There was nothing to be done about the grenade at the moment, because there were other things that had to be done. I had to make sure that the artillery registrations I’d made earlier with Fire Base Cunningham for bringing rounds in along the lower edge of our position were adjusted accurately. The close proximity between those rounds and the Marines dug in near the base of the hill was vitally important. I also had to get up to the top of the ridge and find out what was going on, as the sporadic small arms fire from both sides continued, although the sounds were considerably dampened by the never-ending rain. The area along the whole top of that ridge could be reached by artillery, as long as Kilo Company wasn’t closing fast in bringing up our flank support. I reached down to gather in my poncho. I wanted some protection from the beating rain. The force of the falling water actually made my shoulders and thighs ache from the constant impacts of the wind-driven drops.
The Gunny brushed my hand aside. “Gotta use that poncho, the skipper needs a place to hole up and he’s pretty much out of it,” he said, his lips only a few inches from my left ear.
I wanted to tell him to give the captain Pilson’s poncho or maybe Jurgens’, if the sergeant could be found anywhere outside of the protective layer of Marines he’d no doubt buried himself under, but I said nothing. Fusner needed his poncho to protect the radio. I noted that the fading light reflected brightly off of the moving ponchos anyway, particularly since our position on the side of the hill allowed every Marine in the company to be visible by the enemy below at some angle or other. My own muddy and crud filled exterior made me all but invisible against the mud and crud of the hillside. I gave up the idea of hanging on to the poncho and shrugged off the mild discomfort I felt over losing it.
I grabbed my pack with one hand and dragged it a few feet up the hill.
Then I set it back down. There was no way I was going to get the thing all the way up to the ridge and I knew it. Full dark was coming soon, and any hope of having anything dry at all was in my pack, including my stationary to write home. I had had no opportunity to write home, and that seemingly small detail of my disordered mess of an existence bothered me more than anything else other than the grenade incident.
“Gunny, can you have my pack covered, at least, and see if you can convince the captain I didn’t toss that grenade into his hooch on purpose?”
“He doesn’t know about it so don’t mention it again,” the Gunny replied, tossing my pack under his own poncho. “Pilson’s a bit slow, but he’s not stupid and would like to live, like the rest of us.”
Turning and heading up the broken slimy slope, moving laterally from rock to rock much more than up the hill itself, I wondered about the Gunny’s last remark, since I didn’t feel that my threat toward any of the men had been that overt lately. Not in a few days, anyway. Why would Pilson feel threatened by me?
I didn’t reach Zippo, Nguyen, and Stevens until the light was almost fully gone. The glistening ponchos of the men around me made me feel that I’d made the right decision about not demanding my own. But what could be done to lessen the shiny targets the men’s ponchos might make if the rain let up enough for the enemy to target them across the distance with the big guns. The fifty had fired several strings into the hillside but none of the bullets had come close to me while I’d climbed. I snuggled into the mud at the top of the hill. The rain was protecting us all from visibility. The discomfort was great, however, and the leeches no doubt enjoying their feed. In spite of the noise of the fifty, and small arms fire, the unit seemed in a pretty secure position. That could all change if NVA forces that’d been left behind beyond the top of the hill, or had flanked us, were significant in number and carried supporting arms.
I moved over to Fusner’s prone body and crawled under his poncho.
“Need to get at my map,” I whispered, dragging my flashlight, with its pencil beam, out from my thigh pocket.
I hadn’t registered rounds atop the hill and I needed at least one grid coordinate location to adjust from. Small arms fire lit up from the next hill over, or the ridge itself, I could not tell in the dark. The rain looked more like of a dark fog than a rain back at home. There was no lightning or thunder. Just never-ending hard rain, and all the mud and run-off that went with it.
I slithered out from under the poncho onto a fairly good-sized patch of elephant grass. At least it wasn’t mud. I dragged the radio handset out with me. I had Fusner adjust the Prick 25 to bring up the combat net and then went on the net to ask for Kilo Company’s position. Battalion asked for identification and I gave Casey’s unique code. Battalion wouldn’t give a position, of course, as I knew they wouldn’t, but it allowed me to give the grid where I intended to drop in artillery rounds and for them to tell me that I was cleared to fire. It took several minutes, battalion no doubt calling Kilo before coming back up, but I finally got clearance.
