The only 25 series radio military occupational specialty in the company, not already serving one of the platoon commanders, was Hultzer. The only thing I knew about him was that he had been assigned to one of the Project Hundred Thousand privates sent in by special act of the Secretary of Defense. Piper, Hultzer’s charge, could not read or write and was very likely slow in other areas, as well. The Secretary of Defense had been in trouble, back in the world, because the draft was catching too many kids from the middle class, and the Secretary had apparently gained political favor by making sure that every class of America had some skin in the game.
Hultzer tried to report in, but I was too pre-occupied with the mud, the rain, the bleeding ruin of my leech-sucked torso wounds, and the fact that Captain Carruthers, the new company commander of Kilo Company, was actually coming down the cliff face first to supply the ‘relief’ so sorely needed by the supposed ragtag loser company I was commanding.
I was scrunched down against the cliff behind where the Ontos sat, it’s small gas engine still idling away, so the turret would move if commanded. The little deadly armored vehicle faced into the jungle toward the direction our attack had taken us through. The trail of its travel was the only part of the jumbled flora mess that was truly visible in the limited light of early dawn. The night had been long, hard and filled with misery, even though the company had taken almost no losses. I looked at the Ontos, knowing Zippo’s body was still inside. As long as I didn’t make any effort to go look or be present for the removal and placement of his body into a body bag I could sort of distantly make believe he was still alive.
There was little cover or camouflage to my position, shared by Fusner, Jurgens, and Sugar Daddy. They waited with me, as the lead party up on the face of the cliff moved gingerly along the indented crack switching back and forth across it, allowing for a moderately safe passage down from the top. I could see the Gunny making his way toward us. I was certain all of us were wishing the cliff face was more like the one that ran up and down the canyon along its eastern side, with a folded under lower lip allowing for complete camouflage and nearly total cover if you were squeezed well back under it.
“We’re here, sir,” Hultzer said, again, his voice almost a whisper.
Fusner tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention, as I stared up into the night. The rising sun would still be low enough that full dawn would not reach the bottom of the valley for some time, and even then the cliff face, positioned as it was, would be dark further up for some time.
“The new guys are here,” Fusner repeated, speaking in his normal voice, no doubt concluding that the NVA were beaten down into their caves and tunnels with the coming of the light, the presence of the Ontos, and the very obvious A-6 Intruder circling overhead.
The noise of the strange looking ground support aircraft seemed aimed down into the valley. The Skyraiders would come and go in days and nights of earlier support, making runs at any enemy positions on each pass, but the A-6 stayed on station, seemingly able to angle itself around in mid-air, and then to swoop in and drop more ordnance where it felt like it. Only the helicopters were more agile, but their ability to carry sufficient amounts of ordnance was severely limited when it came to real ground support.
The first Marine to finally reach the bottom of the valley, some fifty meters from me, had to be Captain Carruthers himself. The big man didn't wear rank but his utilities were so sharply creased the knife edges could be seen, even in the low light. The man jumped down the last six feet, or so, from an angled-out chunk of hard metamorphic rock. The ground was sodden with moisture, however, and the place he’d chosen to land not covered by any of the normally thick jungle debris. His feet went into the muck with a very audible slap, and before he could move at all the rest of his legs sank all the way up to his knees.
The Gunny appeared out of a nearby bamboo stand and made it to the Captain’s side at about the same time I did.
“Not the best choice of landing spots, eh?” the captain laughed out, not bothering to try to lift one foot or the other because any effort like that was obviously useless.
The Gunny grabbed under Carruthers' right armpit while I engaged the other. We slowly pushed and pulled upward. The captain’s legs slowly eased from the sucking mud grasp until he was free. The semi-hard muck could be walked carefully upon but would not hold up to steadily applied pressure or the kind of impact the captain had placed upon its surface.
The Gunny guided the captain toward the covering edge of the jungle near where he’d come out of. I followed, along with an entourage that had quickly appeared from the same area of the glacis behind us. Fusner was at my side.
Before we made it to the bamboo stand the enemy guns opened up, as I feared they would.
Although the firing was not directed at us, everyone went down into the muck. The captain stopped, laying down flat. I grabbed one of his mud-covered boots and shook it to get his attention.
