I came awake to the creaking rumble of the tracks working unlubricated against one another as they carried the Ontos atop the mud alongside the Bong Song River.
I blinked my eyes rapidly and tried to straighten out against the cramping pain of what seemed to be my whole body, but I wasn’t going anywhere. The Ontos crept on, ever backward, slowly working its way behind a spread-out array of carefully moving Marines.
It was light, although early dawn by the low amount of it seeping down into and through the valley. I was thirsty and hungry again. My canteen was half empty, which I didn’t realize until I worked to pull it from its pinched place on my wedged-in belt. Fusner handed me his, already open, which I gratefully accepted and drank deeply from. Food would have to wait.
“What happened?” I asked, handing the canteen back after screwing the top on.
“Nothing,” Fusner answered. “We fell asleep.”
That much I knew but there was no sense quizzing Fusner or Zippo about it. The simple fact that we had not been awakened by fire was really all that was important.
Only moments later, as I readied myself to clamber down from the moving machine, it stopped.
We’d arrived somewhere. I climbed out, strapped on my pack and turned to face the coming of the dawn.
The hill appeared before me in the distance, its slope beginning to arch up just across from where a tributary of the Bong Song extended out toward the west, another rushing water impediment stuck in front of us by God instead of the enemy, unless God had joined the NVA overnight. For some reason, the flatland around us, and on the other side of the smaller river, was covered with brush while the hill itself was a jumbled mass of dense jungle, with bamboo stands sticking out in every spot a big tree hadn’t grown large enough to overhang. From reading my map I knew the hill wasn’t a hill at all, and that bothered me. The peak facing us was the front rounded edge of a narrow plateau. The plateau extended north all the way to the DMZ, as it expanded until it was the same elevation as the highlands that ran up and down both sides of the river valley. The hill was fully accessible from the northern length of the fully exposed plateau running back from its tip. Fully accessible by the NVA or anyone else coming down from the north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I looked up at the top of the hill but couldn’t see it. A dense dark gray cloud hid the very top of Hill 975, making the sight, when taken in along with the fast-moving brown tributary at the bottom, a perfect setting for either a Tarzan, King-Kong or even Godzilla movie. Moisture covered everything, and the constant monsoon rainfall dripped, ran or runnelled its way over, through or into everything. If the NVA had tunnels running along the flatlands then they had to have pumps the size of Huey helicopters pumping them out. I knew that was impossible, and besides, I knew where the enemy was. They were behind us and coming silent and hard after taking so many losses. The media had left and its departure had created a security effect, not unlike the water leaving our shore, the depth dropping to a level that would only be satisfied when a giant tsunami waiting miles out came rushing in. I stood by the water and involuntarily shook my shoulders. The Little White Dove plan, at least the first part, had been no problem. We’d simply moved along the shore of the river traveling through the mushy mud while making certain the Ontos would have a flat sturdy surface to run on. In my heart, and alerted by the lack of radio traffic with the dropped in unit, I knew the A Shau was filled with enemy troops. My conclusion that they were all behind and fighting to catch up had a much greater amount of hope in it than what I really knew to be the case. And then there was the open access to the hilltop by the extended area of the plateau.
My ‘hole’ on tracks sat right behind me, its nearly silent little six-cylinder motor idling away, its guns unfired through the trip with the crew members gingerly waiting for something to happen that would allow them to fire the impressive guns again. I had no such desire. If the Ontos fired it meant the NVA had pulled close and that was the last thing we needed. The NVA threat would have to be met soon enough, but the later the better. The bigger part of executing plan Little White Dove was getting up the hill since not one word had been heard from Clews or his combined action team since they’d been dropped up there.
The Gunny appeared, moving low out of the nearby brush, with Tank, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy following in trace. The Gunny immediately dropped into a squat before me, as if kowtowing to a more powerful leader. In reality, however, the Gunny gave nothing away. He disassembled his canteen kit and went to work at making coffee. I squatted down to join him.
“Staggering, isn’t it?’ he said, working to ignite a chunk of Composition B with his Zippo.
The stuff caught and began burning with its bright yellow-white light.
“What?” I asked, looking at the faces of Jurgens and Sugar Daddy, and knew they had the same question but would never ask it.
“The beauty of this place. One day the whole thing will all be a giant amusement park.”
I looked up at the hill, swept my eyes around and across the river flats between the more distant walls of the A Shau Valley, and wondered what the Gunny was seeing. I was looking at a wet green nightmare from hell, possibly only describable by someone like the author Milton. I couldn’t think of any reply, so I waited.
