When a crack from an AK-47 split the air I ducked in panic and dived headlong into our mortar pit. Had the shooter been aiming directly at me he would have dropped me dead even before I’d heard the report, but that was a bit of wisdom that offered small relief as I belly-flopped over a stack of mortar rounds and kicked stuff flying.
The shot scared me stupid. With as much dignity as I could muster I sat up quickly, restored the ammo pile, and felt embarrassed that Collins, who sat in the pit, had witnessed me act the fool.
I grabbed my flak jacket and pulled it on with haste, ignoring Collins, and my clumsiness, for the moment. Someone needed to spot this sniper and take him out. I crept up on one wobbly knee and peeped over at the distant ridgeline. Occasional rifle shots had been discharging all morning long. So now in the early afternoon everyone was acting almost casual about it. Like we had a few hunters in the adjacent field bagging unwary rabbits. The only things missing were some hunting dogs barking -and a few million other things I could think of.
I relaxed my neck, rolled my shoulders loose the way I’d been trained, and popped open the first of a two-can beer ration that had been choppered in earlier.
Collins had his legs stretched out, ankles crossed, and leaned lazily against the dirt wall with both arms resting back upon the edge of the mortar pit. He wore his old floppy hat. When I looked down at him he averted his eyes and started mumbling out the tune to “Proud Mary.” He clutched a Budweiser in his right hand and tapped a rhythm with it.
“Left my job in the city. Working for the man every night and day,” he twanged in his thick West Virginia drawl. He glanced at me and, not mentioning my ungraceful entrance, he asked, “Just who is our morale officer, anyway? I’d like to thank that man personally.”
“Morale officer? I don’t know that we’ve got one. Nobody’s said nothing to me about it.”
“Well, Mother Corps sure is taking good care of us, you know? I mean this is okay. This place ain’t half bad. We got mail this morning. And beer!” He lifted his can, grinned, and drank until beer trickled out of the corners of his mouth.
I waved off a swarm of pestering gnats buzzing around my face. I squatted back down. The heat was starting to kick up and the insects had dropped low to the earth, like we were.
“To love soldiering now, you just gotta be the outdoors type. Hell, take me. I always been the outdoors type. Put me in the woods any day. You know what I’m saying?”
Another rifle shot splintered the afternoon and branches clipped apart as it came through the perimeter. I heard a distant, muted smack at impact. This could get old, I thought.
I crept up on one knee and peeked out of the shin-deep mortar pit. Weeds blocked the broad picture. I plunked my helmet on and eased up higher, staring over the elephant grass and getting a clearer view. Although still stooped I could see good enough.
The terrain rolled away from our hill in a steep, grassy slope and then, about a hundred meters out, dipped into multiple hidden ravines. These were perfect hiding spots for Charlie, but I had them all registered and written down. Nobody would be stupid enough to be there in daylight.
Several clumps of large trees broke up the open fields of fire surrounding us. They were too close for snipers to climb into unnoticed, but I gave them a quick inspection just to be sure and then searched deeper afield.
A rough tree line began about three hundred meters away and swelled into a ridgeline running north to east. I figured the shots had fired from somewhere along the face of that ridge so I gave it a long stare. I probed the scrubby hedges and squinted into the dark thickets, which tangled the hillside. Too far to see someone deliberately hidden. I scanned higher.
I checked the tree canopy and then examined the ridgeline up where the green foliage merged into a grayish, overcast sky. I couldn’t spot anyone out there in the brambles. He’d have to fire to give away his position.
“You see anything?” Collins asked.
“Next move goes to the sniper,” I said. “I can’t see squat.” I crouched down and took a long swallow of warm beer.
Collins seemed bored with the whole thing.
I joked, “Outdoors type, huh? Well, you sure look comfortable enough. Wallowed up in this hole in the ground, and all. You look right to home.”
“Yeah, boy,” he grinned. He crushed his Budweiser can and shot it into a sandbag we used to collect trash. “Two points!” he bragged, while snapping open the last can of his ration.
From where we were, the DMZ was close enough to piss into with a high arc and a little back breeze. We were just north of what we called The Trace. A six-hundred-meter belt of defoliated, earth. More like a lunar landscape than anything else. This wide gouge through the jungle was intended to extend from the South China Sea all the way to Dong Ha Mountain some forty-five kilometers to our west. Mines were to be deployed and high tech sensors, as well as low-tech razor wire, but none of that was actually in.
The whole barrier was supposed to act as a wall across the southern edge of the DMZ and, when supported by a series of combat outposts, called strong points, it would reduce NVA infiltration from the north.
This Strong Point Obstacle System, code-named Dyemarker, was the brainchild of McNamara and the Defense Department. They’d dreamt it up, but it had become our nightmare.
Marine top brass opposed this whole idea. The Corps wanted to maintain a mobile defense. Not tie up large units to protect fortifications. After all, the history of warfare is replete with examples of successful circumvention of barriers. Hell, even I knew that. Ever hear of the Great Wall of China? How about the Maginot line?
General Westmoreland loved the idea, however, and crammed it down our leatherneck throats. We swallowed, said “Aye-aye,” and went on about our duty. That made us the most northern Marine unit in all of Vietnam. The most exposed too, and we had been since the day after Christmas.
I stood up again, pulled my M-16 to the ready, magazine full of red tracers, and prepared to mark the target if I saw a muzzle flash. Nothing moved out there though, not even birds.
Collins evidently sensed a fire mission and shifted into gear. He hustled to the mortar and spun the gun around to point in the direction I faced. He blur-cranked the elevation handle and dropped the tube to bear on the tree line. He scrambled around and grabbed a couple of high explosive rounds. “Gun Up,” he proclaimed, excited.
I fumbled out my compass and set it down flat on the sandbagged lip of the pit. I nudged it a couple of times and got it aligned. I wanted to shoot an azimuth when the next shot fired; maybe call arty into the fray.
That would be cool.
“God damn snipers, again!” Collins said, stating the obvious.
“This time two of ‘em, huh?”
He knelt by the tube, took a hurried slurp of beer and belched. “What do you think?”
I thought Collins was certainly at home in a mortar pit and that made me feel good.
“He must have brought his brother out with him today,” I said. “Wonder where our killer team is right about now?”
Duchamp hollered from behind us, ”You all hear that sniper again?” and charged through the tall elephant grass that separated our two guns. Rifle in one hand, beer can in the other, he ran low and jumped in our mortar pit.
“Charlie ain’t gonna fuck up this afternoon, now. I hope not, yeah,” he moaned. “I still got letters to read.”
Two AKs fired a single shot apiece. Crack zip… crack zip. I got a bead on the sound but still didn’t see a flash.
I tried calculating the distance but didn’t have a clue. Four hundred meters. Three fifty, maybe. I was guessing. No, estimating, I told myself.
Suddenly, up on the ridge, M-16s laid down a hail of suppressive fire, blazing away in a massive response. An M-60 machine gun belted a deadly drone. Our guys weren’t holding back. They must have spotted something.
“Holy Jesus!” Collins hollered, and jumped up to have a look see.
A black cloud of cordite and smoke rose from the tree line. Way out; six, maybe seven hundred meters. That ridge somehow played with the sound. I’d figured them to be much closer.
The shooting stopped.
Should be maneuvering, I guessed. Shoot and scoot. Should be closing in on them.
AK-47s returned some short bursts of fire and green tracers spit through the air.
“Okay, I see them there,” I said, pointing. Too close to friendlies to fire my M-16, and too far to be accurate anyway.
Collins dropped back down and adjusted the gun. “I got it.”
Duchamp pointed with his beer hand. “Hey, them snipers ain’t shootin’ at us any more now, man. That’s gotta be the back-up squad.” He swaggered around the pit and looked down at Collins. “You’d might as well get on up. They ain’t gonna be letting us fire nothing, dude. Shit’s too close.”
