Twenty-four hours after Truoi Bridge was destroyed the Seabees had constructed a pontoon bridge across the river and convoys continued as usual. Forty-eight hours later the Seabees had already started construction on another permanent bridge.
Our job was to protect them while they worked during the day. Before nightfall they trucked ten miles back to the safety of Phu Bai and we went into the bush with three-man killer teams and squad-size ambushes.
Even though the bridge had been overrun, it was still considered skate duty compared to being in the bush. I didn’t know the difference yet, but I had no reason not to believe it was true.
Two weeks later the VC came into Truoi Village for resupplies of rice. When the village chief refused, they cut off his head and stuck it on a bamboo stake in front of his hut. Three-man killer teams were the best way to defend against those kinds of attacks. They were quiet and mobile. I volunteered several times for a three-man team, but was never chosen because I was still too “boot.” I wasn’t all that sure I really wanted to do it, but the combination of boredom and curiosity was getting the best of me. It did look exciting, and I was completely out of things to write home about. So far, filling sandbags seemed like my most notable contribution to the war effort.
Skate duty or not, it was boring slave labor as far as I was concerned. Most of the bunkers had taken a beating during the battle for the bridge, and the order for the day was “fill sandbags and fortify bunkers.” That was also the order for the next day and the day after that. Chan said I kept getting volunteered because I looked strong. I still had some of that stateside meat on me, and I did win the battalion push-up contest on Parris Island, but at five-foot-nine and one-hundred-sixty pounds, I didn’t feel like Hercules. Still, his theory may have been partially true. The old salts looked thin and tired compared to many of the new replacements.
The only break I found in the boredom was watching traffic on Highway 1. Most of the Vietnamese traveled on foot, but sometimes a bike or a moped or even a banged-up old white school bus that leaned comically to the driver’s side would rumble by. Sometimes the truck drivers in the convoys going south toward Da Nang or north toward Phu Bai or Hue would throw us a case of C-rations. If we hit the jackpot they’d toss us a crate of milk that was heading for the chow halls in Phu Bai.
Striker was on sandbag duty about as often as I was. I didn’t know much about Striker. He wasn’t overly friendly. He was commonplace in complexion, feature, manners, and vocabulary. In fact, his most distinguishing characteristic was a huge black mole positioned right between his eyes, just above the bridge of his nose. At the end of the second week of sandbags I was staring at that mole almost hypnotically when Striker caught me off guard by initiating a conversation.
“How come you’re friends with that gook?” he asked without looking at me. He stuck his entrenching tool into the sand and sat on the ground with a tired groan.
“Do you mean Chan?”
“Yeah. The gook who talks like a professor.” For a moment I considered sticking his E-tool someplace other than the sand, but I decided to be generous and postpone that action.
“Did you go to Parris Island, or are you a Hollywood Marine?”
“Hollywood Marine,” I said.
“I know, I know. P.I. is twice as bad as Pendleton. I’ve heard it all before. But Pendleton ain’t no picnic.”
I ignored his defense. “You know the couple of minutes they give you before sack time to read your mail or write a note home?”
“Yeah. I never got any mail.” He sounded almost angry at the remembrance.
“Chan would use that time to read his Bible. He was my bunkie, but I never paid any attention to his reading. We never had a chance to talk to each other. Well, one night the DI, Senior Drill Instructor Jones,”—I paused, remembering the terror inspired by that character—”caught Chan reading the Bible instead of his mail. He stood him at attention and punched him in the stomach so hard it knocked Chan down, but Chan got right back up. Then the DI started screaming at him about following orders and accusing him of trying to get out of ‘his’ Marine Corps by being a conscientious objector. Chan told him that was incorrect and that he had joined the Corps to stay. The DI told him the only Bible he was going to read was his Marine Corps bible, ‘The Guidebook for Marines.’ Chan told him that was incorrect. That was the beginning. The DI swore that he was going to run Chan out of the Marine Corps. They tried, but they couldn’t break him. Jones finally gave up and promoted Chan to squad leader.”
“They got down on a guy in my platoon once,” Striker said. “They finally ran him out. Unfit for duty. He was a wimp.”
“Chan’s nobody’s wimp. I made Chan go to Tijuana with me on our last forty-eight-hour leave before we left the States. We had a couple of other guys with us. All of us just got bombed except Chan. Some giant Mexican tried to make us pay for twenty-four drinks when we only ordered three. Pretty soon more bouncers showed up, and I ended up hitting the big one with a chair. The other two Marines with us took off, but Chan stayed right there with me and fought it out until the Tijuana police saved us. Then the Shore Patrol took us out of the Tijuana brig and threw us in their own brig. They were going to let Chan go, ‘cause he wasn’t even drunk, and I managed to tell ’em it was all my fault and that he was an innocent bystander, but Chan wouldn’t leave me. So then the Corps took us from the Navy and threw us in the Red Line Brig at Pendleton.”
“You were there?” Striker’s face showed some interest for the first time.
“I was there.”
“We had orders for Nam the next day so we got out in a few hours.”
“Then you never had to cross the red line?”
“No,” I said. “They did make us stand at attention with our faces against a wall while they hit us in the back of the head until one MP almost broke my nose.”
“I crossed the red line,” Striker mumbled. “If you had to take a leak, you had to cross the red line. If you wanted a drink, you had to cross the red line. If you had to throw up or wanted something to eat, you had to cross the red line.”
“I heard they really put it to ya when you crossed that red line,” I said.
“Yeah,” Striker mused. “With clubs and boots. How’d your little Bible reader handle the Red Line Brig?” Striker asked as if he knew the answer.
“Just like everyone else. Who’ve you got something against, Chan or God?”
“I don’t know either one. I ain’t sure I trust people who sit around reading Bibles.”
“I don’t trust people who don’t.” My tone wasn’t friendly, nor was the look that went with it.
“Don’t tell me you believe that crap too?” He laughed.
I felt my face getting flushed. I looked at Striker’s tanned arms and chest. He was lean and mean, just like most Marines. It’s going to be a good fight, I thought. I stood up slowly. Striker looked a little nervous as I reached my feet, still not taking my eyes off him.
“Johnnie.” I turned away from Striker to see Red standing behind me holding a deadly little green claymore mine in one hand and a small roll of wire in the other. “Come over here a minute.” He walked me a few feet away from Striker and began speaking quietly. “I saw what you were thinking. Don’t do it.” I started to explain. “And don’t bother explaining. I overheard some of it, and it doesn’t matter what a jerk Striker is. You don’t make enemies in the bush. You’ve heard of fragging. If somebody wants to blow you away out there, all they have to do is drop a frag on you or shoot you in the back and say it was an accident in the heat of battle. You hear what I’m saying?” I nodded, and we walked back over to Striker. I filed Red’s warning permanently in my memory bank. I knew he was right.
“You two are going out on a killer team tonight with Jackson,” Red said. “If you guys set up a claymore, I want you to know how it works.”
“John, do you know how that thing works?” Striker asked, motioning to the claymore in Red’s hand. His tone was friendly enough.
“Not really,” I said, feeling relieved the angry moment had passed.
The claymore was about the size of a 5-by-7 picture frame. It sat on four tiny legs and was slightly curved.
“Okay,” Red said, giving me a friendly dislocating slap on the shoulder. He knelt down on one knee and placed the claymore face down beside the detonator.
“Connect these two wires here to the back of the claymore first. Then string it back to your position and connect it to these two screws on the detonator. Got it?”
“Now don’t get too close. This sucker has a pound and a half of C-4 in it. Set it up after it’s dark. Charlie has a nasty habit of turning ’em around if he sees you set ’em up.” He paused. “How many frags you got?”
“Here’s a couple more.” He pulled two grenades off his cartridge belt and tossed them to me. “Leave your pack here. And don’t take your poncho, either. The gooks can hear the rain bouncing off it. Leave your helmet here too. Wear your soft cover.”
“Okay, Red.” My stomach started to tighten up. This was beginning to look more serious than I was prepared for.
“If you guys see the trip flares go off and the bridge is getting hit, don’t come back in. Stay where you are until daybreak.” Now I really was nervous.
A thousand years later the sun finally began its leisurely drop behind the faraway mountains of the A Shau Valley. My stomach churned like an abdominal alarm clock. I met Jackson and Striker at the gun bunker on the south end of the bridge. Jackson had taped two clips together end to end for quick loading. I immediately wished someone had told me to do that. It seemed like there was always one more thing I wish I’d thought of. I knew it would be one little item on the list that I forgot that could get me killed.
As we started down the path through the village, two Marines dragged rolls of concertina wire across the road, sealing the bridge for the night. Seeing that gave me an uneasy sensation of being completely alone. Filling sandbags suddenly seemed like a nice way to spend your time.
We walked through the village unnoticed—we hoped. The villagers were in their caves for the night. Except for the occasional coughing of one of the hole dwellers, the only other sounds came from the river. The splash of a fish made me bite my tongue.
At the end of the village the path split in three directions. Jackson held up his hand for us to halt. We knelt on one knee.
Timing was crucial for our ambush. If we set up too early, we might be seen, and if we waited too long, we might choose a bad spot or walk into an ambush. I strained to see any movement up ahead but couldn’t.
Jackson motioned to move out. Every step sounded too loud. The safety of the bridge felt a million miles away. I kept looking behind me, but the only thing following was my own fear. Jackson took the path that led away from the river.
Our pace slowed to one quiet step at a time. A branch fell from a tree on our right and splashed into the river. We all dropped to one knee. I could see no sane reason for going one foot farther from the bridge. Jackson stood up. He motioned us to move out again. I wanted to tell him that if all this was just to scare the boot, not another step was needed. My knees were jelly.
I wanted somebody to know what I was going through. Right now my friends are cruising around Steak ’n Shake trying to pick up women. This is crazy. No one will ever believe this. What do I do if we get hit? I have to quit cluttering up my mind, I thought.
The deepening night steadily took any vision I had had at the start. I kept Striker in sight, but Jackson was part of the blackness ahead. I wanted to stop. We kept going. A woodsy noise behind me started my heart pounding. I walked backward for twenty meters. The paranoia of being stalked from behind sent goose bumps up my spine. I turned back around. Now Striker was gone. The urge to call his name got as far as my throat before I managed to control it. I started walking faster.
