DARWIN’S BOLERO by: Chris Olsen
He lay there, under the leaves, feeling the jungle floor beneath him. The never-ending decay around him was so strong as to be palpable, yet he still feared his own scent would be noticed by some discerning Cambodian point man trying both to get in good with his platoon leader and keep himself alive in the process. He’d been in position, waiting, under the huge elephant-ear fronds of god-only-knows-the-name-of-the-plant, since 0230 yesterday morning after slowly making his way from the insertion point. The name of the plant didn’t matter. The plant, the jungle floor, was his friend, his mother, his lover. It sucked him in like wet cement draws a fence post, and he yielded to it without reservation, sinking ever further in, striving every second to become more and more . . . unnoticeable.
Intel, for what it was worth, said that a certain Khmer Rouge general would pass this way, through this gentle, sloping pass, sometime between 0900 today and midnight tomorrow. If he came at all. That was the trouble with intel. You never knew where it came from. After it made its torturous way up to brigade level, the staff weenies cooked it, and it finally got passed back down the long chain to you. By that time, you didn’t know whether it had been provided by a top-level military insider, or was just pre-climax braggadocio chuffed out by some 16-year-old private trying to impress the bored gook whore he’d been slamming for the last 35 seconds. At this point, it didn’t fucking matter. Here he was. The custom-made Remington was in place. He’d checked the load a hundred times and knew that with a flick of the safety, he’d be ready to get up close and personal with a man 600 yards away. When the time came, he’d do it, just like he’d done a thousand times in practice, and just like he’d done 54 times in the field. His little nook was shaded enough that it was very unlikely that a stray shaft of light would catch the front glass of his long-range scope and announce his presence to the world. To hedge his bets, he’d set up, silently and excruciatingly slow in the middle of the night, to face away from and perpendicular to the sun’s path. But it was the things you didn’t plan for that killed you, the things you didn’t see coming until they were unfolding in front of you. Or behind you.
The jungle was alive with the sounds of a thousand birds, squeaking tree animals, and slithering reptiles all going about their brutal ballet of everyday existence. The noise became a comforting background hum, beckoning him to relax, break his concentration, take it easy for just a minute, just a few seconds. As he’d learned over the course of many field expeditions, first with others, then alone, the seduction of the jungle was a man’s worst enemy, far more deadly than even the best-trained gook assassin waiting to blow him away before he could take out his target. You had to stay alert to even the slightest change in the rhythm of the jungle. The subtle ebb and flow of sounds, shifting ever so slightly, could make the difference between being surprised by your target and having to take a hasty shot, or being ready to kiss him when he walked into that small clearing for 1½ seconds. Or seeing the man who meant to kill you first.
The sun was perhaps an hour past the zenith when he heard a distant squawk of alarm (or was it outrage?) of a bird perhaps a half-mile away. If you sat in a place like this long enough, you started to be able to tell when birds were calling to each other, trying to attract a mate or just making noise, and when they were upset. Something about the volume, the timbre of the squawk, maybe the way it turned up at the end, was different. Maybe the bird had looked over to the trunk of the 150-foot-high tree it was perched in to suddenly see that the nearby patch of bark and twisting vines that had seemed so innocuous moments before now had eyes and a mouth. Maybe it had looked down to see one of the large predators that, while not a threat to a bird this high up, still evoked an eons-old genetically hard-wired paroxysm of fear that came out the throat and told all its fellows that danger was at hand. Species worked this way. The fear of one not at risk induced a warning to one at risk and a potential mate was saved, diversity was advanced, the species was preserved in an environment of constant carnage.
Or maybe the bird had let loose because something foreign had entered the picture, something that didn’t belong there, something that rocked the whole apple cart.
Chief Warrant Officer Jason Ward, USMC, listened intently, knowing the sound he heard was more than a thousand yards distant and that the more subtle shrills, cries and rustling that would precede human passage were all but lost to him this far away. There was nothing for a moment, but then he heard a faint wave of sound, almost indistinguishable, but clear nonetheless. The sound of air being beaten by at least several sets of wings. The sound of a group of birds vacating an area. Sure, the birds did this constantly and without rhyme or reason, responding to some unexplainable bird logic. But the way the movement had followed the cry of alarm was what got his attention. Something in birdland was amiss.
