Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Somebody Should Have Died (a short story)

Somebody Should have Died

(1975, 545th Ordnance Company, Nuclear Site, West Germany)

The structure was built to withstand a nuclear blast. Around the site were high trees, sidewalks that lead to bunkers that had half dozen nuclear bombs in them (see interlude for details). The trees and foliage were high enough that only a small plane a hundred feet or so, over the site could see it, and it was forbidden by the German Government to allow any flights over the site. The young sergeant of twenty-seven, well built, auburn hair, with bluish-green eyes, had just taken over another sergeant’s shift; he was on what was called ENREST (Nuclear Surety, watchdogs). Each sergeant at the site, who had a Top Secret clearance, was put on the ENREST roster, as was every officer with a Top Secret Clearance, it was a twenty-four hour duty, once a month, and neither that sergeant or officer was to leave the bunker area. At night the doors were locked and bolted, front doors, one to the bunker, the other to the ENREST room within the bunker, where the orders came in.
As Sergeant Chick Evens listened he could hear the night winds over the bunker. At the same time he could hear a five-ton truck bringing in a new shift of Military Police, who guarded the site, twenty-four-seven. He licked his lips, to moisten them, it was a very hot night, he took off his shirt, only his undershirt on, the fat captain, lay snoring on his iron cot on one side of the room, as he sat on his iron cot, on the other side of the room. The room was twelve feet by twelve feet. The young captain was named Horace Worme. The sergeant had seen his file, and his college transcripts, since he was the NCO, in charge of the Nuclear Surety Program Investigations, and often wondered how a captain could become a captain, with 90% of his semester grades “D”. I mean he had more “D” grades than anything he had ever known, not one A, or B, a few C’s. He had gone to college himself and had a Bachelors Degree, and had gotten one D, and that that was fault-finding.
Evens watched the fat Captain, there was no one else to watch, heavily breathing, sweating, and the wind just kept swirling over the structure, as his perspiration soaked into the mattress. Then he got up and paced the floor, he never liked ENREST. He had told the Captain one of them had to stay up, watch the phones, the incoming data, read the printouts incase there was an alert. It was a two man control process, but only one need be up at a time during the night hours, but he also knew this captain never liked pulling duty, he left the sergeants stay up all night while he slept it away, but Evens said no to this crap, he was going to do his duty, just like him.
He tried to wake the captain up at 2:00 a.m., for him to take over the night shift, his time was up, but the captain wouldn’t wake up. Matter of fact, the Captain said, “Leave me alone, that’s an order sergeant!” And so the Sergeant laid face down on the cot, his chin on the pillow, his arms, stretched out.
“It’s foolish,” he said out loud hoping the Captain would hear “you can’t expect me to take your shift also, and read the data correctly,” messages came in from what was considered The European Central Command all the time. And it had to be translated, it was in code, and one man had to break open a white seal, after reading the message, and doing the decoding, the other man checked it out, and they would follow procedure. If it was a red seal, then it was for an alert, high priority, and then it would go to a second seal if necessary. A white seal was less complicated. But often a white seal lead to a red seal, and that meant war; and the Cold War of course was with the Russians. Their premise was, if it went to the red seal, the nuclear stomachs (nuclear cylinders)—so I called them—of the bombs needed to be sunk underground.

(Interlude: It is hard to express the makeup of a nuclear bomb and its destructive capacity in a simple paragraph, and I have seen the insides of them, but let me express it in the most fundamental, if not, oversimplified manner: there are two parts to the nuclear bomb I am talking about, some have three parts, the secondary part of the nuclear bomb—about a half dozen of them were stored at the site, this is the part I saw, of a cylinder type design. Those bombs were 9 to 50-megatons-plus, some were Titan II (ICBM), the Titan fleet was retired in 1988; the fireball of one of those Titan missiles, were three-miles in diameter, its destructive forces would most likely destroy all structures in a ten-mile range, or three-hundred square miles. One kiloton is equal to 1000-tons of TNT, kilotons are measured in thousands of tons; Hiroshima witnessed a 15-kiloton bomb; called ‘Little Boy,’ and Nagasaki witnessed a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb called ‘Fat boy’—thereabouts; whereas, megatons are measured by millions of tons of TNT. The secondary part of the bomb is the bottom part; the primary is at the top. I need not say more for this story.)

