“Can you get off okay?” The young face covered with dark flight glasses seemed honestly concerned. “I sure hope you ain’t no boot.” My head stopped spinning, but I felt weak all the way down to the ankles. “Can you get off?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“There it is, bro.”
We dropped down faster than usual. My stomach came up. I wanted to throw up, but there was nothing left inside. This chopper was in too big a hurry. I knew what that meant. I wonder if God’s going to let me die drunk.
“Is it a hot LZ?” I asked.
“I think so. You better lock and load, bro.” He let loose a five-round burst at the ground below. My head pounded with each shot.
“What are you firing at?”
“Just making sure she doesn’t jam!” he shouted.
“We’re goin’ in!” a voice from the cockpit shouted. My stomach tightened. I didn’t feel drunk anymore. Just like, back in the world, I could always sober up when I saw those flashing red lights. The gunner started firing. We dropped like the dip on a rollercoaster, then steadied up, hovering ten feet above the ground. Small white puffs of smoke spit from a group of long-leafed banana trees. The door gunner fired back.
I jumped through the hatch. The chopper started up before I hit the hard ground. My stomach rumbled. I belched up more whiskey and spit it out. Twenty-five meters to my front an M60 peppered the banana trees. Fifty meters to my rear another M60 opened up. Cracking AK rounds wailed overhead. Marines shouted back and forth behind me. I belched up another mouthful of whiskey and puke. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I flattened to the ground. I’ll never drink again, I swore. Oh, God, I hope you let me drink again.
“Find some cover, fool!” I looked around to see who was shouting. The gunny’s head peeked up from a foxhole twenty meters to my right.
“Gunny! It’s me! I’m back!”
“Chan’s over there!” He pointed to the gun straight ahead of me, then ducked back down as AK fire ripped across the open perimeter. Thank God, I thought. Chan’s okay.
“In the tree! There’s a gook in the tree!” a voice screamed at the top of his lungs behind me and to the left. I turned to look back in time to see five Marines on their knees firing up into a tall, thin-trunked tree with a cluster of branches at the top. A rifle fell from the top of the tree, followed by the limp body of a man, which bounced off two limbs and thudded to the dry earth in a splash of dust.
“Chan! It’s me! John! I’m comin’ over! Give me some fire!” I jumped to my feet and ran zigzagging toward the sputtering M60. Chan sent a spread of tracers up and down the line of banana trees. Tiny clouds of dust kicked up around me as the gooks spotted a moving target. Chan fired from behind a fallen banana tree. Five yards from Chan I dove the rest of the way. The landing sent another shock wave through my stomach. I belched up a couple more shots of whiskey.
“Nice timing! You got any ammo?” Chan spoke without looking at me. “The tree line’s full of gooks.” Then he turned. “I don’t believe it. You’re finally getting a mustache.”
“Where’s your A-gunner?” I asked.
“A boot. Arvis Hendry, remember? He’s back at the CP. We couldn’t get the body out.”
I remembered the scared boot.
“I don’t have any ammo,” I said.
“We’re almost out. Look!” He pointed at a uniformed NVA running from the cover of one tree to another one closer to us. “We’re about to get overrun!”
“What’s going on?”
“We’re surrounded!” Chan shouted. “Why did that chopper drop you in here?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t even know it was a hot LZ!”
“Look at this! We have one belt of ammo left!” Panic was beginning to creep into Chan’s voice. “Third Platoon’s already lost four men back there that I know of.”
“Third Platoon! Is the whole company here?”
“No. Just the Second and Third. We’re in real trouble, buddy.” Chan’s eyes sobered me with a serious stare.
“I’m going after some ammo. Somebody back there has some.”
“Wait.” Chan grabbed my arm. “Let the CP know you’re coming.”
“Hey, Gunny!” I screamed as loud as I could. The chaotic firing around the perimeter drowned me out. I turned to Chan. “He’ll never hear me over all this. I’m going for it. Gunny should know who has gun ammo.” I swallowed back a small belch.
