I scrambled, slid and crabbed my way through the low growing debris spread like small islands of living flora all over the mud flat I was trapped on. The NVA gunners had opened up high or were trying to take out the Ontos instead of shooting at a few scavengers trying to reclaim dead bodies and riddled supply boxes and tins. I couldn’t see in the miserably low light because, what the lack of light didn’t hide, the everlasting misting rain made so invisible that nothing of substance or real form could be distinguished. I moved laterally, turning away from the NVA filled jungle down the river and directly away from the river itself. The river’s presence ruled everything because it was a given in the night. The noise of the rushing water could be heard over all else. With the Bong Song at my back, I did what I did best under fire, I tried to get away before the enemy got around to cleaning the mud flat of all living things. I’d taken one quick look over my shoulder to see if the fire was directed at Sugar Daddy’s strung out platoon, but there’d been nothing to see in the blackness, which was good for the members of that platoon. But those of us down in the supply area were in a previously registered position, and it wouldn’t take the NVA long to go back to playing cleanup, with our lives being what were going to be cleaned up.
I found a spider hole. I hadn’t prayed to find one, but I murmured “thank God” when my hands plunged over the front edge of the hole. There was no hesitation on my part. I didn’t care what was in the hole, I plunged forward and then dove over the lip head first. The hole was big. Bigger than I would have imagined. My body had time to flip over as I fell, which was a good thing because I landed in a pool of water at least a foot deep, with a foot of sucking mud right at the bottom of it.
The water and mud cushioned my fall, although the depth of the fall caused my legs to fully bend, descending my lower body into the water along with my feet and legs. My first thought wasn’t the relief I’d expected to be overwhelmed by getting off the deadly mud flat. Instead, I felt fear that I wouldn’t be able to climb back out, with the depth and the slippery nature of the mud. That fear was driven from my mind, as I stood up to my full height in time to be crushed flat by another falling body. I slammed down again, realizing the body had to be that of Nguyen, who’d crawled in after me. There was no mistaking the light ropey feeling of his hardened thin body. He crashed down onto me and then bounced off. There was no time for me to recover because more bodies cascaded down into the water-filled muddy chaos. I knew the Gunny and Fusner had come down but was shocked when I pushed myself violently backward to get away from the crush of their bodies. I rammed my torso right into the chest of another human, and my fear came rushing back. Everyone inside the hole had come across the mud with me. Anyone already inside the hole had to be an enemy. My right hand went down to grab the butt of my .45 as I twisted and turned, but I never had the chance to unsnap the holster and drag it out.
“It’s me, Bates,” a clear male voice said, into the churning mass of recovering bodies and splashing water.
“Bates?” I repeated, my mind not being able to understand what was being said, but my immediate fear draining away, like water rushing into a bathtub drain.
I cleared my head, as best I could, pushing my back against the open rounded wall of the big hole.
“Bates?” I asked again.
“The major’s aide,” the voice replied.
The Gunny lit his Zippo lighter, and a wavering yellow light illuminated everything in the hole.
Fusner was working to make sure his radio was okay and Nguyen was direct across the hole from me, behind the Gunny, looking as if he’d been there all along.
But only one Marine had been there all along.
“What the hell?” was all I could get out.
“They’re all dead, aren’t they?” Bates asked, his voice flat and unhurried.
I knew the shock the man was in. I’d felt it so many times myself. I knew it was obvious that this was Bates’ first time in combat. All emotion was gone from him, and it’d be gone for some time to come, if not forever. If men like Bates and I ever made it home, I thought fleetingly, maybe every question that might be asked behind our backs would be “where did their humor go?”
“They’re dead,” the Gunny confirmed.
I stared into Bates’ eyes, trying to take him in. He’d found the hole and did what any sane human did in combat when under attack. He’d taken the rabbit hole to safety and then stayed there while the Marines he was with just a few feet away, and a few feet higher up, were mowed down like wheat in a field at the end of a season. Before the Gunny snapped his lighter shut I saw the depth of regret, fear, and resignation in Bates’ eyes. He’d joined the living dead and, with only a few hours of real combat experience behind him, he knew it.
