Snapshot: Khe Sanh

A SHORT STORY BY LR FORGUES
Started Oct 11, 2015

RECORDED RADIO INTERCEPT OF COMMUNICATION TRANSMISSIONS BETWEEN:

‘Papa Whiskey 1-1’ (Khe Sanh Combat Base GROUND CONTROL),

‘Firebird 2-6’ (Responding AC-47 Gunship on Combat Air Patrol),

‘Blue 0-4’ (Blue Sector Observation Post-North Side Perimeter),

‘Rosie’ Flight (2 F-105 Thunderchiefs on Combat Air Patrol in the Khe Sanh sector)

-“Papa-Whiskey 1-1, Firebird 2-6, come back.”

-“Go ahead, Firebird.”

-“Hate to do this fellas, but we are Bingo on fuel. Gotta break station and RTB. How copy?”

-“Copy that, 2-6. How long on fresh CAP? We need to keep the pressure on these pricks till Arc Light.”

-“Firebird 1-5 is inbound at this time. ETA 15 Mikes, and eager to play.”

-“Papa-Whiskey, this is Blue 0-4. We’ve been monitoring. We still have that movement on our 12 o’clock position, immediately North of us, bout 100 yards out.”

-“Roger that, O-4. Wait One.”

-“This is Papa-Whiskey 1-1. Is anyone up on GUARD Net right now? We could use some more party favors down here…North side. How copy?”

-“Papa-Whiskey, this is Rosie 1-7. We just hit your Air from the South. How can we be of service?”

-“I copy you, Rosie. What’s on the menu?”

-“We’re hauling tanks of Nape slung and full pockets of 20 Mike Mike.”

-“Sounds like a date, Rosie. Bring the heat down on the shallow hill 100 yards North, on the treeline…East to West run. How copy?”

-“Roger that, Papa-Whiskey. Good copy. Napalm coming down 100 yards North of your perimeter running East to West. Stand by for Battle Damage Assessment and advise.”

-“We’ll be watching as you roll out, Rosie. BDA to follow. Out.”

BLACK

FADE IN

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Laid out before us, stretching away, is a wide runway framed by packed, red earth. Gassy pulses of heat silently distort the view. The dim contours of the distant hills waver seductively while palm trees sway back and forth in the warm, moistened wind. The monstrous bulk of a jungle-camouflaged C-130 Hercules, the work-horse of the U.S. Air Force, drops smoothly into view, touching down in a burst of red dust.

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It rolls quickly away, hot brakes slowing the trundling aircraft as it nears the staging area at the runway’s far end. The details become hazy in the heat that dances before us.

A TITLE CARD fades in:
Khe Sanh Marine Corps Combat Base
May, 1968

All seems peaceful…still. Only the heavy bass roar of the Herc’s four propellers intrude as it rolls toward the sandbagged revetment on the NorthWest side of the runway, where dusty and disheveled figures in faded green nervously wait, spread among the battered oil drums, discarded ammo crates and burst sandbags. Then…a shrill whistle, rising over the loud rumble of the engines. It quickly passes overhead, ending abruptly with a powerful *BOOM!*

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A nearby corner of the tarmac bursts away in a flash of aggressive yellow sparks. The resulting cloud of dust and smoke whips into a frenzy, buffeted by the violent prop wash of the lumbering plane as it takes a sharp turn onto an open service path. Nestled in the spacious and dangerously exposed cockpit, the flak-jacketed crew flinch in unison as a scatter of deadly shrapnel rings sharply off the Herc’s aluminum skin. The wide-eyed pilot recovers first, straining against his 5-point harness as he yells into his mike.

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“Un-Ass that shit now!! Get those cherries out!! We need to move! NOW!”

The fresh-faced 20 year old Load Master, with surprisingly bad teeth, throws out a quick ‘thumbs up’ as the static-tinged voice barks in his ear. Hitting a nearby control panel, he whirls around, yelling into the cavernous cargo hold…

“Ok, you sorry sons of bitches!! Get the fuck up and get the fuck out!”

…as he roughly shoves his way forward, through the cramped mass of rising Marine replacements milling about with nervous uncertainty. Crimson-tinged light spills over the pale, sweat-slickened faces as the huge ramp yawns open.

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The low hum of the hydraulics are instantly lost in the tapestry of chaotic noise that forces its way in. One of the Marines, 18 year old Private J. Levitt, fumbles grabbing for the flak jacket he was ordered to use as a seat cushion on take-off from the Air Base at Da Nang. Something about stopping AK-47 rounds from tearing him a new asshole, if ‘Charlie’ tried shooting through the bottom of the plane.

