White mist drifted through the bushy firs. Sometimes steep mountains loomed then vanished into the hurrying vapour. Cold fog muffled sounds yet from the whole valley came the thump, clang and scrape of shovels as small groups of South Vietnamese paratroops, heavily armed and merging with the gloom, attacked the stony soil. Towards the northern end of the landing zone a tall soldier, constantly alert, stood guard, an automatic rifle tucked under his right arm, a damp jungle hat pulled low over his brow, watching scores of camouflaged moles burrow into the valley floor.
Several paces beyond him, a stocky Vietnamese squatted on some open ground, a radio strapped on his hunched back, its aerial bending slightly with each wind breath; his neck twisted constantly because the headphones denied him a vital warning of danger.
The tall paratrooper searched all round, cradled the rifle across his chest, though kept his finger over the trigger; he shifted his weight from one foot to the other, shrugging away fear as he observed the mist thicken. Something set him apart from the others although he moved with the same disciplined freedom. Natural leadership combined with a hint of rebellion, perhaps a reckless streak, above all intelligence applied with quiet resolve. When he drew nearer the preoccupied Vietnamese - for he was bodyguard while Sergeant-Major Tu listened intently on his radio - he realised the enemy messages were less distorted and more frequent.
Once more the young soldier watched the mist prowl among the firs beyond a shallow river stained faint orange from lately fallen rain, though not enough to raise more than a contented whisper from the sliding water. Nothing strange - he glanced at an old watch strapped round one weather browned wrist; the other wore a copper band to fight Indo China’s clammy damp. Already the afternoon grew colder. Not even his camouflage smock defeated the crachin wind. Further south the jungle sweltered. Without question last year had thinned his blood. He shivered, walked a few more paces, though all the time searched the misty pines. Six hours earlier fifty helicopters had descended through swirling cloud and landed near enough the whole fighting strength of the Tenth Parachute Battalion; who had fanned out, begun searching the deserted valley for buried enemy supplies.
Surely they couldn't dig much longer. North Vietnamese short range wireless traffic implied that somebody pulled a noose tighter every minute. And if anything happened to Tu, he must replace him as forward air controller. Keeping his eyes on the tree line, his mind ran through the call signs for all three companies, their own as forward air control, and rehearsed the landing zone co-ordinates in both languages. Three hundred men would rely on his nerves and skill to guide the helicopters that must find this valley lost among cloud smothered mountains.
Advancing a few more paces towards the Sergeant Major, he grumbled in cultured Vietnamese, ' We're quite mad. '
Tu lifted one headphone. ' Say again. '
' We're crazy. They know we're here, it's getting late. Look at that mist. '
Crouched over the radio, Tu smiled stoically and soothed with his thick Mekong Delta vowels, ' You know Colonel Binh – he always play Russian Roulette. '
' My poor Mother still thinks I work in an office! '
' She believes you? '
' According to our folklore, Tu, an ambassador is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country. '
Tu grinned as he concentrated. A new enemy voice burst from the headphones. He raised one so they both could listen. Another position report, static resumed its low hiss.
The tall soldier lifted tired smoke-grey eyes that rebuked the first sudden drizzle. Soon his combat clothes grew damp and watching his rifle slowly covered by a film of moisture, he resigned himself to a further miserable hour. God it felt cold among these wild highlands. During a two hours flight from Vietnam's coastal plain, the mercury had tumbled thirty degrees as their helicopters climbed over five thousand feet and slipped among peaks shrouded with cloud and mist.
One camouflaged arm hugged the rifle like a plastic toy while he lifted his jungle hat, rubbed a sun-leathered brow and smoothed cropped straw hair with damp fingers. Again he searched the misty trees along the gliding river, before walking a few more paces, canvass bandoliers heavy with loaded magazines tied around his spare hips. But those deceptively alert eyes saw nothing odd as he pondered fate.
An intercepted message had catapulted them into these highlands where the enemy trails and bases were controlled by quite large formations, called binh trams, charged with everything from workshops to anti-aircraft guns. They also commanded small communications and liaison units about a day’s march apart for organising the trails - the enemy signal came from one of these, but judging from the call signs, both the small unit and its parent appeared brand new. Any other time, collateral would have been mandatory before committing the special parachute force. Nothing was normal presently, and should the intercept prove reliable, this valley might hide a secret weapons dump. After hours searching, including metal detectors, nothing had been found - not a scrap of field telephone wire among the trees, nor a single footprint. The intercept began to look a false lead.
On the other side of the World, his widowed mother and younger sister were asleep in an old house tucked in a wooded valley on Exmoor. And while they innocently slept, he raped diplomacy. Neither female knew he was still on active service. Then only a fool would venture out here, barely twenty-eight years old, ten thousand miles from home, and walking point for somebody else's war.