“What do I do?” Bates asked, his voice quavering just a small bit.
“’You’re with me,” I replied, almost absently, trying to give Bates some confidence where was needed. “You were the XO’s aide and now you’re my scout sergeant.”
“I don’t think I can do that,” Bates replied, the tone of his voice dropping to a whisper.
“It’s either down here,” the Gunny said roughly, snapping his cigarette down into the muddy water at the bottom of our hole, “or you can join your friends up there.”
“What’s the plan,” the Gunny said, changing the subject and this time directing his question toward me, or so I thought. It was too dark to see anything, but there was no one else the question could rationally be directed toward.
“We stay,” I replied since there were no other options.
Going up and over the lip, and then trying to crawl under fire back to the berm wasn’t a plan that had any percentage of being survivable.
“Supporting fires at dawn,” the Gunny said, his tone one of a quiet agreement.
I knew what his next question was going to be, and headed it off by answering it.
“The scope,” I said. “The Starlight Scope. We call Tank and get your snipers back to the Ontos, then we call the Ontos and get Zippo to sight for the snipers. Anybody coming anywhere near this hole gets waxed until daylight.”
“How will Zippo know where we are, sir?” Fusner asked.
I pulled up my flashlight and hit the button very briefly, illuminating the hole for a second, or less.
“Won’t the enemy see that too?” he asked, sounding like he had no confidence in the plan at all.
“They already know exactly where we are,” the Gunny replied. “If they can get somebody close then all they need is a single grenade.”
“The snipers might not be able to hit someone in this mist and mud,” Bates argued, speaking for the first time other than to answer questions and indicating that he couldn’t function in a combat role.
“The Ontos is loaded with H.E. rounds,” I replied. “Close doesn’t count, except in horseshoes, hand grenades, and Ontos high explosives.”
“They’re not going to send out anybody alone,” the Gunny said, squatting down in the hole as if he was going to prepare a canteen holder of coffee.
I wondered if the composition B explosives he carried everywhere would ignite at the bottom of a water-filled hole. I thought about what he’d said about the potential of attack, and knew he was right. The NVA would come crawling across the mud like a herd of spiders, half a platoon in force, or more. They’d be hard to spot, even for Zippo with the Starlight scope, because of the wind-blown rain, and, the Gunny was right, it’d only take one well-tossed grenade.
Fusner asked if he should make the calls to the company, and I could tell he was shaken more than I’d ever known him to be.
“The plan is called the ‘Dawn Go Away,” I said.
“Like in ‘Dawn go away I’m no good for you?’ Fusner immediately asked.
“I love Frankie Valli.”
The tone of Fusner’s voice changed, and I almost smiled in the dark at the simplicity of how the boy’s mind worked. He had a plan and it had a name. For some reason that was more important than what the details of the plan might entail. That the plan’s name made no sense at all also made no sense at all, except the mention of it seemed to have a good effect.
“Terrible name but what the hell,” the Gunny said. “Is that dawn, as in the coming dawn, or the Dawn of some girl’s name?”
The Gunny didn’t stop for more than a few seconds after asking the question, before going on. “We’ve got to do something. Even the Ontos rounds are not going to stop them. What about illumination. We don’t have to worry about the rounds falling short if they’re Illum rounds.”
“The 175 guns are all that can reach us here,” I replied, regretfully. “175s don’t have illumination. They load only high explosive and nuclear.”
“Nuclear sounds okay,” Bates said.
I knew that if we were back home everyone in the hole would have laughed, but Bates comment was met only with silence.
“Beehive,” I said, replying to the Gunny’s question. “We need to get the Beehive rounds up to the berm, load a few and then do some demonstration fire.
Beehives scare the living crap out of them.”
“How much do the rounds weigh?” the Gunny asked.