Collins’ face flushed. He tossed back a beer swig and stared at the ground. “Well, fuck it. We’re in it, ain’t we?” He stood and shouted loud enough to be heard by the whole platoon, “Let’s shoot at something. Ain’t we fucking Marines?”
“Ya better get down, cher. Don’t be acting no fool,” Duchamp said.
The warm beer made my mouth taste sticky and sweet. I went to my canteen for water.
We were dug in on the north east side of Hill 28. A company size position with a few strands of wire around it. Battalion command had planted its prominent ass with us and they all hootched on the far side of the hill near the LZ. They’d pitched a command post and threw up radio antennae, the tall two-niner-twos, which stood out through the trees like a fleet of ships’ masts. Great aiming stakes for the NVA.
“Whyn’t they just run a flag up there, too,” Collins had said, sarcastic as hell about it. “And don’t forget to light the sumbitch when it gets dark. Hell, I’ll stand there at attention and hold a candle for an in-country R&R.”
We learned to live with it after a while. It wasn’t like Charlie didn’t know we were there.
Our mission was to provide defense for the strong point still under construction called A3, which was burrowed in along the far edge of The Trace to our south, but sparsely manned by Seabees and a thinly stretched company of Marines. Our job was to keep things calm while the engineers completed their task.
For the last two days, however, a sniper had crawled in close, and gone to plinking at heavy equipment operators. We’d sent out several squad-size patrols but hadn’t stopped the pesky fucker. That made everybody edgy.
Somebody said the commander of A3 didn’t appreciate being harassed by snipers and he’d gotten on the horn to Darting Star and demanded to know why he wasn’t receiving more aggressive support from the maneuver company deployed on Hill 28. That meant us, of course.
Shit rolls down hill quickly when Battalion is within walking distance. We got our orders.
That Sunday morning, before dawn on January 7, my eighty-third day in-country, we were already executing the plan Lima Six had hatched out at the platoon commander’s briefing the night before.
First platoon, heavily reinforced, had pulled out of the wire on a drop-off mission. Second Lieutenant Holladay, a tall, gung-ho Texan who’d only recently taken over the weapons platoon, snatched up Duchamp’s mortar team, grabbed a 3.5 inch rocket squad, and volunteered to tag along with the patrol.
The idea was to drop off a three-man killer team whose purpose was to neutralize the sniper. First platoon patrolled the area for a couple of hours and made the killer team insertion. Then, with the main body not losing stride, a fourteen-man squad slipped secretly into the bushes and hunkered down, too. The intent was to fool the NVA by this maneuver, and leave a back up force for the killer team, if needed.
The patrol and Duchamp had hit all their checkpoints and humped back in about midmorning. Collins and I stood the stand-by watch in my pit. We lazily listened to the Bowl Game on Armed Forces radio and kept an eye on the situation in the field in front of us. We eavesdropped on whatever communication we could catch coming from our CP’s PRC-25 radio, which was only a few feet away, though impossible to see through the tall grass.
Lieutenant Holladay lay propped up over there, monitoring the company radio traffic and situation reports. An awesome, though unconventional officer, his favorite word was team. He preferred we snuffies relax the professional courtesies of rank and simply call him Doc, after the legendary Tombstone gunfighter. With his Fu-Manchu mustache and pumped-up gunslinger attitude he seemed straight out of the Old West to me.
I realized Doc wouldn’t command the weapons platoon for long. He was like a racehorse hitched to the supply wagon. He appeared restless, always champing at the bit. He belonged forward with a line platoon, but he’d pissed off the Skipper and he’d have to wait for an opportunity to earn back his good graces. Doc sought redemption whether he knew it or not.
He listened to the game over there, cheering and shouting occasionally. Seems Texas A&M was playing in the Cotton Bowl and the lieutenant graduated there. He was really into it, making a big deal out of every play.
Collins, Duchamp, and I stared at the ridge line and figured our killer team was about to slap Charlie’s dick in the dirt any time now. We’d held two men in each of three mortar pits waiting for the show to begin. We were all eager to blow some gook out of a tree if called upon. Now, with that clash out there, I hoped being called on wouldn’t be long in coming. We had ourselves a gunfight and I wanted a fire mission.
An urgent voice cried over the company radio, becoming damn near hysteric. The ball game was switched off and we could hear better. Through the static and hiss a freaked-out Marine shouted the situation report to Lima Six, who ordered him to calm down and say again.
I recognized the radio operator’s voice as Lance Corporal Tim Hutterson, another cowboy Texan. An aggressive Marine who’d been in-country for ten or eleven months and had seen too much hot action. The heat had wilted his brain. I recalled he was partly responsible for Doc’s transfer from First platoon commander over to us.
Hutterson had been Doc’s radio operator when he’d placed a sign on their CP with a gook’s skull dangling above the words, “Holladay’s Headhunters,” and it didn’t go over well with some general who had happened by. Doc took an ass chewing and lost his platoon. Hutterson’s dense ass didn’t have a hint as to the career-burning implications of his prank.
Officers seemed to like Hutterson, however, because he was a dependable killer. I felt he was a suck-up braggart and borderline homicidal nutcase. He was reckless and dangerous. I avoided the asshole. With him on the patrol and no one to rein him in, I smelled trouble. I knew he’d rush impulsively forward. Probably get his blowhard ass, and the whole squad, pinned down.
I listened to the Marine stammer out his report and began to piece the story together, little by little.
The killer team had spotted the sniper far to the west of their original lair. They’d maneuvered toward their prey and linked up with the drop-off squad who’d also seen the shooter and was hot on the chase. En route they spotted another NVA soldier, wearing tan uniform and sun-helmet, packing an AK-47, and strolling along like he was on R&R down at China Beach.
“We got one confirmed ditty-bopper,” Hutterson reported, characteristically tossing off all radio protocol. I heard laughter in his background. Those clowns were goofing off out there.
Then more sniper shots rang out coming from our north-east. Hutterson reported enemy in sight and they charged forward.
Lima Six barked into his handset, “Do not enter the DMZ! Do you copy? You watch you don’t get suckered in.”
“Is that that rash-assed Hutterson out there?” Collins exclaimed in recognition.
Duchamp nodded. “Yeah, at your service. And dat fuckstick was bragging this morning about how he was gonna get him a kill. Another notch for his rifle, dude. I’ll tell ya now, he meant business. Hungry, ya know what I mean?”
“We’re closing in,” the voice on the radio said, panting and on the run.
They chased the snipers and evidently swept over the crest on the ridge and on down into the DMZ. A barrage of AK-47s opened up.
From the mortar pit we heard the deep rumble of gunfire rising from the other side of the ridge line. Chi-coms and grenades exploded.
“Them guys just walked into Charlie’s back yard,” Collins mumbled. “Dufus fucks.”
Duchamp hopped out of the pit shouting he was heading back to his gun. I watched him go. He vaulted through the elephant grass and disappeared.
I hollered for my mortar team to un-ass their hootches and prepare to saddle-up. We weren’t going to shoot from the pit, Duchamp was right. The squad was pinned down now, and needed closer help.
Second Lieutenant Thomas Able, commander of First platoon, hurried by Doc’s CP stopping only to say First platoon was heading off to pull his people out of the shit and he wanted the whole mortar section ready to move right away.
Doc insisted he come along on the rescue. I held my breath waiting to hear the answer. I wanted Doc on hand since Lieutenant Able was still OCS crazy and sought the kind of reputation that always cost enlisted lives. He had a famous uncle who’d made the pages of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Able of the Congo. This nephew intended to make the cover. Mister Glory, the grunts of First platoon called him.
