Red Lodge, Montana, USA
[In the post war United States there are countless stories of people; civilians, professionals, soldiers, and ex military, who against all odds not only survived the single greatest deadly wave of extinction since the dinosaurs, but found the strength to help their fellow man. These men and women have been lauded as heroes, their actions as varied and courageous as the people themselves. Today they live on as the average citizens they once were, now joining the massive effort to rebuild the still great country, their stories are told around campfires and dinner tables by those who survived. They are living legends and this is one of their stories.
There is a cabin outside of the small community of Red Lodge where they say a man known as "The Reaper" lives. Stories abound in several states about him from tales of taking on extremely large amounts of zombies single handedly to leading thousands of refugees to the Safe Zone across the Rockies through the dead of winter. I determine I have to meet this man face to face and ask about his experiences first hand. It takes me many hours to navigate the unmarked roads and trails that finally lead me to large handmade cabin that sits along a wide lake. I find the fabled "Reaper" sitting on the bank, clad in fishing gear and doing just that. His dog, an old, black Labrador alerts him to my presence. He immediately stands and turns to me with a pistol in his hand. When I make it clear that I am only here to ask him a few questions, he calms down and motions for me to sit next to him. The opposite side of the bank is visible from here, and the peak of a set of mountains is clear against the blue sky. "The Reaper" whom I soon learn was born with the name William Becker, is seventy years old although he doesn't look it in the slightest. The black hair on his head and face is only slightly peppered with grey or white and he is in better shape than most men half his age. His grey eyes, however, carry the weight of over half a century of conflict and war. On his right arm is a black tattoo of a stylized anchor and eagle with small words displayed on a banner underneath spelling the words "The only easy day was yesterday."]
Sorry about that, can't be too careful these days...
Its fine really.
So, watchoo wanna know?
Are you aware of the stories surrounding your actions in the war?
[He shrugs] Sure, like any urban myth they're blown way out of proportion. People need heroes I guess, so sometimes they make their own.
According to anyone who's heard of you, you're one of those heroes, whether the stories are made up or not.
The heroes are the ones that did the things I've done and didn't make it. I've always believed that. So I guess you wanna know what I did during the war then eh? How I got that stupid name?
That's why I'm here.
Alright, well...where do I start? I was just a pup when I went to Nam, thought war was an adventure, was bored of the states so I signed up and they thought I was so good they put me in training to become a SEAL, the Navy's new, well back then it was new, commando special ops force. A lot of people have heard of us by now what with all the stuff about terrorism and that one high ranker raghead we shot in Pakistan before the dead rose. But I wasn't there for that. I was part of that first generation of what they would later call "operators." I went everywhere; North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand...hell there was that black ops gig in China, by the way, dont go asking the government about that one, they still wont admit to it, probably never will. Bottom line, spent somewhere near four years as the Navy's eye's, ears and dagger.
Would you say your experience in that war helped you during the past seven years?
Those and all the other times I got called back up. You wouldn't believe how high the demand for special forces was after Nam. Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, not all wet work you know, especially for those last two, they thought I was too old. [He snickers] I could still beat those new grunts any time, but what do I know? Where was I? Oh yeah, the war. Well, the panic was bad enough, the words "mass exodus" don't even begin to describe the chaos. I lived in Arkansas at that time, little community outside Little Rock. That's probably one of the reasons why those stories about me are so widespread, I moved around a lot during the war. Yonkers was a huge disappointment but that whole FUBAR of an operation wasn't much of a surprise.
Why is that?
[He shakes his head] If there's one thing about the top brass in the military I know is that they expect the same shit they pulled in the war before to work this round. Let me tell you something, I fought all over the fucking world and you know what killed our men, my friends, more than bullets, bombs, traps, and ordnance all together? Those goddamned commanders or politicians or whoever the hell else who had their heads so far up their ass that their nose was the goddamned lump in their throats. [He spits angrily] So no, I wasnt surprised in the slightest when the entire fucking army ran with its tail between its legs. Oh sure they tried their best to cover the nation's retreat but they knew they'd never do a good enough job of it. Meanwhile, where I was, we were far enough away from the initial outbreak to start preparing beforehand.
