Archive for November, 2020

Cold War Short-Short Stories

Posted on 11/29/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Cold War Short-Short Stories is excerpted from Cold War Stories

The tear down the wall speech at the Brandenburg Gate Photo is in the public domain

Cold War Short-Short Stories has been published and is copyright protected.

Memphis, 1948 The bus rolls to a stop. I get on and sit right behind the driver. In two months, I will finish training to be an aviation electronics technician at the Memphis Navy Air Training Center. The bus moves through the training center as it picks up more passengers it will transport to Memphis. The bus is almost full when it reaches the training center main gate. A marine checks the passes, the bus driver stands, turns, and announces that all colored folks will now move to the back of the bus. I move to the back of the bus.

Korea, 1950 Damn, marine issue doesn’t cut this cold. Must be below zero. Chinese everywhere, small arms fire from everywhere. I hunker down in my shallow hole. I’m shivering and sweating at the same time. My mind wanders—ponders my escape from that Dakota farm, a world to see, to experience. There is a scream, “Medic, medic!” A mortar round shakes my hole! I hold the M1 in my frozen hands. Do I dare show myself, fire this rifle at I know not what? Maybe milking cows wasn’t all that bad.

War-Torn City Recovers, 1951 Two American marines, recovering from wounds inflicted in the war on the Korean Peninsula, wander around in a Tokyo market. Tokyo bustles. Factories hum, making cigarette lighters out of GI-discarded beer cans, half-price Leica knockoffs, the world’s finest china.

Two women stand out. One, a young woman, beautiful as many young Asian women are, a porcelain face with fine features, a tiny but full body. Beside her, an older version of herself. Both dressed stylishly in shades of blue. The older woman approaches the marines. “You like daughter? Only 3,000 yen, all night.”

Sangley Point, Naval Air Station, 1951 Tom, a marine a month out of boot camp, arrives at his duty station in the Philippines. That evening a corporal, a six-month Philippine veteran, persuades Tom to hit the beach.

Not far outside the base gate a toddler craps in the gutter. The corporal comments, “That’s why the Orient stinks.” They stop at a bar where the beer is cold, the waitress seductive. The corporal introduces Tom. “Just arrived.” he says. “How you like Philippines?” the waitress asks Tom. “It stinks.” She stomps off, muttering in Tagalog. The corporal is impressed. “Takes talent to insult a whore.”

A Different Perspective, 1951 I was a crewman on a navy patrol aircraft that was part of a group of four planes heading to the Far East for an extended tour. We stopped at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station near Seattle and spent a day practicing GCA, ground control approach, landings. That evening a fellow crewman and I dropped into the enlisted men’s club for a beer. There seemed to be a lot of unaccompanied women in the club who were friendly. We talked to a couple of them. Yes, their husbands, members of a patrol squadron, had recently left for a six-month tour in the Far East and they were making the most of it. “Six months goes really fast.”

Navy Patrol Plane, 1952 A navy patrol plane off Shanghai with fourteen men aboard is in trouble: one their two engines fails. Kadena Okinawa, their destination, is possible. It is night. A violent storm envelopes Kadena. Ground Control Approach is talking them in, shouts: You’re low, off to the right! Abort, abort!!Impossible. The plane can only descend, not ascend. Somehow the plane bounces and stops on the runway. The emergency vehicles disperse, and the plane is towed to its parking pad.

A ground crew member sticks his head into a hatch. “Did ya bring any mail?” At that moment the crew chief realizes they had returned to the real world where the plane crews escapade with disaster did not rise to the ground crews main level of concern. “Yeah, we got your mail,” he replied.

Also by Alfred Wellnitz; Three Novels

Finding the Way; From Prussia to a Prairie Homestead In 1871 a young man leaves his family and home to emigrate to America with a goal to homestead free land. He arrives with no money and with another immigrant begins a seven-year odyssey where they encounter hardship, love, adventure and danger as they work their way west in order achieve the goal to claim.

PushBack; Deficit Triggers, Hyperinflation, Terrorism

It is 2033 and an unsustainable deficits causes an upheaval, the value of the dollar to plunges, triggers hyperinflation, resulting in economic turmoil, chaos, desperation when the dollar becomes worthless. This results in the United States being pulled apart into eight independent nations.

For the Cause; The Cold War Turns Hot in Korea and Why Young Men Went To War

Two South Dakota farm boys become men and with nothing better to do, join the marines early in 1950. Soon after finishing boot camp, the Korean war erupts. One of the men goes to Korea with the first marines to enter the war with the Provincial Brigade. The other goes to the Philippines where he is part of a base security contingent. The story follows the lives of each during the last six months of 1950.


Digital or print versions of these novels can be found on Amazon

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Risks and Rewards

Posted on 11/29/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story #7 Excerpted from Cold War Stories

Photo by Author

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Risks and Rewards

In a small fishing village on the shores of Manila Bay in the Philippines, halfway between Manila and Cavite, a young man named Modesto tossed and turned in his blanket on the floor of a Nipa hut. Beside him, the frequent stirrings of his wife betrayed her restlessness. Only their child in the near corner slept soundly. Finally, Modesto threw his blanket aside, picked his way to the doorway, and let his bare feet drop to the sand, still warm from the day’s sun. From where he stood, he could see a large portion of Manila Bay. To his right and behind him, the bright lights of Manila made the sky luminous; before him the bay lay dark except for the dim lights of fishing boats that flickered and bobbed. Over to the left, a cluster of lights marked Cavite and the United States Naval Air Station at Sangley Point. The lights of Cavite also backlit an array of ship superstructures protruding from the water, the hulks of Japanese ships resting where they had been sunk during the big war that ended five years ago.

Modesto, small in stature, lean and muscular, had been a fisherman since he was old enough to pull nets and row a bonga boat. His jet-black hair and bright brown eyes were complemented by chocolate-colored skin that still had the smoothness of youth.

Tonight being Christmas Eve, he and Carlos and Chico were not fishing. Other than Christmas and Easter or during bad storms, they would normally be out in the bay fishing at this time of night. Their families depended on them to catch fish nearly every night. No fish meant there would be nothing to barter for rice, no pesos, no centavos, and no fresh fish for the fishermen’s families to eat. Modesto was a good fisherman. There were very few days when there was no fish or rice to cook in his hut. There were usually enough pesos for at least the necessities and even for some extras, like during the fiesta and for Christmas and Easter.

However, the three fishermen would be taking the bonga boat out on Manila Bay this Christmas Eve—not to fish but on a special and unusual mission. Modesto left the hut and moved aimlessly along the beach. He recalled the events of the last three days that led to what he would be doing tonight.

Modesto and his two companions had been returning from an unsuccessful night of fishing in their bonga, a boat barely large enough for the three-man crew, their nets, and sometimes a good fish catch. They were tired and wet, aching from their night’s labor. Intermittent rain, sometimes heavy, had combined with abnormally low temperatures to make it a bitter night. For their efforts and misery, a reward of only a half-dozen lapa-lapas lay on the bottom of the boat. They paddled toward shore in weary silence. As they rowed, they could make out the outlines of the hotels and casinos along Manila’s Dewey Boulevard.

The crew sat in a row from front to back in the narrow boat. Chico, the youngest, held down the middle position. He looked small huddled under a bulky poncho. Chico, the son of Carlos, the oldest member of the three men, had only recently joined the crew. Chico had been a hut boy for marines at Sangley Point, a good-paying job. For reasons unknown to Modesto, Chico no longer worked at Sangley Point, and Carlos had added Chico to the crew.

Chico stopped paddling and broke the silence.

“The casinos are still lit up. As they sow, so shall they reap. That’s what the church tells us. Well, we have worked all night and are so tired we can hardly get back to the beach. What have we reaped? Six little fish, not enough to eat, none to sell or trade. Did we sow the wrong thing? What do those rich ones in the casinos sow? They sow money. They don’t have to sweat or sit in the cold rain. Money does their work.”

Carlos sat in the back, the commanding position in the bonga. Wrinkled skin that had seen many fishing seasons covered his gaunt face. He laughed softly. “That was quite a speech from someone who’s cold and tired. Remember, fishermen live from God’s hand, and sometimes the hand is empty. That’s the way it is.”

Chico replied, “You been doing this too long and don’t know any better.”

“Maybe,” Carlos answered, “but I know complaining doesn’t help anything.”

Modesto listened in silence. There were times he had felt the way Chico did, and sometimes still did, but he had a wife and child. He had to provide for them in the only way he knew how. Someday in the hereafter he would be on the same level as the good rich and above that of the not-so-good rich. Easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for rich men to get to heaven. That’s what the good fathers said. Such thoughts made life a little more bearable at times.

Later that day, Modesto and Carlos were repairing one of the bonga boat’s outriggers. Carlos owned the boat and, when the catch was successful, received an extra share of fish. Carlos had inherited the bonga, his most valuable possession, from his father. Frequent repairs kept it usable.

“I wonder where Chico is,” Carlos mused. “He should be helping us.”

Modesto pointed down the beach. “Speak of the devil. People with him. Who are they?”

Carlos looked where Modesto pointed. “Don’t know.”

Two strangers accompanied Chico. One, a gaunt, small-framed young man, was unremarkable except for deep-set eyes that glowered under heavy, dark brows. His dress, typical for men his age, consisted of loose-fitting gray pants, an untucked white shirt, and sandals. He could have been a Jeepney driver or a street vendor. The other man, dressed in a similar way, was taller, heavier, and had a round face with Asian eyes.

Chico introduced them. He gestured first toward the smaller man. “Pepe from Bulacan, and Wan from up north in Baguio City.”

The two men surveyed the boat. The one named Wan walked around it and kicked the outrigger Modesto and Carlos had been working on.

“Looks small,” he remarked.

Chico gave him a worried look. “It can haul a lot of weight.”

Modesto wondered what they were talking about. What did it matter if the boat was small or could haul a lot of weight? It worked for what they used it for.

Carlos also looked puzzled.

The two strangers and Chico moved some distance away and talked among themselves. After a short time, they came back to where Carlos and Modesto had resumed work on the outrigger.

“Pepe and Wan would like to talk about a business deal,” Chico announced.

Carlos looked skeptical. “Business deal? We are fishermen with no fish to barter or sell. What kind of business could you be talking about?”

Pepe asked, “Can you keep a secret?”

“Secret?” Carlos questioned.

“The business we are talking about depends on it.”

Carlos answered, “You’ve been talking to Chico. He can tell you.”

Pepe hesitated and studied Carlos. Then he began to speak. “Chico has told us that every night you and your crew fish Manila Bay, and that almost every night you go past Sangley Point. You may have noticed a Quonset hut that sits by itself right near the shore at the tip of the peninsula. Looks like an ordinary Quonset hut, but it’s different. It’s being used as an armory, and it’s full of 30-caliber ammunition.”

Pepe again hesitated, allowing time for this information to be fully absorbed.

Modesto felt a tightening in his stomach.

Pepe continued. “We will pay you and your crew a good amount of money to go in and get some of that ammunition.”

Beads of sweat were forming on Modesto’s forehead. He thought, This man is loco, but he held his tongue and waited for Carlos to speak.

Carlos smiled slightly. “This some kind of joke you and Chico thought up?”

Pepe didn’t respond. “You will be able to make more money than you have ever seen before.” As if to emphasize the point, he pulled up his shirt to reveal a money belt and a pistol stuck under his waistband. He pulled a packet of pesos in large denominations out of the money belt and fanned them slowly. “We will pay you one peso for every round that you bring out. Easy money, a lot of money.”

The smile on Carlos’s face disappeared, and the look of skepticism returned. “Easy? Why pay so much if it is easy?”

Skeptical or wary, Pepe knew he had the fisherman’s attention. “You will be surprised at how lightly guarded the armory is.” Pepe picked up a stick from the beach and drew a sketch in the sand of the peninsula that projected into Manila Bay, much of which was occupied by the Sangley Naval Air Station. Pepe added detail at the very tip of the peninsula to show the location of the Quonset hut being used as an armory.

“There is only one marine guarding this stretch of beach that runs from the brig on the east side of the peninsula to a point on the west side of the peninsula approximately a kilometer away. The route the marine walks is on a beach five to ten meters wide from the water’s edge to an embankment three to four meters high. The Quonset we are interested in sits on top of this embankment at the tip of the peninsula. The closest thing to the Quonset armory, about a hundred meters away, are Quonset huts for housing navy and marine enlisted men.”

Pepe drew the guard’s route in the sand. “Besides the marine, there is a large searchlight mounted here on a water tower.” He pointed to a spot near the center of the base. “This light sweeps the beach all around the base. You must have seen it when you were fishing. It makes a sweep about every fifteen minutes, then goes out until they are ready to make another sweep. Those are the things you worry about, the searchlight and the marine guard. Overpower the guard, avoid the light, and you can help yourself to as much ammunition as your boat can haul.”

The fishermen were familiar with the navy base as seen from the bay and were able to follow Pepe’s description easily. They were also familiar with the searchlight. They often saw it sweep around the base’s periphery when they fished at night.

Modesto did not want to hear any more, but Carlos asked, “You sure there is only one marine?”

“One marine. Changes at midnight, next time at four.”

“The armory is locked?”

“I would think so.”

“We are supposed to figure out how to overpower the guard and get the ammunition out?”

“That’s it.”

“Why do you want that much ammunition?”

“Does it matter?”

“Are you a Huk?”

It didn’t matter to Modesto if Pepe and Wan were Huks or not. He didn’t want any part of this crazy idea, but he could see that Carlos was seriously considering Pepe’s proposition. They had to be Hukbalahaps, the Huks, the Philippine communists. That was the only answer that made any sense to Modesto. They were the only ones who would need that much ammunition and had the means to pay that kind of money for it.

