Monday, March 15, 2010
I’d enjoyed a far better night’s sleep than I had in months. The rocking of the train at a slow and steady pace put me right out. My internal clock though knew it was time to get up, and at half-past four I turned on the bedside lamp. We were somewhere in southern Wyoming, if our schedule was true. Still dark outside of course…I cleaned up for the day in the bathroom before donning my uniform and taking the bitterly cold walk from my car to the command car.
“Good morning, Colonel. Early day for you,” Major Pat Morrissey said.
“Morning, Major. You drew the short straw for the overnight?”
“Best time to brush up on all this hardware. Like the bridge of the starship Enterprise.”
“Yeah. I can run my own console, with help. These tech’s are pretty sharp.” Two comm specialists were monitoring the trains internals, as well as information from the National Command Authority. “How’s our status?” I asked.
“Better than Dog Six,” he said. “Four cars lost power overnight, troops had to relocate to other quarters. Posed a bit of a problem in one car, where on-board water started to freeze. Charlie Six only lost heat in two cars, but still had limited power. Hundred men inconvenienced a bit, sir.”
“Still headed east…halfway between Casper and Cheyenne, more or less, sir. Not far from Gillette, Colonel,” he said as he pointed at the route map on one of the Suite Four displays.
“How’re we for arrival in Sterling, Pat?”
“If the weather holds, we’ll be an hour late. New storm front moving in though, straight shot, west to east. We might get lucky and arrive before it hits, no way that Dog Six will clear Denver and make it to the terminal point, and given how shaky the tracks are, they may be eight or ten hours delayed. Call it twenty-one hundred hours for Charlie, more or less, sir.”
“Disposition of the Marine Expeditionary Unit?”
“Sitting tight, sir. Forty-four hundred men, even, deployed along this line,” he said, scrolling over to the Sterling area, showing the green indicators of ‘friendlies.’
“Twice what they told us?”
“Eleventh MEU from Pendleton, Thirty-first, used to be over in Okinawa, most recently from Fort Worth Naval Air Station, sir.”
“O.K. Do we have an E.T.A. on remaining forces?” I asked as a private entered the room with a contractor-sized thermos of coffee.
“Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California will be on site within three hours. Marines will then advance east, Colonel.”
“Total men on the ground?”
“Should be in the neighborhood of twenty-thousand, sir.”
“I hope someone’s thought about that as another target, Major.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve read the intel already. Report’s on your desk,” Pat said, catching the young man’s eye. “And Private, see what you can do about rounding up some breakfast for the Colonel.”
“Sir, will do. Colonel, the mess has a pretty limited menu.”
“I’m good with anything, thanks, Private.”
“Very well, sir,” he said as he headed back out the end-door to the small galley car.
“O.K., Pat. Senior staff meeting at oh eight hundred, brigade commanders at oh nine hundred. Do you know if the mobilization plan is all ironed out?” I poured a cup of coffee, and topped off Pat’s.
“Yes, sir, down to assignments for the next ten days,” he said. “Had a dozen men from the brigades work it over into something workable. That should be on your computer desktop now.”
“Thanks. You off duty at oh six-hundred?”
“Yes, sir, and back on at noon.”
“Sleep’s overrated anyway,” I said as I headed toward my desk.
The mobilization plan, as it was termed, would direct how we were to go through recovery efforts for the bodies and equipment of Sixth Army.
We had yet to get an answer on how to deal with the bodies, now frozen together, frozen to the ground, to their equipment, in their tents. Temperature at the location hovered in the teens in the daylight hours, below zero at night. The early reports from the lead Marine units reported scavengers already working over the dead. It appeared that the Army had no idea on how to remove the dead. I found it difficult to believe that in all the planning that must’ve happened over the decades, that no one could lay hands on body retrieval in a winter war.
It appeared that we would go into the field with the gear on hand, with whatever means of removal we could devise, and work from there. I reviewed the “plan”, which was more of troop assignment and retrieval of equipment and munitions than a ‘how-to’ manual. I perhaps, was asking too much.
