A JUNGLE OF STARS
PAUL CARLETON SAVAGE died for the first time on July 29, 1969, in a bit of characteristic Army brilliance.
Send eight men into unfamiliar territory, drop them by chopper into a little clearing in the otherwise impenetrable jungle; have them walk five miles to a second clearing, mostly in darkness, just to determine whether there really are that many VC in that particular grid on the map — and, by the way, find out if there are any NVA in the neighborhood as well, won’t you?
Military intelligence, Savage reflected bitterly, was a contradiction in terms.
The bell rang and the chopper lifted into the air, the ground disappearing under him in a billow of dust.
Savage sat in the doorway watching the world go by beneath him. Below stretched a sea of green, broken only occasionally by large, dead areas where defoliants had been used. A few birds were visible down there, but nothing else seemed to be alive except trees.
He turned and looked back at the men riding with him. Most sat in their canvas seats trying to look as if they weren’t nervous. Normally, this would be a split “A” Team — four Americans and four ARVNs — but there had been the usual foul-up and the only ARVN who wound up along was Sergeant Hao, a last-minute impressment when somebody found out he was born near the drop area. Savage, too, was a last-minute replacement even though he led the team; the Green Beret staff sergeant who had led the team for most of the year that it had been in Vietnam had gotten zapped by a sniper last time out. Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant Paul C. Savage had barely arrived at Firebase Hector when Colonel Matuchek came up with this delight, and noted on the new officer’s record that Savage had led an “A” Team as a sergeant.
The air was cool this far up, and Savage felt a slight chill go through him. He wondered idly if it was really the air.
Off in the distance he could see a few wisps of smoke rising from the trees — possibly small engagements, but more likely the smoldering remains of recent encounters or perhaps signs that, down there in the green stew, people continued to live in the midst of the war.
Again he surveyed the group of men in the helicopter. Shadows obscured most of them, and he realized that he didn’t even know all of their names. He resisted an impulse to give them a thumbs-up sign; every man knew that even the composition of the team for this trip was already so screwed up that unmitigated disaster seemed inevitable.
The pilot made a pass over the LZ without pausing; this was just to get an idea of what what they were getting into. The copter would continue on a lazy path around the area until dusk, never pausing long enough for unseen observers to guess where it might put down, if at all.
Savage pulled out his map and studied it once more, although he felt he already knew every detail better than the cartographers who had drawn it. He frowned. What he was looking at just didn’t jibe with the scenery at all. Somehow, that sinking feeling in his stomach told him, the Army, as usual, had botched the map.
The chopper banked left and started losing altitude. The light was fading fast, and all inside knew that this was it. Each man instinctively checked his weapon. A tenseness was in each of them, and through each mind ran the thought, Is this the time that we land in the middle of them?
Suddenly came the forward push as acceleration stopped; and they were on the ground, grouping near the trees. The blue exhaust flame of the helicopter shot upward until it barely cleared the trees, then was away. They had unloaded in less than five seconds and had made it to the trees without a shot fired. It had been a good landing. But their feet were soaked by the swampy ground at the LZ.
Sergeant Hao checked his luminous compass and they started off after him. Finally they were far enough from the LZ to stop. There had been no noise except the squishing sound of their movements through the marsh.
“Lieutenant!” one of the men exclaimed in a shocked whisper. “My God — my map! I think I lost it at the LZ!”
Suddenly that feeling was back. “Well, we can’t go back and get it now,” Savage snapped. “It’s too damned dark to see anything, anyway. Let’s just hope nobody else does — or they’ll know we’re here and figure out why.”
“Shh!” Sergeant Hao shot at them. “Somebody there!”
They stood immediately frozen, most of them holding their breaths. Only a few jungle sounds filtered back to them through the dense foliage. They could hardly see each other in the gathering darkness, but each man’s eyes surveyed the area, trying to spot what Hao thought he saw, heard, or felt.
There was nothing.
After a few minutes, they began to relax. Savage spread out a plastic ground cover and sat on it. With a disgusted sigh, he removed his boots and socks and started wringing the water out of the latter. Unless he was lucky, he’d have to walk them dry the next day. Pulling off the few leeches that had attached themselves to him in the dark, damp walk, he liberally spread mosquito repellent over every exposed area. The stuff stung when it went on over the leech bites, but served to cleanse them and settle them down to dull itches. Around him, the other men were doing much the same, except for Hao, who continued his watch, rifle at the ready, but was not as tense as he’d been a few minutes earlier.
