I hit the flattened fern leaves and shoots on my left side, trying to hold my right arm free in case I needed to get to my Colt, and also stay away from having my strapped-on pack catapult me out of the chute. My attempt to control the descent was totally wasted as soon as I fell around the first bend and over the first cliff. Only the angle of the descent and the thickness of the packed ferns saved me from injury. I was thrown everywhere, frightened of going over another cliff. The first violent drop had been about six feet but the next was ten. I plummeted down the chute, no longer in doubt about why the Marines before had screamed all the way down. I didn’t know or care if I was screaming. The speed of my descent was beyond calculation, with everything around me seeming to form a dark hole through which I moved, with the moist misery of jungle never giving me anything to focus on. Slush, rush, roll, toss and drop again. The chute seemed without end, although I knew the peak was only nine-hundred and seventy-five meters high. Three thousand feet or so, but every meter of that distance was a meter down through the different layers of hell.
I didn’t know where I was going and that was the worst part. Was there a team of NVA soldiers, having predicted our descent, waiting with butcher knives at some turn where the chute evened out, or would there be an unseeable drop-off of a couple hundred feet somewhere along its route? Had the Army guys we’d seen at the bottom been killed by their bullet wounds, or had the chute killed them with its brutal furious descent and severe damage from unforeseeable and terminal drop offs?
Shivers of fear burst inside me like artillery flares, staying and wagging their way back and forth through my torso and mind. My body accelerated to what I thought had to be the end, and it was. I came out of the chute flying, my helmet seeming still in the air just forward and to the right of my head. Suddenly, I was down. Not into the pond I’d seen earlier, but into the waiting arms of my Marines. They were laughing, as they must have at the others who’d preceded me down the chute. I tried to laugh with them but couldn’t make anything happen. The shivers of fear had turned into shaking and quaking, and I had to hide that effect at all cost.
They put me down and plopped my helmet back on my head. From the trip down I’d picked up another dent in the side of the damaged thing. I silently hoped I’d still be able to get the liner out of the metal shell so I could at least use it as a basin to wash my hair and face. But there was no time to scrub by scooping the water from the pond or tributary. Most of the company lay hunkered down, probably to watch the arrival of the others before I came out the end looking like a giant and terrified muddy gerbil, which I no doubt resembled.
“Move,” I yelled. “They know we’re down and they’ll be coming.”
I took off running toward the Ontos, sitting on the mud about four hundred meters in the distance. The sun was so hot and, with the moisture mostly gone from the air, turning my exterior coating of mud into a dark hardening and cracking plaster. I looked back over my shoulder at the end of the chute. Flying down Tantalus on ti leaves as a kid back then had saved my life today. There was no way I could write about that in a letter home. My wife wouldn’t believe me, could not believe me, much less anyone else.
Although there were no gunshots coming from the hillside jungle I felt and then saw an RPG round hit not far from where the Ontos sat. A direct strike would take the little machine of death out. I ran as fast as I could toward the Ontos, my ears ringing from the explosion. It would take half a minute at least to get the tubes around to face a new threat, and the turret wasn’t moving. Had the crew been taken out with the shock of the explosion? The double doors of the Ontos were closed and locked when I got there but I didn’t need to get inside to figure out what was happening.
Fusner, who’d stayed with me pushed the AN/323 headset against my shoulder, as I heard the heavy rumble and drone of big radial engines punching through the air above. The Skyraiders were back.
“Cowboy?” I said, hopefully into the small microphone, hoping the radio still worked after its run down the sluice.
“Flash, how you doin’ down there?”
“They’ve got some RPG shit down near the base of the hill just to the north of our perimeter,” I replied. “I can’t pull artillery rounds into that defilade.”
Cunningham and Firebase Ripcord were the closest artillery outfits and both might be close enough to fire their howitzers at a high angle and actually reach the back side of the hill, but the indirect fire was less accurate and more difficult to adjust, especially when the hillside’s changing altitude was taken into consideration.
