I climbed the hill, switching back and forth, heading for chunks of outcropping rock and then toward the density of a protruding stand of low-lying bamboo. It was the Hill Trail climb my platoon at the Basic School had dreaded once a week in Virginia training, except I climbed in real fear of being shot in the back at any second. I didn’t look around to see the effect of the white phosphorous rounds I’d ordered. They were close in behind because not only did the thump of their exploding push gently against my back, the hiss of the burning elements raining down not far away could be heard like water running out of the end of a high pressure hose. I wondered if the rise I was struggling up might place me close enough to the falling horror of the burning phosphorous bits for them to reach me.
“Ironic,” I said out loud, unaware that I’d spoken until Fusner replied.
“Right here, sir,” he said as if I’d said something that made any sense.
When I thought I could not go on any further I reached a cleft in the hillside, that was more of a series of layered cliffs than it was a hillside. Extending out from the cleft, a flat area about eight feet deep and twenty feet wide appeared. It was all but invisible from below. Sugar Daddy had arrived at the spot before I came upon it. I struggled to crawl to the back side where he knelt, helping one of his fire teams set up an M-60 to provide covering fire, although during the initial part of our climb we’d taken no incoming fire at all.
“Why didn’t they shoot, Junior?” he asked, looking over at my heaving body lying almost full length a few feet away.
I sensed it wasn’t time for the truth. I had no idea why the NVA had not fired at our bobbing and weaving backs, but I wasn’t going to say that.
“We took them by surprise,” I said, sounding as official and convinced as I could be. “They’re trying to figure out what our next move is since they were all ready and prepared for us to become sitting ducks.”
“My thought, exactly,” he replied, pulling back from the M-60 team to come to my side.
“They knew we would take to the area cut into the base of the cliff like ducks to water,” I said, wanting to extend the conversation with Sugar Daddy for a bit longer. “They thought we’d stay there until they could bring real forces to bear.”
“You better call the captain and tell him it’s okay to come up,” he said, laying flat next to me, taking his time to pull out a cigarette and light it. His tone was a little strange, so I decided to ask him something I would not normally have asked any enlisted man about an officer.
“‘What do you think of him?” I asked, ignoring his request for me to take a cigarette.
“What might we get if we trade him in?” Sugar Daddy shot back, biting off the filter of whatever kind of cigarette he’d pulled out, and then spitting it out over the edge of our little parapet.
“What do you mean?” I asked, not understanding his reply.
“Think about it,” Sugar Daddy replied with a laugh. “We can always get worse, like we haven’t had a few bad luck packages handed to us one after another.”
I had no response. I wondered if I was part of what he thought of as a ‘bad luck’ package, but I wasn’t going to ask. Casey was a piece of work, it was true, but at least he glommed onto ideas that were helping to keep me alive. Although I was still afraid, up on the side of the hill, I was not terrified that a vicious preparing enemy was licking its lips just waiting for an opportune time to attack. A Marine rifle company was a fearsome force to consider, but one company of just over two hundred Marines was really not that big in the scale of a war zone. Without constant resupply and supporting fires the company could not stand for long against a superior force well supplied and fighting in its own back yard.
I looked down the hill. We had two big problems that had to be resolved pretty quickly, at least before the sun set again. What were we going to do with the wounded, because there was no way we could hump them up the steep slope and then expect them to spend the night? Secondly, we needed to send elements forward and up to make sure we hadn’t walked right into a prepared trap. Until Kilo, or if Kilo, occupied the higher ridge, there was going to be a potential threat from the even higher ground the company did not have the forces to occupy.
“Stevens,” I said, knowing my scout team was right behind me, probably watching very closely everything that went down between Sugar Daddy and me.
“Take Nguyen and scout to the top of the ridge. Make sure we’re not being set up for some sort of nighttime ambush. We need to move to the old landing zone in the morning to get supplies and take care of casualties, because we’re probably not done taking them. We’ve been in constant contact with the same enemy forces for days, and there doesn’t seem to be any quit in them.”
