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US Marines in Vietnam. Three Marines from a
Combined Action Platoon become involved with the
CIA's secret Project Phoenix. Along the way, they
discover an NVA plan to attack their outpost and
wipe it out.
THE JUNKYARD DOGS
The Junkyard Dogs
by David Sherman
(The Junkyard Dogs, free part)
Copyright 2006 by David Sherman
The book you are holding in your hands is a novel, a work of fiction. I made it up. It's about two little known aspects of the Vietnam War: The US Marine Corps' Combined Action Program and the Central Intelligence Agency's Project Phoenix. The two programs have no connection that I know of. I served in a CAP, and never had any contact with Phoenix. But over the years, I have heard many rumors, innuendoes, and accusations of a close connection between them. I've met a couple hundred or more CAP veterans over the years, and have only once heard one say he had any contact with Phoenix. In that instance, he said his CAP provided security for a team of American agents and Vietnamese police who went into a village to arrest an alleged high ranked Viet Cong cadre. Since these rumors, innuendoes, accusations persist despite the lack of any evidence that I've ever seen or heard, I wondered how some CAP Marines might have worked with Phoenix. The Junkyard Dogs is what I came up with. How realistic is this story? Well, the method of operation and details of daily life of the US Marines and South Vietnamese Popular Forces of Combined Action Platoon Whiskey 8 are accurate--that's the way CAPS lived and operated. They are based on my own experience, that of other CAP veterans I know, and on the official record. The method of operation and details of the functioning of the CIA and Project Phoenix, on the other hand, are based on bits of information from a very few people, the little that's been published on the project, rumor, innuendo, and the secrecy that still shrouds Phoenix. Remember, this is a novel, a fiction. I made it up.
Socrates stopped when Captain Hook said, "I'm dropping out here. Charlie's coming and I want a piece of his ass." He turned and peered hard at the dimly made out shadow in the darkness under the trees. It was still full night then, false dawn hadn't lightened the eastern horizon, and the moon had set, leaving only starlight filtering through the leaves to show where they were. Three of the five Popular Forcess who'd spent the night on patrol with the three Marines had already dropped out and gone home.
"What makes you think that?" he asked after several seconds.
The shadow bunched in a shrug. Socrates looked around, he didn't need any light to know where he was though, he'd run enough night patrols in Khung Toi and walked the villages' hamlets often enough during the day to know exactly where they were. Fifteen feet away was the turn off to the skivvy house.
"Bullshit," Socrates said. "You just want to get your pipes
reamed." Another shadow, dimmer because it was farther away, but easier to see because it was moving, was Sneaky Pete, jittering.
Captain Hook didn't say anything.
The corporal they called "Socrates" let the silence hang for a few seconds, just long enough to remind Captain Hook who was running this patrol. But the night was at its end, he thought, and they were on their way back to Fort Cragg, time for a few hours sleep before the day got too hot. "Boom-boom one for me," he said, then signaled Lim to lead off, he and the two remaining PFs would return alone. Sneaky Pete too, if he wanted. It was safe now, too close to dawn. Any bad guys in the area were gone by now, headed for safety.
Sneaky Pete stood uncertain for a moment. Did Captain Hook really think he could catch Charlie in the Junkyard at dawn? Or was Socrates right? Socrates was smart and could see through a lot of bullshit. Did Captain Hook really just have a hardon and want some early morning nooky? Sure sounded good to him.
Captain Hook didn't even glance at the skivvy house cutoff when Socrates and the two remaining members of Khung Toi's Popular Forces platoon headed down the path. He headed back the way they'd come, toward the river, and ducked through a break in the hedge that lined the path. Sneaky Pete cast a regretful glance in the direction of the skivvy house, then followed.
A half hour later it was light enough to see. Not see a lot, not see clearly; but bright enough to make things out. Captain Hook rested easy, squatting over his heels, leaning back against a tree. His arms were draped across his knees, his shotgun held loose in his hands. He looked relaxed except for his eyes, his eyes never relaxed; they were eyes few men could look into for long. He sat motionless and ignored the itch low on his side, just above his belt where his meat packer's hook hung. He breathed silently through parted lips; his face was devoid of expression.
Sneaky Pete hunkered a few feet away, squatted behind his heels instead of over them. His eyes glistened and a twisted smile curled his thin lips. He looked like he could turn manic in an instant. The knuckles on the hand wrapped around the pistol grip of his M16 were white from the tightness of his grip.
The night screechers had just quieted into their nests and burrows, the day squawkers and buzzers were raucously greeting the rising sun. Spots of dim, dawn light showed through the brush screen in front of them. Not enough to show them the path on the other side of the screen, just enough to let them detect movement. Sneaky Pete looked at Captain Hook. He didn't wonder what made his buddy so certain Charlie was going to come along soon. He never wondered about that, that was something he knew he'd never understand. It was enough for him Captain Hook had decided to stop and set this impromptu ambush. Anything Captain Hook did was all right with Sneaky Pete.
Sneaky Pete was stiff from squatting too long. He leaned back more, put more of his weight against the tree, tried to ease the pressure on his ankles. Captain Hook responded to the slight noise only with his eyes, those eyes fixed on Sneaky Pete, told him to be quiet or leave. Sneaky Pete cringed. Five more minutes, Sneaky Pete thought, then we can go, people are getting up now. Behind him he heard human sounds starting in the background, throats clearing, mothers yelling at children, neighbors good-morning each other, the flip-flop of sandaled feet heading toward the river. Dawn in Nghia Toi hamlet.
The squawkers kept squawking, the buzzers kept buzzing; birds and insects only stop their noises when something unexpected comes along. They expected people to come along the paths near the hamlets in the morning. The light flickering through the screen suddenly flickered black as well as blue and yellow and green, someone was going past. Sneaky Pete wasn't sure he saw Captain Hook move, he knew he didn't hear him, but suddenly the other man was half squatting, half kneeling, the shotgun held pointing at the path.
Captain Hook's head bobbed slightly five times as he counted the figures trot-shuffling past. He twisted partway to the right, brought the shotgun to his shoulder, and squeezed the trigger. The shotgun's muzzle-flash strobed away the remaining darkness behind the hedge, the blast sent the squawkers screaming away. In one swift movement, Captain Hook shifted his point of aim and pumped another shell into the chamber. He squeezed the trigger and the muzzle flash strobed again.
He fired so fast the men on the path had no time to react before the second shot. Now came a scream of agony and a confused, angry cry. Sneaky Pete rolled onto his knees, his numb feet and ankles forgotten, and let loose with sprays of bullets from his M16.
Captain Hook fired a third time, then lowered the butt of his shotgun from his shoulder and listened. The noise of Sneaky Pete changing magazines was the only sound he heard. The birds were gone, the insect buzzing stopped, the rising people in the hamlet behind them were stunned into silence.
A low moan came from the path.
"Cover me," Captain Hook said. He slid two shells into the magazine of the shotgun, then stood and broke through the hedge, sliding another shell into the shotgun as he did.
Sneaky Pete hobbled forward on his knees to see more clearly. He didn't try to stand. Now that the shooting was over he felt the ache in his feet and ankles, he wasn't sure he could stand.
Four bodies sprawled grotesquely on the path, three dead. The wounded man lay supine, arching his back against the pain in his chest. His face twisted and sweat flooded over his forehead.
Captain Hook ignored the wounded man. He gathered the weapons and put them aside; two assault rifles, one American carbine, one Russian carbine, one handgun, three hand grenades. Next he frisked the corpses for documents. One body lay on its stomach, Captain Hook had to flip it over. He sank his meat packer's hook into the body's side to do it; if the man was alive and faking, there was no way he wouldn't react to the hook slicing into his side. Only then did he turn his attention to the wounded man. He tore the man's shirt open and dispassionately looked at the blood oozing from the fist-sized hole in the right side of his chest, blood with bubbles that grew, popped, subsided. Two bullets from Sneaky Pete's rifle had hit close together in his back, they tumbled and tore out gouts of muscle and lung and shattered bone.
A small smile creased Captain Hook's face when he said, "You're dead," and put his hand on the wound. "Sucking chest wound. Couple more minutes." The man's back-arching and face-twisting were already weaker. Captain Hook heard something on the trail ahead of him. He wiped his hand on the man's shirt front, then stood and looked at the women who were approaching hesitantly. He didn't see the last spasm or the filming of the eyes as the man at his feet died.
"You kill them," the oldest of the women said, looking first at the corpses, then at Captain Hook.
The younger women didn't look at Captain Hook; one looked at the bodies, one at the trail at her feet, the third at the hedge along the path.
Captain Hook nodded.
The bush behind him rustled and Sneaky Pete came out. He limped slightly, full circulation hadn't yet returned to one of his feet. He shook that foot and walked to Captain Hook's side, the limp eased with each step. "We killed them," he said.
Captain Hook nodded again.
"Vee Cee?" the oldest woman asked.
"Vee Cee," Captain Hook said.
Now the young woman looking at the hedge turned her face to him, she tried for blank but a trace of worry showed. She knew what Captain Hook always wanted after he killed a man. She wished at least he'd wash his hands first.
Sneaky Pete grinned at the taller man. "I guess Socrates was right. You wanna get your pipes reamed, right pano?"
Captain Hook didn't answer him. "Let's go," he said to Three Marbles, which was what the Americans called the young woman looking at him.
"Five dollah MPC," said the older woman. "Pay now."
"Pay later," Captain Hook said. He brushed past her and took Three Marbles by the arm to lead her to the skivvy house.
"Me too," Sneaky Pete said. "Who's ready?" He looked at the other two young woman. They looked at the older woman.
"Pay now." The older woman stood in the middle of the path, blocking it. She held a hand out for the money.
"Ah, come on, Mama-san Joy. I'll pay you later, samee-same Captain Hook." He tried to step around her but she shifted and stayed in his way.
"Ten dollah MPC. You pay Cap'n Hoo-kah," she said. The top of her head only came up to his chest, but she wasn't intimidated by Americans. Especially not this American. "Pay now."
Sneaky Pete grimaced. He didn't mind paying for both, but he wasn't sure Captain Hook would pay him back later. Then again, sometimes Captain Hook paid for him when he was broke. Sometimes. Once or twice anyway, he did. He fished his wallet out of his shirt pocket and carefully fingered a few bills out of it; one five dollar and five one dollar pieces of the monopoly-sized Military Payment Certificates.
Mama-san Joy grabbed it from his hand. "Sue-Sue," she snapped at one of the young women.
The one called Sue-sue nodded and turned back toward the skivvy house with Sneaky Pete following quickly until he was close enough to put a proprietary hand on her haunch.
Mama-san Joy glanced once more at the bodies, then gestured at the remaining young woman. The two of them picked up the weapons and headed toward the skivvy house. Mama-san Joy wished the Americans wouldn't leave the bodies on the path the way they sometimes did. And it was just plain stupid to leave the weapons laying where somebody could pick them up and return them to the VC.
The sound of boots running toward him from the direction of Fort Cragg stopped Sneaky Pete outside the skivvy house. He stood indecisive for a moment, bouncing from one foot to the other. The boots told him it was Marines coming his way, but not which ones. He already paid for this, it wasn't fair if he didn't get laid. If it was Socrates it was probably okay, same if it was Submarine or even Mad Greek. But Sergeant Slaughter wouldn't care he already paid. Inside the skivvy house he heard rustling noises, Captain Hook and Three Marbles dropping trou to get it on. Sergeant Slaughter wouldn't fuck with Captain Hook, he'd wait until he was through because Captain Hook just might shoot somebody for messing with him while he was getting his pipes reamed. Sneaky Pete knew Captain Hook's shotgun wasn't more than a few inches from his hand, hell it was probably in his hand--and a shell was in the chamber and the safety was off. But if Sergeant Slaughter came in and found Sneaky Pete and wanted to find out what happened, he'd probably grab him by the stacking swivel and yank him out, no matter how close he was. But damn, he'd already paid. If he didn't get it now it was blown money. Mama-san Joy didn't believe in pay now, play later any more than she advanced credit. He teetered from foot to foot, knowing he didn't have time to get his rocks off before whoever it was showed up, knowing if it was Sergeant Slaughter he'd never get what he paid for.
The running boots pounded closer, then half a dozen Marines and a few PFs burst into view around the bend in the trail. A grin shot across Sneaky Pete's face when he saw the first was Socrates.
"What's going on," Socrates shouted between gasps.
Sneaky Pete didn't answer, just grinned and waved at him and started to push Sue-Sue through the door when another shout stopped him and dashed the grin from his face.
