A very wealthy Asian gangster plans to destroy the US economy by manipulating global oil prices. Only his daughter and her husband stand in his way.
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In the 1970’s the world experienced two oil shocks, as the price of oil rose from less than $2 a barrel to over $32. Early in 1986, in a three-month period, oil plummeted from $28 down to only $10. These violent fluctuations significantly altered the economies of virtually every nation on earth. When oil prices went up, they caused unprecedented inflation in the United States and changed forever the face of its industry and commerce. When oil fell back down, countries which export petroleum, such as Venezuela and Mexico, could no longer pay their debts, creating an international debt crisis.
Economists cannot adequately explain how the price of oil swung up and then down as fast as it did. This novel poses a fictional explanation to that mystery, using actual characters and events as background for the fictional characters and plot.
The book begins in Vietnam in 1967. The CIA has developed intelligence that points to an arms supply base in Laos. It appears that the North Vietnamese Army troops are being supplied with weapons as they travel down the Ho Chi Minh Trail on their way to the southern cities of Hue, Danang, Nha Trang and Saigon. A U.S. Marine lieutenant, Sam Weber, is sent on a covert mission to find the base and destroy it. He and a small team parachute into the area, and soon all are killed but Sam. Wounded and imprisoned at the supply base, he is cared for by Liang, the daughter of Sing Han, a Chinese who operates the base. With her father away for a few days, Liang and Sam fall in love, and she helps him escape. They promise to meet again at her home in Hue.
But in the chaos of war, Sam is unable to locate Liang. He returns to the United States, becoming an oil company executive in Southern California. Liang immigrates to the United States, obtaining a college degree at Berkeley. She forms a successful electronics company, and then later is persuaded by her father to buy an oil services company.
Sing Han, based in Hong Kong and Singapore, builds up a new business empire in banking, real estate, and oil. He becomes partners with Manuel Carvalho, president of a fictitious Latin American country called Esperanca, and contracts to export that country’s oil to international buyers. Esperanca, once destitute, becomes a major oil power as prices increase to over $30 a barrel.
Sing Han has also cultivated an American politician named Clay Josephson, aware that he is the son of the U.S. government agent who unwittingly let Sing Han’s family die in Shanghai. Through bribery and blackmail, and ignorant of Sing Han’s connection to his father, Clay becomes his puppet.
After seventeen years, in 1984, Sam and Liang meet by chance and fall in love all over again. All goes well until a murder pulls them into Sing Han’s elaborate plot to bring the United States to its knees. He plans to use Esperanca and Clay Josephson to drive the price of oil below $10, causing the formation of a Latin American debtors’ cartel. This will give the countries the strength to renege on over three hundred billion dollars of debt, causing widespread banking failures and economic chaos in the United States.
As the climax approaches, Sam and Liang travel to Esperanca to try to prevent Sing Han’s plot from succeeding. The final chapters increase in drama as the two work behind the scenes to block the formation of the cartel and then escape from Esperanca as the country bursts into civil war.
Sam Weber could hardly keep his eyes open. He had been out all night on an ambush with his platoon. Thankfully they had encountered no enemy, but he was tired from getting only three hours of sleep after he and his men returned at daybreak.
He held a metal canteen cup, full of grape Kool-Aid and ice, against his forehead and closed his eyes. Six months he had been here, and he still wasn’t used to the heat. First Khe Sahn, then Gio Linh, then Con Thien, and now Phu Bai, and every camp seemed hotter than the last. Of course, now that it was September, the weather was supposed to cool off a bit as the monsoon season began.
Sam finished the drink and lay down in his bunk, wearing only a T-shirt and jungle utility pants. He closed his eyes again, letting the heat bake him the way it used to do when he would lie on the beach in San Diego. He always fell asleep hearing the waves crashing, the seagulls squawking, and the kids shouting and splashing in the surf. The sounds would seem to recede farther and farther away, and the next thing he knew, it would be an hour later. Those pleasant days were so distant in time and space. Now he heard the ever-present flies buzzing, the chopping sound of helicopters coming and going, and music from somebody’s radio down the company street.
“Hey Sam! Wake up! Sam!”
The Marine opened his eyes to find Captain Wertz, his closest friend in Vietnam, shaking him.
Sam rubbed his face to clear his head, drank the dregs of the melted ice, and looked up at his boss.
