I huddled in what I had come to consider my cave, a dry place in a wet world of drizzling misery. The bottom of the cave, although consisting of sandy dirt rather than stone, like its walls, was mildly dusty from going many years without being touched by outside moisture, other than the heavy water-laden air always present everywhere in the valley during the monsoon season. I wrote. The stationery, if I could still call it that, was almost too wet to allow my poor quality government pen to write on. The imprinted blue image, in baby blue ink, of Marines raising the flag on Sarubachi, ran if I brushed my hand over it, and the paper itself came apart if I pressed down too hard with the tip of the pen. I wrote about my cave. I didn't tell my wife it was a cave. I referred to it as my quarters, and my lying descriptions about it were complimentary. I glanced out toward the entrance, nearly hidden by the low light inside the cave’s dusky interior. That portal became a window, for my descriptive purposes. My poncho, thrown across the few inches of dry dirt, was my sheet and the sandy dirt my mattress. I didn’t mind writing the lies at all because, if I made it, however slim my chances, I would be able to make humor of my attempts to not tell her about the reality of life and death down in the A Shau Valley.
I carefully enclosed the somewhat soggy letter into a drier envelope, although simply addressing that paper caused the ink to run a bit, once it was exposed to the moist air. Mailing home for “free,” the word has to printed in the upper left corner of the envelope, had one other undiscussed benefit. I had only written half a page so I’d have to finish the letter later if I had a chance. There was no stamp to attempt to affix to paper that was in no condition to be able to hold it. I placed the envelope in my thigh pocket, buttoned it, and then sat back to consider when the next resupply might be planned and then when it could be arriving.
I carefully withdrew my last two sheets of stationery and one of the remaining Iwo Jima envelopes from the plastic bag I kept it and my wife’s letters in, before resealing it. The moisture could not be avoided in the air but at least the rain itself, when I went back outside, would not destroy the only writing materials I had. My brother had been sent to Yokohama, which probably meant that there was a U.S. Army hospital there. It might not work but if I wrote him a letter and sent it in care of the hospital itself someone on the staff might get hold of it and get it to him. His outfit, the Big Red One, would probably have no further contact with him if the Army was the same as the Marines. Once one of my own men left through evacuation for wounds he was never seen or heard from again, no matter how mild or serious the injury. In movies, I’d seen back in the world that had never been the case. It seemed that Hollywood always portrayed combat units as tightly integrated and the men like brothers, never to lose track of one another again. Once more reality bit deep down in the rain, leeches, Bong Song River, and the North Vietnamese Army inhabiting the bottom of the A Shau Valley. If I was somehow to make it back to the world, then I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never see or hear of any of the Marines I was with again.
I thought about the next resupply, if we could get it, and how it would have to hold us until we were firmly in place up above the escarpment. Without another resupply, what the choppers had brought in previously in ammunition, food and water would have to serve as the only tattered foundations we had for our retreat downriver. Without another resupply, the success of the attack downriver would be more problematic. The Gunny’s act of blowing the bridge, although assuring that the rest of the main body of the NVA across the river would not be able to attack from the flank and be a factor, also assured that there would be no ability available for the companies to go back if some situation called for it and that there would be no relief coming down the valley that would be any use to us if it arrived from that direction. Battalion had been completely deaf to protests about how the only relief likely to have any success in saving us would have to come from the direction of An Hoa and Go Noy Island. My requests, that the companies retreat up the canyon face and back toward the security of An Hoa, had been denied.
Darkness was once again coming. The cave had grown dim, almost too dim to look across its short distance to where the entrance was and see Fusner fiddling with his radio equipment. How the Marine Corps found such young boys, trained them, set them loose in combat, and then had them act like knowledgeable men of technical wisdom time and again under the very worst of circumstance astounded me.
“I need the Gunny, Jurgens, the lieutenants, and Hutzler,” I ordered, not having to raise my voice because the only sounds that reached to the very back of the cave where I’d tossed my pack and spread out my poncho liner were those of river. The water moved in the distance and I could feel its flow through the rock and ground more than I could hear it.