"What the fuck's going on here, Sneaky Pete?" It was Sergeant Slaughter.
Sneaky Pete turned. "We zapped some gooks," he said.
Then Sergeant Slaughter was on him, standing toe to toe, staring up into his eyes from so close the breath snorting from his nose fanned the bare "V" at the top of Sneaky Pete's chest. It was a strange picture, the bantam sergeant standing half a head shorter then the other man and glaring up at his face, yet seeming to tower over him. "You just laid some Vee Cee low and now you want to get laid, is that it?" he demanded. Socrates stood next to the CAP commander, an expression on his face that Sneaky Pete couldn't read, though it looked like disgust. Sneaky Pete didn't know what Socrates had to be disgusted about, he wasn't the one who paid and might not get what he paid for.
Sneaky Pete shrugged weakly. "Well, Captain Hook, he, ah..."
Sergeant Slaughter cut him off. "Captain Hook's a crazy fucker. You should know better, have some respect for the dead." He nodded at the skivvy house. "He in there now?"
Sneaky Pete nodded.
"How many were there? Show me."
Sneaky Pete slumped, he wasn't going to get what he paid for. Hell, an early morning fuck was always good, especially right after he'd spent the whole goddam night in an ambush. Relaxed him so he could get to sleep and stay there for a while despite the heat of the day. How come Socrates didn't say something to Sergeant Slaughter, let him go inside and boom-boom Sue-Sue?
Sergeant Slaughter looked at Mama-san Joy and Poontang as though seeing them for the first time. "You shits even got yourselves native gun-bearers, huh," he said to Sneaky Pete. "Or did you souvenir them the weapons for some boom-boom?"
"Nah, we, ah," his voice trailed off, he didn't know what to say about forgetting the weapons, how to tell Sergeant Slaughter the two women were just policing up after them without being told to, making sure the captured weapons weren't taken by whoever came along for the bodies.
"Sneaky Pete, sometimes you're so damn dumb I don't know how you ever got into my Marine Corps." He spat to the side of the trail. "Sometimes you're so damn dumb I bet even the Army would reject you. Beast, relieve the ladies," he said to one of the Marines who had come with him.
A huge man stepped to the women. He was barrel-chested, boar-hog bellied, his head seemed to grow directly out of his shoulders without benefit of neck; he looked like the kind of man others call a knuckle-dragger. At first glance a wicked scar seemed to slash across the middle of his face. The second glance showed it wasn't a scar, it was a grin. He reached out a hand that looked big enough to pick up both women at the same time and accepted all four rifles. He used his other hand to stuff the grenades inside his shirt and tuck the pistol into his web belt.
"Fucking show off," Sneaky Pete muttered.
"Killer Kowalski, stay here and bring Captain Hook along when he's through," Sergeant Slaughter said. Then to Sneaky Pete, "Show me."
Sneaky Pete led the rest of them to where they ambushed the VC.
When they got there Sergeant Slaughter looked at the weapons Beast carried. "Lot of fire power for only three men," he said.
Sneaky Pete looked at the bodies, confused. "There was five of them," he said softly.
"Be cool about it, spread out," Sergeant Slaughter said to his men, suddenly tense and alert. "They're probably real close."
The ten men rechecked weapons that didn't need rechecking, made sure they had rounds in their chambers and the safeties off. Doc Holliday drew his .44 and cocked the hammer.
"Where were you?" Socrates asked Sneaky Pete. They were his men, time he took charge of the situation.
"In here." Sneaky Pete broke through the hedge a few feet from where he and Captain Hook had come out of it. There were no breaks in it that hadn't been there before, if the bad guys had gone through this hedge, they did it where he and Captain Hook had come out and might have left a booby trap--or somebody might be aiming a rifle at it. Socrates examined the mulch covering the soft dirt while Sneaky Pete watched for enemy. Socrates looked carefully, but didn't see sign of anybody coming through here since the two Marines came out.
Beast and Doc Holliday broke through the brush on the other side of the trail. Submarine and two of the PFs went down the trail toward Nghia Toi. Sergeant Slaughter stayed in the middle of the trail where he could control everybody if anyone made contact. The other PF stayed with him.
They didn't find any bad guys. But:
"Blood trail through there," Doc Holliday said when he and Beast came back. "Light one, looks like a last dribble from a corpse. We followed it as far as the river. Some scuff marks, too, like somebody dragged a body a little way."
"Did you see their boat?" Sergeant Slaughter asked.
Doc Holliday's expression said that was a dumb question. "Probably. I saw about thirty boats out there, going up and down the river and crossing it in both directions. One of them was probably the bad guys', but I couldn't tell which one. Everyone in the boats was in uniform." The Viet Cong uniform was the same black, pajama-like garments worn by the villagers.
Sergeant Slaughter's eyes fixed on Sneaky Pete. "You dumbass, don't you remember S2 wants us to secure all bodies? I told you that three days ago. Can't you remember anything I tell you?" "S2" was intelligence.
"Well, it was just me and Captain Hook," Sneaky Pete stammered. "Captain Hook, he," he looked at Captain Hook who had just arrived with Killer Kowalski, "well. I mean there was just the two of us." He squirmed.
"And you thought nobody would come looking to investigate the shooting so you left the bodies laying there."
Killer Kowalski snickered. Captain Hook didn't say anything, neither did his expression.
Sergeant Slaughter turned to Killer Kowalski. "I see he's finally through." Then to Socrates, "It was your men who bagged them. You police the three bodies that are left and bring them to Fort Cragg. Beast, Killer Kowalski, help them. I'll get on the horn to Company and somebody'll come and get them." He didn't say anything to Captain Hook.
Socrates looked at Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete and shook his head. He reached behind himself for the folded poncho tucked under his cartridge belt. "Who else's got a poncho?" he asked. Captain Hook and Killer Kowalksi each had one and got them out. Sneaky Pete acted like he was reaching for one too, maybe Socrates wouldn't notice he forgot to carry his poncho. They wrapped the three corpses. Socrates and Killer Kowalski carried one between them. Sneaky Pete staggered slightly under the end of the body he carried with Captain Hook. Beast casually tucked the third under his arm like a Sunday newspaper. They headed for the old French plantation house they used as a base.
They rolled the bodies out of the ponchos and lined them up next to the bunker just inside the gate in the barbed wire perimeter fence, then covered them with a tarp. Beast dropped the body he was carrying and left.
"Hey, baby-san," Socrates called to one of the half dozen children scampering around inside the wire, "lai dai," come here.
An eight-year-old looked up at him and ran over. "I not baby-san," the boy said stern faced. "I big boy."
"Okay, Hien, you're a big boy," Socrates said. He looked down at the child and thought how he was about as big as a six-year-old American kid. "Take these, washee-washee." He handed his poncho to the boy and gestured at Captain Hook and Killer Kowalski to give theirs to the boy. Killer Kowalski handed his over and headed to the main house.
The boy's eyes opened wide at the blood on the ponchos. Then he seemed to notice the bodies for the first time. "Ooh, numba fucking one," he said. "You bang-bang boo-coo Vee Cee. I get Nancy, Fart, they help." He grabbed the ponchos and ran off to the other children who were playing quietly while they waited for the Marines who had come in from patrol earlier to wake up and come play with them. Two of the other children, a mid_sized girl and a small boy, detatched themselves from the others and went with Hien to where two women were scrubbing uniforms at the wash table beyond the well. The other children looked indignant about not being picked to help, but only for a moment before returning to their play.
Socrates watched Hien for a moment, with Nancy and Fart, running with the bloody ponchos, drawing water from the well to clean them. He shook his head, wondering how they would grow up, their childhoods were so different from those of American children. Death was a companion, they even found it possible to join violent death into their games. Not playing some version of cops and robbers, or cowboys and Indians, like American kids did. The remnants of death were simply other toys they played with. War was all they had ever known. He said to his men, "Rack time." Sneaky Pete grunted. Captain Hook was already halfway to the house. They followed him across the hard packed dirt in front of the brick plantation house.
Sergeant Slaughter was talking on the radio mounted on the shelf that ran the length of the wall under the windows on one side of the main entrance. He "overed," listened to the "out" on the other end, gave the headset to Motormouth, and turned to them. "Sneaky Pete, don't fall asleep too deep, I'm gonna wake you up when they come to get your bodies so you can tell them what happened."
Sneaky Pete groaned. Why wake him up? He'd been up all night. Besides, it was Captain Hook's ambush, he was the one who should tell what happened.
Socrates said, "Wake me too. I wasn't there, but they're my men." He added to Sneaky Pete, "I'll get Captain Hook there to talk to them."
"One more thing," Sergeant Slaughter said as they went through the side door to the room they used as a squadbay, "you've got a working party this afternoon. We gotta finish rebuilding that schoolhouse."
Socrates gave Sneaky Pete a look that said, Don't say it, don't even think it. Sneaky Pete stifled his groan.
The plantation house had nine rooms. The main room with the radio served as command hootch and classroom, and the Marines and PFs took their communal evening meal there. Two doors led out of the room on each side and four more in the back. One of the rooms on the left was Sergeant Slaughter's, the other was the corpsman's quarters and dispensary. One of the four rooms in the back was the kitchen--they all took turns in it except Sergeant Slaughter and Doc Holliday--two were a storage room and a spare. The fourth back room and the two on the right side were squadbays for each of the three fire teams. Because Socrates was senior fire team leader, he had first choice of rooms. He had picked the front corner room on the right, the one with the best ventilation; the better ventilation allowed him and his men more restful sleep. And it was on the west corner of the northwest facing house, it took longer for the sun to shine into it in the morning, allowed them to sleep longer. Captain Hook was already in his skivvy drawers and on the wood and canvas cot under his mosquito net when the others entered the room.
"We probably have a few hours before anyone shows up from Company," Socrates said. "We can cop a few Zs before then." He lay his rifle on the floor alongside his cot, where his hand would automatically fall on it if he had to wake up fighting, hung his cartridge belt off the edge of his ammo crate night table and his uniform on the clothes rack he'd built from scrap wood, tucked his boots neatly next to his Ho Chi Minh sandals, crawled under his mosquito net, pulled his beach towel over himself, and was out almost instantly. He nearly forgot to blow a kiss to the Ann-Margaret picture tacked to the wall next to the head of his cot. He didn't consciously notice the other photo tacked to the wall next to it.
The other photo was just starting to yellow, clipped from his high school newspaper; his mother had sent it to him. The photo showed him scoring the winning goal in the state soccer championship semifinal three years earlier. This year the school paper was running a series on past athletic heros, a "where they are today" series. The photo caption said only that he was a Marine corporal, didn't say he was in Vietnam. There was no particular antiwar sentiment at the school, it just wasn't a popular subject and the students shied away from it. When he got the clipping he remembered how glad he had been during Boot Camp that he'd gone out for soccer in school. It was a demanding sport, one that required both close team work and individual initiative, the same as the Marine Corps did. It also required more endurance than the other team sports in the school's athletic program. It was good preparation for the Marines. Socrates hadn't been the most talented player on his team, but his coach said he had the biggest heart, played the hardest. That's why he was the middle halfback, the most demanding position on the team. The middle halfback didn't only play the center of the field, he played both sides and both ends as well. The middle halfback was the quarterback of the team, an extra defender, an extra scoring threat; he was the playmaker. The children in the Junkyard wove small balls from palm fronds and used them to play kickball. Socrates was teaching some of them to play soccer with a larger woven ball.
The rising heat of the day woke Socrates before whoever was sent to collect the bodies and to debrief Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete arrived. He had a brief memory of having dreamed of playing in the championship semifinal game. Rising, he pulled on a pair of shorts and shuffled his feet into his sandals, grabbed a towel and his shaving kit, his rifle and cartridge belt, and headed to the wash table to brush his teeth. On the way, he rubbed his hand over his chin to see whether he needed to shave. He decided he better if someone was coming, even though he didn't really need to. They were young men, these Marines of Whiskey 8, their average age was 19. Some of them had never shaved before Boot Camp. Few of them had beards heavy enough that if they were still civilians they'd have to shave every day. Most of them here only shaved every other day. Some only once a week.
A high bench with a bar above it to hang towels and field mirrors from was set up a few yards from the well, a few broad pans sat on the bench. This was the sink for shaving and tooth brushing and minor washing up. The shower was an equal distance on the other side of the well, it was a 55 gallon drum on stilts with a shower head spiggot sticking out of its side near the bottom; a canvas sheet could be pulled around it for privacy. These were all on the northeast side of the house, halfway between it and the wire-and-wall defenses. The plantation house grounds had once been enclosed by a low brick wall. That wall was now gone in many places, crumbling in others; the French had also used it as a fort during their war with the Viet Minh. Immediately outside the wall was a barbed wire fence, coiled concertina wire stacked three high.
