I could.
I took no time to re-orient myself using the map in my pocket or my compass. I knew where the last rounds had come in up the opposite side wall of jungle cover. I called in a spotting adjustment in white phosphorus instead of a new fire mission to Ripcord. I asked for ‘right two thousand,’ hoping the explosion would be close to the top edge of the opposing wall and the blooming phosphorus visible from where I was.
The round impacted the side of the cliff, about three hundred meters up. It hit the wall so low that phosphorus bits and pieces cascaded down and across the river.
There were more screams. But there were no more sniper shots coming from the top of the wall.
I didn’t see the next round when it went off somewhere back from the upper edge of the cliff, but I heard it. The Skyraiders strafed the top of the cliff in the same area, but they were gone in seconds. I called in for a battery of six and waited. The rounds came in, and there was no missing their impact. Thirty-six rounds of forty pounds each. Some outer explosions were visible from my position, and I knew the remainder were impacting in a circular pattern approximately two hundred yards from the edge. It was all I needed. I adjusted fire up and down along the top of the wall, knowing that we’d probably take more casualties from the stone and rock that had to be flung outward by some of the impacts.
Cunningham was still firing on the jungle side of the wall. I heard the roar of the Ontos as it built up to top speed. Everyone was moving. There could be no slowing or stopping again. We had to get out of the beaten zone we’d somehow gotten ourselves into. Sugar Daddy’s platoon had taken casualties, I was almost sure. I didn’t know about any of the other platoons, although there were plenty of Marines running and walking while carrying the corner of a poncho cover.
“Steeped in blood,” I whispered to myself, handing the microphone back to Fusner.
“Sir?” Fusner replied.
“Steeped in blood,” I repeated. “I never named the plan. That would have been an accurate one, and we have a long way to go.”
“I don’t think that would have been a good idea, sir,” Fusner said, “and don’t say that out loud, anymore.”