All at once came the sound of firing from the direction of the LZ. Each man grabbed his weapon and felt, to make certain, that he had a clip in place. It was a nervous but instant reaction born of combat experience. The firing was sporadic and not directed at or near them.
“What do you think they’re doing, Harry?” one man whispered to another.
“Old Charley trick,” Harry replied calmly. “Fire a few shots in all directions to see if and from what direction fire is returned. They just now found the LZ. Sloppy bastards.”
After a few seconds that seemed much longer, the firing stopped.
“Think they found the map?” someone else whispered to no one in particular.
That, thought Savage, was the big question. The odds on their finding it were less than his own, because he knew it was there, but he was also keenly aware that, the way things were going so far, they probably had.
That map. He had looked at it a million times and its features haunted him. The eight-kilometer zone it illustrated showed clearly that they were in a valley, with fairly steep and mostly defoliated hillsides around. The exifitration LZ was near the other end, and it was the only possibility for another ten or eleven klicks.
It was the best damned trap he had ever been in.
He took out his red-filtered flashlight and looked at his watch. 2215 hours. The contact plane would be over in less than fifteen minutes.
Suddenly a shot came out of the dark forest.
Sergeant Hao screamed and bent over double, the force of the blow pushing him back against a willowy tree. He collapsed to the ground and lay still.
The men were already fanning out, weapons in hand. Savage turned over two or three times, grabbing his own rifle as he did.
This time he saw the flash and started to call to the others, but they had already seen it. A withering fire produced by several M-16s all shooting on automatic in the direction of the flash ended the shooting in their midst, but there’d been no cry, no sound that any had found their mark. That sniper might still be there.
Whether he was or not, their position was known and they pulled out fast. Savage had gone about three hundred meters before he realized, by the stinging sensation of leeches attaching themselves to his feet and legs, that he was still barefooted.
They regrouped in a particularly dark grove and waited soundlessly.
Random firing, some very close, reverberated through the forest; but it was clear that Charley didn’t know their location. That at least was a small stroke of luck: only one man had happened upon them, probably by accident, and if he was alive he had no idea where his quarry had gone.
Silence descended, but they could smell the rotten odor of nuoc-mam, the sauce made from decayed-fish oil that every Vietnamese was addicted to, all around them. It was so penetrating that often Charley’s patrols would be betrayed over fifty meters away by the odor on their breaths. With Hao gone and the rest of the squad American, they had little doubt about where and from whom the smell was coming.
But from how many?
Only two or three men might be out there, or the team could have blundered into an entire division. The inky darkness and light jungle sounds made it impossible to tell.
Overhead they heard the sound of a plane’s engines as it passed slowly by. The contact. There would be no call tonight. The next time possible would be at four the following morning. After that, it would be twenty-four hours at a stretch until they were either picked up or declared missing in action.
They didn’t dare move in the dark, not with Charley out there. And so, after a tense half-hour with nothing happening, they settled down to wait out the night.
No one slept.
About a half-hour after midnight, they heard voices whispering in Vietnamese. Whoever they had bumped into out there was still around.
Savage grew cold and his stomach tightened — someone was standing about two meters from him. He could sense movement even though he could not see clearly.
A new round of shots was fired into the air by the VC around them. None were returned, the men of the squad freezing like statues, their fingers poised nervously on their triggers.
The man nearest Savage now moved off, and the lieutenant was conscious of the movement of others toward the southeast. There appeared to be only four or five of them, but that didn’t tell much about the size of the total force that potentially lurked in every bush and tree.
They were gone as suddenly as they had appeared, and the fetid air of the swamp somehow seemed fresher by the absence of nuoc-mam.
At about 0130, another volley was heard off to the southeast, but pretty far away. Charley had missed them.
As they sat through the night watch, Savage became slowly aware that the squad was whispering to one another. But he could not make out what was being said. Once he admonished them for being so noisy, but after a short while the whispering had begun again.
At a little before 0300, one of the men crawled over to Savage’s painful perch on a high clump of bush. The lieutenant looked at him in the gloom: a big blond fellow, well over six feet, and seemingly in the peak of condition. He would be ideal for a young German officer in a World War II film, Savage reflected, although the man’s name was, incongruously, McNally.