I heard Lieutenant Able say, “Fine. You’ve got five minutes, Doc. Let’s kick some gook ass,” while he tromped off through the weeds with his radio operator lurching to keep up. I felt relieved as I hustled around the pit making preparation.
We grabbed extra rifle ammo and grenades. We threw three additional high explosive rounds on each pack board. We saddled up and fell in with the column. Then, we left the wire on the run, some fifty men strong.
Lieutenant Able was anxious to reach our beleaguered squad. First platoon knew the way. We stretched it out until our legs ached on the move to get there. Forget caution. Forget flankers out. We double-timed most of the way.
We had one KIA Marine reported, and a radio operator had been shot through the hand. That meant Hutterson was the only operator in communication. He estimated they had engaged a platoon-size force, “At least…” he’d shouted, “…and well dug in.” They were pinned down by automatic fire. Trapped and unable to maneuver. Sounded grim to me. We needed to get out there and add our fire power.
The shots grew louder with each heavy step now. We went up to the ridge’s crest and slowed down. The run had spread the column out and we needed to regroup. This took two or three minutes for everyone to catch up. We found our second wind and went tactical.
Artillery rounds rustled over us as we reached the brink of a shallow valley. We began to maneuver down the slope and into some shadows. Two 155mm rounds exploded like thunderclaps and sprayed plumes of white phosphorous clouds on the hillside to our front.
An enemy heavy machine gun bore down like no tomorrow. AK-47s chewed up the valley floor. I could smell the battle now, familiar as the rifle range. M-16s popped and our M-60 machine gun took savage bites, but the overwhelming sounds belonged to the enemy. I felt an instant of gut-level fight or flight hesitation, but put it in order. We had to get down there and engage before this whole thing was over.
Our point man hit a wall of weeds and vines and bamboo trees. It looked impenetrable. He stopped, holding us all up. Lieutenant Able ran forward and shifted around quickly. He paced up and down our column searching for a way through the impasse. He hurried back and forth, desperate but determined. Finally, he drew his pistol, cocked the hammer and simply leaped into a thicket, hurling himself forward and forcing his way through to an opening leading directly forward toward the action. He must have fallen a good ten feet.
“Follow me,” he shouted, as though from deep inside a well.
A squad of Marines dropped into the bushes. Two machine gun teams followed them down the drop in the trail. They advanced, weapons firing as soon as their boots touched flat ground.
Doc wagged his arm and caught our attention. He shouted, “Mortars, shift right.”
I saw a perfect clearing about twenty meters to starboard and headed for it. We got over there and found ourselves on higher ground. Doc had chosen a good spot. You could look right down on the action.
The NVA were bunkered in and well camouflaged, but hundreds of muzzle flashes lit the place up like the 4th of July. Tracers streaked between our guys and theirs. The jungle snapped a thousand times and flew apart in the roar of deafening gunfire.
We threw down our mortars and commenced lobbing high explosive rounds directly on top of the bastards. The explosions had to be busting their ears and rattling their heads silly. We poured it on. We needed to break their fire so we could extract our squad. Our three mortars thumped away, filling the valley with black smoke and hot whirling fragments of steel. Soon, I noted my gun team had two empty pack-boards already. I worried about our rate of fire.
Artillery howled in over our heads again, firing for effect now. Three guns. Four maybe. I couldn’t tell how many. But the big boys shook the earth, split the trees, and crushed bunkers into graves. Aerial burst rained shrapnel threateningly close, yet they were right on top of the target where we needed them. A rumbling barrage slammed into the enemy and bounced us around the ground like an earthquake.
Enemy small arms lightened, sputtered to three or four rifles, then paused leaving an instant of eerie silence. Marines whooped and cheered. M-16s took over the battle. Our machine guns wailed on either flank. I figured we were making headway, now. My heart pounded.
I shouted directly into Collins’ ear, “Cease fire!” I did a quick ammo count, decided we were definitely expending ammo far too quickly. I figured the rest of the guns were doing the same. Not good.
Doc gave more frantic hand signals and bellowed, “Lay down suppressive fire, Goddammit!” We dropped another shower of death into the valley.
Enemy small arms burst alive again. Through the rain of ordnance I saw some of our squad pinned flat in Charlie’s kill zone, hunkered in a bomb crater, trapped. Our reinforcements weren’t doing much better. The assault had left them close, but they had not made the link up.
Collins worked our mortar while the A-gunner dropped round after round.
Elements of First platoon broke away from the main force and swept left. Boldly they pivoted north and fought forward into an enfilade of certain ruin, getting shot to pieces. Marines fell, punched dead. I felt sick, stunned. I wondered where Lieutenant Able was. A surge of anger engulfed me. I wondered what the fuck was going on. Was this some sort of maneuver? Hey diddle-diddle, straight up the middle.
Collins steadied the gun with a fist-grip on the bipods. He shifted fire as I gave urgent directions and pointed furiously. He shouted, “Yeah, baby,” each time a round dropped down the tube. He walked the shots following the streaks of automatic fire. We slapped an automatic weapon in three shots and hammered it hard.
Duchamp pounded the center of the ambush and silenced some bunkers. I wanted to kill these bastards. I did a cranking motion with my hand, telling Collins to walk the rounds deeper in. I sensed for a moment we were breaking it up down there. I hoped we were. If we kept the pressure on we’d have them for sure.
Then, a burst of small arms fire whizzed directly overhead. I dove on my stomach, bullets flying inches above my head.
“We’re pissing them off. We must be doing some good,” Doc shouted.
AK-47 rounds sprayed over us. Branches burst apart. Tree limbs splintered and crashed to the deck. I kissed the dirt trying to flatten out. I wanted to crawl inside my helmet. I clinched my teeth, stopped my jaw from chattering, and got behind my rifle. “Now, you sons of bitches,” I snapped in a rage, groping for a target.
An explosion went off about twenty feet behind me. Then, something blew up closer to my right. Two more explosions rocked us again. I stopped hearing in my right ear.
“What the fuck?” Collins yelled.
“Rockets!” Duchamp screamed. He curled to the ground some ten meters away.
“Is everybody all right?” I hollered, and looked over my team. All good. But, we needed to move. And, fast. I felt wired now, adrenaline surging.
“Grab any loose gear and strap down that ammo,” I blurted. “Prepare to move on command.”
Doc had the situation apprised, his decision made, and he was already looking around. He ordered mortars to pull back off the exposed position. It didn’t take us long. We ran down the same trail from which we’d come.
Now, we needed to reposition and get back into the fight.
My tube team reached a defiladed area not far from where Lieutenant Able had leaped into the skirmish. The rabbit hole he’d gone through had become a cattle crossing now. Most of First platoon had stampeded down there and widened the slope.
Duchamp’s team ran right behind me. We stopped and all herded up together.
I did a quick ammo count and shouted at Duchamp. “How many rounds you got?”
“Sixteen HE,” he yelled, doing the calculation.
I nodded. “Yeah, Same-same.”
Lance Corporal Bradley, third gun team leader, ran his people off the hill and joined us. His ammo situation was a little better.
I looked for Doc, and Metford, our section leader. They were the last to leave the high ground.
I didn’t see them and felt anxious as hell. Where were they? I started back to find them as they came crashing through some bushes and loped down towards us. I relaxed, took deep gulps of air and tried organizing my thoughts. I stuck a finger in my mushy ear and wiggled out some whistle sounds. Blood dripped off my finger. B-40 rockets decimated the abandoned position above.
“We’re down to two pack boards of ammo per gun,” I reported as Doc approached.
He came to a halt, stooped over, and put his hands on his knees. “That’s good,” he said, breathing heavily. He was red-faced from the action. Sweat dripped from his nose.
