14: Waterborne Ambush
<< 13: The River || 15: The Men With Green Faces >>
Le began to implement his plan by signaling the cover boat coxswain to pull his craft up next to us in mid-channel. As soon as we were side-by-side, Le began issuing instructions.
“Back boat in inlet on far side of tree. We do same-same here.”
Cong, the boat captain on the cover boat, immediately took issue with Le’s instructions.
“No, no. Numba ten place! Numba ten!”
Le hadn’t expected a negative reaction and he stated his instructions again.
“Back boat in now ... far side of tree!”
Cong continued to resist.
“No! Bad place! Numba ten!”
Le was beginning to lose patience.
“Back boat in now! No more talk!”
As Cong continued to resist, Ski interrupted him.
“What’s the problem, Cong? Why’s this a bad place?”
Cong seemed anxious and nervous when he replied.
“Two tree! One on one side riva ... one on otha side riva! Bad place! Vietcong can tie wire to tree! If Vietcong tie wire to tree, one boat on one side wire, one boat on otha side wire, boat no can leave togetha! Lead boat no have cova boat! Bad place! Numba ten!”
Ski’s response was immediate.
“I don’t see the problem, Cong. Our positions are gonna be concealed. Our boats are only gonna be yards away from the tree on this bank. If Charlie shows, he’s dead meat! He won’t have time to even think about runnin’ a wire, much less runnin’ one for real
Le repeated his instruction.
“No more talk! Back boat in now!”
Cong continued to protest.
“No, no! If Charlie come ... if Charlie between lead boat and cova boat ... if lead boat shoot Charlie, lead boat hit cova boat people! If cova boat shoot Charlie ... cova boat hit lead boat people! Bad place! Numba ten!”
I didn’t know anything about PBR operations, but what Ski had said earlier made sense. Charlie certainly wouldn’t have time to run a wire if we didn’t want him to. But now, what Cong was saying made sense as well. With the lead boat in the inlet on the down riverside of the outcropping, and the cover boat in the inlet on the up-river side, if Charlie showed up between us that might pose a problem. The firing lanes for both boats would certainly be restricted if he did. As I mulled over Cong’s argument, I was eager to hear what Ski’s response would be.
Ski didn’t answer Cong right away. It took almost a full minute for him to respond.
“Cong, I see your point. But once the boats are backed into the inlets, we’ll both have a 10 to 15 degree clear fire area. If Charlie steps out on that outcropping, out in the clear, out of the tree line, your rounds won’t be aimed at us, and our rounds won’t be aimed at you.”
Again, Ski’s answer made sense. But so did Cong’s response.
“If we shoot and no kill all V.C. ... some V.C. run back! If V.C. run back ... and stop between ... and some shoot you ... and some shoot me ... I no can shoot but shoot you! You no can shoot but shoot me! No, no, no! Cong say place numba ten! Numba ten!”
I got the definite impression that Ski understood the argument that Cong was making; that he could see the logic in what he was saying. But Ski seemed, for some reason, to be confident that events couldn’t unfold the way Cong was saying they might.
“I hear ya’, Cong. But both boats are only gon’ be 80 to 90 feet away from the center of that outcrop. A ten-year old with a BB gun could waste a V.C. patrol from that distance.”
Ski stopped addressing Cong and turned his attention back to Le.
“Le, I think you’ve got a good plan, but it won’t work if we don’t have enough draft. You need to send somebody over the side and see how deep those inlets are.”
Le responded eagerly.
“OK. I go.”
“No. Send Nhu. He’s taller.”
“OK. Nhu, you checka wata ... go wata ... now!”
Nhu, the rear .50 man on our boat, quickly stripped down. He took off all his clothes, tied a thin rope around his waist, tied off the free end of the rope to a cleat on the back of the boat and then jumped over the side. He swam over to the down river inlet and continued to swim into the inlet until he came to a point where he calculated the rear of our boat would be once we laid the bush. When he stopped swimming and started treading water, Ski yelled out to him.
“Can you touch the bottom?”
Nhu responded with a negative nod of his head.
“OK. Swim over and check the other one.”
Nhu swam over to, and into, the other inlet and, again, positioned himself at a point where he calculated the rear of the cover boat would be during the bush. When he couldn’t touch the bottom there either, he nodded in the negative again. As Nhu began to swim toward the boat, Ski stopped him.
“Hey, Nhu. Swim on over to the outcrop. Ky’ll bring you your clothes.”
“Le. Take the boat over to the outcrop. Ky, grab a couple of machetes and you and Nhu start cuttin’ the green stuff.”
As Le piloted the boat over to the outcrop, Ski gathered up Nhu’s clothing and handed the bundle to Ky. Then Ski addressed Cong again. He had to yell to do so.
“Like I said, Cong. I understand your argument ... but it ain’t gon’ be a problem, I promise! If Charlie shows up, I’ll lay you ten-to-one he shows up on the river. Let’s just lay the bush and get on with it ... OK?”
Cong hung his head and began shaking it from side-to-side. He wasn’t comfortable with the plan at all, but he’d done all he could in expressing his concerns. Once he realized that Ski was in favor of the plan, he knew that any further argument would be useless.
“OK! Cong do! But Cong say place numba ten! Place numba ten!”
As soon as Cong agreed to the implementation of Le’s plan, Ski deferred to Le and instructed him to take over the operation.
“All right, Le. It’s all yours. Do it the way you’d do it if I wasn’t here. OK?”
Le pulled the lead boat up next to the outcrop and Ky stepped ashore. He was carrying two machetes and Nhu’s bundle of clothing. Nhu untied the rope from around his waist and tossed it into the water. Le immediately began coiling it up as he pulled it back aboard. Ky handed Nhu his clothing and he dressed hurriedly, then Ky handed him a machete. Once Nhu was dressed, the two of them stepped off into the underbrush and started whacking away with the machetes.
Just as Nhu and Ky started chopping the green stuff - just inside the tree line - Cong started backing his boat into the inlet on the up-river side of the outcrop. Once he had the craft where he wanted it, two of his crew members tossed thin ropes ashore that had grappling hooks attached. The two men who’d tossed the ropes then quickly stepped ashore carrying machetes. They went immediately to where the grappling hooks were and secured them in the earth beneath the undergrowth close to the bank. Once the grappling hooks were secure, Cong began tying the ropes off to cleats on the port side of the boat - one forward and one aft.
While Cong was securing his grappling lines, Le was backing the lead boat into the down river inlet. Once he had it where he wanted it, he tossed two grappling lines ashore. He yelled for Nhu and Ky to come and secure the hooks and they did. Once the hooks were secure, they immediately went back to work with their machetes.
When Nhu and Ky went back to chopping the undergrowth, Ski began staring at Le. His expression was stern and quizzical, it was as though he was waiting for Le to do some-thing; something he’d forgotten to do. After 10 to 15 seconds, Ski spoke up.
“Rendezvous, man! Don’t forget rendezvous!”
Le responded immediately. He yelled an instruction to Cong, then he yelled an instruction to the others.
“If V.C. come ... break bush ... rendezvous at bend in riva!”
As Le shouted his instruction, he was pointing down river toward the bend we’d passed as we’d approached the extraction point. Once he was sure that Cong understood, he yelled out to the others.
“If V.C. come ... go land side ... rendezvous at bend in riva ... we pick you up at bend in riva, OK?”
All of the men nodded in the affirmative. They all understood the instruction.
After issuing the rendezvous instructions, Le remained in the coxswain’s flat. Ski continued to stare at him for another 10 to 15 seconds, then he spoke up again.
“Two-man protocol! Remember? You’ve got two men ashore ... and so does Cong!”
Le knew immediately what Ski meant and he responded sheepishly; apologetically.
Le turned and yelled an instruction to Cong.
“Cong ... two-man beach! Two man beach! You biet?”
Cong responded immediately.
Cong moved immediately to the coxswain’s position on the cover boat. As he was doing so, he yelled at the man in his front gun tub.
“Two-man beach! Watcha riva!”
The man in the front gun tub responded with a nod and a wave, then he turned his attention toward the channel.
Le approached Ski and asked him if he would take the controls. When Ski nodded in the affirmative, Le made his way to the left gunnel. He stepped up onto the side of the boat and pulled himself up. Quickly, but cautiously, he side-stepped his way past the canopy and walked out onto the bow. When he reached the front gun tub he climbed down inside and manned the twin .50s.
The coxswain’s flat on a PBR was right at the mid-section of the craft and the deck in the flat was about 3 1/2 feet below the highest point on the gunnel. Approximately 3 to 4 feet behind the throttle position there was an engine cover. The engine cover ran the entire width of the craft, extended aft for 3 or 4 feet, and was almost high enough to reach the top of the gunnel on both sides of the boat. The top of the engine cover was actually two large plywood doors that could be opened in case repairs to the engine were necessary. Just aft of the engine cover, where the rear .50 was mounted, there was an area almost identical in size to the coxswain’s flat area.
Once Le was in position in the front gun tub, Ski stood by the controls in the coxswain’s flat. But he didn’t face forward. His back was to the controls as he kept his eyes on Nhu and Ky ashore. I sat down on the engine cover facing Ski. I wasn’t sure about what had just happened, so I asked.
“I understand the rendezvous thing. If something happens, the boats are gonna break the bush and head down-river, right?”
“To the bend in the river ... the one we just passed?”
“Right. That’s our rendezvous point.”
“And the guys on shore are gonna make their way there, too?”
“Yea. But only if something happens; only if they have to.”
“I understand that part. But what’s a two-man protocol?”
“Rule number two is, you never leave the boat.”
“What’s rule number one?”
“You never move at night. You never wanna be underway at night.”
“Back to rule number two. You never wanna leave the boat. But sometimes you have to. When you do send men ashore, WHEN YOU HAVE TO SEND MEN ASHORE, you never send more than two. And while they’re ashore, the two men still onboard have to be especially watchful. The drill is, one man mans the twins up front and one mans the controls. If something happens, the man on the twins opens up with everything he’s got and the man on the controls starts the engines and gets on step as fast as he can.”
For the next few minutes neither one of us said anything. We just watched intently as the Vietnamese worked their magic with the green stuff.
Before the Vietnamese on the cover boat began attaching foliage, I could clearly see the canopy on their boat. It was about 150 feet away and only partially obscured by the undergrowth that grew on the banks of both inlets. But in no time at all, once they started camouflaging the thing, it disappeared completely. I was amazed at how well the camouflage worked, and Ski seemed to be impressed as well.
“I don’t like this camouflage shit. But, by damn! These little fuckers sho’ nuff do it right, don’t they?”
I’d gotten the impression earlier that Ski didn’t think much about camouflaging an ambush site. It seemed like a good idea to me, and I couldn’t help but wonder why he was opposed to such a plan.
“What’s wrong with camouflage? Hiding the boats?”
“Camouflaging a boat is a dumb-ass idea. There ain’t no positives to it; only negatives.”
“Well ... stop and think. What all can happen during a bush? Think about every scenario and try to imagine what effect the camouflage will have on the outcome.”
I didn’t know what happened during a bush. I had no idea what types of scenarios might play out in an ambush situation, but I tried to think of some.
“Well. I suppose the stuff could hide your line-of-sight ... make it hard to see a target.”
“Bingo! What else?”
“Uh ... I don’t know.”
“Weight. You never wanna carry any more weight than you have to. That shit may not look all that heavy, but there’ll be a couple of hundred pounds of it on both boats before they’re through. A couple of hundred pounds is a couple of hundred too many. They’ll damn sure slow you down when you try to get up to speed in a hurry.”
“Right. And besides line of sight to the target, your vision is impaired in other ways. If you had to break the bush, it would make it hard for the coxswain to see where-the-hell-he’s goin when he guns the engines. Biet?”
“Yea. I see your point.”
“And it’s especially hard at night. You ain’t seen dark yet, Guns ... you ain’t even seen blackness ... you don’t even know what black is! You won’t know black till you’ve spent a night on the river with no moon and an overcast sky.”
“Yea. When there ain’t no moon, you can’t see shit. Oh, you can see the little stars twinklin’ up in the heavens, but you can’t see shit down here. Now that’s dark! But when there ain’t no moon ... AND THE SKY’S OVERCAST TO BOOT ... when you can’t even see the stars! Now that’s the blackest black known to man! That’s really dark! It’s what the universe must have looked like before the big patrol officer in the sky set off that big bang thing!”
“Is that the most dangerous time ... when it’s completely dark on the river?”
“No. The most dangerous time is now. I don’t like it when we’ve got men ashore, and I’ll feel a lot better when they get through with this camouflage shit and get back aboard.”
I hadn’t really realized how vulnerable we were until Ski pointed it out to me. When he did, I felt the hair raise up on the back of my neck. A cold chill ran down my spine as I followed up with the obvious question.
“If you don’t like the camouflage bit - if it’s that dangerous - why do you let ‘em do it?”
“What choice do I have? Look, as far as I’m concerned this camouflage shit is a bummer. But bless their little hearts, that’s the way they wanna do it! That’s the way they’re gonna do it when I ain’t here, so fuck it! What choice do I have? None! Nada! Zilch! Zero! And as long as they’re gonna do it that way - as long as they’re committed to doin’ it that way - shit! Watcha’ gonna do?”
Once I realized how vulnerable we were - once I realized that Ski and Le were carrying all the weight - I felt like an idiot just sitting on the engine cover, so I stood up and moved to the rear .50 position.
There was a slight pause in the conversation. Ski turned his attention to the men on shore and I sat back down on the engine cover by the rear .50. I felt the sudden onset of an adrenaline surge. I got lightheaded for a moment and felt a really cold chill sweep through my body ... a chill even colder than the one before.
At some point, Ski turned his attention back to me. I don’t know what he saw ... what I looked like ... what my expression was ... what my demeanor revealed, but whatever he saw prompted him to get me moving, to give me something to do ... anything to get my mind off whatever it was I was thinking about at that particular moment ... whatever it was that had caused me to look the way I looked.
“Hey, man ... I’m thirsty. Ain’t you? Get us a coke. And get one for Le, too.”
As I made my way to the cooler I noticed that my legs were really wobbly, and as I raised the lid on the cooler - with my right hand - I noticed that my right arm was shaking.
“You OK, Guns?”
“Yea. I’m OK.”
“You sure? You look a little pale.”
“No. I’m fine. I promise.”
“Just settle down. Take some deep breaths. The coke’ll help some, too. Don’t chug it, just sip it ... and think about somethin’ else. Hey ... if you’ve got a girlfriend ... hell ... think about drillin’ her eyes out!”
What Ski said was funny. It seemed odd that he’d make a joke at a time like that, but I couldn’t help but laugh. I grabbed three cokes out of the cooler and closed the lid. I turned and handed one to Ski. Then I made my way to the left side of the canopy and pulled myself up on the gunnel. The shaking had stopped, but my legs were still woozie. I side-stepped my way passed the canopy and onto the bow of the boat. Le heard me coming and looked up just as I got to the tub. I offered him the coke and he smiled and bowed his head slightly as he accepted it. Just as I was side-stepping my way back along the canopy, just as I was about to climb back down into the coxswain’s flat, Nhu and Ky began tossing double-arm-loads of foliage onto the engine cover from the bank. Ski was eager for them to finish, and I could hear that eagerness in his voice when he spoke.
“How much more of that shit you gon’ cut?”
Nhu was breathing heavily when he answered.
“Ti-ti more. Cut one more time, OK?”
“OK. But hurry it up, will ya’! The sun’s goin’ down and I ain’t even checked in with Nha Be.”
The four men ashore finished cutting and gathering foliage and returned to the boats about ten minutes later. I handed Nhu and Ky a cold, opened can of coke apiece as soon as they climbed aboard. They chugged a couple of swigs and then went right to work skillfully weaving the nippa palm leaves and other undergrowth into four-to-five-foot sections that they cleverly attached, snugly and firmly, to the bow, sides and rear of the craft.
Cong’s men had been camouflaging their boat as they went along. Nhu and Ky didn’t begin camouflaging our craft until they’d cut all the foliage they needed.
Great care had to be taken in attaching the foliage to the boat. Holes had to be formed in each section where the M-60s were mounted. After the location for the hole was calculated, the section was raised up, the .60 barrel was slipped through the hole, and that section was secured to the sections that butted up to it, on the port and starboard sides, with small strands of nippa palm fronds.
The section that the men created to cover the aft portion of the boat presented a special problem. The aft .50 barrel, when pointed directly to port or starboard, didn’t touch the foliage that had been placed on either side. But when the barrel was pointed directly aft, it kept hitting the aft section of foliage. When it did so, that whole section of camouflage would shift and knock the side sections out of whack, too. Eventually, Ski suggested that we probably wouldn’t need camouflage aft, so that whole section was dismantled and discarded.
Both crews finished laying camouflage just before the sun went down, and when they were done, Ski yelled over to Cong and told him to meet him on the outcrop. Both men left the boats and met up at the clearing just beside the hardwood on the river’s edge. They spent about three minutes surveying both locations from a number of different positions on-shore. They studied both sites very, very carefully. I couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other, but when they were done, they patted each other on the back.
Ski returned to our boat immediately. Cong stayed ashore and began scoping out the tree line.
Now that the ambush was set, it was supper time. Ski gave the order and the Vietnamese turned to in a hurry.
“OK, guys, it’s chow time. Break out the grill! Let’s eat a hot one.”
Ski turned toward Cong’s boat and yelled the same instruction to them. Ski’s reference to a grill took me by surprise.
“Grill? You’ve got a barbecue grill onboard?”
“Just sit down and watch, Guns. Sit down and watch.”
I sat down on the engine cover and watched attentively as Le and Nhu began preparing our meals.
While Le picked through the C-ration cans finding items that he and the others liked, Nhu came up with a stick of C-4 plastic explosive. He took a knife and cut off a slice and put it on a piece of ceramic tile that he’d placed on top of the engine cover. Then, he took a lighter and held it close to the slice of C-4. A moment or two later a blue flame appeared. I just stared at the flame for a moment; amazed. The expression on my face must have been priceless.
“Hey, Guns. I take it you’ve never been to a C-4 barbecue.”
I didn’t respond. I just kept staring at the flame.
While Nhu had been lighting the C-4, Le had been opening the C-ration cans with his P-38. He didn’t cut the lids all the way off. He cut each one to a point where he could bend back the lid, then the lid, still attached to the can, was used as a handle. One-at-a-time, he held each can over the flame until the contents began to bubble. As each can came to a semi-boil, he’d pass it to a member of the crew and hold another can over the flame.
While Le and Nhu prepared chow, Ski turned on the main radio and picked up the handset.
There were two forms of communication aboard each boat: a main radio unit that had an extended range, and a smaller, hand-held unit with a limited range that was used to communicate from boat-to-boat.
Once he’d powered up the main unit, Ski took a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and tried to place a call to the radio room at Nha Be.
“November Bravo, this is Po-lock One ... November Bravo, this is Po-lock One ... come in.”
A moment later there was a response, but there was a lot of static and the transmission was garbled and impossible to understand.
“Nha Be. Too far.”
“Is that bad?”
“No. It just means I’ll have to call the Mobase and get them to pass the shit along.”
Ski put the handset to his mouth again.
“Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One ... Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One ... do you read me?”
A moment or two later there was a relatively clear response.
“Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce ... Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce ... read you five-by-five ... go ahead ...”
“Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One ... Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One ... can you Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo. I repeat ... can you Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo ... over ...”
“That’s a roger, Po-lock One. I repeat ... that’s a rog ... I can Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo ... Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo ... go ahead ...”
“Roger that, Mike Bravo Deuce. Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo ... Tango Foxtrot to November Bravo ... (pause) ... My Whisky Alpha Bravo is Echo Echo ... (pause) ... Lima Echo Papa. I repeat ... My Whisky Alpha Bravo is Echo Echo ... (pause) ... Lima Echo Papa ... (pause) ... Charlie Foxtrot ...”
There was a brief pause. Then a response.
“Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce. Charlie Foxtrot. Your Whisky Alpha Bravo is Echo Echo ... (pause) ... Lima Echo Papa. I repeat ... Charlie Foxtrot ... your Whisky Alpha Bravo is Echo Echo ... (pause) ... Lima Echo Papa. Charlie Foxtrot ... over ...”
“Charlie Foxtrot, Mike Bravo Deuce ... Charlie Foxtrot ... over ...”
“Roger that, Po-lock One. Stand by ...”
I had no earthly idea what the coded transmission meant, but I was dying to find out.
“Damn! Wha’d you just say? And wha’d he just say?”
While Ski waited for a response, he explained the radio call.
“November Bravo is Nha Be. Mike Bravo Deuce is Mobase II. Charlie Foxtrot, or CF, means confirm. Tango Foxtrot, or TF, means transfer. When I couldn’t raise Nha Be, I got in touch with the Mobase and asked the guy there if he would Tango Foxtrot my message, or transfer my message, to Nha Be. He said he would. Then I told him to tell Nha Be that my Whisky Alpha Bravo - my Waterborne Ambush point - will be the same location as the SEAL extraction point which he’s already familiar with ... the guy at Nha Be already has these coordinates.”
“You said all that?”
“Yea. Echo Echo means ‘equal to’. I told him that our Whisky Alpha Bravo is Echo Echo ... or equal to ... Lima Echo Papa. Lima Echo Papa is the code I was given for the SEAL extraction point. Now, all we gotta do is wait for the Mobase to tell us that Nha Be knows where we’re at.”
“Well I’ll be damned.”
While we waited for the guy at Mobase II to get back in touch, we all started eating. Nhu had come up with some spoons from somewhere and he tossed one to each of the crew. The evening meal had warmed up nicely over the C-4 flame and was downright delicious.
Suddenly, the radio crackled again. Ski put his meal aside and picked up the handset.
“Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce. Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce. Stand by for new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta. I repeat ... stand by for new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ... Charlie Foxtrot ...”
“Go ahead, Mike Bravo Deuce ... this is Po-lock One standing by for new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ...”
There was a momentary pause in the transmission. While we waited for the guy at the Mobase to continue, I asked Ski what was going on.
“He’s gonna give us a new word. We have to figure out what that new word means.”
“It’s a word that isn’t on the slate ... a word we don’t have a code for.”
A moment or two later the radio came to life again.
“Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce. Po-lock One, this is Mike Bravo Deuce. Your new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ... Echo Echo ... X-ray. Charlie Foxtrot?”
“Go ahead, Mike Bravo Deuce. Charlie Foxtrot new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ... Echo Echo ... X-ray. Standing by for new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ... over.”