“Coffee?” the Gunny asked.
I slowly took out my own canteen, and then pulled loose the canteen holder. Resupply had provided clean water. I filled my cup, and then the rest of my canteen from a nearby plastic jug some Marine had set there for us. The Gunny dutifully opened a green foil package of coffee and dumped it in both of our cups. I waited for his mixture to heat before using his fire.
“They shouldn’t be here for a couple of hours,” the Gunny said, pulling his canteen cover out of the fire and taking a sip.
I stuck my own coffee out atop the burning explosive.
I knew the Gunny was referring to the NVA. There was no way to know when they’d come, although everyone knew they would at some point.
“We can use the Ontos to break the current in this smaller tributary,” I said. “It stands seven feet high. I haven’t checked the depth here but I’ll bet it’s no more than three feet, with the water running pretty hard, of course.”
The Gunny looked at me over the top of his canteen holder. I knew what he was thinking. Was risking the loss of the Ontos worth going after the guys up on the hill top when it was becoming fairly apparent nobody was left up there. At least, nobody alive.
“It’s your plan,” he said, although I could tell his heart wasn’t in saying the words.
“A thousand feet up and a thousand feet back,” I said, staring up at the gray and green mass across the rushing water. “One platoon moving very light and very fast. Up and down with the rest of the company dug in below. The Ontos has to cover our rear but I’ll register plenty of zones for the artillery to take care of trouble at the top and along the way.”
“If they got attacked then why didn’t they call artillery for themselves?” the Gunny asked.
“Did anybody check to see if they had a forward observer?” I asked back.
Clews had spoken of registration points up on the hill but without any real ability to adjust fire, being on top of a mountain with the enemy on top of them. Without the ability to fool the artillery bases into firing closer than ‘danger close’ there wouldn’t be much assistance provided at the highest elevation where they would be.
“But we can’t go in without air,” I added.
“We can’t exactly blow the top of the mountain off without knowing what condition they’re in up there,” the Gunny said, twisting around to take in the misty forbidding hill.
“Hence, the air,” I replied. “Somebody’s got to tell us what they can see from the air. If they got themselves killed, and we both suspect that, then we can’t send anybody up there to face what they faced. The same result would be unacceptable.”
“Unacceptable,” the Gunny murmured, taking a swig of his coffee, and then putting the cup down on the mud to begin preparing another of his never-ending supply of cigarettes.
“Unacceptable,” he said again. “You learn those words in college or is that from the Basic School?”
I’d learned it from both or neither, I knew. I had no idea where most of my vocabulary came from, and I didn’t have any idea about where the Gunny was going with his conversation about it.
“How do we avoid going up there, no matter what anybody sees?” he said, puffing on the cigarette, this time making no gesture to hand it to me.
“We can’t just sit here and we can’t go around. In fact, there is no around. But if we go up there then they’re going to have our ass. Little White Dove’s gonna become a bunch of big red doves. Big dead doves.”
I got up and turned back to the rear of the Ontos, where the double doors still gaped open. I pulled out my map and smoothed it on the white-painted metal surface that passed for a floor. The Gunny’s offhand comment had caught my attention. He was right. If we attacked straight up the slope, even with both companies and plenty of artillery for support, we’d be dead in less than an hour if the NVA was waiting. And they had to be waiting. Plus, we had the units coming up the river, which, no doubt, would be attempting to crush us in a pincer movement just as we were being thinned out and weakened from protected position fire up on the hill.
I turned back to face the Gunny.
“We go around. We go up the west canyon a click and a half, climb the gentler face there and come at the hill along the plateau from the back. The elevation along the finger drops down about fifty meters as we go. On top it’s only about two hundred meters wide. A line of fire teams with M-60s can hold anything back from that direction and I can basically clear the jungle itself from the sides of the hill with artillery.”
The Gunny and I sat silently drinking our coffee, both gazing at the hill and seeing totally different things.
“It’s better than attacking straight at the thing,” he finally said, tossing out the remains of his coffee and killing his cigarette by burying the stub in the nearby mud.
The move across the river went much smoother than I’d assumed it would, with one rope extended out from the shore to the Ontos, sitting in the middle of the tributary, and another sagging over to be tied off to the trunk of an outlying jungle tree. The rushing water was only about three feet deep, which didn’t seem that much compared to the main body of the Bong Song I’d dealt with further down the valley, except for the speed of the water. The ropes and the Ontos, however, allowed for such ease of crossing that there were no mishaps or lost equipment.
