The engagement with the enemy began while it was still full dark. The Ontos fired into the general area near the western wall at its base and flung flechettes across the open exposed area in front of it. With the artillery still coming in, responding to successive fire missions I was calling, in spite of some errant projectiles that might have caused casualties in our own ranks, the single mudflat just in front of the cliff face was the only viable place the enemy could cross to reach our combined companies. The mudflat was also very likely to become the deadliest field of fire I had ever been a witness to and part of since I’d arrived in country.
“There’s no point in me staying here,” I said to Fusner. “Get your stuff.”
I worked my body around so I could strap my own pack to my back.
My torso ached like it had been beaten with baseball bats. The 175 rounds that had flown long had continuously displaced me from my foxhole, and in the process the near-visible shockwaves resonating through the air had struck me time and again, like light wafts of a vicious little collection of wind. But the waves had not been winds, they’d been condensed packets of air and water. The packets struck, as I was bounced from my hole, my poncho cover only retrieved because I’d tied one corner to my right boot with the bootlace. Only after resting for a few minutes did the pain begin. The leech bites were bad enough, I thought, but the pain was diminished by the mortally potential effect caused by the bruising strikes of the artillery shock waves.
I tried to listen to Fusner. His hearing had been spared by wearing the earphones to the Prick 25 radio, but my own was damaged again. My ears rang and Fusner’s voice, although it came through, was tinny and partially shredded. I tried to point at my ears but it was still too dark to allow Fusner to see that I was pointing at all. Finally, after getting my pack on and leaning in close, I was able to make out what he was saying.
“We can’t go to the wall and help, sir,” Fusner was near yelling, I could tell.
“If we do that then it’ll mess everything up he’s trying to do,” Fusner went on, making no move to strap his radio to his back.
I pulled back slightly. It was the first time, I realized, that Fusner had not sided with me, and then gone on to resist my orders.
He was right, I knew, but I had not been thinking of joining the Gunny where contact with the enemy was now imminent. I delayed for a few minutes in responding, by untying my poncho cover from my boot and then getting it properly situated over my head to cover my damaged torso and lower body.
“We’re going to the Ontos,” I said, cupping my hands and yelling.
I was still unable to properly gauge the full volume of my own voice. “I’ve got to be able to see or I’m no use at all,” I finished.
“Sometimes, maybe, sir, doing nothing at all might be the right thing to do,” Fusner replied.
I noted, as best as I could make out, that Fusner, however, was getting his radio onto his back and preparing to abandon our hole.
“The Gunny didn’t think to have the majority of our forces move together to meet the enemy where it has to attack. Nobody can think of everything, corporal.”
I knew it was foolish and not very leader-like to explain myself, or the reasons for my decisions, but my feeling that I needed the teenager’s full support would not allow me to do anything else.
“Sorry, sir,” Fusner replied, moving so close to my side, as we’d risen to begin the move, that our shoulders rubbed together.
I looked over but what I noticed was Nguyen, just to the other side of Fusner. I could not see his eyes but I knew he had to be looking at me. What might he have done if Fusner had refused to move, I wondered. I tried to shrug the thought away, but I knew it would lay in the back of my mind for some time to come.
I hunched over, easing the shockwave induced pain in my back and shoulders, and then I moved forward, trying to avoid falling on my knees or face because it was so dark. I felt Nguyen positioning himself so close in front of me that he partially blocked the blowing rain, the wind seeming to have risen with each of my successive artillery barrages. I had forgotten MacInerney and Russell, the two lieutenants that had returned from the Ontos. I stopped and said MacInerney’s name into the darkness.
“I’m right here, Junior,” he replied, from off to my left. I thought of the other nameless lieutenant.
“Where’s the other lieutenant?” I asked, knowing he’d been left back at the Ontos but not knowing why.
“He’s spotting with the scope for Hultzer,” MacInerny said as if he was surprised I didn’t know.
Suddenly, I was moving faster, pushing into Nguyen’s back. The one particular battery of four that I had called, the one that had landed so close that it had thrown Fusner and me out of our foxhole time after time and injured my body with following shockwaves had come close. Quite possibly we’d only been saved by the density of the jungle. For the hearing injury I’d suffered, the rounds had to have gone off fifty meters away or less.
