The mess of stationery I carried was a collection of soggy, semi-wet and dried water stains holding strands of paper together. The envelopes were in the best shape because I’d rolled them into a tight tube and used one of my extra trouser springs to hold them together. I released the spring and carefully pulled out an envelope in the very center, unfolding it as I went while making sure the pack of stationery and envelopes stayed guarded under the tipped-up edge of my tilted helmet. I was under my poncho cover, and the wet mud of the river bank wasn’t really all that wet, but still, I fought to maintain as much moisture security as I could cage together. The sun had fallen behind and above the clouds that poured drizzling rain down into the heart of the valley where the company, and what was left of Kilo, had gone down following the debacle of taking out the cliff top snipers. Blowing the drums along with them had been a great positive bonus.
It wasn’t quiet by any means but at least the night would not be owned by the NVA.
I smoothed out a whitish blue sheet of the only stationary I could get from resupply. I tried to ignore the envelope that was unfurling itself next to the sheet of paper, but I could not. There were two printings on the left face of the blue-shaded envelope. The first was in the upper left corner, making it difficult to put a proper return address in that traditional area. The printed symbol was in gold and white with little black lines. It was the Marine Corps globe and anchor. Below that was the worst part. A half-envelope-wide and two-thirds-envelope-high rendering of the American flag being raised up over Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima. The two symbols together illustrated everything that was wonderful about the Marine Corps and being a Marine, and especially being a Marine Officer. The images wouldn’t let me write to my wife. I wanted to throw up, instead.
I leaned closer to the envelope and picked up my cheap U.S. government pen. I clicked the little tab on top and exposed the tip through the small hole at the other end, conscious of each tiny move the pen and I made together. My right hand moved slowly across the paper and over to the envelope. Very intently, right next to the globe and anchor symbol, and very close to the very corner, I wrote two numbers. They were both twos. Twenty-two. Twenty-two Marines had died, a dozen from falling rocks blown outward from the face of the cliff by my short round and then ten more burned to death from the inside out by chunks and pieces of white phosphorus when the ranging round I’d called to correct came in too short and exploded too low. I’d gotten the adjustment location wrong and the battery had followed up by getting the elevation from the bottom of the valley up to the altitude of the round going off. I would never tell anyone back home about what the two numbers signified. Never. My wife would never guess or know either.
I thought my emotions were gone but suddenly they were not. My eyes filled, forcing me to look around intently. It was still light enough to see me, although only my scout team was nearby. Fusner messed with the Prick 25, constantly rubbing and cleaning it, using the rain as his solvent. Zippo sharpened his K-Bar knife with a piece of stone taken from the river. He said the stone was some sort of special Indian sharpening stone but nobody believed him. Nguyen sat in his usual bent-knee crouch, staring out toward the area of the river but not really. I knew he was watching me. I knew in my heart of hearts that all three were making believe they weren’t watching me. The Gunny had told me many days before that if I could not act like the commander then I should at least look like the commander.
I pushed my poncho cover back over my shoulders, making my writing space almost too dark to see anything. It was wet and raining outside of my small little-protected cleft. The tears came. I’d held them back like a drunk trying to find a place to vomit but unable to until, at last, it didn’t matter. I’d killed twenty-two of my own men in seconds, some in the most awful way possible. I’d been fifty meters off. I’d been fifty meters off twice in a row. It was unforgivable.
I didn't make any noise or show any sign that I was crying like a baby, and I was proud of what was left of my self-respect for that discipline.
I could still see the Marine Corps symbols in the poor light. They were right there in front of my face, but I knew down to my core, to the depth of my soul that I was not a real Marine. Real Marines didn’t cry. Real Marines did not kill their own men, much less so many of them that he could not keep count. Real Marines sucked it up and moved on. Adapt and survive. Fire and maneuver. Any decision is better than no decision.
The men at the flag raising could not see me, even if they came alive. Not one face in the flag raising photo reproduction was turned in my direction. They stared straight ahead, at the pole they were fighting upward. Intent. Mission-oriented. Real Marines.
I had to write. Later in the night, we’d reach a position further up the valley. We’d stopped far enough from the jungle outgrowth of the east wall, as the canyon wall had grown ever lower in elevation. Far enough to escape ambush or attack from that direction. Close enough to allow us to gather our dead and wounded and prepare for a move that would now allow us to get medivac choppers in to pull them all out. We’d suffered the worst losses since I’d been with the company and the casualties were all my very own.