“Thirty-seven pounds per round, plus a bit,” I replied, remembering my single day in training with the recoilless weapon. I didn’t remember the data from viewing the round itself since I hadn’t handled any, but I’d read the side of one of the wooden ammunition boxes.
“A better question might be where the ammo is up there in the muck if they were dropped like the other junk,” the Gunny stated.
“I know the boxes and Nguyen can transport one at a time back and forth to the berm,” I replied.
“There won’t be any supporting fire in the morning to any effect without you, Junior,” the Gunny said, coming right back at me, intimating the mess I’d leave the company in if I got killed.
“They’re scared shitless of the beehives,” I replied.”If we can demonstrate that we’ve got them then they won’t attack in a massed formation. We can deal with the individuals, or the snipers can. If we don’t suppress a broad attack across the mud before dawn, then I’m not going to be here to direct anything. Not alive, anyway.”
“The company can use suppressing fire while you’re up there,” the Gunny said, and I knew by his saying those words that the Gunny was buying into the plan.
“The distance is enough,” I agreed.
Suppressing fire would be M-60s firing over the heads of myself and Nguyen while we worked to get at the 106 rounds and then allow Nguyen to hopefully get back and forth to the Ontos a few times. Suppressing fire only worked if it was fired at an angle in support of Marines in front of the gunners, or if the distance was great enough for the bullets coming from the gun barrels to arc high enough to go over the heads of those directly in front of them. Those in front of them would be Nguyen and me.
I waited to see if the Gunny was all in.
“I can go,” the Gunny said, after a thoughtful moment.
There was no sincerity in the Gunny’s tone. I understood, and amazingly the understanding made me feel a burst of warmth for the man. He didn’t want to go out there either, and he wanted me to find a way to let him stay in the hole. Bates was remaining totally silent. I knew the paralyzing fear he was experiencing. The idea of never leaving the protection of the hole was in his mind like it had been in my own many nights in the past. The night the Gunny had dragged me out against my will.
Fusner talked quietly into the radio, arranging what needed to be arranged up the company line. The Gunny would have to arrange for the suppressing fire, which would also be better because nobody in the company was going to want to see the Gunny hit.
“Tell them that you’re coming out of the hole with me,” I said, wondering what the Gunny would reply.
I counted off the seconds. At my silent count of sixty, he spoke.
“That’s good,” he said, softly, and I could tell there was an invisible smile on his face. “That’s really good.”
I would have smiled back if I could. The single most comforting thing about the Gunny, other than I knew he liked me and thought I was marginally competent, was that he always seemed to get it. We didn’t have to say certain ‘filler’ kinds of things or even complete sentences. The Gunny simply got what I was talking about without me having to detail it out, and it was the same way for me.
“How you going to tell the Montagnard what we need?” the Gunny asked.
“He’ll know,” I replied, having no idea if Nguyen would get it or not, but my confidence in the mountain man’s ability to figure things out hadn’t faded a bit since I’d met him.
I heard the Gunny moving around the mass of water and mud in the bottom of the hole. In seconds, he was talking quietly to Jurgens on the radio. Bits of mud fell from the top edge of the hole and I knew Fusner had to be standing up to his full gangly height, and holding the extended blade antenna in his pushed-up hand so it would rise up out of the hole.
“Flash the light, Junior, and make sure it doesn’t point in the wrong direction,” the Gunny said. “They know we’re here but they don’t know exactly what hole we might have landed in. Give ‘em three quick bursts. I’ve set it up with six machine-gun teams to open up when I give the signal, or if you start taking heavy fire out there. You and Nguyen working to get the ammo out of the boxes may be less hazardous than the trips back and forth up to the berm.”
“My sentiments, exactly,” I murmured.
“But never forget he’s just a Montagnard,” Bates added.
Nobody said anything for a moment, as I reached up to aim the flashlight and press the button quickly three times in a row. Bates’ comment hit me like some of the other junk that had been passed on to those of us in combat while the command structure remained unthreatened and unharmed in the rear area.