After Socrates flipped his towel over the bar, hung his mirror from it, and put down his shaving kit, a small voice by his side said, "I got water you."
Socrates looked down at Fart's tiny face. "Thank you," he said solemnly, and took the bucket the small boy offered him. He poured the water into one of the pans.
"You look, see," Fart said. "We washee-washee." He pointed
proudly at the clean ponchos draped over the rack the women the Marines hired to keep their house clean and do their laundry used to hang the clothes on to dry after washing.
"You numba fucking one, Fart." The small boy beamed.
Captain Hook joined him while he was shaving. Fart and Nancy struggled with each other for the privilege of drawing water from the well for him. Nancy and Fart finally gave up their struggle and offered the water together. Hien was too intent studying the way Socrates shaved to notice until it was too late for him to take over from the smaller children and do the good deed. So Hien continued watching Socrates shave. It always amazed him that the Americans had to shave their whole faces so often, while his father and the other men only had to scrape their upper lips and chins once a week or so.
Captain Hook's face softened and he smiled at the children when he took the bucket from them. His face was reset into its cold eyed, blank mask by the time he looked into his mirror and dipped his toothbrush into the pan of water. The rules they followed, since they used untreated well water, were: don't swallow when you brush your teeth; don't cut yourself shaving. Well water might have cholera, typhus, typhoid, or other undesirable nasties swimming around in it.
"How'd you know they were coming?" Socrates asked. He wisked his razor out in the soapy water while waiting for the answer. Hien saw he was through and grabbed the pan. The boy ran carefully to the sump hole dug several yards on the other side of the bench from the well and poured the used water into it.
Captain Hook shrugged at the question. "Just knew it," he said around his toothbrush.
Socrates looked at him for a long moment, then said softly, "You always just know it. I wish to hell I knew how you always just know it." Captain Hook shrugged again.
A six-by truck pulled up to the main gate just then. The opening in the wire was wide enough to let a jeep through, but not a truck. One of the other children in the compound ran to the house to tell Sergeant Slaughter they had visitors. A man climbed out of the cab, two others--one had been manning the 50 caliber machine gun mounted over the cab--jumped over the side of the truck bed. All three wore Marine utilities and had .45 automatics on their hips, but they weren't from Whiskey Company headquarters. The driver stayed put. The three stopped at the tarp and one of them squatted to lift a corner of it.
"Getting ripe already," said one of the other two.
"That's why they bury them fast," said the squatting man.
Sergeant Slaughter emerged from the plantation house and strolled over to them. He wore cutoff tiger stripe camouflage trousers and a short sleeve utility shirt, its only ornament was the CAP patch on his shoulder, he wasn't even wearing his sergeant's stripes. The one who had commented on the smell was a stranger wearing first lieutenant's bars on his collars. He was a handsome, upright looking man looking in his starched and pressed utilities like he'd just stepped out of a recruiting poster. The squatting man was also a stranger. His uniform had no markings on it at all.
"Morning, Lieutenant," Sergeant Slaughter said. He didn't salute. Marines don't salute in the bush. Khung Toi might belong to the Marines, but it was still far enough from any base it was considered the bush. "Morning Sal," to the other standing man. Sal was a clerk at 5th Combined Action Group headquarters, the parent unit of Whiskey Company, and probably volunteered for this run just to get out of the office for an hour or two. His presence told where these visitors were from.
"Good afternoon," said the lieutenant--it was just past noon. "I'm Lieutenant Convoy." He held his hand out to shake. "You must be Sergeant Slaughter. I've heard good things about you--and your CAP." He even sounded like one would expect a recruiting poster to sound.
"We do our best. Who you replacing?" He figured if this new officer came from CAG HQ he must be replacing one of the officers there, though he hadn't heard of any officers rotating out.
Lieutenant Convoy shook his head. "TAD." Temporary Additional Duty, he wasn't replacing anyone. "I'll be around from time to time."
Sergeant Slaughter looked at the squatting man and waited for an introduction. He didn't get one. The squatting man ignored the smell and examined the bodies, turned their hands over to look front and back, looked at the wounds, rubbed a thumb over the callouses on the soles of their feet. He looked inside their shirts and pants. Finally he looked up. "Think they're local?" he asked.
"I donno," Sergeant Slaughter shrugged. "Could be. No gook sores. If not from here, then someplace else there's Americans." Open sores and skin lesions, the troops called them "gook sores," were epidemic among rural Vietnamese--except where there were Americans who provided them with medical attention and taught basic sanitation.
"Who got them?"
Sergeant Slaughter looked around for Sneaky Pete, he'd sent Motormouth to wake him when he heard that the truck arrived. Socrates stood nearby with Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete at his sides.
"I did," Captain Hook said.
"We did," Sneaky Pete said.
Socrates stepped back and to the side, obvious about making himself an observer; and as obviously their leader, the man responsible for them, someone who was going to take care of his men.
The squatting stranger looked at them steadily. He flicked his eyes slightly to the side to include Socrates in his look. "They call you Socrates, Captain Hook, and Sneaky Pete," he said after a moment.
Sneaky Pete sputtered. How did he know that?
Captain Hook kept his gaze flat, he'd known right away whoever this man was with nothing on his uniform, not even the stenciled Eagle, Globe, and Anchor on his shirt pocket, he was the real man in charge here and the lieutenant could be ignored.
Socrates nibbled his lower lip once and nodded slowly.
"Tell me about it."
Captain Hook used the minimum number of words to tell exactly what happened along the trail. He didn't mention Madam Joy or Three Marbles, or say anything about how two bodies disappeared. The recitation took half a minute. Sneaky Pete looked at him in awe, he knew he'd take at least five minutes to tell the same story--and he wouldn't be able to leave out the skivvy house.
"How'd you know they were Vee Cee?" the stranger asked when he was through.
"I know all the PFs in the Junkyard."
"Any armed Vietnamese who isn't one if them is a bad guy?" Captain Hook didn't think he had to answer. "What if they were Arvins?"
"Arvins don't wear pajamas."
The stranger abruptly turned to Sal. "Load them."
Sal looked at Lieutenant Convoy. Was he supposed to load the bodies on the truck by himself?
"Sergeant," Lieutenant Convoy said, "have somebody help with the bodies."
"Sneaky Pete, give him a hand."
Socrates nudged Captain Hook, the four of them together loaded the three bodies in the back of the truck. Sal used tiedowns to secure them so they wouldn't bounce out or roll into him while he stood at his machine gun.
While they were doing that, Lieutenant Convoy took Sergeant Slaughter aside and talked to him quietly. The stranger stood alone, arms crossed on his chest, looking around the compound. He looked like he was memorizing it.
"Socrates, front and center," Sergeant Slaughter called once the bodies were loaded and secured. Socrates joined him and the officer. Sergeant Slaughter looked very uncomfortable.
"Corporal," Lieutenant Convoy said, "you see that man over there? I want you and those two men of yours to talk to him. Listen very carefully to what he has to say. I'm not telling you what to say or do, just give him a listen and then make up your own minds. Understand?"
Socrates looked thoughtful while the lieutenant was talking, he nodded just as thoughtful when he was through. "Yessir."
"Then do it."
"Aye-aye, Sir." Socrates looked at Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete where they stood watching and jerked his head at them. They followed him to the stranger.
Sergeant Slaughter called after him, "Come to the schoolhouse when you're through," then went looking for Mad Greek. Submarine and his fire team were already in the Junkyard helping with the schoolhouse, he'd take Mad Greek and his team to help. Doc Holliday was going to come along for a medcap. Motormouth could stay and hold down the fort himself, but he'd send a couple PFs to keep him company as soon as he ran across some.
Lieutenant Convoy returned to the truck to wait with Sal and the driver.
"Let's go for a walk," the stranger said.
"How'd you know our nicknames?" Socrates asked his back. The three Marines hadn't moved to follow when he headed toward the gate.
The stranger turned back. "There's not much goes on in this country the Company doesn't know."
Sneaky Pete looked confused. "But you're not from Whiskey Company?" he said.
"Shut up," Captain Hook said. Sneaky Pete shut.
The stranger continued toward the gate. Socrates hesitated a second, then followed. He had a feeling this stranger was a civilian, no matter he was in a uniform. What was this man's authority, if any?
They walked through the original Junkyard, Toi Co 1, the closest of the five hamlets in the Junkyard. The Junkyard, Khung Toi village. Khung Toi was a fairly average Vietnamese village in some ways. It had a little less than three thousand inhabitants spread through its five hamlets. Most of the people were farmers, a very few were merchants. A few dozen were PFs; part-time soldiers, part-time farmers, defending their homes from the guerrillas. Nearly all of the farmers rented their land from absentee landlords and got their rice paddy water from from the owner of a dam and pump station upriver--absentee landlords tended to charge rents far in excess of the legal cap of one half of the principal crop, dam and water pump owners usually charged exorbitant fees. The village had no electricity, running water was found in the river, cold was an esoteric philosophical concept that meant not-hot, a few people owned battery powered radios they didn't play very often because batteries were expensive and hard to come by. Most of the people had never gone as far from home as the district capital--that corresponds to an American county seat--almost none other than those in the Army had ever gone farther. Barely a dozen had ever seen a movie, fewer had seen a television. Extended families; grandparents, parents, several children, maybe an uncle or aunt of the parents, perhaps an unmarried brother or sister of the parents, sometimes cousins of the children, lived in small one_ or two_room houses. There was a schoolhouse. They had livestock; water buffalo, pigs, and chickens.
But there were also several significant differences between Khung Toi and other rural villages. The people were clean and relatively healthy, thanks to the efforts of the Marines and their Navy corpsmen. The people no longer paid taxes to the Viet Cong--too many VC tax collectors had died trying to collect since the Marines moved into Fort Cragg. The village and all of the hamlets had functioning chiefs and councils--and all of them, except the chief and some council members in the Toi Mui, the hamlet most remote from Fort Cragg, felt secure enough to sleep at home at night instead of in the district headquarters. Few of the absentee landlords dared charge more than the legal rent. The dam and pump station owner lowered his rates when he found out the Marines were about to help the people construct their own dam and water pump so they wouldn't have to buy from him anymore. Down by the river there was a new, thriving mud-brick works and the homes were being rebuilt of this more permanent material instead of thatch. The schoolhouse had two college educated teachers who lived in the village. The PFs were well trained and patrolled aggressively to keep the VC away--and they had a zero desertion rate instead of the twenty-five percent national average. The pigs and chickens were bigger and more healthy than ususal because the Marines had imported a hog and two Leghorn roosters from home for breeding stock, and one of the Marines was a farmboy who knew some basic veterinary medicine.
The VC were understandably upset. A week ago they had sent a squad in to destroy the schoolhouse to demoralize the villagers. They were partly successful.
Toi Co 1 was dubed "the Junkyard" by the first Marines assigned to CAP Whiskey 8. As they enlarged their patrol area to include the other hamlets of Khung Toi they applied the name to the entire village. That was because of the depressed state of the village. The people wore clothing that was worn and tattered, their homes were in chronic disrepair, their material belongings were old and battered, trash littered the paths and lanes. "All they need is some rusted out cars on cinderblocks for this place to look like Dogpatch," one of those first Marines observed. There was already a place called Dogpatch at Da Nang, so they called it the Junkyard. It didn't look like that anymore, but the name stuck. Since they stopped paying taxes to the VC, and the landlords and dam owner charged less, the people of Khung Toi had money to buy clothes, fix up their houses, replace their most worn out belongings. And they started to take pride in their hamlets. It also helped that the Marines hired villagers, like the cleaning women, to do work for them at Fort Cragg.
The Marines were proud of themselves to begin with. They were full of piss and vinegar and knew they were the best fighters in the world, the baddest badasses on the block. Once they moved into Khung Toi this place was their home, these people their neighbors. Wasn't nobody going to mess with their friends and neighbors, not without paying with their lives. The Marines called themselves the Junkyard Dogs.
Khung Toi had rich farmland and all those people. The VC needed the food, lots of the food, grown by these farmers. They needed converts to their cause. They needed draftees to replace their combat losses and increase their ranks. They weren't getting any of that from Khung Toi anymore, but they kept trying. Not as hard as they used to. Junkyard Dogs are tough to deal with.