I wanted to write letters home to all the survivors, but how could I write twenty-two letters and how many on top of that for the badly wounded. The Gunny had come to get what little morphine I had left, but not to end any Marine’s misery by taking him out, but instead just to ease the burns of those still living. The Gunny had said that the sound of the wounded crying and whimpering was worse for the men than the drums. He also wouldn’t let me go forward to view the havoc I had let loose.
“It wasn’t you,” he whispered. “It’s just what happens in this kind of shit. The men understand, better than you think. Don’t quit on me. You’ve lived longer than any company grade officer we’ve had and God Himself can’t call better-supporting fire than you.”
I hadn’t cried in front of the Gunny. The cigarette and matches he’d left me lay across the top of the sheet of stationary I was trying to write on. The cigarette was a Pall Mall, I saw, reading the elegant tall black printing on the white of its tobacco tube. It still had the long filter still on it. The Gunny always pinched the filter off but had either neglected to do so or maybe thought I’d be more likely to find some solace in the gesture if he left it on. The Gunny was too inscrutable to figure out which it was.
I lit the cigarette with shaking fingers. My shakes were back although I wasn’t in terror this time. I smoked the cigarette, breathing in and out deeply until the area under my poncho cover became fully dark from the dense smoke. My eyes hurt but they stopped dripping tears. Maybe the Gunny’s wisdom extended to fixing crying officers, as well.
I crushed out the cigarette halfway through. Whatever value I was expected to receive had already been imparted. I checked the matches and wondered how the Gunny could keep them so dry in the awful hot and wet conditions they were living in.
I picked up the pen again and started to write. I wrote about my world, but not the reality of that world:
“My world is a shrunken husk of a thing, all green, wet and filled with teeming amounts of animals and plants I’ve never seen or even heard of. I eat my C-rations and nothing else. I drink water from resupply containers or that which frequently flows down off my poncho cover. My Marines are my humans, with the enemy being either almost unseen or dead. My Marines are grunts who scorn everything and everybody. My sense of smell is gone. My clothes are a tattered collection of dirty dish rags and the aroma from it must be awful, but none of us notice. My wallet has fallen apart, as have all my pictures from home. Only laminated stuff survives for very long. I only carry two weapons. My .45 I got from one of the other officers and two M-33 grenades I keep in my pack so the pins won’t come out accidentally. I have my scout team of about fifteen Marines who guard me all the time so I am pretty safe except at night. Nights are hard, especially in the rain because you can’t hear anything. Can’t see and can’t hear, like when we are in contact. All flashes and darkness, with more flashes. I wonder if my hearing will ever be as good as it was before I came here. I never thought about how loud it could all get but I should have known with Dad being on the pistol team, and all. A kid named Fusner is my radio operator and he does everything for me that I need to be done.”
I reread my work. It was legible, and I’d said nothing that might worry her. My scout team was a mere whisper of what I’d written but she couldn’t know that.
I thought about crossing out Fusner’s name but then realized I was falling into the superstition trap so many of my Marines lived in. Mentioning another Marine’s name was supposed to mean that that Marine would soon die. The government pen wasn’t erasable, or I might have taken him out just as an afterthought, but I didn’t. Maybe, one day, if I made it home with any kind of decent health I’d be reading the letter with Fusner’s name in it and laughing. Hopefully, with him.
I examined the envelope closely. It wasn’t the normal ‘Marines raising the flag on Iwo’ thing. Instead, it had a small map near the left edge. The countries of North and South Vietnam were inset in white against the blue window under a place for my return address. I wondered how my return address could be “F.P.O. San Francisco” when I was so far away. I checked out the tiny map and realized it was the only map of the whole country I had or had seen since landing at Da Nang so long ago. The A Shau wasn’t on the map but I knew it was located just a bit east of the Laos border and down from the DMZ, which was printed there with two dotted lines close together. The map told me that I was directly inland from Phu Bai, a place I’d heard of, but knew nothing about. I sealed my wife’s letter into the sticky envelope and put it into my thigh pocket, noting the fact that my morphine supply was gone. I wondered if I’d be resupplied with syrettes later on. I hoped that wouldn’t happen but I was past feeling the kind of dull regret I’d had the first times I had to use it.
