Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Two eighteen-hour days were needed to clear the downed overpass from the tracks, and full-time work to then repair the crushed ties and rails, along with the downed bridge over the Platte.
Supply crews meanwhile, had shuttled almost all of Third Washington’s supplies further east to Grand Island, where ammunition was being expended at a high rate. Along with our own men, the Marines and the Lone Star troops, California’s Golden Bear troops had moved south to reinforce the seriously outnumbered American troops. The downside of the arrival of the Californians was that they were all but out of supplies when they hit Grand Island. More troops just meant less to go around.
I’d been up for an hour, and got a little exercise in before the day went completely to Hell. Our first dedicated resupply trains were due in an hour. The first would bypass us completely, and follow the Army-reinforced Burlington Northern repair crew up the line to Grand Island. The crew had completed repairs almost all the way to the destination, but it was certain to find more damage closer to town.
The second train was virtually nothing but food, water, medical supplies and ‘civilian oriented’ relief equipment, along with two hundred relief workers from Oregon. They’d fill in for our departing crews as we moved out. As usual, Charlie Six would move up-line first, followed by Dog Six, after Cozad’s supply train was unloaded. While that train was unloaded, a third supply train would pass Cozad and follow us toward Grand Island. Within a few hours after that, large-scale troop trains would follow on.
Grand Island’s small airport had been the home of several S.A. units, using the seven thousand foot runway to operate light aircraft used for command-and-control operations throughout the region. Much of the rest of the city that once was home to more than forty-thousand, according to our advance units on the ground, resembled Dresden in the spring of Nineteen Forty-Five.
Civilians had evacuated to the Dakotas as the S.A. began their retreat from Denver, probably hearing about what was happening west of them. Those that stayed, according again to our own troops, were S.A. faithful. The scorched earth philosophy of the S.A. was carried out as our troops encircled the city, S.A. troops defending the city and the many fires, only retreating when there was literally nothing left to defend. Grand Island was not yet fully secured, but was deemed ‘safe enough’ for Third Washington to advance, resupply our many troops, and stage for further movement east.
The United States of America paid for that ground with the lives of another fifteen hundred men and women.
“Colonel, we’ve got a live one,” Gerry McGowan said as I entered the command car.
“You’ve got a WHAT?”
“Prisoner. Caught him north of town. One of our inbound squads saw him out in a field. Nice enough not to try to fight back.”
“Where is he now?”
“Five minutes out, sir,” one of the communications techs said.
“Who got him?”
“Lieutenant Arkwell’s boys. That wild bunch out of Chilliwack, sir,” McGowan said. Third Washington had about a hundred Canadians in the ranks. While our own men wouldn’t say anything in public about it, the Canadians were fierce. They really wanted to be assigned to a front-line unit, and were first to volunteer for ‘point’ to a man. Most, I’d noted, were of Scottish lineage, if their surnames were any indication. More than a few with red hair, as well. They enjoyed their work.
“Make sure that he gets here alive, Captain. Got a plan for interrogating him?”
“Yes, sir, but I’d like not to do that while we’re in transit.”
“How long you figure?”
“Probably a day until Command directs his transport somewhere west or south, unless they want to fly him out, Colonel.”
“So you have a few hours to make hay, Gerry. Get on it. You need some additional troops for intimidation, or a few civilians with pitchforks and mattocks, you just say the word. Just be sure you keep him alive enough for San Antonio or Austin to have use of him.”
“Thank you, Colonel,” he said, heading out of the command car, trailed by one of his lieutenants.
“Mr. Briggs, what’s the state of the union today?” I asked.
“Sir?” he didn’t know what to make of that question.
“Sitrep. News, boy. What’s the word?”
“Normal for a civil war, I suspect, sir,” he said, finally getting it. “Lot of requests from up-line for supplies, including our units. Looking for evacs for the wounded on the outbounds, but they’re short of corpsmen. Wondering when we’re going to stage. Overall, sir, they all sound pretty damned tired.”
