The red river was a rivulet of bloody water that happened to be running down the valley, back from the direction the company had to head up into. The major problem, as the Gunny pointed out, was not our movement, air support or even hauling Zippo and the bodies that had come falling down from the cliff. It was the Ontos. There was no way the company could tramp back through the same stretch of jungle again, and counter-attack on through, without taking near total casualties. The NVA might have fallen for the first frontal attack but there was no way they would be taken by surprise like that again.
“We can run the Ontos along the edge of the jungle,” the Gunny noted, “although it’ll be a close fit with the wall hugging the solid debris in some places, but the turret can’t be rotated more than about thirty degrees if that.”
“Traversed,” Hultzer said, surprising both the Gunny and me.
I looked at the boy in question, with a frown. Usually enlisted ranks serving under a seasoned Gunnery Sergeant like our own spoke when spoken to and only answered questions they were asked to answer.
“Traversed,” Hultzer repeated. “Turrets on tanks don’t rotate, they traverse, and that Ontos turret can only traverse fifteen degrees each way.”
The Gunny squatted down, took out a cigarette and cupped one hand over it in order to shield it from as much of the mist as he could, ignoring my temporary scout sergeant’s comment. The rain had stopped earlier, but the mist continued, seemingly falling from wispy clouds that, back in the real world, wouldn’t have had any moisture in them at all.
“And the damn thing won’t have the room to use its tracks to turn either,” the Gunny got out, between his first and second puffs.
Hultzer and Piper, like twins that don’t look anything alike, crouched near the Gunny, as if it was he that they were the scout team for and not me. Their looks, as they watched the man smoke were the same. I realized that they were looks of adoration. I wondered how they looked when they viewed me, and I was unaware they were doing so.
“I helped operate an Ontos for a bit while at Infantry Training School in Pendleton,” Hultzer offered.
I squatted down to join the Gunny, not knowing what to say about Hultzer’s comments. Carruthers was trying to get Kilo organized and ready to move. My company didn’t need any organization and I knew it. The Marines in my company would simply move when they had to and do whatever they had to do to support it. Somehow, they were able to get ready and move without my orders. I’d never understood how they did that and it wasn’t likely, I knew, that I ever would.
After a few more puffs of his cigarette, the Gunny turned to face Hultzer, and looked at him silently, as if measuring the capability of the young Marine.
“Okay, corporal,” the Gunny said, his voice low and sort of threatening. “What would you do here, since you’re an Ontos driver? We’ve got to get the Ontos up along the base of this cliff about fifteen clicks, and we can’t direct its turret in toward the jungle to protect it or us with the flechette rounds.”
Hultzer leaned aside to put his lips closer to his constant partner, Piper. He tipped his helmet back to get close enough to whisper whatever he said. Piper jumped up and disappeared at a run back toward where the Ontos sat idling away behind us.
“I didn’t drive, Gunny,” Hultzer replied. “I was just a mechanic. There’s a cotter pin for the main gear because the turret needs to be able to turn fully around in order to lubricate the ring it traverses.”
“So?” the Gunny asked, his voice growing impatient.
“We pull the cotter pin, extract the gear, move the turret around left to face the jungle, and then have thirty degrees traverse sideways while the Ontos moves along right next to the brush.”
Piper ran back and plopped down next to Hutzler. He moved his right hand to put something in front of Hultzer’s chest.
Hultzer picked it up and showed both the Gunny and I what it held. “It’s like I thought. The Ontos vehicles are all the same. I wasn’t sure.”
The corporal dangled a large cotter pin from his fingers.
“I’ll be damned,” the Gunny whispered, snapping the remains of his cigarette over toward the stone wall.
The butt struck the surface, flared and then extinguished itself down in what I’d termed the ‘Red River’ of a slowly moving trail of water just below it.
Moments later, under the Gunny’s command and control, the Ontos was backed down from its position facing into the full body of the jungle. With Hultzer’s help the turret was modified and turned, and then the Ontos began moving along the edge of the cliff face, the sides of its tracks so close that occasionally they made jarring metal rasping sounds when encountering the rock itself. With the turret manually adjusted to face into the density of the full jungle, there was room on both ends of the Ontos to carry body bags. I counted six, as the tracked vehicle made its way slowly past me. I knew Zippo was still inside, and I wondered if his dead presence bothered the driver and the machine’s commander, but I said nothing to anyone about it. Fusner, Nguyen, Hultzer, and Piper moved with me, very close in proximity because the path between the canyon wall and the nearly impassible jungle body was narrow, and also because of the known fact that the Ontos could be used to dive under for cover in case of incoming fire.