I pulled out my artillery one to twenty-five thousand and oriented it easily because the direction of the valley extended almost exactly from the north down to the south. I checked the contour intervals, as the valley wall to my east lowered to the north. A faint idea came into my head. I looked at the envelope again and then back at my ‘real’ map.
“Barnyard chickens,” I whispered to myself, “we have to eat so the chickens have to die.”
I knew the analogy was idiotic but, in a strange way, it made sense. I was not in control, other than to very marginally try to steer my way through the nightmare without end as best I could. That I might become attached to the chickens under my farm care made sense, just as it made sense when they had to be killed and put into a soup pot. It was just the way it was.
Sugar Daddy appeared before me, his dark face, muddy utilities and purple glasses making him all but invisible. His bulk had been the giveaway that it was him.
“You saved our ass,” he said, his voice low before I could react to his presence in any way. “You had to know. You always fucking know. That’s why you're Junior. That’s why you didn’t put a name on the plan. We owe you.”
And then he was gone, retreating backward in near silence, back into the looming stygian darkness of the wet darkness, only the rivers slushing current and ever-present mud letting me know exactly where I was. I lay with my head up, my helmet blocking the rain, its drops coming down so soft they didn’t even patter against my helmet cover. I tried to take in the meaning of what Sugar Daddy had said. Somehow, his unit on the point had passed far enough beyond the beaten zone where the rocks and white phosphorus had come down to escape casualties. And somehow, Sugar Daddy and his Marines had it in their heads that I’d planned the whole thing that way. I breathed in and out, wanting one of the Gunny’s cigarettes, although I knew in working with the casualties we had taken he’d be smoking everything he had. Another thought occurred to me. If Sugar Daddy thought I’d save him and his men then what must the others think?
I got to my hands and knees and moved to where Fusner sat huddled under his own poncho cover.
“The Army has to extract the bodies up on 975,” I said. “Call it in. We can’t help them but with a significant force of gunships they shouldn’t have too much of a problem.”
“What about our own,” Fusner asked, not reaching for the radio handset.
“Some of our own are up on that mountain,” I reminded him. “We’re going to have to carry our own down here but the terrain is going to flatten, as we head to the north, and then to the east.”
“We’re not going north or east,” the Gunny said, from behind me. “The 9th Marines out of Phu Bai are coming down the valley to clear the area. They’ll take 975 and everything else up here. We’re headed back down to secure the flank.”
The Gunny pushed a cigarette through the soggy air at me. I took it, inhaled once and then passed it back, my mind a jumbled mess of confused thoughts. I realized my thoughts had little to do with my Marines. I was frightened again, down to my core, and it seemed only my own men could induce that kind of deep shaking terror that ran from the bottoms of my wet boots all the way up to the top of my head. What we had to do was move. Timing was everything if I was somehow to avoid Jurgens or anyone else from easing through the density of darkness to pay me back for whatever I was found to be at fault for.
“Back down where to secure what flank?” I asked, suddenly giving full import to what the gunny had said. “We can’t go back down there,” I continued when he didn’t respond, my voice beginning to rise. “They’re waiting for us back down there, and what of our wounded and the dead?”
“Those are the orders,” the Gunny replied, his voice dropping almost to a whisper.
“Where’s Tank?” I asked, noting that the Gunny’s radioman wasn't present.
“He got hit,” the Gunny said, squatting down. “We’ve got nineteen injured, twenty-two dead and the twenty-four still left up on 975.”
I motioned for Fusner for the radio, not wanting to ask the Gunny if Tank was among the wounded or the dead. I knew there would be no move to save me, night or otherwise. Once again, we could not go forward and we could not go back, not and have any chance of survival at all. My own situation with the men was suddenly in a distant second place. If we marched through the night back down the river then we were dead men walking or dead men upon arrival back near the old airfield.
I had Fusner switch the Prick 25 to the command net and contacted battalion. It took almost ten minutes for the six-actual to come on the line. I hadn’t spoken to the colonel in many days as his preference for dealing with the Gunny personally was self-evident.
“Sir, we’re not moving north or south from our current position,” I reported; we’ve got sixty-five casualties, forty-six being KIA, and need resupply and medivac in force at dawn before we can do anything.”
I let go of the transmit button, wondering if sixty-five casualties in such a short period of time was a lot of where we were in the war.