The stranger knew all of that, and the proof was before his eyes as he walked through Toi Co 2 with the three Marines. All the village people nodded or bowed politely and smiled at them. The teenagers grinned and held up a finger or a thumb, shouted numba-fucking-one. The children scampered underfoot, wanted to play, wanted to carry things for the Marines. It wasn't until they were beyond the hootches and in a treeline that functioned both as a windbreak and a boundary line that they had the privacy the stranger wanted to talk to them.
"Before I say anything else there's something you have to understand and agree to," the stranger said. He looked at them with the same flat look Captain Hook looked at everything with. The Marines waited for him to tell them. "This conversation is top secret. You are never to divulge to anyone what we talked about. You are never even to tell anyone you talked to me. If anybody ever asks you about me or this conversation you don't know what they're talking about. Do you understand?"
Socrates nodded slowly. Sneaky Pete followed his lead and nodded rapidly. Captain Hook returned the stranger's look and said, "Talk to us."
"You're good Marines, patriotic men. I thought you'd agree. Let's sit down." He squatted over his heels in the Oriental manner, so did Captain Hook. The other two sat cross-legged. The four formed an inward facing circle.
"You think we're winning this war?" he asked when they were settled.
"We are here," Socrates said.
"Long as we kill Cong we are," Captain Hook said.
Sneaky Pete chipped in, "Yah, we're sure winning, sure."
"Do you understand what we're doing here?"
Socrates looked at him curiously. "We're here to stop Communism," he said and paused for a second before continuing. "We're Marines, we go where we're sent."
Captain Hook didn't hesitate. "Killing Cong."
"Yeah, yeah, we're killing Cong," Sneaky Pete echoed.
"Those are good answers, but they aren't what I was looking for." Now he started sounding like he was delivering an oft repeated speech. "The international Communist Conspiracy wants to take over the entire world, turn everybody into slaves. They've already got Eastern Europe, Red China, North Korea, and North Vietnam, now they want South Vietnam. They take this country, Laos and Cambodia are next, then Thailand and Indonesia. Next thing you know they'll have all of Asia. Look at a globe. Once they have all Asia it'll be nothing for them to take Western Europe. Already they've got Cuba and are trying to spread their revolution to other countries in Latin America. We have to stop them before they get to us, before they become so powerful we can't stop them. And don't believe what anybody tells you about this being a war to reunite Vietnam. When the Commies took over in the north, two million Catholics fled to the south because they knew the Commies wouldn't allow them freedom to practice their religion.
"Now, how are they trying to take over here?" he went on. "Two ways. One, they send their own soldiers in to fight, that's the NVA. The other way is subversion. For that they use what they call 'political cadres.' Some of these are Commies from up north, some of them are southerners they had up north and brain-washed. Whoever they are, they tell their Commie lies to the people and try to get them over to their side. Are you with me so far?"
Socrates dipped his head in nod. This was nothing new, he'd heard it all before, back in the World in the indoctrination lectures the Marines went through before being shipped to the war.
Sneaky Pete quickly bobbed his head.
"Keep talking," said Captain Hook.
"Good, you're with me. Some of these cadres cause a lot of trouble for us. The best thing to do when they have a power base someplace is send in a battalion and take it out by main force. But we can't always do that. Sometimes we can't because we don't have a battalion to spare, sometimes its because where the place is they'll have enough warning to get their important people out of there before we show up. Then again, sometimes the best thing to do is just shake them up a bit. Or maybe there's some political considerations."
He paused and Socrates broke in with, "Why are you telling us this?"
The stranger ignored Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete for a moment while he studied Socrates. Finally he said, "Because sometimes we send a few people to neutralize a cadre or a VC chief someplace."
"Neutralize," Captain Hook said slowly. "That means kill Cong?"
"That's why I'm here. Keep talking."
"Why are you telling us this?" Socrates asked.
"What do you think?"
"Sounds like maybe you want us to 'neutralize' these people."
"They said you're sharp. Keep listening."
"Who do you want us to 'neutralize'?"
He shook his head. "That'll come in time. Nobody here, someplace else. Are you willing to do it?"
"I kill Cong, anytime, any place," Captain Hook said.
"Uh, yeah, count me in," Sneaky Pete said. If Captain Hook was going to do it, he wanted to.
Socrates wanted to know, "How are we going to do it?"
The stranger shook his head again. "That's decided on a mission by mission basis. Are you in?"
"Is it going to help us win the war?"
Socrates looked at Captain Hook and Sneaky Pete. They were his men, his responsibility. If they were doing something that might be dangerous it was up to him to be with them and make sure they made it through okay. And he wanted to win the war. "I'm in."
The stranger stood. "Good. I'll be in touch. Remember, as far as anyone else knows, this conversation never happened. Sergeant Slaughter wants you at the schoolhouse. Go."
They didn't go at once, Socrates wanted to know more. Starting with, "What's your name?"
Something that might have been the beginning of a smile twitched the stranger's lips. "We operate on a need to know basis," he said. "That's not something you need to know."
The answer startled Socrates. He skipped his next question, if the man wasn't going to tell them his name, neither was he going to tell them what his authorization was. So he asked, "How do we get in touch with you?"
He shook his head slightly. "I get in touch with you. Sergeant Slaughter's waiting for you." It was a dismissal, Socrates knew no matter what they asked the man wasn't going to tell them another thing.
They headed for the schoolhouse. When they were out of hearing Sneaky Pete couldn't contain himself anymore. "Who is he?" he asked.
Captain Hook glanced at him briefly, then his eyes shifted back to watching all around them. He didn't say anything.
"Spook," Socrates said.
"Huh? Whadaya mean? That's not Mister Spook."
"Not Mister Spook, a spook."
They went on in silence. Sneaky Pete was so confused he almost forgot to swivel-eye.
The stranger stood for a few minutes, watching them cross the paddies, then he returned to the truck and left Khung Toi.
The hamlets of Toi Co 1 and Nghai Toi were about a half mile apart. Nghia Toi was on the river and Toi Co 1 straight inland from there, in the middle of the rice paddies. The people of Toi Co 1 were almost all farmers, the people of Nghia Toi were mostly fishermen. The schoolhouse was off the main trail between the two hamlets, in an area of light woods rather than rice paddies. It hadn't been a new building, the schoolhouse. It was wood frame and a kind of tar had been used to seal its joints. The schoolhouse proved to be highly susceptible to fire.
In the middle of the night six days before, five men crept under a moonless sky through the wooded areas between the hamlets of Khung Toi. They moved slowly and cautiously. Where there were no woods for them to go through they flitted along treelines rather than cross the open paddies or cane fields. When they had no choice but to cross the paddies, they lowered themselves into the water and crawled with only their heads breaking the surface. This was a very dangerous place for them to be, especially at night. They knew the danger from bitter experience. That's how they were picked for this mission; they had each survived at least one ambush from the American Marines and the PFs who patrolled Khung Toi, and were considered to have the best chance of success.
The leader carried an AK47 assault rifle, each of the others had an SKS carbine with its attached bayonet folded back against the stock. One of them carried an American backpack with four five pound blocks of plastic explosive in it, another had a hundred feet of detonation cord slung over his shoulders in a waterproof sack. The leader had five fuses, one with a delay mechanism, in a waterproof bag suspended from a cord around his neck. Their destination was the schoolhouse; their mission, destroy it.
They thought if they were careful enough they could accomplish their mission and, in the resultant confusion, make good their escape. They hoped they could.
When they reached the schoolhouse they were certain they had done it undetected. The leader worked quickly in the dark, placing the explosives by touch only, implanting the fuses, and crimping them onto the detcord in a chain. Crimping the fuses without light was the most dangerous part of the placement; too much pressure and the cord would detonate in his hands and he and all his men would die. But he had practiced this operation blindfolded many times so he could do it without looking, and was successful. Then the five men withdrew from the schoolhouse, unreeling the rest of the detcord as they went. The cord allowed them to go less than fifty feet.
The leader sent his men into the woods away from the schoolhouse while he tied a length of fishing line to the arming pin of his delay fuse and crimped that last fuse onto the end of the detcord. When he reached the end of the fifty feet of fishing line he gave it a hard yank and sprinted deeper into the woods. The fuse gave him ten seconds to get away before it set off the cord. The detcord flashed along its entire length and set off the fuses in the blocks of explosive. The schoolhouse erupted apart and its parts burst into flames.
The sabotage party was far enough away by then they were in no danger from the explosion. They ran as hard as they could because now they were in danger of being discovered by one of the many patrols that they knew had to be converging on the schoolhouse.
They ran in the wrong direction.
When Socrates heard the explosion he thought quickly; should they head for it without waiting for instructions, or should they stay put in case anyone came into their ambush's killing zone? He made up his mind and saw Captain Hook's "stay put" signal so close together he never was sure whether he made up his mind on his own or the signal made it up for him. Whichever way it was, it was the right thing to do. The fleeing VC came straight to them. The Marines and PFs opened fire, the VC died without returning a shot.
The VC had partly succeeded in their attempt to destroy the schoolhouse and damage civilian morale. They destroyed the schoolhouse, all right. But the people's spirits were raised by their killing.
The next morning Major Wildroot, the 5th CAG executive officer, came out with a driver and a shotgun rider to survey the damage. Captain Vitale and Gunnery Sergeant Bryl from Whiskey Company were already there when the major arrived.
The destruction was nearly total. All that remained standing was a few charred stumps of main support pillars. The walls and roof were gone, their only remains were black chips and ash. Fortunately, only the teachers had desks, the students sat on the floor, so there wasn't extensive loss of furniture. More fortunate, the teachers took their schoolbooks home at the end of each school day. They'd have to somehow come up with a new blackboard, but they could manage that easily enough. The building itself was gone. Except for the poured concrete foundation slab. They wouldn't know how badly damaged it was until the debris was cleaned off it.
Most of Whiskey 8's Marines were helping the teachers and many villagers with the cleanup when Captain Vitale and Gunny Bryl arrived. Major Wildroot joined the captain and gunny who were watching the cleanup with Nuyghn Phu Lai, the village chief. They briefed him as well as they could on what had happened. Sergeant Slaughter left off supervising his Marines to fill in the gaps for the CAG XO.
"I'm glad to see you jumped right in to help without waiting for instructions," Major Wildroot said when Sergeant Slaughter was through with his briefing. Sergeant Slaughter didn't think that deserved a response. "Any of your men know carpentry so they can really help with the rebuilding?"
"Yessir. Killer Kowalski came from an engineer outfit, he's pretty handy that way."
Major Wildroot repressed a head shake. He was used to it by now, the way so many of the CAP Marines used these juvenile nicknames. At first he'd thought Sergeant Slaughter was one of those nicknames, until he learned that was the CAP commander's real name, Slaughter. It had taken some time, though, for him to get used to hearing everybody call them by their nicknames, and to call them that way himself. Well, he supposed men in this kind of situation needed every little bit of bravado they could dredge up. Some of those names were certainly appropriate for men who were functioning like marshalls in the Wild West.
"The local economy is in pretty good shape right now," the major continued. "Does the village treasury have enough in it to buy the lumber right off, or are they going to have to secure some credit?"
Leave it to an officer to come up with the dumb questions, Sergeant Slaughter thought. Out loud, "I don't know, Sir. Not really our business to know how much they've got in the till. We'll do what we can to help them get it back up most ricky_tick."
"I know you will, Sergeant." Major Wildroot stuck around long enough for the foundation to be cleaned off enough to determine it wasn't damaged in the fire--if it was, he'd have a job on his hands getting the district chief to come up with the wherewithal to lay a new one. Pain in the ass, that was. After all, the cement and tools were gifts from the American people. It was flat wrong that so many of the local officials would give you such a hard time about where to use them when there was a glaring need and the Marines were ready to help. By then he'd been on site long enough to be polite and said his farewells.
"How long do you think the rebuilding will take?" Gunny Bryl asked when the major was gone.
"Three, four days. Plus how long it takes to get the materials."
Captain Vitale stood off at a respectful distance while his NCOs talked about matters he probably shouldn't know about. Not
officially know about, anyway.
"Think you can get what you need faster than Chief Lai can?"
"Does a bear shit in the woods?"
"That's what I thought. Let me know if I can be of any official help."
"I'll do that, Gunny. Thanks."
Not long after that Captain Vitale and Gunny Bryl left.
When the cleaning up was done, Sergeant Slaughter met with his fire team leaders, Killer Kowalski the engineer, Nuyghn Phu Lai, the hamlet chiefs and council members who were present, and the two school teachers.
