May 17, 1942
The proximity of warm Gulf of Mexico water to remaining snowpack across north-central Canada and the Rocky Mountains makes eastern North America particularly vulnerable to spring storms.
The May Sunday night featured such storms. Squall lines with three-inch an hour rain pelted the mountains of Pennsylvania. Training thunderstorms drenched hillsides and drowned valleys with cascades born of pouring rainfall that would grow to flash floods before pouring into the great rivers and forcing the gently over their banks where levees had not yet been built. As May storms went, this one was bad. Bridges would be lost. Towns would be ruined.
The six-by-six carrying maple syrup and more wound its way slowly through hairpin turns in the Pennsylvania mountains. The lights barely revealed the limits of the highway through the twists and turns mandated more by patterns of eons-old rock than designs of engineers. Just over a dozen miles from the objective, Captain O’Brien felt the pavement start to give under his right front tire. He gunned the engine and saved the wheel from collapsing along with the road base and subgrade. He failed to save his two right rear tires. The truck stopped with a hard “Thunk” as the lead right rear wheel failed to climb from the new bed of quicksand on the shoulder to a perch upon the undamaged pavement. The truck was stuck.
The three soldiers got out. The wind was blasting hard out of the northeast, the way the truck was facing on the hillside. The rain was actually lessening. Water was pouring down the steep hillside in sheets and rippling across the winding road.
“Look, we have one set of drive wheels still on the road!” screamed Captain O’Brien above the howl of the storm. “You’ve got to lift those two wheels up where they’ll get some traction! Once they bite, they’ll pull us out! We can do this! I’ll go back and rock the truck! You heave us out! Got it?”
“Got it!” acknowledged Hiawatha. Dekanahwideh nodded understanding.
Captain O’Brien went back to the cab and climbed in. He was still soaking wet, but the rain had seemed to have stopped. The water blowing down from the scrub trees still had the wipers working hard. He revved the engine, slowly shifted into gear, and waited for the rear wheels to catch. The front tires burned rubber. He hit the clutch, and the truck eased back. He tried again. Again the front wheels spun. He released the clutch, eased back, and gave his Iroquois a chance to catch their grip. A third time he engaged the clutch. This time he felt a bump before the front wheels spun again on the slick highway. He shifted into neutral, set the brake, and walked back.
Hiawatha was crouched on the roadside where Dekanahwideh lay, too close to the drop-off mountainside. As Captain O’Brien came around the truck, he saw the problem. Dekanahwideh had gone around to the side of the truck to try to lift it. He had slipped, and his right arm had been caught up in the spinning tire. The elbow and every bone meeting it had been shattered. Blood was pouring out of the upper arm. The lower arm was hanging by tendons.
With proper medical care, his life was in jeopardy. Under the circumstances, the injury was clearly fatal.
Captain O’Brien touched Sergeant Hiawatha on the shoulder. The Iroquois warrior nodded and backed away. Captain O’Brien leaned in to Dekanahwideh’s face. He was straining not to scream out in pain.
Captain O’Brien looked the enlisted man in the eyes. He pulled the pistol from his jacket.
“Yes,” said Dekanahwideh, his voice strained.
Captain O’Brien shot him in the temple. The bullet went through his brain. He was in pain no more.
“Can you drive?” asked Captain O’Brien, putting his sidearm back into its holster.
“Enough to try to get us out,” said Hiawatha.
“I’ll push,” said Captain O’Brien. “Don’t shift into forward gear until you hear me scream ‘Go!’ Stop if you hear me order ‘Stop!’”
“Yes, Sir,” said Hiawatha.
“Get in the driver’s seat,” said Captain O’Brien. Hiawatha scrambled up through the damp gale to follow orders.
George O’Brien paused. He breathed in the cool, wet mountain air. He took a moment to sense himself. He was not a strong man in particular, with a build better-suited for endurance than for lifting weights. But he knew that he was not weak, and he knew, more importantly, that he was the only thing between success and failure in the war for New England. The truck had to move one foot. He could do it.
He found the best footing for his boots in the deep pothole, and he stretched his arms to the rear bumper of the truck. He needed almost exactly a foot of lift. He tried for three inches’ extension from his arms and nine from his legs. He was as ready as he could be. “Go!” he ordered.
As the truck shifted into gear he pushed with all of his strength. The truck lifted at least six inches. But the drop off in front of the right rear wheels was too abrupt, and he could not lift the loaded truck over the lip of the pothole. The free-wheeling rear tires sprayed him with gravel and mud. “Stop,” he commanded.
