Tuesday, April 6, 2010
North Platte, Nebraska
North Platte had suffered far more in much less time than Sterling.
Twenty-six hundred and fourteen civilians were killed by S.A. forces in less than a day. United States Air Force bombardment of the S.A. command-and-control center had also killed at least fifty-six indentured citizens…or ‘slaves.’ Ten percent of their pre-War population, from the last census….probably a far greater percentage after the flu had ravaged the population. Among the dead was the entire leadership of North Platte, and every preacher, fireman, teacher, and of course, police officer. A few prisoners were taken by the S.A. on their departure--all females, under twenty years old. The survivors in North Platte were mostly in shock from what I could tell. I couldn’t find any semblance of a ‘command authority’ anywhere. Anyone who’d stood up to authority was killed for the favor. After a fruitless day of trying to find someone to lead the city, I ordered essential infrastructure repairs to be made, and headed back to the train. I had other work to attend to, including mapping out transit to our next destination, getting recon crews out ahead, and looking over rail lines east to see where else we might be headed. Trains would be following us along and we didn’t have a whole lot of time to waste.
The Air Force targets needed to be cleared by ordnance experts before remains could be safely retrieved, as one of the young Marines first into the city had the bad luck to discover. His remains however were recovered not long after Third Washington arrived. The S.A. dead could be estimated, but not confirmed until any unexploded ordnance was addressed. It was a relatively safe bet that five to six thousand enemy dead lay in bits and pieces within the blast pattern.
Our trains were staged on the rail lines that bisected North Platte and in the old Union Pacific Bailey rail yard on the west side of town. Troops from Dog Six worked to repair the rail lines between the city and the small airport. The missiles blasted a jagged path through the yard and cut the lines to the airport and points east. The airport was also heavily damaged, although we didn’t investigate in depth. There wasn’t time.
The men from Charlie Six were working with the civilians to repair the damage to the infrastructure caused by the S.A. and isolating the bombed areas. In three days of work, the Brigade had restored power and water to half of the city, albeit with makeshift repairs. As the wreckage was searched and ‘safed’, the civilian remains were recovered and identified as much as possible, with many unfortunately going to a mass grave in North Platte’s cemetery. S.A. weapons and materiel were recovered, cleaned and stored for potential use. Interesting discoveries were forwarded up the chain of command. The S.A. dead were unceremoniously collected via front-end loader and dump truck, trucked out of town to a location east of the regional airport, and buried in a mass grave carved out of the ground with a bulldozer. We thought about sending an honor guard to the burial, and then thought better of it. Most of the S.A. had no identification of any kind. Those that did were isolated and buried at one end of the trench. One of the brigade’s chaplains and a few of the command staff and I were present as the last of the S.A. were buried, and brief prayers said over the grave.
“Helluva thing, Colonel,” Major Ryder said as we stood in the blowing snow, the bulldozer driving from the burial ground.
“A price to pay, certain to grow much higher, soon, Major. These men may some day be honored by their families, wherever they are, and at a point in time where what they did fades away. They will certainly never be honored by those here.”
We never did get an accurate body count for the S.A. dead as no one was interested in piecing them back together.
By late afternoon, the weather had turned clear and cold again, after days of overcast. The vast majority of Third Washington would stand down from sixteen hundred until oh six hundred, Sunday. By late Sunday morning, we’d head further east. Lines east of us were being cleared and repaired. IED’s under a highway bridge somewhere between North Platte and Grand Island had taken out the line, not far from the old Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant. A highway bridge was brought down on top of the tracks.
With our security patrols keeping an eye on things around the train (not that there was an issue, the residents of North Platte could not have been more kind to us), I took some personal time along with Sergeant Travis for some time with my early Christmas present. Chet had a bone-stock 1903A3 when he was growing up, and we’d talked a little about the custom ’03 that Karen had commissioned for me.
