The M-60s had opened up from in front of me, but I could not estimate the distance or the true direction the machine guns might be firing from, what with the sound of the nearby rushing river water and the incessant beat of the rain down upon my helmet. I knew all the Marines understood that there was no alternative to a full-frontal attack that would take us to the very edge of the forest line. Digging in, and then holding that position would take every bit of supporting fire in the night that the Ontos could provide and then every bit of fire support from the air to hold the position during the next day.
I pushed forward, with Fusner at my left shoulder and Nguyen breaking the jungle in front of me as best he could. The rain beat away the mosquitos and cooled my skin a bit, although the pain from the leech bites all over my back would not retreat as much as I would have liked. I knew the three of us had to be within five hundred meters, or so, of that front edge of the jungle. From there we would command a full view of the waterway cutting into the side of the Bong Song, and also the southern exposure of Hill 975. The Starlight Scope would once again become very important in sighting in to suppress fire, if we could get it into position.
More M-60s opened up and I was momentarily heartened until I head the distinct ‘whooping’ sound of mortar rounds leaving their tubes. Our 60 mm mortars had been left in our foxholes alongside the river because we hadn’t had ammunition for them until the resupply came in. I realized before the mortar rounds struck, that I had not checked thoroughly to see who had gone to pick up the supplies, or even if anybody had. I burrowed into the floor of the jungle. I hadn’t been counting but I knew the mortar rounds would only stay in the air between fifteen and twenty seconds, depending upon what charge they’d been loaded in the tube with and how far they were from us. The mortar charges going off, driving the seven-pound projectiles had sounded very close. The only fuse the Soviet weapon, also manufactured in China, was capable of firing was either a dummy training round or a high explosive anti-personnel shell.
The muffled explosions from the mortar strikes rattled through the jungle in front of me, followed by more intense M-60 machine gunfire. Somehow, the NVA had been able to set up one or more mortar tubes, or those tubes had been at the ready all the time near the base of Hill 975. High explosive anti-personnel shells were not very effective when impacting into the kind of dense jungle we were worming our way through.
The old fear returned with a vengeance, as I tried to insert my body under the thick matting of the jungle. I felt the tiny animals moving under and around me as my larger anthropoid body displaced them. I didn’t care about being bitten or anything else. My fear wasn’t logical, I knew, but I could not shed it. I could only imagine some speeding chunk of hot metal plunging down and through my body.
I felt a hand reach down to grip my left shoulder and I shrugged it off. But there it was again, pulling me upward. The mortar explosions had stopped, but my fear had not.
The sound of more mortar rounds being loaded into tubes and being launched struck deeper fear into the center of my torso. I pushed down until I realized that the sounds of the mortars firing were different. The mortars launching were 60s, which meant that they were ours. Somehow, Sugar Daddy had gotten the supplies, set up the mortars, and then was no doubt aiming in the night toward where the brief flashes of muzzle blast from the 82s were coming from. The 60s fired on and on until a rainy, river water rushing sort of conditional silence returned to the jungle battlefield. I had no idea about casualties on either side, but there was little doubt that the resupply had brought in plenty of 60 mm ammunition and the enemy would now know that. The 82 mm enemy mortars would not be firing from holes, caves or other openings in the mountain. Mortars needed bare air to fire, almost vertically, up into.
“Monday morning you gave me no warning,” whispered into my left ear.
“What?” I whispered back, wondering why I was whispering, except to maybe avoid being targeted by the not too distant enemy mortar team.
It was Nguyen. I could not deny him. I let him pull me out of the mucky debris like the Gunny had so many weeks before. Nguyen was repeating the words of one of the rock and roll songs he’d no doubt heard coming out of Fusner’s radio. Monday, Monday, by The Mamas and Papas
I almost laughed in my misery and fear. A Montagnard who was not conversant in English in a place thousands of miles from the USA was quoting me song lyrics to try to help me overcome my fear. I came erect, sitting, preparing myself to go forward once again. I realized that we needed the 60 mm mortars. We had to have plenty of ammo, after resupply. The sixties could fire upon the 82s at the direction of MacInerney using the Starlight Scope, if he was still alive. Getting to my feet, I reached toward Fusner in the dark and rain. The handset was slapped into my hand like Fusner somehow knew I’d be asking for it.
