A novel of the Vietnam War

by James Nathan Post

Chapter 5

Kevin eased the cyclic control back to slow his gunship, and lowered the collective pitch lever slightly so that the helicopter would descend smoothly. He scanned the now-familiar landing strip as the aircraft settled toward it, and he picked a well-tarred spot where dust wouldnít blow up to obscure his vision.

Ahead of him Skip Gilmanís ship was turning smoothly to set down near the re-arming pits. Jockeying the controls lightly, he hovered his ship over to the pad and held steady for a second, then allowed it to settle gently to the ground. The whine of the turbine dropped and the grumbling throb of the rotor began to fall off. Kevin jerked at the catch on his lap belt, flipped the boom mike away from his mouth, and pulled his olive-drab helmet from his head. He sat for a moment and rubbed slowly at his face, trying to massage away the numbness. The beginning of a headache was gnawing at his temples, and the muscles of his neck were knotted and sore. "Every day here is Monday," he muttered, wiping sweat from the stubble of moustache he was growing.

"What time you got, Sir?" asked the crew chief.

"About 17:00. Weíll be done in a few minutes, then weíre secured for the day." They went over every inch of the shipís metal skin looking for the tiny bullet holes which could indicate damage done to the vital parts inside.

Skip finished first and walked over to Kevinís ship carrying his helmet and chicken-plate. "I hope we got a few of those fucking gooks," he said wearily. "We wasted enough time shooting at them."

Kevin nodded and spat into the sticky dust at his feet. "Left gun jammed. Malins got off about three seconds and it quit. I hate losing my weapons up there, even when thereís nothing to shoot at."

"Yeah, I know just what you mean. Makes me feel like a man with no dick."

A three-quarter truck came from operations to pick them up, and the two crews loaded their flight gear into it and jumped in, then leaned against the slat sides and settled back, beginning to relax for the evening.

"Think Iíll go into the village for some boom-boom and some Bamuoiba," Skip mused.

"You canít go tonight," said Round John. "The Major put the town off- limits."

"How come?" demanded Skip.

"Vietnamese New Year, or something. Csynes said he doesnít trust Charlie to be cool and stick to partying."

"Well, damn, thatís right. Tonightís the beginning of Tet," said Kevin.

"Kiss my mother dawg! New Year night in the cathouse, and everybody is gonna be there except us." Skip Gilman shook his head in disgust. "I canít figure that guy Csynes -- heís like a tiger on one end, and a pussy on the other. Shit. I was going to get some nuoc mam and take it over to the boom-boom parlor."

"Oh, yeah? What for?" asked Round John.

"I was going to pour it in old zipper-eyesís snatch."

"To improve the smell?"

"There it is. You know something, I actually tried to eat that stuff once -- the nuoc mam, I mean. I puked before I got it past my tonsils."

"You know how they make that shit?" asked Kevin.

"I found out too late. They pack whole fish and salt in a barrel, then bury it in a shitheap until it all ferments to scales and slime. Then they let it age. Ecch!"

"Thatís it. The name means something like ĎElixir of Lifeí. I had a Vietnamese Captain tell me he loved the taste of nuoc mam so much it brought tears to his eyes when he thought of it."

"Did you guys get any action out there," asked Captain Randall when they pulled up to the operations tent.

"Nah. We got a little light small arms fire right at first, but thatís about all. Just another ratfuck."

"OK," Duke grumbled sourly. "Iíd sure like to see some confirmed kills. This division is getting pretty stingy about giving kill credit to the gunships."

"I heard a rumor the General rates his commanders by body count," said Kevin. "You want eagles, boy, you get those kills. You lie, pad your reports, steal from the gunships, whatever."

Lieutenant Rudy Bakersmith stepped into their tent with a roster sheet. "Padilla in here? Oh, there you are. Youíre going to fly counter-mortar standby with my section tonight, Ed. Iím the fire team leader, with Ferranti, and youíre the aircraft commander of the wing ship, with Swomney."

Tired, and wishing he could take the evening off, but excited about the chance to fly a night mission as A/C, Eddie picked up his flight gear and left with Bakersmith.

