My small cleft was filled with Marines by the time the day moved into late afternoon. I’d finished my letter home, once again extolling the virtues of the local fauna and flora and how the nearly continuous monsoon mist was such a relief from the harsh pounding of the seasonal heavy rain. I left the leeches, foot problems, rotting uniform, and continuous fatigue out of my correspondence. When I finally met my fate in the A Shau Valley, my wife and any later interested parties might wonder how such a mortal tragedy came to be when I’d been traveling through such a scenic and life-filled valley.
The choice to dig in where we were was made by the Gunny. He didn’t even ask my permission or choose to inform me that the Marines were going to make an attempt to stay right where we were for an undetermined time. That news only came to me when I arose from the first real sleep I’d had since I could remember. The mosquitos had eaten me, the leech wounds had bled and there would be more scars. But I’d slept a few hours and I had not dreamt of anything or anywhere. There was no dreaming of any place other than the hell I was in, and I accepted that, but I also welcomed the fact that I didn’t dream of the valley, or even worse atrocities than those I had, and was, already experiencing.
Carruthers had returned to my cleft shelter when the sun was almost down. There he’d encountered first Fusner and then Nguyen, both of whom did not want me aroused from sleep. It hadn’t mattered to Carruthers and, short of violence, there was no way that either Fusner nor Nguyen could stop him.
“What is it?” I asked, trying to find my helmet, that I knew Fusner or one of them would have half-filled with water from somewhere. I had to shave and I had to wash my face, armpits and then the wounds left by the leeches on my torso.
“It’s like I’m dead here, already,” Carruthers said, settling down to sit on the edge of my poncho liner. I bent down, having found the nearly invisible helmet inside the darkened cleft. I washed my face first, then swung my head up and shrugged off the fresh water. It felt wonderful. I didn’t need or want a towel.
“They don’t listen to me about anything,” Carruthers went on. “They’re digging in like we’re staying here, but our orders are to immediately head up the valley to connect with other units coming down the valley.”
“They’re dead,” I said, getting my little Gillette razor out, screwing open the base, and positioning a two-sided blade into the revealed opening. The razor blades were good for two or maybe three shaves, not like back home where I could get four or five.
“Who’s dead?” Carruthers asked.
I shaved away, without a mirror or any other aid. I didn’t care about growing a beard. Shaving made me feel somewhat clean, so I did it every chance I got.
“The battalion coming down the valley had to pass by Hill 975,” I replied. “Hill 975 is rifled through with tunnels and caves. It’s also a resupply center for the whole complex of trails that run up and down this valley. The NVA troops there were unprepared for us, even though we hit them twice. The third time around, that being when the relief battalion passed by, would have been it. They got hit and what remnants there probably are, will be evacuated out. Listen to the combat net or ask Fusner, my radio operator.”
“Hell, you’ve been asleep, they told me,” Carruthers exclaimed. “How in hell would you know?”
“I live here,” I said, washing the lather and whiskers from my face. “I just know. If you live down here long enough then you’ll know too.”
“So, you gave the order to dig in because we can’t go back and we can’t go up the valley either?” Carruthers asked.
“Well, sort of,” I replied, using the C-rations tiny soap bar to work away at my leech wounds.
It was the night coming. I could feel it. The night was the enemy. We had the Starlight Scope, Zippo’s scope, but it was so limited in what it could see that the night belonged to the NVA, and what little we could see was easily blinded by the flares they used, tracers or any other light source, including artillery illumination. The light we got in the night or the night we could see through was all but useless.
We had the Ontos and flechette rounds. We had the never-failing M-60 machine guns with replaceable barrels. We had the Browning thirty caliber on top of the Ontos which was irreplaceable when we could get enough 30-caliber ammunition. The M-60s fired 7.62mm NATO rounds, which was a bit smaller and a bit less powerful than the 30-06 rounds of the Browning.
