The six of us moved on our bellies, out toward the jumbled remains in the killing field of the mudflat, as one, without any signal. The ability of Marines in combat to need a whole lot fewer signals and orders than the guys doing all the training back home thought they needed amazed me, once again. We had become homogenized into one thinking and feeling entity by bitter and brutal circumstances.
We moved just like the almost shimmering gray images of the other recoverers of the dead from the enemy side. We crawled, chests touching the mud, and then slid along until encountering some of the rock debris that had been scattered about by the impact of the recoilless rounds against the face of the cliff.
In my mind, as I moved, I thought about the futility of retrieving a dead body while risking the living bodies of six more, but in my heart, I was a Marine, and I was being watched by hundreds of other Marines with the same kind of beating hearts. I could not fail them. I could not fail them even if I died in the attempt. After almost a month in constant combat, the fear of death had still not left me, but the prospect of its eventuality had seeped into every pore of my body. I had learned that one day, and quite possibly this day, I would die. That concept had been taught to me since I was a young boy but the reality of it had never truly entered into my belief system, and now it was part of every fiber of my physical and mental being. Death was not an ‘if’ thing. It was a ‘when’ thing.
Nguyen crawled past me, still making almost no noise, as I squished and plopped behind him. He came to the spot he’d indicated and began to toss rocks toward the enemy side of the pile. All five of us then worked to perform the same operation, being careful not to move too fast or hit the man next to us with what we threw. I became oblivious to the enemy troops retrieving their comrade’s bodies. It took almost a full hour to reach the lieutenant’s body.
We pulled McInerny from the debris. I noted, that he had no penetrating wounds. The Ontos 106 fusillade had killed him, while his finger was still on the button of his flashlight. I tried to pry the flashlight loose from his grip but it would not come, so I left it in his steely grasp. Once we had him flat on the mud we rested for a few seconds.
“We’ll carry him, sir, if you don’t mind,” Russell said. “He was one of our own, after all.”
“No,” I replied, instantly, understanding that they considered McInerney special because he was an officer. “We’ll all carry him back. He was one of all of our own. He was, and remains, a Marine.”
There had been no shots fired on either side while we were out on the mudflat, and there were none, as we slowly made our way back to our own lines. Once back, the corpsmen worked over the body to make certain the lieutenant was officially dead, before wrapping him in a poncho cover and spiriting him off to be readied for evacuation aboard the coming resupply chopper.
I lay down in the same small depression I’d left earlier. The Gunny had not moved from his position.
“You were right,” I said, breathing in and out deeply.
The work had been exhausting but the fear and trepidation had been even more sapping of my energy.
The Gunny lit a cigarette and offered it to me without taking a puff himself.
It was a small gesture, but not one I missed.
In the silence that followed I thought about the strange behavior of the NVA, an enemy I’d been taught was without honor, mercy or care toward the enemy it fought so fiercely. The fact that the NVA had not fired upon us, or our firing on them, also gave me pause. I had come to find that the NVA was a much more capable opponent than I had been led to believe in training. It was almost as if they were Marines, but smaller, and with a whole lot less technology and equipment. That thought made me uncomfortable. I did not want to be impressed by them or what they might believe.
“You don’t lack for guts, Junior,” the Gunny whispered, so softly that nobody else could hear him. “I’m not at all certain I’d have gone out there under any circumstance. I’ve come close so many times I keep getting the feeling that each time now, when the going gets tough, that that’s going to be it.”
I drew deeply on the cigarette and then handed it back. In the space of only a few hours, the Gunny had offered me more of his inner feelings and thoughts than in all my past time with him in the field. I knew I was in no place to reassure the Gunny. He’d have gone out there, and I knew it, and I thought he knew it too. He was saying what he was saying to lift me up and keep me going, and even knowing he was using that device as a tool, it was okay. I felt uplifted and would keep going.
We both smoked the cigarette together.
“Where the hell was the siege of Candia, anyway?” the Gunny asked out of nowhere.
