The last swallow of meatballs and beans always went down in a big lump. It all seemed to be glued together by some foul substance that was undoubtedly supposed to make the food last through another war. The only C-ration food that did taste right was the pound cake, and it was as rare as a pleasant day. It wasn’t that C-ration food was beneath me. I grew up on beans and potatoes in West Virginia. For the first twelve years of my life I thought everyone ate that way. Maybe it was because it was time for breakfast, and starting another day on meatballs and beans didn’t help my aching back or the big spider bite just under my left eye. But for whatever reason, C-rats just didn’t taste good. No flavor. Chan convinced me that by slightly burning the meatballs and beans, then covering them with Tabasco sauce, they began to taste almost like food.
Before the Marine Corps I had never so much as looked at uncooked food in a serious way. I could just barely boil water. Good ol’ Mom spared me the indignity of spoiling perfectly good food: She always cooked for me. Chan claimed to be an excellent chef. He would have to prove that if we ever got R&R. I was trying to look serious as he explained the wonders of vichyssoise and the delicacy involved in its preparation when the lieutenant strolled up to our position on the perimeter, chewing, more than smoking, a cigarette that hung out of the corner of his mouth.
“I have to split you guys up. Chan, you’re taking over Sanchez’s gun.” He turned to walk away like he was too busy to talk about it. I couldn’t believe my ears.
“Wait a minute, Lieutenant! Why can’t somebody else take that gun?” My insubordination surprised me as much as it did him. “We’ve been together since boot camp!”
“Somebody has to take the other gun, and you two are the only ones left with a machine-gun MOS. I can’t put some dumb boot on that gun. Most of these guys can’t even take it apart, let alone clean it.”
“Has the Marine Corps ever anticipated theoretical need for replacements in this war?” Chan shouted.
“Get a gunner from the rear or another platoon!”
Swift Eagle ambled up next to the lieutenant. He slurped at some strange Indian concoction out of his helmet with a plastic C-ration spoon. Between each bite he stirred in bits of brown plants.
“We’ll put you two back together when we get a new gunner,” Swift Eagle mumbled with his mouth full.
Lieutenant Campbell nodded his approval. It was settled. I felt like I was losing a brother. It wasn’t the kind of thing we talked about. After all, we were supposed to be hard-Corps. Crap, I’d be nineteen in October. It was more than an average friendship, but then, nothing is just average in war.
Chan’s parting words came as close to “I’ll miss you” as Marine protocol would allow. “Take care of that contagious grin, jarhead. And don’t go getting gung-ho without me here to provide guidance. I promised your mother.”
“You too, buddy.”
Chan walked slowly toward the other side of the perimeter. As soon as I saw Rodgers coming over the crown of the rocky hilltop with his pack and rifle slung over his shoulders, I knew who my new partner was. I tried to hide my disappointment. Rodgers had become dangerously cautious. Red had once warned me about him, and since then I’d seen for myself.
“I’m your new A-gunner.” His dejected tone told me he wasn’t jumping up and down over the idea either. “Let’s get something straight right away, John. I’ve got seventy-three days left in this armpit, and I don’t buy the idea of me being by this gun. I’m short, man. I mean, I’m the shortest salt in the platoon. Next to Jack Ellenwood, I’m the shortest man in Alpha Company. Seventy-three days and I’m getting on that freedom bird and going back to the world in one piece. And I’m not getting killed because of this gun!”
“What makes you think you’re the only sucker who wants to go home?” I asked.
“Look, just take it easy on the John Wayne crap, okay?”
“What do you plan on doing when some fool screams ‘Guns up’? Should I say, ‘Sorry, looks a little dangerous out there for me’? I seem to remember you screaming ‘Guns up’ a couple of weeks back. Just what did you have planned if I didn’t open up?”
He paused and dropped his pack. “You and Chan go overboard sometimes. Even the lieutenant said you guys were crazy. He thought you needed a Section 8.”
That one stumped me. I knew the lieutenant thought we were gung-ho, but I didn’t think he thought we were nuts.
“I’m still here, ain’t I? I’ve lasted longer than any gunner in the regiment. If I’d’ve been running around like a fag on ice I’d’ve been dead the first week in country!”
“You’re dumb lucky, and you know it!”
“Maybe, but let’s get one thing clear, Rodgers. When you hear ‘Guns up,’ you better be right on my butt!”
Rodgers sat down, lit a cigarette, and leaned back on his pack. He looked nervous. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right.” He shot his words out in abrupt spurts. “I might be getting a little edgy. Things change when you’re short. Wait till your time is short. You know how many guys I’ve seen get blown away in the last couple of weeks of their tour?”
“I just hope I get to be short,” I said. I leaned back on my own pack. My filthy jungle jacket felt scratchy and stiff with two months’ worth of dried body salt. I hated wearing the smelly thing, but unprotected flesh wouldn’t last a week in the bush.
“Do you know what’s going on back in the world right now?” he asked. “Fags and hippies are becoming Canadians. Jane Fonda is telling the world we kill women and kids. Do you think for one second that rich witch mentioned the thousands of civilians the NVA butchered in Hue? Our own countrymen are sending money and medical supplies to the gooks! Were you on that patrol yesterday?”
“The one that reconned that arty strike.”
“Yeah, I was on it. Charlie got caught cold, too. We found at least fifteen cartridge belts or what was left of ’em. Blood everywhere. Flesh fried onto some of them.”
“No,” I said. “But I know where you’re heading, and it’s true.”
“Sudsy told me you guys found a load of bandages stamped gifts from the Friends’ Service Committee.”
“Yeah, we did.”
“I rest my case. Not only are we not even trying to win this war, but our own people are helping the gooks.”
“I don’t know what we’re arguing about. I agree with ya. But you joined the Crotch, man. You weren’t drafted. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough to know this much: The NVA ain’t the good guys.”
“They’re bloody butchers. I know that,” he said.
“And Jane Fonda’s talkin’ out her rear end. She’s a traitor!”
“I know that, too. I’ve been here longer than you, John. What I’m trying to say is, just who’s on our side if our own people aren’t? The South Vietnamese aren’t worth defending.”
I hated to admit it, but he was right. I looked east toward the ominous gray mountains. I remembered Red calling the mountains outside Phu Bai a gook R&R center. I turned back to Rodgers.
“Maybe I’m getting a little crazy. I don’t know anymore. But I want to shoot these scumbags. If I ain’t killing them for America or South Vietnam, I’ll just kill ’em for Red or Paunchy or Simmons, or just because they tick me off.”