Within five rounds, I was shooting three-inch groups at a hundred yards…unfamiliar scope and all. Within five more, sub two-inch groups. Chet bettered me, but he was also fifteen years younger, better trained, and a professional. I still counted that as a win. It was not satisfying though, despite the accuracy of the weapon and the craftsmanship that went into its engineering. The ought-six was just another tool used to kill.
“Thank you, Colonel. That brought back a lot of good memories,” Chet said as we drove back to Charlie Six.
“Thanks. They did a fine job building that weapon. Impractical as all get out, though.”
“Everything has a time and a place, sir. There might be a time and place for that 03 one of these days,” Sergeant Travis said.
“Only if the S.A.’s within a few hundred yards of me…which means the organic matter has really hit the fan. Time for some coffee,” I said as we parked the Humvee. “And time to clean this rifle. Chet, you spent most of the day in town today. See anyone in the way of a leader? I came up dry. Pretty frustrating. I’d like to know that someone can get this place back on its’ feet.”
“A few, sir. Lot of folks came into town this afternoon trying to help out. Lot of ‘em looking for family. Seems like there are a couple of folks from down south who’re naturals.”
“See if you can round them up. I’d like to talk to them about the recovery after we head east.”
“Will do, sir,” he said with a salute. I headed into my quarters to get my cleaning materials for the Springfield. I decided to clean it in one of the work-cars, rather than in my quarters.
A few cars further back, a Third Washington crew was finishing up cleanup of captured and salvaged weapons, even though they’d been given the order to stand down.
“Ten-hut!” I heard as I entered the converted shipping crate.
“At ease,” I said. “You men do know that you’re off-duty, right?”
“Yes, sir. Anyplace more entertaining than a room full of weapons, sir?” Master Sergeant Schrock, one of the weapons specialists asked.
“None come to mind off hand,” I said with a smile. “Need to clean this old Springfield. Mind if I use a cleaning bench, Sarge?”
“Not a bit, sir. You pretty much own the place.”
“Not hardly. I’m just the chief custodian,” I said as I opened the rifle case and pulled the rifle out of a protective ‘sock’.
“Well, now. That’s quite an antique, sir,” one of Schrock’s men said.
“Family had it built for me before I deployed. Just took it out for a walk with Sergeant Travis. Pretty nice work,” I said.
“Mind if I take a look, Colonel?” Schrock asked.
“Not at all,” I said, handing him the rifle taking out my cleaning solution and tools.
“This is a beauty, sir,” he said after some close examination. “I’ve got two of them myself, back home in Klamath Falls. None anywhere near this nice. I’ve never seen a stock like this. Carbon fiber composite, nice fitting work. Custom hand made scope mount; good scope. Damn. You ought to be able to take out a robin’s eye at three hundred yards with this, Colonel.”
“Well, given my aging eyes, I’d settle for hitting a man in the chest at that range.”
“Never underestimate one’s ability, sir.”
“I make it a point never to overestimate it, either, Sergeant. I’ll live longer that way.”
“True enough, I suppose, sir. Cleaning solutions are in the fireproof locker, over there, along with the swabs and cloths.”
“Got my own. Homemade concoction.”
“Yeah. Found it a few years ago…the recipe anyway. The bore cleaner is called ‘Ed’s Red.’ One part Dexron II automatic transmission fluid; one part K1 kerosene; one part aliphatic mineral spirits; one part acetone. And some lanolin. Keeps things from rusting for quite a while. Works pretty well. Cheap, too.”
“Might have to scrounge some of that stuff, Sarge,” one of the younger soldiers said. “We went through a ton of cleaner on those Texans’ rigs.”
“Yes we did, Heinrich. Make yourself a list. Maybe see if we can start rounding that stuff up before we ship.”
“Yes, sir.” I repeated the list for the young man as he took notes.
Twenty minutes of cleaning and conversation later, the 03 was back in her case. I then had a chance to look around at the weapons that Sergeant Schrock and his men had been cleaning.
“This is the one you were telling me about?” I asked, regarding the bin of captured weapons stowed after the blast area was cleared.
“Yes, sir, Colonel. Intel’s already had a look,” he said, referring to one of my senior staff, Gerry McGowan and his lieutenant.
