The first spotting round of the fire mission came screaming in. I didn’t care if I could see or hear it in the rain, or the fact that clustered down under the overhanging cliff behind the berm, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to properly observe anything anyway. I was waiting for other evidence. “Splash, over,” was transmitted by the FDC at Cunningham. Soon after, a shower of rocks and debris hit the single canopy jungle like a giant barrage of hail, and I smiled coldly into the handset. No correction was necessary. I called for a battery of one, and waited for six more wonderful forty-five pound shells to impact the face of the cliff. Even hunched back as I was, into the very crack at the base of the cliff, I was able to press in a little further knowing what hell was coming down only a few feet away. I felt my team huddled in tightly with me. The six rounds spewed rocks everywhere. I didn’t want the rock rain to stop. I adjusted two hundred meters left and then four hundred right, bracketing the wall in reverse. More explosions tore off surface sections of the old cracked face, and splattered chunks of it everywhere. Everywhere but back under the overhang.
Click on ‘arrow’ and listen to incoming
The screaming started after the third set of six rounds impacted.
“Rocks a little bigger than golf balls, I would presume,” I said out loud, in satisfaction. Nobody answered.
The Gunny appeared, and then jammed himself down in between Fusner and I, having come from somewhere up or down our line.
“Shit, Junior, you’re going to blow this whole thing down on us,” he gasped out.
I thought he was whispering, so I leaned closer to hear, until I realized the artillery shells had made me partially deaf again. I brought up my right hand to my ear before realizing that I still had the .45 in it, with the safety off.
“You can put that hog leg away,” the Gunny said, his voice coming in clearer, as my hearing began to return.
I knew I’d have the ringing again for some time. I’d heard that damage to the ears, like I was experiencing regularly, would cause deafness in my later years, but let that thought go. What later years?
I clicked the safety on the Colt back into place, the sound now loud in the silence following the barrage I’d launched against the side of the cliff. But I didn’t put the Colt away. I had no idea what was in front of me in the night and I wasn’t taking any chances. The rain continued though abating a bit, its ever-present slight hiss a reminder that I was very much stuck in a hostile jungle, with even more hostile forces beyond it. I was in the worst of conditions.
“But the best of positions,” I blurted out, unaware I’d said the words aloud until they came out.
I breathed in and out slowly. I didn’t like the effect open combat was having on my mind. I’d never felt more in control and out of control in my life. Those two things occurring together had to meet some definition of insanity.
“We took ten wounded in the last rock incident,” the Gunny said, his voice tainted with a critical bite. “God alone knows how many more we’ve got now.”
“Zippo,” I said, into the dark, not being able to see anyone except the Gunny and Fusner next to him. “lay down on the berm and get the scope operational. We can see the river and they’ve got to drag their wounded and injured across it somehow and while it’s still dark.”
I heard a lot of rustling and moving around. I knew Zippo was setting up.
“The real question you didn’t ask is how many of the enemy we got,” I said to the Gunny.
“We’re going to need medevac at dawn, and we’re in no position to receive choppers here,” the Gunny replied, without replying to my comment. “We need to move toward the objective, and call them in.”
“The sixty mike mikes,” I said back, ignoring what the Gunny said like he was ignoring what I was saying. “We’re going to need all the mortar rounds we’ve got.”
I leaned forward into the side of the berm and peered into the night. I felt Zippo’s hulk next to me. I crawled in his direction and picked up the scope he had presented.
“For what?” the Gunny asked.
“They’ve got to be getting their survivors together out there,” I answered, trying to get the scope balanced across Zippo’s big rounded shoulder blades.
“That means they have to set up a base of fire for cover.”
I swept the river area with the scope but could see no movement except junk slowly floating by in the middle of the river. I moved the scope downriver and then back up. The junk only floated out from halfway down the river.
“You want to see?” I said, back toward where the Gunny was just behind me. “They’re floating their dead down river. We got some all right, big time.”
The Gunny didn’t move or say anything.
“They’ve got to use that rise near the bend of the river as their firebase,” I said, analyzing the far bank through the scope. “We set the sixties up just in front of the berm and then drop a bunch of rounds when they try to get their wounded across. That area’s right where the flank security squad would probably have holed up if they’d gone over. Any more word about the phantom patrol?”
“You already know the answer to that,” the Gunny replied.
“We’re going to shoot at the wounded?” Zippo asked, in a whisper.
“No, at the firebase, now stop breathing,” I said back, also in a whisper.
“What firebase?” he asked, before taking a big breath.
