A short story adapted from real life experiences

By Jim Gilchrist, President, The Minuteman Project

The fifteen marines and one Navy medical corpsman of Alpha squad moved stealthily along the dim trail high above a sea of green pampas grass that carpeted the valley below this great mound of rock and jungle. To division command, it was only a number: “Objective 1275.” Objective 1275 had to be conquered. “Bravo Company can do it,” headquarters resolved. “They’re our most seasoned fighters.”

Indeed, Sergeant Gage could fight. He knew how to battle, how to kill. It wasn’t that he was unafraid. He had fought dozens of battles, witnessed hundreds of men die, and he knew death could come quickly in the jungle. Tomorrow the helicopters would pluck Bravo Company from the mountain and fly the unit to another objective, another number. Gage pushed a sweaty strand of coal black hair from his eye and tucked it under his helmet.

Instantly, the tropical forest became a brilliant silhouette against a thunderous, lightning flash of fire and smoke as an exploding mine spewed hundreds of deadly pellets buzzing through Alpha squad. A severed arm and twisted rifle fell onto the trail in front of Gage.

He leaped into a cluster of boulders.

“Gunners up!” he yelled to the machine gunners at the rear of the column.

Three bullets snapped above. Gage writhed behind a boulder, poked his rifle overhead, and blindly fired an automatic burst. The remaining members of Alpha squad weaved into the trees and boulders to his left and right. A grenade explosion ripped through the jungle.

“Charlie on the right!” warned a marine. A rifle cracked with several quick, staccato blasts.

Gage rammed a fresh magazine into his rifle. The radioman crawled to his side and shoved the radio handset into his face. “It’s the captain.”

Gage pulled the handset to his ear.

“This is One-Alpha! Charlies to the front and right flank!”

Gage pushed his face into the leafy ground as a grenade exploded on the trail. Machine gun fire raked the jungle, chipping pieces of bark and rock from the trees and boulders around Alpha squad.

“Request artillery on coordinates zero…seven…nine…four…four…two. Bring it in tight! Danger close fifty yards!”

The marines fired randomly into the trees. They pitched grenades into suspicious clumps of shrubbery. An enemy soldier tumbled limb to limb as he plummeted from a treetop, thudding into the smoke-veiled ground in a cascade of leaves and branches. Bleeding from his shoulder, the khaki-uniformed soldier raised up on hands and knees, his wounded arm wobbling under his weight. Gage triggered four quick shots into the enemy soldier. He fell lifeless, flat against a muddy pool of blood.

Artillery shells whistled through the treetops and crashed into the jungle 50 yards in front of Alpha squad. The trembling explosions blasted fiery pits from the ground and hurled red-hot chunks of screaming shrapnel and parts of enemy bodies through the jungle.

“Corpsman!” someone cried.

Following the cry, the Navy medical corpsman zigzagged through the maze of trees and smoke. He stumbled to his knees, stared aimlessly at the jungle floor in horrified surprise as blood gushed from his neck, and collapsed over the wounded marine.

“Get some lead out there!” Gage bellowed to the machine gunner.

The gunner leaned his shoulder into the gun. His helmet quivered and his eyes squinted against a sweaty, grimacing face as the vibrating gun belched fiery, lethal doses of lead. A bullet chopped into the ground beside Gage. He rolled behind a tree and snuggled tightly against its coarse bark.

“The captain wants to know our status!” yelled the radioman, as he snaked to Gage’s side.

Another volley of artillery shells roared through the treetops. The hammering machine guns and crackling rifles were muted by the deafening blasts as the projectiles crashed into the jungle, their explosions ramming trees to the ground and scattering jagged chunks of burning steel and splintered timbers through the air. A bullet grazed the tree as it whipped past Gage’s face. The machine gunner’s helmet toppled from his head. He slumped over the smoking gun, blood oozing from his scalp.

“This is One-Alpha! Speak up! I can’t hear you!” Gage screamed into the radio.