A quarter moon slipped out from behind a large dark cloud. The jungle blackness turned misty blue. It was like trying to see through a heavy fog, but it wasn’t a fog. It was just another eerie Vietnam night, dense with humidity. Now I could see Striker and Jackson.
Instead of feeling better, the dim blue light made me jittery. Suddenly I felt conspicuous. Sweat dripped into my eyes and stung them with salt. The path looked like it might lead all the way to the dreaded mountains.
We stopped at the edge of a clearing about twenty-five meters square. The path led through its center and into thick jungle on the other side that appeared as a solid black wall. In the center of the clearing another path crisscrossed ours. Most of the paths led to rice paddies that the villagers worked each day, but some went through or around the paddy fields and all the way to the mountains.
The new path led in a direction away from the bridge, southwest, toward the A Shau Mountains. The men always joked about that area being a gook R&R center. It didn’t seem very funny right now. Jackson knelt down on one knee. He motioned for us to do the same.
“This is it,” he whispered.
“How about over there, behind those bushes?” Striker pointed to some knee-high shrubs ten feet from where the two paths crossed. It looked like a logical place but was well into the clearing and rather naked.
“I’ll go first and check it out,” Jackson whispered.
“Make sure we’re hidden from both paths,” added Striker.
Jackson crouched as he scampered into the clearing. His feet rushing through the foot-high saw grass made too much noise. He disappeared behind the bushes for a moment then raised one hand and motioned for us to follow.
Striker went first. He made too much noise too. Once Striker had ducked out of sight, I followed. My first few steps were quiet but slow. Then I ran for the cover of the bushes, making more noise than Jackson or Striker.
We set-in three feet away from each other. Our cover was perfect for watching the paths without being seen. I tried to remember all the things I’d been taught, but all I could focus my mind on was the merciless attack of gigantic mosquitoes. Jackson gave Striker a bottle of insect repellant. Striker put some on his face, neck, and hands, then leaned toward me.
“Put some on, but not too heavy. The gooks can smell it if the wind is right.”
Jackson leaned over Striker and handed me a watch with the face down.
“You got first watch. Don’t let the luminous hands show or we’re all dead.” Jackson smiled. His smile was more luminous than any watch. “Wake Striker at 2400 hours.”
As soon as they closed their eyes I felt like I was the only target in Vietnam. Every bush and every tree began looking like an enemy soldier. I tried to calm down by thinking of how miserable I felt. It was no use. I was too excited to be miserable.
The quarter moon slid in and out of occasional clouds, seesawing visibility from ten feet to three hundred. Between each lapse in visibility trees and bushes seemed to move. All the John Wayne war movies I’d ever seen began to haunt me. The Japs always disguised themselves as bushes. I started to wake Striker up but didn’t. The Vietnamese had probably never even seen a John Wayne movie.
Jackson and Striker had pulled their shirts up and retracted their heads like turtles in an effort to evade the constant whining of mosquitoes. I checked the watch. Only twenty-five minutes gone. It felt like twenty-five days, but so far so good. Not a single bush had snuck up on me yet. Maybe the night would go by without incident.
One more scan of the clearing dispelled that hope immediately. The shadowy figure of a man, crouching as he cautiously moved in, step by step, emerged from the blackness of the jungle. My heart thumped so strongly I could feel my chest moving.
I clicked my rifle off safety and felt for my spare magazines.
Striker slapped at a mosquito. I quickly put my hand over his mouth. He froze stiff, his eyes opened wide.
“Gooks,” I whispered so low I wasn’t sure he heard me. He rolled quietly toward Jackson and gave him a nudge on the shoulder. They looked at me. I pointed at the shadow. They both came up on their left elbows and peaked over the brush that hid us.
Three shadows were now visible leaving the thick jungle and proceeding across the clearing. They weren’t on either of the trails. They were coming straight at us. We took aim. Fifteen meters away they veered slightly away from us. Now a large group of figures appeared at the edge of the clearing. We held our fire.
My eyebrows were back to my hairline. I could see at least forty shadows moving into the clearing. Jackson held out his hand and motioned to get down. The faint whisper of an aircraft high above stole my mind for an instant, and for an instant I prayed to be on that plane, or any plane.
I melted myself into the ground, and I prayed silently, Yea though I walk through the … Oh, God forgive me, I can’t remember the words!
The rustle of feet swishing through damp saw grass pounded into my ears. I could hear the booming of heavy artillery off in the distance, probably out of Phu Bai. Thirty seconds later two rounds exploded, judging by the sound, about two thousand meters away. The feet started moving faster.
I wanted Red to be here. Flashbacks of boot camp blended with fear. One slap of a mosquito and my life was over. One sneeze. One ill-timed twitch. I remember when Private Allen slapped that sand flea in front of me. The DI kicked him in the shins and knocked him down. Then he made the whole platoon lie down and he screamed at the top of his lungs, “Private, you have just killed your entire platoon!”
My arm was aching like crazy, but I didn’t dare move even my eyes to see why. I could hear the enemy huffing and grunting as they filed by. I could feel each second individually. I felt like I’d spent days lying here with my face in the mud.
Finally silence. No more feet shuffling by. I wanted to look up. Suddenly a gripping terror seized control of my mind. The gooks were standing over us. They’d shoot me in the head when I looked up. Two minutes passed.
“All clear.” To me Jackson’s whisper was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing, “Hal-le-lu-jah.” Somewhere bells were ringing, and the sun would come up tomorrow.
I looked up and straight into Striker’s eyes. He had a tourniquet grip on my arm.
“My trousers are wet,” he said as he released me. “And it ain’t rainin’.”
My back hurt, my legs were numb, and the blood still wasn’t back in my arm. My neck cracked; it felt better. Then it hit me. It grabbed my funny bone and squeezed it just like Striker had been squeezing my arm for the last eternity.
“Your trousers are wet?” I looked into Striker’s muddy face. He nodded yes. It started with a snicker then grew to a contained laugh then out of control. I laughed so hard I snorted. Tears of sheer delight gushed uncontrollably down my face. Jackson leaned over Striker and shook my shoulder.
“Don’t …” The sentence turned into a chuckle. Then Striker began laughing. I covered my mouth with my arm to hide the noise, but it only made me laugh harder. Jackson’s chuckle grew louder. Smilin’ Jackson could laugh louder and harder than anyone I’d ever met. I felt an urgency to quiet him down before he got going, but it was no use. I was out of control. Jackson rolled onto his back, his knees pulled in to his stomach as if he were in great pain, and laughed. Great, big, fat, from-the-pit-of-his-stomach belly laughs.
Jackson sat up in a panic.
“Oh God! Grenade!”
In the span of two seconds we crawled, hopped, and ran ten meters away. We were hugging the ground again when the grenade went off, spitting dirt all over us. Striker and I sat up immediately after the explosion with rifles at the ready. Jackson chuckled. We stared at Jackson in disbelief. Jackson’s chuckle turned into a cackle. Striker shook Jackson by his shoulder, which only made him laugh harder and louder.
“If you don’t stop, I’m going to butt-stroke you,” Striker growled.
“Okay, okay,” Jackson replied, the words squeezing between the snickers. “It was my grenade. I pulled the pin when the gooks were walking by.”
“We better get out of here!” I said, trying to keep my panic to a whisper.
“Keep cool,” Jackson said with a pat on my shoulder. “They ain’t turnin’ that big column around. They’ll figure somebody tripped a booby trap.”
“Just the same,” Striker whispered with a quick look around, “I don’t wanna stay here!”
Jackson thought for a moment and pointed back toward the bridge. “Okay, let’s move back closer.”
It was a nervous two-hundred-meter retreat, but I felt better after the move.
By the time the sun came up I was ready to write a letter home. My friends would never believe this one, but I wanted to tell them anyway. I especially wanted to tell Chan.
Two big deuce-and-a-half trucks sat at the north end of the blown-up bridge. Corporal Swift Eagle stood beside one of the trucks, looking in our direction.
“Move it! Hurry up! We’re movin’ out!”
Chan leaned out the side of the lead truck and waved. I trotted up and started to get on board.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Swift Eagle.
I looked at Chan.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“S-2 school. The Marine Corps has expressed their desire that I acclimate myself to the Vietnamese language. Don’t worry, I’ll return in two or three weeks. You take care of yourself, buddy.”
“You too, Chan,” I said, rather dumbfounded.
“Move it! Move it! Get your gear together. We’re saddling up!” the big Indian was shouting at me.
Chan’s truck pulled away. We waved one last time. I felt alone. I wasn’t all that hungry, but my stomach sure felt empty. I kept watching until the truck rounded a bend and was out of sight.
“Move it! Move it!” I turned around.
“Yeah,” he said as he tied his jungle trousers securely around his boot tops. “You better do this too, boot. It won’t keep all the leeches out, but it stops some of ’em.”
“Where’s Chan going to school?”
“Phu Bai first, then down to Da Nang at China Beach.” He looked up. “It’s nice—real nice! About as good as R&R.”
“That sucker,” I mumbled. I knew it was envy and that I should be happy for him, but I wasn’t. First time we hit the bush and he gets R&R.
“Hey, cheer up!” Swift Eagle said. “At least he won’t get killed at China Beach.”
“Right, Chief.” I decided to be happy for him even if it made me sick.
“Saddle up!” I ran to the north-end gun bunker to grab my pack, helmet, canteens, and machine-gun ammo. The old gunny was leaning against the bunker with his pack and helmet on. My gear lay beside him.
“God! What a night, Gunny.”
“Hurry up and get your gear on, son.”
“We must have had one hundred gooks walk right by us! Right by our noses!” He acted as if he didn’t hear me.
“How old are you, John?” He handed me my flak jacket and spit out a shot of tobacco.
“Eighteen, Gunny. Why?”
“Just curious. I got a boy with a baby face like yours. He’s eighteen too. He’s in his senior year. Didn’t you finish high school?”
“Yeah. I graduated last June. I started school when I was five.”
“When did you turn eighteen?” He handed me my cartridge belt and canteens. I wondered what he had on his mind. This was the first time he’d ever talked to me.
“Did your parents sign for you to get in the Corps?”
“Yeah. It took some fast talking, too.”