Nguyen had risked his life, time after time for me, and also offered support when I thought I had none from my own Marines.
“Maybe we need a dependable Marine instead, to ferry the rounds up to the berm and then come back down a few times,” the Gunny said, quietly, stating the very thought that had come racing through my own mind. There was only one Marine in our hole capable of fitting that Marine distinction. Fusner had to stay on the radio, the Gunny had to direct action from the lip of the hole and I was the company commander.
“I didn’t mean anything,” Bates said, naked fear being exposed by the quivering in his voice.
“Because you don’t know Jack,” the Gunny replied, “but it don’t mean Nuthin’.”
I heard and felt the Gunny moving about. He was using an E-Tool to dig into the side of one wall. It took him only seconds. I had no idea that he’d managed to include the E-Tool as part of his own kit when we’d come down, but it was so wet and dark he could have carried just about anything and I wouldn’t have noticed. He used his lighter to start some composition B burning. The entire spider hole lit brightly around us, which made my own fear lessen a bit.
“What about losing our night vision?” Bates, asked, the fear still emanating from him like a warming radiator.
“Don’t need night vision in the dark and rain,” Fusner replied. “Can’t see when it’s this black, except for tracers, and they don’t put out enough light to see anything by at all.”
I handed the flashlight to the Gunny. He’d need it for signaling along with communicating using the radio. There was no way that I could use the light once we were out on the mudflats, no matter how difficult it might be to find the ammo boxes among the piles of items strewn around the bodies up above. The ammo boxes were narrow and long, each holding two 106 rounds. My K-Bar would suffice to open the boxes. From there it would be up to Nguyen to negotiate a course out across the mud and up to the eastern berm where the Ontos sat waiting.
I tried to relax into the wall across from where the Gunny worked to produce another of his cup holders of coffee. I breathed in and out deeply, accepting a lit cigarette from the Gunny.
“For the critters,” he said.
I nodded and blew on the burning embers at the cigarette’s end, before carefully touching them to the backs of my hands. The leeches fell instantly away, squirming in agony, or so I hoped. I handed the cigarette to Nguyen, who’d slipped across the hole to be at my side. I stretched out my chin toward the Gunny and moved it as high as I could. Nguyen went from leech to leech, dropping the little monsters away. I wondered if the ‘critters’ would live in the mud. For some reason, the leeches didn’t inhabit the area in or around the river. There had to be something in the water and mud that was unhealthy. I thought about all the insecticide and herbicides American supply planes were dumping on the jungle we all inhabited. If the stuff was infusing the water with poison, and the leeches couldn’t take it, then what of Marines forced to struggle in it too?
Nguyen handed the cigarette back when he was done. The leeches that’d made their way under my utility blouse, and no doubt up and down my trouser legs, would have to wait, while they feasted away. There was no way to remove my uniform and get at them under the conditions we were in. Only three weeks earlier I did not know I’d have had a hard time continuing on, but leeches, like the jungle, smells of sweet death and musty misery were things that could be accommodated over time. The relief I felt from the Gunny’s brewing of coffee ran warmly though me while I waited to go over the top. The smell of the burning explosive was of a medicinal cordite sort, while the mix of faint coffee aromas, wafting up and around with the cordite, gave me a strange calming feeling of being among friends, even if there was no ‘home’ effect to it.
“Ready,” I said to the Gunny. “No suppressing fire unless we need it,” I said, unnecessarily, knowing I was letting him understand just how badly I did not want to go out on the killing mud flats above, but not being able to stop myself from saying anything.
The Gunny drank some of his coffee from the cup holder in his right hand and then crushed out his small fire with one boot before moving to hoist himself up on the step he’d created, so he could see over the top of the debris near the outer edge of the hole.
“Dawn, go away, I’m no good for you,” he intoned.