“What’s this place done to you, John? I knew you when you first got here, man. You never wanted to kill anybody. You were just a kid. You’re not even nineteen yet, are you?”
“I will be on October 12th. Maybe I don’t really want to kill. I don’t want any of this. I want to go home in one piece, and I don’t think I’ll make it if I get cautious.”
“Let’s change the subject,” Rodgers said. “We can’t change anything anyway.” He removed his helmet, then pulled out his wallet, wrapped in clear plastic, from inside the straps of the helmet liner. He removed a folded newspaper clipping from his wallet and handed it to me. I unfolded it. The headline read “Local Man Wounded in Battle of Hue City.” Beneath that, framed by the story, was his boot-camp dress-blues picture. I felt total envy. Then he made it worse.
“I’ve had three different girls send me that clipping. The last one promises me anything I want when I get home.”
“That’s great! Sometimes I hope I get a Purple Heart just so they’ll put it in the paper and remind some of my friends where I am.”
I started feeling a little easier about Rodgers. The sun began baking away the morning dew. I grabbed a couple of sticks and threw my poncho over them. It wasn’t much of a lean-to, but it kept the sun off my face.
Rodgers looked a little nervous. “Are we going to be here long enough for that?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Sudsy says we’re getting resupplied. Besides, we sure aren’t hiding from anyone out here in the open.”
Once the poncho was up, I closed my eyes and tried to replace the filth and insects with dreams of strawberry shortcake and fast cars. The popping sound of a helicopter making a steep turn quickly dispatched any hope of catching some Zs.
I opened my eyes. A CH-46 helicopter floated gracefully down to the center of the perimeter. The last mail drop was over two weeks ago. A word from home was becoming vital. The chopper bounced slightly, then settled down. Out of the hatchway leaped a new replacement. He stumbled under the weight of a pack that was far too heavy. He resembled a newborn colt with his legs wobbling in and out. A grenade hung from every available space. He carried at least two canteens too many and enough bandoliers of M16 ammo to supply most of the platoon. But the small stack of mail he clutched in one hand quickly overwhelmed any interest we had in the new boot.
“Is this the gun team?” he asked Rodgers. He held his pack and rifle in his arms and spoke around four letters he held clenched in his teeth.
“This is it,” Rodgers said.
The boot dropped his pack. He pulled the letters out of his mouth, revealing that cocky smile that every boot brings to the Nam. He made me feel like an old man. His first words didn’t surprise me a bit.
“Are the gooks close? I want to see some combat. My name is Barnes. Orlando, Florida. The lieutenant told me to sit in with you guys for the night.” He looked at Rodgers, who was pressing the bridge of his nose and shaking his head. I tried not to laugh. He looked at me, puzzled, knowing he was on the outside of an inside joke. He looked so healthy. That bull neck, like a college football player, that young men coming out of Parris Island always have. Not tired or underweight. No dark rings under the eyes. No conception of fear or fatigue. He had that look that says, “I’m here now, let’s get this war over with.”
All four letters were for me. Three from the folks and one from a girlfriend named Nancy. Nancy sent me a picture of her in a red bikini. The three of us took turns reading her letter and moaning. The day drifted by rather pleasantly after that. For some reason we didn’t move from the small hill all day. A rare treat. A chance to take my boots off and let the jungle rot dry out in the steaming sun. A chance to write a letter. I cleaned the gun oil and grit out of my toothbrush and tried to give my now yellow teeth a good toothpasteless going over. All of this in between a banter of questions from our new boot, Barnes.
“Where’s the rest of your gun team?”
“This is it,” I said.
“I thought there was supposed to be five guys.”
“Yeah, right. And a squad is supposed to be a bare minimum of twelve men, but our biggest squad is seven.”
“Well, how many guys are in this platoon, anyway? They told us minimum strength was forty-four men.”
“Yeah, I know. Just forget all that crap. This platoon’s never been over twenty-two men since I’ve been here. We have half-strength companies covering areas that need at least a battalion.”
“Will we see any gooks today?”
“Don’t say that, man!” Rodgers snapped. “You’re going to bring us bad luck with that talk.” He went back to writing a letter. A deep frown creased his face.
“Don’t tell me being short makes you superstitious, too,” I prodded. Rodgers ignored me, but the frown remained. I wasn’t sure which was worse. A boot ready to shoot at anything or a salt who was scared of his shadow.
Ten days and one hundred fifty zigzagged miles later we found ourselves greeted by an early morning drizzle in a lovely little area called Dodge City. I always wondered what colorful character came up with all these names on the grid map. The name was appropriate. The chief called it a meat grinder. The VC’s main effort was shifting to the central province of Quang Nam, with Da Nang as the ultimate target. The lieutenant said two major operations, “Allen Brook” and “Mameluke Thrust,” were screening the enemy’s avenues of approach to Da Nang. The gooks were calling it the Third Offensive, but it was all part of the Tet Offensive.
A flight of three camouflaged Phantoms flew in formation overhead as we set up a perimeter for an early meal on a small wooded hump on the flat muddy terrain. Rodgers and Barnes started up a game of Back Alley, the Marine Corps’s favorite card game. The thunder of bombers sounded close. I pulled out my red bikini picture of Nancy and spent some time drooling and dreaming.
“Wow! I never saw that one!” I looked up to see the freckled face of Sudsy looking over my shoulder and biting his tongue.
“Florida girls, buddy,” I said. “Ain’t nothin’ like ’em. Got any news?”
“Yeah.” He sat down and snatched the picture from me. “The whole place is crawling with gooks, man.” He spoke with his eyes glued to the picture of Nancy. “The 26th met an NVA battalion at My Loc.”
“Where’s that? And don’t let my picture get wet.”
“Three miles northeast of An Hoa,” he said.
“They followed ’em across the Thu Bon River into Dodge City. Did you see those Phantoms go over?”
“Yeah. They aren’t far away either. Have you heard ’em? They’re blastin’ somebody.”
“Then how come we’re just sitting here?” Barnes asked disappointedly.
“Quit saying that, man!” Rodgers snapped. “It’s bad luck!”
“What about us?” I asked.
Sudsy handed me back the picture. “You wouldn’t believe the crap going on all around right now. The radio’s jammed with it.”
“What about us?” I asked again.
“Lieutenant Campbell told the gunny that HQ thinks the better part of the 308th NVA Division is roaming around here trying to get to Da Nang.”
“Division!” Rodgers shouted.
“What are we doing here with twenty-one men?” I asked.
“Some genius decided that we should thrust through Dodge City.”
“Us?” Rodgers shouted. He threw his cards into the mud.