“Gunny,” I said into the handset, knowing everyone was on the same combat frequency for the attack.
“Junior,” came back out of the radio, but it was the radio operator’s voice, not that of the Gunny. I didn’t care.
“We needed the sixties, which somehow Sugar Daddy’s platoon got up and working. The Ontos isn’t even up to our position yet, however, which means its got to go up to maximum speed to cover Sugar Daddy’s forward element now occupying our old position.”
There was no reply. I pushed the handset back at Fusner. I knew the message had probably gotten through, as there were many ears listening to the transmission.
I knew that Sugar Daddy had his own radio operator and had to be up on the combat net like we all were. There was no response from him over the radio, and the Gunny didn’t say anything either, but there was a distinctly different sound in the distance. The sound was an engine, working at maximum RPM, it’s noisy staccato exhaust not overpowering but definitely loud enough to be heard over the sounds of the river’s waters and the rain. The Ontos was moving and moving fast. I realized that I might have to write up Sugar Daddy for a decoration like I had Jurgens. I wondered if that was what it was like with guys coming home with medals on their chests from being involved in real combat on the ground. Were they all scumbags who somehow managed to be able to fight, kill and survive, in spite of their lack of any identifiable moral compass?
I tried to remove as much of the mud and jungle bracken from my body as I could. There were no leeches, which surprised me. But the rain was unending. The mud, beneath the jungle matting, was sticky and darkly smelling of earthly burial and death.
I called for MacInerney on the net. Although he’d left the scope to be carried by Fusner, along with his radio and battery gear, he was crucial in any attempt to use the device to sight in on launch points or bases of fire in and around Hill 975, if our occupation of the adjacent jungle was to succeed and we were able to push the sapper regiment into the hill fortifications.
There was not much further to move, as I quickly came upon Marines lying in prone positions, their faintly shiny and water covered weapons thrust out before them. I knew there was only open area to the front so went down in a prone position, as well.
I stared out where I knew Hill 975 had to be in front of me. I wanted to look at it through the Starlight Scope that MacInerny once more possessed. He had gone down to a prone position near my right side. The three lieutenants had come back as one, and I had to admit the presence of them nearby gave me a feeling of relief and strange warmth. There were other living officers in the company perimeter and I didn’t have to follow any damaged orders they might give.
“The Three Stooges return,” I heard Fusner whisper nearby, no doubt talking to the other RTOs he secretly maintained communication with.
I knew he had probably intended for me to hear him, although I didn’t have a negative enough opinion of the corporal to believe he wanted the three lieutenants to hear, as well. I ignored the snarky comment, as I presumed he knew I would.
I decided that I didn’t need to look through the scope. There was nothing but the hills’ outline to be viewed, and I knew that outline pretty well from memory.
I’d climbed that deadly peak twice and many Marines had died on top of it and around its base, and here were two more rifle companies likely to part with a few more.
The hill emitted no light in the stygian murk created by a monsoon overcast night and a densely falling rain that would not let up. The sound of the water flowing through the inlet to wedge its way into the Bong Song penetrated the darkness, and I realized that that body of water might also be a problem. Earlier, we’d been able to move the Ontos across it because it hadn’t been that deep and the water, not that fast-moving, but with the hard rain coming down for some time that stream-like thread of water running hip-deep could be considerably deeper and running much stronger. How had the NVA regiment we pursued crossed the water since there was no fire at all coming from the positions they’d fired their mortars from in the jungle area we now occupied? If they had a way to cross the water then so our Marine rifle companies might have that same way, given it was natural and not some sort of temporary bridge they could destroy or takedown.
