The chopper lifted off grudgingly, coming back to earth once, then twice, before finally lumbering into the hot blue sky. Chan strolled back to our position. His face looked tired.
“How is he?” I asked, gulping down a mouth full of Halazone water.
“He’ll be okay.” Chan fingered the fifteen straight black hairs that he fancied made a mustache. “He has some pretty bad burns though. He might go home.” He slumped down beside me, leaned back, and pulled his helmet over his eyes.
I handed him the canteen with a nudge. “How come that chopper had so much trouble getting off?”
“It had six stiffs on board.”
“No. Delta Company really hit it last night. The door gunner said they made contact with a battalion.”
“Battalion! What are we doing out here running around in six-man squads while the gooks send in fresh battalions?”
“Interesting question.” Chan sat up and pushed his helmet back. “It’s obvious, actually. They don’t want public opinion down on them for sending any more troops over. They’re trying to fight divisions of NVA with regiments of Marines.” He leaned back, looking pleased, as if he’d just won a debate.
“They got to be running out of people soon. We’re killin’ these suckers at ten to one.”
“They’ll send in the women and children first.”
“Heard any more about the peace talks?” I asked.
“Yes. They can’t decide what shape the table should be.”
Just then Striker jogged over to us. He dropped to one knee beside Chan.
“We got a new lieutenant,” he said.
“I hope he’s not some gung-ho moron,” I said. “What’s his name?”
“Lampe,” Striker answered. He looked at Chan. “He’s got a cross on, painted black.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah. Does that mean he’s a Christian?”
Chan looked up, then looked at me. His eyebrows went up, as if Striker had struck a chord.
“No. Not necessarily.” He pulled a can of beef and rocks out of his pack, grimaced, and shoved it back in.
“What’s he got it on for?” Striker asked.
Chan stopped searching his pack and gave Striker a fixed stare. “Are you really interested, or are you feeding me a line of bull?”
Striker looked around nonchalantly, tilted his head back, then shrugged his shoulders, “Yeah. Sorta.” He picked a blade of grass and chewed on it nervously. “How do you do it? I mean, what do you do if you want to be one? Put it in writing or something?”
Chan pulled a piece of writing paper out of his pack. He looked at me. “Let me have our pen.” I pulled our battered Bic out of a side pocket in my NVA pack and handed it to him. “You got the Gideon they gave you?”
“No. I threw it away,” Striker mumbled.
“Here.” Chan handed him his tiny Gideon. “Look up these verses.” Chan spoke as he wrote. “Look those up and we’ll talk about it.” Chan handed him the paper. Striker snatched it and shoved it into his breast pocket as if he didn’t want anyone to see.
“Yeah,” he said, nodding his head as if he were nervous. “Okay.”
“Striker,” I said. He turned back. “Who’s the dude who rates camouflage?”
“He’s a forward observer. Joe Elbon. An old buddy of mine from ITR. Calls in the big stuff.” He turned and walked back to his position. For the first time since I’d met him, Striker didn’t seem like such a jerk.
The hump started again, through jungle, fields, hills, and ravines.
I wondered about our new lieutenant. It felt as if he had decided to take a tour of the countryside with no specific direction in mind. I pitied the poor suckers with Columbus, sailing and sailing for the end of the earth.
We climbed up an embankment so steep that huge ancient oak trees lay about, fallen because their roots could no longer take the angle. We reached the top and worked our way down the other side, which slid into a wide rocky ravine. Now I could see the point man. It was Striker. I missed Jackson. The winding ravine looked like a dried up riverbed, but during the monsoon anything can be a river. Striker disappeared around a bend up ahead, then he darted back again and flattened against a rock wall. He waved his hand to get down. The small column dropped like dominoes to one knee. Heads began to turn and whisper. I already knew.
We were up and moving forward before the word reached us. I unwrapped the fifty-round rip belt from the stock as I ran forward.
Lieutenant Lampe knelt beside Striker and Sudsy. I dropped to one knee in front of them. Chan came in beside me. I removed my helmet and peeked around the bend. A network of dirt bunkers stretched out for twenty-five yards at the mouth of the ravine. Brush was scattered about to camouflage the bunker system from the air. Three grass huts sat huddled together in a group of tall trees just beyond the bunkers. At least twenty NVA soldiers milled about near the grass hootches. I could see many more moving deeper in the trees and bush behind the hootches. To the right, down a grassy slope was a small, fast-moving river. A long line of small wooden sampans were tied to the water’s edge. They banged against one another as the swift current rushed toward us. I pulled my head back and took a long worried breath.
“That ain’t no platoon.” I looked at Chan. He leaned out slowly to look around the bend. He flattened back against the ravine wall.
“At least a regiment.”
“I counted twenty-one sampans,” Striker said.
I could feel sweat cooling off my body. Each head turned to the new lieutenant. Each mind thought the same thing: Is he stupid enough to try something with seventeen men? Suddenly the rattle of leaves above us replaced all our thoughts. I looked up. Swift Eagle slid down into the ravine.
“We got about twenty sampans tied up at the foot of the slope, Lieutenant, and at least that many pulled up into the trees on the opposite side of the river. I guess two companies, maybe a battalion.”
Lieutenant Lampe looked scared, but not panicky. He looked like you’d expect a Marine lieutenant to look—six feet tall, about one hundred eighty, white-sidewall haircut, pug nose, clean-shaven, acne scars under his ears and down his neck. He was an Annapolis grad, judging from his class ring, which he shouldn’t have brought into the bush. He put his head down for a moment as if to clear his mind or remember some useless bit of guidebook information. He looked up, squeezed his pug nose between thumb and forefinger, then turned to the chief. “Let’s pull back.” He turned to Sudsy. “Stick close.”
“Right on your butt, Lieutenant,” Sudsy answered.
Corporal Swift Eagle waved the platoon back. Fifty meters down the ravine we split into two columns along both walls. Swift Eagle pointed at Sam, then pointed up to the bush on Sam’s left. “I want an LP ten meters out.” Sam moved to the wall, and Corporal James gave him a boost up by the seat of the pants. Swift Eagle pointed at Striker, then to the bush flanking the other side of the ravine. Striker’s big black mole lowered an inch from the frown, but he moved without a word.
“I want the gun here,” Swift Eagle said, pointing to three large round rocks five meters in front of him. I flipped down the bipod and flattened out behind the gun with Chan at my right.
Lieutenant Lampe snatched the field phone from Sudsy, dropped to one knee, and flattened out a grid map, holding down each corner with a stone. “Alpha one … Alpha one … This is Alpha two. Over.”
“Roger, Alpha two … This is Alpha one. Over.”
“Alpha one, we’ve hit the big time at coordinates Alpha Tango Tango Hotel Foxtrot Lima Lima.” The communication went back and forth in code. Then there was a “roger.”
“Pull back!” The chief suddenly sounded excited. Couldn’t be that, I thought. Striker hustled over the edge of the ravine wall, sliding down fast. He landed on his feet and ran straight to Swift Eagle, moving past the new lieutenant and the new FO, Corporal Elbon.
“Chief! We got gooks on the flank! Lots of ’em!” Striker looked into Swift Eagle’s face, still ignoring the new lieutenant. Striker spoke quickly and too low for me to hear it all. Swift Eagle rushed over to the lieutenant.
“We got a lot of gooks on our flank, Lieutenant. They’re moving around.”
“Let’s get out of here!”
Swift Eagle didn’t wait for a point man. He led the way himself, with the lieutenant and the FO close behind. The column moved out quickly, leaving Chan and me to bring up the rear. I hated being on the rear. I could feel myself moving faster and faster, as if I were being chased. I tried to walk backward, but the loose rocks underfoot were hard enough to walk on going forward. One hundred meters down the ravine the column stopped. Swift Eagle hustled from the front of the column, slowing for an instant in front of each man to stare into his face, then rushing to the next face until he reached Chan and me.
“Did anyone call in Sam?” he asked. His eyebrows pinched together. He looked worried.
“You mean he’s still back there?” I asked. He didn’t answer. He turned back to the column.
“Pass the word up. We left Sam. My squad up. We’re going back for him.”
Lieutenant Lampe jogged up beside Swift Eagle. “What’s up, Chief?”
“We left Sam the Blooper Man back there.”
The lieutenant’s round face grew long. He put his head down for a moment and squeezed his pug nose between his forefinger and thumb. He exhaled heavily through his nose and looked up.
“Okay, how many men in your squad?”
“Five without Sam.”
“Take them and the gun team, too. We’ll set up a perimeter here. Make it fast, Chief. We’re running out of light.”
Things were happening too fast. I hadn’t realized how late in the day it was. That made the situation more critical. A man lost or left alone in the jungle was rarely ever seen again.
The walk back down the ravine felt ominous. I wondered how many times we could make this trip into an area with that many gooks without making contact. I wouldn’t have put any money on our chances of tiptoeing in and out more than once.
I expected to see the enemy around each bend. I held the gun on my hip. Boyhood imaginings of holding off hundreds of Germans and Japs with a machine gun shot through my mind. Seven seconds. Seven seconds. What kind of fool figured out a gunner only lasted seven seconds after a firefight began? Why would they tell us the truth about something like that? Keep your burst short. Keep your burst short. Twenty rounds. Twenty rounds. Twenty rounds.
Swift Eagle stopped. Another bend in the ravine blocked our vision. We flattened against the wall as Swift Eagle poked his head around. He motioned us forward. The way was straight for twenty meters, then curved left around a huge round rock. Swift Eagle peeked around and under the rock, then jerked his head back as if he’d been stung. He looked back at us and mouthed the word I dreaded, “Gooks!” He looked left, then right. We scrambled up the embankment like scared children, stumbling and sliding back down, then clawing up again until at the same instant we organized. We helped chunky Doyle up and over. He put his rifle out and pulled the next man up, repeating the process until we were out of the ravine. Quickly we moved away. Ten meters through thick brush we reached the edge of the swiftly moving jungle river. It looked to be twenty meters wide, and deeper than I had thought. We listened for movement.
Branches cracked underfoot to our front. My heart stopped. I couldn’t feel myself breathing. Vietnamese voices drifted through the air from across the river. We all turned at once. Suddenly the sound of many men forcing their way through tangled brush to our left yanked our heads back around to a new danger on our side of the river. Swift Eagle slid noiselessly into the dark water like a snake. We followed. The cold covered me with goose bumps. The current pulled my legs downstream. I struggled to hold on to an overhanging branch with one hand and the gun with the other. The weight of my pack pulled me under as my limb sagged. I kicked my boots around in search of something solid, but the current swept them from under me. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer. Panic seized me. I started to drop the gun and reach for the branch with both hands. A strong hand grabbed me by the back of the collar of my jungle jacket, then switched the grip to my flak jacket and pulled me up. I gasped for air as quietly as I could, swallowing coughs until my eyes bulged.
We clung to the river’s edge, our helmets and weapons barely visible in the overhanging saw grass and water weeds. Something moved in the water near my right cheek. The red and black head of a snake rippled by my face, the long body weaving tiny waves of water up my nose. I shivered. Two Vietnamese laughed from the far bank. They were hidden by thick brush and leafy vines that lined the river on that side like a ten-foot green wall.
Through the saw grass and weeds the tops of small trees ten meters away moved as enemy soldiers fought their way through the thick pockets of brush. I knew we couldn’t fight from this position. The thought of being a prisoner flashed through my mind. The voice of a Vietnamese called from farther away. My grip was slipping from the limb. The shaking treetops started moving away from us, back toward the ravine.
We let a minute pass. All seemed quiet. Swift Eagle pulled himself from the water first. Chan dragged himself to solid ground. I tossed the gun to him and used the limb to pull myself out. We moved as quietly as we could. At the edge of the ravine we stopped to listen. Still quiet. Swift Eagle started to move down into the ravine again. Suddenly the sound of someone moving through the brush to our right stopped my breathing. I jerked the gun around. An American helmet poked through the brush.
“Sam!” I held my enthusiasm to a whisper. Sam’s face was flushed with anger and fear.
“You left me back there!”
“It was my fault, Sam,” Swift Eagle said.
“What am I supposed to say? It’s okay, man, don’t worry about it?” For a moment it looked like Sam was going to swing. He stared hard at the chief’s expressionless face.
