The attack never came. We’d rushed back to our positions in the expectation that the NVA would understand that we’d left our rear area totally unprotected, but either the enemy had not figured that out, or there was another mystery that might never be explained. Even with the knowledge that we’d made a mistake and were rushing back to fix it, we should have paid a heavy price in casualties. But, that had not been the case. There’d been no opening of fire from either the heavy jungle we knew to be filled with enemy troops nor by anyone in our own combined Marine companies. The Ontos sat still, its idle brought to a halt for the first time in days. I had no idea of how the thing was resupplied with gasoline all the time, or why it was currently shut off, but assumed the Gunny had intimate knowledge, as well as the means to support it.
The Gunny came sliding down my little incline, shedding his soaked poncho cover as he came. Captain Carruthers entered right behind him. I looked up at the opening, to see the very muted light of early day beginning to radiate through the hanging cover Fusner had erected. Fusner was there inside the cave but pushed into the side of the wall above me. I realized that he, and Nguyen across from him, had been there all the time, but I hadn’t paid much attention, trying to curl into a ball and find some solace in any sleep I could get. The relief I’d felt when the attack to our rear had not occurred had somehow sucked some energy from my very core.
“We can’t stay here,” I said to Carruthers and the Gunny, knowing I didn’t have to say the words but saying them anyway. “Our position’s registered, and there’s only a matter of time until they overwhelm us from all sides, no matter what firepower we can bring down on them during the daylight hours.”
I felt more relief when I finished, but not from saying what we all knew. The thrum of the Skyraider, multiplied several times, came up through the sand on the bottom of my cave ‘floor.’ Cowboy was back, and he’d brought friends. There would be no enemy attack in daylight hours, as long as he and his accompanying friends could remain on station, orbiting the bottom of the valley and looking to ‘get some.’ That phrase, used to describe killing the enemy, or even civilians, rankled me, but I never said anything to anyone who used it. I had come to know that my nature was anything but timid, but I had also learned that being reserved and accepting of bizarre differences of behavior in combat was a good way to stay alive as a commander. I wasn’t going to fight any battles or take any chances with my own Marines over whatever use of language might be in vogue.
“Staying here isn’t the issue,” the Gunny replied, surprising me. His tone was just a touch acidic. My comments about not staying where we were had obviously bitten into some emotion I didn’t fully understand.
“Where do we head out to?” Carruthers asked. “Battalion has a whole lot to do with that kind of decision, and there’s nothing on the command net so far about us going anywhere. How long until we get to go to the rear to get a break from all this, by the way?”
I looked into the Gunny’s eyes, as he lit a cigarette. I saw the minor irritation he’d displayed toward my earlier comments disappear, and a slight bit of humor appear in his eyes. He made no attempt to answer Carruthers, instead concentrating on lighting his cigarette.
“They do rotate units back, or so I’ve heard,” I replied, trying not to laugh out loud, at how silly my answer seemed to me.
In a Marine Corps unit, particularly one in combat, such things should be a given, or so it had seemed back in training. To discover that nothing was a ‘given’ out in the field of combat had been another galvanic shock to my core of existence, but no more. I had no expectation of going to the rear alive, and I knew the Gunny felt exactly the same. It wasn’t something we talked about. It wasn’t something anyone talked about. But there was no sense in telling Carruthers any of that, not under the circumstances.
“We’ll tell battalion we’re moving out when we move out,” I said.
“You can’t just tell command what we’re doing,” Carruthers replied, his tone one of some surprise, and displaying a bit of irritated anger. “It’s not like you’ve done so well out here so far, lieutenant.”
I had no answer to that. In my estimation, it was one of the most truthful things I’d heard anybody say since I’d arrived in country. The Gunny handed me his lit cigarette. I took one long drag, trying not to cough, and then handing it back. Almost a minute went by without anyone saying anything.
“Since the lieutenant took over there’s been almost no killing between the black and white platoons,” Fusner said, his voice almost a whisper, “and they used to kill each other all the time.”
“There’s that,” the Gunny chimed in. “The tracers he dreamed up were a good move, and I think they help suppress the NVA fire too.”