Fusner didn’t use his radio, instead, he leaned half his body out over the edge of the lip of rocks that made up the entry to the cave, and speaking to someone. When he pulled himself back inside he went back to working on his radios.
“Who did you send for them?” I asked, not really caring, but wondering.
“Nguyen, sir,” Fusner replied.
“I thought he didn’t speak English, and you don’t speak Vietnamese, much less the Montagnard dialects,” I said, not entirely mystified but still curious as to what Fusner would say in response.
“I don’t know what you mean, sir,” Fusner came back after a moment.
I sighed out loud. “There’s stuff you know you know, stuff you don’t know, and then there’s the stuff you know you don’t know,” I said, with resignation in my voice.
Talking to Fusner about communications of any sort, I’d decided early on, and that had not changed over time, was like talking to a jittering box of rocks. Sounds came back from the corporal but they weren’t interpretable as any kind of cogent or understandable communications on the subject.
“Yes, sir,” Fusner replied, his expression from across the cave leading me to believe that it was similar to the one of befuddlement I myself felt.
Nguyen returned, his arrival marked by his quickly sticking his head and upper body into the opening Fusner had used my poncho cover to close off. Then Nguyen was gone. He’d said nothing, which was his custom, but I’d gotten the message from his look, which was confirmed when, seconds later, the Gunny, Jurgens, and Hutzler crawled under the poncho and adjusted themselves along the bottom of the cave, only a few feet from where I sat with my back pushed into the relatively smooth rock wall. The pungent smell of ages-old moisture contained inside the body of the rock surfaces surrounding us was faintly bitter but not totally unpleasant. The fact that the leeches didn’t live inside the dry sandy bottom surface of the caves, and mosquitos didn’t like it much either were two more benefits of the place.
The Gunny squatted, pulling out a cigarette, while Jurgens and Hutzler both sat down on the dry loamy surface that made up the floor, the cave being too low to stand inside. The two new lieutenants crawled in next, both going to their knees and pushing a bit back into the poncho cover to avoid being in direct contact with the others. The poncho pattered, its rain-induced sounds somehow able to be heard over the gurgling of the Bong Song River in the distance and between the continuing beats of the mean-spirited drums that had begun sending their dark message as the day turned into night.“There won’t be another resupply,” I said, having come to that difficult conclusion only moments earlier. There was no sense trying to schedule a resupply that could never be put together in time to help. The companies had to move and they had to move quickly.
There was no reaction from the collected group in front of me. I waited a few seconds, the cave lit dimly by the flashlight I carried, with its lens buried partially in the sand to allow us all to have some ability see without any of us being blinded.
“We don’t have the time for any choppers to come in, and we probably couldn’t defend them in such a free fire open landing zone, not to mention the likelihood that command wouldn’t allow them to undertake the mission anyway. The bridge’s been blown so that avenue of retreat if we might have chosen to use it, is closed forever.”
I didn’t mention that the blowing of the bridge had been done by the Gunny in an action made out of his own volition and judgment. The blowing of the bridge left both companies revealed for what we were; sitting ducks or trapped rats.
We only had one direction to go, and although I’d never have planned to travel back over the bridge I’d rather have had the option, or at least let the enemy assume we had the option. That the enemy units on the other side of the river might attack over that bridge had been unlikely, at best, since one M-60 machine gun, aimed down the length of the bridge would completely decimate any force on the trying to cross over the bare expanse of its exposed superstructure. “What’s the plan?” Jurgens asked.
“I don’t like it,” the Gunny whispered, between puffs of thick smoke he’d been blowing toward the side of the cave where Fusner lay with his radio hugged into his side.
“You don’t like what?” I asked, in surprise. I hadn’t even mentioned the plan, much less, and details about what it might be.
“I don’t like the fact that we’ve been ordered to stay here by battalion, to await relief, although no relief can possibly reach us, and we’ve been denied permission to do exactly what it looks like our only option is to do,” the Gunny said.
I was baffled by his comment. He’d blown the bridge, assuring that any relieving force coming down the valley, even if it survived getting past Hill 975 in one piece, could not get to our side of the river to relieve us, or even help us without a lot of heavy equipment to rebuild a crossing or a whole fleet of helicopters to transport the number of Marines it would take to reinforce our position.
