Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Aboard Charlie Six
Third Washington had done the near impossible, in my mind, demobilizing and getting both trains holding the balance of the Brigade in four hours and fifty-five minutes. Part of the time savings was due to abandoning many of the tents and equipment in the field, instead loading up fresh equipment from the replacement stockpile.
United States ground forces were on the verge of taking the remains of Omaha, pounded into submission by nearly ninety thousand troops, hundreds of pieces of field artillery, seven hundred main battle tanks and hundreds of Air Force sorties. The few poor-quality images we’d seen of Offutt Air Force Base reminded me of photographs of a concrete recycling operation. There wasn’t a single recognizable structure or piece of pavement that hadn’t been blasted.
Third Washington, soon to be followed by other support units, would help feed, house, and resupply the tens of thousands of troops that had passed through Lincoln while we were there. Leapfrogging across the Midwest, we’d eventually either wear down the S.A. and defeat them through attrition, or we’d find our own supply chain tighten around our neck, and find ourselves in a stalemate.
Unlike other destinations for Third, we had no pre-designated staging area to review before we arrived. The largest rail yard in the area was actually in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River…and still effectively in S.A. control…and bombed to ruin. We weren’t able to pre-plan distribution of our assets, have any educated guesses on deployment, nothing. We were going in cold.
Most of the command staff was crowded into our conference car with Second Battalion’s commander, Trayvon Chappel, and Third Battalion’s Hugh Epstein. We were having a heated discussion on our deployment, not liking any of the potential locations and deployment scenarios. We’d almost certainly be deployed in lowland areas, overlooked by neighborhoods on the higher surrounding terrain, exposed, and without escape.
“Sirs?” Kittrick interrupted, his image appearing on the video screen on the back wall. “Just got this message from command: General Howard is proposing that Third Washington stage near a suburb called Chalco, about ten miles west of Offutt. All lines east into the city are blocked. There’s also a small civilian airport about a mile north of the staging area. Fifth Marines control that area, including substantial air cover,” he said, punching up the proposed staging location for our brigade on the monitor.
“Thanks, Mister Kittrick,” I said, turning my attention back to the men around the table.
“All right, we’ve got a spot to park and a semblance of security. We just don’t quite know what we’re getting into yet.”
“Safe bet, Colonel, on the following,” Doc Willitson added. “Frostbite, dehydration, and all of the other afflictions of battle of course.”
“We have no idea what we have for a civilian presence in Omaha, Jeff. Anybody want to hazard and educated guess?” I said as I felt and then heard, something go horribly wrong.
The shock seemed to ripple through the conference car as the train derailed, threatening to roll the train onto her side. We were all tossed out of our chairs, coffee and water and papers thrown to the downhill side, lit by the red emergency lighting.
“Well, sheeeit,” Lieutenant Colonel Chappel said a moment after we came to rest.
“We’re under attack or we’ve derailed accidentally, and I don’t believe in coincidences,” I said, getting to my feet on the sloping floor.
“No small arms fire,” one of the men said. “That can’t be a bad thing, Colonel.”
The men in the back of the converted shipping container managed to push the door open, which was now swinging uphill. Daylight streamed into the darkened car, along with the cold. Other than voices outside, there was no other sound. I was last out of the car. It took me a minute to find my Kevlar helmet and get my parka on. I realized my rifle was in the Command Car. ‘Damn’, I said to myself, realizing that I was armed with a .45, period. I made my way out, moving to the ‘uphill’ toward the track, and landed on my stomach next to Lieutenant Colonel Epstein, who had his rifle trained on the empty gray horizon. No threat was visible.
I looked toward the front of the train and saw the entire side of one of the lead defensive cars, which was straddling the tracks, but upright. Two supply cars ahead of it were on their side, smoke was rising from where the lead engines should be. Unlike prior trips, this train was assembled with ‘pullers’ and ‘pushers,’ meaning, engines on both ends of the assembled train.
The men under my command rapidly barked orders to the Command Car staff, some of who had left their posts, although the Command Car was still on the rails. A dozen of the radio headsets were found, passed around, and Charlie Six was again able to act tactically with acceptable response times within two minutes.