The runway at The Scabbard ran almost north-south, about a kilometer west of the village of Bao Trang. The perimeter of the base camp was guarded by sentry posts, which ranged in size from two-man pillboxes to the battle-bunkers at the main gate and at the MACV compound, right on the road along the edge of the village. The camp was divided roughly in half, the north half being the Black Sabresí company area. The south half was a large open area, bulldozed clean, with a bermed section in the middle. Inside the berm were the neatly spaced cement and sandbag revetments of the main ammunition dump.

Just outside the wire on the south side was a little cluster of Vietnamese shacks called Cheap Charlieís, built specifically to offer concession services to the soldiers of the camp. The main business was the Washington Laundry, which kept a good-sized staff working round the clock. Next door at Figaroís the endless lines of men in green kept three barber chairs and a shoeshine bench constantly filled. The rest of the establishments were junk shops, and a little canteen which served Bamuoiba beer and a crude approximation of the basic American hamburger.

Almost exactly in the center of The Scabbard, beside the runway between the fuel pit and the gunshipsí revetments, sat the counter-mortar stand-by fireteamís ready-shack, an old mobile home. The eight men of the fireteamís crews sat or lay in the bare interior, waiting for -- but not expecting -- the scramble call which would send them out as the first response force to an attacking enemy. By late evening, several of the men had found blankets and crawled onto the bare matresses of the bunks, and a group of others had begun a card game of some kind.

The field telephone on the drainboard beside them chittered jarringly. Everyone turned and looked at it in disbelief a moment, then Bakersmith picked it up. "Dagger Two-six, stand-by, go ahead." His eyes widened as he listened, then he nodded. "Roger. Weíll be up in two minutes."

The crews grabbed their helmets and pistols and ran out of the building toward the birds. "Go ahead and crank this bitch," Eddie yelled to Ray Swomney as the other warrant jumped into the seat behind the minigun sight. He tossed his chicken plate into his lap and twisted behind his shoulders to reach the safety straps. He draped them across his shoulders and stuck the tongue of the lap belt into the loops, then fastened the catch. By that time, Swomney had snapped on the battery, had flipped the fuel switch forward, and was cranking the throttle around to the starting setting.

"Clear!" he called.

"Clear and untied!" came the reply from the crew chief.

"Coming hot!" He squeezed the trigger on the collective lever and the starter whined into life. The igniters began to tick and the sibilant whistle of the turbine began to climb. Swomney watched his instruments, eyes scanning the RPM guages, the exhaust gas temperature, the voltmeter. The broad blade of the rotor swung slowly by in front of them, followed by the next and the next as the engine drove it around faster and faster. Eddie stuffed his helmet on his head, sticking his fingers under it to set his ears straight in the tight earphones. As he plugged the phones into the fitting hanging beside his seat, Swomney reached overhead and hit the inverter switch, and Eddie heard the electrical equipment begin to hum and whine. As he pulled his clammy flying gloves over his hands, he saw Swomney turn on the radios. The rotor was turning at idle, throbbing deeply and shaking the ship from side to side.

"Iíve got it," Eddie yelled. He grasped the controls, twisting the throttle on to bring the rotor to flying RPM. Swomney nodded and reached for his own lap belt and helmet.

Bakersmithís voice came over the radio. "Dagger One-five, Two-six. You up?"

Eddie squeezed the mike switch. "Roger that. Hear you Lima Charlie."

"You too, loud and clear. Break. Bao Trang, Dagger counter-mortar team scramble from Dagger pad, over."

"Dagger Two-six, light fire team, cleared immediate takeoff, wind two-two- zero at six knots, altimeter two-niner-niner-six."

"Roger, on the go!"

Bakersmithís aircraft had already risen to a hover and was moving onto the runway with its nose low and in a turn to parallel the strip. It settled and almost touched the ground with the skids, then abruptly swooped upward as it gathered speed. Eddie lifted off behind him. He swung in a wide low turn to fall in behind the lead, and the two gunships stayed close to the ground, headed toward the tent area.

In the section tent below, Kevin, Skip, and the others had been sopping up beer and enjoying the fact that they did not have the counter-mortar duty and could take the evening off and get sloppy. As they sat talking, they had heard the familiar whine of the turbine engines starting, and the throbbing whoosh of rotors being brought rapidly to operating RPM.