“I’ll bet,” I said. “Enough days straight in the field and anyone would be. Throw in winter weather and it just gets worse. We looking at any delay on getting underway?” I asked, knowing that he wasn’t going to be comfortable replying.
“Sir, I think Sergeant Major…”
“If I wanted Chet Travis’ opinion, I’d have asked for it. And then he’d have checked with men in this car on the status of the load out and the engineers up front.”
“Yes, sir. Nothing on the boards showing a delay, Colonel.”
“Good. Remember that next time,” I said.
Gerry McGowan requested half-dozen men, three of whom were multilingual. The prisoner was a mercenary, of European origin, but the Canadians couldn’t pin down a country of origin. With luck, McGowan could radio to us his findings. If not, we’d wait until he caught up with us.
The supply train had quickly passed Charlie Six, moving at a good forty miles per hour, about ten minutes past six. At oh six-thirty, we had a green board from all cars for departure, with Charlie Six quietly pulling out of town. The hundred or so miles to Grand Island ticked by, with little to keep me busy, other than things that I really didn’t want to do.
Our on-board supplies were ten percent of what we’d need to last two weeks in the field, with no reserve. Bulk meal preparation was down to ‘breakfast, lunch and dinner’ without any choices of what was served, unless the soldier wished to have an MRE.
“Sir, got some line traffic coming in,” Briggs said.
“Trouble up ahead?”
“No, sir. Behind. Two troop trains, about fifteen minutes behind us.”
“Supply train status?”
“Unknown, sir. Troop transports weren’t supposed to be pulling in for hours.”
“Did Cozad’s supply train arrive?”
“No sir, or no confirmation on status. With the troop trains, I’d lay odds that the supply train is somewhere behind them.”
“Try to run that down. I’d like to know what’s coming our way, Mr. Briggs.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll do my best.”
Over the remaining miles, Briggs found out nothing but bad news. Three troop trains would follow us in, somewhere behind that would be our supply train, but not until the troop trains were unloaded and moved back west…there weren’t enough sidings or trackage available to stack that many rail cars. At a minimum, we’d be two more days without resupply. Command wasn’t just cutting it thin, they had no idea what they were doing to us, and there wasn’t one damned thing I could do about it. Our battalion commanders would have to improvise in the whole ‘support’ aspect of our mission.
Track speeds were uneven moving toward Grand Island, but through the video monitors, we could see the plume of smoke ten miles away, staining the clear, still blue Nebraska sky.
The last of the S.A. troops were no more than a few thousand yards outside of Grand Island, with thirty-thousand U.S. troops between where Charlie Six would stop and ‘the line.’ General Garcia’s communications crews informed us of ‘sporadic mortar and artillery fire in the region.’ ‘Nothing like that to inspire confidence in your future,’ I thought.
With troop trains behind us on the same track, we were going into Grand Island whether things were quiet or not. The fresh troops were needed to push back the S.A. out of range and stabilize the front.
Grand Island, Nebraska
“Double-time, you worthless pukes!” One of the California Golden Bear sergeants yelled. The S.A. had concentrated fire on our rail lines as soon as we’d stopped and begun to dismount, and everyone aboard Charlie Six—with the exception of the defensive cars and the trailing communications car--was in the field and away from the attractive target. Rear Comms was providing coordination to Third Washington and other units tapping into our tactical frequencies, and using on-board cameras to spot targets and serve as fire control. The Californians were running to get into the fight.
I’d found decent cover along with Lieutenant Colonel Jesse Casselis Fourth Battalion, Able Company, a few hundred feet from the command car. Charlie Six had made it all the way through town to the west side, found a convenient siding among ten to choose from, and had taken three near-miss mortar rounds as we evac’d the train. We were stopped about a mile south of the small airport, now held by the Texans, and sandwiched between the Golden Bears and Third Cardinal from Arizona. Southeast of us, on the other side of U.S. 30, a subdivision was afire. Somewhere beyond the subdivisions’ trees, were the mortar emplacements. Within the tree line, snipers. Our location, behind an irregular gathering of mostly wrecked warehouses and industrial buildings was out of direct line of fire, with decent earthen embankments and an overstory of thick trees. It reminded me of what the hedgerows might have been like in France, in June of Forty-Four.