The derailment had severed electrical power and communications to most of the train. With the sudden stop, almost all the men aboard Charlie had grabbed their gear and deployed in rehearsed defensive posture until we could figure out what had happened. Both flanks of Charlie’s position were protected against the unknown threat.
“Colonel, you hurt?” Doc Willitson asked as he tracked me down.
“Not so far as I know, Doc,” I said. “Pissed off maybe, not hurt.”
A few minutes later, Able and Baker Companies, Third Battalion had deployed and secured the real estate forward of the conference car. While they were slowly progressing northeast to the wrecked cars, the men in the defensive car radioed an ‘all clear’ and a request for corpsmen due to serious injuries. Two of the four men in the lead engines were dead. Doc Willitson and his medics quickly moved forward to the wrecked engines. To the northeast, I could see thin smoke rising from what was left of the small town of Greenwood.
Chappel and I walked up to the lead end of the train as more men were taken from the defensive posture and into their assigned roles, helping the corpsmen with the wounded. The lead engine was on its side, burning; it’s back broken from an explosion directly under it. The second power unit was upright, but smoking. Behind the second power unit, a fifteen-foot wide crater, and fifty feet of rails peeled up and away like a pretzel. Parts of railroad ties were everywhere.
“That was one Hell of an IED,” I said, looking over the damage to the lead engine. The massive frame of the locomotive was bowed upward and out, and a three-foot diameter hole through the lower part of the engine. The blast pattern seemed to suggest a culvert under the tracks.
“Shaped penetrator. Big ass shaped penetrator, sir.”
“You’ll have to school me on that, Colonel Chappel,” I said.
“Simple, sir. The bomb is built with an explosive charge beneath a concave form of metal. Bomb goes off, the concave form goes convex with the force of the blast. Think, thin piece of metal instantly formed into a missile, propelled at the speed of the explosion,” Chappel said. “But I’ve never seen one this big.”
Dog Six pulled up behind our trailing engines, and radioed ahead to Command that Charlie was disabled and the track blocked until we could clear the rails. We walked around the end of the wreck, a platoon in front of us, as one of our Humvee’s ran further a field, dismounted troops following.
“Sirs, you might want to look at this,” one of the platoon sergeants said, pointing out an object a hundred yards out.
We walked over the scarred ground, where something had blown out of the explosion, carving out snow, slush and mud along the path.
“That’s a human torso,” Chappel said, looking over the blasted remains, partially cast into what appeared to be a large concrete block.
“They used the culvert for an IED location. Plugged it with concrete on this end to direct the blast upward. Probably one on the other side that we missed,” I said, looking at the concrete that reflected the corrugations of a metal culvert. “And they used a body for fill in the concrete.”
“I’m not sure I know what to say to that, Colonel,” Lieutenant Colonel Chappel said. “Honest to God, I don’t.”
“I don’t know either,” I said.
A rag tag crew of rail workers and Army transport specialists came from ravaged Omaha to clear and repair the tracks, using all available hands—many—from Third where we could help. I was not allowed to do much.
Observation posts had been set up a mile out in all directions, as we were a stationary target with idling engines. It’s not possible to hide a train, or two, along with the lights and noise of a wreckage-clearing operation.
In addition to the loss of a third of our train engineering crew, we had seventeen other significant injuries, including concussions, broken arms and collarbones, and crush injuries from inside the lead Defensive Car. One of the chain-gun ammunition lockers had torn loose and broken the legs of the gunner. Jeff Willitson and his men had been in surgery most of the day.
The train had damage throughout, from electrical surges that cooked the one leg of the power system in our communications car to broken water and waste piping, torqued frames of several rail cars, leaving several cars with doors that wouldn’t close properly.
The Omaha crewmen could move the damaged and destroyed cars out of our way and fix the tracks. They could not do so within a timeframe that was viewed as ‘acceptable’ by my superiors. I received an ass chewing that I viewed as unwarranted, but I could understand the frustration on the part of General Garcia. None of the U.S. ground forces in Omaha could pursue the S.A. without supplies and equipment, which was mostly assigned, to rail traffic on this line, and there weren’t enough operable semi-trucks and trailers within five hundred miles to make a dent in the demand. The pursuit and destruction of the S.A. would slow because of this, perhaps dramatically. A supply train coming toward Omaha from the north had been blown apart as well, blocking the northern route.