The lower rack held hundreds of weapons, many damaged to the point where they were only good for parts. I recognized many types, although I was puzzled by the vast variety of calibers. “What a mess,” I said.
“No joke, sir. Just about every caliber you could think of.”
“By percentage, what’s on top—the most common?”
“Easy. 7.62x39, followed by .223, then 7.62x54R.”
“Thought I saw a PSL in there among the AK’s.”
“Yes, sir. And these are just the ones that were suitable for parts. Whole lot more are in the bin there in the back—maybe fifteen hundred. Need to be cleaned but serviceable.”
“How was the ammo count?”
“Maybe fifteen thousand rounds across the entire spectrum, Colonel. Never saw more than three mags on any body close to an AK. Guys that were slogging the Mosins and the PSL’s had maybe fifty rounds max. Sixty rounds max for anyone with an AR.”
“Pretty thin,” I said. “And as much as love my 03, it’s heavy. So’s the ammunition. The Mosins and the like are much heavier. Our men, packing the same weight, can carry hundreds of rounds more per man.”
“Yes, sir. And that’s good for us.”
At nineteen- hundred, I was shuttled over to North Platte High School, ten blocks or so south of the rail lines occupied by Charlie- and Dog-Six. The place was packed with survivors and refugees, most looking like one would expect after getting caught in a war.
Sergeant Major Travis and Lieutenant Colonel Miller had helped get the refugees organized and directed to three feeding and warming stations we’d set up, which overall seemed a woefully inadequate response.
“Colonel Drummond?” a corporal asked as I entered the cafeteria. I noticed about fifty Third Washington men were serving food, passing out blankets, coats, and directing civilians towards medical care down one of the hallways. The building was powered by two of our big portable generators.
“Corporal? What’s the good word?” I said, catching him by surprise.
“No one’s shooting at us, sir,” he said after regaining his composure. “Lieutenant Colonel Miller asked me to direct you to his table. I believe he’s gathered some of the civilian leadership.”
“Very good, Corporal,” I said. “Relax, kid,” I said as we threaded our way through the room. What I saw, I didn’t like. These people were malnourished, which was not just something that had happened through the actions of the S.A. locusts as they passed through town. This was a long-term issue. They hadn’t been eating right for a long time.
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.” I noted he did not yet relax. This kid looked scared.
“If I’m next to you in a firefight, I don’t want you freaking out because you have a senior officer next to you. I’m just as full of shit as the next guy,” I said, getting him to lighten up a little bit.
“I’ll remember that, sir.”
“Good. Pass it around while you’re at it. And this too: If I am next to one of my men in a firefight, and they’re not doing their job, as in, keeping the team alive because they’re scared of screwing up in front of an officer, they are as likely to get shot through inaction as through action. From our side or the enemy side. Clear?” Meaning of course, that I’d likely shoot them myself if they were endangering my life.
“Yes, sir,” he said with the appropriate amount of respect. “Right over there, sir.”
“Thank you, Corporal Johnson. Carry on.” I don’t know why I was so edgy.
I made my way through the last couple of tables over to Shawn Miller’s table. He was joined by one of his Majors and a Captain assigned to his battalion. Two civilians rounded out the table. All stood as I approached.
“Colonel Rick Drummond,” I said, shaking the hands of both civilians.
“Jim Kreinbeck,” the first said. Well fed, but thin, dressed appropriately, about my age.
“Chuck Varleson. Good to meet you, Colonel.” Tall. Really tall, I noted.
“And thanks for bringing the United States back to North Platte,” Kreinbeck said.
“I think the Marines and the Texans did that. And our boys in the Air Force,” I said.
“Regardless. It’s pretty much been Hell under the S.A.,” Varleson replied. “Although we hear it’s been worse the farther East you go.”
“Haven’t heard that, but good to know,” I said. “I understand that there isn’t anything left here in terms of civilian leadership. Is that accurate?”