"What are the enemy numbers?" the colonel asked back, without any delay.
I thought for a moment, looking at the Gunny, who could only shake his head and shrug. "A hundred and twenty-one KIA," I said, approximating the civilian farmers the NVA had sent against the Ontos. A brief moment of silence ensued while I wondered whether they'd buy the numbers as I'd sent them.
“My orders were pretty clear, Junior, in spite of those numbers,” the colonel replied briskly. "Leave your casualties with a rear element and get back down the valley, as ordered. I’ll send choppers at dawn. You can leave the Army gear with the holding force.”
I held the handset out away from my body like I was gripping the head of a poisonous snake. I looked over at the Gunny. The ‘Army gear’ was the Ontos, the only piece of equipment we could not afford to give up. If a hold at all cost defense was coupled with Zippo’s use of the Starlight Scope, the Ontos and artillery the colonel’s order almost sounded reasonable.
“I’ll stay with the wounded and then come down the river once the choppers are gone at dawn,” the Gunny said, taking out a cigarette and lighting it. He cupped one hand over it to guard it against the rain. Then he handed his special lighter to me.
“Hang onto that for luck until I make it back down.”
I clutched the lighter. I knew he wasn’t giving it to me for luck. There was no way a small security element could guard the dead and wounded. The Gunny didn’t think he’d be coming back. The wounded were bad off, unable to remain silent from the phosphorus burns. I knew I was far from them but their sounds still came through the soggy air and rain, accompanied by the ever-present sound of the river’s rushing waters. It was like their sounds of agony were being deliberately delivered by the river. The smallest units of NVA in the area would make short work out of any unreinforced force, particularly one not covered with supporting fires. There was no air support at night. That meant artillery fire, no matter how many casualties we’d taken earlier. And I was the only artillery our company had, and the only one able to handle the Starlight Scope to take advantage of the Ontos.
“Remember what we did at the cliff face before?” I asked, pushing the lighter back at him. “You’re not staying out here alone with anyone. We’re moving to the eastern wall through this mess and digging in. I can carpet the bottom of the valley along here with fire from both Rip Cord and Cunningham. I’ll send cascades of 175 rounds down the valley to put a cork in that. All night long.
Cowboy will be back in the morning. We can decide what to do when the day comes.
“What about battalion?” the Gunny asked. “And last time digging into the cliff only served us for a very short time.”
“Fuck battalion, and we’ve only got to worry about a very short time,” I replied, accepting the cigarette and taking a deep inhalation before exhaling to talk on the radio again.
“Colonel, we’re not moving,” I said into the microphone, making the words distinct and saying them slowly. “We’re digging in and waiting for resupply and medivac choppers in the morning, or whenever they arrive.”
I waited, as seconds marched by, finally motioning for Fusner to switch on the Prick 25’s small external speaker.
“You’ll obey orders Junior or I’ll have your ass relieved on the spot,” the colonel shouted, his bellicose tone converted to a mechanical whine by the inadequate speaker.
“Well, yes sir,” I shouted back into the handset, unable to keep from smiling coldly when I said the words.
“So, you will proceed south as ordered?” the colonel came back, his voice returning to a more normal level.
“No, sir. I’m ready to stand relieved, sir.”
“Put the Gunny on,” the colonel said, after a short pause, his voice beginning to rise again.
“Can’t do it, sir, he’s wounded,” I replied, watching the Gunny begin to slowly shake his head in disgust. “If you can’t fly the resupply and medivac then I’ll call up Army air,” I added.
I wasn’t at all certain but I knew the Army would come and battalion would hate the idea.
“Stand by on this frequency for further orders, and I don’t believe one word of what you’ve said,” the colonel ordered as if none of what had been said had been said at all.
“God damn it but we’re fucked,” the Gunny said, snapping his cigarette butt out into the rain. “Every time I start thinking about making it back home the whole idea is snatched right back like Lucy and the football in Peanuts. I’m not wounded and what if they don’t send anybody? What then? We can’t stay alive without support from the battalion.”
“We’ve got water, food, and ammo,” I replied, calmly. “We could use more 106 flechette rounds for the Ontos, but I don’t really think the enemy’s going to come at us in the night. We’ll point the Ontos down the river. That’s the only place we’ll likely see trouble from. Zippo can sit up with the Starlight Scope and the crew. I’ll begin night defensive fires when it’s full dark. I’m worried about what Jurgens and his men might do because of the casualties.” I said the last words with some reticence and trepidation. After twenty days, and part of one night, I was still unsure of how the dynamics of relationships in the company worked and who was really loyal to whom.
