by Dale Day
The highlands of the Kon Tum province of South Vietnam in monsoon season. War at its most miserable.
The pungent stink of an unwashed human body filled Private Ray Walsh’s nostrils. Sucking in the first breath of the day singed his lungs. The banging clamor of rain on the corrugated tin roof told him it would be yet another miserably soggy day.
“Ola, amigo.” Private Jorge de Olivera’s cheerful voice counter punched the gloominess of the morning.
Ray groaned and sat up on his canvas cot, gritting his teeth in frustration at being unable to share Georgy’s bright welcome to another day in the lush jungles of ‘Nam.
Ray and Jorge came from different parts of LA. He in the west not far from the Pacific while Georgy grew up in the barrios of the east. All that meant nothing as they lived – and fought – as brothers. No. Closer than brothers.
Ray unzipped his sleeping bag that kept the creepy, crawly things from seeking to remove his blood as he slept. He shook it out before carefully rolling it up and putting it in the net above the cot.
“Mess truck’s not gonna make it. Corp says the road’s washed out again.”
Ray grunted and removed the liner from his helmet, sticking the tin pot through a slit in the window netting to let it fill halfway with the downpour. Wetting his scraggly beard, he applied Barbasol and shaved, staring into the mirror on a peg in the beam separating his side of the cubicle from Georgy’s. His roomy almost never shaved, just trimmed the little bit of black stuff on the point of his chin.
Georgy’d started his breakfast on the crate they used for a table. He’d pinched a small piece of C4 in an empty B-Can with slits in it to heat the chopped ham and eggs in the M-1 packet of the C-Rations he’d selected. His carefully guarded bottle of Tabasco sauce was ready to make the meal edible.
Ray used the B-Can when Georgy finished to heat his morning choice of Beanie Weenies. Rock hard John Wayne cookies accompanied the entree and he mixed the cocoa packet with cold water, not bothering to heat it. His own carefully guarded Tabasco made the beans and weenies go down easier.
Noise in the hooch announced the time to get off their duffs and get ready for the day. Almost-dry socks hung over the beds overnight were stuffed into jungle boots – carefully examined to ensure no creepy-crawlies were in them. He donned fatigue pants and blouse girded up with fully-loaded ammo belts holding a wickedly sharp K-Bar knife. And the most important item of all – the waterproof poncho came next. Helmets on, they left the cubicle, Georgy leading the way.
“Goo Mowning, Gee Eye-sans.”
Both nodded at the wizened Vietnamese cleaning lady, old enough to be their grandmother. She wore silk pajamas and flip-flops made of old tire tread. Mama-san always smiled and worked without break from the time she arrived until departing for her home in the nearby village. Regardless of the weather, they would return to the hooch to find it sparkling clean with their dirty clothes shining clean and pressed.
“About time you two showed,” Corporal Jenkins growled. “So nice of you to join us.” He inspected each member of the squad, checking that the moving parts of all weapons were properly greased to protect from the downpour.
“The El Tee says we gonna head up the valley to interdict one of Charley’s supply lines. We all know it’s a damned waste, but headquarters says we gotta do it.”
Grousing voices filled the small area that contained two card tables, a Foosball game, and a sofa they all knew housed a family of mice. The color TV on a shelf occasionally picked up the Armed Forces Network feed from Qui Nhon. Everyone knew griping was useless, but it eased the resentment.
Sergeant Harmon, their platoon sergeant, waited in the assembly area and quickly assigned routes to each of the three squads. First would follow the road up the valley while Second worked a beaten bath two-hundred yards up the southern hill. Third squad that Ray belonged to would move just below the military crest of the northern hill.
The Second Lieutenant Wickham, their platoon leader would, of course, stay behind to oversee everything from the platoon headquarters.
“Hey! Ain’t we supposed to leave a squad behind to protect the compound?”
Then Jenkins and Harmon grimaced, knowing the El Tee was so set on making his career that he didn’t give a damn about protocols.