“Colonel? General Garcia’s wondering where you are, sir,” Private Ayers told me. “Your comm gear not working sir?”
“Guess not, Mr. Ayers,” I said as I checked the switches and got no signal. “Be kind enough give the General my regards and to pass on that I’m not enjoying the scenery, south of our known last, as a dismounted infantryman. Understood?” I said as another mortar round hit south of us. The shelling seemed to be moving away. A second, then a third, hit east of us, one with a dull ‘whump’ sounding much different than the others.
“Yes, sir,” he said with a grin, then relayed that through his headset up through the food chain.
“They’re at about max range for these shells, sir,” A Company’s commander, Captain Tealson said. “Not quite six thousand yards.” His First Sergeant was twenty yards or so south, looking through his binoculars south, and radioing back to the communication car. “Fifteen minutes at this rate of retreat, shelling’s done. We can get some armor moving in then and root out the stragglers.”
Before I could respond, two Abrams fired nearly simultaneously, a few hundred feet west of us, toward the southeast. Many seconds later, we heard the impacts, thousands of yards away. Mortar fire was returned, and fell far short.
“Captain, how far can we chase these bastards?” I asked.
“Those tanks use something like three hundred gallons of fuel every eight hours or so, sir. More on rough terrain. Top speed a little over forty miles per hour. From what I heard from the Californians, they’re damned near out of fuel, though. And shells.”
“What’s their effective firing range?”
“About eight thousand meters, sir.”
“Thanks. Not the kind of thing I have ingrained into my head.”
“Sir?” the first sergeant asked. “You should be clear to proceed to the airport. Lone Star’s got a Brad on the other side of Charlie,” he said.
“Mr. Ayers, let’s go see a General. Captain, don’t get your ass shot off,” I said.
“Sound advice,” he said. “Ditto, Colonel.”
Moving quickly, Ayers and I moved as quickly as we could back to Charlie Six, around the lead engine, and to a very scarred Bradley Fighting Vehicle, where four of the Lone Stars had fanned out to cover us.
“Colonel, good to see you,” General Angela Garcia said, from just inside the lowered rear hatch.
“General, good to see you in one piece.”
“Good to see you, too, along with those trains following on. Might have just saved our bacon,” she said as the hatch closed and we headed away from Charlie Six.
“I hear things are a bit thin up here,” I said.
“Drastic understatement, Colonel Drummond. We’re all but out of ammunition and fuel. If that battalion of yours hadn’t shown up when they did, we’d have been done for. Where’s that supply train?”
“Somewhere behind the two troop trains that followed us in, ma’am. In other words, I have no idea.”
“Comms are lousy out here, even with that gear the SEALS brought us. And the S.A.’s got jammers, so that isn’t helping. Another hour or five, and the S.A. would’a taken us.”
“What’s their strength?” I asked.
“Best estimates, north of eighty thousand within fifteen miles.”
I let out a long, slow descending whistle. “One of my Marine friends called that a ‘target rich environment,’ I said.
“Would be for us, as well, had we the tools we need,” she said with some disgust. The Bradley slowed, turned, and stopped.
“Welcome to Camp Grand Island,” she said as the rear hatch lowered, bringing in welcome fresh air.
Ayers and I climbed out and looked around at the remains of the small airport.
“We wreck this, or the S.A.?”
“We did. Tank round killed the S.A. Field Marshal and a slug of his staff over there in the building off to the left. Seems he was too proud to get while the gettin’ was good,” she said as we headed toward a less-wrecked structure. I noted it had been home to the Nebraska Army National Guard, with one of their unit logos, ‘The Muleskinners’, painted on the side of the building. ‘B-Company/ 2-135 Aviation’, below the logo of the kicking mule. “Nebraska Guard ran Chinooks out of here, before it hit the fan. Their birds were assigned to Oklahoma, and then Texas. Some of our men are from here, fighting for home and all,” she said as we entered the hangar space. “That Chinook crew that came in the other night was one of the local crews.”