“Move to the bamboo stand just ahead,” I said, my voice low but with power behind it. “They're firing at the rest of Kilo coming down the rock face, not us,” I continued, not certain the captain was fully cognizant of the situation.
We were in defilade from most of the fire, since the enemy had re-surfaced deeper inside the main body of jungle growth. Our attack had been a success, and the NVA had taken casualties, but the main body had had plenty of warning and time to go underground until we passed by. The single most telling characteristic of any Marine attack or movement I’d been a part of since being in country was the very temporary nature of everything we did. We attacked, defended, and then moved on, or back, or sideways. We never stayed anywhere, unless it was at a rare firebase or artillery battery emplacement.
“We’ve got to suppress that fire,” Carruthers shouted out to no one in particular. “My Marines are totally exposed on that wall.”
I resigned myself to not saying anything until there was something definitive that might be said to help the situation. Kilo had been in exactly the same position a week earlier and would likely take the same kind of heavy casualties unless providence somehow provided a different result. That it was coming on to daylight and the A-6 was still providing cover gave some hope that most of the Marines would survive.
As if to illustrate Carruther’s point, two Marine bodies thudded into the mud at the very bottom edge of the cliff face.
Three heavy explosions came from the interior of the jungle and the enemy fire went silent. I knew the A-6 was working the area hard and accurately.
“We’ve got to provide covering fire,” the captain said, slithering ahead of me through the bamboo and into the open interior of the stand that was about as large as a yard entertainment trampoline back home.
I followed him into the relative cover the bamboo provided, checking everything around me for bamboo vipers. The leeches had found me once more, I knew, because of the mud, but I would deal with the ones that made it to the inside of my blouse later.
“There’s no covering fire from the ground that we can apply,” the Gunny informed the captain. “The jungle’s dense and higher than our position. To engage the NVA in there is to fight on their turf. Our Ontos has the same problem. The jungle will simply eat up the flechettes as quickly as they might be fired. Your mistake was in coming down the wall at all.”
“Quite right,” the captain replied, after a short delay.
I was caught unawares by his answer. The officer had admitted he was wrong and I wasn’t at all used to that.
“My first combat order and I sure as hell didn’t want to disobey it,” the captain went on, sounding like I’d felt when I’d violated my own first combat order seemingly so long ago.
“Is anybody going to check the bodies?” he asked, “and does anybody have a cigarette?”
“They fell a couple of hundred feet after being hit,” the Gunny said, producing a cigarette that he promptly lit, and then handed over to the captain. “They're dead, all right. We’re pretty much experts at gauging the living and dead without moving an inch.”
“I tried to lead them down as fast as I could,” the captain said, between quick puffs on the cigarette.
He didn’t offer it back to the Gunny, which seemed like some sort of violation, but I couldn’t put my finger or mind on why that was so.
“Who are you?” Carruthers suddenly asked, looking directly into my eyes.
I pulled up and pushed my back into a solid collection of bamboo shoots. I wore my helmet, and although the writing on it hard to read in the poor light, the single black bar was pretty evident, painted on the surface of its cover.
“Junior,” I replied, knowing it was probably what he wanted to hear, rather than a formal reporting in comment.
“Thought so,” Carruthers replied, finishing the cigarette. “Now that’s a helmet, indeed.”
Marines began making it to the bottom of the wall, the sucking sounds of their boots becoming a regular series of joining sounds. Sugar Daddy and Jurgens had arranged for them to be greeted and directed into covering positions further down the slope, I assumed.
“What are your thoughts, lieutenant?” Carruthers asked me.
“Your radio man is a few meters away,” I replied. “Have him call the highest elements of the company and get them to move a whole lot faster, no matter what the risk.”
“I was told that daylight would diminish the fire we might face,” Carruthers said. “I was told that the NVA don’t fight much during the day because of our supporting fires, and we own the night with the Starlight scopes.”
“Were you told to lead the men down the wall too?” I retorted a touch of anger at having to try to train another FNG who knew nothing getting to me. “Don’t ever do anything that stupid again. You don’t walk the point because there’s only one of you. You get killed or wounded and that’s it, no officer in charge and the Starlight scope’s fun but owns less than a sliver of that night you speak of.”