Our two companies were in line, according to Fusner’s whispered reports, from the canyon wall to the west all the way to the river’s edge on the east, a distance of about four hundred meters. One Marine for just about every meter if stood shoulder to shoulder, which they were definitely not. Resupply contents had been rescued out from under the nose of the NVA occupying Hill 975, with the Cobras and the Skyraiders providing heavy murderous cover during the daylight hours of the day before. Our stuff had not been disturbed, when Sugar Daddy’s platoon returned for it, which was the greatest godsend of the whole operation. The company’s ammunition, water, food and the 60 mm mortar rounds we’d used to suppress the 82s had been there and were intact. I ate a full can of Ham and Mothers in four big gulps, and then consumed a whole canteen of freshwater brought in from the rear area. My energy level skyrocketed. I hadn’t been near as tired from lack of any decent sleep as I had been dehydrated and starving from only taking in small amounts of water and no food at all.
The Gunny settled down into the newly dug foxhole that Nguyen and Fusner had been kind enough to dig. It was a poor excuse for a foxhole because the ‘hole’ part of it only reached four or five feet down through the packed jungle floor. Any attempt to penetrate the mud underneath that dense debris only ended up with water completely filling the hole. The water table was too close to the surface to do anything underground unless there was a mountain like Hill 975 above to block the rain and let it run off to lower elevations.
“It’s not going to stay this quiet,” the Gunny said. I took in the strong aroma of the unfiltered Camel cigarettes he smoked.
Most of the other Marines in both companies smoked, from time to time, but none of them did so as consistently and as close to me as the Gunny.
The rain muted everything, the sound of its heavy patter becoming unnoticeable to me, except when other sounds penetrated through, other sounds that were not the river’s water rushing by, which was always there, as well.
“The 175 artillery was more accurate than in the past,” the Gunny went on, “and that made the 60mm’s a whole lot more effective. Got the Ontos into position, finally, and it can sweep the whole base of Hill 975, or even the hillside itself, if necessary. They’re regrouping in their holes, but they’ll be back well before dawn. They know what our plan is now and that the key to it is holding our position until daylight. I don’t think they have tunnels coming under the stream or under the bed of jungle we’re in. Too much water at this time of year, so I’m not worried about that.”
I wondered what was on the Gunny’s mind. He almost never went into a conversational mode, even where it involved the enemy, and what that enemy might be up to.
“We need the Starlight Scope with Hultzer and the Ontos crew,” the Gunny said, adding to my level of discomfort. “When the attack comes that’s about the only way we’ll stop it, or at least funnel it over to the canyon wall where we’ve got plenty of M-60 firepower online and still a load of ammo for the three mortars.”
“Fusner, have Nguyen hustle the scope over to Hultzer,” I ordered. “They won’t need MacInerney. Hultzer’s pretty good all by himself with it.”
In seconds Nguyen was gone, the scope, case, and tripod whisked away like they were made of some light Balsa wood.
“I agree,” I finally said, turning to face the Gunny, but staying as prone as I could be half inside a foxhole dug too shallow to do much other than allow me to pull my poncho over the edges and fight back the rain. But I couldn’t get to doing that and talk to the Gunny at the same time.
“I want a full platoon online downriver,” I continued, “about half a click to make absolutely sure we don’t get hit from that direction, and I want the three lieutenants here to go over to the Ontos and get some OJT on it. None of them are artillery so they didn’t go through Fort Sill to meet up with the little beast in training.
“Yes, sir, Junior,” MacInerney replied as if I’d been speaking directly to him. The three lieutenants were gone in seconds. I realized that I was liking MacInerney more and more, and that made me uncomfortable too. We’d never done the seniority proof thing so I simply presumed that the other two lieutenants, Russell and the one I couldn’t remember his name, who acted as his assistants, were junior to him.
When they were gone, with only Fusner remaining outside, and the Gunny closer, right near the edge of the hole, I asked the question that had come to the forefront of my mind.
