The hill was more of a water and mud-driven mess than when we’d all taken the Vietnam “E’ ticket Disney ride down it, only moments earlier. I wondered, struggling to gain footholds against unstable rocks under the mud, if the whole side of the mountain wouldn’t eventually cascade down into the river. I was briefly buoyed by the fact that the dreaded fifty-caliber hadn’t opened up again. Something had to be done before it got moved to a more distant location. Something dangerous. We had no more supporting fires to call on and nothing left in our inventory that could take on the big gun at the effective distance it could fire. I made it back to where my stuff was, but I only found it because the Gunny somehow came along and guided me in. I wondered if Hispanics had better night and ‘through the pouring rain’ vision than lily white people like me.
He squatted down next to my pack, which was nothing more than a big lump, only visible because the bare light, coming from somewhere through the rain and clouds, glistened softly from the poncho thrown over it. I squatted down next to the Gunny, not reaching for the poncho. I was wet clear through, and I thought the poncho wouldn’t provide much in the way of warmth or dryness. We looked across the short space separating us. Only the protection I was getting from my helmet allowed me to see anything of his large confronting form.
“The poncho’s yours,” he said, pointing.
“The captain died, and gone to heaven in my absence?” I asked, without moving.
“The poncho’s from a Marine who didn’t make it,” the Gunny stated, before delaying a second and going on. “He won’t mind.”
I gave in, and pulled my pack toward me, leaving the dead Marine’s poncho draped over it. I wondered, when it dried, if I’d find the Marine’s name on it, like Alfi. I took a few seconds to make a tent over myself and my chunky belongings, finally sticking my head up through the center hole of the protective sheet.
The poncho cut the wind out, and no longer allowed the constant drum of the rain drops to land on my body, which was a welcome relief. It was warmer. I sat there, a vertical meat slab under rubber, looking no doubt like a glistening pyramid with a round head poking out of it. My fatigue was so great I felt I might lose what little balance it took to keep me in a sitting position. I blinked once, or thought I blinked, because when I looked the Gunny was gone. The rain was still there but not coming down as hard. I knew I must have slept, or done whatever it was I’d somehow learned to do in place of sleep. I looked at Gus Grissom’s watch. It was one a.m. Water dripped from the face of the Omega, the watch a whole lot more waterproof than me.
I reached up to adjust the poncho at my neck. My hand recoiled back. The leeches. I’d forgotten about the leeches. They were feasting away, each of the five of them, as thick as bratwurst from back home. Definitely bratwurst, I decided. Hot dogs were slimmer, unless they were those giant baseball things. I reached under the poncho to pull the edge back so I could find Fusner, but he was already there, my hand running into his own.
“Needed some rest, sir,” he said, only the rain smacking into his own helmet making him visible in front of me. “Gotta get those leeches off, though.”
I didn’t say anything. I wanted to thank him but nothing would come out. I felt like I was in a trance of some sort. He took my helmet off and pulled my poncho over my head. I jutted my chin up so Fusner could go to work with his matches. The rain was too heavy to smoke a cigarette in and keep it burning. He showed me how to hold my helmet out to block the rain, and then he lit match after match, burying the burning heads into the backs of the leeches before the moisture could kill the igniting tip. It took two or three for each leech, and the combined smell of the sulfur and the tissue of the creature made me close my eyes and try not to breathe in. I wanted to throw up but I had nothing to throw up. I’d forgotten to eat again. The leeches fell like lead weights onto my knees like small sand bags, and then into the mud in front of my boots, each with a distinct little plop. Finally, he was done. Fusner dumped something into his hands, rubbed them together and then massaged my throat. I don’t know how I kept from screaming with the pain as I jerked back in shock.
“Old Spice,” Fusner said, with a laugh. “Stings a bit but it’ll keep infection out.”
I breathed in heavily, not worried about infection, but feeling almost light-headed from the wonderful aroma of home. My Dad used Old Spice. I twisted my neck, which now hurt like hell but the smell made the pain worth it.