"Itís the counter-mortar team," Kevin declared. "Theyíve been called out. I think Iíll wander down to operations and check it out." Kevin stepped out into the night and made his way carefully toward the Ops tent, stepping around the stakes and ropes that anchored the quarters tents. Each tent had a low wall of sandbags stacked between it and its neighbor, and he picked his way along the walls to avoid having to walk all the way around the tent complex. The tents were well-lighted, and he could see the men in them doing their evening things, paying no attention at all to the sounds of the fire team being scrambled.

The night was hazy and moonless, and only a few stars gleamed dully in the murky sky. As Kevin watched, the gunship team zoom-climbed over the tents, their rotors wapping like cannonfire. He stood and watched them swing north and climb out, rotors muttering as they grabbed air. A few miles away a parachute flare winked to light, revealing hills along the side of the valley in its wavering red-orange glow.

Suddenly the lights in the tents around him began to go out. He saw Lt. Bud Petch run from one tent to another, and heard him tell someone to turn off the lights. "Blackout -- the Major wants complete blackout. Yeah, the TV set, too. Shut Ďem out."

"Whatís up, Petch," he heard Duke Randall ask.

"Itís Fort Selden, Sir. Theyíre being hit."

"Jesus!" said Randall, then he yelled out loud, "Daggers, listen up! Everybodyís on stand-by, as of now. Get ready to move out, and assemble in the bunkers! Do it now!" He took off on the double toward the Operations tent.

There was a sudden flash... WHRAAAMMPH! Then quickly, two more. WHRAAMPH-AAMPH! For all of four seconds, Kevin stood rooted in unreason and urgent uncertainty as his mind accepted what he already knew....rockets! All around him was instant turmoil, voices shouting, crying, "Incoming! Weíre being hit! Oh, shit!" Men ran, scrabbled across the ground, tripped over ropes and furniture, cursed and cried.

Kevinís body flashed with fear, but his mind was cool, detached. He was surprised at his reaction -- he looked around slowly, paralyzed by the realization that he could not see in the sudden darkness, and he didnít know the way to the nearest bunker. "My God," he thought, "Iím going to get it standing in the open ten feet from a bunker." Over the noise he could hear clearly, as though someone in his mind somewhere were doing nothing except listening to it, the soft crackling hiss of the next one falling in. WHRAAMPH! Close! A shock, and somebody screamed. Something buzzed past him, an abrupt gnarled sound with the vicious suddenness of a mantisís attack. A new fear grabbed him -- he was going to panic. He would panic and run screaming and be hit and theyíd find him broken and gutted, poor damned fool lost it and ran and got hit, got his brains blown out, and please, donít let his family find out he got it and nobody else was even hurt. The thought jarred him loose, and he dived to the ground and rolled against the nearest wall of sandbags, with his head buried in his arms.

Somebody yelled something, a command. Somebody started a siren, and on the perimeter someone fired a burst of tracerfire. Someone nearby was whining softly, "Why donít they do something? Huh? Why the fuck donít they do something?" The small arms fire on the west perimeter began to increase. Kevin lay trembling, wanting with all his being to get up and run to a bunker, but madly fearing if he moved his special bullet would find him.

There was a silence -- a little rifle fire -- and a longer silence. Then somebody moved and Kevin heard footsteps in a nearby tent. "If they fire any more," said a disembodied voice, "itíll be in about ten minutes. Thatís their favorite trick." Kevin took a long breath, then jumped to his feet and ran at a crouch back to the section tent. He ducked into the dark bunker, tripped over someoneís feet, and fell to his knees.

"Welcome to the party, Babycakes," said Skipís voice. A cigarette glowed, and Kevin could see the forms of four other men crouched against the walls.

"Wow," he said, breathing heavily to calm his racing heart and trembling muscles. Then he sniffed and looked up surprised. "Pot? You guys are smoking pot in here? Jesus, arenít you a little...."

"Paranoid?" Henry Hawk giggled nervously. "Iím scared shitless, just like everybody else, but not about getting busted."

"What are they going to do?" asked Skip. "Send us to Vietnam?" He held out the joint to Kevin.

