I slept in my scooped out small spot atop the mud, dug down through the normal couple of feet of debris that covered those areas of the jungle not occupied by bamboo groves, trees, lianas and tubers, not to mention the vast dense thickets of ferns and other ground-hugging vegetative matter, that made parts of the area almost impossibly impenetrable to man. I slept until I felt a strong hand grip my right ankle, an ankle that had errantly gotten out from under my protective poncho cover and was soaking wet. I opened my eyes, but under the cover could see nothing. I felt instant relief. I didn’t need to see. The hand I knew. It was the hand of Nguyen, my guide and interpreter, but who was much more than that, at least to my imagined characterization of him because he seldom spoke at all. An interpreter who did not speak should have been someone who was either sent to the rear or held up as the butt of some strange war joke that only the A Shau Valley might regurgitate up.
I pushed the poncho cover aside, welcoming the first glimmer of sun I’d seen in many days. The dawn was just breaking. I craned my head around and looked at Nguyen. The man was impassive but I could tell he was energized, no doubt by being caught out in the open during the massive firing of weapons all across the mudflat where the attack took place.
“McInerney?” I whispered hope in my early morning and half-broken voice.
One quick and small shake of the Nguyen’s head told me all I did not want to know. Nguyen was not saying that the new Lieutenant wasn’t there. He was saying, with that one head slight head shake, that McInerney had died in his efforts to successfully direct the Ontos fire that had broken the back of the enemy attack hours earlier.
Nguyen sat in his usual crouch, his bent knees protruding upward and his butt scrunched down to the point where it almost, but not quite, touched the jungle matter under him. His elbows rested on his knees, as he waited patiently for me to come fully alive and begin planning for whatever the day might bring.
I pulled myself into a sitting position, a bit chilled from the wet night that had been unseasonably cold, once full darkness had set in. I could smell the cordite from the powder that had been expended hours earlier. It seemed to stick to the leaves and fern fronds as if to remind me that our weaponry was just another form of early Chinese fireworks, now refined over generations. The sun and the day would fix my slight chill in mere minutes, I also knew, so I had to do nothing to warm myself except wait.
I pulled my helmet off, took the liner out and then filled the steel shell part full with water from my canteen, making sure to keep enough back to make coffee, should I be able to borrow some of the Texico (made by Coca Cola) powder from the Gunny. I took out my Gillette, checked the over-used blade and shaved without the benefit of real light or a mirror. The razor didn’t work well, but time was not an issue so I moved slowly, repeating each stroke many times, not pressing hard in order to avoid being cut by the over-used blade. I’d heard of the new stainless steel blades in training but those were not yet government supplied.
I thought about McInerney. There would be no likely recovering of his body, I knew. Leaving him out there under the rocks after what everyone had seen him do in the night would not go down well with anyone in the company, including me, but there was nothing else to be done. The section of wall the lieutenant had chosen to spotlight was fully exposed to Hill 975. Any attempt to dig through the tons of stone that had fallen to form piles of rip-rap at the bottom of the cliff wall would take time and continued exposure to sniper fire, machine guns and quite possibly the fifty-caliber the enemy likely had saved by pulling it further back into the hill’s tunnels when Huntzler had opened up with multiple high explosive rounds from the 106 mm recoilless rifles.
I glanced at Nguyen, but his face gave me back the usual expression he had become known for. Nothing. Nguyen had the ability to show no emotion and deliver no message by being able to have no expression on his face, whatsoever. I’d heard of American Indians who supposedly had that same ability but had never met any to see if it was true. I finished shaving, feeling half human again. I checked my body completely, Nguyen watching with his same impassive expression. Amazingly, no leeches had attached themselves to me in my sleep, or even in the exposed movement and jostling in the mud from the night before.
I turned to stare out along the bottom of the cliff, the area not yet coming into full view, as the light moved from astronomical dawn to nautical dawn. It would be some minutes until real light, civil dawn would overcome the valley. I turned to look back at Nguyen once again.
“Night,” he said, distinctly, waving gently toward the bottom of the wall with the loose fingers of his left hand.
I looked back at the piles of rip-rap. It took a few seconds for me to get it. The NVA did not have a Starlight Scope or anything like it. A man, or two men, working quietly, would be able to go out and pull back one stone after another until the lieutenant’s body was revealed. The only thing it would require was knowing exactly where in the tons thick mess the body was, and a good deal of patience and hard work.
“The place?” I asked, knowing that we could not pull up all the rocks that had fallen. We would have to have a pretty good idea of where the lieutenant had fallen in order to retrieve his body without getting ourselves killed or working all through the night.
Nguyen looked out toward the bottom of the cliff and then nodded once, very curtly.