Modesto didn’t know exactly what the Huks were trying to do, but he understood there was serious trouble between the Huks and the government in Manila. The Huks had been around for a long time. During the war they had fought the Japanese and were big heroes. Now they were fighting the government and weren’t heroes anymore. It seemed like they wanted to fight whoever happened to be in power. Modesto didn’t know if they were good or bad. Pepe looked like an ordinary Filipino, not like a revolutionary or communist, whatever they looked like. Not that it mattered much to Modesto. Modesto considered himself a pretty good Catholic. Carlos and Chico weren’t, and they would admit that, and that was their business. If a person wanted to be a Huk, that was their business.

Apparently, Carlos had come to the same conclusion. He answered his own question. “I don’t suppose it matters as long as we get paid.”

“If you decide to do it, a thousand pesos up front, the balance when you deliver.”

A thousand pesos! That was more money than Modesto had ever seen at one time.

Carlos didn’t reveal any emotion or surprise. “Sounds crazy. We will think about it.”

“Someone will do it,” Pepe said. “We know Chico. That’s why you are getting first chance.”

Carlos replied, “We need a day to think about it.”

“We’ll be back tomorrow.”

Carlos had fished Manila Bay for a living since he was able to do so. He had no hopes or plans to do anything else, and he had no hope of ever having more than a bare living as a fisherman. When Carlos became too old to fish, he hoped he would sit in the Nipa hut of his son Chico until the day they carried him out to the cemetery to lie beside the father he had cared for so many years before. It was not a great deal to anticipate but realistic and predictable. The wild scheme they were considering now was something else.

After Pepe and Wan left, the three fishermen discussed the proposition that had been presented to them. Carlos had done the talking when Pepe made his proposal, but now he wanted to know what Modesto thought of the idea.

Modesto had known Carlos since he was able to remember. Carlos’s life was a model for Modesto’s life. Modesto respected Carlos’s judgment in most matters but had been surprised that Carlos seemed to be considering going forward with a raid on the armory on Sangley Point. Manila Bay fishermen considered Sangley Point off limits. Even fishing near it was questionable. To land on its beach and raid an armory seemed totally loco.

“It sounds crazy and dangerous,” Modesto said in response to Carlos’s question.

“Maybe,” Carlos replied. He walked over to the outrigger he and Modesto had been repairing, studied it, then turned and spoke to Modesto and Chico. “We need more information before making a decision. Tonight, we will fish off Sangley Point near the armory and really study the layout. After that we will decide.”

It was a little before midnight when they arrived at a position where they could observe the armory and the marine guard while they fished. Lights from the nearby enlisted men’s hut area made the armory and guard path dimly visible.

At midnight they noted the changing of the guard and observed the marine on duty as he made his rounds. The marine moved back and forth along the beach between the brig and some point along the west side of the peninsula. As Pepe had said, it took the guard about fifteen minutes to walk from one end of the route to the other.

They had moderate success fishing and after a couple of hours had a sack filled with lapa-lapas.

At two a.m. Carlos suggested that they go onto the beach near the armory and check out the door lock.

“What! Why?” asked a surprised Modesto.

“We should know what kind of lock we have to break or open.”

Chico agreed. “Let’s see what it feels like to walk on the Sangley sand.”

They decided that both Modesto and Chico would go to the armory to check the lock while Carlos stayed with the boat.

While they contemplated making the landing, they realized they would need to time their movements carefully. They wanted to go onto the beach once the guard had passed the armory and was heading away from it at the same time the light on the tower went dark. This combination did not come up regularly. The first time they considered going in, the tower light had gone out, but they weren’t sure when the guard, who was out of sight on the west side of the peninsula, would reappear. The next time the light swept the beach, they saw that the guard was moving toward the armory from the east. They were concerned the light might come on again before he would be clear of the armory area on his way to the other side of the peninsula.

Finally, the light finished a sweep just as the guard was seen going toward the west end of his route. They pushed toward shore. Soon the bottom of the boat was scraping on the sand.

Modesto and Chico jumped out of the boat and ran toward the armory. It took only a few minutes for the two fishermen to reach the armory and determine that a padlock secured the armory door; a pry bar could be used to break the lock. They dashed back to the boat and rowed away from the shore toward relative safety.

The three stayed in their fishing location until the rising sun allowed them to observe the beach in more detail. It appeared that the path the guard walked was obscured from easy observation on the land side by the embankment that ran along the full length of the route. Their attention was drawn to two large tree trunks with roots attached that had washed up on the beach about a hundred meters to the west of the Quonset armory. Carlos suggested that would be a good place to hide while they waited for the right time to overpower the guard. They moved the bonga boat closer to shore and observed that the attached roots lifted the lower parts of the trunks off the ground far enough for a person to crawl beneath them. They all agreed that it looked like an ideal place to hide while waiting to overpower the guard.

Later that morning they returned to their home beach, tired from a full night of fishing and information gathering. They promised to get together that afternoon after they had rested to discuss the matter and make a decision.

Modesto tried to get some rest, but his mind continued to wrestle with the proposed raid. His first reaction had been to oppose the idea, to the point of defecting from the crew if Carlos and Chico wanted to do it. But as he became more familiar with what the raid would involve, his mind grew more at ease. A big factor in his thinking the previous night had been about their ability to get on and off the beach undetected. He contemplated the prize that would be theirs if they were successful. They could buy a large power bonga and have pesos to spare. They would be able to fish outside the bay and increase their chances of success. When Modesto finally drifted off to sleep, the contemplated prize loomed larger and the risk seemed to diminish.

When the three fishermen met the next afternoon, Carlos again asked Modesto and Chico for their opinions.

Chico, of course, wanted to go.

Modesto had resolved his concerns. The prize seemed too large to pass up. He now supported going forward.

Carlos said he also favored proceeding.

They started to discuss the details. Anyone observing the three fishermen huddled on the sandy beach would have thought they were mending a net or visiting, certainly not planning a daring raid on a United States military installation.

They decided to stage the raid that night. The moon would be dark. Everything could be ready, and the sooner they put the plan into operation the less likely the wrong people would become aware of it. Also, early Christmas morning might find the security forces less alert than normal. They intended to beach the boat at about one o’clock in the morning, not too long after the midnight guard change. That would give them plenty of time before another guard change took place. Their only weapons would be machetes and iron pipes. The machetes were to be used only if necessary, although Chico wanted the machetes to be the first option. He argued, “A live marine can be dangerous, a dead one isn’t. Besides, it takes more time to tie a man up than to cut his throat.”

Modesto knew Chico had his own agenda with regards to Americans. His former girlfriend who now shared her place with a marine may have helped form his opinion. His abrupt departure from his Sangley Point job may have aggravated it.

“Taking some American ammunition is one thing. Killing an American is a whole different thing,” Carlos declared. “We’ll use machetes only if we have to.”

Planning continued. Modesto and Chico would be landed on the beach and take cover under the tree trunks. Carlos would row the bonga back out into the bay. When an opportunity presented itself, Modesto and Chico would overpower the guard and break into the Quonset hut armory. They would remove as much ammunition as the bonga could haul and stack below the embankment where the Quonset was located to keep it out of the sight of the tower. They would use a flashlight to signal Carlos to return the boat to the beach when they were ready to load the ammunition. To Modesto, the plan seemed simple and doable.

Later in the day, Pepe and his partner returned and learned that the decision had been made to proceed; the raid would take place that night. Pepe seemed surprised that they were moving so soon, but he brought a thousand pesos in up-front money and they finalized the arrangements.

That night Modesto wandered along the beach, waiting for time to pass so he could join his companions and start on an adventure that would (pray to God, hail Mary) make them all rich. A few days ago, he wouldn’t have dared hope for anything more than enough food to eat and the bare necessities for himself and his family. Now heady dreams filled his mind. He would be part owner of a big power bonga, a serious fisherman who went after the big catches outside the bay. He would have a Nipa hut with more than one room furnished with a bed and a cooking stove. He curled his toes in the sand. He might even buy a pair of shoes.

It was early, but Modesto turned and walked slowly toward the place where the bonga rested on the beach. When he arrived, he found Carlos sitting on an outrigger, silently contemplating the small waves splashing against the beach. Carlos looked up when Modesto approached. “Couldn’t sleep? Me either. That happens often at my age.”

Modesto squatted beside Carlos. Carlos continued. “Sometimes being old isn’t so bad. I have less to lose.” He hesitated, then apparently feeling a need to reassure Modesto, added, “Don’t worry, it’s going to work.”

Modesto wanted to agree with him. “I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe it would work. Where is Chico?”

“It’s still early. Chico will be here. He wouldn’t miss this.”

Chico finally showed up, yawning, at the agreed-upon time.

Modesto asked, “You have trouble sleeping?”

“No, why?”

Modesto laughed. “The resurrection wouldn’t disturb you.”

Carlos stood up and tugged on the boat. “Let’s go,” he said, and all hands joined in to launch the bonga on its special mission.

Each person assumed his position. Soon their rhythmic paddle strokes were moving the boat smoothly through the water, the bow making a luminous splash as it broke the flat surface of the bay.

Modesto mechanically dipped his paddle. The closer they came to the base, the more uneasy he felt. Was he a coward? Modesto had never done anything like this before. He had known danger when they had been caught in storms while fishing, but that was a normal part of a fisherman’s life. This would be something different.

Carlos started talking about how this raid reminded him of ventures more dangerous and not as carefully planned during the big war. There were other differences. Those raids had been mainly for food because he and his family were starving. Sometimes he had picked up other things, too, but food had been the main thing. This raid was for money, enough money to change their lives. Another difference was that he disliked the Japanese. He didn’t particularly dislike the Americans. Americans were overbearing, overpaid, oversexed, and drank too much, but Carlos believed that, overall, their intentions were good.

Modesto wanted to know if Carlos would feel guilty about stealing from the Americans.

“No,” Carlos replied. “Americans have more wealth than the ocean has fish and taking some ammunition out of that hut won’t hurt America any more than I hurt Manila Bay when I pull lapa-lapas out of it.”

Modesto had considered the same thing. Was this really stealing? Would he be breaking any of God’s laws? He concluded that some of the laws of men might be challenged, but not God’s laws. The commandments as interpreted by Modesto pertained to individuals, to neighbors. Who did that ammunition really belong to? Maybe Filipinos had as much right to it as Americans.

Chico’s voice broke into his thoughts. “Are you afraid, Modesto?”

Modesto thought, Chico must sense my uneasiness. “Maybe. I guess I am, but I will be glad when we get on shore.”

Maybe he would be. His mind would be fully occupied, and he would not have time for imagined dangers. His thoughts of wealth and a new life from earlier in the evening were now crowded out by more urgent thoughts about the danger and what might go wrong. Sangley looked bigger and brighter than usual.

He turned to Chico and asked, “How about you?”

“Sure,” Chico answered. “You can’t be brave if you’re not afraid, and I keep thinking the guard could be the one that’s screwing my girlfriend.”

Modesto laughed. “Used to be your girlfriend.”

“That’s what I mean.”

“Don’t do anything dumb with the guard.”

“I know.”

They reached the position off the point where they would wait for a chance to go in. Again, they watched the changing of the guard. They waited for an hour and then began looking for the right opportunity to land on the beach. They looked for the guard when the searchlight swept around the base perimeter. Twice they watched and did not see the guard when the searchlight swept the beach in front of them. Carlos leaned back against the stern of the boat. “No hurry. We will wait until we know where he is.”

A while later the light flashed on again. This time it started at the far end of the base and moved toward the armory. As it swung around the peninsula, it caught the marine moving west away from the armory near the bend in the shoreline. As soon as the light went out, Carlos whispered, “Now!”

They rowed the bonga onto the beach. Modesto crossed himself, and he and Chico jumped out of the boat and found shelter under the large tree trunks. They carried iron pipes, machetes, and what they would need to bind and gag the guard.

Modesto knew that the marine would be armed with something better than an iron pipe. Successfully overpowering the guard had always been a concern, and the concern became magnified by the reality of their situation. Between the water and the tree trunks were over five meters of open beach, and the marine could be anywhere in that area when he passed them. What if the searchlight came on while they were overpowering him?

While Modesto contemplated these difficulties, he heard the guard approaching. He was walking slowly, quietly whistling some tune over and over. In the dim ambient light, Modesto observed that his carbine was slung over his shoulder and he wore a soft-billed cap. Good, he’s not wearing a helmet, thought Modesto.

At that moment, the tower light snapped on and started sweeping the beach. The guard safely passed the tree trunks as he moved toward the armory.

“Damn,” Chico whispered.

Soon after the light went out after its next sweep of the base, the marine guard could be seen returning from the direction of the armory, still whistling the same tune. He moved steadily toward the tree trunks where Modesto and Chico crouched.

When the marine reached the vicinity of the tree trunks, he paused, stopped whistling, and turned to look at the bright lights of Manila. Modesto and Chico made their move. The marine appeared startled by the noise Modesto and Chico made, but before he could react Chico swung his pipe and hit the marine in the back of the head. As the marine fell, Chico swung his pipe at the back of his skull again. “That’s for good measure, Joe!” he hissed.

They dragged the limp marine into the shadow of the tree trunks, rolled him on his stomach, and worked feverishly to bind and gag him. Chico put the gag in the guard’s mouth while Modesto pulled his arms behind him and began wrapping the rope around his wrists.

Chico stood up. “You can finish this. I’ll open the armory.”

Chico disappeared into the darkness as Modesto began to knot the wrist binding. Suddenly, the marine grunted, yanked his wrists loose, and rolled over, throwing Modesto off his back. Modesto landed near his machete when he fell to the ground. He grasped the handle with both his hands, raised it over his head, and brought the blade down with all his might on the neck of the struggling marine. The blade cut through flesh and cartilage, stopping only when it hit the vertebrae.

Modesto, still grasping the machete, stood up. He started toward the armory and then paused to pick up the carbine the marine had dropped on the beach.