The truck settled back to where it was stuck.
Captain O’Brien, covered in mud, came up to the cab. “Hiawatha,” he said, panting.
“Sir,” said Hiawatha.
“Give me one more chance. We’ve got to do this.”
“Do you want me to push, Sir?”
“No. No, thank you. This is my job. Be ready when I say, ‘Go.’”
Captain O’Brien went back behind the truck. The wind was blowing at storm force from the northeast. Mud aside, his body was drenched with sweat from exertion and tension. He stank. For a moment, he wondered how far downwind his body odor could be discerned upon the gale.
He walked around to look more closely at the washout. He needed something for the tires to ride up from the pothole to the pavement. The roadway was cut in the hillside, and there was no tree nearly big enough to help, either on the hard rock above or the stony scrub below. The maple syrup was useless. The cases were too thin to help, even broken-down and combined. There were no slabs of pavement underwashed that could be used to fill the gap, and trying to break the road apart into fill rock would take too long if it worked at all.
Nothing could help. He would have to push the truck out alone, with nothing but the warm corpse of Dekanahwideh to offer moral support.
Captain O’Brien looked at the dim-lit body lying beside the stranded truck in the blustery night.
Inspired, he walked around to the dead Iroquois soldier. He took Dekanahwideh’s large knife and tucked it, with its scabbard, into the load. Then he pulled the corpse up and jammed the skull in front of the stuck tire. As best he could, he packed the rest of the body where it would be pulled under the spinning tires.
He walked around behind the truck. He flexed his body and set himself. “Go!” he yelled.
The bulk of the body and its bones was, for a crucial moment, enough to give the tire traction and to engage another axle. With that and Captain O’Brien’s best effort, the truck pulled forward of the washout.
Hiawatha stopped the truck. “Are you driving?” he called back.
“Yes! Just a moment,” he replied. He realized that he had been sprayed with blood, but for now there was nothing to be done about that. A stream of rainwater was running off of the truckbed, and he used it to splash clean his face and to try to rinse the fragments of bone and the larger pieces of flesh from his jacket. That done, he retrieved Dekanahwideh’s knife and tucked the scabbard inside his belt.
He looked down. Dekanahwideh was now two legs attached to a bloody mess where his torso had been. The arms and the head were missing. Captain O’Brien grabbed the legs by the ankles and hurled the mass over the hillside before returning to the cab. He hopped in.
Hiawatha said nothing as he slid over. Captain O’Brien jumped in, slammed the door, shifted into gear, and drove away, his body still stinking.
May 18, 1942
“Good morning! I trust we are all relocated?” asked Vice Admiral Alden.
His staff looked tired. They all had weapons. Lieutenant Christopher was exercising his left arm by raising and lowering his mace, keeping his elbow stationary.
“The ladies are relocated, Sir,” said Lieutenant Wilkinson.
“The men as well,” said Commander Adams.
“Good. I am sorry that this building lacks the space for private rooms for all. The assignment was mine and mine alone. Roberta and Channah—Samson and Wayne—I hope you get along. Edna, your room is terribly small. I…”
“I appreciate the privacy, Admiral. Thank you.”
“You did your best,” said Channah.
“And how is your Flag Cabin, Admiral?” asked Commander Adams. “I understand that it’s a bit cozier than suggested by regulations.”
“There’s room for a bed.”
“We all have beds, Admiral. I guess we should count ourselves lucky,” said Chief McGuire.
“I know I do after Saturday night,” said Lieutenant Commander Crandlemire.
“Me, too,” said Channah.
“And that gets to my next point, restrictions on our movement. We work here. We sleep here. We usually stay here. But nobody is restricted from leaving here. You are not prisoners.”
“Except?” asked Samson, flexing his muscles as he exercised with his mace.
“There are times that it is good to be an exchange officer,” said Commander Adams, smiling.
“Yes,” agreed Vice Admiral Alden, “If you need to leave the building, it must be approved by me. We can’t leave often, nor without reason, and we cannot create patterns. We can’t afford another ambush.”
“So we are literally at your beck and call, Admiral Alden?” asked Chief McGuire.
“I’d prefer to phrase that differently,” he said.
“For now, I control your freedom of movement. I am sorry.”
“What documentation do we need to pass the guards?” asked Lieutenant Wilkinson.
“I have instructed them to take any of my staff at their word in every respect,” replied Vice Admiral Alden.