“We only got four of us for fun this fine morning, Flash,” Cowboy said. “Took a peek at the peak and there’s no joy up on top of that mountain today.”
“Twenty-seven, we lost twenty-seven,” I blurted out, not knowing why. It didn’t matter how many we lost. All that mattered was what supporting fire Cowboy had brought to support us in our position.
The Skyraiders roared over us, one after another at low altitude.
“We’re just a pair of deuces today, but let’s light the place up with everything we got with one pair. That’ll leave the others to hang about and cover your six until we can get back from a quick turnaround. Twenty-seven. Maybe we can fit in twenty-seven round trips in one day. Let’s give it a go.”
That was the longest I’d ever heard Cowboy speak. I knew that the number had reached him and cut deep, although I couldn’t feel it myself. I’d liked the look of the Army guys. No mud. They’d been clean shaven and looked tough as hell compared to the mess of Marines I was among and was myself. Clews had been so enthusiastic and his men so committed it was almost impossible to consider that they were gone forever. That was the worst part, aside from the fact that I would never forget how badly I hadn’t wanted to accompany him on his mission, and that such great young guys had gone into their deaths following such a distant and damaged drummer.
“Don’t go,” I whispered to myself, remembering vividly what I’d told him.
“Say again,” Cowboy said, before adding to the others, “get your Marine Corps girly asses down into the mud.”
The Skyraiders came out of the south, straight up the river, seemingly only a few feet above the water. One after another, they strafed the bottom of the hill with their twenty-millimeters. The spacing of the planes was about twenty seconds apart. By the time the fourth one was angling away and pulling up into the air hard, the first one was coming back. I pushed myself into the mud, face down, my hands clutching my helmet to press my head even further down.
Bombs started exploding, as the second run was a carpet bombing at a low level. I could tell they were dropping two-hundred-and-fifty-pounders because I wasn’t being tossed upward by the concussion the five hundreds would have caused. I could stay flat, the earth only seeming to wrinkle under me a bit with each explosion.
Over on the hill, a couple of hundred meters away, the effect would be as mind and ear-ripping as it was deadly.
The Skyraiders flew off, one after another. I pulled my face from the mud to look at the smoking pyre they left behind them. The planes could stay on station for most of the day but had to return to base if they were to stay fully armed. That trip could take vital hours, leaving our situation untenable. We were trapped between two enemy forces, both of which were well dug in and outnumbering us. What they didn’t have was artillery. Their 122mm long-range guns did not reach as far north as our location, or at least I didn’t think so because we hadn’t been hit by them since leaving the southern part of the valley.
I got up and ran for the Ontos, covering the ground without any shots being fired that I could hear. Some crew member had opened the rear double doors but nobody was inside and I wasn’t going in either, even if the guns were pointing the wrong way. I shrugged my pack off and struggled to cram my body under the armor protection, in fear of what I knew had to be coming. The next enemy move was as predictable as it was terminal. They would attack from up on the hillside, establish a base of plunging fire down upon our position and then come at us from the south with the real force. We’d be pinned down by the base of fire and then eventually overrun by the numbers of the attacking forces from downriver. The guns we had faced south but was that the right way?
It was almost impossible to figure out who was jammed under the machine’s protection, as the passage down the slope had covered every Marine with layers of mud. The mud was the cloying volcanic kind that was more red than brown or black and nearly impossible to remove without rinsing with large amounts of water.
The Gunny stared into my eyes. I didn’t need to see the features of his face clearly in the diminished light or through the layers of mud. The Gunny’s eyes were darkly distinguished and identifiable, and they were filled with anger.
“Now that was a ride,” the other man, lying prone and facing me said, and I knew him to be Jurgens by the sound of his voice, which continued on.
“Holy shit, everyone’s going to be talking about this one for some time to come, Junior. Disneyland doesn’t have that ride.”
