My attention was drawn by AK-47s firing. I could hear the fire reverberating back from far up the valley even as I took cover and prepared to move out. My full attention, however, was immediately focused back to right where I was, when the Russian-built fifty caliber opened up from across the river. A long string of rounds started impacting and stitching itself across the face of the cliff, just above where the cliff wall slanted back down into the ground. The bullets caused no damage but their intent was readily apparent, like the drums beating through the night before. The bullets had missed us by only a few feet but their impacts felt personal. The mortar section crew, my scout team, and I were all pressed down into the dirt below the swell of the jungle berm. I looked up when I heard movement. It was Jurgens running back to join us. He dived headlong into the very middle of our clustered group.
“What the hell are you idiots thinking?” he yelled. “Come on, up and out of here, but stay flat. Right now!”
The big sergeant went to his hands and knees, crawling back the way he’d come, staying so low that he looked like a giant gecko or salamander shuffling along the ground.
I was shocked by the man’s return, and then by what he had to say. The fifty was sufficient motivation to get all of us moving, although the NVA manning it hadn’t adjusted fire close enough to shoot into the base of the berm yet. The bullets hitting the cliff wall didn’t sound like bullet impacts at all, but more like a series of small continuous explosions. Since the wall was slanted up and outward, and the rounds were impacting above, they had no effect, other than to terrorize everyone moving under them, of which I was definitely one.
It was slow going. Jurgens had stripped himself down for his return to us, like the mortar section Marines, but I, and the rest of my scout team, were laden with full packs, weapons and whatever else we had to drag along in order to exist until the next resupply.
We’d moved about a hundred meters before struggling in behind a large collection of fallen boulders. Fourteen of us crushed together for a moment’s respite from the difficulty of the crawl, and the fifty caliber firing behind us. We didn’t have much time to rest before getting ready to crawl further. I checked out the rise, where I calculated the enemy had set up the heavy machine gun, by sticking my head up once, very briefly. I drew immediate fire from the big gun, and also from smaller weapons surrounding it. A rocket hit the outside surface of one of the boulders, showering us with debris, but causing no injuries other than diminishing everyone’s hearing. My ears felt like I’d just surfaced after diving deep into a pool of water. I fought the urge to try clearing them with my fingers. Everyone was breathing hard. It was physically taxing to crawl so close to the earth, and make any time while moving low along the path. The angle between the position of the gun and our own was growing, but we didn't know if it would be fast enough to save us once the NVA started lowering the fire to shoot through the ground and undergrowth.
I pushed myself through the mass of men to reach Jurgens.
“What are you doing here?” I asked him, straight out.
“The Gunny sent me back to make sure my Marines got the hell out of there in a hurry,” he said, not looking at me.
Our distaste for one another ran deep. I was not about to forget or forgive his admission that his platoon had taken out a preceding officer, and had intended to do the same to me. And I knew it fit perfectly well that the sergeant had somehow managed to ingratiate himself with the captain. I had no time to express any of my feelings, however, not that I would have without following up using immediate and violent action at another time and in another place.
“I heard some firing from up the valley,” I asked the man, pointedly.
“The Gunny wanted to know if the point was far enough up to call in some artillery,” Jurgens said, not directly answering my question.
I knew the Gunny had sent Jurgens back to call in some artillery. Either the NVA had had time to organize a full-fledged defensive force or they were using selective sniping to stop the company until they could get that organized.
“What about the support Captain Carter and Kilo are supposed to be providing from up on the ridge?” I asked, knowing already there was no support, or we’d have heard it coming down from above.
“I don’t know anything about that, Junior”, he replied, as I expected he would.
I was growing almost as uncomfortable with Jurgens as I was with the occasional bursts from the fifty. The company was being fired on from the front and the rear at the same time, with the near unfordable river to one flank and an unclimbable cliff on the other. And this was going on in daylight hours. We weren’t moving, we were being maneuvered, and where we were being maneuvered to wasn’t somewhere the company was going to want to be. If Cunningham could fire on locations around the old Landing Zone that was our objective, then everything would change, but I was getting the distinct impression that the enemy knew all about Cunningham and its limitations. They didn’t seem in the least bothered about channeling us toward a position that had been destroyed by their forces previously.