“No sir. Not good, Doc. We’re supposed to maintain one pack board per gun for final defensive fire.”
“Not today,” he said. “Think offense, Corporal. Now, let’s get our people re-deployed.” Doc stepped off, and ordered, “Follow me.”
He ran to the clearing that we’d passed through as we advanced into position earlier. We marshaled back a good thirty meters from the sound of battle. We couldn’t see the fight any more, but the roar was intense. Stray rounds ricocheted over our heads. I felt relatively safe though, and glad to be off my belly.
Doc had chosen another good spot and we set up our tubes. We spread a wide distance between guns. I helped break out ammunition and we jumped back into the fight. Concerned about possible friendly fire, we peppered the backside of the enemy emplacement and tried to break up any reinforcements who might be trying to join their buddies.
Charlie was one relentless son of a bitch, I thought. Our killer-team and the drop-off squad were still unable to move. The link up hadn’t happened, yet, and I knew the ambush had actually opened up wider. Our squad had been suckered into a platoon-size kill zone, but now we faced a whole company of NVA. Most of first platoon was under fire and unable to maneuver. The technical term for this tactical situation was “fucked.”
The realization first scared, then, simply pissed me off. It only hardened my will, and everyone else’s, I figured. We weren’t going to lose this thing. Losing was not an option.
Bradley was yelling, “Marine Corps!” as his fire command, now. His people dropped a steady thump, thump, thump.
Collins knelt by our tube adjusting the gun between fire. “You wanna dance?” he said, repeatedly. “Let’s dance, Charlie! Let’s dance.”
It seemed funny as hell to me. I felt giddy and stupid. I smacked Collins on the back and laughed, adrenaline crazed, slightly dizzy, and slipping into combat madness.
Forward Marines began hollering. “Cease fire! Cease Fire!” They called. I didn’t know what was going on. We held off, and our tubes fell silent. I pulled off my helmet and shook my head to clear my brain. I’d never felt so pumped.
I heard a small engine drone, and looked up. I rubbed sweat off my face and worked on controlling my breathing. An O-1 Cessna Birddog flew across our front, banked hard left and headed back toward us. It was so low I thought it was trying to land.
Every warrior on the field must have stopped to watch. Rifles fell quiet and a hush blanketed the field. The plane circled over, coming back even lower.
The pilot, plainly visible strapped in his one-seat cabin, crabbed over us, flaps down full, engine feathered and blowing as gently as a window fan. He kicked a full right rudder and the plane wobbled and yawed around like a car in a skid. The tail looked like it wanted to pass the nose. In effect he was flying sideways, sliding over us, and creeping toward the enemy ambush to our front. He floated by like some awkward seagull catching a thermal breeze.
When he hit his mark he dropped nose and fell in a steep dive. He fired off a phosphorous rocket, shoved the throttle forward, and jerked skyward. Magnificent flying. Another foot and he’d have hit the trees.
We cheered and pumped our rifles in the air. AK-47s opened up again, spraying the sky as the Cessna zipped out of sight.
Marines, pinned down below, returned fire with renewed enthusiasm.
Collins grinned, “Charlie’s gonna pay now. That FAC is gonna kick some ass.”
The FAC is a Forward Air Controller, a crucial element in the Marine ground/air team. I knew the fast-movers would be screaming in on his smoke at any time.
“Ya better get your ass down,” Collins shouted. I searched for some place safer to be.
I looked at Doc who motioned me to him. I headed there, glad I didn’t have to make another decision.
Doc knelt on one knee about twenty-five feet away, next to Metford and our radio operator who lay curled up in a small dip in the earth. I ran to them, hit the deck and crawled in close. Then, I sat up to act brave as Doc.
“Hold on. Listen to the FAC,” he said, pointing to the radio. The voice was coming in Lima-Charlie, loud and clear.
“You boys look like you got a handful down there,” the pilot said calmly. “Have you all pissed your britches, yet? Over.”
Hutterson came up on the net. “Southern-Hotel, this is Lima-One-Alfa. Not yet, turkey. We’re conserving our water. Over.”
“Well, Alfa, I admire your discipline. Now, I need you to do something for me. You fellows up forward in the bomb crater. Give me a wave so I know who I’m talking to … Okay, I see you. Now, you need to break-out some air panels and mark your position for me. Can you do that? Over.”
“Wait one,” Hutterson said.
Doc looked down at Metford. “Are we packing air panels, Corporal?”
Metford was balled up on the deck. He shook his head, but otherwise didn’t move. “I don’t think so, sir.”
He sounded damn sheepish, cowardly.
Doc looked steamed.
I hollered to the guns, “Break-out your air panels,” and waited to see what would happen.
Duchamp was the only Marine I saw moving. He upended a pack board and went to work on the straps of a haversack. He dug into the pack, pulled out a thick orange roll of something, dropped the board to the ground and ran like hell toward us, stooped low and sort of clumsy.
He tucked the roll under his left arm like a fat newspaper. He clamped his rifle in his right hand and closed the distance between us. When he got almost on top of us the toe of his boot snagged a clump of grass causing him to crash to the deck with a heavy thud and noisy clatter. He turned a complete somersault and whomped on his butt, his helmet cocked lopsided on his head.
He held the roll out to Doc. “Will this work?”
“Yeah, damn straight. What is it?”
“Them’s my Louisiana long johns my mom sent me. I want these back,” he said, sternly, then added, “sir.”
Doc snatched the underwear and got up on his knees. “I’m running these forward. You men hold this position.” He stared at each of us to emphasize the order. “I can better direct our fire from down there, so stand by the guns.” He jumped to his feet and took off.
I watched him sprint forward like a ball player on the final drive for a tie-breaking touchdown. On the field was one thing, but Doc needed in the play, wherever the action was. He seemed excited when he set off. Like he was going in to save the game.
He got about twenty meters to our front when something caught him in a leap with both feet in mid air. A brown puff of smoke exploded out the left side of his flak jacket. He spun like a toy top and smashed to the deck in a crumpled heap. He didn’t move.
“Lieutenant’s hit!” Metford cried. “The Lieutenant’s down!”
I scrambled forward, expecting the worse. I heard Duchamp right behind me. We got to Doc who was sprawled face down in the dirt.
“Let’s try to turn him over,” Duchamp said, gulping for air. “Go easy.”
A bullet hole the size of a half dollar was ripped in Doc’s flak and gaped open on the lower left side. A body shot, I imagined. Straight through the chest. Or stomach, maybe. A gut wound. I saw no blood though. I found his first-aid pouch, precisely in the center of his cartridge belt, between the two canteens where it was supposed to be, snapped it open and fumbled out his battle dressing. I grabbed him by his shoulder and rolled him over toward me. I pulled hard as Duchamp shoved. Doc was heavy.
“Goddamn,” Doc mumbled. He sounded confused. He blinked several times and flailed his arms around in the air.
“Don’t move. Lay still,” Duchamp told him, trying to stop him from squirming.
I opened his flak jacket with both hands and searched for a wound. I still didn’t see any blood. I looked closer. Saw nothing.
Collins arrived and got in close. He’d seen the whole thing, too, and he’d heard Metford’s shout, no doubt. Collins liked Doc. Concern furrowed his face, and he looked scared.
“Goddamn,” Doc said again, and sat straight up. He smacked around his body trying to find his wound. He rubbed at the left side of his chest and grimaced.
“Let me see. Let me check it,” I said.
Doc elbowed my arm away, reached in a front pocket of his utility shirt and brought out an open hand. He held shattered pieces of a yellow meerschaum pipe. “Look,” he said, “Those bastards broke my pipe.”
“Are you hit?” Collins snapped. “Dammit, Doc, speak up!”