“Well, not by ourselves. We’re joining up with the First and Third Platoons. The whole regiment is out there somewhere. We’re part of Operation Mameluke Thrust.”
My stomach tightened up. I knew better than to think negative. Sometimes negativity sneaks up on a person. Maybe I was just being romantic, but those colorful names popping into my life gave me an eerie sense of impending doom. I’d already heard too much about Dodge City. I let myself slip into the stupidest mental trap of all: I decided this would be the place I’d probably finally get it. I wanted to boot myself in the butt.
It’s not my style to think about dyin’, I thought. Then why am I sure I’m going to die?
“What’s buggin’ you?” Sudsy asked. I ignored him and tried to remember what Chan had told me about praying for grace to endure pain or fear. I still didn’t know what grace was, but I knew I needed it. God, please give me your grace to endure this chicken attitude I got right now. Amen.
I looked up. Sudsy, Barnes, and Rodgers were looking at me with puzzled expressions.
“What?” I asked.
“You just looked like you saw a ghost,” Rodgers said.
“I think I need a cup of coffee,” I said, feeling a little better.
“Yeah, me too,” Rodgers said. He reached into his pack and tossed me a chunk of C-4 plastique explosive. I pulled an empty C-ration can out of my pack and punched a few holes in it with my K-bar, put the C-4 in, and put a lit match to it. Barnes yelped and dove for cover, landing square in the middle of an old mortar crater filled with mud and rain. It was perfect. We laughed so hard even Barnes had to laugh.
“Barnes, what are you doing sitting in a mud puddle?” We stopped laughing and looked up to see the lieutenant standing over us, rain cascading off his helmet, arms folded, and not smiling.
“They lit that C-4 and I thought it was going to blow up!”
The lieutenant knelt down on one knee beside me. “Think you could give me some help with one of the men, John?” he said, ignoring Barnes and our illegal use of C-4.
It stunned me. The lieutenant needing my help. I was a mere PFC. I felt flattered. So flattered that I committed the ultimate Marine Corps sin. I volunteered.
“Sure, Lieutenant. What do you need?”
“Do you know Private Unerstute?”
“I know who he is, but I don’t really know him. The blond guy, right? Kinda goofy-looking?” I remembered Jackson sticking that rubber snake to his rear end.
“Yeah. He’s really having a tough time adjusting. He’s scared real bad. He cries incessantly. Sam said he wets his pants on every patrol. I’ve tried calming him down, but I can’t get through.”
“Why don’t you send him home as unfit for combat?”
“That’s the next step, but he’s begged me not to do that.”
“Why?” Rodgers asked. “I’d take it in a second.”
Lieutenant Campbell paused. He looked irritated for a moment with Rodgers butting into our conversation.
“He’s an Iowa farm boy, a good kid. He says he has to stick it out. From what I’ve been able to gather, he’s worried more about what his parents think of him than he is about going nuts over here. You couldn’t meet a nicer guy, but I’m going to have to dump him before he gets himself or somebody else killed. It’s up to you if you want to try to help him. You don’t have to.”
“Why me? What can I do?”
“He needs to be around someone who can still laugh. I’m hoping your attitude might rub off on him. Talk to him, see if you can get him to relax.” Lieutenant Campbell’s eyes looked tired. He looked so healthy, so Middle American when I first met him five months ago in Hue City. Day by day he’d grown harder, thinner, and more serious. He didn’t look the least bit like a full-faced college kid now.
“Sure, I’ll do what I can,” I said. He gave me a nod and started to walk away. “Lieutenant?” He turned back around. “Somebody told me you thought Chan and me were Section 8s. Do you really?”
He started chuckling. “Anybody who can laugh through this has to be a little crazy.” His look became more serious. “No. The gunny and I were just joking about how you guys are always cracking up. See what you can do about getting that kind of laugh out of Private Unerstute.”
A few minutes later PFC Buford Unerstute plodded up to our muddy position on the side of our small hill. He was thin. He moved slowly, like an old plow horse. A strip of blond hair dipped to his eyebrows from under a helmet that looked too big. His crimson nose was too large for his sunken cheeks. His eyebrows seemed permanently squinched, as if he were straining to see something more clearly. His boots looked at least two sizes too big; in fact, everything he had on looked too big, including his ears.
“I’m sup-po-posed to sit in with you guys.” Unerstute’s stuttering words fit him perfectly. Dickens couldn’t have imagined a shier, humbler, or more instantly likable character.
He reminded me of a basset hound I once loved.
Rodgers looked at him and chuckled. “How did you manage to find utilities that fit that badly?”
Buford shuffled his feet and looked down as he spoke. “I always been odd-sized.”
“Pull up some mud and have a seat,” I said.
He sat down slowly. He started looking around nervously. He smelled like dried urine.
“How’d you get a fire started?”
“We lit up some C-4,” Rodgers said, protecting our coffee from the rain with his helmet.
Buford stiffened. His mouth came open, but no words would form.
“Not you too?” I said. “How long have you been in the bush?”
“Calm down,” Rodgers said. “I couldn’t stand another swan dive into the mud.”
“It takes a few volts to ignite C-4. It’s safe to burn,” I said, but Buford looked like he was still ready to run. “So you’re from Iowa?”
“No. Idaho. Aren’t you scared they’ll see the fire?” I looked around our small hill at the flat terrain.
“We sure aren’t hiding from anybody out here in the open.” I let a quiet moment pass. “Why did you join the Marine Corps?” I asked.
Buford dropped his head and mumbled timidly, “I don’t know.”
“Unerstute, did the lieutenant tell you where he wants me?” Barnes asked.
“With Swift Eagle’s squad. On the other side of the hill. Go straight across.”
Barnes picked up his pack and rifle. “See you guys later.”
“Tell Swift Eagle I have a can of ham and eggs on the bargaining table,” I said.
Barnes waved. With pack and rifle thrown over one shoulder he sloshed away.
“I’m glad that guy’s gone,” Rodgers mumbled.
“He’s okay. Maybe a little boot, but not a bad guy,” I said.
“He was bad luck,” Rodgers said as he stirred some coffee into the boiling water with the tip of his K-bar.
“Buford, what did you do back in the world?” I asked.
“Just helped out on the farm.” He talked as slow as he moved, drawing out each word almost like an old Southerner.
“Did you play ball?”
“Were you into cars?”
“No. Daddy wouldn’t let me have a car. He said I’d just wreck it.”
“Women? Sports? Drinking? What’d you do for fun?”
“I never was much good at anything. I liked to farm and take care of the cows and pigs the most. Momma said it was the only thing I was half good at.”