“Sleeping on the job, eh?” Wertz said with his usual wide grin. “Listen, something weird is going on. A colonel from Intelligence wants you over at Division Headquarters right away.”
“I thought I was done with those guys when I transferred to Delta Company last April.”
“So did I, Sam, but you better not argue with the brass. Get your boots and cover on. You need to look your best when you go see the big-shots! They’ll all be walking around with spit-shined boots, belts and visors. Piss-ants!”
This last exhortation was delivered with total disgust. Wertz had no use for the type of Marine who spent his time in Nam in an office filling out forms, or worse, planning which patrols the field Marines would go on. Sam had no use for them either. When he first arrived in Vietnam in March, he had been assigned to Intelligence at Third Marine Division Headquarters in Phu Bai. Fresh from Officers Candidate School at Quantico, where he had intensive training in Vietnamese, he was put to work in a planning section, shuffling field reports of enemy activity, translating captured documents and summarizing body counts.
Sam had joined the Marines in a fervor of misguided patriotism. He had wanted to be where the fighting was, charging up the beach like John Wayne. He lasted only a month at Division Headquarters, listening to the games the colonels played with the body counts, watching the younger officers vie with each other for Best-Dressed Combat Officer or Most Creative Use of Buzzwords. Finally Sam made himself obnoxious enough to get transferred to an infantry company, that of Captain Wertz, stationed at the time at the mountain garrison of Khe Sanh.
When Sam first arrived at Delta Company, he had a hard time proving himself to Wertz and the others. All new men in Nam met initial disapproval from the hardened men who had seen months of combat, but because the men knew Sam came from Intelligence, they had shown him even more disdain. Not until the Battle of Hill 881 did he finally win their acceptance.
That was where he had saved Tom Jessup, a lance corporal who was wounded and pinned down behind a large rock by enemy fire. Sam had run a jagged pattern to the rock, bullets chipping trees and dirt all around him. When he got to Jessup. He tossed a couple grenades, and by the time the smoke and debris cleared, Sam had run back to safety with the man slung over his shoulder.
Since then, the company had become like a large family to Sam. He was in charge of the Second Platoon, and he tried to lead it, not command it. Sam had no way of knowing what his men thought of him as a platoon leader, since no Marine would think of commending his superior. Among themselves, however, the men agreed Sam was one of the best officers they had ever worked for. A man could go to him with a problem and not worry about being put down. Sam would often explain that he had had the same problem once and had approached it in such-and-such a way. He was a friend who didn't stand behind his officer status. Because he had the respect of his men and because he was well-liked, Sam did not have to order his men to carry out an assignment. He asked that they do it, and they gladly did, eager to prove themselves worthy of his esteem.
Striding along the street toward Division HQ, Sam lit a cigarette and hoped that whatever the VIPs had in mind would not mess up his in-country R&R. He was all set to go to China Beach near Danang in two weeks for three days of swimming, reading, and eating some decent food.
Division HQ was a bunker of reinforced concrete, mostly underground. Sam returned the salutes of the sentries and went in. It was fairly pleasant, with fluorescent lighting, factory-made furniture, and best of all – air con¬ditioning. He stood at ease while the desk officer phoned to announce his arrival. Then he was ushered into a small office.
There sat a short stocky man with the jowly face of a bulldog. Instead of a uniform, he wore a dark blue business suit. With him was John Malone, the colonel in charge of the Intelligence Section, whom Sam knew from his earlier tour in Intelligence.
Malone introduced them.
"Sir, this is Second Lieutenant Samuel L. Weber, whom I've been telling you about. Lieutenant, meet Ward Aston. Mr. Aston is with the Central Intelligence Agency. He needs our help on a very urgent mission, and of course we have agreed to give him our complete cooperation. Well now, I'll leave you two alone. Good day, Mr. Aston, Lieutenant."
Sam decided Aston had his vote for the Broderick Crawford Look-alike Contest. Sure enough, when Aston spoke, it was pure grade 60 sandpaper.
"Lieutenant, I'm happy to meet you. I've been going through your file here, and you look just perfect for our mission.
In what way, sir?"
"Well, you speak Vietnamese, you're an excellent shot, you have made several parachute jumps, and, based on the operations in which you have participated, you are braver than the average Marine—which is saying something. Not bad for a twenty-four-year-old who was a senior in college less than eighteen months ago."