Once everyone was across, and the sun was just about to rise up over the distant top of the eastern valley wall, the Ontos grunted its way up the bank and into the outer edge of the jungle growth. The driver turned it around so the six deadly 106 barrels pointed downriver in the direction we’d come from.
I described the potential of NVA attack later in the day to the crew. They switched out the two HEAT anti-tank rounds loaded for our retreat to reload with flechettes. All six barrels were pointed down the valley, ready to be fired should the enemy be so injudicious as to attempt to cross the open ground and attack. I would have liked to stay and manage the guns but I knew I had to go up the hill. The Little White Dove plan was my plan and if I was to remain the commander of the two units until relieved, even if in name only, then I had to go.
The sun was up and bright, pushing back the rain to leave high clouds, some drying mist and plenty of dripping plants and sticky mud all around the area we were becoming entrenched in. Second and Third platoons would stay with the Ontos, to protect it and ensure a substantial rear guard. One platoon would set up with defensive fire along the edge of the tributary and the other would lay a perimeter around the base of the hill, in order to assure that no enemy could charge down the hill and decimate the units from the rear.
First and Fourth platoons, along with the remnants of Kilo company moved out along the northern side of the rushing tributary waters, headed up into a dead-ended canyon where my map told me the western side of the plateau’s face would be shallow enough in angle to easily climb. I prayed that the contour intervals of my 1:25,000 map were accurate. The point came upon the first bodies long before we made it up the canyon, however. Three Army Special Forces troops lay strewn about a small lagoon located at the edge of the jungle. They’d all been shot repeatedly through and through from very close range. The reddened pond was marginally connected to the tributary but at the water’s current level more a stagnant eddy than something that could properly be called a stream.
The Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy all squatted down, examining the bodies without touching or moving them.
“What the hell?” the Gunny said softly as I approached.
I stood behind him but wasn’t looking at the bodies. My eyes had been drawn to a break in the jungle. The break looked like a twisting path leading up in toward the top of the hill. It was a path like I’d seen before when I was a kid in Hawaii. I’d climbed Mount Tantalus time after time to take advantage of such paths, which weren’t paths at all. I was looking at a chute. A chute made of beaten down ferns, their leaves, or megaphylls, loaded with absorbed water and slippery as ice when stepped on. Riding down Tantalus had been a wild experience, with speeds sometimes reaching fifty miles per hour, or so we calculated as kids.
“They were killed up there, or maybe when they were running, only to fall on the ferns and slide all the way down here,” I said, pointing at the beginnings or the end of the chute.
We moved on, after pulling the bodies from the water and setting them aside to be collected later.
The hike back toward the gentler part of the slope I’d seen on the map took less than half an hour. There was still not one whit of radio traffic from Clews or his group and to all of us experienced in the A Shau we knew what that meant, although battalion wasn’t about to believe it, or if it did the information would simply become another after action report.
The target area of the slope of the mountain I’d chosen was made up of riprap consisting of fist-sized rocks. The huge collection ran along the cliff like an elongated pile from one end to the other. Climbing the large gravel-like pile was laborious. Two feet forward, and then slip one back, and so on. The Gunny had sent a few scouts ahead but there was no opposition to our assault. Once on top we established the line of fire, or perimeter with M-60 machine guns set every fifteen feet from one side of the plateau to the other. Visibility wasn’t the greatest through the semi-dense growth but it would do.
I waited with the Gunny once we moved closer and lower down to the tip of what was called Hill 975. It took very little time for the lead elements of Jurgens’ platoon to filter back to us, bringing up the rear. Jurgens and Sugar Daddy came walking toward the Gunny and me.
“This doesn’t look good,” the Gunny observed, noting the sloped shoulders and intent looks of the men, those intent looks not meeting our eyes.
“There could only be one result and we both know it,” I said, knowing the Gunny knew but had somehow, like me, held a small bit of forlorn hope deep inside him.
Nobody said anything. The Marines who’d come from the tip simply turned and made their way back, with us following.