I tried to get my thinking straight. The two problems I could not avoid loomed before me in the dark. The fifty-caliber machine gun, and the hopefully small force that was entrenched to our front between the company and the river. And then I thought about the third problem. Jurgens. He’d be out there somewhere. If he’d tossed the grenade, and I couldn’t imagine any other perpetrator, then he’d know he’d missed. He’d know that I would have to come for him in some shape or form. It was likely that only he and I knew or guessed it was him, except for the Gunny knowing, of course.
My decision was clear. The only supporting fires we had that might be any match for the fifty-caliber were the few light anti-tank rockets some of the Marines carried and the M-79 grenade launchers. Neither weapon had the range to reach out and take on a fifty set up a thousand meters or more away. Also, unless Kilo came up in the night, and it wasn’t going to, our rear and left flank remained weak and unsupportable without artillery being dumped down, and calling that in was dependent upon being able to see or hear an attack coming. The rain muffled all sound, especially sounds of men moving low down in the mud.
If the enemy could not be attacked or defended against then we only had one choice, as uncomfortable as that might be. We had to move. Our position on the hill, no matter how well dug in, was untenable. We might not last the night. We had to move, and we had to move quickly. The enemy would not be expecting that. They were getting set in and comfortable too, and no doubt planning just what kind of fire and attacks they’d make on us. I’d thought the hillside would make the company’s situation safe, at least for the night, but I was wrong. The weather was not a benefit unless we moved. If we stayed where we were then the hard driving rain was a big plus to the NVA. It provided nearly total cover, along with our inability to use the Starlight Scope. But if we moved to the objective, then the effects of the miserable weather turned to our advantage. Finally, we could not afford to be pinned down for days if the rain continued even if the NVA didn’t get the fifty online or attack. We needed resupply and medevac, which meant we had to get choppers down onto a secure landing zone.
The NVA would have their own listening posts and scouts, probably as effective as Nguyen at watching and alerting their forces to our every move. But they wouldn’t be ready for a move made in the middle of a full on artillery barrage I could call in up on top of the hill, and then down along the river. Cunningham could cover the objective we were heading toward, but the company had to get another ten clicks northward, where the valley spread out wider, for their fire to be truly effective.
The “What now lieutenant?” games we played at night in the Basic School hadn’t covered problems that included how to get a reticent commanding officer, probably hiding out in as dry a mud hole as First Platoon could dig for him, to go along with the only plan that might keep us alive until morning. Maybe a collection of my fellow officers at that school could have figured out a way in the Force Reaction Course to cross the raging river and take out the big gun, but I didn’t think so. Water was a whole lot easier to cross in daytime, and in training, especially with Navy Seals paddling around to save Marines trying to swim even short distances with twenty or thirty pounds of gear strapped to their backs. Not to mention the extreme difficulty of crossing the raging river I could hear swishing along below, just ready and willing to swallow any middle-of-the-night challengers to its dominance.
I wondered if maybe Casey would buy the plan if I came up with another name. It might look good in his ‘after action’ report. The Marine Corps was fascinated with naming every movement or attack, so it might work. I thought of the objective. We needed to reach it by morning. The gunships could arrive at almost the same time as we did, if we planned it well. They could secure the area with their rotary cannons without having to call in artillery. I thought of Vince Lombardi. I was born in Green Bay. I’d gone to St. Norbert’s, and been a first cook at the college by the time I left. I waited the breakfast line for the hung-over Packer players every morning of spring training. Lombardi never ate breakfast, but would be there in the cafeteria like a wandering bear, checking every player out without making it seem like he was checking him out. I smiled coldly. Vince Lombardi. Run to Daylight. It was perfect. I’d steal Lombardi’s patented expression he used to describe how his half-backs were such successful ground-gainers. The Charge of the Light Brigade plan had been a bust but I wasn’t going to bring that up, and there was no question that I was planning for the whole company to run away from the enemy. There was no sense illustrating that point either. Run to Daylight was a good solid football phrase and tactic. Vince Lombardi wasn’t Chesty Puller, and pro football was a long way from fighting down from the Chosin Reservoir, but hopefully that wouldn’t matter, or at least be overlooked.