Retrieving the body would require that the companies remained where they were, but then there really was no other place to go. The enemy occupied Hill 975 in force, no doubt had significant elements downriver on the side they were holed up on, and then there was the passage back across the river which would not serve at all. Whatever NVA outfit was across the river was there in force, as it had proven when the companies had made our escape to be where we were. No, there was no place else to go unless things changed.
The lieutenant’s body could be recovered in broad daylight, given the Skyraiders, Puff the Magic Dragon and the A-6 Intruder. The problem with air was, however, that it could not stay orbiting right over one small area in order to fully suppress any enemy fire. Airpower moved, all the time and everywhere, only helicopters could stay in one place to deliver fire, like the Huey Cobras, but they then became sitting targets for any enemy fire that might come at them. And there was never a guarantee at all that any air would be available. Other units demanded air cover and some might even be in worse circumstance than our own. I could not call artillery again, not with us in our current position, not unless we were completely overrun and we weren’t going to make it anyway.
I reflected on the ignorance and waste of the conflict I was in. McInerney need not have gone to the wall and illuminated it for the purpose of directing fire. The wall was almost a thousand feet high. What would it have mattered if the Ontos had fired higher up against the cracked and broken stone that formed its face? There would have been little difference in the outcome. The wall was hard to miss and Hutzler also had the Starlight Scope and the fifty-caliber spotting rifles. McInerney had acquitted himself with honor and heroic bravery, however, unaware that his demonstration of those things was total without operational necessity or rationality. FNG meant what it meant for a reason. There was no regular peacetime logic that existed or worked down in the A Shau Valley. The A Shau, for me, had become my world, but to a newcomer, an FNG, it was a foreign as it might have been to someone entering Edgar Rice Burroughs The Land that Time Forgot.
The Gunny appeared, as I got my helmet back on and prepared my canteen cover to make coffee. He slunk down in a squat as Nguyen retreated back into a place just inside the higher jungle growth, his eyes never wavering or leaving my own when I checked to see he was there. The Gunny’s callous disregard for the lieutenant’s life earlier had left me a bit lost and feeling alone. I waited, without asking the man for the coffee fixing. He supplied the small packet, along with two packets of the powdered cream. There was no sugar but I didn’t require any. The Gunny started the Composition B fire and we waited, each of us sharing the small intense flame, our canteen cover holder bottoms long stained black by such practice. The Gunny lit a cigarette while we waited for the water to boil.
“We walked in the rain, so what do we do now?” the Gunny asked, his tone mild but with some stiffness in it, almost as if I’d made the comment about McInerney.
“What does battalion say?” I asked, since I had not been in contact with command for more than twenty-four hours.
“The six-actual says to wait while they assemble a combined forces attack to sweep down the valley,” the Gunny replied, his tone flattening out into a matter-of-fact analytical bent.
“We don’t need a plan to stay where we are,” I replied, watching civil dawn come and go as the sun began to rise toward overcoming the top of the distant cliff fact to our east.
“What we need is resupply. We need more 106 ammunition of both kinds. We need to have air hit Hill 975 unremittingly all day long and quite possibly on into the night if they will.”
The Gunny sipped his coffee slowly, and then took another hit from his Camel. The strain in the air between us was palpable and I could think of no way to reduce it or cut through it. I wanted to say that I had not sent the lieutenant to his death, that I had no idea of where he’d gone off to until it was too late. I didn’t ask why the Gunny had not stopped him from going out into such a suicidal position.
I sipped the scalding hot coffee slowly, being careful not to burn the sides of my mouth on the exposed lip of the wide metal opening. The silence dragged on while the sun worked to climb over the distant edge of the high cliff and illuminate the night’s fields of fire. We’d only lost the lieutenant, apparently, from what was said around me. I didn’t ask about that, my concern was more personal as I had no plan to go on in opposition to the Gunny or without his support.
Fusner motioned gently toward me with one hand, the sensitive teenager no doubt absorbing the tension apparent between Gunny and me.
Once again I watched Nguyen move to be in a place almost directly behind the Gunny, and that move made me uncomfortable. I did not want Nguyen, my imagined protector, to hurt the Gunny or be his enemy, any more than I did, but I had no plan to deal with the current situation.
I looked over at Fusner. He was tapping his little transistor radio. It was time for Brother John to begin broadcasting over the Armed Forces Network. I nodded my head. There was to be no hiding from the enemy. Every part of their three-pronged surrounding force knew exactly where we were. Only supporting fires from the air, artillery and the Ontos preserved our position along with the miserable open fields of fire the NVA had crossed in order to get to us.
The song that came out of the radio, mid lyrics was called Guantanamera. I’d heard it many times but the Sandpiper’s version, the English translation of the famous poets’ words put to song, had never penetrated me before, as they now did.
“My verses are light green, but they are also flaming red.
My verses are like a wounded fawn, seeking refuge in the mountain.”