The small arms fire began to build to a higher level. There was no response from the Ontos, which I knew had to mean that Hultzer was afraid of running low on flechette ammo. The resupply had brought in plenty, but plenty was a diminished term in this kind of outnumbered attack situation we were in, I knew. I pushed harder through the mess of the water-covered and rain-drenched massed floor, driving Nguyen forward. I heard screams behind me, the screams I knew of Marines and enemy dying together as the attack became fully joined.
For the first time ever, in making a movement under fire, I felt bad from moving away from the fire instead of toward it.
I stared into the eyepiece of the Starlight Scope, the rubber grommet feeling good, pressed all around my right eye socket. The scene in the distance was easy to home in on, as the open area from the edge of the jungle all the way to the edge of the water that ran around the base of Hill 975 ended at the cliff face. That face protruded slightly out over the area just below it, the bottom part covered by thick lichen and plant matter of all types, while above that the cracked rock face was barren and unclimbable, as well. I studied the scene near the cliff base, understanding that that particular small stretch, from the water to the jungle, was the only available area that could be crossed to allow the NVA regiment access. When would the full-scale attack come, the one that my Marines holding a tenuous but tough line just inside the jungle, might only get on to too late? I could see, but they could not. How could we get to the dawn, wherein no suicide attacks, with swarms of men, no matter how well-armed, could possibly succeed? I shuffled backward, pulling the scope with me. Fusner was there with the radio handset out and waiting. I called Hultzer inside the Ontos, located not more than thirty meters from where I lay.
“How many rounds of high explosive do we have?” I asked once he came on the line.
“Twenty-four, sir,” Hultzer replied, “We don't use that stuff up as fast as the flechette rounds.”
I knew that last part, of course, as flechette rounds were so deadly and effective that it made little sense to call in anything else unless the enemy was dug in, or it was impossible to see where they were. The enemy, in this case, was dug in all right, inside a currently impregnable mountainside. But it was the visibility that was the real problem. I could use the Starlight Scope to study the area from where I was, and hope to report that to the platoons defending the jungle area where the NVA had to strike, but I could do little to be completely effective in that pursuit, as the ground was too broken and the debris all over it allowing for just enough cover to fool me from the angle and distance I had to view it from.
The last problem was the one that I was trying to overcome with Hultzer. How could we best slave the Ontos to the scope in order to fire at the right time and aim at the right place? The key to ranging the 106 mm recoilless rifle rounds was the fifty caliber semi-automatic guns the rifles had to spot where the charge would land with tracer rounds. The wall was a long way in the distance. My idea was to use the same effect that had been tried on us by the enemy when we’d been holed up under a fold at the bottom of the cliff on the other side of the river days back. We’d also had the effect of the cliff face exploding down upon our own Marines when the artillery rounds had fallen short that night not so long in the past. We could magnify the effect of the high explosive rounds by ten times or more, simply by having the 106 recoilless rounds explode against the face of the cliff, up above the growth line visible in the Starlight Scope. The explosively broken and crushed rocks of the face would cascade down onto any troops unprotected from above. And that would be any and all of the sapper regiment attackers.
Hultzer crawled up to me, but he wasn’t alone. I huddled, lying flat, my poncho cover extended over me, more worried about the leeches I might be exposing myself to by laying on the jungle floor itself, but still conscious that I could not long survive being exposed to the full effects of the monsoon rains without expiring or falling ill in some fashion or another.
First Hultzer, then Fusner, and then the Nguyen forced their way under my small poncho. Fortunately, we’d all been living under the same circumstance for some time, and the blossoms their own open poncho covers began to layer over my own in a cluster.
I ordered Hultzer to take the Starlight Scope and set it up at the front or facing side of the Ontos. At least he would be able to see something of what was going on in order to properly and effectively place fire on the enemy.
“Where’s McInerney?” I asked once Hultzer was gone, noticing his sudden absence among the Marines surrounding me, but nobody said anything in reply. Nguyen motioned ever so slightly with his chin, his face angled and directed toward the wall where the enemy force if it was going to attempt the assault, would have to cross the clearing underneath.
The two junior lieutenants joined our group, building the cluster of poncho covers into a larger, almost interconnected tent.
“Fusner, what the hell is McInerney up to?” I asked, my voice low and concerned, rather than angry at the inexperienced lieutenant’s independent action.
“He headed toward the cliff, sir, following in trace of Sugar Daddy,” Fusner replied.