My neck hurt, but I still smelled good. I pulled my poncho off to leave it covering my pack, just in case the writing materials I had inside were still dry. I crawled to where I thought the Gunny might be found under his poncho. He wasn’t there. Instead, I almost ran right into him, squatting in his Asian squat, his head wrapped with his poncho liner against the noise of the rain hitting his helmet. He wore no other protection, other than his utility uniform. I crouched before him. I felt a toughness emanate out from him to sort of take me in, and an unconscious warmth ran through my cold body.
“Better than a shower if you give it time,” he whispered through cupped hands.
Cigarette smoke billowed out from between his fingers, and was immediately swept away by the rain. The man looked just as tough as I knew him to be, and I was glad he was my Gunny, or I was his lieutenant. I checked myself out. The Gunny was right, as usual. Most of the mud I’d accumulated in the slide, or even the climb back up, was gone. I started to wash myself with my hands to hurry the process. I knew one thing though, I wasn’t going to take my boots off until it was daylight, and I had a protective ring of artillery to call in on command.
I finally stopped trying to clean myself off.
“Coffee?” I asked, having none myself, and figuring it was unlikely with the driving rain to even ask, but I was uncomfortable with the Jurgens burden. I could plan a company move in my head, and memorize all the night defensive fires the company might need, but handling a problem like Jurgens was almost beyond me.
I wanted to kill him for my own safety, but the company needed him. He wanted to kill me, and that the company needed me probably didn’t matter to him.
The Gunny was all I had.
“Coffee, in this weather?” he asked, but I could tell by his tone that he was kidding. He pulled his canteen, and went to work getting the fixings out of a small plastic sack he kept tied to his belt. He sent his cigarette flicking out into the rain and managed to light a stick of Composition B with one match. The flare of light lit us both up for a brief second, until he pulled his own poncho over and stacked it, to hide as much of the glow as possible. I noted absently that the explosive wasn’t bothered in the least by the rain, when it came to burning its small but very powerful flame. The sweet smell of the Gunny’s leftover cigarette smoke penetrated the sheets of rain separating us, and then combined with the pungent strange smell of the Comp B to make a strange aroma I found different but not unpleasing.
I started talking while the water heated up in our canteen holders. I told him the whole plan, even throwing in where I’d gotten the plan name and the downside of the failing plan that had got us where we were on the soaked hillside.
“I’m not surprised, Junior,” the Gunny said, finally, taking a few minutes to mix his coffee potion. I mixed a small bag in my own holder, having no cream or sugar. I was afraid to hold up the holder though, because I didn’t want him to see my hand shaking, so I just wrapped my fingers around the hot metal and held it to the ground.
“By what?’ I asked.
“I was wondering how in hell we were going to get ourselves out of this fix in the morning, and here you come, bouncing in like a puppy with a new toy.”
“We need to move now,” I replied, trying to stress the seriousness of what I was saying, “before they can relocate the fifty and before they recover from the artillery.”
“I like the way you sound so sure of yourself, no matter what,” the Gunny replied, sipping from his rain spattered coffee container. “Like when you figured out how to have us end up on the side of this hill in the pouring rain under constant enemy fire.”
“The enemy knew where we were going and they were waiting,” I said. “They were ready for us, and we didn’t do what they were ready for so we haven’t taken any casualties yet. Now we do what they’re not ready for again. They’ll never guess we’re going to move in this downpour.”
“See what I mean?” the Gunny replied, with a laugh. “The Charge of the Light Brigade, Mudville, and now Run to Daylight,” he went on, his body shaking with mirth for almost half a minute. “Little did I know that the chopper dropping you down that night was coming in from Hollywood.”
“Will Casey buy it?” I asked, when he’d settled down, but knowing before I asked that the Gunny was in. I knew he wouldn’t have laughed out loud if he wasn’t in. I also knew he was being funny in his acceptance and I appreciated that, but I could not make myself engage in his humor at all.
“He’ll probably buy anything that gets him out here and down to that old landing zone,” the Gunny said, glancing off into the dark. “He’s miserable with the mud, the rain, the leeches, and the jungle rot on his feet, and scared shitless we’ll be overrun.” The Gunny laughed quietly again for a few seconds.