Jesus…what a place?!

The Load Master whips around at the open ramp’s edge, yelling:

“All right! This is it! We’re not stopping! Charlie’s got this place fucked up with incoming! Get your shit together and get out of my house!! Good luck, ladies!”

A clattering rumble abruptly sounds. Levitt glances up, seeing the four pallets of supplies that hitched a ride with this cattle-car of Fucking New Guys being shoved out on oily rails sunk into the scuffed metal floor. The net-wrapped loads of food, water, and much needed ammunition disappear into the glare beyond the C-130’s towering tail.

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Levitt thinks he sees shadowy figures rush out of the dusty murk to grab, then…they’re gone.

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In no formal order, the Marines around Levitt lurch forward, fighting the unsteady sway of the still-moving plane; awkwardly dragging packs, duffel bags and weapons down the ramp and out into the billowing dust.

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There’s a clattering thud ahead, and Levitt watches a fellow Marine, a young bespectaled kid, who’s name he never learned, stumble under the weight of his equipment and tumble awkwardly into the red dirt. No one moves to help as he struggles to rise; his motions frantic and jerky through the haze.

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Levitt, still awkwardly trying to throw his flak jacket back on, grabs the straps of his bulging backpack, pushing himself down the ramp…straight into Hell on Earth. Before he can register solid ground below his booted feet, rough hands grab, shoving him bodily away from the pivoting bulk of the cargo plane. The mustached lieutenant, clearly not worrying about politeness, screams…

“Move it, you little bastards!! Get off the fucking tarmac!! We’ve got INCOMING! GO! THAT way!!”

Even over the smell of choking dust, aircraft fuel and cordite, Levitt can make out the sour mash of coffee and cigarettes on the lieutenant’s shouted words. This quick observation trails away as a low, mournful tone rises out of the chaos. The siren’s wail builds to a frightening crescendo, echoing out over the besieged base…before dropping quickly away. As soon as it fades out…it rises again…and again…and again…! The officer jabs an open hand, clumsily wrapped in a bloodied bandage, toward a shallow trench at the revetments far side, where Levitt can see a number of bobbing helmets peeking over the sand-bagged edge.

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Feeling the weight of his equipment, the Marine launches forward, groaning in spite of himself. Through the glare and stinging wind of the nearby propellers, he runs. His boots thud down heavily with every panicked step, and the uncomfortable weight of his gear feels…wrong. Unbalanced. Through the chaotic blur, Levitt can make out one of his fellow Marines frantically gesturing at him from the open trench; his hands fluttering back and forth as he desperately tries to lure Levitt in from the open.

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Then…he’s on them! Stumbling over a leaking sandbag, Levitt crashes down into the collection of hunkering troops, setting off a string of frustrated curses and shouts. Remembering the kid that fell, he spins around, roughly bumping a nearby Marine with his heavy pack. Taking no heed to the new blast of obscenities, Levitt finds the clumsy Marine straggler being shoved toward them by the bandaged Lieutenant, with the same degree of politeness and courtesy he himself had only just experienced. Levitt’s mind changes frequency for a moment, and the lightly-built Marine marvels at the sight before him. The small stumbling, green-clad figure, the massive backdrop of the retreating C-130, the endless expanse of sandbags, trench lines, and shallow canvas tents…seeming to stretch out as far as he could see. The misty hills in the background, undoubtedly crawling with entrenched enemy soldiers, intrude on the image.

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Sudden movement snatches Levitt’s attention. The nearby Lieutenant, seeming to sense…something…springs away in a furtive dive; slamming down between two nearby oil drums(!?). Others nearby vanish too, instantly hunkering down behind whatever solid obstruction is available…

“What the…?!”

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The mortar round explodes with a deep *KRUMP!* in the centre of the revetment, where the huge cargo plane had been taxiing only moments earlier, on it’s way back to the runway and the freedom of flight. Levitt flinches away as the burst of bright sparks and dirt seems to shoot directly at him with nasty purpose. His next breath is abruptly knocked from his chest as a heavy shadow tumbles into the trench, slamming him down. The sweet gunpowder smell of the spent explosive drifts pass on the warm wind, stinging Levitt’s nostrils. The scene draws quiet. He becomes acutely aware of his own breathing, as all else falls mute. He’ll always remember it as a serene moment of post-trauma tranquility…but won’t remember the blood that had trickled from his right ear moments later. A wet, gurgling cough nearby. The sprawled body of the last Marine in, kicks suddenly, knocking a blinding spray of dust into the group. A soldier nearby, hunched over a matte-black M-60 machine gun emblazoned with messy yellow tiger-stripes down the barrel, yells from under his wide, sweat-stained boonie cap…

“Turn ‘im over! Turn ‘im over now!! CORPSMAN up, man!!”