“Sir?” he queried softly. “Can I speak to you for a minute?”
“Sure. McNally, isn’t it?” Savage responded softly. “What’s going on?”
“Well, sir, we been wonderin’, well — uh, the contact time is coming up and we were, uh, wonderin’ just what you were gonna tell ‘em.”
Savage shifted uneasily, considering the question and the motive of the man who had asked it. It was certain that he was spokesman for the rest.
“I’m going to tell them what happened,” he replied carefully.
“Yeah, but — what about gettin’ us out of here?”
So that was it. He’d known it.
“Frankly, McNally, I’d love to get us out of here, right now. For one thing, my boots are undoubtedly staked out over there somewhere, waiting for me to get my brains splattered claiming them. I’ve got no desire to walk almost five miles barefoot. I’m not sure I’d – make it.”
McNally’s face seemed to light up the gloom. “Does this mean you’re gonna ask for exfiltration?”
“That’s what’s been worrying me. I’m pretty sure they’ve got a couple of men on the LZ, and that’s the only way out. On the other hand, they don’t know where the exfiltration zone is.”
“Goddammit, sir, they’ve got our map! If we take all that time to get there, with you bootless and all, they’ll have the whole goddam North Vietnamese Army waiting for us!”
“Now, wait. We don’t know that they have the map, but we do know they know the original LZ. Playing the odds—”
“The hell with the odds, sir! Call ‘em in! If we can’t beat off this little force and get to the chopper, then we can still go for the pickup point. If we do it your way, we’re dead for sure.”
“Well, maybe that’s what being an officer is all about, McNally. I’d say the odds are with my way — and we still have the mission, too.”
“That’s what it is!” the other spat. “You’re gonna turn silver if you get us all killed and your feet ate off.”
“No matter what you think,” Savage replied, his voice even but touched with ice, “we’ll play it my way. Go tell the men — and bring the radio back up here.”
McNally turned with a snarl and returned to the others. Savage tried to make out their conversation while appearing unconcerned; he found it impossible to do either.
After three or four minutes he moved back to them, every move painful from the legion of bites on his feet. The men watched him approach, looking very much like little boys in a dentist’s waiting room, knowing something very unpleasant was coming. Knowing, too, that it was unavoidable.
“Well?” he said softly, standing in front of them, disregarding the risk a target of his size would represent. In those few short minutes he had resolved himself to dying, if need be, to keep the team together. He was somewhat surprised at himself, for he’d never been a particularly brave man, although always something of an idealistic one. But he had always had one hell of a temper.
“Who’s got the radio?” he asked.
One of the others, a mousy little fellow who looked as if he was out of a New York street gang, reached around and pulled it out of the pack. McNally nodded and the little man put it down.
“We talked it over, Lieutenant. You ain’t gonna sand that message. You’re gonna tell ‘em to come and get us.”
“The hell I am. This is a pretty shitty place to have a mutiny, McNally.”
“We’re all short-timers, sir. This thing’s been a botch from the beginning, and I, for one, ain’t gonna get killed this close to goin’ back to the world if I got a choice.”
“The rest of you feel that way?” Savage asked, glaring at each man in turn.
None answered; most wouldn’t look directly at him. As Savage stood there, he slowly unhooked the strap and took his knife out of its scabbard. No one seemed to have noticed.
“We’re playing it my way, General McNally,” be sneered, and as he said it he reached out and grabbed the tall blond NCO by the arm and pulled him over to his side.
The knife was at McNally’s throat.
“Now what do we do, General?”
“You don’t do nothin’, Lieutenant,” said a voice behind him.
He felt a rifle barrel in the small of his back. Turning slowly, without losing his grip on McNally, he saw that the little man with the radio had slid behind him, and cursed himself for paying so much attention to his own slick moves that he’d missed the movement.
“You’re not going to shoot me, boy,” he said confidently. “You’d have Charley here in a minute — if all this hasn’t brought him already.”
He felt the pressure ease, but it was replaced in a second by a sharp point. “I got a knife, too,” the little man said softly. “It’s my favorite weapon. They spent fifty thousand bucks teachin’ me how to kill people better with it. Why don’tcha just let Johnny there go and drop the knife?”