“Quit lowering your head when you talk. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, liking animals. It sounds to me like your folks were real ego builders. Doesn’t it, Rodgers?”
“Why did you join the Crotch?” I asked.
“Daddy said it’d be a poor day when the country let the likes of me defend the family. They all laughed at me and said I couldn’t do it.”
“Your folks?” I asked.
“Them and my brothers. So I took off and did it. They ain’t written me yet. I’m scared. How come you ain’t scared?”
“Bull! I’m as scared as you are,” I said.
“No. I seen you and Chan always laughing. How can you do it?”
“Bull crap, Unerstute. Everybody here is scared. People are different in the way they handle things. I get so scared sometimes I just start shaking. When it gets really bad I start reading the Bible. Honest! See, I keep it right here all the time.” I pulled my wounded Gideon from my chest pocket, unwrapped the plastic around it, and handed it to Buford.
As he took the little Bible from me, my own words rang clear in my head. It was as if for the very first time I realized what was keeping me on solid ground while others seemed to be floundering. I sure did my share of panicking, I thought, but all I had to do to get squared away was talk to the Man and I got by. Not because I laughed, but because I prayed.
“You got a hole in it.”
“Yeah,” I said, feeling dumbfounded by my own revelation.
“Yeah. Shrapnel,” I explained belatedly.
His mouth fell open. It did that every time he was surprised or shocked, and it looked like he remained in a constant state of shock or surprise.
“We went to church sometimes,” he said.
“I went to church all my life from West Virginia to Florida, but I never learned a thing about the Bible. It’s the only book in the world that tells the future. Chan says there’s ten thousand prophesies in there, and it hasn’t missed one yet. You should talk to Chan. He can show you where to look for whatever problem you got and where God tells you how to handle it. And there’s all kinds of stuff about fear, man. It’s better than doing that!” I pointed to his bloody nubs that were once fingernails. “You should talk to Chan. I’m gonna go get him.”
“Wait a second, John,” Rodgers said. “You got a leech on the back of your neck.” Rodgers bent over a book of matches to protect it from the drizzle. He lit one and touched it to the back of my neck. Buford’s mouth fell open again. A large, slimy leech, fat with my blood, fell to the mud. I stomped it with the heel of my boot. It just flattened out and started crawling away.
“You just can’t kill those things!” I said.
“Saddle up!” someone called from the CP.
“Did somebody just say those words?” I asked.
“Saddle up! We’re movin’ out!” Sudsy shouted from the top of the hill. His radio was already strapped on.
“You better chug your coffee,” Rodgers said. He handed me a C-ration can of smoking coffee. I took my coffee and chugged it.
“We’ll see Chan the first chance we get, okay?” I said to Buford. He nodded yes.
The daily hike was always bad. The weather for these strolls varied from horrible to just awful. For the next three days we thumped foolishly around Dodge City looking for the bad guys. I hoped we wouldn’t meet any, at least not until I got Chan back. Rodgers and Unerstute worried me. The nagging feeling that I wouldn’t make it through the next firefight hung over me like a vulture. I couldn’t shake the feeling that these two would cost me my life. In spite of my own fear, I’d grown to respect Unerstute as much as anyone in Nam just for sticking it out.
In the afternoon of the third day we set up a perimeter on a small ridge on the north side of the Thu Bon River. As soon as we set in, I went looking for Chan’s position. I found him eating pound cake behind a tree stump.
“Where did you get that?” I asked. He raised one eyebrow.
“It’s about time you visited.” Chan stood up. He offered me a bite of his cake. “You won’t believe my A-gunner.”
“Same here, buddy. I got two guys that scare me to death.” I took a bite and handed it back.
“I have an A-gunner that doesn’t know which end to put the bullets in. He’s a pig farmer from Missouri. He has positively the worst enunciation of the English language I’ve ever heard.”
“Do you know Unerstute?” I asked.
“Yes. I know who he is.”
“He really needs help, Chan. He’s scared to death. He shakes all night long. He gets so scared he just wets his pants all the time. Anyway, the lieutenant asked me to try to talk to him to see if I could calm him down. You need to talk to him about the Bible. You know, show him some places he should read.”
“Sure. Let’s go see him.”
“Probably be better if I send him over to you. That way you can talk to him alone.”
“Okay.” I turned to walk back to Buford.
“Hey, John. Did Sudsy tell you we’re meeting up with the First and Third Platoons?” Chan asked.
“Take care of yourself.”
“You too,” I said. I gave Chan the thumbs up sign. He returned it. “And keep the bursts short.”
“You too. Twenty rounds max,” he replied.
“Don’t I always?” I said with a chuckle.
An hour later Sudsy showed up looking for Unerstute.
“He’s talking to Chan,” I said.
“He’s moving back to the chief’s squad. Tell him to get over there when he gets back.”
“Are we getting Barnes back?” I asked.
“No. It’s just you two.”
“Oh good. I’d hate to get used to too much sleep every night,” I growled sarcastically.
“What’s up, Suds?” Rodgers asked.
“We’re meeting First and Third Platoons on the other side of the river in about an hour.”
“Sixty days left, and we go on an operation now.” Rodgers looked into the sky as if he were angry with God.
“I wish you’d quit worrying about being short. You’re starting to make me nervous,” I said. “We better get ready. Here, start cleaning the gun. I’ll go get Buford.”
I walked around the perimeter. Every man in the platoon seemed to be cleaning a weapon. I found Chan showing Buford something in the Bible. Buford’s face looked almost relaxed for a change. The strained lines of stress across his forehead had actually eased away, at least for the moment. He looked up at me as I got closer.
“Did you tell Chan what I told you about my folks?” he asked, as if accusing me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Why?”
“You swear on the Bible? Both of you?”
“Yes,” Chan said. “He never said a word about your folks. It’s God. He does things like that.”
“What’s this all about?” I asked.
“You told me how scared Buford was, so I wanted to show him that one of the bravest men in history was scared to death and wrote this prayer to the Lord. Here, I’ll read it.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation;
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the defense of my life;
Whom shall I dread?
My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell
Though a host encamp against me,
My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
In spite of this I shall be confident.…
Do not abandon me nor forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
For my father and my mother have forsaken me,
But the Lord will take me up.”
Chan closed the Bible and looked up at me. I didn’t know what to say. Buford’s eyes were misty.
“I don’t know, man,” I said. “It sure sounds like a setup, but I swear it isn’t. I didn’t say a word about your folks to Chan. I think you just got the word from the Man.”
“Honest, now?” Buford’s voice cracked. “You guys wouldn’t lie about it, would you?”
