16

ALL ABOARD, NEXT STOP "MUDVILLE"

 

Saturday, 20 December 1969, 0800 hours, Headquarters, 2/319th ARTY Landing Pad.

            The environment inside the Huey UH-1D "slick" was like the calm in the eye of a tornado.  While the high-pitched whine of the turbine engine and throbbing "WHUMP-WHUMP-WHUMP" of the main rotor blades combined to produce a deafening roar, it was nothing compared to the maelstrom they created outside the gunship.

            Even at idling speed, the 24-foot horizontal main rotor blades produced enough turbulence to make men strain against the powerful down-draft of its prop-wash as they approached the Huey from the front or side.  While there was much less resistance approaching the craft from the rear, even Madison had enough common sense to avoid that route where the tail boom with its vertical rotor blade waited to make mincemeat out of any dumb-fuck FNG.

            Doc Mike, Viderman, and Tatum moved toward the edge of the landing pad, bracing against the increased whirlwind of debris pelting them, as the slick's engine revved up for takeoff.  A muddy and tired looking Spec 6 Ripley stood in the background knowing what awaited Madison in the field.  Madison only knew that Ripley had looked awfully happy to be back in the rear area, and one day closer to going home.

            After a twenty minute flight due south of Camp Evans into the mountains, the barren ridge line that Fire Support Base (FSB) Rakkasan occupied came into view.  As the Huey hovered over a flat site some fifty yards below the crest of the ridge, the port side door gunner patted Madison on the shoulder who strained to hear what the man was saying through the engine roar.

            "Get yer gear and get ready ta bail out," the door gunner yelled.  "Pilot says it's too muddy ta land, so you'll have ta jump when I give ya the word."

            Madison looked down at the reddish-brown earth about ten feet below and hoped that the pilot planned to descend at least nine and a half more feet.  About eight feet up, he got "the word," and out the door he went.  It was the closest he cared to get to going to jump school.  "Fuck this 'airborne' shit," he almost thought out loud, rather than yelling a more traditional, gung-ho, "Geronimo".

            Loaded with the gear he had laid out on his cot just an hour earlier, and his new medical aid bag, his jungle boots hit the mud and immediately disappeared.  An instant later, the mud had risen to mid-calf without any sensation that solid ground was below it.  When it reached knee level, Madison felt the panic rising in his chest.  Was it possible for quicksand to be on a hillside, and he had landed in it?

            Madison quickly turned loose of his three bags, peeled off his rucksack, and finally began to sense a decrease in his rate of descent into the gooey ooze.  At mid-thigh it stopped.  He breathed a thankful sigh of relief and turned his attention from his own salvation back to the immediate surroundings and his own predicament.  This was the first time Madison literally had been stuck in the mud!

            The intense gale of the chopper's prop-wash beat down relentlessly as he twisted around to see the Huey slowly ascending behind him.  Madison saw that both the pilot and door gunner were smiling at his dilemma, to which he gave the customary one-finger "salute", thrusting it aloft smartly and rigidly until an acknowledgement was returned from the piloting officer in accordance with traditional military drill and ceremony.

            The pilot snapped a proper military salute followed by a smartly offered "thumbs up" sign.  The slick continued its ascent and then banked slowly right leaving Madison to figure out how he was going to extract himself from his near interment.

            Madison became aware of two things almost immediately after the Huey's departure.  First, the depth to which he had sunk in the mud kept him stable in the midst of the violent down-draft.  And second, without the cooling gale of the prop-wash, he realized how warm the sun's rays were on his shoulders and arms.  In fact, it felt down right hot!

            The next thing he realized was that it would be no small feat to pull himself out of the mud and climb the fifty yards to where men moved about in the battery above.  Finally, he became aware that no one seemed to notice this firmly planted FNG struggling to join them, let alone bother to ask whether he needed a hand.  Moreover, Madison was too proud (or too embarrassed) to yell for help.

            The extraction process alone took Madison nearly fifteen minutes to accomplish, and when it was, he could have passed for a camouflaged version of a freshly plucked rice plant - green on top and reddish-brown mud dripping from the bottom.  Most of his gear was pretty muddy as well, except for his weapons which he had kept out of the mire somehow.

            It took nearly ten more minutes to slog up the slippery slope to reach the battery.  His boots disappeared completely with every labored step, making each subsequent one more difficult with the weight of the accumulating muck.  The effort was intensified further by the weight of his equipment, the angle of ascent, and the mud's attempt to suck off his boots.