He shot a stream of tobacco juice at a large anthill beside the bunker then stepped up close to me, put his right hand on my shoulder, and stared me right in the eye. Deep wrinkles stretched across his tan forehead and all around his dark blue eyes. He suddenly looked very old and solemn.
“You can’t be eighteen anymore, John. You have to think older if you want to come out of this hole alive. Do you know what I’m trying to tell you?”
“I think so, Gunny.”
He bent over, picked up my helmet, and put it on me.
“There ain’t many Marines better than Big Red. You do what he says when he says it. Swift Eagle, too. That Indian is all Marine. Watch him and learn.”
“Is this as tough as World War II, Gunny? They told me you were on Iwo Jima.”
“I was at Chosin Reservoir, too. This war is the worst yet. We ain’t tryin’ to win, and we ain’t tryin’ to lose. We could stop it in a month if we invaded the North.” He took a couple of quick steps as if he were too angry to stand still. “Every war stinks, but I ain’t seen this kind of stink before. You stick close to Red, you’ll be okay.” He slapped me on the back.
My stomach started churning. I missed Chan already. A sense of foreboding smothered my excitement as the small column meandered through the village.
Two thousand meters out we crossed the last rice paddy. One hundred meters beyond that we crossed a small muddy strip of water that looked ankle deep. On the first step the muck was up to my chest. The rancid odor clung to me for the next few miles; unfortunately, that wasn’t all that clung to me. Big black leeches stuck to anything they touched, anything going through the water. They’d suck blood until they swelled up like a balloon, then they’d drop off. Red turned around in time to see me trying to pull a leech off my neck.
“Don’t do it! If you pull it off, the head stays in your skin and you get infected. You have to burn ’em off.” He lit a match and touched it to the leech. It fell off.
The terrain rose slightly and changed from the swampy areas in and around the paddies to hard, rocky, rolling hills with not a tree anywhere. My pack straps were ripping into my collarbone. The four 100-round belts of machine-gun ammo already had my neck bleeding, and stinging flies were feasting on the blood. I tried to walk fast to get in front of Red, but the weight of my gear made it hard to walk at all.
“Red,” I called quietly from behind him.
“These flies are killing me, man. My neck’s bleeding.” He slowed his pace until I got beside him.
“You’re packing too much gear, boot!”
“I already know that!”
“First time we cross a deep river, ditch that E-tool.” His expression turned to disbelief. “Hey, you jerk! You’ve got the gun ammo facing in!”
“The bullet casings should be facing your neck, not the bullet points! Well, you can’t do anything now but turn the belts over when we stop.” Red managed to yank my collar up, shielding my bloody neck from the flies and direct contact with the ammo. It helped, but not much.
After four hours of humping in the general direction of the mountains that surrounded Tra Ve, I hurt everywhere. My feet managed to cause enough pain to take my mind off my shoulders, back, and neck, but not for long. Finally we climbed to the top of a small, rock-strewn hill and set up a perimeter.
No one knew where we were going. Somebody shouted, “Dig in!” I pulled my E-tool off my pack and tried to puncture the hard ground. A parking lot would have been easier.
I finally gave up on the idea when I noticed I was the only one shoveling. Red was already heating up a can of meatballs and beans.
“Aren’t you diggin’ in?” I asked, wondering why he had told me to ditch my E-tool.
Before Red opened his mouth, the hollow thumping of a mortar round leaving the tube echoed across the hilltop, bringing a wave of quiet over the chattering Marines. Some men looked up, while others flattened against the rocky surface of the hill.
The first round exploded against the base of the small hill’s southern side. The second round hit fifteen meters up the slope of the southern side. I stuck my face into the dirt and put my hands over my helmet. I wanted to hide, but there wasn’t even tall grass available. The third round hit the crest of the hill. I heard a scream. I clawed into the rocky earth with my fingernails. I heard another thump, followed by a faint whistle. Then a violent explosion shook the ground I was trying to become a part of. I peeked from under my helmet just in time to see another explosion ten meters to my right. Rocks and dirt came down on my back. The mortar rounds walked across the top of the hill like a giant’s footsteps, mangling anything in their path.
I shoved my face into the dirt and waited for the pain.
“Guns up! Guns up!” The command came from the other side of the hill.
Red jumped to his feet with the M60 in one hand and ammo belts in the other.
“Come on, boot! Guns up!”
I got to my feet with my M16 and two belts of ammo for the machine gun. Red shouted, “Gung-ho!” at the top of his lungs and darted up the slight incline toward the crest of the hill. His shout went through me like a shot of adrenaline. Suddenly I wasn’t terrified anymore. The emotional high that comes when life or death is on the line swept all fear to the back of my mind. An odd sense of exhilaration, almost pleasure, pounded through my system as we weaved across the top of the hill. More explosions behind me heightened the thrill. I was Superman and John Wayne. Nothing could stop this dash. I heard myself screaming, “Yeee-hii!” like a cowboy on a bronco.
I could see the lieutenant ahead, pointing at another hill one hundred meters south. Red hit the dirt and opened up on the hill. As quickly as it had started, it stopped. The mortars ceased. We had no target.
One man was wounded. Sudsy, the radioman, called for a medevac. The wounded man’s name was David Blaine. He was from Kentucky. His butt was peppered with shrapnel. He didn’t seem to mind a bit. It was a painful ticket out of Vietnam. I felt a bit of envy. I started daydreaming of ticker-tape parades and a hero’s homecoming.
“Hey, John! That’s a hard-Corps way to lighten your load!” I turned away from the bleeding Marine to see who was calling me. It was Red. He was holding something up and laughing.
“What is it?” I moved closer to inspect the object of his laughter.
“I think you need a new pack.” Red tried to restrain the laughing when he saw that I didn’t think it was all that funny.
My pack was in shreds. A direct hit. My writing gear, food, and my little Instamatic camera—gone. Red gave my helmet a couple of pats.
“Don’t worry about it. You better thank God you didn’t have it on. Marine Corps packs aren’t worth crap anyway. We’ll get you an NVA pack like mine.” I looked at Red’s pack. I had admired it since I first saw it. It was bigger than ours. The straps were made of a much softer canvas, more comfortable. Only an old salt would have a pack like that; Chan and I knew that the first day we saw it.
“Where did you get it?”
“Hue City. It’s in good shape, too, except for this one M60 hole here.”
Red was still looking for the hole when I spotted a piece of my own pack twenty meters down the side of the hill. As I started toward the remnants, a sharp burning pain high on my right thigh stung me so badly that I bent over.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Red.
“I don’t know.” I felt the warm slow trickle of blood running down my leg. Two small holes in my trousers near the groin were the only evidence I needed.
“Red! I’m wounded. I’ve been hit!”
“What? Where?” Red dropped his pack. In a flash he was kneeling on one knee in front of me.
“Unbutton your pants, stupid! Let’s see how bad it is.”
“I wonder why I didn’t feel it sooner?”
“It just happens that way sometimes.”
“Wow! My own little red badge of courage!”
“This could have been real tough on your love life. Are you hit anywhere else?”
“Will I get a Purple Heart, Red?”
“Are you sure you aren’t hit anywhere else? What’s this?” He pointed to a tear in my left chest pocket. “What’s in that pocket?”
“Pull it out.”
I unbuttoned the flap over my pocket and pulled the small Gideon Bible out. A hole right under the word “Holy” sent a stream of goose bumps down to my toes. The hole went three-quarters of the way through the little book. A splinter-sharp piece of shrapnel one-quarter inch long had made it all the way to the book of Hebrews.
“Could that have killed me?”
“It took us an hour to find out what killed my last A-gunner. A tiny sliver of shrapnel went under the back of his helmet and into his brain. It was in his hair, so we couldn’t even find any blood, but it killed him.”
“Will they medevac me?”
“No way. Not for those two little holes. Go see the doc. Tell him to put something on it before it gets infected.”
I did what Red told me to do. The doc, our corpsman, tweezered out two splinters of shrapnel while I looked through my little wounded Bible. On the inside cover someone had written a long passage in red ink. It was Chan’s handwriting; I didn’t know anyone else who could print that small. I wondered when he had written it. I started reading it, and each line made me feel a little better.
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.
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.
“Are you okay?” the doc asked. He looked up and seemed to be studying my face.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” His concern surprised me. “I’m just reading something really neat out of the Bible. You should hear this.”
“No thanks,” he said with the slur of a spoiled snob. He was a Navy man from Massachusetts, and was generally disliked for his attitude of resentful superiority, but for some uncharacteristic reason I didn’t get mad at him. I found myself wondering what his parents were like. The doc threw on some red stuff that burned and a couple of Band-Aids. I gave him a thanks that I didn’t mean and headed back to the gun position.
A chopper picked up Blaine twenty minutes later. The moment it lifted off, Swift Eagle shouted, “Saddle up!” A collage of thoughts rambled through my mind as the hump through the bush started again. I was a Spartan on my way to Thermopylae. We looked like Spartans. Red looked like one. Everyone looked meaner than me. Their eyes were serious, almost menacing. They all had mustaches. I had peach fuzz.
I started scuffing my boots as we walked along. One of the best ways to recognize the grunt Marines was their boots.
The terrain turned hard and hilly with little vegetation. At 1900 hours the seventeen-man column stopped. We dropped to one knee and waited to be placed in ambush position. Corporal Swift Eagle swept through the column, taking three men at a time and quickly placing them in position for the night. When he finished we had a textbook L-shaped ambush.
It was that eerie time of the day. The lighting was just right for your eyes to play tricks on you. A pinkish yellow twilight filtered across the brown and green earth, casting odd shadows that made me nervous.
Tactically we were on our own except for possible artillery support from Phu Bai about five miles north. There was supposed to be an enemy battalion out here roaming around. The logic of sending seventeen Marines to make contact with an NVA battalion had escaped me, but I was only a private first class. I was contemplating the prospects of finding an NVA battalion when Red woke me up with a stiff elbow to the shoulder.
“Do you see movement?”
“Where?” I asked.
“Straight ahead. Keep looking straight ahead.”
I strained to see what he was now aiming at. Then I saw movement. Shadowy figures, silhouetted by evaporating sunlight, looked to be moving thirty meters away. I felt myself trying to crouch lower as I took aim. I covered my mouth and whispered in the direction of the Marines on our left.