"First thing we need is a six-by," Sergeant Slaughter started the discussion. "Any ideas?"
"Leave that to me," Mad Greek said. "Let me have the car, Mister Spook'll get us a six-by." The "car" was a three-quarter ton truck the platoon used to pick up supplies and ferry small numbers of people.
"You got it, Mad Greek. He's your man so you're in charge. Who else do you want?"
"I'll take Rodin 'cause I need somebody big, strong, and dumb to do the heavy shit," said the corporal they called Mad Greek. Mister Spook and Rodin were in his fire team. "Also Socrates and Captain Hook. Anybody tries to stop us and Socrates can't talk him out of it, Captain Hook can give him his death look. Nobody's gonna hassle us. Oh yeah, Sneaky Pete, too. He's good at getting around behind people and picking their pockets without being seen."
Then they figured out what materials and tools they were going to need to rebuild the schoolhouse. Lai and the other village leaders volunteered their homemade bricks for the walls, they thought that was a great idea, especially since the Marines were going to supply everything else. Eventually they had the entire rebuilding effort planned and a temporary outdoor place to use for a classroom was settled on.
Sergeant Slaughter looked at his watch. It was too late for them to get a six-by today, if they got one now they'd have to bring it home overnight and it wasn't a good idea to have an unauthorized vehicle sitting around waiting for someone to discover it. "Okay, we'll get started on all this shit tomorrow. Anybody have anything to add?"
Nobody did so they broke up the meeting and went their own ways. For the Marines, that was back to Fort Cragg to draw up their patrols for that night and have their big evening meal with the PFs.
Early the next afternoon Mad Greek and the Marines going with him, along with Motormouth who was going to drive it back, piled into Whiskey 8's three-quarter ton truck, and headed east to find a six-by they could borrow for a day or two. Where they were going, nobody would believe CAP Marines stealing, it would work only if they could claim to be members of an infantry battalion. So they wore the spare shirts they kept that didn't have the CAP patch, and regulation soft covers instead of the unauthorized Australian-style camouflage bush hats they normally wore.
They found a truck before they reached Highway 1. A company-sized fire base was being built on a low hilltop that dominated the approach from a long ridge that came down from the mountains into the coastal rice paddies. Bulldozers had already scraped the hilltop down to its red dirt. A backhoe chugged loudly, digging a trench around the perimeter; it dumped the dirt it dug up onto the outer side of the trench to make it higher on that side. Sweaty men, mostly shirtless, were bunched here and there where the trench had already been dug, slowly filling sandbags and stacking them into bunker walls. Most of the other men on the hill were sitting or laying under whatever shade they could find, waiting for the early afternoon heat to ease off before continuing their work. Some of the Marines on the hill waved at them, they waved back.
"Bingo," Mister Spook said. "I'll roll out when we reach them. You keep going and hang a left when you reach Highway One. I'll catch up a couple miles up the road." "Them" was half a dozen three ton six-by trucks sitting at the foot of the bulldozed road leading to the top of the hill.
"What if they catch you?" Motormouth asked.
Mister Spook grinned at him. "Nevah hoppen."
They didn't slow down when they passed the parked trucks and Mister Spook rolled over the side of the truck and continued his roll to the shelter of one of the trucks. He lay in its shade, watching the others head to the highway a half mile distant until they turned onto it. Then he scooted among the trucks, always keeping one of them between himself and the people on the hill. None of the trucks had the canvas tops on their rears. Their windshields were removed so a mine explosion wouldn't send broken glass flying about; the doors were off so the driver and shotgun could pile out more quickly in an emergency, and vertical
six-foot-high poles were welded onto their grills to break any wires that might be strung across the roadway to decapitate a driver. He checked each of the trucks for cargo, he wanted an empty one--unless he found one that had everything that they needed. Also, he wanted to make sure nobody was near the trucks to stop him. He found someone, one of the drivers was scrunched down behind his steering wheel, taking a nap. If he stayed asleep long enough he wasn't going to be any problem at all. Matter of fact, if the people on the hill knew the driver was down there, when he started one of the trucks they might think it was the driver and not realize it was someone else until he was long gone.
Three of the trucks were empty. One of the three was facing the direction Mister Spook wanted to go, but it was behind another. He checked the ground to the side of that truck and decided it was firm and smooth enough to drive over with no problems. He settled down and waited until the other Whiskey 8 Marines had been out of sight for fifteen minutes. Then he eased himself into the driver's seat of the truck he'd picked, glanced all around to make sure nobody was approaching, flipped the ignition switch, and shifted into reverse. He gently tapped the accelerator and the truck rolled back a few feet, enough to give him clearance to go around the one blocking him. Another quick glance around still didn't show anybody looking in his direction. He shifted into first and drove around the other truck, then into second for a leisurely roll to the highway. After he turned onto it he looked back at the hill. A few men were standing on it looking at him, but he didn't see anybody starting a pursuit.
"Mister Spook strikes again," he shouted and laughed, he pounded the steering wheel and bounced on the seat. "Nothing is safe from the Masked Marauder when he needs it!" Then he settled down and drove at a stately 25 miles an hour. In five minutes he caught up with the rest of the scavenging team. They whooped and laughed and everybody but Motormouth piled into the six-by. Socrates was senior to Mad Greek, but Mad Greek was in charge of this mission, so he took the passenger seat in the cab. Socrates stood in the flatbed leaning against the cab.
"You make damn good and sure you don't go past that hill on your way back," Mad Greek said to Motormouth. He had to shout to be heard over the roar of the six-by's motor. "They stop you and it's all our asses."
"No sweat," Motormouth called back. "I'm taking the scenic route home." He floored the accelerator and the small truck sprayed sand taking off. It rapidly diminished in the distance up the highway.
Mad Greek twisted out the side of the cab. "You all secure up there?" he asked.
"Shut up and let's go," Socrates said back.
Mister Spook pushed the speed up to 40 MPH. Far ahead they saw Motormouth turn left off the highway. Soon they reached an infantry squad guarding a little used entrance to the Da Nang base. A man who looked like an NCO, probably a corporal or a sergeant, with no rank insignia it was impossible to tell, stood in the middle of the road and raised a hand for them to stop. He held his rifle loosely in his other hand. Mister Spook brought the truck to a halt less than three feet in front of him. The NCO walked around to the passenger side.
"Can I help you with anything?" he asked.
"Work party," Mad Greek told him. "We're from H&S Company, One/Twenty-six. Supposed to pick up some supplies."
The gate guard NCO blinked. He was from the Old Corps, before the 26th Marines was activated, and wasn't used to any Marine regiment with a designation above twelve. He recovered quickly and said, "Lemme see your requisition forms."
"No got." Mad Greek shook his head. "Gunny came on ahead of us with it. We're just supposed to pile the shit on and drive it back."
The NCO wore an expression that said he thought this sounded like a sea story. Then he said, "You come back out this way, have your Gunny come with you and show me the paperwork." He stepped back and waved them through.
"You know it, Marine," Mad Greek said back.
They drove into Da Nang. They had to drive around for more than an hour before they found a pile of lumber that wasn't too heavily guarded. The one they found had twenty 8x8 beams and a stack of plywood sheets. Next to it were several 5'x10' sheets of corrugated metal, half a dozen bundles of new sandbags, a roll of chicken wire, and one lone rifleman guarding all of it. The rifleman's uniform was so new he had to be fresh in-country. Mister Spook and Mad Greek grinned at each other when they saw the guard. The six-by pulled up and the Marines dismounted and started loading the truck.
"Hey," the lone guard shouted. "What are you doing? Put that shit back, it doesn't belong to you."
Socrates stopped loading and walked over to him. The others kept loading. "Who are you," he demanded.
"I'm PFC Cronley, I'm supposed to be guarding this shit until someone from battalion gets here."
"Well, we're here. Didn't Captain McAninley tell you we were coming?"
Cronley looked at him blankly. "Who's Captain McAninley?"
Socrates grimaced in disgust. "Who's Captain McAninley? How long you been in this battalion, Marine? He's the S4." "S4" was the logistics officer of a battalion or regiment.
"I don't know any Captain McAninley, Major Hearn is the S4."
Socrates shook his head in wonder at the ignorance of this PFC. "Major Hearn was the S4. Captain McAninley replaced him this morning. He sent me with this work party to pick this shit up and take it back."
"But who are you?"
"How long you been with us, PFC?" Socrates' voice dripped with scorn. "I'm Sergeant Crean, assistant supply NCO."
"B-But I'm in supply and I don't know you. Sergeant Crimmins is the assistant supply NCO." He looked at the other Marines loading the truck trying to remember which one of them got out of the cab with the driver; he knew this Marine had ridden in the back of the six-by and couldn't really be the man in charge. Could he?
"Sergeant Crimmins was the assistant supply NCO. I came in this morning with Captain McAninley."
"But..." the PFC guard started to object again. He couldn't think of what to object to next, after all, this Sergeant Crean knew all the names. Finally he simply said, "Yes, Sergeant."
"Well, what are you waiting for?" Socrates looked at him levelly and got a confused look in return. "Give them a hand loading the truck." The PFC awkwardly put his rifle down and hesitantly went to help. Socrates assumed a properly supervisory stance off to the side and watched.
It didn't take long to load the truck. Then Socrates asked the guard, "What were your orders, I mean aside from guarding these supplies until we got here?"
"Staff Sergeant O'Boyle said he'd pick me up when he brought the work party to get it."
"Then you had best wait for Staff Sergeant O'Boyle to get here, hadn't you?"
"But you're the work party, shouldn't I go back with you?"
"I don't know that Captain McAninley told Staff Sergeant O'Boyle we were coming, so he's probably going to show up any time now. You better be here to tell him what happened."
PFC Cronley looked very worried. What if these Marines weren't the work party supposed to pick up the material he was guarding? The only ways for him to know were to go back with them, or wait for Staff Sergeant O'Boyle to show up. If Staff Sergeant O'Boyle didn't show up, how was he going to get back to battalion? What if he did and this wasn't the work party?
"You wait here," Socrates repeated. Then he climbed into the back of the truck and it went away, leaving an increasingly worried PFC Cronley standing there guarding a bare patch of ground.
They got back to Fort Cragg just before sundown. The next morning they delivered the lumber, corrugated metal, and chicken wire to the schoolhouse. Mister Spook drove the six-by to just within sight of the hill from which they'd taken it. Motormouth followed him in the three-quarter ton truck. Mister Spook parked and leaned on the horn until someone on the hill looked in his direction, then he jumped out and ran back to where Motormouth was parked out of sight. They raced back to the Junkyard without pursuit.
By the time Socrates, Captain Hook, and Sneaky Pete reached the schoolhouse following their meeting with the nameless stranger, the beams were all in place and the corrugated metal roof was up. The brick walls were rising ever higher.
"Let's get your asses in gear, People," Sergeant Slaughter said when he saw them. We've got a schoolhouse to build." He didn't ask them anything about the stranger.
The bricks of the schoolhouse walls rose a tier at a time, but not evenly all the way around. The different people working on the different sides worked at different rates of speed, nobody was competing with anybody else to see who could lay the most bricks in the least time; it was too goddam hot for that. There were more Marines than Vietnamese laying the bricks. The Marines' time was basically theirs to do with as they chose and the Vietnamese were farmers who had to tend their fields. Today, Sergeant Slaughter chose for the Marines to spend their time working on the schoolhouse. Motormouth was at Fort Cragg, holding down the fort, watching the radios. Doc Holliday was holding a medcap at a small table set up under the trees nearby, the PF medic he was teaching basic medicine to was helping. Sergeant Slaughter was supervising the construction. Hank, the PF lieutenant, was helping supervise. At least that's what the two of them said they were doing. To the men working, they looked like they were taking a siesta under a shade tree. The other ten Marines were laying bricks. The oldest son of the Nghia Toi hamlet chief was working with the Marines, as were the PF sergeant and seven of the PFs. It wasn't until the teachers dismissed class early and came to help that the Vietnamese outnumbered the Americans building the Vietnamese schoolhouse.
By the time they stopped working for the day, one short wall had reached tree feet from the roof beams, the other was almost there, one of the long walls, the one with the door, had only two more tiers to go. When all the walls reached three feet from the roof beams they'd put up the chicken wire as screening to give the schoolhouse ventilation.
Sergeant Slaughter looked at his watch, showed it to Lieutenant Hank, stood up, brushed off the seat of his trousers, ambled over to the working men, and said, "Chow time. We can finish this up tomorrow."