I was trying to adjust to Jurgens not being pissed off because I’d pushed him over the edge while at the same time attempting to understand why the Gunny was obviously so angry.
The Gunny pushed against my right shoulder, so I leaned toward the left tread as far as I could to let him by, but he wasn’t having any of that. He pushed harder until I understood what he was communicating, and began crabbing backward out from under the covering armor. Although I didn’t want to be in the open without supporting fires dumping ordnance around us, I couldn’t deny the Gunny’s insistence. I backed slowly from under the Ontos, while the Gunny slid by and came up to a crouch near the back of the machine. He lit a cigarette with his special Zippo, before clicking it shut loudly, and then returning it to one of his chest pockets.
I crouched next to him, not saying a word, for fear of setting the obvious high bar of his anger even higher.
“You didn’t know shit,” he whispered over at me between taking and blowing puffs of smoke from his cigarette.
There was no way to answer this question, so I waited. I didn’t know what? Of the many things I didn’t know shit about, what particular thing might he be talking about?
“That chute, or channel, down the face of that mountain, could have ended anywhere,” the Gunny finally got out. “All of us could have gone over a fifty-foot cliff, or run right straight into a machine gun nest, and you didn’t have a clue.That was what I was going to tell you when I saw the decision to go forming inside of your head.”
I had no answer that made any sense. My time in Hawaii and my experience with tea leaf sliding down Tantalus, seemed ridiculous to tell him about and use as an excuse. I hadn’t known where the channel was going to lead and there was no lie I could think of to cover that rather obvious fact.
I held out my right hand to accept his cigarette instead of talking. My hand sat in mid-air for almost half a minute before he moved the cigarette close enough so I could accept it. I took one puff and returned it. The gesture meant everything to me. The Gunny was mad as hell, I knew because I’d made the decision and then committed him to it, and I’d done it in such a way that my physically pushing him had been taken by him as some sort of macho male affront.
“Our position was hopeless,” I finally said.
“Our position here is hopeless,” he shot back, flicking his unfinished cigarette out across the mud. “We lost a shitload of equipment on the way down, and here we are stuck between two unbeatable NVA forces dug in down to God knows where.”
I looked down at the mud squeezing up over the sole of my right boot. There was no sound or movement from the Marines under the Ontos, but they were only a few feet away. There was no covering noise, except the whispering tributary waters to our back, to keep them from hearing every word the Gunny and I were exchanging.
“Fusner,” I whispered, my mind racing to devise a new plan before the heart of the company was eaten out by despondency and fear.
Fusner appeared around the side of the Ontos, accompanied by Zippo and Nguyen. I recognized them more by their body sizes than their appearance since everyone in the company resembled the mud men from Flash Gordon when it came to facial appearances.
I reached out my hand and Fusner placed the arty net microphone into it, as I knew he would. I looked up at the swirling clouds circling the top of the peak and reached out to Lieutenant Howell, the duty battery officer at Cunningham. I was thankful that ‘Howler’ was on. I knew we were still too distant from the firebase for high angle indirect fire, which meant I couldn’t touch the near slope we’d come plummeting down. I laid out two zone fire areas. One to cover the rest of the hill that was reachable and the other to carpet the jungle down below where the old airstrip ended. Howell came back after plotting the zones and offered the addition of Cunningham’s 155 battery for depth since I’d asked for a mix of concrete piercing and high explosive. He also wanted to know if Firebase Ripcord could join the party. I knew by that unasked addition Howler understood we were dealing with tunnels, how many Marines were likely in trouble. I figured he’d probably followed some of the command stuff over the past few days, as well. The double payload of the 155s, and whatever Ripcord could throw, would extend the underground radius of tunnel crushing shock waves tremendously in both zone areas.
I gave Fusner the handset back. I’d need the air radio in a few seconds but I had another job for him first. I looked into the Gunny’s angry eyes. I knew he was more embarrassed about being pushed than upset about the risk I’d taken. The risk had worked, and success was hard to argue with. I knew the Gunny had to secretly enjoy the established fact that he was the accepted leader of the company. I had no reputation to protect. He did. The Gunny was a much more powerful name to be addressed by than Junior, and everyone knew it.
