Thomas Calabrese



War Within, War Beneath—Part 1

posted Jan 26, 2021, 11:58 AM by Bruce Rowe

During the Vietnam War, “tunnel rat” became an unofficial specialty for volunteer combat engineers and infantrymen who went into enemy tunnel complexes. These underground structures included hospitals, training areas, storage facilities, headquarters, and barracks. These diverse facilities allowed Viet Cong guerillas to remain hidden underground for months at a time.

Besides enemy combatants, the tunnels themselves presented many potential dangers to tunnel rats. Sometimes they were poorly constructed and would simply collapse. Tunnels were often booby-trapped with hand grenades, antipersonnel mines, punji sticks, and poison gas. The Viet Cong would also use rats, venomous snakes, spiders, and scorpions.

During the First Indochina War against French colonial forces, the Viet Minh constructed an extensive system of underground tunnels, which were later expanded by the Viet Cong. There were two types of tunnels.

The expedient tunnel was simple in construction and ranged in size from twenty to several hundred feet long. They had carefully camouflaged entrances to facilitate evasion and escape.

The name for the second type, complex tunnels, was misleading. They were actually elaborate underground structures which housed hospitals, sleeping quarters, training areas, and arms depots. Sophisticated ventilation systems allowed soldiers to stay underground for sustained periods of time. One example of a complex tunnel was Cu Chi. Located 20 miles north of Saigon, it housed thousands of troops, had four levels, and stretched all the way to the Cambodian border.

The tunnel rats’ basic mission consisted of one or all of the following: destroy the underground structures, gather intelligence within them, and kill or capture the enemy, often in conditions of close combat. Typically, a tunnel rat was equipped with only a standard issue M1911 pistol, bayonet, a flashlight, and explosives. Most of these underground warriors disliked the intense muzzle blast of the large .45 caliber round because its sound could cause temporary deafness when fired in a confined space. Some chose a .22, .25 or .38 caliber pistol instead.

A legend among the tunnel rat culture was Sergeant Mason Flynn of the United States Marine Corps. His weapons of choice were a .38 caliber pistol with a sound suppressor, sawed off 12-gauge pump shotgun and a Ka-bar combat knife. To protect himself from insects, Flynn would rub a mixture of axel grease and bug repellent over his face and neck before entering a tunnel.

Most tunnel rats were small in stature, standing 5 foot, 6 inches or less. Sergeant Flynn was five-foot-eight and he was able to move through confined spaces that others couldn’t, because he was double jointed. He was diagnosed with hypermobility when he was a young boy and the condition permitted him to bend and contort his body in a variety of ways. The collagen abnormalities that made his joints extremely flexible also brought Mason to the verge of a fight-or-flight reaction in a split second. In this particular Marine’s case, he always chose to fight.

Flynn learned to control his fear and he made it another weapon in his arsenal. He took each movement with infinite care, even when his adrenalin was pumping like a raging river. Once inside the tunnel, Flynn could hear his heart beating in the deadly stillness and after a while he learned to slow it down. As he crawled, his keen sense of smell would alert him to the presence of another human in the tunnel, often waiting to kill him.

Because of his unique skills, command left him alone when he was in the rear area. He was assigned his own hooch and was often called when a unit found a tunnel entrance. He was invaluable to the 1st Marine Division because there were never more than 100 tunnel rats in South Vietnam at any one time. Not many volunteered for the hazardous duty and they were not easily replaced.

*  *  *

Sergeant Flynn had just spent three days and nights in a tunnel complex. He killed fourteen enemy soldiers and blew up the structure. When he exited through the escape hole, he had to put on a pair of sunglasses because his eyes were so sensitive to the light. There was hardly a time that Flynn didn’t sustain some type of injury while underground. Most tunnel rats were happy to finish one tour, then get the hell out of ‘Nam. Flynn was approaching the end of his second tour and already had seven Purple Hearts.

He had just returned from China Beach. He liked to go and sit in the salt water of the South China Sea. It helped heal his wounds and take the itch out of the numerous bugbites he received from being underground for hours or days at a time. He was crashed out on his rack in the middle of the day when the newly arrived company commander, Captain Phillip Warner, came walking by and saw him sprawled out. The officer’s initial reaction was that he had caught a gold-bricking leatherneck.

Captain Warner stormed into the hooch and stood next to Flynn’s cot, “What’s your name, Marine?”

Flynn rolled over, looked up and mumbled, “Who the hell are you?”

“Stand up when you’re talking to me! What unit are you with?”

When Flynn didn’t answer, Captain Warner angrily kicked a wooden leg of the cot with his boot. Sergeant Flynn was up in an instant. He grabbed the officer by his shirt, threw him out the door, and went back to sleep.

Battalion Commander, Lt. Colonel Clark Whittington looked up from his desk, “The 1st Sergeant informed me that you want to file assault charges against a Marine. Is that correct?”

Captain Warner responded quickly, “Yes sir. He threw me out of his hooch. He wouldn’t tell me his name, but I found out it was Sergeant Mason Flynn. That’s who I want to file charges against.”

Colonel Whittington laughed, “I heard you landed face first in the dirt. I would have liked to have seen that. I’m surprised you got off that easily. What did you do to provoke him?”

“He was sleeping in the middle of the day. I told him to stand up when he was talking to me and then kicked his cot when he didn’t.”

“Let it go, Captain, consider yourself lucky that Flynn didn’t do more.”

“I can’t expect to lead my men if a non-com can do this to me and not suffer any punishment. It’s bad for discipline. You should know that sir.”

“You would have a valid point if it was anybody else but Sergeant Flynn.”

“What’s so different about him?”

“You’ve been in country about 5 months, right?”

“Six, sir.”

Whittington looked down at a file, “Came over from supply, huh?”

“Logistics, sir.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to do you a favor, I’m going to give you two weeks to familiarize yourself with your command. In that time frame, ask about Sergeant Flynn. If you still want to file charges, come see me.”

Warner started to speak, but Whittington stopped him, “This conversation is over. A little advice, Captain . . . don’t over-estimate your own importance. Don’t let your arrogance get in the way of your common sense. Now get out before I throw you out too!”

Two days later, Flynn was sitting outside his hooch, his feet were resting on an ammo box, with a cooler of ice and beer next to him. A large tarp stretched over four tall wooden poles, providing shade from the Asian sun. Flynn wore shorts, a t-shirt, and sunglasses.

Captain Warner couldn’t resist the temptation to confront Flynn again. “Who the hell do you think you are! What do you think this is, a resort?”

Flynn looked up and remarked, “Step aside, you’re blocking the breeze.”

“I told you once before to stand up in the presence of an officer. I won’t tell you again.”

“I thought you looked familiar. You came into my hooch the other day. You got a thing for standing up, don’t you? This is ‘Nam, there’s enough ways to get killed around here without getting bent out of shape over B.S. No hard feelings. Have a beer and lighten up.”

Warner was outraged. “I went to the Battalion Commander to file charges against you and he suggested that I wait. He thinks I’ll change my mind. That is not going to happen.”

Flynn chugged the rest of his beer and peered over the top of his sunglasses. “A Marine’s gotta’ do what he’s gotta do. If you came here asking for my permission, you got it.”

Before Warner could react, a jeep pulled up. There were three stars on the red flag, mounted on the front bumper. Two Marines exited the jeep and walked over to where Flynn was sitting. Captain Warner immediately recognized the officer as Lt. General Lewis Walt, Commanding Officer, III Marine Amphibious Force. Sergeant Major Eric McRaney, was the other Marine. Warner snapped to attention and rendered a crisp salute. Flynn remained seated and offered, “Take a load off, LG (short for Lieutenant General).”

General Walt reached into the cooler, pulled out two beers and handed one to the Sergeant Major. The three Marines tapped beer cans and the Sergeant Major made a toast, “If you cheat, may you cheat death. If you steal, may you steal a woman’s heart. If you fight, may you fight for a brother. If you drink, may you drink with me.”

General Walt looked at the young officer still standing at attention, “Sit down, Captain, you’re making me nervous.”

For about five minutes, the three combat veterans made small talk until General Walt said, “Give Flynn his promotion warrant. You are now a Staff Sergeant.”

Sergeant Major McRaney handed the large manila envelope to Flynn who quipped, “I told you I didn’t want to be promoted. If I get too much rank, I’ll begin to think that I won’t have to work for a living.”

“Hey!” Sergeant McRaney protested.

“Present company excepted, of course. As much as I appreciate that you hand-carried the paperwork, you could have sent it through the chain of command. Is there something else on your mind, LG?”

General Walt began to explain, “We’re planning a search and destroy operation.”

“I know, Operation Oklahoma Hills. There’s a lot of infiltration tunnels around Happy Valley and Charlie Ridge. I’ve been out there a few times.”

“I should have figured the scouts would tell you before they told me,” General Walt smiled.

“Don’t take it personally. It’s just professional courtesy.”

General Walt continued, “I’ll let you know when I need you. In the meantime, I’d advise you to get some rest. If you need anything or have any problems, you know how to find me.”

“Roger that, LG.”

General Walt and Sergeant McRaney got up to leave and Flynn said, “There is one thing that you can do for me, General.”

“Name it.”

“Got any advice for this hard-charging leatherneck. He’s new to the unit,” Flynn said.

“What’s your name, Captain?” General Walt asked.

“Phillip Warner, sir.”

“The best advice I can give any officer is listen to your Sergeants, especially this one.”

After General Walt and Sergeant Major McRaney left, Captain Warner asked, “Why didn’t you tell the General about me wanting to file charges against you?”

Flynn responded matter-of-factly. “A few reasons; first being that the General has enough on his plate, second, I don’t need anybody to fight my battles for me and last, I’ve got a lot of enemies in ‘Nam, one more won’t matter that much.”

Warner thought for a second, then said, “I’ll have that beer now . . . that is if you’re still offering.”

Flynn reached into the cooler and handed the young officer a can of beer. A minute later, Colonel Whittington came walking by. Seeing Sergeant Flynn and Captain Warner, sitting next to each other, he smiled. He walked over and asked in a stern voice, “What’s going on, here?”

Warner didn’t know how to respond, but Flynn quipped, “Just waiting for you.”

“Wait no longer.” Colonel Whittington sat down, pulled out a beer from the cooler and began to drink it.

*  *  *

Scuttlebutt began to circulate through the infantry units that they would be going out to the “bush” soon. Flynn knew exactly when, because General Walt told him, but he kept the Intel to himself. He walked over to the Motor Pool and approached Gunnery Sergeant Jim Garza, “Do you think I can get a jeep for the day?”

Gunny Garza pointed to a row of vehicles, “Take what you want.”

Flynn drove to the small village of Bac Lieu. The Vietnamese people waved to him as he passed by. Staff Sergeant Lee Starkey was in charge of this particular Combined Action Program unit. It consisted of a thirteen-member Marine rifle squad, augmented by a Navy Corpsman and strengthened by a Vietnamese militia platoon of older boys and elderly men. Its purpose was to combine a Marine squad with local forces to form a village defense platoon. The CAP units were effective in denying the enemy a sanctuary at the local village level.

Mason spoke in Vietnamese to one of the village elders about the whereabouts of the Marines. He was told they were on patrol and should be back soon. One of the mama-sans brought him a cup of tea and he settled in to wait for his fellow Marines.

This tunnel rat had an intense hatred for the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerillas. They were a brutal and merciless enemy that would torture and kill any man, woman or child who did not adhere to the communist philosophy. On the other hand, Flynn had respect and affection for the pro-American Vietnamese who just wanted to live in peace. He would often come into the “ville” when he had a hankering for a combination of Vietnamese and American food, which the CAP units were known for creating.

He was socializing with the villagers when a truck full of drunk Army soldiers stopped on the way back from the Freedom Hill PX complex. The soldiers started to get aggressive with the young women and began bullying the old men.

Flynn attempted to reason with them. “Take it easy, this is a nice quiet village with good people. Don’t ruin it for the rest of us.”

One soldier bellowed, “There ain’t no good Vietnamese!”

Flynn knew that there would be no compromising with these men, so he said, “Who’s the toughest man here?”

A soldier standing six-foot-four and weighing 200 pounds walked up. “That would be me, jarhead.”

Six inches taller and sixty pounds heavier than Flynn, the soldier did not perceive him as much of a threat. Flynn reached into his pocket and pulled out 200 dollars in military payment currency.

“Beat me and this is yours. If I win, then you and your buddies get in that truck and get the hell out of here.”

The soldier tried to act brave in front of his friends. “You’re a little small. Why don’t you come back when you grow up.”

“Why don’t I just cut you down to my size.”

The soldier raised his hands to fight, but Flynn stood there with his arms by his side and stuck his chin out. “I’ll give you the first punch.”

The soldier was confused by this offer. He threw an awkward punch that Flynn easily ducked. Flynn landed a crashing left hand to the right rib cage and a right hand of equal power to the left rib cage. The soldier screamed out in anguish and fell to his knees, doubled over in pain. He wasn’t knocked out, but the fight was definitely knocked out of him.

Right about this time the CAP patrol returned. Staff Sergeant Sharkey asked, “What happened?”

Flynn replied with a mischievous grin, “The guy fell into my fist.”

The soldiers picked up their comrade and loaded him into the truck. One of the soldiers commented, “I think that Marine is Flynn.”

The other soldiers responded, “You mean the tunnel rat? No frickin’ way!

Sharkey said, “I can guess what they wanted.”

“War brings out the best and worst in people,” Flynn shrugged.

“I heard a big op is coming up.”

“I heard the same thing. Don’t know how long I’ll be out this time. I thought I’d have a good meal before I go.”

“You’re always welcome here.”

Sharkey turned to one of the mama-sans and told her something. She went into a bamboo hooch filled with cases of American food and took some boxes out. That afternoon, Flynn, his fellow Marines and the villagers dined on Vietnamese soup, grilled pork, beef on rice noodles, summer rolls, and crepe wrap.

As Flynn got ready to leave, Sharkey commented, “Good luck.”

“See you when I see you.” Then Flynn drove off.

As they moved through their sectors of search in the beginning days of Operation Oklahoma Hills, the Marine combat units met sporadic resistance. The North Vietnamese would ambush the Marines, then disappear into the bush. The Americans were suffering losses and had very little to show for their efforts. When a patrol found an entrance to a tunnel, the word was passed: “Flynn!”

Flynn came up the trail, as casually as if he was going out for a Sunday stroll. Captain Warner was standing next to the hole with a group of Marines who were providing a defensive perimeter. The skilled tunnel rat wasted little time getting ready to enter the hole.

Warner suddenly realized something, “He’s not going down there alone, is he?”

Sergeant Cuneo replied, “He always does.”

Flynn looked up at Captain Warner. “I need a time check.”

Captain Warner looked at his watch. “Zero eight-forty.”

“If I’m not back by 1800 hours, then I’m not coming back.” Flynn disappeared from view.

Watching someone go beneath ground to face the enemy was the bravest thing Captain Warner had ever seen. To do it once was amazing enough, but to be told that Sergeant Flynn did it on a consistent basis, was beyond his comprehension.

* * *

Six hours later, two of the Marine Corps’ most deadly snipers, Sergeant Carlos Hatchcock and Sergeant Chuck Mawhinney came walking up the trail. When Hatchcock saw a group of Marines sitting around an open hole, he commented, “Flynn?”

A Marine responded, “Yup.”

Sergeant Mawhinney asked, “How long has he been down there?”

“About six hours,” another Marine answered.

“When he comes up, tell him that Hatchcock and Mawhinney said hey.”

After the two snipers walked off, Hatchcock shook his head, “And they call me crazy.”

Inside the tunnel, Flynn killed two NVA soldiers with his knife and hid them behind some bags of rice. He knew it would only be a matter of time before they were found.

The ammunition stockpile he’d discovered was significant in size and Flynn knew he had to eliminate it. He had five pounds of C-4 plastic explosives with him and several timers. The first question was, how long would it take him to get out of the tunnel before it exploded? When he saw three enemy soldiers exit a hole closer to the ammunition, Flynn knew he wouldn’t have to make his way back to the hole that he originally came down. Who would be waiting for him when he came up on this new exit hole? That was the other question he didn’t have the answer to.

Flynn decided on his plan of action. He would place four pounds of his explosives with the ammunition stockpile and set the timers for ten minutes. He would keep the last pound as a diversion for his escape. There would be no room for error. Once the charges were in position, Flynn got ready to make his escape.

At nine minutes and 20 seconds, he started moving slowly toward the hole just as four enemy combatants entered. He would have to eliminate them in a hurry. He shot all of them with his .38. Then he set the timer for ten seconds on the last charge and threw it out of the hole. When it exploded, he made his escape. Only three seconds later, the other charges detonated with a thunderous sound, filling the tunnel with smoke and fire.

Back at the first hole, the Marines felt the earth shake beneath their boots and smoke bellowed out of the tunnel entrance. Everybody thought Flynn had breathed his last. Two minutes later, he walked up behind the Marines who were staring down the smoke-filled hole, wondering what to do next.

“What are you looking at?” Flynn asked.

Captain Warner instinctively hugged the famous tunnel rat, then pulled away. “Sorry about that.”

“I missed you too.”

*  *  *

Over the next two weeks, Flynn destroyed three more tunnels, but was injured when an enemy soldier slashed his leg with a knife. He refused to be evacuated until Operation Oklahoma Hills was completed. When the wound got badly infected. Corpsman ‘Doc’ Hancock warned, “No more delays…you need to get out of here or you’re going to lose that leg . . . or die! Wouldn’t you rather have the Cong kill you than some microscopic bacteria?”

Flynn smiled. “When you put it that way, I guess it is better to live to fight another day.”

While waiting by the LZ (landing zone) for a medivac to the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, Flynn heard small arms fire and explosions on the other side of the hill. Minutes later, wounded Marines began arriving at the LZ. Captain Warner was one of them. He had sustained serious shrapnel wounds from a rocket-propelled grenade. Both Marines rode on the same chopper to the ship.

Once aboard the Repose, Captain Warner underwent emergency surgery. While his wounds were not life-threatening, they were bad enough for him to be sent back to the “World.” Flynn limped over to the young officer’s bed while he was in recovery.

“How you feeling, Captain?”

Warner’s mouth was so dry, he could hardly speak. “Right now I’m feeling numb. Ask me again when the painkillers wear off. My first military operation in country and I’m already getting sent back home. Marines like you have been here almost two years. I don’t feel like I’ve done my part yet.”

Flynn reassured the young officer. “It isn’t how long you’re here that matters. You did your duty while you were here and that’s what counts. Semper Fi, Marine.”

“If anybody ever asks me what I remember most about being in Vietnam, I’m going to tell them that it was serving with Mason Flynn, the legendary tunnel rat. You are the bravest man that I’ve ever met.”

“Bravery means different things to different people. I know what I’m doing and I willingly take the risks, because I have a pretty good idea what to expect once I’m below ground. Bravery to me are the Marines who don’t know what to expect and still go into harm’s way to do their duty.”

End Part I


Come back next week for the conclusion of "War Within, War Beneath"

Felix, Navy Dad

posted Dec 23, 2020, 10:36 AM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Dec 23, 2020, 10:37 AM ]

Felix Rivera’s family on his father’s side was from Bueno Aires, Argentina. His grandparents on his mother’s side were born in Bogota, Colombia. His parents met in Miami then moved to Vista, California, where Diego Rivera was offered the opportunity to open and manage a restaurant called Asado West. (Asado is a way of cooking as well as a social event. It also happens to be Argentina’s national dish. It combines delicious meat with fire and a grill. Popular meats for asado include pork, chicken, sausages, and churrasco, a beef sirloin).

The restaurant was a big success and three years later, Felix Rivera was born, the first of three children to Diego and Marisa Rivera. He was blond-haired and blue eyed, obviously inheriting the European characteristics from his ancestors who migrated to South America from Central Europe. Felix worked through school at the restaurant with his sisters, Martina and Zoe.

He was 14 years old and busing tables. At a large corner booth were a group of Marines and sailors celebrating the promotion of one their own. After the completion of their meal, Felix approached the service personnel.

“Excuse me sirs, would it be alright to ask you a couple of questions?”

One of the Marines quickly replied, “Absolutely!”

One of the sailors pulled out a chair, “Join us.”

Felix sat down and said, “I’ve been thinking about joining the military when I get old enough.”

Over the next 20 minutes, the patient Marines and sailors answered every one of the young boy’s questions. Felix found out that the sailors were SEALs and the Marines were Recon and had just gotten back from a particularly dangerous deployment, where they lost several of their brothers-in-arms.

*  *  *

Four years passed, but Felix never forgot what those American warriors told him. It made such a lasting impression on him that he joined the Navy when he turned 18, becoming a master-at-arms. The MA rating, responsible for law enforcement and force protection, is equivalent to the United States Army Police, Marine Corps military police, Air Force security forces, and the Coast Guard maritime law enforcement division. It’s one of the oldest ratings in the United States Navy.