Killer Kowalski looked at Beast and said under his breath, "'We?' What's he got, a turd in his pocket? I didn't see him doing nothing."
Beast shrugged his massive shoulders. "Fuck him." He left a smear of dirt on his forehead when he wiped the sweat off it.
They left the building materials where they were, took their tools with them.
"You get the rest of the platoon," Hank said to his sergeant.
The sergeant nodded and gave an order to the other PFs. They headed in different directions, to the rice paddies and the vegetable fields; one went to the river, to gather those who were fishing.
Fifteen minutes later, the Marines were washing up. Sergeant Slaughter had to order Beast to wash his hands and face. "You doing the cooking, you do it with clean hands," Sergeant Slaughter told him.
Beast grunted. It was bad enough he had to do the cooking today, he wanted to get to the kitchen and get it over with, not waste time washing up. "I don't got no ptomaine," he muttered.
"If you don't that's all you don't got," Sergeant Slaughter said. "Wash so the rest of us don't catch what you do got."
Beast hulked over the smaller man and glared at him for a second before turning toward the washbench. His hands were moderately clean by the time he got to the kitchen, and the smear of dirt wasn't on his forehead anymore. Motormouth had already started the fire in the cookstove and put a couple big pans of water on to heat. Beast rummaged through the K-ration cans until he came up with an assortment he could make a stew from.
The tables, simple boards laid over sawhorses for the evening meal and disassembled and stored along one wall the rest of the time, were set up by the time all the PFs had finished washing and they were able to sit down right away to eat. When they saw who did the cooking, most of the PFs only ate enough of the stew to be polite--instead, they concentrated on eating the food they brought themselves. A few of the PFs didn't feel like being polite and only ate their own food.
||The thirty-odd PFs started wandering in. They laughed and joked among themselves while they went through the ritual of washing their hands. They had never washed their hands before meals before the American Marines came and told them that would help them stay healthy. They weren't too sure that was true, but they did have to admit they no longer had the open sores they used to always have, and it was a while since the last time any of them was sick. Of course, that could be because the Americans sent in the truck that made the smoke that burned their eyes and noses until they got out of it and killed the mosquitoes. Or the medicine bac si Holliday made on them. Washing their hands before meals didn't necessarily mean anything, but it was a ritual the American Marines went through, so they'd do it too.
||Various PFs brought rice cakes or yams or greens or a few fish with them to share with their American friends while they shared the exotic American food. Of course, they also brought along lots of good, homemade nuoc mam sauce to spread on the American food to give it some some flavor. That was something else odd about the Americans. Most of them acted like the nuoc mam tasted worse to them than the American food did to the Vietnamese. Nuoc mam, the universal Vietnamese condiment, was fermented fish sauce. In the villages, the farmers put fish on a rack and let the sun bake the oils and other juices out of the fish. When the oils and other juices fermented it was ready to use. To the Americans, it looked like watery milk going bad and smelled like rancid fish. To most of them, it tasted the way it smelled.
"Goddam," said Chickenfucker. "I think we should go to some grunt battalion and offer to swap them Beast for a cook, even up." He cocked a suspicious eye at the stew and poked at it with his mess kit spoon. "Anything swimming in there shouldn't be?"
"I think we should eat Cs when it's Beast's turn to cook," Motormouth said.
"Nah," Mister Spook chimed in, "nuoc mam is better." He picked up one of the small jars the PFs carried their sauce in and poured half of it into his stew.
Mad Greek, who was sitting next to Mister Spook, leaned over Mister Spook's aluminum mess dish and made retching noises.
Mister Spook yanked his dish away from Mad Greek and folded his arms protectively over it. "You barf on my chow, I'll shove it down your throat."
Mad Greek looked at him seriously and said, "If you can eat nuoc mam on Beast's cooking, you can eat my barf. Anyway, I'm a corporal and you're a PFC. I say you eat barf, you eat barf." He turned from Mister Spook with a superior expression on his face. The expression disappeared when he looked at his own dish. He jabbed at it with his spoon. "Beast, how long did this lay in the sun after it died before you found it?" he asked.
Beast smashed a fist onto the table. "One more crack and I ain't cooking no more," he shouted.
"Come on, somebody say something," Killer Kowalski said.
Before Beast could say anything Sergeant Slaughter raised his voice, "Shitcan the grab-assing, people." He dug into his own stew and managed to eat it with a straight face. "Good shit," he said after a couple bites.
"Got half of that right," somebody muttered. Beast glared around, trying to figure out who said that.
"You heard what I said," Sergeant Slaughter said without looking up.
They all applied themselves to their meal. All the Marines except Mister Spook, who used nuoc mam, used liberal amounts of hot sauce on their stew, none of them cleaned their dishes. They never did when it was Beast's turn to cook. Even Beast didn't like his own cooking.
The daily routine at Fort Cragg was for Sergeant Slaughter to get together with his three fire team leaders and Hank after evening chow and draw the night's patrol routes while everyone else cleaned up after the meal. The five of them were sitting around a small table, looking at the topographical map of the Khung Toi area when Nuyghn Phu Lai walked in with Nuyghn Lo Xa. Nuyghn Lo Xa was the hamlet chief of Toi Mui, the hamlet most remote from Fort Cragg.
The two could have come earlier, Lai knew he was always welcome to join the Marines at their dinner, and he did so sometimes. But only when he knew either Submarine or Rodin was cooking. He thought they were the only Marines who could fix a meal fit for a human to eat. Soon he would have to talk to Sergeant Slaughter about this matter, talk him into hiring two of the village women to do the cooking for the Marines. There were two women, both widows, he had in mind. They were burdens on their families, not having husbands to support them, and needed the income. The husband of one of them had been a PF who was killed before the Marines came. The other's husband had been conscripted by the Viet Cong and nobody knew if he was alive or dead. As far as the villagers were concerned, he was dead. But right now Lai had a more pressing matter to discuss with the Marine leaders.
They exchanged pleasantries, then Lai got down to business. "You listen Xa," he told them.
Xa had few English words and not much of the pidgin the Marines and PFs used to talk to each other. The Marines had a little Vietnamese, enough so that with Lai and Hank translating the more difficult passages, they were able to understand Xa's problem.
Toi Mui was nearly two miles from Fort Cragg. Although the Marines tried to give it its fair share of attention, it lacked the level of day and night patrolling and casual visiting the other hamlets received. Consequently, it was the only place in Khung Toi where the Viet Cong felt any bit of security and was the hamlet they visited most often. Toi Mui was the one hamlet in the village that wasn't safe for the hamlet chief to spend the night at home. The people there didn't know the Marines as well as did the other villagers, and didn't have as much trust in them, were less likely to come to the Americans with information and requests for help.
The Marines knew this and wished they could change the situation; but they had four other hamlets to keep safe and only had enough men to put out three patrols a night. They were quiet about it, but they didn't trust the PFs to do any agressive patrolling on their own, and they weren't comfortable enough to send fewer than three Marines on one patrol. Even if all three patrols were out from dusk to dawn, Toi Mui couldn't get more than four or five hours a night coverage. And if all the Marines were out all night every night they would then spend so much of every day sleeping that they'd hardly have any time to patrol or visit any of the hamlets during the day before the evening meal. Everything considered, they were pleased that Xa came to them with his problem. When they heard what the problem was, they became downright excited.
"Are you sure?" Sergeant Slaughter asked when Xa was through.
Nuyghn Lo Xa wasn't an old man by American standards, in his mid-fifties, but for a peasant he was an old man. His face looked like an unskilled hand had carved it from some hardwood and left it out to weather. His wispy mustache and chin whiskers were turning white, a lifetime of chewing betel nut had stained his lips a red so deep they were almost black. When he nodded, his head resembled a marionette's head bobbing from the puppeteer's string. He was positive. The VC came to him yesterday and said a cadre was coming tonight to talk to the people of Toi Mui--and was bringing a tax collector and a squad to carry the rice and other goods that were the taxes. The VC also said if he, Xa, wasn't there when they came they would send someone during the day to kill him and his family. The people of Toi Mui were finally getting back on their feet after so many years of paying taxes to both Saigon and the VC and paying the landlord and dam owner too much. He could not let them go back to paying taxes to the VC. What convinced him to turn to the Marines for help was the way they supplied materials and labor to build a better schoolhouse when the old one was destroyed. Nobody had to ask the American Marines for this help, that told him they were good men and had the welfare of Khung Toi in their hearts.
"Don't you worry, we're gonna get these sons a bitches for you," Sergeant Slaughter promised. His mouth was set firm, his eyes glistened. "They want to take your rice, they're going to die trying." He stood and bowed to the two headmen, a polite signal he wanted them to leave. The fewer people who knew what they were going to do tonight the better. Best if only those involved knew. Lai and Xa both stood and bowed back. They headed into Toi Co 1, it was too late for Xa to head for the district headquarters, even if he was following his normal routine. Tonight he couldn't follow that routine. He would eat at Lai's home, then go back to Toi Mui. No matter the personal risk, he must be there tonight for his people.
The Marine NCOs and Hank hunched over the map again. Sergeant Slaughter wadded up and threw away the tracing paper he'd been drawing the overlays on and put a fresh piece over the map. He started talking, his voice was faster than usual, his words were clipped.
"Ong Xa doesn't know what direction they're coming from, but that's okay." He drew an oblong around Toi Mui and two paired dashes through the line. "This is the hedge and these are the only two ways through it." Toi Mui was surrounded by a generations old tree-and-bush hedge that was thought to be impenetrable except by two openings in it, the main and back gates. A broad footpath through the rice paddies led to the north corner of the hamlet from the main dirt road that headed east to the district headquarters, near where the southbound road to the next village branched off from it. A smaller gate on the long, southeast side led through the narrow band of paddies there into the woods a hundred yards south. "There's no treelines go right up to it, so the bad guys are gonna have to walk in the open. No moon tonight, but if the sky stays clear the stars will give us all the light we need, they can't get to Toi Mui without us seeing them."
The three corporals looked at each other. "We? Us?" Was he going with them? They were used to running their own patrols and preferred that he didn't come along.
"The way I see it," Sergeant Slaughter continued, he hadn't noticed the exchange of glances, "is we can set up one patrol here," he made an "X" on the edge of the woods fifty yards from where the trail came out of them, "and another one here," he made a second "X" in a treeline a hundred yards north of the hamlet. He looked at Hank. "Six of your people with each of my fire teams, can do?"
The PF lieutenant nodded.
"That's two," Socrates asked, "what about the third?"
"Two patrols should be more than we need," Sergeant Slaughter answered. "The third one will patrol in here," he drew a large triangle that included the schoolhouse, Nghia Toi, and Toi Co 2. "That's a lot of ground for one patrol to cover, but we've only got one patrol to cover the rest of the village. Hank, you put a squad here at Fort Cragg in case anybody decides to pay a visit tonight, then you be here with the rest of your platoon as a reaction force," he marked a treeline just east of Toi Co 2. The rest of Hank's PF platoon was seven men, including Hank, his platoon sergeant, radioman, runner, and the medic.
Socrates didn't think much of that as a location for the reaction force, it was a mile from Toi Mui. He didn't object, though. With twenty of them out there, they should be able to handle anything short of a whole company. Nobody else objected either.
"Socrates," Sergeant Slaughter kept talking, "take your patrol out half an hour before sunset and follow this route," he drew a line along the trail to Nghia Toi, from there along the river almost to the main path to Toi Mui, across the paddies to the treeline he designated as the ambush site there. "Mad Greek, you go out fifteen minutes later and go this way." He drew an almost straight line through the woods east of Fort Cragg to the rice paddies between it and the woods south of Toi Mui, through those woods to the ambush site he'd marked there. "I'll go with you. Send Chickenfucker with Socrates, he'll probably need a fourth man more than you will."
Mad Greek grimaced; that meant Sergeant Slaughter was running his patrol. Submarine looked away, disgusted. He was going to miss out on the fun.
"Doc Holliday comes with us," Sergeant Slaughter said to Mad Greek. "If one of those little bad bastards is still alive when we get through with them, I want a medicineman there to keep him alive long enough to get back to S2. The Toi Mui patrols stay put all night or until we catch them. Submarine, your patrol goes out an hour after sunset and stays out until dawn irregardless. Motormouth stays here on the radios. Call signs are the bases." He looked up from the map and at the others. "Questions?" There weren't, not even what "the bases" meant. That was one common set of radio call signs they used. Fort Cragg was Dugout, Socrates was First Base, Mad Greek Second Base, Submarine Third Base, and Hank's reaction force was Home Plate. "All right then, let's get ready." Sergeant Slaughter ducked into his room to prepare himself. It was going to take him a while, this was the first time in a month and a half he'd gone out on a night patrol.