Tu called softly over his shoulder, ' Andy - what do you make of this one? '
Bowman returned, stooped and listened. A distorted northern voice obliged by repeating that all units must report their positions. Bowman suspected they were listening to the security battalion from the mystery binh tram – rather than a hardcore NVA infantry regiment; which might explain the enemy commander’s slow reaction and heedful tactics. The enemy had not expected visitors among these wilds. Worried in case the mission had compromised the new sigint source, he straightened, ' Sounds as though they're drawing the string tighter but still not reached their start lines. '
Tu's round face frowned.
' How many voices? '
' Five so far. '
' That last one, Tu, sounds new.’
Both men kept their conversation low. Since landing in the valley the battalion had kept radio silence. Runners had passed messages and orders. The enemy also monitored the wavebands. This close to a base headquarters, there was a strong chance that the Soviet Union's latest technology had scooped up the helicopter radio traffic. From then onwards it was simply a matter of hours before the enemy located their position.
Tu pulled a face, partly mute agreement, mostly intense concentration waiting for another voice to splutter from the headphones. ' Not exactly sure what’s happening, Andy - they're using code words for their locations - can't tell from which direction they intend to hit us. '
' Perhaps the new voice is a forward artillery spotter? '
Tu glanced warily at the drifting fog. ' If you’re right, Andy, he’s probably closer than we know. All the same he’d have to be red hot to shoot into this narrow mountain valley. '
' Spotter or whoever,’ reasoned Bowman as his eyes swept uneasily along the tree line, ‘ maybe they’re trying to encircle us; we’d best saddle up and find Dai-ta Binh. '
Tu frowned, listening hard. Eventually he looked up. ' Voice one is almost certainly a fairly sophisticated HQ.’
‘ A large binh tram with a security battalion,’ reflected Bowman, voice lowered, ‘ whatever have we stumbled over that’s maintained and guarded by three thousand soldiers? '
‘ No clues from the radio traffic but this valley is their objective.’
' Should we break radio silence? '
Tu shook his head. ' The Dai-ta must pass here in a few moments. Only one sane reason go loud and clear on the airwaves. '
Bowman grinned suspiciously. ' Put me out of my misery. '
Tu allowed his round face to crack into a sly smile, ' For requesting immediate transfer to American Army. '
Wistfully, Bowman conceded, ' Raise 'em, Tu. They’re forbidden to cross the border and their pay is number one. '
' Vietnamese Airborne fight on Ho Chi Minh Trail. Our pay number ten. '
' Hang on, Tu - were the Americans allowed over the Laos border, I'd no longer have a job. On second thoughts, best trust the Queen's shilling. Let's stay quiet a little longer! '
' Otherwise your girl friend save birthday present. '
' She doesn't even send letters, Tu. '
Tu rocked on his haunches with silent laughter.
Somebody would visit and soften the blow. Probably Mason himself would tell his mother the stark admissible facts before the telephone started ringing without a break once the media smelt a rat. The British Representative from Hue in South Vietnam, charged with breaking the secret codes of local politics, rumoured gathering battlefield intelligence and last reported raiding North Vietnamese base area 615 B eighty kilometres north-east of the Plateau des Bolovens, deep inside Laos. Missing believed dead. And hopefully for Downing Street, no corpse found.
Switch on brain, stop wandering, stay sharp. Search the pines and fog. Across the river nothing moved. His free hand strayed to scratch away an itch under his stubborn jaw, and he glanced at his oak fingers, one tagged by its gold signet ring engraved with his family's crest - a Roman eagle - worn by the heir since an ancestor captured one from the French at Waterloo. Now the last son rode a helicopter into battle. With luck somebody might find his finger and send it home. Realism warned that any North Vietnamese soldier with half a brain would keep a gold ring for his sweetheart in case the war finished sooner than another twenty-five years. Perhaps more foolproof, his pockets held two letters, one from his mother and another from his sister; a pair of chances that might catch the eye of a sharp North Vietnamese intelligence officer and one day reveal how and where his end came.
No other British officer gathered battlefield intelligence through caveman methods long abandoned by genuine military attachés. The whole operation though brilliant was foolhardy. No agents who sold their souls for envelopes crammed with money, but secret favours for powerful though frightened men, all run by two former paras still wearing combat greens. One masqueraded as the Defence Attaché at the embassy in Saigon over five-hundred miles south; the other, a reserve officer trained as a forward air controller, a former sapper who spoke fluent Vietnamese and filed a side copy of his after-action reports to Saigon for the desk of the American Commander in Chief.
