"So, what do you think?"
"I think we're gonna get our asses shot out of the sky."
Lieutenant Colonel Sam Gutierrez looked at the aerial photo again. The North Vietnamese zigzag trenches were clearly shown going right up to the wire of the beleaguered camp. If you squinted hard enough, you could see the blurry shapes of people. Lots of people.
"I think you might be right," he said. "See any other way of doing it?"
"Way I see it," Captain Finn McCulloden, commander of the First Battalion, II Corps Mike Force, mused, "is that we have three courses of action. Walk in from here. That way we could take the whole battalion. Get the battalion in there, Charlie isn't going to take the camp. Don't give a damn how many people he throws against us. Problem is, it'd take three days at best. That's if the NVA haven't ambushed all the avenues of approach, which they will have.
"Second, land right here," he said, pointing to a bald knoll, formerly an artillery firebase. "Never be able to get more than one lift in, the place is probably mined like hell, and the trails down off it mined and ambushed."
"So that leaves..."
Finn smiled. "It leaves coming in as fast as we can, landing right in the middle of the camp, which as we know is registered with mortar concentrations and rockets, has antiaircraft guns all around it, and probably direct fire from recoilless rifles and RPG-7s. How do you like those odds, Captain Cozart?"
The helicopter pilot grinned back. "They suck." He looked around at the other pilots, seeing the young men, most of them warrant officers with less than two years in the Army, nod their heads in agreement.
"Then that's what we do?" Finn asked.
"No other choice, is there?" Cozart replied. "Your people are going to have to be unassing those choppers in a hurry. No room for more than a two-ship landing at a time. How many people are you going to try to get in there?"
"One company," Finn replied. "Eighty 'Yards, five round-eyes. The rest of the battalion will walk in. Maybe we can hold Victor Charles off until they get there."
Cozart called his pilots together to start planning the assault. Gutierrez pulled Captain McCulloden off to the side. "You know I wouldn't ask this, if I thought they could hold out one more day."
"Shit, Sam. I know that. Hell, I still owe you money from R and R, so I know you don't want me killed just yet." Finn McCulloden and Sam Gutierrez went back a long way, to their first tour in Vietnam when Sam was the captain commanding an A team and Finn was his junior medic. It was Sam, when he returned for his third tour and found himself commanding a C team in Pleiku, who had convinced Finn, also just starting his third tour, to take the newly opened position as commander of the Mike Force. They often needed new commanders, being the reaction force for A teams in trouble. There were no "walks in the woods" for the Mike Force. When it went out, there was a fight. The survival rate for the Americans who ran the Mike Force wasn't high.
"Don't suppose I can talk you into waiting, taking the main force of the battalion in?"
"You know better than that," Finn said. "Besides, you wanted me to take command, and I can't command from thirty klicks away."
Gutierrez nodded his head in assent. There had to be new command on the ground at Camp Boun Tlak. The team there, what was left of it, had lost confidence in the commander, First Lieutenant Bentley Sloane. Sloane had been the executive officer under Captain Stan Koslov, taking over the team when Koslov was killed on a local security patrol.
Thereafter Sloane had refused to let patrols go outside the wire, thus clearing the way for the NVA regiment now besieging the camp to make its preparations in relative safety. The more experienced members of the team -- and there were damned few of them these days! -- had argued with him to no avail. Now they blamed him for their precarious situation.
And Colonel Gutierrez agreed. This late in the war, Special Forces had been inundated not only with relatively inexperienced NCOs, but with officers who had no background in special operations at all. Some of those officers learned, and learned quickly. Others became casualties. Still others would probably never learn, and that type included Lieutenant Sloane.
Gutierrez recalled Sloane reporting to the C team for further assignment. He had wasted no time in letting it be known that not only was he a West Pointer, but that his family's military tradition was long and distinguished, starting with his great-grandfather, who had won the Medal of Honor at Cold Harbor. Gutierrez had marked him as a careerist, and an arrogant one at that. Getting his ticket punched with a short assignment in the combat zone, in preparation for moving up to bigger and better things. With the drawdown of conventional units and their increasing departure, SF was still the best place to get shot at.
Gutierrez had assigned him to Boun Tlak because Koslov was one of the best A team commanders still in II Corps, and what damage could the lieutenant do, under Koslov's thumb? Besides, Boun Tlak was next in line for turnover to the Vietnamese under Nixon's Vietnamization program, and the assignment wouldn't be for all that long, anyway.
Even shorter now, he thought.
