"John Mullins shows what really went on behind enemy lines in Vietnam. Jim Carmichael and Finn McCulloden are American heroes." W. E. B. Griffin
Bayonet Skies: Men of Valorby John F. Mullins
Special Forces veteran John F. Mullins delivers heart-pounding action under fire in his third Men of Valor novel.
1975: With the Vietnam War drawing to a close, Captain James Carmichael begins a new life far from the front lines, in Bad Tölz, Germany. Married to a beautiful Russian émigré and awaiting his first child, Carmichael/b>/b>… See more details below
Special Forces veteran John F. Mullins delivers heart-pounding action under fire in his third Men of Valor novel.
1975: With the Vietnam War drawing to a close, Captain James Carmichael begins a new life far from the front lines, in Bad Tölz, Germany. Married to a beautiful Russian émigré and awaiting his first child, Carmichael should be content training the 10th Special Forces for a European conflict that will likely never come. But the peacetime army is unmanageable, plagued by drugs and misbehavior, and Carmichael hungers for something more. That appetite gets fed when he is asked to rescue a P.O.W. being held by the North Vietnamese. It's a deadly proposition with dangerous odds, to which his wife bitterly objects. But Carmichael must answer the call of loyalty and risk everything he has -- on one last mission to bring his men back alive.
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Falling silently through night skies, at one with the wind and dark. Above only the stars and the faint contrail of the plane. Below the embracing dark, broken only by the winking of the marking light on the base jumper's backpack. No feeling of falling. More like flight without wings. Move the hand just slightly forward, and the body turns in the opposite direction, the invisible cushion of air below reacting to the asymmetry. Tuck both arms back to the sides and the head points down, the body becoming an arrow, speed building up -- flare back out now, or you'll shoot past the base man like a rocket! The sound of the aircraft, fading now, is barely heard over the rush of the wind. To anyone on the ground it is but another jetliner, following the specified air corridor. Unlikely any radar operator would have picked up the exit of the team on his scope. The blips would be so small as to be confused with the usual screen clutter, passed off as atmospheric anomalies by anyone not looking specifically for twelve tiny shapes, falling at over 120 miles an hour toward the earth.
It seems a long time, these two minutes from thirty-six thousand feet to opening altitude at two thousand. Long enough to get very cold, though it is still summer. The face, where it is not covered with goggles, helmet, and oxygen mask, feels frostbitten. Your fingers are stiff and inflexible even through the gloves. Gloves aren't very thick anyway -- can't be. If they were you couldn't feel those critical things that you hope you'll never have to use: reserve parachute ripcord handle, knife tucked in the elastic on the top of the reserve to cut away shroud lines should you get tangled in them, quick releases for releasing the main chute if it doesn't open properly.
Dark shapes barely seen are on either side, other members of the team keeping respectful distance. All too easy to slam into one another here in the dark; speed is deceptive, doesn't look like you're moving at all relative to them. Hit one another and you'll likely be knocked unconscious, unable to pull the ripcord when the time comes. You hope the automatic opener will work but you know it probably won't because the most reliable automatic opener is made by the East Germans and of course you can't get them because after all we can't patronize the Commies. So you'll hit the ground at full speed and bounce. Nice descriptive word, that. Soldiers are famous for their inventive ways to describe dying. Buy the farm, get waxed, get blown away, bounce. And you do -- bounce, that is. Ten, even fifteen feet back in the air, jagged bones sticking out at odd angles from the coveralls, back down and bouncing only a few inches this time before finally coming to rest, looking like you're much less thick, because of course you are. Whoa, boys, need a spatula to pick this one up. Lots of ways to die on a night HALO jump, buddyboy, just pick one. And if you survive it, well, not to worry, because once it's over there will be all kinds of people down there on the ground trying to kill you.
Glance down at the altimeter making its slow unwind, crossing through six thousand, now four, get ready. Pull the left hand back to the chest while crossing the other hand in front of your face. Maintain your symmetry. If you don't, you'll go into a flat spin and that's not too good when the chute is opening because it will get all twisted and probably malfunction. Then it's a useless piece of cloth hanging above you; you have to cut it away with the quick releases before opening the reserve. If you don't sure as hell the reserve will get twisted around it. And you'll have two useless pieces of cloth hanging over you, slowing descent only slightly. So you'll hit the ground at maybe a hundred instead of 120. But you'll still be just as dead. The others will hear you as you flutter by them, just as you heard it when Sergeant Barnes bounced last month. And they'll mouth, "streamer," in voices so low as to be just at the threshold of hearing, as if to say it louder would in some way attract it to them, too. And they won't sleep for many nights, imagining the horror of your last minutes, projecting it upon themselves.