“Stand by, Po-lock One. Stand by for X-ray. (Pause) Po-lock One ... X-ray ... Echo, Echo ... ‘AIN’T GOT NOTHIN’ TO DO BUT ROAM AROUND HEAVEN ALL DAY. Charlie Foxtrot ...”
Ski got a strange, bewildered, puzzled look on his face.
“Mike Bravo Deuce ... what the holy-fuckin’-hell is that?”
“Po-lock One, maintain protocol! I repeat ... maintain protocol! Repeating new Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta. Whisky Oscar Romeo Delta ... Echo Echo ... X-ray ... Echo Echo ... AIN’T GOT NOTHIN’ TO DO BUT ROAM AROUND HEAVEN ALL DAY. Charlie Foxtrot?”
Ski was livid. I’d seen him mad before, but never like this. He turned and looked at me with a giant question mark in both eyes.
“What-in-the-hell’s he talkin’ about? ‘Ain’t got nothin’ to do but roam around heaven all day!’ What-in-the-hell is that? What’s that ‘sposed to mean?”
I didn’t know what the guy at the Mobase was getting at, but I’d heard those words before, and I answered Ski’s question with a question.
“What does X-ray mean?”
“It’s the new word. It’s what we’ll call the new word.”
“Then I think I know what he’s getting at.”
“What he just said is a line from an old Frankie Laine song, That Lucky Old Sun.”
“I think X-ray means ‘sun’.”
“Yea. The line is ‘That lucky ol’ sun ain’t got nothin’ to do but roam around heaven all day.’ X-ray must mean sun.”
“Shit! How was I ‘sposed to know that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well ... there ain’t but one way to find out.”
Ski raised the handset to his mouth and spoke very deliberately.
“Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One. Mike Bravo Deuce, this is Po-lock One. Charlie Foxtrot ... first Lima X-ray. I repeat ... Charlie Foxtrot ... first Lima X-ray ... over.”
“Roger, Po-lock One. Standing by for first Lima X-ray ... over.”
“Charlie Foxtrot ... first Lima X-ray ... Echo Echo ... Sierra. I repeat. Charlie Foxtrot ... first Lima X-ray ... Echo Echo ... Sierra ... over.”
“That’s a roger, Po-lock One. Charlie Foxtrot ... first Lima X-ray ... Echo, Echo .... Sierra ... over.”
Ski turned to me and smiled.
“Way to go, Guns. You got it.”
“How do you know?”
“First Lima means first letter. I asked him if the first letter in X-ray was an ‘S’.”
At almost the same moment, the Mobase radio operator continued his radio transmission.
“Po-lock One, stand by for instructions. I repeat ... Po-lock One, stand by for instructions.”
Ski responded immediately.
“Roger, Mike Bravo Deuce ... Po-lock One standing by.”
There was a brief pause in the transmission. While he waited for the instructions from Nha Be, Ski stood up and looked back toward the outcrop. When he couldn’t see Cong, he yelled over to the men on the cover boat.
“Is Cong on the boat?”
“No. Cong no boat!”
Ski began scoping out the tree line just behind the outcrop.
“God-damn it! Cong, get your ass back on the boat! Now!”
At almost the same moment, the Mobase radio operator continued his transmission.
“Tango Foxtrot from November Bravo. Tango Foxtrot from November Bravo. Bravo Bravo. I repeat ... Bravo Bravo. Set new Whisky Alpha Bravo. I repeat ... set new Whisky Alpha Bravo. Set Lima Echo Papa at X-ray plus one Hotel Romeo ... Alpha Mike. I repeat ... set Lima Echo Papa at X-ray plus one Hotel Romeo ... Alpha Mike. Do you copy, over?”
Ski had become visibly upset during the course of the transmission. By the time the voice asked him if he understood the message, he was livid. His answer was explosive.
“Yea, asshole! I hear ya’! You listen, man ... and you listen good. Po-lock One and Po-lock Two just spent over an hour playing Johnny Appleseed! You hear me? Johnny-fuckin’-Appleseed! We ain’t playin’ no B.B. King! You hear? NO B.B. KING! My Whisky Alpha Bravo is Lima Echo Papa! I repeat ... my Whisky Alpha Bravo is Lima Echo Papa! You understand? Get my Whisky Alpha Bravo from November Bravo. Then, the next time you hear my voice - the next time you hear my call sign - that’ll mean supper’s done and the Water Dog can chow down any time he’s ready! You copy? Huh? Did you hear what I just said? OVER!”
There was a momentary pause. Then the radio operator responded.
“Do you want me to repeat your last? Over.”
“Did you understand what I said?”
“And you can talk to the Water Dog yourself?”
“Then no ... you don’t need to repeat it. Just tell November Bravo I said to get fucked! You hear me? You tell that son-of-a-bitch I said to get fucked! Po-lock One over and god-damn out!”
With that, Ski hung up the handset and turned the radio off.
“God-damn mother-fuckin’ asshole! Can you believe that son-of-a-bitch? Geez!”
“What was that all about?”
“Nha Be ordered us to Bravo Bravo ... break the bush. That’s bullshit! We just spent an hour layin’ the damn thing! And it’s a Johnny Appleseed bush, too ... a god-damn lawn and garden center. We got trees planted all over both boats! AND THE SUN’S ALREADY GONE DOWN! JESUS!”
“What did he mean by Hotel Romeo? Hotel Romeo Alpha Mike?”
“He said Nha Be wanted us to break the bush and not to come back till X-ray plus one Hotel Romeo. Hotel Romeo ... H.R. ... Hour ... get it? Since X-ray means sun, that means they were telling us to break the bush and not to come back till one hour after the sun. He slapped that damn Alpha Mike on the end so I’d know he meant A.M. ... one hour after sunrise in the mornin’ ... not one hour after sunset tonight! God-damn son-of-a-bitch!”
“What did you mean by ‘B.B. King?”
“B.B. ... Bravo, Bravo ... break the bush. Biet?”
“Ain’t no way I’m Bravo Bravo.”
“What’s a Water Dog?”
“That’s a slang expression for a Seawolf. I just told the son-of-a-bitch we weren’t breakin’ the bush; for him to find out our coordinates from the guy at Nha Be, and that the next time he heard my voice - or my call sign - Charlie would be at those coordinates, too - and for him to send the Water Dog! His supper’ll be waitin’!”
“Damn! You said all that? And he knew what you meant?”
“I hope-the-hell he did!”
Suddenly, Cong yelled at us from the outcrop.
“Numba ten place! Boo-coo numba ten!”
Ski had been sitting on the engine cover. When he heard Cong yell, he stood up quickly.
“Cong! God-damn it! Get your ass on the boat! Now!”
Cong was standing next to the hardwood on the outcrop and pointing inland.
“V.C. trail! Cong see V.C. trail!”
Then Cong pointed at the hardwood.
“Ropa mark! Tree have ropa mark! V.C. tie ropa on tree!”
“God-damn it! Get on the boat! Now!”
“Look otha tree, otha side riva! Otha tree have ropa mark! V.C. tie ropa cross riva!”
“Damn it, man! I said get on the boat ... NOW!”
Cong shook his head from side to side and made his way back to the cover boat. There was a freaky silence for two or three minutes while Ski stood up on the engine cover and scoped out both sides of the river. Ski finally broke the silence when he asked Le to hand him the binoculars.
“Le. Give me the eyes, man!”
Le came up with some binoculars from somewhere and handed them to Ski. Ski then looked through the unit and focused his attention on the hardwood on the other side of the channel.
“Cong’s right. There are rope marks all over that sucker. Charlie’s been here before. And it looks like he’s been here a lot.”
While the sun was still visible, hanging like a big orange ball just above the horizon in the western sky, Ski prompted Le to set a defensive perimeter.
“OK, Le. We ain’t got much light left. How many claymores we got?”
Le disappeared into the storage area in the forward bulkhead of the coxswain’s flat. When he returned he was holding an armful of claymore mines.
“Fi. Fi claymore.”
“Five. That’ll do. Place one perpendicular to midships at port, one perpendicular at starboard, one at an angle to the left off the stern and one at an angle to the right. Then lay the fifth one directly aft. OK?”
“And make sure you face the boom-boom side toward Charlie.”
“Before you start layin’ that shit, walk over and tell Cong to lay his shit, too. And tell him to turn his hand-held on. We need to do a radio check.”
While Le went ashore to lay the claymores, Ski came up with two shotguns. One was a 12-gauge Remington. The other was a 12-gauge Ithaca. He handed me the Ithaca and a box of ammunition.
“Here you go, Guns. Load this sucker up. There ain’t no plug in the god-damn thing, so cram it full. I’ll load this one.”
I noticed immediately that my shells were red and Ski’s were green. I wondered if we were using two different types of ammunition, so I asked.
“What are we usin’, double-zero?”
“That’s what you got, yea.”
“What you got?”
“Yea. Flechets are tiny little arrows. They spread out faster’n cat shit! They make a hell-of-a pattern in a hurry! When you get done, make sure the safety’s on and then lean that sucker against the fantail in the port corner. Mine’ll be at the starboard corner, OK?”
“Look at ‘em good when we place ‘em. Know where they’re at. If we need ‘em, we’ll need ‘em in a hurry, and we’ll have to be able to find ‘em in the dark.”
Ski and I loaded the shotguns and placed them in position on the fantail of the boat. Once Ski’s weapon was in-place, he disappeared into the storage compartment and returned with two M-79 grenade launchers and two canvas bandoleers. Each bandoleer contained M-79 grenades. He took a grenade out of one of the bandoleers and began loading one of the launchers.
“This is H.E. .... High Explosive.”
Once he’d loaded the launcher, he laid it down on the extreme right side of the engine cover. He then took five additional H.E. grenades out of the bandoleer and placed them in a line just to the left of the launcher. Then he took a grenade out of the second bandoleer and began loading the second launcher.
“This is W.P. ... Willie Peter ... White Phosphorus.”
Once he’d loaded the second launcher, he laid it down on the extreme left side of the engine cover. He took five additional W.P. grenades and placed them in a line just to the right of that unit.
“Don’t mess with these suckers unless you have to. Le’s our 79 man, and he’s damn good. He can nail a moving target at fifty yards with one of these fuckers. But if you have to use one, and you’re at close range, don’t use the Willy Peter. If any of this shit gets on ya’, it’ll burn a hole right through your ass. You hear me?”
Ski grabbed the M-79 bandoleers and disappeared back into the storage compartment. He returned a moment later with a small box and three small, thin cylinders.
Ski placed the small box in the center of the engine cover. It contained fragmentation grenades.
“I guess you know what these are.”
“You ever used one?”
He handed me one of the grenades and explained the proper way to use them.
“You right handed?”
“Then put the sucker in your right hand. Place the spoon right at the base of your fingers and close your fist; get a good grip. Then you pull the ring with your left forefinger. The ring is attached to the pin. When the pin comes free, it still isn’t armed. It won’t be armed until the spoon flies free - when you throw it. OK?”
“Don’t try to throw it like a baseball; you’ll throw your shoulder out if you do. You just lob the sucker. But put some spunk in the throw, now. Get the sucker on out there. We don’t wanna be dodgin’ this shit!”
Ski held out his hand and I handed the grenade back to him. He placed it back in the box and picked up one of the cylinders.
“This is a pop flare. You ever used one of these?”
“Do you know how they work?”
He handed me the cylinder he was holding and picked up another one.
“OK. Look closely. They’re ready to go. This is the top, and this is the bottom. Familiarize yourself with the feel. All you gotta do to set this sucker off is point the top in the direction you want it to go - skyward - and pop the bottom with the palm of your free hand. When you do, you’ll hear a ‘pop’ sound as the load leaves the tube. The load is an illumination round that’s attached to a small parachute. It’ll go sixty to eighty feet in the air, the illumination round will ignite, then the parachute will open and the flare - hangin’ from the bottom of the chute - will come floatin’ back down to earth.”
“Well I’ll be damned.”
“Yea. When would we use these?”
“Trust me. You’ll know. But use common sense. The darkness is a motherfucker, but it’s our best friend. If we get tangled up with Charlie, we don’t wanna be poppin’ off no flares ... especially right over our own heads.”
“So ... when would we use them?”
“Like I said ... you’ll know. OK?”
“Any more questions?”
“Yea. What happens if I get confused about which is the top and which is the bottom?”
“Nothin’. If you point it in the wrong direction and slap the top with your hand, it won’t do nothin’. All you’ll be doin’ is wastin’ time. We can’t afford to waste time in a firefight, that’s the main thing, so familiarize yourself with the feel so you’ll get it right the first time. OK?”
I handed the cylinder back to Ski and he placed all three just to the right of the grenade box in the center of the engine cover.
Ski disappeared back into the storage compartment. A moment later, he came back out carrying two M-16s and a bandoleer full of clipped 5.56 ammo.
“OK. I know you know what these are.”
He placed one of the M-16s on the right side of the engine cover between the grenade box and the M-79. Then he placed the second M-16 in the same position on the opposite side. He stretched out the bandoleer of clipped ammo and laid it in front of the grenade box on the engine cover just behind the coxswain’s position.
“Both of these babies are locked and loaded. As you can see, the barrels are pointing aft, toward the fantail, and that’s where the rear .50 man’ll be. We place ‘em in position locked and loaded, we don’t want to have to lock and load in a firefight, but we do wanna make sure the safeties are on. These are the only units that are pointed at somebody prior to a fight. We’ve got to make sure their safeties are on. OK?”
“OK, then. I just laid ‘em out, and I checked ‘em. But you check ‘em, too. And don’t be surprised if Nhu checks ‘em three or four times as the night wears on. They’ll be pointed at his ass all night.”
When the M-16s were in place, Ski picked up a hand-held radio and turned it on. He pressed the ‘talk’ key and made a call to Cong on the cover boat.
“Radio check. Radio check, over.”
A moment or two later I heard Cong’s voice. It was coming through loud and clear on the receiver in the set Ski was holding.
“Rayo check, rayo check. Read you fi-by-fi, ova.”
“Turn it down as low as it’ll go. OK?”
“OK, Cong. Here’s the drill. I’ll check in with you verbally every hour, OK?”
“If something starts goin’ down and we need to communicate by squelch, here’s the code: Two clicks of the key will mean ‘radio check’. You’ll answer with three clicks, OK?”
“If you call me, use two clicks. I’ll answer you with three, OK?”
“Now if Charlie shows up, and I want you to turn your radio off, I’ll give you one click, OK?”
“But before you turn it off, answer me with one click, OK? So I’ll know you heard me.”
“OK. After midnight, no talkie-talkie, OK?”
“We’ll just use squelch after midnight, OK?”
“One more thing. If we make contact, if Charlie shows up, the lead boat will fire first, OK?”
“Now if Charlie sees you, and opens up on you, you can return fire. Understand?”
“But otherwise, the lead boat will fire first. OK?”
Just as Ski finished his radio check, Le appeared at the starboard side of the boat and called out to Ski.
“Yea, Le. Go ahead.”
Le leaned over from the bank and forced a claymore detonator with the line attached through the foliage on the starboard side of the boat. Ski took the detonator and pulled about three or four feet of line through the green stuff. Then he coiled up the line and set the detonator on the deck next to the gunnel below the starboard splinter shield. The other end of the line was attached to the claymore that Le had set perpendicular to starboard.
Le then made his way along the bank until he was even with the fantail of the boat. Ski went aft as well. Le passed another detonator, with line attached, around the foliage section at the starboard fantail corner. Again, Ski coiled up about three or four feet of line and placed the coiled wire and the detonator on the deck next to the shotgun that was leaning against the gunnel where the starboard side met the fantail.
Le then walked through the underbrush to a point on shore about ten feet behind the boat. It was a spot of heavily overgrown earth that formed a V-shape at the rear of the inlet. Since there was no camouflage on the aft section of the craft, Le tossed Ski another detonator - line attached - and he caught it. Again, he coiled up three or four feet of line and placed the coil and the detonator on the deck in the center of the fantail.
Le then moved around to the port fantail position, just where the fantail met up with the foliage on the port side, and tossed Ski another detonator. He coiled up the line and then placed the coil and the detonator on the deck next to the port-side shotgun. Le then moved to a spot shore side that was perpendicular to port amidships. He leaned across from the bank and poked the last detonator through the foliage. Ski grabbed the unit, coiled up the line, and then placed in on the deck just below the port splinter shield.
“You know how to fire the claymores, Guns?”
“Good. Just remember where the detonators are and don’t go gettin’ tangled up in the lines. OK?”
“How far out?”
“Port and starboard, ten feet. Aft, twenty feet.”
“Good. That oughta’ do it. Remember that, Guns. All four port and starboard mines are ten feet out. The aft claymore is twenty feet out. Got it?”
“Yea. When do you fire the claymores?”
“When you can smell Charlie’s breath! When you know what he’s had for supper!”
The Vietnamese started laughing. Ski did, too. It was a dumb question; I knew it was a dumb thing to say as soon as the words left my lips. But I was curious, I wanted to know, and Ski picked up on that.
“You know where the claymores are, right. If Charlie gets anywhere within ten feet of where they are - ten feet on the other side of those suckers - that’d be a good time to hit the trigger.”
With the placement of the detonators, the bush was finally set. Ski scanned the boat for a minute - fore and aft and port and starboard - looking for any detail that might have been overlooked. When he was satisfied that everything was where it should be, he walked over to the cooler and pulled out five beers. He tossed one to me, handed one to Nhu, set one on the engine cover for Le and then yelled at Ky and told him to stand up in the front gun tub. When he did, Ski tossed him his beer and yelled ‘heads up’ at the same time. Ky made a good catch and yelled a polite ‘thank you’, then he disappeared back into the turret.
Le came around to the port fantail corner where there wasn’t any foliage and Nhu helped him aboard. As soon as he got on-board he made a bee-line for his beer.
I had a million questions and I wanted answers; there was so much I didn’t know. When Ski sat down on the engine cover and began opening his beer, I sat down next to him.
“Hey, Ski. Sorry for the dumb question, but there’s just so much to learn. I know what the claymores are for ... I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t ... and the shotguns ... I know what they’re for. But what kind of scenario would bring them into play?”
“A bad one.
“A lot of Riv Div crews never bothered with claymores. They figured that if Charlie got that close they’d be dead meat anyway. Same with the shotguns. But our boat captain always used both; he’d always set out both no matter what kind of situation we were in.”
“Rain for one thing.”
“In case it rains.”
“When it rains out here, especially if it’s a hard rain, you can’t hear shit. That pitter-patter crap can get loud. REAL LOUD! So anything you’d ordinarily be able to hear shore-side - any movement, footsteps, whatever - you can’t hear it when it rains. So, when it rains, Charlie can get in close. REAL CLOSE! He can get right on top of your ass. Remember what I told you. If Charlie can take it to you hand-to-hand, he will. That’s why I lay claymores. That’s why I use shotguns.”
“Is it supposed to rain tonight?”
“Not that I know of. But better safe than sorry. Right?”
Ski raised his beer and touched it to mine.
“Here’s to ya’, Guns. Your first bush!”
When the sun finally went down for good, it went down in a hurry. One minute it was there; about half of it was visible; it was just hanging there casting a deep, orange-red glow on the horizon to the west. Then, suddenly, it was gone. The darkness seemed to come instantly, as though someone had flipped off a light switch.
When the darkness hit, I started looking for the moon. When I couldn’t find it a feeling of foreboding came over me. Then I suddenly remembered what Ski had said earlier:
‘When there ain’t no moon, you can’t see shit!’
As I stared into the blackness, with no moon visible, I began to realize just how right he was. When I couldn’t see the moon, I started looking for the stars. I couldn’t see any stars, either. My heart sank and I immediately remembered what else he’d had to say:
‘When there ain’t no moon ... AND THE SKY’S OVERCAST TO BOOT ... when you can’t even see the stars! That’s the blackest black known to man!’
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ky called out. He didn’t yell; he whispered very, very loudly.
“Boat! Boat! Boat on riva!”
Ski bolted to a standing position. He stared through the camouflage on the port side of the boat. I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat there - on the engine cover - staring into the darkness - frozen - like a side of beef in a meat locker!
It was too dark to see anything. Ky hadn’t actually seen anything himself. But he’d heard something; a noise. A moment or two later, as the noise got louder, as the noise got closer, there was no doubt about what it was. We all recognized the sound at the same instant; the unmistakable drone of PBR engines. Ski was the first to speak, and his voice was barely audible.
“Two boats. Prob’ly from the Mobase.”
I finally managed to move and slid off the engine cover. I knelt down just to Ski’s left and whispered to him.
“How can they see where they’re going?”
“Radar? He’s got radar?”
“Yea. Now hush up.”
A moment or two later, the lead boat coxswain switched on his search-light and scanned the channel in front of him. Ski reacted immediately.
“What-the-hell’s he doin’? He’s givin’ his position away!”
Suddenly, the cover boat’s light came on and he started scanning the shoreline. They were approaching at a slow speed, and the cover boat’s light was coming right toward us. Ski reacted immediately.
“Down, down ... everybody down!”
Both boats went right by us. The cover boat’s light raked both of our positions when they passed, but there was no indication that they saw us; there was no indication at all that they knew that we were there.
When the sound of the boats finally went silent and they disappeared from sight, Ski sat back down on the engine cover. The fact that both boats had turned on their lights seemed to confuse him.
“They ain’t bushin’ ... they’re lookin’ for something ... or somebody. I can’t believe they turned their lights on!”
“They weren’t supposed to do that?”
“I wouldn’t. Not unless I had to.”
“What about rule number one? Movin’ after dark?”
“Beats the hell out of me! They’re up to somethin’!”
“Did you say they were usin’ radar?”
“Yea. All the boats have radar.”
After a long moment of silence, I asked the obvious question.
“Why are we hiding from them? Why’d you make us get down?”
“They prob’ly don’t know we’re out here. But even if they did, we’re hidden now ... we’re camouflaged. If they’re a typical ARVN patrol, they’ll react immediately to anything out of the ordinary. If they’d have seen movement on the bank, or from our position, they’d prob’ly have opened up.”
“I wonder what those fuckers were lookin’ for. Runnin’ at night ... with their lights on ... that’s really fuckin’ weird!”
“Do you think they were lookin’ for us?”
“Now why would they be doin’ that?”
“I don’t know.”
Thirty or forty seconds went by and nobody said anything. Then Ski broke the silence.
“Well, Guns. You ready?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have much to say to a newbie. A newbie PBR man basically knows what to expect, they get the low-down in the training they receive back at Mare Island. But the way it really is, and the way they teach ‘em back there ... well ... it’s different ... and the best way to teach ‘em how it really is is to just throw ‘em into it. But in your case ... well ... there’s a couple of things you prob’ly need to know.”