Who do you mean by "We?"
The people, citizens, everybody, they either packed up and went north or west, or they stayed behind and buttoned up. I was one of them, I didn't see a need for me to run.
Why not get yourself out of danger? if you had a head start why stay?
I knew the shit that was coming, I'd heard about it; the dead coming back to life, eating people, nothing could stop em, there were millions of zacks chasing our boys all the way to the Rockies. I stayed because I knew I had the know-how to be of use when the crap hit the fan. In the SEALs you dont just give up, if you do that you're dead, that wasn't an option, you don't run, that wasn't an option, you fight and you win, that's your only option. It was drilled into my head the first day I came to boot and its been there ever since. Its the reason I'm still here.
So the zombies came and the army fled behind the safe zone. What did you do after the Panic?
Right off the bat, I was a skywatcher. You know what those are right?
I'm pretty sure.
We were a Jerry-rigged bunch of radio operators that had cabins in the woods, in the cities, in the towns, all over, we were the ears of the military when they'd gone deaf after the retreat. We reported things back to Honolulu regularly to help the military keep tabs on their stuff. I went by the callsign "Yankee Six." That was the name that the Army had registered me under, it's what I answered to.
What kind of stuff? What did you report?
Our number one job was to be on the lookout for any pilots that may have had to punch out for whatever reason, dont ask me why, over the gray zone, that is, the infected areas. Fortunately for the pilots, I was in a place that was wide open, no skyscrapers or anything to block the view. With some binoculars you could see a chute or a diving plane for miles in any direction from the tops of those trees.
The tops of the trees?
Oh, I'm sorry, I had made my hootch in the tops of the oaks in Journey National Forest. They were big strong trees, decades old, maybe almost a hundred years. Big, wide branches, good support for a foundation. When the shit hit the fan I gathered as much info as I could on these "walking dead." Learned they cant climb so I started building, that thing is probably still there. Not a kid's tree house mind you, it was big enough for me to sleep, eat, and operate my equipment in. I had a mast to climb up, you know like a ship, with a crow's nest, went up there above the canopy out of sight of the Zs around and watched the sky.
There were Zombies close by?
You bet. sometimes they'd just come in two or threes, sometimes I'd get a dozen or so just stumbling around. Mostly they weren't real close, just in eye sight. [He pauses and stares off into the distance.] There were times though, when those "mega hordes", you know the ones that came west across the plains, or at least parts of em would move through the woods, especially during the first few years. Huge amounts of Zacks, for hours on end, walking right by that little cabin in the trees.
You were never spotted?
Not by the huge groups, thank the Lord above. When they moved through there were usually signs. Things like the animals, they'd all scram as soon as they caught a whiff, the huge masses of em had their own unclean smell to em and then there was that damned moaning, couldn't miss it for anything, that's how I knew. I'd just sit on the floor with my back against the wall, the radio turned off, every light extinguished, clutching my rifle and praying, that was all I could do, just let em walk past and hope they didn't smell me or hear me.
You were lucky to have avoided so many close calls.
Luck had some part in it though I have a feeling the big guy in the clouds had the more major hand in that, it was scary, and yes, big tough special ops guys like me get scared too. But it was the most surreal thing in the world, sitting there, knowing you could do nothing but wait, I've had the feeling before on a few occasions but not on that scale. Its the kind of thing that drives you crazy, hearing them walk right past you, moaning, groaning, sniffing, looking for you. [He pauses and closes his eyes.] Its something I wouldn't wish on anybody.
You said you were never detected by large groups...
Yeah, some smaller groups found where I was hiding, had a few slip ups, one while I was on the ground, made too much noise or just didn't notice em. [He sighs frustratedly] I am starting to get too old for this shit.