"Thank you, sir, but the Expert rating with the M-14 rifle and the parachute jumps were at stateside training schools, not in combat. As for bravery, I'm scared to death every time we go out in the field. May I ask what mission you have in mind for me?"
"Yes, we are certainly going to get into that. Why don't you have a seat? Would you like a beer?"
Once Sam was set with a beer and a cigarette, the gravel voice launched into the story.
The Third Marine Division's overall objective in I-Corps, the northernmost part of South Vietnam, was to prevent the enemy from bringing personnel and supplies from North Vietnam into the south. The U.S. had estab¬lished a series of bases such as Gio Linh, Con Thien, the Rockpile and Khe Sanh, from which were sent infantry patrols and artillery missions. The North Vietnamese army used a trail running south through Laos, bypassing even the westernmost U.S. outpost, Khe Sanh. Called the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it flanked the Vietnamese border with Laos, parallel to the Annamese Cordillera mountain range. Once below the 17th Parallel, where the Demilitarized Zone was, the Ho Chi Minh Trail fed several tributaries eastward into South Vietnam. One headed toward Hue and Phu Bai, another toward Danang, and there were a couple more to the south where Laos ended and Cambodia began as Vietnam's western neighbor.
The United States did not know exactly where the Ho Chi Minh network was, but pounded the area mercilessly with B-52s. There were no U.S. bases in this area because of its remoteness and proximity to Laos, but the Marines sent their Force Recon teams into the border regions from time to time. Also, high-altitude surveillance jets took photographs, which were then enlarged and scrutinized for enemy activity. Lastly, interrogators from the South Viet¬namese Army forces had questioned some of the native Meo tribesmen that populated the hill country.
The combined intelligence from these various sources had begun to form a pattern. While the exact location of the network of trails had not yet been discovered, an odd fact was emerging: enemy troops flowing past Khe Sanh were lightly armed, but by the time they reached the tributary leading eastward toward Hue, they were heavily armed.
The brilliant strategists back in the Pentagon had once again proven their limitless value by drawing two conclu¬sions from this raw intelligence. First, the enemy was being supplied with weapons somewhere along the trail. Second, destroying the supply base, wherever it might be, would greatly reduce the effectiveness of the troops pouring down the trail. Alas, thought the generals, they could not destroy the base because it was in Laos, so they grudgingly handed the mission over to the CIA.
Ward Aston pointed to a large wall map of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the piece of Thailand that intruded into French Indochina.
"Lieutenant, we've narrowed it down to about fifty square miles. The arms supply base is most likely situated in the area outlined in blue here. Ten miles from north to south and five from east to west."
Sam looked at the blue rectangle. It was a mountainous area with few towns, though there were probably villages too small to appear on the map. The closest town of any significance was Muong Nam, but that meant nothing to Sam. He looked at the pudgy CIA man and waited for him to resume.
"We could just blast the holy hell out of the location with B-52s, but it's in Laos, and Washington's not too excited about that, what with all the antiwar protesters already going berserk. Also, from what I can tell, the hidden base is supplying the gooks with American weap¬ons. Some son of a bitch traitor must be selling them to the supply base. So we not only want to destroy it but find out where they're getting the arms.
"What we need is to get a small team into that area. We've had Force Recon around there, but they've never gone into Laos because that's against U.S. policy. The mission must therefore be completely covert, top secret. You'll be inserted by parachute, rather than wasting time tromping around up in the hill-country."
"Won't the parachutes be spotted?"
"It's going to be a night drop with black parachutes."
"You've got to be kidding!" said Sam, stunned at the riskiness of the idea.
"Well, just think of all the humping it will save."
"Sir, what I'm thinking of is falling through pitch-black darkness onto unfamiliar terrain and possibly right into Charlie's lap. Won't they hear the plane?"
"The plane will be up too high to hear. Hey, we have this all worked out! You'll be on oxygen at 25,000 feet, free-falling to about 8,000 feet, where the chute will automati¬cally open on altimeter setting. Lastly, you'll all have infrared glasses, so you can see what you're falling into."
"Jesus Christ! Who came up with that stunt?"
"Our CIA planning staff in D.C. Most of them came from the best universities on the East Coast."