Two thousand and pull. The ripcord comes away smoothly, no burrs to get hung up on the cones of the backpack. A soft feeling, barely noticeable at first, as the spring-loaded pilot chute leaps away, grabbing the air. Then stronger as it pulls the sleeve-covered main chute out: a noticeable slowing of momentum. The main grabs air down at the skirt of the chute, pushing the sleeve up like rolling off a used condom, and with an audible WHOOF it fully inflates. The crotch straps bite. They always do, no matter how snugly you tighten them. Get them too loose and a testicle will inevitably get underneath and you'll be walking funny for a while. The sleeve alleviates most of the opening shock, allowing the main to inflate relatively slowly. Back in the old days they didn't have sleeves or deployment bags, and the old paratroopers were always joking about having their nuts jerked so high it looked like they were wearing hairy bowties.
The sound of other chutes opening all around, like the cracking of a sheet shaken out. Not much noise but still you cringe because it sounds so loud here in the night. If someone who knows what the sound means is waiting below you're in deep shit. No worry about seeing the parachutes. They're black, blending in with the dark. Only way you could see them is as a cloud coming between you and the stars and of course you'd have to be almost directly below to see that.
Follow the base man as he weaves back and forth, dumping air from the canopy as quickly as possible. The MC-1-1 is a good chute, the military version of the Para-Commander all the sport jumpers are using. It is a little larger to make up for the extra weight you have to carry: weapon, ammo, rucksack, radio, batteries, claymores, sleeping bag. It gets cold at night here in the mountains and you've learned by hard-earned experience that "travel light, freeze at night" isn't all that great an idea.
Ground coming up now, more sensed than seen. Pull the quick release holding the rucksack to the harness and let it fall free. It comes up short, held by the fifty-foot lowering line, jerking the harness sharply. It hangs there, increasing the oscillation. But you don't want to ride it in unreleased; it makes it almost impossible to do a proper parachute landing fall, and that's a good way to break a leg.
The tops of trees suddenly cut out lateral vision. Good, that means the base man found the clearing. No rides through the branches tonight. Tuck the feet together, toes pointing toward the ground, knees together and slightly bent. Release of tension as the rucksack hits the ground and then so do you. No matter how many times you've done it the contact is always a surprise, no semblance of the carefully learned parachute landing fall, just flop down and hope you don't break anything. The usual three points of contact tonight: feet, ass, head. Pinwheels of light behind the eyes as the head hits hard. More wind than was forecast, evidently. The chute is pulling along the ground; pull hard on one riser and flip up and over as they taught you so long ago in jump school. That doesn't work, dumbass -- you're still dragging the rucksack behind you like a big anchor. Screw it, release one side with the quick releases and the air spills from the canopy like a punctured balloon.
Get out of the harness quickly, stuff it and the chute and the unused reserve into the kitbag. Can't leave anything on the drop zone. The enemy often patrols open areas like this and they'll find even the smallest trace and then you're in for some tracking. And they use dogs. Big fucking mean dogs.
Crouch down beside the kitbag and rucksack, weapon at the ready. Listen to the night. The only sound is the soft sighing of the wind and the tiny scratches and scuffles of the other team members. Of course this doesn't mean anything. If it were you, you'd be biding your time too, waiting until the team joined up so you could get all of them. But maybe tonight you're lucky. They didn't stake out this DZ. And there weren't any hunters, or lovers, or insomniacs out for a walk who are even now scurrying toward the nearest telephone to tell the police about the men who came from the sky.
Pull the compass from its pouch, take an azimuth, the luminous numbers glowing softly in the blackness. Head for the rallying point. The rucksack on the back and the kitbag slung atop it makes it hard to walk. You're carrying well over a hundred pounds, and feel every ounce. Someone jumps you now, you're screwed. No way you can get rid of all this stuff in time to fight, much less get away. Feeling terribly vulnerable out here in the open. Better get to the trees as soon as possible. There at least you can hide.