“The Ottoman Empire,” I replied, automatically reciting what I’d learned in a European history course during my college years. Candia hadn’t been much discussed in class, but the fact that a surrounded city had lasted twenty-two years under constant fire, attack and deprivation, had gotten at least my passing interest.
“Okay, then where was the Ottoman Empire?” the Gunny went on, pursuing the nonsense subject just to be talking about something other than living miserably and possibly dying in even worse conditions.
At that, I coughed the smoke from my lungs and then had to laugh briefly out loud. “You know, Gunny, I studied that stuff and passed the tests but, in truth, I don’t have a clue as to exactly where it was. Europe, somewhere.”
“They’re coming in hot, high and dry in about half an hour for the resupply,” the Gunny said, his voice matter-of-fact like we might be talking about picking up groceries at the neighborhood store. “It won’t be dark yet, but it’s going to be close. I didn’t see any other way we could cross that river again unless it was in the dark. We took a hell of a hard hit last time, and we can’t exactly move the Ontos out of its current position to support us over there without being overrun here.”
“We’ll still have air up, if Cowboy can keep his guys on station that long,” I added, hoping I was right.
“Yes, there’s that, but from up there they can’t see through the dark any better than we can down here without the scope.”
“What about the Intruder?” I asked. “It has night vision capability and can carry twice what a Skyraider can haul.”
The Gunny didn’t reply, taking his time to finish the cigarette, and then tossing the crushed butt into the brush nearby.
“I’ll get on the air and see what we can scrape up,” I finally said, knowing Fusner was already fumbling with the radio to hand me the headset, as I spoke the words.
It would play hell trying to get the A-6 on station in time to cover the chopper’s pull out and our own flight back across the broken bridge with all the stuff that would have to be carried.
Sugar Daddy, Jurgens, the Gunny, and the other platoon commanders assembled minutes later at the foxhole I’d had dug earlier, and now designated as the command post for the resupply operation. I’d had the position dug in order to better view the area that rose upward slightly and a bit back from the river.
Sugar Daddy’s platoon would make the crossing while Jurgen’s platoon would provide the firebase on our side of the river to suppress fire that we knew would come up out of the jungle just downriver, across another mudflat that had already claimed the lives of so many men on both sides of the conflict.
The best news was that Jim Homan, whom everyone that knew of him called the ‘Whole Man,’ was coming in, navigating the Intruder and loaded for bear. His A-6, with its uncommon nozzled jet exhaust, would be able to loiter and see through a night that promised to be the brightest any of us had witnessed in weeks. The monsoon season was upon us, but that season was not one that allowed for complete predictability. At any moment the entire sky could cloud over, and then the rain would resume and with it the loss of almost all visibility, even for a high tech airplane that could normally see through stygian blackness. The A-6 coming out, all the way from Da Nang, was using the call sign ‘Ring Neck Seventeen,’ which I would later discover was not the pilot’s or the radar intercept officer’s call sign. It was the call sign for the aircraft itself no matter who was inside it, unlike the Skyraider designations that were more personal and comforting.
The supply chopper would be carrying tons of Ontos ammunition, a squad of 81 mm mortars and ammo for them, as well as plenty of water and C-rations. The battalion had hooked up with the regiment, and then the division, for the coming operation, and was apparently, from the radio traffic, in my stated opinion to the Gunny, not about to have our companies overrun or wiped out before they came down the valley to rescue us. That special attention would finally be paid to our dire situation gave almost everyone in the units hope, and a feeling of warmth, as the word spread. But it would all come down to the A-6 flying cover, the resupply landing without serious mishap, and then Sugar Daddy’s outfit getting the stuff across the difficult crossing presented by the raging monsoon swollen Bong Song while under fire from the enemy.
At the same time, the rest of our company’s firepower had to be directed, once again, at the mudflat extending out from the wall that we’d retrieved McInerney’s body from. The Ontos would not have full resupply of its ammunition provisions until Sugar Daddy’s unit got the stuff over, and Hutzler had fired everything he’d had, with the exception of only six high explosive rounds, in holding off the enemy during the night before. The situation was precarious, and success seemed to depend upon too many variables, but there was no other plan I felt we could fall back on to accomplish what had to be accomplished.