The FO provided their deep cover with grave misgivings and only because they could pretend he was on the diplomatic service payroll. He had been – until Mason’s coup; discovering that Bowman was on the Regular Army Reserve for another six years, Mason had wangled his urgent recall to the colours as a temporary major for secret military duties. Even their shadow name was absurd - BRITSPIT - British Special Political Intervention Team. If it went wrong, the real diplomats would apply the surgeon's knife with speed and skill. He could hear them now. And Bowman contemplated grimly that his women might suffer for years believing and hoping that he was another of the hundreds missing.
Secret soldiering was dangerous enough but five weeks earlier the American Senate had passed the Cooper-Church Amendment. Other than aircrew and medical personnel, American troops were forbidden to cross the Laos border. This political ban included a bizarre decree that no American soldier was to set foot on the ground – leaving aircrew shot down outside the law – thereby also grounding every advisor including Binh’s respected mentor, Sergeant Cannon, veteran Green Beret and maestro air strike controller whose presence never failed to steady the whole battalion. Seven days earlier the two best divisions in South Vietnam’s army had crossed into Laos about a hundred kilometres further north. Adding to this pressure, Bowman shouldered a further burden – he stood in for Cannon.
A forceful shape formed a few yards off, tall and broad shouldered, camouflage hat rammed low over a dark face, one hand nursing a rifle, the other pulling a cigarette pack from his combat jacket. Sergeant Major Tu looked up as his leader approached from the increasingly wet mist.
Colonel Binh slowed, offered him a cigarette, then crouched, listening to another burst of enemy radio chatter: mahogany hands cupped while Tu leaned forward with a tin lighter; thin smoke signalled success as their hands parted. When the colonel straightened, a low whistle like a bird song came faintly from the wet twilight. Near the tree line, a wiry soldier scrambled from a hole and vigorously waved his shovel.
The colonel's thoughtful face contemplated the weather as smoke fled his nostrils when the cigarette paused on its journey from his disciplined mouth. Private Ky was the battalion tracker and knew these mountains better than most. There was urgency about his signal that warned their time was rationed.
The colonel suddenly noticed Bowman's unusual gloom, he consoled, ' Don't fret, Andy, we won’t have to walk home; but we’d better find out what Ky wants. '
' Hope so, Binh. Though let’s make it quick. Otherwise my women could spend the next hundred years trying to make the British Foreign Office admit they mislaid a diplomat somewhere on the Ho Chi Minh Trails. '
Binh laughed quietly, though his outward calm hid growing unease - betrayed only by another cloud of cigarette smoke that confirmed Bowman's gnawing fears. Once a frowning and distracted Tu was ready to move, they fell into step with his shorter strides. As the three men hurried forward, the drizzle became heavier.
' Ky looks excited. '
' Not like him, ' granted the colonel, ' though we won't find much booty out in these wilds. The paths are too poor and the mountains too high. '
‘ You still think they’d hide ammunition somewhere else.’
‘ Only that up here, Andy, we’re thirty kilometres from the nearest road, ’ replied the colonel.
Apart from the latest intercept, other alarming intelligence reports had been supported by an enemy rallier who revealed another new headquarters – 70B Front – commanded more than sixty thousand troops ready to defend the Ho Chi Minh Trails. Backed by artillery and tanks, five North Vietnamese divisions lay in wait among the jungled hills. South Vietnam’s elite troops, busy disrupting the enemy supply bases a hundred kilometres north, risked swift encirclement followed by destruction. North Vietnam’s army invariably marched along skilfully hidden supply lines. Finding enough ammunition for more divisions buried among these fogbound valleys would resolve whether the intercept exposed realty or rumour – whether another massive counter-attack lay in wait south of the enemy base areas.
When they reached the hole, standing in the freshly turned earth around its edge, all three men peered downwards. With farmers' muddy hands the sweating soldier held open the heavy lid of a large wooden box. Inside were two rows of three olive metal tubes, over a fist in diameter and more than an arm long. White numbers and Russian characters were painted along each gleaming brand new tube.
' Tank rounds, Dai-Ta,' reported the soldier, staring up at them, puzzlement and worry flickering over his sharp lined face.
' Are you serious, Ky? '
The colonel took the offered tube and studied the writing; his quick black eyes narrowed, at first doubtful, though eventually convinced. ' A product of Kharkov Military Factories,' he translated sombrely, ' and made within the last year. Well found, Ky. Let’s see what’s inside. ' He span the heavy tube before tossing it back into Ky's waiting hands. ' Take a good look, Andy, ' the colonel's voice filled with suppressed anger, ' soon the Americans will leave and we Vietnamese must fight on alone - against the North, the Russians and a billion Chinese.'
' Shall I remind that the northern communists enjoy more reliable allies than the US Congress when I write my after action report for General Abrams? '
Binh shook his head and raised a bitter smile. ' Abrams doesn't need us to tell him, Andy. Our trouble is that nobody in Washington wants to hear. They are ostriches. '
Bowman sighed hopelessly, ‘ What’s the calibre, Ky?’