I started linking up ammo for the gun. Suddenly green tracers shot across our position from the left flank. Then another burst of fire came at us from straight ahead. Seven khaki-clad NVA appeared from the shadows in front of us. They were led by an officer who suddenly ran toward us firing a pistol. The others carried AKs. They looked surprised, maybe as surprised as we were. A couple turned and ran from us, but the others followed their leader. Red opened up first, making us the only real target they had. The officer was lifted off his feet and blown backward with the first twenty rounds. The gun stopped firing. I started firing my M16, but the targets disappeared. All firing ceased. I knew Red was hit. My face was wet with blood, and it wasn’t mine. He was slumped forward onto the gun.
I rolled him off the gun. Two dime-sized holes sunk into one cheek. His eyes were open—lifeless and blue. I could hear myself calling for a corpsman. My voice sounded dreamlike. For an instant I thought I was dreaming: I’d wake up and find none of this had really happened. Swift Eagle flattened out beside me. He looked at the back of Red’s head with no expression. Doc slid in beside us, breathing hard.
“He’s dead, Doc,” Swift Eagle said.
“Yeah. Put his poncho over him. I’ll get an A-gunner for the boot.”
“He only had a month to go, Chief.” Doc’s voice sounded far away.
The night crept by sleeplessly, congested with weird, fully awake dreams of home, friends, and the Marine Corps. I felt numb. It started drizzling. The sound always reminded me of French fries in a pan.
By first light it was still raining. The air smelled fresh and crisp. It was a stateside rain, not the normal pounding rain of the monsoon that sounds more like a war than the war itself. Raindrops formed tiny puddles on Red’s poncho. His huge Viking boots stuck out of the poncho like out of a blanket that’s too small. I was thankful for the rain. It kept away the ants and flies and hid my tears. How could he be dead? Men like that couldn’t just die. He told me if you got past the first two months you’d make it. I wanted to pray; I needed it now, but I just didn’t know God well enough to do it right, I thought. Chan always told me you had to talk to him regularly if you wanted to get to know him. I missed Chan. I felt more alone than I could remember ever feeling. The others weren’t crying. Maybe they didn’t know yet. I remembered the gunny’s warning about being eighteen. I looked around again and the lieutenant was walking my way. His young Annapolis face couldn’t hide the loss. No tears, but he was frowning. He pulled back the poncho, grimaced, and covered him again.
“You’re the gunner now, Marine. Keep it clean. Every man here depends on it. Red said you’d do all right. Don’t let him down.” His words sounded rehearsed.
“Look, John, I don’t know what to say. I thought the world of that big redhead. You’ve been dropped into a real tough spot. I’m here to help in any way I can. If you have questions, I want you to come to me. If I don’t know the answers, we’ll go to the chief or gunny or whatever it takes. Do you pray?” he asked bluntly.
“Yes, sir,” I said, surprised at the question.
“Start praying, John. He’ll get us through this mess.” He gave me a pat on the helmet.
“Yes, sir.” I immediately felt much closer to Lieutenant Campbell than I ever had before.
“I’ll try to get you an A-gunner with a machine-gun MOS as soon as I can. I’m supposed to get the next one that shows up.”
“Lieutenant!” Sam was calling from twenty meters in front of us. “We got one confirmed. I’m claiming the pistol.”
“Hey, stow-it-below-Marine!” Striker yelled. “The gun got him. It belongs to Red.”
“Red’s dead,” he said.
Sam pulled out his K-bar. It looked sharper than any knife I’d ever seen. He ripped the dead man’s shirt open and began carving “A 1/5” across his chest. I could hear Sudsy sputtering out coordinates over the radio. It lent a perfect background to Sam’s bizarre ritual. Sam pulled an ace of spades card out of the black band that he wore around his helmet. He took a small metal clip off one of his bandoliers of M79 rounds and tacked the ace of spades into the forehead of the dead officer.
“Johnnie.” I pulled my eyes off Sam to see who was calling me. It was Sudsy. “Here.” He threw me Red’s NVA pack. “Take this, too.” He tossed me Red’s .45-caliber pistol and holster. “You’re the gunner now, right?”
Sam the Blooper Man gave the forehead of the dead NVA officer one last tap and walked over to Red’s body. The muffled popping of helicopter rotors signaled the approach of the medevac chopper. Sam pulled the poncho away from the face of the corpse.
“Not too bad. He can still have an open casket—just plug up these two holes and put something on the back of his head.”
Swift Eagle walked forward, took the poncho from Sam’s hands, and covered the corpse.
“Okay. Sam, you and Striker load him on the chopper.”
Sudsy tossed out a green smoke grenade to mark the landing zone. When the chopper landed, a chunky little man with glasses jumped out as Sam and Striker loaded Red for the last chopper ride.
The chunky guy said something to the lieutenant. Then the two of them came over to me.
“John, this is PFC Doyle. He’s boot. He’s 0331, so he’ll be your assistant gunner. Teach him what he has to know as fast as you can.” The lieutenant turned and walked away before I could speak. I knew my mouth was hanging open as I stared at PFC Doyle in disbelief. “Teach him what he has to know” kept echoing through my stunned brain. I didn’t know any more than he did, I thought. My God, if ever there was the blind leading the blind!
“Hi!” Doyle stuck out his hand. I shook it, and a nervous but friendly smile pushed up his fat cheeks. He sure didn’t look much like a Marine. I’d never seen anyone come out of boot camp with that much baby fat. Had to be a Hollywood Marine, I thought.
“Your MOS is 0331?” I asked.
“Yep, that’s me.” He pushed his glasses back on his pug nose and they promptly slid back down. I tried to remember some of the things Red told me to do.
“Well, the most important thing you have to remember is this: When you hear ‘Guns up!’ make sure you’re on my tail no matter what.”
“Okay.” He hesitated. “What happened to that guy they put on the chopper?” he blurted quickly, his eyes open wide with curiosity.
“I’ll tell you later. Take those dog tags off and put ’em in your boot laces. You know how to feed the gun and clear a jam, right?”
“Yep. Can do.”
“Don’t forget the Halazone in your water and the malaria pills. And don’t forget salt tabs. Got it?”
“Yeah. I’m scared.” Doyle looked at me like I was supposed to tell him what came next.
“I know. Don’t worry about it. Just make sure you react the way an A-gunner should. You’ll get killed a lot quicker by panicking. Where are you from?”
“Denver, Colorado. See?” He pointed to his camouflage helmet cover where he had printed COORS in large black letters. I knew it. Camp Pendleton.
“Saddle up!” Swift Eagle shouted.
“Well, here we go, Doyle.”
The umbilical cord got severed in a harsh, uncaring way as far as I was concerned. Just yesterday morning I felt close to God. My life was probably saved by my Bible, and I knew in my heart that only fools believed in luck and accidents. Now I was marching into the bush feeling betrayed, bitter, and all alone. Chan had left me. Now Red. The big red Viking was gone. I tried praying for help but couldn’t.
Four hours later we plodded up a rocky gray bump in the green terrain and set up a loose perimeter. Word came around to chow down. I felt too low to eat but decided to try. I missed Chan more than ever. He could always tell me where to read in the Bible, that one specific place that would answer my problem, whatever it might be. I needed that a lot more than I needed this disgusting can of congealed ham and lima beans I was gagging down. Doyle gulped down the last bite of his second can of C-rations.
“Doyle, do you know the Bible?” I asked.
“Just a little. Why?” He pulled another can out of his pack.
“The body they were putting on the chopper was my friend.” Suddenly a lump the size of an egg developed in my throat. I turned away to keep Doyle from seeing his leader cry like a baby.
“Yeah. I sort of figured that out. He had ‘Guns up!’ printed on his helmet just like you do.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and looked at the grayish haze clinging to the steep mountains to the west.
“Sometimes I feel like God’s dumpin’ on me,” I mumbled.
“Well,” Doyle said. “I don’t know the Scriptures very well, but I have an uncle who’s a minister. He once told me this parable that Jesus said, I think. I don’t know exactly how it goes …”
“Saddle up!” Swift Eagle shouted. The men started putting their packs on.
“Finish your story,” I said. “But make sure you bury that C-ration can. The gooks use ’em for booby traps.”
“This parable was about a potter who made pots for different purposes. Well, the potter is God, of course. This one pot is a spittoon or something, and he doesn’t think it’s fair because this other pot is holding the king’s gold, or something. Now, I probably got the story all screwed up, but the gist of it is, what right does the pot have to cry about being a spittoon to the potter? The potter can do anything he wants to. It’s his clay. Then he told me that some people blame God for every bad thing that happens, and when good things happen, they call it luck.”
I thought about Doyle’s rendition of Jesus’ parable for the next hour as we inched closer to the threatening mountains. It didn’t sound very scriptural, but it made sense.
I felt closer to my chunky A-gunner, but still strangely alone. I remembered the writing in the front of my Bible. I put the stock of the machine gun on my left shoulder and held one bipod leg with my left hand so I was free to pull the Bible out of my shirt pocket with my right. I read it over and over as we humped along. Soon I started feeling pretty good again, or at least I stopped feeling so sorry for myself.
Dusk came upon us before I was ready. The gloaming hour turned the hot blue-white sky into striking shades of red, pink, and blue. The danger that nightfall brought usually overshadowed the glorious sunsets, but it was impossible not to notice.
We stopped along a small trail. The lieutenant moved from man to man among the kneeling column, pointing to positions for the night ambush. By the time he reached us, Corporal Swift Eagle loomed beside him.
“Lieutenant,” Swift Eagle said quietly.
“Yeah, Chief.” They both knelt down on one knee to talk.
“It might be a good idea to set in here until it gets black and then move about twenty-five meters.”
“Why, did you see anything?”
The careless splash of a shot of tobacco signaled the presence of the gunny. He knelt down beside the lieutenant.
“The chief thinks we should set in and then move again. What do you think?”
The gunny shot another stream of tobacco juice to the ground. “It’s the chief’s fourth tour. He’s got time in grade over both of us.” The gunny drew his syllables out like a Southern farmer.
“They’ve probably been watching us all day.” The lieutenant seemed to be talking to himself. “And we have made contact already. You might be right, Chief. Better to be safe. We’ll set in here until I give the word in about twenty minutes, then we’ll move twenty-five meters east. Does that sound right to you?”
“Sounds good to me, sir,” Gunny replied.