Sugar Daddy’s platoon assembled and lay in wait for the first sign that the resupply chopper was coming in. The A-6 came in first, but at high altitude, the pilot and his navigator bombardier no doubt wanting to get a feel for what was about to happen below before they came in on a firing and bombing run. There was no missing the screaming sound of the A-6 turbines, however, and that sound gave everyone a lift.
The CH-46 dual rotor chopper didn’t fly down the valley, as all of us waiting, had expected. It came dropping straight out of the nearly night sky, barely preceded by the Huey Cobra gunships protecting it. The Cobras flew in low, turning and circling like flies surrounding an outdoor light bulb. How they missed one another in the poor light conditions was hard to believe, but they did. They didn’t open fire on anything because the enemy remained silent as the supply chopper came in, hovering for only a moment before touching down.
Sugar Daddy and his platoon moved out at the run, the decision to hang back being my own. There was no point in exposing the Marines to fire on the exposed bridge surface by having them lay there in wait. Getting off the other end of the under-extended bridge, still reaching short of the far bank, was going to be the real problem. Sugar Daddy’s Marines would take the gap at a run and bull through to mudflat beyond, but it would take a prodigious effort to get the ammo boxes, water, and food supplies back across and up onto the lip of the bridge. It was there and then that I expected real trouble from the NVA force waiting further down in the jungle, dug in and fortified against the kind of firepower they knew would be supporting our resupply effort. McInerney’s body would accompany the last part of Sugar Daddy’s force, but that bundled poncho wrapped package was on the minds of everyone on the scene.
The platoon surged out across the river bank and onto the bridge without comment or orders, moving almost invisibly to mount the near side of the bridge butted into the riverbank on our side. The Marines wore their poncho covers in order to enjoy the maximum amount of concealment the moonlight wetness, from the rains of earlier in the day, might allow.
I was settled into my hole near the Bong Song river, it’s rushing sound magnified by the canyon walls rising up on both sides of it, once more dominating everything in the vicinity. The sound could only be slightly suppressed by crouching deep in the hole, my third hole in nearly the same spot since my descent into the A Shau Valley.
This hole was not dug down below the water table so it was nearly dry, except for the dampness the earlier misting monsoon rains had left as they’d pulled out. The night was nearly upon our position. I could not use the Starlight Scope as Hultzer had to have it back at the Ontos. Hopefully, the NVA occupying Hill 975 would not figure out that our recoilless rifle ammunition was low. The last thing I wanted was to have the sapper regiment attack again after we’d split our forces to hook up for the resupply. They would know, of course, as soon as the chopper was recognized for being what it was. The twin-rotor CH-46 was the resupply chopper for a very particular reason. It didn’t necessarily lift much more than a Huey, but it had a cavernous interior for packing boxes and containers of everything and then off-loading the entire load in seconds. The distinctive twin-rotor sound the blades made in beating against the low humid atmosphere down in the A Shau made it instantly recognizable once heard.
Sugar Daddy’s Marines were strung out, covering nearly every open space on the bridge’s surface, and then everything changed.
The bridge moved. It was impossible to miss what was happening. The end of the bridge, extended from the near bank, and almost all the way over to the far bank, and angled slightly downriver as it hung back from that far bank, shifted. The movement changed the way in which the rushing water was encountering the landed portion of the structure on our side. A huge white spray gushed upward into the night air, reflected out and back under the half-moon’s dim but glistening light, and then the bridge moved again. I watched it shift toward the far bank, the spray changing in angle and diminishing in amount, as the entire heavy metal platform speared into the far bank.
Sugar Daddy’s platoon was stretched across the length of the bridge, small dark, but shiny lumps, laying as still as they could under their poncho covers.
I knelt inside the foxhole, peering out on the scene from under the lip of my helmet, stunned to the point of being shocked. We’d fought back and forth across the seemingly permanently settled bridge so many times it didn’t seem possible that it had moved, any more than the upside-down tank, just downriver from it, might have changed position. It was like those artificial human artifacts had become natural parts of the landscape. I’d never considered that they might move or move at a particularly sensitive and crucial time.