“Well ... I know you’re gonna be scared shitless. It’s all gonna be new to you, especially the darkness. But just keep one thing in mind, OK?”
“If Charlie does show up tonight, no matter what his strength is, no matter how many of ‘em there are ... just remember this.”
“There ain’t no way his firepower can match ours. There ain’t no way, short of him show-in’ up in battalion strength, that he can match the firepower we’ve got on these two boats. Six fifties! Four M-60s! Four M-79s! Four M-16s! Ten claymores! Six shotguns! Hand grenades! And we’ll have the element of surprise! He’s the one that’ll be movin’, not us! We’ll know where HE is! But he won’t know where WE are. No matter what, we’ll have the element of surprise. OK?”
“Feelin’ better now?”
“A little bit.”
“Good ... then repeat after me.
“Yea tho’ I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...”
“Yea tho’ I walk through the valley of the shadow of death ...”
“I will fear no evil ...”
“I will fear no evil ...”
“For I’m the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley ...”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then I heard the Vietnamese start laughing. When I didn’t respond, Ski prompted me.
“Come on, Guns. Say it.”
“For I’m the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley.”
“There you go. Just keep that thought in the back of your head and you’ll do fine.”
“Yea. If you feel anything crawling across your boots or brushing up beside your leg, don’t react to it ... don’t move. OK?”
“Why? What would it be?”
“Yea. With that underbrush all over the boat, things’ll have a pathway to get on-board.”
“What kind of things?”
“Rats! Snakes! Lizards! Frogs! Mostly rats!”
“And they’re big ol’ suckers, too! But they usually don’t bite unless they can get to open flesh. I ain’t ever known one to bite through a pair of utilities. Now the gooks here, they got a problem! Don’t ya’ guys?”
The Vietnamese, some of whom were wearing shorts, started giggling.
“What about snakes? What kind of snakes?”
“Some of ‘em are poisonous ... most of ‘em are as a matter-of-fact ... but they’ll be after the rats and the lizards and the frogs; they won’t be after you. If you feel something, and you think it’s a snake, just be still. He’ll prob’ly just slither away once he gets his bearings.”
“You’re kiddin’, right?”
“All of it! Everything you just said!”
“We crack jokes every now and then, Guns. But we don’t kid around about stuff like that.”
“Now ... let’s talk about some of the possibilities; some of the what-ifs.”
“What kind of possibilities?”
“Well ... for one ... Charlie ain’t the only thing we might run into tonight.”
“You ever do any huntin’, Guns ... back in the states?”
“Well. There’s a rule when you’re huntin’. You don’t ever open up on a target unless you know what the target is. If you were out deer huntin’ back in the states, walkin’ through the woods headed for your tree stand, and you heard some rustlin’ in the underbrush, you wouldn’t open up till you knew what was making the noise. It might be a deer! But it also might be another hunter on his way to his deer stand. You go poppin’ off a round and it’s a hunter, not a deer, you can kill somebody.”
“What are you sayin’?”
“Well ... Charlie ain’t the only thing that might be out here tonight. Remember that the Third Brigade of the Ninth Infantry Division is located at Tan An. This is their A.O. They damn well may have patrols out tonight, and one of those patrols could come up on us shore-side here.”
“Now, I asked back at Nha Be and the guy in the radio room said he didn’t know of anything; that he didn’t think they’d be in this area tonight. But you never can tell. So don’t go blastin’ away just ‘cause you hear a noise. OK?”
“You know about tracers, right? Ours? Theirs?”
“That ours are red and theirs are green?”
“For the most part, yea. Well. If we get in the shit ... if Charlie finds out we’re here ... and he opens up on us first, don’t be surprised if a shit-load of red starts flyin’ in our direction.”
“If we start takin’ rounds, and some of ‘em are red, you shoot back! You hear me?”
“But ... but what if ...”
“No buts, Guns! If we start takin’ rounds, you open up! You open up with everything you’ve got. Charlie’s got a whole mess of our shit! He’s got 16s, 14s, 60s. Hell! He’s even got some 50s! If we do step in some shit, I can almost promise you you’ll see red flyin’ in the wrong direction! But don’t think about it! Don’t worry about it! Don’t try to figure out what’s goin’ on! Just shoot back! OK?”
“One more thing.”
“Earlier in the evenin’, when we were in two-man protocol, I know you could tell we were antsy, that we were being especially watchful when we had men on the beach.”
“But maybe we didn’t appear to be as cautious as you thought we should’ve been.”
“Well ... it’s always good to be vigilant, but I think the reason that Le and Cong didn’t set the protocol, didn’t seem to take the situation as seriously as they should have, is because they know where we’re at; what kind of force we’re most likely to run into.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Let me put it this way. What do you know about Charlie? Here in the delta?”
“He’s a farmer by day and a fighter at night?”
“Right. From the South China Sea to about where we are now, somewhere halfway between the sea and the Cambodian border, Charlie’s a farmer. But the closer you get to the border the more likely you are to run into V.C. cadre; regular army V.C. units where the troops soldier full-time.”
“I didn’t know there WAS such a thing.”
“Well, there is. But right here, halfway to the border, we’re more likely to run into a typical V.C. unit. Now, this is what the typical Charlie’s been doin’ today; the guy we’re most likely to run into tonight.
“He got back in from playin’ soldier last night sometime around 5 or 6 a.m. Grandmamma san made him some breakfast, he ate it, then he and his wife and the rest of the folks in the ville headed out to work in the rice paddies.
“Sometime around 3 this afternoon he left the paddies and headed back to his hootch in the ville. Grandmamma san had his supper waitin’ on him. He ate, then he went and laid down and caught from 5 to 6 hours of sleep. Even Charlie needs sleep. Right?”
“Well, right about now, he’s wakin’ up. He’s brushin’ his teeth with a twig, and when he gets done doin’ that, he’ll change clothes. He’ll take off his field togs and put on some-thing dark; dark pants, dark shirt. He’ll strap a web belt full of AK ammo around his waist, then he’ll shoulder-sling his rifle and head off to the other side of the ville to meet up with his cell buddy.”
“Yea. Cell mate. The N.V.A. and the Vietcong assign every man to a two-man cell. It’s pure, Maoist ideology. Every Vietcong unit, every N.V.A. unit, they all consist of a number of two-man cells. Mao’s philosophy, which Ho Chi Minh adopted, states that an army should be composed of two-man cells. That way, each man can assist the other in learning communist ideology. They learn, train and drill together. But the most important thing is ... well ... they spy on each other. If one isn’t towing the line, isn’t being the good communist, the good soldier, the other one is there to set him straight. And if he can’t set him straight, he’s supposed to turn him in ... rat on him ... so he can be re-indoctrinated.”
“Sounds like a raw deal to me.”
“Yea. It’s a lot like bein’ in the navy, ain’t it?”
I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing. Ski started laughing, too.
“Well, anyway ... in 15 or 20 minutes they’ll all be meetin’ up with their cell buddies. Once they meet up, they’ll hump it through the bush to the assembly point where they’ve been instructed to form up tonight. Then, once they form up, they’ll set out and do what-ever it is their officers have scheduled them to do.”
“Hell, who knows? It could be anything.”
“How big is his unit? Their unit? A typical unit?”
“The typical unit from a typical ville would probably be from eight to sixteen people. But sometimes, two or more units, from two or more villes, might join forces. Their strength varies. It all depends on what it is they have to do; what their mission is.”
“So ... what you’re sayin’ is ... we probably won’t have anything to worry about for another couple of hours?”
“More or less. Now it’s always wise to be vigilant. You never know what-the-fuck they’re up to. But no ... I wouldn’t look for anything to happen before midnight at the earliest. In fact, it would probably be more like 1 or 2 in the mornin’.”
“So, if I understand you right, what you’re sayin’ is ... the closer you get to the border, the more likely it is that something might happen at any time during the night.”
“Or day! The closer you get to the border, the closer you get to the hardcore fuckers ... hey ... they could hit you any time! Day or night!”
“Does the same thing apply in reverse the closer you get to Nha Be.”
“Sort of. But there’s an exception to every rule. Now what I just told you is the way it is now, not the way it was a year or two back. When I first got here, Charlie was everywhere. But things have become more pacified in the last year or so.”
“I understand. But what you’re sayin’ is ... now ... right now ... the closer you are to Nha Be, the less likely you are to run into Charlie?”
“Yea. That’s what I’m sayin’. But now that I’ve said it, Charlie’ll probably launch a full-blown invasion against a base back that way. It’s just always wise to be vigilant, Guns. But what I told you earlier, that’s probably what’s happenin’, there’s prob’ly a whole mess of two-man cell buddies roamin’ around in the bush right now, on their way to join up with their outfits. But you just never know for sure, Guns. You just never know for sure.”
“Yea. If we run into Charlie tonight, I’m bettin’ he’ll be on the river.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a hunch.”
“How many would there be? V.C.?”
“If it’s just two or three sampans, maybe nine to twelve.”
“That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? I mean, we could handle that, couldn’t we?”
“Piece-a-cake, Guns. Piece-a-cake. If we hear him, of course. If we know he’s there.”
“If he comes down the river in a couple of sampans ... and they’re motorized ... you know, with those little 1 or 2 horsepower Briggs and Stratton engines, then it’ll be a piece-a-cake. But if he’s paddlin’, hell! If the moon don’t come out, if we ain’t got no light, we prob’ly won’t even know he’s there. He’ll just row right on by us.”
“Yea. I ain’t kiddin’. Them little bastards can row them motherfuckin’ sampans, and they can do it without makin’ a sound. Honest. They could row right by our asses and we wouldn’t even know they were there.”
“Geez. That’s hard to believe!”
“Believe it, Guns. Believe it.”
“Yea. There’s a curfew on the rivers. No civilian traffic is allowed on the water after sundown. We know it, the gooks know it and Charlie knows it. If it’s on the river after dark ... and it ain’t U.S. or ARVN military ... it’s fair game! It’s a target!”
“No, Guns. That just about covers it.”
Just as Ski finished talking, I heard a loud, whooshing, buzzing sound in my right ear.
Ski could hear the sound, too.
“I take that back, Guns. There is something else.”
“Mosquitoes. They grow ‘em big over here. Hell, I’ve seen some almost as big as dragonflies.”
Suddenly, there were mosquitoes everywhere. I couldn’t see them, but I could tell by the sound that they were enormous.
“Whada’ we do? Do we have any repellant?”
“No. But we wouldn’t use it if we had it. Charlie can smell that shit a mile away, too.”
“I’m serious, man! Whada’ we do?”
“Grin and bear it, hoss! Grin and bear it!”
Suddenly, Ky yelled out a warning.
“Boat! Boat on riva!”
I couldn’t see anything, but I heard Ski as he stood up and moved toward the port side of the boat. Just as his formed passed by me in the darkness, just as he got to the port gunnel, he tripped.
“Jesus! What-the-hell is that?”
At almost the same instant we heard the same sound we’d heard before; PBR engines. Then we saw the lights. The same two PBRs that had passed by earlier were coming back down-river, and again, their searchlights were blazing. Ski seemed to be totally confused and he whispered loudly.
“Everybody down! (pause) What-the-hell are they doin’?”
The boats passed our position again, but this time the cover boat’s light swept the far bank.
Again, Ski whispered in a barely audible voice.
“What-the-hell are they lookin’ for? Somethin’ ain’t right here! Somethin’ just ain’t right!”
“Could they be lookin’ for us?”
“Now why would they be doin’ that?”
“Hell! I don’t know. Have you ever had to go out lookin’ for somethin? At night?”
Once the boats cleared the bend in the river and the sound of their engines could no longer be heard, Ski whispered to me very softly.
“Now what were you sayin’?”
I whispered a response.
“Have you ever had to go out lookin’ for somethin’ at night?”
“Some of our boats.
“One time, one of our groups had been ordered to set a bush in a certain area. Then, sometime after dark, after they’d already set their bush, we found out the area was gonna be hot, and that the 9nth. ... the Army ... was gonna be thick as fleas in the area, too. They were settin’ up an ambush shore side on both sides of the river ... hundreds of men ... with Cobra gunship support from the air. Command tried to raise our guys on the radio, but couldn’t. So they sent us down to find ‘em; to let ‘em know so they could get-the-hell out of Dodge!”
“Then maybe they ARE lookin’ for us.”
“I don’t think that’s it.”
“Those guys are from the Mobase. They ain’t our people.”
“How do you know that?”
“‘Cause I made up OUR schedule. We’re the only boats in our division bushin’ on the Tay tonight!”
“But what if the Nha Be guy told the Mobase guy to send somebody to find us?”
“Why would he do that?”
“Maybe this place is gonna be hot! The V.C.’s been here before! Right? There’s a trail! And there are rope marks on the trees! Maybe this place is gonna be hot ... and Nha Be KNOWS it’s gonna be hot!”
“That can’t be it, Guns! Now stop and think! Would the SEALs pick a hot spot for an extraction point? Huh? Would they? Or would command set up an ambush at a SEAL extraction point? Huh?”
“No. (pause) I don’t guess so.”
“That ain’t it, Guns. They ain’t lookin’ for us, OK? That ain’t it!”
Ski turned his attention to another matter.
“What-the-hell did I just trip over?”
He reached down in the darkness.
“Damn, Guns! It’s your seabag!”
“Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Fuck it! It ain’t your fault. I’m the one that put it there.”
Ski felt around until he found the canvas handle on the bag. Then he picked it up and drug it to the storage compartment. While he was doing that, I felt around in the darkness and found my M-14 and my helmet. I took my beret off, rolled it up, poked it in my left-rear pants pocket and put on my helmet. Then I chambered a round in the M-14, made sure it was on safety, and then leaned it against the gunnel where the gunnel met the engine cover.
As Ski came out of the storage compartment and made his way back to the engine cover to sit down, I pulled a cigarette out of my shirt pocket. It had been twenty or thirty minutes since I’d had a smoke and I was dying to light one up. I reached in my front-right pants pocket and pulled out my Zippo lighter. I put the cigarette in my mouth, opened the top on the Zippo and thumbed the wheel. It was pitch-black dark - you couldn’t even see your hand if you held it up in front of your face. Accordingly, when the lighter flared - when the flame appeared - it was as though someone had turned on a twenty or thirty watt bulb. The whole crew responded immediately. The Vietnamese were screaming in their native tongue; I had no idea what they were saying, but I had no problem at all understanding Ski.
“JESUS, GUNS! WHAT-THE-FUCK YOU DOIN’?”
I’d already lit the cigarette, but I closed the lighter cover as soon as Ski yelled.
“I’m sorry! Honest! I wasn’t thinkin’!”
“You gotta be thinkin’ all the time, man!”
“I didn’t think it’d flare up like that; that is would be that bright!”
“Jesus, man! Don’t do that anymore! And palm that thing, will ya’?”
I folded my fingers over the lit cigarette to hide the orange dot of light on the end. I could hear Ski as he made his way to the storage compartment. I listened intently as he shuffled around for a moment. When he re-emerged, he felt his way to where I was sitting and tossed something at me. It landed in my lap. It felt like heavy plastic or vinyl.
“A rain poncho. Pull that sucker over your head when you’re tokin’. And keep the cigarette under there all the time.”
“And if Charlie shows up ... no smokin’ at all, you hear me?”
“If he’s anywhere close by he can smell that shit!”
“Twenty-five, thirty, forty yards.”
For the next fifteen or twenty minutes nobody said anything. It was still pitch-black dark, and even though I was in the company of four other men, I couldn’t see them. Not being able to see them was demoralizing. It was like they weren’t there. When we’d been talking, I didn’t feel alone. But in the silence, when I couldn’t hear them, it was as though they weren’t even there.
After about thirty minutes of silence, something quite unexpected happened. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I could see. At first, I didn’t know where the almost imperceptible source of light was coming from, but the fact that I could just barely see Ski in silhouette was comforting. But my feeling of comfort wasn’t shared by the others. Ski expressed his displeasure immediately and his whisper was almost inaudible.
“Damn it! The moon’s on the rise!”
I whispered a response:
“Is that bad?”
“It depends. The darkness is your friend. It’s your best friend. The moon can be a friend, too. But it can be an enemy if it’s too bright, or if it’s in the wrong place in the sky.”
I looked up to see the source of the light. The moon was just beginning to rise above the tree line on the opposite bank. I couldn’t actually see it, so I had no idea what phase it was in, whether it was a full-moon, a half-moon, or whatever. All I could see was an ever-so-faint aurora of light that was filtering its way through the dark, murky overcast ski.
As I stared at the glow on the horizon, I thought about the crew aboard Apollo 13. As of daybreak, when I’d gotten the word about the trouble they were in, they’d been knee-deep in the stinky stuff somewhere between earth and the source of the light I was staring at now. I wondered how they were doing. I wondered what was going through their minds. I wondered if they’d ever make it back, and if they did, would they make it back alive.
I turned and looked in Ski’s direction. I could barely see his silhouette. He was sitting on the engine cover about two feet away and he was staring at the light, too. He seemed to sense that I was looking at him, and when he spoke, in a whisper, he vocalized exactly what I’d been thinking just a moment before.
“Those poor motherfuckers. I hope they’re all right. That must be one freaky feelin’; bein’ that far away from the earth; bein’ stuck like that and suckin’ hind tit! Jesus!”
I turned my attention back toward the source of the light and whispered a response.
“They’ll get ‘em back. They have to!”
Suddenly, Ski changed the topic. He didn’t change the subject, just the topic.
“What did you call their flight this mornin’? Their number?”
“Beg your pardon.”
“This mornin’ you called them by a flight number. You know, their mission number; the first guy’s on the moon were on Apollo 11. What’s their flight number?”
There was a brief pause, then Ski continued.
“What happened to Apollo 12? Did they go up? Did they go to the moon already?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can’t believe they put men on the moon again, for a second time, and we didn’t get the word!”
Ski was right. I couldn’t recall hearing anything about a second Apollo mission. I hadn’t heard anything about a second trip to the moon. News from home was slow to come by, but we usually got the word on big events; historically significant events. His question was a good one, and the fact that we didn’t know the answer made us both feel even farther from home; even more out of the loop with regard to what was happening back in the states.
I suddenly got an urge that I’d been fighting hard not to have throughout the course of the day. The two C-rat meals had done a number on me, and I knew when the urge hit me that if I didn’t go, if I didn’t relieve myself in the next few minutes, I’d probably soil my pants.
I’d watched the other crew members during the day, and all of them, at one time or another, had relieved themselves. I knew, from watching them, what the procedure was; how one normally executed a bowel movement aboard a PBR.
The procedure was quite simple. The men would climb up on the side of the boat next to the canopy. They’d hold on to the side of the superstructure with one hand and drop trow with the other. Then, they’d squat down and lean their fannies as far out over the water as they could. Once they’d finished doing their business, they’d step back down onto the deck, or in Ky’s case, back onto the bow, wipe themselves and then go about their business.
I quickly realized that I had a problem. It was a problem I hadn’t anticipated earlier. With the foliage attached to the boat I no longer had access to the port and starboard sides. I couldn’t step up on the side of the boat on either side of the superstructure. I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t know what the procedure was for relieving one’s self on a camouflaged boat. Reluctantly, I approached Ski.
“I need to take a dump. I been fightin’ it all day, but now ... I gotta go ... bad!”
“I been wonderin’ if you did stuff like that. Hell! I don’t even think I’ve seen you take a wiz today.”
We both started laughing. Slowly, Ski got up and moved to the storage compartment. A moment or two later he reappeared and handed me a roll of toilet paper.
“Guns. I want you to listen close, OK? I want you to pay close attention to what I’m about to tell you.”
“The three most important things on a PBR are as follows: Number 1 - the weapons systems and ammo. Number 2 - the communications gear. And number 3 - this god-damn roll of toilet paper. Don’t ... I repeat ... don’t hold this sucker out over the side! You hear me?”
“You drop this motherfucker over the side and I’ll kill your ass, you understand?”
“I ain’t kiddin’! You drop this motherfucker and you’re a dead man!”
“OK! I hear ya’!”
“And one more thing.”
Ski walked over beside me, grabbed my head with his left hand and pulled my right ear up close to his mouth. Then he whispered very softly.
“When you go to wipe your ass, use your left hand.”
“The gooks saw you eat today. They saw you use your right hand to eat your meal. If they see you wipe with the same hand you eat with, they won’t have anything else to do with you. That’s a no-no to them. You don’t wipe your ass and eat with the same hand. If you do, they’ll think you’re the lowest form of life on earth. You hear me?”
“As dark as it is, hell! They probably won’t even be able to see you. But use your left hand anyway, just in case.”
“Good. Now go do your business. And remember ... don’t drop the god-damn paper over the side!”
As Ski turned to walk back toward the engine cover, I grabbed his sleeve.
“Where do I go?”
Ski turned and looked at the port side of the boat. He quickly realized my dilemma and turned to face me again.
“Walk back to the fantail. There ain’t no green stuff back there. Drop your trow, sit, and hang it over the back.”
“Hang it WAY OUT over the back. Don’t shit on the boat, OK?”
“I’ll try not to.”
“Don’t try, man. You shit on the boat and Charlie can smell it! OK? Make sure that shit hits the water, OK?”
Ski’s pun hit everybody in the funny bone. The Vietnamese started giggling. It was all I could do to keep from laughing out loud. I climbed up on the engine cover and made my way to the fantail. Nhu stepped up on the engine cover and began to move forward just as I stepped down onto the .50 deck. The gesture was a kind one. He was trying to give me as much privacy as he could. While I sat on the fantail and did my business, Nhu checked the M-16s on the engine cover to make sure they were on safety.
When I finished my business on the fantail, I moved back to the coxswain’s flat and handed Ski the roll of toilet paper. As I sat down on the engine cover, he made his way to the storage compartment. He returned a moment later and sat down beside me.
Almost an hour went by and no one on the boat said anything. The moon was rising higher in the sky, it was totally above the tree line now, but we still couldn’t see it; it was still totally obscured by the thick, dense cloud cover. There was a little more light than there had been before, but it was still dark; it was still hard to see. Depending on how far away an object was, I could now see more than just silhouettes. I could see Ski. I could see Le - he was sitting on the deck on the starboard side right next to the engine cover. But I couldn’t see Nhu that well. He was still just a faint silhouette as he stood next to the .50 on the aft .50 deck.
As I sat there, reflecting on the day’s events and anticipating what the rest of the night held in store, I suddenly felt exhausted. The heavy weight of the flak jacket and the hot weather and humidity had done a number on me. My eyelids began to get heavy and my head began to feel like it weighed a hundred pounds. My neck began to ache and my arms and legs began to feel like they were cramping up. In no time at all I began to feel like I’d totally hit the wall. All I wanted to do was lay down somewhere and go to sleep.
When I realized how tired I was, how exhausted I was, I began to think about Ski and the other members of the crew. I began to wonder how they felt; what kind of condition they were in.
When I’d first met Ski, the day before, sometime around noon, he was going about his business; he hadn’t been sleeping during the daylight hours. And later in the day, he and the crew had taken me out on that .50 test, so they’d been awake during the daytime, too. And last night, Ski had taken me to the off-limits bar and we’d both gotten drunk. We’d only gotten about six hours of sleep. And it wasn’t a good sleep; it was a drunk sleep. I’d been absolutely wasted when Ski woke me up.
Now, we were on a combined operation. We’d done a full, twelve-hour day doing Market Time stops on our way to the extraction point. Now, we were only hours into a twelve-hour night ambush. And tomorrow morning, after we picked up the SEALs, it would take another twelve-hours for the crew to get back to Nha Be. The whole operation, the whole nine-yards would eat up thirty-six hours. THIRTY-SIX HOURS! WITHOUT SLEEP! THIRTY-SIX HOURS WITHOUT SLEEP ON THE RIVER! I just sat there; amazed; absolutely in awe of the men in the Brown Water Navy who did this kind of thing day-in and day-out for a whole tour in Nam. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of men they were? What they were made of? I couldn’t imagine doing a whole tour - a whole year - 365 days doing what these men did day after day and night after night. As hard as I tried to imagine what it was like; what a whole year on the river was like, I just couldn’t. I’d thought I’d had it bad at the piers; working 12-hour days with one day off every two months. But that was nothing compared to what these guys were doing.
Sometime around 2000 hours (8 o’clock), Ski put the hand-held radio to his mouth and whispered very faintly:
“Radio check. Radio check, over.”
A moment later, Cong responded in a whisper:
“Re you fi-by-fi, over.”
“Roger. Over and out.”
As he laid the hand-held down on the engine cover, Ski tapped me on the leg.
“Hey, Guns. Grab that poncho and dig out your lighter. I need to replenish the cooler.”
As Ski made his way to the cooler, I picked up the poncho and followed him. As he knelt down to open the lid, he gave me a verbal instruction.
“Hand me your lighter and hold the poncho over my head. Cover me up with it, OK. I need to see how many cokes and beers we have left.”
I handed Ski my lighter and covered him and the cooler with the poncho. I heard him flip the wheel on the Zippo. I heard his hand fishing around in the icy water as he counted the cans in the cooler, but I never saw any light. A moment later, I heard the lid on the lighter close. Then Ski emerged from under the poncho.
“Stand by. I’m gonna grab another case of cokes.”
I waited while Ski entered the storage compartment. A moment or two later, he came back out and knelt down by the cooler again. I covered him with the poncho and held it there while he re-lit the lighter and tore open a case of cokes. When he got through placing the cans in the cooler, he closed the lid on the lighter and poked his head out from under the poncho.
“Whadaya’ think, Guns? We’ve got ten beers left. You think we’ll need more than that?”
“I don’t know. How much beer we gonna’ drink?”
“Fuck it! I better open another one just in case.”
Ski got up and re-entered the storage compartment. A minute or so later he reappeared and knelt down beside the cooler again. I covered him with the poncho and held it there while he tore open the case of Pabst. I could hear him placing the cans in the icy water, and after three or four minutes I began to wonder what was taking so long.
“What you doin’ man? What’s takin’ so long?”
“I gotta separate this shit. I’m puttin’ all the cokes on the left and all the beers on the right. I gotta be able to find these suckers in the dark. I don’t wanna be handin’ out beer when I think I’m handin’ out cokes. You fucker’s’ll get drunk if I don’t get it right!”
Ski’s words and demeanor were humorous and I couldn’t help but chuckle. When he got through separating the cans, he closed the lid on the lighter, crawled out from under the poncho, stood up, walked back over to the engine cover, handed me my lighter and sat down.
The Igloo water cooler was next to the forward bulkhead in the coxswain’s flat. It was mounted on a crude wooden stand and secured to the bulkhead with a metal strap right next to the entrance to the storage locker. The lid on the cooler had a metal handle. There was a thin rope attached to the handle, and at the end of the rope there was a small metal cup. At the base of the cooler there was a push-button spigot. To get a drink of water, all one had to do was hold the cup under the spigot with one hand and press the button with a finger on the other.
I’d had water from the cooler a couple of times during the day, and so had the others. But I’d noticed that Ski had passed out cokes at regular intervals - almost one per hour -throughout the course of the day. He’d been fairly liberal with the beer, too - one every two or three hours.
“Hey, Ski. Why do you guys drink so much coke? And beer? Is there somethin’ wrong with the water?”
“Hard to tell about the water, man. I don’t drink it. They been sprayin’ the rivers with defoliant. I don’t know what’s in that shit, but if it’ll kill trees, God only knows what it’ll do to people!”
“Is that why you drink a lot of cokes?”
“Yea. You need a lot of fluids out here. The heat and the humidity can do a number on ya’ in a hurry. I try to get a can of soda in everybody at least once an hour. Every two hours or so I give ‘em a beer.”
“Why the beer? Ain’t you afraid they’ll get a buzz on?”
“A three-point-two beer and gon’ give nobody a buzz if you only have one every two-to-three hours. But the main reason for the beer is ... well ... the gooks won’t drink a whole coke. I don’t know why, but they won’t. They’ll take a couple of swigs and then toss the can. While we’re underway, I watch the cans when they hit the water. I can tell if they’re empty or not by how high they ride in the water ... you know ... how high they are when they float. That’s how I know they ain’t drinkin’ it all. But they’ll drink a whole beer! They love that shit!
Ski paused for a moment, then he continued.
“I wish they would drink the sodas ... drink ‘em all up, I mean. They got a lot of sugar ... and caffeine!”
“Yea. The sugar helps keep the energy level up. And the caffeine’ll give you a kick-in-the-pants when you start to feel totally wasted.”
“Well ... give me a coke, then. I feel like I just got run-over by a train!”
Ski got up and walked back over to the cooler. He opened it and picked up a can, then he walked back over and sat down on the engine cover. He handed me the can and then whispered in my ear. There was a chuckle in his voice when he spoke.
“You pussy-fuckin’ asshole! You newbies just can’t take this shit, can you?”
There was a momentary pause. I knew Ski had been kidding when he said what he said about newbies, an obvious reference to me. But I couldn’t help but feel there might be some truth in what he’d said. I was ready for the night to be over; for the op to be over. I was ready to get back to the mobile base and get on with the rest of my tour as a support sailor. But Ski seemed to be genuinely at home on the river. I didn’t suspect that he enjoyed the hardship, but I could tell that life as a support sailor wouldn’t have suited him. If he had to be in the Nam, being a PBR sailor seemed to be the only option for him. As I stared at him - in awe - in amazement, I knew he loved it; that if he had to be in Nam, he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I fished out my dog tag chain and opened the can with my P-38. I took a sip and was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t a coke. It was a beer.
“Shhhhhhh. Hush up. The others’ll want one, too.”
I took a long, deep chug and thoroughly enjoyed the cold sensation as the beer eased its way down my throat. As I sat there enjoying the brew, I thought about Ski again and how at home he seemed to be on the river. I didn’t like the silence, so I whispered a question just to keep the conversation going:
“You love it, don’t ya’? Life on the river, I mean.”
“Yea. (pause) I can’t wait to get home, but I am gonna miss this shit.”
Ski’s demeanor became subdued as he continued the conversation.
“When I was a kid, I read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’, and I used to dream about sailin’ down the Mississippi on a raft ... just like they did.”
“And I know you saw ‘Davy Crockett and The River Pirates’. You wanted to be like Mike Fink, too. Didn’t ya’?”
“Yea. That prob’ly had somethin’ to do with it. Anyway, as I grew older, bein’ from California and all, I gave up on the Mississippi part, that was too far away. But back when I was in high school, I’d hook up with my friends on weekends and in the summer and we’d head to the nearest river we could find every chance we got. We rode rafts on the Colorado once! Man, that was a trip!”
“I had no idea, Guns. I had no idea at all what it would really be like. But back when I volunteered, I thought this would be the cat’s pajamas: gettin’ to wear a black beret ... ridin’ on the river like Huck and Tom ... takin’ on the bad guys like Mike Fink ... I just knew it, man ... I knew it ... bein’ a PBR sailor just had to be the most glamorous job in the navy.”
“Then you got over here and found out it wasn’t, huh? There ain’t nothin’ glamorous about droppin’ trow and hangin’ your ass over the side to take a dump, that’s for damn sure!”
We both whispered a laugh. Then there was another long moment of silence.
I hated the silence. Being in the dark, with no conversation, that was the worst part for me. In the darkness, when it was silent, I felt totally alone. Whenever I could engage Ski, get him to talking, I felt better; I didn’t feel alone. I wanted the conversation to continue, so I broke the silence.
“Hey, man. I been thinkin’. Aside from the hygiene part, it’s kind of glamorous, ain’t it? I mean ... I can’t really see that its all that bad ... aside from the hygiene stuff.”
Ski turned and looked at me; I could barely make his face out in the ambient glow of the moonlight; he stared at me; he glared at me. His demeanor changed again. He got a really sullen look on his face. I thought for a moment that he was mad at me; mad or upset about what I’d just said. When he whispered his response, his voice was even lower, even more serious than it had been before, and the words came out slowly and deliberately. He wanted to make sure that I heard every word he said.
“You don’t know, man. You ain’t seen nothin’. You ain’t been through nothin’, through any of it. All you’ve done is take a ride. You’ve had one day on the river, taken one dump off the fantail and swatted a handful of B-52s. You have no idea ... no idea at all about what it’s really like out here.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“You didn’t say anything wrong. But hangin’ your ass over the side to take a dump ain’t shit! It don’t mean shit!”
The feeling that Ski had suddenly become angry with me was upsetting. I didn’t want to go through the rest of the night - to face the darkness - alone - with him feeling ill toward me. A minute or so went by in silence. Then, just as I was about to say something to try to ease the tension, Ski spoke up ... softly ... but matter-of-factly:
“Medivac ... when you’ve got wounded ... when you have to call in a chopper for the wounded!”
“That’s when it gets real, Guns. That’s when it gets ugly. That’s when it gets about as unglamorous as it can get.”
“I bet. God! I can’t even ...”
“Ski interrupted me.
“That’s what it’s all about, man. You just hit the nail on the head.”
“God! You said God. Playin’ God. That’s what it’s all about.
“Let me put it to you this way. Let’s say you’re out in a two-boat tandem. You get hit from the shore while you’re on the water. They target the lead boat; but they tear both boats a new asshole. Charlie’s everywhere ... there are more than you can handle. You’ve got wounded. You clear the area and call for the Water Dog, then you find the nearest safe place to beach.”
“The first thing you’ve gotta do is size up your wounded. Let’s say you’ve got three down on the lead boat and one down on the cover. Four out of eight men are out of operation. One’s got a double-suckin’ chest wound; one’s got a cranial-entry head wound; one’s been gut shot and one’s got an arterial bleeder. Let’s say the bleeder got it in the thigh. You call for a MEDEVAC chopper. He’s on his way, but he can only take two, he can only give two a ride. Who you gon’ send? Who you gon’ put on the chopper? Huh? You tell me. Who gets the ride and who don’t?”
“Geez! I don’t know.”
“Give it your best shot, man. Go ahead. Play God. Decide who gets the ride.”
“What are they again? What are the injuries?”
“Double-suckin’ chest wound; cranial-entry head wound; gut shot and an arterial bleeder in the thigh.”
“Shit! (pause) Well ... let’s see ... the head wound and the chest wound? Right? They’re the worst. Right?”
“Wrong, Guns. Wrong on both counts.”
“The guy with the double-suckin’ chest wound ... a round through both lungs ... through-and through ... in the front and out the back ... he’s a dead man. He’s breathin’ ... tryin’ to anyway ... but he’s gone. It’s just a matter of minutes. All you can do for him is ... well ... one guy’ll cradle him in his arms and another’ll fill him full of morphine ... just make him comfortable ... that’s all you can do.”
“And the guy with the head wound’s probably not gonna make it, either. If he does, he’ll be a vegetable. I wouldn’t wanna live like that. None of the guys on the Riv Div did. We used to talk about it. We all agreed that if we ever got it that way ... well ... we’d ... we just wanted the others to ...”
“It ain’t who’s in the worst shape, Guns. You try to save the ones who have a chance. A bleeder in the thigh, if it ain’t up too high, can be tied off. You can apply a tourniquet. That guy’s got a chance. And the guy that’s been gut shot’s gotta chance, too. But time is the main thing. You’ve gotta get ‘em back in a hurry.”
There was a long pause. Ski still seemed to be distant, so I broke the silence trying to get him talking again.
“How do you do stuff like that? How do you make decisions like that? Play God like that? I don’t see how you do it! I had no idea!”
“You just do it, Guns. You just do it. You just suck it up and do it.”
I tried to keep the conversation going, but a minute or so later Ski insisted that we needed to stop talking.
“Guns. We need to cut out the talk. The gooks are bad about talkin’ on a bush, and I’ve ridden their asses pretty hard about it ever since I been with ‘em. And now ... here we are doin’ it.”
“That’s all right. Let’s just zip it, OK. We don’t need to be settin’ a bad example.”
For the next few minutes I just sat on the engine cover and thought about the silence. God, I hated the silence. I’d finished my beer, so impulsively, I just tossed the can. I didn’t even think about it, I just tossed it; I threw it like a basketball player would execute a free-throw attempt from the foul line. The can went sailing over the canopy and the camouflage in front of it. I waited for the can to make a splash when it hit the water, but I never heard anything. Ky - in the front gun tub - didn’t seem to hear anything, either. He didn’t react at all.
Adapting to the silence, getting used to the silence, forcing yourself to be silent in the formidable, pitch-black darkness was incredibly hard to do. I was absolutely scared shit-less. I assumed that the others had felt that way, too; when they were newbies; when they spent their first night on the river. Just sitting there in the darkness, listening to the jungle noises, wondering what the others were doing; wondering if the others were all right, it frayed my nerves; kept my stomach churning, forced my imagination to conjure up terrible mind games, and brought on more than one unnecessary adrenaline rush.
The mind games became so unbearable that I began to try to think about other things. I tried to pick out something - anything - that would require total concentration. At first, I tried to do math problems in my head. But I’d never been a math wiz, and at one point, right in the middle of a simple X + Y = Z procedure, I heard a noise. Y was something like 8, and Z was something like 12, and between wondering what the noise was, and trying to make the calculation, I got lost. Once I realized that the noise was just Nhu standing up to take a wiz, I was OK. But I quickly determined that the math trick wasn’t working, so I focused my attention on something else.
That something else was a recap of the events of the day. I focused in on just how fast the first twelve hours had gone by. The trip from Nha Be to Tan An had seemed like only minutes. And the trip from Tan An to the ambush point had seemed like only a few hours. But it had taken twelve hours - twelve hours in daylight - to make the trip from Nha Be to where we were now. The hours and minutes during the day had gone by so quickly, but the hands of time, since we’d laid the bush, didn’t seem to be moving at all. I calculated that it was probably only 2100 - 9 o’clock in the evening - we’d only finished laying the bush some two hours before, but it seemed like we’d been there for seven or eight hours. We still had at least nine hours to go before the sun would come up. NINE HOURS TO GO! I got another adrenaline rush just thinking about it.
The next three hours seemed like weeks or months. I felt like I could feel myself aging. When I’d first gotten to Nam my hair had been a bright, yellowish blonde. After three hours of silence - silence broken only once an hour when Ski and Cong did a radio check - I was firmly convinced that the next time I looked in a mirror my hair would be gray; completely and totally gray.
At midnight, Ski made his last verbal radio call. Cong responded like he always did; everything was ‘fi by fi’. Ski ended the transmission by telling Cong to get his crew combat ready. Then, as soon as he laid the hand-held down, he whispered a similar instruction to our crew: “OK, guys. Flak jackets and helmets. Now!”
I’d been wearing my flak jacket all day, and I’d put my helmet on a few hours earlier. Ky was wearing utilities, he’d been the only one of the Vietnamese not wearing shorts and a T-shirt when we left Nha Be. Now, Nhu was the only one out of uniform. Earlier in the evening, Le had taken off his T-shirt and shorts and changed into a pair of utilities.
As soon as Ski issued the order, the Vietnamese turned to. I took comfort in the sound as they put on their gear, but in less than a minute, when they were all battle ready, the god-awful silence resumed.
Sometime around 1 o’clock, a mass of low-hanging, dark clouds began to pass in front of the moon. Everything went black again. Ski was still sitting next to me on the engine cover about three feet away. Before the low-hanging clouds arrived, my eyes had adjusted to the darkness - to the all-but-invisible ambient light that had been filtering its way through the higher cloud cover. Before, I’d barely been able to see Ski, to make out his form right next to me. But now, I couldn’t see anything; I couldn’t even see the moon. The moon was still there, but the low-hanging clouds were so dark that the moon just disappeared.
At almost the same moment that the clouds rolled in, Ski picked up the hand-held and made a squelch transmission to Cong. He pressed the mike key twice, each time holding it down for about a half-second and then letting it go. About five seconds later, I heard Cong’s response. He pressed his key, released it, keyed it again, released it and then keyed it one final time followed by a very quick release. Two squelch sends from Ski had been answered by three from Cong. God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
After six-plus hours in ambient darkness, with only just enough visible light to see objects that were close by - within two or three feet - I’d just gotten to the point where I was getting used to it - to the ambient light - and the mind games were beginning to subside. But when the dark clouds wiped out what little light there was, I returned to my previous state of anxiety. With my sense of sight diminished, my other senses became exaggerated; my sense of smell; my sense of taste, but especially my sense of hearing.
For close to an hour, from sometime just after 1 a.m. to somewhere close to 2, I was on tenderhooks. The noises seemed to grow in intensity, and every unusual noise - any noise that I couldn’t recall hearing before - really got my attention.
All of a sudden - out of nowhere - I heard a very familiar sound. It was a sharp, clear whistle; a sound that I’d heard frequently in the summertime when I was a boy back in Georgia. It was the call of a Bob White quail. The call was woven into the fabric of the other jungle sounds; it wasn’t the only sound I could hear. I think the only reason I heard it was because I’d become accustomed to reacting to sounds that were new; that were different, and I knew as soon as I heard it that it was something I shouldn’t have heard. At first, I thought it might have been a mind game; that I really hadn’t heard it; that my mind was playing a trick on me. But just a moment or two later, I heard it again.
‘Bob ... Bob White ... (pause) ... Bob White.’
I didn’t look in the direction the sound came from; I didn’t figure there was any reason to. I couldn’t even see the end of my nose, I knew I wouldn’t be able to see the quail if it was there. Besides, if it WAS there - if there really was one - it would be somewhere in the bush. I reached over and tugged Ski’s sleeve and whispered very softly.
“Did you hear that?”
“The quail call. I just heard a Bob White quail!”
“A Bob White quail call. I heard it twice ... no, three times.”
“Bullshit. There ain’t no Bob White quails in Nam. Just take a couple of deep breaths, OK? I know you ain’t used to the dark, but don’t get your panties in a wad. Just breathe real slow and concentrate on something else ... anything. I promise ... it’ll help ... OK?”
“No, man. I heard it. I swear. Listen. Listen close. It’ll happen again, just listen.”
“Guns. Just breathe real slow, OK? Real slow ... real deep. It’ll help ... I promise.”
“OK. I will. But just listen, OK? Just for grins, just listen.”
“OK. I’ll listen. But do the breathing thing anyway ... OK?”
I kept waiting for the call to sound again. But it didn’t. Two or three minutes went by and no call. Finally, just when I’d convinced myself that it was a mind game, that I really hadn’t heard it to begin with, I heard it again.
‘Bob White ... (pause) ... Bob ... Bob White.’
Again, the call was woven into all the other sounds. You had to be listening hard to hear it. I turned to my right to see if there was any indication that Ski had heard it. I couldn’t see him, but there was no movement, no reaction, no indication that he’d heard anything out-of-the-ordinary. I grabbed Ski’s sleeve and whispered to him again.
“Did you hear it?”
“The quail call. I heard it again.”
“Bullshit, Guns! Get a grip, OK.”
“OK. But I don’t think you were listenin’. Listen, OK? Promise you’ll listen!”
“OK! I’ll listen! Now shut-the-fuck up!”
Ski was beginning to loose patience with me; that was obvious by the tone in his whisper. I was starting to feel paranoid. Why couldn’t he hear it? Why did I hear it? Was it really there? Had I really heard it? Just when I made my mind up that I was losin’ it; that I was goin’ bug-fuck bananas, I heard it again. And this time, Ski heard it, too.
‘Bob White. Bob ... Bob White.’
I didn’t say anything. I waited for Ski to say something ... and he did ... just a second or two after it sounded. His words came in an excited, exclamatory whisper.
“I told ya’.”
We both waited attentively, with great anticipation, for the sound to come again. We waited for close to a minute. Then. Suddenly. We heard something. But it wasn’t the quail call. Something, or someone, was moving through the bush; rustling the foliage on the far bank of the river. The sound was unexpected, and I didn’t whisper when I vocalized my concern. I just instinctively spoke up in an almost normal tone of voice.
“What was that?”
Ski whispered an immediate and agitated response.
As he whispered, he slid forward off the engine cover and tip-toed very quickly over to the starboard side of the coxswain’s flat. I slid off the cover and followed him. I stood right next to him; my right shoulder was touching his left. He leaned as far forward as he could so he could see through the foliage that covered the front of the flat. He was staring intently at the opposite bank. I leaned forward, too, and stared through a 4” x 6” slit in the green stuff. I had no idea what was happening, but I knew something was up. Ski had just instructed me to ‘shut up’, but I didn’t. I asked the same question again, but this time, I whispered.
“What was that?”
Ski didn’t take his eyes off the far bank, but he leaned ever-so-slightly to the left and whispered very, very softly.
“It’s Charlie! Now shut-the-fuck up!”