“What killing?” Carruthers asked, but nobody paid attention to him or his question.
I hadn’t thought much about Jurgens or Sugar Daddy and the extreme problems they had posed in my first days with the company. They were right, and I almost felt a sense of pride, but that feeling was fleeting. It reminded me of a Titanic joke. I was doing a great job of putting together really good musical arrangements for the band playing on the fantail of the ship, as it slowly slipped bow first beneath the cold killing waters of the Atlantic.
“Up,” I said, after a few seconds.
“Up?” Carruthers and the Gunny asked at exactly the same time.
“If we can’t stay here, then we either head upriver or up to the top of the highlands,” I explained. “There’s no place else to go.”
Downriver was a nightmare of closed in valley walls, flooded and rushing river water, and jungle bracken so thick it was not passable by the Ontos, or quite possibly even Marine infantrymen. And the Ontos was the main problem. We could not take it up to the highlands, as the cliffs were so steep that it was nearly impassable for Marines wearing any kind of gear, much less full packs weighing nearly sixty pounds, or more. Even if we went north there was the problem of getting the vehicle across the river. The crossing, coming south, that we’d executed before had depended upon the way the partial bridge extended itself out across the water. There was no way to ‘jump’ the Ontos back up onto that extended lip of the hanging end of the bridge, and the body of the river was way too deep to permit the thing to ford it without some kind of engineering assistance we didn’t have. If the Ontos could not make it to the other side of the river then it would have to be destroyed, and its hulk abandoned. The thought of that made me cringe, as the machine had been so instrumental in the company’s survival so many times.
I looked at the Gunny and, for the hundredth time, wondered what he was really thinking. His conduct in letting the scout team walk right into death was something I could not talk to him about. I knew I’d never know what happened. Macho Man was dead, like so many before him. How he died didn’t really matter, unless his death impacted on my own survival or that of the company. I also knew that Macho Man had somehow occupied a special place in my mind, and that was not likely shared by the Gunny. The man seemed to demonstrate no feelings whatsoever unless they were those of irritation or anger.
“They know we’re not going up the face to the top of the highlands,” I said, listening intently to the faint sounds penetrating through the occasional explosions caused by Cowboy and the other Skyraiders.
I nodded upward, so they would stop and listen. Very faintly the sound of the drums came through, distant and muffled, but very much there. I was not nearly so unsettled as when I’d first heard them playing deep into a dark foreboding night. Although it was overcast with monsoon rains coming down, the beating of the drums sounded more like frustrating percussive expression than much of a real threat.
“They have those drums up on the lip of the valley again, probably a good distance from where we destroyed them last time. But, it means they don’t expect us up there because it also means that if they are up there in force then climbing directly into them would be certain disaster.”
“Those drums sound awful,” Carruthers said, “What do they mean and why do they do it?”
“Find out if there’s another resupply coming in to pick up the rest of our men,” I instructed Fusner, before answering the captain. “They do it because they know how it makes you feel, and you are feeling the fear they want you to right now.”
“Yes, sir,” Fusner shot back, crawling up toward the opening in order to talk on the radio without interrupting our communications inside the cave.
“Resupply?” the Gunny asked, after slowly grinding out his cigarette stub against the rock wall next to him.
“We have to go back up north, past Hill 975, to get into the clear, where the valley spreads out and our supporting fires can reach us,” I said. “The Ontos is vital. We need some equipment and an engineer from resupply to get it back across the river.”
Fusner returned, slipping his radio off and sliding into the cave before he went to work carefully setting it up against the craggy stone wall. He’d somehow remained under the cave opening poncho he’d hung in order to avoid getting sopping wet. The rain outside, even from my distance from it, seemed so heavy that I wondered how Cowboy and his guys could see any targets at all below them. The good news was that we’d been in our current position so many times that the supporting pilots had to all know exactly where we were…just like the NVA did.