“Let’s get out of here,” Chan said, breaking the tension.
“Yeah. Come on,” Doyle said nervously.
The chief turned away. “Move out.” We slid back down to the ravine.
The walk back to the platoon felt like a frightening dream that didn’t want to end. Lieutenant Lampe’s face already showed the strain of command. He barely controlled a dangerously loud laugh at the sight of Sam. He quickly regained his composure and looked around for the gunny, who stood right behind him. They exchanged a couple of words I couldn’t hear, then turned and passed the word. “Saddle up!”
We moved back down to the mouth of the winding ravine at a quick-time pace. The yellow sun was turning orange as it dropped. No more than fifteen minutes of daylight left, I thought. We climbed to the top of a small barren hill. Lieutenant Lampe relayed a message to Alpha one, then turned the show over to Corporal Elbon, the new forward observer.
Soon the faint whistle of a big 1.55 spotter round could be heard overhead, pushing air out of its way. A moment later a white mushroom cloud peeked above the treetops in the distance.
“Right on! Fire for effect! Repeat. Fire for effect!” Corporal Elbon’s voice carried across the tiny perimeter. Soon the whistles of 1.55s filled the air above us. Loud cracks followed by thunderous explosions lit up the darkening jungle at the other end of the ravine. A chorus of faraway screams sifted through the artillery explosions.
“Fire for effect! Keep firing! Fire for effect!” Elbon shouted from the center of the perimeter.
“Saddle up!” Gunny shouted.
“Fire for effect!” Elbon repeated.
An artillery round landed at the foot of our small hill. I jumped.
“Short round,” Chan said calmly.
A minute later the column moved down the mountain with 1.55s still whistling overhead. An hour later we set up a perimeter on the bank of a river and spent the night fighting off mosquitoes. By morning I felt like a victim of Dracula. The sight of green smoke made me forget my swollen, mosquito-bitten face.
“Saddle up!” someone shouted from the CP. “Choppers!”
“It would appear we’re going for a ride, Baby-san,” Chan said.
The chopper ride back to An Hoa took no time at all. I wondered if the pilots could ever imagine just how miserable the same distance on foot was. We spent the night in a tent near the tubes. Our tent smelled like the inside of a urinal. I guess they didn’t want us to get too comfortable. The whole company had been brought in. A bad sign.
The next morning started with a predawn company formation. Some jerk pogue camouflaged from head to toe passed out gas masks to everyone. Another bad sign. I couldn’t imagine fighting in the darn things. There was no peripheral vision and very little frontal. We tried the gas masks on while some skinny captain told us we’d be landing in a hot LZ that would be hit with tear gas first. We marched to a long row of waiting assault choppers and began filing on, one squad at a time. I still couldn’t believe it. Some of the men were getting openly hostile about the idea, screaming out loud that they wouldn’t fight in masks. Two black riflemen in Third Platoon threw their masks in the dirt and refused to enter the chopper next to the one Chan and I were filing into. Sergeant Mooney of Third Platoon ran toward the two with his M16 rifle ready. Just then the ramp hatch of our chopper closed. A few seconds later we were airborne.
My heart pounded blood into my face until it felt flush. Chan helped me strap the gas mask on tightly, then I helped him. His eyes told me he couldn’t believe this either. The supposedly clear plastic I was to see through was yellowed, scratched, and battered. It would be a miracle to spot a charging battalion at five meters. After a twenty-minute ride we started circling. I could see two more choppers circling behind us, then three, then five. Finally we began circling down. Chan held out his hand. I shook it. We gave each other a thumbs up.
The chopper hit the ground with a slight bounce. The hatch fell open. We ran out. We found ourselves in an open field. Pockets of smoke hid whole areas like a fog. I could taste the bitter tear gas through my mask. Other choppers were landing and taking off around the field, their rotors blowing the gas in all directions like giant fans. Marines ran toward a tree line to our left. I could barely see other figures running in another direction. AKs opened up on the left from the tree line. M16s opened up on our right. I couldn’t see what was going on. My scratchy yellow vision frustrated me. I started to rip it off, then wondered for an instant if it was really tear gas. AKs started firing from behind me. Gas or bullets, what’s the difference! I ripped the mask off, threw it to the ground, and cursed the Marine Corps as I ran toward the tree line. I could feel a strong wind hitting me in the face as I ran. My eyes burned. I began coughing. I spotted a smokeless area to my right. I ran for it, holding my breath until I reached it, then gasping for the clean air between biting coughs. Mucus poured from my nose and water from my eyes.
“Second Platoon!” someone shouted from the fog. “Second Platoon! Over here!” The voice sounded close.
“First Platoon! Mount up! Over here!”
“Hey!” Someone grabbed my shoulder. “This First Platoon?”
I turned to see who was talking to me. It was a black Marine, his eyes swollen, watering, and red. He started coughing.
“I’m Second Platoon. I think I heard First Platoon over there.” I pointed to our left. He headed that way.
“Second Platoon! Over here!” A strong wind scattered the gas into thin gray pockets. I could see the voice now. It was good ol’ freckle-faced Sudsy. Most of the platoon huddled nearby. Not one man still wearing a mask.
By the time all the platoons were organized into units again the gooks could have played a couple of hands of poker and still had time to dig a tunnel out of our poorly planned trap. Somebody in Third Platoon killed a gook in a tree, and First Platoon got two prisoners who were too stoned to notice the gas or the assaulting Marines. Second Platoon blew up two tunnels. Total: one confirmed; two POWs.
The walk back to An Hoa was the usual pain in the butt. Then it got worse. Sixteen inches of rain worse. Not that I counted the inches, but that’s what they told us on Armed Forces Radio when we finally reached An Hoa. They called it the northeast monsoon. We called it everything else. We spent the night at An Hoa. Even the constant blast of the big 1.55s couldn’t keep me from feeling cozy in a back corner of the big tent. Hearing the pounding rain and not being in it felt wonderful. Sudsy and Doyle played cards by candlelight in one corner of the tent.
“Let us prepare coffee.” Chan tossed me a small piece of C-4 from the cot on my left.
“Yeah. Good idea, Chan,” I said. Suddenly the flap door of the tent blew open, spraying water over the row of cots. Sam jumped up and tied it shut again. Another series of 1.55s exploded toward their targets.
“In Florida we’d call this a hurricane,” I said.
“Man! They’re sure lettin’ loose tonight.”
The voice came from the cot on the other side of Chan. It was Corporal Elbon, the new FO.
“Want some coffee?” I asked.
“Yeah. That sounds good.”
He moved over and sat beside me on my cot, facing Chan. He was brisk and serious and overly handsome, like one of those unsmiling models for Gentleman’s Quarterly.
“What are you doing traveling with a grunt unit?” Chan asked.
“I’ve done it a few times. Usually for big operations. Sometimes they send us out just to keep us on our toes. Don’t they mind if you guys cook with C-4?” Joe looked slightly concerned as I put a match to the C-4 inside our C-ration can-stove.
“We don’t ask,” I said.
The flap of the tent jerked open again. This time a Marine carrying a thick-barreled sniper rifle in his left hand rushed in with water pouring off his camouflaged poncho. He seemed to be protecting something with his right hand.
“Is Joe Elbon in here?” a husky voice asked.
“Yeah,” Joe answered. “Back here.”
The dripping Marine moved toward us slowly, his boots squishing water with each step. He squinted to see us in the dimly lit tent.
“Back here,” Joe repeated.
“It’s me. Harpo.” He pulled a tiny sad-faced black-and-white-spotted puppy from under his poncho.
“I got Killer with me.”
He held the tiny sad-faced puppy out with one hand. Joe jumped to his feet, his serious face gone and gushing with happiness. He took the puppy and started kissing his little black dot of a nose. The puppy seemed to cheer up, too. He started licking Joe all over the face. He chirped what was supposed to be a bark.
“Thanks, Harpo,” Joe said between licks. “How’d you know I was here?”
Harpo pulled off his poncho, revealing a totally shaved head, and sat on the end of Chan’s cot with his sniper rifle between his legs. His rifle had the fattest barrel and biggest scope on it I’d ever seen.
“That was easy to find out. Everybody’s in.”
“Why?” Joe asked.
“Thuong Duc special forces camp is getting hit or overrun or something.”
“You mean we’re saving the Green Berets again?” I asked.
“That’s what it looks like,” Harpo said.
Chan looked up from stirring our coffee. “Wait till the chief hears about this,” he said.
“What are you doing in here, Joe?” Harpo asked. “Why aren’t you in the CP tent?”
Joe looked like he wanted to avoid the question. He glanced down and mumbled something none of us could hear.
“Speak up,” Harpo said.
“There’s a guy in the CP I hate. No big deal. How ’bout you, Harpo? Got any more confirmed with that cannon?”
“Who do you hate in the CP?” I asked.
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Joe said. His tone was serious. He flushed and gazed down at his hands, trying unsuccessfully to conceal a seething anger. I decided to be nosy another day.
“Chan, did you see that?” I pointed at Harpo’s rifle.
“Yes. I’ve never seen a barrel with that thick of a bore.”
“I just got a fourteen-hundred meter confirmed two days ago,” Harpo boasted proudly. He pointed to the last notch in a row of small cuts on the rifle butt.
“Fourteen hundred meters?” Chan asked. “Really?”
“Yeah! My partner found ’em with a small telescope. Then I found them in the rifle scope. Three gooks sitting around a small fire eating rice, with AKs lying next to ’em. It took three shots to get one.”
“Three shots? Why didn’t they take off?” I asked.
“I was so far away that either they didn’t hear the shot or they didn’t pay any attention to it. None of ’em even looked my way on the first two misses. I had to walk up to the one I was aiming at. The first two shots were short. They all stopped eating and pointed at the ground where my rounds kicked up dirt, but they didn’t know what it was. They just kept squatting there holding bowls. Then the third shot blew this one right off his haunches.” Harpo laughed. “The other two dropped their bowls and beat feet out of there.”
“Mind if I look at your rifle?” Chan asked.
“No, go ahead.” Harpo handed it to Chan, who handled it as if it were something precious.
“This rifle probably cost two or three thousand dollars,” Chan said.
“At least,” Harpo agreed.
“Have you heard anything else about this operation?” I asked.
“I know the Seventh Marines and some ARVN regiment are already there. Scuttlebutt says they found a whole division of NVA.”
“That’s why they’ve kept me with you guys,” Joe said, as if the mystery was over.
“I’m sure it is, Joe,” Harpo said. “They’ve been using Puff and B-52 strikes.”
“That explains it,” Joe said. “I was wondering why I hadn’t been reassigned. I don’t usually stay with a grunt outfit this long.”
“If you’re the one who calls in the Phantoms and Puff, ol’ buddy, you ain’t goin’ nowhere,” I said. I gave Joe a slap on the back.
“It’s a double-edged sword, John.” Chan’s teeth gleamed in an ironic smile. “FOs don’t come along unless they know you’re going to need the big stuff.”
“He’s right,” Joe agreed.
“I wish you guys luck tomorrow,” Harpo said. “I got a feeling you’re in for a big time. You remember Jonsey?”
“Yeah,” Joe said. “Where did you see him?”
“His recon team came through two days ago. They sat in on a hill above the Vu Gia River near Thuong Duc for eight days, barely moving a muscle the whole time. On the eighth day a whole company came strolling by in daylight. They called in air and artillery and got a bunch of ’em. Then, the very next day, another full company walked into the killing zone. They said they counted two hundred four dead and they didn’t lose a man. There must be a ton of gooks in that area!”
“Think he was exaggerating?” Chan asked.
“No. His buddies said the same thing.” Harpo stood up. “I have to get going. What are you going to do about your baby?” Harpo gave the droopy-eyed puppy one last pat.
“I don’t know,” Joe said. “Take care.” Joe stood up. They shook hands, then Harpo slapped Joe on the back and gave him a quick strong hug. He rushed out of the tent and into the dark storm. Joe stood for a few moments, then sat down with a faraway look.
“How long have you guys known each other?” I asked.
“Since I was born,” Joe said. “That’s my brother.”
The flap door of the tent burst open just as a loud crack of lightning shot an eerie blue light across An Hoa. Sudsy stepped inside our tent. Water cascaded off his poncho as he pulled the hood back.
