Whole Man and his A-6 Intruder were gone, and the jungle below was silent, as well as the drums mounted on what was left of the upper lip of the cliff. The lack of the mind-numbing drumbeats was balanced by the emptiness I felt over losing what air support we’d had until the Intruder might, or might not, return later in the night. How many had been lost of Sugar Daddy’s platoon to accomplish the resupply, and getting McInerney’s body back to the rear? The enemy fifty caliber machine gun had to have taken an awful toll in being able to penetrate both sides of the bridge’s metal structure. The river’s depth and flow almost assured that some Marines likely hit had been lost in its waters. The firing had been very extensive, and directed only at the crossing Marines and not the resupply chopper at all. Whether the NVA leaders had determined they wanted to avoid the withering fire of the Cobra Commander Turk, and his squadron of Cobras, to preserve the gun, or whether their reasoning was about something else I couldn’t know. There was also no way, particularly in the dark, the enemy could have known about the addition of the 81 mm mortars to our inventory. They had to know the Ontos was pinned down, and the dangers we ourselves faced in calling in another 175 mission. The accuracy and murderous effect of the mortar fire had to have taken them completely by surprise.
Had the fifty caliber been neutralized, and if it had then why was there no RPG rocket fire that might have accompanied the machine gun attack, or even come blasting in after? Another unanswered and unanswerable question.
The moon was gone. The clouds were gathering and a pre-misting wind was blowing across the river from the other side. It was only a matter of time until the monsoon rains began to fall again. There was no point in my moving to the stern, or rear, of the bridge, as the bodies would come over, those that were recoverable, the wounded and the dead. I was not needed for that operation, as Jurgens would remain where he was. Another medivac chopper would have to be called in for those survivors who were still alive and could survive into the next day. I instinctively felt the small bulge in the right thigh pocket where my morphine supply was located. It was then that I realized that I hadn’t thought to get my letter home to the chopper I’d been able to rough out earlier. Two days earlier. I felt bad that the actions at the bottom of the A Shau had taken all of my attention away from any thoughts about home and my wife and daughter. I’d been able to write home almost every day of my stay in Vietnam and wanted my track record to be perfect. It was possible that she, after twenty-eight days, was only now receiving the first letters I’d written. There was no way to predict what happened to the mail any of us put on the chopper. Was it delayed in delivery at some point of departure from Vietnam, or somewhere else along the way? Was the normal damaged envelope and soggy paper available used as an excuse by the military, or even the U.S. Postal Service to toss the letters, or what remained of them?
I could not wait for the butcher’s bill on the bridge action. The Gunny was covering the mudflat beneath the wall we’d used for fragmentation the night before. That area was from where the next attack would have to be launched. There was no way to safely cross the river using the bridge. Two M-60s could easily defend the fifteen-foot span of rushing water racing around the displaced rear of the bridge. That was, of course, if the bridge didn’t move again, which it was bound to do at some time soon. I knew Jurgens was experienced enough to have pulled down the makeshift cargo nets.
My place was spotting for the Ontos, as I had done before. There were no real commands to issue, as the river covered our eastern flank, and the flooding inlet connection to it kept the enemy from charging across the distance from Hill 975 (except for the shallows that ran thinly over the area near the wall everyone had come to call the mudflats). An attack from the rear, through the jungle below in the south, was fairly easy to defend because of the difficulty of moving through it, the open area and the ability of the Ontos to turn and fire flechette rounds down the open area nearly instantly also secured that area from any large scale attack.
The expected night assault came without warning, other than a line of green tracers coming out of the lower part of the mountain to begin working back and forth across the edge of jungle both Marine companies were set up to defend. I checked my watch again, trying to somehow force, or at least urge, the dawn to come faster.
There had been no report coming from the river on casualties, and that fact alone meant the results were probably not good. That, plus the fact that I was growing ever more uncomfortable with our position. We had defended the nearly undefendable for some time. How long would it be before the NVA forces downriver attacked from the jungle they were no doubt spending plenty of time and energy digging through and under? A coordinated attack from all three sides, north, south and from across the bridge would spread our defensive fire capability way too thin, even with the 81s, the Ontos and the M-60s laying down heavy fire from the load of ammunition that had been unloaded from the resupply chopper. There was one other factor that the A-6 had reminded me of. The ridges running nearly a thousand feet up along both sides of the canyon on both sides of the river. If the NVA accessed the western ridge, up and above the face we had used to rain rock shrapnel down on the mudflat, then they would have a fourth element of raining plunging fire into our totally exposed position below. There would be no surviving such a four-pronged attack. The attacks on two fronts could not be repulsed forever, even if resupply came in almost every day or night, and that was simply not a possibility unless there was some other way to funnel in massive ammunition supplies I’d never heard of.