The soldier read the white numbers painted along the tube and frowned, ‘ One hundred millimetres.’
‘ Bloody hell – that’s for a big rifle.’
‘ T Fifty-Four? ’ frowned the colonel.
‘ Let’s have a closer look,’ cautioned Bowman although confident they weren’t mistaken. While they could wait and ask Loc, the battalion technical officer, before leaving Europe months ago he had spent a whole month in Germany learning about communist bloc weapons and ammunition.
Ky ripped open the sealed cap and carefully eased the long round from its protective metal tube. Its heavy streamlined nose left no doubt – armour piercing – and confirmed their worst nightmare.
Bowman stared down. Other wooden boxes showed among the loose earth and stones. Probably more than sixty tank rounds were hidden in this single cache. Rounds destined for tanks that could outshoot the light armour the South Vietnamese had boldly sent into Laos. Nobody had imagined that the North Vietnamese would deploy heavy tanks among these highlands. Somebody at MACV – America’s headquarters in Saigon – or the Vietnamese general staff was in for a shock, guilty of a monstrous miscalculation.
‘ That’s a T Fifty-four round all right,’ he leaned forward and studied the fearsome missile, ‘ obsolete against NATO but not out here and capable of a lot of damage.’
‘ Why dump them in this remote valley?’ pondered Binh whose knowledge of the mountain log trails rivalled Ky’s.
‘ Funny there’s no sign of wheel tracks,’ said Bowman looking at the scrub grass for some distance from the fresh spoil. ‘ They would have needed a crane. Those boxes must weigh at least two-hundred pounds.’
‘ Among these highlands you’ve two choices, Andy; wait until the ground is dry, then use a lot of manpower.’
‘ Bring the loads up at night, bury them here, then once required, porter them somewhere handier. Complicated way to supply an armoured force – flexible though slow – save there’s not one clue left behind that anyone was in this valley. Mind, Binh, if trucks made it up here, so can tanks. ’
‘ There’s no sign of any tracks along the whole valley. We’ll have to look at all the air recon photos taken during the dry season last year. They swept up afterwards with great care.’ For several seconds Binh contemplated the foggy valley. ‘ No easy task. Nor exactly good tank country.
‘ That’s what the French believed about the Ardennes in nineteen-forty.’ Bowman tested the firmness of the ground with his jungle boot smeared with orange mud. ‘ There’s a reason to cache heavy tank rounds among these particular hills.’ A glance at the colonel’s absorbed face confirmed they were asking themselves exactly the same question. ‘ All the main passes from Laos towards Danang and Hue are roughly the same distance from here – about a hundred kilometres – and the NVA’s large base areas are about the same distance north. This dump was ready for something big. We may have stumbled on a hornet’s nest. ’
‘ You make sense, Andy; we’d better move faster. Take that round home, Ky. ’
‘ Where is Loc? ’ asked Binh.
‘ Fifteen minutes ago roughly five-hundred metres along the valley,’ said Bowman, confident the captain would confirm his identification for the type of tank rounds.
Other than report back, for the moment there was nothing more he could do although he wished otherwise. South Vietnam fought for its life. Before Mason and the fledgling Special Operations Service took over covert action on the Indo-China peninsular, his own country pretended it was not involved - despite keeping a police advisory team in Saigon for the last nine years – other than snooping on the Americans and South Vietnamese for anything the military attachés could glean about the latest weapons and tactics. At least the Queen now sent a Royal Engineers officer across the Laos border to dig for communist weapons - a lone paratrooper provided Britain's expeditionary force.
' We find more, Dai-Ta. ' Ky bent down and began easing another box from the stony soil.
' Make it quick,' remarked the colonel ironically, flicking his fingers at the deep pit,' otherwise, Ky, we'll all march chained together for the rest of our short lives carrying the enemy’s supplies over these mountains. '
Ky laughed grimly and pulled hard until the box slid free. A second whistle came from not far away. Three soldiers almost hidden by the mist busily hauled out similar long objects from another trench. Bowman thought they had found more tank rounds but it was hard to tell through the gathering murk. The colonel set off in their direction, when the whole valley filled with whistles.
' We’ve landed on top of an arsenal,' endorsed the colonel, allowing himself a brief smile as he stood for a moment, confronted with the capture of enough enemy tank rounds to keep a communist armoured regiment in battle for months. Almost unsure where to start, he took another pull on the cigarette which jutted from his mouth, studied his watch, thought for a moment, then instructed the sergeant-major, ' Get on that radio, Tu, keep it short, tell all three company commanders to make their men work faster and warn their look outs to keep doubly alert. We may have the whole North Vietnamese Army in the next valley.'