“I apologize,” said Chief McGuire. “Pardon me, I’m not used to being in the Navy. But thank you for trusting us, Admiral.”
“You’ve all earned it,” he answered.
“Yes, thank you,” said Commander Adams. “But how shall we eat?”
“I had thought that our meals would be provided from the Officers’ Mess.”
“That’s a security risk in itself. And Admiral, we deserve better food,” said Commander Adams.
“The large storage closet on the second floor was an admiral’s mess before Noah Watson took over,” said Lieutenant Wilkinson. “The fixtures are there to restore it to its original purpose in days.”
“That’s well and good, but we don’t have time to cook, nor do we have anybody who could easily be cleared for the responsibility that fast.”
“I have the man,” said Commander Adams.
“You always have the man,” said Lieutenant Wilkinson.
“Well, not exactly, this time. I have the boy. But he’ll work out.”
May 19, 1942
Captain O’Brien had found a small home and driveway concealed completely by heavy trees just an hour after the truck had broken the shoulder. The elderly couple living there had been easy to kill, and nobody seemed yet to have noticed their absence.
From that house it had been just over a mile’s walk to the plant. Captain O’Brien had taken the hike first, in civilian clothes, and then he had shared what he’d learned of the route with Hiawatha. Both men had scouted the entrance to the facility. There was a rail car loading station downhill from the entrance, as yet unused and unmanned. Further back there was a coal offload siding, where a train had arrived at sunrise to deliver many hopper cars of coal to the plant via long belt devices. Exhaust suggested that a coal-fired power plant was already driving both the offload belts and, inside, unseen, Fischer-Tropsch production.
Now, just before midnight, Captain O’Brien and Sergeant Hiawatha were in military uniforms of their respective nations, approaching the tunnel that led into the plant. Shift change had been accomplished at 10:00 PM, and only the small night shift was inside the facility. There had been just two men by the rail lines, neither military, and their throats had already been slit. The telephone line was cut. There had been no car traffic from 11:00 PM to 5:00 AM the night before. With luck, the two would have time for their mission.
They stopped. Captain O’Brien was to the left of the entrance, Sergeant Hiawatha to the right. Each one pulled a grenade from their belts. They pulled the pins. The handles flew. Captain O’Brien hurled his underhand as far as his strength would permit straight down the tunnel. Sergeant Hiawatha gave his grenade a normal throw in pursuit. The two men pulled two more grenades. Hiawatha threw his more or less the same way. Captain O’Brien gently bowled his no more than eight yards. Both soldiers ducked away.
In the span of three seconds, four explosions shook the entrance tunnel. Smoke belched out of the entry.
Machine pistols ready, Captain O’Brien and Sergeant Hiawatha ran inside. Four US infantrymen lay on the rock of the tunnel. Each one got a brief point-blank burst to the heart as the two men passed.
The two men came inside the facility. Even Somes Sound had not prepared them for what they saw. In a majestic man-made cavern brilliantly lit by arc lamps, towering, shining steel vessels rose over fifty feet from bedrock floor to near the ceiling. The size of the operation had been hidden by the mountain, and no intelligence had dared speculate how great the plan had been. This single plant had been intended to support a complete war effort against New England. Its magnitude was no less than that of the Empire State Building or the Hoover Dam. That it could have been constructed in secret was even more staggering than the grandeur of the lofty pressure vessels.
A tubby, gray-haired man emerged from a shack to their left. Captain O’Brien immediately pivoted and pointed his machine pistol at his heart. “Freeze,” he said.
The man stopped moving.
“Hands on your head!”
He complied. “Don’t kill me!” he begged.
“We don’t want to kill anybody, especially if you’re not soldiers. But you’ve got to do what we say. Who are you? Who’s in charge?”
“I’m Pete. I’m the foreman.”
“How many on your shift?”
“Eight here, two down below, and four soldiers as guards.”
Captain O’Brien guessed that he was telling the truth. Four soldiers were dead in the tunnel. Two workers were dead down below. The numbers matched.
“So get your eight men together here to surrender. I don’t want to kill anybody else. But we’re here for a reason.”
“Yes, Sir! Let me use my microphone.”
Pete, hands still on his head, went back to his little shack. “May I reach for the mike?”
“I’m watching,” said Captain O’Brien. “Go.”
“Men, this is Pete,” said Pete on the microphone. The public address system was as clear and loud as the arc lights were clear and bright. “I need all of you to assemble here with me at the front office right now. There’s nothing going on out there demanding you look at something or do something, so get back here now.”