After two years in the military, Felix applied for a transfer to the Navy SEALs. There are five individual specialty training schools for operatives who finish Basic Underwater Demolition SEALs Training. Those are: Scout Sniper, Advanced Close Quarter Combat/Breacher, Surreptitious Entry Mechanical and Electronic Bypass Specialist, Special Operations Combat Medic, and Special Warfare Combat Fighter. Felix became an Advanced Close Quarter Combat/Breacher and was assigned to SEAL Team Seven. His unit was stationed at Naval Warfare Group I in San Diego.

Three years after joining the team, he went up the coast to Carlsbad with some of his buddies, to participate in the Red Bull Triathlon. While standing in a group of 743 competitors at Tamarack State Beach, Felix saw a beautiful woman.

She was tall and athletic. The Southern California sun glistened off her blonde hair. She had emerald green eyes and a smile that was as gentle as the summer breeze drifting across the sand. The Navy SEAL was so captivated that when the horn sounded to start the race, he just stood there motionless and was knocked over by the thundering herd, rushing into the surf. Rejoining the race, Felix still finished third in the amateur division behind two of his teammates.

While making conversation with his buddies, Felix saw the girl who’d caught his eye at the beginning of the race. He knew he had to take the chance. He told them, “I’ll be back in a minute.”

When he came up to her, Felix took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry to bother you, but my heart will never forgive me if I don’t do this.”

The young woman replied, “Do what?”

“Hear the sound of your voice.” Felix began to walk away.

“That’s all?” the woman said.

Felix turned around. “Excuse me?”

“You can’t say that to a woman and walk away.”

“What else am I supposed to do?”

“Let’s start with your name.”

“Felix Rivera.”

“I won’t ask you your rank.” The woman smiled.

“How’d you know I was in the military?”

“The same way that I know that water is wet and the sun is bright. It’s self-evident.”

Three of Felix’s buddies walked up to them. One said, “We’re heading out.”

The woman said quickly, “Let me see your phone.”

Felix handed his phone to the young woman and she typed the following: Diane Regan, 760- 555-1212, then handed it back.

Felix looked at the screen and smiled. As he walked off, one of his buddies quipped, “You’re in over your head with that one.”

Felix looked back at the beautiful woman and said, “And out of my league. I’m probably going to crash and burn…so what’s your point?”

“No point, just making conversation.”

*  *  *

Diane Regan was an emergency room nurse at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas. She worked three 12-hour shifts, Sunday through Tuesday, 7 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.

When Felix called, they decided to meet at King’s Fish House on Paseo Del Norte in Carlsbad on Saturday afternoon. During lunch, Felix told Diane that he was in the Navy and stationed in San Diego but didn’t elaborate beyond that. Diane volunteered that she was a registered nurse but excluded where she worked. They were moving cautiously, using the philosophy that trust is earned, not given. Eventually their conversation drifted to growing up in North County and settled in on their mutual interests in triathlons and their training methods. When it came time to pay the bill, Diane picked up the check and said, “You’ve got the next one.”

Diane liked the way Felix handled himself. He didn’t try to build himself up or get too inquisitive about her life. He was comfortable with spells of silence that other men felt compelled to fill with useless banter. On their fourth date, as they ran along South Ponto Beach, Diane sprinted ahead and disappeared behind a lifeguard stand. Felix ran to catch up. When he did, she grabbed him and kissed him, then sprinted off again. This was her signal that their relationship had reached the next level.

Things moved naturally for the young couple, falling into place without too much effort from either one of them. Felix told Diane he was a Navy SEAL, the risks involved in his profession, and that he would understand if she didn’t want to continue seeing him. Diane replied without hesitation.

“I’ll stay around…if you don’t have any objections?”

“No objections at all,” Felix responded happily.

*  *  *

Another two years passed. Felix had a half dozen assignments that took him away from California for extended periods of time: four to the South China Sea, one to Honduras, and another to San Salvador. Each time he returned, Felix almost expected Diane to have changed her mind about seeing him. She was beautiful, intelligent, strong, and could have her choice of almost any man. Why would she want anything to do with a door-kicker that was gone as much as he was? To his continued surprise and even greater pleasure, the relationship just kept getting better.

Diane was at work at the hospital when Felix stopped by her parents’ Bressi Ranch home in Carlsbad. After exchanging pleasantries with Robert and Eleanor Regan, Felix asked her father,” May I you speak to you in private, sir.”

“Sure,” Robert Regan said. “Let’s go into the den.”

Felix followed Robert, closing the door behind them. Felix did not hesitate to say what was on his mind

“I’d like to ask your permission to marry Diane.”

“Have you spoken to her about this?”

“I came to you first.”

Robert hesitated, then chose his words carefully. “I thank you for your service to our country. Would you want your daughter to marry someone in a profession like yours?”

“No sir, I would not. But then again, it wouldn’t be my decision.”

“May I be direct with you?”

“I’d prefer it.”

“I don’t doubt you love my daughter and I can tell how deeply she cares about you. I don’t know what she would do if you were killed in the line of duty. She’s an extremely loyal person and she might think she had to spend the rest of her life alone to honor your memory.”

Felix turned to leave, then said in parting, “You make some valid points, sir.”

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention our conversation to Diane.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Two weeks later, Diane and Felix were watching the 1935 classic movie, The Little Colonel. Diane loved the old Shirley Temple movies. Actually, Felix wasn’t really watching it but seemed pre-occupied. Diane paused the movie.

“If you don’t want to watch this, we’ve got all three of the John Wick movies.”

“I’m sorry, did you say something?”

“Do you love me?”

“Very much.”

“Do you want to marry me?”

“I do.”

“Will you marry me?”

Felix immediately became defensive. “Where is this coming from?”

“Simple question; answer it!”

“I can’t.”

“You don’t have to. You want to marry me but can’t. I understand completely.” Diane started the movie again and focused her attention on it.

*  *  *

The following week, Diane invited her parents to join her and Felix for dinner at Giaola Italian Kitchen in Carlsbad.

“I have an announcement to make. I’ve asked Felix to marry me.”

Diane saw the look Felix and her father exchanged. She knew her suspicions were right on target.

“He didn’t say anything, dad.”

Robert Regan began to speak, but Diane stopped him. “Don’t lie to me… that will be a hard thing for me to forgive if you do”

Eleanor intervened. “Tell her the truth.”

“Felix came to me and asked my permission to marry you. I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea.”

“Let me guess. Felix respected your wishes and promised not to tell me about your conversation…right?”

Robert nodded.

“I’d like your blessing, but we’re going to get married…regardless.” Diane’s tone of voice was strong and unbending. She nudged Felix. “Go for it.”

“Sir, I love your daughter and would greatly appreciate your permission to marry her.”

Robert hesitated, then his wife punched him in the arm. “Say it or I will.”

Robert smiled in good-hearted defeat. “You have my blessing. I should have figured I wasn’t going to win this one.”

*  *  *

It was going to be a small wedding with 46 guests. The Rivera and Regan families, Felix’s SEAL team members and Diane’s closest friends would all attend. The event would be held at the Morgan Run Resort and Club in Rancho Santa Fe. After the rehearsal dinner, Robert Regan approached Felix.

“I’d like you to do me a favor.”

Felix responded, “Sure, if I can.”

“I’ve got some interests in businesses and real estate around the area. During the first phase of residential construction in Bressi Ranch, I bought five houses including the one I live in. It’s been a good investment and they’ve appreciated significantly in value. One of the rentals is right next door to us. I’d like you and Diane to move in there. She’ll be close when you’re away and that will make her mother and I feel a lot better.”

“Isn’t it occupied right now?”

“Yes. They are good tenants, but I told them the situation and offered them six months free rent and to pay for their moving expenses if they relocated to one of my other houses.”

“How much is the rent? Bressi Ranch is not an inexpensive place to live. Remember, I’m just an enlisted man.”

“I looked it up. As an E-6, Petty Officer First Class, your Basic Allowance for Housing with one dependent is $3,114. You cover the utilities and the rent would be free.”

“That is much too generous, sir. I can’t accept that.”

“I told you it was a favor to me. This is my daughter and nothing is too generous for her. I don’t need the rent so it’s not that big a deal to me. The property is in a real estate trust and it’s already a good write-off. I’ll compromise as to not offend you. Five hundred dollars a month then…happy now? Do not make me go higher. I’m a tough negotiator.”

“If it’s alright with Diane, then I guess it’s alright with me.”

“I asked her first and she said OK if it was alright with you.” Robert smiled mischievously, then added sternly, “Take care of my daughter…that is all I ask.”

“It will be my duty, honor and privilege to comply with that order, sir.” Felix snapped to attention.

Diane Regan and Felix Rivera were married the next day; Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2013. Their daughter was born on April, 23, 2015, the same date as Shirley Temple’s birthday in 1928. The name on her birth certificate was Temple Elena Rivera. She had her mother’s beauty and her father’s adventurous spirit and athletic ability.

From almost the first time she opened her eyes, she was a daddy’s girl. Every time Felix was around, Temple would smile and giggle. As she got older, Felix would put Temple in a stroller and go for a run or take her down to the beach, putting her in a small plastic boat. He would tie one end of a rope to the boat and the other around his waist, then go for a long swim. By the time Temple was two years-old, she was riding on the same surfboard as her father. She was advanced for her age and could speak in coherent sentences by the time she was two and a half.

When most girls were getting into dolls and other similar endeavors, Temple became interested in anything that had to do with her father and the Navy. They would sit together in the living room and watch old war movies, commenting to each other about the action, while laughing and joking with each other.

On this particular evening, Diane was in the dining room with her mother-in-law, Maria. They watched Felix and Temple with great interest until Maria said, “They definitely have a bond.”

“They are inseparable when Felix is home,” Diane added.

Temple loved to wear Navy attire and Felix never missed an opportunity to bring her something whenever he returned from a mission. It got to the point that Temple was nicknamed “Little Admiral,” a take-off on the 1935 Shirley Temple movie Little Colonel.

*  *  *

It was December 19, 2019. Diane and Temple drove to Coronado to pick up Felix after a three month deployment. The young girl was dressed in her specially tailored white Navy uniform. As soon as the team exited the bus, Temple rushed to meet her father. One of the other team members called out, “Make room for the Little Admiral!”

On the way back to Carlsbad, Temple asked her father, “If you’re not too tired, do you think that we could drive through the village to see the Christmas lights before we go home. If you’re not too tired of course.”

Felix turned around to face his daughter in the backseat. “I’m not tired at all. I slept on the plane and I’m just getting my second wind. We’ll get some hot chocolate with marshmallows too!”

While driving down Carlsbad Village Drive and looking at the festive decorations, Temple called out, “Felix the Navy Dad!”

When Felix and Diane saw what Temple was looking at, they couldn’t help but laugh. It was a bright red and green sign with the words “Feliz Navidad.”

It was a great Christmas because Felix’s team stayed local. Over the coming months the Rivera family appreciated their time together, knowing that at any time Felix could be called away.

On April 23, 2020, they were celebrating Temple’s fifth birthday. Both sides of the families as well as a dozen of Temple’s friends were in the backyard of their Bressi Ranch home. There was a barbecue with hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, and all the fixings. A three-layer cake had raspberry and strawberry filling. The children were playing games while the adults socialized.

When Felix’s special phone rang, everybody in the family knew what that meant. The area immediately grew quiet as the Navy SEAL answered. “Rivera here…confirmed…on my way.” Felix disconnected the call and turned to his family. “Sorry. Got to go.”

Diane volunteered, “I’ll give you a ride.”

Temple chimed in. “I’m going too!”

Felix turned to his daughter. “This is your party. You can’t go.”

Temple turned to her guests and called out, “Thank you all for coming and thank you for your gifts. Enjoy the food and stay as long as you want. I’m going with my daddy.”

Diane looked at Felix. They knew it was a waste of time to argue with their daughter.

*  *  *

A missionary couple had been taken hostage by MS-13 gang members in El Salvador. They were working in the dangerous area of Soyaupango in the capital city of San Salvador, which borders gang-infested districts five and six. SEAL Team Seven was assigned to effect a rescue. This was not a search and destroy assignment, but an extraction, followed by escape and evasion. Chief Petty Officer Rivera and Chief Petty Officer John Joseph Ashby would do the extraction, while the rest of the team provided cover. The mission would have to be quick and precise. MS-13 gang members were well-armed and the SEAL Team was outnumbered. Any delays or missteps would be fatal for the American warriors.

Because of his natural ability to scale buildings and other vertical objects, Felix’s call sign was “Cat” and Chief Petty Officer Ashby was simply called “J.J.” The team entered the danger zone and took their assigned positions. Felix used special equipment to climb to the roof of the four-story building, then threw a rope over the side and pulled J.J. up.

Using their specially equipped HK 416 carbines with noise suppressors and laser sights, Cat and J.J. moved down the stairs, taking out bad actors as they went. When they found the missionaries, Felix assured them. “Just follow my instructions and we’ll be home soon.”

Felix radioed to his team. “We’re coming out.”

His team leader, Master Chief Ray Lamar replied, “Hold your position, we have a problem.”

“Roger that.”

Five minutes later, Master Chief Lamar radioed, “We’ve been compromised. Wait until zero six hundred hour, then make your way to the open field behind you. Our plan is to be in position by then. That will be our new extraction point.”

“Confirmed, zero six hundred…standfast until then.”

At daylight, Felix and J.J. made their way to the open field. Things didn’t go quite according to plan. Felix, J.J., and the two hostages came under heavy fire from MS-13 soldiers. A rocket-propelled grenade landed near them as they ran across the field. J.J. sustained a serious chest wound and Felix was blinded by the blast. The two hostages led the SEALs to a ravine. A barely conscious J.J. directed fire to a blind Felix as MS-13 soldiers charged their position. J.J. used the clock to guide his teammate; “1100 fire! 1400 fire!”

For 30 long minutes, Felix and J.J. held off a superior force while protecting the missionaries, until the rest of their team could fight their way to their position. A helicopter landed minutes later, then lifted the injured SEALs and rescued hostages out. Soon afterwards, a larger helicopter landed and the rest of the SEAL team boarded. The door gunners sprayed the area with deadly suppressive fire, killing most of the attackers.

Felix and J.J. were medically evacuated to Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego. J.J. was rushed into surgery and was saved. After being thoroughly examined by the Navy’s top ophthalmologist, Felix was assigned a hospital room. Diane was notified that her husband was a patient and she immediately drove down from Carlsbad with her daughter. They were in the hospital room when the physician entered and introduced himself.

“I’m Doctor Baker.”

“I am Diane Regan and this is our daughter, Temple.”

“Hello Doctor Baker. Are you taking care of my daddy?”

“I am.”

“I need you to bring your ‘A’ game because I’ll be watching you,” Temple warned.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Cut him some slack, Temple,” Felix said.

“After careful examination and looking at your CAT scan, I’ve come to the conclusion that you have Optic Neuritis. That is when swelling or inflammation damages the optic nerve. Actually it is more than just one nerve. It’s a bundle of nerve fibers that transmits visual information from the eye to the brain.

“What is the treatment, doctor?” Diane asked.

“There is none. In your husband’s case, the inflammation is quite severe and it is intertwined between and around the fibers.”

“What are you going to do then?” Temple asked.

“I’m going to send him home tomorrow and we’ll have to wait for the swelling to subside.” Doctor Baker tapped Felix on the leg. “I’ll give you the name of a therapist at Camp Pendleton who specializes in temporary blindness cases. Contact her and she’ll set up a program for you.”

Diane was angry that the doctor was so matter of fact. “That’s it …just send him home!”

“Would you prefer that he stayed here? You sprain an ankle, you stay off it. You catch the flu, you stay in bed. The optic nerve is swollen, you have to wait for the swelling to go down. Get some rest Petty Officer and I’ll see you in the morning.”

Diane was sleeping in the chair in the corner of the room and Temple was lying in the hospital bed with her father when Master Chief Lamar entered and tapped Felix on the leg. Temple looked up at him and the Master Chief smiled. “How you doing, Little Admiral?”

“Good.”

“I recognize that voice!” Felix said.

“How you doing?” Master Chief Lamar asked.

“A little dark, but I’m hanging in there. How’s J.J. doing?”

“He’s in recovery, the doctor said he’s going to make it. You get some rest. I’ll be in touch.” As Master Chief Lamar turned to leave, he bent over and whispered to Diane, “If you need anything—anything—you call me.”

“Thanks Master Chief.”

*  *  *

Felix met with the therapist at the Wounded Warrior Barracks on Camp Pendleton. She gave him a list of things to do, like counting the steps to various locations in the house and learning to do things by feel and memory. Felix didn’t want his wife and daughter to feel bad, so he tried to keep the situation light. Whenever he tripped, he would joke, “I don’t remember being this clumsy before.”

Diane and Temple tried to keep the same routine, to maintain some sense of normalcy in their lives. The days turned into weeks and Felix was still living in darkness. Temple sat next to her father on the couch and asked, “What is like not to see?”

“My other senses are a lot sharper and I definitely have a better memory for things I never paid much attention to. My heart still has perfect vision, though.”

“What does that mean?”

“That means I see you and your mother clearly every minute of every day inside my heart and you are more beautiful and wonderful as time passes.” Felix gave his daughter a big hug.

Fourth of July came and Temple described the fireworks to her father as they sat on the beach. Felix was notified in August that he was put in for the Navy Cross. J.J. was a regular visitor to the Rivera house, since he was still on light duty and recovering from his wound. The two Navy SEALs were sitting quietly in the backyard when Temple brought them cold beers. “Thanks Admiral,” J.J. said

“Thanks honey,” Felix added.

After Temple walked off, J.J. said, “Just between you and me, how are you hanging in there?”

“I’ve got my good days and I’ve got my bad ones, but I get to the gym and to the beach on a regular basis. We both know that exhaustion is the best medicine for depression. What really gets me over the hump is my wife and daughter.”

Every two weeks, Diane and Temple accompanied Felix to Balboa Hospital for his routine examination. Each time Doctor Baker told him that there was no change. Felix was beginning to believe he would be blind for the rest of his life.

On Christmas Eve, 2020, the entire Rivera and Regan families were together for a festive dinner and gift exchange. Temple brought her father’s gifts over to him from under the tree and told him who they were from, then watched him open them. “What about your gifts, aren’t you going to open ‘em?” asked Felix.

“I’ll get mine later.”

After everyone left the living room for the kitchen where the buffet table was set up, Temple lingered behind and walked over to the front window and looked out. She saw a shooting star flash across the clear sky and made a heartfelt wish. “Please God, don’t forget about my daddy.”

What Temple didn’t see was that the North Star increased dramatically in brightness to acknowledge that her wish had been granted.

At sunrise on Christmas, Temple woke up to the scent of pancakes. She put on her new sweatshirt and went downstairs to the kitchen. Her father was there, with his back turned, pouring batter on the griddle. Temple voiced her concern. “You alright to do that?”

“Never better!” He put three pancakes on a plate, turned around, and handed the plate to Temple. He stared at her powder blue sweatshirt for ten seconds, then read the writing on it aloud. “Felix Navidad, Felix the Navy Dad.”

Temple was absolutely dumbfounded. “You can see!”

Then looking up, with tears in her eyes, she said “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, God! This is my best Christmas ever!”

“If you can believe this, I can see even better than before.” Then Felix lifted his daughter up in his arms and danced around the kitchen.

“Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad, my own special Little Admiral!”

The Presidential Assassin: And his vigilante White House staff - Part II

posted Nov 10, 2020, 12:08 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Nov 10, 2020, 12:21 PM ]

When they didn’t receive confirmation that Clint Lattimore was dead, those involved in the conspiracy to kill him didn’t know how to proceed. There was no police report or news story about the incident. It was basically a non-event. When they contacted the secret criminal organization employed by the killer team, they had no information either. It was as if the five men had just vanished. When Clint began making public appearances, confusion abounded.

The middle-aged woman was irate at the turn of events. “So what do we do now?”

The Democratic strategist shrugged. “Another attempt on his life would be a serious mistake in my opinion.”

 “Obviously we know only one thing for sure,” said the Republican deepstater.

“Which is?” asked the middle-aged woman.

“That the attempt on Lattimore’s life failed. Whether the men were captured or killed is of little consequence at this point. The Lattimore team would have to be very foolish not to increase security and be prepared for another attempt.”

“McNally is no fool. His radar is going to be pointing at the rival campaigns and eventually at us.”

“Gentlemen, I repeat my question; what do we do now?”

“Increase our own security, keep our heads on a swivel and hope for the best.” The Democratic strategist swallowed hard, wiping the nervous perspiration from his brow.

Clint had a job to do and the fact that danger was now part of it was of little concern to him. He would take the necessary precautions as he always had in his military career, but he gave his word to McNally and he would keep it. Clint looked at the campaign like it was just another deployment. When it was over and he had lost, he would go back to his regular jobs.

“How are you at giving speeches?” McNally asked.

“I gave a couple when I was in high school and I had to say something when I got the Congressional Medal of Honor,” Clint answered.

“I’d like you to work with someone on effective speech techniques, if you don’t mind.”

“If you think it’s best.”

*  *  *

Lori Grace owned a public relations business and was also a political consultant. She was 43 years old, divorced and a mother of two teenage girls. Her main office was in San Diego, with others in New York, London, and Honolulu. Warren McNally was her main client and she often traveled to his numerous business interests around the world to put on seminars for his executives.