“Is Corporal Elbon in here?” Sudsy squinted to see faces in the dim light.
“Yeah, over here,” Joe said.
“They want you at the CP. We’re movin’ out.”
The tent erupted in shouting and cursing. Someone threw a helmet at Sudsy. He pulled his poncho hood over his head and ran out. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted more than anything to sleep out of the rain. I had my heart set on it. Joe put Killer in his pack, snatched up his gear, and stood up.
“You too, Joe,” I said.
“See you in the mud,” Chan said.
Joe gave us a thumbs up, then turned and maneuvered through the tent full of angry Marines.
Ten minutes later we stood in formation in the blinding storm. Corporal James went by each man in the platoon counting out loud. When he finished he ran back to the lieutenant.
The shout could hardly be heard over the pounding rain. The hump was on again. I was already tired. A vicious sheet of driving rain staggered the column like a hurt boxer as we reached the barbed-wire gate to exit An Hoa. Three hours later the rain subsided. By the time the first streaks of sunlight outlined the steep mountains ahead, I was half dry and half asleep. The low roar of a flight of Phantoms opened my eyes a little wider. The sound of bombs hitting the earth like giant drums echoed from the mountains. We crossed at a shallow point on the wide Vu Gia River. We reached the other side, crawled up the river bank and onto a winding dirt road that paralleled the river. A streaking Phantom ripped overhead with black smoke trailing behind.
“Hey! That Phantom’s hit!” Doyle exclaimed, but no one paid any attention. I could hear small-arms fire. It sounded about a mile away.
“Smoke ’em if you got ’em.”
Swift Eagle sent three men into the bush on the right flank of the road as the rest of the column collapsed on both sides of the road. Some men quickly dug for C-rations while others just fell back and closed their eyes. I threw oil on the M60 with my toothbrush and watched Sam, Doyle, and Corporal James start up a tired-looking game of Back Alley. Sam claimed the men of Alpha had bought him a Corvette playing cards. I wondered if it was true. I knew a lot of money changed hands. No one seemed to treat MPC like real money. It looked like Vietnamese Monopoly money. It was colorful and about the same size. No one cared. They couldn’t spend it any other way. Chubby Doyle pushed his Coke-bottle-lensed glasses farther up on his pug nose and looked up from his cards.
“Hey, what’s the date? It’s October, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “Is it?”
“Yes,” Chan said. “It is October 9, 1968,” he said in a businesslike, matter-of-fact tone.
“Really!” I said. “October 12 is my birthday. I almost missed it. I thought it was September.”
“Do you hear that?” Sam asked. The rumbling engine of something big suddenly sounded very close.
“That’s a tank,” Corporal James said tentatively, as if he wasn’t sure. He stood up and looked down the road.
“That does sound like a tank,” Chan said.
“Sounds like more than one,” Doyle mumbled. He and James looked toward the rear of our resting column. I wanted to look too, but I felt too tired to stand.
“Here they come,” Doyle said.
“This looks big,” James said.
Sam stood up and lit a cigarette. “I don’t know,” he said dryly. “Tanks are useless crap in this war. I don’t know why they even bother bringing them out.”
Chan stood up, then put out a hand to lift me up too. I let him. Sam was right. So far tanks had proved useless, but there was still something inspiring about seeing these giant steel monsters churning toward combat. I felt a chill. Death felt close.
We split into two columns, one on each side of the road. Three huge tanks rumbled by us. Their width dwarfed the narrow dirt road. The ground vibrated with their power. A tanker with goggles sat exposed in the turret of each tank. Each man gave us the thumbs up as they passed. The rumbling monsters rounded a bend up ahead and disappeared from sight. Small-arms fire sounded closer as we marched. Our pace quickened. Every tired eye looked up as a Huey gunship dove from the clean blue sky, firing rockets and M60s at a target about a thousand meters ahead. We rounded a slight bend in the road and found a company’s worth of Marines resting against an embankment on the right side of the road. They were ragged and dirty, and some of them were bloody. I could hear shouting at the head of the column, then we started running forward and past the company of weary Marines. The column stopped.
“Get to the side of the road!” someone shouted from the front of the column. We moved to the right side of the road, leaned against the embankment, and stared at the wide river in front of us. A giant engine cranked up then revved up its power. The tanks were getting ready up ahead.
“Second Platoon up!”
We ran forward. I could see the captain standing in the shade of a huge oak tree, motioning us to him with frantic waves. He stood behind one of the tanks. As we ran forward we passed three corpsmen working on five wounded Marines lying on the side of the road.
“All right! Listen up!” The captain’s red mustache seemed to flair out with excitement as he shouted over the rumbling diesels. “See that hill on the other side of that stream?”
I took a couple of steps to look around the tanks. Just past them and out of the shade of the huge oak was a clearing two hundred meters square. The dirt road went through it. On the other side a tributary feeding into the wide river cut the road in half. The remains of a blown-up wooden bridge protruded from the center of the tributary. Across the tributary and to the right of the road was a steep, bald hill.
“We hit a semicircle of fortified positions on the hills around that clearing. Second Battalion sent E Company up that hill. They had to pull back. We’re going to take that hill. We have tanks now, and they will provide cover fire.”
A sleek new Cobra helicopter gunship swept overhead with mini-guns blazing. It strafed the bald hill then banked straight up, made a roll like a World War II fighter plane, and nose-dived straight down at the top of the hill. He fired six rockets, then leveled off, just missing the rocks and debris from the flashing explosions.
“Are you listening? This isn’t a fireworks display, Marines!” The captain’s anger pulled our attention from the hill. His face was red. “Some of you are going to get hit going up that hill, and I want you to know what you’re doing. Do not stop to help the wounded. The corpsmen will follow up and take care of them. Don’t stop for anything. Now, E Company says that little stream you have to cross looks deep. They didn’t get that far, so we don’t know for sure, but find a shallow spot to cross, and be quick. There are two hills to our right flank that you can’t see from here. They’re at the far right of the clearing, and the gooks have fortified positions on both of them, so you may take fire from the right flank when you cross the clearing.”
Captain Nelson stepped away from the tank and pointed at the hill. “All right. When you cross the stream don’t go straight up the hill on this side facing us now because you will come under fire from the right flank. Go up the hill on the side facing the river and the road.”
He paused, then turned and looked at us, staring for one instant into the eyes of each man in the platoon. “As soon as you enter that clearing you’ll come under fire. There’s an ARVN regiment on the other side of the river that should take care of our left flank.”
“Hey! Wow! Far out, man! We’re going to be on TV!” someone shouted.
Captain Nelson’s face tightened with anger. I turned to see who said it, inwardly already knowing. Sam was pointing at two pudgy-looking men. One had a portable TV camera on his shoulder. The other carried a black box. They wore camouflaged baseball hats instead of helmets, and beautiful new lightweight Army flak jackets instead of the clunky Korean War–era flak jackets that Marines wore. They huddled behind a tree. The one with the camera was filming another Huey gunship firing rockets into the top of the hill. “Does that say NBC on that camera?”
“You better can that mouth, Marine!” Captain Nelson barked.
“Aye-aye, sir!” Sam answered quickly.
The thunderous echoes of heavy bombing farther up the road took my mind off the camera.
“Guns up!” I moved forward and stood beside the captain and Lieutenant Lampe. “We’re moving across in squads! I want the gun team with the chief’s squad!” Lieutenant Lampe held my arm as he spoke.
The lead tank began moving into the clearing.
“All right! Get ready!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted. “Chief’s squad will go first, along with the gun team. When you reach the hill make sure you knock out their machine guns first.” The second tank moved into the clearing about twenty-five yards from the first. Finally the one we stood behind started rumbling forward. The lead tank fired its big gun. The explosion ripped dirt and rocks into the air from the top of the hill. AK fire whined across the open clearing. Another Huey gunship dove at a target on the other side of the river. His rockets started a yellow fire in the top of a tree.
“Ready!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted. He raised his hand. “Go!”
“Go!” Swift Eagle shouted from my right. I ran by the last tank in the line of three tanks. The lead tank had stopped twenty-five meters from the tributary. Two whining ricochets bounced off the steel tank as I ran by. AKs opened up from my right. I could hear a machine gun chattering from the other side of the river. Green tracers streaked between the first and second tank. I looked left. Hundreds of muzzle flashes were firing at us from the jungle on the other side of the river.
“Corpsman!” a scream came from behind me. I didn’t look back. A sharp explosion threw rocks and dirt into the air twenty feet to the left of the second tank, followed by another one five feet closer. Someone screamed in pain.
“Corpsman up!” Another scream from behind me. I started zigzagging as I ran. I passed the second tank. Bullets whistled overhead. Others twanged off the big metal hull as I ran by. The lead tank fired its big gun. Suddenly a mortar round hit between the lead tank and the tributary. Then another hit ten meters closer. The third hit right on the tank’s turret. I dove into the dirt fifteen meters behind it. The tank rang from the explosion like a giant bell. I jumped to my feet and started running again. Another mortar blast hit behind me. Someone started screaming in agony. I didn’t look back. Finally the tributary was within range. Small telltale dust puffs shot from the road as bullets hit the earth around me. I dove to the ground as another mortar blast hit behind me. I felt scared and confused. I pulled my face out of the dirt and looked back. I could see Swift Eagle running and pointing, then a mortar explosion hit beside him. He fell. He didn’t move. Chan dove in beside me.
“Let’s go!” Chan shouted. I hesitated. I wanted to help the chief. Then those last words kept shouting at me: “Don’t stop for the wounded!” I jumped to my feet and ran. I took a running jump into the tributary, holding the M60 over my head. The ice-cold water took my breath away. A swift current swept my feet from under me. Chan grabbed me by the back of the lapel and pulled me up. I coughed up a mouthful of water. The steep hill rose up at a forty-five-degree angle just on the other side of the tributary. I could see muzzle flashes firing down at us from the top. Bullets sucked through the air around me, hitting the water with terrifying force. I tried to move faster. The cold water lapped at my throat. I stumbled over a large round rock. My head went under. Chan grabbed my shoulder to steady me. I regained my balance. A mortar blast hit the base of the hill in front of me. I closed my eyes instinctively. Dirt and debris fell into the water. Mortar rounds exploded in the clearing behind us. A row of tiny, violent waterspouts erupted in front of me, splashing cold water into my face. I tried in vain to move faster. A stream of green tracers sprayed over our heads and hit the small embankment now almost within arm’s reach.
“That’s from the other side of the river!” Chan shouted from behind me. I reached for a clump of grass on the embankment in front of me. I tossed the gun up and onto the level ground, then pulled myself up with both hands. I threw my right leg over the embankment and rolled onto the hard level ground. I reached back for Chan. He held out the butt of his rifle. I grabbed it with both hands and pulled him up onto the solid ground.
“Wait!” Doyle struggled through the deep water toward us. His thick-lensed glasses looked too water-blurry to be of any use. “Give me a hand!”
Chan held out his rifle, stretching as far as he could reach. Doyle stretched out one arm, moving it back and forth like a blind man feeling for a wall. I grabbed the M60, stood to a crouch, and ran across the dirt road to the base of the hill. I flattened against the rock-strewn hill and looked back. The crew of the lead tank scrambled out of the turret one at a time. A mortar round hit in front of the second tank. Bullets thudded into the earth around me. I looked up. I could see a muzzle flash at the top of the hill. Then the flash ceased. I looked back for Chan. Chunky Doyle rolled onto the solid ground. They both jumped to their feet and ran across the road, then flattened against the hill beside me. Chan looked back to the clearing, still gasping for air from the mad dash.
“The chief got it!” I said.
“Captain Nelson went down before we reached the first tank!” Chan said.
“They abandoned that tank!” I said. I pointed to the lead tank. The three crewmen ran for cover behind the second tank. “Look! Two bodies to the left.”
“My God, what are we supposed to do, take the hill by ourselves?” Doyle’s voice cracked.
“Don’t panic!” Chan shouted.
A .30 caliber opened up on us from across the river. His first tracers hit the dirt road fifteen meters in front of us, then slowly walked toward us.