The fight into the dark was intense. Air had gone home, the A-6 having used up all its ordnance and the propeller jobs running low on fuel. The transition between coming night and the daylight hours was nothing more or less than a building tempo of what might be expected when full dark came along.
The .50 caliber Russian rounds chewed up the berm on both sides of our position. The rounds were useless when they were absorbed into the strange soft rock of the metamorphic rock of the cliff face, but before they encountered that rock surface they could play havoc penetrating the entire earthen berm we depended upon for protection against the NVA onslaught. The enemy wasn’t stupid enough to attempt a frontal assault again. Not against the potential firepower of the M-60s and Ontos together. The company’s 60 mm mortars had been out of ammunition for some time, nothing provided by the ‘inspection tour’ resupply of a few nights before. Kilo Company had brought 81 mm mortars down the face of the cliff but their ammunition supply was exhausted, as well. Everything depended upon the resupply choppers coming in first thing in the morning, but getting to that time of first thing in the morning was going to play hell on the survival of our joined companies.
The early night threat wasn’t normal. I had kind of expected that after the Gunny had reported terrific amounts of non-combat seeming movement in the jungle. The jungle that we’d just gone through, shooting and killing so many, and the same jungle we’d skirted once again to arrive back where we had started days before.
Daylight air strikes were impressive and there had been many of them, but in my heart of hearts, I knew that caves and tunnels dug more than thirty feet down into the muddy jungle surface would remain unaffected by the bombing, napalm and more. The movements reported to the Gunny meant that our semi-fortified position was going to be hit in the night, and hit hard. The NVA had not had the time or the ordnance to mine the clefts along the bottom of the canyon wall. But that didn’t mean they’d left the area open for repossession on our part. It might mean that they’d registered every square foot of the defensive position to fire B-40 rockets, and fire what .50 caliber bullets they’d caged together straight into our position.
The green .50 tracers had started crisscrossing the air above our position prior to dusk. It didn’t have to be dark to see the screaming beer-can size tracers lace themselves from one end of our extended line position to the other. Every Marine, except possibly the newest ones, knew that the rounds weren’t intended to hit anyone. They were intended to let us know what was coming in the night. Air support was winding down or gone altogether, and the enemy knew that. There was no artillery that could reasonably reach them without causing as many deaths of Marines as it might of the NVA. Whatever was going to happen between the enemy and the Marines was going to happen one on one, unit on unit, and Marine on NVA soldier. The advantage was to the force that was larger, better armed and with more staying capability through the night. My Marines and those of Carruthers were equipped and supplied through the night, but would it be enough? The supply coming in, along with the evacuation of dead bodies loaded aboard the empty chopper, would be extra, but would that be enough? The NVA .50 had plenty of ammunition or they wouldn’t be wasting it by setting up some sort of attitude fire, I knew.
Even with the Ontos, how were we supposed to provide covering fire for the CH-46 on the way? The NVA feared the little beast but it would only take one stitching into the side of the chopper by the .50 to destroy the aircraft and the company’s chance for survival.
Normal, machine gun, M-72 or even mortar fire wasn’t going to work, I realized. There was only one weapon I had at my disposal that might work, at least for the time we might need to get the chopper in, unload the supplies and get the dead Marines aboard, and then out of there. It was a dangerous weapon but the cliff provided the clefts that should protect them, under the cut in edge near the ground.
Captain Carruthers left without saying anything further. I sent Hultzer and Piper off to find the Gunny, and also to get my letter home to Jurgens so he could get it aboard one of the choppers. If my plan was to work then timing would be everything, not just with the air-dales coming in but with the Marines in both companies. Unless everyone got under complete cover then there were going to be heavy casualties on our side. The enemy could remain dug in, although their ability to direct any fire on the choppers would be severely limited during the entirety of the defensive display.
The Gunny was back from wherever he’d gone in minutes, Hultzer and Piper trailing behind his radioman like sheep following a shepherd.