“Okay, then what’s your advice?” I asked, splaying out my hands in front of me.
“I’m worried that we’ll attack down this damned valley all over again, make it up to the top of the rim, get back to the island, and then get court-martialed for disobeying orders if we make it.”
I was surprised. The last time the Gunny had mentioned being court-martialed we’d laughed out loud at the possibility of such an event happening. Neither then, nor now, were the forces in the rear with the gear; battalion, regiment, or even the division, going to pull anyone in the unit out to be sent to Okinawa for a general court-martial. I knew the Gunny was serious, however, and I also realized that things had changed significantly over the course of only one month. We’d beaten the enemy back time after time, under almost hopeless circumstance each time. The Gunny, like Sugar Daddy and Jurgens, had demonstrated with their newfound interest in being nominated for personal decorations, was beginning to believe that he might live, after all, and if he did, what the ramifications might be for his career or reputation.
“Moot,” I replied.
“The question doesn’t call for an answer unless you want to stay right here until we’re worn away, run out of ammo, food and everything else until finally we get overwhelmed by who and what you know is out there and coming to do that.” I put my arms down, my shoulders slumping a bit while I waited for a reply.
“We have two companies,” the Gunny said, choosing to ignore the issue he himself had raised. “If we're going high diddle up the middle then what do we do with Kilo company?”
“We did the middle last time, although we came up both sides of the jungle before that,” I said slowly, realizing that I was not going to be able to logically lay out the plan I’d formed, so much as distributing it piecemeal in answer to questions that, although relevant, were all covered by the plan.
“We’re not going up the middle. We’re going downriver under the cover of the eastern lip of the wall, with the Ontos in the lead, its rifles pointed over into the thick of the jungle. Kilo’s going to attack along the river as they go, moving fast more than attempting to contact or respond to contact with the enemy. We ourselves will move down about four or five hundred meters along the path and then act like a firebase to suppress fire while Kilo makes its transit. The 175s will soften things up before anyone moves, and then I’ll hold them in reserve to fire when Kilo’s down and hopefully climbing the glacis, and we’re working our way along toward it, hugging the lower edges of the wall.”
“What happens to us, once Kilo’s down there, the NVA realizes that, and their full angry attention shifts to us?” Jurgens asked.
There was a brief silence. I waited.
“The 175s again,” the Gunny answered finally, his voice low, before flicking his lit cigarette against the side surface of the cave wall. “While we move along the bottom of the cliff the 175s drop in on the jungle, and, if we’re lucky, none of them get close enough to us to cause casualties, which gives us about twenty minutes to make it all the way downriver. That’s not enough time.”
“I have two-zone fire applications planned and ready to go,” I replied. “The firebase has the rounds and will red bag us all the way, including repeating another zone once we make it up the glacis in the morning, and that’s just before Cowboy comes back with reinforcements and Homan roams overhead to get us all the way back to the island.”
“Okay,” the Gunny replied, his tone one of mollification. “That might work. What do we do to prepare to support Kilo? Our firebase will have to move along with them once they get to the river.”
“We make a brief run along the cliff downriver and then stop to provide as much accurate fire as we can. Then the 175s do their first bit of work. Kilo crosses to the river the instant the last round comes in. The enemy will take a bit to recover. Once Kilo’s across the open area, and they’re a good distance down along the bank, we move on our side continuing to draw the enemy’s fire.”
“Have you got one of those cute names for this operation?” Jurgens asked.
I’d been waiting for the question, although I’d expected to have it asked by Fusner.
“Hopalong Cassidy,” I replied.
“What’s that?” Jurgens came back.
“Who is that, sergeant,” Fusner answered, from behind him. “He’s a great cowboy hero on Saturday morning television.
“Figures,” Jurgens replied.
The Gunny nodded his head.
“Complicated,” he said. "Simplicity usually works better, but then I’m the one who blew the bridge. I thought it’d make things simpler but I was wrong. I should have let you know first. Let’s get to it.”