“Spread out!” I shouted. Doyle moved left and Chan moved right. I started firing back. My first tracers skipped off the water. A sleek Cobra gunship dropped from the sky and swept across the river ten feet above the water. I stopped firing. He fired two rockets into the dense green jungle, then shot straight up into the pale blue sky, barely avoiding enemy fire and the glowing shrapnel and debris from his own rockets. The enemy gun was swallowed up in smoke. It ceased firing. Chan started shooting up the hill. I turned my back to the Cobra just as it made another dive on targets across the river. I looked to see what Chan was firing at. The limp body of a dead NVA rolled to a stop against a charred bush seventy feet up the hill. I opened up with the gun, spraying a hundred rounds at every lump of earth or bush that could hide a man in front of me. I stopped firing and looked for muzzle flashes. I couldn’t see any.
“What are we going to do?” Doyle shouted over another barrage of enemy mortars hitting around the tanks. He flattened against the hill and looked at me. Shrapnel whistled through the air around us, some of it smacking into the side of the hill. Just one tiny piece, I thought.
“We can’t just stay here!” I shouted back. I looked behind me. I could see muzzle flashes coming from the brush on the other side of the river. They were firing from the river bank. Bullets thudded into the hillside above us. I cringed with each whining ricochet. I’m not going to die just sitting here, I thought. This is insane. We have to move! I pushed myself away from the hill and started climbing. Chan did the same. Fifteen yards up the steep incline we flattened out again. I looked back down at Doyle. Finally he broke into a frenzied run, firing on full automatic as he stumbled and clawed forward. He flattened against the hill ten meters to my left. Thoughts of hand-to-hand combat slipped across my mind.
“Hey, look!” Chan shouted from my right. He pointed at two Marines waving and shouting at us from beside the crippled lead tank.
“That’s Lieutenant Lampe!” I said to Chan. “I thought you said he got it?”
“No, I said the captain!”
“He’s waving us back!” Doyle shouted. “He don’t have to ask me twice, brother!” Doyle started sliding down the rocky hill on his rear end. Once near the bottom he broke into a run across the road and jumped into the tributary to the right of the blown wooden bridge. It looked like the water was only up to Doyle’s waist.
“It looks shallower there!” I shouted.
“Okay! Same place! Ready!”
Before I finished “Go!” we both started sliding back down the hill until we could make a clean run for the tributary. Cracks of AK fire echoed from the top of the hill. One of the tanks opened fire with a .50-caliber machine gun. Chan jumped into the cold water just ahead of me, both of us holding our weapons overhead. I sank up to my neck. Now one of the tanks opened up with its big gun. Two bullets smacked into the water just in front of my chin and just behind Chan. I tried to move my feet faster. I’m taller than Doyle, I thought. How come it’s up to my neck? It was no use. It would be one slow step at a time. Three successive mortar blasts hit between us and the crippled lead tank. Doyle pulled himself out of the water. He ran for the lieutenant, squishing water from the air holes of his boots as he went. Now I could see who the smallish Marine crouching behind the tank beside Lieutenant Lampe was. Staff Sergeant Morey’s pale skin and droopy mustache stood out clearly. Doyle dove the last five feet, landing in front of Sergeant Morey. Chan struggled out of the water, then turned. He stuck out his hand. I grabbed it. He pulled me to him. We scrambled to our feet and ran for the tank. I kept waiting for that sharp pain of a bullet. How could they not hit us?
“Just keep running! Keep running!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted as the three of them started running back across the clearing before we reached them. I ran as fast as I could, but the water weight dragged on each stride like a suit of lead. I could hear bullets hitting the earth and ricocheting. I wondered how many times they’d miss before I felt the pain. Finally the trees were close. I could see faces of Marines shouting and waving us on while others fired at the hills behind us. The last tank pulled out of the clearing and into the shade of the big oak tree. Lieutenant Lampe and Sergeant Morey ran by the tank and collapsed against the dirt embankment on the left of the road. Then Doyle. Now I could see all three panting for air on their hands and knees and looking back at us to see if we’d make it. We were back. I could feel Marines slapping me on the flak jacket. I dropped the gun, grabbed my knees, and gasped for air, wondering if it all had really happened and why I was still alive. Someone was screaming. I looked up. Staff Sergeant Morey was on the ground shouting, writhing in pain, and holding his rear end with his right hand.
“I’m hit!” He forced the words through clenched teeth, then shook his head back and forth like he was trying to shake something off his face. Chan rushed over to him. Lieutenant Lampe knelt down beside Chan.
“Move your hand, let me see how bad it is!” Chan said as he forced Sergeant Morey’s hand away. He shoved Morey onto his left side. The seat of his pants was soaked with blood, water, and mud. Chan pulled out his K-bar and ripped the trousers open. “Looks like you caught a ricochet. It’s not too deep.”
“No! Don’t touch it!” Morey shouted. He pushed Chan’s hand away.
“I might as well get it out,” Chan said.
“No way! Nobody is taking away my Purple Heart.”
Every Marine within hearing distance who knew Morey started laughing. Chan looked back at me and winked, then turned solemnly to Staff Sergeant Morey. “I really should take that out. The chance for infection is very high.”
“I can’t believe it, Staff,” Lieutenant Lampe said with a regretful pat on the shoulder. “Tomorrow was your last day ever as a grunt.”
“It took three wars, but I finally got a Heart.” A giant smile lifted Morey’s droopy brown mustache. The lines of age spread from the corners of his eyes like a road map of three wars. He looked so out of place in the sea of young faces around him, all of them congratulating him with a barb or friendly insult. I felt happy for him.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” I said. “How’s the chief?”
“He caught a bunch of shrapnel. We medevaced him out.”
“Lieutenant!” Joe Elbon shouted from the other side of the road. “I got Phantoms coming in on Hill 52. We need to spot ’em!”
“Sam, go ask that tanker if he’s got a spotter round. If so, tell him to put it on top of that hill.”
“Aye-aye, Lieutenant,” Sam answered in Marine Corps fashion.
“How bad was the chief?” I asked.
“I’m not sure, John. Go get yourself an A-gunner. We need Chan to take over the other gun.”
“Yeah. We lost a gunner.”
“Who was on the other gun?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Hurry up! Get movin’! We’re going up that hill again!” He turned away.
“I’ve already been up it,” I snapped. “Where was everybody else?” My terse remark stopped him from walking away. He turned around quickly.
“I called you back, but you didn’t hear me. We lost seven men before you got halfway across. Now saddle up, Marine!”
The tank fired at the hill. The big steel creature rocked from the recoil. A moment later a popping explosion followed by a white mushroom cloud rose over the hill. I turned back to the lieutenant. He was gone.
“I heard.” I turned to find Chan standing behind me. “I believe you have acquired Doyle again,” he said.
“Who’s your A-gunner?”
“I don’t know. Probably the pig farmer.” Chan turned, looked up, and followed the flight of two Phantoms roaring overhead. A moment later the top of the hill exploded into fire. Before the flames of the first napalm bomb dimmed, the second Phantom repeated the bombing. Soon dark black smoke hid the top of the hill from view.
“The gunny got it.” Chan spoke without taking his eyes off the smoking hill.
“Shrapnel in the thigh. Doc said it looked like a million-dollar wound.”
“All right, let’s get saddled up!” Corporal James walked by us, shouting the order.
“Hey, James,” I said.
“Yeah,” he answered. He stopped and pulled out his canteen. He took a long swig.
“I need Doyle for an A-gunner again.”
“Okay, I’ll tell him. Get ready to go up that hill.”
He put his canteen away and started shouting again. “Saddle up! Second Platoon, Alpha! Saddle up!”
“Johnnie,” Chan said. “Look.” He paused like he wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted. “This looks bad. Make sure you ask Jesus to ‘cut you a huss.’ “
I wanted to hug him, but I didn’t. “You too, buddy. Twenty-round bursts.” I gave him the thumbs up. He returned it and walked away. “Hey, Chan.” He looked back. “Though I walk through the valley of death?”
He smiled. “ ‘Cause I’m the meanest mother in the valley.”
“Hope God’s got a sense of humor,” I said.
“He has to. He made you.” Chan gave another thumbs up and walked away.
Someone behind me spoke. “I don’t believe we gotta go back up that hill!”
I turned. Doyle stood behind me trying to clear his glasses.
“I don’t think we should have …” A Huey gunship fired three rockets into another hill to the right of the clearing, three hundred meters to the right of Hill 52. “Green Berets, my rear end!” Doyle said, disgusted, then spit. “Don’t you have an E-tool?”
“No,” I answered.
“All those guys back there in Seventh Marines said they already had hand-to-hand. They’re all sharpening up their E-tools!”
I wished for a small million-dollar piece of shrapnel. That’s all it would take, I thought. “One more Heart.”
“One more Purple Heart and I’m on my way home,” I said.
The lead tank started rumbling into the clearing.
“Form up over here! Guns up!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted over noisy diesels.
“Let’s go, Doyle.”
I threw the heavy machine gun over my shoulder. The hot sun was just beginning to dry my clothes, but my boots squished with each step toward the lieutenant.
“Same procedure!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted. “When the first tank gets halfway across, I want second squad to beat feet to the base of the hill. When second squad gets halfway across, third squad take off.”
“What about Chief’s squad?” Striker asked from behind me.
“What’s left of Chief’s squad split up into Corporal James’s and Murph’s squads.” The lieutenant spoke quickly. He looked flustered by the question. Then I realized why. He was on his own. The chief was gone, and so were the gunny and Staff Sergeant Morey. He looked scared, but I couldn’t help thinking it was fear of making a mistake more than fear of dying. “Elbon up!” he shouted. Joe ran forward. The shoulder straps of his huge radio had pulled his flak jacket apart in the front, revealing a small bulge under his shirt. A tiny wet black nose poked comfortably between two buttons.
“You stay on my butt, Corporal! Keep Sudsy informed on what you call in, got it?”
“Aye-aye, sir.” Joe’s answer sounded tight-lipped. His dark eyes seemed in a constant state of intense thought. He didn’t look like the kind of person who’d go to so much trouble for a little dog.
“Ready!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted as the first tank neared the halfway point, with the second twenty meters back. I took the gun off my shoulder and held it on my hip. “Second squad! Go!”
We ran, jogging at first. The smoke from the big diesels mixing with sulphurous gunpowder clogged in my lungs. Then the first AK cracked from the hills to our right. An old .30 caliber opened up from the far side of the wide river. We started sprinting. A Huey gunship strafed the hill to our front while a sleek Cobra ripped low along the edge of the river on the other side, firing machine guns, then rockets. The mortars, I thought. Where are the mortars? I zigzagged as I ran. I could tell the fire wasn’t as heavy this time. Not nearly as many bullets whizzing by my ears. I could see Striker ahead of me taking long-distance strides by the lead tank, then by the crippled tank, and finally to the edge of the rushing water. He took one long running jump, landing halfway across the tributary and ten meters left of the blown wooden bridge. He sank in over his head at first, with only his M16 and his forearms staying above the surface. Then his head popped up. He struggled for the other side. Short, stocky Corporal James jumped in behind him. James sank from view. Even his rifle went under. He popped up, threw his rifle to the other side like a spear, and started dog-paddling for it. I held the M60 over my head as I reached the edge of the tributary and jumped as far as I could. Cold water rushed up my nose. I came up choking. A bullet splashed water into my eyes. Another Marine jumped in beside me.
“Corpsman up! Corpsman up!” someone started shouting behind me. Striker pulled James up and out of the water in front of me. James grabbed his rifle and held it out, butt first, for me to grab. He stretched as far as he could. Striker held on to his feet. I reached for it, but my hands were too wet to grasp the plastic butt. An automatic burst splashed water into my face, followed by a loud crack. James’s rifle butt smacked into the water. He pulled it out and reached it toward me again. The butt end of the stock was splintered away. I grabbed what was left. He pulled me to the edge of the water. I handed him the M60 and rolled out onto dry land.
“Put some fire up that hill!” James shouted and stuck his rifle out for the next man.