An enemy soldier jumped from a tree 30 yards up the trail, crouched beside its trunk, and took aim. Gage dropped the handset and snapped his rifle into his shoulder.

“In the open!” he exclaimed to the radioman as he pressed his cheek into the rifle stock. He peered down the black, hot barrel searching through the sight aperture for his target, his finger tense on the trigger. A ball of sweat jumped into his eye as the bullets blazed from his rifle and ripped through the soldier.

A grenade bounced beside the radioman, instantly exploding. The blinding, ear-numbing blast slammed the radioman against Gage, rattled branches and leaves from the trees, and churned a thick cloud of swirling soot and dust.

Gage pushed the radioman from his chest, choking on the smoke-filled air, and dragged him by the collar to the base of the tree; the radioman’s blood-soaked, shredded flak jacket smoldering from the shrapnel burns.

“I…can’t…breathe,” the radioman stammered, tugging at the rosary beads strung around his neck. His eyelids fluttered, his lips trembled. Blood streamed from his mouth and the fleshy craters that pock-marked his seared, blackened face.

“Corpsman!” Gage coughed, summoning the medic.

“Sergeant…Gage…I see…angels,” the radioman uttered. “The angels…are coming…”

Gage grabbed the bloody handset.

“This is One-Alpha. Snipers! In the trees! Where are you?”

“Watch for us to your rear, One-Alpha,” a voice replied calmly.

Gage leaned back against the shrapnel scarred tree. He pulled a hand across his forehead and down his cheek, wiping the black streams of sweat, dirt and cinder from his face.

“Charlie all around us,” he blurted into the handset. “My radioman is dead. The gunners, too. If you don’t hurry, we’ll all be dead!”

“Help me,” came a cry.

Gage peered around the tree, his bulging, reddened eyes sifting through the flurry of ash and smoking debris that rained upon the jungle. A wounded marine twisted in pain only yards up the trail.

Gage dropped the handset. He rose to his knees, pushed off his helmet, and propped his rifle against the tree.

“Cover me!” he bellowed.

Gage darted from behind the tree and charged up the trail through murky wisps of gun smoke as bullets from opposing fusillades screeched past him. Bullet-severed branches and leaves fluttered about him as he frantically leaped over bush, rock and tangling vine. He felt the mallet-like pounding of slugs drilling into the ground around him as he dived beside his wounded comrade. He lifted the groaning man into his arms and dashed toward the cluster of boulders, into the muzzle flashes from Alpha squad’s cover fire. With a mighty grunt, he pushed the injured man over a rib-high boulder.

Gage shrieked as a bullet ripped through his thigh. Another bullet sliced a bloody gorge across his cheek and splashed his blood into his eyes. He twirled to his knees and clutched his face. The sniper’s third bullet bore into his back and sprayed bits of crimson lead, bone and flesh from his chest. The round knocked him forward fiercely. His face smashed into the earth. His mouth filled with dirt. He tumbled into a small boulder that halted him face up.

Slowly, feebly Gage opened his eyes. The smell of burnt gunpowder lingered in his nostrils. The whip-like cracks of rifle fire resounded through his ears. He gazed into the treetops, into the dusky gray sky, his vision blurring, the treetops waving, spinning, swooping.

“One-Alpha, we are closing on your position,” the radio squawked.

Artillery shells howled from the sky and added their harsh melody to the ugly choir of battle as they exploded into the shuddering, burning mountaintop. The enemy machine gun clattered endlessly and pieces of lead and shrapnel sang their tunes of death as they sliced through the smoldering, torn, blood-splattered jungle. Screams for “Corpsman!” echoed from all directions and mingled with the cries and moans of mangled, bleeding, dying young men.

Gage tried to reach out, to pull himself up, but his arms did not move. He tried to speak, but no words came through his lips. He wanted to cry, but no tears swelled into his eyes. Death came quickly in the jungle.