Clint was doing manual labor at the sanctuary when Lori arrived. “Warren said you’d be expecting me.”

Clint put down the shovel and greeted the attractive, personable woman. “I was.”

“Let’s take a walk. I’ve read up on you, but I’d like to get my own impressions.”

A dozen dogs were running free in the exercise yard. “I’ll put the dogs up and then I’ll be ready.”

“I love dogs, let them run free.”

As Clint and Lori walked the perimeter of the 10-acre sanctuary, the dogs played around them. They made small talk, discussing Clint’s work with the non-profits. At the end of their walk, Clint commented, “Am I a lost cause?”

Lori smiled. “I was actually thinking this might be my easiest assignment.”

It was decided that when Clint started giving campaign speeches, he would keep it simple and interact with the audience as much as possible. During his first press conference, a reporter inquired, “What’s your position on global warming?”

“There are conflicting opinions by experts, but I think that we can do things slowly to make a difference. Instead of going directly to the electric car, maybe transition through hybrid vehicles first. Maybe get the auto manufacturers to develop some natural gas and hydrogen cars. I would also commission a study of safe nuclear power.

“Bill Gates has been working on it for years. His system eliminates the need for reprocessing, which in turn reduces proliferation concerns. It also lowers the overall cost of the fuel cycle and helps protect the environment by using waste by-products. Then I would have to convince China and India to reduce their carbon footprints since they’re the biggest polluters in the world.”

As time progressed, a biased media never relented on trying to trip Clint up, but he was always up to the challenge. A reporter inquired, “The country has done a lot of bad things throughout history, do you agree with that statement?”

“I do not agree. Everything wrong that has ever happened in this nation from its inception to this moment in time can be tracked down to the decisions made by bureaucrats and elected officials in the government. Not once has our constitution and its principles failed its citizens. It is important to make the distinction between country and government. Next question.”

Before a rally in Oceanside, California, McNally approached Clint. “Have you thought about who you’d like for Vice President?”

“Not for a second,” Clint responded without hesitation.

“Start thinking.”

Over the next few days, Clint contemplated who he thought might be a good running mate. One person came to mind Whether they would be interested would be the question. When he came to McNally with the name, he asked, “Do you want to make contact or should I?”

“I’ll do it.”

*  *  *

Gina Garcia was a Navy nurse when Clint was on active duty. After her discharge from the military she attended the Physician Assistant School. Degree in hand, she began working with several doctors in Sand Point, Idaho. When Clint called her, she was pleasantly surprised.

“Clint Lattimore! I’ve been following your new political career with great interest. It’s good to hear your voice, it’s been a while.”

“Yours too. I want to run something by you. Feel free to say no, but I figured I’d start at the top and work my way down. You are one of the most ambitious, organized, and efficient people I’ve ever known.”

“Thank you for saying so. What’s your question?”

“How would you like to be my vice president?”

“You’re jokin’, right?”

“My campaign is only going to run six months. There’s no chance I’m going to be elected.”

“Why waste your time if you’re not trying to win?”

“It’s a little complicated. Would you talk to an associate of mine? He’ll explain it to you like he did to me. Maybe it will make more sense.”

Warren McNally was as equally persuasive and almost as generous with his money. A five million-dollar donation to the community clinic in Sagle, Idaho—where Gina volunteered her medical services—convinced her to sign on. Another series of campaign ads with Clint and Gina filled the airwaves and social media websites. It never occurred to Clint that picking a Hispanic woman was the politically correct thing to do. He chose Gina Garcia because she was the best qualified person.

*  *  *

It was October 3 and only 30 days away from the election. When Clint looked over the next campaign ads, he voiced his discontent. “Sorry I can’t do these.”

Warren asked, “What’s wrong?”

“I told you in the beginning that I won’t do negative ads.”

“That you did, just checking to see if you had changed your mind.” Warren turned to his media consultant. “Change the ads.”

The final week before the election, the Democratic and Republican parties had been falling dramatically in the polls. They decided they had nothing to lose by going after Clint Lattimore.

Democratic candidate John Bowden said, “I have heard from anonymous sources that Clint Lattimore was responsible for war atrocities during his time in special operations. If these reports are true, then Lattimore should withdraw from the race immediately!”

“The FBI is reviewing complaints of misconduct and fraud at the clinic where Gina Garcia works. They are considering opening an investigation.” Republican candidate Dwight Rickland said.

When questioned by a reporter about these two statements, Clint smiled. “Tell them to prove it.”

Another reporter chimed in. “You haven’t made any statements about the other candidates. Now would be a good time to break that rule.”

“My very existence is probably an offense to some people. I am pro military, pro law enforcement and pro America. My position has not changed since I began my campaign and I see no reason to divert off course now. My opponents have their platform and if attacking me and my running mate is part of their strategy, then so be it. The American voters will let them know if they made the right choice.”

Election day, November 3 arrived. Clint and Gina figured by tomorrow they would be back at their regular jobs. Their campaigning was over and their agreement with Warren McNally was completed. It had been an interesting six months and while Clint would never admit it, there were moments— few and far between—that he actually enjoyed himself.

While the campaign staff and his running mate watched the exit polls and results, Clint went into the back room of the campaign headquarters and shut off the lights. He sat down in a recliner and leaned back. Clint had been asleep for almost four hours when he heard yelling coming from the main room. Suddenly the door burst open and the lights went on.

Gina exclaimed, “You won!”

When Clint entered the main room, people were jumping around and throwing confetti into the air. He saw the caption on the television screen, Clint Lattimore, Projected Winner. Clint walked over to McNally and said, “You thought this might happen. You are one sly fox.”

McNally smiled deviously. “I thought it was a longshot, but a possibility.”

“I never expected it to go this far. What do I do now?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll rise to challenge.”

Indeed he did. Clint hit the ground running as soon as he was sworn in. To start, he brought in people he’d served with in special operations to be part of his administration. And, even though McNally took no official position on the Lattimore team, he became Clint’s trusted advisor.

President Lattimore began receiving top secret briefings on a daily basis. He came to realize that he was in a unique position to do something about problems in the world that nobody else could. He was the Commander-in-Chief, but decided it was still best if he operated covertly.

With his trusted team, Clint began to incorporate military missions with official visits. He eliminated an Albanian child trafficking ring while working on a trade agreement in the region. While in Mexico, he commanded a team that killed an infamous drug cartel leader who was responsible for the death of five American tourists in Sayulita.

Warren McNally knew that the President of the United States running military operations was so implausible that most Americans would never believe it, even if somebody did report it. He also knew that trying to talk President Lattimore out of his extracurricular activities was a futile endeavor. “If I can’t talk you out of doing this, then I’ll do my best to keep up with you.”

Clint used the same line that McNally had said to him a year earlier: “Thank you sir. Like a wise man once told me, you’ll rise to the challenge.”

Clint was a man of action and found the daily grind of politics extremely boring. Lucky for him, Vice President Gina Garcia was adept at dealing with Congress and the numerous federal agencies.

President Lattimore enjoyed visiting the military because it was an opportunity to be back in his element. He would run the obstacle course with the troops, rappel out of the helicopter, or do a parachute jump. When warned that his actions were too risky for a Commander-in-Chief, Clint shrugged. “Any man who is too afraid of dying is too afraid to live. I have full confidence in the Vice President to step right in if something happens.”

 When he was in the White House and not involved in meetings, Clint spent a lot of time in the fitness center working out with members of his cabinet and the Secret Service. Of course, not every mission took place overseas. When he was in the States, President Lattimore and his vigilante cabinet would use the secret escape tunnel under the White House to deal with issues within U.S. borders.

*  *  *

It had been a prosperous four years for the U.S. economy. There were no new wars and significant progress had been made with the issues of global warming, immigration, and health care. Clint was pressured to run for another term but declined. It was time to move on.

He gave his full endorsement to Vice President Gina Garcia, but there was still some unfinished business to take care of, such as the matter of the individuals who attempted to kill him four years earlier. This would be the last unofficial act of President Lattimore and his vigilante cabinet.

The disappearance of the conspirators would become one of history’s great unsolved mysteries.

Clint was content to go back to his non-profit organizations and pick up where he left off. There was one difference, though. He had a detachment of secret service agents following him around. Then he received a phone call from newly elected President Gina Garcia.

“Just in case you’re getting a little bored in California, I have something you’ll be interested in.”

“I serve at the pleasure of the President,” Clint replied.

End Part II


The Presidential Assassin - Part I

posted Nov 3, 2020, 10:56 AM by Bruce Rowe

Clint Lattimore was an orphan who grew up in the San Diego County foster care system. His parents, Robert and Lisa, were killed by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 5, near the Palomar Airport Road exit, when he was only two years old. In three different foster homes by the time he finished grade school, Clint worked several part-time jobs during high school, while also volunteering at a local animal sanctuary and food bank.

After graduating from Vista High, Clint enlisted in the Marine Corps. During his second year of military service, he applied for a transfer to the Raider Battalion, a vital component of the Joint Special Operations Task Force. Marines and sailors of this unit support security and counter subversion from internal and external threats.

While on a mission in the West African nation of Mali, Sergeant Lattimore’s unit came under a barrage of small arms fire from a local insurgency group. Four Marines were badly wounded. Lattimore quickly assessed the situation and knew that if the fallen Marines stayed in their current location, they would either die from their wounds or be shot again. With a total disregard for his own life, Clint ran into the line of fire to retrieve his fallen comrades. On his third attempt, he was wounded in the arm and leg. Ignoring the pain, Sgt. Lattimore went into harm’s way one more time to get the last Marine. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery and the Purple Heart for his wounds.

During his seventh year in the Corps, Lattimore achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant and received the Bronze Star for his actions in a firefight while on deployment in Afghanistan. Clint applied to become a Warrant Officer and after graduating from the 16-week course, he gained assignment to an elite unit of Marines, Navy Seals, and Air Force Pararescue personnel as a tactical advisor and weapons specialist. As time passed, Warrant Officer Lattimore had six more deployments to various hotspots around the globe. He earned a Silver Star during one of those deployments and another Purple Heart.

During his eighteenth year in the Corps, Chief Warrant Officer Lattimore was on assignment in the South China Seas. Chinese mercenaries had occupied a disputed island in an important shipping route. All diplomacy efforts had failed to resolve the situation, so military action was the last resort. China denied any involvement, but it was a hollow denial and more of a challenge anyway. The leaders of the communist nation wanted to see how determined the United States was to use its military might.

This mission was strictly off the books, since the Chinese denied any connections to the mercenaries. The United States did the same with its elite force of special operatives. The term “plausible deniability” was being bantered about by the Pentagon if the mission turned bad in a hurry. The objective was so dangerous that Admiral Larry Crowne offered the American warriors the option to back out.

“Last chance, gentlemen. I‘ve been notified by Pacific Command to give you the opportunity to withdraw. You will have no support once you land and if you fail, the United States will disavow any knowledge of your actions. You’ll be at the mercy of the Chinese if you are captured. Just take one step forward if you have any second thoughts.”

Not one of the 50-man team, lined up in a row, moved a fraction of an inch.

“I told them that nobody was going back out, but I was ordered to ask. Let’s go make some chop suey!” Admiral Crowne smiled.

*  *  *

Cruising at an altitude of 35,000 feet into the dark of night, the green light went on. The rear ramp lowered and the American operatives exited in precision quickness. The battle that ensued that day was brutal and hard fought, but the mercenaries were defeated. The shipping route remained unthreatened. China was sent a clear message that America would always rise to the occasion. The mission remained top secret for three years until it was declassified by the Department of Defense.

By this time, Chief Warrant Officer Clint Lattimore had retired from the Marine Corps and was working at two non-profit organizations: The Mighty Oaks Foundation, which helps American veterans recover from trauma and readjust to civilian life, and the American Sentry Dogs, which finds suitable and loving homes for sentry and scout dogs who served in the military and police departments

Lattimore joined an elite group of American warriors as one of the most decorated men in Marine Corps history. The distinguished list includes, among others, Dan Daly, Smedley Butler, John Basilone, and Lewis “Chesty” Puller. During Clint’s illustrious career, he earned the Bronze Star, Silver Star, Navy Cross, Congressional Medal of Honor, seven Purple Hearts, and a long list of commendations.

During the China mission, Clint led his team against overwhelming odds and took control of the command center. While the remainder of the strike force fought the mercenaries at various locations around the island, Lattimore and his men were engaged in hand to hand combat with their entrenched adversaries. By the time the day ended and the American operatives rendezvoused, 13 of the 15 men in Clint’s team were either killed or wounded. Lattimore would be hospitalized for several months afterwards to recover from his wounds.

Once again, his bravery was in keeping with the highest tradition of the Marine Corps. Clint showed a total disregard for his own life while protecting his men and accomplishing the mission. Four years later, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in the rose garden of the White House.

*  *  *

Clint was a humble man by nature and never spoke of himself or his military exploits. His modesty almost bordered on reclusiveness. He was cleaning the kennels of several dogs at the American Sentry Dog sanctuary when volunteer Krista Anglin approached. “Clint, there’s a man in the office who wants to speak with you.”

“I’m almost done. Tell him I’ll be there in about 20 minutes.”

“You go ahead, I can finish up.”

“You sure?”

Krista smiled. “Go.”

Arriving at the reception area, Clint saw an elderly gentleman flanked by two younger men standing in the lobby. “Are you looking for me?”

“I’m Warren McNally and it’s an honor to meet you, Chief Warrant Officer Lattimore.”

“I’m not in the Marines anymore…the name is Clint.”

“They told me you were cleaning kennels. It seems that would be beneath a true American hero.”

“For the record, no honest job is beneath me and number two, all the real heroes are buried in cemeteries. I’m just a guy who tried to do his job and God was merciful enough to let me survive.” The tone in Clint’s voice was unbending and self-reflective.

“I stand corrected,” Warren McNally replied. “Is there some place we can talk in private?”

Clint glanced around and responded, “The conference room is available.”

The two men walked into the room and Clint shut the door. Sitting across from each other at a long wooden table, Warren McNally was the first to speak.

“On any given day, I fluctuate between being the seventh and eleventh richest man in the world, depending on the stock market and the global economy.”

“And why should that matter to me?” Clint asked.

“Because I am in a position to offer you something that very few people can.”

“I’ve got pretty much everything I need.”

“How would you like to run for president?”

“President of what?”

“The United States.”

“I’ll stick to cleaning kennels and walking dogs.”

“You haven’t heard the rest of my offer. I will make a five million dollar donation to Mighty Oaks and the same amount to American Sentry Dogs if you accept my offer.”

“I have no experience and even less interest in being a politician. You couldn’t have made a worse choice than me.”

“That would be true if I was looking for a politician, but I’m looking for a patriot. There is nobody who has risked more and served his country with greater distinction than Clint Lattimore.”

“The answer is still no.”

“How about if I made you an offer that you couldn’t refuse? I’ll make it ten million to each charity. You can help a lot of veterans and dogs with that kind of money.”

“What’s in it for you?”

“Good question. I love my country, but I’m disheartened and disillusioned. The Democratic and Republican parties have become too entrenched and self-serving in their own philosophies. Politicians are too concerned with getting elected and staying in office rather than doing their jobs. It’s the Washington beast and the toxic environment of the swamp that it resides in that brings me here today. Before I die, I want to send a clear message and a stern warning to these self-serving bureaucrats that there’s another team in the league.”

“And you want me batting lead-off?”

“Exactly.” Warren McNally smiled.

“I’ll give you my rules of engagements up front so there’s no misunderstanding. First of all, I’m not your flunky or puppet, where you tell me what to say and I’ll just say it without question. I will never do anything that is in conflict with my code. My truth and your truth might not be the same thing. Last and most importantly, I will walk away anytime I feel that this not for me. Agreed?”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ll make the donations tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want to see if I’m any good at this before you start giving away your money?”

“If you give me your word, then I’m sure I’ll get your best efforts. Men like you don’t do anything halfway.” Warren McNally smiled. “I’ve already put a campaign team together. You’ll hear from me in the next couple days.”

“I’m only doing this for the donations…like you said 20 million can do a lot of good.”

“I knew you wouldn’t do it for yourself.”

After the multibillionaire left the room, Clint hung his head and closed his eyes. “I sure hope I know what the hell I’m getting into.”

*  *  *

Warren McNally deposited one billion dollars into the Lattimer election fund and told campaign manager Bob Ward, “I want a saturation campaign; television, radio, and social media. Spare no expense.”

“Yes sir,” Bob Ward replied.

The first group of commercials was simple. Clint Lattimore appeared at national monuments around the country, speaking these few words: “I am an American and I love my country.” The second barrage of public advertisements showed Clint standing in front of military backgrounds with these words: “It has been my honor and privilege to serve my country in the military. Please give me another opportunity to serve as your President.”

As the weeks passed, Clint slowly and steadily began moving up in the polls. Powerful leaders in the Democratic and Republican parties held an emergency meeting in a hotel suite in Washington DC to discuss the newest political threat to their power.

A Democrat operative commented in frustration, “We’ve got nothing we can go after him on.”

A Republican leader echoed the same sentiments. “Even if we fabricated a scandal, the American people would never accept an attack against a war hero. The backlash against us would be swift and merciless. To make matters worse, he has the unlimited funding of McNally. The fact is, the longer Lattimore is in the race, the worst it will get for both our candidates and our parties.”

A middle-aged woman was browsing through a file.

“Lattimore has escaped death more times than any person has a right to expect. Maybe it’s time that his luck ran out. I’m sure there are foreign radical groups or domestic terrorists that could be blamed for his untimely and tragic death.”

The Democrat operative smiled deviously. “Now that you mention it, I think that I have heard there are some threats against Lattimore’s life.”

The middle-aged woman then made eye contact with the men in the room and joked, “Arlington National Cemetery…get ready, one of your boys is coming home.”

*  *  *

Clint had his issues with PTSD and always slept with a loaded automatic pistol under his pillow. Its closeness gave him a sense of tranquility. Sleeping in his trailer on the Sentry Dog property with Spencer, a Pitbull Labrador mix lying in the bed next to him, both man and dog sensed something and awakened at the same time. Clint reached for his pistol, walked over to the computer terminal, and accessed the surveillance cameras. He saw five men with assault rifles approaching the trailer.

One minute later, two intruders entered the trailer while the other three stood guard outside. The two gunmen opened fire on what they thought was Clint lying in his bed. When one of the men pulled back the covers, he saw the bed was empty.

A man with a thick foreign accent turned to his comrade. “Nobody saw him leave, he has to be around here somewhere.” The two men walked outside to inform their cohorts of the situation.

Before the men could spread out and search the area, Clint rolled out from under the trailer and shot four men dead. He put the muzzle of his weapon to the head of the fifth. “It’s your call.”

The man dropped his assault rifle and Lattimore slapped the assailant across the side of his head with his pistol. The man fell to his knees. “Call me over-sensitive, but I don’t like being ambushed.”

Early the next day, Warren McNally and his entourage arrived at the property. Clint led them to a storage shed. The four dead men were lying on the floor with a tarp over them. The fifth man was tied and gagged.

“I guess they’re more desperate that I thought,” McNally commented. “Sorry for putting you in this position.”

“No apologies necessary. I knew what I was getting into. I just didn’t figure they would be coming after me this quick. That’s a mistake I won’t make again.”

“You sure you don’t want to back out?”

“After this? Not a chance.”

“I’ll have my men interrogate the survivor and see what they can find out from him.”

“No need. He doesn’t know anything. He’s part of an Albanian hit team that accepted a contract. They got my name, photo, location…and nothing else.”

McNally hesitated for a minute then called one of his men over. “Albie, take care of the bodies and get the live one ready for transport.”

“Yes sir.”

“What are you going to do with him?” Clint asked.

“I’ll turn him over to Interpol. If you want to proceed, then I’m going to triple the security around you.”

“I can handle myself.”

“I’m not disputing that, but I’d rather you focus on your primary mission than standing guard or constantly looking over your shoulder.”

Clint would do what McNally wanted. When the time came, he’d find the people who put the termination contract on him and deal with them accordingly.


End Part I - Part II next week

The Greatest Bond: Scent of Survival

posted Sep 29, 2020, 2:31 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Sep 29, 2020, 2:40 PM ]

On average, 21 U.S. veterans, including one active-duty service member, commit suicide every day. And 3,200 dogs are euthanized in that same time. Both statistics should cause every American deep concern. But sometimes a bad beginning will have a happy ending. This story is about a fortuitous turn of events for a veteran, a dog, and those lucky enough to come in contact with them.

Marine Sergeant Nick Chamberlain was on his third deployment. He’d already made his decision to leave the Corps when his enlistment expired. Being in the infantry, he saw his share of action in Afghanistan and was wounded twice during combat with Taliban fighters.

His Marine detachment had been at Fire Support Base Murphy for six months. Almost done with the assignment, the unit would be returning to Camp Pendleton in two months. Things had slowed down considerably since his company’s first three months in country when they had been under regular attack by mortars, rocket fire or attacks by Taliban fighters. For the last three weeks, Lima Company had only been receiving sporadic sniper fire, but nobody was complaining.

Lance Corporal Rob Tremayne said, “If our luck holds out, we just might make it out of here without getting into another firefight.”

