Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009
June 6, 1968.
It had already been a long day, and dawn had yet to break.
On his hands and knees, Bill Matthews scampered up over loose rocks and jumped into Bill Negron’s hole. Out of breath, he gasped, “They’re diggin’ in. They’re right in front of my hole, Skipper. I can hear ’em.—They’re all over the fuckin’ place.”
“Now, hang on, marine. Cool it. Catch your breath. Who’s digging in and where?” Negron was calm.
“The gooks, for chrissake. The NVA, just like they did at Con Thien before they came through the wire, and, in case you haven’t noticed, we ain’t got no fuckin’ wire…sir.” Matthews caught his slight sarcasm and tried to temper it.
Negron grabbed his radio handset and called over to the 3rd Platoon. “Charlie Three, this is Charlie Six Actual, do you read me? Over.”
“Six, this is Three. Go.”
“Three, this is Six Actual.” Negron was gripping the handset ever more tightly so as not to miss a word. “Is everything cool down there?”
“That’s a negative, Six. I think the visiting team has arrived and are getting ready for the kickoff. Over.”
“Charlie One,” “Charlie Two,” and “Charlie Three” were the radio call signs of the platoons that comprised C Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Regiment, 3rd Marine Division. Charlie Six was the company commander, in this case, Captain William A. Negron. The “Actual” meant Negron himself as opposed to a designee, such as his radio operator.
A brief radio silence was broken by a call from the 1st Platoon. “Charlie Six, this is Charlie One. We’ve got company about five-zero meters out. Over.”
“One, this is Six Actual. Roger that. Give me an azimuth. Over.”
Negron was looking for the exact coordinates of the reported activity so he could direct 60 mm mortar fire to the area.
“Six, this is One. Wait out…Six, this is One-one-five mils magnetic. Over.”
“Incoming!” came the call from the near side of the perimeter.
The ensuing explosion was followed by yet another call. “Grasshopper Charlie Six, this is Grasshopper Six Actual. Things sound kinda rough up there for you. Give me a sit rep. Over.” “Grasshopper Six Actual” was the call sign for our battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James H. MacLean (no relation to me).
“Grasshopper Six, this is Charlie Six Actual. We are in the V ring. Surrounded by unhappy gooks. Send water, ammo, air, and arty. Now. Over.”
“Charlie Six, this is Grasshopper Six. I read you loud and clear. What’s your body count? Over.”
“Grasshopper Six, be advised that I’ve lost an entire offensive football team and one baseball team. I’m too busy killing ’em to count ’em. I’ll be back when it’s quieter. Over.”
“Roger that, Charlie Six. Groceries and goodies are on the way. Over and out.”
The brief radio silence was followed by an urgent whisper on another radio that was barely audible. “Charlie Six, this is Charlie Three. Over.”
It was the voice of 3rd Platoon radio operator Mitchell calling from LZ Loon across the ravine. “This is Six. Go,” replied Terry Tillery. Tillery was Charlie Company’s radio operator, and never far from Negron’s side.
“Six, they’re coming at you. We can see it from here. They’re all over your fuckin’ perimeter and they are coming at you. Over.”
Negron grabbed the handset from Tillery.
“Three, this is Six Actual, do you read me? Over.”
“Roger that, Skipper.” Mitchell was out of breath and scared.
“Three, can you give me their grid coordinates. Give me some numbers so I can lay some lumber on them.”
With that, two 122 mm rockets screamed over the perimeter, followed by a volley of incoming grenades, mortars, and small-arms fire. The ground attack had begun.
“Here they come!” someone screamed.
“Gooks in the perimeter!” came the cry from the 2nd Platoon lines.
“Gooks in the perimeter!” came the cry again, now from the Delta Company lines. Delta marines were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.
Negron, observing the assault, looked calmly to John Camacho, the artillery forward observer, and gave a sullen nod. “Do it. Do it now.” Camacho picked up his handset and called the rear. Negron then turned to Tillery, his radio operator, and said, “Pass the word. Get everybody in a hole. Now.”
“All stations on this net, this is Charlie Six,” Tillery stated. “Be advised we are calling them in on us. Repeat, calling them in on us. Pass the word. Get down. Now. Over.”
Negron, Camacho, and Tillery slid into a small command bunker they’d dug out the night before. Had there been time, they’d have dug it a mile deeper.
Minutes passed. Camacho got final confirmation of the coming artillery bombardment from the rear and, eschewing the radio, yelled “ON THE WAY!” and leapt back into the bunker. Around the perimeter, from hole to hole, came the cries of “ON THE WAY!” and “FIRE IN THE HOLE!” At once, we all got small.
Camacho, on Negron’s order, had instructed our supporting artillery to fire directly onto our position. We prayed like hell that none of the rounds fell directly into any of our fighting holes. We had little choice. The NVA had broken through our lines in several places and were now inside our perimeter.
The following seconds passed in near silence but for the sporadic crack of an enemy AK-47 rifle. Then it came. The air at once was filled with exploding artillery, flying shrapnel, and screaming boys. Their boys. The artillery air bursts, ordered by Camacho, had caught the enemy in the open. Instead of exploding on impact, the artillery had been fused to ignite in the air above the battlefield. It was slaughter.
With the last explosion, we leapt from the safety of our holes to reinforce the lines and ensure that every NVA soldier who had penetrated the perimeter was dead.
They were scattered everywhere, and they were all very dead.
Excerpted from Loon by Jack McLean Copyright © 2009 by Jack McLean. Excerpted by permission of Presidio Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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