Mortar rounds, small arms, and even RPG fire couldn’t easily reach through the Ontos armor and kill or wound those Marines who got under it for protection. The Russian .50 caliber the NVA had used before was a different matter entirely, however. I was afraid of the .50 more than any weapon the enemy possessed. I never spoke of that fear, however, and neither did anybody else, although they had to have it.
The Skyraiders worked overhead, diving down and firing a few twenty-millimeter rounds here and there. They positioned themselves on either side of the A-6, which flew marginally lower, it’s down-angled jet engines roaring over the normally jarring thunder of the Skyraiders powerful propellers. There was no incoming small arms fire, as we moved back up the valley. There was only one place of any security we might be headed unless it might be to recross the still monsoon flooded river, and that thought was ever on my mind. Would the NVA have mined the clefts? My other worry was regarding the ability of the NVA to relocate a .50 caliber close and well-positioned enough to attempt to take out the Ontos. The downside of following the Ontos closely was the simple fact that, although it might be protective offensively and defensively, it attracted fire of the heaviest kind.
Captain Carruthers appeared out of the grayness of the morning drizzle, as the air support began making turns to orbit the area for our move. His new jungle boots squished in the mud.
“I met one of your platoon sergeants,” Carruthers said, the moisture condensing on his helmet cover and dripping slightly down over his face. “I don’t think much of him. What’s his real name, as Sugar Daddy doesn’t quite fit into any table of organization I ever heard of in the Corps?”
“He’s all of that,” I replied, ignoring any attempt to straighten out the vagaries of Marine Corps rigidity and structure inside a battered unit inside a hot combat zone.
“Your Gunny sent part of his platoon forward to make sure the way isn’t mined or anything,” the captain went on. “I believe this Sugar Daddy threatened me like it was my idea to risk his men that way, but it wasn’t. In truth, I didn’t think of it, until the Gunny said you had encamped in that exact area twice before. Makes sense. I’ve got to write this sergeant up, for that and his lack of discipline, poor attire, and disrespect to an officer.”
“Let me look into it,” I said, trying not to sigh, as the words came out.
“I should hope so,” Carruthers replied, turning in the mud with a swishing sound and making his way back to his company assembling for the move.
Sugar Daddy was angry that his men were being risked for those of Kilo, I knew. Carruthers was way too new to see or understand that the price for his and his unit’s security might be considered too high a price to pay by Marines not only seasoned in combat but carrying a deep-felt knowledge that they were never going to live to go home themselves.
The Gunny came out of the brush to approach the moving Ontos in front of my small team. I sent Hultzer forward to get the Gunny’s attention, and Piper ran along staying only a few feet from his caretaker. The saddest part of watching them cross the short distance was the obvious and apparent fact that Piper knew how damaged he was, and was depending on Hultzer and the rest of us to get him through. He seemed unaware that all the rest of us around him were struggling mightily just to get ourselves through the day, and then another night.
The Gunny trotted toward me, a look of question on his face. He turned upon reaching my position and walked next to me. With the mist, faint wind, the sound of the Ontos and distant roaring of the air support flying above us it was hard to hear.
“What is it?” The Gunny asked, with his tone making no secret of the fact that he had other more important things to do.
“Sugar Daddy threatened Carruthers and I want to talk to him, now.”
“Can’t it wait?” the Gunny asked.
“You sent Sugar Daddy’s men forward to check out the cleft?” I asked.
“Seemed like a good idea,” the Gunny replied. “Little chance Jurgen’s Marines would really do the job.”
“Good move, but Carruthers can blow this whole thing apart from the inside if we end up with Kilo company as another enemy,” I said. “Like we aren’t in enough trouble as it is.”
“Yeah,” the Gunny breathed out, after a few seconds of saying nothing.
“Send your Bobbsey Twins to get him, Junior,” the Gunny said. “He’s with the other half of his platoon bringing up the rear. Can’t count on Kilo for nothing just yet.”
Hultzer didn’t need an order. He was gone with Piper before the Gunny stopped talking. We walked on in silence for a few minutes. The smell of the Ontos’ puffing little General Motors engine reminded me of automobile exhaust back home, although there was no home feeling in the hunching fear I felt. I fought to remain somewhat distant from the back of the protective armored vehicle. The danger of the nearby jungle to my left was like an invisible giant spider web pressing out toward me. I knew in my bones that the first sign of incoming fire would drive me right under the rear of the Ontos, where I’d stay crawling along with it all the way to the protection of the cleft near the river.
I heard Sugar Daddy behind me before I saw him. His big heavy body, moving as fast as it could to catch up with us, didn’t allow his boots to ease into and out of the muck with each step. The sound of his boots splashing down and then pulling back out couldn’t have been reproduced on a movie set. I kept walking. There would be no stopping until we reached the safety of the cleft.