“Yes, sir,” Swift Eagle said.
I liked knowing what was going on for a change. I’d listen to that big Indian anytime he chose to speak.
Ten minutes later the sunset color show disappeared. Our position, now engulfed by darkness, felt dangerous. A sense of urgency swept over me. Then we moved, rather clumsily at first. The clinking of a mess kit carried through the still, humid night. Someone to my right stumbled over a rock with all the delicacy of a drunken bull. The hollow clump of a helmet striking the rock-hard earth identified another Marine Corps klutz. Doyle’s breathing got louder with each noise until at last we reached the new position on slightly lower ground, where our only cover was a gradation of small natural trenches, the kind caused by rainwater runoff. Yesterday’s mortar attack had made me thankful for any indentation in the earth I could find.
By 2200 hours most of the perimeter was asleep and it was my turn to turn in. My eyelids felt like they were being weighed down by sandbags. I tapped Doyle on the shoulder. He didn’t budge. I tapped him again.
“Your watch,” I whispered and pointed at my wrist. He sat up, looking groggy. I shook him again. He nodded and motioned me to stop with his hand. I went down and seemed to just keep going and going, all the way home, but not to Saint Petersburg. To South Charleston. Dad was there, alive, and he wasn’t blind. He kept calling for me to hurry up, but the faster I ran the farther away he was, until I stopped. I was in front of the old log cabin out in Lincoln County. It was snowing, and the mountains up and down the holler turned gray and bleak. I ran into the cabin for warmth. Shafts of blue light streaked from the cracks in the walls, crisscrossing the hard dirt floor. A potbelly stove blazed with heat in the center of the room, but the room was still freezing. Someone was crying. They kept saying the same thing over and over, sobbing with each word. “The baby’s freezing! Junior, he’s freezing!” It was Mom. She was frantically gluing newspapers over the cracks between the logs, but the more she put up, the colder it got, and I shivered and kept shivering until I shook violently.…
“Wake up! John! Wake up, man!” Doyle was shaking me in near panic and whispering into my ear. “I hear something,” he whispered and pointed to our front.
At first I thought he was just jumpy. I stared into the darkness until the sleep began to clear from my eyes and brain. Twenty meters to our front, silhouetted against a purple and black sky, the helmeted head of an NVA soldier moved slowly toward our old position.
“I see one!”
A large hand seized my shoulder. My heart stopped cold. “Don’t open fire till I do.” It was the chief, of course; no one else could be that quiet. He slipped to the next position without a sound.
The wait was on. A few moments later, rustling weeds to our left warned of more men crawling in the direction of our old position. No one opened up. Doyle pointed to silhouettes of at least three men straight ahead. Still no one fired. My hands started shaking. Doyle was trying to turn his teeth into powder. I put my hand over his mouth to quiet him.
“Link up some ammo. Be quiet.” I whispered so low I wasn’t sure he heard me. He rolled quietly from his stomach onto his side and began linking up a belt.
A single burst of AK47 fire shattered the silence. An instant later a host of chattering AKs joined in. Muzzle flashes erupted from three sides of our old position as at least twenty AKs sent a murderous barrage of fire into it. Bullets ricocheted off hard ground, whining through the air in every direction.
Still no Marine fired. Flashes two hundred meters away marked the beginning of a mortar barrage that lasted five minutes. Our old position had already been plotted. The mortars were probably supposed to hit us first, followed by a ground assault, but in the confusion the NVA didn’t realize they were the only ones firing.
The mortar rounds swept through like a giant scythe. Two machine guns crisscrossed fire, sending green tracers ricocheting in all directions. I was dumbfounded. They were having a war all by themselves, and we had box seats. The flashes of exploding mortars provided a terrifying strobe-light effect.
Still the word to return fire did not come. At 2235 the mortars ceased fire. Screaming NVA stormed the abandoned position, firing as they ran. Their own deafening firepower was so constant they still did not realize that no one was firing back, and the friendly thunder of big 155s at Phu Bai gave a hollow background echo that went unnoticed by the attacking NVA. Suddenly I realized why we weren’t firing. We wanted them where they were.
Still, I wanted to open up. I wanted to for Red. The baneful whistle of friendly artillery rounds grew sharper and sharper until I cringed, feeling that final hiss as much as hearing it. Flashes of white light followed by ripping explosions, dirt, rocks, and screams mixed in a chaotic montage of war. Rocks pelted us like hail. Somewhere from behind me Sudsy was shouting, “Fire for effect! Right on, Bro! Fire for effect! You got it, Momma! You got it!” The barrage felt like it went on for an hour, but it was probably closer to ten minutes. Then it ended as quickly as it began. One final bright flash, an explosion of rocks and dirt, quiet.
“Is it over?” Doyle’s whispered voice sounded like a scared child.
“I think so.”
“Jesus! My first firefight and we never fired a shot.”
A heavy, sulphurous cloud settled over the scene like a fog. I couldn’t imagine anyone living through that destruction, but a forlorn moan told me someone had. The remainder of the night passed without incident.
The first shafts of light replaced my sense of apprehension with a morbid curiosity. All around our perimeter men stretched their necks to see what could be seen. It was the same feeling I got in funeral homes. Part of me wanted to look in the casket, and part of me felt repulsed at the thought.
The hard ground looked churned, as if a giant had gotten angry and stabbed the earth. Rocks the size of baseballs were strewn everywhere. The perimeter was stirring behind me. A cough, the klick of a safety, a canteen being downed. The sun wasn’t fully up, and it was already stinking hot.
“We’re going out for a body count! Spread out! On line!” I turned to see who was shouting this insanity. The lieutenant stood with one hand pointing to where he wanted the line to start. No way, I thought. He had to be kidding. I looked at Doyle and laughed.
“Next he’ll want us to fix bayonets.”
Doyle forced a nervous laugh. I wanted to tell him not to worry, but I was worried. I had a bloody machine gun. What was I supposed to do in a bayonet fight?
I looked back toward the center of the perimeter. Lieutenant Campbell stood next to Sudsy, the gunny, and Doc. They always looked less tired than the rest of us. They sat in the center of the perimeter, the CP (command post). Four people in one position equaled twice as much sleep as I was getting.
Lieutenant Campbell looked downright excited. It wasn’t any secret, even to boots, that killing more gooks than the other platoons could mean a promotion. The Corps called it “Shoot of the Month.”
The M60 machine gun was a superior weapon. It could be fired from a tripod, which was too heavy and which no Marine Corps gunners ever carried into the bush, or the bipod, two attached legs that swung from under the barrel, or it could be fired from the hip. The recoil from firing would actually help hold the weight of the barrel up and the gun on target. I could put out 550 rounds per minute with a maximum range of 3,750 meters. I was sold on the gun. But in spite of all this, going into hand-to-hand combat with a 23.16-pound machine gun, plus ammunition, was like fencing with handcuffs and snowshoes. I was petrified.
“Move out on line!” The lieutenant pointed his rifle at the craters. We moved slowly. “Shoot anything that moves!”
Somewhere a bird started chirping. With each step the gun got lighter, until it felt as light as a pretzel. The bird stopped chirping. I strained to see the first bodies. Something moved in the weeds. Suddenly I was firing a twenty-round burst into brush straight ahead. I stopped. Everyone had dropped to one knee, ready to fire at anything. There was a long, silent pause.
We moved forward again, this time even more cautiously.
I looked at Doyle in disbelief. How could he talk at a time like this?
“Look!” he said. He pointed his rifle at the front half of a now deceased large gray snake.
“What’d he hit?” yelled the lieutenant.
“He blew a snake in half,” replied Doyle in a rather astonished tone.
“Move out!” Lieutenant Campbell said.
The search ended with only three bodies found. Shredded web gear covered with blood lay strewn about, indicating more kills than three, but as usual the NVA had done an incredible job of removing their dead. Sam found a spare leg. He thought it was funny. He took the bloody stump and shoved it into the crotch of one of the stiffs. He laughed at the three-legged corpse until tears filled his eyes.
“Moronic Marines,” the doc mumbled. He sure had a sarcastic way of saying things, I thought. It was only a matter of time before somebody planted a fist in his mouth if he kept it up.
I looked at Sam. He was still laughing. I wondered what he was like before the war. Had he ever felt sympathy? Maybe this was just his way of coping.
We spent the rest of the day on a hill two thousand meters north of the bodies. The break from the daily march felt great. The last hours of the day looked like a 3-D movie. The sky billowed in pink and red and violet. The kind of day that made me feel infinitesimal. It looked like a Cecil B. De Mille backdrop.
An hour before darkness we split into two squads of eight men each and headed back toward the corpses. Because the NVA had a habit of returning for their dead, we decided to develop a habit of waiting for their return. Doyle and I were put with the chief, four riflemen, and Sam the Blooper Man. Our squad went east, and the other squad went west. We circled around the rocky terrain and ended up twenty meters east of the NVA corpses. I wasn’t sure where the lieutenant’s squad was.
The hour felt ominous—that hour when it isn’t day or night but some gray, primitive zone between the two. My nose caught the whiff of something foul. I wondered if the bodies were rotting already. I started to ask Doyle if he could smell it, but then something moved near one of the artillery craters.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“No. Where?” He sat up.
“Something moved from that bush to that bush.” I pointed where I saw movement. My heart started pounding like a jackhammer. Doyle took aim in the direction I pointed.
Before either of us saw another movement, the unmistakable bloop of Sam’s M79 grenade launcher sucked away the silence. A bright flash followed by a crisp, small explosion blinded me momentarily. Then silence.
The night ended quietly. At first light I called to Sam.
“Sam, I’m comin’ over.”
“I’m over here.” He gave a wave from behind a small clump of earth. I walked over to Sam’s position and found him putting a notch on the stock of his M79. He looked up with his pitted face gleaming in pride, smiling through rotted teeth.
“I got another one, John.” He pointed at a body fifteen meters to our front.
“I saw movement over there just before you fired.”
“Go check him out. Got him right between the eyes.”
I walked out to look at the body. Doyle stood over the already sun-dried corpse. Immense red ants bored into the large hole between the dead man’s eyes, foraging for food.
“What a shot!” Doyle mumbled. “But I thought the M79 would do more damage than that.”
“So did I.”