“I’ll consider myself lucky when I’m on a plane back home with all my body parts still attached,” PFC Craig Rizzo interjected. “Until then I’m keeping my head on a swivel.”

“Like Yogi Bear said, it ain’t over till it’s over,” said Lance Corporal Jerry Olander with a smile.

“It’s not Yogi Bear, it’s Yogi Berra!” Corporal Louis Caggiano snapped.

“What’s a Berra?” Olander asked.

“A smaller bear, kind of like a wolf and a wolverine,” Corporal Chris Burson said.

“You guys got no respect for history or tradition,” replied Caggiano. “Yogi Berra was a legendary New York Yankee. He was one of seven managers to lead both American and National League teams to the World Series. Berra appeared as a player, coach or manager in every one of the 13 World Series that New York baseball teams won from 1947 through 1981. Overall, he played or coached in 22 World Series, 13 on the winning side. Berra caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. He also holds the all-time record for shutouts caught with 173.”

“I guess you’re a Yankees fan?” Rizzo surmised.

“Like my dad and his dad before him, and everybody else in my family,” Caggiano said proudly.

“Wasn’t it Yogi Berra who said that being in the Marines was ninety per cent mental and the other half was physical?” Chamberlain joked.

“Something like that,” Caggiano said.

Lt. Andy Breck walked up, “A drone detected some movement about three clicks [one click equals 1000 meters] southwest of our position. Sergeant Chamberlain, take a patrol out and see what’s going on.”

“Roger that.”

“When you’re saddled up, stop by the Command Center and I’ll give you the grid coordinates.” Lt. Breck added as he walked off.

Patrolling for 30 minutes, the Marines patrol had not seen any suspicious activity. Sergeant Chamberlain looked up and saw the drone circling overhead then checked his map to confirm he was in the right location. Something didn’t seem right to him and he ordered his Marines, “Take cover!”

His warning couldn’t have come at a more opportune time as a machine gun opened fire right where the Marines had stood a moment earlier. Mortars came falling from the sky above and one landed ten feet from Sergeant Chamberlain. The blast lifted him off his feet and slammed him against a boulder.

A medivac unit took Sergeant Chamberlain to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the main medical center for U.S. Coalition forces. LRMC is also the evacuation center for all injured U.S. service-members serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, African Command, Central Command, and European Command. After several surgeries to remove 16 pieces of metal shrapnel from his body, Doctor Richard Barkley conferred with his fellow physician Tate Chambers. “That part is done. We got all the metal out and he should make a full recovery from his physical injuries, but…”

“It’s the traumatic brain injury that’s concerning,” Doctor Chambers finished the thought.

Sergeant Chamberlain slowly awakened to see a blurry image of Nurse Lana Garfield standing next to his bed. She smiled down at the injured Marine. “Welcome back, Sergeant.”

Sergeant Chamberlain’s mouth was so dry he could hardly speak. The kindly nurse held a glass of ice chips under his chin and the Marine took some into his mouth. It felt cool and refreshing and he took several more chips.

“Where am I?”

“Landstuhl.”

It only took the Marine a couple seconds to realize he was injured. “How long have I been here?”

“Six days.”

The next question was harder for Sergeant Chamberlain to ask, “How bad am I hurt?”

“You’re much better now.”

Sergeant Chamberlain started doing a mental inventory of his body because he didn’t want to look to make sure he was still in one piece. “What about my…my…”

Nurse Garfield had dealt with enough badly injured combat veterans to know what the Marine’s concerns were. “Don’t worry about that.”

Then Sergeant Chamberlain became slightly nauseous, the room spinning around him. Over the next few days he began experiencing classic symptoms of TBI (traumatic brain injury); amnesia, dizziness, slurred speech, blurred vision, and sensitivity to light. When he began eating solid food, he realized he had no sense of smell or taste.

Three weeks later, Sergeant Chamberlain was transferred from Germany to Camp Pendleton and assigned to the Wounded Warrior Barracks. Most of his symptoms had either diminished or vanished completely except for his loss of smell and taste. After a short period of treatment and some transitional therapy, Sergeant Nick Chamberlain was discharged from the Marine Corps. With the assistance of qualified counselors and a government-subsidized program for severely injured combat veterans, Nick moved into a fully furnished studio apartment in a new complex on Vandergrift Boulevard about two miles from the back-gate of the base. He would be allowed to stay in transitional housing for one year rent free, as long as he continued with his treatment program through the Veterans Administration.

*  *  *

It had been over four months since his injury. Nick’s sense of smell and taste still had not returned so, without the pleasure of enjoying his food, Nick went on a strict diet of vegetables and fish. Basically eating only to keep his energy up.

He also enrolled at Mira Costa Junior College with the intent of getting his Associates Degree. 

Adam Slattery, a former Navy Corpsman who also lived at the apartment complex, had been in a vehicle that ran over an IED in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. A piece of shrapnel severed his left hand at the wrist with surgical precision. Slattery asked Nick, “If you're looking to pick up some extra money, I’ve got this part-time gig driving for Motion. I usually make a couple hundred dollars every week.”

“What are your hours?”

“I tell the company which days I’m available and they text me when someone needs a ride. I’m not doing much so it gives me a chance to get out, ride around, and meet some people.”

“I’ll think about it. If I decide I’m interested, could I go with you to see how it works?”

“No problem.”

*  *  *

Kanines to Kombat Veterans is a non-profit organization that works with various animal rescue organizations including SPOTT and It’s The Pits. Based on a four acre parcel of land in the hills of Vista, California, their primary mission was to join military personnel who have post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or a other psychological disorders with a service animal. The motto of the organization is “Creating the Greatest Bond.” The organization was born out of the premise that dogs could help veterans with a variety of mental health issues.

When Nick was informed of the program, and that he was an eligible candidate, he immediately applied. Two weeks later, notification arrived that he had been selected. He drove to the sanctuary and waited on a bench outside the main office.

An attendant walked toward him with a tan dog on a leash. The dog pulled loose and ran over to Nick and sat before him. He placed his right paw on his knee and looked up. The attendant smiled. “I guess Deputy couldn’t wait for a formal introduction.”

“Deputy? Is that his name?”

“A deputy sheriff brought him in. He’s about two years old. We did a DNA test on him. His breed is Pitador.”

“What’s that?”

“A cross between a Pitbull and a Labrador.”

Nick gently stroked the head of the animal and felt a sense of calm sweep over him.

“My brother Vincent and I used to spend a lot of time at our grandparents’. We’d play catch and my brother had a strong arm, but wasn’t the most accurate thrower. I’d be all over the big yard chasing and fetching the ball. My grandfather nicknamed me ‘Deputy’, short for Deputy Dawg after a cartoon show he loved. It’s strange which things you remember like they were yesterday while yesterday seems like an eternity away. The other characters in the show were Muskie Muskrat, Moley Mole, Possible Possum, Ty Coon, and Pig Newton. My brother was Vincent Van Gopher because when the ball went under something, he had to crawl to get it. Until I saw this dog, I had completely forgotten about those days.”

The attendant smiled. “The mind is a strange thing. When we’re in trouble or not exactly where we want to be, it defaults to a sanctuary of more pleasant memories. Not to change the subject, but I think you and Deputy are a match. Let’s walk over to the office and get you signed up for a training class. Let’s go Deputy.”

The dog barked and Nick replied “Yes sir” at the same time.

As Nick passed a jasmine plant, he caught a faint scent of the sweet-smelling flower and stopped to savor the aroma. “Something wrong?” The attendant asked.

“Something else I just remembered…how good flowers smell.”

*  *  *

The handler class is where veteran and dog learn to work together as a team. It usually takes three-to-five months to complete. For the first month, Deputy stayed at the training facility and Nick drove over from Oceanside to work with his four-legged partner. Their connection grew stronger with each passing day and Nick’s sense of smell became ultra-sensitive, far beyond what it ever was. During the next phase of training, Deputy was allowed to go home with Nick and from that point on, unexplainable things began to happen. The former Marine’s energy level increased dramatically. A laser focus and keen awareness of his surroundings built in his mind. Despite these noticeable changes, the biggest difference were the feelings of overwhelming calm and positive energy that never left Nick as long as Deputy was close by.

Joining Planet Fitness, Nick worked out three hours every morning before going to the sanctuary for his training session. Deputy wore a vest to identify him as a therapy dog, which allowed Nick to bring his trusty companion wherever he went.

After an intense workout at the gym, Nick and Deputy stopped off at Valerie’s, a small café on Hacienda Drive, for a Mexican omelet. The place was empty. Nick sat at the booth in the corner to eat his breakfast, while Deputy laid down under the table. Two men walked up to the counter to place their order, or so it seemed. Nick detected an odor that resembled the way your skin smells after being in a heavily chlorinated pool. Deputy also picked up on the scent. When Nick looked toward the woman at the counter, she had a distressed look on her face. While one man remained at the counter, the other one went into the kitchen with her. Nick gazed down at Deputy and knew what he had to do. He walked up to the counter and said to the man whose eyes were nervously darting about, “Where’s the lady?”

The man responded quickly. “She’s in back getting something.”

Nick made a move toward the kitchen and the man grabbed his arm and said, “You don’t want to do that.”

Nick noticed the handle of a pistol sticking out from the man’s waistband and commented, “You’re probably right,” then heard the faint sound of a scream coming from the kitchen. As the man reached for his pistol, Nick punched him in the throat and grabbed the weapon as the robber fell to his knees, gasping for air. Nick kicked him over and told Deputy “Watch him.” Deputy barked and stood over the fallen man with his teeth bared.

Nick cautiously made his way into the kitchen and saw the other man standing next to the woman with a gun in his hand as she opened the safe. When the man saw Nick, he turned around and fired. The bullet whizzed by Nick’s ear and hit the wall. Nick returned fire, striking the man in the shoulder.

When the Oceanside Police arrived, Officer Jim Martin said, “These two have been on a crime spree since last week, starting in San Leandro. They don’t usually leave witnesses. You were both very fortunate.”

“Better lucky than good,” Nick responded.

“Or luck is the residue of skill,” Officer Martin gave another version.

When Officer Martin saw the service dog vest on Deputy, he asked, “You a veteran?”

“Yeah.”

“Me too; 5th Marines.”

“7th Marines.”

“I’ve got your contact information. The detectives will be in touch.”

“Anything I can do to help,” Nick said.

The female employee rushed over and embraced Nick. “Thank you…thank you very much. You can come back anytime and eat free!”

*  *  *

As his bond with Deputy grew, Nick’s new awareness manifested in strange ways.

One, he was driving west on Highway 78, usually exiting at Sycamore Avenue, but decided at the last moment to take Civic Center Drive instead. Just as he turned off, the truck in front of him blew a tire and its cargo container flipped over. If Nick had kept driving straight, he would have crashed into it.

After finishing a training session, Nick and Deputy were walking through the lobby and passed a middle-aged woman who was deep in thought. Nick commented, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”

The woman stopped abruptly. “What did you say?”

Nick responded, “Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” Nick shrugged, walked off then looked down at Deputy. “Do you know why I said that?”

Three days later, the woman came up to Nick during his training session. “My father underwent a serious heart operation and the doctors didn’t give him much chance of surviving it. The whole family was prepared for his death. When I got to the hospital, I told all my relatives exactly what you said, ‘Don’t worry, he’ll be fine.’ I don’t know why I believed you, but I did. The doctor said it was a miracle and my father is now on his way to a full recovery!”

As Nick walked away, he looked down at Deputy, “This is more about you than it is me.”

Nick decided to start driving two days a week for Motion. He got a call for a pick-up in Del Mar. When he reached his destination, a large beachfront house, he stopped out front. Since it was 2 a.m., he didn’t honk, but waited patiently.

Stuart Magowan was a multibillionaire hedge fund manager and owner of the residence. He was also an alcoholic and abuser of women. Callie Brinton was an attorney and her firm had just handled a large transaction for Magowan. When she met the dashing billionaire, he was charming and sweet. After accepting his dinner invitation, Callie expected an enjoyable evening, but after several drinks, Stuart became rude and belligerent. Callie tried to be diplomatic and told her host, “I’m not feeling well, I’d better go home.”

This further outraged the drunken Magowan. “You’ll go home when I tell you!”

Callie headed for the bathroom and called for a ride. While Magowan continued drinking heavily, Callie pretended to be docile and compliant while looking out the front window for the vehicle she called to arrive. When she saw it, Callie decided to make a run for it. Magowan caught her as she struggled to unlock the front door. He punched her in the face and as she fell to the floor, her shoes came off. Magowan was out of control by now, hitting Callie in the stomach and tearing at her clothes. She struggled to her feet and with a high kick, broke Magowan’s nose.

Finally reaching the front door, she staggered out. The pain in her abdomen was so intense that she fell to the ground. When Nick saw her, he rushed to her assistance while Deputy leaped out the window. Magowan came to the front door, with blood streaming down his face and firing a pistol at Callie and Nick. Deputy was off like a rocket and came right at Magowan. The gun went flying when he snapped down on his wrist.

On the way back to Carlsbad, Callie just wanted to go home, but Nick detected the scent of chlorine and knew that the woman sitting in his backseat was seriously injured. “I’m taking you to the hospital.”

It was a prudent and lifesaving decision because Callie had internal bleeding and needed emergency surgery. Nick and Deputy stayed at the hospital until the doctor told him she was out of danger and in recovery. The next day, Nick returned to see Callie. She expressed her gratitude.

“The doctor said if you had not brought me here, I may have died.”

“The most important thing is that you’re alright.”

Deputy rested his head on the bed and Callie stroked him. She reluctantly brought up the subject of Stuart Magowan. “I apologize for putting you in a dangerous position. The man that you helped me escape from is a very powerful and ruthless individual. I worked on some of his legal matters so I know what he’s capable of. He will try to get even with both of us.”

“You need to get better. I’ll handle…what is this guy’s name?”

“Stuart Magowan.”

“I’m sure if I had a talk with him, we could come to an agreement.”

After her release from the hospital, Nick cautioned Callie, “I don’t think you should stay at your place until we settle things with Magowan.”

After packing a couple suitcases, Callie checked in at the Marriott Hotel on Oceanside Ranch Road in Oceanside.

*  *  *

The two professional assassins arrived at Callie’s darkened condo, picked the lock, and entered the living room. Walking into the bedroom, they saw the shape of something under the covers. Both men fired three shots from pistols equipped with noise suppressors.

Then the man on the right fell to the floor as a baseball bat hit him across the forehead. Before the second man could react, the bat caught him across the knees and he also went down. Turning on the lights, Nick saw the man who he’d hit in the head. His eyes were wide open in surprise and he was obviously dead. The second man was moaning in pain. “You broke my knee!”

Nick pulled back the blanket on the bed to show several pillows. “You were going to kill a defenseless woman. Who sent you?”

The man didn’t answer so Nick responded. “There are 206 bones in the human body. I’m betting that before I break ten of them, you’ll tell me anything I want to know.”

“Stuart Magowan,” the grimacing man said.

“How were you supposed to let him know the job was done?”

“Call him.”

“Do it!”

Pulling out his cellphone, the man made the call. “It’s done.”

Stuart Magowan leaned back in his recliner and gazed out over the Pacific Ocean. “Good…I want the driver next.”

When the call disconnected, the man looked over at Deputy. “Nice dog…I guess you can’t really let me live. You know I never wanted to do this job in the first place. Mind if I pet him?”

The man reached out his hand and Deputy clamped down and crushed several bones. Nick commented, “I guess he doesn’t like cold-blooded scum.”

With a painful dog bite to go with his smashed knee, the man said, “You might as well put me out of my misery. Can I ask a question first?”

“Go for it,” Nick said.

“You’re pretty good. Where did you learn your skills?”

“Marines,” Nick answered as he smelled the faint odor of chorine.

“A Marine and a dog. I guess I was destined to lose this fight,” the man sighed.

“Call it, head or heart?” Nick asked.

“Heart,” The man whispered softly.

Nick obliged. He loaded the dead bodies into the trunk of his car and left the condo with Deputy.

*  *  *

Stuart Magowan heard a scratching sound, but didn’t see anything on his surveillance cameras. He walked the marble-floored hall and opened the front door. Not seeing anything when he looked to the left, he then looked to the right to see his hired killers lying behind the bushes. Nick stepped out from behind a tree, then put a bullet between Magowan’s eyes. The billionaire fell between the two men.

Wiping the pistol’s handle clean of his fingerprints, Nick placed it in one of the hitman’s hands. It was definitely going to be a confusing crime scene for investigators to figure out.

When Callie heard about Magowan’s death, she had a pretty good idea who was responsible, but never voiced her suspicions. She had to replace her mattress, damaged by the bullets, but figured it was a small price to pay.

The next day, she hosted Nick and Deputy for a home cooked meal to thank them for their help. Pouring a glass of wine for Nick and herself, she looked down at the unusual dog on the floor.

“To the greatest bond; a man and his dog.”

They sipped the vintage burgundy and Nick refilled their glasses. “Here’s my toast.” Then he took a deep breath, detecting the tantalizing aromas of vanilla and peppermint blended together as Deputy rested his head on his lap. “To the sweet Scent of Survival.”


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

Prince of Patriotism, One: Duke of Hades, Zero

posted Sep 8, 2020, 9:53 AM by Bruce Rowe

Flame Demons can spit fire out of their mouths and set most things ablaze. They are irascible, impulsive, violent, and highly intelligent creatures. They are often dispatched by Satan to act as shock troops and commanders of his legions in the earthly realm.

Botis Vassago was an evil sorcerer who lived in a stone mansion on an estate in Fallbrook, California. He had been stirring the cauldron of hate, violence, and discontent for decades and with the presidential election rapidly approaching, he thought now was the perfect time to ratchet up the violence and chaos. He used an incantation to summon assistance from the bowels of hell: “Lord Satan, I beseech you for the power to conceive in my mind and to execute in reality that which you desire me to do, and in the end we will attain anarchy and destruction. O Mighty Satan, the one true leader who livest and reignest for all eternity, I vow my full allegiance. Inspire me to fulfill my chosen destiny. I respectfully and humbly ask you, Lord Satan, that you deem me worthy of your assistance.”

A flash of lightning hit a gas station on Mission Road and exploded it in a ball of flames that could be seen and heard for several miles. Botis looked out the window of his palatial residence. Seeing the inferno, he knew his request had been answered.

Turning around, he saw a handsome man with jet black hair and dark eyes standing before him. The man spoke in a melodic and hypnotic voice, “I come at the order of the Emperor of Darkness, the King of Hell, the Antichrist. I am Dantalion, Grand Duke of Hades!”

Dantalion had 36 legions of demons under his command. He was the 71st of 72 spirits of Solomon and could read the thoughts of all people, changing them with his will. He had the ability to initiate the emotions of love and hate, and could cause delusions in people to make them believe they were part of a world they envisioned, but that did not exist. Dantalion was also a shape shifter and had the ability to duplicate the physical appearances of men and women.

*  *  *

Jensen Castiel was a young Navy Seal who grew up in Oceanside, California. He was the son of a career Marine. His father Jack put 27 years into the Corps and retired as a sergeant major. Jensen had two older sisters. Michelle was an emergency room nurse at Tri-City Medical Center and Emily worked as a computer engineer for Cox Communications.

Castiel was on an extended assignment with his team in Ukraine trying to destroy a human trafficking ring operated by Albanian gangsters. He was on patrol in the Carpathian Mountains when his unit came across a small structure hidden among the dense foliage. The Americans took cover and Jensen pulled out an infrared scope. Pointing it at the building, he said, “I’ve got nine heat signatures.”

Senior Chief Brice Tillman replied, “Dugan, take point.”

Chief Petty Officer Kane Dugan acknowledged the command, “Roger that.”

The Navy Seals moved out in single file, staying low to the ground and not making a sound. When they reached the front door, they saw it was reinforced. Castiel pulled out three small plastic explosive charges with remote detonators and placed them in strategic places next to the doorjamb. The Seals backed away and Jensen blew the door off its hinges. The Americans rushed in and killed three human traffickers before they could react. Six young girls ranging in age from 11 to 14 years cowered in the corner.

Tillman reassured them. “You’re safe.”

Even though the girls did not speak English, they got the message from the tone of the Seal team leader’s voice. As they prepared to leave, Petty Officer Charlie Donnell called out as he scanned the area with binoculars, “We’ve got company. I make out 30 hostiles.”

“Castiel, hang back, give them everything you got, you stay 30 seconds no more, then I want beating feet to catch up, understand?” said Tillman.

“Comprendi,” Castiel smiled.

Tillman turned to Petty Officer Boomer Morland. “Give Castiel the grenade launcher. Remember what I said…30 seconds…don’t make me come back here to get you!”

“I got it…I got it,” Jensen replied. “Now go before none of us are going anywhere.”

The Navy Seals left with the rescued girls while Jensen fired high-explosive grenades at the rapidly approaching human traffickers. After firing 15 rounds, he raced off at a full sprint to rejoin his team. When he reached the top of the ridge, he saw an image of a woman being pursued by two beastlike creatures. Jensen had to make a split-second decision; rejoin his team and let the woman defend herself or help her. He had sworn an oath to protect those in trouble, so he changed directions and followed the woman.

