This story from Rolfe Hunt is fiction based closely on fact. The need for extract of the team, the search for sniper, the hit with the last rocket, and thoughts afterward are as factual as memory allows. All names and the details of the recon team are fiction. (This was Rolfe's entry for the Bainbridge, GA Artsfest 2000 short story contest. Finished second.)
©2000 Rolfe Hunt, All Rights Reserved.
For twenty minutes the twin turboprop engines of the OV-10 Bronco had been at full power while Captain John McCall fired guns and rockets and directed attack bombers against North Vietnamese troops. They ran along the ridge in pursuit of a small group of Marines. The fifty-caliber machine guns covering them fired big flaming tracers at the Bronco. To McCall, the relative movement of the airplane and the tracers made the tracers seem at first to lead him too much, then break hard and arc close like flaming curve balls thrown by hell's best pitcher. Muzzle flashes from rifles aimed at him twinkled like fireflies among the rocks below.
Now there was a lull. McCall took stock. He glanced quickly at the engine gages. Oil pressures OK. Both turbine temperatures pushing the redlines. The fuel gage said he had to head for Danang in twenty minutes. He pulled the throttles back to eighty two percent, turned the knob on top of his helmet and rotated the green visor up so he could wipe sweat from his eyes. The sun was almost behind the tops of the dark, rugged mountains along the Laotian border to the west, outlining them with bright rims of silver. The day, which had earlier been an Asian jewel of sparkling rivers, blue sky, and green foliage, was fading to shades of gray and black.
The OV-10 could fire six thousand rounds per minute from two miniguns, three thousand from four machine guns, plus two hundred from a twenty-millimeter cannon, but now all of these were out of ammunition. The rocket pods were empty except for one white phosphorous rocket on station two. The next flight of A-4 Skyhawk attack bombers assigned to McCall circled overhead with fuel to wait another half-hour. A CH-46 transport helicopter and its Cobra escorts stood by at a firebase twenty miles east waiting for his call.
Below, the five surviving members of Palomino Pony, the call sign of a team from the United States Marine Corps' First Recon Battalion, Delta Company, Second Platoon, pushed through elephant grass and scrubby trees toward the landing zone where the transport helicopter would pick them up. They were no longer being chased but their progress was slowed by exhaustion, plus carrying the body of their leader, First Lieutenant Rick Hamlin, formerly a football star and favorite son of the far away little mountain town of Scott City, Idaho. A poncho covered Hamlin's head and upper body, hastily tied around the waist and neck with dark green rapelling cord. A great quantity of blood had leaked from beneath the poncho. Now dark, sticky, and foul smelling, it covered the slippery body and those who took turns carrying it.
Palomino Pony had been in the bush for three days of a scheduled seven. Their mission had been to make their way down a steep valley near Laos to the intersection of two rivers and monitor traffic on the rivers. At night, men poled convoys of heavily loaded boats and barges down these rivers, bringing supplies from the Ho Chi Minh trail to resupply North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units southwest of Danang. Palomino Pony's job was to hide and watch at night for the convoys. Each time they saw one, they would add to the night sounds of the jungle their code words whispered into the radio. Soon after, from airplanes flying too fast and too high to be seen or heard, thousand pound bombs would rain down -- swift, silent, and deadly, like First Recon's motto -- and suddenly, for no apparent reason, the dark river would turn into an exploding hell.
Mid-morning of their second day, half way down the valley, moving under jungle canopy so thick that there was no undergrowth and little cover, Palomino Pony's point man, Corporal Tony Ventura, an experienced woodsman and deer hunter from upstate New York, had come upon a well developed road, deeply rutted with fresh truck and bulldozer tracks. Realizing they were in the middle of a major enemy stronghold, Ventura signaled a stop and began slowly dropping low when he was shocked to find a North Vietnamese soldier looking straight at him from ten feet away.
Regardless of who was most startled, the NVA soldier made the next move. He hosed Palomino Pony with AK-47 fire then ran down the road screaming. Somehow the spray of bullets missed Ventura but hit Lieutenant Hamlin square in the face. Hamlin died within seconds as the others tried to recover and decide what to do. Sergeant Bob Kepler took command. They had to move fast to avoid immediate capture. They had to get out of the thick canopy to the nearest landing zone several hundred meters north and up the mountain. They never questioned what to do about Hamlin; they would carry him home because that is what Marines do. They had air cover all the way, day and night. It was the final part of their desperate journey up the mountain, a day and a half later, that Captain McCall covered with his OV-10. The full force of United States airpower in Southeast Asia was at his disposal.
Although Palomino Pony was almost to the pickup point, McCall estimated that he would run low on fuel before the operation could be completed. Calling Danang Direct Air Support Center on the UHF radio, he ordered a relief OV-10 to arrive within fifteen minutes and two more OV-10's, one with illumination flares, to stand by in case the pick-up had to be done after sundown.
Suddenly, as McCall watched the recon team's difficult progress, he was puzzled to see a row of flashes of light. Then he understood what he was seeing. It was the low angle sun glinting off the cogged soles of their boots as every man, briefly horizontal in the air, belly-flopped into the grass. The FM radio came to life.
"... taking fire! Sniper! Sniper out there!" The young Marine whose turn it was to carry the heavy radio instead of the heavier corpse gasped for breath after every word.