“Like the wind!” I clutched my rifle, crawled around to face the CP, trying to stay below the level of the fallen tree. I lodged one foot against the tree to get a good push off, took another deep breath, and screamed, “Why am I doing this?” The first five steps felt like a man running underwater with broken legs. I wished for tennis shoes and asked God to protect me. Then I realized my flak jacket was on Fire Base Alpha. The whine of a bullet zinged past my left ear. I dodged right, then left, then right again. I thought about what horrible marksmen the gooks normally were. Their only chance of hitting me was if I dodged into one of their misses. I stopped dodging and ran straight for the CP. I could hear the gunny shouting to get down. I dove into his shallow foxhole, landing on top of him. I tried to burrow down but my butt was sticking out in the open.
“I need ammo for the gun!”
“Move over! My butt’s sticking out!” Gunny moved but there still wasn’t room. “I need gun ammo!”
“Third Platoon might have some!” Bullets thudded into the ground with frightening force, kicking dirt into my face.
“Okay!” I jumped to a crouch and ran for the Third Platoon. They looked to be spread into a half-moon shape covering the north and east. Halfway there I shouted ahead, “I need gun ammo!”
“Get down, you idiot!”
“Over here!” An arm waved from a shallow foxhole. I dove in beside the foxhole. My body strained to get under my helmet.
“M60 ammo!” I said as I tried to catch my breath without looking up.
“Here! Get out of here with it! You’re drawing fire!” He handed me two belts of ammo and ducked down.
I grabbed it and jumped up. My feet wouldn’t move fast enough.
“Comin’ by, Gunny!” I shouted ahead. The gunny waved. I veered by his foxhole.
The lieutenant peeked up from another hole. “Keep your head down up there! We got air strikes coming in!” I kept running and weaving. “Show the Phantoms where the gooks are!” the lieutenant shouted. I didn’t look back.
“Comin’ in, Chan!” I dove in beside him. Pieces of fallen tree flew into the air from a barrage of AK fire. A small gray snake slithered from under the tree five feet to my right and wiggled away. I wanted to be that small. I wanted to follow him. “Chan, we got air strikes comin’. I got two belts.”
“Sounded soon! Want to trade places? I just don’t feel right with this little peashooter.”
Chan looked at me seriously, then broke into a smile. “I wondered when you would want this thing back. Yes, might as well. You’re useless as an A-gunner anyway.” We changed positions, staying under cover of the tree. The gun felt good, like an old girlfriend. I fired a ten-round burst at a muzzle flash in the tree line thirty meters away. Three Phantoms roared overhead at treetop level. Flames shot from the tail of the camouflaged Phantoms as they hit their afterburners and climbed straight up, rolled over, and banked gracefully back around. I opened up on the tree line, spraying tracers back and forth to mark the bomb run.
“He rocked his wings!” Chan shouted.
“Burn, suckers, burn!”
Like lightning, a sleek Phantom dropped from the blue sky over the banana trees low enough for me to see the pilot’s face. Two long cylindrical bombs floated softly away from the screaming jet, tumbling lazily end over end until they crashed to the earth. The napalm spread like a violent wave coming ashore, engulfing everything in fire. Clouds of orange and red flame swallowed the line of trees. My face burned. I jerked my head down behind the tree. My eyebrows and mustache were smoking. “Chan!”
“Good grief! It singed the hair off your face!”
“How bad is it?” I was scared to touch my skin. The acrid stench of the singed mustache hair brought up another mouthful of whiskey.
“Looks like a sunburn.” Chan peeked over the tree. “Look!” A man screaming in agony ran from the flaming banana trees on fire from head to toe. I took aim, but I didn’t fire.
“Put him out of his misery!”
“I don’t want to waste the ammo!” I barked angrily.
A few seconds later he collapsed. I could feel Chan staring at me. I hesitated to look him in the eye. I knew he would be shocked. It shocked me, too. I turned to see Chan’s face. He was looking at the fire.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be. You were right.”
A single Phantom swept over the tree line. At least three AKs opened up on the low-flying jet.
“How could anybody live through that?” I asked.
Another Phantom streaked across the tree line, strafing it with .20-millimeter cannons. Then a third Phantom swept low over the trees, releasing two more napalm bombs. The hungry flames rolled over the area, eating everything they touched. We ducked down from the blast of heat. Still, it made me gasp for air. Once the wave had passed, I peeked over our tree. Another burning man ran from the scorching tree line. I pulled the M60 butt to my shoulder and walked a quick stream of tracers into him. He dropped to the ground in a smoldering heap.
The Phantoms made strafing passes all around our scattered perimeter, then disappeared high into the blue sky. The right flank lit up with heavy small-arms fire, popping and cracking like a string of firecrackers. Suddenly it stopped. All was quiet now except for the crackling flames to our front.
“Choppers! We got choppers comin’ in! Give ’em cover!” someone shouted from the center of the perimeter.
Red smoke swirled like crimson fog from the CP. Two Huey gunships banked sharply around the perimeter. I fired a short stream of tracers at the smoking tree line. The Hueys circled twice, firing M60s. A green and black CH-46 helicopter drifted down to the center of the perimeter. A large nylon net bulging with boxes of ammo and C-rations swung heavily suspended by a long, taut cable under the double-rotored chopper. Cracking AKs opened up from the surrounding bush. The CH-46 hovered over the red smoke, preparing to drop the sorely needed supplies. The chopper swung in an erratic circle. I could see the pilot bend over and the copilot leaning over him frantically struggling to right the craft.
An enemy machine gun opened up on our right flank. Green tracers flying high across the perimeter zeroed in on the spinning helicopter. At the same time another volley of AK fire opened up from the left flank.
“Guns up! Guns up! Guns up!” The calls came from the right flank. I grabbed the gun. Chan grabbed the ammo. We jumped to our feet and darted toward the right of the perimeter. A blooper gun opened up on the bush ahead. It was Sam. The entire perimeter was in the open. I could see prone Marines spread on line firing into the bush on the flank.
We ran toward the voice. I could see Swift Eagle, flat on his stomach, pointing at the flash of an enemy gun one hundred meters straight ahead. The engine of the crippled chopper began palpitating. I dove to the right of Swift Eagle; an instant later Chan belly-flopped to my right and began feeding the gun. I opened up on the enemy gun flash. Orange tracers glanced off a bump in the terrain. I stood up, firing the M60 from the shoulder like a rifle. “Get down!” someone shouted from the left. My orange tracers spiraled in on the enemy flash. The flash stopped as a pith helmet flew into the air, then floated to the ground like a Frisbee. I hit the ground. Sand and rocks kicked up around me from incoming AK fire.
An enemy rocket shot out of thick brush seventy-five meters to our front. It climbed slowly at first, spiraling toward the wounded chopper, then gaining speed like a shooting star. It sizzled overhead. I followed it with my eyes as it zeroed in on the sputtering helicopter. I held my breath and cringed, but the rocket sizzled just under the front landing wheel of the CH-46, arced two hundred meters past the opposite side of the perimeter, and exploded in a tree, breaking it in half. Another machine gun opened up on the helicopter from the other side of the perimeter. A Huey gunship, rockets firing, dove at the enemy gun. The Huey pulled up at the last possible moment. The enemy gun went silent.
The CH-46 started smoking. Flames shot from the back rotor. Then it fell, straight down, the updraft of wind shooting the flames high above it. It crashed to the ground, crumbling over the large net full of supplies. The flames spread quickly. The door gunner crawled from the burning wreckage, his back aflame and screaming in agony, his face red with blood. I could feel the heat of the burning helicopter on my already scorched face. Marines from the CP ran to the aid of the burning crewmen. One Marine shoveled dirt onto the burning door gunner with his bare hands. Another butt-stroked the already broken Plexiglas cockpit in a frantic effort to free the pilot and copilot.
“Get your eyes on the enemy! You’ve seen choppers go down before!” Corporal Swift Eagle stormed up and down the line of Marines, all of whom were still stunned and staring at the fallen chopper. It seemed a perfect time for the enemy to charge. Swift Eagle knew it. We were vulnerable. “I’ll kick butt on the next Marine that looks back! You better know I mean it!” A flight of three Phantoms ripped overhead at treetop level, blazing a barrage of .20-millimeter cannon fire. They climbed high, banked back around, and swept over the enemy line with three more napalm bombs. I ducked from the wave of heat, trying to save what was left of my mustache.