How did you dispatch them?
[He grabs the rifle sitting next to him, leaned against his chair, I recognize it as a pre war M-14. He also pulls out the pistol form earlier, it is also a prewar model, a Glock I believe.]
Tools of the trade. I'd put the suppressors on both of them and go at it. Within a few hours or minutes all of em would be face down in the dirt, pretty routine. Dragged the bodies to a pit I'd dug for disposing of the carcasses and burned em. Yeah there was a lot of shit stirred up form all the fires and all those that I started were just adding to it, but it was a drop in a really big bucket, besides, if I didn't somebody else would have had to do it.
You said you were on the look out for downed pilots and aircraft, did you find any?
Sure, the Air Force was far from perfect, a few of their supply planes, and there was a shit ton of those, went down for whatever reason and their pilots were usually able to jump. Somebody would spot the chute, whoever was closest would run out to find them. There was this one in particular...nah, you probably don't want to hear that one.
No, please, go ahead.
Well, there was this blackhawk, an army helicopter, it was flying over Little Rock and the surrounding communities, apparently there was some anti U.S. goons sneaking around the area, you know the rebels, those whackjobs that used the war to declare their independence from the country, or maybe thought that the government was destroyed and they were the only ones left to protect America from "The invaders." [He points to his head with his index finger and spins it in a circle.] Like I said, crazy, but there were a lot of them and they all hated the army for whatever reason. Anyway, the helicopter had seen a group running around, looked like they were up to no good, went to investigate, dunno what the pilot was thinking but he got pretty low. [He claps his hands together.] Bam! Boy gets his tail boom shot off by an RPG. He tries to pull out but can't make it. The pilot tries to fly the thing out of the rebels range but doesn't get very far, good for him I spot the smoke and hear the maydays from his chopper, couldn't contact him but I knew where he hit down. I raced as fast as I could up there, a little clearing about a mile away from where I was, I knew I had to get him out fast, if he was still alive, no doubt the rebels wanted what was left of that chopper, no telling what they'd do to him if they got him. But that wasnt the worst thing that could have happened...
The crash made a huge noise, big racket, knocked down a couple trees, that kind of noise could attract every Z in a ten mile radius, not good. I got to the edge of the clearing, sure enough the rebs were there, inching closer, not sure what was going on but trying to get to the chopper anyway. They didn't see me in the clearing so, I set up, took my time, and took a shot.
Just like that? Weren't you outnumbered?
Sure, but they were outclassed and, as my old instructor used to say, "Can't hit what you can't see." I was hidden plenty well, the first one dropped when I hit him and then the second and by the third those lightweights finally figured out what was going on and started looking around, taking cover, shooting in random directions. Now I know what you're thinking. Why attack a numerically superior force? How stupid could I be to attract all that attention? Let me fill you in, the rebs were untrained and most times not that well equipped, just stupid boys or girls with guns and something to prove. Gotta hand it to em though, they were a determined and ruthless bunch, if they caught you, they wouldn't let go. Anyway, after a few more shots, they beat it, for all their bravado they must have had a smarter leader than I thought. I figured it was just me they were running from, but after the noise died down, I heard what it was that'd spooked em. That moaning you can hear from miles away. There were a lot of em coming, I had to act fast. I got to the bird's cockpit and found the pilot, he was stuck inside, uninjured, the copilot had a head wound and his leg had twisted in the crash, as soon as me and the pilot; some young kid from Colorado, got his buddy out, I checked on the crew chief. [He sighs] He was already gone, took a big chunk of metal right to the neck, his blood was all over the floor of the chopper, its funny, all the smoke and blood and gunfire, I thought all that PTSD stuff was for guys who couldn't hold their marbles but right then...[He pauses, wavers a little] Well, lets just say it reminded me a lot of when I was just a kid myself, back in the bush and all that. The pilot and I had to drag the copilot between us, he was unconscious and groggy from his bonk on the head. When we got far enough away, The pilot triggered the scuttle charges.