“It is. They’re in a common grave over by the Country Club. S.A. rounded ‘em all up and machine-gunned them,” Chuck Varleson said. “They’d have got us in time. Some of them won’t be missed, though.”
That puzzled me a little. “What did you say?”
“Sorry. We had an asshole who took charge of the place after the S.A. occupation. About the time they moved to Denver. Bruce Devlin decided to be the big fish. The Mayor went fishing one day, never came back. So’d the Police Chief. Devlin put his brother in law in charge in the city, his cousins in the police department. Things went to shit from there,” Jim said. “All guns were declared illegal and seized. Almost all the fuel was seized. Radios seized. TV’s smashed.”
“Colonel, pre-War, these guys thought they were God’s gift to the planet. Well, Devlin did anyway. Big shot banker, into real estate, trophy wife, all the most expensive toys. Moved back up here before the real-estate market collapsed a few years go…made a bunch of money down in Tucson. Built a big-ass house.. Bought off anyone who got in his way, unless they were too stupid to take the money, and then he’d just destroy them. Once the S.A. came in, he welcomed them with open arms. Mayor and Chief disappeared about two weeks in. We had a local currency—scrip-type system—set up before that happened. Of course any precious metals went his way, too, and then the guns went away. He took it over, took cuts off the top, ran the bank. Got to the point where the regular Joe’s couldn’t make it…he was taking from everyone. Commerce basically stopped. People gave up. If they were able, they escaped.”
“I see significant evidence of mass malnutrition here,” I said.
“You do at that, Colonel. Devlin and his thugs took all the stock, any grains that were being harvested, down to banty hens and milk-goats. Stolen at gunpoint, a lot of it. Nothing most folks could do about it. Fed themselves, sold the rest to the S.A. Too many guns, too many men, always watching.”
“So what happened to this bastard?”
“S.A. popped him and his friends along with all the others. I hear he begged for his life at the end. Offered up all his silver and gold, which they took anyway and then shot him. I just wish I’d have been the guy to kill him myself. I’d have done it slower.”
“I can understand that,” I said, remembering our own tyrannical local leaders. “Let me get to the point here. Are you from North Platte proper?” I asked.
“No, sir, Colonel. Few miles south, I run a feedlot down there, or did before the S.A. took all the cattle,” Kreinbeck said flatly. “Chuck here ran a resort in the summer down on the lake south of town, and farms as well.”
“Pardon me, if I’m repeating anything that Colonel Miller might have told you, but we need to establish a civilian leadership structure to make sure that the town gets back on it’s feet. More support of course will be coming from the U.S., but we’re not long for this town. Resupply trains and new generating units will be here before we leave. We don’t want these people suffering anymore than they already have. It’s important that we get a few men and women to take the reins here. Are you two interested?”
“We’re not politicians, Colonel. I think I feel safe speaking for Jim here,” Varleson said.
“Chuck, neither am I. A year ago I was a civilian, just living and doing my job, raising my kids, bitching about paying taxes and listening to whiny employees. Our state got hit by a big-ass earthquake and not long after, I’m running the county. Then I get drafted, at my age. And here we are.”
“Colonel, we wouldn’t know where to start.”
“You’ll have help. We’ll get some folks in here to give you a hand. Not sure if they’ll be from Nebraska, or Boise, or Sacramento or wherever. I can say that they’re not interested in running things. They are interested in North Platte running itself. You’ll get communications back. You’ll get weapons back. Soon,” I said. The captured weapons didn’t have any use to Third Washington. The citizens of North Platte might as well have them.
“Fresh approach in these parts,” Varleson said.
“Yeah. Expect to see a lot more of that,” I said. “Remember the Constitution? The real Federal Government actually pays attention to that these days.”
Jim replied, looking at his friend, “Will wonders ever cease?”
“Hopefully not. Before we head out, we’ll do what we can about getting you a schedule on supply trains and resources that will be available,” I said. “So, can we sign you up?”
“Heads I’m mayor,” Chuck Varleson said. “Tails, dogcatcher.”
“I’m in on that,” Kreinbeck said. “It’s not like there are cattle to mind these days.”