For All Nails #277A: Military History
by Noel Maurer
I do not like gyropters. Sadly, Puon and Daw did not share this opinion. They whooped and shouted and yelled, "Lookit that fucking vista!" as the tossed and heavily forested landscape of New Granada passed under us. Me, I just tried not to puke.
For all my misery, I had to say that the mission was an interesting one. The British military authorities had been remarkably uncooperative during the handover. A lot of our lower-level officers seemed surprised at that.
Not me. I had the memory of a most unexpected fist in the face to remind me that a big chunk of the British Army seemed to think that they had won the war. I didn't believe that the group I'd had the bad luck to meet on my first night in New Granada was unrepresentative. So no matter how forcefully London phrased its orders, why would you expect the Limón officers on the ground here to cooperate with us?
You had to wonder how those soldiers were going to vote when they got home. Hell, back in the U.S. of M., simple annoyance at Del Rey over this whole Granadino operation had been enough to catapult El Enano over the top. FN1 The limón soldiers who beat the shit out of me, though, they hadn't felt annoyed by their government. No, they felt betrayed.
Well, if the British weren't cooperating with us, the Granadinos certainly were. God only knows how, but CPT Quezadas had somehow managed to get the leaders of New Granada's armed forces -- although New Granada was supposedly deFANGed and no longer had armed forces -- to allow us to investigate a group of Alliance firebases overrun during the Easter Rising. Those firebases had not been retaken by the time London decided to turn the whole mess over to us, and the Granadinos still held them intact. We hoped that they would be loaded with historical documentation pertaining to the British war effort. We also hoped, as CPT Quezadas had reminded us during the mission briefing, that we might uncover other "random bits of useless information, wink wink, assuming that the Granadinos haven't already stripped it of everything. The categories into which such useless information will go -- remember this, Puon -- are operational orders, tactical doctrine, equipment reports, field manuals, after-action reports ... " It was a rather long and detailed list, for such useless stuff.
Which is I was suffering on a long gyropter flight out into the selva.
There wasn't a whole lot left of the firebase from the air. You could see the clearing, of course, and faint outlines of where buildings had been. The tents were all gone. Only a few buildings remained, scattered here and there. They were a few men on the ground, waving to us to land. They wore the brown non-uniforms of the organization formerly known as the Fuerzas Armadas de Nueva Granada.
"Those look like Constabulario uniforms!" shouted Puon.
"That's cause they are Constabulario uniforms, pendejo," I responded. "They asked for brown uniforms in the run-up to the Easter Rising. Constabulario uniforms are brown. Ergo." I looked down. "These have no markings or patches, and they're not wearing the funny hats."
The gyropter descended into the clearing, kicking up clouds of red dust. Two brown-clad men ran towards us, clutching their floppy jungle hats to their heads through the wind kicked by the downblast from the blades. "Hello!" said one of the men, in Spanish. "I am Cap ... ah, my name is Reynaldo Ruíz, and I have been expecting you."
"Goddammit, I can never understand ese people," muttered Puon to himself. "Why don't they learn proper Spanish?"
"They do speak proper Spanish, Puon. We're the ones with the fucked-up Spanish," I replied, futzling with my safety straps. Captain Quezadas was already out of the gyropter, shaking hands with Ruíz.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" asked Puon.
"C'mon, Puon," I said. "Even when you think you're speaking Spanish, every second word is in English, and I'm not gonna mention your grammar. These people," I said, pointing out the helicopter's open cabin at the brown-suited ones, "are the fellows who speak something Cervantes would recognize."
"Who's Cervantes?" asked Puon.
Daw barked a laugh.
"What? What's so funny?"
"Hey!" shouted CPT Quezadas, in English. "Get outta the fuckin' gyro!" We complied, stat. The captain was a great fellow, and he had a rather loose conception of military etiquette, but he had a temper. We had learned not to push him.
"Señor Ruíz's men," he continued, switching to Spanish, "have collected all the documents found in this firebase. They are located in those surviving structures there," he pointed at several broken-down wooden huts. I had my doubts about what would have survived the last rainy season.
"Unfortunately for us, the documents have not been catalogued. Your mission, men, is to make a preliminary inventory of what we have on hand. You all know the categories." Which, indeed, we did. The Captain switched back to English. "Alright, hop to it. I have some things to discuss with Mr. Ruíz."
Daw was a TNCO, so he nodded and motioned at Puon and me. "Alright, touse heard the captain. We're gonna revise that edifice first. Puon, you're on guard. I want you to patrol around, y warn us if anyone approaches."
"Aw, shit, Daw," replied Puon, "why me?"
"Because its you, Puon. Cállate. Nabo, get your lenses on. Vamos."