Carruther’s called out to Sharky, obviously his radio man.
“You’re telling me that my assumptions are wrong, Junior?” he whispered, as the radio man crawled between a couple of the thicker bamboo shoots.
The captain’s tone once again surprised me. He wasn’t being a smart ass. He was truly interested, or so it seemed.
“Your assumptions are wrong, yes,” I replied, trying to gauge the man. “Make the call. Our artillery support is in defilade or out of range. The face of this cliff, the one with your Marines on it, isn’t beyond the range of their 120 mm guns, however.”
“Damn, how low on the face do they have to be?” he asked, taking the microphone in his hand.
“About where we are,” I replied. “The NVA doesn't have Willie Peter or variable time in this area, that I know of, or anything else exotic, but their HE rounds will blow chunks of rock off the face that’ll be just as deadly as any shrapnel they might throw from their casings.”
Carruther’s made the call with urgency in his voice. My own attention was drawn away by the appearance of Hultzer and Piper, my replacement team for Zippo. Both Marines had shouldered past Fusner to grab hold of my right sleeve and get my attention with one hand each like they were indigent children in a Dickens novel.
“We’ve got your pack, sir,” Hultzer whispered, as if there was anyone nearby to overhear that mattered. “Where do you want us to set up camp?”
Camp, I thought grimly, and then I thought of Zippo, even more grimly, and the pain went through me. I knew I wasn’t feeling the full measure of his loss, but the shiver up and down my core was real and hard enough that I couldn’t shrug it off.
“Get under cover and wait,” I ordered, sorry that they weren’t Zippo, but gently disengaging their grasping fingers instead of being more abrupt with them.
“What’s the plan, Junior,” Carruthers asked, “since you know the area and I don’t. And, you don’t mind if I call you Junior, do you?”
I was surprised again. Nobody had ever asked permission before. I gave it with a nod.
“You stay on as the company commander, and I have Kilo. We both take our orders from the colonel at battalion so you don't have to do what I say down here. The colonel’s not a fan of yours so I may be able to help there. We both went to the academy.”
I hadn’t noticed the distinctive ring on the captain’s hand, but maybe I’d missed it in the low light. The Gunny looked over at me, and I noted Nguyen just over his shoulder. Both men’s dark eyes delivered the same message I was probably transmitting wordlessly to them. Carruthers seemed to be a bit of all right.
“The plan is to work our way back along the eastern lower edge of the cliff until we come to a place near the river where it indents under that edge.” I said, delivering the plan to Carruthers with some trepidation.
We’d stayed in that exact location twice before, and the NVA would know that. Which meant that they might have prepared for a third visit. Raking fire by a single fifty across the beaten zone on the other side of the river could be used to drive our companies into the cleft which might be pre-mined to blow us all to hell.
“What do we do about the Marines we’re losing?” Carruthers asked, turning from his position among them to attempt to peer between a couple of the bamboo stalks.
I watched the captain closely. I did not point out that ‘we’ were not losing Marines, he was. That his decision to obey orders was causing Marines to die had become well understood by me. The rank in the rear gave the orders down to the smallest detail if they possessed the smallest details. The job of an infantry officer leading a company in combat was to give the rear area as few details as possible. The reality at the bottom of the A Shau Valley was not a transmittable package of believable detail. Mythology ruled the belief systems of rear area officers and mythology was something not easily countered or modified.
The NVA opened up again, but this time Carruthers did not hug the muck like the rest of us. He jumped up and ran from the bamboo, motioning to his radio operator.
No one made any move to follow him. Fusner crawled inside the bamboo stand to replace him and nobody said a word about that either.
“Where’s he going?” I asked the Gunny.
“He’s probably going to try to get his Marines already down to fire into the jungle and suppress the NVA gunners, but then you probably already figured that out. He’s not seasoned enough to know that sometimes we have to do nothing, even though it might seem we should.
I knew the Gunny was right. There was no possibility that any Marines on the floor of the valley around us could do much effectively against mid-jungle sources of fire shooting up onto the surface of the wall. I watched the captain quickly assemble a team, made up of two squads plus a few extra Marines. To my astonishment, he began using the ropes that had been laid down the slightly angled face to climb back up. I realized what he was doing, or trying to do. He would get his own gunners high enough to return fire on the NVA sources buried deeper in the bracken.