All hands in the trench grab at the olive green fatigues…tugging and pulling. One of the troops springs away with a yelp of surprise, staring in horror at the warm smear of crimson on his hands. There’s another choking cough. Someone’s hand darts forward, yanking the askew helmet from the wounded kid’s face. A lens of his black-rimmed glasses is badly cracked and the other is spattered with blood. A drop falls, settles…widening on the sewn name-tag below. ‘Brewer’. So that was his name. A couple inches lower, smoke whispers out of the ragged hole punched through the heavy flak jacket…from behind. Blinking frantically, the pale kid looks around in fear and confusion. His body heaves again and another mouthful of dark red spills out in a violent cough. Levitt, kneeling in the dust beside the badly wounded teenager, frantically looks around the group of pale, scared faces; peering out from under helmets that somehow appear too large for their heads. Looking back down, he can see the kid’s limp left arm flopped in the dirt, as a stain of red begins seeping through the green fabric. Reaching forward, he freezes suddenly, hearing:

“MAKE A HOLE, DIPSHITS!!”

The bearded Navy corpsman, ragged shoulder bag of medical supplies bouncing at his side, charges into the scene, scattering the Marines as he shoves in on the dying soldier.

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Levitt, pushed aside, finds himself quickly rolling out of the trench, dragging his awkward collection of gear to a nearby mess of dusty sandbags. Collapsing into the shadow of the rough, North-facing ‘horseshoe’ shape, he glances around, noticing the burly ‘brutha’ on the M-60, who’d yelled for the corpsmen, poised close by; the intimidating muzzle of the belt-fed light machine-gun slowly sweeping back and forth over unseen targets to the North, over the distant perimeter fence.

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Sound begins to return to Levitt. He can hear the corpsmen in the trench barking instructions to the troops around him, as he fights to save the wounded Marine collapsed in the dirt. The scene is scored by the dirge-like cry of the emergency siren wailing in the distance. There’s a roar; the C-130 charges down the runway, a wide tail of thick red dust billowing up behind it as it lurches skyward.

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As the bass rumble fades, Levitt can make out the relentless popcorn-popping sound of small-arms fire, crackling back from the long perimeter stretching across their view. A new sound rips through, a throaty scream from the West rising over the wind. Levitt scrambles around, cautiously peering over the frayed edge of a sandbag.

There!

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‘Rosie’ Flight, two USAF F-105 Thunderchiefs, streak in from the West in single file, backdropped by the hazy slopes beyond. The first dart shape levels out at 200 feet, the harsh glare of the morning sun glinting for a moment off a shiny detail missed by the brown and green camouflage. The fighter-bomber suddenly sheds two bulbous silver tanks from it’s wings.They tumble gracefully end over end toward the treeline below; tendrils of blue smoke marking their passage through the humid air.

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Unburdened by the weight, the Thunderchief accelerates with a stuttering howl, rocketing toward the scattering of clouds above.The two napalm canisters slam down across the low peak, a short walk from the base’s razor-wired perimeter. With twin *BOOMS!*, they explode into showers of sharp, glittering fragments. Aggressive pillars of angry red flame punch up through the shredded palm trees that sway defiantly above, the jellied gasoline spraying mercilessly through the target area, erupting in concussive waves with deep, successive thuds.

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Levitt gapes at the sight of his first combat Air Strike, and the rising curtain of black smoke it leaves behind. A thin snake of green tracers silently lance skyward from a swath of foliage beyond the inferno, chasing uselessly after the retreating jet and it’s thinning tail of inky exhaust. Another vicious roar. From the West again. Levitt’s wide eyes quickly catch the sharpened blur of the second fighter-bomber dashing across his field of vision.

Again, the silver cigar-shapes drop away.

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The tangled patch of jungle that spat the tracer fire is abruptly swallowed by a vast wash of bright red flames and black smoke; the deep, double explosion echoing off into the surrounding hills.

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Levitt tastes sour dust and snaps his slackened mouth shut, acutely aware of his own awe. The second Thunderchief speeds away, climbing sharply in an evasive turn; the nerve-wracking shriek of the engines fading with surprising speed.

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“It’s something, ain’t it.”

Levitt pulls back from the dusty sandbags, looking over at the soldier who just spoke in a smoky baritone. Again glancing out from under the boonie cap, the black Marine smirks, explaining,

“Round these here parts, those ‘fast mover’ boys are ok by us, believe me, son!”
“They fuck Charlie’s shit up, but good!…it’s one helluva show!!”