Ray was soaked to the skin beneath the poncho before they even reached the compound gate, Why bother wear the damned thing, he wondered, wiping water from his eyes. Might as well go without this piece of crap for all the good it does.
First squad had the soggiest route up the road at the bottom of the valley. Seldom used by modern vehicles, the ruts were from ox-drawn carts or endless feet. The toughest part on either route was keeping an eye out for an ambush or a booby trap.
They could barely make out ant-like figures crossing the ridge line a click or so away. Ray knew the ones carrying big loads atop their heads were women and girls while the ones with the long bamboo poles over their shoulders were men. It was very rare to see one or two of the old Chinese trucks dating back to War Deuce. That was the only reason to bring LAWs as one never saw Charlie or the Northern Regulars with armored vehicles.
Thunderous explosions came from behind them. A lot of them. Birds screeched as they took flight, filling the air with wings struggling against the monsoon. Monkeys and other tree creatures told the world of their anger with a cacophony of screams at being disturbed.
“Charley Three Bravo. This is Charley Three Alpha. Return to base! Immediately!”
Sergeant Harmon raised his hand high, fist closed, signaling the squads to freeze in place.
“Repeat Charley Three Bravo. Mayday! We are under attack.”
The platoon sergeant clicked his walkie-talkie key and responded, “Roger, Charley Three Alpha. We are on our way. Thirty Mike to ETA.”
“Too long Bravo. We Need assistance now. I repeat. Mayday!”
Everyone knew there was no way they could get back to the compound in less than thirty minutes. But, they turned and started back at their best speed.
The lieutenant meantime continued to shout “Mayday!” into the radio. With the heavy rain, no aerial support was possible and regimental artillery was too far away to help.
“Charley Three Alpha. This is Big Mo. We copy your Mayday. Please ID and give us coordinates.”
Everyone knew who that was. The USS Missouri wrenched from her mothballs to add her massive guns to the fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars sailed not far offshore. Her massive sixteen-inch guns could hurl shells for more than twenty-five miles with deadly accuracy. Although they were in the mountains a little over twenty miles west of Qui Nhon, all prayed their possible savior could help.
They heard the desperate hope in the lieutenant’s voice as he identified the compound and gave the deep voice on the radio the map coordinates.
“Are those yours? Or the enemy’s?”
The lieutenant stuttered as he apologized and obviously turned to someone for help. He then came back on air and carefully gave out a different set of numbers just enough different to show they were those of whoever was raining 122mm mortar shells and RPGs down on the camp.
“We are firing a ranging round, Charley Three Alpha. Give us corrections.”
The sky filled with a roaring, sounding like a freight train through the pounding of the rain.
The sky near the compound lit up and the ground shook. A deafening sound like nothing they’d experienced.
Ray held out a hand to stop Georgy, both staring at the sleek dark figure of a leopard passing in the brush, two cubs following. She growled low in her throat, her yellow eyes examining them.
“Charlie Three Alpha. Corrections please.”
It took a second for the El Tee to respond. “Up one click and right two, Big Mo.” His voice quivered in fear.
The sky low behind the hills far to the east lit up and it took several seconds for the sound to reach them. And then came another sound so earth-shattering that it caused the trees around them to shudder. The ground rolled beneath their feet.
Explosions, ear-splitting even from a half mile away. They shook the ground so badly Ray fought to stay his feet. Georgy reached out and they supported one another.
“Report results. Charley Three Alpha. Report please.”
All held their breaths, dread filling them when no response came from the camp.
The deep voice repeated the request three times before saying, “This is Big Mo, Charley Three Alpha. We are standing by in the event you are in need of further assistance.”
Smoke rose from inside the compound, the gates wide open. One half of the hillside on the other side contained nothing but massive craters.
Two bodies lay face down in the mud. Naked. Charlie had stripped the sentries of everything. Even their skivvies.
All the buildings crackled in flames, in spite of the downpour. Ray moved close to his hooch and shuddered at the sight of a silk-covered leg sticking out of the rubble, a tire-tread flip flop askew on the ancient foot.
The mighty battleship Missouri had done its best, but Charlie had done his too…