In any army you got good and bad, and the Cambodians were no exception. There was always an 18-year-old conscript who didn’t want to be there and was thinking about the pussy he left back home when he should have been thinking about who wanted him dead in the here and now. However, if the gooks were really moving a general through the weeds like this, that meant it was a high priority hush-hush mission, and they would pick their best men. There would be no bored point man standing next to a tree smoking a cigarette, the odor carrying for thousands of yards in the dank, stale air beneath the canopy. There would be no one tromping through the undergrowth like a bull in a china shop. No, these men would be their best, maybe out of personal pride, maybe out of fear for their loved ones who would die if they fucked up. Probably both. The Cambodian hierarchy was ruthlessly dismissive of human life, an outlook applied first to the Cambodians themselves and then outward to the rest of humanity. Even so, while one skilled man might creep along the jungle floor like a snake and work his way into position without causing an uproar amongst the life around him, as indeed he had done, this became almost impossible to do when you were moving a group of men. Especially when you needed to get from point A to point B reasonably quickly. This is why he was now alone and the rest of his team was far behind, having prepared for his return and a hasty departure.
After a few minutes, he heard another, different bird protest the disturbance of what was Normal. Closer this time. His mental acuity went into high gear. While this disturbance in the jungle’s rhythm was probably nothing more than the dozens of other false starts since he’d arrived 36 hours ago, he knew that it was just this sense of awareness that had kept him alive in his prior operations, and he embraced it like the savior it was.
Suddenly, without sound, Ward saw him. The green leaves attached to his helmet appeared silently, gracefully, low around the bole of the huge tree 400 yards distant. The man was good. He made no sound, simultaneously looking at his path and scanning the jungle around him constantly, his rifle at the ready, looking for anything that wasn’t as it should be. Looking for him. He was no doubt part of a screen deployed ahead of the main group. Jason was far enough up off the main trail that he should be outside the screen’s field, but there was no way to tell for sure. This guy could be the point man, or he could be in the middle of a broader screen, which meant that one or more others, probably at least as stealthy, would be somewhere to Jason’s left. Although the man’s presence had sent a huge jolt of adrenaline surging through his veins, Ward kept his breathing under control as he’d learned during years of yoga. He consciously pushed down the drumbeat of his own heart that suddenly hammered in his ears, knowing that it would mask the tiny snap of a twig breaking underfoot hundreds of feet away. Moving his head ever so slowly to the left, Jason carefully but quickly scanned the jungle with his eyes, never letting the man he’d seen out of his peripheral vision.
Satisfied he’d seen and heard nothing suggesting the presence of others to his left, he returned his focus to the man in front. Jason watched his every move, impressed at the control, awareness and economy of movement. Presently, the man drew to a halt next to another tree, turning back to scan the area behind and to his right. He’s looking for the guy behind him, Jason thought. Sure enough, after a moment the soldier executed a brief hand gesture, doubtless a signal that his assigned sector was clear and the main group could advance. The man then continued to work his way across the pass parallel to the main trail. Jason Ward had gone unnoticed. Time for business.
The small clearing that he had selected as his kill zone was perhaps 30 yards long and half as wide. At this distance and with such a small target area, there’d be almost no chance for a second shot. If the general was indeed there, Ward would have to make his first shot count. A missed shot, even through the big silencer at the end of the Remington, would instantly alert the enemy and drive them into the bushes to the sides of the clearing. By the time he’d cycled the bolt they’d be gone. At which point he would become the hunted, the mission blown.
He’d studied the available photographs of the general provided by the intel officer, memorizing his face, trying to discern his carriage. There’d been perhaps 20 photos, most caught during movements in vehicles, city streets, and a few in the field, one in dress uniform with Pol Pot at some ceremony, and one holding a pistol to a soldier’s head in what was clearly an execution. Jason remembered the tight-set lips, the hard eyes, and what looked like a grim imperiousness about the man. The expression on the general’s face in the execution photo was most startling, however, a twisted smirk seeming at once to depict superiority and disgust, but with an underlying patina of perverse enjoyment. A man who took pleasure in killing, particularly lesser beings. The perfect mindset for a Khmer Rouge general, for whom the killing fields of Cambodia were not an atrocity but an expression of manifest destiny. The way things ought to be. Jason felt and hoped that he’d know this man when he saw him in the flesh.