When the young sergeant woke, it was still dark outside; he heard an incoming message on the machine, printing out for him to read and decode. He stood up, walked over to the desk where the machine was spitting out paper, and a message was being printed out, coming, he went to wake the Captain up, told him, “You got to decode the message, along with me. Or at least read it after I decode it.”
“No, you decode it”, he said, “I’m tired.”
He started to decode the message, and fell back to sleep, without reading it clearly. As was the Captain’s job; one looking over the shoulder of the other.

It was now 6:15 a.m., and the phone rang. The sergeant passed it over the Horace, saying “The Major, wants to talk to you for some reason.”
He stood to the side of the phone, half in a daze, the phone heavy in his right hand, “Yes sir,” said the Captain, “what is it?”
Captain Worme, drew back like a double bolt of lightening, grabbed the decoded message, “Didn’t you decode this last night,” he yelled, to the sergeant.
“Of course I did,” said the Sergeant, the decoded part is right where the message you just picked up was.
“Hello,” said the Captain, to the Major, “The Sergeant said he did decode the message.”
“Well didn’t you read it?” yelled the Major so loud, the Sergeant could hear him.
“Yaaay! No, I guess I didn’t, why?” said the Captain.
“Because,” said the Major, “we are the only nuclear site; no, matter of fact, we are the only site in all of Europe not on alert, and the Colonel wants to know why our gates are wide open, as if it is a normal day. I want to see you in an hour and read that damn coded message and get back with me in five minutes.”
“So sergeant,” Captain Worme said to Evens, and started to read the decoded message, “it looks like you decoded it properly, why didn’t you wake me up and call an alert?”
“I did wake you up, and you gave me an order to leave you alone, after I told you, you needed to review the decoded message, as it is supposed to be, and you were insistent, and I was tired, and fell to sleep.”
“It was stupid not to act upon the message!”
“Ayee! Be careful captain. I did my duty, and you didn’t pull any duty at all, that can be called duty.”

After the Captain had come out of the Major’s office, he stopped Sergeant Evens, “So what’s going on?” asked the sergeant.
“I’m sorry to inform you, I think they will be some charges against you perhaps a court-martial; too many things to cover up.” Now the sergeant knew how he got past those “D’s” of his in college, he was a conniver.
“Well,” said the sergeant, “if I go down, so do you! Evidently they don’t know my part of the story; I’ll have to make a report sooner or later and inform them. Did they know it was you who gave me a Direct Order, to leave you sleep?” (And the sergeant knew, a Direct Order, from a commissioned officer, must not be in conflict with established law, and it was.)
“I’m not sure,” he said.
“What is there to be sure of, you told them or you didn’t, and I guess you didn’t.”
“I better go back there, and settle this before it goes out of control.” It was funny thought the Sergeant, he didn’t blink an eye, and he must have been testing the water to see if he’d take the blame.
“It’s very good, if you do, I’ll just stand here awhile.”

When the Captain had come back, all was settled.
“We are all soldiers,” said the Captain, “the thing to do is just forget today ever happened, and don’t say a word to anyone about this sergeant, okay? If you let this leak out, we’re all dead. We were with an attack, alert, the Red Brigade, some anti German group has tried to storm one of our nuclear sites, and an alert was called because of that, and we screwed up. Had they come here to our site, God only knows what would have happened. The gates were wide open, and they could have taken hostages.”
“Yes,” said the Sergeant (looking over at the gates now closed and secure), standing to his right side. “I never heard of it.”
“Heard of what?” said the Captain. Again the sergeant thought of all those ‘D’s’ the captain had gotten.
“No one will ever hear of it, that’s what!” Said the Sergeant, then he thought: ‘…someone might have died because of our neglect—’ and he just wanted to get away from there.

Note: The 545th Ordnance Company was activated in 1942. In 1950, it was activated in Japan, and in 1959 it was active in West Germany, by Muenster-Dieburg; inactivated in June, 1992; area given back to Germany, in 1994. No: 715 1-24-2011)