“No way,” Chan said.
“I don’t mean to change the subject, but you’ve been put back in Swift Eagle’s squad, and I think we’re moving out soon.”
“Okay. We’ll be done in a minute,” Chan said.
I walked back to Rodgers in a trance. I’d always believed in God, but after all, He’d never said, “Hey, John. Here I am.” I felt a little spooked and a lot glad about it. I knew Buford would be okay. Before I could tell Rodgers about it, some fool shouted, “Saddle up!”
We crossed the cool golden Thu Bon River and humped two klicks south. There the terrain flattened out into large fields of brown and green elephant grass and old unworked rice paddies. I turned my collar up and pulled my hands inside my sleeves as the point man led us into the ten-foot-tall grass. A breeze swept across the giant field, making it look as soft as a calm, undulating ocean, but each blade of this wave could cut a man’s skin as quickly as a razor, and the slightest cut would be infected within hours.
We finally broke through to a soggy brown clearing. There, in a large perimeter, sat the First and Third Platoons.
Rodgers tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a mortar team. “Even Weapons Platoon is here. I don’t like it.”
“Saddle up! Saddle up! Saddle up!” The order ricocheted around the perimeter. We marched straight through the soggy clearing and into another field of elephant grass. The other platoons linked up to our rear. I thought about the mortar men behind us and how glad I was not to be carrying one of those heavy mothers. We crossed another clearing and into a waist-high field of elephant grass.
An occasional island of trees or group of shrubs dotted the landscape. Swift Eagle led his squad left, pulling away from the column and fanning out. Then Corporal James’s squad followed. The entire Second Platoon spread out on line, sweeping across the field of saw grass. I held the gun at my hip. No one said a word. I felt anxious. I wanted a drink but I didn’t dare reach for a canteen. Two hundred meters ahead a row of tall trees stood out in the flat terrain.
Huge dark rain clouds rolled in from behind the tall trees. Swift Eagle cupped a hand around his mouth, shielding his voice from our front, and called past me to Lieutenant Campbell fifteen meters to my right, “I smell smoke!”
I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. Someone yelled. Sam fired the blooper. Three uniformed NVA were running away from us forty yards ahead. The sharp, white explosion of a blooper round hit the trailing man square. He flipped forward and landed on his back.
“Guns up! Guns up!”
I ran forward, firing from the hip. The other two NVA ducked down and disappeared into the elephant grass. I stopped, stood still, and fired the M60 from the shoulder at the area where I’d last seen them. I ceased fire.
“There they are!” Rodgers shouted.
They popped up from the tall grass a good thirty yards closer to the tree line. I let loose another twenty-round burst just as they disappeared again. The entire platoon ran forward.
“Guns up! Guns up!” Lieutenant Campbell screamed as he ran forward. The two NVA were half carrying, half dragging the third, his arms draped over the shoulders of his comrades. They dove behind the tree line.
The lieutenant screamed, “Halt! Guns up!”
I ran forward, with Rodgers close behind. A second later Chan and his A-gunner, the pig farmer, ran up beside us.
“Recon that tree line!” The lieutenant’s voice sounded unusually high-pitched. We both opened up, firing from the hip. Pieces of the trees spit in all directions as we raked the area where we had last seen the NVA.
“Cease fire! Move out!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted.
“Quick! Throw in some ammo, Rodgers!” I shouted. Rodgers tore off a belt from around his shoulders. I pulled up the feed cover. He fumbled with the ammo. “Hurry up!” He slapped it in, and I closed the feed cover and started forward again. An M16 opened up to my left.
“Cease fire! Guns up! Guns up!”
We reached the tree line. The NVA were gone. Just on the other side of the trees was a graveyard. Chan opened up. I followed his tracers with my eyes. The NVA were struggling to drag their limp comrade behind a grass hootch fifty yards away at the edge of a thick dark jungle.
“Fire on that hootch!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted.
I ran forward ten yards to the first round grave mound of dirt and opened up. Orange tracers ripped through the wood and grass hootch, streaming into the dark jungle behind it.
“Cease fire!” Lieutenant Campbell shouted from the trees behind me.
“Get back behind the trees!” Rodgers shouted. I turned to see him crouching beside the lieutenant, who was standing. I ran back to the tree cover, gasping for air but too hyped up to calm down and breathe normally.
“Swift Eagle! Take a squad and sweep to that hootch!” Lieutenant Campbell grabbed Sudsy by the shoulder. “Tell First and Third Platoon to move up to the rice paddy one hundred meters to my left! Weapons Platoon too! Chan!”
“Here!” Chan answered as he ran forward.
“You cover Swift Eagle’s squad from the left flank! John!”
“Take your gun down to that end of the tree line and cover Swift Eagle from the right flank! Hurry!”
“Let’s go, Rodgers!”
I ran as fast as I could. Sudsy’s transmission rang clear as we went: “Alpha One, Alpha One, this is Alpha Two. We have a shoot-out in Dodge City.…” A cold chill sent a violent shiver up my neck.
Others were running in the same direction. They dropped off, taking positions at five- and ten-yard intervals. Daylight was going fast. Huge clouds blotted out what was left of the afternoon sun. We finally reached our end of the tree line, a good seventy yards from the lieutenant’s end. Thunder echoed from the sinister clouds. Death felt near, as if it were riding the cold damp wind.
Three riflemen from Corporal James’s squad ran by me, scattering into positions on my right flank. A welcome sight. I didn’t like being stuck out on the end by myself. I set the gun up behind the last tree and took aim at the hootch on the other side of the graveyard slightly to my left. Rodgers slid in beside me, breathing heavily. He looked pale. It started raining. Swift Eagle’s squad was already twenty meters into the open graveyard and sweeping on line toward the hootch.
“Link up some ammo!” I barked. Rodgers stared into the graveyard.
Without warning the darkening graveyard lit up with the green tracers of enemy machine guns crisscrossing Swift Eagle’s squad. One fired from a position twenty meters to the right of the hootch and nearly straight across from me. The other fired from twenty meters on the other side of the hootch. Then a third gun opened up from just to the right of the hootch, raking back and forth and sending tracer rounds whining in every direction. The dark jungle behind the hootch erupted with muzzle flashes. The lead Marine lifted up and flew backward from the blast of two streams of machine-gun tracers hitting him from the right and left. Fifty yards away a helmeted NVA stood up beside the hootch and side-armed a canvas satchel charge into the graveyard. The squad dove behind the oval Vietnamese grave mounds.
Brilliant flashes of light were followed by clouds of smoke and mud. A ChiCom exploded. Then another satchel charge overwhelmed the smallish ChiCom explosion. Then three more ChiComs, one right after another.