Snugging his shoulder once again into the Remington’s stock, Ward settled his body into position, his eye at the scope, the tiny clearing 600 yards away his total focus. Of course, through the scope it was as if he were just outside the kill zone. Silently thumbing the safety off, he allowed his forefinger to automatically drift into place in the trigger guard, not yet touching the trigger itself. He knew that, at the appropriate moment, precisely one-half ounce of pressure would release the hammer, the firing pin striking the igniter and precipitating the controlled explosion of the gunpowder within the cartridge. The rapidly expanding gasses of the explosion would send the copper-tipped slug weighing precisely .578 grains spiraling down the Remington’s rifled barrel, emerging from the muzzle 1.45 times faster then the speed of sound to drill its way through the air, ahead of its muted sound wave, and into the upper torso of the target.
Contrary to how it was portrayed in movies and LeCarre novels, you didn’t shoot for the head. The head is simply too small a target, and too mobile. As gunnery sergeants had pounded into his brain like a mantra, the upper body was pay dirt, not the head. Virtually every upper body hit from a high-powered rifle was fatal. This was particularly true in the jungles of Cambodia, where competent trauma care, if it existed at all, was days away by foot. Even if a man were not dead before he hit the ground, and most were, the shock, loss of blood, and disruption of vital organ function would virtually insure death within minutes, if not seconds. Plus, when a man, even a senior one, suddenly drops before his companions even hear the sound of the bullet that hits him, the immediate focus is usually not on saving that man’s life. Rather, its on saving one’s own, on getting down in the dirt and finding the motherfucker who pulled the trigger before he drills you. This pandemonium usually leads to less than optimum trauma care for the poor sonofabitch that just got tagged.
Just now, he saw movement in the clearing, as a line of soldiers stepped forward. These guys were not as alert as the point man, obviously confident that the point man had done his job and that the way was safe. As the men moved forward, Ward scanned every face, every uniform, looking for the general. If he didn’t show up, he would melt back into the jungle after the enemy had passed and disappear. There was no reason to let the Cambodians know that the Americans had penetrated this area of jungle with impunity, or that they were gunning for this particular general. Even if the entire enemy contingent was killed - and this mission had not been arranged for this express purpose – word of the attack would make it back to the Cambodian leadership and they would adopt different strategies, being more careful next time. Making it harder for the Americans to do this again. For the general, it was worth it. Without him, it wasn’t.
The soldiers in front stopped and arranged themselves facing outwards. One, then a second, pulled out a canteen and drank, as perhaps three more came up from behind. Soon, a group the size of a platoon was in the small clearing, but although there seemed to be one or two sergeants directing the junior soldiers, the only officer was a youngish-looking kid, perhaps a lieutenant. Was it possible that this was just a routine patrol? Jason scanned the rest of the faces again, noting that most of the enlisted men seemed to be older than the lieutenant. Not an uncommon occurrence, especially in a country when armies are formed by pulling into villages and conscripting all males ranging from boys of 14 to men of 50. Life was cheap.
He passed two faces and looked at another, when something tickled the base of his brain. He shifted his view back to a soldier he had already looked at in profile. Even though the man was dressed in the same private’s uniform as most of the other soldiers and stood milling about in the group, there was something different about this particular man, about his posture and bearing. The man’s back was mostly to Jason, and he could see little more than the ubiquitous black hair common to all Cambodians he’d seen. Just then, the lieutenant moved next to the man, and there was an exchange of words.
While it was not unusual for an officer to speak directly to a private, dispensing encouragement or rebuke, touching base with his men, something about the lieutenant’s manner bothered him. Since the beginning of time, militaries have imbued in their men the concept of superiority of rank. The private is below the sergeant who is below the lieutenant who is below the major and so on. This is the only way command works, as if privates come to believe themselves to be on par with lieutenants, they tend to question the lieutenants when they are told “March towards the enemy and kill as many of them as you can before they kill you.” Then all hell breaks loose, everyone gets killed, and wars are lost. The officer can only order men to go to their deaths if he has superiority and dominion over them.
