combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 01 Winter ©Jan 2006

Thirty Days

          "Thirty days son, just thirty days – the good Lord willin, an Charley and his big brother cooperate for once – then they send me home. And when I get there, I'm going hug you and your mama so tight ain't neither one of you gonna be able to breathe for a week," said Sergeant First Class Clarence Ball, to the photograph of his newborn son, lovingly cradled in his oversize rough-hewn hands. He sat atop a sandbag bunker, built on a clearing cut in the jungle: forty-five miles south of Pleiku, fourteen miles east of the Cambodian border, in the Republic of South Vietnam.

          Ball's large black frame cast a shadow nearly as large as the bunker itself. While his body, under direct assault from the searing South East Asian sun, added layers of wet to an already soaked and faded green T-shirt. His face, reminiscent of a young Isaac Hays, but with eyes that betrayed the strain and fatigue that comes from being too long in country, suddenly erupted into an enormous grin. His mind saw the father he would be, in the photograph of his newborn son.

          "Hey, Ball, you're going to burn to a little black cinder if you stay out in that sun much longer," said Staff Sergeant Washington, from his slightly more comfortable seat in the shade of the bunker, where he and Sergeant First Class McKinley sat sharing a can of warm Coke.

          "Now I want you to tell me the truth, Washington, you too, McKinley – ain't this the greatest looking baby you've seen in your entire life – Clarence Ball the Second."

          "Ball, that boy is got to be the best looking kid ever born in this here year of 1966," Washington said, as he gave Sergeant McKinley a jab in the ribs.

          "Ok, I get the idea," Ball said laughing.

          "Don't let Washington get to you, Ball," said Sergeant McKinley. "I remember when my wife had our first; I got drunk for three days and damn near got busted for disorderly conduct. But, when I held that kid in my arms for the first time I felt like a five star general."

          "We've been trying to have a baby for ten years. She finally gets pregnant, and they send me over here. She has the baby, and I'm still over here. Hell, when he was born I was on long-range patrol, didn't find out I was a daddy until I got back to base camp six weeks later. Boy's already three months old and I ain't never held him in my arms, and this is the first damn picture I've seen of my son since he came into the world. The way things are going he'll be graduated from high school before I get home."

          "What you so worried about man? You short! You is so short you can hardly see above your boot tops," said Washington.

          "Being short ain't gonna keep Charlie and his buddies from trying to sneak in here some night and blowing us all to hell. And it sure ain't gonna keep his big brother from crossing the border with a regiment or two just to see how many GI's he can take out. Short, yeah I'm short, but thirty days over here is gonna feel like thirty years."

          "But that's SOP around here, man, why you so worried now?" said Washington.

          "It's called the curse of being short," said Sergeant McKinley. "When you first get here being short is all you dream about, but once you're short, you're jumpier than a crippled canary in a room full of cats."

          "Amen to that," said Ball.

          In the distance the sky turned from bright blue, to an orange-yellow, to black as giant thunderheads began rolling toward the encampment. Ball looked up. A chill passed through his body, but not from any change in the temperature, something inside, what his mom use to call someone walking on your grave. He kissed the picture of his son, and carefully put it back inside his wallet.

          "Looks like the monsoon season starting; better get inside before we're soaked," he said, stepping down from the bunker. "You know back home in Mississippi we got hot and when it rains things cool down. But over here if you ain't sweatin your ass off you're freezing it off when the monsoon's hit."

          The downpour assaulted the bunker in large sheets, feeding the small streams of water that found their way inside a room already smelling of damp earth, mildew, and sweat. McKinley stood near the entrance staring out into the rain, while Washington curled his long lanky body into a semi fetal position at the far end of the bunker, and dreamed of the day when he would be short.

          Ball found a relatively dry corner, took out the letter from his wife and began rereading it, for the fifteenth time.