Cozart approached. "Got a plan. May not be a good plan, but it's the best we can come up with at the moment."
"Let's hear it," Finn said. He had a lot of faith in John Wesley Cozart. Whatever anyone might say about the short-in-stature, arrogant aviator, you had to admit he had brass balls. You called him in, he was going to come in or die trying. Over the last six months that had happened four times.
"Way I figure it, we pack about twelve of your guys on each bird," Cozart said. The Huey was designed to carry six to eight American troops, but the Montagnards of the Mike Force were considerably smaller than their round-eye counterparts. Finn nodded. A heavy lift, but twelve they could do.
"Don't need much fuel, there and back," Cozart continued. "Keep door gunner ammo to a minimum -- ain't gonna be much time for shootin'. That makes it an eight-ship lift.
"They'll expect us to come over this hill," he said, pointing to a piece of dominant terrain just to the east of the camp. "That way we'd be masked from their fire the maximum amount of time. Which means they'll probably have most of their antiaircraft guns sited here." He pointed to a patch of jungle just to the other side of the camp's cratered runway.
"So we'll trick 'em. We'll swing around, come in from the north, cross this ridge, drop down into the riverbed. Fly right on the water, pop up, be in the camp before they know it." He was grinning, clearly enjoying the thought of the flight.
Finn looked around at the young aviators, who would in the normal course of events be hanging out on the block back home or revving their souped-up cars up and down the main streets of a dozen small towns. Not one of them was over twenty-one.
Smiling and laughing as if this were a training mission back at Fort Rucker.
An eight-ship lift, flying nose-to-tail rotor down a narrow riverbed, where the enemy would be able to shoot down on them. Where, if one ship went down, the following ones would have to make some hellacious gyrations to avoid running into it.
Where there wouldn't be a chance to autorotate if you lost power. You would fly right into the ground at 120 knots.
"Shitty plan," Finn said. "Let's do it."
His four NCOs thought it was a shitty plan too. "First two or three birds might get through okay," Sergeant First Class (SFC) Elmo Driver, platoon sergeant of the First Platoon, said. "Charlie's gonna be so surprised, seein' us come down that river, probably won't be able to get a shot off. After that, it's gonna be a shootin' gallery."
"I'll take ass-end Charlie," SFC Walter "Spearchucker" Washington, weapons platoon leader, said. "Always at the back of the bus, anyhow." Washington had won the hearts and admiration of Special Forces men everywhere when, shortly after Kennedy had awarded SF its distinctive headwear, he had been approached in a bus station by a little old lady, who had asked if he was one of those Green Berets.
"No, ma'am," he'd replied. "I'm a nigger. This here" -- pointing to his hat -- "is a green beret."
"Sorry 'bout that," Finn said. "You're up front. We need your machine gunners in that camp probably worse than anybody. Any other volunteers?"
"Hell, I figure ol' Elmo's wrong," Staff Sergeant (SSG) Andy Inger, company medic, said. "First birds ain't never goin' to make it through. They'll be piled up like a bunch a flies after the first frost. Gonna need somebody to come in, pull your sorry asses out of the wreckage. That might as well be me."
"Cheerful fuckin' bunch, ain't ya," Master Sergeant (MSG) George "Slats" Olchak, the American company commander of Company A, First Mike Force Battalion, grumped. Olchak was widely known as an equal-opportunity curmudgeon, who was reputed to have last smiled when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
"Ours is not to reason why," Andy Inger said. "If anybody around here stopped to reason why, we'd all be at home with our wives and girlfriends. Though not simultaneously, of course."
Finn laughed with the others. These few, these pitiful few, he thought, remembering the fragment of a poem by somebody or other. Once more into the fray, dear friends. Shit. Did anyone who wrote this stuff actually stand a chance of getting shot to pieces? Wouldn't have been so goddamn happy about it then, would they?
These four Americans were all that was left out of what had been a seven-man company command unit. The company XO, SFC Joe Pelligrino, had been killed just outside the old camp of Vinh Thanh. First Platoon leader SFC Tim "Backtrack" Volusio was back in the States, recuperating from wounds received on a downed-pilot recovery mission just south of Pleiku. Third Platoon leader SSG Harjo Spear had finally DROSed back to the world after having served three years straight in the Mike Force, swearing as he left that he was going to Washington to straighten out those assholes in personnel who wouldn't let you stay in Vietnam as long as you wanted to.