A shape converging on your path, laden like you. Good, two of you. Not that it does much good, two of you can be taken as easily as one, but it gives a psychological boost anyway. We all hate to be alone. Spread out slightly, so at least they won't be able to get the both of you with one burst.
Into the sheltering trees. Easy moving here. The forest floor is kept clean by the Forestmeisters. Few sticks to trip you, just the soft rustle of damp leaves and the whip of evergreen branches let go too soon by the man in front of you. Even more black here; all you can see of him are the two luminescent strips on the back of his helmet. You wonder how he can see anything at all. Probably can't, the way he's stumbling.
"Halt!" comes the whispered command, seeming even more urgent because it is said so softly and because it is accompanied by the snicking of a rifle taken off safe. The man in front stops suddenly. You drop down slowly, get close to the ground. Point your own rifle in the general direction of the sound.
"Who goes there?" comes the whisper.
"Friend," the man in front of you says.
"Zulu," challenges the unseen sentry.
"Goundcloth," the man in front replies, giving the correct password to the challenge. You let out a breath, aware for the first time that you have been holding it. "Two," the man in front says, telling them that there are two of you coming in. If there's a third, they'll know he's a tagalong bad guy. He'll be allowed to get close enough to kiss with the knife.
"That you, Cap'n?" asks one of the shadowy figures inside the small perimeter.
"Yeah. We got everybody?"
"You and Chuck were the last two."
"Jerry banged his elbow pretty hard on a rock, but it ain't broke. Nothing else."
There is the soft chink of an entrenching tool striking soil, the hiss as dirt is thrown out of a hole. The shadowy figure, who by his voice you recognize as the team sergeant, says, "Gimme your chute and we'll bury it with the others." Gratefully you shed the load.
You take the starlight scope out of a side pocket of your rucksack, flip the switch, hold it to your eye. The light of the distant stars, amplified forty thousand times, shows up sickly green, bathing the figures in the small perimeter. Two are still digging. Others are facing outward, weapons at the ready. One of those, you see, has another starlight on his weapon. That would have been the man who challenged you. He was able to see you clearly as you came in. Just one more security measure. You can't have too many of them.
You scan the area outside the perimeter carefully. No movement. Good. Switch off the scope, take the compass out again. Line up the north-seeking arrow with the preset luminous spot on the bezel. You'll move out on an azimuth of sixty degrees for a thousand meters, do a dogleg on twenty degrees for twelve hundred, and, you hope, somewhere in that neighborhood find the objective rallying point. From there it's supposed to be an easy walk downstream to the target, a massive hydroelectric complex. Too big a target for an A team. You'd tried to tell the brass that, but of course they wouldn't listen. As usual.
Most of the weight the team carries is explosives and rockets. If you can get in -- and that's a helluva big if -- you can do tremendous damage, but not enough to put the complex out of action. Seems a lot of risk for not much reward, but that's always the way of it.
"We're good to go, sir," whispers the team sergeant.
"Then let's move." Everyone falls into place like the well-drilled entity they are. Jerry Hauck, the light-weapons man, takes point. Hauck has that most rare of things, an almost preternatural ability to sense when things are not as they should be; a branch slightly out of place, a noise that doesn't go with the area, a smell that tells him that humans are about. More than once it had saved them from ambush, back in Vietnam.
You walk directly behind him, keeping him on azimuth. The others, no two men with the same specialty close together, walk with weapons alternated to one side or the other. There is little sound, only the slight shuffling of feet in the moist leaves of the forest floor. All equipment is taped to keep it from rattling, canteens are full so there is no gurgling of water, clothes are tied down where they bag so they won't catch on branches. All exposed skin is darkened with camouflage stick. No one has taken a bath in several days, so there is no odor of soap or cologne. You smell of the woods -- of dirt, pine needles, and smoke.
You are a well-honed, superbly competent fighting team. Members of one of the most elite forces in history.
And completely out of your depth. The wartime mission of a Special Forces team is to enter the enemy rear areas, make contact with local partisans, then organize, train, equip, and lead them in guerrilla warfare against the occupying power. A twelve-man team is regarded as the appropriate size to lead a thousand to twelve hundred guerrillas in an area many hundreds of square kilometers in area. It can tie down thousands of enemy troops in rear area security, strike at will against the enemy infrastructure: trains, power stations, airfields, command and control elements.
But the Special Forces team is not designed for direct action missions, such as this one. There are no known partisans in the area; in fact most of the population can be expected to be hostile. The Army had spent years and millions of dollars training the team, and it was very likely that some, if not all, would be killed on a mission like this. A hell of a waste of assets, you think. And the target just isn't all that important. Certainly not of any tactical value, and little strategic. It will inconvenience the enemy for a while, that's all. Other portions of the power grid will make up for the loss while it is being repaired. It is a far more appropriate target for the Air Force; a couple of fast-movers with a load of two-thousand-pound smart bombs. Hell, you think, as big as the place is, even the zoomies can't miss it.
But the Army fought for every possible target. It was a policy that had less to do with tactical matters than with budgetary. There was a finite amount of money to be divided up; if you let the Air Force have most of the targets it wouldn't take some sharp congressional staffer too long to figure out that's where most of the money should go too.
As you walk you count silently. At each 110 steps you put another knot in the piece of string carried in a side pocket. One hundred meters, give or take one or two. That way if you lose count all you have to do is feel the knots.
When there are ten knots you halt Jerry, then give the whisper back down the line to take a break, and watch as everyone takes his place in a small perimeter. The forest is very quiet. Not like Vietnam where there were always small animals stirring, birds or monkeys rustling in the branches above, short sharp cries of pain as the implacable logic of the jungle took its place. Here if there are birds they make no sound, and the animals don't venture forth at night. It is also much easier to move than it was in the jungle. The branches of the coniferous trees start well above the head; there are no vines and thorn bushes to catch clothes; there are few rotting logs and felled trees. No bomb craters, no punjii pits, no land mines. Just the clean smell of pine. Almost pleasant.
You pull a poncho from the rucksack, get underneath, and flick on a penlight. Study the map. Hard to tell if you are exactly on track; there are no prominent terrain features close that you can guide on. But up ahead, four hundred meters away, there is a wide break in the trees where the pylons march away from the power station. Each pylon will be numbered, and by correlating that number with the distance from the station you can get a good fix. It is a hell of a danger area, over two hundred feet wide and no vegetation higher than your knees, but the team has to cross it anyway. Might as well make the best of it. You turn off the light, fold up the poncho. "Saddle up," you whisper to the team sergeant.
The break is exactly 440 paces away. You allow yourself a small feeling of satisfaction at your navigational skills. The team stops. Everyone knows what to do. Ten men fan out, taking covering positions. You and Jerry will cross first, get to the other side, and make a box recon inside the treeline. If you find no one, the remainder of the team will cross in one rush. If there are bad guys on the other side, perhaps the covering fire of the team will allow you to get back. It sounds good in theory, but you hold little hope that you will be able to cross two hundred feet of open ground without being shot to pieces by one side or the other. Still, it's better than sacrificing the whole team. In the planning for the movement the team sergeant had tactfully suggested to the captain that he might want to remain behind while two lower-ranking people went across. To which you had replied that the lower-ranking people were far more important than yourself, because it is they who will be setting up the demolitions on the target. Your only mission, once they get there, will be guard duty. And everyone could see the logic of that.
Besides, you've never asked anyone to do anything you wouldn't yourself do, and are not about to start now.
You and Jerry shed your rucksacks, leaving them with the team to carry across. Through the starlight scope you detect nothing on the other side, but that doesn't mean a lot. Anyone there, if they are any good, won't be moving. They will be lying quite still; uncomfortable, cold, and stiff. They won't stir, even to take a piss. And they'll stay that way all night. You've done it often enough yourself. After a while you look forward to the terror of battle, just because it seems infinitely preferable to this miserable wait.
You nod to Jerry, who walks forward in a crouch. You follow, slightly to the left and behind. You feel terribly exposed. Out of the forest the night is uncomfortably bright, the moon having finally come up. It is not full, and for that you give thanks, but it still sheds enough light to silhouette you clearly. Each step takes you farther and farther away from cover, from safety. The sour taste of bile rises in your throat. What the hell am I doing here? you ask yourself. This is remarkably stupid behavior.
Halfway across and nothing. Jerry holds up while you quickly check the pylon. Number 69. That should be about right. Forward again, the dark treeline looking ominous. The familiar pain in the pit of your stomach gets worse. Right about where the bullet should go in, you think. The old wounds ache. The new ones wait to happen.
Close now and as yet nothing. Just a few more feet.
The clearing is suddenly and blindingly flooded with light. Jesus Christ! you have time to think, spotlights. We're fucked. Jerry, quicker than you, lets off a burst at the nearest light. It had absolutely no effect. You turn to run, get less than twenty paces when you hear, then see, the armored car roaring toward you, machine guns blazing. You yank a smoke grenade from your belt, pop it, hear it hiss as it spews dark smoke. Not enough to screen you, but maybe it will help the guys on the other side.
Jerry stumbles, goes down in front of you. Reach down, jerk him to his feet. "Run!" you scream.
The armored car is almost atop you now, the 7.62mm machine gun in the turret still blazing. People are dropping off the sides, running toward you. Turn and fire a burst at them, the first time you have used your weapon. Another car comes from nowhere, gets around behind you. Surrounded. You and Jerry stand back-to-back, ready to fight.
From one of the figures, wearing the white band of an umpire around his hat and sleeve, comes the words, spoken in a heavy German accent, "For you, gentlemen, I think the exercise is over."
"Shit!" you swear, lowering your rifle. Jerry does the same. Two of the figures come forward, take your guns. Their uniforms are those of the Bundesgrenschutz, Border Guards. They pull your hands behind you, roughly tie them.
"Where is the rest of the team?" one of them demands.
"Captain James NMI Carmichael, 445-16-9379," you reply.
The man laughs. In German he says, "Pack these two up and take them to the compound," he says. "The rest of you, fan out! There are more of them out there."
During the debriefing back at the Special Forces Operational Base, SFOB, you again make yourself popular with the brass. "And what, in your opinion, went wrong with the operation, Captain?" asks the general from the Pentagon.
"Simple, sir. We were the wrong people on the wrong mission in the wrong place. If we had been in our wartime AO, it would have been a hell of a lot worse. There would have been more than just a couple of battalions of BGS looking for us. The team wouldn't have gotten anywhere close to the power station. The Army would have lost a strategic asset, for a mission that the Air Force could have done, and done more effectively."
The colonel from the SFOB, who is also your commander in Bad Tölz, reddens. Colonel Casey had been on the planning committee that had set the policy of using Special Forces teams for direct action missions. "And your recommendations?" he asks, clearly thinking that a mere captain obviously has no idea of the overall picture.
"Leave the teams with the mission they were trained for. As you know, our AO in case of war is the southern Ukraine. In the first place, whether we can get in there or not is problematic. If we wait until after the balloon goes up, there aren't going to be any civil flights we can hitchhike on. It's sure as hell too far to walk. That leaves air infiltration, from a military aircraft trying to evade the most sophisticated air defense system in the world. And once we're in, we're not going to get out. Not until the war's over. So you send the team in for one strike, and whether or not they make it, you've lost them. They're not coming back out.
"Whereas if we manage to get in, or better yet, if you allow us to infiltrate before hostilities start, we can set up a hell of a guerrilla army. Every report we get from assets in the area tells us that the ordinary people are fed up with the Soviet government. Just like they were before the start of World War II. Even as badly as the Germans treated them afterward, the hatred they felt toward Moscow was such that many of them fought on the side of the Nazis."
You see the deep frown on the face of the commander, the bland indifference on the countenance of the general from the Pentagon. You're really screwing yourself, Jim. Grimly you press on. "And that guerrilla army could strike all sorts of targets. Keep thousands of troops tied down where they won't be in breakthrough armies, heading through the Fulda Gap on their way to the channel."
You wait for the ass-chewing you know you'll get. Generals didn't like to be lectured on tactics by captains. But the man disappoints you.
"Very interesting," he says, looking at you speculatively. "I'll remember your points." He gets up and, followed by a whole retinue of aides and colonels, leaves the hangar.
The group commander doesn't disappoint you. Colonel Casey wants to make general, and having one of his captains speak up, telling the Army chief of staff for Intelligence that his plans are all wrong, is not the way to go about it. Especially when the colonel had a hand in formulating those plans.
Copyright © 2006 by John F. Mullins
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