' Da vang, ' confirmed Tu respectfully and rattled off the orders in his patient Mekong Delta dialect. Two clicks in swift succession escaped from the radio. Tu waited, smoking, the black telephone clutched hard against his chest, until he heard a third click.
' Tot-lam,' approved the colonel.
When the three men began to walk westwards along the valley, it was becoming harder to see with each second, the mist thicker, the light swiftly fading as afternoon became the short evening of Indo-China. Bowman reckoned they were half way along the valley floor. To either side, among scattered pines, groups of tense soldiers hurriedly dug up more and more tank ammunition, still pristine from the factory, all neatly sealed in tubes and packed in wooden crates. Each find was examined by Loc; the intelligence officer, a shrewd half Chinese, doubled as bangs expert for the battalion. Having made his notes, taken dozens of photographs, keeping a round or two for detailed study, making certain all the rest were piled back in the muddy pits, Loc cleared individual caches for demolition. Soon thin wires and thick white cortex trailed through the sturdy grass as ring-mains were laid out for destroying the enemy weapons and ammunition finds.
' No more sample tank ammunition, Dai-Ta – not enough room in the choppers - we can start blowing this stuff within a quarter hour,' said Loc breezily, striding past where they stood. There had been complete agreement over the type of rounds. Usually Loc and Bowman shared the work supervising a big demolition but this afternoon his duties with Tu over-rode all others.
Bowman fidgeted with the safety catch on his rifle. His fingers were cold, he was nervous – everyone was now, their taut faces and brittle eyes gave ample proof – after clearing the valley they still faced a forty minutes steep climb to the extraction LZ.
The colonel shared his own tension, ' I shall be happy once we’re airborne, Andy. '
Sounding short of breath, Bowman sympathised, ' We all will. '
This time was utterly mad. He had stuck his neck through the noose and perhaps once too often. Though his orders from Steel were clear - go into Laos whenever possible - apart from intercepts about tanks, the American Commander is desperate for objective first-hand reports from the battlefield on the South Vietnamese performance. At the most critical moment his vital adviser teams are forbidden by Congress to cross the frontier yet without reliable information from Laos neither can he decide how best to support the Vietnamese nor the pace of America's withdrawal from the whole war. And find out what the Viets need most from our box of tricks; though for God’s sake promise only kit we can deliver in secret and direct to our customers. South Vietnam’s headquarters are penetrated and corrupt. They were guilty of the same arrogant betrayal as the United States Congress though on a microscopic stage. Nothing else was proved by this escapade. For Mason and head office, covert intervention was the only British weapon worth a trial in Vietnam and its toughest test drew nearer by the minute. Should they fail, Binh and his family, thousands like them, would pay the highest price. And for himself? Lost deep love had made him careless over the future. A magical creature had slipped through his clumsy fingers and perhaps he no longer cared. Though he dreaded ending maimed. At least for his epitaph they could write “ Once a para, always a para - although quite mad at the end, allowed his country to sneak off with dignity ” for surely honour counted as another brand of loyalty. Or did an invisible cord still tie the man to a boy mastering the Edwardian jungle of Harrow School on its own aloof small hill - never refuse a dare, honour the tribal lore, above all stick together like thieves. Why else must his soul always test its body to destruction.
' At least we’ve made you wiser,' probed Binh without mercy.
Bowman's lean face split into a serious smile as he countered with mock despair, ' Binh, we're traffic accident victims; run over on a zebra crossing by an American truck coming one way and a Russian truck driven by a Chinese coming the other, both hogging the road’s crown. I suffered brain damage. '
The colonel laughed and shook his head. Binh never failed to enjoy these random grumbles from this wild young Englishman. Only seven years parted them but Binh was long married and raising small children; for Bowman that gap resembled a lifetime. Binh felt that he almost understood Bowman. America's aristocracy were quite different. Nor did the English resemble the French. Money was a side-show, never mentioned, neither lack nor plenty. Women obsessed them because only the properly coded genes ensured that a rare sense of destiny survived every disaster and reached the next generation.
Taking advantage of the lull, quickly Bowman slipped off the heavy bandoliers circling his hips, and instead draped the spare magazines over his shoulders, then lashed the canvass loops across his midriff, ready for the long climb.
At least the chore warmed his fingers. ‘ What do we do about this valley,’ he wondered suddenly, ‘ once we’re out of here? Suggest the B 52s pay a visit? One strike would catch everything hidden along this valley that we missed. Could be tons more tank ammo’ buried. We’re running out of time for a proper search. ’
‘ Call me sentimental,’ sighed the colonel, gazing with fondness at the misty trees, ‘ but I spent holidays up here as a small child. In those happy days this high country was a popular resort, known as the Dalat of Laos, equally famous for strawberries.’