Suddenly all the determination went out of him. In frustration he shoved McNally away violently and then. tossed his blade aside. He continued to feel the pressure of the barrel as a hand reached over to his holster and drew out his service revolver.
“Now pick up the radio,” McNally ordered him. “It’s almost 0400. And any funny business, and you’re dead and I talk to them.”
He felt numb, distant somehow, as he picked up the radio and turned it on. Isn’t it stupid, he thought — these men probably just saved my life by doing this. And for forcing me to do what I want most to do myself, I damn near have to be killed.
“I’ll make the call,” he said resignedly, his voice sounding odd to his ears.
There was a quiet drone overhead and the muted HT-1 radio came to life, very crisply and tinnily.
“This is Artichoke,” it said. “Acknowledge.”
“Go ahead, Artichoke, this is Grasshopper,” Savage responded mechanically, feeling somehow foggy, as if in a dream.
“Roger, Grasshopper, we read you five-by. Go ahead with message.”
“Scout map in enemy hands, one dead, heavy enemy concentration,” Savage reported. “Impossible to make objective. Request exfiltration at original LZ.”
“Affirmative, Grasshopper,” responded the tinny voice. “Can you do it in eighteen?”
“Ah, roger, Artichoke, see you soon. Out.”
“Artichoke out. Good luck.”
The radio went dead. Everybody around it relaxed, even though the toughest part was yet to come.
“Satisfied?” Savage asked McNally, who nodded grimly. “Well, we have only eighteen minutes, so let’s get over there. My feet are killing me.”
Santori, the little man, took away the point and they started off toward the LZ. No one moved to help Savage or to give him back his weapons. They walked slowly, deliberately, in dead silence, eyes on what they could see of the trees and swamp, conscious that they must make no betraying sound, no matter how much they felt like running.
They didn’t smell any nuoc-mam until they were on the edge of the LZ. The sky had lightened considerably and they could see the perimeters of the clearing. The smell was not very strong — probably only one or two men left as a long-shot rear guard.
They waited in tense silence, trying to spot the unseen watchers.
The chopper was right on time, and touched down without incident. Nobody was kidding himself, though: the hidden eyes watching them would wait for them to treak into the clearing, then open up.
Santori made one of them, and gestured.
“Now!” McNally shouted and they all went fullspeed for the chopper. Santori fired just before he lept but was running too hard to see the man he hit fall from his tree perch. An AK-47 opened on them from the opposite side of the clearing almost simultaneously.
Savage was pushed ahead by McNally and ran for the open bay only meters away. As he did, he felt a sharp explosion in his back and went down almost as he reached the chopper door. Strong hands pushed him into the bay and he heard others jump in behind him. The chopper lifted off, bullets striking its sides.
“How many hit?” McNally called over the engine noise.
“Lost Sam and Harry,” Santori yelled. “And him. No big loss, though. Bullheaded sonovabitch. Look at him lyin’ there, like a big ape, bleedin’ his guts out.”
“Yeah,” someone else put in. “Sorta like one of them cavemen or somethin’. Ugliest bastard I’ve ever seen.”
The object of the comments lay facedown in an everwidening pool of blood. He felt like a ten-ton spider was on his back, all the legs having equal and monstrous weight. He couldn’t move at all, not even groan.
“He ain’t gonna make it,” someone remarked, but the words were a million miles away. He couldn’t think anymore, yet he felt as if his mind were perfectly clear. Shock dulled the pain to a mild discomfort, and something told him that he’d be dead before he would feel the full impact of the injury.
He didn’t give a damn any longer.
He was conscious of someone bending over him, but he couldn’t see who, nor did it seem to matter. Mentally and physically, he was totally paralyzed.
“Sorry, Savage,” McNally’s voice came softly from the fog in his ears, “but no way was I gonna let you throw any of us in the clink — particularly me.”
No one else heard the comment, and Savage could do nothing with it. For Savage there were no longer sounds, or sights, or feelings, nor even the acrid smell of the chopper. He was alone in his own private world.
The official records of the United States Army stat that Paul Carleton Savage, Second Lieutenant, USAR, died in action aboard a rescue helicopter as the result of hostile fire on or about 0430 on 29 July 1969.
The first time.