December 1975, Ohio
Any resemblance between US Army soldier, Chief Corporal Mason Wyatt, depicted in this story and US Army Signalman Everett McMahon of the same mission is entirely coincidental. The reader is also warned of offensive racist remarks in this story, which were not uncommon at the time and part of the plot.
The story that follows has never been disproven nor even denied.
Army Chief Corporal Mason Wyatt noticed the faint fragrance of jet kerosene fuel on his uniform, picked up outside before coming in from the 8,000-acre Wright-Patterson Air Force base. The faint fragrance of jet kerosene clung to Mason Wyatt’s uniform, a scent that transported him back two years to the echoes of a distant land. The memories rushed in, unwelcome but vivid. It was the same acrid odor that hung in the air the day US fighters accidentally bombed their own airbase in Da Nang, Vietnam, in 1973—a day forever etched into the recesses of his mind.
“This is a top-secret operation,” Major Thomas Stevens declared, handing out aerial photographs for their examination to him and others in what was normally the pilots’ briefing room for the National Air and Space Intelligence T-2′s Headquarters. “Nothing said here leaves this room. Once dismissed, you will have no contact with any persons off this base. That includes by telephone or letter. Is that clear?”
Under the light of the room, Wyatt’s fingers involuntarily tightened around the edge of the photograph in his hands, the glossy surface cool against his skin. His gaze drifted past the aerial images of a wooded community, the details blurring as the past merged with the present. The major’s voice became a distant hum, overshadowed by the memories that played out in his mind.
The sound of jets grew louder, not those outside the briefing room, but the thunderous roar of warplanes making an attack. Wyatt’s hands, once steady, momentarily trembled as he studied the photograph of some houses, a river, a covered bridge, and a few roads. The scene before him overlapped with the chaotic images of the airbase in Da Nang—the chaos, the confusion, the deafening roar of destruction.
A blast concussion, more felt than heard, sent him reeling backward, the photograph slipping from his grasp. The memory was no longer confined to the recesses of his mind; it unfolded in the room, the walls echoing with the ghostly sounds of an air raid. His broken guitar lay on the floor, a casualty of the upheaval, and Wyatt’s instinct propelled him toward the air raid shelter.
Ten men wounded, a fuel tank ablaze for days—the details resurfaced with an intensity that made him flinch. The acrid scent of burning fuel, the taste of fear, and the sight of his shattered guitar—all fragments of a day etched in the annals of his past.
Wyatt’s focus came back to the mission and photograph at hand. Top secret, huh? What was this?
“Your assignment is to conduct a two-day surveillance filming operation of this federal property and determine if it is inhabited,” the major said of the photos.
He and the other four men listening had just arrived in Ohio for this special operation. This was their first mission working together, having only met two times previously to perform annual joint training exercises in California. As their squad leader, Wyatt would be expected to keep and study his own photo while the others could be expected to turn theirs into paper airplanes, possibly before even leaving this briefing room.
“This first photo is the town of Boston Mills,” the major gestured toward the photo he was holding up for them to see. “A year ago, the Parks Service purchased it, along with three other towns, for a national park,” he explained, his tone conveying the weight of hidden secrets. “Of those four communities, they ordered both Boston Mills and Northfield evacuated. The Park Service wants to know if all the citizens have left those two communities.”
Major Stevens’ eye swept over them for their attention. “You will report to the aviation field in full gear for transportation pickup by 0730 hours tomorrow morning. From there, you’ll be helicopter-inserted here at Stein Road.” He pinned his finger to the west bank intersection of the Cuyahoga River south of Boston Mills.
“From there, you’ll move north up the left side of Riverview Drive along the river to check the houses for illegal occupancy.” He pointed again to the photo, his eyes locking onto each soldier in turn. “There are no houses on the right. That land is owned by the railroad.”
The major retrieved a set of keys from his pocket, clinking them together as he spoke. “You’ll be given a master key to any park padlocks. They’ll be on the doors of every house. You’ll be filming the inside of all the homes of both towns for signs of human habitation.”
Okay. Simple mission. They could do that in their sleep. Half the major’s listeners were already.
“Continue north for about a mile to Boston Mills Road here. After inspecting these two houses on your right, take this covered bridge across the river and into the town of Boston Mills.” The major indicated it in his own photo again for them all to see. “Any questions so far?”
There were none.
“Once inside,” the major said, “after about a mile past the bridge, you’ll come to Main Street. Take a left there and follow it to where the pavement ends,” he showed them. “You can turn around there. That’s the town cemetery and is legitimately occupied.”
Boring! Men already had their arms crossed. One shot Wyatt a dissatisfied glance.
“Once back to Boston Mills Road,” the major continued. “Head east on it to Stanford Road. It’s the next left. Stanford Road is closed off against cars now, but you can walk around the barriers. Head north on it for one mile. Search all its houses the same as you did Main. Is everyone following?”