I heard Fusner trying to suppress a giggle, which made me feel better. My life was in Fusner’s and the Gunny’s hands entirely for the next short period of time, or what I hoped was going to be a short period of time.
It was dead dark again, and Bates had been correct in commenting on the fires destructive effect on our night vision. I could see nothing. But I knew where the top lip of the hole was and I knew how close and in what direction the dropped supplies and the dead Marines were located. I checked the holster snap for the automatic to make sure I didn’t lose it in getting out, and then across the sticky mud. I would let the K-Bar stay in its sheath until I was able to find some wooden ammo boxes to open. The boxes would have been easier to carry than slippery individual rounds but would have required two Marines to carry, and also those Marines would have had to remain vertical while they were moving in order to do so.
I faced the wall of the hole. Its upper lip was too high for me to reach up and pull myself over. I grabbed Nguyen’s right shoulder with my left hand and moved to hoist myself up. Suddenly I was out on the mud. I realized the Gunny must have moved behind me to help thrust me up. Nguyen was instantly laying at my side. Both of us lay face down, flat on the surface of the mud. The mildly blowing mist immediately began cleaning my face slowly as I brought it up in a vain attempt to see anything. There were no leeches about so I didn’t have to deal with that slimy foreign feeling. My night vision was returning, but seeing anything to make out what it might be wasn’t possible. I moved ahead. Each time I moved Nguyen moved with me. I thought of two giant caterpillars making their way across the mud. My fear was contained, partly because I wasn’t alone, and the fact that there was no firing from any weaponry on either side.
I pushed into a soft barrier, before realizing it was a dead body. One of our Marines. I felt forward with my right hand. The body was laying back down. Instead of going around I pulled myself right over him, knowing the Marine wouldn’t care, and no doubt would have let me even if he was alive. Nguyen made his way around, while I waited for a few seconds for him to join me. I wondered if contact with dead bodies was verboten to his religious upbringing, but I knew nothing of Montagnard religious beliefs. We moved together again for a few meters, the night mercifully silent, except for the sound of the rushing nearby river water and the slight but pervasive whispering of the falling misty rain. The air smelled almost pure, wafting down from the top of the canyon wall. My helmet kept the rain from falling down into my eyes, but I sort of missed the washing effect I’d experienced earlier. I couldn’t rub my head at all though, because my hands were once again covered with the cloying mud.
I ran into a hard and low barrier. I stopped to feel it. Wood. I’d found one of the ammo boxes. I quickly explored the surface, back and forth. The box was of the proper size. I reached for my K-Bar and began to pry across the length of the upper crack near the top edge. The blade went in and I worked at pulling the wood apart while also trying not to break or bend the blade of the K-Bar. In less than a minute, the whole top eased up and I was able to cast it aside. I replaced my knife, carefully snapping it back into the sheath on my belt, before running both of my hands up and down the length of the sleek slippery rounds. Little holes ran along the ends of both, which was a dead giveaway that the ammunition was recoilless in nature. The little holes allowed the burning powder to push against the inner side of the barrel before forcing the round to be thrust out from the end.
I eased one round out of the box, then slid it across the mud to Nguyen, who clutched it to his body like it was a pet or maybe a baby. It occurred to me, again, that I had no way to instruct Nguyen as to what we needed to be done unless he spoke more English than he’d ever let on. But there was no need to communicate at all from the instant the thought came into my mind.
A fifty-caliber machine gun opened up from the jungle side. Giant green flaming beer cans came screaming in over both of our heads. They’d brought another fifty-caliber up and on the line. They’d saved it for just the right moment. Nguyen and I tried to squeeze down into the mud behind the useless six-inch height of the wooden ammo box which wasn’t thick or strong enough to stop a .22 bullet. There was no place for Nguyen or me to run and we couldn’t survive for any time at all staying where we were. The fifty would simply stitch the entire area of the registered zone, back and forth, up and down, until it stitched us.
We would join the other four Marines lying dead on the mudflat.