"That figures. Did any of them actually test this plan by making a jump himself?"
"Look, Lieutenant, I'm not going to stand here and argue with you about it. The exact time and place of the jump are set. We've picked six of you. You'll all meet tomorrow at 0900. Any questions?"
Sam had not expected them to ask for volunteers. He was in the Marines. Well, that sure shot the crap out of his R&R at China Beach, goddammit!
"So what's our mission exactly? We find the arms supply base, find out how it gets supplied, destroy the base, then somehow return from Laos and make our way to a friendly camp in Vietnam?"
"Yeah, that's about it. I don't have to tell you how important your success will be to the war effort."
He was certainly right about that, thought Sam. That is, if the damn intelligence boys were correct in postulating the existence of the arms supply base in the first place. In spite of himself, he began to get excited at the thought of getting into such a glamorous operation. It reminded him of the James Bond novels he had devoured a couple years before.
The next morning the six of them met in a large tent in the headquarters compound. Fences and sentries kept away nosy passersby. Mike Hurakawa, a Marine staff ser¬geant, was a Japanese-American who by some genetic quirk looked like a Vietnamese. He also spoke the language. Now if I get snuffed, thought Sam sarcastically, at least there'll be a backup in the language department. The other four men were from Force Recon, including Captain Carl Montana, who would lead the team. Bob Turner, Mel Holmes and Luis Anselmo had five years experience in Nam among them. Sam looked with curiosity at the Recon guys. Like most Marines, he was a bit in awe of Force Recon, which was the Marine equivalent of the Army Green Berets and the Navy Seals. They were the elite of the elite when it came to military men, trained to stay alive in small groups in hostile environments. Their purpose was reconnaissance—the gathering of information about the enemy.
As Ward introduced each man to the rest of the group and gave a short description of the man's qualifications, Sam discovered why he and Mike had been picked for the team even though they were not Recon. Sam had some experience at S-2:"enough to know the way they worked in intelligence"— whereas Mike "could pass for a gook" if needed. At this, Sam saw Mike's smile develop a somewhat forced look, which Aston did not seem to notice.
Next they were told their destination. There was a plateau that looked like a reasonable landing area. Sam noted that it was about three miles east of Muong Nam, the village he had seen on the map. Captain Montana, holding a more detailed map drawn from aerial photos, described how they would spin out from the plateau in a spiral, looking for evidence of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once they found the trail, they would traverse it to the north and then back down south until the arms base was discovered. Anyone found on the way, whether North Vietnamese Army or simple Meo villager, was fair game for interroga¬tion. At the end of the mission, the group would follow the escape route outlined on their maps, which would take them to a grid coordinate just inside Vietnam. There they would lie in wait for a chopper to arrive on the sixth day of the mission.
Next the men collected their gear, which was all laid out for them to inspect and pack carefully. During this process, as they compared opinions on the various items of warfare, comfort and food, Bob asked the captain when the opera¬tion was to begin. Montana turned to Aston, who was looking pensively out the tent door, his hands clasped behind him. Sam thought he must be pondering some deep matter of national security. Aston pulled reluctantly back to the real world, turned to the group and said, "Oh yes, you will be leaving at midnight tonight. Good luck!" With that he returned to his introspection.
By noon, Sam was in the Officers Club drinking a cold beer, and then one more, before going back to his tent. He slept for a while, not soundly, but dozing in and out of half-consciousness, scared and excited at the same time.
Midnight came all too soon. When the six Marines gathered again in the briefing tent, the air was tense as they "saddled up," packing all their equipment on their heads, backs, chests and waists. Force Recon men normally wore outsize packs because they were resupplied infrequently. This team had the Recon packs plus parachutes, oxygen supply, night scopes, radios, LAAWS (light anti-armor weapons), C-4 explosives and dozens of cartridge cases full of rounds for their M-16 rifles. Sam, who was hardly able to stand, wondered how his partner, Mike Hurakawa, must feel. The gear probably weighed more than Mike did, but he just stood there smiling and swaying forward like the Tower of Pisa.
The men piled into a truck and were taken out to the Phu Bai airfield. There they boarded a C-130 cargo plane, which bounded down the runway with a roar audible in Saigon and leaped violently into the inky sky.