The adrenaline rush was immediate, and the flow of adrenaline was massive. I quickly realized that the feelings I’d experienced earlier, the rushes I’d felt that had caused my arms to tremble and my legs to get weak, had been bad enough, but they were nothing like the feelings I was experiencing now. My legs began to shake uncontrollably. They got so weak, and were shaking so bad, that I was afraid I’d fall, so I tried to make it back to the engine cover so I could sit down. I never made it. I managed about a step-and-a-half and then realized that if I kept moving in that direction I’d probably fall. I turned and leaned forward, reaching out to grab the top of the bulkhead in the coxswain’s flat. Once I had a firm grip on it, I managed to force my legs to move back under me. Finally, in an upright position again, I pulled the front of my body as close to the coxswain’s flat bulkhead as I could. That was a mistake. My legs were still shaking so violently that my knees made a loud, bumping sound as they banged against bulkhead. I had to force the lower part of my body back a step or so to put an end to the noise.
The sound shore-side went silent for a moment. God! Had they heard the noise? Had they heard my knees when they banged against the bulkhead? The adrenaline surge intensified; my mouth became completely dry; my arms began to shake again; my head started vibrating; my teeth started rattling, and for a moment I felt so light-headed that I thought I was going to pass out.
I was beginning to fear the worst, that they’d heard me. But then, about 15 or 20 seconds after it had stopped, we heard the noise on the far bank again. This time, it was getting closer; louder. Then, suddenly, the sound went silent. Then, about 10 seconds later, we heard it again. It was really close now.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, the rear portion of the last dark cloud began to pass under the moon. The upper cloud cover was still there and the moon wasn’t completely visible, but the ambient glow had returned. The moon had now moved well above the tree line on the opposite bank. It was almost directly over the middle of the channel, just to the right of where the noise was coming from, and in the ambient glow, we could see the foliage moving.
The sound stopped again. Then, about ten seconds later, we heard it again. Then, all at once, we saw them ... we saw what was making the noise. Two Vietcong appeared just inside the last bit of foliage at the edge of the tree line. We could barely make out their forms in the ambient glow. One was standing, the other was kneeling, and the one that was kneeling began working very diligently. I didn’t know what his task was, but whatever it was, it held his complete attention.
While the one that was kneeling was working, the one that was standing was watching very attentively. First, he’d look up-river for ten or twelve seconds. Then, he’d turn his head very slowly and look down river for ten or twelve seconds. He kept alternating the direction he was looking in over and over again.
Just moments after the Vietcong came into view, just moments after Ski knew they were there, he held the hand-held radio up next to his ear. Very, very slowly he pressed the talk key once and let it go. A second or two later I heard Cong’s response. He pressed his key once and let it go very quickly. When Ski heard that one squelch signal, he exhaled a weak, but audible, sigh of relief. Then he turned off the hand-held.
The whole time he was communicating with Cong, Ski never took his eyes off the V.C. I didn’t either. We both stared at the two men on the opposite bank intently. After working very deliberately for three or four minutes, first on one side of the trail path, then walking in a crouch some five or six feet to the other side of the trail, the man that had been kneel-in stood up. He was holding a cylinder in his left hand. He held it up high and whispered something to the man who’d been standing watch. The second man responded excitedly. There appeared to be a wire attached to the cylinder. The man holding the cylinder began winding the wire around it very hurriedly.
As soon as the man began winding the wire, Ski grabbed my head with his left hand and pulled my ear close to his mouth. Then, he whispered very softly and deliberately.
When the Vietcong holding the cylinder finished winding the wire around it, he placed it in a large canvas bag that hung from a shoulder strap on his left side. Then, very slowly and one at a time, the two men emerged from the tree line. They were both carrying AK-47s. Their weapons were at the ready, right hands on the stock grips, fingers on the trigger, left hands on the wooden carriers just under the barrel, weapons pointed forward and ever-so-slightly upward. Slowly, one step at a time, one focusing his attention up-river, the other looking in the opposite direction, they stepped into the clearing next to the hardwood on the far bank.
For two or three minutes the two V.C. focused their attention on the river. While one scoped out the up-river channel, the other stared intently down-river. Just as they began to focus their attention on the far bank - where we were - another low-hanging dark cloud began passing in front of the moon. With no ambient glow and staring into total darkness, they couldn’t see much. They continued to stare at the opposite bank for two or three minutes. Then, suddenly, about fifteen minutes after we first heard them, after we first knew they were there, they disappeared. They just slipped back into the jungle - back-tracking in the same direction they’d come.
Nobody on the boat said anything for the longest time. Then, about five minutes after they’d left, Ski grabbed me by the head again and pulled my ear close to his mouth. Then, with an obvious excitement in his voice, he whispered very, very softly:
“We got ‘em, Guns! We got ‘em!”
I’d somehow managed to stop the shaking. I still had a dry mouth, but my arms and legs finally seemed to be under control.
Almost as soon as the V.C. left, the low clouds passed by and the ambient glow returned.
The adrenaline rush was incredible, and I didn’t like the feeling. I hated it, I hated the feeling, and I remember standing there in the coxswain’s flat and thinking about the way I felt ... the rush. I remember thinking that I never wanted to feel that feeling again. EVER!
The strange thought about the rush only lasted for a moment, and when I finally put it out of my mind, I responded to what Ski had said earlier. I reached over and grabbed his head and pulled his ear close to my mouth.
“Why did you say ‘we got ‘em’? They’re gone!”
He turned his head slightly to the left and answered me.
“They’ll be back.”
“How do you know?”
“They wouldn’t have disarmed that bloody trap if they weren’t comin’ back.”
Suddenly, I remembered what Ski had said earlier. I remembered what he’d said about us having the advantage. I remembered what he’d said when he’d counted out the weapon systems we had. I remember what he’d said when he quoted the twenty-third Psalm and changed the ending. But I also remembered something else he’d said; something he’d said the night before.
‘Charlie’s bad! He’s real bad! Don’t ever think you’ve got him figured out, man! You’re dead if you do!’
There was no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all. Ski couldn’t possibly know what we were up against. How could he say ‘We got ‘em’? How could he possibly know that? He was just guessing. And if he guessed wrong, if he thought he had Charlie figured out, but didn’t, we might be neck-deep in the stinky stuff and not even know it.
Now that Ski knew they were going to be coming from the land side, from the far bank, he started preparing specifically for that scenario. In a muffled whisper, a quiet whisper, almost too quiet to hear, he issued a battle order.
“Hey, Ky. Can you hear me up front?”
“All right, then. Everybody, listen up. Lay to for full assault to starboard.”
Ski then turned toward me and grabbed my head again. He pulled my ear close to his mouth and whispered very, very softly.
“Guns. You’ve got the port .60. That’s your responsibility. Most of the action may be on the starboard side - on the outcrop - but I want you to keep your eyes on the far bank, OK. The far bank down-river. If they go spreading out down that bank, I wanna know about it. And if they open up from there, on our flank, that’s your responsibility. Suppress the fire. Go full auto if you have to, but suppress the fire. That’s your job, OK?”
“You’re gonna do fine. OK?”
“Good. I’m countin’ on ya’.”
The adrenaline was pumping ninety-to-nothing. My heart was racing. For a moment, Ski’s last comment didn’t register. When it finally did, when I finally realized that what he’d said seemed sincere - that he seemed to have confidence in me in our present situation - I looked him square in the eyes. I could barely see his face in the ambient glow, but I saw it. I saw a smile. I also saw something else. His eyes were wide as saucers; he was scared, too. He was probably just as scared as I was. I returned his smile and he patted me on the back. Then he pulled my ear close to his mouth again.
“Don’t worry, Guns. You’ll do fine. Trust me. You’re gonna do just fine.”
Ski’s words calmed me down. They calmed me down a lot. I felt an immediate ability to control the effects of the rush. Before, I hadn’t known what to do, I hadn’t had a job to do. But now - now that I knew what was expected of me - now that I knew where my battle station was, and what to do with the weapon that had been assigned to me, I felt a lot better. For the first time since I’d been on the boat I felt as though I knew what to do, and I knew I’d be able to respond; that I wouldn’t freeze up; that I wouldn’t be a coward when the time came.
I was scared half-to-death, no doubt about that, but now I knew I’d be able to function. For some unexplainable reason, I just knew it. I knew I’d be able to do what I had to do; that I’d be able to fire the .60 if I had to; that I’d be able to draw down on the enemy if I had to. Ski’s words were a tonic; hearing them was almost like taking a pill, a magic pill. In an instant, just moments after hearing him imply that he had confidence in me, my arms quit shaking and my legs felt stronger. I could walk now. I could walk without feeling like I was going to fall down.
Suddenly, out-of-nowhere, I heard another Bob White quail call. Ski heard it, too. And he reacted in a soft, confused whisper:
“Damn! Somethin’ ain’t right! Somethin’ just ain’t right!”
Two or three minutes later, as we checked the floor again to make sure there were no hazards, nothing we could trip over, we heard the call again. Then - suddenly - Ski whispered in an almost casual way:
“Well! I’ll be damned!”
For twenty or thirty seconds, nobody said anything. We kept listening for the quail call, but we never heard it again. Finally, Ski whispered something to himself ... very softly ... I barely managed to make out what he said:
“Man! I’d give somebody a blow job for a scope.”
I whispered a response:
Ski responded cautiously.
“A starlight scope. A night vision scope.”
“Why don’t we have one?”
There was a long moment of silence, then Ski whispered a firm, final instruction.
“All right, people. Be ready.”
A moment or two later I noticed that something was wrong. The boat was leaning just ever-so-slightly to port. I moved to my right, right next to where Ski was standing, and put my mouth up close to his left ear. There was a touch of panic in my voice as I whispered my concern.
“I think we got a problem.”
“We’re leaning. We’re listing to port.”
Ski never turned to look in my direction; he never took his eyes off the far bank when he responded.
“Why? Are we takin’ on water or what?”
“It’s low tide.”
“But why are we listing?”
“The grappling lines on the starboard side are taught, that’s all. Don’t worry, this is as bad as it’ll get. In 20 or 30 minutes the river’ll be flowin’ in the other direction and the list’ll be gone.”
“Yea. The river’s a tidal flow. Remember? It flows in and out with the tide.”
“Now shut-the-fuck up.”
Just a moment or two later we heard a rustling sound on the far bank again. As soon as Ski heard it, he whispered an almost inaudible call to arms.
“OK, people. This is it!”
The adrenaline rush was instant and massive, as bad as any I’d had throughout the night, but somehow, I turned to my left and slowly made my way, two cautious steps, to the .60 on the port side.
I couldn’t see anything on the far bank where Charlie was, and that elevated my anxiety level tremendously. There were no low-hanging dark clouds and the ambient glow was still there, but the angle was wrong, the clearing where Charlie was breaking through the tree line was out-of-view from my location by the port .60. I could hear them; I knew they were there, but I couldn’t see them. Not being able to see them bothered me, so I cheated my way back toward the center of the coxswain’s flat. When I got to the place where I’d been standing before, right next to Ski, right in front of the slit in the foliage I’d been looking through before, they came into view. Being able to see what was making the noise eased the tension a little, but only a little. The adrenaline was pumping again and my heart was racing 90-to-nothing.
As I looked through the slit in the foliage, two Vietcong had already emerged from the tree line and stepped into the clearing on the far bank. They were scoping out the river again, one looking up-river, the other looking down.
The clearing on the far bank wasn’t a very large area. From the tree line to the water’s edge it was only six to eight feet, and from the hardwood - which was right on the water’s edge - the clearing only ran about twenty yards up-river and about ten yards on the down riverside. At the points up and down where the clearing ran out, the tree line came right to the water’s edge.
After scoping out the river, the two V.C. made their way to the water’s edge. They scoped the river again, then one turned and faced the tree line. He gave a quick hand signal. A moment or two later, four more Vietcong stepped into the clearing.
Two of the four were carrying very large weapons. I couldn’t make out what they were right away, but there was no doubt that they were guns, and there was no doubt that they were huge. One made his way to the extreme up-river point in the clearing, and the other made his way to the same point on the down riverside. The other two V.C. split up, too. One followed the man who’d moved up-river and the other followed the man moving in the opposite direction. Both of the men who were following were carrying two ammo cans, one in each hand.
Once the two, two-man teams were in position, they started setting up their weapons. It didn’t take long to figure out what they were. They were setting up two crew-served machine guns. The weapons were either Russian or Chinese-made .51 calibers.
In a matter of seconds, both crews had their guns set up and the men carrying the ammo had each opened a can and locked and loaded their weapon. Once the guns were in place, crewed and ready for action, the V.C. who’d signaled the machine gun crews made another hand gesture toward the foliage.
A moment later, two more men stepped into the clearing. They were shoulder-carrying a single, heavy load. I couldn’t make out what the load was right away, but it had a long pole running through it and each end of the pole was resting on the shoulders of the men that were carrying it. They made their way, in a humped-over stoop, to a point right next to the hardwood and then dropped the pole and the load to the ground. The V.C. who was signaling made another hand gesture and two more men appeared. They were shoulder-carrying an identical load. They made their way toward the hardwood and dropped their load right next to the first one.
Once both heavy, pole-carried loads had been deposited next to the hardwood on the bank, the four men who’d carried them stepped back into the tree line. The man who was doing the signaling then waved his arm again. Two more men stepped into the clearing and began taking off their clothes. When the two new arrivals finished removing their clothing, they immediately went to the two heavy loads, leaned over and began manipulating them. A short time later, when both men stood up, I realized what the loads were. They were two large coils of thick, manila rope. As each man stood up, he was holding the free end of one of the ropes in his hands. Quickly and methodically, each man immediately went to work tying the rope he was holding around his waist.
While the two men were busy securing the ropes to their bodies, Ski leaned over and grabbed my neck with his left hand. Then he slowly pulled my head next to his and whispered very softly in my ear.
“Guns. Fuck that flank shit; don’t worry about the flank right now. I need for you to count these motherfuckers.”
We spoke to each other in an almost imperceptible whisper, each speaking to the other with mouths and ears only inches apart.
“How many so far?”
“Twelve, I think.”
“That’s what I got. But modify the way you keep count.”
“Just count the ones that come out of the tree line and stay out. OK? If we get a certain count, and one or two go back into the trees, we’ll count ‘em twice when they come back out ... our count’ll be off ... biet?”
“Just countin’ the ones who come out and stay out, how many we got?”
“Uh ... ten.”
“No. The four who were totin’ the rope went back. Right?”
“So it’s eight, right?”
“OK, Guns. Don’t fuck it up. Whenever I wanna know what the count is, I’ll just whisper ‘count’, and you tell me what it is, OK?”
“Good. Now don’t fuck it up! I’m countin’ on ya’! OK?”
“Now you keep watchin’. Keep countin’. I’m goin’ up forward for a minute ... to the front gun tub.”
Ski patted me on the shoulder and disappeared into the storage compartment.
Suddenly, just a moment or two after Ski disappeared, I heard a splash. The two men who’d been tying the ropes around their waists had jumped into the river. As soon as I heard the splash, Le uttered a muffled, excited whisper.
I’d heard the words ‘choi oi’ before. I’d heard the expression often while I worked at the piers. It was a Vietnamese expletive. I don’t know the exact meaning, but I’d only heard the words uttered in extreme situations. Seeing those situations unfold, I’d often wondered what words I would have yelled - in English - if I’d been the one in crisis. ‘Jesus H. Christ’ would have been appropriate in some cases. ‘Fuck’, ‘Damn’, ‘Oh, my God’, ‘Oh, shit’, ‘Did you see that’, or ‘Help’ would have been appropriate in others. The meaning of the Vietnamese phrase was probably similar and probably varied depending on what kind of crisis was at hand.
When Le said ‘choi oi’, it surprised me. I immediately wondered why he’d reacted that way. It didn’t take long to find out.
Before the men had jumped in, the water had been perfectly calm. The river was in that lull between tides, there was no current moving in either direction. Accordingly, when the men jumped into the water they created a series of rather large waves. The waves began spreading out in a series of concentric circles and the forward-most part, the leading edge of the waves, began to get closer and closer to the boat. I knew what was about to happen, and the thought terrified me. When those waves hit the boat, we’d start bobbing up and down like a cork. If Charlie was watching, if the V.C. were paying any attention at all, they were sure to notice.
Nippa palm doesn’t grow in the water, it grows on land; on the bank. Accordingly, if they saw the nippa palm that camouflaged our boat bobbing up and down, they’d know some-thing was wrong.
As the waves got closer, I was absolutely frozen with fear. When the waves finally hit us and we started to rock, I was absolutely petrified.
The V.C. would probably have spotted us under normal circumstances; we were bobbing up and down rather vigorously, and it would have been hard, if not impossible, not to notice. But we got lucky. Almost as soon as the swimmers hit the water, one of them ran into trouble.
As the swimmers began to swim toward mid-channel, the two men on shore began feeding the ropes into the water behind them. Because the ropes were so large, and made of porous hemp, they absorbed water. As the ropes absorbed more and more water, and got heavier and heavier, they became quite a burden. Both of the swimmers were having problems, but one more-so than the other. As soon as the leading edge of the wave hit us, he began calling out for help.
“Choi! Choi oi! Choi duc sup!”
One of the men on-shore, the one who’d been hand-signaling, began yelling back at him. I had no idea what he was saying, so I turned and whispered to Le.
“What’s he sayin?”
Le whispered back.
“Swim. Keep swim.”
The two men on shore kept feeding out the ropes, and the more they fed out, the heavier they got. Finally, the burden became too great. The one who was screaming for help was going under, and the other one, who’d somehow managed to make it to mid-channel, was dead in the water and floundering himself.
The two men feeding the ropes into the water suddenly realized what was happening. They knew their comrades needed help - physical help - so they dropped the ropes, unshouldered their weapons, took off the web belts they were wearing around their waists, and dove, fully clothed, into the river.
All of the V.C. on-shore were enthralled. Their eyes were glued on the man who had called for help. None of them, not even the men manning the heavy machine guns, were looking in our direction. We were fortunate in that regard. With four men in the water, one screaming for help - thrashing about like a wild man - and two swimming toward him with all the strength and speed they could muster, the wave action was incredible. In no time at all we were bouncing around like a destroyer at sea; like a tin can fighting its way through difficult swells.
The problem the swimmers were having wasn’t the only thing in our favor. The darkness and the width of the channel worked to our advantage as well.
The moon was now at twelve o’clock high, right above the center of the channel. It’s location actually wasn’t an advantage to either side. But the ambient glow wasn’t that bright. We could just make out the forms on the opposite bank. If we hadn’t known they were there, if we hadn’t heard them when they arrived, they might have gone undetected; we might not have seen them. But knowing they were there, and straining to see them, we could; we could just make them out; we could just barely see them. Accordingly, because we knew they were there, and could see them, we had the advantage. They didn’t know we were there, they didn’t expect us to be, so the near-darkness and the ambient glow - for the time-being, anyway - was working in our favor.
The width of the channel was approximately two-hundred feet; we were two hundred feet away from the opposite bank. That distance, though not great, worked to our advantage as well. Again, because Charlie didn’t know we were there, channel width was OUR ally, not his.
The outcrop was a different story. The center of the half-circle of land on our side of the river was only eighty to ninety feet away from the bow of our boat. Ninety feet isn’t much; it’s only ninety feet from home plate to first base in a baseball game. I was under no illusion; no illusion at all. If Charlie ever got to our side of the river, if he ever got there in force, the few advantages we now had would be lost.
In the ambient glow, it was all we could do to see the Vietcong on the opposite bank. Their dark clothing blended in with the dark foliage at the tree line. One really had to look hard to see them. But that wasn’t the case with the men in the water. The ambient glow was casting a reflection on the water and the men in the water were clearly visible.
Ski re-appeared just moments after the two men on shore jumped in to save their comrade. He grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled my right ear close to his mouth.
“What’s all the noise?”
“Two swimmers ... with rope.”
“Yea, I know ... but what’s the ruckus?”
“One’s in trouble ... yelled for help. Two more went in after him.”
As the two men swam toward the one who’d called out, neither seemed to be concerned about the man in mid-channel. When they reached the one they’d jumped in to save, one grabbed him from behind and supported his weight while the second man struggled to untie the rope. I couldn’t understand why they’d done that; why they’d jumped in the river to begin with. The man in trouble had the rope tied around his waist. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just pull the rope, and the man attached, back to shore.
A second or two after the rescuers reached the man near the shore, I turned my attention to the man in mid-channel. He was the one closest to our position; he was the one that would reach the outcrop first, so naturally, he was the one I felt a need to focus on. As soon as I turned my eyes back in his direction, back to the spot I’d last seen him at, I got a hollow feeling in my stomach. He wasn’t there. I quickly moved my eyes toward the outcrop. I scanned it completely. He wasn’t there, either. I immediately began to panic. Had he made it ashore? Was he already on our side of the river? And if he was, where was he? My eyes moved back to the center of the channel. Nothing. Where was he? Then, just as I started to look back toward the outcrop again, I saw him. He was still in mid-channel, but he was in big trouble. His face, eyes and mouth were wide open. He broke the surface just briefly. Then, he went under. I turned toward Ski and whispered very softly.
Ski stared in the direction I was pointing for three or four seconds. Then he turned and uttered a curious, excited whisper.
“He went under.”
The man in mid-channel wasn’t there anymore, and the feeling that swept over me was extraordinary. My initial gut reaction was to help; to try to save him; to save a fellow human being who was in trouble; to shed my helmet, boots and flak jacket and jump in the water; to swim to his aid. The impulse to do something was incredible. My left hand instinctively moved to my helmet. I almost took it off.
I’d never been in combat before; I’d never faced an enemy before; I’d never fired at an enemy, or had one fire at me, so there was still room in my heart for compassion. There was still a capacity to feel sorry for one who was losing his life in such a terrible way. Ski, on the other hand, HAD been in combat; he HAD engaged the enemy; he’d engaged him many times and he felt no such compassion. He felt no compassion at all. As he stared at the spot where the man had gone under, I could barely hear his voice as he whispered under his breath.
‘Drown, you son-of-a-bitch! Drown!”
There was a lot of yelling and screaming on the far bank. There were eight or nine men in the clearing now and they were all yelling encouragement to the men who’d jumped in to save their comrade. Just as they got him to shore; just as they were holding him up so the others could pull him out of the water, one of them noticed that the second man in the water wasn’t visible anymore. In a panic, he yelled out to the others.
“Choi oi! Choi duc sup! Choi duc sup!”
When the Vietcong had first arrived, they’d gone to a great deal of trouble to keep the noise down. I’d been extremely impressed at how quiet they’d been. Moving a column of men through thick jungle foliage wasn’t easy, but the ease with which they’d done so, their ability to do so quietly, told me that they were experts in such things. Now, they were anything but silent; their good order and discipline were in shambles. Instead of good order and discipline, one could now see the nightmare; the nightmare that all warriors fear most: complete and total chaos.