Modesto found an upset Chico attempting to break the lock.

“The bar doesn’t go through the eye of the padlock. How in hell are we going to break the lock if we can’t get the pry bar in there?”

Modesto took the bar from Chico’s hand, took aim, and brought it crashing down on the padlock. The padlock flew off, hitting Modesto in the leg on its way to the ground.

“Jesus Christ!” Chico exclaimed. “That should wake up the dead.”

They groped their way inside the dark armory. They felt around and found boxes that must be ammunition cases. They started stacking the cases below the embankment where the Quonset was located. They had stacked four boxes when the light passed again.

While waiting for the light to fade, Chico asked if the guard was securely tied.

“He is secure,” Modesto replied without any more detail.

The light passed, and they finished moving two more boxes, as many as they felt they could haul in the boat, and then waited for the light to go on and off again.

When the light went out the next time, they signaled Carlos. He brought the bonga onto the beach near the Quonset, and they started loading the ammunition boxes. Then, for some reason, the searchlight that had just passed a short time before came on again and swept along the beach toward them. Carlos urgently signaled for them to push off, but Modesto ran back to get the last box waiting in the sand. He gripped it firmly and started running back toward the bonga. Suddenly he was surrounded by blinding white light. He heard someone shout, “Halt! Halt!” But he kept running, until something hit him in the back and knocked him down. He tried to get up, but he didn’t seem to have any strength in his arms and legs. Something under him felt warm. Blood, his blood.

He had the sensation that he was swimming underwater, swimming hard, but he was not moving.

He could hear far-off voices. “Did we get all of them?”

“The old man looks like he has had it. The young one is alive but scared as hell.”

Modesto felt something on his neck. A hand? He heard a voice again. “A very weak pulse. Amazing what these Huks will do for their cause.”

A dim light shone beneath the water. Modesto tried to swim toward it, but it kept getting dimmer and finally went out.

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Making the Numbers Work

Posted on 11/29/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story #6 Excerpted from Cold War Short Stories

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is satellite-.jpg
Satellite picture is in the public domain

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Making the Numbers Work

Jim Fowler settled down in his corner office with his first vending machine cup of coffee. The coffee was bad, but the only alternative was bringing a thermos. The corner office with a door represented a measure of his success as a longtime employee of the Data Action Corporation, commonly known as DAC. It had taken a while, over twenty years, to reach this position. Fowler started out as a mechanical design engineer and was eventually put in charge of all program management for all space systems programs. DAC had a reputation for highly reliable, lightweight, miniature yet capable computers for use in space by its government customers. Business had been good with President Reagan promoting his Star Wars missile defense system, but that could change; the Berlin Wall had come down a month previously.

A lot of pressure came with the job, and Jim attributed his overweight condition and loss of hair to the stress. He thought about exercising, maybe jogging. Trouble was he should lose some weight before he tried jogging. It was one of those chicken and egg things. There wasn’t much that could be done about the expanding bald spot on the crown of his head. Combing what hair remained over the bald spot wasn’t much of an improvement.

Despite the pressure, Jim liked his position as head of program management in space systems programs, with a staff of a half dozen working on proposals, program budgets, and scheduling, plus four program managers in charge of seven multimillion-dollar programs between them. He made more money and wielded more power than he ever could have as a design engineer, and he thought he had a talent for the job. He had a reputation as a good negotiator and was liked by the customers, prime contractors for the most part, like Lockheed and Boeing. He was also known as a demanding kick-ass type by his program managers and the department managers who supplied the engineers, technicians, assemblers, and support people who worked on the programs. Like most DAC managers, his background and training had been technical, not people oriented. As a result, the company largely depended on self-trained or gifts-from-God type of managers. Jim suspected he had been born with above-average management skills.

Jim’s phone rang. He hesitated to answer it. It was likely Gerald Blackstone, director of the Government Systems Division, calling about an overrun on the Eagle One program that had shown up in the previous monthly financial report.

Gerald growled, “Good morning, Jim.” Gerald’s voice didn’t sound like it was going to be a good morning.

Gerald continued. “Say, Jim… That Eagle One program is over budget, behind schedule. What are you doing to fix it?”

What Jim heard wasn’t news to him and shouldn’t be news to Gerald Blackstone. Alex Jorden, the program manager who prepared the Eagle One proposal, had instructed all the departments preparing the estimating to bid it skinny. The procurement would be fixed price and competitive. A potential for follow-on programs added value to the current procurement. The system would be used for satellite surveillance, something not likely to be cut from defense spending. Last, but not least, the division backlog had been shrinking, and without new business, there would be headcount reductions.

Alex Jorden had negotiated and cajoled the department managers to cut the bid to the bone, and then division management cut the already low-ball estimates by twenty percent. They were rolling the dice, betting that other division programs could make up any Eagle One losses so the division would be able to post an acceptable profit and level of business during the coming year. Now division management wanted to know why the program was running over budget. It was likely due in part to other programs not taking up the slack, and division profit margins were suffering. As a result, division management was under critical scrutiny by corporate management.

Jim hesitated. He didn’t want to say what he was thinking, which was, You dumbasses—what were you expecting?

“Hello, anybody there?” Gerald prompted, after waiting a while for an answer.

Jim faked a small cough to let Gerald know he was still on the line. He was trying to think of ways to stall or dodge the question. No doubt Gerald Blackstone was under pressure from corporate to show a division year-end profit to be rolled into the corporate annual report. Jim began fabricating an answer to Gerald’s question. “We are working the problem,” he said without going into any detail. “I’ll have a work-around plan on your desk Monday morning.”

After discussing several issues with other programs, Gerald signed off, reminding Jim that he looked forward to seeing the work-around plan on Monday.

Jim rocked back in his desk chair after he hung up and stared at the ceiling. He didn’t want to work this weekend on the “plan.” For one, it seemed to be an exercise in futility, and two, he had better things planned for the weekend. He dialed Alex Jorden’s office, located several doors down the hall. “Alex, you got a minute or an hour or so to talk about the Eagle One program?”

When Jim called, Alex Jorden, manager of the Eagle One program, was in the middle of preparing the customer’s Eagle One monthly progress report. It was good timing for him. He grabbed a couple Eagle One binders and headed for Jim’s office.

Alex had a boyish face and a full head of hair, which made him look young for a man about to turn fifty. A lot of activities with his two sons, nine and eleven, helped him stay in shape. Alex, like most managers in the company, had a technical background. Trained as an electrical engineer, he loved design and was good at it. Like many good design engineers, he had been rewarded with promotion to a manager of other engineers. It took Alex some time to realize he didn’t like managing people, particularly egotistical engineers.

The problem with leaving management and going back to computer design was that technology evolved at a fast pace at the design level, and a person who was away from it for couple of years could become obsolete. Transistors were packaged individually in cans when he was designing; now they put thousands on a microchip. Instead of applying logic at the transistor level, they were doing it at the microchip level. Sure, he could do that, but it would be like starting over. He worked around the problem by going into program management, where he had to understand the nature of the technology changes but not the nitty gritty of implementing them. In program management, he didn’t manage people, he managed things, like proposals, budgets, and schedules, and was the primary customer interface. He could handle that.

Jim waved Alex to a seat at a side table where they could spread out program data. “Here’s the problem,” Jim said as an introduction to what they had to accomplish today. “Division management wants to know why Eagle One is overrunning its budget. Apparently, they don’t want us to tell them what they already know. We bought the program, an investment that will pay off someday in the murky future. Apparently corporate wants the contract to pay off today, to hell with the murky future. So, we have come up with a plan to show how we can make a profit from a contract we bought with a bid that we estimated at twenty percent under cost. How do we do that?”

Alex looked at Jim. “Are they serious?”

“We are supposed to come up with a work-around plan by Monday morning.”

“We can give them the plan this afternoon,” Alex replied. “It’ll be a note that says it can’t be done. We have technical problems we don’t even know how to solve. A twenty percent overrun could be a low-ball estimate. I’m hardly charging the program. I keep haggling with the department managers to keep the cost down. We have put as much pressure on the vendors as the law allows. Some of the vendors are betting on the follow-on, just like us.”

Jim, who had been scanning a printout of charges on the Eagle One program, looked up. “That’s interesting,” he said.

“What’s interesting?”

“Are you doing any work on Eagle One?” Jim replied. “Doesn’t look like you are charging hardly any time to it.

Alex didn’t like what Jim was implying. Mischarging on government contracts was a big no-no that could result in heavy penalties for the company and individuals. Alex managed two phases of the Eagle One program, one a fixed-price contract to develop a new computer and a related but separate cost-plus program to manufacture a dozen satellite computers of previous design for use in an NSA program. The production program had been negotiated a year earlier as a noncompetitive cost-plus contract. The government had little leverage, as no other suppliers had the technology or interest in competing for the business. As a result, DAC Space Systems loaded up the contract with costs, and the prime contractor was only able to negotiate out some of the most egregious charges. The result was a contract with a lot of padding, and Jim understood damn well what Alex was doing.

Alex replied to Jim’s question. “You know time is charged to what you are working on—a program, a proposal, overhead, if you are on vacation or sick leave. That’s what I do.”

“Hey,” Jim said, “it’s no big deal. We all fudge project funds given opportunity and need. Maybe that’s a solution, doing something like this on a bigger scale.”

What Jim had just said scared Alex. “What are you saying?” Alex asked, hoping maybe he had misunderstood Jim.

“Well, you have two programs, one starving and the other fat. Same prime customer, same government agency—you just balance things out between the two of them.”

Alex was aware of these kinds of shenanigans with cost-plus programs, where there were two contracts within the same program and two buckets of money. How you filled them didn’t make much difference in the big picture, if they didn’t overflow. But two programs, one cost-plus and the other fixed price, was a different story. People got fired, companies were fined and received black marks when those kinds of strategies were mixed. Alex had invested over twenty years in DAC and didn’t want to risk it in order to make management happy. He pointed out these obvious problems to Jim.

Jim wasn’t impressed. “There’s more than one way to get fired,” he replied. “The quickest way is to mismanage your programs. If you are given an impossible program to manage, you need to figure out how to manage it. I’m in the same line of fire as you are. I see a way to fix the problem so everyone will be happy and none the wiser.”

Alex felt the pressure. Jim evaluated Alex’s performance during annual reviews and made salary recommendations. Those evaluations went into his file and stayed there forever. A bad evaluation in his record could affect his future in DAC in a bad way. Besides, Alex was not sure how they could accomplish what Jim implied. How could they manage the timecard information? Alex couldn’t think of a subtle way to ask, so he laid it out on the table. “How do you intend to modify the timecards?”

“Hey, Alex, as far as we are concerned, this conversation never took place. I expect you will work out the details. I don’t want to know how it’s done. We’ve accomplished what we needed to do today. You should get busy working on the plan. Complete it by Monday.”

After leaving Jim’s office, Alex felt a migraine coming on. He had been looking forward to a weekend of canoeing on a nearby river with his two sons. They planned to leave Saturday, camp overnight, and return Sunday evening. Now he had this problem hanging over his head, impossible to solve in any legitimate way.

Alex hadn’t been asked if he agreed with the scheme Jim had come up with. Jim had decided what to do and told Alex to do it. That was Jim’s style. So, Alex knew he would be in trouble with Jim if he didn’t do as directed, and he would be in trouble with the customer if they found out what was going on. There were no good scenarios.

Alex decided he wouldn’t let his work problems spoil the canoe trip with the boys, and they went as planned. The first day they headed downriver, the current helping them. They stopped often to observe the river’s wildlife. They caught a couple nice walleyes that they roasted on a fire for a shore dinner that evening. They did some more fishing from shore that night and caught a few small sunfish that they returned to the river. They got into their sleeping bags early because they would be paddling upstream to return to their put-in spot the next day.

The following day, they didn’t take many breaks because they were working against the current. The day was devoted to rowing. The boys took turns in the bow position. It was evening by the time they made it back and tied the canoe onto the car’s luggage rack. Driving home, Alex was exhausted but felt that he had done a good day’s work. The exhausted boys were soon sleeping in awkward positions in the car.

During the fun weekend with his boys, Alex had mentally worked out a plan to satisfy Jim’s order to fix the Eagle One program. The scheme Alex concocted involved collecting timecards that were turned in by noon on Friday. He would then close his office door, select the cards to be modified, and replace them with timecards he had altered. He would forge the employee’s signature on the altered card by studying the genuine signature and duplicating it as best he could. He had tried to think of better ways but using white-out or cross-outs would be too obvious spotted.

Alex had also decided during the canoe trip that he would begin looking for a new job. The twenty-plus years he had invested in DAC had lost their importance after his meeting with Jim.

He discovered that the defense business job market had tightened. The USSR was collapsing, the Cold War ending, and technology people were exiting the defense business, crowding the rest of the technology world. Alex spent a month chasing leads, contacting every local business that might need his skills. He didn’t want to move out of the area. He and his family had put down roots that would be hard to extract.

A month passed. The next Eagle One budget report showed remarkable improvement. Jim congratulated Alex on managing to improve the program’s performance.

Alex began calling former associates who had left DAC recently to find out what they were doing and if they knew of any opportunities. He called Frank Dawkins, a sharper than average engineer who had been lured away from DAC by a startup. Alex learned that Frank had left the startup after three months.

“They didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” Frank said. “So,I decided to start my own company. Have you heard about a thing called the internet? It’s starting to go commercial. I’m looking for C ++ coders. Know any?”

Alex said he didn’t know C ++ but he was looking for work.

“What happened with DAC?” Frank asked.

“Short story,” Alex replied, “I’m still working but looking to leave.”

“Hell, Alex, you used to do FORTRAN. You can learn C++ like nothing. But you know I can’t pay you like a program manager at DAC. You will be digging in the nitty gritty.”