I pulled back and crouched down a bit to think about what had just happened. Fusner pressed against my back and I knew instinctively that he was pushing the handset of the radio into me to respond. As I turned to take the microphone I felt Nguyen slip out of the hole, more like a thick snake than a human. He twisted around and then lay with only his eyes and the top of his uncovered head peering back down. I knew he knew, as I had come to know when I took an instant to conclude something that could not be avoided. I was going to have to get down to the close end of the bridge, now isolated out in the raging water, as the other end had been earlier. Sugar Daddy was going to have the same problem of getting himself and his Marines back as he would have had only seconds earlier, except in reverse.
I pulled the handset to the side of my head, pushing my helmet off to press it closer into my ear. The Gunny was going back and forth with Sugar Daddy on the combat net.
“Six actual,” I transmitted, pushing the transmit button down hard and holding it to send interference for a few seconds.
The Gunny and Sugar Daddy went silent.
“I’m coming down with my scout team and I want Jurgens and his whole platoon securing our end of the bank. The bridge moved, and it’s likely it’s going to move again soon. We’ve got to act fast, but the crossing has to be held at all costs. At all cost, Gunny.”
I knew the Gunny would want to come to the river. He was a man of action and command, but if the enemy crossed the mudflat under the cliff we’d brought down, with the Ontos too short on rounds to repeat its last performance, we would all be lost. I’d left the Gunny with the remnants of Kilo company two of our own company’s weakest platoons. The Ontos had six rounds. They would have to make do. Once the Bong Song lit up with fire I was nearly certain the sappers would rush forward from Hill 975 and mount their second assault, especially with the coming onset of darkness to cover them.
“Affirmative,” the Gunny replied, his tone flat.
I knew he knew that neither of us was in any position to do anything else. Sugar Daddy didn’t respond at all, and I was guessing that he’d simply signed off to lead his men off the bridge to the other side as quickly as he could. The bridge was where he’d almost died only days earlier, confirming that it was the worst possible attractant, with total lack of cover or concealment, that might be found anywhere. The problem was going to be getting the supplies and Marines back on our side, and I had no idea, from my position in the hole, what the new gap between the bridge and the riverbank might be like now.
I put my helmet back on and eased out of the hole. Nguyen was already gone, and I knew where he’d be much before I got there. Fear had started to rise up deep inside my core again, and it felt good to be moving, as I made my way upriver a bit and then low crawled and ran down toward where the end of the bridge had to be, somewhere on the other side of the blocking and irritating wet ferns and brush. I had forgotten about the Intruder altogether.
The A-6 came screaming in on its first run before I got to the river’s edge, much lower than its observation runs high up earlier. The Intruder’s advanced radar system allowed it to almost see in the dark using radar waves instead of the enhanced photons the Starlight Scope worked on. Our scope was very limited by weather, and then it only gave a small field of view compared to that of the radar return system in the Intruder, which produced fine images of what was below on a large cathode ray tube that sat in front of the Navigator Bombardier. Homan was up there looking down at us I realized, and that thought gave me a jolt of energy and hope. I got to my feet and raced forward. I came upon the scene to see the end of the bridge a good fifteen feet from the bank, with a heaping deep current of racing river water rushing by between the end and the bank.
The howling Pratt and Whitney turbine jet engines of the special ground support aircraft penetrated over and above the sounds of the river, as the machine flew so low that it only cleared the CH 46 over on the far side of the river by what seemed like tens of feet. At that point, it began a steep climb just before it encountered the northern edge of the jungle where the enemy had to be lying in wait, and ready to open up. The plane’s engines went to full power and it pulled upward sharply, vaguely visible only because the moon was half full and peeking through the scudding clouds.