“What’s the problem now, Junior?” Sugar Daddy said, fitting himself squarely between the Gunny and me.
“Captain Carruthers,” I replied, getting right to the point. “He’s in command of Kilo and we don’t know Kilo. I don’t need any trouble between our units while we’re together. I think the captain’s a good shit, so knock off the threats and obvious disrespect.”
“Don’t treat him no different than I treat you, Junior,” Sugar Daddy replied, mildly stressing the word Junior.
I breathed deeply in and out and decided to try one more time.
“I’m not quite right, somebody said a few days back, so the comparison doesn’t fit. So, I’m asking you to make an exception.”
“This is the A Shau,” Sugar Daddy shot back. “Ain’t no rules down here.”
“Gunny?” I asked. “What’s the relative position of the point element headed for the cleft, do you think?”
“Probably approaching the edge of the open field of fire by now,” the Gunny replied.
“Fusner,” I began, but the radio microphone was already being pressed into my left hand.
“Arty net is up, with the Army 175 firebase on the line,” he said.
I glanced over at the old young boy, wondering how he had guessed what I was going to want. The 175 battery was the only one that could reach out far enough to impact rounds near the river and jungle area we’d occupied before, but still, how could the young corporal have known I might need to call them?
“Fire mission,” I said into the handset. “Grid one niner six eight five five six two,” I read from my mind’s memory. I was no longer surprised that I could not only recall all my former night defensive fire coordinates but I could not forget them either.
“Battery of four,” I said into the complete silence around me, as we walked. “No spotting round and wait for my command to fire.”
“What are you doing, Junior?” the Gunny asked.
“Sure you want to play it this way, Sugar Daddy?” I asked the sergeant, my voice soft and velvety, surprised that I was in a place of complete calm and control.
“He’s calling in artillery on my men?” Sugar Daddy asked the Gunny, his voice breaking halfway through.
“Don’t do it,” the Gunny said to me. “Those Marines are assholes but they’re our assholes.
“You certain you understand these will be red bag rounds,” the tinny little speaker on the side of Fusner’s Prick 25 radio played out. “These are plus or minus four hundred meters or more in range at this distance.”
“You wouldn’t,” Sugar Daddy finally said, recovering himself.
I pushed the button down on the handset, raised it to my cheek and spoke.
“Fire for effect,” I ordered.
“No,” Sugar Daddy screamed, grabbing my left hand with the mike in it.
“I’ll do it, whatever you want.”
“Check fire, check fire, check fire,” I said hurriedly into the microphone, and then waited nervously while trying not to look like I was nervous at all.
“Check fire confirmed,” came through the speaker. “No rounds expended. Standing by.”
The march along the edge of the jungle went without incident and Sugar Daddy’s Marines welcomed the remainder of the two companies as if they were to be honored for their bravery in taking the point. The Gunny moved to compliment and reward the men while my scout team helped me to get inside the same cleft I’d left in a time that seemed so long ago.
Carruthers was battered, beaten and wet to the bone when he brushed aside the poncho-cover Piper had carefully and uselessly draped over the opening to my slice of cleft dug under the edge of the stone face. The valley wall went straight up, and it made no sense that the cleft should even exist except for the strange nature of the soft but long-wearing stone it was composed of. Bullets and explosives were absorbed when they struck, as opposed to the cliff face Carruthers and Kilo company had come down. The poncho cover gave me a degree of privacy but privacy wasn’t something I prized at all with the Marines I was supposed to be commanding. There were no secrets to be revealed, and no place to run away from the awful and brutal life and death struggle we all faced all the time together.
The big man bent down to move closer but upon getting closer collapsed to the hard and rough surface of the stone floor.
I made no move from my prone position to help him. The Gunny had been right, although his timing had been off. I was going to write a letter home to my wife, but I hadn’t started it out in the open. I had waited until I could be under cover. The incessant rain, drip, and mist a few meters away were almost impossible to write anything in or on unless using a grease pencil on plastic. The black government-issue pens would lay ink down under almost any circumstance, even running water, but the paper to be written on wasn’t nearly so tough or flexible. I made no move because I knew what the captain was going through. It was written all over his shaking shoulders and the expression that had to be on his face I couldn’t see because he kept his head bowed down.
“How did you know?” he asked, finally, his voice small and lost.
“I told you, sir,” I replied, keeping all sympathy from my voice, “I’ve been hit by that same battery in that same place before.” I looked away from Carruthers to avoid eye contact. He was going to have to patch himself together and I couldn’t be his therapist to provide some form of motherly or fatherly advice and assistance. There was no time, and the things I might tell him would only potentially risk my own position or even my credibility. I commanded my company or was supposed to, and he commanded Kilo. We were not companies commanded together. He was an officer FNG and I was not, and I could not maintain his company close in and personal as the Gunny had done with me. The captain had his own Gunny, although I knew nothing of the man.
“No, I mean the Montagnard you sent up the wall,” Carruthers got out, surprising me.
I remained silent, but the captain had my full attention. My relationship with Nguyen was special and I knew it. It was also based upon secrecy and I wanted to maintain that.
When I didn’t say anything for more than a full minute, the captain went on.
“He came up that face like a spider, freed one of my sergeants from his climbing rope, and then got everybody off that nightmare cliff without losing a soul. And he never said a word. The man’s a genius. How did you know to send him?”
I didn’t want to admit that Nguyen had been the Gunny’s idea, and that idea had come to him because he knew I was contemplating going up the glacis myself to try to rescue what Marines I could.
“Did you call in a medivac, sir?” I asked but didn’t wait for Carruthers to respond. “What about a list for re-supply? Replacements? And do you have a company clerk in your outfit that can handle some of the load?”
I peppered the captain with questions. Mission orientation, awareness and then working the objectives to accomplish that mission, I knew, was better than any kind of sympathetic counseling I could provide about the fact that the captain was in the A Shau Valley to live and most probably die, and as long as he stayed alive as a company commander, was going to bleed dead Marines like blood pumping from a major artery.
“We’re supposed to move back north toward the Rock Pile, eventually,” the captain said, raising his head to look me in the eyes for the first time.
I noted that although he’d answered none of my questions, he wasn’t giving the appearance of being a helpless wounded dog anymore. I would like to have told him to ‘be a Marine and suck it up”, but I’d already realized that I didn’t really know what it was like to be a real Marine and there was no sucking it up in the A Shau. There was only remaining low, moving as much and as fast as possible, and finally, avoiding being killed by the enemy or my own men. Avoiding that required a bit of avoiding the enemy and my own men on a regular basis.
I got to my feet, carefully folding my unfinished letter into the Iwo Jima envelope I’d send it in later. I carefully removed my utility top, pulling it over my head rather than unbuttoning all the front buttons.
“Would you mind, sir?” I asked Carruthers, turning to show him my back, while at the same time bending slightly so I could disengage my mosquito repellant from the rubber band holding it to the side of my helmet.
A direct shot of gasoline (not ignited) worked the best to instantly dislodge the leeches stuck to my torso in the places I couldn’t reach. A hot match head was second best, but the repellant, if applied liberally, and sometimes more than once, also worked, and we didn’t have the two other fixes, anyway.
“Oh, the leeches,” Carruthers commented, his voice filled with revulsion.
Then he took the plastic bottle and went to work. “I haven’t had any of the painful things get on me yet.”
I said nothing. The captain had come through the same mud and jungle I’d traversed to get from the bottom of the glacis to the cover of the cleft we were in now. He had leeches, but he didn’t know it. The leeches emitted a deadening solution as they bit into human skin. The captain was accurate in expressing his belief that he had no pain from the leeches. You had to feel for the effect of their weight tugging at the skin. There was no pain. It was a subtle thing that took a while to catch on to. I knew that if Carruthers lived long enough he’d come to be very aware of the symptoms, but there was no point in letting him know that in our current position and situation. The first leeches caused an emotional upset in anyone who dealt with them. I didn’t need the captain winging out, just yet, anyway.
“We’re going to get hit, probably tonight some time, sir,” I said. “They’ll probably have their .50 caliber back, along with a load of B-40s. The resupply and medivac are going to come in a couple of hours from now and the 46 is going to play hell getting in and out of here unless we have suppressing fire and air support orbiting all over the place. Get some sleep and let the Gunny organize the defensive fires.”
“How come we have so many dead,” Carruthers asked. “I’ve heard the wounded far outnumber the dead in this war.”
“This is the A Shau, and it’s not in this war, sir,” I replied. “This is a whole different war down here.”
“Where do I go now?” the captain asked, and I caught a note of ‘little boy lost’ in his tone.
“Right here, with me, captain,” I said. “This is officer country as long as we’re here. Fusner and my scout team are right outside. Where’s your RTO?”
“My RTO is in a bag on that Ontos out there. What about that black sergeant?” Carruthers said, settling down into a sitting position on the edge of my poncho liner.
I realized the captain wasn’t lost, he was in shock. He’d led his unit down a dangerous cliff and then gone back up to save survivors. He’d lost his radio operator and some others in the effort, and he’d done it all without running or showing any fear at all. He was a real Marine officer and I knew that from that moment I would never call him anything but sir.
“Sugar Daddy has rethought his comments and attitude, sir,” I replied. “I think you’ll be very pleased.”