The scuttle charges, after the first chopper or plane went down behind the grey zone, the military put explosives aboard each aircraft, if they crashed the pilot or whoever was left alive was supposed to trigger them and self destruct the bird to make sure the rebs didn't get their hands on it. The army gave the same orders to any skywatchers who found a crashed plane with no survivors...
Did you ever have to do that?
[He is silent for a moment.] Yeah...
So what happened to the pilot?
After we got outta there, I took him into my cabin until I could get him a ride to the Little Rock blue zone. He thanked me, you know, starstruck, tears in his eyes, happy to be alive, thanking me over and over, its something you get used to in my line of work. Its comforting to know no matter how many people might hate me out there, I'll always have the gratitude of the one's I've helped. That's another thing they taught us in SEAL training: "First to aid, last to die."
Did you ever find any pilots you weren't able to help?
A few, and it was a damned shame every one of them...There was this one guy, a C-130 pilot, went down over Springfield...
I thought you said you were stationed in Little Rock?
Like I said, I moved around a lot, when an area got stable enough, I packed up and left for another area that was...less stable.
What's the point of me staying in an area that has nothing I can help with? The people there, the army, they're fine, they didn't need me in that region so I moved to one that did, wasn't always easy, it always took a while to get where I was going but it wasn't ever hard to find a rough place, there was always talk on the radio or rumors spreading about hardship, I followed the misery and left stability in my wake. That might have sounded a little arrogant, I wasn't the only one pitching in, hell, most of the people east of the Rockies were doing their best but you get my point. Anyway, there was this one pilot who went down and I...didn't get to him in time. Zs had already gotten to him, hangin there, his chute stuck in the branches over his head. By the time I cleared em out, there wasn't anything left besides a gut covered flightsuit. Yeah, sure, I put a bullet in the guy's head just to make sure but. [He pauses.] I just pray to God that the ones who we couldn't get to were dead before they hit the ground.
So you did skywatcher work, did the army give you any other assignments?
Sure, like I said, eyes and ears, and sometimes the drill sergeant. I have previous experience, the army grouped up a lot of vets like me and paired us with Rangers or Greencaps to train the grunts in the blue zones how to fight.
Rangers and Greencaps?
United States Army Special Forces; airborne rangers and green berets, you know, like the big muscled guys you see in the movies, guys like me who have been in the shit before. Anyway, they sent me plenty of places: Cedar Springs, St Louis, Omaha, Topeka, Tulsa, Indianapolis. The list goes on, teaching green civilians to be hardened killers is no easy work but it was all part of that survival option I talked about earlier, its what we've always done as Americans, innovate, adapt, overcome. It wasn't until the first winter when the Special Ops guys started throwing around the idea that was to become the "Grey Highway."
And how did that initiative start?
Pretty simply actually, A lot of civilians from the blue zones in the foothills of the Appalachians wanted to get to the Rockies and into the country's "official" safe zone. Who wouldn't? I'm sure a lot of people tried on their own or in small groups but this was bigger, whole communities got together and messaged Honolulu that they were going west whether the army helped them or not, but they wanted someone to guide them along until they got there.
And that's how Operation Shepherd began?
You got it, the President ordered the assorted groups of Spec Ops and skywatchers to group up at the Knoxville blue zone, that's where it started, we got airlifted there in a Herc and as soon as we got out we knew our work was cut out for us. There were tents and other hootches everywhere, as far as they eye could see. There were somewhere near five hundred people that were planning on making that first trip and only about a hundred of us who were supposed to protect them.
Why didn't the army just airlift them like they had you?