The man who had just been pulled ashore, the one who’d been drowning himself just moments earlier, scrambled to his feet and began screaming as loud as he could.
I leaned over and whispered to Le.
“Why is he yelling ‘fuck’?”
“He no say fuck. He say Phuoc. Man name Phuoc. Friend name Phuoc”
Ski responded quickly ... in a muffled whisper:
“Shut-the-fuck up! Both of you!”
As the men ashore began to understand what had happened, they began yelling, too. Some were yelling the man’s name. Others were yelling instructions to him; yelling for him to swim; yelling for him to have courage, to not be afraid. But it was too late. Phuoc was gone.
Two men finally had the presence of mind to pull Phuoc in by his rope. They ran to it, grabbed it, but when they pulled it, it went slack. Phuoc, in an attempt to save himself, had managed to untie the rope. But once he’d freed himself, he was spent, he didn’t have the strength to swim to shore.
The nightmare for the enemy continued for another minute or two, then the one that had been signaling - telling the others what to do with his hand gestures earlier - began to re-establish order.
First, he picked up his web gear and put it back on, then he picked up his weapon. Then he turned and picked out two men at random and ordered them to start pulling in the ropes. Just as the two men began pulling the ropes out of the water, Ski leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“There’s another shotgun up front. I’m gonna try to find it. You keep countin’, OK?”
“Remember, just the ones outside the tree line.”
Ski ducked down, moved to the right and entered the storage compartment. Just as I focused my attention on the far bank again, and just as I began to count, the signalman began yelling at the rest of the men in the clearing. There were nine of them and they were all massed in a tight group right at the water’s edge. The machine gun crews were in the group, too. The signalman, who must have been an officer, immediately ordered the gun crews back to their weapons. Then, he ordered all unnecessary personnel back into the tree line. So much for counting.
The surviving swimmer didn’t go with the others. Instead, he remained at the water’s edge and continued to call out to his friend.
His voice was pained. He wasn’t just calling out, he was crying out; really crying, like one would cry out for a loved one at a funeral. It suddenly occurred to me that Phuoc must have been this man’s cell mate.
As soon as the swimmer began to yell Phuoc’s name, the officer ran up behind him and slapped him across the head with the butt of his rifle. The swimmer hit the ground hard. The officer then reached down and grabbed him by the neck. He ordered him to stand up, pulling him by the neck the whole time, and then forcibly moved him to the tree line. The officer didn’t force the swimmer back into the foliage. Instead, he pushed him into a squatting position in the clearing in front of the path. After whispering very loudly - chastising the swimmer; yelling for him to be quiet - the officer moved back to the water’s edge. He scoped out the far bank for a moment and then turned back toward the tree line again. He yelled a command. Nothing happened. He yelled the command again, and again, nothing happened. I leaned over and touched Le’s shoulder, then I whispered very softly.
“What’s he saying?”
“He call for ropa ... thin ropa ... ti-ti ropa.”
Fifteen or twenty seconds went by and there was still no response. The officer began to lose patience and started yelling again. Suddenly, there was a response; a verbal response from just inside the foliage. I leaned over again and asked Le what the voice had said.
“Man look for ropa ... but no can find.”
The officer waited for another ten or fifteen seconds and then bolted through the tree line. His demeanor indicated that he was really mad. About thirty seconds later he emerged from the foliage with a coil of small rope. The swimmer was still squatting, completely naked, next to the trail. The officer grabbed him by the neck and jerked him to his feet. He talked with the man for about thirty seconds and then handed him the rope. The swimmer measured out about three or four lengths and then tossed the rest to the ground. He tied the free end around his waist and then made his way back to the water. The officer approached him, patted him on the back and then talked with him for another minute or so. As soon as the conversation ended, the swimmer jumped back in the water.
Again, the swimmer’s entry into the water sent a series of waves in our direction, and Le responded the same way he had the first time.
I held my breath and crossed my fingers. I hoped the enemy wouldn’t notice the bobbing. I looked over at Le. He had a strange look on his face. His eyes were closed and his teeth were clenched. He was worried about the bobbing, too.
I looked back toward the river at the same moment the swimmer began his stroke. The officer picked up the coil of rope and began feeding it into the river. Without the burden of the heavier rope, the one he’d attempted the swim with earlier, the swimmer cut through the water like a freestyle Olympian. As soon as I saw his form, as soon as I saw the power in his stroke - unencumbered by the burden he’d carried earlier - I knew that he would probably have made a good UDT candidate.
The swimmer was making excellent time and he reached the middle of the channel with no difficulty at all. Then, about two-thirds of the way across, the officer realized that the rope wasn’t long enough. He wrapped the little bit that was left around his left arm two or three times and started yelling at the man in the water. I didn’t understand what he was saying, but I knew what was taking place. Le didn’t know I knew, and without my even asking, he offered a translation.
“Ropa too short.”
“Yea, I know.”
The swimmer stopped and turned around. He treaded water for a moment while the officer yelled at him and told him what the problem was. The swimmer shook his head a few times and then swam back toward the far bank.
I know it was a strange thought to have, especially in a moment of extreme crisis, but as soon as I realized that the rope wasn’t long enough; as soon as I realized that their second attempt to cross the river had failed, I thought about the first principal of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can possibly go wrong WILL! I took comfort in the thought that Murphy’s Law didn’t just apply to us. It seemed to apply to the Vietcong as well.
While the swimmer swam back to the far bank, the officer re-entered the tree line. A moment or two after the swimmer reached the bank, the officer re-appeared. He had a second coil of thin rope in his hand. The swimmer was still in the water. While the swimmer waited, holding onto the bank with his left hand, the officer tied one end of the second coil of rope to the free end of the first; the one he’d been holding earlier. As soon as he’d joined the two together, he gestured to the swimmer. The man in the water immediately turned and began his third attempt to cross the channel.
There was very little wave action this time. The man hadn’t left the water, so there was no splash.
I watched the swimmer cross the channel with a large lump in my throat. There was no doubt that he’d make it this time. And when he did, he’d be close. Very close.
While the swimmer negotiated the channel, I focused again on the short distance from the center of the outcrop to the boat. I recalculated the distance again, and again - no matter how hard I tried to make my estimate change - it didn’t. It was only eighty-to-ninety feet.
I suddenly remembered something I’d heard in a lecture during BUDS training. It had to do with the ideal proximity when engaging an opposing force. A number of ideal distances were discussed, and they all had to do with different engagement scenarios - mostly ambushes. But none of them - none of the distances presented during the BUDS lecture - involved a scenario where the distance was only eighty-to-ninety feet. The scenarios in BUDS had always been described in yards; a lot of yards. In fact, I don’t think any of them involved a distance of less than one hundred yards. One hundred yards! Hell! Charlie’s position on the opposite bank was closer than that!
When the swimmer finally reached the outcrop, I put proximity out of my mind. The reality of just how close he was hit home in another way. I could hear him! I could hear him breathing. He was winded from the swim, and when he crawled up onto the clearing, he leaned forward in a stoop, head down, with his hands braced on his knees. He was breathing really hard, trying to catch his breath, and that sound - that heavy breathing sound - seemed much too close.
Suddenly, I remembered something I’d learned in Gunnersmate ‘A’ School. It had to do with how far a round fired from a particular weapon had to travel to reach maximum velocity. I couldn’t remember the exact numbers for M-16s and .50s, but both were in yards - not feet!
Suddenly, in retrospect, I reached a startling conclusion. All things considered, one thing became perfectly and instantly clear. We were too god-damn motherfuckin’ close!
As I stood there, staring at the enemy on the outcrop, listening to his labored breathing, I thought about Cong and his argument against laying an ambush at our present location. Running rope across the river was going to separate our boats. And once we were separated, we’d be vulnerable; each boat would be on its own; our firepower and effective-ness would be cut in half. I couldn’t help but question Ski’s decision. Why were we going to let them run the rope? And it didn’t appear to be one rope they intended to run; on their first attempt to cross, they’d attempted to cross with two.
While the swimmer was catching his breath on the outcrop, the officer and another man began tying the free end of the small line to the two large ropes they’d attempted to send across earlier. Just as they completed the tie-off, Ski emerged from the storage area and whispered very, very softly to Le.
“Hey, Le. Where’s the other Ithaca?”
It was obvious that Ski didn’t know that the swimmer had reached our side of the river. Before Le responded, he made a ‘shusssh’ gesture with his right forefinger over his mouth. Then, he placed his mouth right next to Ski’s left ear. When he spoke, he whispered very, very softly - so softly that I could barely hear him.
“Man here. This side riva. Shusssh.”
Ski turned his mouth to Le’s ear and responded in the same, muffled tone.
“Ithaca? Where? Do you know?”
Le turned his mouth to Ski’s ear again.
“Ky have ... up front.”
Ski didn’t respond. He just turned and re-entered the storage compartment very, very quietly.
A moment or two later, the officer signaled toward the tree line and three men appeared. One of them picked up the clothes that belonged to the swimmer. He folded them into a bundle and poked them inside his shirt. Then, the three men sat on the bank and slid into the water. Once in the water, all three grabbed the ropes. A second or two later, the officer signaled to the swimmer on the far bank. The swimmer was still catching his breath and didn’t see the gesture. The officer signaled again. There was still no response. Finally, the officer yelled out to him. The thin rope was still tied around his waist. Without bothering to untie it, he took the slack out of the line and started pulling the ropes - and the three men holding onto them - across the river.
In no time at all there were four men on the outcrop on our side of the river. The adrenaline started pumping again! Vigorously! I’d never experienced a rush like that!
The swimmer untied the small rope from his waist and dropped it to the ground. The man that had stuffed his clothing in his shirt removed the bundle and handed it to him. The swimmer didn’t dress; he laid the bundle down near the tree line. While the swimmer laid his clothing down, one of the others untied and separated the other end of the small, thin line from the two larger ropes. When the smaller rope was free, he began coiling it up. The smaller rope was actually two lines. When he coiled them up, he didn’t separate them, he left them tied together.
Another man picked up one of the larger ropes and began pulling on it. The officer on the opposite bank had one hand on one rope and one hand on the other. When he felt the tension on the one the man was pulling, he dropped the other and lifted the one they were both holding and raised it up in the air.
Ten men then went to work tying the first rope to the trees; four on our side of the river and six on the other.
The first rope was tied off low on the hardwood trunk, one-to-two feet off the ground. Once it was tied off, I noticed that one of the men on the outcrop had come up with a combination hammer/hatchet. Another was holding a triangular-shaped wooden shim. These articles must have been secured in their belts when the swimmer pulled them across the channel. The one with the shim handed it to the man with the hammer. He then placed the shim between the rope and the tree and hammered it upward diminishing any slack that might have been present in the tie-off. The shim would also prevent the rope from working its way down the trunk when loads were applied to the line.
The men working with the rope on the far side of the river didn’t just tie off their end. Once the rope was secured on the outcrop side, they used a come-along first to pull as much slack out of the line as they could; then they tied it off. When the rope was finally in place - tied off to both trees - it hung across the channel like the smile - sagging ever-so-slightly in the middle. It was about six feet off the water at both banks and only eighteen inches or so off the water at mid-channel.
After securing the first rope, the ten men immediately went to work securing the second rope to the trees.
Again, the four men on the outcrop side tied off their rope first. Two of the men bent over, side-by-side and hands on their knees, right next to the tree. A third man grabbed the free end of the rope, then he and the fourth man climbed up on the backs of the two who were bending over. Once the men were on their backs, the two men on bottom - hands on the tree trunk to brace themselves - began to pull themselves into an upright position. As they pulled themselves upright, the men on top just walked into position - walking along the backs of the lower men until they eventually walked their way onto their shoulders.
Once they were in position, the two men on top reached up as high as they could and tied the second rope off some twelve feet off the ground. Again, once they had it tied off, one of the men on top pulled the hammer out of his belt and the other handed him a shim. He hammered the shim between the rope and the tree, from the bottom up, just like he’d done on the lower rope.
Once the second rope was tied off on the outcrop side, the six men on the far bank began working with their end of the line. They built a four-man stack just like the men on the outcrop had done - two on the bottom and two on their shoulders. Then, the two men on top pulled a fifth man up onto their shoulders. Once he was in place, the sixth man passed a hammer and a large dowel up to the man on top. He drove the dowel into a hole that must have already been drilled in the tree. Once the dowel was in place, the sixth man passed a length of small rope up to the man on top. The fifth man then looped the rope over the dowel and began pulling on it. As he pulled, the sixth man, the man on the ground, held up a rather large, heavy object. The rope the fifth man was pulling was attached to the top of the object, and once he’d taken out all the slack, the object began to rise, to move higher and higher. The object moved rather quickly passed the four men in the stack - occasionally bouncing off their backs - and eventually went as high as it could before it came in contact with the dowel.
The heavy object turned out to be two objects: a pulley with a block & tackle suspended beneath it. Once the fifth man had pulled the device up flush with the dowel, the man on the ground passed up the free end of the large rope. The fifth man threaded the rope through the pulley and passed the rope down to the second tier of men. The second tier men tied off the rope and attached the come-along chain. Then two other men on the ground began to take up the slack with the come-along.
Just as the men began pulling the lever on the come-along chain, Ski came out of the storage compartment. He’d found the second Ithaca. He moved very slowly to the engine cover and sat down. He laid the Ithaca across his lap and reached in his right-front pants pocket and took out some double-zero shotgun shells. He picked up the Ithaca with his left hand, and with his right he moved a shotgun shell into the loading position - in the loading slot - on the shotgun. Pushing a shell into the slot would make a clicking noise, a noise that the four men on the outcrop would hear if Ski wasn’t careful.
The come-along ratcheting sound was loud. It was a grinding, metal-grabbing-metal kind of sound. As Ski prepared to load the shotgun, he started bobbing his head up and down in sync with the ratcheting sound. After ten or twelve bobs, after getting his head and his whole body in sync with the sounds, he pushed a shell into the slot. He kept bobbing his head - in sync with the rhythm - as he slipped another shell in the slot. Two beats later - still in sync with the sound - he pushed another shell in the slot. Over and over again - in perfect sync with the ratcheting sound - he pushed shells into the shotgun. Then, finally, he drove the last shell home just as the come-along men pulled the lever for the last time.
It took the men working the come-along almost three minutes to get the line as taught as they wanted it. And they pulled it so taught that the hardwoods on both sides of the river started creaking under the strain. They had left a good deal of play in the lower rope, but they pulled the upper rope as tight as they could - almost perfectly straight, with very little sag - before they’d finally tied it off. The come-along had pulled the upper rope so taught that it had actually pulled the two trees toward each other. As a result, the low point in the sag on the lower rope was now dipping into the water.
Once the upper rope was secured, the fifth man let the slack out of the smaller rope until the pulley - with block & tackle attached - was hanging from the upper rope and ready to be put into service.
Before the fifth man climbed down, the man on the ground passed up the free ends of two, long thin ropes. There were eyes on both sides of the pulley. He tied one rope to one eye, and the second rope to the other. The small thin ropes would be used to pull the device back and forth across the river.
While the men on the far shore were tying off the top rope, the swimmer on the outcrop dove into the river and swam back to the far bank. When he reached the shore he didn’t leave the water. He reached up and grabbed the bank with his left hand and wiped the water from his eyes with his right. The officer picked up the free end of the small pulley rope and walked over to where the swimmer was waiting. He knelt down and handed it to him and he quickly tied it around his waist. Once the rope was secure, he turned and began swimming back toward the outcrop.
The Vietcong on the far bank wasted no time. Once both ropes were tied off, they immediately went to work. There was a rope attached to the block & tackle device and the man assigned to work the rope lowered it to the ground. There was a large hook on the bottom of the block & tackle and two men quickly went to work attaching something to it. It was too dark to see what the load was, but when the rope man pulled the rope to raise the load, I heard a metal-on-metal banging sound as the elements of the load bumped together.
While the swimmer was swimming back to the outcrop with the pulley rope, Ski stood up and walked over to his position in the coxswain’s flat. He didn’t look through the slit in the foliage right away. Instead, he turned and placed his mouth next to my right ear. Then, in a soft whisper, he spoke to me.
I turned my head and whispered a response.
He put his mouth back to my ear.
“Softer. Whisper softer, OK?”
“Are you sure it’s nineteen? They work in cells, remember? Two-man cells.”
“You want me to count the dead guy?”
“Then it’s nineteen.”
Ski slowly turned his head away and peered through the slit in the foliage. As soon as he turned away, as soon as he looked through the slit, he moaned. I don’t know if it was really a moan, or whether he was trying to say something in particular, but his voice was trembling frightfully - his lower lip was shaking so much that all I could make out was a vibrato-ladened ‘ahhhhhhhh’.
It was obvious that something was wrong, that Ski had seen something he hadn’t expected to see. I reached over with my right hand and rested it on his right shoulder. I noticed right away that his upper body was trembling, I moved my hand from his shoulder to his neck and pulled his left ear close to my mouth.
“What’s wrong? You OK?”
He didn’t respond. He just kept staring straight ahead; his eyes wide as saucers. Slowly, he moved his hands up and grabbed the top of the coxswain’s flat bulkhead. His grip on the top of the panel got tighter and tighter. I looked down at his knuckles and they were protruding; throbbing; his grip was tenacious.
“What is it?”
When he finally managed to speak, it came in a muffled, trembling whisper.
I suddenly realized that Ski had not been aware that the enemy had run two lines.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of the pulley being pulled across the river. Then I heard a series of splashes. People were entering the water on the far bank. I stared through the slit in the foliage. My adrenaline was pumping 90-to-nothing My arms and legs started shaking and there wasn’t a molecule of spit in mouth. Ski was visibly upset, and that upset me, but there was no time to worry about that at the moment, there were men moving across the channel and I needed to keep up with the count.
The load, whatever it was, was moving quickly across the channel on the highline. Four men, fully clothed, had entered the water on the far bank and grabbed onto the lower rope. One-at-a-time, with a five-to-ten second interval between each one, they began pulling themselves across.
I quickly updated my count. There were four men on the outcrop, four men in the water, four men manning the two machine guns, the officer and another man standing close to the bank on the far shore, two men standing beside the tree and another man, just in front of them, who was feeding out the pulley line. That was seventeen. Two must have gone back into the tree line.
After revising the count, I turned my attention back to the load on the pulley. I still couldn’t tell what it was.
As I continued to stare at the load, I felt the presence of someone standing to my right. I turned to look. It was Le. I could barely make him out in the ambient glow. The light seemed to be receding. I looked up, and sure enough, another low-hanging, dark cloud was moving across the channel. The upper level clouds still covered the moon completely, and I still couldn’t make out what phase it was in, but I knew, in just a moment, that what little light we had now would be gone.
Just as the dark cloud passed in front of the moon and everything went completely dark, Le grabbed me by the neck and pulled my ear close to his mouth. I was almost a foot taller than he was and I had to bend down as he pulled me toward him.
“Ski say dead man praya?”
“Ski just say dead man praya ... hail Mary ... ”
“Why he say?”
“I don’t know.”
Suddenly, I felt another presence behind me. Then I felt a hand on my right shoulder. It was Ski. His right hand was on Le’s left shoulder. He gently pushed and separated us and stepped into the gap in between. He then reached up with both hands and pulled both of our heads close to his mouth.
“You don’t run a highline to move people. You run a highline to move arms, munitions and food. And you don’t go to the trouble of runnin’ a highline unless you’ve got a shitload of stuff to move. It takes a shitload of people to move a shitload of stuff. Biet?”
Le and I didn’t respond.
It was pitch-black dark. I couldn’t see anything. I closed my eyes for a moment and prayed. I hated the darkness, the total, pitch-black darkness, and I asked the good Lord for just a little bit of light. Not a lot ... just a little. Just enough to see what was going on on the outcrop.
Because of our change of circumstance, I figured Ski would probably opt to break the bush. I knew it would be impossible to do so without engaging the enemy in one hell-of-a firefight, but it seemed to be our only option at the moment. I leaned as far to the right as I could, grabbed Ski’s head with my hands, pulled his ear close to my mouth and whispered very, very softly.
“We gonna break the bush?”
Ski pulled my ear close to his mouth to respond.
“It’s too late.”
“They’ve prob’ly wrecked the channel.”
“Two or three hundred yards ... up and down ... both directions.”
“They’ve prob’ly already tied off a wire rope ... two or three hundred yards away ... in both directions. It’s prob’ly been there all the time ... in the water ... they just pulled it taught and tied it off when they got here.”
“How do you know that?”
“I don’t. But if I was that VC number one, that’s what I’d have done.”
“Is there any way to know? Is there any way to know if that’s what they’re doin’? If that’s what they’ve done?”
“Yea. If they’ve run the wire rope, they’ll set up a triangulated bush; two more .51s on this side of the river. So if the first thing they send across are two more heavies, that means they’re settin’ a bush ... and they’ve wrecked the channel.”
“But if they don’t?”
“Then I’d be willing to chance it. I’d be willing to B.B. One boat up-river and one boat down.”
“How would you get the word to Cong?”
“If we B.B. King, he will, too. He knows the drill. He’ll know what to do.”
I closed my eyes and prayed. I prayed hard. Again, I didn’t ask for a lot of light, just enough to see what Charlie had sent across in that first pulley load. We knew that the pulley had already reached the outcrop and that the load had already been unloaded. We knew because we’d heard the squeaking noise when the pulley was pulled back across the channel.
The pulley noise was loud ... incredibly loud. Once they started moving loads with the pulley, we’d wait until a load was in motion, then we’d communicate with each other. That lessened the chance that our whispers would be heard. But just to be safe, all vocal communication was still executed in a hushed whisper, a whisper that was so hard to hear that if your ear wasn’t right up next to the mouth of the man speaking, you couldn’t hear what was being said.
I didn’t know that much about prayer. I didn’t know if praying really worked or not. The only time I’d ever witnessed anything that had even resembled an answered prayer was when the Christian kid up in DaNang had asked the Lord to send us a respite from the total exhaustion we were all experiencing at the piers back in February. That had seemed like an answered prayer, but was it? At the time, I’d written it off as coincidence. Sure, an out-of-season typhoon had blown up just hours later, and it had seemed like a miracle, but was that really what it was? Was that really what had happened? Not really knowing if I believed in such things or not, I asked my prayer again; silently; eyes closed; meaning every word of it, and scared half-to-death that it wouldn’t come true, that it wouldn’t be answered.
