Early the next morning, Caputo awakes to the sounds of rifle fire and Webb Harrison’s voice nearby. Harrison warns him of “visitors.” Caputo steps out of his tent, guessing it is another probe. The night before, the VC tried to infiltrate through HQ company lines. They now seem to be looking for weak spots in the One-Three battalion’s perimeter. He is only guessing, however, and has no real idea of what is going on. Some flares hit the ground. The regimental sergeant goes past him dressed only in a pair of green undershorts and is carrying a Thompson submachine gun in one hand. He jumps into the foxhole with a splash. When more flares go out, they see nothing but bushes. The firing stops and they wait for another hour, shivering and wet due to the cold rain, before the area is secured.
The danger of a VC raid is always present, though it does not usually occur. The regimental sergeant’s almost comical charge in his underwear also reveals how the marines are constantly on alert for possible danger. In this instance, as in previous ones, the danger is only imagined. They have conjured vicious Viet Cong out of nearby bushes. The waiting also fosters the anticipation of danger which, as Caputo has previously noted, is, in some ways more worrisome than an actual attack.
Later, two dead VC are carried into the command post, where they are tied to bamboo poles “like bagged game.” Caputo adds two to the number in the VC-KIA column on the scoreboard. The next week is the same, with additional probes of the HQ perimeter or the battalions’ positions, random mortar attacks on isolated outposts, and a few attempted infiltrations of the airfield defenses, which are now guarded by 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Due to all of the alarms, the soldiers get very little sleep.
Caputo’s comparison of the dead VC to “bagged game” parallels with his previous mention of an Australian holding up a dead VC’s ears like “prize-winning trout.” Though the previous display shocked Caputo, he is now accustomed to the display of Vietnamese people as trophies of war.
That week, Harrison tells Caputo that the two VC they found were part of a five- or six-man enemy patrol. They were doing reconnaissance and got too close, getting themselves killed by a machine-gunner who shot them at point-blank range. This incident signals an increase in VC activity and the possibility of an enemy attack on the airfield. The VC are also amassing forces south of Da Nang, with the objective of seizing the city. Lastly, two North Vietnamese Army divisions are operating in the South, one in the Central Highlands and the other somewhere in I Corps.
The battalion’s purpose is to protect the airfield. If the Viet Cong attack the airfield, it would signal that the battalion was negligent in its duties. The increase in VC activity also suggests that the U.S. Marines are not very successful in keeping them at bay. The fact that they are “amassing forces south of Da Nang” also suggests the possibility that people from South Vietnam are joining the Viet Cong’s ranks.
A few days later, two VC are captured while scouting a portion of the regiment’s positions in broad daylight. The following day, a patrol from the reconnaissance battalion sees a battery of enemy 82-mm mortars being moved toward the airfield. The patrol leader reports the map coordinates of the mortars and suggested that they were going to be used to shell the airfield. The report is noted and buried in a file cabinet. On the 28th, an ARVN district HQ near regimental HQ is shelled. The VC also drop mortars on an isolated section of One-Three Battalion’s lines, killing and wounding several marines. Obviously, the VC are planning an attack on the airfield, whose defense is still their primary mission. However, the regimental staff is not overly fazed by this. Therefore, they do nothing but read and pursue other individual hobbies.
Caputo reveals how the Marines had every opportunity to prevent the inevitable attack on the airfield but did nothing. This reveals the occasional incompetence of the U.S. military to address avoidable problems. The willful ignorance about the VC’s obvious plans to shell the airfield suggests laziness among the regimental staff, for an operation would have needed to be organized to foil the attack. The organization’s inaction may also have been the result of exhaustion. The soldiers’ pursuit of diversion over planning for the attack could have been the result of exasperation with the war and with the constant need to be on alert.
On July 1, the VC attack the airfield. The first shells hit around 2:00 A.M., when Caputo is just coming off of duty-watch in the operations tent. The shells burst rapidly, one after another, coloring the sky “a pale, flickering red.” Inside the command post, marines roll out of bed and grab their weapons. Caputo goes back into the tent. He feels that he should do something, though he doesn’t know what. The head officers arrive, along with Colonel Wheeler. Someone talks to One-Nine Battalion to find out where the attack is coming from and how many VC are out there. The colonel sits and stares at a big operations map, as though it can reveal what is happening.