“I don’t…” Doc dropped the pipe fragments and felt himself all over. “I don’t…” He stuck a finger through the hole of his flak jacket and wiggled it. “I don’t think so. Holy shit.” He wiggled his finger again. “Look at that.”
Duchamp put his hand on Doc’s shoulder and steadied him. “What can we do?”
“Just give me a cigarette. Goddamn.” Doc’s face was milk pale. He took a Pall Mall from me putting it in his mouth with a shaky hand. Collins lit it with a paper match. Doc took two deep drags and then blew smoke. His mind seemed to clear.
“Those fuckers broke my pipe.”
“We’ll get you another,” Duchamp said, stupidly.
Doc looked around. “Where’s that air panel?”
Collins grabbed what looked like an orange, florescent shadow of a man lying on the ground. It must have unfurled as Doc fell. Collins peeled it off the deck and balled it up. “Right here, sir.”
Doc jumped up clenching his black rifle. “Give it here. I’ve got to get it forward. Quick.” He clutched the long johns in one hand pressing them against his chest.
I stuffed the battle dressing into the front pocket on his flak, and with the cigarette dangling from his lips he lurched forward. A long, orange sleeve trailed behind him flapping like a pennant. He followed the well-trodden trail and soon disappeared behind some trees.
Collins, Duchamp and I stared after him. Shots cracked and popped. Grenades exploded down there. The battle was still intense.
Collins snickered, “That Doc’s a motherfucker, ain’t he now?”
We all broke into laughter. Collins laughed so hard he got gripped by a cough. He caught his breath, and spat some ugly dark shit on the deck.
Duchamp said, “Yeah. Did you see old Doc? He don’t even smoke no cigarettes.” And we cracked up all over again.
Metford hollered, “You guys get back up here. Stop goofing off. We got air coming.” He pumped his arm, double-time.
With everything done there, and realizing it wasn’t the safest place to be, we hustled back to our positions near our mortar tubes. We needed to knock off the grab-ass, and get back into the fight.
I heard jets rumble in the distance toward the south. At first like a long far-off rolling thunder, but now slowly growing to a roar. I searched the sky.
An F-4 Phantom slipped through the clouds sucking the overcast down with it, encasing the bomb-laden war bird in a gray spume. It dropped from above like an angry gray dragon.
“Here comes death,” someone hollered.
The Phantom leveled off about five hundred feet above the deck, and the Marine aviator worked his way around an invisible arc in the sky. He disappeared behind some trees and I lost track of him for several seconds.
Then suddenly, he zoomed across our front flying east to west. He pickled off four high explosive snake-eyes, the five hundred pounders. He kicked in the after-burners and screamed over the ambush, then pulled into a vertical climb and corkscrewed through the clouds. Tracers streaked up from the ground and chased after him.
I curled up on the deck and made myself small. I plugged my ears with my fingers, but I couldn’t pull my eyes off the action. The snake-eyes hit with ear-splitting fury. An entire hilltop exploded to my front, going airborne and leaving little on the ground but fire and smoke. Jungle debris rained down in heavy clots, pounding us.
A second Phantom shrieked in behind the first and tumbled off four silver napalm canisters. They carpeted the target in molten lava. A gelatinous fireball engulfed the jungle, and a searing wave hit me like a furnace blast. My arms felt singed, my face scorched.
I was terrified, but I had to suck it up. Charlie was the one who needed to be scared. Charlie was the one with a problem.
The Phantom spiraled up through the clouds. No tracers followed this time.
The charred ground crackled in flames before me. The air, suffused with gas fumes and smoke, burned my throat and lungs.
Some munitions cooked off down in the valley producing secondary explosions. Sporadic automatic fire cracked, droned, and zinged. Mostly ours, I noted with relief.
I reckoned we were moving down there, at last. Finally pulling our asses out of the ditch. I hoped.
The little Cessna slid back over, coming in for the battle damage assessment. This guy had balls of steel, I thought. This guy had some kind of courage. I wouldn’t fly around up there a few feet above the tree tops, with nothing but a thin strip of aluminum separating my ass from the business ends of Charlie’s assault rifles. This guy was bold.
The plane crabbed over smoothly, almost in a glide. I stretched flat on my back and watched him pass over. I knew his job was to scope things out below. Make adjustments. Bring the fast-movers back in. It wouldn’t take him long. This guy was a cracker jack.
An intense volume of rifle fire surged up to a roar, then trailed off. Our M-79 grenade launcher blooped several close range targets. Bloop blam! Bloop blam! Bloop blam! It sounded like a desperate attempt to pull free. Or attack forward?
I rolled onto my stomach. The FAC launched a phosphorous rocket and throttled away in a steep bank. White smoke billowed through the valley. I wanted to know what was going on down there at the point but I couldn’t see a damn thing.
What bedlam. I decided to use the lull in the air attack to make a run back over to Metford and the radio operator. I needed to move fast though. I heard the rumbling jets circling close and preparing to make the next run.
I got to Metford and pressed myself into a small depression near the radio operator. They’d been monitoring a lot of traffic. Metford filled me in right away.
Lieutenant Able had made it forward and had linked up with the Marines pinned down in the most forward bomb crater. That was good. But they were taking fire from three sides. Best count was seven men wounded, two dead. Maybe more. Doc had made it up there, too. Metford assured me Duchamp’s underwear was now spread out, marking the edge of friendly ground for the flyers. Everyone was hunkered down.
Metford said a small rice paddy was down there providing an open field of fire. The bomb crater was on the lip of it, and the gooks were dug in all around. Perfect ambush. They were snared in the kill zone.
Metford was visibly pissed. “Mister Glory ordered a charge! Goddamn can you believe that? But only the air strike stopped him. He’s gonna get everybody killed down there.” He shook his head, so angry his helmet rattled. “I’m too short for this shit. Five days and a wake up. I ought to be in the rear,” he yammered. “It ain’t fair. I ain’t getting wasted my last week in-country. Betcha that.”
“No guts, no glory,” the radio operator cracked.
“Fuck you, too.”
I chuckled. “So what’s the plan? What’s happening now?”
Lima Six had saddled up the rest of the company and they were force marching to reinforce us, Metford explained.
It shouldn’t take them long. I ran it through my head. We’d made it out here in about thirty minutes. I checked my watch and felt a wave of disorientation. The sweep hand was moving. But the hour couldn’t be right. I tapped the watch face several times. Gave up.
“Time check,” I said to the radio operator.
He glanced at his wrist. “Almost nineteen hundred.”
“We’ve been at this for over six hours!” I uttered in disbelief. I felt we’d spent maybe an hour. I looked at the sky and realized how gray it had become. Hell, it would be dark soon. A shiver quaked through me, head to ass. I didn’t want to be left in the lurch out here at night.
“When did the company set off?”
“About ten minutes ago,” Metford said.
“We don’t have much time.” I gaped again at the sky, then back at my watch. This was bad.
“Hold on,” Metford shouted to the field. He scrunched into a tight ball. I got down. The lead Phantom howled in again. Once more we pounded the valley with our quarter-ton explosives. The earth shook and ripped apart.
“No peeking, Charlie,” the radio operator quipped as we strafed the bastards one last time and engulfed them in ball-blistering napalm.
By nineteen-thirty I was damn worried. Our air support had headed home to Da Nang after dispensing all their munitions, yet Charlie’s relentless ass hadn’t budged. Where were the North Vietnamese going to go, anyway? Sending them to hell was the only sure method to end this fight; we’d been pressing hard to do just that, with dubious results, all day. I squirmed in a fret, wondering when our reinforcements would arrive.
I studied the sky. Dark clouds swirled above and threatened imminent rain. Even nature seemed to oppose us. The sun pursued its immutable journey toward tomorrow on the other side of the world and a lone nagging feeling wished I could go with it. I smothered this inner-child, and focused on the serious problem at hand.