I let the drums beat away into the back of my brain, amazed that I could hear them so clearly way down inside my cave hideaway. Finally, Fusner turned his little transistor radio on and Brother John introduced a song I’d never heard of and didn’t quite get the name to. But the lyrics burned into me, the drums up on the crater rim seeming to play right along in harmony: “Now it’s the same old song, but with a different meaning, since you been gone It’s the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone”
“We don’t know that they don’t know,” I said, getting ready to answer the Gunny’s question I knew had to be coming before he asked it.
What were we going to do next? What was the plan?
“They may not have rushed back to attack our unprotected rear area because they didn’t have time to get set up for it and also, they may have figured out that we have no place else to go but back up to the crossing point at the river’s edge. They took a lot of casualties but they can afford a lot of casualties. They’re getting into much more fortified positions right now.”
“We’re going back to that killing field of fire, and somehow hold them off while we get the Ontos across that nightmare stretch of moving water?” Carruthers asked.
“That’s the plan, Junior, even if they think we’re coming and they’re getting ready?” the Gunny asked.
“Yes, the ‘Same Old Song’ plan,” I replied. “I can use the firebase to light up the top of the cliff where they’ve got the drums, and probably a base of fire to shoot down on us, but only if we’ve got choppers coming. We need gas for the Ontos, more flechette rounds, about twenty Marston Mats with some four by four timber and rope.”
“What’s a Marston Mat?” Carruthers asked.
“Aluminum runway mat, sir,” the Gunny replied, staring intently into my eyes. “they’re metal slats about two feet by twelve feet filled with holes. Very light. Very tough.”
“Will they have them at An Hoa?” Carruthers asked.
“They have them everywhere, especially at that muddy field, captain,” I replied. “We use them to bridge the gap out to the broken bridge that’s already there. We need a few pieces of wood and some rope to hold it all together. The Ontos is light for an armored vehicle, but not that light when trying to get it up onto that bridge.”
“Fusner,” I said, looking up at him in the near dark of the cave’s interior.
“They can come this afternoon, lieutenant, but I didn’t tell them about the engineer or the Marston stuff. I’ll get right on it.”
He went to work packing his radio up and moving toward the entrance of the cave. The music went with him. The song playing was San Francisco, the city where my wife waited for me to come back. “Be sure to wear a flower in your hair…” floated back at me, not making me think about wearing one at all, but thinking of her doing so, until the draft of Fusner’s departure allowed the subtle sweet smell of death to come creeping back in behind him.
“Have him come back and tell me if we can make this work, Gunny,” I said after he was gone. “If we’re still here tonight we’ll get hit with everything they have unless they’re fully concentrated and waiting by the river. They have their own dead to deal with from last night.”
“How can we know?” Carruther’s asked.
“We can’t, sir,” I shot back. “We guess. They’re not great at reacting quickly because so much of their stuff and people are underground, and they’re undersupplied in ammunition and pyrotechnical supporting weaponry. They can’t move much above ground because of our air, which you can hear from time to time right now. Not in the daylight hours, anyway, even in bad weather. And they don’t have an Ontos, beehive rounds or nearly constant resupply.”
“Same Old Song,” Carruthers said. “I’m not sure I much like the feeling of those words for your plan.”
“It’s not my plan, sir,” I said right back. “It’s our plan.”
Fusner crouched at the top of the cleft, pushing the poncho cover aside.
“No engineer, sir,” he said. “But the rest will be on the chopper at fifteen hundred hours drop in. They’ll give us one 46 with four Cobra gunships to cover and a couple of runs with Puff before they hit the landing zone. They want to know how many bodies are left to be lifted out.”
I had no idea how many men we’d lost, whose bodies might be there, what with Macho Man, the team battalion had sent and more, not to mention how many had gone out on the previous medivac.
“Eight,” I replied, making up a number.
What did it matter? If there were more they’d take them, and if there were less it didn’t matter. Only someone fighting the war from a rear area could come up with such a question, I thought, in disgust.
I checked my watch. It was morning, halfway through and Cowboy was covering our six in the air.
“Start the Ontos, since we’ll have more gas later. I don’t want the NVA to have any idea that anything is different. Let them think we expect them to attack, but I don’t think they will. Not in the daytime, and not with the fact that it’s so damned likely they’ve figured out we can’t stay here and north is the only way we can get the hell out.”