You kidding me? The army didn't have the resources, the fuel or the birds to spare to do all that. Hell, our trip on that Herc was a one way deal, if we didn't make it or if we ran into some sort of impenetrable obstacle, that was it, no lifelines. We were on our own, luckily that's what we were trained for. We set out the next day, our goal was simple, make it to the blue zone in Little Rock. So we trekked, on foot, in horse drawn carriages, there were no vehicles on that first trip, plenty later but not on the first one. Remember, nobody knew if what we were doing was even possible so nobody wanted to give up anything useful to help the group on what was considered a suicide mission. Ever see the books or movies where they show the settlers heading west in those big canvas topped cabins?
It was a lot like that, slow traveling, the world was again a much bigger place like it had been a hundred years ago, it took forever to get anywhere. Every day we'd trek through the snow or slush, always on the look out on the hills or the trees around us. We used the highways and the major roads, all had cars clogging them, it was hard work, making sure everyone was in one group and not strung out where we couldn't cover em. There were some good things about that trip though, it was decided to do it in the winter where most of the Z's were frozen, not really at first but as soon as we cleared the Mississippi, pretty much every Z we came across was stuck. I met Josey here on the first trip [He pets the head of the resting dog at his side.] Came right out of the woods one night and liked to scared the mess out of me. Must have smelled the stew we were cooking, he was skin and bones when he came tramping up, drooling like, well, a dog. He was wary of us at first, just watching from the trees, but all it took was one bowl of meat, he hasn't left my side yet. So eventually, through shit weather, supply shortages, disease, Zack, and a few rebs here and there, we made it to Arkansas after about a week. The group stopped there for a few days, a few people decided to stay, more decided to tag along and join us, we packed up and left again. This went on for about a month, heading from blue zone to blue zone, gaining a hundred civilians here, loosing fifty there, until We finally got to Colorado and the Glacier Pass through the mountains.
So that was it?
Nah, far from it. We still had to walk for another two days until we made it to the first Army camp and man were they surprised. [He laughs and shakes his head.] You should have seen those boys faces, dumbstruck, like they'd never seen so many people in one place before. They didn't know what to do with us until we eventually got somebody's commander and told him who we were. They had us sniffed by dogs, checked, examined, that sort of thing before we entered the safe zone and everyone went on their merry way, except for the guides of course, we went back.
Back east, it was the dead of winter by then and after about a week, word got out that we'd made it and other civilians who'd wanted to come but didn't now wanted to try to come west. The task force I was with that did the original operation was asked by the top brass if we were up for it again and basically the general mood about a second trip was "Eh, why not?" We'd done it once, we could do it again.
So this continued for how long?
All winter, the first year we only made two trips and all together transported about a thousand people. Winter was the only viable time we could try it because of all the roaming Zs, the "Grey Highway" the "Blue Brick road"or just "Hell's Highway" spawned from that first month long, nerve wracking trip, ironically that was the first was by far the easiest.
Why? Wouldn't the ones afterwards be better equipped?
Yes and no, afterwards the army was willing to give us some help. A lot more people came out of the woodwork after we proved it could be done. We got big vehicles for the trip; dump trucks, buses, Semis, even big military supply rigs. It went faster but there was more risk involved. With so many vehicles and so many people now, rebs and bandits started ambushing us along our routes, we had some pretty knock down drag out battles here and there. As we kept doing this annually, the attacks would come more and more often, had myself a few close calls on those, bunch of times nobody thought we'd make it, especially when the rebs blew that bridge across the Mississippi, but we'd always manage to make it. Lost a few good guys on a few trips...[He becomes solemn] But a lot of other good people are still around because of what we did. We'd make two, maybe three trips a year depending on how long the winter was.
I'll bet it was hard.
Yeah, for some it pushed them to the breaking point, there were several blizzards that we had to slog through, a lot of people starved or froze to death, we could never bring enough supplies for the entire trip, by the time we reached the Rockies we were always bloody and beaten but unbowed. [He smiles.] We learned too, after the first few years and the first few attacks, we started changing up routes, one time we'd take a southern route near the Gulf, the next we'd be traveling up north near Canada almost. In reality, the route could vary highly year to year depending on the circumstances but it always boiled down to North, Central, and South. That alone probably saved us a lot of grief. But as we continued, a lot of skywatchers in the areas we passed pitched in, its amazing how generous people can be in a time of crisis. Whether it was telling us about a good place to settle for the night or giving us a heads up as to what was ahead on the road, those people did more for us than the army did.