Kevin looked at the glowing cigarette, then sat down beside Skip. "Fuck it," he said, and took the joint. He took a short toke, coughed once, then took a long one. He handed the dope to Hawking and sat holding his breath. He exhaled slowly, then spit into the dirt between his knees. "Iím really not happy here at all," he said.

They had passed the joint around twice when the bunker suddenly lit up with bright orange light. They had time to see each otherís startled expressions before the shock wave struck them. The ground and the walls of the bunker were slammed hard enough to knock the men sprawling, and the sound was a deep and extended roar. It was not one explosion, but a chain of them, a shuddering barrage of bursts which began to rain small debris on the roof of the bunker.

"Holy shit, theyíve hit the ammo dump," said Hawking.

Over the continuous grumbling and cracking of the exploding piles of artillery shells, the men could clearly hear the chattering popcorn of M-16 fire, and the staccato insistent woodpecker bursts of the M-60 machineguns on the perimeter.

"Thatís the perimeter," said Kevin. "Theyíre trying to hit the whole camp!"

Duke Randall stuck his head into the bunker. "Weíre under attack, and it looks like some of them are inside. You men get your flight gear and get down to Operations. Weíre going to get the other four gunships in the air before something blowing out of that ammo dump disables them, and weíre going to kick some virgin ass on that perimeter. Letís move."

Eddie stared through the windshield of his gunship, transfixed by the image before him. Ahead of him a quarter of a mile, Rudy Bakersmithís helicopter hung in the thick black of the moist tropical night, a silhouette of some sleek and stubby-taloned predatory bug, with lights that fluttered, ghostly. Beyond, still five miles away, a lighted arena hung suspended in the darkness. A huge inverted bowl of light in pink and peach colors centered upon the bald-topped hill where artillery firebase Fort Selden had dug itself in. In the top of the bowl shone a half-dozen ruddy-glowing little suns, artillery flares being shot in from another base. As Eddie watched, one burst to light high above the base, and began to descend on its parachute through the tangled smoke-streamers left by its predecessors.

As he followed Bakersmith into the circle of light, Eddie was surprised to experience a rush of vertigo. From within the bowl, the night outside appeared as an impenetrable void, and the high vaulted black ceiling gave the scene a sense of height and volume he had never before experienced. For a second impossibly he thought he could hear the roar of cheering crowds.

The hills close to the base and the main slope of the ridge behind it could be seen clearly. From just outside the ring of light, a burst of tracerfire stabbed into the little cluster of sandbagged revetments and foxholes. It was returned by several guns along the perimeter, and judging from the crisp little explosions in the treeline below the fort, by someone armed with an M- 79 grenade launcher.

"....about eight of them," the radio cut into the ground commanderís communication. "Made contact with us, then deedeed up the ridge. Weíre holding our position. Over."

"Break. Muddy Viper Six, Dagger Two-six. Weíre a light fire team coming up on your area now. Can we play?"

"Dagger, I have two platoons deployed in the jungle on the ridge to the west, each of Ďem out about four hundred meters. One of them is in contact with a small group that just moved back upslope, and thereís somebody up higher on the ridge putting mortarfire on us. I think the troops we contacted are just to slow us up so the ones above can keep firing. With your cover, Iím going to advance my Charlie unit. Over."

"Roger that, Viper. Do your platoon commanders have a flare pistol?"

"Thatís affirm."

"Rog. Just tell them when they need us, to fire a flare from their forward position toward the intended target. Weíll take it from there," said Bakersmith.

Over the intercom, Swomney called Eddie. "Got to be damned careful working around moving troops like this," he said with an edge of bitterness. "Some shithead takes a bullet while the gunships are working, and I hear theyíll try to burn the pilot."

Then on the hillside above the base a flurry of tracers erupted, and Eddie could hear the popcorn crackle even over the noise of his helicopter. The radio began to babble as the platoon leader, the ground commander, and Lt. Bakersmith set up the action. He judged his distance behind Rudy and rolled in to cover him as the lead gunship positioned himself for his first run. On the ground, a red comet pointed like an arrow directly upslope from a darkened hollow. Rudy pounced on the flare like a cat. He rolled his ship around steeply and nosed over to deliver two pairs of rockets. Since the solid-fuel rockets were not much different from common fireworks, but much larger, they rode huge streams of showering sparks to burst below. The miniguns fired a short burst, and the doorgunners probed the trees with their fingers of fire. Eddie was relieved to see that the lead ship took no fire at all.

