by Randy Harritan
Harry was to be at the chopper pad at noon to join the 2nd of the 35th Infantry Regiment already in the field. The flight was at tree top level with the skids striking tree limbs. Harry didn't know if the pilot was a newbie or super experienced but this was one wild ride. Upon arriving the pilot flared the bird, then pitched the nose over to a hover. The unit had been in contact earlier in the day and the chopper was none too eager to hang around. At a hover of five feet He and Quirt were encouraged to disembark. This in the form of a combat boot attached to the left door gunner. After a sprawling dismount and a mouthful of dirt they watched the helicopter roar straight up and disappear.
Nothing was stirring. No people. No sounds. Nothing. Had they dropped him in the right place? He had no radio. No way to contact anyone and was seemingly totally alone. What the hell was going on? His not-so-friendly companion, fear, raised its ugly head and panic clawed its way up his goosed-bumped back.
He made his way to the top of the dirt capped mountain. Huge boulders were strewn about like a giant’s toys ringing the top of the mountain. Their sharply angled faces looking everywhere at once. A place for covens to practice satanic rituals. Sitting cross-legged in the middle of this pernicious Stonehenge was a dust covered and tattered soldier hunched over his dead buddy. He didn't look up. The only movement his shoulders undulating with his sobs.
Eventually he looked up at a clean dog handler sitting against a boulder across from him. His eyes were red and sunken. His face streaked with rivers of grief. Speaking as if Harry had been there all along with no indication that that he didn't know him and the dog intimately he said "What the fuck are we doing here?" His voice clear and concise but heavy with grief. He fixed his stare on Harry as if he expected an answer. To be absolved from his pain. To have this instantly accepted newcomer assuage his internal conflict of life and death. Harry held his stare but had no answers.
He looked away from this defeated and dispirited young man only to see a lush green beautiful valley below. Rolling hills and winding ribbons of silver. The abundance of life and beauty only seen from the mountain top of a tropical paradise. How could one place, one moment be such a dichotomy? Harry felt ashamed of his thoughts. Maybe there's a limit to what a man can handle. Maybe a mind has to take a break.
A faint thunk, thunk, thunk. Oh shit, mortars being fired. Find cover. Try to drag man to safety. Won't move. Just sits there. No cover. Harry presses his face against a boulder and gets as low as possible. The rounds impact with a thud throwing dirt, rocks, steel. More mortars being fired, exploding, then silence. The man is unhurt, as is Harry and Quirt. They have been in the jungle for less than a half hour. No wonder the chopper was in such a hurry.
The main body comes meandering up the mountain. Grunts and groans, equipment rattling, heavy breathing from a hundred Infantrymen consolidating their position. Coming back to regroup and make ready to go into harm's way again. Harry was glad to see them. He recognized some of the guys from working with them before. Some he knew from Infantry School in the States. They look tired. One of the guys was a shake and bake at A.I.T. He had another stripe. Good for him. Harry admired his zeal even in training. It's not 1300 hours and yet these guys are beat. Some of their ammo bandoleers are empty.
Harry made his rounds and went through the routine of Quirt smelling everyone and checked in with Lieutenant Bill Burdick, Commander of Bravo Company. The CO informed him they will be moving out in half an hour and to be on their toes. Beaucoup NVA in the area. Had a taste of them this morning with minor contact. Harry has seen the results. The Old Man says there's a regiment of NVA in the area and they are trying to locate them. He tells Harry he will supply a point man for this mission and Harry and Quirt are to follow. Although unorthodox, the absence of presumption and the timbre in his voice did not invite question. His eyes registered desperation and resignation but no hint of capitulation.
It was early afternoon when they got underway and already the stink of men in combat floated in the air. The pace was slow. Much slower than he would have gone. They were walking on cat's paws. The point man, having experienced combat earlier in the day, was in no hurry to ride that wave again. This was Harry's first time following another man. Harry wondered where America found these young men. Brave. Moving through this stinking jungle looking for a fight. Willing to die for each other. Willing to be ordered to kill and be killed. Napoleon said that men were willing to fight and die for a few bits of ribbon on their chests. Harry didn't think so. Where they as afraid as him? Or were they, like him, afraid to be seen as afraid.