So you were a skywatcher by Summer and a guide by Winter, and you made it through all that without a scratch?
[He makes an audible "Pfffft".] Like hell, Scrambling in the bush getting stung by every type of bug in creation, or slogging through the snow, nearly getting frostbite, there were plenty of "scratches" along the way, if you mean I never got hit by Zack, well, that's kind obvious isn't it?
But the rebels and the bandits...
Yeah, sure, they shot at me, I got a few grazes but no, I was never shot, I came close once but no. The closest I ever came was, ironically enough, almost facing a firing squad.
I'll get to that in a minute, now, after, damn, seven years was it? The army went on the offensive. After Hope it was all or nothing. I was stationed as a skywatcher in eastern Montana, just a few klicks from here actually, in those trees out there. [He points toward the mountains.] I was there in a little cabin I'd found, I'd set some traps for animals around, you know, food was scarce so I hunted and trapped a lot. I could hear it in the stillness of the dawn, a sound I hadn't heard since the last winter, a bunch of vehicles all headed in the same direction. "The Road to New York" had begun on that foggy spring morning and I'll never forget it. Right off the bat there was sporadic shooting as the army headed in my direction, I kept low and headed toward a ridge just about midway up that mountain, as I came to the crest I looked down into this valley and I saw it. The huge line of the army's advance, men and vehicles as far as they eye could see advancing as slowly as the Zs did. I didn't have much time to savor the sight, soon, I heard some screaming coming from close by, just a few hundred yards from down the ridge, it didn't stop either. Josey took off and I followed him, as we broke through a clearing in the trees, there was quite a scene set before me. A squad of army troopers were all huddled around this one big tree, the same tree where I had set one of my snare traps and were trying to get one of their friends down from his position hanging upside down from a rope that was attached to a branch. [He laughs.] Man those boys were spooked, so much in fact they nearly shot me when I came through. Now, you have to look at if from their perspective. Their friend had just been caught in a snare trap, they were surprised, scared, they had no idea what to expect, and here I come outta the bush looking like some mountain hillbilly all dirty and rough, I had put my jacket's hood up that morning because it was chilly so I'm sure that didn't help either. We just stood there, them and me for a moment or two until finally, I had to say something. "I see you found my trap." I said like an idiot. And that was that, I cut the poor kid down and they continued on.
But that wasn't the end of the war for you was it?
[He shakes his head.] Not in the slightest, A day later some grunt came to my front door and had a message for me, the advance needed people who knew the land so they could recapture it properly. You know, guides and scouts, that sort of thing.
Wasn't that the Special Forces' job?
Yeah, well, you can imagine how thinly stretched they were. I did that for a while, pointing at all the holes and pits those blind, green, scalps could fall in, and the frustrating thing about it was sometimes I'd say "This is here, you need to go around it." And they'd ignore me, walk right into some spot where Zack was or there was a group of bandits and would have to run and regroup when they could have just done it like I said and got it done right the first time. It was like the panic all over again, big brass without the big balls to go with their metal thinkin they knew more than anything else. Some people just don't learn.
Did you help the Army in any other way?
Sure, there was a big call for divers, you know, to clear lakes and ponds and anywhere with more than six feet of water. It'd been a long time since I had diving experience but I had it and that was a lot more than some of the other guys could say. It wasn't very happy work either. Damp, cold, often times not being able to see two feet in front of your face, with nothing but a shark suit and chain mail separating you from Zack. I saw men dragged under never to come up, I saw men come up with huge chunks taken out of them, hell, I went down there a few times just to swim around for a few minutes in the dark, head back up and then get pulled down by a Z I didn't see. Lucky for me they issued the divers with plenty of options; bangsticks, spearguns, but mostly things like knives, daggers, and spikes. It was dirty work, the dirtiest, I don't think there was a higher death rate anywhere else.