When he reached her location she was trapped against a rocky cliff. From his viewpoint, it looked like she was wearing a high tech, multicolored, one-piece tracksuit that matched the foliage of the forest. She held a shield in one hand and a glistening sword in the other. Despite her situation, the woman did not seem fearful at all.

Jensen had never seen anything like these beasts. They were part animal and part human. They were the size of a bear, with the face of a wolf, but the lower part of the torso had big human legs and feet. Jensen called out to distract them, “Hey!”

The two creatures turned around and began moving toward him. The Navy Seal fired two grenades that knocked them off their feet. Even though both were seriously wounded they got up. But as they did, the woman came up from behind and decapitated both with two powerful swings of her sword.

Then she communicated telepathically with Castiel. “Thank you for your help. We’ve been watching you and your friends and we approve of the work you’re doing. My name is Thalrania.”

 “Who are you and what are these things you just killed?”

Thalrania switched to verbal communications. “It might make you a little more comfortable if we spoke instead of exchanging thoughts. I am a wood nymph by birth and a demon hunter by profession. These two creatures are not of this world.”

She kicked the severed head of the monster and it rolled down the hill. “There’s a technical name for this particular breed, but we just call them, ‘Bearserkers.’ They are immensely strong, but as dumb as a rock. They fall into the general category of beast demons. Walk with me and I’ll explain more to you.”

The beasts disintegrated into dust, leaving no trace of their existence.

“Okay,” Castiel answered.

As they walked under the forest canopy, Thalrania began to speak.

“Whenever there is centralized evil, it creates a massive negativity field that weakens the world’s defenses against hell. The portals that lead from the bowels of depravity to civilization sporadically open and close during this chaotic time. Evil sorcerers use these opportunities to call for Satan’s assistance. I am a part of a larger group called Hunters. The Devil doesn’t like to play by the rules so whenever he brings in his demons, we respond. Sometimes when you’re on a mission we stay close-by, but out of sight. We do this to make sure you are not facing an adversary that you don’t have the training or weapons for.”

“Considering what I just saw and speaking for my teammates, I extend our sincere gratitude for your assistance.”

“Not necessary. We do it for the same reason you do your job; it is our sworn duty. We might have a slight problem, though.”

“What kind of problem?”

 “You may have crossed some kind of line by engaging in a battle with a beast demon. I won’t know for sure until I discuss it with my commander.”

When they reached a clearing in the forest, several men and women were sitting around a campfire. A middle-aged man wearing a camouflaged uniform approached and he wasn’t pleased. “You know better than to bring him here.”

 “He got involved in a fight with two bearserkers,” Thalrania explained.

“That does change things,” Gideon Windwalker replied. “Have a seat, Chief Petty Officer Jensen Castiel. I’ll need to contact my superior to see how he wants to handle this.”

“How do you know who I am?” Jensen asked.

“We know the name of everyone who serves in the defense of honor and freedom,” Gideon said.

Thalrania got a big plate of food from the outdoor grill and brought it over to Jensen as he sat down at the table. As soon as he tasted it, Castiel commented, “This is great!”

“Just one of the many benefits of serving at the pleasure of the Great Almighty is that we get a lot of heavenly recipes,” Thalrania responded.

When Gideon returned, he sat down across from Castiel.

“We are prepared to offer you the following; we know you have a prior commitment to the Navy Seals and we would never ask you to violate that oath. There may come a time when you need our help. All you have to do is ask and we’ll be there. Since we have the same core values and goals, your victories will also be ours.”

“I don’t see how I turn down a deal like that. How do I get in touch with you?”

“Since Thalrania has already communicated with you telepathically, we have your thought waves on file.”

“Finish your meal and I’ll lead you back to your team,” Thalrania suggested.

“There is one thing we would like to ask of you in return,” Gideon said. “This is only a request, not a demand.”

“If I can.”

“Keep this meeting and our agreement secret, even from your teammates. We like to consider ourselves the ultimate covert operation.”

“Absolutely, of course. I can do that.”

The beautiful wood nymph moved so quickly down the mountain trail that the well-conditioned Navy Seal had trouble keeping up with her. When they reached the top of the hill, Thalrania pointed down to the river below.

“Your men are down there. Take a look at your radio.”

Castiel complied. “It’s not working.”

 “They are going to ask you why you didn’t communicate by radio. Now you won’t have to lie.”

Castiel looked away for a moment and when he looked back, Thalrania was gone. When he got back to his team, Senior Chief Tillman was obviously relieved to see him.

“Where were you?”

“I had to take some evasive action.”

“These girls came walking into camp and said that a man rescued them. I assumed it was you. Why didn’t you radio for help?”

“It malfunctioned.”

Castiel looked off in the distance and saw Thalrania standing next to a tree. She gave him a crisp salute and he knew her group was responsible for the latest rescue.

*  *  *

Upon his return to California, Castiel and his team headed back to Camp Pendleton for a joint training exercise with Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance operatives. It only took a few days for Jensen to realize that something seriously wrong was going on in the area. Two armories on base were robbed, several Marines were badly beaten in downtown Oceanside, and a series of fires broke out in the North County area.

Navy Seals need to be able to assess danger, develop a plan, and execute the mission. Castiel’s senses were heightened to a level he had not known since his return. He could tell he wasn’t the same man he was before meeting Thalrania.

His teammates noticed the physical changes too. Jensen, Boomer Morland, and Charlie Donnell were in the 13 Area fitness center on Camp Pendleton doing bench presses. Boomer maxed out at 310 pounds, Charlie struggled to do one rep of 315.

“You’re up, Castiel,” Charlie said.

Jensen added two 50 pound plates, one on each end of the bar and easily popped out ten reps.

“What the hell!” Boomer marveled. “When did you get so strong?”

Moving outside to the track for a three-mile run, the three Navy Seals were running side by side for the first two laps.

“I’m going to pick up the pace a little,” Castiel said, speeding up. Before Boomer and Charlie finished their 12 laps, he had passed them twice.

Later that day there was another incident on base where several armed men in a pick-up truck attempted to race through the front gate. A gun-battle ensued between the military police and the occupants of the vehicle. Two Marines were injured and their assailants were killed. Two hours later, a fire broke out by Edson Range and quickly spread to 15,000 acres with zero containment.

*  *  *

Jensen exited Camp Pendleton through the Naval Weapons Station on his way to the Pala Casino to have dinner with former Navy Seal Ray Lighthorse, a friend now in charge of security at the resort. He stopped off at Daniels Market in the River Village Shopping Center to pick up an anniversary card for his parents. As he stood in line, he felt an overwhelming sense of evil and danger sweep over him. Castiel moved slowly through the store, looking for the source of the negative energy. When he turned down the ice cream aisle, the feeling got much stronger. A young Marine and his wife were playfully joking around with each other about which ice cream flavor to get.

From behind the woman came Botis. He touched her on the shoulder and grinned maliciously. “I have many flavors of ice cream at my house. Why don’t you join me for the best banana split in the world?”

The young Marine stepped forward. “Back off, Bozo!”

Botis reached out with his hand and grabbed the young Marine by the throat, lifting him off the ground. “What was that again?”

Castiel came up behind the evil sorcerer, kicked him in the back of the knee, and grabbed his arm. He pulled it off the Marine, who gasped for air in relief. Botis tried to use his immense power against Castiel to get his arm loose but couldn’t. The evil sorcerer knew he was facing a Hunter. When they made eye contact, their stares burned deep and both men knew that they were facing their sworn adversary. When Castiel released him, Botis turned and rushed out of the market.

Jensen turned to the Marine who was rubbing his throat. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah, I think so. That guy had a grip like a vice. Thanks for your help,” said the Marine, coughing. “I wish I had my M-16 with me.”

“Hang in there.”

*  *  *

Botis was raging when he reached his sanctuary. Dantalion looked over as he approvingly watched the news coverage of the fire on Camp Pendleton. “What’s wrong?”

“I just had a confrontation with a Hunter.”

“And you’re still alive. That’s unusual. Do you know what kind?”

“Military type.”

“That is not good.” Dantalion pondered the revelation as flames shot from his mouth. “Patriotism always makes things more difficult for me.”

*  *  *

Leaving Pala Casino, Castiel found Thalrania sitting in his Toyota Highlander.

“Why is it I have a feeling this is not a social call?”

“Maybe because I don’t do social calls,” Thalrania answered. “Drive.”

Thalrania directed Jensen to a home on Gopher Canyon Road. Gideon Windwalker and a group of Hunters were preparing their weapons for battle.

“Good to see you again…I wish it was under different circumstances,” said Gideon.

“If it was, you wouldn’t be here.”

“The man you met at the market was Botis Vessago. He’s a sorcerer who has summoned Dantalion, a powerful demon and his legions. If we don’t stop them, things will only get worse for the world…much worse.”

“How does this work? I’ve never fought demons before.”

“Our weapons are blessed and whoever is killed in battle is vanquished and cannot return to earth for two hundred years. We will meet at Mission Vista High School to see whether good or evil prevails.”

When they arrived at the school, hundreds of Demons were lined up on one side of the football field. Castiel, Thalrania, and Gideon walked out to the 50 yard line to face Botis and Dantalion, who spit fire high into the sky.

Gideon said, “It’s been a while.”

“Two hundred and forty-three years and seven months, but who’s counting,” Dantalion responded. “Satan sends his ill wishes. Thalrania, looking good as always. I told you before, you’re fighting for the wrong side. You can have massive wealth and great power if you join my legion. I’ll make you second in command.”

“I’m still happy where I’m at.”

Dantalion looked over Castiel, sizing him up.

“Navy Seal, huh? I’ve heard about you. The last military Hunter I came across was a guy called George Washington.”

Thalrania reminded Satan’s warrior, “I imagine you wouldn’t forget him. He sent you to the bowels of hell for two centuries.”

“He got lucky,” Dantalion snapped back. “That won’t happen again!”

“You going to talk us to death?” Gideon said. “Or are we going to do what we came here for?

“That is the only thing I like about you Gideon; you get right to the point. Even though we’ve been fighting for an eternity, you still don’t like to waste time.”

Dantalion waved his right hand and his legion of demons moved forward.

Gideon did the same and the Hunters also approached from the parking lot. It took several seconds before the opposing forces were engaged in heated battle. Every time a demon was destroyed, it turned into a fireball and went deep into the earth on its way to hell. When a Hunter was lost, a bright light shot into the skies. Neither would be allowed to return to earth for 200 years.

Before long Thalrania was facing off against Botis, while Castiel did the same with Dantalion. Thalrania quickly moved to the left and lunged forward with her sword. The blade went through Botis’ chest, exiting between his shoulder blades. In a moment, a bright ball of fire appeared and burrowed through the earth.

Jensen and Dantalion dropped their swords, coming at each other with knives drawn. The Navy Seal lunged forward. The Demon grabbed his wrist. Dantalion made the same movement and Castiel grabbed his adversary’s wrist. With their blades only an inch away from their intended target, they kept pushing. Dantalion smiled.

“You’re human and your first death is always the most painful. I’m glad to be the first one to give it to you.”

Just when Dantalion’s blade touched Jensen’s shirt and seemed ready to penetrate, things began to change. Instead, it was the Navy Seal’s knife slowly puncturing the Demon’s flesh. Dantalion cursed in frustration, “Aw hell!” Bursting into flames, he disappeared into the earth.

Thalrania walked to Jensen and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder, saying, “You were destined for this.”

Gideon laughed. “Prince of Patriotism, one, Duke of Hades, zero. Rematch in 200 years.”


Read more Thomas Calabrese stories at The Vista Press.


Big Tree: His Bite was Worse than His Bark

posted Aug 11, 2020, 3:47 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Aug 11, 2020, 3:59 PM ]

Steve Forrest was a roustabout who bounced around the Gulf of Mexico. After leaving Tupelo, Mississippi as a restless 17-year-old boy in search of adventure, he ended up in New Orleans. After working at several low-paying jobs along Bourbon Street for a few months, he applied for work on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Steve started off as a roughneck then worked his way up to derrick-hand, motor-hand, and tool-pusher. It was hard work, with 12 to 14 hours days. When Steve and his coworkers were off shift they liked to cut loose.

After 14 days on the rig, he was partying in Las Vegas with a few of them when he met Ellie Blake, a former dealer and casino hostess. After a ten-day, whirlwind romance—when neither one of them was sober—they married at the Graceland Chapel on the Strip. Ellie was a tall, attractive brunette with her own issues, including alcohol, drug use, and a history of failed relationships. Upon the couple’s return to Louisiana, Ellie quickly became bored with her life of being alone while Steve worked in the Gulf. It didn’t take long before she became a regular patron in the clubs on Bourbon Street. When Steve returned after 14 exhausting days on the oil rig, she would be eager to go right back out again. “Let’s go dancing.”

“Let me get a little rest first,” Steve responded through half-mast eyes.

Ellie lied to her husband to make him feel guilty, “I’ve been sitting in this apartment while you’ve been gone and now you want to sleep? This is not the life you promised me.”

Steve sighed. “Give me a few minutes to clean up and then we can go out.”

This routine began to take a toll on him, so he started telling her he was working an extra three days on the rig. But instead of coming back to the apartment, he went to a hotel to rest. As the separations grew longer and more consistent, Ellie returned to Las Vegas and stayed there for weeks at a time, returning to New Orleans for only a few days a month. The Forrest marriage struggled to survive under these circumstances. She was spending her husband’s pay as quickly as he was earning it. He had no other choice but to take drastic measures. He asked his employer to do a direct deposit for half of his wages into a separate checking account that his wife couldn’t access. Then he could pay the rent and other bills.

When Ellie saw the significant reduction in her monthly income, she went back to New Orleans to convince Steve to change it back. She was devious, manipulative, and on her best behavior. After two weeks of being the dutiful and attentive wife, she said, “I’m having trouble paying my expenses with the money I’m getting.”

Steve responded calmly, “I thought it would be easier for you if I paid the bills.”

“I can handle it from now on. I just got a little distracted for a while, but I’m fine now.”

“I like it the way things are. It’s a lot less stressful on me.”

“And the credit cards, what about those?” Ellie asked angrily. “You closed all of them!”

“They were reaching their limits. Have you ever considered that you might have a spending problem?”

“I do not!” She screamed and threw a vase at Steve. Missing his head by less than an inch, it shattered against the wall.

“Things aren’t working between us. They haven’t been good for a while. Maybe we were never right for each other or maybe we just changed somewhere along the line. I don’t want to be married anymore and neither do you. We’re just burning daylight.”

“So you’re just going to throw me out?”

“That’s not my style. I’m giving you money each month already. I’ll add another 500 dollars to help you out. I’ll continue that for one more year and also keep you on my medical insurance. You have that much time to file for divorce. If you don’t, then I will.

When she realized Steve was serious, she quickly calmed down. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m more to blame than you. I’m going to stay at a friend’s place tonight, I have to be at the rig in the morning. Take whatever you want. Good luck Ellie. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

He grabbed his duffle bag and left. After the door closed behind him, Ellie broke down in tears.

*  *  *

Over the next few months, Steve thought often about his former wife. Like many memories, he was very selective about what he chose to remember; her spontaneity, bright engaging smile, and playfulness. He chose to ignore her irrational behavior, excessiveness, unpredictability, and explosive temper. Seven months after his wife’s departure, Steve received the paperwork from a Las Vegas attorney concerning an uncontested divorce. He went to a notary public, then signed them and dropped the large envelope into the mail slot at the post office. He truly wished his former wife a happy life.

Eleven months later. he was almost through his regular 14-day shift on the Thunder Horse oil platform when a pressure regulator malfunctioned. Eight workers, including Steve, were blown off the 75-foot platform into the Gulf of Mexico. Six of the workers were seriously injured.

When Steve arrived at his small blue and yellow house with the white shutters in the Marigny Triangle neighborhood of New Orleans, he limped to the front door from his driveway. His next door neighbor, Martha Robichaux approached him. “How was work?”

“The usual. Thanks for asking. How about you?”

“Good. All the appointments have been completed and there’s no problems. The receipts and your mail are in the usual place. I’ll stop by later.”

Martha Robichaux was a 42-year-old divorced woman who operated a day care center out of her home. She often had children throughout the day and sometimes into the night, depending on the parents’ work schedule. Good-hearted and hard-working, Steve was paying Martha 500 dollars per month to look after his house and handle things in his absence. It was well worth the price. In fact, he intended to double the amount once he stopped paying his former wife.

“Oh, by the way, a young woman came by a couple of days ago looking for you,” Martha said.

“Did she say what she wanted?”

“No. I told her what day you’d be back and she said she’d return.”

Steve went into the kitchen and got himself two cold bottles of beer, he guzzled one right down to quench his thirst. He went into the bathroom, turned on the Jacuzzi tub, and when it was filled, slowly slipped into the water. From neck to ankles, his body was bruised from the impact of the fall. He turned on some Christopher Tin music and sipped on the other beer. Later that night, he was sitting on the couch when he heard a tap at the back screen door. He looked over and saw Martha. “C’mon in.”

Martha walked in, carrying a large plate of food, “I thought you might be hungry. I’ve got roast turkey, gravy, mash potatoes, broccoli, and pecan pie.”

Steve’s face broke out in a big smile. ”You’re too good to me!” Martha set the tray down on the coffee table. He asked, “You don’t have any kids tonight?”

“I’ve got a three-hour break. One of my clients is working the night shift, she’s going to drop off her daughter about eleven.” Martha noticed the bruising on Steve’s legs and arms. “Are you alright?”

“I slipped on some oil,” he lied. “Want to keep me company for a while?”

“Don’t mind if I do,” Martha plopped down in the overstuffed recliner and sighed in relief. “I love this chair. What are you watching?”

“The Andy Griffith Show. My friend Greg Nielsen tells me I remind him a lot of Barney Fife.”

Steve was a thickly muscled six-foot-three. After years of hard manual labor, he bore no resemblance to the wiry actor, Don Knotts, who played Fife. she took a closer look at the television screen and joked, “I can see a vague resemblance, but you’re more frail- looking and accident prone.”

While Steve ate his dinner, Martha dozed in the chair. There was a knock at the front door. When he opened it, a young woman holding a baby stood before him.

“Can I help you?”

The woman was visibly nervous and took a few seconds to compose herself. “I’m Ellie’s sister, my name is Kristin. I came by a couple days ago.”

“Please come in.”

Martha awakened and stood up. “Good to see you again.”

“This is Ellie’s sister, Kristin.”

“I’m Martha Robichaux. I’m sure you two have things to discuss. I’ll talk to you later, Steve.”

“Don’t go,” Steve blurted out.

“It might be better if you stayed,” Kristen said.

“Why don’t you sit here?” he gestured to the couch. Kristin sat down, laying the baby next to her.

Steve and Martha sat down, waiting patiently for Kristin to speak. She cleared her throat then began, her voice barely above a whisper.

“I’ve rehearsed what I was going to say a bunch of times on the flight down here. If you would be kind enough to let me get through it before you ask any questions, I’d appreciate it.”

“Yes ma’am,” he answered.

“Ellie passed away six weeks ago.”

Steve was dumfounded but did not speak. Kristin continued. “When she found out she was pregnant, she realized she couldn’t just live for herself anymore and swore to be the best mother she could be. Ellie wanted to prove to everybody, especially you, that she was capable. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”

Kristin spoke for ten minutes, breaking down in tears along the way and telling Steve and Martha that Ellie’s cause of death was from an amniotic fluid embolism. “My father and mother said we should put the baby up for adoption and not even tell you about him. I disagreed. I thought I owed Ellie that much and figured you deserved the right to know.”

“I wasn’t much of a husband and can’t imagine myself being a decent father.”

“That’s all I needed to know,” Kristin replied and got up to leave.

“Whoa! I know this is none of my business, but I need to say something,” Martha said.

“Yeah, go ahead,” Steve said.

“I know Steve appreciates you coming down here.”

“I definitely do.”

“But this is not a decision that should be made in minutes. To find out that your former wife died and you’re a father all within a few minutes is a lot for anybody to take in.”

“Maybe I should have done things differently. I don’t know,” Kristin snapped back. “I thought you would want to see your son instead of me just calling you on the phone! I’ve got a part-time job and am trying to go to school. I used my savings for the flight, hotel, and rent a car. I just can’t stay in New Orleans any longer!”

Martha put a consoling hand on Kristin’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden as well as the emotional one of losing your sister. Steve?”

“Yeah.”

“You need to step up and pay for her expenses. Kristin?”

“Yes.”

“You need to go to the hotel, get your stuff and move in here. There’s a nice guest room with a private bathroom and I’m right next door if either one of you need anything. Steve, you’ve got about two weeks before you go back out.” She turned to Kristin. “Can you stay that long?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead, but I guess I could if I don’t have any expenses.”

“Since we’re all in agreement, let’s get rolling!”

Steve looked at Kristin and smiled, “When it comes to kids and being organized, there is nobody better than Martha Robichaux.”

“You can leave the…what’s the baby’s name?”

“His name is Chad.”

Steve was caught off-guard once again. “That was my older brother’s name. He was killed serving in the Marine Corps.”