The three fire team leaders went to brief their men and get them ready for the night's work. Hank had his sergeant get his platoon in formation so he could give them their patrol assignments. Half an hour later everybody but Sergeant Slaughter was ready to go out on their cake walk.
There was something they didn't know, though. Xa had lied when he said the VC were sending one squad with the cadre. They told him they were sending a reinforced platoon. He was afraid if the Americans knew how many VC were going to be there they'd be too afraid to come.
They took it slow and easy getting there. In a straight line the treeline north of Toi Mui was a little less than two miles from Fort Cragg; the route they took was nearly twice that. It was almost an hour and a half after sunset when they settled into the ambush site. They didn't snoop and poop and creep like a grunt battalion in the field, slow-going movement a klick an hour. They went like men who were at home and confident about it, men who knew they might run into someone they'd have to fight, men they wanted to shoot first. Their pace was a slow stroll. The ten men followed treelines for the most part once they left the woods that lined the river East of Nghia Toi. When they had to cross open areas they waited until the intermittent clouds blocked the starlight from the openness they had to enter.
They were close to Toi Mui, close enough that if the bad guys had come early they could hear the cadre haranguing the villagers.
And Mad Greek's patrol was already in position. If the bad guys had arrived earlier he would have radioed that information; he didn't. Instead, they heard an occasional voice in the hamlet raised in laughter or exclamation. Now and again a dog barked. Someone played a radio. Gradually, over the next hour, the flickers they could see through the hedge fence of the orange glow of oil lamps in the hootches blinked out, the laughs and shouts came less frequently, the radio went off, the dogs quieted down. Except for one lamp that stayed lit for another hourSocrates thought that lamp was in Xa's hootch. He figured the hamlet chief was sitting up, waiting for his unwanted visitors. But that lamp finally went out too, and Toi Mui was just a dark shadow against the dark woods in the dark night.
Every half hour Socrates radioed in his sitrep, then listened to the sitreps of the other two patrols and Hank's reaction force. They were always the same: Situation as before. There was nothing else to do except listen to the cicadas buzz, the bats squee, the night fliers squawk, the lizards fukyoo. That's the way it was for two hours. After that, Socrates let Sneaky Pete and two of the PFs go to sleep while the others stayed alert.
Socrates lay awake in the treeline. It was hard staying awake. If the bad guys didn't come soon this could be a long night--he wasn't going to sleep until they were all safe back at Fort Cragg. It was just like on the soccer field, he had to be alert all the way, everyone depended on him. Chickenfucker was awake on the left side of the line, farthest from Toi Mui. If the VC came from the north he'd be the first one to see them. One awake PF was between them, two others were awake to his right, one PF watched their rear. Captain Hook held the other end of the line. The first time Socrates had seen a treeline, it reminded him of the hedgerows in France his uncle Jim had described to him--Uncle Jim had fought through them in World War II. They weren't simply lines of trees, they had been there for too many centuries to be that simple. Over the generations the ground in the treelines built up while the cultivated ground next to them sank, the treelines were high, thick dikes with vegetation growing on them.
The clouds thickened during the night, blanked out the stars more frequently, making the night sometimes too dark to see across the paddies. Despite the lack of a moon the stars gave enough light to see by--when they weren't blocked by the clouds.
On an ordinary night he might let half of his men sleep at a time and take a turn dozing himself. Not tonight, though. Not with company definitely expected. Not when something didn't sound right about the information they had on this visit. Not when he had the stranger to think about.
"What's your name," he'd asked the stranger. "We operate on a need to know basis," the stranger had replied. "That's not something you need to know." And that's a crock of shit, Socrates thought. First things first, though. As much as he wanted to figure out who the nameless stranger was and what he wanted, he had to be on the alert for bad guys to show up here tonight.
It didn't surprise him that Charlie would come to Toi Mui for food and supplies. Toi Mui was the logical choice in the village. But sending a cadre to talk up the people? That didn't make as much sense. There would be noise and probably lights, they could attract the attention of the Marines. The VC couldn't know the Marines didn't plan to patrol Toi Mui, the patrol routes were never drawn until an hour or two before the first one went out. So they were taking a chance. He thought about it, did the patrols follow any sort of pattern? No, none he could think of. Toi Mui was patrolled at least once every four nights, sometimes two nights in a row. It hadn't been covered last night. Or, he remembered, the night before. That made it at least fifty-fifty they'd have a patrol in the area tonight. He grimaced. If Charlie was sending a tax collector, he'd send more than a squad to carry the food he'd collect. And he'd need to send protection along with the two officials and the bearers. Also, it bothered him that the VC told Xa they were coming. Why did they tell him? He could understand if the VC told Xa late this afternoon so he'd be there when they showed up, but why so early? Did they really think he wouldn't pass the word on to the Marines?
The more Socrates thought about the situation, the more it felt wrong, the more uncomfortable he became. He wasn't aware of what his body was doing while his mind was working; his body was trying to sink into the hard dirt of the treeline.
There was no question about it; there was a whole platoon coming. Maybe even more than that. Still, the twenty Marines and PFs here could take them, drive them away without the VC getting any food and supplies, kill enough to hurt them badly.
Cautiously, careful not to raise up far enough to make a silhouette against the horizon, Socrates lifted his head and shoulders and looked all around. No movement caught his eye, no night shadow seemed out of place. He hadn't expected to see anything, the area around this treeline was too open for anyone to think they could cross it without being spotted, not unless they knew the clouds better than anybody could expect, well enough to be confident the clouds would cast their blackness long enough to get through the open before the clouds rent again. Then he thought about Mad Greek's ambush, south of Toi Mui, inside the woods. Suddenly he realized the VC were setting a trap, there was no other explanation for what was happening. And Mad Greek's ambush was in the middle of it.
He grabbed for his radio, to warn the other patrol, but stopped himself before he pressed the speak-lever on the side of the handset. If the VC were being sophisticated about this they had a radio set to the Marines' patrol frequency and someone who spoke English was monitoring it. There was no way the VC could tell where the MaRINES were from what they said over the radio because they never described their locations, only used checkpoint designations that weren't decided on until the patrol routes were drawn. So how could they do it? If this was a trap that meant there had to be enough bad guys in the area to cover every possible place the Marines and PFs could set their own ambushes. Or did it? He pictured the map in his mind and thought about how he'd set a trap here if he was certain he could lure a VC platoon into positions around Toi Mui.
Toi Mui only had two entrances, so the most likely places for the people he was trapping to set their ambushes were the two places the CAP had set its ambushes. So he'd station a platoon in the woods to the south, deep enough that if the squad setting in on that side wouldn't find it if it swept the area before going to ground. That platoon could assault the southern ambush once it knew exactly where it was. There were two treelines within easy small arms distance of the one his ambush was in, they could catch him in a crossfire when he pulled his men out to go to the aid of the other ambush. But that didn't make enough sense. If they opened up on him at that range at night they probably wouldn't hit anyone, only keep them pinned down. Then again, pinning him down here would allow the force on the south side to deal with Mad Greek without fear of reinforcements arriving. He was suddenly very afraid. The Marines had set their ambushes in the obvious locations. The enemy knew, had to know, almost exactly where they were--if they were here like he thought. And he was sure they were. His body tried again to sink into the earth of the treeline.
How would they spring the trap, how would they do it to make sure they got as many Marines and PFs as possible? Then he remembered that the Viet Cong sometimes sacrificed men, used them as decoys to lead Americans into traps even if it meant their own men being used as the decoys were going to get killed in the process. Then he knew how they were going to do it. By now, the VC might even be moving closer. Now, how to warn Mad Greek without letting any listeners know he figured it out?
He thought of something Mad Greek would understand that a Vietnamese probably wouldn't and picked up his radio. "Second Base, Second Base, this is First Base, over."
Rodin's response came immediately.
"Gimme your actual, Two."
"Ah, my actual, One?" Rodin asked slowly. In radio communications, the "actual" was the leader, tonight Rodin had two "actuals" with him.
"Your usual actual, Two."
Socrates guessed Mad Greek was napping, which was why Rodin had the radio. You never used names over the radio, that's why he had to be circumspect about saying who he wanted to talk to. He wondered why Sergeant Slaughter wasn't on the radio if Mad Greek was sleeping, but was glad he wasn't, he wanted to talk to the Greek about this. Mad Greek's voice was slightly foggy when he came on the radio, he must have been asleep.
"Listen closely and only answer yes or no, understand? Over," he said when he got Mad Greek and got an affirmative response. Where he was, as long as he kept his voice low, it was safe to talk as long as he wanted, that wasn't the case in the woods. "You know what happens when Randolph Scott gets drawn into a box canyon?" Mad Greek answered yes. "Well that's where you are, you're in a box canyon, over."
Mad Greek didn't say anything for a long moment, then, "You sure?"
"Sure as I can be. You're on the pitcher's mound." Socrates had no compunction against mixing metaphors. "You know where homeplate is, right? You've got a runner on first, leading off. You're going to have to throw to the second baseman to get him out. Understand?"
There was another long pause while Mad Greek figured it out. Homeplate is always at the southwest corner of a baseball diamond. The second baseman positions himself to the east of the pitcher's mound. South was behind Mad Greek's ambush. Finally he figured it out and yessed.
"Hang tight, I think the visiting team brought a big rooting section."
Mad Greek rogered and Socrates signed off. A moment later Submarine spoke briefly, he said he was headed toward the first base bleachers. Good, that could put him in a position to help Mad Greek when the bad guys hit, on the flank of the attacking VC unit. Motormouth and Hank didn't say anything, but Motormouth must have understood what it was about. Good thing this wasn't Japan or Formosa, they played baseball there as well and an eavesdropper might figure out what he meant. The Vietnamese didn't play ball, though, not baseball. Socrates grinned slightly, wondering what the PF leader made of the conversation. He'd find out later. Then he wondered how Sergeant Slaughter was going to react when he found out his patrol leaders were changing the plans without consulting him--especially when he was out there with them. But that was Mad Greek's poblem. For now, anyway.
Next he let his own men know what he'd figured out.
Chickenfucker agreed that it sounded possible, but he didn't sound convinced. The PFs didn't say much, but they all looked more alert--and seemed to become more tense than they had been.
"You sure about that?" Sneaky Pete demanded when Socrates woke him. "What are we going to do if you're right, huh? What're we going to do?"
"Kick ass," Socrates told him, and headed to Captain Hook.
Captain Hook didn't say anything, not even an acknowledging grunt, and it was too dark under the passing clouds to see any expression on his face. His posture didn't change when he went back to watching over the paddies. If Captain Hook hadn't pointed his face at him while he talked, Socrates wouldn't have known he'd heard him.
Socrates returned to his position in the line. Now all they could do was wait, but that was all they could do before, so not much was changed. Damn, he wished he had a Starlight scope so he could check out those other treelines. He had long forgotten about the stranger.
Another hour went by with nothing happening but the half_hourly sit_reps. Socrates was beginning to have trouble staying awake, the earlier adrenaline rush was wearing off. The radio whispered at him. It was Sergeant Slaughter.
The squad leader wanted to know what made him think it was a trap, but couldn't say more than a few words because the woods he was in could conceal many men fairly close to him. "Explain yourself," was all he said. He had been prowling the area behind Mad Greek's ambush earlier and only now heard about what Socrates figured out.
"It bothered me," Socrates answered. His mind churned, looking for a way to tell his honcho how he figured it out without saying it in the open, "the story we were told. Why would somebody take a chance on it getting to us unless they wanted it to?"
There was a long quiet on the radio, Socrates wondered if Sergeant Slaughter was waiting for him to say "over" before speaking. Maybe he should use better radio procedure when talking to him. But he didn't when Sergeant Slaughter was on radiowatch back at Fort Cragg, so it shouldn't make any difference when he was on one of the patrols.
"You know what you're going to do?" Sergeant Slaughter finally asked.
"Yeah." Socrates sighed. If he was right, all he could do was keep his ambush in place. If they pulled out when the shooting started on the other side they'd expose themselves to a crossfire. Unless the sky was solidly socked in so they could move without being seen.
"Third Base, are you in the bleachers yet?" Sergeant Slaughter suddenly asked.
"That's an affirmative," Submarine said. He sounded nervous, the "bleachers" were far from where his patrol was supposed to be. What would Sergeant Slaughter think about that?