Our riflemen couldn’t fire, for fear of hitting the pinned-down squad between us and the enemy. I jumped to my feet, ran twenty meters into the open graveyard, and stood on top of one of the round grave mounds. Now I could fire without hitting the squad. Before I pulled the trigger, Chan opened up from the other end of the tree line. His orange tracers pinpointed him. Immediately all three enemy guns shifted their fire from the squad to Chan. Firing from the hip, I opened up on the closest stream of green tracers. The constant recoil of the long burst of fire supported the barrel of the M60 with little help from me. The incredible weapon was perfectly balanced. I guided my tracers into the nearest enemy machine gun. His green tracers shot up, high into the dark rainy sky, then ceased. A hit! I knew it. I saw tracers sweeping toward me. My gun stopped. “Ammo!” I screamed and looked around for Rodgers. He was still behind the trees. Suddenly my feet kicked out from under me. I was laying on my face. I felt stunned but I knew I wasn’t hit. A moment later someone pulled me by my feet back behind the mound. Rodgers! I started to thank him but didn’t. It was his fault I was out of ammo.
Bullets thudded into the small mound. More bullets churned up mud on both sides of us. We huddled against the grave and each other trying to pull in arms and legs behind the precious dirt. The graves were made in the shape of a woman’s womb, because the Vietnamese figure that’s where you start so that’s where you finish. I wanted to crawl back in right now.
The firing stopped. We waited a few seconds. I peeked over the mound. Small clouds of sulphurous gunpowder hovered above, but no flashes.
“Let’s go!” I grabbed the gun and darted for the cover of the tree line. Rodgers ran past me like I was standing still. My foot felt odd but I didn’t dare look down. We dove behind the end tree. I checked my right boot.
“Look at that!” I said, and I pointed at the sole. The heel had a bullet hole clean through.
“Are you hit?”
“Man, you’re lucky you still have a foot!”
The sound of a blooper gun echoed from our right flank. Two quick explosions cracked behind us like lightning, followed immediately by two more much closer. Another bloop. Ten yards behind us mud and shrapnel shot out of the ground.
“Incoming!” a voice on our right screamed. “The gook’s got a blooper!”
I turned right with the M60. Three Marines were in my field of fire, already shooting into the bush to our right.
“Ammo!” I shouted at Rodgers, angry that he hadn’t already started loading the gun and wishing for Chan.
“Pull back! Pull back!”
“Did you hear that?” Rodgers tugged on my shoulder. The monsoon rain started pelting us like drops of cement. The Marines firing at the blooper vanished in the deluge.
“Pull back!” Someone was pulling at my pack. I looked up. Corporal James shouted down, “Pull back! Pull back to the lieutenant!” The rain pounded loudly into the ground, nearly smothering his shouts.
“We got three men over there!” I shouted back. “Pull back! I’ll go get ’em!” He ran toward the three Marines. A few seconds later he reappeared, with the Marines following. Halfway back to the lieutenant the rain eased up enough for me to hear someone shouting.
“Hold it! Do you hear that?” I said. We stopped and stood still. “I heard someone screaming.”
“Help us! We got Marines out here! Help! Barnes is hit!” Now the scream echoed from the dark graveyard with frightening clarity. The rain picked up again. I ran to the edge of the tree line with Corporal James.
“I can’t see a thing!” James said.
“We got to help ’em!” I said.
“We have to tell the lieutenant! Come on!” He pulled on my arm. I followed him. We ran through the mud as fast as we could. I kept thinking of Barnes, so eager to see war. A vision of the Marine being blown backward by the machine-gun fire flashed through my mind. It had been him. Barnes.
“Lieutenant!” James shouted.
“Here! Over here!” The voice came from the darkness ahead. Now I could see him. The rain was so thick he looked gray.
“Lieutenant! We still have men out there!” James shouted.
“I know. At least three. The rest are all right. Is that everyone from that end?”
“Is Chan okay?” I asked.
“Yes. Follow me. The company is about seventy-five meters this way.”
Twenty meters later Swift Eagle emerged from the rain like a ghost. We huddled around him as the lieutenant spoke. “Did you find out who’s missing?”
“Barnes, Striker, and Unerstute.”
“I can’t call in arty with them out there. Let’s get back to the rest of the company and see what the CO says.”
“We better hurry. The captain already has the mortars set up.”
Lieutenant Campbell started running toward the company with the rest of us on his heels.
“Where are you? Barnes is hit bad!” Striker screamed angrily from the graveyard. I couldn’t believe he was screaming. He had to know the gooks could hear him as well as us.
“Help! Barnes is hit! He can’t move!” His voice sounded panicky. I couldn’t stand it. His screams pierced through the driving storm. We had to help.
“Help!” The shout sounded shrill.
I could see men up ahead. Lieutenant Campbell turned back to Swift Eagle. “Show them where the platoon is. I have to see the captain. I’ll be there in a minute.”
We turned right and followed the chief along a line of Marines lying behind a rice paddy dike that flanked the graveyard. Their helmets were sticking above the dike; their bodies were half under water.
Another forlorn call echoed from the darkness ahead. We finally reached the Second Platoon, all the way at the end of the line of Marines.
“Set up the gun here.” Swift Eagle pointed to a spot between two Marines. I hung the M60 over the dike and sank into the muck behind it.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“The hootch is straight ahead,” Swift Eagle said. He turned to lead the other men to their positions.
A loud metallic thump echoed through the crashing rain. A bright flash from an enemy mortar tube lit up their position just behind the grass hootch seventy-five meters straight ahead. I took aim at the flash and waited for another one.
“Hold your fire! Hold your fire!” Lieutenant Campbell ran behind the long row of prone Marines, whispering loud enough to be heard by us but not the enemy. Another thump and flash. For an instant the enemy mortar men were easy targets for the gun. A mortar round exploded one hundred meters to our rear, quickly followed by a second.
“What are we waiting for, Chief?” I whispered. “I got these suckers. They’re dead meat. Let me open up!”
“Don’t fire!” Lieutenant Campbell ran up behind me. Three more quick flashes and thumps in succession strobe-lighted the enemy mortar men.
“I could hit ’em blindfolded!”
“Shut up! We got Marines between us and them!”
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
He didn’t answer. He turned to repeat the order. “Don’t anyone fire!”
I turned back to the front. Another series of mortar flashes lit up three separate enemy mortar crews. I could see the mortar men turn away from the tube, covering their ears from the blast.
“I’m gonna open up!” I said aloud.