The Phantoms banked back around and napalmed the opposite side. I could hear the sucking explosions, but I didn’t turn. Black smoke fogged over the perimeter. A penetrating odor like burning gasoline filled my lungs until I coughed.
The firing stopped. Only the crackling sound of dried leaves and trees burning remained. A horrible scream came from the CP, the kind of scream you can feel in your spine. Still, no one looked back.
Ten minutes later a voice from the CP called out, “Medevac coming in!”
An old H-34D drifted high over the burning treetops until it hovered directly above the blazing wreckage in the center of the perimeter. It dropped quickly, landing twenty meters from the CH-46. I clutched the M60, waiting for the cracks of AK fire. It drew no enemy fire. I knew it was over. Three Huey gunships circled the perimeter, ready to give cover to the medevac. Two minutes later the medevac lifted off. Still no enemy fire. I felt as though I’d stepped out of a drunken nightmare. I puked again. My mouth tasted dry with whiskey.
“Welcome home, John!”
I turned to see Sam standing behind me. His pitted face and rotten teeth looked as ugly as ever, but I was glad to see him, glad he wasn’t dead.
“How you been, Sam?” A thick cloud of black smoke covered us just as I spoke. It smelled like burning plastic. I tried to spit it out, but the taste of carbon stuck to my taste buds.
“Chan told us you guys had a great time in the hospital.” Sam spit a shot of tobacco to his left and knelt down on one knee, leaning slightly on his M79. “Did you hear about Swift Eagle?”
“I think his old man died. He can go home to take care of his mom if he wants, or at least go back for the funeral or whatever it is that Indians do.”
My stomach tightened. Swift Eagle! I couldn’t imagine being out here without him. “When’s he going?” I suddenly wished more than ever that my wound had sent me home.
“He ain’t! That crazy Indian loves it out here, I guess.”
“You’re kidding!” I said, selfishly pleased. If anyone deserved to go home, he sure did.
“Saddle up! Second Platoon! Saddle Up!” Gunny shouted from CP. A minute later another CH-46 floated through the smoke to the center of the perimeter, dropped off supplies, and took off without wasting a second. As Second Platoon filed by, Corporal James, Swift Eagle, Gunny, and Lieutenant Campbell tossed each man his share of food and ammo. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves marching north through the still-smoldering trees and brush. Everything looked black and charred, even the dirt. I couldn’t believe I was humping in the bush again. I felt depressed. We marched by the body of a dead NVA. He didn’t look burned at all. His eyes and mouth were wide open, like he’d been hit by an electric shock.
“Napalm,” Chan mumbled behind me.
“Sucked the air right out of him, didn’t it?” I said. “I wonder why we aren’t getting a body count?”
“Third Platoon is staying for that.” Chan nudged me with his rifle. “Look at that.” I turned to see what he was looking at. Twenty meters to our right a large, charred, four-legged animal leaned stiffly against a smoking tree trunk. “It isn’t a water buffalo.”
“Is it a tiger?” I asked.
“I don’t know.”
Fifty yards farther we left the burnt area. The point man hacked a trail through the thick brush with a machete. I could feel the salt, grit, and sand on the back of my neck. I yearned for the cleanliness of the hospital. Soon I’d smell like everybody else again. Just as well, I thought. The gnats seemed to like me a little more than usual. Probably not used to anything clean. Clean, what a laugh. I hadn’t had a bath in three days. Back in the world, I used to take a couple of showers a day.
We broke through the thick brush and into a long valley of tall elephant grass.
“Sure miss ol’ Smilin’ Jackson,” I said with a quick glance back at Chan.
“Yes. Me too.”
“I was thinking about him the other day. You know he never led us into one single ambush,” I said.
“He’s probably back home now. That character was supposed to write us.”
“It’s funny how nobody ever writes back once they get back to the world.”
“Paunchy wrote us.”
“Really!” I said. I looked back at Chan. “He’s alive?”
“Yes. I’ll tell you about it when we set in.”
I felt like I’d just gotten my second wind. I had prayed for Sanchez to make it, but I never thought he would. He just looked too pale when we put him on that medevac. I wasn’t sure he’d even want to live without his legs. I knew I wouldn’t.
Three hours later dusk crept over the landscape.