“Stevens, you and Nguyen high tail it back to First Platoon’s position,” I ordered, over my shoulder. “Have them get the 60 millimeter mortars set up, but have them come back here so we can get an initial registration using the Starlight.”
“I’ve got to check on the captain,” the Gunny said. “It’ll be a different situation if he has to go out on a medevac too.”
“The medevac will have to wait, no matter who’s hurt,” I said, talking to the Gunny directly in a way I didn’t want to talk to him. “Our position could not be more secure right here, and heading out into an old LZ, that’s an old destroyed LZ for a reason, isn’t the best plan right now. That’s a big war party across the river and we don’t have any idea of its size or makeup. I don’t think they bring those drums we heard online for company-size operations. When it’s light we’ll consider moving, maybe later in the morning.”
“The longer we stay in one place the more likely they are to get set up to attack us. I’ve seen this before,” the Gunny said the first sentence using a lecturing tone, reserving the last sentence for putting emotion into how strongly he felt in opposition to my decision.
“R is for rest,” I replied, “the men need rest, and I don’t care what preparations the enemy makes in the next few hours, the only thing they are going to get out of it is another load of rock surprise.”
The Gunny left without answering, Stevens following his lead. Nguyen was nowhere to be seen or heard, but I knew he was nearby somewhere. I hated leaving the Gunny feeling like his better judgment was being over-ruled. Whatever our exchange was, or was not, would no doubt be passed up and down the line, I knew. I couldn’t afford for the men to takes sides because I didn’t really have a side when it came to their supporting the Gunny or me.
And then there was the comfort of having a safe place to retreat to. Not since I’d been in the country had I been in such a secure position. It was better than being in a bunker because the cliff was a whole lot larger and thicker. I was, for all intents and purposes, thanks again to Army artillery, safe against enemy attack while having both entry and exit from up and down the overhang limited to one person at a time approaching or departing. Was I making the decision to stay where we were to extend that feeling of safety for as long as possible or was I acting in the best interest of the company? Were those two things coincidental? I knew I didn’t know, or maybe didn’t want to know.
The morning wouldn’t come. The black moonless night still bled its awful warm rain, the insects remained ever-present and biting, unless copious amounts of the rotten smelling repellant was regularly slathered on, and the berm in front of us, between the base of the cliff and the jungle, was infested with leeches.
I balanced the scope on the bracken itself, having laid my poncho cover over the surface to hold off the leeches. It took ten minutes for Fusner to get the leeches off Zippo’s neck and face. The man had stoically laid there, for the whole time I’d stared through the scope, letting the parasites drink his blood.
I studied the green world before me with one eye, sweeping the scope up and down the river. I calculated that the NVA would set up a base of fire across the river, to give them needed fire cover for pulling the wounded out. Daylight would be coming, and that visibility would make any such evacuation impossible, given that the company facing them had a sufficiency of M-60 ammunition. The other likelihood was that the enemy might decide to wait us out. It would have to be obvious to them that our company would be moving soon and, with their ability to occupy the totality of the valley before we arrived, they would have to know Kilo Company was either still up on the ridge down the valley or not coming at all. Some kind of coordination between the companies had to be arranged through battalion if it wasn’t already.
The Gunny came back, accompanied by Stevens. Nguyen had to be somewhere nearby but I couldn’t see him. The light was faint, but there in front of me, so dawn could not be far away. I could tell from the Gunny’s posture, and Stevens silently slipping down to sit with his back against the wall, that something had happened at the command post.
“The captain’s up and we’ll move out in about an hour,” the Gunny said, informing me, in his way, that I was not the company commander anymore, and that my orders had been countermanded. “He wants to see you about supporting fire at the old LZ, because we’ve got to have resupply and a medevac.”
I squatted down, pulling my poncho liner from the berm and pushing back against the cliff wall with my stuff. I re-holstered my Colt, and then went to work lighting a small fire to heat some water. I had to think for a few minutes about the situation. The Gunny squatted down, although I knew he was uncomfortable. He made no effort to join me in brewing a cup, and he didn’t pull out a cigarette.
“That enemy attack was unusual,” the Gunny said, more to make conversation than anything else I thought. “We don’t get frontal attacks like that very often anymore. Machine guns make the human wave sort of senseless.”
“We don’t know what that was,” I replied, mad as hell at the sleazy sneakiness of him. I knew in my bones that he’d opposed my plan to hunker down and rest the unit for awhile, that he’d gone straight to Casey to revive the man and get him to countermand my orders.