He rolled in for his run as Bakersmith broke off, and following his example, put two pairs of rockets into the woods just upslope of his. Swomney sprayed the area with the miniguns, and Eddie held the attack in close so the doorgunners could fire a few rounds also. He had just tightened his grip to pull up and away from the trees, when the world erupted. From below came the unmistakeable chatter of automatic weapons fire. The little crimson streaks of tracers whipped past in front of the aircraft. His body knotted and surged as his glands dosed him with their powerful stimulant, and he felt suddenly charged, as though he had grabbed a high- tension line.

"Receiving fire! Receiving fire!" he yelled into his mike. He heard the thick whop of a smoke grenade being popped in the back of the ship as the crew chief marked the spot. In his fear, everything seemed to be in slow motion, like the nightmares he had suffered as a child, being chased by a monster through syrup, thick and clinging. He pulled on the collective and nosed into a left turn, diving down the slope of the hill away from the murderous hail of fire. His mind was racing, counting the weapons firing at him, " God, thereís dozens!" His eyes raced over the instrument panel, and he refused to believe what he saw. His engine was putting out more power than he had believed it could, and his airspeed was over one hundred twenty knots as he hurtled down the slope. "Good God, I canít be going that fast...itís taking forever...will I never get off those guns?"

"Smoke is out, Sir. I think we got it right on top of them," called his crew chief.

"Roger," replied Eddie, suddenly aware that they were free of the fire zone. "Did we take any hits?"

"Guages are OK," said Swomney. "No warning lights."

"I think we took a couple, Sir. Thereís one right by your head there." Eddie turned and saw the tiny hole, flower-petalled and about half the size of a dime in the door post only inches from his head. The bare aluminum edges of the petals reflected the red of the instrument lights, and for a second Eddie had a premonition of funeral flowers.

Rudy had seen the tracers coming up at Eddie as he rolled in to cover him. He saw the smoke grenade Eddieís crew chief had thrown, and he had a pretty good idea where the enemy were. He quickly set up his firing run and started blasting the ridge above the infantry positions. The radio had gone wild. As the VC opened up on Eddieís ship, they also hit the two platoons of infantry which had been chasing the enemy squad up the hill. The squad was a lure, and a company of hardcorps Vietcong were waiting to ambush the advancing Americans. The sudden barrage of fire the enemy had loosed at the gunship had caught the infantry by surprise, so they were still a bit off balance when Charlie opened up on them. The two elements both tried to move back, and the enemy tried to drive a wedge between them.

On the ground, Viper Six, the infantry commander, was monitoring three radios when all of them started screaming at once. He heard the gunship call receiving fire, and from his position on top of a bunker in the firebase, he could see the tracers stab upward to strike the helicopter. As he watched, excitement gripping him, the helicopter tipped on its side to an impossible angle and begin to dive down the hill. Then the other gunhip spat smoke and he heard the sibilant Whoooosssh-Khrak! of the rockets. With a long flatulent roar, a glowing stream of minigun rounds sprayed down onto the hillside as though squirted from a hose.

"Taking fire!" screamed someone over the radio. "Oh, shit, weíre being hit! Thereís too..."

"Viper Six, One-six. Two-six is taking heavy fire -- sounds like a whole platoon. Weíre moving....Jesus Christ!" The sound of gunfire tore through the headset.

"Weíre trying to move back....ambush. Iíve got three men shot and..."

"Receiving fire," from the lead gunship. "Estimate fifteen or twenty automatic...."

Panic started to wrap itself around the guts of Viper Six, a young infantry captain. "Not an troops moving...gunships are hitting my men....theyíre moving....gunnies donít know where they are!" A sudden clear picture flashed in his mind of his men being chewed to pieces by the devastating fire from the gunships. He squeezed the switch on his mike. "Daggers, Viper Six," he shouted. "Hold your fire. Hold your fire!"

