I holstered Tex’s Colt .45 automatic that I had used half my canteen water to boil clean earlier. I had no oil but I knew there had to be some kept by others in the company I could get later. The Colt would operate just fine with no oil at all but only as long as it remained clean, which wouldn’t be for long if the last twenty days and nights were an example.
The brush was thick and wedged well back into the cleft but, working with Fusner and Zippo, while Nguyen faced outward to watch for trouble, it took less than twenty minutes to clear a space where we could all lay down our poncho covers and get through the night. The rain had lessened somewhat but, since it was monsoon season, the rain was never going to leave entirely, for at least the remainder of the month. I’d seen to the wounded and the dead. Morphine had made the visits not quite so agonizing, as the pain from the burns of white phosphorus were dulled to the point where those Marines that had them just breathed so slow and deep it seemed they were as lifeless as the dead.
Real help and relief would have to wait until the morning, when the sounds of helicopters, and the simple fact that there was no other convenient time to fly resupply and pick up the casualties, would mean that the enemy would be waiting. My refusal to proceed back down the valley and face almost certain annihilation would not go down well back at battalion, I knew, but I didn’t care. What were they going to do? Send me out to a worse unit or field of combat?
I took off my helmet and rummaged inside my pack and found a can of ham and mothers. I had to eat, I had to drink, and I had to get some light to set up the night defensive fires before arranging combined artillery and air support to cover what had to be coming in with first light. I ate from the grease-filled can with gusto, tipping it and waiting for the mess to slide into my mouth, not bothering to find and break out my little set of utensils. When I was done I wanted a drink but didn’t want to use my slippery hands to get my canteen out. Then, an idea came into my head. I carefully worked the flap holding the Colt into my holster.
With two fingers, I pulled the weapon free, dangling it in the dark in front of me, before grasping it firmly and then rubbing every exposed piece of its metal surface with both of my greasy hands. I worked with a slight smile. The smell would attract bugs, maybe even leeches if the leeches had as little taste as I did, but the action would be smoother, at least for awhile, and I lived only from one ‘awhile’ to another.
With the pork-lubricated Colt secured back in its holster, and with only the sounds of the rushing water from the nearby river penetrating the brush in front of our cleft, I pulled out my stationery from the plastic bag I kept in my right front thigh sewn pocket. I rummaged about but could not find my flashlight or my binoculars in the complete darkness. For some reason, I didn’t want to tell Fusner, or any of them, that I’d misplaced some of my gear. I knew the lack of sleep, and the intensity of what we’d been going through, had to be affecting my mind in strange ways. A shiver of fear went through my body at the thought of losing my mind or my memory, however.
My memory was keeping me alive, along with being able to create strange and unexpected plans and moves that had to be keeping the NVA from wiping us out. My wife would have to wait. My brain felt like a sponge anyway, and I wasn’t at all sure that I could conjure up a bunch more lies to make it all seem like I was okay.
I drank the other half of my canteen water down without stopping. It wasn’t enough to slake my thirst but I wasn’t at all sorry that I’d used half of it to clean the Colt. I pushed back into the very back of the cleft, half my body able to jam itself into the crack where the cliff wall encountered the hard rock plane of the grounds level surface. I wondered if I could sleep, knowing that I didn’t know when I slept anymore. Reality would fade and then come back with none of the relief or comfort, or even vague sleepiness I used to feel upon waking that I’d experienced back home. At times of seeming rest, I was there, not there, and then there again. I worried some more about how that might be the way I would sleep for the rest of my life if I somehow made it back home.
My left side was jammed into the crease and my eyes were closed for only seconds, I knew, before the sounds of bodies approaching caused my right hand to automatically unsnap the flap of my holster. I didn’t get a chance to crawl out of my space before I felt the presence of several men arriving and stopping only inches from me. I couldn’t see anything in the dark. Fear crawled across the surface of my skin like cobwebs being dragged by giant spiders. I knew if I took my hand off the Colt’s handle that it’d be shaking again, so I didn’t move.
“Junior,” Jurgens whispered.
I didn’t respond verbally, only breathing in and out heavily. I waited.
“It’s Sugar Daddy and me,” Jurgens continued. “We think you saved the Gunny from getting killed and, well, we wanted to say thanks for that.”
I wondered if I should laugh at the idea that I was saving anyone but myself but kept breathing in and out deeply in silence instead, wishing I had one of the Gunny’s cigarettes.
“He’s coming,” Jurgens whispered, like we’d shared some confidential conversation and should be afraid someone coming might find out.
