As all hell broke loose, Lieutenant Lawrence Hines found himself opposite a wiry kid who was vomiting furiously into the undergrowth. Ahead of him men had rolled off the trail and rendered themselves to the jungle floor. Even further up the trail, where Thomson was on point, the volleys of gunfire thundered on. In the precious pauses between fire, orders were yelled down the line; the big gun was called to the front; the radio crackled as Hines hollered into it.
He tugged a map from his pocket and ran his shaking hand across it. For a moment he felt a wave of dizziness pulling him away from the chaos around him. The relief lines on the map swam out of focus. The numbers on the Hills became as illegible as Chinese to him. He closed his eyes tight, fighting the tide, before he reopened them, stabbing a finger on the map and looking intently to the radio operator beside him. The operator nodded and immediately Hines keyed the handset and began to yell coordinates for the artillery down the wire.
All of this was about get worse before it got any better. Bedlam from the skies would be here within minutes. Hines had barely a second to worry about whether he had just ordered an artillery strike to rain down on his own men or the enemy who were somewhere ahead of them. Right now he had to get orders and help to his men up front.
Hines called to the kid who was on the other side of the overgrown trail and was now staring blankly to the ground where he had thrown up half a tin of peaches - all he had eaten in the last 18 hours. It took all Hines had in his lungs to be heard over the din of engagement. The kid took a few deep breathes then locked his eyes with Hines, knowing his life and the life of his squad may depend on it. Hines signaled with a flat hand for him to go prone. The kid immediately dropped and started taking slow, but fearful breaths, grasping his rifle close to his chest. They held eye contact as he shifted to his stomach. Tears had already begun to burn his cheeks. Hines motioned for him to hold and mouthed the words “It’s Ok”. Then he remembered himself and motioned for the kid to move up the line.
The eyes he looked into were the eyes of a scared boy. Hines seen them before - he’d probably worn them himself when he first ever took patrol. Ambushes never got old; even for the short timers. If the kid lived the day out, they would be the eyes of a man in the body of a teenager.
Hines was near the rear of a column of 18 men. Minutes earlier he had been at the front to oversee Wallace taking point. He’d been called down here to motivate the rear who were suffering with the midday heat and onslaught of ant bites. Minutes later the front line was in ambush. Wallace the poor bastard had barely had chance to find his feet and every point’s worst nightmare had come true. An explosion of two or three grenade meant an enemy ambush. Even worse was that Hines was sure they had let the point man pass before launching an attack. Their column was split and there were some men out there surrounded by enemy.
In the brief silence that was a prelude to the squad opening up on the dense jungle before them, Hines had heard a grown men screaming for his Mother: a dying man making his last call to something more tangible than God. God was not out here with them. He wasn’t at the front, that was for sure. But that was where Hines had to be.
Hines shifted down on to his chest and signaled that he would move forwards. He indicated to the kid he should follow. Ten feet in front of him he saw a solitary Marine’s helmet peak the ferns. The owner spotted him and gestured for Hines to advance. Hines held a circle made of forefinger and thumb to his eye and pointed ahead. A sniper lay in wait.
Hines relayed this to the kid and he nodded, scared for his life, but dutiful. He freed his kit and rolled on to his side, dropping it in the vegetation.
A silence fell across the Jungle.
There were shouts in Vietnamese not more than 10 meters from where he lay.
Then an explosion.
Then he was being dragged. Quiet voices taliking about him but he couldn’t make out words. He felt himself drop to the ground. Then he was falling. Tumbling. Fading.