“Tough way to find your home town.”
“Not much left here, that’s a fact. The only civilians left were S.A. They either left when the S.A. did or they’re now ambient temperature,” she said. “In there—that’s our HQ for the time being,” Garcia said, pointing to the second of three large tents inside the hangar. I noticed Ayers was looking quite out of place.
“Soldier, the mess is in that tent, yonder. Go make yourself useful,” Garcia said.
“Yes, ma’am!” Ayers said, saluted, and smartly marched to the third tent.
“Good God, Colonel. You’ve got more kids under your command than a high-school principal.”
“Only if it’s a small high-school, General.”
“Let’s get some coffee. And I hope you’ve got some good news for us,” she said as we went inside the Lone Star command tent. I noted there were no computers hooked up, or much in the way of electronics at all for that matter.
“I do have, what is supposed to be the manifest and schedule for the resupply trains, of course that’s gone to Hell already today. My men will get the schedule nailed down once comms are back up.”
“That’ll have to do I imagine,” she said as she sat down behind a makeshift desk.
“I have it on a flash drive, and here’s the hardcopy,” I said, pulling two dozen double-sided, single spaced sheets out of my shirt.”
“Won’t need the flash drive. Computers were all fried when the satellites went. Techs figured it was some sort of directed EMP burst. Homed in on our electronic emissions and cooked us.”
“Saw that up in Idaho. Before the War, General,” I said, almost absentmindedly.
“When? How was that possible?” she asked, leaning forward.
“Sorry, Ma’am. It was….mid-October I think. One of our Army recon units had a modified Humvee. Lots of electronic equipment that’d been looking in on a compound that had been stirring up trouble. Whatever they used cooked the Humvee’s electronics suite. Army and Air Force bombed them a day or two later after their private army killed some civilians. Turned out the residents and their private army were tied to political parties on both sides, as well as American and European banking interests. Command at the time told us that they were tied to the New Republic as well. Happened the same time that Blackburn was capped.”
“You had an S.A. base, Colonel,” she said. “What happened after you hit it?”
“First, I wasn’t in uniform at that point, but that’s a minor issue. Attacks ramped up, pretty dramatically as the war started.”
“You stirred up a hornets nest. I hope to God you killed it.”
“The base was destroyed. Infiltrators were everywhere. They were still mopping them up when I shipped out.”
“Colonel, if there’s anything in common between places like your Washington and Nebraska, it’s that fat cats from elsewhere came in and built their little fortresses and surrounded themselves with their own pissant armies. We’ve taken out three since we left Colorado. Lotta European money went into building those places and buying hundreds or thousands of acres of land.”
“You think these were supposed to be the castles maintained by us lowly serfs, General?” I asked.
“Yeah, I do, Colonel. And that sticks in my craw,” she said.
Despite Angela Garcia’s preference to push the fight hard into the S.A., it was apparent that most of the forces in the field needed rest. Much of the equipment used by the Lone Stars was sorely in need of full overhauls, but that of course wasn’t in the cards. The gear used by all of the other units was only in marginally better condition.
The burned out city came alive with thirty thousand troops fresh to Grand Island, hailing from all over the United States and Canada. Only a handful of units weren’t ‘Composite’ in nature, that is, dedicated to a single task. Most were, with support from units like ours, stand-alone and quite capable.
Most of the new troops were infantry, with mechanized units expected to arrive over the next few days. Grand Island would be one of several jump points East, part of a claw to grasp, then crush the S.A. Many Third Washington troops, including finally Dog Six, enlisted anyone standing around in the offload of the supply trains and the mountains of equipment and supplies were sorted and dispersed.
The Brigade was fully involved in the support and resupply effort of the military, really for the first time not working with a civilian presence. The language was more coarse, the jokes more crude, the orders more pointed, no slack given. Our medical suites were running full up, with everything from working on field-dressed gunshot wounds to frostbite, fractures, and miscellaneous afflictions of war. A solid ten percent of the Texans wouldn’t fight again anytime soon, and would be evac’d by rail to hospitals down south.