“Let’s worry about the big stuff,” the Gunny replied, “we’ve got to get through that mess of jungle and reach the base of the cliff to establish any decent fields of fire. We could just stay along the river.”
I looked at the Gunny, standing to his full height, facing the river as full dark was coming upon us. “Might work, except for snipers at daybreak,” I said, “they’ll be moving along the upper ridge and the river’s too close to the other cliff face. I don’t want any more friendly casualties from the artillery I’m calling tonight.”
I had no idea how long we might be required to hold the position we were stuck in. It could be days, depending on the weather and what else was going on in the combat area. The jungle growth would not be able to be cleared completely, thereby providing concealment, if not effective cover, from sniper fire. The narrow pass by the east side of the river assured that the NVA would not be able to bring a fifty caliber and spray up and down our line, and if they stayed south with one then either the two batteries or the 175s would do them in with punishing high explosive or variable time fire.
“What’s the name of this plan?” Zippo asked, from the edge of the darkness.
I knew he was asking because of superstition. I hadn’t named the last plan and a lot of Marines had paid a big price, the way some saw it.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron,” I replied, with a small smile, thinking about the Peanuts comic strip the Gunny had mentioned. ‘We’re going to shoot every Red Baron we see until we’re relieved.”
I knew I wasn’t being relieved, and the company wasn’t either. There was no one to relieve me, and no unit would be sold on taking the kind of losses we were suffering to relieve the company. I was learning that real combat didn't work that way. I also knew that fate was casting me back into the south of the A Shau Valley, the very worst combat charnel house I’d ever read or heard of. I could not escape it, and no matter how I twisted and turned I knew our company wasn’t going to the DMZ or getting to take a break at any of the firebases so tantalizingly close along the western highlands beyond our position. The 9th Marines might come down the valley but they would not come far, even with our own combined company unit waiting with some sort of semi-safe perimeter near the end of the highway.
I got to my feet, Zippo dragging my pack along, as we moved to the edge of the jungle outgrowth. It was less dense than I’d thought but still took real work to move through, the wet branches and bamboo pushing back as if to let us know just how unwelcome we were. The Gunny hadn’t seemed worried about what Jurgens and his men might do. I knew I would not be sleeping through the night, and I suddenly worried about the fact that I was still covered with mud from my slide down the mountain, and my Colt was filthy too. I had to break it down as soon as I could. I had fifteen rounds, and they were as filthy as the automatic.
We reached the lower edge of the cleft at the bottom of the cliff wall. It was similar to the one we’d taken some quarter in days ago when we were further down south.
With some digging with E-Tools, a decent area could be dug out of the base, providing cover from the never-ending rain, the ever-present animal predators and waiting along the bottom confines of any jungle terrain. I pushed into the cleft Nguyen cleared out, barely able to see anything. I lit a chunk of Composition B for light, more than to heat some water. I was five feet under the edge of the cliff and Zippo and Nguyen had piled the dirt and plant matter to form a low berm out from the front lip. But I had run out of time. I spread out my map and began designing the rippling night defensive fires I’d planned in my head earlier, but not put to actual numbers because I hadn’t known where we’d end up.
I called for Fusner to raise the artillery net and made the necessary contacts before I boiled a canteen holder full of water, not to make coffee out of, but to pour over the parts of Tex’s .45, bringing the dull blue of its surfaces back to bright cleanliness for potential use. I threw all my ammo in the cover and sloshed the rounds around. I hoped the factory loads wouldn’t leak, but I really didn’t have much choice. If a round failed to fire I would have to manually eject very quickly. Fortunately, the Colt did that seemingly small operation neatly, as well. Holding the loaded .45 gave me my first feeling of real security since I could recall.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron,” I said out toward the night jungle. I was ready. Except for one more duty, I could not avoid. I had to move from my little haven of security and visit every wounded Marine, and then view the dead. They were my Marines, living and dead, and my own feelings of guilt or the injustice of it all was meaningless to them.
“Snoopy and the Red Baron,” I whispered into the uncaring and unforgiving jungle in front of me before I slowly moved into its clutching grasp.