Two gunships circled it. A cloud of slicks whirled in to dump their troops, UHIDs from the 281st, and Marine CH-46s.
Two and three at a time the slicks land-ed. Tailgates on the big CH-46s dropped, troops poured off the ramp and the choppers clawed back into the sky. One limped in, smoking, and the crew barrelled out with the troops.
A Huey lifted off, shuddered, started to go down, shuddered again, straightened up and staggered over the horizon. Another went through the same drill but crashed in the trees about 200 meters past the LZ, right where Charles was. It occurred to me that all the firing wasn't coming from our perimeter.
When all the ships were gone, it was quiet again. Three ships were down on the LZ and I had seen one more go down. I didn't know if there were others. One thing was certain: everybody wasn't here yet. I didn't know if Nauman was going to try to bring in another lift or not. He wasn't there to ask.
Some guys were out on the LZ, poking around the first downed Huey. There was no firing, so I went over to take pictures. Two guys from the project sat in the door on the shady side, smoking. A couple of others looked in the pilot's compartment. The machine guns had been taken out.
I sat in the doorway, got a cigarette and gave the interior of the chopper a quick once-over to see if there was any ice water inside. There wasn't. "You guys just get here?" I asked, taking a drag on the cigarette.
There was a burst of automatic-weap-ons fire and the dirt kicked up around us. Other weapons joined in and the LZ be-came a field of little dirt geysers. The guy I was talking to started running.


Crater Cover


We ran full tilt toward the bomb crater. I charged over the side and dropped half-way down the slope, sliding the rest of the way to the bottom. There were eight men already there, and plenty of room for more.
One of them, a big, dark-headed, wool-ly bear of a man, worked for me as a photographer, Spec.6 Bob Christiansen.
"Hello, Chris," I said.
He smiled. "Morning, sir."
I dusted myself off and flicked dirt off my weapon. B-40s were coming in on the LZ and a hell of a racket had been going on since that first burst. "How come you didn't make it on that first lift?" I asked Christiansen.
"Chopper got hit and we had a bunch of wounded. Had to go back," he replied. He shook his head. "I thought it  over  for quite  awhile  before I came

 

back out."
I laughed. "You shoulda thought longer."
A Marine sergeant from one of the helicopters looked nervously over the crater's rim. He wore a .45 in a cowboy rig and a flak vest. "Look," he said, "we better get out of here. This old chopper's going to blow any minute now."
I crawled up beside him. The CH-46 was still smoking. The idea of its blowing up didn't bother me any more than the B-40s and automatic-weapons fire up-stairs. Still, we had to leave sometime.
"Okay! Do it!" I said.
Everybody took a couple of deep breaths, looked at each other and went over the edge.
I did not feel the weight of the 300 rounds of ammunition on my belt, or the knife, or the camera, or the grenades. I do not remember running. I have one memory of red dirt moving beneath my feet and another of the next crater as I blasted over the side and slid down. This one had about five guys in it.


'We Better Get Out of Here'


Somebody yelled, "Medic!" from the other side of the crater. I poked my head up just as Meder, the short, dark-haired medic with the Bronx accent, started over the rim. He didn't have to go out. A skin-ny figure in a tiger suit and bush hat rolled into the crater, rounds kicking up dirt all around him.
"Got hit in the chest!" he said as he crashed into the crater, M16 in hand. It was 1st Lt. Tom Humphus, one of the company advisers.
Meder tore his shirt open, looked close-ly at it and said, "In and out pec. Didn't go in the chest cavity. He's gonna be all right."
"What the hell were you doing up there?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Just lookin' around."
"See anything interesting?"
"I saw we better get out of here," he replied.
He was right. We were better off than in the other crater, but still exposed. If one guy got lucky with a B-40 we'd all had it.
A few seconds later we were running again, this time straight for the treeline and Lt. Linh's old position. As soon as there were trees between me and the NVA gunners, I slowed to a walk, chest heaving, barely able to lift my feet. After 10 months in an office, the weight of the ammo and running had really gotten to me. I staggered into Linh's grove of trees and collapsed, panting.
Linh was talking on his radio and firing his M79. He moved quickly and nervously from one to the other, beads of sweat standing out on his upper lip. He was probably thinking the same thing I was. We had to collect our wounded, call in the perimeter and make an orderly withdrawal almost impossible without
 

air cover, and for that we needed Nauman. He might be stuck out there in one of the craters. He might be anywhere.
 I was still mulling this over when a big
 red-haired trooper I didn't know came up through the woods. He looked about 23 or 24. Following him was a slender, clean-cut, black-haired kid.
I followed the two young soldiers back through the trees and moved parallel to the LZ. The red-haired guy in front called to some Americans and Vietnamese Rangers to come help. They stared at him stupidly and didn't move.
We stood on a five-foot dirt bank and looked across 30 meters of flat, open country to that first bomb crater. Once out of the trees, there was scarcely a blade of grass between us and it. It had filled up with men again, but I didn't see anybody who looked too hurt to move.
"That it?" I asked. The CH-46 was still smoking.
"That's it," said the redhead, and he started down through the trees with the other kid right behind him.
I followed, watching them and the cra-ter instead of where I was going. Just as they broke out of the woods and started running, I tripped and fell flat on my face in the bush.
I looked up. They were running, half-way to the crater, dodging rounds. I didn't see them get hit, but if they weren't it was a miracle. They weren't going to make it back without covering fire.
About 15 men were in the crater. Some wore green Marine flying suits. A tall guy in a tiger suit, standing at the far edge of the crater, lit a cigarette.


22    SOLDIER OF FORTUNE 

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