Thirty minutes later they were approaching the drop site. The men donned their oxygen masks, checked the operation of their infrared night scopes and lined up near the door. Sam could see out a porthole. No features distinguished the night sky, even when he used the scope. He felt nauseated. Throw up in your oxygen mask and you've had it, he reminded himself. He was third in line. Turner and Anselmo hopped out, and Sam was next.
He jumped out into the pure black void, cursing the CIA whiz kids who came right out of a classroom and made up strategies like these and the rich parents who had spawned them and spoiled them and kept them out of the Vietnam jungles with money.
Streaking downward through the night like a comet, Sam looked at the lighted altimeter. When the gauge hit 8,000 feet the chute was supposed to open. When that happened he needed to be facing feet downward to avoid a wrenching twist. He still could not see anything, but he knew which direction was down. He was falling at around 125 miles per hour, the supposed terminal velocity of the human body, where air friction balances the acceleration property of gravity.
Sam experimented with directional control by tucking in his arms and legs, and eventually got the hang of it. By 9,000 feet, after almost 90 seconds of free fall, he was in the right position and watching the altimeter anxiously. Six seconds later he was at 8,000 feet. The chute didn't open. It took him three more seconds to find the manual release, and at 7,500 feet the black chute blossomed above him.
The plateau was supposed to be at 5,500 feet elevation. Sam pulled out the night scope and looked around. A hill was off to his left; he hoped it was the right one. Sam tried pulling the parachute straps to swing himself to the left. A wind blew across the top of the hill, so he knew he'd make it easily. Looking through the scope as he approached, however, he could see the ground whipping past. Now bushes slapped at his legs, and suddenly he plunged into a tree. The tree knocked the scope from his grasp, leaving him blind. He slid a few feet to the ground and lay there, dazed, scratched, and bruised. But alive. So far.
Sam unbuckled the parachute and altimeter, took off the oxygen mask and stood up. There, now he was a lot lighter. He groped around in the darkness and found his flashlight. Its powerful beam picked out a forest. But the night scope was gone. He pulled the parachute out of the tree, and then he wrapped it and the mask and other gear no longer needed into a tight bundle and buried it all in a shallow hole under a bush.
They were all supposed to rendezvous at the northeast¬ern edge of the plateau where a large rock and tree stood together. Moving along cautiously with compass and flash¬light, he arrived in fifteen minutes. Mike Hurakawa and Luis Anselmo were already there, both looking pretty scratched up in the brief moment that Sam played his light on them. Soon they were joined by Mel Holmes. The four men waited around for half an hour, joking nervously about the long drop down from the heavens and chain-smoking behind hands cupped to hide the lighted embers.
When Bob Turner and Captain Carl Montana failed to arrive, the four decided to search the plateau by circling its top. Spread out in a line at fifteen-foot intervals, their paths formed concentric circles as they swept along. It was about 0230 when Sam heard Mel gasping and gagging off to his left. He saw Mel standing before a tree trunk down which a trail of blood flowed. Sam followed the trail up the trunk with the beam of his light. Ten feet up, Montana's body was skewered on the jagged tip of the tree.
Sam wondered if the college grads who had devised this plan had calculated the probabilities of dying by falling on a trunk which had been severed by lightning. It was doubtful they had even thought of it. Aerial photography of the target zone would not have revealed the hazard.
Luis and Mike arrived and looked at the gruesome sight in awe. All four had seen death many times, and none of them had really known the captain, but the grisly picture, and the thought that it could have happened to any of them, put them all in a somber mood. Mike suggested the captain be given a decent burial, not only out of respect but so the enemy would have no evidence of the team's insertion into Laos. Normally, Marines take their dead back to the base camp with them, but that was clearly out of the question, given the circumstances.
"Mike, I'd agree," said Luis, "but how are we going to get him down?"
The other three looked at Sam. They had realized, before he did, that he was now the ranking officer, and thus responsible for the mission and their safety. Rising to the task, Sam decided they had to get out of the area as quickly as possible, in case the enemy had spotted their parachutes with night scopes of their own. While the last thing Sam wanted to do was leave Montana where he was, taking time to bury him would be too risky.
The team completed their search of the plateau with¬out seeing any sign of Bob Turner. Hopefully, he had landed down below in the valley, and they would run into him. The group rested for a couple of hours and ate a small portion of their C-rations in the darkness.