Eddie had just begun his run. "Iíll have to carry this one in close to cover Rudy," he thought, and the realization that he was about to fly again into that raging hail of bullets chilled him. For an instant he felt a detached awareness -- he could hear his mother many years later telling someone how she had been jarred awake from her nap to share her sonís fear, and his vision as he challenged the hellish guns. He concentrated on his rocket sight, picking the exact spot in the trees he wanted the missiles to hit. His thumb tightened on the firing button.

"Hold your fire, gunships! Youíre hitting my men!" The frantic voice of Viper Six grated metallically through the headphones.

Eddieís heart wrenched with sudden new dread. "Oh, God, what a time to....Iím in too close! Theyíll chew my ass to pieces!" The fingers of tracerfire began to find the ship. Smoke began to gush from the radio compartment beside him, and two jagged holes spanged cracks across the plexiglass windshield. Eddie pulled power until the warning horn cut stridently through to him. "John Wayne. Itís just like John Wayne," he thought, clearly, horribly aware that someone was shooting at him, trying quite deliberately to kill him, and any second might succeed.

Just as he made it out of range of the small automatic weapons, the enemy brought out their big gun. It was the first time Eddie had seen fifty- caliber fire at night, and his first reaction was awe. From a position on his right, almost level with him on the ridge above the base came a stream of crimson flaming golf balls. They floated out toward him, and it seemed impossible that they could miss him, and that they were falling just below and behind the gunship. He turned and looked to his left, where his lead ship was holding off high, and he saw that the glowing comets of fire were streaking in flat trajectories clear across the bowl of light, and were still climbing when they burned out in the darkness high above them. "Weíre fish in a barrel," he thought. "We canít get out of range of that gun, and he canít keep missing forever."

He looked below and could see exactly where the heavy machine gun was situated. It looked like just the right place from which to fire mortars at the base also. And he was exactly set up for a long, flat firing run at the position. "Iím taking it out!" he yelled into the microphone, and pulled the gunship into a tight right turn, facing renewed small tracerfire.

Something clattered, spanged in the cockpit. "Carbajalís hit, Sir! Oh, Jesus, heís had it! I..." The gunner turned inside to reach for the sagging body of the crew chief.

"Stay on your gun!" yelled Eddie. Swomney was firing both miniguns, spraying the bullets like streams of molten lead on the hillside. The flaming golf balls made trails of ghastly fire as they streaked beneath the ship. He tried to remember everything, hold steady, stabilize the run,! He squeezed the thumbswitch on his cyclic, and the first pair of rockets flashed forward, sparkler plumes of gold and silver flame showering behind them. He squeezed again, and then again. Still the golf balls kept coming, and he was more afraid of breaking off his attack than continuing it. He bored in closer, and fired another pair of rockets.

The high explosive warheads burst with a yellow flash, then suddenly a dozen more bursts ripped the hillside beside them. Some of them were flung up into the air and burst aloft. Eddie broke off and climbed back into the sky along the edge of the lighted area, with his door gunner firing back to cover the turn.

"Bullseye!!" yelled Rudy Bakersmith over the radio. "You got boocoo secondaries on that last pair. I think thatís the last weíll see of that mortar position. Iím going to unload mine in there too, and we can break off and reload back at Scab." "Roger that. Wow!"

"Viper Six, Dagger lead. Iíve got five pairs and some minigun. My wingman is about empty, and we have maybe fifteen minutes time on station left. Recommend we unload on that position, then return to refuel."

"Roger, Dagger. Go ahead and dump what youíve got, then get back to Bao Trang to reload. And fellows...thanks."

"Roger that, Viper. You set up, One-five?"

"Uh, Dagger lead, be advised my crew chief has been hit. Gunner confirms heís dead. Over."

"Roger. Sorry about that. Letís dump it all in one pass, and we can get the hell out of here. By the way, that was some pretty fancy shootiní, Bullseye."

"Just got lucky," Eddie replied. He followed Rudy through his firing pass, unloaded his last rounds, and he wished he could capture the glory and the fulfillment he felt at that moment, and take it back to Las Cruces that very night and hang it on the wall of his fatherís home.

Major Jacob Csynes spent most of the night in his own office sitting behind his desk with his topographic maps of the valley, conducting the companyís operations by field telephone. Soon after the ammunition dump blew, he had made a walk-around inspection of the company area, telling the slick pilots to remain in their bunkers, and making a point of remaining standing when others dived for the ground at the sound of the incoming mortars. Captain Neil Koontz, the XO, was on duty as Operations Officer in the Ops tent, and Captain Duke Randall led the gunship action from his office in the right seat of his Frog ship.