Here, though, something seemed askew. The officer did not appear to be talking to the private with an attitude of authority. Rather, his carriage seemed almost deferential, his head nodding slightly as if hearing orders rather than issuing them. Ward absorbed these details without thinking and let the inner voice that had kept him alive through so many other encounters guide him. His breathing became silent, the remains of his heartbeat disappeared from his ears, and he became the perfect receiver, attuned to everything about the man in his view. He studied the man’s shoulders, noting how they were perhaps more rigid than those of the privates and sergeants. Only a man accustomed to a more formal posture, a more regal bearing, would carry himself like this in the field. Perhaps a man accustomed to command and unquestioned obedience. Not a private.
After a moment, the man began to turn to the right, his face coming more fully into Jason’s view. And there he was. The general. He recognized the thin line of the lips, the cruel gaze of the eyes. The Cambodians had gotten cute and decided to dress the general up like a private so that his passage might go unnoticed. A clever gambit, but one that would not work today. Now was the time.
The world went into slow motion, time strangely dilated as adrenaline and synapses did their work. Settling the crosshairs over the general’s sternum, Jason felt his forefinger resting on the thin, comfortable trigger. Machined expressly for him, his finger sank into it like a comfortable shoe, touching it just so lightly, letting the oiled, polished metal caress his skin, beckoning him to once again let it have its voice. The general seemed almost frozen in space now, the movements of the others irrelevant and forgotten. While in some detached part of his mind Ward knew that he was witnessing the passage of nanoseconds, the scene unfolded before him like the slow-mo of the Betamax video players that were still 12 years off. Even the drops of moisture running off the elephant-ear leaves seemed to be landing with slow, exaggerated splats. The general’s gaze drifted up and for a moment appeared to be looking right at him, but Jason knew that this, too, was an illusion.
Now the moment had arrived. The moment for Jason and the general to share something at the most intimate of levels, for him to guide the general through the transition from one reality to another. Like he’d done thousands of times before, he slowly filled his lungs, breathed out half the air, then tightened his finger on the trigger, all the time looking at the third button on the general’s tunic where the crosshairs rested. As its maker intended, it took surprisingly little trigger pressure to fire the Remington, the goal to keep the rifle from moving even infinitesimally and fouling the shot.
The Remington worked as designed on this day, the recoil hitting Jason’s shoulder almost before he expected, accompanied by a low crack from the muzzle. In the scope, the general jerked suddenly, coming slowly off his feet and twisting to the right in a macabre pirouette, a small cloud of spray spreading outward from his chest, before floating backwards towards the opposite side of the clearing and the men behind him.
The scene suddenly seemed to go into fast forward, as the need to act and act quickly reasserted itself. Ward reflexively cycled the Remington’s bolt, the spent cartridge arcing to the side, and slammed another round into place. Knowing that his best defense was the chaos that would result from the sudden elimination of the enemy platoon’s command, he quickly shifted his aim to the lieutenant, exhaled and fired. He saw the lieutenant jerk, hit from a shot to the right of the body above the heart, but quickly tore his gaze away from the scope. He knew that, by now, the platoon knew they were under fire, and would react first with shock, then with purposeful action. Even though he had dispatched the general and the lieutenant, he knew that the two sergeants would quickly rally their men, who had already dropped into prone positions. He backed out of his blind, came to his knees, and turned around, staying as low to the ground as possible and trying not to rustle the jungle growth that hid him but could just as easily telegraph his every move.
Jason caught a flurry of shouts, and thought he could discern the calmer voices of the sergeants trying to restore control and galvanize their men into action. The volume in the jungle suddenly seemed to leap from a “2” to “10;” everything that could scream or howl doing so in a chain-reaction response to the tension that had, in an instant, leaped to stark tangibility. He knew that this noise might buy him a momentary head start, but that as he ran his escape route, quiet things would become noisy things, preceding his passage like a wave and telling those behind him where he was going.
The escape plan depended upon him being able to quickly transit a half-mile alone, before he entered the field of fire his team had prepared to cover his escape. Keeping a low ridge to his left, Ward ran crouched but quickly through the giant palms and ferns, trying to put as many of the huge, mossy tree trunks that widened like webbed feet at the bottoms between him and his pursuers. Within moments, he heard bursts of machine gun fire behind him, although he knew the shooters were probably acting in panic and had no target.