Frank described what they were doing with the internet, sounding more excited as he talked. The idea began to appeal to Alex. And he liked the nitty gritty. It wouldn’t be hardware, but programming was the same kind of thing. “The idea is appealing,” Alex admitted. “I can handle a pay cut as long as it doesn’t last forever. How about some stock in your little enterprise in lieu of a big salary?”

Frank laughed. “All our professional people have gotten stock. Doesn’t cost the bottom line anything, and we can all get rich together.”

They agreed to meet the next day to talk some more. As a result, Alex signed on for a substantial cut in the salary he made at DAC and twenty thousand shares of the new company’s stock.

The next morning Alex gave Jim the required two-week notice: he would be leaving the company. Jim looked shocked. “You can’t do that!” he yelled. “You know damn well you can’t do that.”

“I did it,” Alex admitted.

“Stay another year. You’ll get the best raise you ever had.”

“If you’re worried about the timecards, I’ll brief you on the process. I’ll help you with it for the next two weeks.”

“Dammit, you know I can’t assign another manager to either program. I’ll have to manage them myself. That’s not going to work. I’ll get you a promotion.”

Alex had been focused on his own problems associated with leaving DAC and hadn’t lost much sleep worrying about the problems he might be causing Jim. But being made aware of some of Jim’s problems wasn’t giving him any heartburn either. He made his best effort to sound sympathetic to Jim’s concerns while suppressing a satisfied smile.

Alex soon became immersed in his work in Frank’s new company, and it didn’t take him long to realize the thing called the internet would be transforming the communications world. Frank’s little company was growing as fast as it could hire engineers, programmers, and staff. The stock that had no value when Alex joined the company six months previously now traded on the local market at ten dollars a share.

Through contacts Alex maintained with former DAC associates, he learned the government was conducting an audit of the Eagle One program, an event that only occurred when something seriously caught the government’s attention. A couple of months later, Alex had lunch with an engineer he had worked with at DAC. The engineer reported that Jim had suddenly left the company and the whole division was shaken up, with a half dozen directors being demoted or fired. He heard that Jim had been manipulating timecards. “Can you imagine anyone being so dumb?”

Alex shook his head. “Yeah, I can imagine it.”

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Moon Shot

Posted on 11/22/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

Cold War Story #5 Excerpted from Cold War Stories

Atlas Rocket lifting off at Kennedy Space Center
with astronauts to be landed on the Moon.
Picture is in Public domain

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Moon Shot

The Cold War was at its peak when President Kennedy first broached the idea of sending a man to the moon in a speech to a joint congressional audience in May 1961. Part of the Cold War competition involved developing a superior capability in space. Putting a man on the moon would be a dramatic demonstration of the United States capabilities. The idea had bipartisan congressional support, and money was appropriated to explore the feasibility of the idea and develop a plan to land men on the moon and return them safely to earth.

The United States industrial complex took immediate notice of the possibility of lucrative government contracts. No company could claim experience in landing a man on the moon, but any company that had ever gotten near a rocket or launch site, and some that never had, were eager to pitch their capabilities to lead or assist in an effort to land a man on the moon.

In 1962 the president was able to announce in Houston, the city where the national space center would be located, the plan to develop the capability to fly men to the moon and return them to the earth by the end of the decade.

Companies sniffing out the moon landing contract possibilities included Data Action Corporation (DAC), Government Systems Division, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. DAC Government Systems management asked their Washington marketing people to beat the bushes for opportunities related to the moon landing program.

The Washington DAC sales office had been recently put together and was thin in experience and contacts, particularly with regards to NASA. The fledgling company had never worked on any NASA contracts. The DAC salesperson eventually selected to lead the DAC effort was a hillbilly from the hills of Tennessee named Dan Daggart. Dan, like the other people in the office, had no previous experience with NASA programs or contacts with people in the NASA orbit. However, other programs Dan had pursued while he worked for DAC had turned out to be dry holes and he was looking for something to do and became the logical choice to check out NASA possibilities.

Dan had been been with DAC for two years. His resume indicated he had been knocking around Washington for a while, working mostly for tech companies and pitching equipment and services to federal agencies or prime contractors for use in military programs.

Dan’s parents were tobacco farmers, with moonshine as a sideline. Dan wasn’t interested in the tobacco part of the family business but considered moonshine as a future. He changed his mind about the business when his parents got busted. He decided to explore other options. Despite the difficulties the parents were experiencing, the family moonshine business had provided a substantial sum of assets safely hidden from federal agent eyes that Dan could tap. Surprisingly, Dan decided to use some of those funds for educational purposes and enrolled in a local college. He didn’t know what he wanted to study but wanted it to be something useful. His student advisor suggested something to do with technology would be good. However, the only thing close to technology the college offered was general science. So Dan got a BA in General Science and went to Washington to find a job.

Dan had a way with people and made friends easily. Women seemed attracted to Dan, although it wasn’t obvious why. Physically Dan was on the short side, five-feet-seven inches tall, of average build, with receding straight black hair. However, he had a gift of gab and a southern drawl that put women at ease on first contact.

Back in Minneapolis, a group in the DAC Government Systems Division was designated as Marketing Support. It was made up mostly of engineers who found their expertise was not in design, analysis, documenting, or troubleshooting of inanimate objects but more in the people-to-people interaction that goes on with any human activity. Other engineers who were especially creative and productive were promoted out of work they loved and put into Marketing Support, where they were often a poor fit. And there always seemed to be few misfits gaming the system in Marketing Support, talking the talk but faking their level of expertise.

As a starting point in getting his arms around the NASA market, Dan decided to contact DAC Marketing Support in Minneapolis to see what they knew about NASA. What he learned wasn’t promising. But Bert Johansson, manager of DAC Government Systems Marketing Support, thought that a person who spent most of his time in the Washington office might have some ideas about NASA. His name was John Forsum.

John Forsum was a Minneapolis native whose family had the means to support numerous city’s amenities related to the arts and music. John’s father was a lawyer associated with a prestigious law firm and, since John had been a good student, had encouraged him to pursue a profession such as law or medicine. Cost was not a concern.

Though he had the ability and means to pursue his father’s suggestions, John was put off by the effort needed to accomplish what was suggested. However, it was a given that he would go to college. He attended the University of Minnesota and earned a BA in history. He took part in the Navy ROTC program at the university and after graduating took flight training at Pensacola, flying F9F fighters during his active-duty obligation. The navy service and family connections got John a job with DAC in Government Systems Marketing Support.

John spent much of his time in Washington and had appropriated an unused space in the DAC Washington office for his own use. John had a way of working the system for his own benefit.

John had a wife and two children who didn’t see much of him since he spent so much time in Washington. He was a people person and enjoyed entertaining customers visiting Minneapolis or when he visited out-of-town customers. His wife didn’t complain but had mentioned at times and in different ways that she wished he didn’t have to work so hard and could spend more time with the family. John considered himself to be a good provider and felt that satisfied his primary family obligation.

Dan found John Forsum ensconced in a small office outside of the DAC Government Systems office area in a larger DAC Commercial Systems Marketing area in the building. They introduced themselves. John explained his isolated office space. “My real office is in Minneapolis, but most of my business is in Washington, so I appropriated this office.”

“Per diem expenses paid?” Dan asked.

“Of course,” John replied.

“What a deal!” The two of them took an immediate liking to each other.

Dan explained why he had come looking for John. “John, I’m looking for somebody in our organization who knows something about NASA or has contacts in NASA. No luck so far. They tell me Government Systems hasn’t done any business with NASA but said I should talk to John Forsum anyway.”

John laughed. “That sounds like a hell of a recommendation.”

Dan agreed. “That’s what I thought, but here I am.”

They talked about life in general for a while before John returned to the subject at hand. “I’m thinking,” he said, “of an old drinking buddy I knew when I was in the navy. I flew wing with him in Korea. Pete Winter—he was crazy. I haven’t kept in contact with him, but I understand he has risen to a level of some importance in NASA. Might be worth a try.”

Dan laughed. “I would call that a shot in the dark, not a contact. I’m assuming you’ll get right on it.”

John located his old wing mate. Not too hard to do if the person you’re looking for is on an upper level in the NASA command structure. Pete’s office was in Houston, where the space center was being built, but he visited Washington regularly. They agreed to meet the following week, when Pete would be in Washington. They met at a favorite restaurant for contractors and government people procuring items for the military or NASA programs. It was expensive, a plus for the government people since the contractors always picked up the check. They had a substantial lunch and a drink or two and talked about life on a carrier and their favorite liberty ports. Eventually John moved the discussion to the moon landing and what part Pete was playing in the program.

“My concern is prelaunch checkout,” Pete replied. “Making sure everything is working before we launch.”

“Sounds like a good idea. After launch it’s a little late to find a problem. What you guys are attempting seems out of this world. A lot of people, including myself, wonder if this is possible. I know you have that big rocket, the Atlas, but I don’t think you will be landing it on the moon.”

“Some physicists at Redstone have come up with the way it’s going to be done,” Pete replied. “When I heard how they were planning to do it, my first reaction was there is no way that will work. NASA has put together an animation that shows how it is to be done. They say it isn’t just the best way to do it, it’s the only way to do it. It looks scarier than flying an F9 off a carrier. A spacecraft that will carry three people with hardly space for two will fly to the moon and then orbit around it. This spacecraft has a moon lander attached to it. While the spacecraft orbits the moon, the lander with two astronauts in it will be detached and descend and land on the moon. After they land, they will look around and walk around for a while and plant a flag. Then they get back in their lander, take off, and rendezvous with the orbiting spacecraft, which then returns to earth. They splash down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, where they hope somebody will pick them up.” 

“What are the odds of that happening?” John asked. “Don’t know if I would trust those physicists if I was an astronaut. Imagine being in that lander. Say you bang up the lander, can’t take off. You’re done. Nobody you can call for help. Maybe you do get off the moon and then can’t connect with the spacecraft. Nobody has ever done that for real before.”

Pete agreed. “But the physicists say they have the math that proves that it can be done the way they are describing it. Astronauts are lining up and clamoring to make the trip. Go figure. Humans are weird animals.”

“Anyway,” John said, “I’m not here to criticize the Redstone physicists. I’m here to see if there is anything the company I represent can contribute to this crazy plan.”

“For starters,” Pete said, “wherever possible, we are looking for off-the-shelf hardware that can do the job. Space used to be about the future. The moon shot is about today. It has to be done with today’s technology. Main reason for that is we have to beat the Russians, so there’s no time to invent new things. We are going to use off-the-shelf components as much as possible.”

John asked, “You going to use off-the-shelf computers?”

“Everything is on the table,” Pete replied. “Computers are key to an automated pre-launch checkout system. We would like to find one that can do the job. At the same time, we don’t want to compromise. That computer and every other component in the checkout system must be as good as we can make it. We want to ensure everything is working perfectly on that bird when it’s launched.”

John guessed the astronauts would second that idea. “Who is looking for these off-the-shelf components?” he asked.

Pete said, “NASA’s Preflight Operations, located in Daytona, is scouring the country for off-the-shelf components, computers being one of them.” He volunteered to look up who John needed to contact in Preflight to discuss computers.

John felt like he had hit a home run when he left the meeting. Optimism was a necessary characteristic for anyone marketing to the federal government’s military and space markets; otherwise it could be a career full of disappointments. John had been doing all right during the six years he’d been at DAC. He had participated in putting together proposal after proposal. Small ones, big ones, proposals they should have won, proposals that shouldn’t have been bid on, and some that they won. However, he had not won a big one, like one that could keep Government Systems busy for years and lead to other NASA contracts. John believed the moon program could be a big win, and winning a big one was what every marketing person in the business hoped for, the kind that could keep the division Systems Division in business for years and, as a side benefit, keep John employed.

Pete gave John Ben Hauge’s name in Preflight Operations, and John passed the information to Dan Daggart, who contacted Ben. Ben had a loud, intimidating telephone voice but sounded interested in having DAC describe how they could satisfy the computer requirements.

Dan mentioned the DAC6A as a possibility. Ben had heard about the computer and said they were using it in the Gemini program.

Technical details weren’t Dan’s strength, but he knew some of the highlights of the DAC6A. Dan described it as a mini computer that, although small, could run FORTRAN, so was pretty capable. Dan asked if NASA had documented the requirements for the computer they were looking for.

“We have,” Ben replied. “They are in a state of flux but should be good enough to figure out what the computer has to do. I’ll send you a copy. What kind of price we talking about for the DAC6A?”

“The basic unit is about fifty thousand dollars,” Dan replied.

Ben sounded surprised. “That’s interesting,” he said.

They agreed to meet in Daytona in January 1962 so DAC could pitch their computer solution.

John and Dan huddled. They needed a budget, and they needed technical people who knew something about computers. John and Dan could recognize a computer if they saw one, but that was about the level of their knowledge on the subject.

John planned to work on lining up the technical people they would need. Dan would come to Minneapolis, despite the approaching winter, to help obtain the funds they’d need to pursue the opportunity.

John talked to Max Heimer, manager of Government Systems Design, about support for the NASA opportunity.

“This another one of your wild goose chases?” Max asked.

John and Max had worked together often, and their communications were informal, direct, and unfiltered.

“I’m going to win a contract so you can keep your job.” John replied. “I’ll need some of your best people for this job.”

Max wasn’t impressed. “Show me what we need to do, and I’ll tell you who we have available to work on it.”

John handed Max a copy of the draft computer requirements that NASA’s Ben Hauge had sent to Dan Daggart.

“You got a charge number?” Max asked.

“Charge overhead while I get a number approved.”

“Easier to get a proposal number than charge to overhead.”

“Jeez, how many hours do you need? We mentioned the DAC6A as a candidate, the only thing we could think of. While you are eating your lunch, scan the requirements and figure out if the DAC6A can do the job. If it can’t, then we’ll have figure out what we have to do to make the DAC6 able to do the job or find something else that will work.”