Now that the attack is occurring, the officers feel useless. Colonel Wheeler feigns activity to mask the fact that he knows that any action, other than taking cover, is futile. Again, the marines are disturbed out of their sleep by shell fire. Caputo’s description of their rolling out of bed and grabbing their weapons implies that they are so accustomed to the sudden alerts that they perform this ritual of reviving themselves from sleep, as though by rote.
Caputo starts to go out and runs into Major General Lew Walt. He salutes him, but Walt does not acknowledge the formality. Instead, the major general looks angry because the very attack that the Marines are there to prevent is happening. Caputo thinks that Walt is one of few high-ranking officers who takes the VC seriously. Caputo also thinks that, by moving his HQ so far forward, Walt was trying to set an example of personal leadership. He instills more discipline. He puts an end to movie nights at regimental HQ, makes Da Nang off limits to reduce drunkenness among soldiers, and orders the construction of a proper MLR, “with strongpoints, forward outposts, and preregistered artillery concentrations.”
Major General Walt, who is still regarded as one of the most notable leaders of the Vietnam War, tries to instill discipline and morality within the Marines, believing that an absence of virtue has led to their inability to attend to their mission. However, his response is rather extreme and leads him to eliminate all diversion in an attempt to get the men to focus single-mindedly on the war. He does not realize that exhaustion with war is part of the reason why the Marines were unable to attend the problem in the first place.
Caputo puts on his helmet and flak jacket and goes over to the tent where the secret-and-confidential documents are stored in a safe. It is his duty to burn all of this with thermite grenades in the event that the camp is attacked and overrun. Sergeant Hamilton asks him if the VC are approaching and says that he has the grenades prepared to burn the tent down. Caputo does not think that they will hit them. He tells Hamilton that he does not want him burning any of the stuff in the tent unless the enemy is coming at him. Hamilton says that, if the enemy approaches, he will throw the grenades and then throw the files on top of the resulting flame to make a bonfire.
Caputo, who just a moment ago was feeling useless, finds something to do. He realizes that the Viet Cong can use the Marines’ panic about attending to the airfield as an opportunity to infiltrate and steal intelligence. Caputo uses this prospect to reconstruct himself as a hero, or someone who can save the Marines from future problems by remaining cool and level-headed in the midst of an attack
With nothing else to do, Caputo goes back to his position on the perimeter. Each junior officer is responsible for a section of the perimeter. He is in charge of a corporal and ten other men. This is the closest thing to a command that he has at this post. They wait in their foxholes while a convoy carrying a rifle company rolls past, heading toward the base. The counterattack is getting under way. Caputo feels slight excitement when he sees the howitzers, “bouncing on their carriages behind the speeding trucks.” A column of white flame from burning magnesium goes up over the airfield as shells burst in the rice fields south of the base.
The airfield has briefly restored Caputo’s sense of the excitement and romance that war can provide. He enjoys being in command again, recalling his previous leadership role on the war front. He is also excited by the prospect of the imminent destruction of the Viet Cong as a result of the Marines’ retaliation. The attack on the airfield has temporarily weakened the Marines, but the sight of the howitzers restores Caputo’s confidence in America’s dominance.
Later, Caputo and Kazmarack drive past the airfield. Most of it has escaped serious damage. However, two big transport planes are totally destroyed, two fighter planes look like “broken toys,” and another is “just a pile of ashes and twisted metal.” They see, too, the holes the VC blew or cut into the chain link fence along the perimeter road, while coming through the area Caputo’s platoon manned back in March and April, when he believed they would win the war in a few months.
The attack on the airfield reveals that even America’s exceptional machinery can be destroyed during an attack. The sight of the destroyed fighter planes, which now appear like “broken toys,” reveal the vulnerability of U.S. military might. It is also proof to Caputo that a superior military is not always a clear indication that one will win a war.