‘ Then a B 52 strike is not exactly a good idea.’
‘ Let’s just say that I haven’t given up hope. Who knows, one day our family may even take another holiday.’
‘ Reminds me of Hampshire,’ said Bowman with gallows humour, ‘ a place called Long Valley where we did our infantry training. No hills, but plenty of firs. Mud so deep in winter that one afternoon a Centurion tank had to pull out a guy with a rope – shot from waist deep slime like the cork from a bottle.’
Binh laughed and observed stoically, ' This murk is like English weather. No wonder you travel far away. At least the drizzle is holding steady. ' Then he lit his fifth cigarette of the hour as tiny pearls of moisture cloaked their camouflage suits.
' Fog is worse though.' Bowman's stomach felt empty and cold.
' Drink ginseng tea,' Ong Andy. ' From his new refuge in a freshly emptied hole, Tu held out a tin bottle.
Bowman took it, swallowed a mouthful of cool liquid with a faint taste of earth. When it reached his stomach the ginger root began its work. Slowly warmth spread through his body. This raid was more dangerous than any previous order from his imaginative chief. Eighty kilometres inside Laos, probing the brain of the Communist's supply lines. There was always a risk that luck no longer rode on his shoulders. Down in his stomach the muscles gnawed steadily at each other. Perhaps he should have stayed in the office and written political reports to protect his cover. The tea raised his spirits.
' Your jumping jacket looks warm,' hinted the colonel.
Bowman smiled comprehension. ' I'll see Perce Persival next week and order you one, Binh.'
Their enterprising warrant officer in Saigon kept small stock of British parachute smocks which he rationed strictly; they were much in demand for bribing Vietnamese generals and a steady trickle was flown out from Britain for this purpose. In exchange for captured Communist weapons for the range at Hereford, the SAS kept the supply line open and dealt with awkward questions.
' You never know,' added Bowman, leaving alive hope.
Binh laughed appreciation then instructed, ' Thoung-si-nhat.'
' Dai-Ta,' replied Tu.
' Risk one short message. Tell everybody to pack up now. Inform Loc that I want blowing finished within five minutes of clearing the valley floor.' The colonel stared gloomily at the drifting mist. Even the pine tops were lost in the cold wet vapour and the river had turned black. ' Nobody will find us down here - we'll have to climb. Warn everybody that our extraction is from alternative landing zone, Lana, on Hill 1827.'
' Da,' confirmed Tu and spoke into his telephone mike: within seconds three clicks answered.
In one of Bowman's chest pockets was a King Edward cigar. Long ago he had learnt that ninety per cent of modern war was waiting, before panic moves, only to wait even longer somewhere else. His original plan was to save a smoke for after their return flight. Now he took out the precious cigar and searched for matches, intending to join Tu in the muddy hole.
The corners of Binh's mouth changed expression. He looked at Bowman with polite surprise. ' Vang tot, Andy - welcome to the chain smoker's club.'
Several times Bowman tried to keep a match alight but at each attempt the wind suddenly blew stronger. Binh and Tu watched his futile efforts with savage smiles.
' Too many cocktail party, too much sit at desk, ' jeered Tu, voice low, round face less strained, settled in the empty pit a few paces off. ' Bring here, Ong Vinh,' he called softly, employing Bowman’s nick-name among the soldiers, before he concentrated on the headphones.
It was obvious and feeling foolish, Bowman strolled over and jumped into the pit; as his jungle boots sank into fresh-smelling earth, from overhead came an odd rushing sound.
Every breath fled his lungs. Binh's solid frame crashed onto his broad back, drove him down into the loose soil, rammed his face into Tu's backside. Shocked, bruised, Bowman fought for breath, raised his head level with the pit rim.
Glowing pink fountains ripped through the fog blanket. Three punched together, shaking the pines, hurling molten red sparks. Buzzing struck his ears. Stony smoke spread.
All over the scrub grass, shrapnel smouldered. Tu spoke tersely into the radio, keeping close watch on the colonel's mouth opening and closing. Other than dull hissing inside his skull, Bowman heard no other sound. He tried to speak, but concussed from the shell blasts, though his mind raced and his lips parted, no words escaped. Then, almost from another person's body, he heard his voice croak,' Incoming – from the south? '
' One thirties,' snapped the colonel, face plastic with concentration as his brain placed awesome bets. ' They want to pin us down, trap us in this valley, turn it into a killing ground. We must climb. Grab and hold the LZ. Andy, Tu, you pair stick together like glue.' All three men started scrambling from the hole. Faint wind threatened from the sullen fog.