“Okay. Means I’ll miss playing duplicate bridge during lunch. You’ll owe me.”

“Like I said, I’ll get us a contract so you can keep your job.”

The next morning, John checked with Max to see what he had learned about the requirements.

Max sat in his office drinking his first cup of coffee from the department party-sized percolator. Max was and looked like a consummate engineer: in need of a haircut, wearing horn-rim glasses, a tie with minor food stains, a pocket protector with two number-two pencils and a six-inch slide rule. He looked slightly malnourished and seemed to look past you when he talked to you.

He greeted John. “Hell, I was wasting my time. If you had read a page or two of the requirements, even you could have figured out the DAC6A wouldn’t cut it.”

“True, but I had to get an expert opinion.”

“Okay. So if you are serious about this, you will have to bring a logic guy and a programmer in, plus a memory guy and a guy to concentrate on the input-output peripherals. Oh, and a mechanical guy. Everything will have to be repackaged. Even the cabinet colors need to be coordinated with the rest of the preflight checkout system. You can save the components—most circuit boards are off-the-shelf—and memory modules design will have to be modified. All of the logic for the computer, memory and input out modules will be original design. Everything else has to be put together in a different way. What I’m describing is what we need to invent in order to meet NASA’s requirements. Then calculate the nonrecurring and recurring costs to put together a prototype and fourteen acceptance checkout equipment production computer systems. Don’t know if division management will spend that kind of money on something they have never heard about before. It might be some NASA engineer’s wet dream. Oh, I would guess twelve-bit word the DAC6A uses isn’t going to work because there may not be enough bits in the word for all of the new instructions.”

“Sounds like you are designing something from scratch. Where does the DAC6A fit in?” John asked.

“Maybe we can save the logo—not much else. They are asking for complete redundancy between two main frames with remote memories shared by both computers and two redundant input-output modules with redundant peripherals shared by both computer systems. It’s quite a maze. They describe an interrupt system that sounds like a jig saw puzzle. We need sixteen-thousand-byte core memories in the computer main frames and double that in the remote memory modules. This is not a DAC6A.”

“How in hell are we going to sell something like you describe as off-the-shelf?”

“Want my take on this off-the-shelf thing?” Max asked. He then proceeded without an answer to his question. “Well, somebody up there, way up there, decided they could save a lot of money and time if they got all the stuff they needed to check the rocket, the space capsule, and the moon lander with off-the-shelf equipment. Just hook all those off-the-shelf things together and turn the power on. At the same time, some engineers down at the bottom, way down at the bottom, are figuring out the details of how to check out this spacecraft and everything associated with it to make sure it is working perfectly before it blasts off for the moon. Those engineers don’t care how the hardware to do this is procured. They just care that it’s able to do what it has to do.”

“Okay,” John said. “So how does that solve the off-the-shelf problem for us?”

“That’s your part to figure out,” Max replied. “One thing I can assure you is that our competition hasn’t anything off-the-shelf that can meet those requirements either.”

John met Dan when he arrived to help sell the program to division management. He informed Dan that things were becoming a little complicated.

“How’s that?” Dan asked.

“The NASA computer requirements and DAC6A have nothing in common,” John replied.

“Sounds like we will hafta earn our pay,” Dan said. “It’ll probably be easier to sell this to NASA than the front office.”

“What are we going to sell?” John wanted to know.

“Whatever meets NASA’s requirements,” Dan replied. “Maybe we should call it something different than DAC6A if it’s a different machine.”

They mulled that over for a while. John thought they should keep the DAC6 part of the name so it sounded more off-the-shelf. Dan agreed. They named it the DAC6G, the “G” denoting its Government Systems connection.

Management did authorize the money to configure a system to meet the NASA’s computer requirements and to cost it out. The proposal crew worked over the holidays to nail down the design concepts. They decided that they needed an extra bit in the computer word size to accommodate the instruction set. They used the circuit components and many of the circuit boards in the DAC6A. Several new circuit boards needed to be developed. The memory modules had to be redesigned to accommodate the thirteen-bit word. New software to test and verify the new computer design was required. The biggest cost item was the logic design needed to make the hardware perform as needed. And finally, everything had to be repackaged to meet NASA’s requirement for standard cabinet design.

The cost estimates came together; marketing and program managers battled with production and engineering managers to keep the costs down. The recurring price to NASA for an ACE computer system came in at approximately two hundred thousand dollars with normal markups, no development costs included.

John and Dan worked the NASA connections they had and determined that NASA had budgeted about half what Government Systems estimated the recurring cost would be. They also determined that many of the budget estimates for the moon landing program were derived by throwing numbers at a wall; if they stuck, NASA used them. So, numbers were flexible. They banked on Max Heimer’s guess that meeting the requirements was more important than NASA cost estimates.

John and Dan were confident the numbers Government Systems had produced were reasonable and justifiable for what NASA was asking for. The numbers had been massaged as much as they could be. To manufacture something that met NASA’s requirements would cost NASA two hundred thousand dollars, not including development costs.

Again, based on what they could find out from NASA contacts and their gut feelings, John and Dan concluded NASA would pay the development costs for the stand-alone memory and I/O modules. However, NASA would assume they were receiving a modified DAC6A computer as the main frame for the ACE computer system and would not pay directly for any of its development cost—despite the fact that nothing resembling what was being proposed had ever been built before.

Development costs for the main frame computer were estimated at a million dollars. Marketing gurus John Forsum and Dan Daggart had a million-dollar problem.

They decided they should plan a long lunch at one of the 494 watering holes to help concentrate their thinking. They invited Max Heimer, the design manager, to join them, but he declined, opting to play duplicate bridge during lunch.

They started on their second martinis before confronting their problem.

John mentioned that the two main frame computers in each system would make the problem a little easier.

Dan agreed. “How many times does twenty-eight go into a million? I was never any good at math.”

John got out a pen, made the calculation on a napkin. “It’s a big number—about thirty-seven thousand times.”

Dan said, “You know what we have to do. We need to have a bigger number in the denominator. We need to sell this computer to more customers.”

John had been down this road before but not in the direct line of fire. “Government Systems isn’t in that line of business. Government Systems doesn’t invest company money to develop products. The last people who tried that aren’t around anymore. This is not a commercial product. We aren’t in that market.”

The martinis were slowing down Dan’s thinking. Finally, he asked John, “What do we get if we divide the million by fifty?”

John, apparently still alert, rebounded with, “Twenty thousand,” without making the calculation.

“That’s the number we will use,” Dan declared.

“Didn’t you hear me?” John asked. “We don’t do that kind of thing in Government Systems.”

Dan, who apparently wasn’t paying attention, replied, “We’ll have Commercial put it in their catalog.”

John wanted to believe Dan. He wanted to believe that Max Heimer and his crew had come up with something that could be sold despite Government Systems’ past failures to do similar things. Despite his doubts he began exploring the path Dan was leading them down.

John pointed out that even if they did what Dan was suggesting, they would exceed the target price of two hundred thousand dollars.

“But by less,” Dan replied. “It could be manageable. We could massage the numbers some more. Management could take less net, maybe exceed the target by, say, five thousand.”

John pointed out that in the real world, management wouldn’t gamble a half a million dollars to win this contract. “They aren’t that dumb or desperate.”

“I’m not sure about the last part of what you just said,” Dan replied. “They are in pretty bad need of some new business. I move we amortize the DAC6G nonrecurring costs over fifty units and see where the chips fall.”

John didn’t agree, but his mind was burdened by the three martinis he’d recently consumed. He couldn’t come up with anything better than Dan was proposing.

“Remember,” Dan said, “we are in this together. We are going to convince management to do what they need to do to win this contract.”

John wasn’t focused on what Dan was saying. He was thinking about what he would do when he was fired.

Before leaving the restaurant, John sketched their plan on a napkin. “Never going to remember what we talked about when we get back to the office.”

DAC Government Systems Division was headed by a general manager named Robert Glassman, who had held that position for a little over a year. The tenure of general managers in the Government Systems Division had a tendency to be short lived. Competition for government contracts in the defense and technology business was brutal. Government Systems Division general managers were expected to grow the business and profits in that competitive market. Historically, general managers had been able to grow the business or the profits but not both simultaneously. Bidding low might grow the business but hurt profits, while maintaining profits might cost the business growth.

Glassman felt confident enough that he could be successful that he had moved his family from Boston to the Twin Cities and bought a home in a tony suburb—in spite of the fact that Glassman had already moved his family several times while moving from company to company. During that process, he had moved up from engineer to division management level in the last two companies where he had worked. That was a very vulnerable management level, with high casualties when results upper management wanted were missed.

The pressure of the job had left its marks on Robert Glassman. In his fifties, he was prematurely gray, smoked heavily, and had not tried to remain physically fit and succeeded. However, he maintained a dominating presence in the space he occupied. Managing was his natural habitat and where he wanted to be.

Glassman had been kept informed of the ACE opportunity and the latest developments, as had the staff that would be approving the design and cost estimates. Glassman had a computer background and understood that the redundant capabilities being proposed would provide computer system reliability not previously feasible.

Goldman and his staff gathered in early January to review the final design and prices the division had worked up to present to NASA in Daytona the following week.

Max Heimer, system design manager, presented the final design information. Max had become enamored with what his design team had come up with, and it showed in his presentation. It was a system he would like to see built.

Glassman and staff didn’t ask a lot of questions about the design or capabilities of the computer and seemed satisfied with what they were shown.

John Forsum delivered the cost and price part of the presentation. The first item projected on the screen was a recurring price for an ACE computer system of 212,000 dollars.

John and Dan had hoped to squeeze more cost out of operations, but the costs had been squeezed to the point where there was no squeeze left. Program Management cut an assistant and contributed a three-thousand-dollar reduction to the recurring cost. They arbitrarily reduced the fee by five thousand dollars to cut the recurring price down to 212,000 dollars, which didn’t raise any alarms from management; nor did exceeding the original price goal by twelve thousand dollars raise any questions. The nonrecurring development cost for the external memory and I/O units were included in the bid as expected. However, the development cost for the DAC6G mainframe didn’t show up anywhere.

“Did you forget something?” Glassman asked, “The cost of the mainframe. That has to be a big chunk of it.”

John explained to Glassman and his staff that NASA expected the DAC6G to be off-the-shelf and to not have to pay for the development of that aspect of the ACE system. Therefore, the estimated million-dollar development cost of the DAC6G would be amortized at twenty thousand dollars per unit sold over fifty units.

At that point in the presentation, a stunned look appeared on Glassman’s face, and the staff exchanged surprised looks.

“Why?” Glassman asked. “Why is the DAC6G development being amortized over fifty units? I believe NASA is buying fourteen production systems.”

John explained that there were two DAC6G computers in each ACE system, for a total of twenty-eight computers and that NASA was looking for off-the-shelf hardware where possible; the DAC6G had been promoted as off-the-shelf. Marketing was projecting that other military, NASA, and commercial applications would make the DAC6G a contender for systems needing high fail-safe reliability.

“When did twenty-eight become fifty?” Glassman asked.

Once again, John explained, “NASA is expecting the DAC6G to be off-the-shelf, and if we include all of the nonrecurring features in the DAC6G price we will not be competitive.”

“Who is we?” Glassman asked.

The question made John realize that the “we” had been Dan and himself. They had been doing the NASA briefings and planting the idea that the “G” version of the DAC6 was off-the-shelf.

“Well, a lot of people” John replied.

“Be more specific. I’d like to know who I need to fire.”

John felt like he was taking part in a circular firing squad that would include Glassman as well as underlings such as himself. John didn’t answer the question directly. His mind was rebelling. Why am I putting my job in jeopardy by trying to convince the division what a good deal winning the ACE contract would be? Meanwhile his mouth went on talking. “DAC has all but got this contract wrapped up if it comes in with a competitive price. The division needs this contract, and we can win it. We just have to have the guts to do what we have to do to win it.”

Glassman wasn’t buying what John’s mouth was selling. He wanted to know exactly who would buy the other twenty-two computers.

John and Dan had anticipated Glassman’s question and had prepared an analysis of the market potential for the DAC6G that justified the fifty-unit amortization. They didn’t have the time or money to do a real analysis, so between them they wrote one, based on their collective knowledge, common sense, and what they thought would sell.

Dan distributed a copy of the analysis to Glassman and the rest of the staff. The top page of the analysis was a summary of the underlying details.

Dan took over the presentation to explain the analysis. Dan had the advantage of not being threatened by Glassman since he reported to a different management chain. Of course, during any management explosion there was always the danger of being hit by stray shrapnel.

The analysis summary provided an optimistic assessment of the DAC6G market potential. It described potential military and NASA applications and applications in the commercial financial market. It also pointed to a market of standalone computers in the hundred-thousand-dollar price range.

Glassman didn’t appear to be hearing any of it. His voice became louder as he asked, “What in hell are you guys thinking? We don’t have a budget for carrying any of the development cost on the books. Government Systems isn’t in that kind of business.”

Dan didn’t like the way the meeting was going. The DAC inside track on the procurement was about to be scuttled because of how the company was organized. He and John had worked hard and smart on this procurement. Okay, so maybe they sold something DAC didn’t exactly have, but it wasn’t something that couldn’t be done. Okay, DAC needed to take some financial risk to ensure that it sewed up the procurement. What else is new? It’s that kind of business.

Dan practiced remaining cool and calm during customer and management presentations regardless of the circumstances, He believed this was more effective than debating issues on the fly or displaying anger. However, in this meeting on this particular day, Dan lost his cool. “Excuse me,” he said. “John and I have been busting our butts on this job, and we know we can win it. Because our nearly off-the-shelf computer can satisfy the ACE system requirement, we are in a favored position to win this program. If we include the full DAC6G development cost in our proposal, we lose that advantage. This is a big chunk of business for our division. It establishes DAC as a NASA supplier for a significant historical event. I know and everyone in this room knows this division is starving for new business, and this is a solution.”