“What is it?” I asked. I was determined to not speak again until the Gunny answered.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he snapped his cigarette off out into the rain, moved closer and began helping me get my poncho arranged so I’d be able to duck down under it, curl up best as I could, and then get what little sleep I could manage until whatever attack had to be coming showed up.
I got under the poncho and took off my helmet for the first time in hours. My neck was sore from the weight of the thing. I rubbed it, still not saying anything, but I made no attempt to curl up under the waterproof poncho. I sat and waited, holding the edge of it up so I faced the Gunny, laying on his belly atop the jungle debris, his face less than two feet from mine.
“Jurgens,” the Gunny whispered, his voice seeming clearer because the rain made less noise hitting my poncho than it had the metal of my helmet.
I waited some more.
“He didn’t do anything to the lieutenants, even though they’re the usual idiots they send us,” the Gunny murmured. “He didn’t do them and won’t do anything else because you’ve got him. He knows you know about the helicopter guy.”
“Macho Man,” I whispered back.
“Yeah, that guy,” the Gunny continued. “The guys in the company didn’t like it, any of them. He knows that. He doesn’t want them to be with you. And he knows you put him in for a decoration. He doesn’t understand you at all, but he’ll do what you tell him from now on. I need you to promise that you won’t kill him or put him out there to be killed.”
“You’re negotiating for him?” I asked, in shocked surprise. “Like you’re his representative?”
“I’m the Gunny,” the Gunny replied. “I represent everyone in these two companies right now, like I have for some time, and that includes you.”
At the end of his comment, the last few words hissed out, much different than his lighter whispering tone had been in delivering what came before. I flinched inside at those words. The Gunny had saved my life. He’d represented me a number of times, most of them I still probably knew nothing about. For some reason, he was requiring that I verbally, and in reality, promise that I would not finally give Jurgens the justice he so badly deserved. I thought about lying to the Gunny, my mind racing, but I knew I couldn’t do it. The Gunny, in his twenty-seven days of eternity with me, was more a father to me than my own father had been for the earlier twenty-three years of my entire life. I didn’t reply. I breathed, knowing I had no way out, but not wanting to give in or say the words. The Gunny read my mind.
“Say the one word, Junior,” he said, the patience in his voice surprised me.
My promise was important to him for reasons I’d probably never know, and he was willing to wait me out to get it.
I didn’t know whether to say yes or no. Yes, I’d kill him, or yes I wouldn’t kill him, and there was also the two ‘no’ possibilities.
“Yes,” I finally said, guessing that that meant I would not kill the man.
The Gunny’s right hand appeared out of the mud, his arm extended.
I was taken aback. Marines saluted or followed orders. They didn’t shake hands, especially not in a combat situation.
I took the Gunny’s hand, realizing we weren’t shaking hands as officer and non-com, or even as Marines. We were shaking hands man-to-man. The Gunny’s grip was muddy but very firm, and then it, and he were gone.
“Sorry Macho Man,” I whispered into the raining night, before pulling myself under the poncho and curling up as best I could. I tried to close my eyes and think of any good things. There seemed to be no leeches in my hole in the jungle and the mosquitos could not fly in the heavy rain, but that and the Ham and Mothers were about it. I finally closed my eyes.
But my mind would not stop running at full speed. The artillery might possibly save us again if it could be finely adjusted. The Starlight had to be used in such a way that an attack could be visually spotted instead of simply and violently felt when rounds began being exchanged on the ground. I opened my eyes and came up out from under the lip of my poorly constructed shelter.
“Fusner,” I said, the rain beating down upon my unprotected head and flowing back behind me down into my marginally protective hole. “Get me the 175 battery on the arty net,” I ordered.
“Have you got the last fire mission registered, with bag weight and the same range approximation?” I asked the battery fire direction officer, as soon as I had the microphone in my hand and the transmit button depressed.
“Affirmative on that data, Junior,” came back.