“There were drums and there was fire and there were definitely NVA crawling across the berm to get at us,” I said. “But we don’t know how many there were or what casualties we inflicted.”
I sipped my coffee and waited. I knew there was some good sense to move, simply because we had no other way to get the wounded out and we must have gone through a good bit of our supply of grenades and rifle ammo. I hadn’t heard any claymore mines go off and I wondered why. The Gunny was right. Human wave attacks had pretty much died out with the invention and use of the machine gun in WWI. It was suicidal to attack a machine gun without armor. But claymore mines worked even better. At three and a half pounds they were also easy to transport in sufficient quantity.
“Why don’t we have claymores?” I asked the Gunny, more to keep from talking about the new orders than because I really wanted to know.
“First and Fourth sort of used them up on each other before you came aboard, Junior,” he replied. “And they got used on a few officers too. So we kind of stopped resupplying them.”
I wanted to rub my forehead in frustration. As if things were not complicated enough, I’d forgotten momentarily about the war inside the war within the company.
“No mortars?” I finally asked, finishing my coffee and tossing the remains over the berm.
“Won’t need them,” the Gunny answered. “Better get back to Casey, as he wants to see you. I have to get up the line and get everyone ready to move.”
I watched the Gunny walk away in a crouch, staying down from the edge of the berm. If luck held, then the company could move along the crease under the cliff until it played out, or until it ran into mines or booby traps the enemy had now had time to lay. The wiser move might be to find a place further up where the river was broader and more shallow, cross and then move from the side the company would not be expected to be on. But I wasn’t company commander anymore, and so I would have no direct say. The matter of the ‘missing squad’ was going to be retired into history, like the abandoned listening post and the Hill 110 incident. I knew that the company would be the worse for it sometime in the future, but I was powerless to do anything.
I made my way back down the line with only Fusner at my back, carefully moving around the Marines crouched down or laying on their ponchos. I wasn’t aware of Nguyen’s presence until I was almost at the command post. I stopped and turned, letting Fusner pass me.
“Are they going to fire?” I asked him directly.
Nguyen stood in front of me, meeting my eyes. He turned his head, as if to look across the river, although it was impossible to see through the bracken from where we were. He looked back at me. He blinked once.
“Shit, I thought so,” I said, more to myself than to him.
Would the company get moved out fast enough to avoid being pinned down by the coming fire? Would the piled bracken and overhang be protection enough against rockets or a fifty caliber machine gun? Fifty caliber bullets would go right through the berm.
The captain was sitting with his back against the cliff, his poncho liner under him and the cover wadded up to act as a cushion. He was wearing his helmet, and if I still laughed I might have. The rock that had hit him, or been used to hit him, had struck the outside of his helmet on the right front. The dent made his double bar rank look like only one bar with a crinkled something next to it. A lieutenant and a half. Rittenhouse sat cross-legged to his right and Jurgens squatted down to his left. I felt alone again.
“Rittenhouse is writing up the after action report,” Casey said, before I had a chance to respectfully report in. “I think we set a battalion record for casualties last night with my plan.”
My mouth gaped open. “How many men did we lose?” I asked, in shock.
“Not us, Junior,” he replied with a laugh. “Them. We must have killed a hundred, and probably injured a hundred more. That was something else. Jurgens here says they attacked in waves and were blown to hell and gone by your artillery. Nice job. Night Moon may go down in history.”
I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, looking from one man to the others, like they were creatures from some science fiction movie. I wanted to ask them what day it was, in what year. What planet had I had landed on? But I didn’t. I didn’t care what they put in the after action report. The enemy was not done with us where we were, and once we got moving we’d be much more vulnerable because we wouldn’t be able to bring the weapons we carried to bear with much effectiveness.
“If they know we’re moving they probably won’t hit us,” I said, ignoring their comments about whatever the attack was or wasn’t.
In only twelve days I’d become completely used to sending artificial reports to the rear. The rear area commanders didn’t care what was happening to their Marines in the field, except for the chopper personnel and the men running the artillery batteries. In return, the Marines in the field sent back whatever data that kept the rear area happy, no matter how crazy or unreal that data was.
“We’re going to need artillery fire for protection when we get to the landing zone.” the captain stated. “Can you provide it?”
I looked at the captain in his crooked helmet. For some reason I had more respect for him, no matter how ridiculous he appeared. He was trying to make the best of a horrid situation. He’d formed his own team with Rittenhouse and Jurgens. I had the scout team. We were both fighting for the Gunny.