And this went on for how long?
Two years, until the army had almost reached the Black Hills in the Dakotas. That's what I was talking about earlier, that thing that nearly got me shot. It was late summer up north and the army was ready for its next leg of advance. One of the mor major problems that Army Group North had encountered was a huge rebel camp in the Black Hills. This thing was no mere dime-a-dozen fort either. It spanned for acres and acres across, it had bunkers, fortifications, supplies, radar, radios, advanced weapons left behind by the army, everything. It was the single biggest obstacle in the Army's path and they had to take it out.
How did you get involved in this? Surely they wouldn't want you in the final assault.
You're right, but they needed specialized troops to scout it out. I spent a week sneaking around in the bush taking pictures, doing headcounts, and generally not being seen. But there was one thing that I saw that I knew had to be done before the final assault. On the south side of the camp was a prison camp. Not just some little dinky closed off yard for a few poor souls, no, this was big, like those prison camps Hitler made for the Jews back in the day. There was no telling how many innocent people were imprisoned there for no good reason, I watched the rebels, they used em as slaves, tortured em, barely fed em. We might as well have been in Africa or Russia, but no, it was here on American soil, it turned up my guts to think people could be so horrible but I'd seen the likes of it before, something had to be done and there was only one thing we could do.
Try and save them...
There was no "try" as far as I was concerned. I came up with a plan, handed it to the general in charge. He looked at it twice, threw it back to me and told me he had it covered. [He spits angrily.] Like fucking hell! You know what his plan was? To send a team to take the prison yard while the assault was going on. How stupid could you be, those men would kill the prisoners if they knew what was about to happen, that no balls general was gonna let those people die. He told me that a surgical strike was too risky and there weren't enough Special Ops guys around for it. I could barely listen to his crock, I left and resolved to do the damned job myself.
Just by yourself?
No, there were plenty others like me who were willing and able to do it too. Skywatchers, trained civilians, people like me that saw a job that needed done and nobody to do it. We knew what would happen if we failed, hell, we knew what would happen if we succeeded. We were directly told not to interfere with the operation, even if we came back they might line us up against a wall and shoot us. I grouped the other guys together and they all told me they felt the same way, it would be better for us to face a firing squad of our own men than those people at the hands of the rebs. The assault was only a day away by the time we were ready. We snuck through the army line at night and surrounded the prison yard just as the army started it bombardment. Big guns, artillery and rockets, all the stuff they couldnt use against the Zs; mortars, bombs, munitions of all sorts. We could see the explosions from a few hundred yards away in the treeline. Its actually pretty funny, the army denied us the permission to go in, but they provided the perfect distraction. The rebels were running this way and that, getting ready for an assault, manning positions and running for cover. In other words, not watching the prison yard. We crawled for something like an hour and a half through tall grass and bush until we were just a few yards from the post. I gave the word: Go in.
So you led this attack?
Yep, it was different from all the other jobs I'd done, some Green Beret officer or general was always in charge of those but this was outside Army jurisdiction and it was my idea so yes, I led it. We broke in, surprised the hell out of the rebels, shot anyone that didn't run and herded the prisoners out. That's probably an oversimplification, specifically, there were three teams. Me and one group held off the rebels, another group got the people away safely, and the third group had stayed behind to guard our escape plan.
Which was what exactly?
Horse carts, the men had the prisoners grouped up and hauled away in hay carts led by horses. There were a few complications along the way; some of the prisoners were scared and confused by all the commotion and thought we were the guards come to kill them, they tried to defend themselves which resulted in a few casualties among my men. Other prisoners were too injured or otherwise malnourished to stand or walk. The men did their duty, they carried those who couldn't or wouldn't move, it was quite a sight seeing all those people running back and forth. There were other problems too. Twice, the rebels launched a counterattack against us, the first was uncoordinated but the second nearly had us.