At the first sign of dawn, Sam had the men begin picking their way down the hill single file. For the next three days, they walked along the jungle floor in an ever-widening circle, using the plateau as a landmark to supple¬ment the normal map and compass techniques. The team ate sparingly from their supplies and drank from streams, using water purification tablets. Their faces and hands were streaked with camouflage paint, their helmets and packs wired with leafy branches. All were experienced jungle fighters, and they made no noise as they passed through the dense forest.
On the fourth day they found a wide trail running
roughly north and south through an area covered with
huge thick trees. They made note of it on their maps, and Sam chose to follow the trail north. The team walked parallel to the trail, rather than on it. This slowed their progress but decreased the chance they'd be surprised by the enemy.
Here in the mountains, the terrain was not as dense as it had been in the valleys through which Sam had trudged over the previous months. It was cooler, and the air seemed fresher, though possibly he was only magining it to be fresher because there were few signs of death and destruc¬tion up here. It was almost pleasant walking at a natural pace under the cool green umbrella of tall trees with the sunlight filtering onto the fern-covered meadow. The place could even be mistaken for Yosemite Valley, Sam mused.
The shot, undeniably from an AK-47 carbine, shat¬tered the tranquil setting. The four Marines dove for the only available cover, ferns about four feet high. Fifty yards away, on the trail itself, the North Vietnamese Army, the NVA, had even less cover. There were only about forty of them, but only a third seemed to be armed. Luis, covered by rapid rifle fire from the other three, aimed his M-79 grenade launcher from a crouching position and fired off a round. Seconds later a mushroom of dirt appeared fifteen yards past the NVA platoon. His next three rounds were right on target. Screams and shouts filled the meadow. Meanwhile the Marines had wriggled along on their el¬bows through the ferns and were about ten yards from where the enemy had last seen them. The few shots that came their way were off target.
Most of the NVA didn't even bother to shoot, however. The twenty that were left were scooping up weapons from their fallen comrades and running frantically for the shel¬ter of some nearby boulders. These rocks made Luis's grenade launcher ineffective. Now the Marines and the NVA were both hidden, each hoping the other would reveal their position by taking some aggressive action. Neither did, and two hours later night fell on the quiet peaceful meadow.
Sam was agonizing over his options. They could prob¬ably escape from the meadow quite easily in the dark. But then they would have to worry constantly about the re¬maining enemy knowing they were nearby. That could result in a massive search effort, which would find them eventually—especially since the Marines would have to go back down the trail in the same direction as the NVA. It was now clear to the Marines that their objective, the arms supply base, was south of them, since the NVA were so lightly armed.
A second option was to attack the enemy behind the rocks. Two obvious disadvantages were that the Marines would be out in the open versus the sheltered NVA, and that Sam and his men were outnumbered by five to one.
Probably the best strategy, if they could pull it off, would be to capture and interrogate an NVA who knew where the arms supply base was, and then move on toward the target without a battle.
Sam figured his team had one big advantage over the NVA—they still had an operational night scope, while the NVA almost certainly didn't. This was a dangerous as¬sumption to make, because the enemy had begun finding more U.S. weapons as the war wore on. Motioning the others to follow, he started circling the enemy position on his hands and knees. Every few feet, he checked out the pile of rocks with the scope. The team, crawling along silently in near-total darkness, was filled with fear that the NVA might also have a night scope trained on them, or that they had moved to another position. After an hour, Sam could see several NVA among the rounded boulders. Some seemed to be sleeping while others stood guard. The scope was useful only to the man who had it as he aimed his rifle, so it would be very risky to start firing aimlessly in the dark. Sam motioned for Mike to come near. He put his mouth up to Mike's ear and whispered as gently as possible.
"Mike, take a look through this scope and then tell me if you think you could hit the rocks on the first shot with a LAAW."
Mike thought about it. The LAAW, a cylinder about three feet long, fired its projectile on a very accurate trajectory. The problem in this case was trying to aim it without the night scope securely fastened to it. A few seconds later, Mike whispered back, "I'm pretty sure I could. Why don't we have Luis fire up a willie peter at the same time? Then we can shoot the ones that survive the LAAW."
"Great idea. Pass it along to Luis and Mel, will you? When I hit my K-bar against my magazine twice, you fire the LAAW and Luis can fire the willie peter."