Levitt answers with a quick, awe-struck nod and the Marine turns his attention back to the Field of Fire beyond the yellow-striped barrel of the M-60. Hunched against the messy pile of sandbags, Levitt unconsciously grabs for his now dusty pack. Shit! His iron!

Where the hell did his M-16 go!!

A dose of adrenaline punches Levitt square in the chest and his eyes dart about…searching!…searching…!!

THERE!!!

Lying in the red dirt between the sandbagged firing point and the trench is the deadly 8 lb piece of metal and plastic, issued to him only a week ago.

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*CLANG!*

Something hard and fast abruptly strikes an oil drum nearby…punching an ugly ragged hole in the metal. The empty container rocks back, before thumping forward into an oily puddle, spraying Levitt with drops of foul mud. As if cued, he springs forward, his own mind simply along for the ride. Scrambling on all fours, he crawls and pushes awkwardly toward the rifle. He reaches forward…cold metal. Dusty plastic. Grabbing the carrying handle / iron sight, Levitt freezes…he sees another M-16. Lying beside the toppled and pierced barrel is another American firearm. Like his…in every way. Before he can instinctively glance around for the owner, something else is noticed. That gun will never fire again. The plastic butt is shattered and the mag-well has a smooth hole ripped through it. It’s partially buried in the dirt, next to a dark puddle. The puddle looks…odd. Too red. Too…organic, Levitt realizes. It’s a tendril that dribbled away from a larger puddle of blood a few feet away, drying in the wildly churned mud. Levitt’s stomach heaves in acknowledgement… sees the collection of buzzing flies at the puddle’s crusted shoreline. Pulling his M-16 with him, the Marine shoves and trips back toward the cover of the firing point, his passage kicking up a clumsy tail of dust. The left-over image of dark-streaked and tattered bandages, stamped into the bloody dirt, their loose ends fluttering in the tropical wind, sticks with him the whole way. With a final lurch, he tumbles back into the cover of the sand-bags. Feeling eyes on him, he looks up. The Marine poised over the M-60 smirks from under his sweat-stained boonie hat:

“You white boys are crazy muthafuckahs, son! Shee-it!”

Before he can follow up on this observation, something ahead catches his attention…a pause…then the wide hat brim bobs in acknowledgement of something unseen. Looking back down at Levitt pressed against the shallow wall of sandbags, the Marine, serious now, yells:

“Ok, Palmolive…let’s get in this game! Stick with me, son! We gotta move!”

With that, he yanks the heavy M-60 off the sandbags and ducks away, sprinting forward.

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His mind blank, Levitt grabs his gear and follows in a fast crouch. Emerging from the shadow of the firing point, Levitt sees the Marine ahead, sunlight glinting off the loose belt of 7.62 calibre ammo that dangles at his side, bouncing around as the machine gun jerks back and forth.

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Squinting through the tears the dust brings to his eyes, Levitt sees the shape of a dusty, olive-green Army Jeep parked beside the tattered and scorched remains of a canvas tent, burst sandbags scattered about. The running Marine ducks down, pressing against the balding, mud-encrusted rear tire. Levitt stumbles in, thudding to a stop beside him. The boonie cap swings around and dark brown eyes meet Levitt’s greys…

“Shee-it, son! You made it! Nicely done!”

A calloused hand is extended.

“Name’s Parker!”

Levitt drops the straps of his pack and shakes the poised hand.

“Jimmy Levitt!”

Parker gives a manly squeeze to Levitt’s unprepared knuckles and smirks:

“Nice to meetcha, Levitt! Welcome to Khe San, son!

Releasing the handshake, Parker turns toward the Jeep’s front end. Crouched there is a young Marine Corporal, his helmet cocked to the side to allow for the plastic handset of the PRC-25 field radio, into which he now yells:

“Negative, O-4! Williams, I need you to sweep the .50 left a few degrees LEFT! Just past those 3 palms! The muzzle flashes came from there! Hit em hard, man!”

Raising a pair of binoculars, he glares toward the North, straining to see the effect of his directions.

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Lowering them after a moment, he gives the crouching machine gunner and the FNG a furtive glance from under the cocked helmet…and then turns his attention back to the radio nestled in the shadow of the muddy wheel-well. A quick turn of a dial and he barks into the handset again.

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It’s clear he’s talking to someone different now.

“Boxcar 2-3, this is Khe San Ground Control. The Comms Tent is down. I’ll be your relay. How copy? Over.”

Over the whistling wind and popcorn crackle of small-arms fire in the distance, Levitt makes out the tinny, far-off sound of a radio response. The Corporal cocks his head, listening.