Casey didn’t want to mention the use of Army assets so he was counting on my providing them without telling him in public or private. It was a slick covert move on his part.
“Yes, sir,” I replied. “I believe, using high angle fire within battery range, I can handle that as long as we move right now. Without the mortars to suppress the base of fire they have to be setting up we might not make it without taking heavy casualties though.”
It was a package deal, but only if he saw it that way. I waited while the captain reached for Pilson’s handset and began talking. He spoke too rapidly and to the side for me to hear, but I knew he had to be talking to battalion. When he was done, he set the handset aside and looked up.
“You can have the mortars, Junior, but I think you’re wrong about the enemy. I think we gave them a powerful bloody nose and they’re going to be licking their wounds for awhile. Kilo Company is down in the valley and coming up river with the dawn. They’ll set in here and protect our rear. Mike Company’s going to have the top of the ridge overlooking our position so our flank’s covered.”
I looked at Jurgens. All I cared about for the moment was getting the mortars set up and ready to fire. And I was now all aboard on getting the hell out of our current position as fast as we could. The Gunny had been right about that and in his usual conniving feral way had left getting the defensive fires ordered and set up to me. The Gunny was proving to be the most difficult man to hate I’d ever met. I also knew in my short time that the NVA was tough as nails and not only fought with brutal ferocity, they didn’t give up, almost ever.
Jurgens finally moved under my unblinking gaze.
“Where do you want them?” he asked, walking away. “We’ve only got twenty-four rounds, all H.E.”
“Forward, so we can suppress whatever comes our way while we get moving,” I replied, trying to rush him along from behind.
I wanted the unit up and moving as quickly as possible, and I wanted to be as close to the front of the column as I could get because it was the rear that was going to take the most punishment when we got hit. If I was right in reading Nguyen’s unspoken response, and my own instincts, then the captain and First Platoon were going to take the brunt of any action, which was fine by me.
Moving back up the line with a squad of Marines carrying the two devices, with the tripods, bases and other stuff that went with them, took so long that the early light of dawn began to illuminate everything. That the NVA had not removed their wounded under the cover of darkness meant that they were waiting, either to bring up heavier weaponry, or because they knew we were moving away and they could work in some safety. They didn’t leave their own men any more than Marines did if they could help it.
The mortars were set up faster than I thought possible. Jurgens set up three M-60s atop the berm to cover their exposed position in front of it. I went to the corporal operating the small tripod-mounted sight and directed him to get the range for the only likely raised position across the river where trouble was likely to come from. If the NVA brought a 12.7 mm, the Soviet version of our own Browning Fifty, then they could mount in on a more distant ridge or hill and still hit us hard, but the closer location seemed the most likely because they would know about the berm and want the most penetration their rounds could give.
The company was on the move, and it was amazing to see how quickly that happened, and each individual Marine’s ability to get his stuff together and get humping. The captain appeared with Pilson and Rittnehouse trailing behind. I thought the man was finally showing good sense in getting away from the potential of being in the beaten area if the enemy opened up. The Gunny joined us, just back from the two mortar crews and their weapons.
“Good, you can cover the move from here,” Casey said, waving one hand toward the direction of the river.
I looked at everyone present. I couldn’t believe what Casey was saying.
“Ah, you mean Jurgens, don’t you,” I stammered out.
“No, you’re perfect,” Casey responded. “Mortars are just like artillery and everyone knows about your ability in that area. You can stay with your scout team to cover the mortar section until we’re all safely away. Carry on.”
He then walked on up the crease with Jurgens, Rittenhouse and Pilson. The Gunny stood for a bit looking at me, and then shrugged his shoulders and followed the command post ensemble.
It took fifteen minutes for the enemy to realize that the company was moving out, if they hadn’t already known about the plan. The first rocket in followed the last of Jurgen’s platoon out, leaving only the eight Marine mortar section and my scout team of five behind. I ordered the mortars to open up and fire everything they had. The first rocket had done no damage, except to my hearing. I stuffed some of my ripped sock material into both ears. There was nothing I could do but drill myself into the base of the cliff and wait, no artillery knocking rocks from the wall would help us now. The mortars launched, one round quickly followed by another, until the section was done. I’d ordered them to get back behind the berm with their weapons as soon as they’d fired all the rounds so they’d probably set a Marine Corps record in getting them away. More rockets came blasting in, as the crew rolled into the defilade behind the berm. The resounding sounds of the mortar shells going off came rushing across the river. In the short silence following the explosions the big machine gun opened up from across the river.