The support mess tents and rail-mounted kitchens would also be running twenty-four-seven, and still wouldn’t be able to get everyone hot food but once, and maybe twice a day.
I’d toured the Third’s operations and came away pretty impressed. North of us at the airport, damaged runways were being prepped for repairs, in anticipation of helicopter traffic. Row upon row of Abrams, ancient M113 armored personnel carriers, Bradley’s, and too many trucks to count were lined up for needed maintenance and repairs, refueling, and re-arming. Two-dozen fuel tankers were dispersed around the area, with camouflage netting around and over them. Most were filling as quickly as they could from the isolated fuel tank cars, now disconnected from their arrival train. Back in the command car, the communications crews were re-working the hardware again, trying to get more communication range. A hundred miles just wasn’t going to cut it.
“Colonel, here’s the weather report. We did at least get this from San Antonio while we had a bird overhead,” Major Ryder said as he handed me a single sheet of paper.
“Any word from McGowan?” I asked, wondering about his interrogation.
“No, sir. I’d lay a twenty-dollar gold piece on Command getting the prisoner by the end of the day though.”
“Wouldn’t take that bet,” I said, reading the forecast. “This ain’t good, Gary. Thirty mile plus winds, and snow coming out of Alberta, before midnight. Looking outside you’d never know it.”
“Yes, sir. Word’s been spread throughout all units to prepare for extreme weather conditions tonight. We’ve got a few buildings south of us that didn’t get completely hammered. One’ll house several thousand men, Colonel.”
“That big shipping warehouse?” I asked.
“Yes, sir. Georgians are fabbing up some patches in the building to make it a bit less like an icebox.”
“All of our tents up and secured, that’ll handle some. I’m hoping to God that these new troops have some shelter of their own.”
“They do, not as good as the stuff we’ve got, but adequate, Colonel.”
“Did Dog Six get their water heater problems figured out?”
“Transferred the water to other tanks. Mechanics gave up on them for the day.”
“How about their solids? They get them dumped?”
“Yes, sir, both trains, blackwater pumped into the local sewage system.”
“Good thing they have one,” I said. “There anything needing my immediate attention?”
“Well, nothing comes to mind, sir. What have you got planned?”
“Thought I’d head up to the repair shop and see if I can find some trouble. Been a while since I’ve wrenched and burned metal. Kinda miss that.”
“Plenty of work up there, according to the guys in the D-cars. The Texans were looking over our mounted Abrams with an eye to cannibalize them, Colonel.”
“Saw the parts and equipment requests. I’m not sure there are that many parts out there to be had,” I said.
“One of the replacement commanders said that down at Hood they’re crating up stuff right and left. New manufacture. So, maybe there’s hope yet, sir.”
“Maybe. I’ll take a real radio this time, since those headsets are so flaky,” I said for the benefit of the communications crews, who were embarrassed by the fact that my battery packs seemed to have a fifteen-minute half-life.
“Won’t happen again, sir,” Private Briggs responded.
“Good to know. I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Briggs.”
A half-hour later, I drove a tired Humvee over to the airport, wearing one of my civilian work outfits, insulated coveralls that I’d quit wearing years before as my waistline expanded. Now, back down to a hundred and seventy, it fit just fine. One of my more worn Army-issue parkas and a rabbit-fur hat, and I was good to go. I was flagged to stop at the airport checkpoint.
“Where do you think you’re headed, Mac?” a Marine snarled.
“Well Sarge, I hear there’s some mechanic’in to be done over there. And seein’s that I’m a Colonel, as this here patch illustrates, I figure to go get some work done.” He looked over the insignia with a little surprise. “Colonel Richard Drummond, Commander, Third Washington.”
“Sorry, sir,” he said.
“No apologies necessary, Marine,” I said as I drove on. ‘Thanks for not shooting first,’ I said to myself.