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A moment later…he responds, shifting his crouched position, his eyes quickly scanning the sky to the South from behind his binoculars.

“Roger that, Boxcar 2-3. I have a visual on you! Over.”

In unison, Parker and Levitt look back, straining against the dust and glare to pick out ‘Boxcar 2-3′. Parker sees it first, a muscled arm lancing forward as his dusty finger points; a faint serpent tattoo snaking down the dark and dusty skin of his bicep.

“There! There’s the beautiful bastard now!”

It takes Levitt another moment to pick the silver C-123 cargo plane out among the iron grey clouds moving in from the South of the besieged base.

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From where they watch, it silently completes a wide turn, lining up with the battered runway…the same runway the Hercules just lifted off from. Lowering the binoculars, the corporal quickly speaks back into the handset.

“You’re looking good, Boxcar. Bring it straight in and drop the goodies midway! We will collect! Over.”

Parker leans back to growl at Levitt, gesturing again at the incoming aircraft.

“They comin in fast with this one! They just kickin it out the back as they fly on by!!”

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The C-123 leveled out at 150 feet, suddenly dipping it’s nose and rapidly decreasing the space between it and the packed-mud runway below. The rumbling pitch of the turbo-prop lowered noticeably as the large plane quickly dropped speed. From where he crouched, Levitt could just make out the open ramp beneath the tail boom, pallets of supplies lurking within. As he watches, the drogue chute billows out of the shadows. Then…sudden movement beside him! Looking over in surprise, Levitt sees Parker and the corporal, still holding the handset to his ear, abruptly flinch back to press themselves closer to the hot metal skin of the dusty jeep. Then he hears it. The shrill whistle that suddenly zips past, from the North beyond the imperiled perimeter fence. The falling mortar round explodes with a sharp *BANG!* at the edge of the runway, kicking up another dark cloud of smoke and dust ahead of the oncoming cargo plane. The sound of the blast hadn’t even faded when the second explosive passes quickly overhead. A cold knot forms in Levitt’s gut at that moment. He knows what’s about to happen.

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Even over the bass roar of the approaching engines, everyone in the area hears the sharp metal-on-metal impact. From his crouched vantage point, Levitt, seemingly in the blink of an eye, sees the plane’s right wing, the one closest to him, abruptly jerk downward. A ragged hole the size of a large pie plate punches straight through from above. Amber aircraft fuel and red hydraulic fluid immediately burst out in a messy spray, geysering toward the red earth below. It’s into this same mud that the hot mortar round hits…and explodes. The shock-wave kicks upward, followed by a choking cone of dust and sparks. It slams into the underside of the passing wing, shattering a wide section into ragged pieces that burst dangerously into the moist air. The shower of yellow sparks passes through the spray of flammable liquid like buckshot…the resulting explosion violently blows apart the right engine, and remaining wing, in a violent flash of red flames and greasy black smoke.

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Even from where he’s crouched staring in horror and fear…Levitt can hear the screams from the nearby corporal’s handset. A much louder detonation forces his attention away from the tinny shrieks behind him.

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The crippled C-123, one side engulfed in billowing flames, rolls over and slams into the runway with a crash, sliding along the ground. The jarring impact smashes the plane’s back with a shriek, tearing open the fuel tank serving the still-intact left engine. Gallons of more jet fuel spray into the air, vaporizing in a fine cloud and washing straight into the out-of-control fire nearby. With a tremendous *BOOM!*, the entire rear half of the stricken cargo plane explodes as it tears along, completely out of control.

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Two trapped Marines crouched at the runway’s edge disappear in the sudden blast, swallowed by the wash of burning fuel and twisted debris that roared over them. Like an angry fist, a vast fireball rolls toward the sky, quickly fading into a tall pillar of black smoke. Smouldering pieces of broken aircraft thud heavily into the dust below, trailing twisted serpents of smoke after them. The smashed fuselage gives way, unable to support the towering tail any longer…which collapses in flames behind the still-sliding wreckage, kicking up a red cloud of dust and glittering metal fragments as it bounces along. Troops at the end of the runway break out in a fearful sprint, yelling in alarm as the mass of burning metal careens toward them, seconds before it crashes over the concertina wire that marks the runway’s end and shreds a pair of dirty canvas tents before groaning to a twisted stop. As the crackling flames climb steadily out of the crash, there’s one last muffled explosion from within…and then it burns.

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Turning back to the corporal, Levitt watches as the staring trooper mechanically thumbs the key switch on the handset, asking with noticeable detachment…

“Boxcar…come back? Over.”