He continued to run, his breath starting to come in gasps, his heart a trip-hammer in his ears. It never got any less scary when a bunch of angry people suddenly decided their sole purpose in life was to kill you. He put 100, then 200 yards between him and the blind, trying to keep low, but also trying to get the hell out. Suddenly, a bullet smacked into the trunk of a tree 20 feet from his head. He dove for cover in a cluster of greenery, then rolled behind the huge bole of an adjacent tree, quickly selecting a spot near the base of the trunk where the root was the thickest. Rising slightly, he slowly peered out from behind the trunk, only to see the point man, or another like him, advancing carefully from tree to tree. The man, agitated but controlled, called out something unintelligible in the singsong Cambodian dialect. The meaning, however, was clear. The quarry had been located. While there were more rounds for the Remington, it was hardly a weapon for a firefight. Having to travel light and quiet, Ward did not have his M-16, his only alternate weapons the Colt model 1917 .45 caliber automatic pistol in a holster, and his K-bar combat knife. He knew that if it came down to using the pistol, much less the knife, his circumstances would be dire indeed. Safety, and life, lay in making it to the remainder of the team and the welcome they had prepared for the enemy.
With the point man advancing with his AK-47 and calling to his comrades, Ward’s freedom of movement was reduced to nothing, and it was only a matter of moments before the remainder of the enemy soldiers moved up and flanked him in a pincers movement. If he could dispatch the point man, he might be able to leave the enemy in confusion as to his whereabouts for another 15 seconds or so and have a chance of making it to his team’s position. Shouldering the Remington, Jason waited until the point man stepped out from behind a tree to advance to the next, sighted on his chest, and quickly put a round through him. The Remington got louder with every shot, the silencer’s baffling increasingly depleted, but he could still hear the involuntary grunt of air expelled from the man as the supersonic round hit him. There were no screams, either, like you sometimes got after shooting a man with an M-16 or AK-47. The Remington would drop a 12-point buck or a black bear; it had no problem with a man at 100 yards.
Sprinting ahead, all hope of stealth abandoned for speed, Ward started picking out the landmarks he had painstakingly noted on his way in: this dead tree, that drop in the earth, this small stream. He knew that he was perhaps 1000 feet away from the outer perimeter of the team’s prepared cone of fire. He also knew that he would have to run right down the center of it, trusting his team not to mistake him for an enemy and blow him away, and lead the pursuing enemy into the kill zone. Machine gun fire rang out behind him, some of it becoming sustained, and he became conscious of slugs zinging past him 50 or so feet away. The enemy was closing on him, and maybe trying to move in troops from the sides and flank him. The combined effects of little rest, sustained vigilance, and massive expenditure of adrenaline were taking their toll. It began to feel like each leg weighed 500 pounds and that his body would no longer respond quickly to his commands, like one of those terrifying “chase” dreams where one simply cannot get away from his pursuer.
Jason pushed on, consciously pumping his legs with the certain knowledge that if his body failed him, he was dead. Nothing his team could do would save him if he fell here, and he would be lucky to be shot dead rather than subjected to the horrors of capture and interrogation. The Cambodians weren’t officially in this war anyway, and accorded the Geneva Convention the same legal significance as toilet paper.
The enemy fire was slowly but steadily becoming more accurate, the passing rounds more frequent and closer. The enemy soldiers were not merely chasing him in a free-for-all now. Their sergeants had gotten them under control, and they were advancing leapfrog-style and firing in controlled 3-round bursts. As the slope ahead increased, Ward reached down and pulled the Colt from the holster at his belt. He crested the small rise, and was startled to hear a blast of sustained machine gun fire from his right. The flanking action he had feared. Throwing himself to the ground, the Remington sliding off his shoulder, Jason rolled into a 2-handed firing position, his eyes blurred with sweat, his heart pounding madly. From the direction the fire had come, he saw the head and torso of the advancing enemy soldier appear 75 feet away. Quickly squeezing off two rounds then rolling to his right, he was rewarded with the screams of the stricken man. Looking quickly back on his route from his higher ground position, he saw at least 5 enemy advancing, then emptied the remainder of the clip in their direction, knowing he’d hit no one but seeing all 5 heads drop from vision. Turning frantically, Ward lunged forward, crashing through the undergrowth, propelled by the fear of knowing that he was only instants away from death, ejecting the spent clip from the 45 and slamming another into place.