How did you make it out?
Sheer determination, bullets and blood, just like it had been for the past nine years. It was live or die, kill or be killed and we killed. The fight lasted for almost two hours and my group was stuck as the rearguard as we pulled back, a lot of good men lost their lives that night but almost seven hundred prisoners were freed. We hiked through the night and at dawn made it to the blue zone across the state line. By that time word of what we had done had spread and the civilians were very happy to see us. [He shakes his head and smiles.] I guess it couldn't be helped, we brought them back their family members after all. If there was ever any doubt in my mind about what we'd done it was all put out when we saw some of the former prisoners hugging loved ones and being reunited. [He rubs his eyes and nose, trying not to shed tears.] There were mothers returned to sons and daughters, husbands returned to wives and wives returned to husbands. I'll never forget the electricity in the air, the feeling of relief and happiness, something I'd not had in almost a decade. I'd like to say it was a happy ending for all, but no, it was a happy ending for most.
What do you mean?
Well, like I said, word had gotten around and as soon as that fatass general heard about it, he sent soldiers, trained men who could be fighting the rebs right then, to arrest me and the guys who went with me. We knew we'd had this coming so we were about to turn ourselves in. But they wouldn't let the soldiers take us.
The civilians, almost the entire community, including the former prisoners had heard what was going on, we didn't want them interfering but the community insisted, they blocked the soldiers, told them to go back to their general and tell him to stick it. It almost came to guns but I wasn't about to let that happen. I gave myself up and the soldiers relented, they took me in chains and we flew to the Denver Red zone where I was put in the brig for a week while the top brass decided what to do with me. All I had to do in that cell was wait for the bullet. That's all that was left for me and I was okay with it.
And yet here you are.
[He smiles broadly.] And yet here I am. A week later, the guard opened my door and told me to get up. This was it, here comes the firing squad I thought. Instead, I was marched to a plane, not a military one either, a civilian model, a government bird. By this time I was thoroughly confused but had not much choice to play along. They flew me east and we landed in Omaha, recently liberated by Army Group North. I couldn't imagine what was going on until I'd seen it myself. There was this...ceremony set up, all the guys I'd raided the camp with were there, the civilians were there. Basically what it boiled down to was that the President had heard about my plan and the raid on the camp, he then pardoned the group for any crimes and decided that the top brass should be there to tell us.
[I can't help but laugh a little at that.]
I could see it on all their faces, the thinly veiled disgust at having to what amounted to apologize for being asses in public. They gave me this. [He pulls out a Red and gold medal from his pocket with the words "For Valor" etched into the gold on it. I recognize it as the Order of the Valiant Heart.] And a letter written to me by the President saying how grateful he was for people like me doing things like I did and apologizing for not being able to be there himself. That was the end of the war for me, I came back here and haven't seen not one Z or army grunt ever since. Good riddents.
[We sit there for a few moments, enjoying the scenery. Finally, he speaks again, this time pulling another medal out of the same pocket. This time it is a blue and bronze medal decorated with white stars. The medal itself is a bronze colored star. He holds one in each and looks at them.]
I wrote a letter back to the President, I don't remember a lot of what I said, but I do remember the last line: "The things I did in war as a warrior of this country, the actions that got me medals and appraise were my duty as a soldier. The things I did in war as a person, the actions that got me arrested and imprisoned were my duty as a human being."
[I later learn that "The Reaper" is retired First Lieutenant William Becker. Further research reveals that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for actions related to an assault on a North Vietnamese Training and POW camp on September 23rd, 1971. To record, Becker is the only living man both awarded the Medal of Honor and the Order of the Valiant Heart.]
Author's note: I do not own anything written or referenced here, World War Z is the sole property of Max Brooks.