I eased myself out from the crack so I could sit up. I heard the sound of ruffling poncho rubber in front of me before I was blinded by the light. I blinked rapidly, trying to recover.
“Your flashlight, sir,” Fusner said.
I noticed that I was sitting up inside a roughly thrown together tent. Fusner and Zippo had no doubt, created it with a couple of poncho covers while I was lost in whatever reverie passed for napping in the A Shau. The Gunny slid under the side facing outward. I grasped the flashlight with most of my left hand over the lens, to hold down the brightness. At least I had that instrument to plan the night defensive fires I’d been about to blow off from fatigue and the effect of the ham and mothers hitting my system like a ton of bricks. One more mistake and we’d all be dead, just like my Marines who’d been standing in or laying in the wrong place when the cliff and Willy Peter had come plunging down.
Jurgens and Sugar Daddy surged in again behind the Gunny but hung a few feet back. The three men lay on their stomachs, elbows extended to keep their heads up, as they faced me.
“We can’t stay here and we can’t head up the valley north,” the Gunny said, taking out a cigarette slowly and getting ready to light it. He spoke with a casual tone, almost as if he was talking only to himself. “So, we can’t go down river. You were damned straight about that. If we stay here, what’s to stop those assholes from coming out of the caves and tunnels they’ve got to have drilled all through this wall we’re up against?”
The Gunny blew smoke out his now lit cigarette, and a layer of it immediately began accumulating just under the top of our ‘tent.’ I liked the aroma. My wife was my idyllic home back in the world, and the Gunny and his cigarettes were my dysfunctional form of ‘home’ in the valley.
“Nope,” I responded to his tunneling question, wanting a drag from his cigarette but not going to ask.
I pulled out my map of the area and unfolded it. I pointed down at Hill 975 with the flashlight. With my other hand, I pointed at our position well up the flank from the tip of the hill.
“The hill’s not a hill at all as you know. It’s a finger of commanding high ground that juts out, looking over the river and down the valley to where the airstrip is. The end of that finger of land is tunneled through because it controls all cover and concealment in this part of the valley, and it’s composed mostly of mud and loose rocks, as you’ll recall.”
I tapped my flashlight on the top of our poncho cover tent. The metal cracked harshly against the hard surface above.
“That’s solid rock. No tunnels. Not even spider holes. And there’s no need for them, anyway. No one would pick this place to stop and make a stand for any other reason than the one we have.”
The Gunny held out his cigarette as if rewarding me for the explanation I’d provided. I took it gratefully with my left hand, still holding the flashlight with my right.
“What’s the reason we have?” Jurgens asked, as I puffed on the cigarette.
“What the Gunny said,” Sugar Daddy replied, his tone one of near derision.
“We’ve got nowhere else to go.”
“We’ve got another problem,” the Gunny said, accepting the cigarette back from me.
I waited. It seemed that the company was always in the same situation, with only the weather and geography being different. We had nowhere to go that would let us stay alive, and we always seemed to have ‘another problem.’ I knew the Gunny had waited to bring the new problem up until he could find some plan to get through the night. I also knew that he’d accepted my plan of staying where we were, which was more of a relief to me than I’d realized. I could not go directly against the Gunny, and he was damned hard to convince about doing anything I came up with.
I thought he was going to bring up the obvious fact that, even with our supporting fires being maximized and air likely to show up just after dawn, the medevacs flying up to the top of the hill and down near our location, along with resupply, we were going to be a nearly impossible mess to coordinate and also to provide protection for.
The Gunny looked at me directly for the first time, taking a long drag on his cigarette, before speaking.
“They want to insert a Lurp team on top of the hill to get their bodies out.”
A Lurp (LRRP) team. A Lurp team was the Army version of Marine Force Reconnaissance. An elite Army force of company size. The word stood for Long
Range Reconnaissance Patrol.
I breathed out a sigh of relief. I’d been frightened of being sent back up to the top of what I considered a hill of death. My relief was short-lived, however.
“They want the team to supervise the evacuation but then stay to occupy the top of the hill,” the Gunny said, his voice going so soft I almost couldn’t hear it.
“Ha!” Jurgens said, overly loud, before settling down. “The Army wants to do the job the Marine Corps failed at, and they probably want to do it with less men. Idiots.”
The Gunny looked at me again, his dark eyes unblinking. I knew there was more, and that I wasn’t going to like it.