My stomach clenched with tension. I’d sent Sugar Daddy off to lead or supervise the Marines who would bear the brunt of the coming major thrust of the attack, and I’d done so with the ridiculous offer of a combat decoration I had no power to award. I could recommend it, but that was it. Now, one of the new lieutenant’s was going into the thick of things with no background at all to modify his actions. The phrase ‘combat teaches by killing you,’ reappeared in my mind. My ‘walk in the rain’ title for the plan might very well turn out to be a walk in the blood of my own men.
The Gunny was at the wall, now likely joined by McInerney and Sugar Daddy. I was almost certain that Jurgens would be there, as well, waiting for the coming attack.
With this one defensive plan, I was risking almost the entire command structure of the assembled companies, save some other sergeant platoon commanders and the two junior lieutenants whose names I could barely remember.
“Now we wait,” I whispered to the Marines around me.
I ordered Fusner to have Hultzer fire at the first flash he might see of the enemy fifty caliber, but wait to fire at the side of the cracked rock cliff face until ordered.
“The idiot,” I heard come back through the small radio handset, even though I was several feet from where Fusner lay nearby.
The expression of frustration and anger could only have come from the Gunny, I realized.
“What’s he saying?” I asked, my voice a whisper.
“Apparently, Lieutenant McInerney, sir,” Fusner replied, “has placed himself under the slight lip of the cliff and is going to blink his flashlight when the enemy attacks so you can fire. He must know we can’t really see that well through the rain and over the distance.”
“Nguyen, get forward,” I commanded, motioning with one hand toward the invisible wall out in the darkness. “Go get him back, if you can.”
Nguyen disappeared, almost as he’d never been there in the first place. The man’s ability to move in such silence through the bracken and mud was unnerving, as it was now. I could feel what was happening rather than witness it.
I’d sent Sugar Daddy forward to chase his medal, the good news being that Sugar Daddy had come to feel he might live under my command. The bad news was that he was still Sugar Daddy. Somehow, the sergeant wasn’t going out to expose himself.
Somehow, he’d convinced the McInerney to expose himself, after which, no matter what happened, he could claim that he’d kept his part of the deal.
“Get me the Gunny,” I ordered Fusner, hearing a slithering nearby.
Two of the poncho covers were gone. The new FNG lieutenants had pulled back, probably to the Ontos, I thought, but could not know since they’d said nothing.
“Gunny, get him back,” I ordered, once the Gunny was on the combat net.
“Too late,” I heard before the enemy fifty opened up, and then a single round from the Ontos whooshed by, in response, without any order coming from me.
I switched my attention to the wall and saw immediately that a flashlight was blinking dimly through the rain, coming from down at the bottom of it. The enemy fifty wasn’t shooting at the ignorant officer, however. Its green tracers arced into the line of Marines set in to defend the only possible approach the enemy could use to penetrate our defenses. McInerney continued to blink his flashlight every few seconds until Hultzer, back at the Ontos opened up with a spread of semi-automatic fifty caliber tracer rounds of its own.
I could do nothing except hold on tightly to the radio handset and grimly stare into the distance where only McInerney’s lonely light blinked away. Hultzer was doing what had to be done and there was no point in discussing it with him over the radio. The Ontos tracers impacted the wall, sending sparks in all directions, as the unspent phosphorous tips of the bullets splattered into tiny fiery parts, not more than twenty feet above where McInerney’s position had to be.
There was no time to order Hultzer to check or hold fire. The giant whooshing noise of six 106 mm recoilless rounds passing by sucked the air from around us as they headed for the wall. At the same time, the Marines manning their M-60 machine guns opened up almost as one. Tracers crisscrossed the entire flat crossing, turning the slightly depressed jungle area into a cauldron of hot burning phosphorous and lead. The enemy fifty was not suppressed, as it sought to penetrate the inadequate cover my Marines would have thrown up when trying to adequately dig in. I knew the fifty would go through at least twenty feet of unpacked earth, mud, and debris. The enemy had to be attacking, as fire control was so ingrained into the experienced combat Marines in both companies that their combined fire would have dropped off in mere seconds if it had been just a reaction to receiving fire from the enemy.
The recoilless rounds hit the wall in a spectacular night display of fireworks and slightly delayed sound. There was no more indication of McInerney’s flashlight signals following the first salvo. The Ontos reloaded and fired again with fewer rounds, all impacting the same place on the rock wall. The fifty caliber spotters then trained in on the opening the enemy fifty was firing from, and three of the big rounds went out. The angle was such, toward the base of Hill 975, that they went right over our heads, causing temporary deafness in my ears, once again.