From his right, he heard a more distant but measured AK-47 burst just as he felt a red-hot poker lance across his shoulder and upper back, twisting and throwing him to the ground. Fuck! The pain was so intense it was impossible to tell whether the bullet had stayed in or passed through, but his shoulder and back were ablaze in agony. He’d been hit only one other time, in the leg, and had spent 4 months in Hawaii recuperating. That had been a deep wound and he’d felt a lot less pain than he did now. The doctors had told him that the wound was more serious than it had felt at the time precisely because it had gone deep, not cutting across the skin where there were far more nerves. They also told him he’d been lucky because the gooks had a habit of rubbing their bullets in their own shit to induce sepsis, infection and death in their victims.
Still able to move despite the screaming pain, Jason reached over his shoulder and let his fingers explore the wound. Although the wound was warm with copious amounts of his blood, it seemed as though the bullet had glanced across his upper back, a grazing wound. Confident that he still had a short time before the stiffness that accompanies a gunshot started to paralyze him, and equally sure that the pain he felt was but a pinprick compared to what awaited him at the hands of a sadistic Cambodian interrogator, Ward rolled behind a downed log. Rapidly rising to look over the log from behind a palm frond, he quickly fired three times in the direction of the right flanker, not hitting him but making him lunge behind a tree.
Doing everything possible to remain concealed from the enemy on his right flank, Ward ran for all he was worth, seeing the clusters of trees that marked the entrance to the team’s fire zone approaching. Conscious that the enemy was gaining on him in his rapidly weakening condition, and that the flanker from the right was back in the action, he dodged between trees, downed logs, and clumps of broad-leaved plants to deny the enemy a clear shot. Sensing their quarry was wounded and within their reach, the enemy was emboldened, each man wanting to bring the American to ground, and increased their volume of fire to a virtual hail, the leaves and trees around him literally vibrating with the impact of bullets.
Overcome by anger at the man who killed their officers, and having no idea what lay in store for them, the enemy plowed blindly into the prepared cone of fire. His teammates, concealed and powerless to do anything to help him against a numerically superior force, had no choice but to wait until he had transited the kill zone, when they could then level the playing field by bringing their weapons to bear. Finally, with his last strength ebbing away and knowing he could not run another 300 feet, Jason was suddenly assaulted by a deafening roar from behind, his face driven into the ground by the sheer wall of overpressure.
Twelve Claymore antipersonnel mines, convex slabs of C-4 plastic explosive each embedded with 700 steel ball bearings, lay concealed on either side of the kill zone in overlapping fields of fire. As the main body of enemy troops entered the low, narrow canyon, single minded in their pursuit of a rapidly-weakening quarry, Technical Sergeant James Nichols closed the switch that sent current from several batteries to the detonators in the Claymores. The result was 14,000 ball bearings, not to mention the focused blast from 12 shaped chunks of C-4, suddenly scything through the kill zone, decimating everything in their path, plants, trees, and humans alike.
While the carnage wreaked within the Claymores’ blast zone was devastating, the mines’ range was limited, and despite their ardor, the Cambodian troops too well-disciplined to afford the Americans the courtesy of bunching together. Their sergeants had done their jobs, so there were troops at the rear of the main body that were not annihilated in the frenzy of steel and fire that had devastated their fellows. Which was not to say, however, that these guys escaped unscathed. The blast wave, while too disbursed to tear them apart, was certainly sufficient to inflict less than mortal injuries, knock them down, or render them disoriented or unconscious.
It was these troops - those that would soon become combat effective again - that now became the team’s immediate focus. Time enough to worry about whoever followed later. Although a seasoned combat veteran can quickly bring himself back to reality, there is a period of seconds after an unexpected blast during which a man recovers his faculties and his mind starts to ask “what happened to the rest of my platoon?” It was the advantage created by this momentary period of shocked inaction that the team had to exploit in order to maximize their chances of making it to the extraction point 1.5 miles away.
As the survivors of the enemy platoon started to shake off their disorientation, the members of Jason’s team rose as one from their concealed positions and began to pick the Cambodians off in a murderous crossfire. Seeing what was happening to their comrades, the enemy soldiers further to the rear hunkered down, and the one surviving sergeant began to shout orders to the remainder of his platoon to withdraw and regroup. It took precious little encouragement to inspire the surviving enemy troops, crouching and crawling to avoid the Americans’ fire, to scurry to the rear and to safety. Almost as quickly at it had begun, the gunfire suddenly ceased. Even with every living thing in the jungle screaming with gusto, the silence was deafening compared to the ferocious firefight that had just ended.