I held out my hand for the handset and it appeared at my side in an instant, as I knew it would. I breathed in deeply, watching Sugar Daddy’s back. He’d gone to work on digging in. That he had his back to me I considered a good thing, although I wasn’t sure why. Neither of us trusted the other, but what were our other choices?
“Combat net,” I said to Fusner.
He twisted some knobs on the main console of the Prick 25.
“Should have them five by five, up here on the hill and all,” he replied.
“What does the captain go by on the radio?” I asked him, never having called Casey on the net before.
“Expert Tailor, six actual,” Fusner replied. “Unless you want Pilson, I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” I whispered, with a sigh, then made the coded call, wondering where Casey had come up with the call sign for the company. E.T. would have been ‘echo tango’ in official alpha numeric code. The letters also stood for extraterrestrial, which might be more appropriate, I thought.
“The six isn’t available just now,” Pilson said, his tone giving away a certain nervousness, which probably meant that Casey was right there, and not taking the call. “State your business, sir.”
I held the handset in front of me like it was a foreign object. “My business?” I said aloud with a great frown. What was my business? “Into the valley of hell rode the six hundred,” I said into the mic.
“Repeat sir, I’ll write that down,” Pilson came back, making Fusner laugh.
“Never mind Pilson, since he can probably hear you,” I said. “We’re in position up the incline. Have him send the Gunny up the hill with the other platoons. I need an advance party to secure a perimeter at the top and rear flank.” I leaned down toward Sugar Daddy.
“What’s the condition of our wounded?” I asked him in a low voice.
“Hit by rocks,” he replied, turning only his head to talk back to me. “Ambulatory. Mostly deep cuts and some broken hands and upper body stuff from the bigger chunks.”
It was good news. The wounded would be able to climb. Any dead didn’t need to be guarded or protected. I didn’t bother to ask if we had any dead because it didn’t matter.
The heavy rain didn’t start until the light began to go. The drizzle had been there all day. The heavy afternoon rain pointed out both a strength and a weakness inherent in our position. The water ran right off because the slope was fairly steep, even where we’d set in, but the run off was so heavy that anyone without rocks behind them was in danger of being washed away. And the rocks needed to be in front of everyone’s positions. When the NVA hauled that fifty into place only thick solid rock would serve as protection. I could call in artillery that would reach near the bottom of the hill but I could do nothing with the big gun when they set it up across the river. And that’s where they’d set it up, I knew. The rain was also going to assure that we got no air support. It was either what we could glean from poorly positioned artillery, what we had on hand with us, or good fortune that was going to get us through the night.
I worked to dig my own hooch behind a large rock. The rocks weren’t big enough to provide full cover for someone doing anything more than laying down, however, which created its own muddy nightmare. I could dig down a bit and put the poncho up like a tent or dig deeper and wrap myself in it while my hole slowly filled with water. If I used the tent approach, then I would be limited to moving about on all fours, or laying like a dead pig behind the rock. The rocks were all of about the same size, which meant the whole company was in the same mess. When I got my poncho erected I found out about the other disadvantage. The noise of the rain hitting the poncho was awful. The gray sky was moving. I knew moving clouds seldom emitted lightning and therefore only an occasional rumble of thunder could be heard in the distance. The rain would also affect the artillery, but not appreciably so, since I wasn’t planning on calling any up on our own position.
The Gunny joined me when my hooch was done. Sugar Daddy had rejoined his platoon further down the slope, once again having his unit placed in the company’s riskiest position. At what point was Casey’s forming relationship with Jurgens going to turn into something bloody, I didn’t know, but I felt it coming.
I’d compromised on my hooch design with Zippo’s digging help. I had a decent moat around my one-foot deep hole, with the edge of my poncho sealed down as best as I could get it right up to the edge. With the six-inch moat running like a small stream, my hole would probably fill up in the night, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances and a helluva lot better than being down in the valley again.
The Gunny settled in next to me, and began preparing his coffee. I joined him, sticking my canteen holder out and taking only seconds to fill it half way from a heavy rivulet pouring off the edge of my poncho.
“Good news,” the Gunny said, but then said no more.