I motioned to Zippo and Nguyen. “Jurgens is under the Ontos. Help him get out here to join us.”
I knew Jurgens was listening to every word we were saying, and the other men down under the machine with him. Almost instantly, before either Zippo or Nguyen could even bend down, Jurgens scurried forward and then stood to join us.
“Our situation is hopeless,” I said.
There was no sugar-coating the fact that, even though we had massive artillery and air support, if something didn’t change, our position would eventually be overrun and all of us would be killed.
“We’ve got to make a move, and we’ve got to make it fast.”
“Back to the runway, it’s the only way open” the Gunny replied, immediately.
I hadn’t expected an answer at all since I hadn’t phrased my statement as a question. I knew the old airstrip was no more survivable than our current position, except for the small hole the river had eaten into the bank under it. That the Gunny hadn’t figured that out or was still so angry that he wasn’t thinking clearly, was more problematic from his presenting the idea out loud rather than just between us. With the enemy on both the north and the south flanks, and the other two sides blocked by an unscalable cliff and a raging river, the situation, if we successfully made the move back to the abandoned airstrip, would be as impossible to defend, for any period of time, as our current one.
“We’re going north,” I said, hoping that my calling in of artillery support would carry enough weight to keep me from going against the Gunny again in front of the company and also motivating everyone listening to accept the fact that our situation was only hopeless if we made it hopeless.
I stopped talking and waited. The Gunny pulled out another cigarette. I could tell from his movements he wasn’t likely to be sold on anything I recommended, his anger over being pushed into the mud, and then screaming as he plunged down the hill, still affecting him deeply.
“Shot over,” came out of the small speaker on Fusner’s Prick 25. My head snapped around to look at him.
Fusner smiled weakly.
I tried not to smile. Fusner deliberately set the switch of the small external speaker on for everyone to hear, since by activating it he cut out any ability to communicate using the handset. I nodded at him, as he reached his fingers over to shut it off. Fusner knew I needed help and was giving it to me in the only way he knew.
“Shot, out,” he responded back to the battery.
“Down,” I ordered. “Zone fire,” I said, “we don’t know exactly where their shit’s going to hit.”
In training, the size of the area to receive fire was set at about a square kilometer, but when firing into an area with different elevations receiving that fire, wide disparity in rounds impacting could be unpredictable and deadly.
I never heard the response to “Splash,” as the rounds came in early, hundreds of them. Howler had laid down a zone on the hill like I’d never seen or heard in training. I squeezed under the Ontos, where everyone else up top had retreated. Those Marines in holes I knew would be digging deeper as they pressed down. Shells were impacting too close for the indirect fire to be raining down on the near side of the hill until I realized that Ripcord was off at a northeasterly angle further north. Their high angle fire was tearing the southern slope apart making me glad that, for once, I’d registered in our true position before they opened up.
Fusner was next to me, his Prick 25 down and next to him, as the Ontos armor hung too low to let him wear it on his back.
“Give me the 323,” I said, as the explosions continued to blast away in the near distance, the shattering blasts not so severe as to affect hearing, but the shock-waves bouncing everyone uncomfortably about. I wasn’t ready to call Cowboy and his Skyraiders just yet, but I wanted every Marine cowering under the Ontos with me to be thinking about taking fire to the enemy rather than the possibility of ground forces slowly but surely pinning us down and killing us off one by one.
“When we’d occupied the hill earlier we got up there by climbing the rip-rap angled down from the top lip of the cliff on the east face. The plan is to do what we did three weeks ago. We don‘t attack the hill, we go around it. Instead of climbing the rocks and debris to reach the top and, then hook back toward the southern peak, we turn and head through the trees up there toward the north until we’re well away from the area.”