“Colonel Drummond, we’ve got contact, back end of Dog Six, sir, estimated range two thousand yards,” Private Ayers said.
“Whose patrol quarter?” I asked.
“A Company, First, sir.”
“Punch me up Colonel Miller,” I said. Shawn Miller was usually out with one of the companies, especially at dusk.
“Tactical channel thirty-one Able, sir. Call sign Victory One, yours is Raptor Lead.”
“Thanks, Mister Ayers,” I said as punched in the communications codes.
“Victory One, what’ve you got out there?”
“Two on horseback, approaching cautiously. Bolt-action rifles in scabbards, Raptor Lead,” was the hushed response.
“Vic Two and Vic Five will make first contact and will challenge at one hundred meters. Video feed should be on Vic Two’s channel, Raptor.”
“Understood. Raptor out.”
Ayers punched up Victory Two’s night vision equipment feeds, clearly showing the riders, approaching cautiously but deliberately. I found myself wishing I were out there.
“Ayers, alert all posts that Victory has imminent contact,” Greg Shand ordered, looking over at me. I nodded, continuing to watch the greenish images on the screen.
“Yes, sir, Captain,” he said, immediately contacting the hundreds of men in the field.
A few more minutes passed as the riders grew closer, and the camera went to a wider field of vision, and the horses wheeled as the challenge was made. Both riders raised their hands as ordered, and dismounted as they were surrounded, and surrendered their weapons.
“Victory, transmit there given identification and bring them to Raptor Lead.”
“Affirm,” came the response.
Ten minutes later, I met the two riders, escorted by a platoon of security, in the rear conference car. The man was in his mid-fifties, joined by a much younger woman. Both looked fit, clean and in good health. A welcome look.
“Colonel Richard Drummond, Third Washington,” I said, introducing myself.
“Pleased to meet you, sir. Dave Barkley. My daughter Amy.”
“Have a seat, please. This is Captain Gerry McGowan, our intelligence officer, Sergeant Major Chet Travis and Captain Adam Fillmore, our chaplain,” I said, introducing the senior men. “Coffee?” I asked, getting a quizzical look.
“Real coffee?” Amy asked. She looked to be twenty-five or so, and was a ‘looker.’
“Yes, ma’am,” Sergeant Travis replied.
“That would be wonderful. Thank you,” she said as Chet poured two mugs.
“Mister Barkley are you from around here?” I asked.
“Grew up here, Colonel. Call me Dave, please. The rail lines run through our land. We heard the explosion, and debated for quite a while on whether we should make contact. We were scouting when your forward observers identified themselves. We didn’t know we were that close.”
“Fair enough. Now, if I can ask, where do your allegiances lie?” I asked, surprising him I’m sure.
“Solely with God and the Constitution of the United States of America, sir.”
I chuckled a little bit. “Good to know. Thank you.”
“You’re really from Washington? The state?” Amy asked.
“Yes, Ma’am. After a fashion. We’ve been heading east for some weeks now.”
“Chasing the S.A. back to their hole, I hope.”
“Well, that and to fill the hole in after we put them there, yes. Then pave it over.”
“Are either of you two hungry, or is there anything we can get you?” Chaplain Fillmore added, another ‘good cop’.
“We’re OK, but thank you.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, Mister and Miss Barkley, could you tell us how you, well, are in such good condition, after being behind the S.A. lines for so long? As an intelligence officer I’m naturally skeptical,” McGowan said, arms crossed across his chest, leaning back in his chair, body language shouting, ‘liars’.
“My wife and I were from Dallas, before the War that is,” Dave Barkley said. “And my daughter’s last name is Fournier. She lost her husband on USS Augusta. She was in Corpus Christi looking for a job, staying with friends.”
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” I said, Amy Fournier lowering her eyes to her coffee cup. I remembered the thousands of sailors listed in those early days of the Third War.