When everyone was set, Sam gave the scope to Mike, waited a few seconds for him to sight in on the boulders, and then whacked his K-bar twice against his ammo maga¬zine. The LAAW, held against Mike's shoulder, traced a white hot line to the boulders and exploded in a ball of flame. Luis's "willie peter," a white phosphorus flare, popped open 200 feet up and began to float gently to earth beneath its little parachute, swinging gently to and fro, causing surrealistic shifting light and shadows over the meadow. The NVA, in various stages of injury from the shock of the LAAW blast, were easy targets in the sudden brilliant light. However, the three or four still alive were now well-protected by the rocks and could see where Sam's team was firing from. The survivors, of course, were no longer hampered by lack of weapons, and they blazed away at full automatic.
Sam yelled at Mike to try another LAAW. Then he looked at Mike and saw him lying facedown in a pool of blood. Just then, the white phosphorus flare went out, and everyone stopped shooting. Sam reached over to find Mike's wrist in the dark. He had trouble finding the wrist, and everything he touched was slippery and wet. Finally he found the wrist and checked for a pulse. There was none. "And then there were three" ran through Sam's mind. He felt completely alone in the meadow and fought back a powerful urge to get up and run for his life. He fumbled around for the scope and used it to locate Mel and Luis. Then the three moved quietly to another position several yards away.
Another LAAW was fired off, and it looked as if the NVA were finally out of commission. The three Marines closed in on the pile of boulders. Most of the enemy were dead, and the rest were wounded. Sam turned on his flashlight and found an officer with blood pouring from an artery in his thigh. He questioned the Vietnamese about the location of the supply base, but the officer replied with a look of pure hatred and spat at him. This took such an effort that he then gasped and died. Sam searched the man's pockets and was rewarded with a map.
Mel came up and asked whether they should put the wounded out of their misery. It was a tough question, and it came up all the time. What was the moral choice? If you were near medical facilities, you could have them patched up and hand them over to the ARVNs. The South Viet¬namese Army, however, might torture and kill the prison¬ers, but that was on their consciences. Out in the field, though, the choice was to kill the wounded or simply let them lie suffering in the heat, swarming with flies, until they died, which might take days. Sam decided in favor of "mercy killing." For one thing, another enemy patrol could be coming through any day, and leaving wounded wit¬nesses added an element of risk to the team's already desperate mission.
While Mel and Luis went around accomplishing their grisly task, Sam compared the NVA map to his own. The former had a line on it that appeared to be the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with a tributary spinning off toward Hue. Just like the S-2 people theorized, he thought. Un-goddam-believ-able! The junction of the main trail and the tributary were circled. The circle was only about a mile from the village of Muong Nam. It looked like a great place for the arms supply base.
The Marines sat in the darkness for the rest of the night, none of them relaxed enough to fall asleep. As soon as it was light enough to see, they took off down the trail. They traveled rapidly and with less caution than before, because there was not much probability of NVA coming up behind them and because they now felt confident of the base's location. What they would do once they found the base was unclear, and this worried Sam. There were only three of them against what was probably a heavily protected fortress. Maybe they could radio in an air strike or artillery. They had avoided using the radio so far for fear of alerting the enemy that U.S. troops were actually in Laos.
Despite the map, they ran into the supply base before they realized it. Two guards popped out right in front of them, just like terrifying pictures in the darkened tunnels of an amusement park funhouse. They blasted Luis and Mel immediately, and Sam was knocked sideways by a grazing wound off the right side of his waist.
He lay in a fetal position, hot aching pain numbing his whole body. He watched a soldier walk slowly over to him, weapon pointed. He is going to put me out of my misery, thought Sam, just like we did to their comrades last night. His heart filled with a sudden sadness that his life was ending before he had a chance to have a family and career. He closed his eyes, tried to formulate a prayer, and waited for the instant of horrible pain that would end all other pain.
After a minute, he opened his eyes. Two of the soldiers were talking in a language Sam did not understand— maybe the guards were Laotian—and then they turned to him. He quickly closed his eyes again and hung limply as they picked him up by the arms. Sam squinted surrepti¬tiously as he was dragged along and noticed they were entering a concrete-bordered doorway set in a hillside. The path began to wind, and then darkness closed in on him.