I waited for any comment that might be forthcoming from the Gunny. The area under the armor was dark but daylight filtered in from every direction. The Gunny had another cigarette out and was working the smoke slowly in and out of his lungs. We lay with one of the crewmen between us, but I could distinctly see the Gunny over the Marine’s flat shoulder blades. He looked across the short distance at me, his muddy head backlit against the light from the outside.
“Bait,” the Gunny said, picking a piece of tobacco from his lips and snapping it away. “Battalion’s not going to like it. This hill’s here for a reason, and us with it. I’ll bet they’re sitting back in the rear devising some huge muscular operation, supposedly to support the dire mess we’ve gotten ourselves into, when all along they caused us to be here. Exactly here.”
“A stalking horse,” Jurgens replied to the Gunny, his voice coming from the other side of the tightly massed bodies, surprising me, not by his agreement with the Gunny, but because he knew what a stalking horse was. “We’re a stalking horse to see if an operation can make it down here. If we hold out then they come in force and they have a victory that can go into Stars and Stripes. Probably why those film guys were here earlier. Background. Stock footage.”
“We move without battalion,” I said, the Gunny’s response having just enough agreement built into it to allow me to proceed.
“What’s the plan going to be called?” Zippo asked, in the short silence that followed.
“Run to Daylight,” I said, off the top of my head, knowing I had assigned that name a few days ago. Vince Lombardi used to repeat himself.
I was from Green Bay and Vince Lombardi was the coach, and that had been one of his expressions. I didn’t like the ‘run’ part of it but we would certainly be climbing up into daylight if we made it that far.
“Like in football,” Zippo replied, his voice quiet, while he considered the merits of the plan’s name, if not the plan itself.
The artillery barrages were finally over and everyone climbed out from under the Ontos. I noted quite a few of our Marines, who’d been dug in, up and wandering near their holes, as well. Such heavy munitions coming in for so long was deadening to the minds that survived, even when they were not the targets.
The Gunny came close, his cigarette still lit and dangling from his lips.
“I don’t like it and I don’t know why,” he said, taking the cigarette from his mouth. “Somehow we made it without any real casualties so far. But what if they figure this new move because they can sure as hell see down the side of that hill?”
I watched his muddy face closely but could see no more animosity in his features.
“They didn’t occupy the hill from the plateau that strings out behind it,” I said, laying out the foundation of my plan with as much rationality as I could. “They would have come in hard from that plateau if they’d been there and our line of light machine guns strewn across the saddle of the ridge wouldn’t have stopped them for long, either.”
“What about the Ontos?” the Gunny said. “We can’t just abandon it down here for them.”
I hadn’t thought about the Ontos, but I was too embarrassed to admit it, especially not in my weakened position with the Gunny. I tried to modify the plan in my mind to include splitting our forces, with one force making it up the old highway running next to the river while the other took to the high ground of the plateau, but I didn’t get far in doing anything but think about the modification.
The whole hillside, supposedly beaten half to death by artillery fire, opened up, literally spraying our entire area with high-velocity small arms fire. An RPG exploded not twenty feet from the Ontos, tossing, even more, mud on the Marines standing around after the barrage. I had the headset on but didn’t key the microphone. I didn’t have time.
“Get Cowboy on the air and get the Skyraiders back as soon as you can,” I said, tossing the headset to Fusner and plopping my helmet back on.
Our own artillery fire from Ripcord had been particularly accurate, although obviously ineffective at reaching inside the mountain and killing the NVA buried down in their deep tunnels. The slope was registered, and more fire would quell some of the incoming but I was worried about something more immediate and threatening.
I clambered out from under the armor, crawling quickly through the mud until I could stand. I slithered into the back of the machine, the heavy armored twin doors gaping open. The crew was under the machine not inside it. I screamed back toward the mud.
“I need the Ontos crew on station now,” I yelled at the top of my voice, as I left mud everywhere in my attempts to get into the firing officer’s metal chair.