“Don’t!” Rodgers grabbed my shoulder. “You can’t!”
“This is chicken, Rodgers! We got guys out there blown away and sitting ducks right in front …” A series of mortar blasts behind us drowned me out.
“They think we’re back there! If you open up they’ll know right where we are!”
“Not if I blow ’em away!” Another series of flashes and the twanging hollow thumps of mortar rounds leaving the tubes reverberated through the air around us. “This sucks of chicken, man!”
“Look!” Rodgers pointed toward another series of flashes from the enemy mortars. Then I saw what he was pointing at. A man silhouetted against the flash, bent over, carrying a rifle and coming our way twenty meters ahead and to our left. I took aim, waiting for another flashing mortar barrage to show me the target. Rodgers aimed his M16. I turned to the Marine on my left to pass the word. He was already aiming. A nightmarish vision of a screaming human-wave assault went through my mind. I shivered. I shook my head to clear the fear and resumed aiming. Another flashing mortar barrage. I tensed, put my finger on the trigger. There, fifteen meters ahead, the silhouetted man.
Suddenly a mortar round exploded close behind us. The light of the explosion revealed the silhouette for a fraction of a second.
“An American helmet!” Rodgers whispered excitedly.
“Don’t fire! Marine comin’ in!” a voice from the silhouette shouted.
“Over here! Get in here!” someone shouted back.
“Hold your fire! It’s a Marine!” another voice called.
The silhouette ran forward, sloshing water as he came. Then he was upon me, stumbling over the paddy dike, kicking my helmet off, and falling face first with a loud splash behind me. He turned and crawled back beside me, bracing himself against the dike.
“Striker! Are you okay?”
“Yeah!” He gasped for air and spit out mud. “Barnes!” He gasped again. “Barnes is hit bad. He couldn’t move. I had to leave him. We have to go get him!” He spoke quickly, running his words together.
“How ’bout Buford?” I asked. Before he could answer, the lieutenant and Swift Eagle slid in beside us, covering me with mud and water.
“Striker! Who’s still out there?” Swift Eagle rattled off the question.
“Barnes! He’s hit real bad, but he’s still alive. We have to go get him. The gooks are right on top of him, maybe ten yards away.”
“I don’t know. I couldn’t see Buford. As soon as that rain hit I couldn’t see a thing!”
“Swift Eagle!” Lieutenant Campbell said. “Go get some volunteers. Striker! Can you lead us to him?”
“I think so. But we gotta be real quiet. The gooks are real close. I could hear ’em talking.”
“I’ll go, Chief!” I said. My stomach churned. For a moment I wasn’t sure I’d actually said that.
“You have to stay with the gun,” Lieutenant Campbell said.
“Rodgers can stay with the gun.”
“Okay. Follow me. Let’s see who else wants to go,” Swift Eagle answered without looking at the lieutenant.
“Give me your rifle,” I said to Rodgers.
“No,” Swift Eagle said. “Just take your .45, so you can help carry Barnes.”
I knew I couldn’t hit the ground with that lousy .45. Besides, it was probably full of rust. The chief didn’t wait for my excuses. He turned and called down the line for volunteers. Ten or more men got up and rushed forward.
“You four. The rest of you go back to your positions. You ready, Striker?”
“Let’s go,” Striker said.
“Lieutenant,” Swift Eagle said as we stepped over the dike. “Make sure these guys know we’re out there.”
Thirty yards through the flooded paddy, we reached the more solid ground of the graveyard. Striker seemed to know exactly where he was going. The pounding rain covered the noisy sloshing of our feet, but each step sounded like thunder to me. The faces of the enemy mortar men were clearer with each barrage. Striker stopped ahead.
“Barnes,” he whispered lightly. He dropped down and crawled around on hands and knees. “Barnes.”
Swift Eagle turned to me and whispered, “You guys go around in a small circle.”
We searched for ten minutes. It was obvious that Striker had gotten lost or Barnes had crawled away. We gave up the search and headed back. I thought of Buford. I couldn’t imagine what terror he must feel. I knew we were nearing the line of Marines, but I couldn’t see anything ahead. A mortar round exploded seventy meters in front of us, silhouetting a long row of friendly American helmets ten meters away.
“Marines comin’ in! Hold your fire!” Swift Eagle gave the warning.
“Friendlies coming in!” A voice ahead repeated the warning.
The dike was only a foot tall, just enough to lie behind, and it sure wasn’t about to stop any lead, but the first step over it filled my soul with relief.
I found Rodgers and splashed down beside him. He slapped me on the shoulder. “You deserve a medal,” he said. He turned his eyes toward the enemy.
“I agree,” I said jokingly.
“I mean it,” he said, still staring at the mortar flashes. “I told the gunny that you knocked out that gun and took all the fire so the squad could get out of the graveyard.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said he’s putting you and Chan in for the Silver Star.”
“Ah, you’re feedin’ me—”
“Honest. Chan did the same thing you did on the other end of the tree line.”
I couldn’t believe it. I loved it. I wanted to write everybody I knew; then memories of last June crept in. The Don Skully Award for the small football player who showed the most courage. Everyone had started congratulating me in front of the entire school. The head coach was the only coach who didn’t like me. He said he wanted to make an example out of me, but I’d only missed one practice in three years. If I get a medal, I’ll ram it up his nose.
“We’re sweeping across at daybreak,” a whispered voice came from our right. “Pass it on.”
Two hours before daybreak the rain and the mortars stopped. I stared into the blackness until my eyes hurt. The first streaks of morning light brought little comfort. My hands looked like wrinkled paper from being wet for so long.
“We’re movin’ in!” The word sifted by me and on down the line. We were on our feet, moving forward. I felt like I was in an old war film. On line. Fix bayonets. The sky turned pink and blue. The hootch was clear now in the morning light. I couldn’t believe it. We were actually going to storm right over these suckers!
“Fifty-nine days,” Rodgers mumbled, more to himself than to me.
Our first steps were slow. Cautious. Forty yards away the pace suddenly quickened. No one spoke. Someone to my right began jogging forward. I started jogging to keep up. Now the whole line was running. Someone let loose a howl. Now everyone was screaming like banshees. A cracking burst of AK fire rung out across the graveyard. Then another. The second burst was a mistake. I could see the muzzle flash from the roof of the hootch. I opened up with a fifty-round burst. At the same time, twenty others fired on the hootch. The sniper’s body exploded from the roof, pieces of flesh and cloth flying in all directions.
“Cease fire! Cease fire!” Swift Eagle was finally heard, and the firing stopped. The hootch was burning. Black smoke tunneled one way, then another, in a swirling wind.