Twin explosions followed, and any attention given to the plane was gone. I was used to the five hundred pound bombs dropped by the Skyraiders. They were called Snakeye bombs because fins snapped out behind them to slow their fall allowing the low flying A-1s to get out of range ahead of their detonation. A twin ripple set of explosions sent concussion waves across the river, blowing spray and condensed air over everyone on the river bank, including me. I knew instantly that the bombs were not the normal five hundred pounders. The explosions were huge, so huge that I saw the white curtain of a shock wave, compressing the water out of the air, as it rushed toward me across the river at the speed of sound. I ducked down only a bit too late, and my helmet was ripped from my head, along with its liner, and sent blowing through the air behind me. I went down and deep as hard as I could, and then pulled up slightly out of the six inches of mud I’d forced myself into. I looked up at the end of the bridge, just as Nguyen replaced first the liner, and then my once again damaged helmet, onto my head. I had to squeeze it on. The front of its normally round dome shape had been slightly pushed in.
There was nothing visible following the A-6 bombing run. The river raced on by with all its noisy might. I knew from hearing the water that my hearing had survived the tremendous effect of the bomb’s expended energy. I also knew there would be silence and shock spread out through most of the jungle target area where we feared small arms and possible rocket fire had to come from. The A-6 had given us time, but when would the Whole Man and his pilot rotate back?
I looked across the water toward the opposite mudflat, where the big dual rotor chopper sat, its blades still whirling at high speed, as if the helicopter was flying on the surface of the mud but standing perfectly still at the same time.
I crawled on hands and knees to where a small clump of men had risen up out of the muck following the attack.
“Jeez, Junior,” Jurgens said, staring at the bulk of the end of the bridge, now fifteen feet across the deadly flood driven water.
The blunt end of the bridge, unlike the other flat blade end on the other side, was a wall of flat iron that rose up a good six to eight feet above the river’s passing surface.
“How we going to get them back?” Jurgens asked.
Two Huey Cobras dived down and then screamed over our heads, forcing all of us to duck down. The lead Cobra circled back, the one I’d heard was piloted by a man using the name Turk. The sleek fast chopper repeated the same sweeping move. I knew the big chopper was unloading the supplies out onto the flat. Things were happening too fast. The Cobras were circling to isolate any threats and provide their own threat to any would-be machine gunner located in the shattered jungle. Sugar Daddy’s men had to be across and hopefully loading McInerney’s body into the body of the chopper, but what then? The chopper was leaving, the Cobras would fly with it, leaving a whole platoon of Marines to get back with all the stuff, and then somehow cross the twisting cauldron of deadly water from much higher up and further away than anyone had planned.
I took in the situation as best I could. I had no plan. Even acting at top speed there seemed to be no way to perform the mission. Sugar Daddy and his platoon would likely be lost no matter what we did.
I turned to Fusner. The kid had read my mind. I pulled off my mess of a helmet with both hands and planted the AN 323 air headset quickly onto my head.
“Whole Man,” where the hell are you?” I squeezed out, keeping my voice down but pushing the words out forcefully and hard, as I jammed my finger down on the transmit button.
“Radio etiquette,” came back through the little speaker in my ear.
“We’re in deep shit down here,” I said, ignoring the man’s out of place humor. “When is your next pass, if there’s to be the next pass?” I asked.
“Should hear us in one zero seconds, coming in hot low and wet with another deuce of the same…and then five more in rotation, and that’s in the clear for the little people to hear.”
Homan had figured out that the entire mission was fire suppression and he was sending a message to the enemy. If that first run had not reached many of them then five more runs might do all that we needed, keep their heads down and any fire from coming from their weapons.
I heard the whistling sound of the two powerful A-6 engines, as Homan knew I would. It had been about four to five minutes since the first run. With luck, we had twenty to twenty-five minutes to get our Marines back, and then there would be no air cover or anything else unless I pasted together another 175 mm artillery strike that would likely kill us all, anyway.
“We’ll make it fine,” I said to Jurgens, standing at my side.
He didn’t reply, merely turning to angle slightly toward me. He pushed something into my side. I grasped the tube-like object in surprise.
“The Gunny said you’d want this,” Jurgen whispered.
I felt the object. It was a Navy issue flashlight. McInerney’s flashlight.
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