‘Dear Lord, please give us some light. Just enough so we can see the enemy, but not enough so that they can see us. Thank you, Lord. Amen.’
I kept my eyes closed and I kept repeating the prayer over and over again. Suddenly, I heard Ski whisper.
“Look. Those two at the tree line ... by the outcrop ... they’ve got AKs. Did any of them have weapons before? Did they?”
I opened my eyes, and there - right at the tree line - there were two men with AK-47s. They each had on a web belt, and both had large canvas bags strapped around their necks. I looked up at the moon and could just see the tail end of the low-hanging dark cloud moving away.
‘Thank you, God! Thank you, thank you!’
“Well, did they? Did any of ‘em on this side have weapons before?”
“Then that’s what they just sent over. Two AKs, two web belts and the booby bags. No heavies.”
“We gonna’ B.B?”
“One more load. Let’s see what they send over next.”
While we waited for the pulley to come across again, I focused my attention on the lower rope. There were fifteen to twenty men in the water now, moving slowly, hand-over-hand across the rope. Each man seemed to be concentrating on his own efforts, and as a result, the rope was undulating violently. It was a chore for many of them just to hang on.
Suddenly, the boat started bobbing up and down again. The men pulling themselves across on the lower rope were generating some incredibly large waves. I immediately crossed my fingers and prayed another prayer.
‘Lord, thanks for the light. Now, you can make it go black again whenever you’re ready. Amen!’
I waited for my prayer to be answered. When it wasn’t answered right away, I looked up at the moon. I was looking for another low-hanging dark cloud. I could see one, and it was moving toward the moon, but it was gonna take a while for it to get there.
‘Come on, Lord. A little wind wouldn’t hurt, either. Blow that cloud, Lord. Blow that sucker. Amen.’
It was a stupid thought, I know. But the whole time I was praying for the wind, I was wondering what the good Lord was thinking with regard to the prayer requests I was making. It was a totally ridiculous thought, but I could just picture him saying: ‘Come on Powers, make up your mind, son. First you want the light, then you want the dark.’
I gave up on the prayers for a moment or two and went back to work updating the count.
There were fifteen people on the outcrop now, seventeen on the rope coming across, eleven on the far bank, and four more stepping through the tree line behind them. It took me a minute to do the count, and another minute or so to do the math. When I finally completed the tally, the total was 43. When I finished the count, I looked up to see what progress the cloud was making. It had hardly moved.
‘Come on, Lord. A little bit more. A little bit more. Amen.”
I kept my fingers crossed and re-focused my attention on the far bank. I stared at the tree line waiting to count the others as they stepped into the clearing. Then, suddenly, there was an uproar on our side of the river. I immediately turned my attention back toward the outcrop to see what was going on.
The two men with AKs had entered the tree line on our side of the river. They’d done so very cautiously. They were looking for booby traps; booby traps they’d laid themselves the last time they were on the trail. Whatever the uproar was concerned the booby trap they’d laid previously just at the entrance to the trail path.
There was a lot of screaming and yelling. Everyone seemed to be in a panic. I turned and looked in Le’s direction hoping that he’d translate; hoping that he’d tell us what the screaming and yelling was about. I could just barely make out his face in the ambient glow, and the look on his face was extraordinary.
“They find booby trap. Grenade secure to ground. Pull ring had wire. Wire run ‘cross trail. Someone step through wire ... pull pin, ... but grenade no go off.”
“I think yes!”
Ski interrupted us.
“It was Cong! He must’ve tripped it when he scoped the trail.”
Suddenly, the man who’d found the grenade came stepping through the tree line. He held the grenade up in the air - over his head - and showed it to the others. Then, for some unexplained reason, he tossed it to another man that was standing on the edge of the outcrop about fifteen feet from our boat. The man instinctively cupped both hands together and caught it about waist high. As soon as the grenade landed in his hands, he fumbled with it for a moment, like it was a hot potato, and then - in a panic - heaved it over his right shoulder. The grenade came crashing through the foliage on the starboard side of the boat and landed in the center of the canopy just above our heads. When the grenade hit the canopy, it was so heavy that it caused the canopy to sag. There was an immediate, metal-on-metal ‘clank’ sound. The grenade - when the canopy gave way - had landed with tremendous force right on top of Ski’s helmet.
The blow caught Ski totally off guard. His helmet and helmet liner cushioned the blow, but the impact still knocked him silly for a moment. When I heard the ‘clank’ - and saw Ski start to drop when his knees buckled - I instinctively reached over and grabbed him by the arm.
Ski never went down completely, he was standing upright again in just a second or two, but there was an incredible look of panic on his face. Once he was upright, and Le and I knew he was OK, we just looked at each other. We could barely make each other out in the ambient glow. But the adrenaline seemed to amplify the ability to see. I looked at Le, then back at Ski, then back at Le again. We all did that - for the longest time - we just kept staring back and forth at each other. I can’t describe the looks on their faces, and I’m sure my face looked the same way. The expressions were looks of pure horror; pure, unadulterated panic. Finally, I looked up at the canopy. AND THERE IT WAS! A big, incredible sag - right in the middle - right in front of where Ski was standing. I looked back toward Ski. Now he was staring at the sag, too. And so was Le. Nobody said anything - we didn’t have to - we knew what it was, we just didn’t know what to do about it.
I started to say something, but Le was the first to speak. When he whispered, the pitch of his voice was much higher than usual, and his words came out in a trembling sound.
“Whaaaaaat we do?”
When Ski responded, his voice was shaking as well.
“Nothing. Don’t touch it! Don’t EVEN fuckin’ touch it!”
The V.C. didn’t hear the ‘clank’ sound when the grenade hit Ski’s helmet because a fight erupted at almost the same moment. The man that had caught the grenade and tossed it in our direction immediately ran over and began beating the hell out of the man who’d tossed it to him. It was a full-blown, no-holds-barred fistfight. It took the other men on the outcrop 30 or 40 seconds to separate the two. Meanwhile, the officer on the far bank was yelling at the top of his lungs trying to find out what was going on.
The fight didn’t last long, maybe a minute at the most, and when it was over, the V.C. with the bag on his shoulder picked up his AK, joined back up with his cell mate - the other guy with a bag on his shoulder - and they disappeared into the tree line.
In no time at all, the V.C. were crossing at full speed again. The men coming across on the lower rope were gathering on the outcrop, and their numbers were growing by the minute.
At first, I didn’t understand why they didn’t just move off down the trail. I didn’t understand why they were just standing around; waiting. They were bunching up all over the place, and as they bunched up, as the size of the group got bigger and bigger, the ones on the outside of the group kept getting closer and closer to the boats.
The men in the water were still generating waves, and I knew that the closer that growing group on the outcrop got to us, the more likely it would be that one of them would see us; notice us as we bobbed up and down.
Then, it finally hit me. I finally realized why they weren’t moving down the trail. They had to wait for the two V.C. with the bags to clear the booby traps they’d laid. ‘God, how long would that take?’
Just as I realized what the hold up was, I heard the squeaky sound of the pulley again. The second load was coming across. I turned and looked at Ski. I could just barely make him out. His eyes were glued to the load. I whispered to him very, very softly.
“Can’t tell yet.”
When the load finally reached the outcrop, and the men began to unload it, Ski was the first to identify what it was. His voice quivered as he whispered.
“What is it?”
“Two .51s and four ammo boxes.”
My heart sank. I’d thought the adrenaline had been pumping for the last ten or twelve minutes, but that must not have been the case. I suddenly felt a tremendous surge and my whole body got cold. My mouth was totally dry; my legs were like Jell-O, and my arms and legs started to shiver rather violently. Something deep down inside of me began to cry out in desperation.
‘Lord! I can’t take much more of this!’
I needed water in the worst way. My throat and mouth were absolutely bone dry. I elbow-ed Ski and physically moved him out of the way. I would not be denied. I made my way to starboard and positioned myself right in front of the Igloo water cooler next to the entrance to the storage compartment. I knelt down on my knees, took off my helmet, gently placed it on the deck to my left, placed my mouth under the spigot and then pushed the button with my right thumb. I let the water fill my mouth. When my mouth was full, I released the pressure with my thumb and swallowed. I repeated the procedure over and over again. Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I let go of the spigot, put my helmet back on and stood up. Ski grabbed me by the arm and pulled me back to my original position. Then he took a turn at the cooler. Then Le took a turn.
A few moments later, the heavies were removed from the block & tackle hook,. They looked big-as-hell; scary; and the collapsible tripod legs on the front made them seem even more imposing. Once they were on the ground, two men picked them up and moved off in opposite directions; one toward the tree line just off our fantail to starboard, and one toward the tree line near the fantail on the port side of Cong’s boat. Two other men picked up the ammo boxes, one in each hand, and each followed his counterpart.
The area to our rear that the two men to starboard were moving through was heavy in undergrowth. When I saw them moving in that direction, the first thing I thought about was the aft claymore. They weren’t going to pass more than fifteen feet from the rear of the boat. The aft claymore was 20 feet out. Still staring to starboard - trying to see the men as they moved aft - my mind started going bananas.
‘Oh, Jesus! What if they trip on the trigger line? Worse yet, what if they see it? What if they find it? What’ll happen if they discover that it’s there? Oh, God. One more small little favor, please! Don’t let ‘em find it! Amen!’
As my eyes moved toward the rear of the boat, as I stared over the fantail toward the undergrowth, toward the path the two men would eventually take, I realized we had an even bigger problem. THERE WAS NO CAMOUFLAGE ON THE REAR OF THE BOAT! NONE AT ALL! ZILCH! NADA! NOT EVEN A TWIG!
My ears detected movement on the boat, but I didn’t take my eyes off the fantail. My eyes were glued to the undergrowth. Suddenly, I saw them; both of them; they were moving single file, the gunner in the front and the ammo man right behind him. They were stepping very cautiously, very tentatively. Two more steps and the gunner would be directly aft.
All at once, I felt a tugging on my pants leg. I didn’t respond, I just kept staring. Then, I heard a faint whisper.
I didn’t move. I just kept staring aft; staring at the two men moving through the bush. Then, suddenly, as the lead man - the gunner - took four rather quick steps in succession, I heard a series of ominous sounds.
‘click, bump, ka-thump, sploosh.’
At the first ‘click’ sound my eyes were immediately drawn downward - toward the source of the sound - and I saw what it was. I saw what made the sound. As the lead man was walking - taking those four quick steps - his right foot had caught the claymore line and his continued forward movement had yanked the trigger mechanism that was attached to the line right out of the back of the boat.
The gunner heard the noise. His ammo man did, too. They immediately stopped and stared in the direction the sounds had come from. The low-hanging dark cloud hadn’t moved in front of the moon yet. The available light, the subdued ambient glow, was as bright as it had been all night, and there was nothing of any substance between us; nothing to hide either them or me. There was no large foliage at all, only some waist-high scrub brush right where the inlet met the bank.
I froze. I stood absolutely, perfectly still. I was still standing in the coxswain’s flat - standing straight up - facing the fantail. The two V.C. were staring right at me. Their eyes were pointed right at me. I didn’t move a muscle; I didn’t breathe; I didn’t blink. I just stood there; frozen; scared almost to the point of death. I could hear my heartbeat racing in my ears; I could feel that sucker trying to pound its way out of my chest. I knew it was the moment. I knew it. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, I knew it. I knew it was the moment of death.
They kept staring for almost a full minute. Then, remarkably, unexplainably, the lead man turned and started moving again; cautiously, but deliberately. Two or three seconds later, his ammo man followed him. I didn’t take my eyes off either of them until they disappeared into the undergrowth some twenty to thirty steps later.
As soon as they disappeared, I slowly and quietly collapsed into a heap on the coxswain’s deck. Ski and Le had knelt down as soon as V.C. had started moving aft. Nhu had knelt down behind the fantail when he’d seen them coming, too. Why hadn’t I kneeled down? I didn’t even try to answer that question.
I felt a sudden tap on my shoulder. It was Ski. He pulled my ear over close to his mouth and whispered very, very softly.
“Hey, Guns. Don’t do that no more, OK?”
It was all I could do - it took every bit of energy I could muster - but I leaned over and responded.
“I don’t know, but just don’t do it no more, OK?”
Ski and Le stood back up just a moment or two after I collapsed. But I stayed on the deck for a while. I couldn’t get the thought of what had just happened out of my mind. I kept trying to figure out why they couldn’t see me. I could see them clearly. There was no way they couldn’t have seen me, unless, that is, that they just didn’t want to. That was the first thought that came to mind, and it was something I’d heard before, something I’d been taught. It was the focal point of the lecture I’d heard on open space concealment back in BUDS training.
The instructor had closed out his lecture by stating, quite matter-of-factly, that at night, you don’t tend to see what you don’t expect to see. Even if it’s there, and you’re looking right at it, your mind doesn’t want to see it if it’s something that can pose a threat to you. Aside from movement, which will bring the mind instantly back to reality, if you don’t expect to see something, and in your mind’s eye you don’t want to see it, you won’t. It didn’t seem like such an off-the-wall idea now. Those men didn’t want to see me, an American G.I. on a navy patrol boat, and they didn’t expect to see me, or the boat, so they didn’t.
When I finally recovered, when I got to my feet and looked through the slit in the foliage, the sight was shocking. There were V.C. everywhere; they were all over the outcrop. The ones on the very edge of the massive crowd to starboard were only eight-to-ten feet from the boat. The four or five that were closest to the boat, the ones that were directly perpendicular to midships, were right on top of our forward-most claymore. What if they stepped on it? What if they found it?
While I was staring at the men standing right over the claymore position, a strong, acrid, pungent odor filled my nostrils. I knew what the odor was; I’d smelled it before. It was Vietnamese body odor. It was that collective stench of body odor that you only got when you were in the company of a large group of Vietnamese that were filthy and perspiring heavily.
The first time I’d smelled that smell was when hatch team Foxtrot had double-ganged a hole with a male Vietnamese hatch team back at the piers. We’d worked close to a female Vietnamese team once or twice, too, and they’d smelled pretty much the same.
Foxtrot had double-ganged a hole with a Korean team once and they’d had a completely different smell, and I’d been in the company of ten or twelve black sailors, right after they’d come in from a hard day at Bridge Ramp, and they’d had a unique smell as well. A completely different smell.
We used to talk about the different racial smells back at the piers. Bullwinkle once said that he thought a particular race of people had a hard time smelling their own smell - that the stench had to really be bad before you could smell your own smell - but that it was easy for one race to smell the smell of another. That’s the first thing I thought about when that stench hit my nostrils. There were so many of them, and some of them were so close, no wonder I could smell them. But could they smell me? Surely Ski and I had that ‘white’ smell; that Caucasian smell. Would any of them be able to pick up on that? My heart started racing again. They were too close! They were just too fuckin’ close!
Just moments later, when the group on the outcrop had grown so large that there were enemy soldiers just five or six feet from the boat, I began to prepare for what appeared to be the inevitable. It didn’t seem to be a matter of ‘IF’ we’d be discovered; it just seemed to be a matter of ‘WHEN’.
The wave action in the water was worse than it had ever been. Not only were we bobbing up and down, but we were rocking from side-to-side, too. It was hard to understand how they didn’t notice. The rocking got so bad at one point that the three of us had to grab the top of the coxswain’s bulkhead to maintain our balance.
As I contemplated the inevitable, I tried to imagine what the options would be; how the possible scenarios might play themselves out.
If they detected us, and panicked, they might open fire. But surely, once we surrendered, they’d stop shooting. Wouldn’t they? Surely they would. We might suffer a casualty or two, but at least most of us would probably survive.
Another scenario - another thought that just leaped into my head - was that we could make ourselves known and just surrender - give ourselves up before the shooting even started. We could do that, couldn’t we? I mean, if things got any worse, surely we could do that.
A moment or two later, when the rocking finally subsided a little, the low-hanging dark cloud finally moved in front of the moon. It got completely and totally dark - like someone had turned off a light switch. It was darker than it had been earlier when I swore that it was as dark as it could possibly get. I couldn’t see anything. It was pitch-black, god-awful dark.
As soon as it got dark - as soon as the light disappeared - the ambient air temperature dropped five-to-ten degrees. Just like that, instantly, it got cooler. And there was a breeze, too. It was moving from port to starboard and blowing through the foliage on my side of the boat.
Just moments after the light went away - just moments after the temperature dropped and I felt the breeze to port - I detected a movement on my right side. It was Ski. I couldn’t see him, but I could tell that he’d turned and moved back toward the engine cover. He didn’t stay there long. A moment or two later I could feel him move back into position right next to me.
Once Ski was back in position, I turned my attention back to what might happen if we were taken prisoner. What would they do to us? They’d blindfold us, I knew they’d do that. They’d told us in SERE training that the V.C. always blindfolded their prisoners. But what would they do then? Would they beat us? Would they feed us? Would they give us water? What? What would they do?
I immediately began to try and recall all the things they’d taught us in SERE. My mind went blank. I couldn’t think of anything except name, rank, serial number and date of birth. That’s all we were supposed to tell them. And that’s all I could remember from three days of classroom training at Pendleton. Damn! Why didn’t the navy send me through that seven day program? Maybe I’d know what to expect if they had. Fuckin’ navy!
Then, just as suddenly as it had vanished, the ambient glow was back again. I turned and looked at Ski. Just seeing him would be a comfort - I knew that - I’d know everything was still OK if I could just see him. I saw him all right. But that’s not all I saw. He was standing right next to the starboard bulkhead with the Willie Peter 79 in firing position. He had it pointed through a hole in the foliage right toward the crowd on the outcrop.
The adrenaline really started pumping then. I tried to make sense of what he was doing. Maybe it wasn’t the Willie Peter he was holding. Maybe it was the H.E. I turned and looked for the M-79 on my side of the engine cover. It was still there. The H.E. 79 was still there. Ski had the Willie Peter. What-in-the-hell was he doing?
Le was standing just to Ski’s right - right behind his M-60. But he wasn’t looking through the foliage. His eyes were glued to the M-79. It was just inches away from his nose, in Ski’s right hand, and Le was just staring at it - like he’d just seen a ghost or something. His eyes were humongous; his jaw was open; I could see his teeth and his tongue. I knew instantly what he was thinking. He was thinking the same thing I was thinking. What-in-the-hell is Ski doing? What’s he gonna do with that damn 79? If he fired it at the enemy on the outcrop - as close as they were - we’d all be dead! We’d all be toast! It would all be over!
Suddenly, more men began emerging from the water and the rocking action picked back up. As the men on the outcrop began making room for the ones climbing out of the water, one of them lost his footing on the bank and actually grabbed onto the foliage next to the starboard splinter shield to regain his balance. I heard him when he slipped, and I felt the boat lurch when he grabbed the camouflage. Then, through a very small slit in the foliage, I saw his face. His hand was still on the foliage and his head was moving up and down as he watched what he was holding onto bob up and down.
This was it! It had to be it! Nippa palm grows on land! It doesn’t grow in the water! What he was holding onto wasn’t supposed to be bobbing up and down! The gig was up! I was about to become a prisoner of war! We all were!
I actually thought about raising my hands in the air at that moment. I started to do it, to go ahead and present myself as a prisoner so they wouldn’t shoot me when they saw me. But I didn’t. I was afraid the movement would give me away.
I kept my eyes on the man - on his eyes - and I kept waiting for him to realize what he was looking at. BUT HE DIDN’T! One of his comrades - probably his cell mate - realized he had slipped and moved over close to the bank to help him back up. Once he had both feet back on the outcrop, he pointed at the foliage and said something to his friend. His friend responded and they both laughed. Then, still laughing, they turned and elbowed their way a few steps forward - back into the crowd - and got as far away from the edge of the bank as they could.
As soon as they moved away, I turned my gaze an inch or two to the right and focused on Le. His expression was a look I’d never seen before; a look of sheer, utter terror. His nose had only been eight or nine inches away from the man’s hand when it had grabbed the foliage. Le knew what the men had just said to each other. He knew why they’d laughed. At that moment, with my heart racing at close to 200 beats a minute, I’d have given every payday I had coming in the navy to know what the two had just said; and why they’d laughed.
It had been another close call - the second in less than five minutes - and I was physically and emotionally breaking under the strain. I didn’t know how much adrenaline I had in my system - I didn’t even know how the adrenal gland worked - but I was suffering because of the flow. The surges, the never-ending surges, the back-to-back surges had done a physical number on my system. Whatever was in my bowels had turned to liquid, and my bladder suddenly felt like it was going to explode. But I couldn’t go to the bathroom, I couldn’t let myself lose control of my bowels. If I did, as close as the enemy were, they’d smell it. I was trying with everything that was in me, but I could tell I was losing control; I could tell it was a battle I wouldn’t win. I was losing control of my bowels AND my bladder. And that’s not all. My stomach began to ache terribly - so did my head - and my arms and legs began to cramp up severely. The pain in my stomach suddenly doubled me over and I felt a sudden rush of acid into my throat. I began to gag, but I fought to keep it silent. If I threw up, I didn’t want the enemy to hear.
While I was still doubled over, fighting the urge to vomit, I heard a verbal command in Vietnamese. The command was immediately followed by the sound of men gathering up their equipment. They were moving, they were lining up at the tree line. In a moment or two they’d finally be moving down the trail. Finally! Finally!
I was still doubled over in pain and trying to resist the urge to vomit, but when I heard the V.C. moving toward the tree line I stood up and started updating the count.
The mob on the outcrop was so large that all I could see were the backs of the ones closest to the boat. I had no earthly idea how many there actually were; I’d given up trying to count them a long time ago. But Ski had said the count was important - for me not to fuck it up - so I was bound and determined to get as accurate a tally as I could as they began to move onto the trail.
I couldn’t see the place where they were entering the tree line, there were too many in front of me blocking my view, but there was a palm frond or something across the access to the trail, and as the men began to move into the foliage, I could hear this palm frond swooshing. Each time I heard a swoosh, I’d count, and when I started my count, I started at three. One and two were the two booby trap guys - the ones who’d gone down the trail earlier - so I started my new count at three.
In no time at all there were no V.C. near the boat. The ones that were left on the outcrop were moving closer and closer to the tree line as each second ticked by. Eventually, they’d settled into two or three columns that fed into the access point at the entrance to the trail. The count had reached 59 when I could finally see each man as he stepped through the foliage. As I continued the count, I whispered to myself very, very softly.
“sixty ... sixty-one ... sixty-two ... sixty-three ... sixty ...”
Ski interrupted me in a very soft whisper.
“What? ... sixty-five ... sixty-six ... sixty ...”