I would need to address the entire Brigade on the process, to help mentally prepare them for the gruesome task at hand. Three thousand men would retrieve fifty-three thousand dead from a frozen battlefield, remove their weapons, retrieve their useable major equipment, and transport them to a burial location that wouldn’t be determined until “later.” The salvaged equipment would then be cleaned, checked, and sent out for re-use by other troops.
I doubted that there was a more difficult task than body retrieval. I fumbled for words to say, and found myself writing down what had to be said.
“Sir, breakfast for you,” Private Gullickson announced politely, carrying an insulated container.
“Thanks, Mr. Gullickson. What’s the galley serving today?” I asked.
“Grapefruit juice in a box, a breakfast sandwich that’s not quite something store-bought, but close. Reconstituted eggs, but real ham, and something not too far from an English muffin, and some reheated cubed potatoes. Two OK sir?”
“That’ll do nicely, thanks,” I said. “Is this standard fare for the Brigade, Private?”
“Yes, sir. There a problem?”
“No, I don’t want anyone, including officers, to get better or different food than the rest of the troops.”
“Not a problem, Colonel. There aren’t many options right now, sir.”
“Thanks, Private. Dismissed.”
The food was pretty good, all things considered. The galley car I’d read, could prepare two thousand meals per hour on average. I wondered how many a fast-food operation could serve in the old days?
I moved through the available intelligence, now obsolete but not by much, and through the mobilization plan, reviewing the credentials of those who’d prepared it along with their edits to the outline provided by Division. Most of the best changes (my opinion) were put forward by the non-commissioned, mostly sergeants. They were forward-thinking enough to prepare support options for the line units, including hot-bedding the sleeping quarters to allow line units to get warm and some real rest as well as rotating Third Washington into ‘line’ positions; and expanding the field kitchens from the line units with prepared food from the trains’ twelve galley cars.
The eight a.m. staff meeting was crowded, with ten of us crowded around a table designed for eight plus a couple of junior officers stuffed into the back of the room. We were tossed another curve with a cryptic memo from Texas, reassigning ‘Prime Power’, Company B of the 249th Engineering Battalion to metropolitan Denver, rather than meeting up with us in Sterling. No explanation given.
We reviewed the days’ training schedule, crew assignments to repair heating and power units that had died overnight, and the methods to remove our frozen dead from the battlefield.
Our supplies, in addition to humanitarian and support equipment and materials, included sixty thousand body bags, split between both trains. The retrieval process would be outlined by Jeff Willitson to each Brigade during the day. Upon retrieval, we’d be transporting Sixth Army to Fort Carson, just south of Colorado Springs.
Jeff and our senior chaplain, Captain Adam Fillmore, also discussed the mental effects on the soldiers assigned to retrieval. If there was any good news in this aspect of our task, it was that our men could see an end to this duty….it boiled down to simple math. Eighteen dead men and women to be retrieved for every man in Third Washington. Nearly four thousand of the Sixth Army dead were women.
The individual Brigade briefings covered the specifics of clearing the battlefield of potential booby-traps, improvised explosives, and Sixth Army weapons and gear. Boxcars were scheduled to arrive sometime after Dog Six, to load Sixth Army for their final destination. Third Washington brigades would then focus on refitting Sixth Army equipment and have it ready for reuse.
We had no real idea of how long any of that would take.
The day passed slowly, with little in the way of ‘work’ to do for many of the men. The repairs on the power and heating units could not be completed while we were in transit, due to the nature of the repairs. With each Brigade commander briefing their men with the schedules, the nature of the work coming at us, and the chaplain’s briefing as well, most of the men found themselves some sleep while they could. After a walk through a number of the cars and losing at a few hands of poker with the enlisted men, I managed some sleep myself, while the communications techs monitored chatter from all over the country. I knew that we’d probably have a busy night ahead.