All elements of First platoon remained locked in the scuffle below. That left our mortar section as the only rear guard with night falling, and we weren’t properly deployed. I wondered if Doc had realized this when he dashed forward. Probably not. He was too pumped up then, and things were developing fast. But, no matter, he would expect us to grasp the obvious tactical flaw and compensate. Marines correct and adjust. That’s what we do.
I suggested to Metford that we demonstrate some “fucking” initiative and spread a few people out around our flanks. If for no other reason, they could sound an alarm should Charlie try circling around from below. Metford agreed. I jumped up and got to it.
On the fly I plucked six ammo-humpers off the guns, posted them as best I could, and created a straggled-out semicircle defense. I knew they were more like LPs, listening posts, but it would have to do. I ordered them to keep a sharp eye out for friendlies, but use their grenades on any movement they identified as enemy. The explosion would alert us all. Then I set off down the trail alone, backtracking the route that led into this muddle, attempting to spot some sign of our reinforcements.
Where in hell was the company? I couldn’t figure out what was holding them up. Surely they could hear the sound of battle. Gunfire was snapping like qualification day on the rifle range and we had enough smoke spewing up to be seen for miles. The company ought to be homing in on us without any problem. But something had damn sure delayed them.
I pulled a canteen from my right hip-pouch, gargled an oily chemical taste out of my mouth and poured water on my face. I decided to set off a pop-flare. Couldn’t hurt. I chose a green, three-star cluster. That was our universal signal for friendly troops. I crouched down, broke out the flare and gave it a solid smack on the deck. It whooshed skyward and burst beneath a trouble-clouded sky. There’s the visual, I thought. Nothing left to do now. I whirled around and hustled back toward our position in the open field. I’d done my bit.
“Coming in,” I shouted as I trotted through my sentries, alerting them so as not to mistake me for one of the bad guys.
I raced across the clearing where our mortars were set up and slammed into a gloomy scene. Casualties were piling up. Metford worked off to the left, organizing a collection point while Marines hobbled up from the northern tree line. They limped the walking wounded out of the death spray below. My stomach knotted. We were in deep shit. But at least we were breaking loose somehow.
The injured clung to their buddies, one arm wrapped around the stronger neck. They lumbered forward, grim faced, determined, panting.
Collins squatted over by the gun with his back to the action and couldn’t see the movement. I shouted to the mortars, “All hands! Let’s lend some fresh bodies.”
The mortar teams sprung into action. They abandoned the tubes and rushed forward, relieving the exhausted Marines and picking up their wounded. We broke out ponchos, improvised stretchers, and lugged the worst injured to the cover of some bushes, which ran along the left flank of the meadow. The casualties mounted as we continued. We made a dozen trips. Then a dozen more.
“Holy Jesus,” Collins said, gasping for breath. “How many wounded we got?”
I shook my head. “Go get me a count. We need to find out before we call in for medevac choppers.”
“Roger that,” he said, turning to.
Duchamp shuffled up, dragging the front end of a poncho weighted down by a big Marine with a head wound. I helped him drag and then lay the man down and get him situated. A bloodied battle dressing twisted around the guy’s helmetless head. Eyes rolled back in a flaccid face. He was dying.
I felt helpless. “Are the corpsmen all forward?”
Duchamp knelt next to the warrior and pointed at the bloodstained bandage. “Guess so. Somebody’s trying to patch these guys up down there.” He made the sign of the cross the way Catholics do.
“Is that for him or us?”
Duchamp looked beat. His mouth drooped. His face was blackened with battle soot and sweat dripped from his forehead. “You figure. I don’t think it’s gonna do him no good, anyway.” His voice trailed off. He cleared a choke in his throat and swallowed hard.
“Hey, Lance Corporal,” I said. “Let’s stay on task here, okay? It don’t mean nothin’. You know that now, man. Don’t cha?”
Duchamp stared through worried eyes. Gunfire sounded behind us. He nodded.
I judged he could use some relief so I gestured around. “We got loose weapons lying all over the field. Get some of your people and police them up. Put ‘em on some of our empty pack boards. We can’t leave dropped Armalites out here for the gooks. Come on. Let’s move it out.”
Duchamp got off his knees, looked down at the dying Marine and up at me. “You got it,” he said with gutsy mettle, and took off.
I scrambled up and down a line of wounded and tried to help out. Combat first aid isn’t advanced medicine in the infantry; it’s age-old basic. Find an ugly hole that a guy isn’t born with, and stuff it up with a bandage.
These guys were patched up as best they could be. I figured there wasn’t much I could do. I gave them some water and said some words of encouragement. I blathered on like it was a ball game or something. Nobody cared. I adjusted dressings and passed out c-rat cigarettes like party favors. Guys were messed up bad.
Somebody up forward had slapped morphine into the most seriously injured, so a lot of guys lay slumped in the grass with glassy-eyed stares and stoically clung to life.
Zoned out Marines seemed to move in slow motion all around me. The fetid metal smell of blood filled my nostrils. People groaned everywhere. One guy slouched off by himself and wept quietly as he gawked at his hand, which was missing two fingers.
More and more wounded stumbled into the area. Metford directed where he wanted them to be. Dazed Marines floundered around in blank-eyed silence like drunks, late-night liberty hounds searching for a seat on some unfamiliar bus. Two Marines staggered up and wouldn’t let any one approach them until their knees buckled and they collapsed. A lot of Marines shot up, I thought. How many exactly?
I turned and peered around me. Where was Collins with that count?
I stared across a brimmed field of stupor and doom. A misty rain began to fall. Where in God’s hell was the company?
M-16s popped off a trio of bursts over the hill on our left flank, close enough to drive me back to the prone with serious concern. Could have been recon by fire, but then again…
I jerked up my rifle and stared through a gray screen of spattering rain. Dense bushes prevented me from seeing deeply into the tangled undergrowth, but a dozen men or more were definitely tromping forward not caring who heard them.
I lay stretched out near the wounded where I’d just wrapped a dead Marine in a poncho. I scrunched behind the body and used him like a sandbag. I clicked my weapon off safe and took aim.
Rain poured down in sheets of shower beads and made hearing tricky. I craned my neck and strained to listen. Guys were certainly coming our way. The who of it was the question.
It could have been anybody over there on the open flank so I braced for an attack and squeezed up the slack in my trigger. A sick anxiety knot twisted in my stomach. I expected gooks to come flushing out of the brambles like rabbits. And soon. I held my breath and waited for the first sign.
Troops brattled through the underbrush snapping the wait-a-minute vines and smashing through the thicket, becoming louder as they approached. Then somebody hollered, “Stay on line. Keep it moving people.”
These were our guys!
I eased off the rifle and slipped the stock out of my shoulder. I thumbed the weapon back on safe. Our flankers? The company must have made it. Or, part of it had. I let my whole body relax and slowly exhaled the breath I’d been squeezing. My mind flew away from the wounded and dying. I felt elated, rescued.
“Friendlies in sight,” an ecstatic sentry cried across the field. “Hey, I can see the company.” He shouted again and waved his arms like a railroad workmen. “Over here!”
I rolled onto my back, rocked forward and threw my rifle forward to give me seven and a half more pounds of momentum to get to my feet.
Two Marines broke through the bushes at the far edge of the clearing near the grinning sentry. I recognized one of them as a fire team leader from a squad out of Third platoon. A squatty, brown-faced guy called Wetback, a Mexican-American who’d grown up in Los Angeles.
He plodded across the open ground with several bandoleers of rifle ammo cross-wrapped around his chest Poncho Villa style and a half dozen grenades dangling off his flak. He stopped, spun around, and yelled the rest of his people out of the hedges with a thick Spanish accent.