I was shocked.
The Gunny had never admitted he was wrong about anything before, much less doing so in a backhanded sort of apology.
“Can you jury rig a round to take out the machine when we go?” I asked, knowing what his answer would be, but still, I felt the question had to be asked.
“Aye aye, sir,” Hutzler said. “I’ll miss the little beast, though.”
“Yeah, me too,” I replied, relieved that by saying what he’d said that there’d be no problems from him or his men in abandoning the vital piece of equipment that had helped keep the company alive through so many contacts with the enemy.
Only Fusner and Nguyen were left in the cave with me. I had hoped the Gunny would stay and we might talk. I missed the time he’d spent helping me to survive to the point I’d survived but I also knew, with a sinking sensation, that he was coming to treat me like a real company commander. And that meant I was to be left alone.
I had Fusner give the signal to begin our movement downriver. The first part, the part where we moved forward and then stopped to establish the firebase, would be touchy, and if it failed Kilo company would be cut down before it ever got to the river. I knew from the past, however, that the NVA, for whatever reason, did not act quickly after being hit. Their counter-attacks were always slow in coming although ferocious when it came to risking and expending men when it finally came.
The Ontos churned forward with its usual grinding growl, getting in position to head downriver, it’s small engine laboring mightily as it acted more like a combined blender and lawnmower, eating up the jungle gathered under it as it pushed through pile after pile of old and new leaves, fronds and branches of floral debris. The path located alongside the cliff wall wasn’t wide enough for the full width of the machine’s compact but stodgy girth, leaving one track to pull smoothly on the bare path while the other ground away at the very edge of the jungle. The six barrels of the recoilless rifles weren’t pointed straight ahead, instead, they were angled over toward the body of the triple canopy jungle, ready to strike any position the NVA chose to fire from because fire they certainly were going to before the company reached the lower part of the canyon wall that was scalable.
In the attack downriver I would move behind the Ontos with Jurgen’s platoon out in front. There were no FNG replacements in Jurgen’s platoon, so each and every casualty, if the platoon took casualties, would consist of vital combat veterans who had been with the company for some time. I, like the rest of my Marines, would be tucked in as close to the overhang that ran along the bottom of the rock wall as possible, while being out from under the lip enough to make decent speed in getting downriver as quickly as possible.
The drums played from atop the eastern rim of the ridge, and the deep beating sounds would follow us through the night, I knew, since there were no supporting fires I could call that close to the lip of the cliff’s edge that might not end up falling into the valley down where we were exposed and moving.
There was no point in covering or supervising the laying down of the base of fire. I waited in the cave for our real attack downriver to begin, fearful that this attack would be much more about taking hits rather than giving them.
I took the time I had to finish the letter to my wife, as I waited to call in the artillery. Midnight, without a moon, and in the never-ending mist, would be the time to execute the call, giving me about half an hour. The firebase would open up in minutes. The artillery zone fire would last about twenty minutes, give or take. When the artillery fire mission was over Kilo would make its rush to the river, and then head down along the eastern bank of hard mud, while, at the same time, our company would begin its initial attack before setting in place to lay down heavy machine gun fire and blow as many rounds of 106 millimeters recoilless into the jungle as we could afford, leaving only a few to make a stand at the base of the glacis later in the night. The Ontos would have to be blown to pieces never to be used again, although neither I nor any under my command, I was certain, would be wanting to return to the A Shau under any circumstances. The enemy wasn’t likely to have any kind of a supply of the very specialized recoilless rounds the rifles required, but still, the Ontos would have to be destroyed.