The big gun kept up its short bursts, never lowering the elevation to penetrate the berm or cause fatal damage. I crawled along on knees, belly and elbows for what seemed like a mile, just behind Jurgens, with Fusner and the others trailing along in trace, like an ugly bumpy snake. Slowly we crawled away from the fifty into an area of relative safety. Jurgens’ section tied up with the rest of First Platoon, as the rest of us went right on by.
Finally, I was able to get to my feet and walk. Once again, I was a muddy mess with no five-gallon bottle of water to shower off with. I’d looked at my fingernails earlier, thinking about writing another letter home, and wondered if they would ever be clean again. The blackness under the nails, like outlining on a piece of paper, seemed to have become a part of my body makeup. The firing at the head of the column had stopped, but so had the company. I moved against the cliff wall to kneel and study my map. Orienting against two peaks across the valley gave me a close enough approximation to figure out that we were about five clicks from our objective. The river was broadening, and pulling further away from the valley wall, while the hills on the other side were growing lower. If we could move another two thousand meters forward, then Cunningham could begin to drop rounds into the area we occupied, but there was a problem. We would be moving out of the natural cover the cliff had provided. The contours on the map spread out the further north we went, until the vertical face of the cliff wasn’t vertical anymore. If Captain Carter was up on the high ground the situation wouldn’t be untenable. But if Kilo wasn’t there, and I was willing to bet it wasn’t and the enemy knew it, then we were in even more trouble than I wanted to think about.
We followed Jurgens all the way to where Casey had set up his new temporary command post. He’d had someone dig into the side of the berm, so he had another cave-like bunker, albeit one made of leaves, branches, ferns and mud. It would be as likely to stop a fifty-caliber slug, when they moved that big gun upriver, as a few layers of Kleenex.
I dropped my pack and gear, unconsciously unclicked the safety on my .45 and stepped to the edge of his over-size hooch. Captain Casey sat with his back tucked into the opening, Rittenhouse was on his right and Jurgens settling in on his left, just like before. The Gunny was stationed a few meters up the path, leaning against the round side of the cliff wall, smoking a cigarette and looking like he was waiting for the first act of some Off Broadway play to begin. I looked around to make sure all the members of my team had come along with me, although I knew they were there without having to look. I also knew that we had to be some distance back from a point perimeter that had taken fire for everyone to appear to be somewhat relaxed.
The tension of being under fire is like no other, as it causes a hardening of the vocal cords, flatness of facial features while also making the core of a man’s being feel like it’s made of Jell-O that’s not quite hard enough. That the rear had been under heavy machine gun fire only moments before pulling out, and the company had stopped its advance because of sniper fire from the front, should have left Captain Casey more destabilized than he appeared to be. I squatted down without comment, kneeling before him on the edge of his poncho cover. He glanced down, and I knew he was unhappy about my muddy state, but still I said nothing, looking up into his brown eyes, his face still clean after being in some form of combat for two days. I wondered if maybe there was more grit to the man than I had previously thought. I waited for him to speak first.
“Are you going to report in, Junior?” he asked, as if there existed some formal ‘reporting in’ process for officers meeting in combat.
“We can’t go forward, can’t go back, and can’t cross the river,” I said, going right to the heart of our rather serious tactical problem. “The enemy has pushed us here, and then stopped us here. We can’t be here for long, or hell is going to land on us like a ton of old building bricks.”
“We have to clear the snipers in front of us, and that’s where you come in, Junior,” Casey said, repeating my nickname to the point where Jurgens smiled.
My hand went down to my Colt, and rested on the butt. I knew I could not shoot all three men in front of me. In my first few days of combat I had felt that I could and would shoot anybody, because I was dead anyway, but a few more days had taught me better. I was probably going to die, but there was a sliver’s chance I’d make it through somehow. If I shot the three men in front of me then there would be trouble. Either I’d not get out of the unit alive, or my life would be over when and if I ever did get out. My left hand clutched the pocket where the letter I hadn’t written to my wife should be. Her reply, if I wrote about sitting where I was and thinking what I was, would be wise.