There’s a faint click as he releases the key. Looking at Levitt, but looking right through him at the same time, the dazed corporal holds the handset out toward the two crouching soldiers. Even over the sounds of fire and pandemonium nearby, the two Marines can both make out the hiss of static indicating a dead channel on that frequency. On ‘Boxcar 2-3‘s frequency. Levitt looks back at the twisted burning mass and realizes with a shock that he’s looking at the plane’s cockpit, now turned toward him by the violence of the crash. It’s a blackened skeleton, the windows now frames for moving portraits of fire, as dark smoke plumes skyward to mark the final resting place of ‘Boxcar 2-3’.

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Again…Levitt’s stomach heaved.

What did the ‘123 carry for crew?…4…5 guys maybe?

3 of which were probably in that blazing cockpit. As if to accentuate this terrible thought…another blast sounds within the inferno, louder than the last. A shower of sparks explode from the glowing, smoke-choked windshield…and the whole crumpled fuselage rolls onto its side with a shrieking groan, inky smoke and licks of bright flame roiling out of a dozen fresh punctures in the aluminum skin. A hot wind washes past…different…dry…the pungent stench of fumes…and something else…stinging Levitt’s squinting eyes. A large hand slaps him in the chest. Blinking his vision clear, he sees Parker’s broad face looming in at him, the pale, stricken face of the corporal just over his shoulder…radio handset still poised half-way to his head…

 “Jimmy!! We have got to move, boy!! She could blow again!!”

Levitt nods frantically, but before he can quickly ask where…a dark, 3-story geyser of red dirt and black smoke leaps skyward in the near-distance; the thud of the unheard blast registering through the ground beneath them in unison. Then…*BOOM!!!*. The shockwave rips past with frightening force, echoing off over the besieged base. Levitt pulls his startled gaze away from the plume of rising dust and falling debris…and freezes. Parker’s large eyes widen, his mouth dropping slack. So far, the black trooper had been an instinctive anchor in the madness, someone who knew the ropes and may just help keep him alive. But there was fear now. Again, Levitt’s question is stifled as a second explosion, this time closer, blasts up toward the wispy clouds, taking the shredded remains of a Quonset hut with it; maimed pieces of metal roofing noisily clattering all around with a falling storm of red mud and dirty water. The shell-shocked Corporal turns robotically toward the twin columns of smoke and dust, muttering…

“That’s…artillery. But…it’s a Sunday…why…?”

This quiet, nonsensical sentence snaps Parker out of his own trance and he quickly turns toward Levitt…

“Arty, kid!! Those little bastards switched to the goddamn big stuff! It’s fucking artillery!”

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A third blast, even closer and louder, sends a fireball rolling up into the air; ruptured 55 gallon drums screaming back down to earth like angry comets, the red flames quickly swallowed by ugly black smoke as they rise.

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Even from this distance, Levitt can see the hellish rain of burning fuel as it drifts down. Two canvas tents quickly catch fire, troops spilling frantically out into the mud and dust to escape.

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This scene is obscured by yet a fourth detonation, the closest yet. The ground again bucks beneath them as the shock-wave painfully bursts past. The clumsy shape of a thrown flak-jacket, identical to the one Levitt has yet to don, thuds into the dust nearby; the sound bringing with it a deadly realization…just as Parker yells what Levitt was thinking…

“They walking that shit on us!! They’re adjusting!! We have to go! NOW!”

With that, the black soldier hefts the cumbersome weight of the M-60, quickly pushing himself up from his crouch. As the burly Marine charges past, the stunned Corporal abruptly shrinks away like a dog expecting abrupt punishment, pressing in to the dusty jeep, radio handset again pressed to his head. Parker throws a shout back over his shoulder…

“Let’s go, Jimbo!! North perimeter!!”

Levitt, awkwardly clutching his gear to his chest, pushes off, aiming for the hazy figure of the Marine sprinting through the drifting curtain of smoke and dust ahead…and runs. He’s 10 steps past the nose of the Jeep when he notices his grip on the M-16 slipping…

…he’s 18 steps past when a devilish shriek bursts past just overhead, the air buffeted by the artillery round’s violent passage in the opposite direction. Just as the fresh recruit’s already shocked mind starts to register alarm…the large explosive, thrown at the besieged base from a camouflaged hill-side position 6 miles to the North, impacts…detonating with frightening force.