“Did you see this one over here?” Doyle pointed to one of the three corpses from the night before. He had swollen up like a balloon. The buttons on his khaki shirt had popped off.
“Don’t go too close. Red told me they’ll blow up sometimes and send the guy’s insides all over.”
“Who put the ace of spades card on that one?” Doyle pointed to the corpse with three legs.
“Sam the Blooper Man.”
“What a character!” Doyle said as he removed his thick-lensed glasses and proceeded to clean them on his shirt.
“He sure is.”
“He told me not one machine gunner has rotated out so far.” He carefully adjusted his glasses over one ear at a time and looked in my eyes for the truth.
“What?” I stalled.
“He said since he’s been here not one gunner has done his thirteen months and rotated home. Is it true?”
“I guess so. They told me the same thing.”
“Doesn’t that bother you?”
“I try not to think about it, but sometimes it sneaks up on me.”
“How can you not think about it?” snapped Doyle.
“Not all those gunners are dead. Most were probably just wounded. To tell you the truth, that’s what scares me more than dying. I don’t want to go home without any legs. I’d just as soon die. That’s enough of this crap. If God wants you, you’re goin’ one way or another.”
“I guess that’s true, but being a gunner seems to be a surefire way of rushing the process.”
“Getting a little wound might not be so bad. I think that a lot. I mean, I don’t want to get hurt or anything, but I have a chick at home named Nancy. I got a couple of ’em, but she’s my favorite, a raving knockout. Trouble is she gets chased by half of Saint Pete. I daydream of her reading about me in the newspaper and getting all upset, but with my luck my little wound would be a fifty-cal. round upside the head.”
“Yeah, I think about that stuff too. I always think about getting off the plane and getting the hero treatment. My old high school band playing the Marine Corps Hymn—you know, the whole bit.”
“With women waiting, lots of ’em!” I added.
“You can’t have a decent hero welcome without women.” He laughed. I laughed too. “John.” He paused. “Think we’ll make it? I mean, you know, being gunners and everything.”
I was stumped. I didn’t want to freak Doyle out, and I wasn’t real sure I wanted to admit the obvious. We both had a whole tour in front of us, and we were going to have to finish that tour as gunners. Our chances didn’t look real good. I shook my head to stop thinking and grabbed my pack.
“Let’s have a cup of coffee before you get me all depressed. I’d rather talk about women. I heard they’re wearing mini-skirts that would make a grown man cry!”
After some coffee and a can of horrible C-ration eggs we started toward the mountains again. We marched all day, spotting nothing but scenery. The terrain grew harder and greener, rising and falling erratically as we inched closer to the foothills of the ominous mountains. We kept moving as the sun dipped behind the dominating peaks. Gigantic bomb craters scarred the landscape. The earth looked gray and dead. Some of the craters were thirty feet across and fifteen feet deep.
Doyle tapped me on the shoulder. “What makes a hole like these?”
“Had to be B-52 strikes,” I whispered.
We stumbled along a rocky trail as the deepening night replaced any vision left over from the dusk. Doyle and I were in the center of the sixteen-man column, the position from which we could respond to a “Guns up!” call from either end. It was on nights like this that I relished the best part of being a gunner. I never walked point, and I never walked tail.
Without warning, successive cracks of AK47 fire reverberated from the front of the column. Quickly the firing increased until it sounded like we’d made contact with a battalion. Everyone instinctively hit the ground. Doyle had a grasp on my foot. He repeated, “Oh God, oh God,” in a panic. Bullets ricocheted all around, whining as they went overhead, and thudding into the earth nearby.
“Guns up! Guns up! Guns up!” The call sounded more urgent as each man picked it up and passed it back. I was already moving, crouching, stumbling, and running into the darkness ahead.
I felt an arm under my foot, then a curse. I started up a small knoll. Now I could see muzzle flashes.
“Lay down some fire!” It sounded like the lieutenant’s voice.
I fell to the ground just on the other side of the small knoll and started firing at the flashes directly ahead. Immediately, more flashes opened up from our left. I carried a fifty-round belt in the gun at all times. The ammo was gone quickly. I turned and screamed for more. No one was there.
“Doyle! I need ammo!”
Enemy fire increased on our left flank. I tore a 100-round belt from around my shoulders and loaded the gun. An enemy machine gun opened up on the left flank and a bit below us. Our high ground was saving us. I started firing at the enemy gun, hitting low at first, then walking my tracers up to the target. The green tracers of the enemy gun arced high into the dark sky, then ceased.
“You got him!” someone shouted.
Bullets thudded and flattened all around me. I crawled back over the knoll for cover, and then a sudden, unaccountable silence cloaked the battlefield. I wasn’t sure which was worse. At least when they were shooting I knew where they were.
We backed up twenty meters, moving like blind men to our new position. There we sat in a perimeter and waited nervously for the safety of sunlight. I passed the word around the perimeter for Doyle. He finally showed up, mumbling something about falling into a hole. I decided to wait until morning to talk about his disappearance. Part of me wanted to punch his lights out, but I knew I should give him a chance to explain. I wanted him to know that men had been shot for less in Vietnam. Morning finally arrived.
I woke him up with a solid thump to his helmeted head.
“You better have a good reason you fat little—”
“I fell into a crater! One of those B-52 craters! It knocked my glasses off! By the time I found ’em, we stopped firing!” I pondered his excuse, trying to see a lie in his face.
“Honest!” he said, holding up his right hand as if he was swearing in.
“I want to believe you, Doyle. I almost got killed last night because I didn’t have an A-gunner. Life and death are about a hair apart in this armpit of the world. You have to be dependable.”
“I am. I swear! I fell in a hole!”
I paused, staring at his dirty, chubby face.
“Okay. I’ll drop it.” I wanted to believe Doyle. I liked him. He was a little scared of being a gunner, but he was quick to laugh and as jolly as a man could be over here.
We searched for bodies but came up empty. I felt an odd sense of disappointment. Although I may have killed someone, only confirmed counted, and I had no confirmed kills. I wanted one badly. It didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t even go hunting when I could have back home because I didn’t like shooting animals. Yet here I was itching to blow some North Vietnamese into pieces.
Sam found traces of blood, and Swift Eagle found a Chinese Communist grenade. ChiComs looked like the old potato masher. Chief said they were more concussion than shrapnel.
The sun seemed to wrap itself in last night’s clouds; the rain was near. The lieutenant and the gunny pinpointed a pimple on the grid map for a resupply LZ. Three hours closer to the mountains, the tiring march ended on a small rocky hill. We set up a quick perimeter. Sudsy spit out the coordinates into his radio.
I carved out a small niche in the ground and chowed down. Soon the backfiring echo of a Huey gunship penetrated the hot, still air. It banked sharply, circled our position, then made a larger circle, trying to draw enemy fire. A CH-46 helicopter floated in after the Huey finished checking out the LZ.
“Stand by for cover fire!” Swift Eagle screamed across the top of the hill. Four men unloaded supplies, and the chopper lifted off without drawing fire.
I tried to keep my attention on the surrounding hills, but it wasn’t easy. I had a feeling that mail came with that chopper, and I wanted to hear from home so bad I was ready to ask the chief about smoke signals.
“Your manners are sadly deficient, as always,” said a voice from behind me. “Well, aren’t you going to invite me into your home?”
I turned, already recognizing the voice. “Chan!” I jumped to my feet and we traded bear hugs. “God, it’s good to see you!”
“I presumed it would be. I find I’m curiously pleased by your presence also, but I’d rather be back at China Beach.”
“China Beach! You mean there really is such a place?”
“Oh, it’s nice, too. It’s like being back in the world. White beach, beautiful blue water. You barely hear the artillery.” He looked around quizzically. “Hey, where’s Red?”
“He’s dead, Chan. I’m the gunner now.”
Chan removed his helmet. He slumped down as if I’d let the air out of him.
“I don’t know what to say.” He looked dazed. “What … How did he … I just can’t believe it!” He grimaced as if in pain.
“Yeah. I know.”
“Right after you left. That first night. We set up an ambush, and Red opened up first. He got about a twenty-round burst off and that was it. Two AK rounds hit him right here.” I pointed to my cheek just under the eye. Chan’s eyes looked frosty. He lowered his head. I wasn’t sure if he was praying or just fighting back tears. Then I felt that familiar lump swelling up inside my throat. I wiped away the first tear and tried to talk.
“This is Doyle. He’s my A-gunner. He’s boot.”
Chan looked up, slightly teary-eyed, then stood and shook hands with Doyle.
“Heard a lot about you, Chan,” Doyle said with a friendly handshake.
“I’m taking over as A-gunner, Doyle,” Chan said. “The lieutenant informed me that you’re now assigned to the chief’s squad. Just temporarily until some replacements arrive; then you’re back with us.” I couldn’t tell if Doyle was glad or sad at the news.
Corporal Swift Eagle ended the awkward moment when he emerged abruptly with the mail.
He tossed us five letters. Three were mine. Doyle got the other two. We ripped them open and started reading.
“It’s funny, the conception people have of this war,” Doyle said with a chuckle. “My girl wants to know if I’m in a fort.” He laughed.
“Valerie’s mother”—Chan paused and looked at the ground, shaking his head as if in disbelief—”Valerie’s mother,” he began again, “told Valerie that I was over here having the time of my life chasing little Vietnamese girls.”
“That figures,” I said. “Listen to this. ‘Dear Son: Your dad and I worry about you in that awful place. I think of you and Chan in your little pup tent camped under the stars each night and pray for your safety.’ “
“Chan, why didn’t you put up the tent?” Doyle asked sarcastically. Chan began to laugh. His laugh was contagious. I started laughing too; it was like old times again.
Jackson strolled over to us with his beacon-light smile already on.
“Man, you can sure tell the laughers are together again. I bet you two laugh through this whole war. I never saw two grown men laugh so much.”
Chan gained control long enough to stand up and slap Jackson on the back.
“It’s good to see you again, Smilin’.” Chan turned to Doyle as if he were introducing Jackson. “This is the happiest smile in Southeast Asia.”
“The gunny wants one of you guys to come get your C-rats,” Jackson said. “I think you better hurry; we’re movin’ out.” He turned away to a chorus of boos.