“That’s what Ellie said, she knew how much you loved him and knew you would approve of the name.”

“Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom,” Steve rushed off, closed the door behind him and broke down in tears.

Over the next seven days, Martha noticed how much Kristin liked children when she visited her day care center. While eating dinner one night, Steve made a comment, “I never hear that baby cry. Is that normal?”

“It is kind of unusual.”

“He just makes a few gurgles to let you know that he’s hungry or needs his diaper changed.”

“Do you have much to go back to in Idaho?”

“Some family,” Kristin replied.

“I can tell you’ve got a gift with kids. I was going to ask if you wanted to work with me. I can expand my business, take in a few more clients and also get a little more rest.”

“You can stay here rent free and I’ll even pay you to help me raise Chad,” Steve said without even thinking what he was saying.

“Does that mean you’re going to take him?”

“If you’re staying, it does.”

Martha interjected, “Two salaries and no expenses…sounds like a pretty good deal to me.”

Steve doubled what he was paying Martha and also gave Kristin a thousand dollars a month. It was never about the money with him. When he was off work, he was content to stay home with Chad, Kristin, and Martha. What Steve didn’t realize was that the first step in being a good father was to be a good man, and he definitely qualified in that category. Over the next three years Steve was promoted twice and was now a drilling supervisor making an excellent salary. He tripled his life insurance and made Chad, Martha, and Kristin equal beneficiaries. He also made Martha the trustee of his estate in case something happened to him. He’d never thought about any of this stuff before, but now he was more concerned for those around him than for himself.

Another thing completely caught him off guard; he was falling in love with Kristin. Being so close to her without being romantically involved gave him a chance to learn about his sister-in-law without any pressure or expectations. By the time Chad entered grade school, Steve was hopelessly in love with her. He did his best not to show it, but couldn’t hide it from Martha or his son.

“How long are you going to do this?” Martha asked impatiently.

“Do what?” Steve shrugged.

“Not tell her that you love her.” Martha stormed out of the room.

*  *  *

It was a quiet night at the Forrest home. Steve sat in the living room, sipping on a beer. Kristin walked in, sat across from him, and started eating a sandwich. Maybe it was the way the afternoon sunlight framed her face or the angle from which he looked at her, but Kristin never looked more beautiful. To Steve, it was a mesmerizing, breathtaking sight. He finally had to say what was in his heart. “I’m in love with you.”

For a moment, Kristin kept eating as if she didn’t hear the words. Finally finished, she casually got up, walked over to where Steve was sitting, sat down on his lap, and passionately kissed him on the lips. Chad was watching from the hallway and smiled. “Finally.”

A year later, they were married. Building their life together, one of their first discussions was Steve’s future with the oil company.

“I’ve been giving some thought to getting off the drilling crew,” he said.

“Is that what you want?”

“The company is offering a training program for men with my experience to become safety inspectors. It’s a raise in pay and less time away. I’ll need to work on my writing skills, but I’d like to give it a shot.”

“I’m kind of a good writer. Maybe I could help you.”

He smiled back at his new bride. “I sure would appreciate it.”

*  *  *

Chad was undersized for his age. After a thorough examination of the young boy, the doctor discussed the results with Steve and Kristin.

“Chad is completely healthy. Sometimes height skips a generation. It’s also possible that he’ll get a growth spurt during his adolescent years.” 

Steve also began to notice how coordinated and athletic his son was. He could tumble and do back flips and front flips by the time he was four. As a six-year-old, he could jump to the top of the picnic table in the backyard and follow it up with a handstand. Pull-ups were a cinch and he climbed trees like a cat, swinging from limb to limb.

Chad retained the same temperament he had as a baby; very easy-going and content to entertain himself with a variety of activities. During his freshman year in high school, he began competing against and beating upperclassmen in all sorts of pick-up games. As a sophomore, he started at running back on the football team, with rare quickness and elusiveness. He could run at full speed, stop on a dime, do a 360 degree turn then continue on without missing a step. As a basketball point guard, he made unbelievable passes from anywhere on the court to his teammates, and drove past defenders on the court like they were standing still. And though he stood only 5-foot-5, he could dunk the ball.

He was the leadoff hitter and starting shortstop for the baseball team. He would work a walk, then steal second, third, and home. His play on defensive left the opposition in dismay. He also was a wrestler and state champion in the 100-yard dash.

Chad enjoyed the competition—even the process of getting better and honing his skills—and was at his best during the most crucial times. What he didn’t care for were the accolades and awards. When the competition was over, it was over. Win or lose (which wasn’t that often) he left it on the field. Steve and Chad were more than just father and son. They were best friends who enjoyed each other’s company.

In his new job as chief inspector, Steve moved up quickly with the Shell Corporation and was now making a high six-figure income. Despite his success, he never forgot what Martha did for him when he was just a struggling roughneck. Despite her initial objections, Steve convinced her to let him pay to have her home completely renovated. He also increased her monthly stipend so she could retire and enjoy life. Martha began dating a retired Homeland Security Official and they traveled extensively. Kristin wasn’t one to sit at home and not do her part, so she volunteered three days a weeks at the Veterans Center, helping former military personnel fill out paperwork for their benefits. Steve got Chad a summer job at the Shell equipment storage lot. He told his son, although he knew he didn’t have to, “I got you the job, it’s up to you to keep it.”

“Yes sir.”

Chad approached his assigned duties with the same focus and determination as his athletic endeavors. When Robert Duleson, the superintendent of the storage lot saw Steve at the regional office, he rushed over.

“Chad is one hell of a worker…wouldn’t mind having a few dozen like him!”

Steve responded with pride, “He’s one of a kind…I sure got lucky with him.” 

A group of Shell Oil executives including Steve were heading to East Africa for a series of meetings and inspections of the company’s oil rigs in the Indian Ocean. Since they were going to be in Mombasa, Kenya for two weeks, the company allowed them to bring their families. The company booked 40 suites and the conference room at the Voyager Beach Resort. Steve contacted Emily Garner, the travel secretary of Shell Corporation.

“Do you think you can get me a good deal on another suite.”

“Another family member?” Emily asked.

“A very close friend who’s like family, and her companion. I’ve already got permission from the regional director for them to travel on the company jet.”

“The Voyager is giving us the corporate rate. They always break down the charges by room. I’ll book an extra suite and when we get the bill, you can reimburse us.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it.”

*  *  *

The Shell company jet landed in Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya and famous for its beaches and world-class resorts. When they arrived at the Voyager, Chad was the first to speak up. “This is really nice. Thanks for bringing me, dad.”

“You’re welcome. I’ve got work to do while I’m here, but I want everybody to enjoy themselves. I’ll join you every chance I get.”

The oil company scheduled many of their business functions in the mornings so that everyone could have afternoons and evenings to spend with their families.

But on their fifth day in the country, Steve and seven of his co-workers were coming back by boat from one of the oil platforms when they were intercepted by three vessels occupied by armed terrorists. Arriving at a small island, they were kept under guard. The ransom demand was $10 million and the release of 100 political prisoners. If the time limit was not met, the terrorists would begin executing hostages.

Kenyan and American authorities disputed jurisdiction and how to handle the situation. Rather than wait for a resolution, Shell engaged a secret paramilitary agency.

The terrorists could see anyone approaching from the water and were prepared for a helicopter assault. What the terrorists weren’t ready for was a high-altitude insertion. A stealth helicopter hovered 1500 feet above the island, undetected in the early morning hours. Twenty highly trained operatives fast-roped the entire distance to the ground. Their only weapons were CO2 air pistols with three-inch darts and knives of choice. Wearing jet black outfits and dark face paint, they moved among the terrorists like a deadly plague. By the time sunlight hit the island, every terrorist was dead.

Back at Voyager Resort, the conference room turned command center held families and employees. Along with Kenyan and American officials, they waited impatiently for any word on an upcoming rescue. Chad turned to his mother and Martha, “I’m going to take a walk. I won’t be long.”

While walking through the grounds, he came upon an open field. Looking up, he saw a helicopter descending so he backed away and watched it touch ground. A group of men in camouflaged uniforms stepped out, followed by the hostages, including Steve Forrest. The hostages shook hands with their rescuers, expressing their gratitude. As Chad walked up, the leader of the operatives reached into his uniform, pulled out a folded piece of cloth, and handed it to him. The operatives boarded the helicopters and disappeared into the East African skies.

Chad embraced his father, ecstatic at his safe return. Steve asked, “What did he give you?”

Chad unfolded the cloth and found it was a small flag with an image of a jousting knight in the center. Above it in large letters was the word Galahad and at the bottom in smaller print was the motto, To Go Where Others Won’t Or Can’t.

*  *  *

Fifteen years later, Chad was a seasoned military veteran after completing four combat tours as a Force Recon Marine. During his enlistment, he continued to hear stories about the mysterious paramilitary group. After his discharge, he made discreet inquiries on how to join. He received a call one night, “If you’re interested in Galahad, then write this down…”

Chad grabbed a pen and a pad. “Go.”

“48910 Murrieta Hot Springs Road, Murrieta, California. Be at that location one week from today at 0900. A pre-paid ticket is waiting for you at American Airlines, reservations are in your name at Avis rent-a-car and Pechanga Resort and Casino. Bring gear for a workout. If you’re late, don’t come at all.”

“Roger that,” Chad said.

A group of special operatives interviewed Chad, followed by an extremely difficult physical fitness test and obstacle course that took two days to complete. He was accepted into the ultra-elite agency on a six-month probation. Once that was finished, he became a regular team member.

Galahad fell under the umbrella of the Mighty Sequoia charitable foundation whose mission was to help struggling veterans reintegrate back into civilian life. It offered a variety of recovery programs to our nation’s warriors. Both organizations were generously funded by three multibillionaire American patriots who swore that the debacle of Benghazi, when Americans were left to die because of bureaucracy and incompetency, would never be repeated under their watch. After distinguishing himself in action, Chad—call sign “Big Tree”—Forrest was given command of his own team called the “Branches.”

A church group was doing charity work in East Africa when a dozen of them were kidnapped. He had been in South America, Asia, and Europe on various missions, but this would be the first time since he was a teenager that he would be returning to Kenya. One of his unbreakable rules was to never go on a mission without the flag given to him on that fateful day when his father was safely returned. That moment shaped Chad’s life and set him on this chosen path.

Standing with his team on a metal platform, they were lifted from the deck of the freighter and lowered to the Indian Ocean by a large crane. They entered the water with buoyancy packs holding tactical gear, weapons, and explosives. The ten men began swimming, pulling their gear behind them. When the Branches got within 300 yards of shore, they decreased the air in the packs so they sank just below the surface and could not be seen by shore. When they touched shore, Chad radioed, “Big Tree and Branches on shore…proceeding to objective.”

Every man pulled out a battlefield display unit from his pack and attached it to his forearm with Velcro. The 2- by 4-inch screen allowed each man to view surveillance in real time. Changing into their tactical gear, they moved out. As they approached their objective, they planted explosive devices along their path.

When they reached a three-story building, two team members neutralized the guards with accurate shots. Chad looped a long rope over his neck and began climbing up the side of the structure using special adhesive gloves. When he reached the patio, he quietly stepped over the railing and shot two guards using his M9 pistol with a noise suppressor. 

With no time to explain anything to the hostages, he stated simply, “We’re getting out of here.” Chad slipped a harness over a hostage, pulled it snug, looped his rope through the belay plate, and connected it to the harness. One by one he lowered them to his team below. He was about ready to rappel to the ground when he heard a door open. When a guard entered, he put his hand over the man’s mouth and drove a nine inch ice pick into his heart. While he was in the structure, his team set detonation charges around the building. It took Chad only two leaps to touch ground once he went over the railing. “Let’s go.”

The team and hostages had only gone a couple hundred yards when an alarm sounded. He ordered his second in command, “Get the hostages out!”

“Roger that,” the man replied and left with half the team and the hostages.

Chad and the others stayed behind to slow down the pursuit. Once the hostages were on the beach, each one was fitted with a small nylon vest with a locking carabiner built into it. A helicopter came swooping in, ten feet off the ground with matching carabiners on dangling ropes beneath it. The team snapped the carabiners together and waved off the pilot. In less than a minute the task was complete and the hostages were gone. When Chad saw the helicopter, he knew it was time to escape. Everybody began popping smoke grenades to obscure visibility. Once the team hit the water, Chad called out, “Let’s swim!”

The team swam a hundred yards offshore. Chad stopped and began treading water. He pulled out the detonator and blew the area to smithereens with two dozen powerful explosions. Reaching the freighter after their long swim, the support team had energy drinks and protein bars waiting for them. Ten minutes later, the team and hostages were on the helicopter and headed to shore.

Touching down, the team exited the chopper first and shook hands with the hostages. One young boy rushed up to his father and embraced him. Before Chad got back on the helicopter, he handed a Galahad flag to him. The helicopter ascended, heading for the airport and the team’s return to California.

Chad Forrest was born and bred to stand strong, tall, and righteous. Those who use their power for nefarious purposes have every reason to tremble in fear, because when the Big Tree comes for them, his bite will be worse than his bark.

Liberty Locomotive: The Freedom Train

posted Jul 13, 2020, 3:29 PM by Bruce Rowe

It had been a difficult 16 years for the United States, starting with the Great Depression in 1929 and ending with World War II in 1945. Millions of Americans expected relief from their years of struggle and sacrifice, finally getting their piece of the American dream. Instead, many found disappointment and disillusionment. Millions were laid off from virtually all major industries as emergency war production shifted back to civilian consumer needs.

When people look back to the postwar era in the United States, they commonly envision an era of prosperity and social conformity. To an extent this is true—economic growth was steady between 1945 and 1970, and by outward appearances a certain social cohesion was evident. But such a clear line of progress is easier to impose in retrospect than it was to see at the time. For in the wake of World War II, many people feared a return of depression, and the strikes, inflation, and labor disorder of 1945-46 did little to dispel those fears.

This era saw a huge influx of workers into the labor force. Over 10 million soldiers were discharged from the military between 1945 and 1947. At the same time, many millions of union members had worked in war industries during World War II. Their unions had put off any major demands for the sake of national unity. Once Japan surrendered, these demands resurfaced and led to the largest series of labor actions in American history. Over five million workers were involved in strikes during the first year after World War II. There was also the issue of hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding in from war zones.

President Truman called his cabinet and advisors to order. “Gentlemen, we are in a precarious position. We won the war and now we have to win the peace. The table is open for any and all suggestions.”

“Sir, I might have an idea.”

“Who are you?” President Truman demanded as he looked over to the far corner of the room.

“William Coblenz.”

“What do you do and what agency are you with?”

“I’m the assistant director in the Department of Justice Public Information Division.”

“I don’t see how that department would have anything to do with the problem that we’re discussing right now.”

“If you’ll allow me to continue.”

“Absolutely. You’ve aroused my curiosity and you have my undivided attention.”

“I have lunch at the National Archives and usually bring my own food. The other day I brought fried chicken and…”

Vice President Albert Barkley interrupted. “As much as we would like to hear about your dietary habits, could you get to the point?”

“Sorry about that, sir. While eating, I was lamenting about how few people are able to visit Washington and view the founding documents,” Coblenz said.

“Secretary of State Dean Acheson was puzzled. “As unfortunate as that this…so what?”

Truman’s eyes lit up when he realized what Coblenz was getting at. “Yeah, that just might work. If the country could see the tangible and irreplaceable documents of liberty, it might instill that same sense of unity we had during the war.”

“How would we do that?” Barkley said.

Coblenz smiled. “If Moses can’t make it to the burning bush, we’ll bring the burning bush to Moses. What do most of the cities and towns in America have in common?”

Acheson replied, “Americans.”

“A railroad station,” said Coblenz.

“Put a plan together and get back to me,” Truman ordered.

“Yes sir!” Coblenz responded.

Coblenz met with his boss, Thomas Clark, the Attorney General, to discuss their options. “We’re not going to be able to get the money from the treasury…it’s broke. This is going to have to come from private sources with deep pockets. Let me see how many patriots I can find.”

Clark made calls to movies moguls, Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer along with actors, Clark Gable, James Stewart, and James Cagney. He contacted media mogul William Randolph Hearst and industrialists Henry Ford, John Rockefeller, and Charles Vanderbilt of the Union Pacific Railroad. In a few weeks, the American Heritage Foundation was formed.

The Liberty Locomotive was a 2,000 horsepower Alco diesel and the Freedom Train consisted of seven coach cars. Three of them were transformed into armor-plated safe havens for the irreplaceable documents, retrofitted to become bulletproof and fireproof. One of the other cars was for baggage-utility. The remaining three would provide accommodations for security and maintenance crews.

The schedule was meticulously planned, the train would crisscross the United States for 33,000 miles over 16 months. It would stop up to five days at 300 cities and towns to allow Americans to view the historical artifacts.

Some items on display would be the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Also, George Washington’s handwriting in his personal account book, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, plus notes and signatures from Franklin Roosevelt, Chester Nimitz, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. Flags and memorabilia from the Revolutionary War, Civil War, World War I and World War II were also included in the exhibit.

To make sure the venture was a success, it was preceded by patriotic re-dedication programs, local and national media events and parades. The theme of this publicity tour was Freedom is Everybody’s Job. America bought into it and the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train became a national sensation. It was estimated that 10,000 visitors would attend the display per day. Attorney General Clark and Coblenz were pleased at the progress they had made so far, but there was one vital component yet to be addressed and without it, the train could not proceed.

“What do you want to do about security?” Coblenz asked.

“I’ll send a letter to a friend of mine. I’m pretty sure he’ll be able to help out,” Clark answered. He wrote Navy Secretary James Forrestal:

Dear Jim. The purpose of the Freedom Train is to bring more than one hundred fifty of the most sacred original documents in history. I am sure you will agree that we will need an armed guard to protect the valuable and irreplaceable cargo. It is my opinion that members of the Marine Corps would be the most qualified for this patriotic task. Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.

Months of furious activity commenced. On September 5, 1947, a trackside reviewing stand held federal and local officials, designers, factory workers, and celebrities at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, New York. President Truman had hoped to attend but was needed in Washington, so Coblenz and Clark represented the administration. Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Duke Ellington and his orchestra provided the entertainment. A state-of-the-art diesel engine painted in red, white, and blue rumbled through a paper curtain. Written on both sides in big lettering were the words “Liberty Locomotive.”

Marching alongside it in perfect lockstep were 25 Marines in their dress blue uniforms. No one in the crowd doubted that the Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train were in good hands. Sergeant Griff Stockdale and Corporal Danny Landon were part of the elite detachment. They survived the battle of Iwo Jima and were seasoned combat veterans who had seen more than their share of action against the Japanese force in the South Pacific. Stockdale earned the Navy Cross on Tarawa. Landon won one Silver Star on Saipan and another on Peleliu.

Back in those days, there was no such thing as a diagnosis of PTSD. Many troubled combat veterans came home and were expected to pick up where they had left off before the war started. Alcohol was the self- medicating drug of choice. All the Marines chosen to guard the documents had been out of action for less for than two years. They lived in one club car for 17 months and not one night went by that some leatherneck didn’t have a flashback or nightmare of his wartime experiences, waking up in cold sweat.

Sergeant Stockdale wasn’t much of a drinker, so whenever he wasn’t on duty and began having issues of his own, he tried to find a place to get away from his fellow Marines for a little alone time.

While the Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train were stopped in Portland, Oregon, Stockdale found a cold and hungry dog shivering under one of the coach cars in the railroad yard. There was a steady rain coming down. Griff spent the better part of an hour coaxing the black collie Labrador mix close enough so he could pick her up. He cradled the fearful animal in his strong arms and brought her inside the train. Griff dried her off then fed the starving dog some beef jerky he’d stored away in his footlocker. “I’ll get you something a little more substantial when I can get to a store,” he promised.

The grateful dog licked Griff’s face. It didn’t take long for the lovable pooch—Griff named her Molly—to ingratiate herself to the other Marines. Eventually, she became the unofficial mascot of the traveling detachment.

Molly also had a dramatic, immediate effect on the mental and emotional health of the combat veterans. As she slept on a makeshift bed next to the elevated rack of Sergeant Stockdale, a Marine would sometimes be haunted by the ghosts of war while he slept. When he opened his eyes, Molly would be sitting next to him, her golden eyes glimmering in the dim light, and he would immediately calm down. When the episode was especially traumatic, Molly would jump into the Marine’s rack and place her paw on his arm. Even without realizing it, he would drift back into peaceful sleep.

*  *  *

With the train stopping in Salem, Oregon and their guard duty shift over, Griff, Danny, and Molly went into town. The trio stopped off at a city park to eat their lunch. In between bites, Griff would toss a rubber ball for Molly to fetch. Several lumberjacks were drinking heavily at a nearby table. When Molly got too close, one of them threw a beer bottle that barely missed Molly’s head, then yelled, “Get the hell out of here, you mangy mongrel!”

Griff picked up the bottle off the grass and heaved it back. His aim was more accurate. When the bottle hit the table, it shattered, spraying glass all over those sitting there. The five men immediately rose to their feet, their eyes flashing with indignant anger. The largest man stood six-foot-five-inches, weighed 280 pounds, and had a thick black beard that seemed to cover everything on his face except his dark eyes and furrowed forehead.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” he yelled again at Griff.