“Fox,” Harry whispered to the point man. “I've got an alert. Dead ahead.” The point man was called "Fox" even though his name was Ken Eldridge. He stopped and took a knee as did Harry. Quirt remained sitting on the dusty trail. Nose testing. Probing. Waiting for orders.
Enemy personnel ahead. Close. Was relayed in muted tones back down the column to the Company Commander. The jungle was thick and hilly and Harry could not see past the man behind him and could barely see Fox. He felt alone. Exposed. He and Fox and the young man behind him were the only people in his world. Ahead was a regiment of enemy soldiers. Hundreds of them waiting to fulfill their mission of killing white men. Born in the north to die in the south was their mantra. They wrote it on their canteen covers and pith helmets. Each three man cell protecting one other. Watching each other's back. Ratting the other out if one of the cell wavered from the communist doctrine. All for one and one for all in their maniacal mission.
"Move out." was the only reply that came back up the line. Harry was tempted to send an answer of "bullshit" but knew what his options were. Go now or go later but he still had to go. He approached Quirt and praised him for doing his job and with a shrug of his shoulders told Fox to move out.
In less than a heartbeat all hell erupted. Madness and mayhem spewed from the jungle. They must have been watching the whole time. They were all firing on automatic, spraying the jungle with rifle and machine gun fire. Harry was startled even though he knew this was going to happen. His eyes big as saucers. He felt as if he had turned to stone and could not move. The noise was deafening but he knew to get on the ground first and then look and find targets. If only he could make his body respond. Fox dove off the trail and in doing so lost his rifle and steel pot. Unarmed and lying in the brush he was defenseless.
The NVA saw what had happened and three soldiers advanced to retrieve the weapon and kill Fox. Harry saw it all unfold as if in slow motion and knew that Fox was a dead man. He had no way to intercept these men from his position lying concealed in the brush. Without another thought, or even a deep breath, Harry jumped up amid all the rifle fire and charged the three dinks firing on semi-auto, one man at a time. Be calm. Look at the sights. One down. Two down. Three down. The rifle didn't jam. Oh thank God the rifle didn't jam. Quirt running by his side, Harry jumped back off the trail and took up a position in a slight gully. Quirt tight against his left side. With Fox spotting for him he engaged the enemy. He could see to the right but had no field of view to the left. Fox would call out "left, on your left" and Harry would fire in that direction, then resume his cover of the front.
Fox yelled, "Do you see the man crawling? He's gonna kill me. He's trying to get position. Do you see him?" Harry could not raise his head. The ground in front of him was erupting in little geysers due to the rifle fire. His face turned to the side looking at Fox, pressed into the dirt. They knew where he was and were unloading on him. Covering for the man trying to flank the Americans. He kept crawling. Closing the gap. Again, Fox implored Harry to shoot the crawler, terror in his voice, but Harry could not. The fire was too intense.
He was as thirsty as he'd ever been. He had water but knew if he tilted his head upward to take a drink he would lose the top of his head. He was stone still. Not praying but looking at Fox with empathy. Fox's face contorted, pleading. The picture of a man who had lost it all.
Suddenly rifle fire from behind. It was an American. Laying down cover fire. Had he been there all along? Why the hell hadn't he been shooting. Or maybe he had. In a jumbled jungle setting time, distance and reality always took a back seat to fear. Now was Harry's chance. He raised his head ever so slightly. The waist high grass to his right front going down like a lawnmower slowly being pushed by an invisible man. Harry could not fully raise up so he gripped the handle of his M-16 like a pistol and fired and continued to fire. High, low, left, right. Die you son-of-a-bitch. Fuck you, you're mother, Ho Chi Mein, you're ancestors, and all you commie bastards. Did he hit him? Did he? He didn't know but the grass stopped moving and never moved again.
Grenades! Now they're throwing grenades. Boom. Boom. Boom. Time to move. Harry raised a thumb and pointed back over his shoulder. Fox responded instantly while Harry lay down cover fire. The soldier to the left rear went with Fox. Time for Harry to un-ass this AO. He sprang up and started down the mountain at full speed until he realized that he was going much too fast. Actually, out of control. His legs couldn't keep up and a tree was looming straight ahead. He threw himself off to one side but his left leg hit the tree and spun him around like a boomerang. Rolling to the bottom of the hill he could hear bullets whizzing over him. Hitting the tree probably saved his life. Pain shooting through his leg. Oh God, please don't be broken. Down the valley was Fox, his head protruding from the mouth of a cave waving for Harry to get inside. Harry and Quirt scrambled inside to find Fox and another soldier hunkered down. Later Harry would discover that this soldier was Michael Boyle and this was his first mission. Unlucky bastard.