“When things started to come apart,” Dave Barkley said, exhaling, “I suppose not long after the earthquakes up your way, my brothers and sisters and their families decided to get back to home to ride it out. Three of us made it, two didn’t. My younger brother was in Florence, on some damned Renaissance tour, never made it back. My wife and younger sister boarded a flight from Hawaii that never arrived in L.A. We thought that EMP took out the plane. We don’t know,” he said, taking a sip of the coffee. “My sister had multiple sclerosis, and couldn’t travel well. My wife flew out to help her. Never made it back,” he said, and paused for a few seconds. It could not have been easy, reliving this.
“The farm has been here for a hundred and fifty years, most of that time in the family. We left Dallas with our Suburban hauling a trailer and a Class C motorhome. Didn’t have a lick of trouble on that trip.”
Amy took over the conversation, as I noticed the ‘thousand yard stare’ on her father’s face. ‘Perhaps no trouble on that trip, but there had certainly been enough trouble in this man’s life,’ I thought.
“The farm is far enough off the beaten path not to have been bothered by any of the S.A. that mattered, and thank God we’re far enough away from a highway that they went around us. Anyone that was a threat was killed,” she said, quite matter-of-factly. “There were S.A. patrols that just never went back to wherever they came from.”
“My husband always knew something was coming, and we were ready for it, or so we thought at the time. The Suburban and the motorhome are both diesels. Danny—my husband—installed radio gear for long-range communications in everything, including the farm. The trailer had quite a lot of our emergency equipment and food, and the motorhome was always ready to go. We’d planned to move back to the farm at the end of his tour,” she said. “Plans changed though.”
“Again, my condolences,” I said.
“Thanks. We knew it could happen…”
“Not really something anyone wants to plan for,” I said, hopefully ending the journey down emotionally draining paths.
“Life on the farm has been OK though. There are twenty-six of us, just waiting to get on with life,” Dave Barkley said. “Life off the farm, that is. Hasn’t been exactly prudent to go too far a field.”
“I’d like to tell you that it’s all right to do so now, but I can’t, yet,” I said, looking down at the computer monitor in front of me, shielded from our guests. On the screen were pre-War drivers licenses of both Dave Barkley and his daughter. Their identification at least checked out. “Although we’re making progress.”
McGowan continued to question them about their life on the farm, their tactical and defensive measures, which received understandably cryptic answers. I thought they both showed remarkable composure over fifteen or twenty minutes of thinly veiled interrogation.
Dave Barkley worked as a civilian aviation mechanic at DFW Airport before the war, while Amy had a degree in elementary education, and was working at a private school, before it closed as the economy soured. They had been talking about ‘getting back to the farm’ when dollar started its’ collapse, but held out just a little longer, wondering if it was ‘time.’ Amy was in Corpus Christi looking for work when news of the Augusta came through. Dave quickly went to bring her home, hoping to meet his wife back in Dallas after returning from Hawaii, and then head north to the ‘farm.’ Of course, she never arrived.
On the farm, it sounded like they had about as good a setup as I could ever imagine, down to geothermal heat coils that helped mitigate the heating and cooling needs; a full machine shop; nearly four hundred acres of farmland; substantial water storage and filtration, all updated over time by Dave and his siblings and their children.
“OK, Gerry. Let’s have these folks get on their way. No reason to detain them any longer,” I said.
“Can’t argue with that, Colonel,” McGowan said. “To you both, apologies if I was a little direct. It’s my job to find chinks in the armor.”
“I understand,” Dave said. “It’ll be nice to see a friendly flag again.”
“You haven’t seen the new flag. You might not agree,” I said, chuckling a little, which then ran down the description of, and need for, our new flag.
“I’d like to escort you home, but I’m afraid I’ll have to have one of the officers serve,” I said. “The men will make sure you’ll get home safe and sound. A little dark to be making the trip on horseback without lights, I’d think. I suspect we’ll be here for at least another day or five, if you need any assistance.”
“Thank you, Colonel. We appreciate your service to the nation,” Dave said.
“Mister Barkley, you might be serving the country soon yourself. Air Force is in pretty serious need of skilled aviation mechanics,” I said. “You might consider that. And, Merry Christmas.”