“Circular error probable?” I asked, waiting tensely, hoping the FDO could give me anything at all. The CEP was the likelihood, in meters of radius, that half the rounds of a salvo would strike in that zone.
“Two hundred meters,” the FDO replied, sounding like he was fairly certain.
The barrage I’d called in earlier had been exceedingly accurate, given that the distance was beyond the 175 mm gun’s table-rated range. The rounds would drop from the battery, passing Hill 975 on its eastern face while coming down into the valley just beyond and over the lip of the A Shau’s western canyon wall. Our position was just under two hundred meters from the stream of water feeding into the swollen Bong Song. It was another two hundred meters to the base of Hill 975. Deflection, the rounds aim from side to side, would not be affected much by the extended range. Calling in another 175 fire would be a bit of a toss-up but our situation was tenuous without that fire, and without that fire coming down where it was needed the most.
“What is your position, Junior?” the FDO asked.
I’d called in the previous mission from across the river. There had been no ‘rules of engagement’ to consider. But now I was calling for fire, from an artillery battery firing beyond its effective range and the rules of engagement might be strictly adhered to. I was calling for a mission that would not doubt be closer than the ‘danger close’ limitations allowed for. The battery would not fire if we were too close to where the rounds might be expected to come in. No artillery officers in the battery would risk their careers by firing, not if it was likely that those rounds might kill friendlies and should not have been fired in the first place according to the rules of engagement.
I backed our position up five hundred meters down the valley from where we really were, and then called that fictitious position in.
“You want to adjust using the gun target line?” the FDO asked back, almost immediately.
I understood that the FDO knew I was lying. He was agreeing to fire, however, and wanted to make sure that I would not have a problem adjusting fire by having to adjust from a position I wasn’t really occupying, which would be damned difficult, especially at night. An Army officer, a battery FDO was taking
a potentially massive risk in helping a Marine unit in trouble. I knew if I lived, that I could never say a negative thing about the Army again.
“Affirmative, and I’ll need adjusting and battery fire,” I replied, while silently hoping that the heavy rain would cause the rounds to reach out a little less further than they otherwise might. Zone fire would be too dispersive and potentially much more dangerous to have an impact than directing the battery to fire at targets registered in real-time by using single round adjustments.
“Do you have a request for a fire mission, over?” the FDO asked.
“Stand by, as we’ll be in a danger-close attack situation sometime before the dawn, over,” I replied, handing the headset back to Fusner.
“Call Hultzer in the Ontos,” I ordered. “The Starlight is going to be everything when it comes to letting us know when they attack, and where.”
I wondered if the NVA was on top of the artillery potential of the situation to be smart enough to attack only along the western-most part of the canyon wall, where artillery rounds coming in from the firebase located way up the valley would be partially blocked by the bulk of Hill 975’s eastern flank. “And tell him to aim and concentrate six rounds loaded with flechettes, with fuses adjusted to set the rounds up close to where the stream moves by the western face of the parapet.”
“What’s a parapet, sir?” Fusner asked, “Hultzer wants to know.”
I frowned but understood. Parapet wasn’t the right word to use, even if Hultzer had understood. The canyon wall was the canyon wall and not a fortification or breastwork to hold off an attack or protect from incoming fire.
“The wall of the canyon below Hill 975 and as east in the distance as the fuse range will allow,” I answered.
If the artillery could handle sixty to seventy percent of the forward area we were facing then the Ontos might be able to handle the remaining area, even though the distance and the likely density of attackers would be much greater if the enemy calculated properly.
I crawled back into my hole and pulled the poncho cover back over the opening. I curled up to get some badly needed sleep, realizing that there had been a time in the very near past when an impending attack wouldn’t have let me sleep at all.
Seconds later, I felt the cover of my poncho eased upward and someone sticking his head inside.
“I’ll do my part,” the man said, his voice quiet but clear.
The crease between the poncho cover and the mud lip of the hole disappeared and I was in complete blackness again. I closed my eyes, only recognizing Jurgen’s voice as sleep overcame me.