“Nearly off-the-shelf,” Glassman huffed. “The numbers don’t support that.”

However, Dan’s last argument touched Glassman in a vulnerable place. The ACE program would be a big chunk of business for the division, something needed and needed soon to replace programs being completed and phasing out. Winning would, as usual, entail financial and technical risks. These thoughts caused Glassman to dismiss the presentation team from the conference room, saying that he and his staff would discuss the proposal. They would call Dan and John back after they concluded the meeting.

Two hours later, Dan and John were called back into the conference room and told the decision had been made to approve the ACE proposal as prepared, on condition that DAC Defense Group Management would support the amortization of the DAC6G development cost and that marketing would commit to selling at least twenty-two DAC6Gs to other customers as a priority.

Getting the marketing commitment would not be a problem. They would commit to selling refrigerators to Eskimos if asked. Defense Group Management was a different matter. Permission was granted eventually, but Glassman was made aware that his job depended on the sale of fifty or more DAC6G computers. In turn, Glassman assured John Forsum that John’s job depended on the sale of at least fifty or more DAC6G computers.

DAC Government Systems Division won the ACE computer system contract and proceeded to meet a very tight schedule. They had less than two years to deliver the prototype, serial zero, to the Cape early in 1964, where it would be used to verify computer programs. Many long days and nights and weekends were spent by DAC employees. They met the schedule. In July of 1964, the components of the first production ACE system were shipped to North American in Downey, California, where it was used to check out Apollo spacecraft. Thirteen additional ACE systems were supplied to NASA. Two of them went to Downey, three to the Grumman Bethpage plant to check out the moon lander, two to Houston, and six to the Cape.

While the DAC Government Division scrambled to fulfill the requirements of the ACE contract, Dan and John scrambled to fulfill the sale of an additional twenty-two DAC6G computers.

When the prototype ACE system was being installed early in 1964, they had not succeeded in inking a contract for a single DAC6G nor for a redundant system like the one used in the ACE system. John and Dan’s efforts found they couldn’t identify a single solid prospect for use an ACE-type system or for a stand-alone DAC6G computer in any military or NASA programs.

“Maybe we should have studied this a little before coming up with that fifty number,” John suggested at one of their numerous come-to-Jesus meetings at a local bar near the DAC Washington office.

“Not necessarily,” Dan replied. “We have to go with what we have, which is basically a pretty impressive commercial computer at a reasonable price with a lot of expansion and redundancy capability.”

“And we have no contacts in the commercial world. DAC commercial doesn’t want anything to do with it,” John replied. “Maybe putting an IBM name plate on the DAC6G would help.”

Although handicapped by their lack of commercial computer sales experience,John and Dan sold two ACE-type systems to a Wall Street financial firm that liked the reliability potential of the highly redundant system. However, the four DAC6Gs that were part of the systems fell far short of the twenty-two needed to satisfy the Defense Group Management requirement.

True to the stipulation that Glassman’s job depended on the sale of at least fifty DAC6G computers by the end of the ACE program, he was invited to seek his opportunities at a place other than DAC. However, before Glassman had been given the opportunity to leave, he had provided the same opportunity to John Forsum. He would have done the same for Dan Daggart, but Dan reported to a different chain of command.

John soon found a similar position with another defense industry company in St. Louis, and he put DAC and the moon landing business behind him. At the same time, John resolved not to let a job that might not have his best interests in mind rule his life. His priority became family, which the family noticed and appreciated. He was home most evenings, became involved in the children’s activities, and remembered birthdays and anniversaries.

On July 20, 1969, he was visiting a company on Long Island, New York. After an early afternoon meeting, he went to Kennedy Airport to catch a plane that would take him back to St. Louis. While walking through the airport lobby, he noticed people crowding around a TV monitor. It reminded him that the moon landing was to happen that day and here it was, pictures from the Eagle as the lunar lander settled down on the moon at the Tranquility Base. John felt a strong reaction to the scene on the TV monitor.

He was watching a historic moment in human experience in real time, and he had contributed to making that happen. Man had broken free of the earth’s gravitational force and traveled into space to land on another celestial body. Ordinary people doing ordinary things working together can achieve extraordinary things. Such a thing had occurred to cause this moment that would never be forgotten by humankind.

All the ups and downs of that experience, even losing his job and having to move to different city, didn’t matter at that moment.

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Unintended Heroes

Posted on 11/01/2020. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: |

Cold War Story Nr. 4; Excerpted From Cold War Stories

Milbank Main Street

This story has been published and is protected by copyright.

Unintended Heroes

Peter Houser used a scoop shovel to finish cleaning the barn gutter. Peter, called Pete by people who knew him, had been doing most of the cow chores on the Houser farm since he finished eighth grade in the one-room school half a mile down the road. Now nineteen, he had become a strapping, well-muscled six-foot-tall young man. He pushed the wheelbarrow filled with the steaming sloppy mess out the barn door into the cold February air and dumped the load on the winter’s accumulation of frozen manure.

Pausing for a moment, he watched as thirty Holstein cows wandered around the yard or lined up to drink from an insulated water tank prevented from freezing by an electric heater. He had let the cows out of the barn for their daily dose of fresh air and the freedom to move about for a while. The temperature lingered in the single digits; he would let them back into the warm barn after an hour or two.

Pete spread fresh straw on the concrete pad where the cows were kept in place by steel stanchions for most of the day during the winter. When he finished, he observed the clean barn with satisfaction.

Pete’s dad came into the barn through a side door. Emil Houser stood short and sturdy, his square German face perpetually tanned from long days outdoors. He wore his winter chore uniform—a flannel-lined denim jacket and ear-lapper cap, long johns under his overalls, and a blue denim shirt, the same kind of overalls and shirt he wore every day of the year except when going to church.

Emil informed Pete he would be going to the sale today with a pickup load of sows. From late fall to early spring, the Milbank sale barn had a sale every Saturday afternoon. Emil often went to the sale barn on Saturdays to sell or just socialize. “You can help me load the pickup,” he said. “Then maybe open up one of those alfalfa stacks. The haymow is getting pretty empty.”

Pete had just had his work plan laid out for the day. Since finishing the eighth grade, Pete had been what amounted to a full-time hired man on the Houser farm, located in northeastern South Dakota, halfway between Milbank and Wilmot. Except he didn’t think of himself as a hired man. For one thing, he didn’t get paid regularly, and he felt he had a vested interest in the farm. It had always been his expectation that he would run it someday. His sixteen-year-old brother might be assuming the same thing, but Harold was going to high school and had other possibilities.

During the past year or so, Pete had been questioning his future expectations, wondering if they were realistic. His dad had just turned fifty and would be running the show for a long time, maybe longer than Pete would want to work as an unpaid hired man. His dad had lived through some hard times. Pete didn’t know all the details, but he knew that the farm they lived on had been homesteaded by his grandfather in the late 1800s. His dad took over the farm in the 1920s and mortgaged the homestead to purchase an additional 160 acres. Shortly after he got the loan to buy the extra land, the economy went south. Insult had been added to misery when the worst drought anyone had ever seen kicked in; the only thing that grew were Russian thistles. Dust storms became common.

The original homestead and the additional 160 acres were lost. The local bank that had foreclosed on the farm went bankrupt soon after that, and the title ended up in the hands of a Connecticut insurance company. An old German farmer who lived up the road from the Housers said it wouldn’t have been so bad if they hadn’t had the Depression and hard times both at the same time.

Things started to get better in the late thirties, got really good during World War II, and kept going good after the war. In the early forties, Pete’s dad bought the farm back from the insurance company, which had never wanted to own it in the first place. Since then, Emil had replaced the horses with tractors and added a silo to the barn. A machine shed had been built for all the new machinery. The house had been remodeled and wired for electricity and plumbed for running water. Things were much better for the Houser family, but Emil still rigorously guarded every penny and every possession.

Knowing all this didn’t make it any easier for Pete to ask to use the Studebaker, the first new car the Houser family had ever owned, the car his dad had treated like a crown jewel since he brought it home the previous fall. As much as Pete hated going through the ritual of asking for the car, he had to since it was his turn to drive when he and his friend, Chris Engelson, and his cousin, Lyle Houser, went for their weekly Saturday night outing. Chris and Pete had been in the same grades in their one-room country school for eight years and knew each other really well.

“My turn to drive again,” he said hesitantly to his father.

“Seems like you just drove,” Emil answered. “Be sure you bring it back as clean as you found it.”

That afternoon, Pete ran the John Deere and a hay rack out to the north eighty. He opened a stack of alfalfa and wrestled a full rack of hay out of it. He took the load back to the barn and used the haymow fork-and-pulley system to lift the hay into the hayloft. Four fork loads transferred all the hay into the barn. Unloading hay into the loft was a two-person job. One person could do it, but it required a lot of running back and forth. He hurried to finish the hay so he could milk the cows for the second time that day. He had to pick up Chris Engelson at eight o’clock.

Pete heard the tires squeak as he backed the Studebaker out of the garage through a light covering of snow a few minutes before eight. The squeaking tires were a clue it had to be below zero. The car, kept immaculately clean by Emil, still had a faint new-car smell.

The Engelsons’ yard light came on as Pete pulled the Studebaker into the driveway and stopped in front of the white two-story frame house. Chris ambled out the door. A couple of inches taller than Pete, he moved in long easy strides, like an athlete, although he had never played any sports. Chris had unruly red hair above a long face with big ears. At nineteen, Chris had never had a girlfriend as far as Pete knew, and he wasn’t surprised. Of course, Pete had never had a girlfriend either, but he didn’t blame it on his looks. He thought he looked at least average, maybe a little better than average. His face wasn’t as square as his dad’s or as round as his mom’s. Thick, crew-cut blond hair topped off a head with normal-sized ears. It wasn’t that Pete didn’t like girls. He spent a large part of his time thinking about them, but not knowing how to act around girls was a problem for him and for Chris, too. Neither of them had gone to high school and neither of them had any sisters. Girls were exotic creatures they didn’t know much about.

Chris got into the car, and they headed for Milbank to pick up Lyle. He asked, “What’s the plan for tonight?”

“Probably shoot some pool at Volk’s. What you been doing this week?”

Chris replied, “I joined the marines.”

The unexpected answer left Pete speechless. Finally, he exclaimed, “You what! How come?”

“You want to know the real answer?”

“Why not?”

“I got kicked out.”

The answer didn’t sound like the Engelsons to Pete. “I don’t believe it.”

“Maybe not kicked out, but they let me know in a roundabout way that I should find a way to make a living on my own. Guess I couldn’t figure it out for myself. I got two younger brothers. All of us boys aren’t going to be farmers. I guess I sorta knew that but didn’t know what to do about it. I haven’t been doing a lot of work around the farm, especially this winter. They don’t need me. They don’t need me around.”

“Why the marines?”

“It sorta happened. Monday I took the Milwaukee train to Minneapolis. I heard factories are hiring. I wasn’t too excited about a factory job, but I hafta do something.”

“You took off, didn’t say anything to anyone?”

“My folks knew.”

“You might not have been there when I went to pick you up?”

“I’ve been kinda screwed up.”

“You didn’t finish telling me how come the marines.”

“Well, I was walking down Washington Avenue, near the train depot. Not a good street, night or day. A sign in a window read: Be a Man, Join the Army. That sign got me thinking.”

As they drove into Milbank, a bright moon shone on snow-covered Lake Farley on the right side of the road. Lyle lived on the lake side of the tracks in an old two-story house that backed up to Whetstone Creek. They saw Lyle looking out of the window when they pulled up.

In their threesome, Lyle was the odd one. He had lived in town all his life, in a different world. He claimed to know all about women, but Pete hadn’t seen much evidence for that claim. Lyle was short compared to Pete and Chris—less than six feet by quite a bit. He had brown mouse-colored hair and a round face, with freckles over the bridge of his nose. As a counterbalance to the sober and steady Pete and Chris, Lyle compensated for his shortness by acting boisterous to the point of obnoxiousness.

Lyle trotted out of the house. “Hey, what’s the plan?” he said loudly as he got into the back seat.

“Maybe some pool at Volk’s,” Chris replied.

Lyle faked a yawn. “That sounds exciting.”

“Drink a couple of beers,” Chris added.

The Studebaker idled while they discussed the evening’s plans.

“Maybe we should do something special,” Pete said. “With Chris going into the marines in a couple of weeks.”

“What the hell are you saying?” Lyle exclaimed. “Chris is going where?”


“Why in hell don’t I know what’s going on?”

Chris explained, “I didn’t know I was going into the marines last week.”

Lyle wasn’t buying it. “That don’t make a lot of sense.”

Pete reminded Chris he hadn’t finished telling why he ended up in the marines.

Chris returned to his story. “Like I was telling you, I saw this sign in the window and started thinking maybe joining the army would be a better deal than working in a factory. I asked a couple of bums sitting on the curb where the army recruiting office was. They were sharing a paper sack with something in it and asked if I could spare a dollar. I gave them a quarter. They didn’t have any idea where to find a recruiting office but said to try Hennepin Avenue. They said you could find most anything there. Well, I’m walking down Hennepin, and those bums were right, you could find just about anything there. Then I saw this sign on the sidewalk—you know, a tent sign, showing a marine in dress uniform holding a sword up in front of him, and I could see myself walking down Main Street in Milbank in one of those uniforms and the girls twisting their necks off looking. So I joined the marines.”

“I’ll be damned,” Lyle said. “I guess we’ll have to do something special.”

Silence followed while the three young men considered their options. Finally, Lyle came up with a suggestion. “There’s a dance at Chautauqua. Maybe we can get Chris screwed. Don’t want to go into the marines a virgin.”