“There’s a Marine over here!” someone shouted from my right. I glanced over quickly. It looked like Buford lying face down. I looked back to the hootch. Nothing. No firing at all. We swept by the burning hootch and ten yards deep into the thick jungle.
“They pulled out, Lieutenant!” someone shouted.
“We got another body over here! It’s a Marine!” another voice called from the left. I ran over to see who it was. Striker stood over a bloody body lying face down. The chief stood next to him looking down.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Barnes,” Striker said. “I don’t know how he got over here in front of this gun bunker.” Not until then did I notice he was lying in front of a foxhole with dirt and wood built up around it. Hundreds of empty .30-caliber cartridges were scattered about in the mud. His pack was ripped apart. His E-tool had a bullet hole through the shovel end. Striker bent down. He grabbed one shoulder and rolled the body over. Bullets had torn deep creases under each cheekbone, giving him huge dark bruises around each eye. It looked eerie. Dried blood covered another bullet crease under his jaw. Most of the right ear was shot away. I stared at the huge bruises. Suddenly his eyes sprang open. I couldn’t speak. I tried to point, like a mute with mouth hanging open. Then a smile spread across his face.
“He’s alive!” Striker screamed in disbelief.
“Corpsman!” Swift Eagle shouted.
“How did you get over here?” Striker asked. “Can you talk?”
“The gooks drug me over. They thought I was dead. They crawled out after me right after you left. One of ’em pulled out a knife and came down on me.”
“Calm down. Save your strength,” Swift Eagle said dryly.
“I thought it was over for sure. But he just cut my bandoliers off. Then they dragged me up front of their gun. God, I thought for sure you guys were gonna walk right into it! I almost drowned laying there!” He was still perky. I couldn’t believe it.
I turned to find Chan. He had to see this. I saw him standing near the burning hootch. I ran over to him.
“John! Come here!” He raised his hand and waved me over. “Look at this.” I looked into the burning hootch. A sun-faded tan pith helmet filled with dried blood and gray human brains lay on the dirt floor of the hootch. I bent down and darted inside, grabbed the helmet, and brought it out. Something in Vietnamese was written on the front. I dumped the brains and blood into a puddle and handed the pith helmet to Chan. “What’s it say?” I asked.
He studied the writing for a few seconds, then handed the helmet back to me. “It says, ‘We’re here to stay.’ “
“One thing’s for sure, this sucker is staying.”
“Unerstute’s dead,” Chan said.
“He shouldn’t have been here. I really liked that guy.”
“I found no wounds. No blood. Nothing. I suspect heart failure.”
“Barnes is still alive. You have to see him!” I led Chan to Barnes. Doc had just finished with a bandage on his leg. It looked like he was losing a lot of blood.
“How’s he doing, Doc?” I asked.
“He’ll make it.” Doc stood up and led us a few feet away. “He probably won’t walk again. I don’t know why he’s still alive. I counted eleven bullet holes from head to toe and some shrapnel holes besides.” Doc spoke with his usual boring Boston attitude, as if the wounded were keeping him from something more important.
“That’s amazing!” I said.
“What about Buford?” Chan asked.
“All I could find was one tiny little shrapnel wound in his side, but it was so small it was like a pinprick. It couldn’t have been what killed him. He died from fright. He had a heart attack out there.”
“Correct. I concur.”
Doc’s face flushed, half with anger and half with embarrassment. He hated being put in his arrogant place. He removed his glasses for cleaning and turned away without a word.
Twenty minutes later a medevac chopper settled down in the muddy paddy. The sun was fully up now, like a blazing ball in the copper sky. I watched as Barnes and Buford were loaded onto the chopper. I wanted Buford alive. I wanted him to go home and spit in his family’s face. He could have gone home, but he didn’t. I thought of the cowards in Canada.
We started after the NVA, on a force march. The jungle looked dense and black. Their retreat was hurried, and our point man followed it easily. Thirty minutes on their trail led us into a snake-infested jungle swamp. The unmistakable sickening sweet odor of rotting corpses filled the damp, humid air. I found solace in the stench, knowing they were dead gooks. I wanted to shoot more. I wanted them to pay.
We marched on and on. In and out of swamp after swamp. It was nearing evening when we finally climbed out of the swamps and onto solid ground. The terrain in front of us was rolling hills with scattered patches of trees and brush. Without my even realizing it, we had linked up with a huge column of Marines stretching past one hill and over another.
The sun was dying on the horizon. We had to stop soon. I felt like I had to eat something. Cracking rifle fire broke the silence of the march. It was over as quickly as it started.
Swift Eagle ran by me shouting, “Get in a perimeter!”
“Who’s hit?” Rodgers asked. The chief kept running toward the lieutenant. “Who’s that they’re helping?” Rodgers pointed to three Marines standing over another Marine twenty meters back. For a moment I thought it was Chan.
“I’ll go see,” I said. I ran back. “Who is it?”
“Ellenwood,” Doc answered.
“Is he okay?”
“I think so. We need a medevac.”
“Let me see my baby!” Jack sounded dazed, like he was in shock. “Let me see my baby!”
“What’s he talking about?” Doc asked, his voice beginning to show the strain.
“His baby. I know what he’s talking about.” Memories of Jack calming me down after my first confirmed kill by showing me pictures of his new baby boy came back to me. “Give me his wallet.” Another Marine handed me his helmet. I fumbled for the wallet. “Here it is.” I unwrapped the plastic around it, opened it up, and found the color picture of the laughing baby boy. “Here, Jack. Here’s your baby.” It was too dark to see the photograph clearly, but he calmed down just by holding on to it. I wondered why it had happened to Jack, out of five hundred Marines and with only two weeks left.
Our night ended in a perimeter waiting for a medevac that didn’t come.
The next morning started with the humming noise of thirty to fifty helicopters flying in formation in the eastern sky.
“Good grief! What’s all that?” Rodgers asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Hey, Swift Eagle! What’s going on over there?”
Swift Eagle looked up from his can of congealed lima beans and ham fat. He gazed stoically at the huge formation. “I think it’s the 101st Airborne. They get a noon meal. Hot, too!”
“What? Are you kidding?”
“John.” I turned to see Doc. The arrogance replaced by a solemn face looking down at me. “Jack’s dead.”
“Dead? How? He wasn’t hit that bad!”
“He had a stomach wound we didn’t find till this morning. He could have made it, but we couldn’t get a medevac chopper.” Doc spoke as though he was pleading for understanding. “There just weren’t any choppers.”
I followed the flight of the Army armada of helicopters until my vision blurred. Then I cried.