The action dropped off during the early hours of morning, and Eddie and Swomney were sent out to keep one fireteam in the air flying a cap over the base. Eddie flew round and round the camp as the sky lightened, amazed to see the fires he watched at night revealed by the dawn to be the hootches and shacks of the familiar little communities which surrounded the base.

Takeoffs were scheduled for 07:00, and every helicopter available was to fly. Most of the crewmen were already awake, but it still came as a surprise when Csynes called for a full company formation at 06:00. Captain Koontz called the company to attention, and presented his report to Csynes. "The 17th Assault Helicopter Company is present or accounted for, Sir!"

"Thank you, Captain," replied Csynes, returning the XOís salute with his peculiar whiplike snap of the wrist. "At ease, men. I would like to begin by saying, I told you so. And I would like to conclude by saying, I am pleased in general with the way this company behaved under attack. I would particularly like to commend Captain Randall and the Daggers for their outstanding performance during the night. Now, it is my special pleasure to recognize an act of conspicuous gallantry which took place last night, and which very likely saved the lives of dozens of men at Fort Selden. Not only was this act reported to me by the fire team leader, it was reported by the commanding officer at Fort Selden to Division Headquarters, and Colonel Meola, our Aviation Battalion Commander, called me less than one hour ago to tell me about it, and to authorize the following on-the-spot decoration. Company, Atten-Huht! Warrant Officer Padilla, front and center."

Eddie had just landed from flying cap, and he was rumpled, sweaty, and stiff. His head was ringing and his vision glassy from having not slept, and he felt awkward like some kind of stuffed toy as he stepped off a square- cornered zig-zag path to stand before the Commanding Officer. He listened in astonishment as Major Csynes read the official version of his act. "....he did, at great personal risk and without regard for his own safety, attack and destroy the heavily defended command position of an enemy force attacking Firebase Fort Selden. Though his aircraft had been struck many times by enemy fire, and his crew chief killed leaving one side undefended, he turned without hesitation into the face of heavy fire from a fifty-caliber heavy anti- aircraft machinegun, and with exceptionally accurate rocket fire, succeeded in completely knocking out the position, which broke the back of the attack, and saved the lives of the American troops at the firebase. This act of conspicuous bravery and heroism under fire in aerial flight in the Republic of Vietnam is herewith acknowledged by the award of The Distinguished Flying Cross. Congratulations, Mr. Padilla."

Eddie stood astonished as Csynes pinned the medal to his chest. The DFC -- the Blue Max of Vietnam! He saluted with all the enthusiasm he could muster, and tried not to goose-step back to his place in the ranks.

"Now, there is another matter," continued the Major. "I know some of you have thought my concern for the condition of our company area was something to joke about. Well, now I hope you are convinced. Last night the perimeter of this camp was breached in two places, and at both of them, the sentry was found with his throat cut. Whoever cut those throats were Vietnamese with a reason to be inside the compound, and those sentries got their throats cut because they were asleep. Other sentries reported being approached on duty by prostitutes. The sappers who blew the ammunition dump came through a tunnel dug from the Washington Laundry, where no doubt some of you lost your uniforms last night. About two hours ago, the body of Figaro the barber was found hanging on the wire outside the MACV compound, bearing papers identifying him as Captain Nguyen Van Xe, of the North Vietnamese Army. One of our pilots was killed by mortarfire while he was sitting on top of his bunker taking pictures of the firefight going on around him. He had neither his helmet nor his weapon with him! I am sorry to say it, but that man was killed by his own lack of professionalism, by a case of terminal tourist mentality. And that, men, is what I am talking about. This is not a jolly foxhunt where the foxes can shoot back -- this is a goddamned war! And if we are going to survive here, and win here, we have got to think like warriors. An outfit that looks like slobs will think like slobs, and they will fight like slobs too. When I see this place looking like a refugee camp, it makes my blood run cold with fear!