The Gunny had the mortars targeting the mudflat, and when the first wave of attackers came their fire was murderously effective, but I could not help but count the rounds expended. There would be little left in the more than likely event of another attack. The Ontos cut the remaining attackers to pieces by firing six of its remaining flechette rounds, under my direction. The enemy attack failed again, and I wondered about the seemingly inexhaustible number of soldiers the enemy had. It was disconcerting, with an added touch of fear. I had Hutzler reload with high explosives once more and then got the Gunny up on the command net. The mortars needed to cover the eastern edge of the next attack and force the enemy to get closer to the wall. The Ontos fire would use the wall to be even more effective in reaching down to kill the exposed crawling soldiers attacking thereby saving as many flechette rounds as possible.
The Gunny surprisingly asked me to come to his position at the wall, which at first I was hesitant to do. That was until a few minutes later when the battery in the Starlight Scope failed.
“Where’s the extra battery?” I asked Fusner, who normally carried several for the scope.
“That was the extra battery,” he replied, disappointment evident in his voice.
I breathed in and out deeply. Resupply could have easily included more batteries if they’d been ordered. The batteries were small and weighed next to nothing, but they were special and there was no replacement for them. The instrument that had been so decisive in helping us direct our fire at just the right time and just the right place was now useless. We were as blind as the enemy, but with about three thousand, or more, fewer men.
The Gunny called. The fifty had opened up from its mountain burrowed lair again, which was evident without the Gunny’s report. The gun crew of the mortars could adjust fire but they needed a forward observer who could call and adjust precision fire without wasting rounds.
I hadn’t been exposed to the fifty’s fire in some time. My position in my foxhole at the river had been completely protected by a berm of earth and mud even the Soviet fifty rounds could not penetrate all the way through. The Marines crossing the bridge had had no such protection. My current position did not allow for the mountain-positioned heavy machine gun to traverse east enough to angle toward me. I didn’t want to move to the wall and become a target of the gun’s direct fire, but I knew I had no choice. The Marines manning the mortars didn’t want just any forward observer. They wanted me, which under any other circumstance would have made me feel some warmth and pride, instead of dread and fear.
I moved, crawling through the clearing on my belly, with Fusner trailing close behind and Nguyen off to one side and just ahead. There was no moving fast anywhere along the route, open or not. The enemy fire could come at any time from the jungle edge that ran along on the downriver side, not more than fifty meters distant. By the time I reached the Gunny’s position, guided in by Nguyen, the fifty was no longer firing.
“We need to shut that thing down, and then fire on the eastern flat to push them into the wall when they come,” the Gunny said.
I said nothing to the Gunny about the fact that my conclusion, made earlier, was exactly the same as his own. Instead, I squatted down next to him and went to work to dig a little hole to heat up some water and make coffee. The coffee wasn’t to slake any thirst but to make a place in time to talk. The fifty was temporarily quiet, but my hands still shook, while unlimbering my canteen holder and then pouring some water into it. The Gunny, as I hoped, provided a chunk of the composition B explosive for the fire, and then took out a cigarette and lit it with his Zippo.
My crawl up the open space, bare from the river to the cliff face, had been tiring but also strange because there was a certain unsettled silence that had seemed to radiate out from the Marines I’d passed. The Gunny wasn’t being as open as he usually was, either, I noted. The resupply had been a success, but there had to be something going on.
I got the explosive lit down inside my small hole in the jungle floor. There was plenty of brush between our position and that of the NVA force out across the killing field of the mudflat, and the small inlet of fast-flowing water, to make it nearly impossible for the enemy to see either the Gunny’s cigarette glow or the small reflection of the fire burning up against the bottom of my blackened canteen holder of water.
“You going to tell me?” I asked, noting that this time the Gunny wasn’t in a sharing mood with his cigarette.
“We took a bad hit at the bridge,” he replied, the tone of his voice flat and unemotional.
“The fifty, as they intended,” I came back, not knowing what else to do other than wait for the report of casualties he possessed. It seemed everyone else had that information too, except for me. I’d hoped for good news there, although I’d suspected that the numbers might be high.
“Twenty-seven,” The Gunny finally said, his voice almost too low for me to hear.
“How many KIA?” I asked, afraid of the answer.