Caught in the open, Bowman hurled himself forwards. In that second before he hit the ground, his eyes recorded giant white mushrooms rising slowly to mix with the grey drizzle; a man tumbling through a fresh fist of spreading stony smoke; figures running, their camouflage suits, helmets, packs and weapons stark against a fog backcloth stabbed by crimson flashes. Pink sparks showered from huge milky puffs exploring the dark firs. Bodies carpeted the foreground, dozens, some moving, others still. Whether they were hit or quick taking cover, Bowman couldn't tell before heat slammed his face and chest.
A few paces in front, two soldiers rose, started for the trees. Cracks from the fog, split the rain. One man's head burst like a huge crimson fruit, spattering the second with his brains and blood. The other, no more than a boy, suddenly span wildly, still tumbling as they swerved past; Bowman saw a small red hole in his neck yet the exit wound already spread blood over his back and thighs. Cracks, solid, close. A bullet's wake shocked his eardrums.
He stumbled onward. The colonel grabbed him by one arm, hauled him onto both feet, towed him across the valley, until they reached the first pines. White hot cracks – barely overhead - bark flew off a tree in front leaving a wound of clean wet wood. He heard the lazy slipstream of a tumbling spent bullet. Less dizzy though eyes bright, Bowman span around, crouched low, checked the rifle magazine, swayed to make his long body a poor target, and searched the valley where Binh's paratroops faded westwards onto the mountainside. Some carried demolition equipment while others, screened by the pines, knelt and fired ear-splitting bursts into the white haze.
Figures moved among the firs on the opposite misty hillside although they were still some way from the river bank. Was the fog lifting? Bowman raised his rifle, swung the barrel rightwards, trying to catch one of the vaporous shapes with his foresight. The colonel shouted at him, ‘ Leave them for Sang’s fellows, Andy, stick with Tu; I’ll catch you up. ’
Bowman didn’t argue nor dawdle. Christ - those people knew how to shoot. They were hitting necks and heads. Forget stores clerks. This was NVA infantry. He weaved across the remaining open ground and scrambled into the steep forest, gradually catching up with the shorter Tu, who sprinted straight up the mountainside, the radio jolting on his back, its black telephone clutched in his left hand, an M 16 rifle tucked under his right arm – ready to shoot.
Tu hardly noticed the slope, and panted quickly over his shoulder, ' OK, Ong Vinh? '
' God knows,' gasped Bowman, keeping back a few paces.
' Follow me, all time, look sharp.' Tu half turned. Those normally laughing eyes had become hard slits. ' Remember - you bodyguard, back-up man! '
' Da, Tu.'
Shock waves punched together before solid booms rolled through the whole valley. Massive echoes deafened. Several more explosions kicked. Grey smoke thickened the swirling fog. Loc must have blown every cache; along with the tank rounds their fresh supply of Communist rockets - ripped into metal shards. It was a long way to come then go home empty-handed; now saving lives was the only task. Shots crashed down in the smoky mist. Small squads of paratroopers slipped through the pine forest and vanished into its clammy veil. Bowman glanced leftwards. Ruby fireflies winked through fine rain cloaking the opposite hillside, before muffled crack-cracks became trapped among steep mountains.
Though a head taller, Bowman found the sturdy sergeant-major set a killer pace straight upwards. Sturdy grass grew under short pines scattered over the mountain flank. Now and then an opaque drifting wall slowed their gruelling climb. Shouts came down through the mist and Tu veered slightly right. Bowman followed, limbs heavy, sweaty from fear, pack and water-bottles thumping on his lower back, the M 16 clasped tight at waist height, aimed leftwards - in front drifted grey vapour.
Growing exhausted, still dazed from blast, Bowman stumbled, though doggedly trailed. They were climbing a gulley divided by a tumbling mountain stream and which narrowed all the time. Tu seemed to know instinctively where he was leading through the fog and drizzle. Bowman grimly followed. No breath for questions. After a further steep cruel slope beside a waterfall, Tu headed towards some pines which had begun to stand from the heavy mist. Waiting under one of these sturdy firs was the colonel, though Bowman could not imagine how Binh managed to slip past and overtake them. Chest aching, though running closer on Tu's heels, Bowman passed through a skirmish line. Soldiers sprawled, hidden among the trees, each man a few meters apart, weapons aimed towards the gulley which he and Tu just climbed.
Bowman recognised the lanky frame of Corporal Luan who had dropped out from Saigon Law School; the boy rested a Russian B 40 rocket launcher on the roots of a tree and lifted a hand in curt salute as they scrambled onwards through stones and brush. They were from Quoc’s company - the most experienced and brightest of Binh’s company commanders. Often he had seen these men taut or tired, but never so harsh, so resigned. Nobody believed they would escape. Their company always extracted last. Moving less heavily, Bowman reached where Binh and Tu squatted beneath a pine tree, and slumped against its rough trunk.