The NVA could be seen running back and forth in front of the cave but, as yet, hadn't looked inside. Outside hammocks hung between trees, fire pits and other signs of life having been lived in relative comfort. Oh Jesus, they were in a NVA Base Camp. The three soldiers and dog had stumbled into the mouth of the tiger.
"Fox, Boyle, Quirt." Faint sounds. Men were calling to them. Too many dinks around. They could not answer. The rescue party would be slaughtered if they came for them. Harry found it interesting that they were calling Quirt and not him. Oh well, they were one in the same anyway. It was comforting to know they were missed.
Artillery was called in. The ground shook with an intensity they had never experienced. They had to stay put. Praying that the enemy would not seek shelter in the cave. Praying the cave would not collapse. There was a whole mountain on top of them. Helicopter gun-ships came next and raked the area with machine-guns and mini-guns. Hearing the rounds hit first and then the guns was surreal. The ripping of the rounds hitting the ground followed by what sounded like the revving of a race car engine. Six thousand rounds a minute. Seven minutes to put a round in every square foot of a football field. The truly terrifying was yet to come. Jets. They came screeching in low dropping five-hundred pounders before igniting their afterburners and peeling off to come around and do it all again. Splitting the air. They worked in pairs so when the noise of one died down another took its place. They were experiencing Dante's Inferno. The cave filled with smoke and dust and skin cells. The trio was bounced around like bingo balls. Each time checking each other to see if they were bleeding. Noses bled but not ears. Thank God, not ears. The 20 millimeter Gatling guns from the jets were another abomination created by a Mengele-esque scientist to terrorize humans. The explosive contagion of four-thousand rounds a minute followed by the banshee whine of the guns as the jets peeled away. Make it stop. Please God, make it stop.
Silence. Although the high pitched hum in their ears stole the silence from them they relished the calm. PFC Boyle poked his head out of the cave for the first time in five hours. It was time to go. The three reluctant spelunkers and Quirt slipped from the cave and made their way along the valley floor. Half crawling, always hunched over they traveled several hundred meters before seeing a figure in a bush high up on the side of the mountain. Not a good hiding place, the man's form was clearly visible in his shelter. Harry, again required to kill another human, painted him with the sights of his M-16 and began to squeeze the trigger. Take a breath, hold it, squeeze, be surprised by the report of the rifle. Wait. What if it's one of ours.
"Hey, it's Fox and Boyle and the Dog Handler." The form scurries up the hill like a scared rabbit. Oh Crap, it was one of them. Harry prods Boyle with the end of his M-16. Move. They start crawling. Crawling fast, Boyle in front. He starts slowing down. Exhausted. Harry with his finger in the trigger guard prods him again and orders him to move. The safety is not on but Harry continues to poke Boyle in the back and butt. Move damn it. In later years he would think about how dangerous and stupid that was but he was scared and scared trumps common sense or even training.
It was getting dusk and several figures rush down from the top of the hill. They take up positions below the ridgeline. Well disciplined, maximizing their advantage. The trio does not move but it is clear they are overmatched and outflanked. Harry rolls the dice and calls again to the shadows.
"It's Fox, Boyle and the Dog Handler. Shoot us or cover us but God Dam it say something."
"Come on up, we'll cover yo ass," came the reply from heaven above. They had never heard such a beautiful southern accent in their lives. As they scurried up the hill the dinks opened up on them. They may as well have been shooting blanks because nothing was going to stop these men from climbing that mountain and joining their unit.
One of the Lieutenants had been shot, his life running off the end of a poncho in red rivulets. He called Harry over and told him they thought them dead after the patrol received no answer. He said it had already been called in. He was badly wounded and could not move so he asked Harry to bend down so he could shake his hand. Harry shook his hand and then bent over and kissed this man on the forehead. He didn't know why, in fact he didn't even know this guy, but he was compelled to do that and felt no shame.