Only minutes ago a hundred or more North Vietnamese soldiers had been on the ridge chasing the recon team. Their broken bodies were scattered awkwardly among the still smoking craters, fallen trees, and bomb-churned red clay. Now nothing moved except the grass waving in the wind. McCall circled, zooming and turning this way and that, looking, trying to judge where a sniper might hide. He flew inches above trees and rocks. The smell of fresh dirt and the sweet odor of high explosives came in through the canopy vents.
The sniper was probably a surviving soldier rather than a professional sniper; if so, he would be hiding where he survived rather than in a chosen spot. He could be anywhere in the bomb rubble. Finding him could take a long time or forever. By the time McCall's relief arrived the sun would be down. With clouds in the west, dark would come quickly. Picking up the recon team at night would be more difficult and dangerous. Was the sniper the only remaining threat? Why was he firing, McCall wondered. Were other enemy units nearby, waiting for the cover of night?
McCall made a decision and ordered the recon team to move to the pickup zone immediately. As he saw them struggle upright and start moving, he imagined how they looked to the sniper, imagined the sniper beginning slow, steady pressure on the trigger, judging the wind, aiming down a long steel barrel at a recon Marine's head bobbing through the waving grass.
Searching frantically, he flew behind an area the sniper might be and saw nothing. He flew beyond the team and back, dropping almost into the top of the grass, flying toward the ridge, eyes darting rapidly looking for a muzzle flash in the shadows. Nothing.
The FM radio sprang back to life, "Damn it! Damn it! We're under fire! Get that sniper!" Sergeant Kepler had the radio now. McCall scanned the ridge. Was that a puff of dust he saw? The thin wisp at the edge of a bomb crater dissipated, or had it been there at all?
The puff of dust, real or not, was the only bet on the table. It was dust kicked up by the sniper's muzzle blast or it was nothing. McCall turned hard into position for a firing run on the bomb crater, leveled the wings, flipped on the arming switches, and began tracking in from a low start. Not much altitude to get off a shot. The gun sight was too bright for the now dim light. With his eyes focused on the crater, knowing how easily he could lose it among the many others just like it, McCall reached for the gun sight dimmer knob and found it.
At first, McCall saw just a thin dark line against the red clay, then it became a rifle and a soldier. The soldier wore the brown uniform of the North Vietnamese army but he was so dirty he was almost invisible in the crater. He lay face down, sighting down the rifle toward the recon team as McCall had imagined him. He was propped on his elbows, legs spread, toes of muddy boots turned outward. Sweat stain darkened a circle in the center of his back as if providence had painted a target there. Should McCall fire, or call the waiting A-4's? He could easily lose sight of the target while waiting for the bombers; on the other hand, if he fired his one shot and the sniper survived, he would need the A-4's but have no rocket to mark the faint target for them.
A quick nudge of control stick and rudder pedal centered the gun-sight on the sweat stain. McCall's thumb twitched on the firing button. Whoom! The plane shook as the last rocket blasted away. He followed the rocket toward the target to be sure the sniper did not escape, going too low, flying into the likely pattern of the imminent explosion. The rocket hit inches to the left of the sniper's hips. Smoking chunks of phosphorous, burning white-hot, exploded in every direction. McCall put the Bronco in a high-g pullout to clear the explosion and the ridge just beyond. Straining against the g's, he reached the arming switches and turned them off. With enough altitude he rolled inverted and looked back.
The man -- now a man, no longer a sniper -- was in the bottom of the crater engulfed in bright yellow flames as his clothing burned. He rolled and writhed, beating at his flaming torso with flaming arms. His head thrashed from side to side. White smoke from the rocket still swirled heavily around him.
The landing zone was clear, at least for now, but someone with more fuel would have to complete the job. McCall clicked the radio transmit switch and cleared the helicopters to come, then called Danang to release the flight of A-4's to some other target. He swelled with pride thinking of the skill used to find the sniper and the accuracy of the quick shot with his last rocket. He thought of the sniper: Too bad Charlie, your mistake was small but if you want to fight the Marines, you cannot make mistakes. Then thinking of mistakes he had made and survived his humility returned. Still, he was proud that no Ponies had been lost while in his care. His guesses had been right, or if not right then at least good enough.
Waiting now to brief his relief, McCall circled and climbed, watching Palomino Pony move the last fifty meters. In the higher, cooler air, he noticed that his flight suit was soaked with sweat. He knew that later when he opened the canopy back at the flight line, the line crew would notice the smell of sweat and fear. The ordnance and refueling crews would scan the plane for damage, then gather near to hear the news while the plane captain helped him unstrap and put the two safety pins, with their waving red nylon flags, in the ejection seat.
"Rough flight, sir?" someone would ask.
"Not too bad," he would reply, trying to control the raggedness of adrenaline still in his voice. "Killed a few bad guys and got some ponies back in the corral. Sleep good tonight, guys, the world is safe again." They would talk briefly, wanting more details to understand what they had helped accomplish, then get to work dragging fuel hoses, pushing ammunition wagons into place, cleaning the guns, readying the plane for another flight.
While McCall circled and waited, the man in the crater burned and melted like grease into a black, bubbling puddle. His dark smoke rose through the glowing sunset and disappeared against gray clouds. The sooty odor had come in through the cockpit vents and lingered in McCall's sweaty clothing and in his nostrils. The flames, starved for oxygen, glowed in the twilight with the same orange color as the sunset.
McCall wondered if someone in North Vietnam waited anxiously and lit candles, praying for the man's safe return. Were they watching right now the same sunset that the orange flames fed? How long before they would know? How long would they hope? I could explain it to them, he thought. I could tell them where and how and why; tell them there was a puff of dust; tell them he was aiming at my Marines.