I didn’t answer an interrogative about whether we were in contact or not. Knowing or not knowing would not matter to battalion, or to us, in helping us get through our current situation. There was no way that Kilo was going to move to support us in this mess, not during the misery of this night.
I had to deal with whatever forces were at our rear as quickly as I could, so I called in one adjusting round to explode a hundred meters in the air at a position about a thousand meters beyond where Fusner and I lay. The round came in, and once again I thanked God for the “splash” calculation and transmission. A little flash was all that came through the dropping sheets of hard cold rain. I hadn’t noticed the cold lower down but the breeze at the top of the hill, and the lower temperature of the falling water itself were giving me the shivers. I knew the spotting round had landed close because the small arms fired instantly died away. The enemy was running. I called for a battery of six and then went left and right four hundred meters. Thunder finally filled the night, but not that provided by nature. I’d used Variable Time fuses set at fifty meters. There were some chopped jungle and body parts laying somewhere out there to our rear if they had not gotten out in time.
I turned to stare down the hill toward the river but could see nothing. The binoculars were useless as well. I had a registration point set up just short of the river, which was about as close to the line where Cunningham could drop rounds in, but that was no more than three hundred meters from our lower positions dug into the hill. It was fairly clear ground, which meant that the circular probability error of the 105s would be dangerously close to my Marines. I was too far up the slope to adjust and see using Willie Peter, as the rain was dense and the darkness complete. I had to get back down to near the bottom of the slope. The fifty opened up again, raking rounds back and forth across the hillside, its tracers invisible because of the weather, but the bullets so fast and heavy that eventually, they had to begin to cause serious, if not terminal, damage. I stared down into the rain. I felt the leeches sucking blood from under my chin. I didn’t bother to touch them with my hands. They were too repulsive to touch, but at least I’d come to understand and relegate them to their proper place. They wouldn’t kill me and wherever they attached themselves meant no other leeches could have that spot.
Once the artillery explosions through the water-filled air came to an end, I gathered my scout team and told them about our next objective. We had to get down the hill to the bottom and call in an accurate fire to make sure the enemy knew we were in force, and that our supporting fires were effective and deadly. Unlike me, the team guys had humped their packs up with them, and all wore wet slick ponchos. There was no visibility to put them at risk in the rain and, until we started down I didn’t know about the other disadvantage of the slippery things. We’d gone no more than twenty yards down the four-hundred-meter steep slope when we began to slide. I’d been in the lead but there was no lead once we were moving. The ponchos were slippery, and my being without one was no help at all, because everyone had been scrunched into one mass. Down the hill, in the dead of dark, inside a pouring cauldron of cold rain we went. The sluice of water and mud took us around the biggest rocks and over the smaller ones, with Marines dug in nearby letting out muted shouts as we went by.
The bottom made up of jungle bracken of all sorts, piled elephant grass and bamboo stands came up in seconds. We plowed into the collected jungle debris in one sodden muddy mass. I was bruised all over, but my breath hadn’t been knocked out of me, and I didn’t think I’d lost anything. I’d been afraid, but not combat terror afraid, only carnival ride scared.
“Holy shit,” Stevens gushed out when we were untangled from one another.
“They’d charge for that ride back home,” Zippo added.
“Radio check,” I said to Fusner. Our objective was to call in artillery and to do that we’d need a working radio. The only radios, if Fusner’s was not operational, were back up on the hill, another arduous climb before having to return all over again.
The radio worked. I struggled to get unknotted from the scout team and get my bearings in the pouring rain. We had to get back behind the perimeter and further up the hill. For the first time, I sensed another sound overwhelming the sound of the rain if I listened intently. It was a train rushing sound. It was the river. The river was rising. The good news in that was all about crossing. From the sound of the fast moving water nobody who hadn’t crossed by now was going to cross until it went down, and that would not be during the night. Any of the NVA that had crossed already were also not going back. That part could be good or bad.
Sugar Daddy’s platoon had the lower perimeter, which surprised me again. The lower hill perimeter was where the company would likely be hit, and here was the black platoon, the platoon that supposedly wouldn’t fight, stationed at the most dangerous point. Once we got straightened out it took only a few seconds to hike, and then climb back up the hill a few yards. Sugar Daddy came out of the night, once we were down behind a few big rocks. The fifty hadn’t opened up during our rapid ride down the hill, or since. For some reason, I felt less safe lower down the hill than I’d felt at the top, particularly after dumping a ton of artillery along its far edge.
I couldn’t call in Willie Peter, and High Explosives were too dangerous. I decided on using concrete piercing fuses, hoping Cunningham had them. The spotting rounds would hit the ground, and then penetrate about twenty feet before going off. I’d adjusted by sight, sound and now I would try adjusting by feel. I called in the first round. I heard nothing of an explosion. I heard what I thought was whooshing crash through the rain. That was just before mud, water and all kinds of vegetation showered down upon us.
“The river,” I said, aloud. “We hit the river. That’s river mud and river crap coming down on us.”
“One round repeat, drop five zero, over,” I said into the microphone, to get another concrete piercing fuse but this time to land fifty meters closer to our position.
The round came in. This time, just after the “splash” report, everyone felt the concussive wave from when the round went off underground. There was no debris. I knew that I should call in a final round of high explosive just to make sure I had the positioning down. The registration point about the company’s position I’d given earlier was halfway up the hill. The FDC would have a safety margin built in, so they wouldn’t fire too close but they’d have no way of knowing how much of a ‘fudge’ factor I’d built in. I felt guilty about wanting to be further up the hill when the spotting round came in. But I had no choice. I had to stay or everyone would know.
“You gonna call in H.E.?” Sugar Daddy asked, crawling up behind me and confirming my suspicion.
I knew I could come up with an excuse to call the spotting round in later, should we be attacked, but I knew he’d know.
I called in the round, using a super quick fuse. At “splash” I molded myself to the back of the rock I was hiding behind. The sharp crack of the explosion came rushing right through the curtain of rain. The round had been close, but not too close. I was afraid to use battery fire because that would disperse shells landing around a point in the shape the guns were set into at Cunningham base. Even shortening the distance to our front line by fifty meters, or so, was unacceptable.
The big fifty opened up and sprayed the hillside. The tracers whipped through the rain like green flaming beer cans. Very fast beer cans. I called in a full contact fire mission. I asked for a battery of six to be targeted to the position in the middle of the river where the first spotting round had landed.
The rounds started impacting. I waited for the battery to fire out and then called in two more, like I’d done on the hill above, spacing the fire so that I was laying explosives up and down the river itself. I wondered if the NVA gun position was busy moving back because there was no return fire from the Soviet fifty. The enemy had set up not too far from the river, I thought and had probably not realized that Cunningham could bring the rounds down as close as I’d brought them. The NVA would no doubt set the big weapon up further back, but they’d also be unlikely to attempt an attack with their troops across a flooded river fully covered by adjusted artillery fire from their enemy. A fifty caliber machine gun was no match for a 105 artillery battery.
When all that could be heard was the rain coming down, beating incessantly on my steel helmet, I turned to look at Sugar Daddy. The new moon didn’t give much light down through the rain, and the clouds dropping it. Sugar Daddy moved closer, as I sat there recovering from being so close to the artillery strike. I’d been more afraid than the Marines around me, I knew. They’d developed a confidence in my ability I still didn’t fully share. I knew I was good, but I felt more lucky than good. Someone in my college had once said that if you could pick between being good and lucky that one should always take lucky. So far I’d been lucky.
“Casey’s got to go,” Sugar Daddy said, in his low toned voice, barely penetrating the rain coming down through the few feet between us. “You tried to take him out but you missed.”
I sighed deeply. The news of the grenade incident had already made its way through the whole company. Nothing got missed. Nothing negative got missed, ever. There was no point in telling the grenade story and trying to defend myself. Who was going to believe it? If Jurgens had thrown the thing to take me out, and that seemed most likely, then I’d have to have some evidence to accuse him, at least as far as the company was concerned. I didn’t want to deal with Jurgens. In some ways I’d rather do what I’d just done, calling in artillery on both weakened fronts. But I knew there was to be no avoiding that situation for long.
“He doesn’t matter,” I finally replied. “You matter, and the Gunny matters, and the men. After that, you have to decide how you’re going to play it. Either we’re going to die out here or get back to the rear at some time. If we die, then none of it matters. But if we get back to the rear, then the story about what happened out here is going to be important. What kind of story do you want it to be?”
“What about you, Junior?” Sugar Daddy asked. “How do you fit in?”
“I’m just passing through,” I replied, telling him the truth. “I don’t fit and I’m stuck in the middle. Your platoon’s trying to kill his platoon and his platoon’s trying to kill you, while the other two platoons are trying to stay out of it any way they can. The Gunny’s stuck in the middle and I’m stuck in the middle too.”
“So decide,” Sugar Daddy replied, after waiting about a full minute to think about what I’d said. I waited to answer him, wondering what my neck looked like covered in leeches, and the rest of me coated in mud and whatever other debris had come down from the river water blast.
“I’m with the captain and the Gunny,” I said. “There is no other place for me here.”
“Well, what about me and my men?” Sugar Daddy responded his voice growing slightly in volume.
“I’m with you, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Sugar Daddy replied, his tone one of a question.
“Think about it,” I said, just as small arms opened up from between our perimeter and the river. I scrunched down behind my rock, while Fusner squeezed in behind me. I tried to look around the edge of the stone without really looking around the edge of the stone.
“I think they’re trying to take part of the hill further downriver,” Sugar Daddy said, getting to his feet. “They can’t see us any better than we can see them, but we can’t let them have that flank or we’re screwed.”
I remembered the small area to our left, wondering why it hadn’t stuck in my mind as a potential weak point. I saw muzzle flashes. The NVA had to be slowly advancing, flat on the ground, knowing our ability to see them directly or hit them with artillery was crippled.
“Tracers,” I said, getting to my own feet. “Have your men open up with the tracers. The volume of fire should say something to them about staying down, while we shift over to extend our perimeter.”
Sugar Daddy disappeared into the night. A minute later the hillside opened up. The tracer rounds didn’t ignite until they were fifty meters beyond the muzzle of the M-16s, but out from there, a blanket of blazing yellow and white struck the brush between the company and river, like a great halo of burning locusts. Sugar Daddy’s perimeter reloaded and fired some more before a contingent scuttled off toward the weak point we’d left exposed on our left flank.
I sat down with my back to the rock, cupping my hands over my ears. I was tired of spending whatever time I had at rest with my ears ringing. I felt the leeches and tried to orient my hands around them. The shots of the automatic weapons became muted, but the sound of the rain beating down on my helmet remained. I squeezed my eyes shut and swore an oath that if I got back I’d never wear a hat or swim in swamps or small lakes ever again. I also thought about the next day. Something had to be done if the enemy got the fifty-caliber moved and going again. The force of NVA on our side of the river was going to have to be neutralized somehow as well, or there’d be no move possible at first light or resupply and medevac later in the morning.
I pulled my hands down from my ears when I felt someone tapping powerfully on the top of my helmet. I looked up. It was Sugar Daddy. Right behind him I could make out Nguyen, off to one side. I couldn’t see the Montagnard’s eyes, but I was willing to bet that he blinked, and Sugar Daddy didn’t have long to live.
“I still don’t understand what you meant,” Sugar Daddy said, loud enough to be heard through the pounding rain.
I shook my head slightly at Nguyen, and the native wraith was gone into the night.
“My job is to get back to the captain and come up with a new plan,” I said, rising to my feet. “Your job is to figure out what I meant.”
I started the climb back up to my pack, wondering where the Gunny was going to be if I went to war with Jurgens. If I was not already at war with Jurgens. The captain really didn’t matter. Not yet. If he lived longer he might come to matter, or so I hoped.