“They’ll let them take the bodies out,” he said. “The NVA isn’t stupid. They know we want that hill. When the choppers leave it’ll happen all over again. They’ll come out of those holes and tunnels and that’ll be it.”
“So, it’ll be just like before,” Sugar Daddy said, his tone more one of a question than of restating the Gunny’s conclusion.
“And we’ll be ordered to go up there and find out what happened when they don’t respond,” Jurgens replied, “because we’re the only ones here.”
“So, what do we do?” he finally asked.
“We do our job,” the Gunny said, his voice going hard. We convince battalion to get the Army to send the smallest force possible. We convince them that we cleared the hill before we came down. We tell them we’re remaining in position to help secure the hill and we’ll back up the Lurp team. They’ll believe us because they have nobody else.”
“Just how in hell does having a smaller Army force up there help us?” Jurgens asked, before going on. “Isn’t it the more the merrier down in this shitty hot wet hell?”
The Gunny stared into my eyes. I averted the flashlight to avoid looking at him. I knew the Gunny knew. I knew we’d arrived at the part where he knew we had to finally get to.
“They’re going to order us to go get the Army guys when they’re dead,” I said, slowly. “We want the least number killed because they won’t fly in another medivac up there after losing so many. The Gunny’s saying that we’ll have to carry or slide them back down and we’ll have to do it damn fast or die up there with them.”
“Jesus Christ,” Sugar Daddy said, his voice a hiss. “We’re supposed to write those guys off, just like that? And then lie to make it all happen nice and easy?”
“They’re not Marines,” Jurgens whispered into the silence that followed.
“Why aren’t they sending us back up?” Jurgens asked.
“Because of Junior,” the Gunny replied, his words hard, but I caught a thin glimmer of a smile on his lips. “They think he won’t go. They think he’s gone rogue from the combat losses. He refuses orders openly.”
“Oh,” Sugar Daddy said, his tone indicating that he didn’t mind my being considered to be a dishonorable nut case officer. “I thought it was because they think we’re a mess of fucked up units who can’t do jack shit right.”
“Well, there’s probably a good bit of that in there too,” the Gunny answered, before laughing gently.
Sugar Daddy and Jurgens began laughing with him. It was my turn to stare, wondering what kind of gallows humor was driving them, and why I couldn’t find anything funny about some Army guys, probably decent fucking new guy Army guys, being sent up the hill of death to never return. I thought of Tex. My hand touched the Colt, but not in fear or anger, or as a threat.
“We don’t give the orders, Junior,” the Gunny said, reading my expression, finishing his cigarette, and snapping the short butt out from under the poncho cover.
I knew the Gunny’s math and logic was correct. The fewer bodies we had to pack out and down the faster we could move, and the more likely we would live. Anybody sent up to the top of Hill 975 for any period of time was going to die. Keeping the body count down was a weirdly humane thing to do, although our own survival was all that any of us were really worried about unless we sat and thought about it, and I knew none of us wanted to do that.
“They need to come in when its dark,” I finally said.
“Who?” the Gunny asked, getting ready to pull out and step back into the night rain.
“The medevac and resupply,” I said. “We can’t support them coming in with artillery, and firing early would simply alert the NVA as to what was coming. They can fly this far on instruments, orbit too high to allow for location, and then drop in at the very crack of dawn. With everyone ready, they can be in and out of here in less than ten minutes. When they drop the Lurp team up top, well, time is not going to matter for those guys.”
The Gunny, Jurgens and Sugar Daddy pulled back out from under the poncho cover tent. Fusner, Zippo, and Nguyen replaced them, all three shedding their own ponchos, but wet through, anyway.
“What’s the plan?” Zippo asked with his tone one of expectant enthusiasm.
I thought quickly about what we were doing.
“Parade Rest,” I replied, with only a slight delay. “We’re going to stand fast and keep our mouths shut.”
“Rumor has it that we’re being sent back down the valley, sir,” Fusner said, not sounding like he’d fully bought into the plan.
I knew that the radio traffic had to be filled with stuff about my disobedience of orders, but there was nothing to be done for it so I simply waited to hear what he had to say further.
“They say we couldn’t take the hill, sir,” Fusner said. “The Army 75th is being sent in while we get sent back down the river. Resupply is going to be filled with new officers and FNGs to replace all the Marines we’ve lost.”
The information Fusner was giving us from the rumor mill might be all true, or almost all of it could be nothing more or less than a fable, I now knew.