And the other companies were in worse shape, which was why he'd picked A Company to go in. Some of them were down to two Americans, and the line troops were severely understrength. The Mike Force had had a hard war.
"Weapons first," he said, breaking up the good-natured bickering that always went on before an operation. "First Platoon, Second, Third. Andy, you're right about maybe needing you at the rear. You ride the last ship. I'll go in with Walt. We go in light, individual weapons, a couple of grenades, basic load. Gutierrez tells me Koslov stockpiled a shitload of ammo, got it stashed in bunkers all around the camp, so we won't need any extra. The lighter those birds are, the better. Any questions?"
"Just one," Elmo said. "I guess it's too late to request a transfer to Nha Trang? Maybe run the Playboy Club? Sit around the bar with the other fat, old fucks and talk about how this war ain't nearly like it was way back in '65?"
"Maybe that would be a good idea," Olchak chimed in. "Some 'a those guys could probably make a soldier out of him. I've about given up on it."
"Damn," Elmo said, his face falling comically. "Is it that you're just jealous, Top? Of my manly physique? My obvious physical beauty? My mile-long..."
Finn left them to it. They'd been together so long and through so much that they acted more like a family than a military unit.
A family that was soon likely to be much smaller.
Within a few minutes they were outside, readying the Montagnard troops that made up the bulk of II Corps Mike Force. The 'Yards, as everyone called them, were an ethnic Indo-Malayan group who had settled in the highlands long before the Vietnamese came down from China. The Vietnamese scorned them as savages. They cordially returned the hatred, being perfectly happy to kill Vietnamese of any stripe, but in this case more particularly the North Vietnamese who came into their villages and pressed their people into labor as porters. The Special Forces had been working with the 'Yards almost from the beginning, following the example set by the French commandos who had fought their own war on the same territory.
Lots of SF called them "little people," with nary a trace of denigration. The average 'Yard stood about five foot four and weighed perhaps 120 pounds. But the Americans knew they were some of the best fighters in Southeast Asia. Absolutely loyal to the Americans, they would fight to the death rather than let the North Vietnamese (or Viet Cong, though there were few of those to be found these days) kill their friends.
Now they were forming up in ragged lines, shouldering weapons, complaining bitterly as the Americans made them leave behind the huge amounts of ammunition and grenades they habitually carried. Finn had, out of idle curiosity, once weighed the gear an average Montagnard carried into battle and had found that it outweighed its owner.
But it always left them with plenty of ammunition for the fight, an important factor when resupply, they not being an American unit, was problematic. Coming up against a Mike Force company was like being thrown into a buzz saw.
Finn wasn't too worried about the shortage of Americans. The 'Yard platoon leaders were certainly competent, having had the benefit not only of years of example from their American friends, but combat experience far beyond anyone now serving in Vietnam. Their only problem was language -- if they got into a serious fight and needed air support, there was no one within the organization to call for it. But since they were going to be within the confines of Camp Boun Tlak, that wasn't an issue. There would be plenty of Americans to do that chore, and if there weren't, well, that would mean that everybody was probably dead, anyway.
His interpreter, Bobby, approached. "A good fuckin' day, huh, Dai Uy?" he said.
Bobby was half-Vietnamese, half-French, fruit of a long-ago liaison between a soldier of Groupement Mobile 100 and a bargirl from Qui Nhon. Shortly after Bobby had been born, his father was killed, along with most of the others of his unit, in a mile-long ambush in the Mang Yang Pass. Bobby had grown up shunned by both worlds, the Vietnamese looking down on half-breeds and the French abandoning the country. He'd lived by his wits and hard work, supplementing the meager income he made shining shoes on the streets of Qui Nhon with petty thievery. There he was found by a Special Forces sergeant, who not only took him in but started teaching him English to add to his already formidable French, Vietnamese, and Jarai (a Montagnard language). Over the years his instructors had continued to be Special Forces types, which was why he could not string three words together without one of them being fuck.
But he was a brave soldier and utterly reliable in the field. More American, some people said, than the Americans. Snaggletoothed, freckled, his features owing more to his French father than his Vietnamese mother, he could have passed for a darker-skinned American teenager.
His name was actually Robert, but in his hatred for the French, who had abandoned him and his mother, he disdained the pronunciation Roh-bair and had taken to the Americanization of his name with glee.
Finn shook his head. "You're gonna give the church ladies back home the fits," he scolded. "Gotta clean up your act."
Bobby grinned, unconcerned. "Yah, but I bet the girls will like it."