“They might even let us go, and be happy to be rid of us if we hadn’t killed so many of them,” the Gunny commented.
“But that’s our mission,” Carruthers replied, in a tone of surprise.
“It’s not, really, sir, but we can discuss that later,” the Gunny replied. “Let’s get some rest if we can until fourteen hundred hours?
I knew, from the previous attack, that we were from twenty to twenty-five minutes from the area of the river we’d have to take, and I was also starting to believe that it was going to a more contested attack than the last one, even with heavy support from the air.
Everyone crawled up the incline and then out through the hanging poncho cover, except for Nguyen and Fusner. Fusner came back to retake his position just above me. The comfort his presence gave me, a teenager’s loyalty, protection, and approval, was way out of proportion in importance to anything I could ever have imagined.
“Get air up and make sure Cowboy will be on station for this,” I said to Fusner. “Puff would be terrific and the Cobras too, but Cowboy we can count on. He knows us and he’ll have a complete understanding of what we’re up to.”
Fusner pulled the AN-323 air radio from his pack and began to work at getting it up.
“I’ve got to go outside for a minute, sir, because the frequency is higher and it won’t penetrate these rocks,” Fusner said.
I nodded at him, and he was gone. Nguyen moved to sit closer to me, an arm’s length away. He leaned forward bringing up one hand. When he opened that hand, I saw the sparkle of metal. Dog tags. I knew without saying a word that he had brought me Macho Man’s dog tags. I didn’t know why. Dog tags stayed with the body to give positive reinforcement to identity, which led to the notification of survivors as well as the application of religious services.
I accepted the tags, noting a hole in one of them. Nguyen pointed at the hole, his eyes looking into mine and not at the dog tag, however.
I frowned. Nguyen’s behavior wasn’t quite right. He knew better than to take the tags, and now he was handing them over to me in some ceremony he had to know didn’t exist in either of our cultures. Nguyen pulled his hand back and reached behind him for his M-16. Quickly he ejected one round from the right side when the bolt was pulled back. He let the bolt slide home, feeding another round from the magazine into the chamber. He handed me the cartridge he’d ejected.
I took it in my free hand but looked back at my Montagnard scout with a question written on my face. Nguyen slowly took the cartridge from my right hand, pulled the dog tags from the other, and inserted the bullet portion of the cartridge into the hole in the dog tag. It was a perfect fit.
I was stunned. The bullet was a perfect fit. The 5.56 millimeter round the M-16 fired was much smaller than the 7.62 round the AK-47 fired. I breathed in and out deeply, but silently. I took the bullet and the dog tags back into my own hands, and then carefully tucked them into the pocket on my thigh where I kept the letters to my wife. Macho Man had been a victim of friendly fire.
Nguyen moved back to his position against the far wall, his face showing no expression at all. I wondered what he knew of Macho Man’s death, and he had to know something because I’d charged him to keep the Marine safe. But we were not in the place, and it was not the right time to try to find out more.
Fusner came back in to announce that Cowboy would indeed be on station for the coming attack. My shoulders slumped in relief. I needed rest, but first I had to write home. Resupply was coming in which meant that I could get a letter out.
The letters to my wife had become, once again, after survival, my only means of coping with getting through another day and on into the coming night. For the first time, I decided to make up a completely fictional letter home. There was nothing I could come up with to write about except what was happening, and I could not write that. I lay in my lair, safe, but knowing I would be leaving soon to go back out into the jungle of unpredictable flying metal pieces. Bullets, shrapnel, fragments, it didn’t matter much, outside of my cave. If something hit, then the war was over with God deciding whether I would still be in it, in it with missing parts or in it with an injury that might be a ticket home and still allow for full recovery. That last one would be like winning a lottery, even if it included a lot of surgery and unending pain.