The scene wasn’t a scene at all. The chewed-up vegetation wasn’t open enough to allow for a complete understanding of what had taken place. The only area large enough for the big CH-47 to have come in and dropped the combined team was empty. The team had obviously landed, set up a perimeter near the apex of the hill and then moved a little further out to secure the rest of the peak. That part was fairly easy to assume, as I walked slowly, hunched over, with my Colt out and ready, moving from one small pocket of beaten down jungle after another. Each small area, around the top of the hill, none further than fifty meters from the landing zone, held more than half a dozen men. Each of the small semi-cleared havens weren’t havens at all. Each had a tunnel exit or entrance uncovered nearby. The NVA had known they were coming and dug holes and tunnels to prepare, along with clearing the small patches to give any landing force the idea that there were cleared safe areas they could set up in. One of the ‘pockets-of-death’, as Jurgens termed them, held all three officers, and three enlisted men, all jammed together. They’d been shot from behind, along with their radio operators.
“That’s the lesson,” Sugar Daddy whispered, as he worked with a few of his Marines to drag Clews and the lieutenant’s bodies back toward the landing zone.
“What lesson?” I asked, squatting down to accept the dog tags of the men.
The radio operators had been Marines too. Six Marines had died in seconds because of the decision to land on an unprotected hill with too small a force.
“The lesson of combat,” Sugar Daddy replied. “Combat teaches by killing. It’s the only lesson it has. You learn by dying.”
“We call in a chopper to get the bodies out?” the Gunny asked, from over my right shoulder. “Twenty-seven, but only eight Marines.”
I wondered why it made any difference whether the men were Marines or not but said nothing.
“No,” I answered, it suddenly occurred to me that the NVA would know we were coming for the bodies.
What would they do in preparation for that event? And here we were, following right along.
“How much Composition B did we haul up here?”
“Probably twenty pounds, or so,” the Gunny replied. “What for? I thought we had artillery from three firebases to protect us.”
“The enemy isn’t on the mountain,’’ I replied. “They’re inside it. Still. Get the bodies to the landing zone, toss a pound into every tunnel opening that’s been found. We’ve got to get the hell out of here. By nightfall they’ll be coming out of the holes we can’t see or find to pull the same stunt all over again. The extraction will have to be a touch and go later on with another of those flocks of Cobras, and maybe Puff to keep them in their holes while the bodies are pulled out.”
“Shit, I didn’t think of that,” the Gunny replied, moving quickly toward the landing zone. “They’re still here, under us,” he murmured, as he walked away.
“Everyone’s got to stay low, very low, even if it means getting on our bellies and getting into the dense growth,” I said to the Gunny’s retreating back and Jurgens and Sugar Daddy in front of me.
There had been no firing from the perimeter of fire teams we’d left straddling the plateau from one side to the other, but there would likely be as the day progressed on into the night. The NVA would attack that line to drive us into one dense mass, then kill us from the spider holes and tunnels all around inside our position. They’d hopefully drive any survivors down the hillside and straight into the waiting arms of their brethren coming up the valley from below.
The assembly and stacking of the bodies took an hour. The 24 were altogether without regard to rank or service. I hadn’t looked closely at Clew’s body or that of either of his lieutenants. I felt nothing and I wanted to go on feeling nothing.
“Twenty-seven, if you count the three at the bottom,” the Gunny said, having returned.
As if the NVA had given us just sufficient time to accomplish that loathsome task, they opened up. Everyone went down. I knew immediately that the fire wasn’t from the perimeter we’d left out on the narrows of the plateau. I also knew that the attack wasn’t going to come from that direction. The attack would come from where it had come from with Clews and his team. From underground.
The firing was not to hit us, just yet. It was to surround and gather us together for the kill. We were being herded and held for execution.
“What about heading north along the plateau and getting the hell off this hill?” the Gunny said when the sniping died down for a few minutes.
“Our perimeter is no doubt like one of their own further on, except we won’t see it until we run into it,” I said. “No, they’re not that dumb. They don’t want us to run and they won’t let us if we try. They intend to kill all of us, just like they did the combined action team.”
“Okay then, what do we do? the Gunny mused more than asked, falling into his normal squat while taking out one of his cigarettes and lighting it. “We could fly out on a couple of those big choppers.”
“Oh, the NVA’d love that. Two RPGs and that’s it, at close range from one of those holes.”
“They didn’t shoot Clew’s chopper down,” the Gunny noted.
“No, because they didn’t know it was coming here.”
“Shit,” the Gunny said. “You’re right. This place was dug and prepared for some time. The trees and brush were hacked months ago. They were waiting to occupy the place. I wonder how many of the other hills around here are prepared like that.”
I’d adroitly covered myself so far. I didn’t have a clue as to what to do. Once again, we could not go forward and we couldn’t go back.
“Call in the plateau perimeter and get everyone back,” I said.
“Isn’t that exactly what they want?” the Gunny asked.