He motioned his team to hustle out of there while he planted both feet, unbuttoned his fly, whipped out his pecker and started taking a whiz. Marines ploughed past him.
I gave him a few moments and then sloshed over through the rain. “Hey, Wetback. What you’d do, get lost trying to find a piss tube?”
“I been needing to do this all of the whole way, Gringo. Don’t give me no shit. I led everybody to bail out your trapped asses. I been sacrificing my bladder for the Corps. You ought to give me a medal.”
I yelled to be heard over the droning rain, “You got it. I’m glad to see ya. How ‘bout the medal of honor? I’ll write ya up for whatever you want, man.”
Wetback finished pissing, shook his dick and flipped it away. “Bueno, pues. Just give to me back California. You Gringos are ruining the fucking neighborhoods,” he shouted.
“It’s all yours. Tell ‘em I said so,” I laughed, but suddenly felt dizzy, light-headed and off balance.
He rubbed sweat off his face with a wet sleeve and studied me for a long moment. His chest heaved as he caught his breath from the hump up the hill. The rain popped and pinged off our helmets and gear. We were soaked and didn’t even notice.
I gestured around at all the Marines hitting the field. “What took you guys so long to get out here?”
He grinned, tapping his finger to his head. “I am a cautious one. When I lead the way, man, we don’t get caught in no fucking ambushes, do we?”
“Nah, dude. Guess not. You’re here, ain’t ya?”
Wetback nodded. He hunched forward and rolled his shoulders adjusting his combat load. “Damn straight. And you look like shit, man.” He pointed at my face. “What you got blood all over your ear there for? You trying to get a purple heart with that scratch? Forget about it, man.” He smiled.
I rubbed my sore ear. The right side of my face ached in a dull throb. My head felt like a water balloon. I must have punctured an eardrum but I couldn’t recall when.
I remembered my flare though. “Tell me, did you see that three star cluster I popped up?”
Wetback laughed, made a looping motion with his arm and readjusted his rifle sling. “That was you did that one, eh? You keep it up man and you might make the sergeant’s stripes. That was a good one.” He held out his fist and we popped a dap.
“I got to go,” he said, and hustled to catch up with his fire team. He sounded like a pack-mule galloping off, the bulky slap of flak and gear smacking against his body. He shouted back over his shoulder, “I’m going down into this arroyo and kill some gooks now. When I am finished I will come back and take all of you pussies home.”
Marines rushed onto the open field, gear clanking, boots drumming the earth as they ran forward. They passed the jumble of wounded and tossed shocked glances at the dismal score card scattered around in mangled bodies. With resolute faces, they scrambled on down into the valley where their gunfire rose to a roar. The additional fire power was making the difference. More wounded stumbled up the hill.
Radio squelch and loud chatter caught my attention from behind. I wrenched about. Captain Century exploded from the bushes with three radiomen struggling to keep up. Two personal bodyguards darted around him protectively, M-16s at the nervous ready.
The skipper cradled an Ithaca pump, 12 gauge shotgun in the crook of his left arm and didn’t give me a glance as the group clattered by. Instead he held a fixed gaze, high above the wounded, and stared directly toward the sound of battle. He griped a handset in his right hand and tromped along barking orders. “Lima One, I am on the field. I say again, I am on the field. Prepare to move your people on my command.” They marched noisily away.
The gunny crept up at the rear of the command group still trooping at patrol pace. He surveyed the area with one sweep of his head and hollered, “Who’s in charge here, Corporal?”
“Everybody’s up forward, Gunny. Doc and Lieutenant Able. Mortar’s got rear security. They’re in deep shit up there, but I think they’re beginning to break free. We been sorting out the wounded.” I pointed at the downed Marines. “Over there. And we got another collection area just over that lip there, too. Corporal Metford’s in charge.”
The gunny seemed shocked when he caught sight of all the wounded. He headed toward the skipper and the radio operators, moving briskly. I fell in and clogged beside him, waiting for the word.
“Tell Metford to get the wounded prepared for immediate evac. I wanna get these people moving out ricky-tick. Go get ‘em ready.”
“Roger that, Gunny.” The rain eased and pulled its drone out of our helmets. I lowered my voice. “We’ve secured this field for an LZ. Ya wanna bring the choppers in here?”
The gunny grimaced. “That’s a negatory, young corporal. Nothing’s flying in this weather. Prepare the people for immediate ground evac.”
My jaw fell open. I swallowed, said, “Aye-aye, Gunny,”
and sped toward the wounded to locate Metford.
Carrying so many wounded through Indian country, all the
way back to Hill 28, was not going to be easy.
Just after midnight on Hill 28 Duchamp and Collins helped me rig a couple of ponchos over the mortar pit and we sat cross-legged under them like we were in a tent. Light-discipline concerned us but we lit a stubby candle and sealed ourselves in as best we could. We double-checked to make sure no light escaped from the make-shift hootch. Then, feeling starved, we all three prepared to heat some chow.
We broke out some c-rats and crunched open the green cans with our thumb sized p-38s; those snaggle-toothed implements that could ratchet up a can in seconds. Duchamp set a pork paddy frying on a can lid and got the place smelling like home.
I inhaled deeply, closed my eyes and allowed memories of home to return. But an ugliness rushed through my head and shoved home into a distant out of mind darkness. My shoulders slumped.
Hot food wasn’t going to abate the void in my gut. Nothing I did seemed to stop the rush of images flooding my mind. Tired, I fidgeted as though trapped in a movie-loop where every nightmare scene played a close-up of a dead Marine’s face. A sense of guilt gnawed at me. Does battle made everyone feel this way? Ashamed. Something. I hated those gooks, bastards all, for making me feel like that.
Through a billow of smoke I watched Duchamp repeatedly jab at his pork paddy with a white plastic spoon. He grinned, and seemed happy as a chef at some Cajun cuchon du lait.
He said, “Did ya’ll see what Hutterson did out there today?” His voice was surprisingly casual, though it fit his smile.
Collins merely shrugged.
You mean other than getting us all suckered into a fucking ambush? I thought, but held my peace. I was too edgy. My hands quivered like when you over exercise. My right ear throbbed and my whole body ached. I tried again to shut off the horror film playing in my head, but couldn’t.
I wanted neither to talk nor think. But I didn’t want to be alone, either. Not yet, not now. I tossed a heat tab into a c-rat can, lit it, set a can of water on top, gathered together some coffee fixings out of an accessory pack, and listened to the gentle rumbling of the compressed tab of gas.
“Well, Hutterson comes out of these bushes see, looking all ragged out,” Duchamp began. “I noticed he’s got some guy tied on to him. Really. It’s that new corpsman guy. Spaced out I’m telling ya. The Corpsman’s saying, ‘The Monk’s dead. The Monk’s dead.’ Over and over. He’s stumbling around with his arms stretched out in front like Boris what’s-his-face playing the mummy. Spooky, you dig? Damn crazy.”
Collins stopped crunching a cracker can and pried the lid open with his thumb. He glanced at Duchamp. “Tied on to him with what?” he asked, devoid of emotion.
“A web belt.”
Collins’ face, glistening with sweat, scrunched up in a questions mark. “Hutterson’s got the new corpsman tied to him with a web belt? What’s up with that?”
“Said he freaked out when Monk got killed. Said he was wandering off. I don’t know. Anyway, he tied the dude to himself with the belt, see? Tied him by the wrist and roped it to his cartridge belt. Like this.”
Collins seemed glued to Duchamp’s every word now. “Yeah. Then what?”
“Well, he led him out to over there where we had all them wounded. Up forward there.”