We crossed an overgrown rice paddy field, then followed a well-used trail that led past a sparsely wooded area. Our tiny column turned left into the woods for about twenty meters. We circled into a perimeter. A large, strong hand grabbed me by the arm. I turned to see Swift Eagle leading me back toward the trail.
“This edge of the perimeter will cover the trail,” he whispered. He pointed Chan and me to a spot behind a thicket five meters away. Then he patted me on the helmet. “I’m glad you’re back.”
“Thanks, Chief,” I said. He turned, walked to the CP in the center of the perimeter, and bent down on one knee beside Lieutenant Campbell.
“Darn!” Chan whispered.
“Watch it. This bush is full of thorns.”
I moved two rocks out of the way, leaned back, and tried to make myself comfortable. “I’d almost forgotten just how miserable it is to sleep in the dirt.”
“The hospital bed is but a faded memory,” Chan said.
“What about Sanchez’s letter?”
“It was truly inspiring. He’s in the Philadelphia Naval Hospital.”
“How’s he getting along? Did he say anything about his legs?” I asked.
“He’s taking it like a Marine. I almost cried when I read that letter to the chief’s squad. He said he can do just about everything except swim with his new legs.”
“God, that’s great—” Chan slapped his hand over my mouth as he ducked lower behind the thicket. He stared toward the trail. I peeked around the bush. There, five meters away, a pith helmet silhouetted against a light gray sky moved cautiously along the trail. I strained to see the shadowy figure more clearly. The scent of fish filled the air as he plodded by. I wanted to fire, but I knew that would be stupid. Sixty seconds passed. Total silence.
Another pith helmet. This one moving fast. Not quite running, but walking fast. Another helmet. Then another silhouetted against the darkening sky, along with the sound of many sandals and the rustle of canvas web gear. The clank of a canteen. Men breathing hard from a long, fast march. They filed by rapidly. My mouth felt too dry to swallow. I aimed the gun at the trail through the thinnest part of the thicket. They continued filing by. I tried counting. Sixty-six, sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine, seventy. They kept rushing by. Thank God I didn’t open up! This might be a whole battalion.
“Don’t fire,” Chan whispered, squeezing the blood out of my arm with his grip. I wanted to tell him I had no intention of firing, but my mouth felt too dry to whisper. Salty sweat began dripping into my eyes. They burned.
Then the last pair of Ho Chi Minh sandals hustled away. Quiet. I looked at Chan. “Maybe we should have opened up.”
“Alpha one. Alpha one.…This is Alpha two.…Over.” Sudsy’s voice was low but clearly heard around the perimeter.
“Alpha one, we need a fire mission at YC 8485NINER4. Reinforced company of NVA regulars. Do you copy?”
“YC 8,4,8,5, NINER, 4. We copy Alpha two.”
“Alpha two, Alpha two … this is Fire Base Alpha preparing to fire white-peter round.”
“Fire Base Alpha … Alpha two. We copy. Fire when ready.”
“Here comes a spotter round,” I mumbled. “Chan.”
“Yeah,” he whispered.
“You wouldn’t believe these guys at Fire Base Alpha. They just sit around and get loaded.”
The faint whistle of a faraway artillery round getting closer brought us up to our knees, straining to see where it would land. The white-phosphorus round would send up a mushroom cloud of white smoke. From there the explosive rounds would be zeroed in on the target. The whistle grew louder. Louder. “That’s too close!” Chan said. The whistle got shrill.
“Get down!” a voice from the CP shouted. A low, muffled explosion erupted from the CP. I looked back as a huge mushroom cloud of thick white smoke billowed high into the night air directly over the perimeter. Agonizing screams from the CP filled the air. Three small fires lit up the CP. Men scrambled around. I could see someone rolling in the dirt, his back afire, screaming. The sulphurous-smelling smoke spread over the area like a white fog.
“Alpha one, Alpha one, this is Alpha two, over!” Sudsy’s words ran together in his excitement.
“Alpha two, this is Alpha one, over.”
“Alpha one, that spotter round hit the center of our perimeter! Lieutenant’s been hit, he’s burned, we need a medevac! Tell those idiots, cease fire! Repeat! Cease fire! Tell Fire Base Alpha they are hitting Marines! Repeat, Marines!”