“Doyle, feed me!” I shouted back. He struggled toward James’s rifle. His thick glasses were so smudged with water that he groped for James’s rifle with one hand, as if he were blind. I aimed at a muzzle flash at the top of the hill and started firing. Another stream of orange tracers zeroed in on the same flash until both streams of tracers converged. A piece of clothing or pack flew into the air. The flash ceased. I took a quick glance back across the tributary. Chan lay prone beside the crippled tank still firing at the hill. Suddenly both remaining tanks opened up with their big guns. Rocks, smoke, and dirt blew into the air with each shot, like small volcanoes erupting.
“Let’s go! Move it!” I shouted back at Doyle as he rolled out of the water. I ran across the dirt road and flattened out against the hillside until Doyle caught up.
“Are you ready?”
“For what?” Doyle gasped for breath. He pulled off his Coke-bottle lenses and tried to blow off some of the water.
“We’re going up the hill!”
Doyle looked left as two more Marines flattened nearby. He took a deep breath and sighed, “Yeah.”
“Give us cover!” I yelled at the Marines on Doyle’s left. “We’re going up!” Fear and excitement shot through me with the rhythm of a jackhammer.
“Gung-ho, maniac!” I heard Doyle shout as I ran and stumbled and crawled. Twenty meters up we took cover under a large sharp-edged rock.
“Give us cover! We’re coming up!” a voice shouted from below.
I moved to the right of the rock and laid down a fifty-round burst across the top of the hill. There was no return fire. I fired again. Still no return fire. We leapfrogged up. Twenty meters up I could see a pile of fresh dirt ringing the charred, blunt hilltop. The burnt scent of napalm covered the ground. Everything smelled like burning hair.
For the first time in the assault I felt too scared to go on. I knew there was a trench on the other side of that fresh dirt. I wondered why they hadn’t hit us with grenades. I can’t just sit here, I thought.
“Doyle! How many frags you got?” I asked impatiently. He slapped his chest, then felt his cartridge belt.
“I have three, and I ain’t going over that dirt till they’re all gone.”
“I’m with you.”
“Let’s make it up to that bomb crater before we throw em.”
“Which one?” he asked.
I pointed to a small crater about ten yards away. It looked about three feet deep.
“It’s better than nothing,” I said apologetically.
Doyle went for it first as I laid down fire. Then he covered me as I dove beside him. We laid our weapons down. I pulled a grenade off my cartridge belt. Doyle did the same. We straightened the pins and pulled them.
“Maybe we better pop the spoon and hold them for a two count?” I said.
“You’ve seen too many John Wayne movies!”
“Yeah, sucker! If these frags come flying back in your face, you’ll wish you’d seen a couple!”
“I’m throwing!” he said. Doyle brought the grenade back behind his ear with his right hand and let fly. He threw the grenade straight up the hill and over the fresh dirt.
I let the spoon fly, brought the grenade back like a football and counted, “One-thousand-one, one—”
“Throw it!” Doyle shouted as he stuck his face in the dirt and covered his head with his hands. I threw. I aimed left of where Doyle threw his. Doyle’s grenade exploded, showering us with dirt and tiny rocks. My grenade exploded immediately after, with the same effect. Still no return fire. We repeated the procedure minus me holding for a two count.
“I think they pulled out!” Striker shouted from the far right. I couldn’t see him but I knew that voice.
“I’m throwing another frag!” I shouted toward Striker.
“Ready!” Doyle said, his grenade already pulled off his belt and finger in the safety-pin ring.
“Outgoing!” I shouted and ducked down. Doyle let fly. The explosions were the same. No screams, no return fire. “Let’s go in!”
We moved up the hill cautiously. Finally we waited just below the fresh dirt mound until most of the platoon caught up. Striker stood to a crouch ten meters to my right and gave me a thumbs up. Everyone around me returned it. Someone screamed, “Go!” Ten of us rushed forward. My trigger felt slippery with sweat. I took a deep breath, jumped over the dirt mound, and down into a waist-deep trench that ringed the top of the hill. I landed with a crunch on the charred corpse of an NVA soldier and stumbled against the inner wall of the trench. An unburned body lay face down five feet away, his back covered with dried blood. I stomped the man’s head, then kicked him in the groin. No groan. Felt stiff. The heavy firing had stopped. Except for an occasional sniper round or quick burst of M16 fire, the battle sounded over.
“Hey, napalm got this sucker!” someone shouted from my left.
“Got fried gook over here!” another Marine shouted from the right.
“Why didn’t somebody bring a flag? We could raise the flag for the TV guys!” Striker sounded oddly enthusiastic.
A few minutes later Elbon climbed over the top with Lieutenant Lampe beside him, hanging on to the field phone attached to the radio on Elbon’s back. I walked to the other side of the trench. There was another hill just in back of this one and to the right. It looked heavily wooded and covered with brush. I could see the helmets of Marines moving up a narrow twisting trail. The small blue tributary went by the wooded hill and hooked around the far side. Beyond stood more green hilltops stretching to the gray mountains four miles away. From here I could see the wide Vu Gia River bending sharply right and turning sapphire as it snaked off into the mountains with the dusty beige road tagging along beside it like a puny brother.
“That’s where America’s Green Berets are sitting on their rear ends and screaming for help,” Corporal James said, measuring his pauses carefully. “The chief sure called it, didn’t he?” He spoke to me, but his eyes glared at the gray mountains.
“Yeah,” I answered, but we both knew those soldiers were good. Not Marines, but good.
“We’re moving over there for the night.” He nodded at the wooded hill with the Marine helmets crawling through breaks in the canopy of trees and brush. I wanted to ask why, but it didn’t matter. One hill was as comfortable as another.
We piled the five dead gooks in a small stretch of the trench and pushed dirt over them. It was supposed to make the flies go away, but it didn’t. An hour later we filed down the hill as a company of Seventh Marines marched up. They were lean, unsmiling, hard-Corps faces. We gave each other curious gazes as the columns passed. No one spoke. We marched down the hill and along the tributary until we reached our new hill. The column stopped at a small rocky clearing at the base of the wooded hill. Another column of Marines filed down the twisting clay path.
“Okay, saddle up!” Lieutenant Lampe shouted. His words came to him a bit awkwardly, as if he were waiting for the chief or Gunny or the staff to shout the men into movement. Doyle muttered something behind me. I turned.
“What?” I asked.
“We lost a lot of men.” His voice was on the point of complete dejection.
“I don’t think any of ’em were KIAs, though,” I said, trying hard to find something positive to think about.
“Who says?” he asked.
“I asked the lieutenant about the gunny and Chief. The gunny’s going to make it, and he thought the chief would.”
I turned to look for Sudsy. He’d know the casualty status. I couldn’t find his antenna or his freckled face. “Did you ask Sudsy who got hit?” I asked, still looking for him in the column.
“He was medevaced out. I think he’s KIA.”
“What?” My stomach rolled and sank, and for a moment I felt sick.
“He didn’t make it to the first tank the second time across.”
“Saddle up! I want the squad leaders to put your squads in three-man positions around the top of this hill and down the sides. The gooks still control the next hill, so don’t go giving them any targets! Is that clear?” Then the lieutenant started again without waiting for an answer. “The CP is going to be right here where I’m standing.”
We moved up the narrow path. The heat pressed heavily on the back of my neck. Empty C-ration boxes lay strewn about everywhere. The higher we climbed, the clearer the enemy hill became. It stood taller than the one we were on. The tributary took a sharp left below us. It separated us from them. Its cold water looked beautiful and inviting, splashing against huge round boulders jutting up from the water.
“Hey! Look!” A shout echoed from behind me to the head of the column. Suddenly I saw the reason for the commotion. One hundred meters below, leaning out over a large round boulder, was an NVA soldier filling his American-looking canteen. An AK47 lay beside him. Two more NVA stood behind him on the huge boulder, chatting nonchalantly, with rifles slung over their shoulders. Before anyone fired a shot the three of them casually disappeared back into the lush green canopy of trees and leafy jungle vines. I was shocked. For the NVA to be so brazen there must be a ton of ’em, I thought. The column stopped. Corporal James and Corporal Murphy started setting their squads up in three-man positions around the top of the hill and down the sides, splitting it down the center.
“I want your gun team over there,” James said. I looked to the right of the path where he pointed. It looked good. There was even a small level area like a tiny shelf on the hillside where we could sleep without rolling to the bottom.
“It’ll have to be just you and Doyle tonight.”
“Great,” I mumbled sarcastically. “I’m too tired to sleep tonight anyway.”
An hour later the sun turned into a moon and the shadowy fears of the night held my eyes open, but just barely. I wondered where Chan was. I knew he was positioned at the bottom of the hill somewhere. My eyes felt heavy. The moon disappeared behind a layer of clouds. I wondered about our positioning. It seemed haphazard. I wasn’t even sure where the other positions were, except for the one ten yards below us. I knew the chief had made mistakes. He wasn’t perfect. Still, I wanted him back. I wanted the gunny back, too. God! I’m one of the only salts left! I gotta talk to God about this. Things are looking real grim.
“Wow!” Doyle whispered from the other side of the M60. “This is the big time!” The sky behind the enemy hill lit up in pink, red, and pastels, silhouetting the steep dark mountains of Thuong Duc four miles away. Bright white flashes sent booming shock waves of sound that shook the earth beneath me.
“Pssst!” Another whisper came from the darkness below us.
“You guys see that?” Another series of shock waves and flashes lit up the sky for miles around. It felt like God was waking everything up. “What is it?” the voice whispered from below.
“It’s arc-light raids,” I whispered.
“B-52s, man,” Doyle whispered impatiently. “Must be another boot.”
The brutal light show was awesome. It went on and on until it seemed impossible for anyone to live through it, yet I knew some would, somehow. Maybe without eardrums, but still able to pull a trigger.
Suddenly a quick burst of AK fire opened up above us, followed immediately by five semi-automatic shots from an M16.
Something heavy rolled through the brush. Then silence. Doyle sat up. Something thudded into the bushes beside him. A ripping explosion shattered the silence. My night vision was gone. All I saw were bright spots. Doyle cried. I started firing the M60 into the brush in front of us until the gun went silent.
“I’m hit! I’m hit!” Doyle screamed.
“Corpsman!” a voice shouted from above us.
“Johnnie, I’m hit!”
“I know it. Don’t talk. I can’t see yet.”
“Shut up! They’re right on top of us!” I opened my eyes as wide as I could. My vision was coming back. I could see the outline of a tree silhouetted by the flashes of the arc-light raids. Finally I could see Doyle holding his knee and shaking his head back and forth. His teeth shined white from the moon’s glare as he clenched them in pain. Someone was coming up the path fast, breathing hard and stumbling in the dark.
“Corpsman coming in! Don’t fire!”
“Doc!” I called. “We got wounded over here!”
“Coming in!” He turned right, off the path, and stumbled over a thornbush. “Where?” He looked up from all fours. “Where are you?”
“Straight ahead! Ten meters!”
He crawled forward until he could see us, then stood to a crouch and walked over to us. “Who’s hit?”
“Doyle,” I said.
“Hurry up!” Doyle said angrily.
Doc moved closer to Doyle. “Can you walk if I help?”
“I think so.”
“Let’s go. I want to get you below, where I can work on you.”
“Doc,” I said. “Somebody else got hit up above us.”
“Can you hold on for a few minutes while I go check it out?” Doc said.
“Yeah. But hurry, Doc,” Doyle whispered.
Doc moved back toward the path. Five minutes later I heard him again. “Pssst.”
“Over here,” I said.
He stumbled over the same thornbush, hitting the ground harder this time. I held back a laugh. He crawled over to us.
“You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Doyle said. He struggled to his feet with Doc’s help.
“What happened up there?” I asked.
“A gook crawled up to the top of the hill and opened up. Killed one guy. His buddy killed the gook. Better keep your eyes open. They might be probing for an all-outer.”
“Tell ’em down at the CP I’m down to a one-man gun team.”
“Right,” Doc answered as he helped Doyle hobble toward the path.
“Hey, Doyle,” I whispered. They stopped and Doyle looked over his shoulder. “Have a good trip home.”
“I got your address, John. I’m going to be looking you up.”
“Send me a hot sauce when you get back,” I said. “And the little fishes—you know, sardines!”