Twenty minutes later our packs were on our backs, heavy with new food. We got more ammo than we wanted to carry. I felt ten pounds heavier as the walk began. It started raining. An odd glow covered the mountains to our front, a yellowish tint like that given by cheap sunglasses. Then the yellowish tint disappeared as enormous black and gray clouds rolled sheets of rain across the mountain peaks. The rain lashed against our tiny column so powerfully that for an instant we stopped, shielding our faces. The rain changed from lukewarm to ice cold.
By nightfall the pounding storm had beaten against my helmet until all I could feel was a concussion-size headache. We crossed a swift, chest-deep river, carrying our weapons above our heads. Once on the other side word filtered back to set up a perimeter. Chan and I sat down shivering in the mud.
“What are you stopping for?”
I peered through the water pouring off my helmet to see Corporal Swift Eagle standing over me.
“They passed the word back to set up a perimeter.”
“How are we supposed to hear Charlie over that river?” The chief didn’t wait for my answer, possibly because the question wasn’t directed at me. He sloshed off in the direction of the lieutenant’s CP. In ten minutes we moved another fifty meters away from the river. I settled into a nice soft bed of mud, pulled myself inside my flak jacket like a turtle, and fell asleep while Chan took first watch.
At 2300 hours Chan shook me away from a blazing fireplace and a beautiful lady I was just getting to know.
“I thought you might want to know you’re drowning,” he whispered. I didn’t want to open my eyes, but I did.
He was right. The rain hadn’t stopped, and I was quickly going under. I felt cold and stiff. Before I maneuvered my head out of the mud Chan whispered again. “Somethin’s up!”
I sat up to see what Chan was looking at. I heard someone step in water. Then the muffled thud of a plastic M16 falling into the mud. The rain was still too heavy to see more than four or five feet on either side. White zigzagging lightning bolts streaked across the black sky. Jackson and Striker were standing with their packs on, ten feet to our left.
“Chan, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
“Jackson,” I whispered.
“What?” came the reply from the darkness.
“What’s going on?”
“That’s just outstanding,” Chan said. “They’re moving out without us!”
“I can’t stand all this concern over my life,” I added as we scrambled to get our gear on. I crawled around in the mud on my hands and knees to make sure we weren’t leaving anything, then sloshed over to Jackson.
“Why didn’t you tell us we were moving out?” I asked.
“I thought Sudsy told you.”
“Sudsy got word that a gook battalion, maybe more, is coming this way.”
“Did you say ‘more’?”
“Maybe more. Comin’ our way. Sudsy said we’re getting our butts out of here, ASAP.”
Chan adjusted his pack straps, then patted himself on his shoulders and chest.
“Oh, no!” he gasped. “I left the gun ammo!” He raced back to retrieve the belts of machine-gun ammo. The column started moving out.
“Chan! Hurry up! We’re moving out!”
“I found them!”
“Hurry up! They’re already gone!”
We caught up to the column as it moved back toward the river. A violent thunderclap followed closely behind each brilliant streak of lightning. We started back across the jungle river. This time the water reached my chin. The current swept Striker’s feet from under him. He went under. Jackson grabbed him by one arm and pulled him up. His helmet had been swept away, but he had managed to hold on to his rifle.
As we reached the river bank each man pulled the man behind him out by grasping his rifle. Jackson pulled Chan to solid ground, then Chan turned and held out the butt of his rifle. I grabbed it with a shaking left hand and staggered up the muddy bank, balancing the gun over my right shoulder. I turned to help the man behind me. No one was there.
Chan turned to see what I wanted.
“Are we the last ones in the column?” A brilliant rod of lightning showed the river empty of everything but raging whitecaps.
“I guess so.”
“The gun ain’t supposed to be on the end of the column!”
“Quit crying and hurry up. Or would you prefer being a column all by ourselves? I’ll get behind you.”
The incessant rain felt as though it was coming down harder than before. My skin was wrinkled and freezing. We followed a barely discernible trail running parallel to the river. Sagging and draping trees, bent from the storm, formed an eerie wet tunnel.
Just as I caught up to Jackson, Chan tapped me on the shoulder.
“Pssst!” I turned to look back, nearly clobbering Chan with the butt of the M60 resting on my shoulder.
“Are you sure we’re the last ones in the column?”
I stopped and looked back into Chan’s face. “You know we’re the last ones in the column. What’s the matter with you?”
Chan gave me a little shove.
I was beginning to think his normally witty mind was waterlogged. Five yards later he tapped me on the shoulder again.
“Chan, I don’t—”
“Pass the word up. We picked up an extra squad.” His voice was calm. Too calm. I peeked over my shoulder.
“What’d you say?”
“We picked up an extra squad.” I looked back.
“Are you …?” A vivid streak of lightning danced across the pitch-black sky, revealing a paralyzing sight. Twenty meters back, the safari-helmeted heads of at least ten NVA bobbed along behind us. My heart stopped. My feet didn’t. I quick-stepped up to Jackson and tapped him on the shoulder. I suddenly felt near panic and couldn’t speak. I inhaled all the air I could shove down my lungs then blew it out. Why hadn’t they already blown us away? If we could see them with each lightning bolt, why couldn’t they see us? I tapped Jackson again.
“Pass the word up. We picked up an extra squad!” He looked over his shoulder.
“No kiddin’ man! Pass it up! Hurry!”
A thousand questions raced through my mind, but none of the answers made any sense. Where was their point man? The only possible answer was that they believed they were behind their own men. I felt very cold. I started shivering uncontrollably. I bit my lip until it bled in an effort to snap out of it. These things didn’t happen in real life. I remembered the movie about D-day, the scene where Americans and Germans passed each other without noticing. That was a movie. This was real.
The next minute dwindled by painfully slowly. With each crack of lightning the fear that they would recognize the shape of our helmets increased. Jackson looked over his shoulder and covered his mouth.
“Prepare to fall off to the side of the trail. Hit ’em as they pass.”
My heart sank into my stomach. I passed the word to Chan. I tried to take the gun off my shoulder without being conspicuous. I only had a fifty-round belt linked up. Striker fell off to the left of the trail, then Jackson. I dropped to the side of the trail. Chan followed. Chan pulled the pin on a grenade and held the spoon in with his hand. I pointed the gun back down the trail and started praying all this mud and rain wouldn’t jam it.
Then the incredible happened. Fifteen meters back the NVA fell off to the side of the trail too. I didn’t understand it. A shot of lightning hit a tree nearby. Chan jumped, nearly dropping the grenade. We looked at each other in disbelief.
“Jackson! Pass the word up. They dropped off too.”
A few moments later word came back to move out. Panic gripped my stomach. I think I started to urinate; either that, or the rain was getting warmer. I felt ashamed and tightened my stomach to stop myself. We stood up, bowing our heads in an effort to look shorter and hide the shape of our helmets from the flashing thunder. I kept the gun on my hip this time.
“Pssst. They’re following!” Chan’s whisper sent visions of hot lead ripping through my back. What are we doing? If the lieutenant was back here, he’d come up with a better plan than move on. Suddenly some grim possibilities became graphically clear. We might be in the middle of that NVA battalion. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“They’re staying about twenty meters back.”
“Why don’t you walk backward and show off that Chinese face?” He didn’t laugh.
The column veered right, off the trail. We started moving faster. The terrain got steeper with each step. We were going up a hill covered with thick brush and thornbushes. Jackson’s voice came from the darkness ahead.
“Run for it!”
The thorns tore through my trousers, ripping at my soggy skin. Rain smashed against leaves and brush, sounding like grease in a frying pan. I stumbled and crawled and clawed up the dripping hill in near panic, sliding back one step for every two forward. Near the top Jackson stuck out his big friendly hand and pulled me to him. Chan was right on my heels, still clutching his grenade. Swift Eagle appeared beside Jackson.
“Hurry up! Set up the gun!” I fell to the ground and took aim back down the hill. The chief pulled the pin on a grenade and screamed, “Now!” On that command everyone threw grenades down the hill. I opened up with the gun, firing into the darkness, probably hitting nothing more than rain. Fifteen sharp explosions rattled the bottom of the hill. Then silence. Only the rain could be heard. The night ended in a nervous perimeter around the top of our newfound friend, an unknown hill in a land of unknown hills.
The hot sun was more welcome than usual. The morning body search brought negative results, except for Jackson, who found a nest of snakes. One particularly aggressive snake chased him uphill for fifteen meters. It was the fastest I’d ever seen a man run uphill, especially Jackson, who wasn’t usually in a hurry to go anywhere.
For no sane reason the day started by crossing the same river for the third time. We did it just in time, too—some of us had almost dried out from the night before. After three hours’ humping, we finally reached the first of the densely forested mountains that I had gazed at and curiously dreaded since my first day on the bridge.
The temperature dropped ten degrees as we entered the cover of the massive, sheltering trees. We climbed up a conspicuously well used trail for two thousand meters, when the column stopped. The point man found an American Schwinn bicycle lying on the side of the trail. I knew they used bikes to haul supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail but knowing they were using American bikes bothered me.
Thirty meters from the Schwinn the sharp single crack of an AK47 ripped through leaves and branches and splintered into a proud old oak tree on my left and just above my head. The column dropped to one knee, scanning the canopy of tall trees in front and above.
“Why me? Why’s the little scumbag takin’ a potshot at me?” I was talking to myself as much as to Chan.
“You take things too personally,” said Chan, staring at the treetops above. “If you’d give the gun to someone else, they’d probably be more than happy to shoot at him. I don’t know what you’re worrying about anyway. The little scumbags, as you’ve aptly named the enemy, couldn’t hit a barn from the inside. If they aim at you, I’m the one who’s in trouble.”
“You’re probably right. I feel much better now.”
Chan turned his head away, then looked back at me suspiciously out of the corner of one eye. Every twenty to forty meters up the trail another sniper round slapped through the leaves nearby. By the third round no one bothered to duck. The trail led around the mountainside to a heavily wooded overhanging cliff. A picturesque waterfall cascaded from above, smashing into a beautiful small round lake three hundred feet below. The trail skirted into a natural indentation in the mountains, allowing us to avoid the plummeting waterfall, then descended into a valley and back up another steep mountainside.
At a point where the trail leveled off, we entered a tiny village of four grass huts. Inside the first, Sam found three half-empty bottles of Vietnamese beer and three bowls of rice. The second hut held two tons of rice, thousands of rounds of AK47 ammo, and enough C-4 plastique explosive to blow up a major portion of Da Nang. The third was empty, but in the fourth was the big surprise of the day.