“Just get ‘em back,” I replied, trying to figure out how to deal with a mountain run through with tunnels and firing holes we could not find or know about until it was too late.
The Gunny moved back into the density of the jungle, leaving only some wafting smoke behind. I breathed it in, along with the refreshing wind and the welcome lack of rain in the air. I wanted to stand up and face into the weather but the suppressing fire of the NVA wouldn’t allow for that.
The Gunny was back in minutes.
“They’re coming in, to what I don’t know.”
“The night,” I replied. “The NVA are waiting for the night to come. Then they can just walk about and kill anyone who makes a sound or moves. In the morning, they can mop up the survivors.”
I wished I hadn’t said that last part to the Gunny in front of my scout team and anybody else close enough to hear. I needed a plan not a prediction of doom.
I lay in among the moist dripping leaves of the jungle floor. The sun had come out enough to cast ominous shadows everywhere, with a high buffeting wind affecting only the top of the trees.
Shadows moved darkly at speed here and there, faintly resembling black-clad enemy soldiers made out of assembled particles of mist.
I looked at the flat area just down from where I lay.The jungle had been flattened like the enemy tamped down flat spots that had fooled the landing party to terminal effect. But the area in front of me ran downward sharply, angling around a stand of bamboos, before disappearing as the angle steepened even more to a precipitous degree. I suddenly knew what I was looking at.
“How did that song go? Little White Dove?” the Gunny asked, quietly. “One rainy morning dark and gray a soul winged its way to heaven, Jimmy Brown had passed away,” he sang softly. “This isn’t looking good. They have holes all the way down the hill and they’re just waiting for us to try to come down.”
“Stand up,” I ordered the Gunny.
“Stand up? What in hell are you talking about?” he replied, his tone one of surprise.
“Just do it,” I replied, getting to my own knees and making sure my .45 was holstered and the leather strap was snapped.
“The Gunny rose up to his feet, but stayed hunched over, holding his M-16 out sideways across his chest, as if it was a shield against incoming fire.
“It’s the top of the chute we saw from below,” I said, pointing down at the flattened fronds of fern leaves.
The Gunny looked where my finger was pointing, and then I shoved him forward hard, with the full power of my arms and shoulders.
“Hey,” the Gunny got out, hitting the top of the chute hard on his side, but he didn’t have time to say anything else before he was gone. The crushed down ferns were deadly slick.
“Holy shit,” Tank said, as I turned to face Jurgens and Sugar Daddy.
“We’re all going down the chute, right through and past the enemy. When we hit the bottom, everyone’s got to run through our perimeter and then turn to reinforce it.”
“What if our own guys shoot us when we land down there?” Jurgens asked.
“That’s why I sent the Gunny down first, and besides, what chance do we have staying up here? Get your men and get them as fast as you can. The NVA will figure all this out really quick, but I don’t think they’ll be quick enough.”
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy crawled quickly away, and in minutes the area was overflowing with Marines. After the first few jumped and slid out of view, the rest of the Marines needed no instructions. They took to leaping and plunging down onto the leaves with typical Marine abandon. Zippo, Fusner, Nguyen and I funneled them over the edge and onto the leaves, one after another, until only we remained with Tank, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy. The Marines plunging down the side of the hill screamed and yelled on the way down.
“Wish they would shut the hell up,” Jurgens said, viewing the now empty leaf platform in front of him. “You’re next, Junior,” he turned toward me to say.
I pushed with both hands against his chest, and down he went, just like the Gunny. He was gone in seconds, the chute seemed to draw him in, down and then consume him.
“He screamed,” Sugar Daddy said, with a tone of surprise. “I’m going on my own.”
He held out both his arms, his M-16 strapped to his back.
He went into the chute by jumping onto the leaves in a sitting position, although I knew he wouldn’t be sitting for very long. I pointed down at the spot where he’d disappeared. The remaining members of my scout team and Tank made their own jumps, leaving Nguyen and me.
I stared across the few meters that separated us. I wondered if the same thoughts I was having were running through his mind. I had no way to tell where the chute really went or even if it went all the way to the bottom. I’d made a guess based on pretty flawed physics and suspected geography. Both of us waited for more than a moment, our eyes locked. Without warning, he leaped over the berm and disappeared in silence down the sluice. I knew he wouldn’t scream, and he didn’t.
I looked around me, where so many men had so needlessly died only hours before.
“Don’t go,” I whispered to the shining shadows and blowing treetops before I leaped forward and threw myself down into the unknown.