“Semper fi, buddy.” Doyle gave me a thumbs up. I returned it. They disappeared into the darkness. I sank into the lowest, loneliest, bluest funk I’d ever been in. I’d never make it home. No one will even remember that I died over here. Doyle’s boot to me, and even he’s going home. I should be happy for him. It’s not his fault he’s lucky. That turd. He’s really a good person. That turd.
An hour later the war went silent again. Corporal James and Striker crawled in from the darkness and spent the night. Early the next morning the whirring blades of a medevac chopper greeted the sunrise. I walked over to the path to get a better look at Doyle’s departure.
“Look out!” The stumbling feet of men carrying something heavy accompanied the shout. I turned in time to see two Marines carrying something wrapped in a drab green poncho. The poncho ripped in half. The stiff heavy body of a dead Marine with ash-blond hair rolled straight at me. I was too shocked to move. He rolled into my shins and stopped. He felt like a bag of cement. I didn’t move. I stared down at him until the other two Marines started asking me something.
“Hey, you got a poncho we can use? We got to hurry and get him on that chopper!”
“Yeah, sure. Here, hold him and I’ll get it.” I ran back to the gun and got my poncho out of my pack. My hands were shaking. It made me mad. I gave the men the poncho and watched as they struggled down the steep hill with the heavy weight. I watched until the chopper was out of sight.
“Me and Striker are sitting with you until we get some replacements.”
I turned to see Corporal James take a spoonful of beef and rocks then spit out a potato in disgust.
“I haven’t had a decent bite of food since Bangkok!”
“What?” he asked with a puzzled look on his face.
“That’s what’s wrong with me. I haven’t had an R&R yet. Do you know that I’ve been here over nine months without an R&R?”
“I thought you and Chan went to Australia?” James turned his head and spit out another potato.
“That’s when we got hit. Do you think Bangkok is better than Australia?”
“Well, I don’t know. Australia has round-eyed women. I loved Bangkok, though. I bought a Corvette through the PX in Bangkok.”
“It’s waiting on me right now in California. Emerald green.” James drifted off just thinking about it.
“Clark!” I looked down the path. A black boot Marine still wearing stateside utilities and stateside boots with a glaring shine on them made his way up the path with a handful of mail.
“Up here!” I said. He looked up. Something was odd about him. No rifle! “Hey, boot! Where’s your rifle?”
“I left it down there,” he said indignantly, as if it were none of my business.
“Give me the mail.”
He handed me four letters. “No. Give it all to me. I’ll hand it out. Now, you go get your rifle, and don’t make a move without it from now on.” He looked defiant and cocky.
“And tie those dog tags into your boot laces and blacken ’em so they don’t shine. If you get blown away the boots usually stay in one piece so you’ll get identified.” He started to say something, but I didn’t give him time. “Don’t forget your salt tabs, not even once.” I could hear Red’s words coming out of my mouth. Then I heard the chief. “And don’t put the twenty-round maximum in your magazines. It weakens the spring and it’ll jam on you and get you KIA’d.” The cocky look on the black Marine’s face melted into one of apprehension. “Now go get that rifle and keep it clean and maybe you won’t make the trip home in a plastic bag.”
He handed me the mail, turned, and went back down the hill without saying a word. I turned to Corporal James. He smiled.
“Feeling salty today?”
“I don’t know. I just miss a lot of friends. I need an R&R.” I looked at the mail and found a letter for James and two for Striker. I handed them to him and went up the hill. I found the position where the ash-blond guy got killed. His buddy sat alone against a tree with one hand over his eyes and the other on his M16. I didn’t speak. A dead gook with no shirt and bullet holes scattered from his face to his navel lay spread-eagled in the weeds a few feet away. Flies by the thousands buzzed around the bloody body. I walked over to it and started to give it a shove with my boot to roll it down the hill toward the tributary.
“What are you doing?” The young, dirty, thin-faced Marine stared at me blankly.
“I was going to push this stiff down the hill so you wouldn’t have to smell him.”
“No.” He spoke quickly, barely moving his lips, with no change of expression in his blank stare. “I want ’em to come after his body so I can kill some more of ’em.” His voice was a monotone, like a talking robot’s.
I walked away, then looked back. His stare hadn’t changed, even though I wasn’t there to stare at. I handed out the remaining mail, then went back to my position and opened mine. The first one was a birthday card from Polly.
“Hey! Today’s my birthday!” I shouted.
“Happy birthday, Baby-san!” Corporal James surprised me with his friendliness. “How old?”
“Columbus Day’s your birthday?” Striker asked without looking up from oiling his rifle.
“Yep,” I said.
“Nineteen! Were you seventeen when you joined the Crotch?”
“Yeah.” A photo fell out of the birthday card.
“Hey, she sent a picture!”
Striker and James dropped what they were doing. A picture from home was like a quick trip back to civilization, proof that it still existed. It was a color photo of Polly at a party in her college dormitory in Missouri. “She says her girlfriends and her had a birthday party for me!” Polly stood with her arms around two girls who held a bottle of beer in each hand. They all wore mini-skirts eight inches above the knees.
“Boy, looks like they’re having a good time!” Striker said as he hung over my right shoulder.
“Look at that fag in the background! He’s got hair longer than the chicks,” Corporal James said angrily.
“You know …” Striker paused to consider the rest of his statement. “When I get home”—he paused again—”I’m gonna deck the first hippie I see, just for the guys in the Nam.” I looked at Striker. He sounded like he meant it. Striker was big and strong and not particularly handsome with that big black mole between his eyes. I started to feel sorry for the first hippie he was going to meet. Then I reconsidered.
“I like that idea. I might do that too,” I said. “If I ever get home.”
“Six more weeks, bro.” Striker fell back with his hands behind his head. “I’m so short the gooks probably can’t see me.”
“You ain’t as short as me, brother,” James said. “I could walk under doors!”
“How short are you?” I asked.
“Four weeks! November 12. I’ll be on the freedom bird heading for my Vette.”
“I don’t know if I even remember how to drive,” I said.
“Are you Corporal James?” a hesitant high-pitched voice asked from behind us. We all turned back to the path. Four boot Marines stood together. They all had stateside utilities on and stateside boots. They were clean-shaven and healthy-faced, with white-sidewall haircuts.
“Yeah, I’m James,” he said gruffly.
“Lieutenant says we’re in your squad for now.” The high-pitched voice came from a boot with snow-white skin.
“Man,” Striker said. “The sun is sure going to tear him up!”
Corporal James led the boots up the hill to position them. The rest of the day passed noisily by. We didn’t move. We just watched as Phantoms and Cobras and Huey gunships strafed and bombed and bombed and strafed all around us. The lush green jungle on the other side of the river geysered up wildly until it was marred with ugly brown patches. The green hills on our side of the wide Vu Gia River became potted and cratered like a picture of the moon. Then came the napalm and fiery death. The night brought Puff the Magic Dragon and the massive roar of its quavering mini-guns. Sporadic green single tracers spit into the dark sky in defiance of the enormous wavering golden rod.
“The boots are getting their money’s worth tonight,” Striker mumbled.
“It’s kind of nice having that FO with us,” James mused.
“Is that who’s calling in all the stuff?” Striker asked.
“His name’s Elbon,” I said. “Do you know that crazy guy’s got a little tiny dog with him.”
“You’re kidding?” James said.
“No. He really does.”
“Does Lieutenant Lampe know that?” James asked.
“I’m sure he doesn’t.”
“He will tomorrow!” James threatened. All at once I got this aggravating urge to hit James in the mouth. The Marine Corps wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for punk corporals. I was spared a court martial by a sudden burst of M16 fire at the bottom of the hill. A scary silence followed.
Twenty minutes later a voice came from the dark path behind us. “Comin’ in!” A moment later the half-moon broke through a cloud long enough to light up Mike Flanagan’s freckled Irish face. I had begun to feel that all my friends were gone. It filled me with joy to see good ol’ Mike.
“Johnnie?” he asked, straining to see me in the darkness.
“What in the world are you doing here? Daggone it’s good to see you!” I said.
“I think they’re trying to make me a grunt.” He moved in closer beside me and handed me an M16. “Here’s a bandolier.”
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Lieutenant Lampe wants me to take the gun out on an ambush.”
“Just for tonight.”
“Got an A-gunner?”
“Allen,” he said.
“Well …” I hesitated. I didn’t like parting with the gun. “Take care of her now.” I gave the gun a friendly pat. “And, Mike, no more than twenty-round bursts, man. It makes a good target.”
“I’ll treat her like a baby,” Mike said. He picked up the gun and four hundred rounds of ammo and headed back to the path. Then he stopped and turned back. “Did you hear that shooting?”
“What was it?” Striker asked.
“Some boot panicked, heard a noise in the bushes near him and opened up. They killed that FO that came out with us.”
“Oh no! Joe?” I asked. I felt as though the wind had been kicked out of me.
“Did you know him?” Mike asked in a slow whisper.
Visions of Joe and his brother Harpo and the little dog forced me close to tears. I felt tired, sick, and angry. “Who shot him?” I blurted angrily and louder than I meant to.
“Keep it down!” James whispered quickly.
“I don’t know. I don’t think they were sure yet. I’m sorry, John. I’ll let you know what I can find out.”
“How ’bout his little dog?” I asked.
“I didn’t hear anything about a dog. I’ll let you know tomorrow.” Mike disappeared into the darkness.
“Shake it off, John.”
James’s voice broke me out of a numb, prolonged stare toward the dark path. I turned around. James and Striker were both sitting up and looking at another arc-light raid of 1,000-pound bombs crashing into the mountains of Thuong Duc. Darting spurts of abrupt orange spread through the mountains, then reached into the sky, turning it crimson. It looked like the end of the world. A small pop followed by a bright light lifted my eyes up. Puff was dropping flares. The hills around us lit up from the reddish glare of twenty tiny suns swinging down under their midget parachutes. Now it was bright, as if daylight had shocked away the night. I looked down at my M16. Something hit the ground beside Striker. I ducked, covering my head. A violent explosion rolled me toward the path. Striker screamed piteously. I looked up. Ten meters ahead and slightly above on the slope of the hill an NVA sprang out of the bush firing full automatic from the hip. Corporal James screeched and fell backward on my right. I raised to my knees and fired full automatic. Suddenly I was lying on my face. My mouth was full of dirt. My thigh burned like no burn I’d ever felt. It ached like someone had knocked it off with a sledgehammer in one mighty blow. I raised my eyes with my chin still in the dirt and stared straight into the wide-open, dead black pupils of an Oriental lying stomach down ten inches away. Blood gushed from two small round holes in his forehead, one above each eye. Five or six straight black hairs stuck out from his upper lip in what looked like a futile attempt at a mustache. I could hear Striker screaming. Everything went gray, then black.
“Snap out of it!” Sam’s pitted face was in front of me. “Don’t go into shock, you moron!” He slapped me hard across the face. It stung. I felt anger and started to swing, but someone held my arm. “Are you ready? I’m taking you off the hill! You’re all right! Don’t panic!” he shouted into my face. His breath smelled like week-old cat food.
“My leg!” I heard myself shouting. “Is it on?”
“It’s there! It’s there! How many times do I have to tell you!”
Sam picked me up with a fireman’s carry over one shoulder and around his neck. The path was steep and treacherous. My leg ached and burned. I wondered if I was crippled.
“James and Striker!” I shouted as we reached the bottom.
“James is shot in the calf!” Sam gasped for air before finishing. “Striker looks bad.” He gasped again. “But he’s alive.”
“How is he?” Doc yelled. “Bring him over here!” Sam carried me over to the Doc and Lieutenant Lampe. He laid me down gently onto my back.
“Here’s a souvenir for ya.” Sam laid an AK banana clip magazine on my chest. “Weak spring. It jammed. He put in too many rounds. That’s why you’re alive. Tell your kids.” He turned and ran back toward the path. Puff hummed overhead. Another batch of flares popped open, renewing the dissipating light.
“Thanks, Sam!” I yelled too late for him to hear. The pain in my thigh felt worse. Doc tore the top off a small plastic container. He pulled out a tiny needle and stabbed it into my throbbing thigh.
“Morphine,” Doc said. “You’ll feel better in a minute.”
“What’s it look like, Doc?” Lieutenant Lampe asked. He held a field phone in his hand. I’d never seen him look so confused. His eyes darted up the hill, back to me, then back up the hill.