I knew he was waiting for me to ask, so I did. “Captain Casey gone UA?” I asked, referring to the Marine Corps acronym for unauthorized absence more popularly known as AWOL in the Army.
“The rain’s too heavy to see across the river, for one, and that’s good news. The mosquitoes can’t fly in this shit, for another, but the best news is that Casey’s digging himself a manhole to China behind a big rock not far from here.”
Fusner’s little transistor radio played in the distance, as I sat heating my coffee over the Gunny’s lit explosive fire, and thinking about what was going to happen to Casey in the middle of the night if the rain kept up. I wondered if he could tread water.
“Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what a fool I’ve been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain, and let me be alone again.”
I knew the song lyrics well. As a sophomore in high school I’d run away from home for one night, staying with a friend under his tent. We’d erected the tent in a dry stream bed that wasn’t dry at all anymore, after a rainstorm struck and we’d gone to sleep. We’d lost the tent and our stuff and gone to our respective homes, defeated. I heard the song on the Ed Sullivan Show the next night and had never been able to forget the coincidence. I’d had no girl to lose at the time, like the rest of the song was about, but I’d definitely listened to the rain telling me what a fool I’d been.
I stepped out into the rain for a moment. Having my poncho serve as my tent meant that I didn’t have it to wear. I knew if I got soaked through there’d be no way to get dry until the next day, and then only if it wasn’t raining. I stared down the hill at the stretch of jungle below, and then moved my binoculars up slightly to look at the river. I was surprised. It was like a different river. Instead of sinuous twists and turns of a big brown snake it had become a giant racing sluice of rushing water, filled with jungle bracken and broken branches. But the river itself was an indistinct abstract compared to the gray wall beyond it. Nobody was going to be out in the downpour until it was over, and nobody would be crossing the river for some time to come.
Casey and Jurgens were standing in front of my hooch facing me, when I brought the binoculars down and turned. Pilson was right to the side of them. All three wore their ponchos, which meant that somehow they’d been able to cob some extra ones, since it was unlikely they hadn’t prepared their own quarters under such awful conditions and left them uncovered.
“The Gunny inside, Junior?” Casey said to me. “Our Light Brigade charge up the hill appears to be working too.” He bent down and pushed the edge of my poncho cover aside, not waiting for me to answer. He disappeared inside, no doubt being welcomed by the Gunny, and helping to convert my small dry space into a mud hole.
Pilson and Jurgens stood together. Pilson retired back toward where Fusner had set up his hooch, leaving me alone with Jurgens.
“That’s the second time you’ve managed to put Fourth Platoon at the point while your unit concentrates on staying in the rear,” I said, angrier about the man’s sucking up to the captain, and that working, rather than an offense I was finding rather standard procedure in combat. Get anyone to fight the battles and avoid any or all of them yourself if possible.
“Is that some kind of threat, Junior?” Jurgens asked, almost before I was done talking. “I don’t do very well with threats,” he went on.
I realized that I’d made a mistake in not following a belief system I’d come upon just after arriving in combat. Threaten no one. Be real. Act real. If a threat was called for then make it with action, not a male confronting prediction. And I hadn’t been prepared for Jurgens’ immediate and emotional reaction. I should have known better. I sought to defuse the situation by simply walking away. The light was failing and the rain was so heavy that invisibility was only a few meters away.
But it was the fifty caliber heavy machine gun that saved my life. The NVA gun opened up from across the river, tracers blown into small flying cinders when they struck some of the large rocks around me. I ran forward. The bullets seemed to follow me, even though I knew the gunners across the valley could have no idea I was there. There was only one place to go. I plunged forward onto my stomach, entering the mud and sliding along for a few feet.
The grenade was there in front of my nose when my body stopped moving. It was an American M-26 fragmentation grenade. I saw it all in micro-seconds. The yellow letters on the outside of the egg-shaped thing, the spoon used to hold down the detonator missing. I didn’t think anything. I simply reached forward with my right hand, grasped the grenade lightly and tossed it as far from me as I could before smashing my face into the mud and pressing down into the earth as deep as I could get.