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The dust-choked area the two Marines had just hastily fled vanishes in a bright yellow flash. The inert Jeep, parked a dozen steps from the impact, leaps skyward, spraying shattered pieces of itself in all directions as it somersaults through the air…toward the fleeing Marine replacement! A moment later, the twisted wreck crashes to the ground just feet behind; the gas tank splitting open in the merciless impact. A fireball abruptly envelopes the upside-down vehicle with a loud *Whoomph!*. Levitt, with no time to register what’s happening behind him, slams forward into the dust as though punched in the back. A searing wave of heat washes over him, threatening to scorch all exposed skin while yanking insistently at his fatigues. With both hands occupied, the kid’s face takes the brunt of the dusty impact, breaking his nose with a crunch more felt than heard; the salty copper taste of fresh blood flooding his dazed senses. Rifle, flak jacket and rucksack bounce away as he tumbles, settling a few feet away like discarded play-things. Everything falls quiet for Levitt while he struggles to breath; bloody face pressed into the stinking red dirt, faintly aware of heat licking at his boots.

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Numbness settles in as Levitt grimaces, struggling to roll over. Glaring sunlight stabs at his eyes as he frantically blinks caked dirt and stinging tears away, crimson blood dribbling groundward across his dirt-streaked cheeks from his already swelling nose. He’s able to weakly settle on his side before fatigue and pain slow his progress to a halt. From this prone position, his vision is almost entirely obstructed by the burning mass of ruined metal and fiercely cooking rubber that had been his cover only minutes before…that had narrowly missed him as it crashed to the ground.

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Back-dropping this stark image is a towering pillar of dust and smoke, slowly drifting away on the warm breeze and briefly cloaking the smouldering skeleton of the doomed cargo plane beyond. Dozens of shredded pieces of canvas flit about and drift on the wind; remnants of the collapsed tent the Jeep had been nestled up against. Something tugs in the fog of Levitt’s mind and his half-lidded gaze drifts over the scene…searching…for something. The explosion’s choking cloud roils along the ground, pushed by the light wind. As it drifts away, it yields a dark shape, splayed awkwardly several feet away like an abandoned puppet. Even with his mind reeling…Levitt can see that the Corporal is dead.

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Probably killed instantly when the shell hit, thrown along with the smashed bulk of the Jeep he’d remained with when Parker and Levitt had bolted. The olive-green fatigues look shredded…burned…and dark stains are now visible soaking through. There is no movement. He’s gone. The severed cord and radio handset is visible, still clenched in a lifeless hand. Ears still ringing, Levitt doesn’t hear Parker’s combat boot as it thuds down inches from his blood-spattered face; the M-60 placed down within easy reach behind him, resting on it’s extended bipod, the cold tiger-striped barrel still pointing North; shiny belt of ammunition carelessly coiled in the dust beside. Rough hands, free of the machine gun’s cumbersome weight, pull insistently at his jacket. As though far in the distance, Levitt can just make out the Marine’s baritone voice…

“Holy shit, Jim! They fucked you up but good, boy!! CORPSMAN!! We need a corpsman over here now!!”

Parker’s roughly searching hands come to a stop at Levitt’s side, suddenly becoming very careful in their prodding explorations. A fresh wave of hot pain jolts through his midsection, and Levitt feels warm liquid abruptly spill in a pair of streams across his belly, under his frayed shirt. Something’s wrong. There’s something hard and unyielding protruding from his abdomen. He can’t see it…but he’s definitely starting to feel it.

“CORPSMAN UP!!”

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Parker bellows again, head swiveling frantically as his wide brown eyes search the area for a medic. Levitt, speaking as though choked with cotton, murmurs:

“What…what happened? Am…am I ok? I feel…something…!”

Parker’s wide, dark face leans in, his eyes meeting Levitt’s.

“Charlie got you, son. Got you good.”

Levitt notices that somewhere along the way, Parker’s wide boonie cap was knocked askew, now draped behind his neck, hanging loosely on it’s long, green chin-strap. A dirty red bandana is wrapped over the shaved skull, previously hidden by the hat. After another glance around, he leans back into Levitt’s field of view…

“Doc’ll be here in a minute, kid. He’ll get that shit outta ya…you’ll be fine. Midas touch, I swear.”

Parker’s words sink in. Something IS wrong! With seemingly maximum effort, Levitt shifts his weight, groaning as a new pain impacts across his blood-streaked stomach. Looking down along a body that doesn’t feel like his anymore…he sees it. A ragged piece of metal, all sharp edges and blackened, red-smeared surface, protrudes rudely through his fatigue jacket by a couple of inches, as though taunting him with its presence. Blood is visibly soaking through around the base of the shrapnel, turning the dark green a vile shade of brown. But how…!?! He was running AWAY from the blast when it hit. Then…it dawns on him. He can feel blood leaking down his back now too, the streams quickly becoming sticky. Oh, my god!! Levitt’s mind is suddenly struck with razor-sharp clarity…he has a hole through him. The explosion blasted something sharp and nasty through his lower back and out his front, lodging in the fabric, and his pale flesh, on it’s way. Against his will, new tears burst forth, stinging his eyes again and blurring his view of Parker crouched at his side. His breathing goes shallow and his skin goes cold. His hands clench and unclench, as waves of pain jolt through his stricken body, clawing at the dirt around him.