Doc cut my pants leg away with his K-bar and looked close at the inside of my thigh. “Can you roll over?” I rolled. “Went clean through. Made a big hole, Lieutenant. He’s lost a lot of blood. We got to get him to Da Nang.”
“Can it wait till morning?”
Memories of Jack Ellenwood crept through the pain. I lifted my head to look at my leg. A flickering flare cast a pulsating light into the gaping hole on the inside of my thigh. Dark red blood shot out of the hole between two pieces of torn muscle in steady spurts. I felt faint. I lay back down. Doc began wrapping the leg tightly. An M60 opened up somewhere. I closed my eyes. The war went silent.
“You got him?” a voice shouted. I tried to open my eyes. The steady cracking of AK fire resounded from every direction. A hard wind hit me in the face. A chopper! “Give ’em cover! Get out of here, quick!” Someone dragged me along a metal floor. I could hear the engine get louder. We were airborne. A bullet smacked through the thin walls of the chopper just above my head. Then another. The old helicopter shuddered and dropped. I felt my life ending. Just as suddenly as the drop, we pulled up. The door gunner blazed at flashes in the blackness below. I prayed. The door gunner stopped firing.
“Did they make it?” the door gunner shouted at the pilot.
“They went down!”
“Who?” I asked, but my voice trailed off. A stuffy, overpowering drowsiness grayed-out my mind. The choppy engine faded. I wondered if I was dying. Jesus save me … Jesus save me … Jesus … Black silence.
I felt cool. I moved my head. Soft? There was something soft under me. My leg ached all the way into my stomach. I groaned. My eyes felt heavy, almost sealed shut with old tears and dirt. “Guns up! Guns up!” I forced my eyes open. A bright white glow stung them shut again. I jerked my head to the side. Someone was laughing. A deep hearty laugh that made me wish I could laugh with him. Now I could hear others laughing. Their laughter echoed. I’m in a building, I thought. Pillow! I opened my eyes again. The room was white. Too white. “Guns up! Guns up!” a familiar voice called again. I lifted my head and felt for the gun like a blind man. My blurry vision began to clear. It was a small, round-looking ceiling. A Quonset hut. I grew up in a West Virginia Quonset hut, and I know a Quonset hut when I see one, I thought. Men were laughing. “I knew that would get your butt up!” the familiar voice shouted from my left. I raised onto my left elbow and looked down a row of metal hospital beds. Men in blue pajamas filled each bed. They all laughed. I tried to focus in on the nearest one. Then I saw him.
The room erupted into laughter. Now all the faces were clear. Staff Sergeant Morey lay in the bed next to him. In the bed after that was a Marine who looked familiar, but no one I knew well. He was laughing too. In the bed next to him was Corporal James, and next to him, at the end of the row, was Striker. I looked to my right to see more beds and blue pajamas but no familiar faces. Then one of the men on my right shouted, as if admitting the obvious, “Yeah, we’re Fifth Marines too!” Everyone started laughing.
“How long have I been here, Chief?”
“The better part of a day.”
“Where are we?”
“Da Nang. But cheer up. The Doc said you’re on your way to Japan with that wound.”
“Japan? Really?” I looked at my right leg. I had thick bandages from the knee to the groin.
“Your war’s over, John.”
“Chan! Did anybody hear anything about Chan?”
Swift Eagle’s face looked uncomfortable with the question, and my heart sank to the pit of my stomach. “I don’t know, John. I heard they took some more casualties, but no one knows who.”
I felt slightly relieved.
“Hey, Clark! We’re on our way to Japan!” Corporal James shouted from his bed.
“How’s Striker?” I asked.
“He’s going to Japan too,” James said.
“Striker got shrapnel bad,” the chief said quietly. “It went up his rear end and tore up his insides.”
“Is he going to make it?” I asked. A corpsman dressed all in white strode up to the front of my bed pushing a cart full of pills and needles.
“Yeah. I think so,” Swift Eagle said, watching the corpsman in a state of nervous discomfort.
“How ’bout you, Chief?”
“I’m okay. Just some shrapnel,” he said nervously, still staring wide-eyed at the Navy corpsman. “I want no shot!”
“Is this it? Are you going home? How many Hearts have you got?” I asked as the corpsman cleaned a spot on my arm with alcohol.
“Seven or eight, I think. They’re sending me home.” He winced and turned his head as the corpsman shoved in the needle.
“You’re not comin’ back again, are you?”
“I don’t know.” He looked away like the subject bothered him.
“Look, Chief, if we were going to try to win this war I might come back. I don’t know what we’re doing over here, but we sure aren’t trying to win, and you know it.”
“I know. I knew that on my first tour.” The corpsman pushed his cart past the chief’s bed. Swift Eagle took a deep sigh of relief.
“Then why do you keep coming back?” I asked.
He turned his eyes toward me and off the corpsman. “I don’t have anyplace else to go.”
“I have no home. I was born on a reservation.”
His remark sounded terse. I didn’t like it.
“I wouldn’t try to compare my life to yours, Chief. But I grew up poor too. We lived in garages and Quonset huts. My dad was blind and crippled, and we lived off seventy bucks a month, and our food came out of those green government cans for the poor that coal-mining towns are famous for, so you ain’t talkin’ to some spoiled brat. And you’re not ever going to convince me that America’s worse to go back to than this hole!”
Swift Eagle looked at me with a curious smile, and I wondered if I’d shot off my big mouth too much.
“You have the spirit of an Indian, John.”
I wanted to put that compliment in bronze. I felt sad that no one else heard it.
“But,” he continued after a pause, “you react like an Apache. I did not mean that America was at fault. I have no family. No reason to go back. No home or work. The Marine Corps is my home.”
“Then stay in the Corps.”
“I don’t think I could stand the spit-and-polish crap. Stateside duty sucks. That’s why I’m only a corporal. I get busted every time they send me home.”
“You can’t fight the war forever,” I said.
“I know. I’ve been thinking about it.” The chief put his hands behind his head, leaned back, and looked at the ceiling.
Two corpsmen wheeled in a double-layer cart stacked with trays of meals. A half hour later I shoved down the last bite just as a boot-looking second lieutenant walked through the swinging doors at the end of the room.
“Are any of you men from the Fifth Marines?” he asked somberly.
“Aye-aye, sir,” Staff Sergeant Morey replied.
“We need a positive ID on a Corporal Joseph Arthur Elbon. Did anyone of you know him personally?”
My heart sank. “I did,” I said hesitantly.
“Would you mind coming with me if your doctor says it’s okay?”
“Aye-aye, sir,” I answered.
A few minutes later the lieutenant and two corpsmen unhooked an IV from my arm and placed me gingerly into a wheelchair. The lieutenant wheeled me out of our building and into the bright hot sun. Sweat popped out of every pore almost immediately. He wheeled me past two large gray Quonset huts and into a cold concrete one-story building with two heavy white doors. We entered a small room with a desk and a group of large Army-green file cabinets. He stopped in front of two wooden swinging doors that had no windows.
“Have you ever been here before?” he asked.
“It’s not a very happy place. Get yourself prepared for it. We’ll get it over with as fast as possible. I just need you to sign a couple of papers saying whether or not this is Corporal Elbon.”
He turned me around and pulled me through the doors, then faced me toward what looked like a wall of giant filing cabinets. I knew they were filled with bodies. In front of the wall of cabinets lay ten large green plastic bags with heavy metal zippers. An irritating hum filled the cavernous room. I looked right to see the cause of the noise. Two men in blood-splattered white coats were busy embalming the naked, bloody corpse of a muscular young man lying on a long concrete table with a drain at one end. The noisy machine pumped fluids in while another machine sucked fluids out. The lieutenant wheeled me in front of the last one in the line. He bent over and pulled the zipper down the center until a pale, dead face showed.
“Yeah, that’s Joe.”
An hour later two corpsmen hauled me out of bed again. This time they dumped me onto a stretcher.
“You’re going to love Japan!” Swift Eagle said. “I’ve thought about it.”
“And …?” I said.
“I’m going home.”
“I’ll miss you, Chief. I think you’re making the right decision.”
He gave me a thumbs up. Everyone shouted goodbyes, ranging from Semper fi to gung-ho to good luck, as the corpsmen carried me through the swinging doors. “Guns up, Clarkie!” Swift Eagle shouted. I knew I’d never hear that again. They carried me to a familiar-looking Army-green truck with a big red cross on a white background painted across the back doors. It made me think of Texas and redheads. A few minutes later two corpsmen loaded Corporal James in beside me. Then came Striker with IV bottles and blood bottles hanging over him on metal poles. They stuck an IV in my right arm and hung a bottle over me, too. The drive to the airstrip was quick. It seemed like only a few minutes had passed when two corpsmen carried me onto a big C-130 that had been converted into a hospital plane with metal bunk beds that folded out from the sides of the hull. They put me on a top bunk. Then they carried Corporal James in and laid him below me. They laid Striker across the aisle from us.
“You guys sure are lucky!” A black corpsman smiled down at Corporal James. “Only serious wounds get to go to Japan!”
I laughed. I thought of Chan and asked God to take care of him.
The tail section of the big converted cargo plane dropped open, and the icy air of Yokosuka startled me. I could see a wintry layer of trackless snow on both sides of the runway. It really is over, I thought.
“Get ready, men!” an Air Force medic shouted from the front of the plane. “You are about to experience a ninety-five-degree drop in temperature!”
Some of the wounded started cheering. A couple of minutes later two Navy corpsmen dressed in thick warm pea coats threw a blanket over me and wheeled me down the tail ramp. The overcast sky melted into a gray sleep that turned black and deep. The next thing I heard was a soft faraway voice. It was a woman talking.
“You have to be awake for this, Marine.” My eyes wouldn’t open. “Try to keep your eyes open, Marine. You might feel a little sting.” Oh, no! Where had I heard that before?
“Yes. I agree,” a male voice said. “The hole is too large for a local.” The voices began fading farther and farther away until I no longer heard anyone.
When I opened my eyes, puffy white clouds drifted across a powder-blue sky through a large old woodframe window. Right below the window was a hospital bed. The guy in the bed was all bandages except for eye, nose, and mouth holes. I rolled my head left to see a spacious old hospital ward with rows of beds all filled with young Americans. It reminded me of old Saint Petersburg High School. It was even the same color—drab green. Vintage 1930s, I guessed. Someone rubbed my right arm, and I turned to see who.
“How do you feel, PFC?” An American nurse with dark hair, blue eyes, and a fat face was rubbing my arm with cold cotton that reeked of alcohol. She picked up a needle from a pill cart beside her and stabbed me in the arm.
“I’m not sure,” I grimaced. “My leg hurts.”
“How’s he doing, Nurse?” A familiar-looking man in his early forties was asking from the foot of my bed as he lifted a sheet away from my leg.
“He seems to be doing fine, Doctor. He says his leg hurts.”
“I don’t doubt it.” The doctor dropped the sheet and picked up a clipboard attached to the foot of my bed. “The bleeding seems to have stopped. Watch the bandages. Keep him on antibiotics and check his vitals every hour.” He paused and flipped through a couple of pages on the clipboard. “Your chart says you are PFC Johnnie Clark.”
“Why are you still a PFC with the record I’m looking at?” He looked up from the chart. “You get busted?”
“No, sir. They told me promotions were frozen in the Fifth Marines.”
The doctor’s face grew flush with anger. He wrote something on my chart, walked around the end of the bed, then slammed the clipboard down on the nurse’s pill chart with a bang. “You’ve just been promoted to lance corporal, Marine.” He turned and walked away briskly, talking to himself all the way to the end of the ward, where he turned and went down a staircase and out of sight.
“Congrats, man!” an unfamiliar voice said from the bed on my right.
I looked around the fat nurse as she pushed the pill cart away toward the next bed. A young guy with a flattop haircut that looked like it came out of the fifties was lying on his stomach. A sheet covered him from the waist down.
“That’s the fastest promotion I’ve ever seen!” He laughed in a friendly way. “We need more officers like that.”
“Yeah, I’ll say. Who were you with?”
“We were working with the Seventh Marines when I got hit.”
“Oh, yeah? I’m a corpsman.”
“How bad are you hit?” I asked.