I wondered, in the writing of the letter, if it would be the last letter I wrote home. I’d wondered that so many times, but in writing along the way I hadn’t been a veteran of the conflict. My terror had subsided over time, with respect to confronting the enemy, but a colder analytical reality of tempered fear had set in to replace it. I paused in the writing, only getting as far as jotting my wife’s name down on the damp but serviceable stationery. What could I write? I put the pen back to paper and wrote about the valley in the night. I included the drums, knowing that she would not get the deadly intent that drove the enemy to beat them as continuously as they could, but that was okay. I wrote of the river, it’s high-speed current passing, making sounds disturbing but also vaguely comforting. The Bong Song was the core artery that passed right through the center of the valley, and no life, fauna or flora, could ignore it or fail to depend on it for life and sustenance. The rains would come and go but the river would always be there. I finished the letter by indicating that I was leaving the field of actual combat and heading to a rear area where I would likely remain for the rest of my thirteen-month tour. I stopped, as I came to signing my name. A year to go. How could I possibly spend another full year in such a place? How had soldiers and Marines spent four or more years going from one conflict after another in Europe, and then across the ocean to fight in the orient?
I sealed the letter and tucked it away in my thigh pocket, my hand accidentally grasping the container of morphine I carried with me. I hadn’t had to use any of the opiates for some time, but somehow I felt that that time might be over. There was no way the companies could go through the kind of gauntlet the enemy had to have prepared for us without taking heavy casualties. So far, the company’s actions to survive against superior forces reminded me of what Joe Louis had said about engaging another fighter who was more adroit and quicker than he was: “He can run but he can’t hide.” We had run but we could not hide forever, and that included staying in the same place where we were right now.
“Ready with the fire mission request, sir,” Fusner said quietly, as if not wanting to disturb me. Even Fusner was treating me like a real company commander and it was making me uncomfortable.
I nodded once, then closed my eyes and breathed in and out deeply while I waited. Of all my plans, this one had to work or we were all dead.
“Shot, over,” Fusner intoned, waiting into the silence, as the rounds left the barrels of the guns, and crossed the more than twenty miles through the air to strike the jungle down in our part of the valley.
“Splash,” Fusner said, and then both of us counted off the five seconds to impact in our heads, waiting for the explosions to begin. I knew all the Marines under my command, or the command of the other two lieutenants would be okay, as long as everyone was safely tucked under the bottom curl of stone that lined the lower edge of the canyon wall. The 175s were inaccurate at the distance they were firing but there was no way an eastern deflection error could cause much in the way of damage to anywhere we were. The Army firebase, so far away, was firing across the distance using an arc that had to intersect the top of the ridge if the rounds were too low, which meant only the enemy drummers, beating away on their fifty-gallon drums might be at any real risk, and that thought was not unsatisfying.
The explosions shook the floor of the cave and brought hidden dust and small bits of stone and embedded shells down from the ceiling of the cave. Nguyen, Fusner and I crouched low, knowing the rounds, and their terrible shrapnel and expanding concussive envelopes, could not reach inside the cave, but fearful nevertheless. The 175s were nowhere near as powerful as the thousand-pound bombs either the A-6 Prowler or Skyraiders could drop, but in the night, with nothing but the drifting mist, no moonlight and the beating drums playing their short but deadly sounds, they seemed just as mighty and dangerous as the bigger ordnance the planes delivered.
The rounds continued to come in. I’d spent some time letting the two new lieutenants know what they had to do, which was almost nothing. Kilo company was made up mostly of combat veterans, with a small supply of FNGs, like our own company. The two lieutenants fell into the FNG classification, although, having lasted a few days and still being alive, would become veterans if they made it only another week, or so. The existing veteran Marines in the company would catch on extremely quickly to what had to be done and would take no time at all in moving downriver, even under fire, and they’d need no direction or leadership to do so.
It was time. Fusner and Nguyen waited at the opening, Fusner having rolled the poncho cover back up neatly and reattached it to my pack.
I looked around the cave, sweeping my flashlight all around the interior. I would miss the cave, no matter where we ended up as a company. Having private and safe quarters wouldn’t be something I’d take for granted ever again if there was to be an ‘again.’
I stepped out into the wet night, the rain coming down lightly in the night, the drums beating their deadly intent and flashes of fire coming from the cracking automatic discharges from our M-60 machine guns. Kilo had to be making its rush for the river, although nothing could be seen. I drew the sweetly putrid smell of jungle into my lungs, made my way behind Fusner and Nguyen down the path to where the Ontos waited, wondering fleetingly how the wildly brutal ‘stage play’ of shattering life around me had come to be my home.