I crouched down, feeling totally helpless to control the events I’d deliberately, and then accidentally, set into action. The firing from the M-60s raged on, becoming more sporadic as time slowly passed. I kept my head up, peering out from under my rain and windswept poncho cover, no longer caring about the misery of the cloying wetness or the risk of being host to more leech predators. The enemy fifty had apparently been silenced by the three-round salvo Hultzer had directed into its burrowed lair. The 106 fired again and again until I thought that the guns must have run out of ammo before it quit. The machine guns stopped firing at almost the same instant. I heard distant chunks of the cliff walling falling to strike the mud below with sickening thuds. I had no idea of just how deep the inset that usually ran along the base of the cliffs might be. I could only hope and pray that it was deep enough like it had been for the rest of the company so many days and nights in the past.
The enemy attack appeared over, and it also appeared to have failed, as the Marines along the line of defense had seemed to quiet down all on their own. I still held the radio handset and was about to call the Gunny when I changed my mind, rising quickly to my feet and gathering my poncho cover in to wrap about my standing figure. I tossed the handset to Fusner and then took off at a loping run, back to where the open area extended all the way to the wall. I ran the entire distance to the cliff face, noting Marines dimly set in around me and hoping that they did not take me for some enemy apparition in their midst. I had to get to the wall quickly and I had to get there personally.
In seconds I was down next to the Gunny, his radio operator moving quickly to make way for my falling body. I hit prone, not more than a foot from the right side of the Gunny’s body. I breathed in and out deeply, to recover from the run and to control my emotions.
“Where’s the lieutenant?” I finally got out.
“I don’t know,” the Gunny said, his voice quiet and uncharacteristically gentle. “They didn’t get through or even come close to it. Under the tracers I watched the cliff face collapse among them. There must be a hundred men under that mess of rocks and debris.”
I looked out but could see nothing in the darkness, the rain still beating down while the wind had begun to abate somewhat.
“He didn’t come back,” the Gunny offered, understanding why I’d rushed so quickly to his side. “Nice work, sending him out there, though. There was no better way to pinpoint exactly where and when they were coming.”
That I had not sent McInerney, nor would I have sent anyone to do such a ridiculously suicidal mission, I kept to myself.
“Where’s Sugar Daddy?” I asked, the tone of my voice changing to the point where I observed the Gunny’s head turning to look over at me.
He lit a cigarette, the small Zippo light burning tiny but bright for a few seconds. We stared at one another, as he inhaled, and then the moment and the light were gone.
“Where’s Nguyen?” the Gunny countered.
I remembered having sent Nguyen only in that instant.
“Where?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“Don't know", the Gunny replied. “He went out there to do whatever it was he was supposed to do, I guess. He passed by, like the ghost in the night he is, and then moved on without comment or slowing.”
“Damn,” I whispered.
“You sent him to get that new lieutenant back in when you saw him blinking his flashlight, didn’t you?” the Gunny said, puffing on his cigarette and syncopating the smoke between his few words.
Sugar Daddy crawled up, to wedge himself between my legs and Gunny’s, his broad shoulders pushing us both aside.
“I couldn’t stop him,” Sugar Daddy said. “He just took off and ran and I sure as hell wasn’t going after him, Silver Star be damned.”
“What Silver Star?” the Gunny asked.
Neither Sugar Daddy nor I answered the question.
“What now, Junior?” Sugar Daddy asked.
“We wait until dawn,” I replied, hoping the ache in my mind and body was not being transmitted through my voice. “There’s no way to prove their fifty is out of commission permanently, no way to tell how many more men they are willing to commit to another attack and we can’t see in the dark to dig through the rocks.”
“A bit more than a walk in the rain, wouldn’t you say, Junior?” Sugar Daddy asked, after a few seconds.
“We took no casualties, except for maybe the FNG officer and Nguyen,” the Gunny replied. You can’t knock that kind of success under conditions like these, now can you Junior,” the Gunny replied.
I said nothing in return, moving further to one side and curling up into the poncho cover I’d kept with me. For the first time, I was truly angry at the Gunny. He’d saved my life, time and again, but what kind of cold-hearted beast was he, anyway. The dawn would come. Hutzler probably had more ammunition on hand and the Marines up and down the line of defense would remain fully on guard. We’d held the position, but to what end and the seemingly small losses would never be counted that way with me, no matter what we found at first light.