With a sour-looking Puon muttering and glaring at the -- apparently unarmed -- browncoats, we entered the first building. It was more of a hut, really, maybe ten meters by five, with a tin roof and primitive lightning rod. The wood was laced with bullet holes, and the windows had been covered by plastic sheeting.
This was where the browncoats had stuffed all the captured documents? It seemed weird. Why didn't they take 'em all to some hidden jungle redoubt? Then we opened the door, and the answer was immediately obvious.
They had taken the documents to some hidden jungle redoubt. They had gone through 'em, copied 'em, recorded 'em, maybe stolen a whole bunch, and brought 'em back. In neatly stacked piles. They were dry, too. No way they had been sitting here for almost a year.
"Ach," said Daw. "If they were gonna go through 'em so meticulously, you think they coulda catalogued 'em for nosotros." He spat. "Well, time to start reading. Vamos, Profe."
"Where the fuck do I start?" I asked.
"Shit, no sé, man." The floor was covered with knee-high high stacks of paper, tied together with black ribbons. "Let's do it systematically. You start in the far right corner. I'll start in the far left, work our way towards the front."
"No way we can read all this shit," I pointed out.
"Verdad. Alright, let's read every tenth document or so. Then we can start classifying 'em."
"Bien. Alright." We walked over to our respective corners, and lay our (unloaded) weapons on the ground. I gave the rim of my cricket cap a tug, and started going through the first stack.
They were all undelivered letters. After skimming one out of every ten, I moved to the next batch.
More letters. Interesting, I suppose, but it didn't take a philosophy degree from San Antonio State College to figure out that we were looking for meatier stuff.
"Hey, Daw," I said. "These all look like letters." I glanced over at him. He was still on the first stack.
"Yeah, I know." He looked up and smiled. "Listen to this."
Daw started to read the hand-scrawled page in his hand:
"5 April 1977. Well Mum, there really is a war going on over here. We made contact in daylight yesterday for the first time. You know how they say war's not like in the cinema. Well, they're wrong. It's exactly like the cinema. We were on a Company-size patrol when they hit us. First Platoon was in the front, we were next, and Second Platoon was in the rear. Nigel was working with the Second Platoon on the machine guns. They hit First Platoon, and everyone got down. Then First moved up 50 yards, and we moved out to the left. As soon as we moved behind a hedgeline, an automatic weapon opened on us. We just kept moving."
Daw looked up at me and grinned. "Just like the cinema?"
"Keep reading," I replied.
Daw started again. "We finally got out of range about 100 yards down the trail. Then we got on line and assaulted another hedgerow 50 yards in front of us. We didn't meet any resistance; so, after we passed it, we got down and waited. Then we got the word that First Platoon was in bad shape and needed us. So, we were going to move out on line about 50 yards and then swing to our right and get the dagoes between us and First. We started out on line, keeping low and moving slow. We were going across a clear, open field. We were halfway across when fire opened up from our right. Everyone got down, and the Company Serjeant Major started yelling at us to keep moving; so, we being young, brave Royal Marines got back on line and kept moving. But then the bullets started zipping round our legs and raising dust. We knew for sure they were shooting at us then. We weren't about to stay on line after that. We bolted to the right, ran about 25 yards, and took cover behind dirt piled up all along this road."
"This guy sure wanted to be a fuckin' hero," I said.
Daw grinned, and kept reading. "We waited there, just First Section (Second and Third Section were behind us), for about five minutes. They weren't shooting anymore; so, we start sticking our fool necks up to see what was happening. And they started shooting again. Now we knew where they were, though. They were dug in right behind a thick copse, about two sections of them. At least now we could shoot back. We were doing pretty good -- holding our own. Four of them started to run, and we cut them down. THEN!"
Daw looked up at me, his grin even wider. He started reading in this melodramatic tone right outta the worst vitanovela you've ever had the bad luck to see. "We started receiving fire from our rear. I started getting scared, then, because we had no protection to the rear. They had us pinned down for 1/2 hour. We couldn't even raise our heads to see where they were. Finally Second and Third Sections moved up and cleared up our rear. We continued the firefight to our front. By this time, we had taken a few casualties, including our Company Serjeant Major -- shot through the neck close to the collarbone. A medical ropter landed right behind us as we set up a hard base of fire, turning our rifles on automatic. The Serjeant Major wouldn't leave though; he kept running around yelling orders, his neck all patched up, like he was Trevor Hazleton in Days Future Past."
Daw looked up at me and rolled his eyes. I couldn't help but laugh. He started reading again doing a bad imitation of Trevor Hazleton.