      "My Dearest Darling Husband:
      I still can't believe this tiny miracle laying here beside me. He's so beautiful, so perfect, so little. I just can't believe that after all this time he is really here, really is ours. How I wish you were here to hold him in your arms, God, I hate the Army. Maybe daddy was right – never marry a lifer. NO, NO, I didn't mean that. I knew what I was getting into. After all I'm a lifer's daughter, a real Army brat.
      And speaking of that lifer. You should see daddy. Strutting around the entire post telling everyone about his new Grandson. Says that boy is going to be the first black general in the United States Army. He already asked the post commander about an appointment to West Point ...."

          "Ball, McKinley, Washington, you in there," came a voice from outside.

          Ball looked up from the letter, "Yeah we're here."

          "Old man wants to see y'all along with Sergeant Williams in his hootch at 1500 hours."

          "God, what now," said Washington. "Don't they ever leave us alone."

          "Oh it's probably nothing," said Sergeant McKinley. "Captain just wants to make sure we keep the troops doing something: digging holes, building bunkers, you know, busy work. If a GI ain't doing something officers get nervous."

          The hair on the back of Balls neck stood on end.

          The CP's guidon read 2nd Platoon, Charley Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry. Inside, Captain Moore, dressed in a pair of fatigues that should have been honorably discharged months ago, sat in the command bunker waiting. "Ok gentlemen," he said when everyone finally arrived. "Here is the situation. We just got a load of FNG's from the repo depo, and we lost two lieutenants. Gavin is out with a bad appendix and Johnson reached his six-month rotation, so thanks to the geniuses in Saigon he's off somewhere pushing papers as we talk. That's why you're here. As of right now, McKinley, you're acting Platoon Leader for the 1st platoon, Williams, you take over as Platoon Sergeant. Ball, you're acting Platoon Leader 3rd platoon, Washington, you're acting Platoon Sergeant."

          "Sir," said Sergeant McKinley, "Sergeant Ball only has thirty days left."

          "I am fully aware of how short Sergeant Ball is, but I need him; we got a situation here. Bravo Company spotted what looks like a build up across the river in Cambodia. If that's true something big could be coming. With all these FNG's we have around here I can't afford to sit on my dead ass and wait for battalion to come up with the cadre I need."

          "Hell these guys are fresh out of AIT. They got no idea what they're doing. I need a command structure in place, and I need these guys whipped into some kind of shape, now, just in case. The way HQ tells it we should be up to our full complement of officers and NCO's in two weeks. Between then and now I really need your cooperation on this, ok."

          All four men answered as one, "Yes, sir."

          Captain Moore looked directly at Ball. "I know your wife just had your first, and I promise you this, when those replacements come I'll find some excuse to sent you to Pleiku until you're ready to leave."

          "Thank you, sir."

          Ten days later Ball stood on a small mound watching Washington put his platoon through its paces with the look of a man totally devoid of patience.

          "No, no, no. I can't believe you still don't get it. You're all moving like a bunch of over aged grandmas at some church social. If this were the real thing, you'd all be going home in bags. Now do it again, only this time try getting it right, shouted Ball."

          "Yes, Sergeant," said the assembled group of FNG's.

          "Ok, Washington, one more time."

          "You look like you were born to be a leader of men," said Sergeant McKinley, as a smile spread over a lean tanned face that was always one day away from clean-shaven. "But aren't you being a little hard on them. I gave my kids the afternoon off."

          Ball looked up, "Your group any better?"

          "Hell no, the Captain was right. These kids don't know squat. Thank God we're not into anything just yet."

          "What about Bravo company."

          "So far nothing. It doesn't make sense. Why would an NVA unit build up close enough for one of our patrols to see them? Captain thinks it could be a decoy."

          "Yeah, or it could be they want a fight."

          "Why now?"

          "Bad weather closes in we get no air support. That leaves us with nothing but our artillery. So the NVA adds mobile artillery to their rockets and mortars inventory, then stages a massive assault across the border. Slicks are grounded, that means the only way we get reinforcements is over land. So we sit there with everything the NVA has in this part of the country jumping all over our sorry ass until the weather clears, or a relief column makes it," said Ball.

          "You're making my lunch think twice about staying put in my stomach," said Sergeant McKinley.

          "You. I'm down to twenty days. All I want to do is crawl in a hole and pull the dirt back over top of me."