“More of your plan, I presume,” the Gunny said, squatting down and lighting a chunk of the composition B. I didn’t reply, instead unlimbering my own canteen holder.
The Gunny had coffee and I wasn’t going to be left out if I could help it.
“They’re not serious yet,” the Gunny said, pouring water from his canteen into his own canteen holder, and then into mine. The coffee came next, the small packets pungent to the nose when first opened. The Gunny had plenty of the precious artificial cream packets, as well, but no sugar. Sugar, outside of morphine, and flechette rounds for the Ontos was the most precious commodity in the company.
“They’ll be in place, waiting for the chopper,” he said, stirring his liquid mix with his big K-Bar knife.
“Our air’s gone home, but the chopper will come in with covering Cobras,” I replied, knowing the Gunny already knew all about what I was saying. “I can use a zone fire arrangement and burn up the 175 supply at the firebase. Zone will give us almost sixty rounds, at two hundred pounds each, in an “X” formation all over the bottom of this part of the valley. All we have to do is hole up under the edge of the cliff where we’re already digging in.”
“Red bag rounds can be four hundred or more meters off,” the Gunny said, sipping some of his coffee while I mixed and heated my own.
“Yes,” I replied, continuing my work.
“That’s it?” The Gunny asked.
I didn’t answer, taking my time stirring my canteen holder over the Gunny’s small but very hot flame.
“Oh, I get it,” the Gunny finally said. “The NVA know about red bag shots. They know where the batteries are. They’ll know that we don’t have a clue about where the rounds will land, and neither will they.”
“Likely,” I answered.
“The air guys are not going to want to fly under that shit,” the Gunny finally said. “Great idea though.”
“True,” I replied but saying no more.
The seconds went by, while I drank my coffee and waited.
“You’re not going to tell them,” the Gunny finally said, his voice low, almost a whisper. “It’s an Army battery. They’ll be up on the arty net but not the Marine combat net. They won’t know about the barrage until they’re flying through it.”
“Likely,” I repeated, beginning to feel as if I was sounding a bit stupid.
“Son of a bitch,” the Gunny said, setting his coffee down. “It’s pure genius, except for the fact that if the pilots and crews figure it out they won’t ever come back to us for the rest of the war.”
“That eventuality would take place tomorrow,” I replied, knowing I could have said ‘yes’ or ‘likely’ again and the Gunny would have gotten the same message but wanting to make sure.
“You’re looking for my approval,” the Gunny said, after several minutes, finishing his coffee and lighting up a cigarette.
I said nothing. Back in the real world, the world of training and Marine discipline and barracks and marching grinders I wouldn’t have needed the Gunny’s approval for anything, but down in the A Shau, with the enemy not only out beyond our line of fire but within it, as well, I needed his approval for just about everything. I also knew that part of my talent was to know that, and then get that approval.
“That’s the whole plan?” the Gunny asked.
I continued to sip my coffee. The Gunny didn’t offer his cigarette, which I’d been hoping he’d do. I didn’t care about the cigarette itself, but his willingness to share it made me feel special in his regard, and I knew it always came with unspoken approval. There was nothing in any training I’d received that had taught about needing or wanting the support of a non-com Gunnery Sergeant. They were supposed to provide that free of charge as part of the game. But I wasn’t in the real world, and it was certainly no game. I was in the A Shau Valley and the reality of the A Shau was its very own thing.
“The choppers come in and you call the fire mission,” the Gunny said, blowing smoke out, ignoring the ever-present mist. “The choppers fly through a possible world of hurt, with rounds exploding all over around them, maybe even hitting one or more of them in the air.”
I nodded, very curtly, not looking at him. A strike of descending artillery round into something as small and moving like a helicopter was extremely unlikely, but the chance was still there.
“They dump their loads, our guys throw the Marine bodies aboard, and the choppers are out of there…or the air and ground Marines all die where they are from stray rounds going off too close.” The Gunny lit a second cigarette, from the remains of the dying first one.
I’d never seen him do that before. When the cigarette was burning he tossed the first butt aside and then held out the second one toward me.
“I knew there was something about you,” he said, very quietly. “You’re playing for all the chips. Again. If the chopper gets hit, it’ll be gone, along with our guys below and waiting. But we’ll be safe and waiting in our cleft pockets until the NVA come back, and then the only target they’ll have is us, and we’ll be down in forces without sufficient supplies. If the chopper makes it then we’re resupplied and fully reinforced. What do we have to cover the bet?”
“The Ontos,” I replied, handing his cigarette back.
“When the barrage is over, we fire all the flechette rounds we have left, slowly, one after another until they’re gone. That’s our fallback position and cover for getting the supplies back here if the choppers were able to offload them and the guys capable of getting them back in short order. The rounds won’t do that much damage but it’s vital that we redirect the enemy’s full attention back to us and not to the Marines humping the stuff back. If the resupply works then we have more flechettes to go on.”
“That’s if no round hits a chopper,” the Gunny replied, snapping away the second cigarette butt.
I got up and tried to stretch, feeling the cracking of scabs trying to form over my leech wounds. The chopper being hit or not hit didn’t really matter. It might have mattered earlier in my tour but now I accepted the fact fully that I had to fight to stay alive in the instant I was in. The future had to present its own options. I could only play the cards as they were dealt, and that thought made me sigh and frown at the same time. I was constantly reducing the combat back into a board game, but if the A Shau was to be compared to a board game then it had to be Monopoly, except the board had no names on any of the properties and the price for each piece of real estate was always paid in life and blood, not phony play money.
I slipped back inside my cleft, hoping that nobody would find me before the trouble began. Whatever rest I could find would be inside the cleft. Fusner eased in behind me, and I was glad to once again feel his silent presence. A shot of emotion stiffened me briefly, as I lay down, but I quickly shifted my mind away from the fact that Zippo wasn’t there too. I looked over at Nguyen’s shiny black eyes, visible like a cat’s in the low light. I wasn’t alone. I wondered if he felt the same. The Montagnard was as silent, since the passing of Stevens so long ago, as he was mysterious and supportive of me. I had no real idea why, although my thoughts about that never ended.
Carruthers came crashing in, tossing the poncho cover aside, pushing past Fusner. He was forced to his knees by the descending rock roof of the cleft. Nguyen seemed to disappear at the captain’s dramatic entrance, although there didn’t seem to be enough space for him to disappear in.
“Zone fire with the 175s right down on our own position? Are you crazy?” he yelled. “Those things will tear us apart, even under here.”
“They’re artillery rounds, captain,” I explained, keeping my voice flat and educational, “they’re not magical weapons or instruments of ultimate power. The rounds impacting will weigh about two hundred pounds, of which only forty pounds or so in each is composed of explosives. Nothing as marginally powerful as they are can reach us under here, because the one-seventy-five’s lack a concrete piercing fuse.”
“I knew that,” Carruthers said, after a slight delay, rubbing his forehead with his right hand inside the nearly dark cleft.
“Yes sir,” I replied, knowing he would not be able to see the slight smile creasing my lips.
“Do you want to be here under the cliff or go on the reinforced patrol to pick up the supplies, sir?” I asked, wishing I had one of the Gunny’s cigarettes.
“Who’s leading the patrol?” He replied, giving me the answer, I expected.
If he was going with the Marines to intercept the choppers he, the ranking officer of both companies, would be leading the patrol, and he would have stated that.
“Jurgens, one of our platoon commanders,” I said, after giving him plenty of time, “unless the Gunny or I decide to lead. The problem with that is, of course, that each platoon responds in the dark better to its own.”
“They’re our Marines, however, one and all,” Carruthers replied.
I inhaled deeply, and then let out one long breath before responding. “I think it might be more accurate to say that we are their Marines, sir.”