“Don’t kill them,” I knew she would say, “just come home alive in one piece.”
I couldn’t kill them, but the Colt made me feel better by giving me that potential. Only Rittenhouse glanced down at my resting hand, and then looked away with some discomfort.
“I don’t think snipers are anything but a delaying action,” I replied. “They know where we are and where we’re headed, and they’ve been getting ready for some time.”
“The whole battalion is going to be coming in here so we’ll have plenty of reserves to back us up soon,” Casey said.
I noticed that he’d taken his boots off again. The sores on his feet no doubt healing, but taking some time to do so. I couldn’t believe the man, after losing two officers under his command within hours of each other, would be so careless again.
“Has Kilo Company occupied the ridge?” I asked, knowing the answer before I asked. Suppressing fire would have come down from Kilo’s position above on both the fifty we’d faced and the snipers up ahead if they were up there.
“Captain Carter has been delayed,” Casey answered, like that answer answered anything.
“I have a plan,” I said, wondering if I was wasting my breath, and also what I could possibly do to stay alive if Casey didn’t act on it.
“Oh goody, another Junior plan,” the captain replied, his tone one of derision. "Does it have another great name?”
“Half a League,” I answered, thinking about our position and how hemmed in we were by the enemy on all sides, except one.
“We’re half a league, or so, from the objective,” I said, taking out my map.
I laid it out before him. I pointed at the objective, actually printed with “Destroyed Landing Zone” on it, in red ink.
“Here’s where we’re going,” I said, as emotionlessly as I could. “And here’s where we are.” I hit the map with my finger just south of the objective.
"We’re about a thousand meters from this natural cleft here under the wall where it’s running out.” I ran my finger along the crushed together contour interval lines until the distance between them began to widen. “Here is where we’re taking sniper fire because we don’t have the berm to protect us anymore. But where that is happening is where the cliff wall becomes a hillside. My Light Brigade plan is to go up the hill, take the high ground and rain artillery down on the objective, across the river, and anywhere else we want. Kilo can come up behind us to reinforce, before we head back down to set up a perimeter around the objective. We can also call in air because we’ll be up high enough to direct it, and still be safe from it.”
“Light brigade?” Casey said, studying the map I’d laid before him.
The Gunny walked over from his position, flicking his cigarette butt into the bush. He squatted down to look at the map and analyze what I’d said.
“How far’s a league?” he asked, after a moment.
“About three and a half miles,” I answered. “About the distance we are from the objective, or will be if we climb that hill up ahead.”
“Where do you come up with this stuff from?” Casey asked, shaking his head, before picking up the map to view it closer. “And this is a better map than I have. Where do you get these maps? The objective isn’t even on mine. And what does ‘Destroyed Landing Zone’ mean?”
“The Basic School,” I answered, letting the rest of what he said go.
In reality, I could see no other way to survive. To stay where we were, was to be annihilated if the enemy was given enough time to bring really heavy weapons to bear. To occupy the objective ahead, with only a company-sized force, attacking directly frontally, was to merely delay the inevitable by a few hours or maybe a day, and that’s if the objective wasn’t fortified. There was no going back to where we’d been, and the river was an unpredictable barrier that could only be attempted in the darkness of night, and then with risk too high to consider, given so many of the Marines in the company probably could not swim. There was no other place to go and we had to go some place.
“I think it’ll work,” the Gunny said, suddenly.
“And I’m with the Gunny,” Jurgens followed with, immediately, but not meeting my eyes.
“The Light Brigade,” Casey said. “Up the hill, all the way, guns volleyed and thundered. I like the sound of that. Rittenhouse make a note of it. We’ll call it the Light Brigade Plan.”
I didn’t know what to say. There was no end to the gall of the man, as he again willingly agreed to my plan, and then sinuously and cleverly adopted it as his own.
Two rockets detonated not far from our position, and everyone went straight into the mud, dirt and bracken below the berm. We weren’t close enough for debris to spatter down, but we were close enough for our ears to ring. I realized that somehow the NVA had gotten high enough to plunge their rocket fire down behind the berm. The explosions had been from where we’d come but funneled in power so as to send a shock wave up the inside of the berm area. I also knew immediately that the enemy did not know we’d come as far up the valley as we had. It was time to get moving, and fast, before they figured it out. Even if fired in low over the top of the berm, the rockets would be deadly because of their powerful shockwaves.