Twenty-seven was more than half the table of organization personnel called for, and Sugar Daddy’s platoon hadn’t been fully up to standard in size.
“All of them,” the Gunny replied, “They were all behind the bridge, using it for cover as they crossed, and they’re gone. No need for a chopper recovery. The fifty rounds lanced on through the thin steel, taking them out one after another, like it was made of waterproof cardboard instead of solid steel, except for Sugar Daddy. He was up top running all over trying to do something to save his men, but there was nothing to be done. The mortars worked great, finally, but you couldn’t get them up and adjusted in time to save those men.”
“Sugar Daddy?” I asked, a shot of adrenalin going straight through my body, from top to bottom.
“Sugar Daddy?” I asked again, but already knowing the answer.
“Dead as a doornail,” the Gunny went on, in his same flat tone, one that seemed uncaring. But I’d come to know something of the extraordinary sergeant over time, and I knew he was covering up his own loss by layering an analytical coat over everything he said.
“Jurgens got his body off the bridge, which is a story in and of itself,” the Gunny droned on, finally offering his cigarette to me.
I took it in my shaking left hand, but didn’t inhale, trying to hold the lit thing in one hand and balance my heating water in the other. We’d just lost almost one-eighth of the Marines we had in both companies, which amounted to the worst night of KIA loss I’d experienced since coming into country.
“They blame me,” I finally said, placing the canteen holder on the ground.
I inhaled from the cigarette and then handed it back.
“It was your plan,” the Gunny replied. “Funny, it was one of the rare ones that didn’t have a screwy name. Maybe we could call it The Night of the Living Dead now, except there’s no living about it.”
“They blame me,” I said again, this time my fear rising like a thick ropey mass moving from my lower gut on up to my chest.
I could not survive the Marines blaming me and I knew it in my core.
“No, that’s the funny part,” the Gunny replied. “They feel sorry for you. Even the survivors of his platoon think Sugar Daddy thought you saved them all from Jurgens’ platoon and then from the enemy. There’s no logic in this horrible valley.”
The Marines didn’t blame me. I felt able to breathe again. I played the Gunny’s words back and forth in my mind, once more heating my coffee although I had no coffee packet or creamer, for that matter. The Gunny wasn’t offering any. I decided that it was too dark for him to see my predicament, although the glow of my still burning explosive fire sort of blew a hole in that explanation. The Marines didn’t blame me. The Gunny blamed me. How could I have predicted that they’d get the damned fifty-caliber up and operational again, or that it would take aim at the vulnerably positioned Marines instead of the heavily defended supply chopper? How could I have had more control to get the mortars set up faster and then adjust fire with Marines if I had no idea might even be able to accept and understand fire direction orders? I closed my eyes and took a swig of the too hot water, with about as much substance in it as was in my own heart.
I thought of defensive arguments to come back at the Gunny with. We had to have the supply mission and it had to land where it did, and then we had to have Marines get over to it and lug the supplies back. None of us could have survived the night without that resupply load of ammo, water and more. But, I knew it was useless. For the first time in my month in-country, and combat, I started to understand and deeply feel the terrible burden of inescapable responsibility, accountability, and also the guilt of commanding men who then died performing their very best to obey those commands, no matter how misguided or misplaced the rationality forming the decisions to make the commands might be, or in this case, might have been.
“Where’s his body, or did it go over the side too?” I asked, pushing my hot canteen down next to the expiring fire to fry and squish some emerging leeches from the muddy runnels that squeezed up between the leafy and crushed fern material of the beaten-down jungle floor.
I assumed that there were no bodies to transport because the men had been hit with not only the fifty ammo but with the shrapnel it would have created in penetrating both sides of the bridge, and then hitting them with splashes of molten steel and small razor-sharp bits of whatever else the bullets were comprised of. Some of the Marines might even have lived, at least until they were swept under the bridge and then downriver to drown alone in the middle of the night.
“The body’s in your foxhole back at the river, where I instructed them to put if for safekeeping,” the Gunny replied.
I turned to look around me. Fusner’s eyes were glistening, and I wondered if he was crying. Sugar Daddy had been a Marine piece of work but he’d been such a force of nature in the company that it was hard to imagine the company going on without him. Nguyen was just next to and back from Fusner. I looked into what I could see of his eyes. He nodded ever so slightly back toward the river. I knew instantly what he was communicating. I nodded back by lowering my chin slightly. The Montagnard disappeared in the night, as was his habit. He was going to recover my pack and other belongings I’d left in the hole. If it was the Gunny’s plan that I be shamed by having to return and displace Sugar Daddy’s body to get my stuff, well, at least I wouldn’t have to face that.