“Well, he sits him down and starts giving him some water. He’s kinda telling him to calm down and get it together, ya dig? Just rest and get it together, that’s all. And then along comes this staff from second platoon. Starts railing all over the corpsman. Telling him to help with the wounded, ya know? Get up and start helping out and snap out of it, he says.”
“And?” Collins said, urging Duchamp on with his eyes.
“Well, but ya see the corpsman’s like a zombie or something. Zoned completely out, ya know? Like shell-shocked or something. He don’t even know where he is, see? So Hutterson tells the staff to fuck off.”
“Shit,” Collins said.
“Well, the staff ain’t hearing that. He starts chewing Hutterson a new ass hole. He tells him he’s a staff sergeant and a lance corporal ain’t gonna talk to him like that. Says he’ll whip his ass right there.”
“Damn. I missed all that.”
“Yeah. No shit. So they’re about to start hooking, see? Right there. On the battlefield, can you believe? Hutterson gets up and jumps in the staff’s face. Says he’s in charge of his people and the staff ought to get back to his own troops, ya know?”
“Good for him,” Collins agreed.
Duchamp flipped the pork paddy and it sizzled anew. A sumptuous whiff of smoke swirled around the hootch. “Yeah. So he says if you wanna fight go on back down there in that valley. Says there’s still plenty fightin down there. And there was, too.”
“No shit. Did he?”
“Yeah. Cause the gunny shows up then and broke it all up. He squared that staff away. Ordered him down in the valley and told him to get back with his own platoon.”
“That staff’s a fucking lifer, huh?”
“You got it,” Duchamp said, nodding and poking the sizzling patty.
“Hutterson’s an okay dude in my book,” Collins scoffed. “Hell fire. Taking care of his people sounds like to me. He’s okay. Just a little too Gung Ho, sometimes.”
Duchamp tossed a skinny-necked bottle of dark orange Tobasco sauce toward me. “You’re awful quiet, Will.”
I nodded and sprinkled a few drops of the fiery liquid over a can of chopped eggs and handed the bottle to Collins. Quiet, indeed. I stared into another twisted face of a Marine who had died today and tried to remember the guy’s name. The name didn’t come. I found it more than annoying.
Duchamp chatted on, busy with his spoon and his patty, talking like he was home in his backyard gossiping over the fence. “Ya’ll hear about old Doc down there?”
“Nah, what?” Collins said.
“Doc was all over the place. Word is skipper wrote him up for a Silver Star. Says Doc saved the day up there. Hutterson says he kept Lieutenant Able from ordering a charge at them machine guns a bunch of times. That, plus them fast-movers helped just a touch. Says old Doc killed a shit load of gooks, too. Yeah. Saved a lot of Marines. They say the skipper ain’t mad at Doc no mo. He’s been born again.”
“Nothin ever much wrong with Doc if you ask me. He’s a warrior, by God,” Collins huffed. “But them boys in first platoon’s got a serious case of the red ass over Mister Glory. I’ll tell ya that now. Yeah, serious case. They’re talking about payback big time, too. Revenge, ya hear me?” He reached in his shirt pocket and slipped out a small notebook. He leaned close to the candle’s feeble light. He squinted in the flicker and read. “Final tally I got here is forty-seven wounded. Most all of ‘em from Lieutenant Able’s platoon. That fucker damn near wasted his whole platoon.” Collins straightened his back. Shook his head. “Them boys are mad. I wouldn’t want to be in his boots.”
“How many dead we got?”
“Eight. But I guess there’re nine, now. Including Monk, I mean.”
“Yeah, too bad about him, idnit?” Duchamp said, his voice trailing off. “Being left out there and all. Sure hope he was already dead.”
Collins winced, closed his notebook and put it away. “Course he was already dead. Hutterson confirms he was the first to get it even before we set out there. He don’t know how he got left behind.”
“Me neither. But that’s some shit though. We ain’t supposed to be leaving no dead Marines behind. I sure regret that.”
Collins shoved a cracker in his mouth and wiped the sweat off his face. “Yeah, skipper’s really pissed about that,” he said, with cracker crumbs choking off his words. He swallowed. “Ain’t he, Will?”
I dumped a paper pouch of sugar in my coffee. “That’s affirmative.” I started to blurt that Monk was Hutterson’s responsibility and he’d botched it as far as I was concerned. Throwing blame at people served no purpose though. I wasn’t up there near the real fighting so I didn’t know. Mistakes happen, I guessed. Goddamn, did they ever.
I was more worried about having to go back out there at dawn. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t relax and think straight. The gooks were still out there, waiting, and they knew we’d be coming back. They’d be ready for us, you could bet on that. Probably booby trap the whole goddamn place.
I imagined Monk laying out there in the dark, face down in a muddy rice paddy. I wondered if rats rummaging in the darkness would find him. I blinked a bunch of times as the smoke in the hootch began to burn my nose. It was too hot under these ponchos and I wished we had more air. I wished we had a lot of things right now.
Light or dark didn’t much matter, did it? Hell no. Fuck a bunch of rats. I calmed myself and made the image dissolve.
Collins stared as though expecting me to say something.
I stirred my coffee, spooned some and slurped. You could never get that plastic taste out of canteen water.
No matter what you put in it.
Collins glanced over at Duchamp with puzzled eyes.
“Well, we’ll be out there at first light and police him up. We’ll get him.” Duchamp said, with renewed confidence.
“Damn straight,” Collins agreed, feeding off Duchamp’s positive attitude.
“Good day though for old Metford, huh? Getting sent to the rear and all. Rotating home now, boy! Did ya see his face? Sure lit up when Doc told him to hustle up to the LZ and get on one of them choppers with the wounded.” Duchamp pressed the paddy down. It again hissed. The edges were beginning to singe.
He continued, “Hell, he was so short he was looking through his boot laces. He should’ve been in the rear a week ago. Darting Star just don’t cut us in Lima no slack. I shit you not.”
“Yeah, there it is. But listen,” Collins broke in. “I heard it was the Top just lost his paperwork, that’s all. Must be busy back there in the rear. Keeping track of all those knives and forks and spoons. Ha, shit! Top lost his paperwork and Metford damn near lost his ass,” Collins couldn’t stifle his snicker.
Duchamp laughed. Pinching the pork slice between his thumb and finger he flicked it in his mouth and wolfed it down in two or three chews. He licked his fingers and garbled, “And I lost my only pair of long johns. What a pisser. I regret that, too.”
I finished chow and climbed out of the mortar pit and walked over to my gear where I flopped down in the wet elephant grass, which stood as tall as September corn. The night air felt cool compared to inside the hootch, but a thousand hungry mosquitoes descended upon me and commenced their nocturnal blood feast. I rubbed repellent on my head, face, and worked it over my ears. I spread a thick layer across my hands and around my neck and throat. My skin burned. I secured the collar button on my shirt. My many scrapes and scratches stung like fire for a moment. Now, I was ready to be alone and sort through some thoughts.
Doc made me the mortar section leader when Metford rotated out with the last of the wounded about two hours earlier, and that meant a different way of thinking about a whole lot of issues.
After that no-shit gunfight I knew one thing. I’d have to reorganize the section by shifting the draftees around. No doubt about it. I’d seen those guys hesitate too much. And I’d need to split up the splibs, too.
I realized that would cause a ruckus and I wondered if I should make the changes before we set out to retrieve what was left of Monk, or wait until we returned.
I decided, right away, I’d better do it before. Leaning forward in the saddle seemed best over-fucking-here. Guys who dawdle in Nam aren’t alive to police up their lagging dead asses. Indecision is not a leadership trait nor a survival skill.
Collins should take over my old gun tube, I concluded. He’d like that. He was comfortable in a mortar pit and he liked the out of doors. I smiled at that thought while insects hummed a symphonic tune all around me. Then, I slipped into a heavy, dreamless sleep, exhausted.