Battle Along the Rio Coco

The echo of the helicopter blades were only a faint memory as the fifteen of us worked deeper into the canyon. It had been less than 10-hours since the three teams had been dropped near the canyons entrance.

Slowly we picked our way through the dense vegetation on the ground. We stayed in the lush green foliage and avoided the open terrain including the river named Rio Coco that wound its way through the jungle.

The Rio Coco was at least half of the demarcation line between the countries of Honduras and El Salvador. It was not known to be a very large body of water in the area that we were operating.

“L-T,” a Lance Corporal said, “I think we’re being trailed.”

The lieutenant had been in the middle of taking a sip of water from his canteen. He quickly replaced in the green holder and got up to talk with the Lance Corporal.

“What makes you think that, Jones?” he asked.

“Its too quiet back there,” Jones replied.

The lieutenant looked in the direction that they had just spent the few hours hiking through. He knew that guerrilla insurgents and drug mules used the same path we were working. He lifted his cover and mopped the sweat from his forehead and cheeks.

“Okay, take Sanchez with you and set up a listening post back around the bend,” he said. “Make certain you have the high ground just in case.”

“Aye-aye,” Jones answered.

I looked on as the pair climbed along the tumbled stones that littered the river’s edge and watched them disappear beyond the bend which moved to the left.

“Saddle up,” the Gunny Sergeant called out.

Some of the men groaned slightly as they hoisted their gear back onto themselves and continued the march into the canyon. I knew it would be a long while before they stopped for another rest.

It was about 90 minutes later when a faint noise came slowly rolling from the sides of the canyon. Though the walls were lined with a think growth of wild shrubbery, underneath it laid a limestone bed. The noise grew closer and quickly.

The radio crackled as Sanchez said, “Bird on your six.”

Within two minutes a small white and red Bell and Howell helicopter raced between the lips of the gorge. It flashed in the sun, which was just to the right of our position. The commercial-looking craft did not slow or stop and if we had been spotted it gave no sign.

The lieutenant signaled for everyone to hold steady in their positions. No one moved knowing that the helicopter might return.

Five minutes later it came speeding by and the lieutenant called for the radio.

“Get command on the horn,” he demanded. A second later he was speaking quietly into the handset.

“It just buzzed us, what do you want us to do?” I over heard him say.

“Roger that,” and the lieutenant handed the handset back to the radio operator.

Then he called out, “Gunny, Doc, Hammer.” Each of us came from different direction at the sound of our names.

Once we were assembled, he said, “We’re heading back to the rendezvous point as soon as the sun sets,” then he added, “We’ll rest here, so set up security.”

Immediately four bodies were sent out to establish make shift listening post behind the unit. Another four were directed to the front of the teams. I double checked that they had enough water in their canteens and gave each an extra salt tablet.

We had another five hours to remain in our present location before the sun went down. I hoped to use some of that time to catch a nap, but only after I checked everyone’s feet for blisters and giving attention to those who had them.

I had just finished lancing and draining the last blister when I heard Sanchez’ voice whispering harshly from the radio set.

“About 30-strong headed your way,” he said.

Suddenly the area was alive with activity as men moved to get to their feet and get their equipment on. It was less than an hour when the listening post in the rear of the unit was engaged in a fire-fight.

Saunders, Williamson and myself, were sent to assist the two men already under fire. I was sent because there could be wounds needing tended too. However we found very little of the two men who had been there.

Using hand gestures, I suggested we fall back into the bushes and find cover. That’s when the rocket-propelled grenade exploded above my head, shattering the trees from the impact, raining wood and leaves down on me.

A thick log had pinned me to the earth and I couldn’t escape, even thought I tried.  I ended up pulling my M-16 close to my body, aiming it at anything I saw moving.

Small arms fire was bursting from my right. I recognized the sound of the M-16 as my two team mates fired into the greenery ahead of them. I also knew the sound of the AK-47 as it chattered and it was coming from my left, very close to my position.

As I struggled to free my lower back and legs from the downed tree, I also took steady aim on the star burst being emitted from the muzzle of the AK-47. I knew that if I fired into the jungle at the muzzle flash and missed, I would give away my position and without any means to escape I concluded I would die.

The AK-47 chattered again, so I squeezed off three rounds. The weapon fell silent. I knew I wasn’t out of harm’s way as there was larger force of soldiers moving all around us.

Laying my rifle down and reached back, I started clawing at the dirt in order to free myself. Meanwhile my two team mates had managed to move towards higher ground and gain a tactical advantage.

Below me was the sound of another fire-fight. I knew from the sound that the rest of the unit was now engaging the 30-man force along the Rio Coco’s edge.

The sound of the battle caused me struggle even harder to get free. I knew that wounded men would soon need my help.

The undergrowth gave away the movements of someone slowly creeping my way. I stopped scooping at the ground and picked up my rifle, aiming in the direction of the sound.

I lowered it when Saunders crashed through the growth and dived next to me.

“You okay?” he asked in a breathless fashion.

“This tree’s got me pinned down,” I answered.

Saunders rolled over and looked the situation over.

“Holy crap!” he exclaimed.

I felt a chill roll through my body at the sound of his voice.

“What’s wrong,” I asked in a near panic.

Saunders lifted on a branch and snapped it off. “Another inch and that would have skewered like a pig on a spit.”

He rocked the log over and it slipped off me and crashed through the underbrush. I was finally free

Now I needed to make my way back to the main fire-fight and where the bulk of the wounded would be. I could hear the sound of rapid fire weapons and the shouts of men in a foreign language I didn’t understand.

They were very close to my position of concealment. So I decided to stop and listen for a minute before heading on.

As soon as they moved away, I weaved my way back up the hillside from where I had just come. Seconds later both Williamson and Saunders came moving into my sight.

When we were together again I said, “I think were behind their main body. Should we jump them or wait?”

“I think we should waste them all,” said Saunders.

Williamson had a look of thoughtfulness on his face, “Let’s scout it out and get closer.”

The three of us split up just far enough from each other to keep one another in sight. We slowly moved down the hillside, towards the sound of men voices.

It took us nearly 10 minutes to scale down the side of the hill. We moved as cautiously as possible to prevent any loose rocks or other debris from rolling down the hillside and giving away our positions.

In the middle position, I found myself stuck about 60 feet above the riverbed and with no safe way to the large rocks below. Saunders and Williamson had ample safety to the riverbed.

Since I was stuck, I looked for a place from which to lay down cover fire. I found a jagged outcropping of rock about eight inches deep in which to hide.

Both Saunders and Williamson were down and moving through the rocky riverbed. Without warning Saunders started firing point-blank at the soldiers firing on their team mates. They were joined by Jones and Sanchez who had double timed it over the rough terrain to help the unit in the fire fight.

Taking a seated position, I fired a burst into a group of men close to where I had last seen the lieutenant. I saw a sudden spray of red leap into the air and I knew I had hit my target.

The battle raged for nearly 45 desperate minutes. It took command that long to send in helicopters to evacuate the three teams. The helicopters door mounted machine guns were a welcomed sight to us.

It was soon discovered that the soldiers, though uniformly dressed, worked for one of the many drug cartels. And the two Marines, who were sent to establish the listening post, were found a week later.

They had been tortured to death and after seeing their fleshless bodies, I decided to always save a bullet for myself.

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