“We took the hill,” I replied, thinking about what it would be like to be fully back to T.O. strength and with a whole suite of officers commanding both companies. “We just didn’t hold the hill, and nobody else is going to either.”
After being in the country only three weeks I no longer held out any hope that wholesale replacements would be sent in to fill all open positions. Nobody in the rear wanted to come out into the bush if they knew anything about it at all. The only result a combat unit could expect was to receive replacements who’d just come into the country and knew nothing about what might be ahead of them. I’d come to terms with why nobody would talk, or even answer me when I was in the rear and fresh from the states. They knew where I was going and nothing they could tell me would help me at all in staying alive. I was already dead to them.
There was no point trying to explain everything to my scout team, so I put them to work.
“Fusner, arrange for the medivac and resupply 46s to touch down from a high low drop out of altitude at the crack of dawn. Tell them it’ll be a secure landing zone until just after light. Zippo, get to the Ontos and have them move back down the valley until they have the southern flank guarded. We’ll be going south before snaking around to head back up to the top of 975. Nguyen, you’re with me.”
“We’re going back up there again?” Fusner whispered, his voice filling with disappointment and fear.
“Not if I can help it, but we’ve got to be ready for anything,” I lied. “Get on the arty net and let me lay in the night defensive fires. Call Cowboy when and where you can. We’ll need them just after dawn, once the NVA figure out we landed our stuff in the night. Or damn near.”
I went to work on my map, memorizing the codes and grids and then calling it all into both firebases. I didn’t expect to fire in the night simply because of the security of our current position. The NVA could not come at us from across the river, they wouldn’t attempt the high cliff above it after the devastation I’d rained in on them earlier. Up there they were fully exposed, with only hard rock to dig into and sparse cover from artillery. They could come up the river on our side and encounter the Ontos, but I didn’t think they’d do that either. They knew that with their overwhelming troop strength and underground positions they only had to wait. There was no waiting when it came to orders pouring out of the rear areas of the Army and Marine Corps, however. For whatever reasons, the guerrilla war we were involved in required constant movement no matter how meaningless to the troops and Marines out in the field implementing those moves and orders.
When I was done I pulled out my package of stationery and wrote a brief letter to my wife. It would have to get delivered the following morning if all went well. I wondered what it would be like to go home and tell her about what had happened the day before. I pushed myself into the cleft of the rock, staying just far enough out of it so not encounter the trickle of water flowing down it from north to south. I explained to my wife what a ‘Lurp’ was and how reconnaissance was supposed to be these special guys who went behind enemy lines and did heroic things. I did not tell her that there were no lines and that heroism was all fiction brought to the field of real combat, and then hopefully taken home because the real thing was too awful to contemplate or discuss. I sealed the envelope and stuck it back in my pocket before laying back on the hard rock.
Fusner was pulling on my upper arm. I opened my eyes but it was too black to see anything at all. I knew it was Fusner because of his clawing grasp and insistent forever repeated phrase; “It’s time, it’s time, it’s time…”
Time for what I wanted to yell but didn’t because I knew exactly where I was. I wondered if I’d ever wake up again and not know exactly where I was.
“What’s the situation?” I asked, shoving Fusner’s hand away and working sideways to escape the crimped-in wall’s grasp.
Fusner was waking me for a reason, I knew, but the detail of what that reason might be would not come into my groggy mind. Very distantly I heard the distinctive sound of a Huey helicopter. My brain came alive. The choppers were up at altitude waiting. They would stay up there fooling any listener below. They couldn’t fly much higher than ten thousand feet without oxygen for everyone on board, which they didn’t have, but even at that altitude, the enemy would know they were somewhere above but would not be able to pin a location as to where they were or where they might be coming down. No altitude would allow for the complete silence of a Huey, however, since they were so loud they could be heard coming at sea level almost ten miles away.
“The lead pilot wants to talk to you,” Fusner said, pushing the air headset into my neck.
How Fusner saw anything in the stygian blackness was beyond me.
“What does he want?” I asked, mildly irritated, but happy that I’d not had to call in any night defensive fires.
That meant that the batteries unless they’d fired for somebody else, would be fully stocked for whatever the day brought. Unless we went back down the valley where their guns couldn’t reach us.
“Who is he?” I asked.
“Lieutenant Blackbird, sir,” Fusner replied.
I waited for a few seconds for him to laugh at the humor of a helicopter pilot flying at night being called Blackbird but nothing came back to me. If a lieutenant was the flight leader then the choppers had to be Army. Marine chopper pilots were mostly captains and majors, the ones flying in the left seats, anyway.