Two heads appeared. They saw what was going on, just as they had anticipated from the noise—Allied soldiers had arrived. Pete motioned them down. Understanding the situation, and having faith in their foreman, they came over to the entrance. Four more middle-aged Pennsylvanians wandered over to the foreman’s shack behind them.
“This is seven,” said Captain O’Brien.
“Joe didn’t come,” said Pete.
“$#*$@$# Joe,” said one of the workers.
“Look, unless Joe comes over, I’ll have to start killing people,” said Captain O’Brien. “I don’t like to kill people, but I can do that if I have to. Under rules of war, Pete, you have failed to surrender your facility. I can kill you all where you stand.”
Pete went back to the microphone. “Joe,” he said, in a shaking voice that echoed across the stone cavern, “The enemies have captured our plant. If you don’t come out, they’ll kill the rest of us. For the love of God, report to my shack.”
When Pete stopped talking, the words stopped echoing, and all that was left was the hum of engines and the static crash of the lights. The industrial silence dwarfed the panicked breathing of the seven prisoners, but the glares of the New Englander and his Iroquois sergeant could be felt by the Pennsylvanians without audible sound.
At length, Captain O’Brien said, “He’s not coming. Pete, which one of your men do I kill first?”
“Let me talk to him!” he screamed.
“Make it fast. I may kill at any moment under rules of war. I need to act soon.”
Pete dashed for the microphone. “Joe,” he said, the name reverberating through stone and steel. “There are guns to our heads! Surrender! Now! For God’s sake, surrender! Please! Don’t leave your friends to die!”
“Joe’s not coming out,” said Hiawatha.
“No,” agreed Captain O’Brien. “Should we just kill the others and get him?”
“No. Just kill Joe,” said the man who had spoken earlier. “He’s an !##+#*%. He’s the guy you don’t want to meet in a bar. Look, we’ll do what you say. Just kill Joe. None of us will blame you.”
“I can get him. Where is he?” asked Hiawatha.
“Somewhere off to the right, over there,” said Pete, gesturing.
“Could be messy. Should I get him?” asked Captain O’Brien.
“He’s unarmed. I can do this,” said Hiawatha.
“Be careful,” said Captain O’Brien. “Go.”
Sergeant Hiawatha, machine pistol ready, headed out into the plant.
“Down on the ground! All of you! Everybody but Pete!” ordered Captain O’Brien.
The workers complied, swiftly.
“Pete, on the microphone! Tell Joe that if he doesn’t surrender in one minute a friend of his dies!”
“We’re not his friends!” shouted the worker who kept talking.
“Who thinks Joe should die?” asked Captain O’Brien.
He watched the reactions. One man, angry, shook his head.
Captain O’Brien pulled his pistol, his submachinegun still slung and ready upon his chest. He stepped into the middle of the back of the man who had evidently thought that Joe should not die. “What’s his name?” he asked Pete.
“Scooter. We call him Scooter.”
“You have the microphone. Tell Joe that Scooter dies in half a minute unless he comes out and surrenders.”
“Joe, this is Pete,” said the foreman. “There’s a man coming out to get you. Just surrender. Come out and surrender now, or they’re going to kill Scooter. Please, Joe, nobody has to die”
Hiawatha stalked his way through the pressure tanks. Joe came out. With a spanner wrench, he struck Hiawatha from behind at the nape of his neck. Thus passed the last of the Iroquois race.
Captain O’Brien saw the killing, but it was too far away for him to fire accurately with his pistol. Instead, he killed Scooter with a bullet to the brain, and he stepped over to the man beside him.
“God, Joe, no! What have you done?” screamed Pete. “Nobody else has to die! They’ve killed Scooter. Don’t make him kill us!”
Joe grabbed the machine pistol and dove for cover.
“Ten seconds,” said Captain O’Brien. “I can kill Joe, but I’ll have to kill you all first. Tell him to surrender, now.”
“Joe, drop the gun! For God’s sake, surrender!”
Joe stayed hidden. Captain O’Brien shot another innocent worker in the brain. He moved down the line. “If any of you choose to fight back, you all die now.”
“Joe, John is dead. Please, surrender!”
The facility hummed with the silence of ventilation engines and the crackle of the brilliant arc lights.
Captain O’Brien killed another man. He moved down the line. The worker started to struggle as he stepped on his back. He shot him in the heart and backed off.
“Joe, you heard that. Eddie and Sammy are dead. Surrender! Don’t kill us all!”