Finn had promised to look into getting him into school back in the United States, feeling fairly certain that with the drawdown of American forces, Bobby was going to have a lot of trouble with his own countrymen. And that was if the South Vietnamese were able to hold out.
If the NVA won, Bobby was a dead man, as would be all the people who had worked with the Americans.
"The girls," Finn said, "the nice ones anyway, will be shocked."
"Dai Uy, what would I do with a nice girl? I find me a nice young whore, we make lots of babies, call the first one Finn." Bobby interrupted the banter to shout a stream of obscenities at one of the Montagnard soldiers who had just dropped his M16 in the red dirt.
"Betcha he not do that again," he said, grinning at Finn. "Gonna be hot today, huh?"
"Maybe too hot. You stick close to me. Chopper goes down, we're able to get away, we'll E and E. We make it to the camp, we're gonna have a lot of work to do before tonight. I'll need your help."
"No sweat, Dai Uy," Bobby said. "I stick to you like stink on shit. Kill a whole bunch a fuckin' communists, you and me. Just like always."
Gotta hope just like always, Finn thought. Luck is going to run out, one of these days.
Hope it's not today.
Captain Cozart sat in the cockpit of the Huey, going through the start-up checklist with his copilot. The whine of the turbine soon filled the cabin, and slowly the rotor blade started to turn. Within moments it was chopping through the air, filling the world with a sound that Vietnam veterans, years afterward, would hear and suddenly be transported back in time, the memories so sharp they would swear they could smell the exhaust.
He looked back over his shoulder at the passengers, Captain Finn McCulloden, his interpreter, radio operator, and eight Mike Force troopers jammed so tightly the door gunners had to stand on a tiny piece of floor. He pulled pitch and the chopper slowly, complainingly, lifted a tiny bit, allowing him to turn the nose down the pierced steel-planking runway. He moved forward, gathering the airspeed necessary to get the thing to fly. Normal helicopter takeoff was impossible with this sort of load; they were going to have to make a run at it.
The chopper slowly gained airspeed, and he brought up the stick a tiny piece at a time, finally getting just enough altitude and speed to clear the trees at the end of the runway, albeit by inches. Looking out the rearview, he could see the rest of the lift pulling in behind him, their formation not exactly what would be regarded as precise by the instructors back at Fort Rucker.
"Heading?" he said to the copilot, who studied the map strapped to his thigh and who, after a moment, gave it to him.
He swung the heavy bird in that direction, enjoying, as he always did, the rush of cool air through the opened window. Up here you could imagine you were in an air-conditioned office, far away from trouble of any sort, your only concern whether your bar tab at the "O" club was too high to allow you to drink as much as you wanted to.
The triple-canopy jungle below disabused you of that notion. At any moment it could erupt in green tracers, or worse, a stream of radar-guided 23mm shells. Then you could think about how painful it was going to be as they smashed through the thin Perspex under your feet, seeking soft flesh in which to embed themselves.
Just as it had been for many -- all too many -- of his friends.
Screw that, he thought. They want me, they got to catch me first. He keyed his mike, made contact with the Air Force forward air controller, now flying over the battle zone in a flimsy O-2 propeller-driven airplane. The O-2 had one propeller in the front of the fuselage and another pusher propeller at the back. The brass said it was to assure redundancy -- if one prop went out, you could make it back home on the other.
The pilots and backseaters argued that it was so that if the front one didn't chop you up as it came whirling back through the fuselage, the rear one would make sure you looked like mixed salad.
"'Bout ready for the festivities?" he asked.
"Got 'em stacked up," the FAC replied. "Fast movers coming in five, CBUs and nape. Four flights, two Air Force and two Navy, off the Forrestal. Snake escort will rendezvous at BR775420, go down the river with you, then pull off as you land, suppress fire around the camp. That do it for you?"
"Good as it's gonna get, ain't it?" Cozart replied. He looked over at his copilot, who was grinning in anticipation. "Tell the boys back there to get ready. Here we go."
Sam Gutierrez watched the last of the lift helicopters fade out of sight before walking back to the tactical operations center. He felt an ache in the pit of his stomach that was not altogether attributable to the indigenous rations he'd had for breakfast.
Damn, he thought. I should be up there.
He was not unaccustomed to sending men into combat. But it never seemed right not to be leading them himself. From the moment when, as a young second lieutenant in the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division, he had been given the mission of holding a critical mountain pass against the North Korean invaders, he'd been leading troops in life-or-death situations. And had found, much to his surprise, that he was good at it. His platoon had delayed the advance of the enemy for twelve critical hours, allowing the Americans and their allies to strengthen the Pusan perimeter the amount necessary to deny the communists final victory. For that action, he had been awarded his first Silver Star.