“I wrote Jurgens up for a star and sent it off on a chopper to the battalion,” I said, to make talk, but also to try to openly discuss rewarding Sugar Daddy for the bravery he’d demonstrated time and again, once he’d come to accommodate me as the company commander.
“I don’t trust battalion to give him a damn thing,” I went on. “I don’t want to send Sugar Daddy’s recommendation there. Is there another solution?”
“Send them to Headquarters Marine Corps,” the Gunny answered. “Send it to the commandant himself. Chapman.”
“I don’t know the address there,” I replied, not knowing what else to say, and not having expected the Gunny to reply at all.
“Eighth and I, the postal service will do the rest.”
“Eighth and I?” I asked. “What kind of address is that?”
“It’s the oldest Marine post on the planet,” the Gunny said. “He’ll get it. It’s where Eighth Street and I Street intersect in Arlington, Virginia. You’ll find, if you ever make it back into the world, that the United States Postal Service is the Marine Corps of postal delivery. They’ll get almost every one of those strange letters you send home all the time, and they’ll for damn sure get the citation to the commandant.”
“Will he award the decorations if he gets them, at that high level?” I asked, more to keep him engaged and talking than because I wanted, or needed, to know.
“Hell yes,” the Gunny replied, the flatness leaving his voice, “because no officers have the balls to go all the way around the chain of command to do such a career-ending thing. But we don’t have careers to worry about anymore and God knows you have the balls.”
It was still dead dark minutes later when the fourth attack began, but this time everything was different. We had no Starlight Scope to see in the dark. I could not direct the Ontos fire and from our position near the wall, none of us could see anything across the blackness of the mudflat. The attack gave itself away because the soldiers running and crawling were firing their AK assault rifles. The fifty remained silent, as it could not fire blindly through its own attacking force.
The difference was that the Intruder was back, and along with it, ‘Whole Man,’ our bombardier and navigator. Homan did all the talking on the radio, but without Thompson flying the controls, the plane would never have been able, time after time, to save me and the Marines around me. The rapid turn-around the Intruder made from the carrier was just another proof of that. I knew the plane, some called the flying drumstick, could not stay up as long as the Skyraiders, and I missed Cowboy and his fellow pilots whenever they could not be overhead. But the Skyraiders could not be there at night. They were not day/night all-weather ground attack aircraft like the Intruder. In order to be back overhead in less than three hours, the A-6 had no doubt set some sort of record in loading ordnance, and then flying both legs of the trip at maximum speed. Homan and Thompson cared, as the men on the carrier had to care, and without any of us talking about it on the ground under them, I knew it. That knowledge injected hope and warmth through the core of radiating fear and pain I had come to live with. I could only hope the Marines around me felt the same way.
Homan didn’t bring the plane in at high altitude, dive down and then pull up steeply to unload the huge bombs the plane had carried in its earlier runs. These bombs were the smaller ones, but the delivery of them was entirely different. The Intruder came in down the river as the Skyraiders had done in many of their previous raids, but the Intruder seemed even lower than the big radial powered propeller aircraft. The first run was across the lower jungle on the other side of the river, and the plane seemed to drop six or eight of the smaller, but still violently concussing weapons. The ripple effect of the explosions and muted but brilliant fireworks of their effect was undeniably spectacular. The enemy had a disadvantage when it came to trying to deal with Thompson and Homan. They were in a fixed position, even if dug in fairly securely. The constant rearrangement of the jungle above them had to be disconcerting, if not wounding or killing. The second pass of the Intruder was entirely different after I got on the AN-323 and let Homan know in detail about the mudflat just south of the mountain running on our side of the inlet feeding inlet water between our position and that of Hill 975.
Somehow the A-6 was able to fly low across the top of the canyon lip in the east and then drop right down to scream in about fifty or sixty feet above the mudflat. The break in the cliff face, allowing the water to flow from deeper in the canyon complex walls into the Bong Song, proved to be wide enough to let the Intruder fly through.
The string of bombs that came down proved to be much larger and longer than the string dropped to level the lower jungle area. The bombs exploded so much closer that, once again, all of us waiting and watching only a couple of hundred meters away were forced deeper into the muddy jungle surface by the sweeping concussion waves. Jungle debris scattered and fell down upon everyone anywhere close.
How long could the Intruder stay and why could God not let the light fall down into our cursed and killing valley sooner?