There was a “whump” sound, and a jolting of the mud around me. That was it before the drumming rain continued its awful beating down on the top of my helmet. I was amazed that my helmet was still on, and that I was alive and apparently uninjured. I staggered to my knees. Casey and the Gunny came running low along the top of the mud, slipping with the angle of the hill. Pilson and Fusner were right behind them. Casey ran toward his hooch and Pilson veered away to follow him. The machine gun fire ceased as quickly as it started.
“What in the hell was that?” the Gunny asked, sticking his face a few inches from my own to look me right in the eyes. “You’re a mess,” he said, leaning back, once he realized I was okay.
“Come on, sir,” Fusner said, taking my left upper arm in his left hand. “Let’s get you cleaned up and under some cover.”
The big machine gun opened up again, but wherever the bullets were impacting was far from us. Even the tracers couldn’t be seen through the hard falling rain.
“Jesus Christ, not again,” I heard yelled from the area ahead of me where I’d tossed the live grenade.
“They’ve done it again,” Casey yelled at the top of his lungs. “My tent is blasted to smithereens. Again.”
I realized what had happened. I’d inadvertently tossed the live grenade into Casey’s hooch. The grenade had fallen into the collected pool at the bottom of his deeply dug hole and hence the explosion had been so muted.
Casey came stumbling back, dirt and mud covering him for the first time since I’d met him. I thought of Jurgens. I slowly turned and looked in every direction, but Jurgens was nowhere to be seen. In spite of my time in combat with the company and the conduct I’d seen it was almost impossible to consider that Jurgens had pulled the pin on a grenade and tossed it after me when we parted.
I closed my eyes for just a second and the M-26 appeared, half buried in the mud, not five inches from my eyes. I could see the rain impacting around its rounded body and stencil-painted letters and numbers on its side. I opened my eyes. I wondered how long I would go on through life seeing that half-submerged grenade when I closed my eyes.
Fusner guided me back to my hooch. I was unhurt but shaken by the experience. I sat there under the wildly beating staccato of the rain hitting my poncho cover until the Gunny returned. He eased in out of the rain. We were both so wet from being outside in it that being under the poncho only guarded against the harshness of the rain hitting us directly, instead of doing anything to get us dry. We both sat to rest and consider.
“Pilson saw the throw,” the Gunny said, without a moment’s preamble or wait.
“He saw Jurgens?” I asked, surprised.
“No, he saw you,” the Gunny said. “He saw you toss it into Casey’s tent.”
Time seemed to slow down. I had tossed the grenade. To save my life I’d tossed it away. I had no idea it was going to land in the captain’s hooch.
The fifty opened up again, spraying the side of the hill ineffectively but capturing the attention of everyone holed up along the slope. The NVA would keep firing on and off all night long, I knew. Artillery people called it H&I fire. Harassing and Interdiction fire. The 105 batteries in the lowlands fired rounds all night long, at potential gathering places or on rice paddy dikes. H&I fire did exactly what the fifty caliber fire was going to do to the company during the night. It harassed and interdicted.
“The grenade was thrown in front of me from behind,” I told the Gunny. “I can’t be certain, but I was talking to Jurgens a few minutes earlier and mentioned that I wasn’t happy about Sugar Daddy’s platoon handling the front line stuff lately.”
“That might do it,” the Gunny said.
“If this rain continues like it is, and we don’t clear out of here, then this whole hillside could go, or be impossible to maneuver around on.”
“Got another plan?” the Gunny asked.
“What did Pilson think?” I asked the Gunny. “And what’s he going to tell the guys?”
“He said what I felt,” the Gunny replied, instantly. “He felt like you could have bided your time, and picked a better time and place to toss it.”
“What about Jurgens?” I asked.
“What about him?” the Gunny replied with no expression. When I didn’t respond for a few seconds, he went on. “Like something’s changed there?”
AK-47 fire came filtering through the rain from further up the hill.
“Shit, they’re going to keep a full court press on until we have to move out of here,” I said, moving into a crawl position. Stevens and Nguyen had gone up toward the ridge at my order. I had to find out if they were okay. And, I had to come up with a new plan because the real “our charge up the hill,” as the captain had put it, was proving to be about as successful as the Light Brigade’s.