"Good, stay there. Second Base out."
They waited until the wee hours of the morning, when the clouds were breaking up, before anything happened. When it did, it wasn't quite the way Socrates had it figured.
The PF on Socrates' left tapped his shoulder and pointed, then leaned close. "They tell me," he said, passing the word, and gestured to his left. Socrates nodded at that and looked where the Vietnamese was pointing.
Clouds cast their shadows where he pointed making it too dark to see anything, even shadows, but he thought he saw a flick of movement on the paddies. He looked to the sides of where he thought he saw it and it came again. He tapped the PF on his right and pointed. He said, "Pass the word." The PF looked, went briefly rigid, then shifted to his right to pass the word on.
Socrates picked up the radio handset without taking his eyes from the movement. "Everyone, this is First Base," he said. "I have movement to my front. Acknowledge, over."
Motormouth acknowledged, so did Submarine. Then Sergeant Slaughter said, "To your front?"
Socrates swallowed. "Roger."
"Too dark to tell."
"Well, stop that movement."
"Roger," Socrates said again. Then he tapped the two PFs on his sides and signaled them to alert everybody to open fire on his command.
A break in the clouds beyond where he saw the movement provided back lighting. Eight men walked on the main dike path through the paddies toward Toi Mui. Three of the silhouettes carried rifles, he couldn't make out weapons on the others. That didn't mean they weren't carrying them. He sighted on one of them and pulled the trigger rapidly three times. Captain Hook's shotgun belched to his far right, though the walkers may have been out of his shotgun's range. Chickenfucker's and Sneaky Pete's M_16s stuttered full automatic on his left. The PFs' carbines chattered in the night. In seconds there was nobody walking on the dikes.
"Cease fire, cease fire," Socrates shouted. The shooting stopped. As far as he could tell, none had been returned. "Report," he ordered anyway.
"Yo," Captain Hook grunted.
"I'm okay," Chickenfucker said.
"No problem with me," Sneaky Pete.
The PFs also said they were all right. Good, no casualties. How many of the bad guys had they zapped? There was only one way to find out, but that meant exposing themselves to the enemy he was still certain were in the nearby treelines. Too bad they weren't closer to Fort Cragg, he could call in for the mortar to fire a couple illumination rounds and maybe they could see bodies without having to go out there.
"Cover me," Captain Hook said. "Lim, come with me," he added to one of the PFs. He was crossing the paddies before Socrates could order him to stay put.
Socrates reported on the radio they were checking it out and would report when he had info.
Lim followed close behind and to Captain Hook's left. They went bent over, as fast as they could slog through the shin-deep water of the paddies. Captain Hook didn't bother zigzagging. The rent in the clouds that had back-lighted the men they'd hit moved so the dike path was lit by the time Captain Hook reached it. He crouched low behind the dike, exposing as little of himself as possible. Socrates saw him put his head close to Lim to say something, then the two split up for a moment. When they came back together they were both carrying extra weapons. They squatted alongside the dike until the clouds darkened where they were again, then headed back. No one fired at them the whole time they were out.
"Don't shoot, it's us," Captain Hook said loudly before they reached the ambush. He dropped beside Socrates. "Five bodies out there," he reported. He and Lim brought back three rifles and a handgun.
"No sign of the others?" Socrates asked. He sensed more than saw Captain Hook's headshake. He held the handset to his head, pressed the speak lever, and reported the bodies and weapons. Then he said, "Wait one," in response to a question. "The one with the pistol, what was he wearing?" he asked Captain Hook.
"Pajamas, samee-same the others." Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't the cadre or the tax collector. If they were all dressed the same the only way to tell was to check the bodies for documents. That could wait.
Socrates told Sergeant Slaughter. When the radio conversation was over he said to his men, "We stay put."
Now Socrates wondered if he'd been wrong, maybe this squad was it, maybe there wasn't a trap. Maybe. And maybe Crazy Horse was a scout for the Seventh Cavalry. So what were the VC going to do next? He looked at Toi Mui; no lights had come on, no voices were raised. That seemed odd, the fire fight must have woken people up. Then again the villagers had to be frightened. If the eight men they'd caught crossing the dike were a ploy to get the men in Whiskey 8's ambush to expose themselves to a
counterambush, it didn't work.
The clouds continued to diminish, the sky cleared, it became easier to see in the light of the stars. People who have never been in the tropics don't know how bright a clear night can be, even without a moon. It can get bright enough for someone with strong eyes to read a newspaper by the starlight. It was turning into that kind of a night. Three_quarters of an hour passed.
"I have movement," Mad Greek said over the radio. A moment later he added, "Shit, they're between me and the ville." He couldn't have his men open fire because they'd be shooting into Toi Mui. "Looks like a squad."
Socrates wondered how they got between Mad Greek and the hamlet without being spotted. Then realized the clouds were still spotty, they came out of the woods under cover of clouds a little east of the hamlet and weren't exposed to the starlight until they were right there. He concentrated his attention on the hamlet they were guarding. No lights came on, no voices raised. They continued to wait with no indication of what was going on inside Toi Mui. The cloud cover dissipated more, to where it was almost completely gone. At length Socrates looked at his watch, it was getting close to false dawn, when the eastern sky would lighten but the sun was still far below the horizon. Had the VC managed to slip out unnoticed? Had the Marines failed in their mission to keep the villagers of Toi Mui from being robbed?
"They're coming out," the radio suddenly kicked out Mad Greek's voice. "I see twelve of them."
"Don't shoot anyone who's only carrying rice," Socrates said urgently into the radio.
"No shit, Sherlock," Mad Greek said back. "We can see." He'd probably say something to Socrates later about thinking he was dumb, that he wouldn't realize if more men came out than went in, it meant the extras had to be conscripts. That was okay with Socrates, better safe than not. A minute later fire erupted briefly, then reedy Vietnamese shouting came from south of Toi Mui. Socrates knew enough Vietnamese to understand it: The Pfs were shouting at the villagers who were being taken to stay down, they were safe now.
Mad Greek radioed he was checking the bodies. Moments later heavy fire broke out, most of it the distinctive cracking of AK47s.
"We need help," Sergeant Slaughter shouted over the radio. "Third base, hit their flank. Now, move it." He didn't call for Hank's reaction force, it was too far away to get there soon enough to help.
Captain Hook looked at Socrates, his barely visible expression was a demand that they go to the aid of the others. Socrates thought about the other VC he was certain were nearby to catch them when they moved. But they couldn't stay here, he knew that.
"Chickenfucker, you and two PFs stay here, don't let anybody take those bodies." He wanted to keep the proof of their kills. To the others, "Let's go. Keep low." He left the radio with Chickenfucker.
They were able to make it halfway to Toi Mui in the treeline before they had to go into the open. He didn't object when Captain Hook, who was in the lead, ran on a dike instead of through the paddies where they'd present smaller targets. They had covered most of the remaining distance to the hedge-fence around the hamlet before a few shots were directed at them from their right rear--from one of the two treelines Socrates thought VC were hiding. Chickenfucker and the two PFs with him answered the fire and it stopped, they'd gotten far enough before being spotted to foil the VC plans to pin them down.
Then they were running around the side of the hamlet. Captain Hook started shouting before they got all the way around, letting Sergeant Slaughter and the others know help was arriving from that direction, asking where they should go to give the best assistance. Sergeant Slaughter shouted directions and Captain Hook led them on a tangent to the firing. He didn't hit the deck and open fire until someone started shooting at them. This time they were within the shotgun's range.
At almost that same time more fire broke out to their right; Submarine and his patrol had arrived. Whistles blew from the VC position which was now inside a curved front of Americans and PFs. The VC fire slackened, most of them broke and ran, only enough stayed behind to prevent pursuit.
Socrates heard Sergeant Slaughter talk to Motormouth on the radio, telling him to call for air support to hit the retreating elements of the VC unit, and for a medevac. Then he asked Submarine where he was and told him to sweep up the flank of the VC who were running the delay. Socrates had his men cease fire so they wouldn't hit their own people. It was all over in only a few more minutes. Only a few, but long enough to make pursuit of the main body fruitless.
"Team leaders report," Sergeant Slaughter bellowed. Socrates was sometimes surprised at how loud a voice that small man could project. Socrates and Submarine reported they had no casualties. Two of Mad Greek's PFs were down and so was Mister Spook.
"They're alive," Doc Holliday called; he was already working on the casualties. The promise he made to the Marines and PFs was; no matter how badly they were wounded, if they were still alive when he got to them he'd keep them alive until a medevac arrived.
"Let's check it out, people," Sergeant Slaughter next ordered. "How many bodies do we have. If any are alive, remember I want prisoners.
Five of the men who came out of Toi Mui were down, three dead. One of the two wounded was a young village man who had been taken as a conscript; he'd been hit in the thigh. Doc Holliday said he'd work on him next. False dawn was now lightening the sky, it helped a little when they searched the woods. They found three more bodies, no wounded.
"Got some blood trails though," Submarine reported. He looked deeper into the trees. "Maybe the wounded will slow them down enough we can catch them," he said.
"Don't bother," Sergeant Slaughter said, "we've got our prisoner." He looked at the wounded VC, at the man's arm, shattered from an M_16 burst, and asked Doc Holliday, "He will live, won't he?"
Doc Holliday was now working on the wounded civilian. "If he don't bleed to death by the time I'm finished here, he will."
The radio crackled and Chickenfucker told Sergeant Slaughter, "There's a squad headed toward our kills and another one coming to us."
"Socrates, Submarine, come with me," Sergeant Slaughter ordered and started running around Toi Mui. On the way he shouted at them, told about Chickenfucker's message.
Ground mist was beginning to rise from the paddies when they reached them. The mist blocked their view, they couldn't see anything in the paddies. Sergeant Slaughter yelled out, asking Chickenfucker where the bad guys were. Chickenfucker started to answer, then shouted, "They're running away." He and the PFs with him started shooting.
"Well, shoot their dumb asses," Sergeant Slaughter shouted needlessly. He told the six Marines with him to hold their fire. No point wasting ammunition when they didn't know where the targets were. "Submarine, take your people back. Socrates, secure those bodies of yours, bring them to where the others are." He followed Submarine and his men. Socrates heard him muttering, "Where the fuck's that air?"
Socrates directed his men in picking up the dead VC. Two helicopters, the air Sergeant Slaughter requested, arrived right after they rejoined the rest of the unit on the south side of Toi Mui. Sergeant Slaughter talked to the flight leader on the radio and the two helicopters flew east in a search for the fleeing Viet Cong. They probably wouldn't find them now, it had taken too long for the birds to arrive. No telling what direction the VC had taken once they broke contact. Then Hank arrived with his reaction force. Lai was with him, and went directly into Toi Mui. Only after he entered the hamlet and talked to Xa did any of the villagers come out.
The medevac arrived while the people were milling around as Xa supervised the return of the VC "taxes" to the people they'd been taken from. Mister Spook, the two PFs, the civilian casualty, and the VC prisoner were helped aboard the medevac bird. Doc Holliday spoke briefly with the corpsman on it, telling him the condition of the wounded and what he'd done for them in case anything further developed with them during the flight to Charlie Med.
Motormouth relayed a message from company headquarters to guard the bodies, someone was on their way to get them.
"Tell them they gotta send birds," Sergeant Slaughter said. "A six_by can't get in here." Motormouth did, but it didn't do any good and they had to carry the eleven bodies more than six hundred yards to where the truck waited on the road.
Gunny Bryl whistled when he saw them. "How many casualties you say you took?" Sergeant Slaughter told him. Gunny Bryl shook his head. That was a better kill ratio than he'd ever seen against human wave assaults in Korea. Maybe he should take back all of the things he said about the men who were enlisting in this "New Corps." Then he took fifteen minutes to debrief Sergeant Slaughter and his corporals on the night's activity. He wanted to be more thorough in his debriefing, but these men were tired and still had to walk back to Fort Cragg, a complete debriefing could wait a few hours. Besides, he had to ride back to company HQ with those bodies in the truck. They were going to start to stink soon and he wanted to be rid of them before they did.
The sun had been up for two hours by the time they got back to Fort Cragg. Sergeant Slaughter and Hank talked briefly, then Hank set a watch rotation from the men who had spent the night there and a few of the men who'd been in his reaction force so the men who had been in the battle could sleep. Only a couple of those men bothered to eat anything before collapsing exhausted. The children who came to play with their Marines amused themselves quietly until the Marines woke up. The cleaning women decided to stay away until the Marines were up; they didn't want to disturb them either.
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