“What? ... sixty-eight ... sixty-nine ... seventy ...”
“You can stop counting now.”
“Why? Seventy-two ... seventy-three ... seventy ...”
“Guns! It doesn’t matter now! A shitload is a shitload! OK?”
“But I wanna know. I wanna know how many there are ... seventy-six ... seventy-seven ...”
I made it to some point in the low eighties, then I felt something crawling on my neck. I didn’t think much about it, I’d swiped a few B-52s that had been big enough to feel like that, so I kept counting as I reached up to brush it off. But it wasn’t a mosquito. It was a lizard. A rather large lizard. I flipped it off with my hand and at almost the same moment felt something else crawling up my leg. I brushed it off. Then I felt something on my arm. I brushed it off and then leaned over and whispered to Ski.
“Has anything been crawlin’ on you?”
“Three. Just like that ... boom, boom, boom.”
“That crowd’s flushed out the critters.”
While Ski was still speaking, Le started slapping at the back of his neck. Something was crawling on him, too.
By the time I re-started the count, the last man in the last column was entering the tree line. There were still four men on the outcrop to unload the pulley, so I added the last man into the foliage and those four to my count. I knew I’d missed a few folks, so I made the last man through the foliage ninety, and the four on the bank made ninety-four. Wait. Phouc was dead. The total needed to be an odd number because of that cell mate crap, so I added one back just for grins. What-the-hell, ninety-one. Then I turned my attention toward the far bank.
There were four men working the pulley on the far side, that made ninety-five. The four men in the two gun crews made ninety-nine. There were six men channeling cargo that had already been staged over to the four working the pulley, that made one-hundred and five. OK, that was it. One-hundred and five. Wait. I forgot the two gun crews on the outcrop side. That was four more; that made one-hundred and nine. ONE-HUNDRED AND NINE! Geez! Ski was right! A shitload is a shitload! Fuck the count!
I started feeling poorly again and knelt down on the deck. I took off my helmet and quietly laid it off to one side. My stomach hurt so bad that I thought I was dying. I moved into a sitting position as quietly as I could and then bent over forward as far as I could lean. Bending over relieved some of the pain, but not all of it. My arms started hurting, too. That bothered me. The pain was radiating, moving down the arms. That didn’t sound good. Wasn’t that a sign of a heart attack?
Then, all at once, I felt something wet on the back of my neck. It took me a minute to figure out what it was.
It was rain. It was raining. At first, it came down in small drops, just one or two-at-a-time. But in no time at all, it was coming down in bunches. It wasn’t falling in torrents, it wasn’t that kind of rain. It was more like one of those summer showers we’d have ever so often back in Georgia. There was no thunder or lightning, nothing like that, just a constant, bothersome pitter-patter. And Ski was right about the noise. The constant pitter-patter noise the raindrops made hitting the foliage was loud, but the sound they made when they hit the canopy was deafening.
I was still sitting on the deck with my back to the coxswain’s flat bulkhead. The leaning over bit had helped the stomach pain a lot. The cooler temperature and the rain helped, too. I stayed in that position for about five minutes, just sitting there, leaning against the bulkhead, then leaning forward every now and then and rubbing my arms occasionally trying to relieve that bothersome ache.
When I started to stand back up again, as I leaned to my left to put my right foot on the deck to step up, an ammonia smell filled my nostrils. I sat back down and turned to my left. My nose was about even with the top of Ski’s left thigh. I knew immediately what the smell was. Ski had wet his pants. I put my right foot on the deck again, reached up and grabbed the top of the port gunnel and pulled myself to a standing position. I turned around and took up my old position in the coxswain’s flat. As soon as I stood up, the urge to relieve my bladder and bowels took hold again. I glanced over at Ski. Then I looked back toward the far bank and watched the pulley as it started another trip across the channel. While I watched, I emptied my bladder; I just stood there, staring at the far bank, and pissed in my pants like it was a normal, everyday kind of thing to do. But I continued to fight the urge to empty my bowels. I wanted to. God! I wanted to so bad! But I fought that urge hard and somehow managed to control it.
The rain sounds were actually a blessing. They covered up any sound we might accidentally make on the boats. At one point, Ski turned around to put the Willie Peter 79 back on the engine cover. When he stepped toward the cover, he slipped on the wet deck. I saw him when he fell, he hit the deck hard, and I know it made a hell-of-a-racket, but the pitter-patter was so loud that I didn’t hear a thing and I was standing just two feet away.
Now that the proximity threat had ended; now that the mob on the outcrop had dispersed into the tree line and headed off down the trail, I think we all felt like an immense weight had been lifted from our shoulders. There was even time to look back on what had taken place in the last hour or so and to try and make sense of it.
The first thing Charlie had done with the highline was send across some weapons. The first load across had been the AKs, web gear, and the canvas bags that belonged to the booby trap hunters. Nobody could move down the trail until they’d cleared their booby traps.
The second load across had been the two crew-served machine guns. They’d been a top priority; Charlie’s ambush points had been incomplete until they were in position.
The next ten or twelve loads were all hand-held weapons: AKs, B-40 rocket launchers, some SKS semi-automatic assault rifles and a few captured American-made M-60s. They sent the weapons across hanging on the hook by their slings, five to ten weapons per load. Every now and then, they’d send over a load with nothing but web belts and ammo cans suspended from the hook. The ammo cans had small rings of rope attached to the handles so that they could be suspended from the hook.
The last of the weapon and ammo loads had just reached the outcrop when word came down that the trail was clear. Once the men on the outcrop had recovered their weapons and ammo and moved onto the trail, it was time to start moving the cargo.
The cargo loads seemed to be crated arms and munitions only. I saw no evidence of any sacked material - like bags of rice - being sent across the channel. I didn’t see any food stuffs, but I did notice something peculiar.
There were still a lot of men on the far bank. There were ten to fifteen in the clearing, and from all the noise that was coming from behind the tree line I assumed that there were a shitload I still couldn’t see. But there were only a few weapons. That seemed really strange to me. Why were so few of the men who remained armed?
For the next two hours, the Vietcong moved load after load of crated arms and munitions across the river. Some of the boxes were very large and the highline would sag under the weight. On more than one occasion the line sagged so much that the hardwoods creaked and the loads touched the water at mid-channel. As each load crossed, the men that were assigned to carry that load would cross on the lower rope.
The rain stopped about an hour after it started, and during the course of the rain the ambient temperature dropped another five-to-ten degrees. The water temperature in the river was warm. The rain, on the other hand, was downright cool. As the cold rainwater mixed with the warm water in the river, a misty fog formed. Sometime around 5 a.m., the fog had totally enveloped the channel. It was very misty, and the mist hung in the air like smoke from the surface of the water to a height of about ten to fifteen feet. The combination of fog and darkness was eerie. We couldn’t see anything. But neither could the Vietcong.
Sometime shortly after 6 a.m., the sun began to appear just over the horizon to the east. The moon had disappeared about thirty minutes before, and that thirty minutes of total darkness were the most terrifying of all. The first rays of sunlight, when they first broke through the mist, more-or-less replaced the ambient glow. At first, the ability to see was about the same. But as the sun rose higher, and the light became brighter, the ability to see improved greatly. But all we could see was the fog.
We could still hear the pulley moving across the channel and that bothered us; we all started to get a little antsy. We were all thinking the same thing. The sun was up now. What if they were still moving cargo when the fog burned off? We knew that we didn’t have as much to fear as we’d had just an hour or so earlier, and the knowledge that most of the men who were left weren’t armed eased the tension a great deal. But we still weren’t out of the woods. Those .51s on the far bank could still do some damage - a whole lot of damage - AND NOW, WE COULDN’T EVEN SEE THEM! But the most important question was a question that had no answer: WAS THE CHANNEL STILL WRECKED? I was a newbie, but I knew enough to know that Ski would never engage until he knew the answer to that question was ‘NO’.
Sometime around 6:30 we heard the come-along sound again. But this time, the sound was coming from our side of the river. Shortly after the come-along sound ended, we heard several splashes and the sound of men in the water. A minute or so later the boat started rocking again. A short time later we heard voices on the outcrop.
The quiet came rather suddenly. It happened just moments after we heard the officer’s voice for the final time. And when we heard his voice, it was close. VERY CLOSE. He was on the outcrop; near the boat. When I first heard his voice, up close, he was talking to some of his men. I didn’t know what he was saying, or what the people he was talking to were saying to him, but whatever was being said, the conversation sounded heated and intense. The fog was beginning to burn off now and I could just barely see Le standing next to the starboard .60. He was straining to hear what the men were saying; he was straining hard to make out every word.
When the talking ceased and total quiet finally came, none of us said anything for five or ten minutes. Were they gone? Was the nightmare finally over? I was eager to know the answer and I was the first to break the silence. I leaned to my right and whispered in Ski’s ear.
“Are they gone?”
Le turned and immediately began shushing me. Then he whispered very, very softly.
“Two ... on bank.”
I wondered how-the-hell he knew that, but I took his word for it and kept my mouth shut. Everyone else did, too.
About five minutes later, Ski whispered to Le:
“Wha’d they say? Are they still there?”
“V.C. numba one tell to stay one hour.”
“How long’s it been?”
“The way the fog’s burnin’ off, we’ll be able to see the bank in another ten or twenty minutes. Stay alert. Le, you get the word to Nhu in the back. I’m goin’ forward to tell Ky. Everybody! Stay alert!.”
Ski disappeared into the storage compartment. Le stepped over to the engine cover and leaned as far aft as he could. He whispered to Nhu and told him that men were still on the bank and for him to stay alert. Then he returned to his M-60 position.
Eleven hours earlier I’d felt like I’d hit the wall. I’d been tired, sleepy and totally exhaust-ed. But now, after almost six hours of off-and-on adrenaline surges, I felt like the wall had hit me. I was totally, stone-cold zonkered. And the perceived lack of danger, the fact that, at most, there were probably only one or two enemy to worry about now lulled me into a false sense of security. All I wanted was for the fog to burn off, for there to be nobody there, for us to break the bush, pick up the SEALs and then get-the-friggin’-hell out of Dodge.
According to Le’s watch, we had forty-five minutes to kill; forty-five minutes to wait; it would be forty-five minutes before the men on the outcrop left. But that was according to Le’s watch. It only took another twenty minutes for the fog to burn off, and when it did, there was nobody there. There was nobody on the outcrop.
The fog didn’t just up and disappear all at once. It burned off at a slow but steady pace. Twenty minutes after Le had suggested that we had another forty-five minutes to go, it wasn’t completely gone; we couldn’t see the other side of the channel, but we could see the outcrop quite clearly, and we could just make out the camouflage covering Cong’s boat approximately 160 feet away.
When the outcrop was clearly visible, Ski picked up the starboard side M-16 and slowly stepped up onto the engine cover. From atop the cover he could see over the camouflage; he had an unrestricted view of the surroundings. He surveyed the area on our side of the river for a good minute-and-a-half. Then, he turned his attention to the far bank. The fog was still thick in the channel and he couldn’t see anything in that direction.
When he was confident that the area on our side of the river was clear, he stepped down off the engine cover and started issuing instructions.
“All right, people. Let’s get this Johnny Appleseed shit off the boat. Two-man protocol. Ky, you stay in the front gun tub. I got the controls. Guns, you take the rear .50.”
“Start clearing away this bullshit and get it off the boat. Le, you go ashore and retrieve the claymores.”
“Two man still beach.”
“There ain’t nobody out there, man.”
“V.C. numba one say one hour. He tell stay one hour.”
“Just do it, Le. There ain’t nobody there. They’re gone. But take a weapon with you just in case.”
“No. No take weapon. Get all claymore ... one trip.”
“Fuck it. It’s your ass. But hurry up!”
Nhu came forward from his position in the aft .50 deck and immediately went to work dismantling the camouflage on the starboard side of the boat. Le crossed over the engine cover heading aft just as Nhu was coming forward. When Le got to the fantail, he stepped up onto it. The bank directly aft of the fantail was some five-to-six feet away, so Le side-stepped his way to the right and jumped onto the bank on the port side of the inlet.
Just as Le jumped onto the bank, I made my way over the engine cover and manned the rear .50. A moment or two after I manned the weapon, I heard Ski yell out to Cong.
“Hey, Cong! Take down your curtains, man!”
When Ski had begun issuing instructions, he’d done so in a normal tone of voice. It had been the first time that any of us had spoken above a whisper in over twelve hours. Hearing his voice - his normal tone of voice - had been a shock, and it surprised me. It worried me, too. What if the V.C. were still there - a short distance down the trail - or just behind the tree line on our side of the river? And I was equally shocked when his normal tone of voice grew to a scream when he yelled out to Cong. That scared me, too. If Charlie was anywhere close by, he knew where we were now. Ski’s yell had given us away. I was on tenderhooks for a moment, but when nothing happened, when there was no reaction to Ski’s yell, when there was no indication that there were any enemy close by, my anxiety subsided almost immediately.
When Cong responded to Ski’s yell I could tell he wasn’t a happy camper.
“God-damma-you! You ding-da-dow!”
The feeling of anxiety disappeared completely as I watched Le walk through the waist-high undergrowth to retrieve the port side claymores. I remember a sudden sense of calm coming over me. It was a tired, worn-out, peaceful feeling. It seemed to be over. The horrible nightmare seemed to finally be over and I remember relishing the calm.
All at once, just as the peaceful calm swept over me, I suddenly realized that my mouth was completely dry. My tongue felt like cotton and I wanted water in the worst way. The cooler was only a few steps away so I stepped up onto the engine cover and made my way to the coxswain’s flat.
As I moved forward, Nhu had just finished removing all the foliage on the port and starboard sides and was stepping up onto the starboard rail heading forward. Just as Nhu put his foot on the rail, Ky called out to Ski. It was a frantic call:
Ski left the coxswain’s flat and followed Nhu forward onto the bow. I bent over in front of the water cooler and reached down with my left hand and grabbed the tin cup. I raised it up to the spigot and pressed the button with my right forefinger. As soon as I pressed the button I heard a loud, unfamiliar sound.
The pop sound sounded like a firecracker going off. What it was, or what it might be, didn’t register right away. I remember wondering what had made the sound. I didn’t know what had made the sound, but the others did; and they reacted immediately.
‘pop, pop, pop’
The first two voices came from the bow. The next voice I heard came from the shore. I turned and looked directly aft, in the direction the last voice had come from. I stood straight up in the coxswain’s flat and stared toward the bank. My eyes suddenly focused on Le. He was running toward the rear of the boat as fast as he could, and he was yelling; screaming.
“CHOI OI! CHOI OI!”
Then I heard the sound again.
‘pop, pop, pop’
With each new pop, I saw columns of earth rise from the ground to Le’s rear. It wasn’t until that moment that I actually realized what was happening.
‘pop ... (pause) ... pop’
I dropped the cup and stood upright in the coxswain’s flat facing the stern. I saw the muzzle flashes. They were coming from the tree line - the heavy undergrowth directly behind Le.
The bank to the rear of the boat sloped upward. Between the boat and the tree line there was a whole mess of waist-high undergrowth. Le was plowing through that undergrowth like a madman, and because the bank sloped upward, the muzzle flashes appeared just above his head.
The jolt of adrenaline that I experienced when I finally realized what was happening was unlike anything I’d felt the night before. My arms and legs instantly turned to Jell-O and there was a sudden and almost uncontrollable urge to vomit. But I didn’t vomit, and I didn’t freeze up. I realized immediately - as soon as I knew what was happening - that I was the only person near a weapon; that I was the only person in the crew that could get to a weapon and return fire with any deliberate speed. But which weapon? That was the first thought that entered my mind.
To me, in that instant when a decision had to be made, the .50 seemed to be too far away. I looked down and to the right and saw the port M-16 lying on the engine cover. I picked it up, clicked off the safety and shouldered the thing in one quick motion. Just as I got it in firing position, Le reached the end of the bank.
The bank at the end of the inlet was five-to-six feet from the stern. When the bank ran out, Le dove head-first. The distance from the bank to the rear of the boat was longer than he was tall, but he made it. He just barely made it. Just before I fired, I saw Le in my lower peripheral vision. He’d landed on the fantail rail on his chest. His body, from the armpits down, was hanging over the back of the boat and he was fighting with everything that was in him to pull himself aboard ... to pull his legs over and into the boat.
I aimed at the point in the undergrowth where the muzzle flash were coming from. There wasn’t time to think about the fact that I was drawing down on another human being. I just aimed and fired.
‘pap ... (pause) ... pap ... (pause) ... pap’
None of the first three rounds were tracers, so I had no earthly idea where the rounds were going. I stared at the tree line hard. Where was the target? Had I lost the target?
‘pop-clap, pop-clap, pop-clap’
I saw the muzzle flashes, I re-acquired the target. The enemy was still targeting Le, and the clapping sounds were AK rounds hitting the fantail of the boat. Almost as soon as the shots were fired, Le screamed, “HIT, HIT!” He’d been shot.
Just as I was about to squeeze off another round, an object came flying out of the tree line just to the left of my target.
I didn’t know what it was, but I could see it as it came flying toward me, spiraling toward me. As it got closer, it got bigger - and it was spiraling - like a corkscrew - my attention was focused completely on it, I was no longer focusing on the target. There was no time to think, there wasn’t even time to react, to duck, to move to one side or the other. In one instant it was coming at me - in that crazy spiral - and in the next it was flying over my head. Directly over my head! NO MORE THAN TWELVE INCHES OVER MY HEAD! I heard the object crash through the foliage that was still attached to the canopy of the boat. Then, just a second or so later, I heard and felt a deafening explosion.
I never turned around. I never looked away from the direction the rounds were coming from. I re-focused on the point in the tree line where the muzzle flashes had been and squeezed the trigger again.
‘pap ... pap ... pap ... pap’
The enemy continued to fire as well.
‘pop-clap ... pop-clap ... pop-clap’
One of the popping sounds was a tracer, a green tracer, and I saw the damn thing coming right at me. Le wasn’t the target anymore. I was. Now, the clapping sounds weren’t coming from the fantail. They were right behind me. The AK rounds were impacting on the coxswain’s flat bulkhead.
The enemy and I both had a bead now, we’d both acquired our targets, and the exchange of fire that followed was chaotic.
‘pop-clap ... pap ... pop-clap ... pap, pap, pap ... pop-shrinnnnnng-thud’
What happened next is just a blur. I remember hearing the ‘shrinnnng’ sound and seeing a spray of sparks, but at almost the same moment I felt as though I’d been hit in the chest by a baseball bat. The next thing I knew I was sitting on the deck in the coxswain’s flat. My back was against the coxswain’s flat bulkhead and my helmet had slipped down over my face.
For a moment or two, just sitting there on the deck, I wasn’t aware of anything. Something had hit me and knocked me silly. My first cognizant thought - the first thing that came to mind when I started to come around - was that I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t feel any pain, I just couldn’t breathe. It was the same feeling I’d had when I’d been knocked off the ladder by the crowbar at the piers. As I fought for breath - my helmet still covering my eyes - I became aware of movement on the boat. The popping sounds had increased in intensity and I could hear footsteps; footsteps moving passed me in a run. Then I heard frantic conversation - yelling and screaming - followed by a thunderous, familiar, staccato sound.
Then, for a moment, there was silence. Complete and total silence.
The firefight had only lasted fifteen seconds. From the first ‘pop’ sound until the long-awaited silence, no more than fifteen seconds had gone by.
The silence didn’t last long. Just a moment or two later I could hear Le yelling.
“Hit! Hit! Oooooooooo! Hit!”
I could hear people pulling him into the boat. I could hear them when they knocked all the weapons off the engine cover and laid him down on it. I could hear him moaning. I could hear Ski yelling.
“Battle dressing! Now!”
I heard footsteps as someone ran into the storage compartment. A moment later, I heard footsteps again ... coming out of the storage compartment. Then, I heard Ski’s voice again.
“Nhu! Man the .50! Keep your eyes on the tree line!”
Then Ski’s voice changed. It had already been high-pitched. But suddenly, it became even higher.
I felt someone kneeling down beside me. It was Ski. I felt his hand on my helmet and flinched as he yelled to the men behind him.
“Ky! If he’s got a bleeder, tie him off above the knee!”
Ski took my helmet off and I could see again.
“Where ya’ hit, Guns?”
“I don’t know.”
“Nothin! I’m just gonna unzip your jacket, OK? If it hurts, you tell me, OK?”
Ski slowly unzipped my flak jacket. I was still leaning against the bulkhead. I leaned my head forward and looked down as he unzipped it. When the zipper went free and he pulled the jacket apart, he reached down with both hands, grabbed my utility shirt and ripped it open. The sound of the buttons popping free startled me.
Once my utility shirt was open, he stared at my chest. I did, too. There was a spec of blood about the size of a half-dollar on my white undershirt. It was at the base of my rib cage right under my heart. While I stared at the blood, Ski started pulling my undershirt out of my pants. When the undershirt was free, he raised it up far enough to see the wound. We both just stared at it for a moment. The area was very, very red, and there was blood. And right in the center there was a purplish spot; and it looked like there was a hole. He reached down with his right forefinger. At the same instant he stuck his finger into the wound, he spoke to me.
“This might hurt a little.”
“A LITTLE! JESUS!”
“You lucky son-of-a-bitch!”
He reached down and lifted up the left side of my flak jacket. We both stared at the inside part of it. There was a big, almost perfectly round piece of metal, roughly the size of a half-dollar, poking through the inside of the jacket. It was cone-shaped with the point of the cone poking through to the inside about a quarter of an inch.
“An AK round.”
“You’re one lucky motherfucker, man! An AK round ... from that distance! It shoulda’ gone all the way through!”
“I think it hit something.”
“I don’t know. But I saw sparks.”
“Whatever! You owe the big P.O. in the sky a Hail Mary or two.”
Ski patted me on the leg and extended his right hand. I grabbed it. As he stood up, he pulled me to a standing position, too. Now that he knew I was OK, he immediately turned his attention to Le.
Ky was busy tending to Le’s wound. He explained Le’s injury.
“He shoot in calf. Go out place big! Boo-coo big!”
“No. No have bleeda.”
“Let me see.”
Ky had not tied the battle dressing around Le’s leg. He’d been holding it in place keeping pressure on the exit portion of the wound. When Ky removed the dressing, Le cried out.
Ski knelt down and picked up the rain poncho I’d placed on the deck the night before. He unrolled it and told me and Ky to raise Le up for a moment. When we did, he spread out the poncho on top of the engine cover and Ky and I gently lowered Le onto it.
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