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Movement. Nearby. Bursting forth from the fading haze of the blast is the bearded corpsman who had rushed to Brewer‘s aid when the kid was hit on the runway; fresh red sprayed across his shirt and a steely glare in his dark eyes. Parker sees him, gesturing frantically…

“Doc!! This Jimmy kid’s hit. He’s down!”

In seconds, the corpsman is on them, falling roughly to his knees, yanking his medic bag over his head and dropping it at the FNG‘s soaked side. His bloody hands lance out, feeling, testing and prodding Levitt’s limp body. He quickly reaches the metallic chunk poking through the sopping fabric and freezes, leaning in for a closer look. Another artillery round noisily arcs past overhead, exploding safely beyond them with a deafening *CRACK!!* that echoes quickly away. Parker jerks, startled…the corpsman does not. Instead, he reaches into his bag while staring aggressively at the ugly wound…and pulls out a small morphine syrette. Parker looks back down in time to see the short needle slide gracefully into an exposed vein in the top of Levitt’s hand. The wounded kid is suddenly flooded with a light, airy feeling, travelling quickly up his arm and pulling at his exhausted, pain-rocked mind. His eyelids flutter for a moment as the warm sensation washes over him, a low sigh escaping. Without a word, the corpsman hands the spent morphine packet to the burly soldier poised beside him, who then pins it to Levitt’s lapel. As he struggles to secure it, the corpsman lightly dips his dirty finger into wet fabric around the shrapnel and leans forward. Levitt can barely feel it, but through his cloudy vision, he can tell that the medic is painting a messy ‘M’ on his forehead, a dosage reminder for the field hospital after the medical ‘dust-off’. The corpsman then reaches up, not bothering to wipe his hands, pulling something small and white from behind his ear. Slipping the burned, half-joint between his cracked lips, he yanks a folded, one foot x one foot bandage from the depths of his supply bag and, leaning over Levitt, presses it roughly into place over the shark’s mouth-like entry wound leaking dark red down over Levitt’s pale skin…before gently rolling the Marine onto his back. Another explosion sounds in the distance, further than the last. As Levitt settles into his new prone position, the foggy recesses of his mind register a sudden, rhythmic thumping beneath him. There’s a deep rumble in the air now too. From where he’s lying, he can see the two men towering over him. Parker glances up and around…searching…

“That’s Arc Light! Fuckin B-52’s! The Stratofortress, baby!! They’re early!”

He continues to scan the sky.

“Where the hell are they?!”

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Levitt sees, beyond the heads of the two Marines, the white contrails of the bomber cell crawling silently across the blue sky above; so high up that the actual sources of the vapor trails are mere pin-points.

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He groans, words beyond him now, and with a weak hand, limply gestures above. Parker sees this, and follows the outstretched finger. The black Marine throws an approving ‘power fist‘ at the bombers as they continue on, heading back to base as their tons of 500 and 1000 lbs bombs, released from their racks almost 2 minutes earlier, rain down across the enemy-infected hills to the North with a thunderous roar

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There is a sharp metallic click nearby…and Levitt blinks his focus back to his current situation. The corpsman, still staring intently at the shrapnel, raises the ignited Zippo lighter to his lips. The already-scorched end of the joint blazes to back to life and the Zippo is snapped closed, vanishing into a deep pocket.

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He takes a deep toke and hands the grass to Parker, who eagerly pinches the sticky doob between two fingers and raises it to his own thick lips for a quick drag. Finally pulling his serious gaze from the wound, the corpsman looks Levitt dead in the eye, leaning in. Deliberately exhaling, Levitt’s face is swathed in a sweet cloud of white smoke; the pungent smell of the Thai Stick invading his bloody nostrils and further stinging his eyes. Wisps of smoke still trailing from beneath his thick beard, the corpsman gives a humorless smile and, in an unexpected Boston accent, growls…

“Normally, this isn’t how we like to do this, but…Welcome to Khe Sahn, kid.”

…abruptly yanking the shrapnel out of the wound, the sound of ripping fabric loud in Levitt’s ear. Even through the comforting haze of the morphine and marijuana…agonizing pain explodes behind James Levitt’s blood-shot eyes…and he immediately passes out.

Everything fades to Black.

Welcome to Khe Sahn, kid. Welcome to Hell on Earth.

THE END