I looked off into the distance toward Hill 975. I was the wounded fawn and there was no refuge. McInerney would have been the wounded fawn only hours earlier but he was wounded no more.
Guantanamera repeated with more verses in Spanish. I didn’t understand the name of the song as English was my only language except for pretty bad college German.
“I’m sorry,” the Gunny said, quietly, but well heard by me and Fusner.
I didn’t know what to say so I made believe I hadn’t heard him and took another sip of my too-hot coffee.
“I was out of line,” the Gunny went on.
I wanted him to stop talking. I didn’t want the Gunny’s apology. I didn’t want the Gunny to treat me as the classical straight-backed officer leading the Marines. I was so much more comfortable with the role that had been assigned to me as Junior.
The wonderfully terrible song played on, seemingly without end: “And for the cruel one who would tear out this heart with which I live. I cultivate neither thistles nor nettles. I cultivate a white rose.” Guantanamera.
I knew if I lived that the words would remain burned deep into my mind and body.
“It’s okay,” I finally replied to the Gunny, knowing that the lyrics of the song were probably not reaching inside him at all. “These are difficult times.”
“I hate seeing the officers die,” he went on, “one after another, no matter how it happens. I don’t have any children. I don’t have a son. I’m getting old. If I make it back I might still have time. If I have a son I’d want him to be a Marine officer.”
I noted in shock that the Gunny had bitten something back. He’d almost said, “like you.” I just knew it and had no reply to any of what he’d said so I went back to sipping the coffee, not noticing that I was burning my lips.
The last stanza of the song played, holding my attention in the silence after the Gunny’s staggering admission:
“With the poor people of this earth, I want to share my lot.
With the poor people of this earth, I want to share my lot.
The little streams of the mountains please me more than the sea.”
I looked back to my right, down the length of the open area that ran all the way to the Bong Song River. The little streams of the mountains I reflected for a few seconds.
All I had was the Bong Song, and it would have to do.
“The plan is called Candia,” I said to the Gunny, as once more silence settled over our small plot of mud, rain, and debris. I crouched under my poncho, only my hand and lower part of my face under my steel helmet exposed.
“The Knights of Malta held out for twenty-two years in that siege,” I said. “Time is on our side.”
“I’m not sure our Marines are going to understand that one,” the Gunny replied, after a delay of a few seconds.
“It’s okay,” Fusner piped in. A great siege and the Knights of Malta. Everyone’s heard of them.”
Even the Gunny had to laugh at that one, and I along with him.
I waited for Brother John to introduce his next song and what lyrics of depth they might reach inside me. I too liked the officers that came and went so quickly, none of them wounded, and all of them dead. I even liked the ones I hadn’t liked much at all. They’d been here with me and trying their hearts out like I was. Warmth spread through me as I thought about what kind of hard courage it had taken the Gunny to say to me what he’d said, and in front of Fusner, as well.
The first Skyraider came in without much warning. A deep growl in the distance and then it dropped out of the sky to pull up and zoom over our position, more toward the river than right over the top of where we sat. Then two more came in. Cowboy was on station and he’d brought friends. I reached out my hand but not fast enough because Fusner already had the AN323 up and the small headpiece ready for me to clamp on to my head. I pulled my helmet off and slipped into the device. Cowboy was instantly alive in my ears.
“Flash, wake up, coffee’s on and it’s time to play,” Cowboy intoned in his unbelievably upbeat and expressive tone. “There will be joy in this valley, and we brought lunch to stick it out. Puff will lift off in an hour and he’s loaded for bear with armor-piercing everything. That Hill is going to be an anthill when we’re done with it.”
I knew that armor-piercing rotary cannon fire could only likely pierce forty or fifty feet of solid ground, and less where there were significant rock deposits, but I could not help smiling. My gloom, one of feeling like I was going it alone, was completely gone. The resupply would have an excellent chance of success with the kind of supporting fire that the battalion had mounted to finally bring us home. The United States Marine Corps and the U.S. Army Cavalry were coming to get us and there was no way I could be depressed.
The Ontos would still remain the key to our survival, and so resupply that would have to, once again, cross the river would be just about everything. I was certain that Hultzer had fired just about everything he had during the night before. There would be no real air support in the darkest hours of the night and the M60s
along could probably not work alone to stop a hugely determined and sizeable NVA force. Getting the supplies across the bridge again would also probably entail losing more Marines. It was Sugar Daddy’s turn to try to earn his Silver Star once again. In spite of the games he’d more than likely played to get McInerney to go out into the field of fire instead of he himself, I didn’t want to lose more Marines doing the resupply, including Sugar Daddy.
Fusner’s radio played and Joe Cocker’s raucous rough voice began to sing. My smile grew larger. The song was “With a little help from my friends.”
There would, indeed, be some joy in the valley along with a great mass of help from our friends.