I knew he was laughing about the repellant he’d put in the captain’s boots, but I said nothing. I sipped my own cooling coffee, noting that the rain was so heavy my holder was about to overflow after only a few moments of exposure. At least my hands had stopped shaking.
“He’s missing what you’re getting, and getting so well,” he said.
“What?” was all I could think to reply.
“You gotta grow to love it, all of it, except for the fighting and the dying. Like me, and now you. You gotta fall in love with the leeches, like they’re pets, with the rain, like it’s nothing but a freshwater shower, with the heat, like it’s a Swedish sauna, and the night, like it’s a warm protecting blanket.”
“I don’t think I see things that way,” I replied, hesitatingly.
“I didn’t say anything about seeing. It’s all about feeling. And here you are, at night, out here drinking coffee in the rain, with leech blood dripping down your chin, and your talking about our next move and probably thinking about the one after that. You’re falling in love, and the thing about falling in love is that, in the beginning, you can’t see it.”
“Will you ask Casey?” I said, trying to change the subject. Sometimes the Gunny’s talk made me extremely uncomfortable, and this was one of those times.
“Hell yes,” the Gunny said, finishing most of his coffee, before tossing the remainder into the rain. “He’s going to love it because it gets him out of here tomorrow, and to get his medal.”
“Out of where? I asked, momentarily stunned. “To get a medal?”
“You haven’t heard?” the Gunny laughed a cruel laugh. “He’s getting the Silver Star back in Da Nang at division. You know, for saving Kilo up over the ridge.”
I didn’t know what to say. I was speechless. Casey had done nothing, except file the after action report, which had apparently been enough, but what really surprised me was his getting out of combat to get a decoration, any decoration. That was new. I hadn’t heard about getting out of the field to be decorated from anyone.
“I can see the wheels turning in your head, Junior,” the Gunny chuckled.
“You’re a second lieutenant with twelve days in country. He’s a captain who’s been here God knows how long, with friends in the rear. You’re not getting some medal that’s going to pull you out of here, unless they put a bronze on your dead chest.”
“Friends that put him on this hill with us,” I replied, acidly.
“He was on staff at battalion when he tried to let the six actual know he had a drinking problem. His friends at division couldn’t save him, but they can decorate his ass off.”
“Nice,” I said, more to the rain than to him. I had to admit to myself that at least Casey had been trying to do the right thing, even if it was a really dumb thing. He’d merely done what I had done on my first night, and he’d received the same reward. I didn’t care a tinker’s damn about a Silver Star, or any other combat decoration but the thought of being able to get to the rear for any reason was new.
“With your help, of course,” the Gunny added, needlessly.
“Jurgens,” I said, changing the subject to the one thing that bothered me the most.
“The grenade,” the Gunny replied, his voice going so low I almost couldn’t hear him through the narrow band of rain separating us.
“I’ve got to take him out,” I gasped out, my voice as low as his. “I can’t do what I have to do worrying about him.”
“He didn’t toss it,” the Gunny said.
“What?” I replied, in shock.
“Jurgens is a cracker asshole and a poor excuse for a human being, but he’s a Marine all the way through when it comes to surviving. He sees you as part of that survival. You don’t have to worry about Jurgens. Not that way, anyway.”
“Who?” I asked, my mind going in circles. I’d been so certain it was Jurgens, but I knew the Gunny wouldn’t lie to me about something like this.
“I’m handling it,” the Gunny said.
“I need to know who,” I said, as forcefully as I could.
“Do you trust me?” the Gunny asked, slowly getting to his feet.
I stared up at the man, water blazing off of his toweled head and pouring down his soaked uniform blouse and trousers. He looked like a frightening creature from a horror film, with makeup that’d been overdone for dramatic emphasis.
I wanted to ask him if I had a choice. I wanted to ask what my other options were, and if I could at least be in on whatever decisions were being made to deal with the problem. But the force of the man standing over me wouldn’t allow it.
“I trust you,” I said, starting to rise to my own feet.
“Stay,” the Gunny said, his voice softer. “I’ll go have a word with our war hero. Get some rest. We’ll be running to daylight before you know it.”
……Through the the Pourin’ Rain