We learned by seventeen-hundred hours that the 249th Engineer Battalion had been reassigned to Denver proper, rather than meeting us east, because the entire Denver grid was off-line, and had been for some time. Their ability to set up and generate commercial-grade electricity was obviously needed more in the urban center than in rural areas further east. The S.A. had apparently sabotaged large parts of the infrastructure when they’d evac’d, according to rumor anyway.
We’d rendezvous with the One Seventy Second’s combat engineer company at Sterling, which was a surprise to me. I’d expected to have the two brigades, the One Seventieth and the One Seventy-Second on the ground there….but they’d been reassigned further east. I expected their reassignment was in support of a ground offensive. By ‘dinner’ time, I was ready for another walk, and decided to eat with the men, rather than in my quarters or the command car. I was joined by Fourth Brigades’ C.O., Jesse Casselis, who’d found me an empty seat in the middle of one of the Spartan transport cars, before rounding up dinner himself. Many of the soldiers didn’t quite know what to make of me joining them.
“Evening, sir. Anything we can do for you?” one of the lieutenants asked as I sat down and took a bite of the ham sandwich.
“No, Lieutenant. Just got tired of the scenery in the command car and decided to see how the working men travel,” I said, seriously. That garnered a quiet laugh or two.
“Any news you can give us, sir?” A private asked.
“Not a helluva lot,” I said. “Dog Six is running late. Probably won’t get in until tomorrow morning, with the weather. Most of the two brigades we were supposed to meet have already moved out further east,” I said before taking another bite. “Marines are already on the ground and further out yet, no contact with the S.A.”
“Any new attacks, sir?”
“Atlanta. Hartsfield Airport, fifteen hundred hours. Not too many casualties, and they actually captured a couple of the bastards before they set off the gas. Killed a couple of civilians though.”
“F---ing bastards,” I heard from behind me.
“Got that right, soldier.”
“So,” another voice asked, “Food any better back here sir?”
“Same stuff up in command, guys. Seriously. Leaves a little to be desired for Thanksgiving dinner, though. But, this coffee’s actually hot. We don’t get fed until after you guys do.”
“Yeah, but your quarters are better. You don’t have to sleep with guys who ate cabbage and beans for dinner last night,” someone from a few rows ahead of me said, before adding, “sir.” The men had a good laugh over that.
“True enough. And I do have my own bathroom. With decent toilet paper.”
“Must be nice to be an officer,” somebody said.
“Not really one by choice. But as long as I’m here, I will do what I can to send every sonofabitch in the S.A. straight to Hell,” I said. “I assume you have all seen the photographs that the Marines and the Texas Guard sent up to command?” I asked to no one in particular.
“Yes, sir. They put them up on the monitors.”
“OK. What you saw there were those soldiers of Sixth Army who weren’t killed in the gas attack, tortured to death, some skinned alive. Some burned alive. Many were mutilated. Many were women. They’ve done the same shit to children….they’ve done worse,” I said, before having some more coffee. “I’ve seen that happen in other parts of the world, up close and personal. Never thought I’d see Americans do that to Americans,” I said as I took the last bite of my sandwich, and then stood up with my coffee mug, looking around the car.
“The work we have to do over the next few days and weeks will not be easy for anybody. Everyone in this brigade will pitch in. We will recover the bodies of our men and women, we will do what we need to do, and then we get on with more work that needs doing. And that, officers and men, is to do what we can to put every S.A. soldier under the sod.”
“You call them soldiers? Sir?”
“They think they are. It’s OK with me to let a higher power sort that out, once they’re off this rock.”
Lieutenant Colonel Casselis a few minutes later took me aside. “That was quite a speech, sir.”
“No speech, just the way it is,” I said. “You think otherwise, Colonel?”
“No, sir. I think it was probably something that needed saying. There’s a few men in the Brigade who think this is all some big setup. Pictures faked…or that the S.A. isn’t really real. Or that they’re not really soldiers. That we’re doing this to get them out of the state.”