"Now I want this clearly understood: I will not put up with it. I will not sit back complacently and let this company get blown to hell one piece at a time because we refuse to think and behave like professional soldiers and Army officers. There is just too much at stake! And I am warning you right now, that I will do whatever I have to....anything I have obtain the level of professional performance I demand! I will not take less, Gentlemen, I promise you! I hate chicken-shit command as much as any of you, but I will have a high degree of order and security in my company area, and I will see a professional attitude displayed by every swinging richard in this Assault Helicopter Company, if I have to harelip half of you. Thatís all. Company, Atten-Huht! Weíve got a big day, men. Letís get to work. Captain Koontz, dismiss the Company for duty."

The men stood a bit numbed a moment, then fell out to quickly depart for their stations. The pilots crowded around to congratulate Eddie. One of the first to get to him was Captain Jack Miller. "Congratulations, Bullseye. Sure glad to have you flying on my wing."

As the pilots headed for their tent to get their flight gear, Skip Gilman shook his head. "That man Csynes worries me, broís. I canít tell if heís a bad-ass because he wants to be a hero or because heís scared shitless. Let me ask you. If he was one of us, and not the CO, would you say heís got a personal problem, or not?"

"Youíve got a point," said John Bergin.

"Heís got a couple of personal problems. But they donít seem to keep him from doing his job," said Kevin Harrey. "You want to hear the best-kept secret of the war? Just within the brotherhood, you understand? I got the word from a guy I ran into over in MACV, a guy I used to know in Saigon two years ago. He said Csynes was a Ranger, and had done acouple of years here already with MACV. He went back and got the aviation specialty because he was one of the first guys involved in developing the airmobile concept. But apparently he had made some enemies when he was here back in the late fifties doing sneaky-pete stuff as an advisor. One night his hootch girl got out of his bed, dumped a can of lighter fluid on his head, and set him on fire."

"No shit?"

"Documented fact, apparently. The Army grounded him, sent him off to some VA hospital, and tried to give him a medical discharge. So he went to Air America, and got a letter from them saying they would hire him if the Army gave him the door. The Army got the picture, and here he is."

"Whoís Air America?" asked Eddie Padilla.

"Youíll see them. Helicopters and Heliocouriers in Uncle Sam civilian colors. It functions like a little airline, flying diplomatic missions all over Vietnam -- and the rest of Southeast Asia. Itís operated by the Central Intelligence Agency."

"The CIA?" squawked Peter Hawking. "You know that means he could be working for them now. Those shifty fuckers donít pass up an asset."

"Fellows, I lived with the Vietnamese enough when I was here before to get a pretty good idea how they think," said Kevin, "and Iíve been waiting two years for them to decide theyíve had enough of us, and to go on the offensive. When that happens, the only thing that can prevent the local population from throwing us out of the country is if we can keep the North Vietnamese from arming them. So if I read the situation right, that puts us exactly on the spearhead."

"How do you figure that?" asked Skip.

"I think the reason weíre here is because Jake the Snake used to live in that valley over the ridge west."

"You mean, The Graveyard?" asked Malins.

"Thatís right, A Lan airfield. When the Special Forces camp there was overrun in í63, Csynes got his first Silver Star for holding that command post until they could get a chopper in to pull them out -- an H-21 in those days. That valley is a VC artery that feeds the heart of South Vietnam, from North Vietnam, and from Laos and Cambodia. Csynes was the last guy out, and Iíve got a feeling he might just have some personal stake in being the first guy back in."

"You mean, he made a deal with the Army to get this command?" asked Hawking.

"Suppose he did," said Kevin. "If they wanted to jerk your wings and send you back to Kansas just because youíre ugly, and put you driving a truck, what would you tell them? Youíd tell them to put you on the line, and youíd prove your shit or die, wouldnít you."

Skip fixed a beady eye on Kevin. "Are you telling me Csynes is freaked- out because heís not sure we can cover his bet?"

"Whatís he, a shrink?" asked Hawking. "Csynes just knows his job. You keep the troops busy with bullshit they can bitch about so they wonít have time to think. And heís obviously loony as a striped-ass baboon -- but how crazy can you get and still do the job over here? When youíve reached the point of invading a country to defend it from its own people in the name of democracy, it helps to be crazy."


Copyright © 2006 by Postscript Publishing Company.