Tu breathed quickly. ' Very high now.'
' And I think I'm fit,' gasped Bowman and spat into tufty grass. His glands stung, his heart drummed on his ribcage. Sweat poured down his back and his green vest and combat suit were soaked under the denim smock. Yet the air was almost cold. They must have climbed a considerable height in very few minutes. Thank God for a childhood spent roaming Exmoor’s windswept hills.
' We’re over seventeen-hundred hundred meters,' explained the colonel, out of breath himself, staring down into the drifting fog.
' How much higher?' coughed Bowman, fearing he would vomit.
' Two-hundred more. '
Bowman shook his head, spat again - another six-hundred-and-sixty feet vertical climbing to LZ Lana on the summit – then remembered that cigar No more of those: what became of his precious King Edward, he had no idea, and cared less.
Holding Tu's radio-telephone, the colonel gave fresh orders to his invisible paratroop battalion. ' Hello, here is Bernard.' He waited, chin thrust forward, listening over the gunfire for three clicks. The set crackled to itself, then, one after another, through they came and Binh's dark eyes relaxed. He instructed, ' We move now. Head for RV figures two. I repeat, head for RV figures two. Tiger and Marcel lead the way for your brother. Over.'
' We're the tiger's tail?'
They recognised Quoc’s cultured voice.
' Phai,' confirmed Binh softly.
' No sweat Bernard.'
' Watch your back - out. '
Now commenced lethal poker. Alpha was rearguard. The other two companies must slip from the closing enemy noose, quit the valley, pass through Alpha's skirmish line and climb for the emergency Landing Zone on Hill 1937. Alpha would shoot down the first North Vietnamese to scramble up the gulley - then Quoc's men must buy time with repeated ambushes - while the other two companies secured the LZ where the helicopters must land. Fog was a strong ally though wouldn't fully confuse the enemy scouts now searching for the real line of their retreat. Whereupon, once discovered, the North Vietnamese gunners would bombard the LZ with high explosive and shrapnel. Avoiding that fate required all Quoc's imagination and nerve. Otherwise the dust-off by helicopters from Dong Ha would break down, become a shambles, then a massacre.
The only way to avoid this disaster was for Quoc to lure the North Vietnamese on a false trail, draw them away from the other two companies. That risked Quoc’s company becoming isolated and destroyed.
Shots advanced steadily as the North Vietnamese climbed the mountainside intending to push ahead and cut off Binh's entire force. A running fire-fight spread with two companies, most of his battalion, caught in the valley, still trying to break off contact, slip into the drizzle and smoke, then climb past the enemy and rally on the steep ridge.
' We three move uphill,' decided Binh. The firing grew louder, much sharper, though no more explosions came from the hidden valley. While they ran and stumbled, fog swirled, cold and damp, through the dripping trees: stray shots chased.
Binh held up his arm, halted, took the radio-telephone from Tu. There was strain though elation on his face when he tilted back his camouflage hat. With the back of his left hand, he rubbed streaming sweat from his grave eyes, then shrugged.
' Here goes my friends.'
Pressing on the transmit button, he said clearly, ' Here is Bernard.'
Three clicks spluttered.
' Break further right. I repeat, break further right.'
Three clicks answered.
Binh frowned at his watch, then stared into the half-light, and ignoring the radio, called out,' Quoc - oi! Quoc - oi!'
Bowman was stunned though glad to hear Quoc's voice reply clearly from the fog, ' Nya, Dai-ta? '
' The enemy are trying to split us apart, gobble each company one at a time. After Hien and Sang's companies pass through your line, Quoc, keep close on their heels, then I want you to lead the enemy further west along the flank of this mountain on a wild goose chase.'
' Biet roi, Dai-Ta,' confirmed Quoc without hesitation.
Sharp reports from automatic rifles reached out from a cauldron of white smoke and fine rain. Spent rounds hurried overhead. Bowman sank on his heels, rifle gripped tight, and stared downhill, listened and waited, still catching breath, yet saw no movement, no tell-tale fireflies dancing in the cordite scented mist.
' Quoc,' yelled the colonel,' mau-lien, fast contacts.'
Quoc's measured voice floated back through the misty afternoon.' We’ll mark our LZ with red smoke.'
The colonel encouraged, ' Tot lam – I’ll find you.'
From below in the white shroud came the din of more explosions. The deliberate crack-crack-crack of Communist automatic rifles rolled up the mountainside and Bowman saw the colonel's face tighten. Then came the familiar blurp-blurps when M 16s replied. All three men listened, trying to judge the directions from which sounds came as the gunfire drew closer. He noticed Tu sweating, though less heavily than himself, while the colonel also wiped his forehead. For an instant the three men's eyes met with that grim mirth when soldiers resign themselves to a fate they cannot change.