That, somehow, was enough. The machine pistol was tossed out into plain view. Joe emerged from behind a pressure tank, his hands raised to the sky.
“Over here!” barked Captain O’Brien in command voice. “Nobody else has to die. Come over here and surrender. That’s all I need.”
Joe had dark hair and a pronounced forehead. He looked, as they had said, like the man likely to start a bar fight. Captain O’Brien watched him as he approached. He expected him to charge him, and he stood ready, knowing that he had exactly two shots before he had to shift to his machine pistol. But Joe just came up, asking at last, “What do you want me to do?”
“Lie down next to the others, face-down. You too, Pete. All in a line. I’ll need you to stay there. But nobody else has to die.”
Joe lay down next to the two workers left alive. Pete lay down next to them.
Captain O’Brien took the moment to reload his revolver. That done, he took his machine pistol and sprayed them for the two seconds until the magazine was emptied. He pulled the pistol, but they all seemed to be dead. He kicked each of the corpses in the balls to be sure.
It had cost him his entire team, but he was alone in the plant.
He ejected the magazine from his machine pistol and reloaded it. That done, he ran outside. The truck was close, but he pulled it closer, just thirty feet away from the tunnel, tucked beside it, not straight in front of it.
They had adjusted the load. The two detonators were immediately available. Captain O’Brien broke open their boxes, checked them, and set them aside. Then he unloaded the charges. Each one was in a box the size of a maple syrup crate. They were heavy, about fifty pounds each, but they had been designed with carrying handles. They were a one-man carry. Time was short, and adrenaline was high. Captain O’Brien grabbed two and jogged inside.
He took the first charge to the nearest vessel. The shaped charges had magnetic lips to cling to the tanks. He had, however, not understood the power of the magnets. The heavy charge leapt the last inch to ring against the tank.
The composite was not stable enough to guarantee that it would withstand such a shock. But Captain O’Brien realized, when his heart started again, that if he had heard the sound that he had survived.
He looked around, and he saw a push broom. He ran to grab it, and he broke its handle in two. Taking the handle in one hand and the second shaped charge in the other, he approached the second pressure vessel.
Captain O’Brien placed the broomstick shard against the tank and brought the charge up against it. Onside of the charge clicked into place. With a considerable exertion, he pulled out the wood. The charge fell hard into place, but with less shock than the first charge had endured.
For the next hour, Captain O’Brien repeated the pattern. A lesser man, or even himself in different circumstances, would have succumbed from fatigue. The number of charges that they had considered adequate for both the storage facility and the production facility was slightly inadequate for just the production vessels. Captain O’Brien saw the small rail car at a corner of the plant, and he knew where it and the pipes beside it went. But he had no time to investigate, and he had no charges to spare.
At last, he went outside. He retrieved the two radio-control detonators. Positioning himself beside the entrance, he closed his eyes, and he pressed the two buttons.
He opened his eyes. There were three possibilities. Maybe the whole thing wouldn’t work. Maybe the batteries were all too low to function. Or maybe he needed to get closer.
Only the last offered a chance of success. Captain O’Brien moved the two detonators just barely within the mouth of the tunnel. Looking around, he found two saplings. In a moment, he had two four-foot sticks. Standing just outside the lip of the tunnel, using the sticks, he pressed the two buttons again.
He saw a flash. He threw himself back.
The shock wave blew out of the mouth of the entrance tunnel at the speed of sound. Two hundred feet away trees were blown over like matchsticks. The bedrock shook and fractured under stress. The mountainside fell in an avalanche a hundred yards away. The fallen trees burst into flames from the superheated hurricane-force winds still belching from the tunnel. Then the tunnel collapsed, the last gusts propelling rocks and gravel like grapeshot into the Pennsylvania forest, ripping apart the burning trees into kindling.
Captain O’Brien sprinted for the truck. It started. He shifted into gear. He drove off down the road without headlights, the blazing woods providing more than daylight for his escape. Using both narrow lanes, the knocked aside the larger burning limbs and tree trunks while overrunning the lesser hazards. He thought that he would not make it, but one hazard at a time, he succeeded in his escape.
At length, he escaped the fire. The road was still lit well enough to see. He stopped for a moment and looked back. The top of the mountain had fractured open. It burned like a volcano in the night sky, flames shooting hundreds of feet high. The destruction of the pressure tanks had broken the storage tanks, and the gasoline was aflame.
Captain O’Brien shifted back into gear. Escape to New England was out of the question. He headed south.