I wrote about making a trip to the rear area to buy stuff I didn’t have down where I was. Another K-Bar to replace the one I’d somehow lost. I still had the scabbard but no knife. I wrote that I found one, better than the one I’d lost. Of course, I knew my wife would not know that some commissary in the rear was not going to carry K-Bar Marine knives. Those were the issue out of the rear area armories, but impossible to get. Macho Man might have found one if he was still alive. But he’d had the misfortune to land with a ground-pounder unit in combat, and he’d paid the usual price. For me, that meant no K-Bar. Selfish is for the living. I’d never seen Macho Man smile, but I was willing to bet he’d smile in the hereafter if he could read my letter home. Because I’d thought of him, I also wrote about him but changed history to have him still alive, and also into being my friend, as much as an enlisted man can be an officer’s friend back in the world.
I wrote on about how neat the rear area of Da Nang was. I’d never been to Da Nang, the town, and in fact, didn’t know if there was a town. Maybe it was only a military presence. But my wife would not know, and if she did, probably not care. I also needed stationery and clear Scotch Tape, as well as any kind of snacks that weren’t found in a C-Rations box. I had all the Ham and Mothers I wanted but a Snicker Bar would have been nice every once in a while, to take a bite of when the bitter taste of adrenalin filled my mouth. In my make-believe trip to the rear, I was able to purchase ten candy bars, to bring back to the A Shau and ration out over time.
The cave was a safe place from the rain, my letter-writing enemy. I sealed the single Marine Iwo Jima stationery sheet into the envelope using too much tape, as I was about out. The regular lick seal wasn’t effective in my environment but Scotch Tape held everything together. I carefully taped over the delivery address so it wouldn’t get washed out and then the “Free” word that had to be in the upper right corner in order for the letter to be delivered without postage. I knew I was getting quite a benefit by writing home every day. First Class postage was five cents, but the real difficulty wouldn’t have been financial if I could not use the ‘free’ benefit. Stamps could not be taped to an envelope and still be valid if they washed away. That meant, with the monsoons in full display, the stamp would be long gone before the letter even got out of country.
I only made one exception to my fictional construct of a story. I could not stop myself from writing about the smell. The aroma of dead bodies had come to permeate the southern tip of the A Shau where we had been fighting in for some time. Some of the bodies of our Marines were stacked just north, and there were never enough body bags, and then the satchel charges we’d used on the enemy caves and tunnels in our attack had added hidden bodies to the mess. The sickening sweetish smell permeated everything, including the food. Only the smoke of cigarettes seemed to push it back. I wasn’t really smoking, except with the Gunny, but every once and a while I’d light a Camel (I chose that brand from the many we got because I liked the picture on the pack) and then hold the lit tip not far from my nose. The smoke would take me away, to back home, to anywhere not where I was, and it would also completely replace the horrid smell of something worse than death. Decaying sadness and the outrageous injustice of death in combat. It wasn’t the bad luck of dying in combat, that was just luck. No, it was the terrible luck of having come to arrive in combat at all. There were thousands and thousands of men in the rear areas but only rare small groups of us out on patrol and being ordered from place to place without the ability to come back. That injustice never left any of us who were out where I was.
I quickly field stripped my .45 Colt, taking it down to its eight main pieces in seconds. The .45, although tight from accurizing, was not so tight that any tools were needed. When I’d learned to field strip the automatic as a kid, from my Dad, I’d only remember that there were seven pieces. I’d always forget, to his disdain, the eighth piece sitting still held in my hand; the receiver. I had no Hoppes and no oil in the cave. I was sure that somebody in the company did, but I wasn’t going to bother to try to find some. I swabbed the parts of the automatic with water from my canteen, and then wiped everything dry with a pair of socks I’d saved. I re-folded the socks and put them back in my pack when I was done. The .45 hadn’t taken much water to clean, so the socks would be usable in a few days, although nothing really ever dried down in the A Shau, at least not in the monsoon period I was in.
I lay down to try to sleep, curling up against the rough rock wall. The sand felt soft and good beneath me, but my left hand would not stay away from the pocket. I massaged the dog tags, the M-16 cartridge and the letter to my wife as if they were somehow bizarrely connected. My right hand clutched my cleaned .45 Colt, and somehow there was a balance. I drifted off, the dark thoughts swirling inside of me finally fading into oblivion.