He pulled back the sheet. He was naked from the waist down, with a large bandage covering his rear end. He pulled it back, and I felt myself make a face. The entire right cheek of his rear end was gone. What was left looked like raw hamburger. “Got hit by a fifty cal’. I was behind a tree. It went through the tree and then did this. I won’t be wearing tight jeans for a while.” He flipped the sheet back over himself and laughed again. “Hey, you’ve had some buddy of yours in here a couple of times, but you were still out.”
“Really! Wasn’t Oriental by any chance?” I asked, not really expecting the answer to be yes.
“No. As a matter of fact it’s that guy right there.”
“It’s about time you woke up.” I turned to my left to see Corporal James hobbling up on a pair of crutches, wearing a blue bathrobe and a cast from the knee down on his left leg. He looked happy to see me. “How do you feel?” he asked as he sat on the edge of my bed, carefully avoiding my legs.
“Sore. It feels like I got hit by a one-five-five and two Ban-San Bombers.”
“They’ve really had you drugged out, man!” the corporal said.
“How long have I been here?”
“Let’s see,” James mumbled to himself. “This is our fourth day in Japan.”
“You’re kidding!” I said, but my headache told me he wasn’t. “Anybody else here we know?”
“Yeah. Striker’s here.”
“Downstairs. You’ll never believe what he’s been doing down there.” James chuckled.
“No tellin’,” I said.
“Every time I drop in on him, he’s reading a Bible.”
“Yeah, really!” James laughed again.
“I love it. Sure wish Chan could see that!”
“When you’re well enough to get out of bed, I’ll take you down for a visit. He won’t be there long. We got orders for the world! You’ll probably be getting yours soon. I better get back before I miss chow. You only get one chance at it around here. Take it easy. I’ll get back with you later.”
James hobbled across the shiny waxed brown tile floor and then down the same staircase that my doctor had disappeared down. I never saw him again. He and Striker were sent home. The next four weeks went by faster than even one day had seemed in the bush.
Everything felt new and strange. Eating hot food with spoons, forks, and knives felt foreign. It was too quiet to sleep, so the nurse would feed me a sleeping pill each night. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It didn’t feel right with no one standing watch. Sometimes at night one of the wounded Marines would wake up screaming. It never bothered me, because I was usually already awake. Then one night I woke up screaming and covered with sweat. The buttless corpsman said I was screaming “Incoming!” He thought it was a riot, because two beds down some guy dove onto the floor. The doctor assured me that an occasional scream was normal. I wondered if I would ever be really normal.
The buttless corpsman became my alarm clock. He woke me each morning with a stereo setup that the fat-faced nurse had purchased with his money at the PX. Each day started with the Young Rascals singing “It’s a Beautiful Morning.” It sounded like every guy who could hobble or crawl to the PX, which was right next door, had bought a stereo, radio, tape deck, or anything that would play music. The doctors didn’t mind. They seemed to think it was good therapy. One day the Beatles’ new hit single became available. From then on “Hey, Jude” reverberated through the cavernous room constantly, usually from three different sources. Of course it was never coordinated, so I’d listen to the beginning, middle, and end at the same time. It somehow became my favorite song.
I kept waiting to feel good. I was supposed to be excited about being out of the bush, I thought. I should be jumping up and down and getting ready for Christmas or something. Anything! I kept waiting. I wrote home a lot to keep the folks from worrying. I lied about how great I felt, but the truth was that I felt more depressed each day and didn’t know why. I got the fat-faced nurse to paste up a new photo of Nancy Diez in a black bikini. It helped a little.
I sent a steady stream of letters to Chan. They all said pretty much the same thing: “Write me soon and let me know how you are or I’m going to kick your butt all the way to China.” The letters started returning, each one stamped with four or five different locations ranging from Alpha Company to Da Nang to An Hoa to Casualty Company Okinawa and back to me with ADDRESS UNKNOWN RETURN TO SENDER stamped over all the other stamps in dark red letters. I wanted to kick myself for not getting Chan’s parents’ address. It just had never occurred to me that I would need it.
Then one day the fat-faced nurse handed me a dirty, tattered envelope. It was another one of my letters being returned. I started to toss it into the wastepaper basket next to my bed when I noticed three little letters scribbled in pencil down in one corner: KIA. My stomach reacted like a heavy ball of ice-cold lead had dropped into it. Killed in action. I didn’t cry. I don’t know why. Maybe because I wasn’t going to believe Chan was dead just because some office pogue in An Hoa felt like using his pencil. Maybe because it just didn’t look official.
Frustration, confusion, and finally despair took control of my thoughts. After five weeks in Japan I was sent to Okinawa for rehabilitation. By December my leg was getting strong again. I still hadn’t received any more information about Chan. A strange, illogical sense of guilt began taking hold of me. I had left him. I had to go back to Nam. I had to finish my tour or I’d never be able to live with myself.
I knew my leg wasn’t ready yet, but I didn’t care. Each day I requested orders for the Fifth Marines and each day my request was refused. The doctor in charge of the rehabilitation program told me I was suffering from mild combat fatigue. They started feeding me Valium to calm me down and Darvon to stop the pain in my leg and something else to sleep. Nothing seemed to help. Then one day in early December some of my gear from An Hoa caught up to me. The first thing I found in my sea bag was a small green hospital bag containing the things I had on me when I was brought into Da Nang. I dumped it open and out fell my little Gideon with the shrapnel hole. I could almost hear Chan laughing at my depression. I cried for a long time. I figured I had about three months of tears built up. After that I started reading the Word and talking to the Man again. I even went to chapel on occasion.
Christmas came and went. Then New Year’s. I was still on Okinawa. I felt better every day. I was ready to go home. In March they put me in Casual Company. That was a good sign. I knew I’d be going home soon. My third day in Casual Company I got a letter that had been forwarded from Yokosuka. The return address was Saint Albans Naval Hospital in New York. It was from someone named Dr. J. T. Adelman, Lieutenant, USN. At first I thought I had someone else’s mail, but it was my name and serial number so I tore it open. The first line lifted me out of my bed and banged my head on the top bunk so hard I started bleeding, but I couldn’t feel a thing.
Dear L/Cpl. Clark,
I’m writing in reference to L/Cpl. Richard Chan, who is a patient of mine here at Saint Albans Naval Hospital.
That was as far as I could read. I had to move. I had to jump. I had to run. So I ran up and down the barracks screaming and waking total strangers to tell them that Chan was alive. Then my leg reminded me that it wasn’t quite ready for the hundred-yard dash. By the time I settled down enough to read the rest of the letter I realized I had lost it somewhere. I started to panic, then someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around to see one of the total strangers I had just shaken awake.
“Is this yours, Mac?” the bleary-eyed Marine asked as he handed me my letter.
“Yeah, it’s mine! Thanks!” I grabbed it and started reading again.
I hope you won’t be offended, but I have taken the liberty of opening L/Cpl. Chan’s mail. He has undergone three operations up to this point in an effort to repair serious fragmentation wounds to his right arm. We believe the arm will eventually be functionable. Even more serious than his physical injuries though, is the state of psychological depression that he has fallen into. He refuses to open his mail or receive visitors, including family or clergy. If you feel that you could be of any assistance in this situation, please contact me at this address or call the number below between the hours of 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.
I was stunned. He was alive! I had to call, but how? I walked back over to the bleary-eyed Marine’s bunk. He was already lying on his back with his eyes shut. “Say, do you know how I could call the States?”
He opened one eye and didn’t look happy to see me. “Yeah. You know that little restaurant right outside the main gate?”
“The one that says something about American food on the window?”
“Yeah. They have a phone there. It’s kind of like a Mars station.”
“A what?” I asked.
“They patch you through a bunch of ham radio operators all the way home.” He looked at his watch. “It’s probably about zero-eight-hundred right now back home.”
“Great!” I ran to my bunk to grab my hat. Lying under it was my little Bible with the shrapnel hole. I stared at it for a moment, and I couldn’t help feeling that it was one of those little reminders from Jesus that most of the time I foolishly called coincidence. I picked the Bible up, shoved it in my shirt pocket, and headed for the main gate. It was only a couple of blocks away, but that gave me almost too much time to think. I wondered if Chan was crippled. If he wouldn’t see his family, would he even talk to me? What had happened to him to make him turn off like this? What could I say to help him? It had always been the other way around.
Who cares! I thought. He’s alive! I don’t care how depressed he is! I started saying it aloud. “He’s alive! I knew it! He’s alive! That turd! Why didn’t he write me?” I kept talking to myself right through the front gate and up to the door of the restaurant.
It was a strange little restaurant. They offered American steaks on the menu for fifteen bucks, which along with the phone made it the classiest place in Kim Village. The moment I sat down on a small wooden stool and pulled the varnished wood and glass door of the rather large phone booth shut, I was scared. Getting through took about five minutes, but finally I heard some lady answer, “Dr. Adelman’s office.”
A few moments later Dr. Adelman had expressed his thanks and had Chan brought to the phone.
“Hello,” Chan said. His solemn tone told me right away this wasn’t going to be easy.
“You little turd! Why didn’t you write me? I thought you were dead! Did I wake you up?”
“It’s good to hear you.” He spoke with no emotion, cold and detached.
“Okay, what gives?” I said.
The silence that came through the phone was deafening. For a moment I thought he was going to hang up. Then he finally said something that sounded like Chan. “How are you? Are you all right?”
“Yeah. I limp a little, but I’m fine. Now talk to me, Chan. What’s going on? How bad did you get hit?” There was another long pause.
“Well,” his voice cracked. There was another pause, and I heard him clear his throat. Tears started tickling my chin as they dropped off, but I managed to swallow back any sound that would give me away. “Let’s just say I won’t be tying any surgical knots.” He forced out a weak chuckle, and I felt a burning need to hug him and pound him on the back and tell him everything was great just because he was alive, but I knew it would be of no use. He needed more than the “Cheer up, everything’s okay” routine. I pulled out my wounded Bible and asked God for help.
“Why won’t you see your family?” I asked as I opened the Bible, praying for something to jump out at me. I wanted to kick myself for not going to the chaplain before I called.
“I don’t want to see them. My folks got a divorce while I was gone. They didn’t tell me. I found out when I called home.”
“What about Valerie?”
“She came by. It’s over between us. It was just too painful for her mother. It’s better this way.”
He sounded angry. I kept thumbing through the Bible, almost nervously. I could feel the tension, but I didn’t know how to break it. “You’ll love coming home, Johnnie,” he snapped sarcastically. “These skinny little long-haired wimps, fellow Americans, greet the wounded Marines with protest signs calling us murderers. You’ll love coming home.” I’d never heard Chan sound this bitter. He sounded like a different person. I tried to think of something positive to say.
“You’ll still be a doctor. Get your mind on that. You have a job—”
“Doctor,” he cut in. “I was going to be an open-heart surgeon, remember? There aren’t too many one-armed open-heart surgeons operating out there.”
“Your doctor said you’d be able to use that arm.”
“They don’t know yet,” he scoffed. “I’m going under the knife tomorrow. This will be the fourth time. There’s no way I can be a doctor now. I’m glad you’re okay, but I have to go now.” Chan spoke quickly, as if he were mad at me and in a rush to end the conversation.
Suddenly it happened. Those words I needed jumped out at me. There they were, soiled with Vietnam mud but still legible in fading red ink, the words Chan had written in the front of my Bible.
“Hold it, mister!” I barked. “I’ve been listening to you all the way from Hue to Laos! You’re going to listen to me this time!” I waited for a long moment, expecting a loud klick as he hung up. Nothing. Then a barely audible mumble told me he was still there.
“A buddy of mine wrote this to me once.” I pulled the phone away as a gush of emotion sealed up my throat and pushed out a couple of tears. I cleared my throat and started reading:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
Just as it is written,
“FOR THY SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG;
WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.”
But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“Are you listening?” I asked. I heard him clear his throat, then he tried to say something but started crying.
“There’s more,” I said, trying to keep my voice from cracking.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God; to those who are called according to His purpose.
We didn’t say any more for a while. I knew my voice would crack and I’d start crying like a jerk, so I didn’t say anything. I could hear him sniff every little bit, and I knew he couldn’t talk either. Finally he managed two words before he hung up.