Pete had never been to Chautauqua but knew enough about it to know his folks, Lutherans, who never missed church on Sunday, wouldn’t approve. However, this would be one of those one-time-only occasions. Feeling a little rebellious, he seconded the idea. Chris agreed with the plan, although he had never been to Chautauqua either.

Lyle guessed that not much would happen at Chautauqua until ten at least, so he suggested a couple games of rotation at Volk’s would be a good place to start.

Volk’s pool hall occupied a storefront in the middle block of the town’s three-block main street, a street bookended by the courthouse at the south end and the Milwaukee mainline tracks at the north end. A bar and a few tables and booths occupied the front half of the long, narrow interior, and three pool tables and a common restroom filled the back half. Being Saturday night, the front half of Volk’s was filled with farmers having a beer or two while talking to other farmers about farm machinery, crops, and the weather.

After a couple of beers and two games of rotation at Volk’s, Pete drove the Studebaker ten miles on Highway 12 to the town of Big Stone and another mile up Lake Road to Chautauqua Park on the shore of Big Stone Lake. The lake, thirty miles long and one mile wide, defined the border between Minnesota and South Dakota along its length. Things were jumping when they arrived, and they had to park on Lake Road, half a block from the dance hall.

“Damn, it’s colder than a witch’s tit!” Lyle exclaimed as they walked from the Studebaker to the dance hall. As they approached, they could hear an old-time German band pounding away. They bought their tickets, and somebody stamped the back of their hands with an ink marker.

The dance hall was a long rectangular building with a serving bar along the west side; long tables with benches that could seat eight or ten people filled three-quarters of the space. At the far end of the hall, the band played on a raised platform in front of a polished wood dance floor. The bar served only 3.2 beer but offered mixes for people who brought their own bottles.

Lyle spotted a table with some room near the dance floor and quickly claimed and held it while Pete and Chris made their way across the room. Three young women and two young men were already sitting at the table. Lyle signaled a waitress to bring them a pitcher of beer.

Lyle filled three glasses and proposed a toast. “To Chris, the best and only damn marine from Wilmot.”

They emptied their glasses, and Lyle started to refill them. “No more for me,” Pete said. He’d already had two beers at Volk’s, and he couldn’t forget he was driving his dad’s nearly new car.

“Hell,” Chris said, “You can’t get drunk on 3.2. You’ll piss it away faster than you can drink it.”

Pete wasn’t sure Chris’s theory held water. None of the three were seasoned beer drinkers.

As though to prove his point, Chris chug-a-lugged his beer and poured another one, then held up the pitcher for a refill.

They took in their surroundings. The three women scrunched between them and the two young men at the other end of the table didn’t seem to be attached to anyone. The band returned from taking a break and started playing a contemporary slow piece to get people on the floor. One of the women was asked to dance and left the table. Then the two men who had been sitting at the other end of the table stood up and started dancing with the other two women.

“What’re you waiting for?” Pete asked Lyle.

“I wouldn’t call them the pick of the crop. What are you two waiting for?”

“Hell, I can’t dance,” Pete replied. “And if I could I don’t know if I would. I’m not sure I’d want to arm wrestle any of them.”

Chris poured himself another beer. He agreed with Pete. “They’re built like work horses.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Lyle argued. “They can pitch hay all day and dance all night without working up a sweat.”

They continued drinking beer and observing the dancers for a while. Chris, his voice slightly slurred, remarked, “Hell, I could do that,” pointing to the dancers.

The band struck up a schottische, and most of the amateurs left the dance floor. That’s when Chris persuaded one of the husky women at their table to dance.

Pete and Lyle knew this would be bad. Chris was three sheets to the wind and had never danced before, and the schottische was not a good choice to start with. The music of the schottische prompted a set pattern of steps that would have taxed Chris’s abilities if he had been sober. It wasn’t long before the woman attempting to dance with Chris simply walked away, leaving Chris flat-footed in the middle of the dance floor.

“Did I do good?” Chris asked when he returned to the table.

“You asshole. That pretty much messed up our chances with those women,” Lyle replied.

“I did that good?” Chris replied. He hiccupped. He hiccupped again. “I know how to cure that,” he murmured. He filled his glass and drank it down without taking a breath.

Pete suggested Chris take it easy.

Chris looked puzzled. “Hell, I thought we were goin’ to celebrate somethin’ tonight.”

“We’re celebrating Chris going into the marines,” Pete said.

Chris looked surprised. “Chris going to the marines? Da poor bastard.”

To stone-sober Pete, things at Chautauqua were visibly deteriorating. A couple of fights had broken out at the back of the room. A couple at a table across from them looked like they were about to make out. Then he noticed that Chris had disappeared. “Where’s Chris?” he asked Lyle.

Lyle looked around. “Hell, he slid under the table.”

“We have to get him out of here,” Pete said. “I’ll get the car and park it by the door.”

Pete brought the Studebaker to the entrance and went inside. He and Lyle half-dragged, half-carried Chris out and dumped him in the back seat.

As they drove away from Chautauqua, Pete wondered out loud, “Now what? We can’t take him home like this.”

“We could set him in a snowbank,” Lyle suggested. “That’d sober him up pretty quick. What time is it?”

“Little past midnight.”

“The Bright Spot is the only place in Milbank open this time of the night. Maybe we can get some coffee in him.”

They headed for Milbank. About halfway there, Pete heard some coughing before retching sounds erupted from the back seat. “Oh, shit, no! Lyle, what the hell is going on back there?”

“Chris just heaved all over the back seat.”

“Jesus Christ!” Pete said. “My dad will kill me, actually kill me.” He stopped the car and they dragged Chris out of the back seat, but Chris had finished doing whatever he was going to do.

Pete removed the floor coverings and wiped them clean with snow, but nothing could be done about the mess adhering to the fake mohair seat fabric.

They crammed Chris between them in the front seat and continued toward Milbank. Pete’s mind churned, trying to conjure up a solution to the unsolvable problem of the messed-up back seat. As they approached the town, Chris suddenly wrapped himself around Pete, pinning his arms and completely blocking his view. Pete couldn’t move his legs to step on the brake.

“Get off me, you big ass!” he shouted, trying to push Chris off.

He felt the car veering off the road. It slowly tipped and finally rolled over completely. The sound of grinding metal preceded the complete stop. The three found themselves on the car’s ceiling. Pete couldn’t open his door. Lyle managed to get his open and crawled out. Pete crawled over Chris, and then he and Lyle dragged Chris out. Pete observed that the beautiful Studebaker had rolled over on top of a rock pile. The front and back windows were broken out. Pete didn’t investigate further. He knew the end had come. The world as he knew it had ended.

Pete asked Chris, “Can you walk?”

“Why walk?” Chris answered. “Damn cold out here.”

“That’s a good sign,” Lyle noted. “He knows it’s cold.”

“Come on, let’s walk,” Pete said. “It’s less than half a mile.”

“Can somebody tell me why we are walking?” Chris asked.

“‘Cause you barfed all over Pete’s new car,” Lyle answered, “and then wrecked it.”

“Oh,” Chris answered.

When the nearly frozen young men arrived at the Bright Spot, a friend of Lyle’s saw them come in and greeted them. “You guys look half frozen. Car heater out?”

“Worse,” Lyle replied. “Wrecked the car a ways out of town.”

“Jeez, anybody hurt? Sheriff know about this?”

As far as Pete was concerned, he would prefer that nobody ever know about it. It had to be a bad dream he would wake up from any minute. Unfortunately, Pete, still shaking from the below-zero temperature outside, knew he was wide awake. He borrowed the Bright Spot’s phone and dialed the county sheriff. A sleepy Deputy David Larson answered Pete’s call.

“Where did it happen?” Larson asked. “Okay, I’ll drive by, take a look at it. I’ll meet you at the Bright Spot, write up the report.”

The young men slumped into a booth. They had gone through a pot of coffee by the time Deputy Larson showed up. Chris was asleep in a corner of the booth.

“Looks like you did a pretty good job on the Studebaker,” Deputy Larson said. “Good for scrap and parts.” He looked at Pete. “Want to have it towed in?”

The question surprised Pete. Like there was a choice. All the wrecks were towed into the Standard station. He didn’t own the car. Maybe it didn’t matter at this point. It had become a piece of junk littering a Highway 12 ditch. Pete reasoned that it would be easier to tell his dad that the car was at the Standard station than lying on its roof on top of a rock pile. At least now he wouldn’t have to tell him that the back seat had been messed up. “Sure, tow it in,” he said.

Deputy Larson filled out the accident report. Much of Larson’s formerly muscular body had converted to fat since he’d left the farm to become deputy sheriff five years earlier. He had bulked up into an even larger presence. The forms he filled out with a stubby pencil seemed miniature in comparison to his large, fat hand. Pete guessed that filling out accident reports wasn’t one of Larson’s favorite chores. There were cross-outs and inserted words; the result was a general mess. Larson pointed to where Pete needed to sign.

As he signed the form, Pete felt strange. He had never signed anything important in his life and signing an accident report that described the totaling his dad’s car didn’t seem like a good way to start. Deputy Larson dropped the three young men off at their homes and said he would take care of getting the car towed in the morning.

At three a.m. Pete crept up the stairs to his bedroom as quietly as possible. He got up at six a.m. as usual to feed and milk the cows. Pete had just about finished milking when Emil came in the side door of the barn.

“Where’s the car?” he asked.

The moment had arrived. The world as Pete knew it would end. “The car is at the Van Dorn Standard station. I wrecked the car last night,” Pete said. “Totaled it.”

Emil, whose red face looked like it could explode, said, “Shit.” He repeated himself. “Shit. You’re a big help. Try and get ahead and you bust something. Always busting things.”

Pete listened. There was some truth in what his dad said. Things did seem to break down where he was working. Last summer he was pulling a load of grain with the tractor, and somehow the load came unhitched, went in the ditch, and tipped over. A big mess. A week later he backed the pickup into the granary door. Took two days to fix the granary door, and the pickup bumper was still hanging. Then the worst—early this winter he forgot to drain the water out of the radiator after using the John Deere tractor. The water froze and busted the block.

Pete took a deep breath. “You won’t have to worry about that anymore. Chris and I are joining the marines. Be leaving soon.” Pete watched as the redness and angry look leaked from his dad’s face.

When Pete had finally gotten to bed that morning, he laid awake, worrying about what had happened and what would happen. He couldn’t imagine any good scenarios that would get him out of the mess he found himself in. It got him to thinking about another problem he had become aware of recently, the same problem Chris had. Pete had come to realize that his dream of someday farming the home place might never happen. He wasn’t any closer to being a farmer than he had been five years ago when he finished the eighth grade, and he likely wouldn’t be any closer five years from now.

Then a solution suddenly occurred to him. He would join the marines like Chris had done. It would diminish the current car wreck crisis by merging it with another attention-getting situation and at the same time get him out of the going-nowhere rut he was in. After resolving the matter in his mind, he fell into a deep sleep until the alarm went off at six.

Chris and Pete were inducted into the marines in Minneapolis in March 1950. A train carried them and half a dozen other marine recruits to the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Pete and Chris’s world view began to expand as they rode the rails in a Pullman car and ate their meals in a dining car served by Negro waiters. They saw their first mountains and deserts, plus an ocean.

A bus took the recruits from the train depot in San Diego to the training depot, where a man in a marine uniform wearing a wide-brimmed hat stepped into the bus. He started shouting, “Listen up recruits! You will get off this bus and plant your feet in the yellow footprints! STAND UP AND MOVE!” There was general confusion about what and where the yellow footprints were, and Pete was thinking, there is no need to shout—we can hear you. People around Milbank didn’t shout. They didn’t even talk loud.

Chris must have been thinking the same thing. “Why is he shouting? Yellow footprints?”

“Shut up, shitheads!” the drill instructor yelled. “I talk, you listen.”

Thus, the recruits were introduced to the drill instructors who would yell, curse, slap, and browbeat them for three months when the conversion of green farm boys to the earth’s best fighting men would have been completed.

The recruits found the yellow footprints and stood in them. The recruits were informed about the silver doors. They would walk through the silver doors only once. When they walked through them, they would be leaving their past behind and would be where becoming marines began. As they stood at attention in the yellow footprints, they were lectured to for so long they thought they would die. Finally, they were allowed to pass through the silver doors.

As farm boys, Pete and Chris were used to physical activity. They found that part of the training challenging but nothing they couldn’t handle. But as young men raised in a culture of independent thinking, other aspects of training took some getting used to, such as obeying without question the commands of superiors. One example of this was the close-order drill, in which a platoon is trained to act as one. However, by the end of three months the drill instructors had worked their magic. At the graduation ceremonies, each company of recruits marched like a well-oiled machine.

Upon graduation from recruit training, Pete and Chris were given a twenty-day furlough, with orders to report to the First Marine Division stationed at Camp Pendleton upon return.

They chose the bus as the most economical way to travel to their homes in South Dakota, where they would meet anxious parents and enjoy home cooking for a while.

Although they didn’t wear the blue marine dress uniform in Milbank—Pete said he would feel like a peacock in it—they attracted considerable attention by wearing the less formal marine green trousers and khaki shirts with ties. The town was proud to have these tall young marines as members of the community.

Pete and Chris agreed to observe their traditional Saturday night get-together with Lyle on the last Saturday before they returned to California. They thought they should do something special. After considerable discussion and shared doubts, they decided to repeat the disastrous Chautauqua visit but do it right this time. They were successful in that Chris did not demonstrate that one cannot get drunk on 3.2 beer and the women sharing their table didn’t reject them. The Chautauqua retake was pronounced a success.

Pete turned on the radio as they drove back to Milbank, and the song “Harbor Lights” emanated from the speaker. Pete’s folks had replaced the wrecked Studebaker with a new one and he was surprised they let him drive it. The prodigal son had apparently been forgiven. A voice broke through the music and announced, “WCCO radio is interrupting this program to bring you breaking news. An Associated Press report confirms that at dawn Sunday, the twenty-fifth of June, elements of the North Korean Army crossed the border into South Korea, and it appears that a full-scale invasion of the south by the north is occurring. Stay tuned for further developments.” WCCO switched back to normal programming, and the sounds of “Mona Lisa” drifted into the Studebaker.