“Boots on the ground long enough will tell them otherwise,” I said as I looked at my watch. “Inside of three hours this trail will be on location, split up and parked on sidings, defensive perimeter set. Inside of three hours and twenty minutes, we start unloading and getting to work. If they still believe this is some sort of conspiracy this time tomorrow, send them to me. I’ll explain the concept of ‘critical thinking.’”
Colonel Casselis grinned at that. “I should just save us all the time and send them now.”
“Seeing is believing. No better way for these men to learn.”
By nineteen-hundred hours, we’d slowed, then stopped, in a railyard north and a little west of the Downtown area. By looking out of the few windows that weren’t blacked out, you’d never know it. I climbed out of the car with a couple of the communications techs for some fresh air. Not a single light on, no signs of life at all. High overcast, no snow. It felt much colder than the twenty degrees indicated.
The train crews and the men in the defensive positions rotated off duty as fuel levels were topped off, I noticed from an adjacent tank car rather than from a fixed fueling point. We had about a hundred miles, as the crow flies, to Sterling. We didn’t stay outside long.
“Sanders, give me the latest intel on Sterling if you would,” I said as I poured another cup of coffee. I’d need it. It’d be a late night. He pulled up real-time satellite data of the Sterling area.
“Clear over the target…sorry, sir, destination area. Warming fires in these locations—orange is a heat bloom—and not much else. Clusters of farms in the outlying areas east are all dark—no one there. A few out west, but we’re ten to thirty miles out of town before you see any sizeable civilian population. Marine air unit is at the airport just east of town, there’s a latent heat signature of a couple of their birds,” he said. “Our rail sidings parallel Highway One Thirty-Eight, crossing underneath the Highway Six overpass. Interstate Seventy-Six is about two miles east of our jump off point. That big heat bloom over east of town on Highway Sixty-One is what’s left of the Sterling Correctional Facility. I understand it’s been burning now for the better part of a week, sir.”
“Any idea on how many inmates were housed there?”
“Twenty-seven hundred and some spares, last record sir. Level Five, meaning highest level security.”
“Any idea where they are?”
“Report from ten minutes ago are that they helped sack Sterling, and then vanished with the S.A. ahead of the massacre, sir,” one of the other specialists added.
“Shit,” I said. “All right,” I said. “That green line’s the Marine expeditionary force, correct?” The computer system could tag different units RFID transponders with different colors, as assigned by the communications software.
“Yes, sir. Deployed from Highway Sixty three two miles east of Interstate Seventy Six, to four miles north of Highway Six, joining up at Seventy-Six at the bend, here, sir. These transponder signals are units from Texas near the interchange; New Mexico, Arizona south of Sterling; and the Georgia unit north on the west side of the Platte. Marines though, sir, will probably be pulling out and moving east before we arrive.”
“Wouldn’t expect them to wait for the fight to come to them,” I said. “Now pull up the transponders for Sixth, please.”
He did so, and the RFID chips of the Sixth Army filled the screen all along Highway One Thirty Eight, straddling the Platte River, up to Interstate Seventy Six, glowing purple.
“Good God,” I said. No one else spoke.
“OK, Sanders. How much of Sixth’s gear can you track?”
“Assuming the RFID’s weren’t damaged, most of the major equipment has already been accounted for. Maybe a thousand uniform pieces are in enemy hands, a couple thousand -16’s, magazines, some heavy weapons. It’s scattered from Goodland, Kansas to North Platte, Nebraska, and east all the way to Grand Island, sir.”
“Following the interstates, east.”
“What are these icons, west of Sterling?” I asked. Triangular red icons, flashing.
“ICBM silos, sir. Deactivated in the Nineties. Used to base Titan II’s out of them.”
“Hmmm. Peculiar they’re tagged, don’t you think?”
“Hadn’t thought much about it, sir, but…yeah.”