            When Madison reached the plateau where the battery was dug in he felt more exhausted than he ever recalled from basic training.  It seemed to take all of his will power to summon the strength needed to hoist his gear and then himself up to the makeshift catwalk about three feet above where he stood in the mud. 

            Sitting on the edge and staring down the hillside, Madison waited for his pulse and breathing to return to normal.  Shit, his oxygen-starved mind reeled, I'm not gonna last a week at this rate.  And I thought I was in shape, too!  While he was recovering from his ordeal, Madison began surveying his new "neighborhood". 

            FSB Rakkasan held a commanding view of terrain to the north, south, and east.  Another ridge line approximately two miles to the southeast stood higher.  To the west the ground seemed only slightly lower than the firebase's position.

             The ground sloped away steeply in three directions from the ridge line's plateau.  The perimeter had been cleared of virtually all vegetation, creating a three hundred sixty degree killing field extending at least a hundred yards down the three slopes and more than three hundred yards on the firebase's flatter western side.  As long as it stayed muddy, Madison figured no enemy charge up the hillside would be successful.  In fact, if it rained anymore, he would be surprised if the entire firebase could keep from sliding off the ridge line it occupied!

            Gazing down and along the eastern slope, Madison assessed the dense hillside foliage at the edge of the perimeter beyond the uprooted and splintered trees caused by heavy equipment and high explosives.  Moving up the barren slope toward the confines of the firebase the triple and quadruple rows of concertina wire came into view.  Next, he became aware of the angled punji-type stakes, claymore mines, M-60 machinegun emplacements, and sandbagged slit trenches dotting the steep mudscape.

            The firebase extended more than a quarter mile atop a two hundred yard-wide ridge running from northwest to southeast along the western-most edge of the Chaîne Annamitique mountain range.  Over three hundred Screamin' Eagles had spent the better part of a month establishing FSB Rakkasan in the quagmire as part of Operation RANDOLPH GLEN that would last until March 31, 1970.

            The fortifications on the plateau looked like a sprawling hodgepodge of makeshift dwellings, storage areas, and intertwining wooden walkways resting on a choppy sea of mud meringue.  Everything seemed to be constructed from seven types of material: ammunition crates, supply pallets, planks of PSP (perforated steel platform), semi-circular sections of corrugated steel, ponchos, canvas, and sandbags.  The mélange revealed that some men were better "architects" than others.

            The compound bristled with deeply driven stakes anchoring endless spiral loops of concertina wire strung throughout open areas between hootches, storage areas, and gun emplacements.  Red and white striped poles, some with small red lights on top, appeared to Madison's untrained eye to be placed randomly among the structures.  Two distinct clusters of antennae pointed skyward beyond the six 155mm howitzers in front of him to the southeast; their silver barrels elevated approximately ten degrees and uniformly pointed toward the east.  Madison assumed the communication arrays belonged to the 155mm battery and probably to infantry units protecting the fire base.

            A third concentration of antennae rose about a hundred yards behind his right shoulder at the rear of the six smaller, green-barreled, 105mm howitzer battery.  The gleam off the twelve clean and well-oiled artillery pieces stood in stark contrast to the reddish-brown mud that covered everything and everyone else.

            The activity among the 105mm gun crews seemed to increase as Madison hoisted his gear to begin searching for Alpha Battery's commanding officer.  Among the men moving to their howitzer emplacements a solitary figure stood with his hands on his hips atop the sandbags of one of the gun parapets.  His countenance and apparent assessment of the men's activities suggested that he must be the person to whom Madison should report.  The officer was joined by another soldier who began yelling instructions to the six gun crews as Madison closed the distance to the two men.

            The tempo in the parapets picked up as the six 105mm howitzers pivoted in unison toward the south, and the barrels slowly elevated at least sixty degrees skyward.  Madison slowed his pace to watch a crew of six cannoneers prepare their gun for the fire mission.  Two men were positioned on either side of the howitzer while a third stood behind and slightly to the left of the gun's barrel preparing to insert a 105mm round into the thigh-high breech.  Two others were preparing additional rounds in the parapet's ammo bunker to carry to the loader while the section chief relayed instructions to his crew and confirmations back to the soldier standing alongside the officer Madison was moving toward.

            "Three-by-Three Fire Mission, Charge Seven," yelled the man next to the officer.  An echoing confirmation of the order was returned by the six crew chiefs.  "Prepare to fire on my command."

            The officer continued surveying the parapets making certain all the crew chiefs were looking at him.  Then he looked at his watch and nodded to the soldier beside him who ordered,

            "Commence firing."

            "KABOOOOOOMMMMMM!!!!!!!"