“You threw a bottle at my dog and I threw it back,” Griff replied.

The two Marines were outnumbered five to two and outweighed by several hundred pounds. The lumberjacks were seasoned barroom brawlers, tough hard men, but the Marines were trained killers who learned the hard way from their war time experiences that losing a fight often meant dying. The big man stepped forward and took a swing at Griff, who ducked under it then flipped the man over his hip. Danny did a wrist throw on another man. The Marines knew better than to use their fists, too easy to break a knuckle or a wrist on a hard skull, so they used their hand-to-hand combat skills. Griff had to remind himself not to kill his adversary during the fight. Lucky for the lumberjacks, they gave up before this fact slipped his mind.

The tallest lumberjack saw his friends staggering around after being thrown every which way but loose. He realized they had been beaten. “No more,” he said.

Another lumberjack assumed that Griff and Danny were military and commented, “What service are you with?”

“We’re Marines with the Freedom Train detachment,” Danny said.

The tallest lumberjack brushed the grass and dirt from his clothes and stepped forward, extending his big paw of a hand in friendship. “I guess we should be thanking you for not killing us.”

“That thought did cross my mind.” Griff gripped the man’s hand firmly and the lumberjack winced in pain.

As the lumberjacks limped away, Griff called to them, “Haven’t you forgotten something?”

The tallest lumberjack was puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“You forgot to apologize to my dog.”

“You’re kidding!”

“You’ll know when I’m kidding,” Griff replied. “I smile.”

The tallest lumberjack hesitated and Griff warned him, “We can always pick up where we left off if you would prefer that option.”

One of the other lumberjacks, the youngest of the five pulled out a long-bladed knife from its sheath and brandished it, “Let me take them.”

The biggest lumberjack ordered, “Put that knife away! You’re not going to put us in the position of explaining to your Ma and Pa how you got yourself killed by being an idiot.”

The young man slowly put his knife away and the biggest lumberjack sighed, “What’s your dog’s name?”

“Molly,” Griff said.

“I’m sorry for throwing a bottle at you, Molly.” The five lumberjacks continued on their way.

Danny commented, “Do you think there will ever be a time when we’re not on a way to a fight, in the midst of one or finishing one?”

“Not as long as we’re Marines.” Griff smiled. “We’d better get back to the train. Let’s go, Molly!”

Molly barked and fell in step with the two American warriors.

*  *  *

With the end of World War II, the wartime coalition between the Soviet Union and the United States was expected to bring about a prolonged period of social harmony between the two world powers. To integrate the Communist movement into American life, the party was officially dissolved in 1944 and replaced by a Communist Political Association. That harmony proved elusive and the international Communist movement became more radical and violent. The Truman administration’s loyalty oath program was introduced four months after the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train began its tour. Its intent was to expose and drive anarchists from federal employment. One of the more radical factions of the Communist Party was operating on Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. When they were expelled from federal employment, they vowed revenge against the United States.

The most violent of the group consisted of Earl Browder, Vernon Dunne, Cyril Briggs, Bill Haywood, and David Easterly. Hearing that the Freedom Train would be stopping in Oceanside, they hatched a sinister plan.

The Freedom Train pulled into Los Angeles and the lines to see the historical artifacts were already stretched around the terminal before the Liberty Locomotive stopped rolling. Griff completed his shift of guard duty, changed from his dress blue uniform to civilian clothes and went outside to enjoy the Southern California weather. With Molly by his side, he walked down the sidewalk and past men, women, and children. Molly abruptly stopped, bared her fangs, and growled at a group of five men. Griff had never seen Molly behave this way. He apologized, “Sorry about that,” then turned to his dog. “Let’s go, girl.” 

The last time Griff was in Oceanside was just before he shipped out for the South Pacific. In one way it seemed like decades ago because he was a different person back then. On the other hand, it was as if it could have been yesterday, the memories were that vivid. Griff and Danny weren’t scheduled for duty until 1400 hours.

“Feel like going down to the beach?” Danny asked

“Yeah,” Griff replied.

The two Marines disembarked the train and entered the festively decorated depot.

“I don’t remember this place ever looking this good,” Griff said.

A station agent overheard Griff’s statement and commented with pride, “This is the biggest event to take place since Santa Fe Railway dedicated it on December 7, 1946.”

The new structure had a stucco exterior with marble floors and wainscot in the main waiting room, and florescent lighting.

“It’s better than where I grew up,” Danny quipped.

“I’ve seen pictures of your house. Any place is better than where you lived,” Griff said.

The station agent looked down and saw Molly, “We don’t allow dogs in the building.”

“This isn’t just a dog. This animal is a vital component of the Freedom Train Security Detachment. Without her there is no exhibit. Do you read me?”

“Loud and clear, leatherneck.”

When they exited the building, Molly stopped in place and focused her attention toward an isolated area on the other side of the track. When Griff looked over, he recognized the five men he’d seen in Los Angeles. “Good girl.”

“What’s going on?” Danny asked.

“I saw those five men in Los Angeles.”

“Interesting,” Danny responded.

*  *  *

Griff’s rack was next to a half-opened window. A gentle breeze drifted in from the ocean, naturally cooling the interior of the coach car. It was 0200 hours and the Marine detachment was asleep in the car. Well not everyone.

Molly was laser-focused as she looked out the window, across the track toward a group of trees with low-hanging branches that brushed against the ground when the breeze hit them just right. Molly made a barely audible growl and Griff was up in an instant. Walking down the narrow passageway to where Danny was sleeping, Griff tapped him on the shoulder. Danny swung himself out of his rack, grabbed his .45 caliber pistol, slipped on his pants, and put on his boots. The two Marines exited the train with Molly right by their side.

The plan of the anarchists was to throw grenades into the windows where the Marines were sleeping to neutralize them. The next step was to enter the coach car where the historical artifacts were being kept, steal what they could, and destroy the rest. The five men had stolen military explosives and weapons during their employment on Camp Pendleton so they were well-equipped to carry out their nefarious mission.

Griff, Danny, and Molly found cover behind a railroad maintenance shack. From this vantage point, they could see the train and the perimeter of the railroad yard. They didn’t have long to wait. Molly was the first to hear sounds of boots moving over the rocks of the yard. From the tip of her nose to the end of her tail, it was one long straight line. She was as rigid as a statute. When Griff and Danny finally got a visual of the five men, they saw they were wearing packs.

Danny whispered, “We can’t let them reach the train.”

“Roger that,” Griff agreed, “You go left…I’ll take the right.” Then he turned to Molly, “We’re going to need a distraction.”

The two Marines left their concealed position while Molly remained behind. When the five men reached the middle of the railroad yard with no cover, only 25 yards from the train, Griff raised his hand then lowered it. Molly took off in a full sprint, right at the five men. She ran right through the midst of them and they spun around in confusion. It was exactly what Griff and Danny needed to make their move. They caught the five men in a deadly crossfire. One by one they went down without ever getting a clear shot at Griff or Danny. The sound of gunfire awakened the other Marines and they were outside with their weapons in less than a minute.

The incident was investigated but designated top secret by President Truman. The American public was never made aware that an attack on the Liberty Locomotive and Freedom Train had been foiled. The country already had too many negative issues to deal with.

On January 16, 1949, the museum rolled into Washington D.C. for the last time. The Marine detachment packed their barrack bags and said goodbye to their comrades. But Griff and Molly would remain inseparable.

Whether it was on a remote, blood-stained island with the stench of death all around them, Sergeant Griff Stockdale and Corporal Danny Landon never faltered in their fight against a tenacious and relentless enemy. On that night in a quiet railroad yard in a Southern California town, these two valiant warriors— and one very special dog—once again had charged into harm’s way to do their duty. The Liberty Locomotive and the Freedom Train, and those who protected it, should be a lasting reminder to all Americans that freedom is everyone’s job.

 

The Lightning Riders: Brought the Thunder

posted Jun 29, 2020, 3:16 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jun 29, 2020, 3:17 PM ]

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, was ready to embark on an inspection tour of the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. Next to Adolph Hitler, he was the most infamous man on the planet during World War II. For Americans it was deeply personal. He was responsible for the death of more than 2,400 U.S. servicemen and women in little more than two terrifying hours on December 7, 1941. To put it bluntly, Admiral Yamamoto was the Osama bin Laden of his day. He was also the face of arrogance and the poster boy for wartime propaganda in the Pacific Theatre.

So in April 1943, 16 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States had an opportunity to kill the Japanese commander. They jumped at the chance to eliminate the brilliant strategist and military leader. On April 14, the U.S. naval intelligence effort code-name “Magic” intercepted and decrypted Yamamoto’s travel itinerary. The original message, encoded in Japanese Naval Cipher JN-25D, was designated NTF131755.

Awake for three days, future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was monitoring enemy radio chatter. When the message was intercepted, Stevens immediately began trying to decipher it. When he realized the importance of the communication, he enthusiastically called out to his fellow cryptographers, “I got it!” Stevens was able to unlock exact details, including the number and types of planes that would be transporting and accompanying Yamamoto on his journey.

When Admiral F. Halsey, Commander, South Pacific was notified about this valuable Intel, he rushed right over. In the 20 minutes it took him to arrive, a mentally and emotionally exhausted Stevens fell asleep at his desk. Admiral Halsey inquired, “What’s with Stevens?”

Another cryptographer volunteered. “He’s been up three days straight, sir. Want me to wake him?”

“Hell no! He earned the right to get some rest. Tell him when he does wake up that I’d like to see him.” When Halsey saw sunlight from a window shining on Stevens’ face, he called out, “Get some shade on this patriot!”

Three sailors found a canvas tarp and quickly rigged up a covering for the window.

When Admiral Halsey read the report it indicated that Yamamoto and his staff would be flying from Rabaul to Balalae Airfield on an island near Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Six A6M Zero fighters  would escort two Mitsubishi G4M Betty medium bombers. Halsey contacted Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with the good news, then Nimitz contacted Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, who met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. After a short discussion, they authorized Halsey to proceed with the mission.

Having the Intel was one thing, being able to utilize it properly, well, that was a completely different story and an enormous challenge. This wasn’t like politics where they could kick the problem down the road and let somebody else figure it out. Halsey and his staff had less than two weeks to come up with a plan. The first thing to be determined was the route.

To avoid detection by Japanese radar and personnel stationed in the Solomon Islands, American planes would need a roundabout approach. The initial one plotted measured 600 miles to the target and four hundred back. This was beyond the range of the F4F Wildcat and the F4U Corsair fighters available to Navy and Marine squadrons based on Guadalcanal.

Captain Johnny Mitchell flew a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with the 55th Fighter Squadron before being assigned to the 70th Pursuit Squadron. When he arrived at the 70th, Mitchell found out most of the experienced pilots had been sent to Java, Indonesia to stem the Japanese onslaught. Most of them were killed or captured by the Japanese. Mitchell and eight of his pilots were detached from the 70th for duty during the darkest days at Guadalcanal.

A pilot from Texas that Mitchell flew with in the 55th Squadron greeted him at Henderson Field. “Johnny Boy! As glad as I am to see you, this ain’t no place you want to be.”

Johnny Mitchell was a hell of a pilot and a natural born leader. He had a way of looking at the most dangerous situations with a lighthearted bravado that instilled confidence in those around him. “Hey Bill, good to see you too. I just got here and you’re already trying to run me off. Where’s that good old-fashion Texas hospitality? I’ll look around a bit and you’ll be the first to know if I don’t like the accommodations.”

At one point the Japanese were only 600 feet from the Henderson airstrip and inching closer. Crew chiefs removed .30 caliber machine guns from some planes, to use in a last-ditch stand if it came to that. The pilots slept under their planes and were ready to take-off at a moment’s notice. When they returned from missions, courageous ground crew members would stand with lanterns to mark the location of shell holes. This action exposed them to Japanese sniper fire, but there was no other option. The pilots and ground crew were continuously under siege, but they had to keep going.

Once, when a battle hardened Marine named John Basilone walked up with his war weary machine gun platoon and gazed upon the dismal conditions at Henderson Field, he said, “You zipper-suited, sky dog, puddle jumpers really got the life. What’s this, the South Pacific version of the Waldorf Astoria? In my next life, I’m going to come back as one of your guys.”

Mitchell walked up, his flight suit stained with grease and red with blood, “What brings Marines to our neck of the woods, slumming or being neighborly?”

“Just passing through. Know where I can find some Japanese?”

“Care to join us for dinner?”

“It just happens that our social calendar is clear. We were going to have to set up for the night anyway before heading out.”

That night, the Marine machine gunners and the army fighter pilots ate together under the shelter of a damaged P-40 Warhawk. The crew chiefs got five cases of C-Rations that included boned chicken, beefsteak, and spaghetti with meatballs. Mixing them together in a big pot, they served large portions to the Marines and pilots.

“My compliments to the chef,” Basilone called out as he savored his meal.

As soon as the sun went down, the Japanese soldiers sang their nightly rendition to rattle the Americans. “Tonight you die! Hey Joe, where you going to go…back to kokomo!”

Basilone grumbled, “Those guys oughta’ put some music to that tune and then maybe we could dance to it.”

When morning came, Basilone and his Marines prepared to leave Henderson Field. He took a deep breath and commented, “I can feel it in the air, there’s a reckoning coming and I aim to be part of it.”

Mitchell turned to his fellow pilots. “There go some tough men.”

On October 24, 1942, Basilone’s unit came under attack from 3,000 soldiers in the Japanese Sendai Division. Despite his supply lines being cut by infiltrators and running out of ammunition, the Marine Sergeant fought through hostile ground to resupply his heavy machine gunners with urgently needed supplies. Basilone moved an extra gun into position and laid down suppressive fire against the Japanese forces. When the last of the ammunition ran out, he held off the enemy forces, using only a pistol and a machete. Sergeant Basilone would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on “Bloody Ridge.”

That same day, Captain Mitchell shot down three Japanese planes and became an ace. He was promoted to Major and Commanding Officer of the 339th Fighter Squadron. His promotion was overshadowed by the arrival of the first P-38 Lightnings. The fast, twin-engine fighters had devastating firepower. They had four .50 caliber machine guns and a 20mm cannon mounted in the nose. Because the guns all fired straight ahead, rather than in the converging patterns of wing-mounted guns, they were effective at all ranges, but the P-38s had some drawbacks, including feeble heaters and high maintenance. The pilots loved the new planes, but the maintenance crews weren’t quite so enthusiastic. Maintenance Chief Master Sergeant Frank Rourke lamented, “My crews are going to be working around the clock keeping these birds in the air.”

Mitchell knew it would be extra work for the mechanics who were already stretched to their limits. “I know, but without you guys on the ground, we don’t get in the air. These P-38s are going to help us shoot down more Japanese planes…it’s that simple. Tell your mechanics that if I can make it up to them somewhere else, you just let me know. Every pilot in this squadron appreciates what you do. If any of my men don’t give you or your mechanics the proper respect, you come see me.”

Master Sergeant Rourke knew that Major Mitchell was a man of his word and responded affirmatively, “We’ll get it done…somehow.”

The next day, Admiral Halsey arrived to brief Mitchell about Admiral Yamamoto’s flight, “Your P-38s, equipped with drop tanks for extra fuel, are the only planes with the range to intercept and engage.”

Major Mitchell responded, “We lost a lot of good men at Pearl. I lost some good friends. It’s going to feel good to get some payback.”

“Then you’ll like the name of the mission: Operation Vengeance.”

Mitchell looked at the Command Operations flight plan and responded, “I don’t think this is going to work.”

It took him less than two hours to recalculate it and come up with five precise legs of the trip, the last one curving in a search pattern if Yamamoto was not found at the chosen point. Eighteen P-38s would carry out the mission. The pilots would “wave hop” all the way to Bougainville at altitudes no greater than 50 feet while maintaining radio silence. It was a high risk, high reward endeavor from beginning to end. Overnight at Henderson Field, ground crews fitted the large fuel drop-tanks under the wings. By dawn all the planes were ready.

At 0700 hours, Mitchell gave his last instructions.

“We will maintain radio silence at all costs. If you go down, you’re on your own. The mission is top priority; our survival or rescue is not. Yamamoto planned the attack at Pearl and we’re going after him. If only one of us makes it through, then it will be up to that one pilot to get it done. Any man who doesn’t want to fly under these circumstances, step forward and step aside.” Not one pilot accepted Mitchell’s offer. “I knew none of you guys would back out, but I had to ask.”

The flight, the longest-distance fighter intercept mission of the war, proceeded northwest to avoid Japanese spotters, sweeping widely away from Japanese-occupied New Georgia. The ocean was calm so Mitchell tried to hold the planes at 30 feet altitude even though depth perception was almost nonexistent. Every pilot had to remain alert, for even the slightest dip in altitude could send him crashing into the water. At 0800 the American planes were 285 miles from the planned interception point.

In Rabaul, despite urgings by local Japanese commanders to cancel the trip for fear of ambush, Yamamoto’s airplanes took off as scheduled. They climbed to 6.500 feet with their fighter escort at their four o’clock position and 1,500 hundred feet higher.

At 0820, Mitchell changed heading for the first time with his fellow pilots following. The Americans were still under strict radio silence orders. A half hour later, there was another course correction and at 0900 Mitchell made the last change, heading the final 40 miles directly for the coast of Bougainville, while beginning the slow climb for altitude.

At 0934, Lt. Doug Canning called out “Bogey, eleven o’clock high!”

There was no need for radio silence anymore. The pilots jettisoned their fuel drop tanks and attacked. The killer team of four P-38s lagged behind and waited. When the two bombers came into view, Mitchell began a full power climb to intercept the primary targets while encouraging his wingmen to stay with him. “Go! Go!” He then banked to the right to fly parallel to the bombers. He radioed, “Engage!”

Lt. Holmes and Captain Barber came in hot with their .50 caliber machine guns and 20mm cannons spitting death and destruction. As Mitchell opened fire on one bomber, it began to trail black smoke. Turning his attention to the other aircraft, he destroyed the starboard engine with a well-aimed shot from his cannon. Captain Barber came in right behind, riddling the crippled bomber’s fuselage with machine gun fire. His bullet strikes produced enough metal debris that it damaged his own aircraft when he flew through a cloud of it.

The first bomber made a hard landing into the ocean and the second one crashed into the jungle. Japanese Zeroes turned their wrath on the P-38s, attacking the bombers. Barber’s aircraft received 104 hits, but remained airborne.

Mitchell knew his pilots needed enough fuel to make the 400 mile return trip, so he radioed, “Break off contact! Head for home!”

Even as they headed back to Guadalcanal, Mitchell and his pilots did not know which bomber Yamamoto was in. They didn’t know if he’d been killed or rescued. Luckily, the P-38s caught a favorable tailwind as they headed home. One pilot, unsure he could make it back, radioed Major Mitchell, “Vengeance Leader, this is Wolverine. I won’t make it…too low on fuel.”

Mitchell looked at his fuel gauge, seeing that he was also running low on fuel. He radioed the other pilots, “All those that think they can make it back to Guadalcanal, stay with me. Those that don’t, go with Wolverine to Pavuru.”

Six planes changed course for the Russell Islands. (The Russell Islands are two small islands, Pavuru and Mbanika. In 1943, as part of American military operations during the Solomons campaign of World War II, the islands were occupied by U.S. troops.) The distance was 77 miles shorter than their own base on Guadalcanal. Not a great distance, but every mile counted on this mission.

*  *  *

Sergeant Basilone and his machine gun platoon were pulled off the front lines for some much-needed rest, repair of their weapons, and replacement. Only seven men remained who were not killed or seriously wounded. When they reached Henderson Field it was teeming with excitement.

 “What’s going on?” Basilone inquired.

A young ground crew member, not much older than 18 years, responded, “Major Mitchell and the squadron shot down Admiral Yamamoto’s airplane! They’re on their way back right now.”

Basilone knew the Japanese would be looking for some major retaliation once they learned of the attack. His experienced eyes scanned the jungle surrounding the airfield, searching for any indication when that might be.

Back in the air, Major Mitchell received radio communications from the pilots who had diverted to the Russell Islands. They made it. Now he only had to worry about the planes with him. When Henderson Field came into view, you could almost hear a collective sigh of relief echo across the South Seas skies. Mitchell could see the propellers on the other planes sputtering. His own P-38 was struggling to stay airborne for lack of fuel.

“We’re going in tight, nose to tail. When you hit the deck, pull off to the side and let the other guy go by. Goose lead us in. I’ll be going last.”

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The Japanese on Guadalcanal must have got word about Yamamoto and began attacking the airfield. Sergeant Basilone commandeered two jeeps. He put one machine gun team in one, with as much ammunition as it could hold, then gave an order to Corporal Adrian Levine. “Get out to the edge of the airfield and give those planes some cover fire!”

Basilone climbed into the back of the other jeep with a .30 caliber machine gun. Pfc Traylor was behind the wheel and Lance Corporal Watkins took the assistant gunner position, ready to feed the ammo belt. Basilone told the driver, “Run parallel to the runway. Move!”