          "I think I'll get back to my people and give them a big kick in the ass. If you're right, we are going to need every swinging dick."

          Ball turned back to his group. "Ok ladies let's do it one more time." He ignored the groans.

          "What are you down to today, Ball?" Lieutenant Owens said as he and the four other Platoon Leaders sat waiting for Captain Moore to return to the company HQ.

          "Seventeen days, six hours and fifteen minutes, approximately sir," said Ball. The group laughed.

          "Sorry for the delay," said Captain Moore as he entered the room. "Just got off the radio with battalion, and it looks like monsoon or no monsoon we got something like two regiments of NVA about to come our way. S-2 says along with mortars and rockets they're packing mobile artillery."

          Sergeant McKinley looked at Ball.

          "Saigon tells us if they want to fight, we fight. They'll back us up with everything at their disposal. We got top priority from all the artillery in the area, but air support will depend on the weather, right now it's ok but two hours from now who knows?"

          Captain Moore unfolded an area map, set it on a desk in front of the men and pointed to a section marked in red. "At 0600 hours tomorrow our Company, along with Alpha and Delta companies, will stake our claim about three miles on our side of the border. We got the middle; Alpha has the right flank and Delta the left. Ball your platoon will be first in and secure the LZ, once the whole company is in we form up and move out, and God help us. Any questions?"

          "We assemble at 0530 hours tomorrow. Dismissed."

          Artillery peppered the LZ for forty-five minutes. Thirty seconds after the last shell exploded, gunships began flying cover as three slicks dropped into the LZ – hot and flared – never touched down, never stopped moving. Ball and his men jumped from the birds in ground effect, and hit the LZ running with M-16's firing full automatic. The surrounding jungle and everything else in their line of fire became so much green mulch.

          The first contingent of the 3rd platoon moved toward the perimeter of the LZ amid the wail of aircraft engines, the roar of gunfire, and the organized chaos of an airmobile landing. Before the rest of his men were on the ground, Ball had the LZ secured.

          The gunships withdrew. The rest of the company off-loaded as a light mist began settling over the ground, filling the men's nostrils with the stench of burning vegetation, scorched earth, and charred flesh.

          Radios squawked with near incoherent chatter as Captain Moore formed up his company. From his command post near the LZ he would direct and coordinate the operation.

          Ball moved out from the LZ with the rest of the company keeping his platoon in a tight formation as they twisted and snaked their way through a colossal spider web of vegetation that formed a nearly impenetrable labyrinth of knee high saw grass, giant trees, and thick intertwining tropical vines. The company, meeting no resistance, kept advancing in a northeasterly direction to form the LZ. There only link to the captain and each other was a PRC-25 radio strapped to the back of its operator.

          "Sergeant," said Private DeSantis, Ball's RTO, "1st platoon reports caps popping on their left flank – nothing serious, yet"

          "Got some people down now," said DeSantis, "getting more serious – the CO ordered a halt."

          Ball passed the word down the line, "halt in place." He picked up the radiophone and began monitoring the situation.

          "2nd platoon, we just walked into a nest of guys in khaki uniforms, must be NVA. Got a real shit storm going now; they're hitting us with small arms fire and mortars. Request gunships."

          "Wilco, gunships en route," radioed Moore, "hang tough."

          "All hell just broke, Captain, 2nd platoon's under heavy attack, lost contact with one squad forming a defensive perimeter. We're taking heavy losses, need help."

          "Ball," said Captain Moore, "reinforce 2nd platoon."

          "Copy," said Ball, as the men of 3rd platoon followed Ball's commands to pivot on their axis, form a skirmish line and bulldoze their way through dense jungle and heavy enemy fire with a tenacity and speed that even General Patton would have admired.

          "3rd platoon just linked up with 2nd," reported Ball. "Taking heavy weapons fire, 2nd just lost Lieutenant Owens – Sergeant Henderson now running things. Where in the hell are those gunships?"

          "Gunships sighted. Ball, you direct from your position, Henderson got enough problems," said Captain Moore.