Despite their brutal success achieved by surprise and superior firepower, the Americans could ill afford even a moment of respite. No one knew how many more Cambodians lay hidden in the jungle, but they were certain to soon be on their way with a vengeance. It was time to get the fuck out, and fast. Captain Steven Westermeyer, the team leader, gesturing to Sergeant George Washington Mack, said “Get the cavalry on the horn, Mackey. Time to get outa Dodge.” Expecting the order, Mack was already powering up the PRC-50 field radio. “Raven to Henhouse. Raven to Henhouse. Request pickup soonest at point Mary 3, repeat point Mary 3. Unfriendlies likely, will advise.” Moments later, the radio squawked in response “Henhouse to Raven. Copy your pickup, unfriendlies noted. Contact Hawk inbound local on channel Angel 3, repeat Angel 3.” Acknowledging the response, Mack simply said “Raven copies Hawk, Angel 3, out” then shut down the radio. This cryptic exchange was done not only to convey essential information in a minimum of time, but to deny as much of it as possible to the enemy that everyone knew was monitoring radio communications. There was a good enough chance that the team would have to fight a rear-guard action on their way to the LZ. No sense inviting a welcoming committee.
Without wasting a moment, the team started to move out. While Sgt. Mack radioed headquarters, Lance Corporal Gerald Kannis, the team’s medic, had quickly examined Jason and determined his wound, albeit bloody, to not be immediately life threatening. The biggest fear was that loss of blood, pain and shock would make Jason combat ineffective or worse, slow him down to the point that he had to be carried. This, of course, would prevent the team’s hasty retreat, greatly increase the threat posed by the pursuing Cambodians and the likelihood of a hot LZ, or worse, a missed pickup. Kannis, in the black humor common to the team, slapped a field compress on the wound, and said “Christ Ward, I’ve seen virgins bleed worse than this! Grow some backbone, willya!” Kannis finished by injecting Jason with an ampoule of morphine to reduce the pain and forestall the shock that was even now starting to take hold of him. Knowing from his numerous field operations that his effectiveness would soon begin to diminish rapidly, Jason wasted no time getting to his feet, and started trotting forward. Because the weight of a rifle would just slow him further, Capt. Westermeyer had redistributed the Remington, as well as Jason’s M-16, which had remained with the team during his time waiting for the gook general.
This close to the Vietnamese border, there were a flurry of operations constantly in progress on both sides, with helicopters, strike and reconnaissance aircraft transiting the airspace in all directions. Unfortunately, not all of those aircraft were friendly, and there were an ample supply of MIGs and Sukhois, most piloted by North Vietnamese or Chinese pilots, but an alarming number piloted by Soviet “advisors” on “loan” from the great fatherland to the north, especially over Cambodia where there was no war. Right. There were massive airstrikes going on in the North today, as there had been for the last two days, so hopefully the bad guys would be otherwise occupied and the extraction copters could pick up the team unmolested.
For the first ten minutes, the team encountered no enemy troops. However, with almost a mile left until the LZ, they began to hear shouted exchanges drifting towards them from the rear. It was obvious from the number of voices that the Cambodians had either kept a substantial force in reserve or had summoned reinforcements from nearby. The enemy was still too far away for visual contact, but the team was moving for maximum speed, not stealth, and as such they left an easy trail of footprints and broken branches for the enemy to follow. There was no question that the Cambodians would ultimately overtake the Americans. The only questions were whether they could be held off long enough for the team to reach the landing zone, and whether the extraction copters would be there in sufficient time to assure that there was still a live team to be picked up.
The team continued to move south, up the spine of the gentle hill towards a sheer escarpment of red-colored rock jutting up from the verdant green of the jungle that towered 300 feet above their heads. From there they would head east to the small clearing in the lee of the cliffs that was point Mary 3. Although the morphine had briefly given him a new lease on life, the relief was temporary, and Jason could feel his legs once again get heavier, his concentration starting to fade, his energy diminishing. Worse, he knew that another shot would simply make him zone out even further, turning him into a comfortable zombie waiting to he hacked or blown to shreds by the enemy. Or captured and taken home to play with.