The first machine gun team took up a defensive position on the end of the driveway. Basilone and his Marines raced back and forth, firing at the advancing Japanese, allowing the fuel starved P-38s to land. Mitchell was the last to come in and he could see the Japanese soldiers racing toward his landing point. He knew he was a dead man once he touched ground. But just then, the jeep with Basilone raced up. The driver did a 360 and the hero of Bloody Ridge cut down the Japanese soldiers with long burst of gunfire before they could reach the plane. The jeep escorted Mitchell to a safe area of the airfield while army and Marine personnel engaged in a bitter battle to push the enemy back into the jungle.

When Mitchell stepped out of his P-38, the first thing he saw was the .30 caliber machine, red hot and smoking. Then he recognized the Marine behind it, “Thanks Sergeant.”

 Basilone joked, “Anybody that shoots down Yamamoto is my kind of pilot.”

“This was a squadron effort. Besides we don’t know if we got him.”

That night, the P-38 pilots and Marines shared a dinner. There would be no celebration until they knew what happened to the Japanese Admiral. On the very next day after the attack, April 19, 1943, Naval Intelligence intercepted Japanese radio chatter that the crash site and body of Yamamoto had been found by a search-and-rescue party.

The retrieval party noted Yamamoto had been thrown clear of the plane’s wreckage, his white-gloved hand grasping the hilt of his sword, his body still upright in his seat under a tree. Yamamoto was instantly recognizable, his head tilted down as if deep in thought.

To cover up the fact that the Allies were reading Japanese codes, American news agencies were given the same cover story used to brief the 339th Fighter Squadron—that civilian coast-watchers in the Solomons observed Yamamoto boarding a bomber, then relayed the information by radio to American naval forces. A story that conveyed to the Japanese military that the Americans’ successful attack was only a stroke of luck.

Sergeant Basilone would make the ultimate sacrifice on February 19, 1945, during the landing on Iwo Jima. For his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross to go with the Medal of Honor he earned on Guadalcanal. Major Johnny Mitchell and the pilots of the 339th Fighter Squadron would always be remembered as the Lightning Riders who brought the thunder during Operation Vengeance.


Read this story and many more from Thomas Calabrese at The Vista Press.

Escape of an Innocent Man: Truth Will Always be Worth the Risks

posted Jun 24, 2020, 3:01 PM by Bruce Rowe   [ updated Jun 24, 2020, 3:07 PM ]

Marine Sergeant Mike Taylor had been in the Corps for six years and his enlistment was coming to an end in two months. First Sergeant Douglas Collins called him into his office.

“You wanted to see me, First Sergeant?” Mike stopped in the doorway.

“Yeah, come in and take a seat.”

Mike complied and waited for Collins to speak. “Your enlistment is almost up. Made any decisions yet?”

“When I was on deployment, I thought I’d join the sheriff’s department or the highway patrol when I got out.” The doubt in his voice was unmistakable.

“But since you got back, you’re not too sure,” Collins guessed.

“Things are getting complicated outside the gate. I’m not sure where I fit in anymore.”

“You’ve got some time left, but eventually I’m going to need a decision from you.”

“I’m working on it.” Mike smiled. “I should have an answer for you real soon.”

“You’re a good Marine and the Corps could use men like you.”

“Thanks Top.”

Mike never thought about being anything but a law officer while growing up in the small town of Menifee, California. His father was a deputy sheriff, uncle was a highway patrol officer, mother was a 911 dispatcher, and brother was a state park ranger. His sister went to law school and was working at the district attorney’s office in Santa Barbara County. It seemed the entire family was connected to law enforcement in one way or another.

Before he was out of grade school, Mike knew all the criminal codes. His father would say, “10-29.” And Mike would answer, “Check wants and warrants.” After high school he thought the best way to serve his country and get law enforcement experience at the same time was to become a 5811, a military police officer. When he enlisted in the Marines, he requested that occupational specialty.

On his first overseas tour in Iraq, a truck loaded with explosives blew up near the checkpoint that he was guarding. The force of the explosion knocked Mike off his feet and he suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). The headaches and periods of dizziness lasted for two weeks. Even now, two years later, he still experienced minor side effects when the circumstances were just right. During his second tour in Afghanistan, while stationed at a high-risk outpost, the Marines came under attack several times from Taliban fighters. During one of these assaults, a force of heavily armed fighters breeched the perimeter. Mike and his fellow Marines positioned themselves between the enemy and the ammo dump, tenaciously defending their position through the night until reinforcements arrived the next morning. For his actions, Sergeant Taylor received the Silver Star.

Returning from overseas, Mike was pleased to get Pendleton as his duty station. It would give him the opportunity to visit his family when time permitted. He worked on Memorial Day weekend so he would have Father’s Day off.

Corporal Chris Brinton approached him after formation. “My father had a heart attack and is going in for surgery on Saturday. My mom told me it’s a routine procedure, but it still has some risks. I’d like to see him before he goes under the knife…just in case.”

“Did you request emergency leave?” Mike asked.

“Technically it’s not really an emergency. I talked to the First Sergeant and he said that if I could find someone to take my duty, he’d give me a ninety-six.” (Four days leave.)

“Am I first or last on your list?”

“Last. Everybody else has already made plans,” Chris said. “I’m bettin’ that you have too.”

“My father’s birthday is on June 18 and the family always combines it with Father’s Day. This year we’re having the party on the twenty-first.”

“No problem.” Chris shrugged and walked off.

That night Mike called his mother and explained his dilemma. Linda Taylor pondered the situation for a minute then asked, “What would you make feel worse, missing your father’s party or if your fellow Marine didn’t get a chance to see his father and something went wrong with his surgery? Ask yourself that question and you’ll know what to do.”

“You wouldn’t be mad if I didn’t make it?”

“We’d be disappointed obviously, but we’d understand. In case you’ve forgotten, your father and I both missed our share of holidays when you were growing up. Sometimes doing the right thing comes with a price.”

“That says it all,” Mike said. “Love you.”

Before Chris Brinton departed Camp Pendleton for the San Diego Airport, to catch his flight to Portland on Friday morning, he stopped at the Provost Marshal’s Office. Mike was on duty. “Thanks again for doing this.”

“I hope everything works out,” Mike said.

*  *  *

One area of the base bordered the Oceanside Harbor, Del Mar base housing, and the jetty. It didn’t belong to the city or the state and it wasn’t part of the base. It was a strip of federal land that just seemed to be forgotten by most people, but not all. There was a trail that led to the jetty and occasionally the homeless would use the area for their encampments. Since it was in close proximity to the base, the military police were told to keep an eye on the area for uncontrolled fires. Most of the police cruisers on base were two-wheel drive and could not make it up the rocky, sandy incline. The MPs would have to exit their vehicle at the bottom of the hill and walk the rest of the way.

It was 0430 hours on June 21 and Mike was patrolling the southwest sector of the base. He radioed in, “I’m going to check Dogpatch.” That was the designation of the area in question.

“Roger that, 26 Tango,” came the reply.

Mike parked and followed the standard routine. There were faint streaks of sunrise along the horizon and when he looked toward the jetty, he saw the faint outline of a boat. Suddenly two men jumped out of the brush and attacked Mike. He fought them off, but as he was beginning to get the upper hand in the altercation, another man came up behind him and knocked him to his knees with a stun gun. The man hit him with three long jolts of electricity, leaving the military policemen incapacitated.

The nervousness in his voice was clear when one of the men asked, “What are we going to do now?”

*  *  *

Raoul Garcia was a former Marine who received a bad conduct discharge when the military police found cocaine inside his vehicle while he was driving on base. He served a one year sentence at Miramar Brig, then after his release got a job as a cook at the Jolly Roger restaurant at Oceanside Harbor. He held a deep resentment for the Marine Corps, especially the military police. Once he scouted the area near the restaurant, he knew it would be a good place to bring drugs in from Mexico. It took a while, but eventually he made contact with the right people.

Today was the third delivery from the Sinaloa Cartel in the past two months. Mike moved slightly and Raoul shocked him again with the stun gun. “Finish loading the drugs. I need to think of a plan.”

There were four other men. Two worked for the Cartel and brought the drugs ashore from the boat one mile offshore. Two more came with Raoul. When they finished loading the cocaine and marijuana into the back of a four-wheel drive Toyota, one of the Cartel men said, “We need to get back to the boat. Where’s the money?”

Raoul reached down and pulled the M18 service pistol from Mike’s holster and shot the two Cartel soldiers with it. One of the other men looked on in disbelief, “What did you do that for? The Cartel is going to cut our heads off!”

“Why pay for something you can get for free?” Raoul smiled. “They’ll just think the M.P. shot them.”

The other man interjected gleefully, “Blame it on the Marine. I like that.”

“I wish I could trust you two to keep your mouths shut, but I can’t take that chance.” Then Raoul also shot his two cohorts dead.

By this time, Mike was beginning to regain his senses, but pretended to still be unconscious. There was nothing he could do, lying on the ground and without a weapon. Raoul looked down at the motionless Marine, “I wish I could stick around, but I got to be moving on." 

Mike got a very good look at Raoul’s face before he was hit with another jolt of electricity. The drug dealer tossed the Marine’s gun and radio into the brush and drove off. When he reached the bottom of the hill, he placed a small bag of cocaine under the front seat of the military police cruiser. “The icing on the cake, as they say.”

It was daylight now. Raoul knew he needed to move quickly because people were starting to approach his position. He turned off the dirt road onto Harbor Drive then pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant. Raoul pulled out a burner phone and made a call.

“911, how can I help you?” the operator said.

“I just heard gunshots along the beach access road that intersects Harbor Drive by the jetty. There’s an empty Camp Pendleton police car there.” Raoul said.

“What’s your name sir?”

Raoul disconnected and patiently waited for three Oceanside Police cars to arrive on site. By this time, traffic had picked up along Harbor Drive and there was no way to distinguish him from anybody else.

“I love it when a good plan comes together,” he said.

He was feeling pretty good about himself and in his overconfidence he overlooked something very important. His truck was parked directly under a surveillance camera mounted on the exterior wall of the Seafood Grille restaurant. It had a clear view of Raoul’s face and recorded his every movement.

As Mike struggled to his feet, the numerous electrical strikes made his whole body ache. He instinctively felt for gun and radio, then staggered down the hill to his cruiser. The Oceanside Police were already there. They took Mike to the Camp Pendleton Hospital for examination where he was kept overnight for observation.

Asleep in his hospital bed, Mike was awakened by First Sergeant Collins. He looked up. “Hey Top.”

“I just got back from the shooting site. Right now, the FBI, DEA, and NCIS are fighting over who has jurisdiction. I need you to tell me exactly what happened and don’t leave out one detail,” Collins ordered.

Mike rubbed his head. “Is there any way we can do this later?”

“No we can’t,” Collins responded firmly.

After Mike recounted every moment of his unfortunate encounter, “That’s everything from the time I left the front gate.”

“What I’m about to tell you…I never told you. You’re in a world of hurt, Devildog. Right now this looks like a drug deal gone bad. Your gun was found at the site, and drugs were in your car. They put a rush on the ballistics report and if your service weapon turns out to be the one that killed those four men, then they’ve got murder in the commission of a class A felony. That’s a minimum life sentence.”

“I’m innocent. You believe that, right?” Mike sighed.

“Absolutely, I wouldn’t have told you this otherwise. It doesn’t matter what I think. Right now you’re guilty and you’ve got nothing to prove otherwise, except your word… and that’s not worth much. You need to run.”

“Seriously?” Mike was flabbergasted that Collins would suggest this to him.

“It’s your call. Spending the rest of your life in a cell in Leavenworth; that’s a big, big gamble to take. I’ll do my best to figure out what happened, but there are no guarantees.”

Mike had never run from anything in his life and he was having a tough time processing this. “How long do I have before they come for me?”

“Maybe 12 hours if you’re lucky.”

“Where would I go?” Mike asked.

“Get everything of value that you can put in the back of your truck, close out any bank accounts, get rid of your cellphone and buy a couple prepaid phones. Go down to the lemon lot on base and switch plates on your truck for to a vehicle that some Marine is selling. Drive to Coure de’alene, Idaho. If you’re lucky to make it that far, go to a café called Ruby’s. Ask for a guy named Tank. When you meet him, say two words, John Basilone. He’ll take it from there. One more thing…don’t call anybody. Especially your family. They are going to be questioned when the authorities realize you’re gone. You don’t want them to have to lie for you.”

“I don’t know what to say.” Mike was choked up.

“Until we meet again…good luck.”

The media got hold of the story and ran with it: “Marine kills four in drug deal gone awry.”

Every law enforcement agency in the country received information on Mike Taylor and were told he should be considered armed and dangerous. A month passed and soon Mike became old news.

A big man, Tim “Tank” Collins was the older brother of First Sergeant Collins. He was also a former Marine and the current Sheriff of Nampa, Idaho. He actually resembled a more muscular version of Fred Flintstone. “What name do you want to use?” he asked Mike.

“I served with two Marines in Afghanistan, Tony Morenti and Joe Hancock. How’s Tony Hancock sound?”

Mike grew a mustache, let his hair grow out a couple inches, and kept a stubble on his face. When his look had changed enough from the clean-cut Marine, Tank helped him get an Idaho driver’s license. This was an area where people minded their business and didn’t ask too many questions. When Tank introduced Mike as his nephew, it was more than enough to make the young man welcome in the close-knit community.

*  *  *

Back at Camp Pendleton, the case continued to stir up heated emotions about corrupt people in the military. Federal law enforcement officials with their own agenda figured that someone had helped Mike Taylor escape. First Sergeant Collins was in their crosshairs. Both the FBI and NCIS interrogated him several times. They got warrants to tap his phone and keep him under surveillance, but the career Marine was up to the challenge. Agents were sent to question every member of his family, no matter how distant they were. When two agents came to Nampa to interview Tank, he responded curtly, “I don’t keep in touch with my brother.” When the agents checked his phone records, they found that to be true. Little did the agents know that they stood less than ten feet away from their target, who was now called Deputy Sheriff Tony Hancock when they were in the building.

Two months later, Mike joined the search and rescue team and began dating Alicia McGuire, a raft and wilderness guide who was also a member of the rescue team.

Raoul Garcia was living the good life in Imperial Beach. Joaquin Guzman, the Cartel leader, never believed how things went down near Camp Pendleton. Raoul’s story was that the MP and another man had ambushed them. He fought with the MP and barely managed to escape, but had no idea what happened to the drugs or the money.

First Sergeant Collins was almost ready to get off duty at the Provost Marshal’s Office when Staff Sergeant Victor Franco approached his desk, “I won a 100 dollar gift card on the radio for the Seafood Grille. I heard they got a really good happy hour. Want to help me spend it?”

“Let me finish a couple of things and we’re outta’ here.”

When the two Marines arrived at the Seafood Grille, Collins noticed the surveillance camera and a thought flashed through his mind. It was a longshot, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask. While enjoying his beer and munching on appetizers, he asked the bartender, “Is the manager in?

“Yes sir,” the bartender replied.

“Would you mind calling him?”

A young man is his mid-thirties appeared a minute later. “I’m the manager.”

“I’m First Sergeant Collins. I’m with the military police on base. Can we talk in private?”

“Of course.”

Collins told Franco, “I’ll be back.”

As the manager began searching though the archived surveillance footage, he asked, “What was that date again?”

“June 21, between zero five hundred and zero six hundred hours”

It took a few minutes, but when the manager found the right time, it showed Raoul Garcia sitting in his truck, “Is this what you want?”

Collins smiled. “That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Can I get a copy.”

*  *  *

Mike was hiking with Alicia near Ellison Dam when three men with large backpacks struggling up a parallel trail aroused his suspicions. “Those guys seem a little inexperienced to be carrying such big loads. What do you think?”

“There’s nothing up that way except the dam…no campsites,” Alicia added.

“My curiosity is aroused.”

“Why don’t we follow them. I wouldn’t want you to walk around with an aroused curiosity. That could be dangerous to your health.”

They stayed out of sight of the three hikers but made sure they never lost track of where they were. When the three men reached the top of the damn, they found an area where they could set their packs down. From their vantage point, Mike and Alicia saw the men unpacking explosives and stretching out detonator cord. “Call 911,” Mike said.

“What are you going to do?” Alicia asked.

“I’ll figure that out when I get there.”

Mike ran off, stopping at the west end of the dam. Taking a deep breath, he raced toward the men. Without slowing down he grabbed the packs in rapid succession and threw them over the railing of the dam. Two exploded in mid-air without causing any damage to the structure. The third bomb had not been armed yet and it fell harmlessly to the water below. Mike turned his attention to the three men, throwing two over the side and subduing the third with a chokehold. When Tank arrived on site, he told Mike, “You better get out of here! You go too, Alicia.”

As they were driving back to town, Alicia asked, “Want to tell me what that was all about?”

Mike explained the circumstances that led him to Idaho and when he was finished he asked, “Does that make a difference between us?”

“It reaffirms what I already knew. You’re a good man Mike Taylor or Tony Hancock. Aren’t you going to ask me to not tell anybody about this?”

“No, you do whatever you think is best,” Mike said. “I won’t stop you.”

*  *  *

First Sergeant Collins had found a way to get a message to Mike without it being intercepted by law enforcement authorities. He was sitting in the Fisherman Restaurant and Bar in San Clemente when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He turned around to see Mike standing next to him, “It’s been a while, how are you doing?”

“Good…and you?” Mike answered.

“Not bad.” Collins pulled out his cellphone and showed Mike a photo,

“I wouldn’t have asked you to come back down if I didn’t think it was important. Is this the guy that tasered you?”

 “Yeah that’s him. What’s his name?”

“Raoul Garcia. A former Marine with a bad conduct discharge for drugs.”

“How’d you get the photo?”

“I’ll explain it all to you on the way. A friend of mine at Homeland Security told me where to find him. Want to take a ride?”

“I’d like nothing better.”

As the two men drove down Interstate Five from San Clemente to Imperial Beach, Mike said, “You’ve taken a big risk helping me and I’ll never be able to repay you.”

“You would have done the same if you were in my position.”

“I’m not so sure,” Mike sighed.

“I am…I was in a no-win situation. Do I let an innocent man go to prison or do I break the law? I chose you because while we’re military police, we’re Marines first and our code is… we leave no man behind.”

When Mike and First Sergeant Collins reached the upscale home of Raoul Garcia, they found an inconspicuous place to park that offered a view of the property. While one dozed off, the other watched. Seven hours later, Mike nudged Collins. “We’ve got something.”

Raoul was just pulling into his driveway. There were two other men in the Cadillac Escalade with him.

The two Marines slowly got out of the car, opened the trunk, and retrieved their tactical assault gear including military issue pistols. They moved into position.

The three men were sitting in the living room drinking tequila shots. Entering through a backdoor, Mike and Collings got the drop on them before they could reach for their weapons.

Raoul immediately recognized the military policeman. “I should have killed you while I had the chance.”

Collins zip-tied the other two men’s wrists behind their backs then gagged them while Mike kept his pistol at the ready position. When he was finished, Collins showed Raoul the video of him sitting in his truck in front of the Seafood Grille.

“I never thought to check for a camera,” Raoul said. “It doesn’t prove anything, except that I was in the area at the same time.”

“You killed those four men, not me,” Mike said.

“So what if I did? If I go to trial, I’ll deny everything…it’s your word against mine,” Raoul boasted. “And you’re a disgraced cop on the run!”

Collins walked to the front door and opened it. Joaquin Guzman and three of his cartel soldiers walked in.

“Hey Raoul, how are you?” Guzman asked, a phony grin across his face.

“Oh…good. What are you doing here, Joaquin?”

“This Marine came to see me in Tijuana. He figured I might be interested in knowing what really happened. We worked out a little deal.”

“You can’t believe him. He’s a Marine!” Raoul nervously blurted out.

“Anybody who has the guts to face me mano e mano is going to have my respect and cooperation.”

Then Collins replayed Raoul’s admission of guilt he’d recorded with his cellphone.

“Mr. Guzman and myself are going to give you a choice,” Collins said. “You can go with him or you can go with me and admit what you did to the authorities.”

Joaquin pulled out a long-bladed knife and brandished it. “I have something very special planned, so please choose me.”

Raoul’s shoulders slumped and his face turned ashen white. As Collins drove back to North County with Raoul tied and bound in the trunk, Mike turned to his superior and friend. “You are one crazy Marine going to see a drug cartel leader!”

“I figured it was worth the risk. Besides, I didn’t have a lot of options.” Collins grinned mischievously. “I always say that the enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to negotiate.”

“I’m going back to Idaho,” Mike said. “I’m still not quite convinced that this is my get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s in my best interest to operate under the rules of engagement that I’m an escaped murderer until fully exonerated.”

“Can’t blame you for being overly cautious. The system doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to. In this crazy world that we live in, some people don’t like the military and others hate the police. We happen to be both. We swore to serve and protect, but that doesn’t mean it should be a suicide mission.”

“I can’t control what people choose to believe about me, but in a world of uncertainty, I am sure of at least one thing.”

“What’s that?” First Sergeant Collins asked.

“That truth will always be worth the risks.”

Mike leaned back in the passenger seat, took a long breath, closed his eyes, and felt a sense of relief he hadn’t experienced in quite a while.

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