The Ontos was pointing the wrong way. I hit the battery switches and slammed right track in reverse and left track forward nearly simultaneously. The turret began to whine and the Ontos turned 180 degrees.
It seemed to take forever, so I slid off the seat and peered out through the doors. Fear shot through me as my imagined possibility was being realized before my eyes. The hill was close to our position. Too close. There had been no way to establish a perimeter far enough from the beginning of the slope, to allow enough stand-off distance to react, or even for some of our weapons to properly arm. The NVA had figured that out even before me. Although the tributary feeding the Bong Song wasn’t nearly as dangerous as the full river in flood, we were backed up to it and it could only be crossed safely by using either the Ontos, as we had in the prior crossing, or by laying ropes that were not yet laid.
We had no wire. We had only about a hundred meters of open mud between our defensive holes and the heavily forested bottom of the slope. It was across that area that they came, and the sight was a shock. I’d seen dead bodies, and an occasional single enemy or two, but never a mass of them, all dressed in black, all wearing the strange conical hats, and all running at us with wild abandon.
I jumped back to the seat and stopped the turret’s movement. I breathed deeply, having no time to check the crew to see if they were standing by or whether the deadly area behind the barrels had been cleared. I thought we’d loaded all six barrels with flechettes. I didn’t even know what standoff distance the rounds required before exploding, but I hoped and prayed it wasn’t much. I knew the 106 barrels had to be numbered or identified in some fashion, but I didn’t know the codes or the system of fire.
“Fire the one-oh-six, one on each side,” I screamed down through the open doors. I knew the doors should be closed in case of a closer rocket strike or ricocheting bullets but I didn’t know how to use the intercom. Yelling was my only way of communicating. I had no other plan to stop the attack. If the NVA over-ran our position with infantry then I wouldn’t need another plan, but that fleeting thought was blown from my brain when two of the 106 rounds launched together. With the doors open, and barrels so close, the sound of the explosions immediately deafened me. My world reduced down to the gun sight my right eye was plastered to.
I didn’t see the rounds go off, all I saw was four large groups of men go down as if their legs had been sliced off at mid-thigh. I hit the turret button, guiding the movement by what I could see instead of any of the instruments spread out on what resembled a small boat’s helm in front of me at lap level. I could not take my eye off the scene. I stopped the turret’s movement when the crosshairs lay just above another clump of the enemy. Somewhere in my mind, a tiny voice whispered that the NVA troops had a hard time staying properly spread apart in combat situations, just like my Marines.
“Fire the one-oh-six, one on each side,” I screamed downward again, this time with more confidence that the rounds would actually be launched, but with less confidence that my voice was actually being heard. I could barely hear myself, which meant that the Marines outside the Ontos had to be having problems too.
I hit the turret button again and let the slow-moving mass of metal move back across the scene until I found more black-clad bodies. This time they were not running at my sight. They were running back toward the mountain for their lives.
“Fire the one-oh-six,” I yelled, knowing that the crew knew what it was doing. “Reload,” I added, wondering if that was a necessary command to a crew facing charging infantry in the open.
Two more rounds went off and I knew it because the running figures dropped away from my eyes. It was like magic. A brilliantly conceived killing magic. I slid off the seat and moved to the back of the machine. The Gunny rose up from where he’d stayed for the attack, Tank, his radio operator next to him. I heard thrumming engines I knew so well buzzing in the far distance. Cowboy was coming. Fusner had gotten through.
“Never seen that before, “the Gunny said, softly, getting another cigarette out of his chest pocket. “It’s like they don’t die. They’re just gone.”
He looked up at me and then smiled, as he let out a deep inhalation of smoke. “Now that was some mighty fine shooting, Junior,” he said.
The other Marines comprising the two companies were once again starting to gather, and every one of them nearby smiled back at the Gunny, including me. The Gunny was back. I would not have to go it alone. But I needed a new plan because I wasn’t about to give up possession of the Ontos after what I’d seen and made happen using it.