He'd also found himself assigned as a junior aide to the division commander, a job he hated. And when volunteers had been solicited for something called the United Nations Partisan Command (UNPIC), and he'd found out that it involved guerrilla warfare and commando raids against the North Korean rear, he had immediately volunteered. And had been accepted, much against the wishes of the division commander.
"You've got a fine career ahead of you," the general had said. "Top of your class at the Citadel, excellent combat record, maximum efficiency reports. You could be a general someday. You want to piss all that away, running around with a bunch of crazy assholes? If you don't get yourself killed, which is very likely, you're going to be out of the mainstream. Regular officers, and those are the ones on the promotion boards, don't like people out of the mainstream."
It was a remarkably long speech for such a taciturn officer and affected Sam Gutierrez not at all. What the general didn't realize was that Sam didn't necessarily want to be in the mainstream. Even in the short time he'd been in the Army, he'd seen the difference between those on the promotion track and those who did the job. The former were always looking over their shoulders, worried that the next action might put an indelible blot upon their records. So largely, they did nothing at all, until forced into it. And when they did do something, they made sure there was someone else upon whom they could throw the blame.
The doers, on the other hand, didn't give a damn about their records. And it often showed. Many of them were World War II vets, some of whom had been company commanders and battalion commanders in Europe and the Pacific, who had been reduced in rank to sergeant after the war. Now that the country needed them again, they had been restored to former positions and were leading troops day to day in heavier combat than most had seen even during the bad old days of the world war.
After this war they would probably be reduced again, and most of them didn't really care. His old company commander had once told him that he believed he had the best, and most important, rank in the military. A captain had enough rank to influence the action, but not so much that he got pulled off into a staff somewhere. He would, he declared, be happy to stay a captain until the day he died.
He'd achieved that wish, his life cut short by a North Korean artillery shell only a few days later.
Sam Gutierrez had seen the truth in the general's statements in the years after the Korean War. His contemporaries had gone on to command companies, serve on battalion staffs, in a couple of cases even command infantry battalions. They had been decorated profusely by a grateful Army, while Sam had to content himself with the single Silver Star. UNPIC had been notoriously stingy with awards and decorations, the attitude being that everyone was doing things well above and beyond the call of duty, so how could you distinguish yourself from all the others in your same position? It was the same attitude he'd later found in the Special Forces.
Which he'd joined, almost as soon as it had been formed. His next few years were spent leading teams in Germany, Okinawa, South America. Always a captain, as his contemporaries were promoted well past. His regular Army commission saved him from the reduction in force (RIF) that decimated the ranks of the reserve officers throughout the fifties, a situation he found unfair in the extreme. The very best of the reserve officers were soon gone, and with them the leadership of the lower ranks, leaving the troops at the mercy of regular officers who couldn't hold a candle to their reserve contemporaries.
But that was the way it was, and he soon became resigned to it. He was having fun, doing important things, while the rest of the army was concerning itself with IG inspections, and CMMIs, and spit-shined boots, and changing the color of their uniforms.
He made his first trip to Vietnam in 1957, on a TDY tour from Okinawa. Had realized that, barring giving up, the United States was going to be heavily involved in the insurgency and had set about learning all he could about the country. Other TDY tours followed, sometimes teaching Vietnamese Ranger battalions tactics and weaponry, sometimes honing the skills of the men of what was to become the Vietnamese Special Forces, and finally building a fighting camp on the Cambodian border and leading Civilian Irregular Defense Group personnel against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese who thought they owned the area.
Still a captain, he'd been surprised and somewhat dismayed when, shortly after that tour, he'd found himself promoted to major. The Army was once again needing experienced combat officers, and he was one of the most experienced of all. Two years later he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
And was, finally, in a position he detested. Sitting behind, on the radio, as men he should have been leading left without him.
"You got commo with the camp?" he asked.
"I'll get it, sir," Lloyd Johnson, his operations sergeant, said. Ordinarily he might have made a wiseass comment. But something in the old man's demeanor told him it would be best to keep his mouth shut and do as he was told.
Colonel Gutierrez was a world-class ass-chewer. And today, Johnson suspected, anybody foolish enough to get into his sights was going to have a real problem.
Copyright © 2004 by John F. Mullins