After another ten minutes Jason heard the first “zing” of a rifle round impact a tree 150 feet away. Someone was taking deliberate shots, trying to make the team go to ground and thus, slow them down so that gook soldiers with their AK-47s could catch up and finish them. Almost simultaneously, the characteristic whump-whump of the Hueys the extraction team would be flying began to reach them from the east. Mack powered up his radio on the run, already set to the predesignated frequency, and at a nod from Westermeyer said “Raven to Hawk, Raven to Hawk, do you read?” A moment later, the speaker squawked “Raven, Hawk. Read you five by five. We are approximately seven miles from point Mary 3. Say status.” Mack responded “Hawk, we are about 500 yards northwest of Mary 3. We’ve got unfriendlies approximately 500 yards north-northwest of our position, strength unknown, but sounds like at least 3 platoons. We’re taking intermittent rifle fire, but they’re trying to slow us down. We’re not in AK range yet. Can you hustle it in here real quick and give us some support?” “Copy your request. We’ll see what we can do.” Came the response.
It seemed to Jason like he was moving through molasses. The voices from behind were getting nearer, the rifle fire was getting more frequent and more accurate, and the LZ seemed to be miles away, even though the team had closed the distance to about 150 yards. The only bright point was that the sound of the choppers was getting closer. Suddenly, the noise increased dramatically as three copters, 2 Hueys and a OH-1, leaped over the ragged ridge. “Raven, say your position.” came over the radio. Mack immediately responded “Hawk, we are 100 yards west-northwest of the LZ. Estimate gooks are approximately 150 repeat 150 yards north-northwest of our position.”
Immediately the three copters fanned out, dropping their noses as they headed in, one after the other, the door gunners’ miniguns lighting up with a continuous stream of bullets that ripped into the jungle below. Suddenly, the lead chopper pulled up abruptly and banked away to the right as a line of tracer fire reached up towards it. Jason could see sparks as several rounds struck the landing gear, but he saw no smoke. The other two copters followed suit, then turned to face the source of the fire from a safe distance, the Hueys hanging back and allowing the OH-1 to advance. The pilot of the OH-1 unleashed 4 of the 8 air-to-ground rockets slung in canisters below the doors. Immediately, the jungle where the fire had come from erupted in blossoms of flame, the blasts slowly mushrooming in a dirty red and enveloping the trees. Mack wasted no time, announcing “Hawk, we are approximately 200 yards southeast of your rockets. Can you walk a few more towards us?” There was no response, but the OH-1 immediately fired its remaining four rockets in a stagger pattern. This time, the impacts shook the ground, but as the sound of the blasts subsided, screams could be heard coming from the team’s rear. However, so could machine gun fire, some aimed at the team and some at the copters. The big Hueys spun to the left, the pilots dropping their collectives in a well-practiced ballet as they rolled in with their miniguns on the attackers’ positions.
“Raven, say status,” came over the radio. “Hawk,
we’re about 100 feet west of Mary 3,” radioed Sgt. Mack. In response,
the lead Huey pilot said “Pop smoke, let’s do it.” “Popping
red now,” said Mack. “Copy red.” Ready for the order, Sgt.
Nichols pulled the tab on a red smoke canister and hurled it into the clearing
ahead. The first Huey dove to the LZ, the pilot flaring at the last instant,
and settled gently to the ground. Kannis and Nichols grabbed Jason by the sleeves
and hustled him through the door of the chopper. Jason could hear the other
two choppers laying down covering fire, as well as a constant stream of M-16
fire from the remainder of the team. Jason felt the Huey lifting off, ascend,
then dip sharply to the left as the doorgunner lit up his minigun with the sound
of ripping metal, covering the second Huey as it repeated the ritual and extracted
the remainder of the team. Strapped into his jumpseat by Nichols, Jason felt
the pinprick of the needle as Kannis injected him with another 2 ampoules of
morphine. His last conscious thought as he drifted into an opiate-induced slumber,
watching the emerald green of the jungle pass far below and feeling the trickle
of wetness on his back, was to wonder whether his assassination of the gook
general would make a difference. Then darkness closed in and he wondered nothing