          "Still getting our ass kicked," Ball said, "gunships returning to base. Need more air support."

          "Just got the last of any air support, or artillery – we're on our own," said Captain Moore. "All platoons report in."

          "3rd platoon's in high angle hell. We got an entire regiment coming our way and they're throwing everything they own at us."

          2nd platoon getting hit with artillery, mortars, and rockets – not sure we can hold our position," reported Sergeant Henderson.

          "1st platoon being flanked on two sides – we're in a world of hurt."

          "All platoons withdraw to LZ, say again withdraw to LZ," said Captain Moore. "Ball take two squads and cover the withdrawal. Sending up two M-60's and two large organic – should help."

          Ball took the two squads and held the line. What was left of the three platoons made it back to the LZ.

          "Everybody here but you, Ball. Will provide cover. Move out, now."

          Through a crack in the right flank, Ball withdrew his men in a leapfrog fashion, one squad retreating while the other provided additional covering fire. The ground beneath them shook and bucked so violently from exploding artillery that the men had trouble staying on their feet. Somehow Ball managed to keep his men together and moving as automatic weapons and cannon fire continuously battered the area with the intensity of a monsoon rain. But the jungle that had been such a bane in the attack, provided enough cover and concealment from the enemy's lethal barrage in the retreat, so that Ball was able to make it back to the LZ without taking any additional casualties.

          "Ok," said Captain Moore to what remained of his company. "We form a defensive line here. Everything inside the perimeter is us, everything outside the perimeter we shoot. Ball, you're acting XO. Now get on the radio with battalion and get us some air support, artillery, reinforcements, anything."

          Ball reported back in three minutes, "Sir, weather closing in can't get air. Battalion says artillery engaged with two other companies, will get to us as soon as possible. Reinforcements out of the question."

          "That is totally unacceptable," said Captain Moore.

          "Sir," said Sergeant Washington, "some of the new guys are starting to panic."

          "We don't need this now. Ball, get those men under control."

          Ball restored order in less time than it took to report back.

          "Sir, they're coming right at Sergeant McKinley," shouted Ball. "Sir, he's not stopping them!"

          "Ball, reinforce McKinley. Engage FPL's, and it sure as hell doesn't matter if they burn out the MG barrels! You can't let them breach our perimeter!"

          "I'll stop the bastards, sir."

          "Battalion, this is 6-actual, Broken Lance, I say again Broken Lance. American unit in danger of being overrun, American unit in danger of being overrun."

          Ball held the perimeter.

          Dorothy Marie Ball heard the knock at her bedroom door. "It's time, honey," came the deep base voice from the outside hall. "Thanks daddy, we'll be right out." She looked at her new son. "Got to make sure you look good when you see your daddy. Yes, sir, can't have you looking like some raggedy new recruit." She adjusted his top, double-checked to make sure everything was perfect, then picked up her son. She hugged him tight, "Your daddy is a genuine war hero. They gave him a medal and a battle field promotion. Lieutenant Clarence Ball. Now what do you think of that." Her baby smiled.

          She opened the door. Her father was standing there waiting, dressed in his best uniform, covered with virtually every medal, service ribbon, and hash mark a man with twenty-five years in the Army could earn. "Come on baby," she said to her boy, "let's go see your daddy."

          Mrs. Clarence Ball sat patiently waiting as the officer slowly approached her chair. He stood before her straight and rigid holding a flag in both hands that had been folded into a perfect triangle. He leaned forward bringing his body closer to her, then handed her the flag. In a voice just above a whisper he said, "please accept this flag as a token of respect on behalf of a grateful nation." He straitened up, stepped back, and gave her a slow and perfect hand salute.

          Tears welled up in her eyes as she pulled the flag close to her and her son. "Say goodbye, baby," she said as the tears streamed down her face and onto the white stars covering a field of blue. "Say goodbye to your daddy."

by Herman N. Spinelli
... who is a Vietnam veteran, now working as a pharmaceuticals representative, with two essays and five short stories published regionally; his completed book, entitled A God of Foreign Lands, is seeking an agent for publication.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones