Taz and Kodak

by Rick Beck

Chapter 8

The Ambush

These were pictures he'd planned, without planning the reality of what it meant to land in unfriendly territory that at any given time was controlled by Charlie, who'd heard the helicopters and he knew where the LZ was even without a map.

Taz danced, the B.A.R. barked, and Kodak clicked his once in a lifetime pictures of it all. As he paused to look up toward the door, no one else emerged. The minute was up. 1st squad wasn't on the ground. This was not going according to plan.

Within that minute Taz was waving his hand in a rotating fashion over his head. Kodak didn't understand. No one else had come off the helicopter and Taz was signaling them to takeoff.

A streak of holes appeared on the windshield as Kodak looked into the helicopter for some explanation. More holes opened up near the tail section where Kodak stood. He backed away in response to it being way too close for his taste. Taz fired at a ferocious rate.

The door-gunner relayed the takeoff signal from Taz. Almost immediately the helicopter labored, spewing forth an incredibly dense black smoke, struggling to get airborne, banking hard left as its laborious motion took it out of sight over the trees, leaving Taz and Kodak behind.

The coughing and sputtering engine sounds grew more distant as the wounded chopper charted a course back toward friendly territory. The sound it made didn't give much hope it would make it, but the chopper driver knew where to find an LZ if he needed one. It was likely he could get his helicopter to a safer place than the one he just left.

When the roll of film ran out, their transportation was reaching treetop level. Kodak backed as far back in the LZ as he could go before going into the jungle. Once Taz opened up, the AK-47 fire was reduced as the smoke began to belch out around them. No one could see anything for a couple of minutes after the helicopter got airborne.

Kodak didn't feel fear, or the desperation in their circumstances. Attempting to move farther back as the smoke started to fade, Kodak took one step too far in the tall grass and found himself airborne as well. He collided with the ground, rolling the last ten or fifteen feet to the bottom of the embankment that elevated the LZ to an attractive and accessible height.

Kodak was completely disoriented by his tumble and more worried about his camera than his arms and legs. He'd forgotten about the firefight. He'd forgotten Taz as he dizzily wiped the lens with a lens cloth, reaching for a container to put the spent roll of film away before reloading.

The fire above him was loud and continuous as the thick smoke cleared and Taz was facing the enemy alone. As Kodak considered what to do next, Taz came tumbling down the same slope.

Taz came up cradling the B.A.R. and Kodak's delight at seeing him was interrupted by Taz's alarm. He wasn't the least bit disoriented by his fall.

"Come on, come on. Go to the left. There's a trail ahead of you. It ain't going to be long before they figure out where we've gone," he said in a loud hoarse whisper as Ak-47s continued firing above them.

Kodak double timed in the direction Taz indicated and he ran into the trail. Taz held his big rifle at the ready as he backed toward the same trail just a bit slower than Kodak.

"Come on, come on, they know this jungle better than we do."

Taz took the lead and Kodak stayed right behind him as they ran into the jungle. After five minutes of double timing it, Taz slowed and moved into a clump of trees that formed a tight circle that would hide them. They squatted together, panting as Taz listened beyond the sounds of the jungle, listening for the chatter that would come with Charlie.

Their breathing slowed and a few more minutes passed. No one came and there was no chatter heard.

"You okay? I thought you were hit," Taz said.

"No, I stumbled and fell down that hill trying to photograph you."

"That was a dumb ass thing to do," Taz said unhappily. "It just might have saved our butts. They obviously weren't certain where we went or they went in another direction."

"Yeah, seems that way now, but I wanted to get the shots. I discovered the hill by accident."

"Yeah, well you're lucky we both didn't get shot, asshole. I could have gotten back on the helicopter but I couldn't leave you armed with only a damn camera. What were you thinking?"

"Where are we?" Kodak asked.

Taz looked at the jungle around him and then he looked at the sky as he thought about the flight they'd just taken.

"Northeast of camp. I'd say twenty miles, maybe thirty. In this jungle we'd be a few days away by foot if Charlie wasn't in the way. We've got to keep stopping and listening. We can get back in a few days. It won't be easy. You've got to do what I tell you."

"Don't I always?" Kodak asked.

"Yeah, right, look around you. You knew better than to get off that helicopter first. I should have left you. Now we'll be lucky to ever see the camp again. This ain't going to be no picnic."

"I'm sorry," Kodak said, feeling very sorry that they were so far from camp with no safe passage back apparent.

"Too late for sorry. We'll get back if you listen to me. What we got is what we got."

"I'll listen."

"Those guys know we're out here. They aren't just going home to have tea. They'll be combing the bush for us. They'll put two and two together when they come to that drop off, if they haven't figured it out already. Let's keep moving. Stay close."

"What about the helicopter?"

"If they make it back they'll send out a search party, but we can't wait around to see if they made it back. They'll know that I'll try to make it back to camp if I'm alive. They don't know we're alive. As hot as things have gotten, it might not happen in a day. We've got to move toward camp."

They moved swiftly enough to put some distance between them and the LZ. Taz stopped to listen every few minutes and seemed more and more satisfied that the enemy wasn't on their trail.

The engine of the chopper choked on and off, leaving a deathly silence when it choked off. It sputtered when it chocked back on, finally catching to keep them in the air for another couple of minutes. The black smoke advertised their progress to anyone within ten miles of their position.

"Mayday. Mayday. Ferry three to base. We're hit and aren't going to get back. I'm two clicks from P9 in quadrant four. Mayday. Mayday to any friendly position. I'm two clicks from P9 in quadrant four. I'm going down there. Mayday."

"Get flat on the floor, gentlemen," the pilot yelled as the leaves and branches began brushing the bottom of the sputtering craft.

"Mayday. Mayday. Ferry three is going down. We are one click from P9, but we may not make it. Mayday to any friendly position. Ferry three going down at P9 in quadrant four."

"We're done gentlemen. Flat on the floor. We're going down."

The black smoke ceased just before the engine chugged twice and the rotors stopped rotating. The engine made a mild humming sound as branches and limbs of trees grabbed at the bottom of the doomed vehicle.

The jolt was substantial but made softer by the density of the grass and underbrush that surrounded P9, which they missed by no more than fifty feet. Had they made it all the way, their landing would have been even harder with nothing to cushion their fall.

1st squad was shaken but there were no serious injuries. They were all out of the chopper in a few minutes, checking themselves for damage. Sgt. Jacoby set a sentry on either end of the LZ. They made a lot of noise coming down and if Charlie was in the area he'd be on the scene shortly.

The co-pilot needed to be lifted out of his seat, having hurt his right ankle and knee. The door-gunner hadn't moved, stayed in place during the hard landing, lifting his legs up onto the floor and at the last minute he pulled the harness tight around his chest, holding him close to the back of the co-pilot's seat.

Only the co-pilot was unable to walk. The pilot wasn't sure his message got out and they'd made it close to half way back to camp. The other squads would wait for the approved amount of time before heading to the LZ where they'd get back out if Charlie didn't get in the way.

At that time 1st squad would be reported overdue and missing in action. Ferry three would be marked as overdue and missing in action back at the airbase. The choice was wait for rescue or wade into the bush and start making their way home.

The only officer on the scene was the helicopter pilot, who ordered Sgt. Jacoby and 1st squad to stand fast. He hadn't given up on the radio and he would check the wiring and radio equipment to make certain it hadn't been damaged by the enemy fire.

It was in Taz's mind to move off into the jungle before going too much farther. Charlie knew the area and he'd be coming after them. Once he left the trail, he'd no longer be able to say for sure they were going in the right direction.

If they missed the camp by a few hundred yards, they might walk right back into Charlie's world. Taz knew that their best hope was a rescue mission, but with so much activity in the area most of the missions were being prepared on a moment's notice.

Most of the squads were in the field at the same time these days. That meant waiting until things cooled off before a search party was coming out to look for them. He couldn't be sure in what direction the LZ was where they were separated from 1st squad. That meant going forward was the best option.

He'd keep listening and hoping Charlie hadn't bothered chasing a couple of guys lost in the bush. If Charlie were on a mission and just stumbled onto the LZ as they were landing, they might not have time to look for them.

"You tired?" Taz asked, as they took a break after walking for most of an hour.

"No, not really, I'm still jacked up over the excitement from the landing party that was there to greet us."

"Here, take two swallows from my canteen. I don't know how long it will have to last, but we've got to keep from dehydrating."

Kodak drank first and then Taz took two quick sips, securing the canteen back onto his belt.

"I don't think they followed us. They might never even discover that fall off on the hill. They probably think they'll be out here to get us in force before long."

"I haven't heard anything but birds and wild things," Kodak said. "What about the other squads? Can't we meet them?"

"I don't know where the meeting point was. That's Jacoby's job. Our odds of finding them are no better than our odds of finding Charlie first. Heading toward the camp seems the smartest move."

"How far have we come?"

"Oh, I'd say a mile or two. We're not going in a straight line. Once we go off the trail it'll get really slow. I'm not comfortable being out in the open."

"What do we do?"

"Keep listening to the birds. They take off if there's a large force in the area. I think we're safe for the time being but I can't know what might be between us and camp."

"You worry too much. We'll follow the trail and we'll be home by tomorrow."

"Yeah, ever the optimist. Keep your ears open and let me know if you hear anything, especially silence. We'll be lucky to get back this week."

Once again they followed the trail that meandered through the jungle according to where the easiest place to put it was. It had seen a lot of travel and that was both good and bad. Taz moved slower and watched and listened carefully.

Kodak listened for helicopters and wondered if they might have been smarter staying close to the LZ. Charlie wasn't going to be landing any helicopters there and he thought 1st squad was on the way back to rescue them.

Taz began thinking about the sequence of events that had them alone in the bush. The color and density of the smoke coming out of the helicopter meant either the engine block had been hit or an oil line. Either one meant they weren't going to make it back. He felt better about his odds than 1st squads. If the chopper went down it wouldn't be pretty and that meant no one back at base knew there were two guys lost in the bush.

Kodak accepted that Taz knew better than he did and if he was going to be lost in the jungle there was no one he'd rather be lost with. Taz and that big rifle were a force to be reckoned with. It made him feel like he was in good hands.

The squad had begun joking about them being Mutt and Jeff, from a widely known newspaper cartoon. One of the characters was tall and the other was short. They were constant companions. Where Taz went you'd find Kodak and visa versa. As unlikely as their friendship was, both men felt they could trust and depend on the other.

It was both hot and humid, and while Kodak had adjusted to the climate, he didn't like it. He didn't like to sweat. A lot of times he'd get a rash and it made him miserable to do anything physical, like walking. The more he sweated, the more irritated the rash would become.

He was aware of no discomfort and he prayed not to be cursed in the middle of nowhere. He mostly wanted to be back in camp where the environment was much more friendly.

"You tired?" Taz asked.

"No, I'm fine," Kodak said as they took a break just off the path.

Daylight was diminishing or the jungle was becoming denser. They'd stayed on the trail but moved slower than before, more cautiously.

"You're becoming a regular soldier. When you get back I bet you'll join up," Taz kidded.

"No chance. I'm not going to get within a country mile of the army once I'm home."

"You're from the country?"

"No, I'm not from the country."

"What's a country mile then?"

"It's the distance I'm keeping between me and the army once I get back to the world.

Taz smiled. Kodak even thought like a soldier, picking up the slang and adapting it to his speech. Kodak was an original and Taz was able to feel comfortable where ever he was when Kodak was around. This wasn't the kind of place he'd want to be with anyone, but it was where they were.

"How long you going to stay on here," Taz asked.

"I don't know. I might wait for you to get your orders home. What have you got left, four months?"

"Three, one week, two days, and a wake up."

"You count?" Kodak said alarmed. "I thought you weren't suppose to count your time."

"For the first six months you aren't allowed to count. Once you get inside of six months, you know to the hour how long you've got left in-country. Guys say they don't, but they do."

"Come on," Kodak said, standing back up. "I don't want you slowing down on my account. I'm really not tired. I'm not even hungry. It's been hours since we ate," Kodak calculated. "This is the first time I haven't been hungry, since I've been in country."

"Heat and humidity. The adrenalin rush kills the appetite. I'm never all that hungry," Taz said. "Once I get back to the world I'll have plenty of time to be hungry and eat good old American food."

Kodak waited for Taz to take the lead and fell in behind him. The sounds of the jungle were slowly changing. The noise from the treetops was joined by a humming and softer chorus of insects joining the jungle symphony as daylight gave out.

Sgt. Jacoby stood when he heard the sound of the helicopter. He moved into the center of the LZ with the pilot of Ferry three. It was an attack helicopter that couldn't take them home, but it buzzed low once it saw the men in the LZ.

They flew back and forth several times, waved, and surveyed the environment nearby, looking for any sign of Charlie. It was now a race before they'd find out if they'd be pulled out before dark. They'd been found and the pilot had been right to stay put near the crash scene.

It was another hour before a Huey dropped in from over the treetops. Setting his chopper in the middle of the LZ as 1st squad wasted no time getting inside. The co-pilot leaned on the pilot, until he was pulled inside with the pilot following him.

As the helicopter began to lift straight up, it backed away slowly as the attack bird came into view of the wide open doorway. As 1st squad watched, two rockets were fired into the wreckage of the crashed helicopter and it exploded in a ball of fire before the heavily armed chopper shot off toward the airbase with the helicopter right behind.

"That thing work?" Sgt. Jacoby asked the co-pilot, pointing to the radio.

"Have at it. We're Mother Hubbard. Welcome aboard."

Sgt. Jacoby reported in and gave the news about two of his men being lost in the bush after they were ambushed at the LZ where Ferry three was hit. The word came back that nothing could be done that day.

"What was that," Kodak said, stopping to listen closer.

"What was what?"

"I don't know. An explosion maybe. I heard an explosion up in front off to the west."

"You're hearing things. It's going to be dark soon. We need to find someplace that will give us some cover. Charlie can see in the dark."

They walked for a long time and the jungle grew more dense and stayed that way. It was difficult for Taz to tell if they were still on the trail or if they'd been diverted onto some jungle illusion that looked like a trail. He said nothing to Kodak about his doubts. He wondered if the explosion was Charlie. The squads would all be back at camp by this hour and the choppers back at the airfield.

"We can call it a day. It's getting really dark and I don't want to walk into some Vietcong camp by accident. We'll go further west tomorrow and maybe we'll have some idea of where we are by what the sky looks like tonight.

Taz picked out a spot where he knew there'd be big palm leaves to make a soft place for them, behind a clump of trees and in heavy undergrowth. He prepared it as Kodak watched and when he was satisfied he reached into his pocket to bring out a couple large pieces of Sgt. Jacoby's beef jerky.

"He know you steal his stuff?" Kodak asked, biting into the best tasting lump of dried carcass he'd ever tasted.

"I don't take no chances. I been on more than one patrol that ended up being out all night. It's better than chewing on a tree limb."

"I'm not complaining," Kodak said, sitting down next to the jungle expert.

They sat with their backs together, furnishing warmth and human contact in the jungle full of the unknown and the deadly. There was a comfort in the contact that offered an inner warmth. It wasn't cold but it was a lot cooler than it had been all day.

Taz wasn't sure that they were going in the right direction. It was his best guess and sitting still wasn't an option for him.

1st squad was back at camp fifteen minutes after they left the crash site. There were a few aches and pains but no one wanted to be on sick call. Hale and Washington were anxious for Jacoby to do something about Taz and Kodak. He told them to relax and let him take care of it. No one in the squad was able to rest easy.

It was Sgt. Jacoby's squad and the idea of leaving a man behind in the bush left a bad taste in his mouth, even though it wasn't his decision. He knew there was nothing they could do in the dark and anything they did do would tip off Charlie as to the area in which they were showing interest. They needed to go out in force and recover them in the same day.

Before his long overdue meal was finished, Sgt. Jacoby walked into headquarters, hat in hand.

"Captain, I want to take a rescue mission into the field at first light. My guys are out there and I don't want Charlie reaching them first."

"Sit down, Sergeant. As you know we're up to our poop chutes in Charlie at the moment. We've had every available squad in the field for two days. Losing your squad today cost us a half dozen men. One squad short and that created the loss of nearly another entire squad.

"The enemy is attacking in more areas at one time than he's ever attempted before. For months we've been hearing sightings and came up empty almost every time. He's infiltrated in force and we're up to our necks in Charlie.

"I'll keep your request in mind, and believe me, it isn't easy for me to say no, but I'm depending on 1st squad to protect camp tomorrow, when everyone will be in the field. We'll pass the co-ordinates along to all the squads in the field so they know where your boys were last seen.

"There's no way of knowing if they may cross paths with a unit in the field. The longer they're out there the harder it will be to locate them. As hard as it is to take, that's what we've got. I'll approve a rescue mission as quick as we break Charlie's hold on the areas north and east of the airfield. They give us the stand down and we're on it."

"Yes, sir."

"Any casualties, Sergeant?"

"1st squads got a few scratches and strains but nothing that'll keep us from going out. The co-pilot may have broken his ankle, but no one else had more than scratches."

"It turned out as well as we could hope. Too bad about your boys. Charlie being there with a reception committee is pretty bad timing. It shows how much strength they've brought into the area. The protection of the airfield is our first priority."

"Yes, sir."

Sgt. Jacoby wasn't surprised. He knew pressure needed to be applied. He'd return in the morning and apply more. The longer it took to get permission to go looking the more dangerous it became and the less likely it was that they'd get a good outcome.

The only positive aspect of it all was that it was Taz out there. Taz was a man who would know how to take care of himself in a pinch. If anyone could stay alive until they got a rescue mission approved, it was Taz.

Both Washington and Hale asked Sgt. Jacoby what he was doing to save their comrades. It wasn't easy for Sgt. Jacoby to take the sergeant's position and tell them they'd know when he knew and that was the end of it, but they all worried and there was little sleep in 1st squad that night.

"Come on," Taz said after thinking about it for a long time. "We'll go this way."

"Why that way? I never saw the sky last night. How do you know?"

"Instinct. We've got to get out of this undergrowth. The path is okay but it's leading us deeper and deeper into the densest part of the jungle. We could end up in Laos or Cambodia if we aren't careful."

"What about the Ho Chi Minh Trail? Doesn't that come before Laos?"

"You better hope it don't come before we find our way home. We'll be up to our necks in Viet Cong. We're heading south. That's about the best I can do for the moment."

The jungle didn't change much and they both knew they were hopelessly lost and getting deeper and deeper into the unknown land they'd discovered. There had been no sign of Charlie, which was one good thing.

"Come on," Taz said, after they stopped for a few sips of water and more jerky after walking for several hours.

"You hungry?" Kodak asked.

"No, not really. Too much on my mind."

"I've never gone this long without a meal. It's been over a day since breakfast yesterday."

"Was it yesterday? I thought it was two days."

"It was yesterday. You never get hungry," Kodak reminded him. "That jerky must swell in the water."

"It's the heat and humidity. You'll be hungry soon enough. Quit thinking about it. There isn't anything to eat out here."

"Can I have one more sip of water?" Kodak asked.

"Yeah, one sip. We don't want to run out."

Taz handed the canteen to Kodak. He drank carefully, letting the cool liquid slid refreshingly over his tongue. He handed it back to Taz who immediately put it away.

They walked for hours. Twice they left the trail they were on and cut across the jungle in places that weren't as dense. Always heading south, Taz feared he wouldn't go far enough west to hit the base. He'd listen for aircraft and try to get some indication that way, only they hadn't heard a plane or helicopter since they'd begun walking.

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