"After awhile, we thought we had wiped them out because they kept running and we kept cutting them down. After awhile, the fire stopped; and the Serjeant Major wanted a frontal assault on the positions. We didn't like that idea cos, if there was one automatic weapon left, it could tear our whole section to pieces. We finally made him see the light. We threw a few grenades; and, sure enough, they started shooting again. We just exchanged fire for another hour, and then the TERRORS!!! came. Three terrors with the Second Platoon swept through the position from our right. I saw Nigel with the heavy machine gun. There were only three dagoes left. The terrors opened fire when they saw them. Killed two and took one prisoner. All that took a little over five hours. One of our compatriots was put up for a medal."
Daw looked up. "A medal, eh? Oy Jesus. I'm trying to imagine Papi writing something like this from Manchuria, y I can't wrap my head around it. What a fuckin' moron."
"Hey, don't stop now, cabrón," I said.
Daw continued reading, still doing the Hazleton voice. "Robin sent me a letter and told me not to tell you he is coming to America. I'll write him and tell him how lousy everything is around here. We got mail three times last week, and I got a whole mess of letters from you. I got a letter from David, and he says Daniel will be alright. I hope so. I also got two letters from Connie. I miss her, terribly. The good news is, I'll be back in Staffordshire for leave in June. I can't wait. I'll write soon. Tim."
Daw looked up at me and grinned. He stuck his hands by his face and shook them. "And then came the TERRORS!!! Oh my! Fucking moron."
"Hey, c'mon, Daw. Don't mock him. Have you ever been in combat?"
Daw snorted. "Ran with the chavos banda in North-East Puerto Hancock, boobie. Close enough." Hands up again. "TERRORS!!!" He sniffed. "Anyway, it isn't that the guy was scared, Profe. It's that he wasn't. 'Just like the cinema.' Por fucking favor."
"Well, yeah, you have a point. Limones. Be nice to be so innocent, sí?" I looked at my stack. "Okay, here's another one. I'll read it."
I started in a jocular voice. "8 April 1977. Dear Jo. Today is probably the worst day I have ever lived in my entire, short life. Once again we were in contact with the Manos, and once again we suffered losses. The losses we had today hit home, as my best friend in this shit hole was killed. He was only 22 years old and was going on leave on the first of June to meet his wife in Staffordshire. I feel that if I was only a half second sooner in pulling the trigger, he would still be alive."
My voice started to change around here. The mocking tone no longer seemed appropriate.
"Strange how short a time a half of a second is -- the difference between life and death. This morning we were talking about how much he reminded me of myself eight years younger. You know, I can still feel his presence as I write this letter and hope that I am able to survive and leave this far behind me. If there is a place called Hell this surely must be it, and we must be the Devil's disciples doing all his dirty work. I keep asking myself if there is a God, then how the Hell come young men with so much to live for have to die. I just hope that his death is not in vain."
I looked up at Daw. His face was more somber. I went back to reading.
"I look forward to the day when I will take my leave. If I play my cards right, I should be able to get back to England for our anniversary. The reason is that by next month I will have more than enough time in country to get my pick of places and dates. I promise I will do everything necessary to insure that I make that date, and I hope that tomorrow is quiet. We will be going into base camp today for our three-day stand down. I will try to write you a longer letter at that time. Please don't worry too much about me, as if you won't, for I will take care of myself and look forward to the day I am able to be with you again. Love, Nigel."
I looked at Daw. "Do you think?"
He shook his head. "No sé, vato."
"Fuck." I put the letter down. "Y'know, Daw, all the men who wrote these are probably dead. That's why they were never mailed."
Daw sniffed again. "I hadn't thought of that." He stood up, stretched his legs. "Puto."
"Puto," I agreed. I stood up too.
We stood silent for a moment. "Military history, right?" said Daw.
"Yeah," I grunted.
He clapped his hands together. "Well, let's get back to the chamba. There's a lot of shit in here."
It took us another three hours to classify all the documents. They weren't all letters. In fact, they weren't even mostly letters. But I kept haunting myself with a question. Which I finally asked CPT Quezadas as we waited for the gyro. He told us that "cap-er-mister" Ruíz had given us permission to take whatever documents we wanted. I told him about the letters, and asked, "Don't we have a duty to send these to England?"
I handed him Stanley's letter. He glanced at it. "Yes, I think we do, private. But first I want all these letters taken back to HQ, copied, and read. There might be important information about Limón tactics and procedures. They may be more important than the other stuff." He looked at the expression on my face. "I know, Nabo. But it's our job."
"Yes, sir," I replied, "it's our job."
It took the next five days to go through all of it. I showered a lot more than usual that week.
Forward to FAN #277B (Operation Cold Phoenix): Waging Peace.
Forward to 24 May 1978: Be My Guest.
Return to For All Nails.