“Carruthers,” I yelled, cupping my hands together over my mouth. There was no time to call him on the radio. He either had not heard what I’d told him or he hadn’t believed me. The fire of the NVA machine gunners, interspersed by the sound of the A-6 making a return to the area, was suddenly drowned out completely. A thunderous blasting continuity of explosions rained down from above. The NVA had reached out to the artillery, as I’d described and feared, having watched that same battery work before. The range was registered. The battery knew the target range, which was ninety percent of the game in artillery. A barrage battered the face of the cliff. I tried to look up but the falling rock and smoking nightmare above me prevented me from seeing anything.
Thuds followed, one after another. Screams and yells permeated the air around us, no doubt caused by the fact that most of the company had been much lower than when they were first fired upon earlier. Marines were hit or knocked free, or jumped, and were landing wounded at the bottom.
In seconds it was over, except for the fading smoke and the more subdued cries of the wounded.
The A-6 dropped another load, just as the sound of Skyraiders diving low came across the surface of the triple canopy jungle behind us. Air was coming to the rescue, but it was too late for so many of the Marines, again, in Kilo Company.
We waited, glued to the mud, all of us face down inside the bamboo thicket and all around the area surrounding the outer edges of the heavier jungle growth.
Fusner whispered over to me, his face only inches from my own.
“What’s the name of the plan, again?” he asked. “The captain didn't ask the name of the plan.”
There was no early morning music to help me invent something good. Zippo would so have hung on every syllable of every word I might come up with, I knew. Was Carruthers among the dead? Was he wounded? The man was the first officer I’d met in country that I liked right off the bat. Tex had been good but he hadn’t had the captain’s intellect or personality. I looked out at the base of the cliff, fully illuminated in the morning light. Several dead Marines lay where they’d fallen, their blood mixed in with a tiny winding trail of water not big enough to be called a stream. The water wandered around and by them, before proceeding down the valley.
“Red River,” I said to Fusner, after some thought. I'd originally named the move 'Return to Sender,' but meeting Carruthers and being part of what happened on Kilo's descent had changed things. Return to Sender was too smart-assed and too cool as a proper descriptor.
“Cool, like the John Wayne movie,” Fusner replied.
“Yeah, like the movie,” I said back, but my voice so low it wasn’t likely he heard me.
A single wailing scream came cascading down the face of the cliff in the near silence, as the A-6 and the Skyraiders coordinated and went around to make a real mess of the central jungle under them.
One of the company’s corpsmen slithered into the bamboo stand, although there was no room for him to lay or sit down. He didn’t stop, however, simply sliding up and over both Fusner and me as he went. He pushed a package into my hand as he went by. I looked down. The light was improving. I was resupplied with morphine. Fusner looked at my hand, and then looked away.
“Someone’s got to go up there after the guy who’s stuck, and probably hit,” the Gunny stated, flatly and quietly.
“Is it him?” I asked, knowing the Gunny, who’d stayed right with me the entire time, had no better information than I did.
“Lay here, write a letter to your wife,” the Gunny said, his voice almost inaudible. “We’ve got to get everyone back up the valley and fly in a medivac. A big one. You have to wait, like I said. All I need is Nguyen with Fusner on the air radio.”
I held the morphine in my right hand, making no effort to hide it. Everyone in the company knew I had it. There were no secrets in a unit inside a combat zone, at least not among the living.
“Tell me about Carruthers,” I said, knowing Nguyen would scale the wall like a spider, with Fusner and the Gunny using the air support like an artistic team. “He called me lieutenant and then asked if he could call me Junior.”
I looked at the Gunny and then over to Fusner, but they looked away like maybe I was losing it. Only Nguyen stared back at me. He blinked once, slowly, leaving me with the feeling that at least he understood. The Gunny was right. I had to wait or neither company was likely to have an officer. In seconds, they were gone, but I wasn’t left alone. Hultzer and Piper crawled in and plopped down right next to me like they’d been invited, although neither looked at me. I had to wait.
“He needs a new helmet,” Piper whispered to Hultzer.