“What the fuck?” Chris exclaimed. “Where is Korea?”

Pete had a pretty good idea where things were in East Asia. “Hangs off northern China,” he replied with an air of certainty.

“Okay,” Chris said. “I remember now. You think we’ll get involved?” he asked in a manner that sounded like he knew the answer.

Lyle didn’t think so. “Can’t be very important if I never heard of the place.”

“Because you don’t know shit about Korea doesn’t mean it isn’t important,” Chris declared.

Pete followed current events closely, like other people followed sports. “It isn’t about Korea,” Pete said. “It’s about communism. North Korea is communist and South Korea isn’t. That’s why it’s important.”

“Don’t like what I’m hearing,” Chris said. “This isn’t in the plan.”

“What plan?” Pete asked.

“Our marine enlistment plans. It’s about seeing the world and meeting some wild women, nothing about war.”

“Never told me about any plan,” Pete said.

“Not on paper,” Chris replied. “But that’s what I’ve been thinking. No war in the plan.”

Lyle chimed in. “Sounds like you need to update your plan.”

“Don’t get too smug, Lyle,” Pete said. “They could crank up the draft again.”

“You think so?” Lyle asked. “They wouldn’t.”

“You can beat that. Join the marines,” Chris suggested.

“That sounds like shooting yourself in the head to save your foot,” Lyle replied. “No thanks.”

After the chatter died down, the young marines worked the unexpected news over in their minds. Things out of Pete and Chris’s control were happening that could affect their lives in a bad way. This wouldn’t be something Pete and Chris would  read about; it would be happening to them.

The next day, Sunday, June 25, the Houser family went to church. His mother insisted Pete wear his uniform. “You look so good when you wear it,” she said.

Pete had not said anything about the news he heard the night before, and since his folks hadn’t mentioned Korea, he assumed they hadn’t heard anything. They were walking from their parked car to the church when Ralph Shuman, a neighbor who lived south of their place, asked them what they thought about the Korean news.

“What news?” Pete’s dad asked.

Shuman replied, “Something about the north invading the south. It’s all over the news.”

They listened to the car radio while driving home after church. Korea dominated the news. There were emergency meetings in Washington, and the United Nations would meet on Monday to discuss the crisis.

“What’s this all about?” Pete’s mother wanted to know.

“Just hope we don’t get involved,” Pete’s dad declared. “Let ′em fight. Who cares?”

From what Pete heard on the radio, it seemed clear that the United States would become involved. It wasn’t being described as a war between two parts of a small divided country; rather it was part of a bigger picture, a part of the Red Tide, the communist threat to the free world.

Pete’s mother didn’t seem concerned about the big picture. She was concerned about how it would affect her boy. “Will you have to go to Korea?” she asked Pete.

“Don’t know,” Pete replied. But privately he believed that if the United States did get involved, the First Marine Division would be ripe for participating.

Pete and Chris got together Sunday afternoon. Korea dominated their thoughts. By this time, they had little doubt that Korea would involve Marine Corps participation.

“Marines will lead the charge,” Chris mused. “Guess it’s what we trained for. War and killing people.

On June 29, President Harry S. Truman ordered a naval blockade of the Korean coast and authorized General Douglas A. MacArthur to send US ground troops into Korea. General MacArthur began moving army troops stationed in Japan to South Korea and requested of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that a marine regimental combat team be deployed to the Far East.

These events answered any questions in Chris and Pete’s minds with regards to how the United States would respond to the invasion of South Korea.

When it was time for Chris and Pete to return to California, they and their families waited outside of the drug store where the Greyhound bus would stop to pick up passengers. When they’d left for boot camp, only Pete’s mother had been there to send them off. This time, current events drew everyone in their immediate families to the departure. Although not discussed openly, the possibility of these young men going halfway around the world to face unknown dangers weighed heavily on these families. Pete’s mother, who had become emotional when they were leaving for boot camp, hugged Pete long and warmly but remained stoic during the sendoff, as if to demonstrate strength during a crisis. Even Pete’s dad moved outside his comfort zone and gave Pete a warm hug.

When Pete and Chris arrived at Camp Pendleton Marine Base in California to report in at the Marine First Division, they were directed to a place where the First Provisional Marine Brigade was being formed in response to General Douglas MacArthur’s request that a marine regimental team be sent to Korea as soon as possible.

The two South Dakota farm boys who had just recently been pronounced marines when they graduated from the Marine Corps Training Center in California realized they were on a fast track to go to war. What had seemed only a possibility was now reality. Each of them absorbed the information and processed it in his own individual way.

It made Pete’s whole body feel strange for a moment, as if the news had affected his whole being and it was reorganizing itself to adapt. Like one life had ended and a new one was beginning.

Chris used to enjoy watching the war newsreels that were shown before a movie. Now he felt like he was in one of those war news films. In a way it was scary and, in a way, exciting. Now the First Marine Brigade would be in the news, and the people in Milbank would be watching it.

The brigade quickly organized. Pete and Chris ended up partnered on a fire team, Chris the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) man with Pete as his assistant. The fire team was part of a squad that consisted of four fire teams and a squad leader. Their fire team leader was Corporal Brad Hautman, a World War II veteran, and their rifleman was Adam Anderson, a farm boy from North Dakota and a recent recruit. They were the First Fire Team in the Second Squad in the First Platoon, Easy Company, in the Fifth Battalion. Within days the First Marine Brigade was loading onto ships at San Diego Navy Base and departing for Korea.

The brigade quickly unloaded upon docking at the port of Pusan and joined the United Nations (UN) coalition, fighting to maintain the Pusan Perimeter, the last tenuous foothold left on the Korean Peninsula.

Pete and Chris soon learned that war for an infantryman entailed more than fear and excitement. The lot of the infantryman at war has not changed fundamentally since time immemorial. It involves imminent contact with the enemy, terribly dirty conditions, sleeping on the ground or in holes in the ground, eating cold rations, and lots of spilled blood, human suffering, and death.

Most men who serve as infantrymen adapt; some don’t. Those that do normalize their existence. They form a close bond with those who share their experience.

After five weeks of almost constant combat and substantial losses, the First Marine Brigade was pulled back and retrofitted, their losses replaced. The First Fire Team suffered only minor wounds in all the action. Pete’s back was peppered with grenade shrapnel, and Corporal Hautman, the fire team leader, had a bullet pass through his helmet and graze his forehead. In both cases the minor wounds were treated with first aid.

Most of the marines thought they would be put back in the line after some rest, but instead the brigade and its men and equipment were put on ships and seagoing landing craft. The First Marine Brigade ships joined a large convoy of other ships and landing craft carrying the First Marine Division and the Army Seventh Infantry Division. The marines in the First Provisional Marine Brigade found out that they were now part of the First Marine Division and that they would be making an amphibious landing at a place called Inchon.

The landing at Inchon took the North Korean enemy completely by surprise. After a few days of sometimes intense fighting, Seoul, the capital of South Korea, was occupied by Allied troops.

Once Seoul was secured, the First Marine Division moved back to Inchon, where it was again retrofitted, and lost men replaced. It soon became known that the First Marine Division would again be loading onto ships and making another amphibious landing. Where that would be was unknown.

On October 15, 1950, the convoy carrying the First Marine Division to its next destination set sail. What was supposed to be a three-day sail to Wonsan on the North Korean east coast turned into an eleven-day back and forth in the Sea of Japan while unexpected mines were cleared from the Wonsan harbor. In the meantime, Wonsan was occupied by UN forces traveling overland.

After the inauspicious start, the First Marine Division and other UN forces began moving into the Taebaek Mountains on a primitive mountain trail hardly wide enough for ox carts to pass. Even the men in the First Fire Team suspected it was not a good tactic to string out a marine division and other UN forces on this mountain trail that hardly deserved to be called a road. There were no alternative ways to get to or from the trail from anywhere else. All the supplies for over thirty-five thousand men and their equipment would have to move on this road.

The First Fire Team and some of the other members of the squad discussed the situation. Pete suggested that the Inchon landing had been so successful General Douglas MacArthur thought he was God.

Pete continued, “MacArthur is in his Tokyo office looking at a map and sees this road running from the coast and through the mountains almost straight north to the Yalu River and the China border. So, MacArthur says, ‘We’ll just have some marines drive up that road and occupy that part of the border.’”

Sarcasm is a common trait among men involved in combat for long periods, and there was no shortage of it in Easy Company, First Platoon, Fifth Battalion, men who had fought in the Pusan Perimeter and Inchon landing before entering the tenuous trail.

Marine General Oliver led the First Marine Division and apparently had similar concerns as the men in the First Platoon, Easy Company. He had his orders to advance along this mountain road to the Yalu River. He was following orders but slow-walked the division’s advance along the mountain road. He assigned men to guard their flanks along the roadside. He built supply depots in villages along the path of the advance, occupied them, and built defense perimeters around them. He had two air strips bulldozed out of the frozen terrain.

Although North Korean forces had evaporated for the most part, there were rumors and concerns about the Chinese entering the war. The further the marines advanced into the mountains, the more obvious the Chinese threat became. At one point there was a pitched battle between a marine regiment and a large force identified as Chinese. Soon they were seeing more signs of the Chinese presence and seeing figures in quilted jackets in the distance on a regular basis. Patrols moving out from the perimeters were skirmishing with Chinese patrols. Still the orders remained to advance toward their objective.

Another enemy was the weather. The marines had been advancing during the month of November; winter was firmly established in the Taebaek Mountains. The marines had advanced sixty miles and occupied a village called Hagaru near the Chosin Reservoir. By this time, they were experiencing temperatures as low as twenty below zero. Pete and Chris had grown up in South Dakota and had seen weather twenty below and colder but had never lived in it twenty-four hours a day while they had to sleep in fox holes. Weapons wouldn’t fire; trucks wouldn’t start. Frostbite became a common occurrence. Rations froze.

After spending an extended period of time at Hagaru, the First Fire Team had begun to feel at home, despite the worsening weather and the almost daily patrols outside of their perimeter. That changed on Thanksgiving Day, when they were told the Fifth Regiment would be moving up the mountain road fourteen more miles to another small village called Yudam-ni.

When the Fifth Regiment arrived in Yudam-ni, the First Fire Team learned that the regiment would be leading a diversion the next morning, advancing over a primitive mountain road to the west to link up with the Eighth Army advancing to the east.

The advance started the next morning and soon ran into stiff resistance from Chinese, who were dug into the hills in line with the advance. The Fifth Regiment made little progress and dug in for the night, planning to continue in the morning.

The temperature dropped to twenty-five degrees below zero. Chinese began probing the Easy Company line. Everyone in the First Fire Team was awake. Ominous feelings ran through the First Fire Team members. Bugles and whistles began sounding down the slope from where Easy Company had established their line of defense. A mortar flare lit up the area. Pete and Chris peered at the scene below. Masses of men were advancing in orderly columns up the slope, headed for their line of fox holes. Everything in the line began firing at the masses advancing toward them—machine guns, M1 rifles, and BARs such as Pete and Chris used started to pump out lead. Mortars began dropping rounds on the columns. The withering fire stalled the lead columns and they evaporated, but other columns kept advancing and began to overrun the line of fox holes. Reserves filled holes in the line, and eventually the attack was stalled. The Chinese fell back. The first light of a new day appeared. The attack was over. Corsair fighter planes appeared and began attacking any visible surviving enemies.

The gruesome work of locating wounded marines needing care and locating and removing the dead began. Among the dead were Pete and Chris in their foxhole, Chris still gripping his BAR weapon and Pete holding a clip of ammunition in his hand, ready to slam it into the BAR when needed.

The Fifth Regiment was not the only unit under attack that night. Every unit defending the perimeter that ran for miles in hills surrounding the Yudam-ni plateau had been attacked. The Chinese had the best fighting elements of the First Marine Division in their trap and were now going to kill them. The Chinese had put twelve divisions into the Chosin Reservoir area with the mission to destroy the Marine First Division. The marines at Yudam-ni and those strung along the mountain road along which they had advanced had a different plan. They would fight their way out of the trap. Marine General Oliver summed it up: “We’re not retreating, we’re attacking in a new direction.”

The seven-day battle in which the marines fought their way back down the primitive mountain road to the sea with all their equipment has become an epic chapter in United States Marine history.

They were not able to bring out all the dead. They had difficulty finding transport to bring out the wounded in the advance to the sea, so most of the dead were buried in mass graves at sites along the mountain road. Pete and Chris were buried along with other marines killed at Yudam-ni in a mass grave before the marines fought their way out of that valley. On a cold February day, people who lived in and near Milbank, South Dakota, gathered in the city auditorium to honor Peter Houser and Chris Engelson, local sons and heroes who died for their country in a cold and desolate faraway place. Lyle Houser, close friend of Pete and Chris, was among those in the auditorium. Next to the immediate families, Lyle felt the loss of his good friends as much as anyone. As Lyle listened to the words praising Pete and Chris for their patriotism, bravery, and sacrifice, he questioned the accuracy of some of what was being said. He didn’t question that they were brave and had sacrificed their lives but did question the notion that patriotism was what drove them to enlist in the marines. Lyle, being aware of what had led them to join the marines, knew that it had little, if anything, to do with patriotism or willingness to sacrifice their lives for flag or country. Pete and Chris had no intention of becoming heroes. For Pete and Chris, the Marine Corps provided what they believed to be an opportunity to move into the next phase of their lives. They were focused on their future, not the country’s future. However, despite their original intent, they had become unintended heroes and sacrificed their lives for their country. That was reality, and Lyle did not question that

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