“Six actual,” I said, hitting the tiny transmit button.
“Blackbird, over,” the lieutenant replied instantly.
“Time on target is one three minutes unless the LZ’s hot,” Blackbird said. “Can you give me some assurance?”
I almost laughed out loud.
“What’s he talking about Fusner? He wants some assurance that the LZ isn’t under fire? Are they flying too high, or what?
“The LZ is secure, quiet and likely to remain that way,” I transmitted, shaking my head in the darkness.
“Are you the one they call Junior?” the lieutenant asked back.
“No,” I transmitted in anger. “This is Gunny Socorro.” Evidently, the word about me was getting around, and the word wasn’t good.
“Got it, Gunny, and thanks,” Blackbird replied. “Touch down is in one minute. Be prepared to offload two 47s and a single Huey.”
The 47s were good news. The Army twin rotor carried twice what the Marine Corps 46 could haul. Resupply would be no problem and they’d be able to get all the wounded and dead to the rear.
“What about the Lurp Team?” I asked, crawling out from under the poncho cover tent where there was the faintest glimmering of morning light.
“That’s a separate operation,” Blackbird said. “The team is touching down at the same time as we are, using the gunships we’ve got, except for the C.O., Captain Victor Chase. He’s coming down with me.”
I pulled the headset off and handed it to Fusner.
“Victor Chase. What kind of weirdness is that? An Army captain, fighting a war in Vietnam, has the initials V.C.?”
“Zippo went to the LZ to get our stuff,” Fusner replied, ignoring my question. “Why’s the commander of the Lurp unit not going up there with his men? Did he find out something?”
I didn’t know what the underground radio rumor mill was generating, but I wasn’t confirming anything to Fusner or anyone else. Some good men were being sacrificed for nothing and the responsibility for that was beginning to resemble a game of musical chairs, even before the event occurred. I hadn’t asked Blackbird about who or what was in the choppers because it didn’t matter. Both big birds together could bring in more than sixty Marines, depending upon what else they brought along for resupply. I was almost certain there would be a full complement of officers to replace me. There seemed little doubt that the nightmare of our A Shau operations were being viewed as almost entirely due to my incompetence, by our commanders in the rear area.
“How’s the captain, if he’s coming here, supposed to get up that hill?” Fusner asked.
I put on my battered and ragged helmet, looked at my Gus Grissom watch and tried to ignore Fusner. I hadn’t thought about how the Lurp leader was going to get up to his men and I didn’t want to think about it. There were forces moving around me that seemed to make no sense and that I had no control over, just as before. I pulled the two letters home I had ready to go. Both were a mess of smudged ink and wrinkles. I tried to press them against my thigh but it was no use.
“We need to get to the LZ and make sure everything goes the way it’s supposed to,” I lied to Fusner.
In reality, all I wanted to do was get the two letters into a chopper crewman’s hands and then see if I could do anything to help the craft survive out of the valley to get the letters home. The sound of the descending choppers was drowned out by the heavy roaring thrum of bigger engines and huge spinning propellers. The Skyraiders were back. Cowboy was once again coming through. I started up the bank toward where the only cleared area existed that was big and flat enough for the landing.
Except for the Ontos crew and some of Jurgen’s Marines, everyone would be there to make the coming exchange happen as fast as possible. I moved as quickly as I could, my feet making sucking sounds that I could barely hear, as I pulled one boot after another up from the rain-soaked mud. I didn’t bother with my poncho since the rain had turned into a mist that penetrated everything no matter what I might wear. I kept my left hand with the letters shoved inside my utility blouse, my right hand naturally falling to the butt of Tex’s Colt.
“Can I turn my radio on?” Fusner asked.
The question surprised me, since usually he turned the little transistor thing on whenever he felt like it.
“Why not?” I replied, over my shoulder.
The LZ was going to go hot or it wasn’t. Making noise on our part wasn’t going to make a bit of difference about that, and what the new officers coming down might think, if they were really coming down, I didn’t give a damn about.
“Here’s one for you,” the deep voice of Brother John, coming out of the tinny speaker all the way from Nah Trang, said. “Now don’t you Marines out there take this one too seriously on this fine morning.”
The song began with a very light drum roll, and I recognized it even before the lyrics began. I clutched the letters to my wife more tightly, as the country western singer began singing: “You’ve painted up your lips and rolled and curled your tinted hair…Ruby, are you contemplating going out somewhere? The shadow on the wall tells me the sun is going down…”