“Get the company moving, Gunny,” Casey ordered, Rittenhouse beginning to break his hooch down and Pilson assisting. “Get to the front and call in artillery to give them something to think about,” Casey continued, pointing at me.
The Gunny raced up the cleft with me not far behind, dragging my pack along at my side until Zippo swooped it up and carried it for me.
“Got your back covered, sir,” he said.
I trotted as best I could. Marines were strewn about all over, as I went by.
Most did not take any note of my passing but a few looked up as I went by. None seemed to really recognize me, not from the mud darkened expressions I got, but then most of them didn’t make any facial expressions at all. It took only a few minutes to reach Sugar Daddy’s position. Once again the black platoon, the one supposedly that would not fight, was at point. It was like there were two ghost platoons in the company between First and Fourth. I rarely ever saw their shake and bake sergeant commanders. It was another mystery of the company to be worked out if there was ever a spare moment of down time to do it in.
I saw Sugar Daddy was laying flat, the berm having played out. I moved along the path, and then went down flat beside him, the threat of the reported snipers right at the forefront of my mind. The Gunny preceded me in reaching Sugar Daddy, but then moved up to the very point, a position in the low jungle I couldn’t see from where Sugar Daddy and I lay.
“We’re going up, I hear,” Sugar Daddy said. “Finally, some sense. The hill off to the right is covered with ferns and big rocks. It’ll be perfect to cover whatever’s up ahead. The Gunny said it was like the charge of the Light Brigade, except we’re not exactly charging anything are we?”
The cliff was nearly gone as I tried to move to Sugar Daddy’s left to see up the slope better. I could see it was a fairly steep slope, and I didn’t relish the idea of humping up it. There would be no resupply there or evacuation of our wounded. In order to accomplish any of that we’d have to secure the old landing zone and get choppers in. That would be no mean feat under fire, unless we could bring in so much of our own supporting fires that the enemy’s would be converted into guarding its own rear.
“The wounded have to be tended to down here, but we can cover anyone down here from up there,” I indicated to Sugar Daddy. “At least until Kilo Company shows up to reinforce us.”
“Kilo ain’t comin'," Sugar Daddy said, with a faint laugh. “They follow, they don’t come, and they sure as hell don’t reinforce shit.”
“I can’t call anything in from down here,” I replied, ignoring his comments about Carter and Kilo Company. If we secured the high ground we wouldn’t need reinforcement, only some time, the battery to back us and maybe some air support. Getting up the hill with snipers unsuppressed didn’t sound appetizing at all, but I could see no way around it.
“I need a squad to go with me up there,” I said. “They’ve got to leap frog and set in behind rocks to fire back at anybody who fires at us. I’ll call in some diversionary artillery right now, and then assault the hill.”
I moved to Fusner and got the arty net handset. The fire mission was pretty straight forward. I started dropping Willy Peter rounds, exploding high in the air, a few hundred meters from where I figured our lead elements were pinned down. I strapped on my pack, and informed my scout team where we were going. Sugar Daddy’s squad didn’t wait. The men went right at the hill, just as the first artillery rounds started making their giant Fourth of July fireworks effects. Nobody would get hurt, friend or foe, but anybody under that stuff, or close by, was going to bury themselves as deep into the ground as possible in fear of what might follow the adjusting rounds. But I wasn’t going to waste Cunningham’s high explosive rounds firing them in on positions I couldn’t see or adjust from.
Sugar Daddy himself followed his squad and went at the base of the hill with extraordinary ferocity and skill, asking only one question before he disappeared into the jungle growth.
“How many died in that Light Brigade charge?” he asked.
I would have lied to him if he hadn’t been gone already. Half the men that had charged that day the poem was based on during the Crimean War had died in the attempt. The attempt had also failed miserably.
“They all made it,” I said out loud to nobody, before throwing myself at the hillside, only getting a few yards up before my thighs started to burn. It was going to be a long climb, but if I could take the hill then I knew I’d live, at least maybe for the rest of the day.