The fourth hut was a shelter over a dirt stairway that led down and into the side of the mountain. Candles were burning, providing the only light in the damp underground room, which looked to be about thirty feet long and fifteen feet wide. It was furnished with ten bloodstained, six-foot-long wooden tables. Chan found a small wooden box filled with medical instruments, morphine, and bandages.
“It would give me immense pleasure for my premed class at Tennessee to see this!” Chan fingered the instruments as if he’d found gold.
“Okay, let’s get out,” Lieutenant Campbell said. “We’re going to blow it!”
We continued to search the area while the demolitions were set. Fifty meters from the underground hospital we stumbled across another incredible find. Built across a small ravine was a replica of Truoi Bridge, with every bunker, including some concertina wire to practice crawling through. The setup was detailed. I wondered how many months they must have practiced the attack on the bridge.
We destroyed what we found and, to everyone’s relief, headed back down the trail and out of the mountains. Part of me wanted to stick around under the cool shade of the giant trees, but my sane half realized we had probably come upon a battalion headquarters. I couldn’t figure out why we were there, or what sixteen Marines were supposed to do if we did find that many NVA. I had heard Sudsy talking to B Company so I knew they too were roaming about out here somewhere, but what good would they do us in this kind of terrain? We could kiss it goodbye before help found us.
By 1500 hours we had crossed the same river for the fourth time and reached an area of rolling, rock-strewn hills with no trees in sight. The temperature zoomed well over 110 degrees, with not a single cloud to slow the merciless rays.
A faraway whistle stuck in my ear. I felt groggy from the heat. At first I thought I was hearing things, but it quickly grew louder, too loud to be my imagination. It became shrill, like a dog whistle. Whatever it was, it was coming fast, bewilderingly fast. The column stopped. We looked up, all eyes gazing in dread, all mouths gawking in disbelief. I pulled my shoulders up, trying to cover my head as my knees started to bend instinctively with the approaching whistle. Then I actually saw them. Three small black objects blurring by twenty feet overhead, forcing air out of their way like tiny jets. The sight froze us in place. Then like a rocket burning out, the sound stopped and a ripping explosion followed.
“Hit the dirt!”
Shrapnel whished by. I clutched the shuddering earth. Rocks landed all around. More whistles. I could hear someone cursing. Sudsy. Then the lieutenant. Someone tugged on my foot. I pulled my face out of the dirt and looked back. Chan’s face was spotted with bits of loam that were sticking to his sweat. “Did you see that?”
“Yeah!” I answered. “I didn’t know you could see artillery rounds.”
“I didn’t either. But it’s logical, presuming your position in proximity—”
“The people who see ’em probably don’t get to tell anybody,” I interrupted.
I heard the closing whistle of another artillery round. I held on to my helmet and started praying. A shuddering explosion ripped into the earth thirty meters away. Then another. A rock the size of a bowling ball crashed into the ground beside me with a back-breaking thud. I prayed faster. The explosions stopped.
“You stupid son of a—! You’re shelling Alpha Company!” Lieutenant Campbell’s curse could have been heard in Phu Bai without the aid of Sudsy’s radio.
It was over. Someone cursed the Marine Corps. Someone else cursed Vietnam. Shots echoed through the steaming heat. I saw flashes on the crest of a barren hill one hundred meters to the left.
“Guns up! Guns up! Guns up!”
I grabbed the gun and ran zigzagging toward the voice as little clouds of dust spit out of the ground around me. Then I heard the gun. “That’s an M60!” I dove to the ground, flipped the bipod legs down, and took aim at a wavering stream of orange tracers floating my way. Chan slammed to the earth beside me, knocking a solid grunt of air out of him. I opened up. Chan linked up a belt of ammo like a pro, holding it out of the dirt with his left hand and firing his M16 with his right. The enemy tracers stopped. I kept firing in twenty-round bursts.
“We got ’em ducking!” Chan shouted as he linked up another belt.
“Get ’em, Johnnie!” someone screamed nearby, then yelped like a cowboy. “Blow ’em off that hill!”
“Cease fire! Cease fire! Cease fire! It’s B Company! They’re Marines!” Sudsy screamed. I released my sweaty grip on the gun, and my insides churned in panic.
“Did I kill any Marines?” I shouted as I jumped to my feet and ran at Sudsy. He kept talking into the radio. “Are they hit?” I grabbed him by the shoulder. “What’s going on, Sudsy?”
“They thought we were gooks!” He turned from me and spoke into the field phone again. “No, that is negative. No one was hit in Alpha Company.” He looked back at me, pulling the phone away from his mouth. “They thought we were gooks! They called in arty and opened up!”
“That’s brilliant! Just brilliant!”
“Saddle up!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted, his grimacing face red with anger. He jerked the field phone out of Sudsy’s hands, turned Sudsy around with a push, and pulled the antenna on the PRC-25, strapped to Sudsy’s back, all the way out. “Alpha one, Alpha one, this is Alpha two … over!”
We started off again. This time back toward the mountains. I was beginning to feel like a dusty green yoyo. If we crossed that river one more time, I would know for sure that everyone had lost their minds. Dusk, the time of the day I was learning to hate, crept up on us before we reached the river. The column stopped. The silhouette of Jackson turned its head and covered its mouth.
“Psst. We’re setting up a perimeter.”
Before I turned to give the word to Chan, an automatic burst of AK fire sent us diving for the ground. Fiery green tracers sputtered out of the darkness ahead. I started to move into position to return fire. Bullets pounded the earth around me. I froze stiff waiting for the pain. Hot whining lead sucked the air near my right ear, and dirt stung my face. It sounded like hundreds of bullets whistling and flattening into the earth around me. I covered my helmet with my hands and waited for the bullet that would scream through my skull. I didn’t want to die like this. At least I wanted to be shooting back. I looked up from the dirt. A tracer round hit close to my face. The sizzling phosphorescent tip broke from the lead and fried into my flesh. It felt like someone had put a cigarette out on my cheek. I started to move again. Chan grabbed my pack and shoved me down. Then silence. It was over. A painful moan came from the front of the column.
“Corpsman up! We got wounded up here!”
“Okay, let’s get in a perimeter!” I looked up to see who was barking orders. Swift Eagle stood over me.
“Chief, who got hit?”
“The point man.”
“Is it bad?”
“Don’t know. Sam said two in the belly.”
“He’s the only one hit out of all that?”
“Looks that way. I want the gun facing the direction they fired from. I think we walked into the flank squad of a large unit.”
Somewhere to my right I could hear Sudsy calling for a medevac chopper. Twenty minutes later helicopter rotors whirred overhead. The gunny popped a green flare, lighting up a landing zone for the chopper.
“We should just carry a portable neon sign to mark our exact location,” Chan murmured.
He had a point, but Thomas was a dead man if we didn’t get him to a hospital unit. His chances didn’t sound good even with a medevac. I didn’t know him very well. Chan thought he was married. The moment the chopper touched ground three men gently lifted the wounded Marine in. Gunny stomped out the flare. My night vision was gone. I was totally dependent upon my hearing. I didn’t like it.
A few minutes later someone on my left whispered, “Saddle up.” I couldn’t believe my ears.
“We’ll be stumbling around like blind men out there.”
“Let’s write LBJ,” Chan said.
“Okay by me.”
The perimeter turned into a column, and we plodded into the blackness ahead. Mosquitoes were tearing me up. I wanted to splash some bug juice on but didn’t dare put the gun on my shoulder. I was scared, and I wanted to be able to pull that trigger fast. Somehow, Jackson, the new point man, stumbled onto a trail. We followed it up a large rocky hill, down the other side, and halfway up another that was overgrown with scrubby bushes. At that point, it leveled off and skirted around the hill. We followed it for fifty meters and stopped.
“Set up a perimeter on the side of the hill,” whispered a voice. I was too tired to care. No one had had any real sleep in days. I was exhausted.
Swift Eagle grabbed my arm. “Put the gun down there.” He pointed to a large bush ten meters on the downhill side of the trail. “We’re ambushing this trail, but the flank is all yours.”
Chan and I set the gun up behind the large bush facing downhill. Within ten minutes we were sound asleep. I knew it was wrong, and so did Chan, but staying awake felt impossible. The moment I leaned back against the hillside, a heavy dreamless sleep fell over me like a powerful drug.
“All right, listen up!” It was Corporal Swift Eagle. “The Lieutenant’s ticked off today. People fell asleep on line last night.”
“Did you fall asleep, too, Chief?” I asked naively. His piercing black eyes were harsher than the answer I didn’t get. He turned and started to walk back up the hill then stopped and turned back to us.
“Prepare to saddle up.”
Chan slapped me on the helmet.
“You’re insinuating the Warrior could fall asleep on line.”
“Saddle up! We’re moving out right now!”
“Somebody sounds overly anxious this morning,” mused Chan.
Two hours later that statement haunted us. We force-marched farther and faster than we ever had before. I felt a sense of urgency in our pace. We finally reached an area with a flat terrain and small patches of trees that looked like undernourished pines. There I saw the first signs of civilization I’d seen in seventeen days: four grass huts huddled together. Two hundred meters beyond the huts we passed what appeared to be a Buddhist shrine, then we reached a rarely used dirt road that seemed to snake off to nowhere.
Chan tapped me from behind. “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah! Now I do. What is it?”
“Sounds like a tank.”
Around the first bend in the dusty road, parked behind and under a clump of trees, sat two huge American tanks. One already had its engine rumbling.
“Now that’s the life,” Chan said enviously. “Why didn’t we get into tanks?”
“The tour guide said we’d see the country better on foot.”
“These guys go out once every six months whether they have to or not.”
“Hurry up! Saddle up!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted. “Get aboard!”
“No thanks,” Striker said louder than he meant to.
“Move it, Marine!”
Sam the Blooper Man pulled me up and onto the nearest steel monster. I pulled Chan up. A moment later the ride began. It was exhilarating. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been on a tank. Two hundred meters down the road two more of the big machines pulled out in front of us, kicking up thick clouds of dust that turned us all beige.
“Wow, man!” Sam hit me with a sharp elbow. “This looks big. You might get your first confirmed today.”