They all nodded, though the paper airplane production was but moments away.
“Once you’ve returned to Boston Mills Road,” the major’s voice carried on, crisp and authoritative, “head east again, still checking the north side houses on the left.” He motioned with his hand, to direct the soldiers on the photo. The men were barely listening, the mission itself routine.
“The road forks ahead here at Hines Hills Road.” He pointed at the map, his finger hovering over the intersection. “There’s radio static in this area, so you may not be able to call out.” His gaze swept over the faces of the assembled soldiers, each one absorbing his words or at least pretending to.
“Go approximately one-mile up Hines,” he continued, a sense of authority now infusing his tone. “Checking the houses on the way up.” His fingers tapped against the photo as if tracing an invisible path. “Except for an old cattle barn here in these trees, I don’t think there’s any houses on the right, only on the left.” He paused, letting the information settle.
“After a mile, you’ll find a junkyard on your left.” His words hung in the air, each soldier mentally visualizing the route. “Don’t bother to go in there. Like the cemetery, it’s not parkland.” The major’s eyes met those of the soldiers, his expression stern.
“You’ll turn around when you reach it.” The command resonated in the room, a reminder of the task at hand. “Everyone still with me?” He waited for nods of affirmation,
They were. Yet not for long. Mason could hear the sound of one of the handouts already being folded.
“When you get back to Boston Mills Road, head back west, checking all the buildings on the south side of the road as before. That will bring you back to the bridge here. You’ll be picked up there by helicopter the next day at 1130 hours or some 28 hours after insertion. We will then fly you to Northfield to complete your filming there. Your chopper will wait for you, after which you will return here for debriefing and to file all film. Any questions?”
Mason expected the major to be bombarded by paper airplanes, but Bernard actually had a question. “Why were the towns ordered to evacuate?”
“We don’t have that information. Anyone else?”
No one spoke. The paper airplanes remained unlaunched.
“To repeat,” the major’s voice carried an air of authority that demanded attention, “you are to go in and film both towns. Film everything the people left behind.” The major’s eyes scanned the room, ensuring he had the full attention of his team.
“Look for evidence anyone’s still there and then come back. If there’s anybody in there, the Parks Service wants to know about it, including which house they’re in.” The major’s gaze bore into each soldier, a sense of duty and purpose communicated through his unwavering stare.
“Failure to find them will have consequences for the Parks Service.” The words were a stark reminder of the mission’s importance, placing the weight of responsibility on each soldier’s shoulders.
“All film will be accounted for.” His tone was final, leaving no room for uncertainty.
“Again, you will have no contact with friends, relatives, or anyone else off base for the duration of your assignment.” The major’s voice was firm, a directive that left no room for deviation. The gravity of the mission was now becoming clear. Slowly, each soldier realizing that this was serious and they were stepping into the unknown with a purpose greater than themselves.
Wyatt raised his hand.
“Why is this top secret?” he asked for them all.
“Parks Service requested it.”
That seemed pretty unusual. Why would filming a supposedly empty American town be classified? Top secret? More like top convenient excuse. What were they expected to find in there?
Wyatt and the other four men present were all Mass Communication Specialists (MCS) or government-speak for media reporters. Normally, they operated independently, but when brought together as a unit, they formed what was known as a Dedicated Combat Camera team or DCC team. DCC teams only served on extremely important missions.
Dedicated Combat Camera Units had existed since the Korean War, producing military propaganda films for the government under live fire. Just as the enemy made propaganda films for their side, so too did we for our side. If the US attacked a village somewhere, the other side would likely produce a falsified film of it afterward, showing US soldiers killing women and children, burning babies, and even an entire village. So the US provided a film crew as part of the attack operation to film it themselves as it happened.
Otherwise, each of them had four months of training in using a 50mm Nikon camera to be assigned to separate combat units on an individual basis. Any one of them with a hundred rolls of film could shoot an entire town by himself. No DCC team was needed.
Yet he didn’t ask about that. Questioning a superior officer’s judgment will not produce answers. They will tell you only what you need to know to accomplish the mission. Anything else is superfluous. He had to limit his questions on how to perform the mission and not why.
“What information does the Park Service have on whether everyone’s moved out?” he asked the major.
“So far, they only have evidence that thirty percent of the population has moved. They want to know about the other seventy percent.”
“So why don’t the Parks Department people just go in and check the place for themselves?” Burroughs asked.
“They tried that. They sent in three park rangers to do so. Yet they all returned and refused to go back in.”
“Parks has classified that information.”
What? It was a damned government secret why they came back out? And it was classified Top Secret why they were even going in?!
Five mouths were hanging open, their future paper airplanes forgotten. What was going on here? What were they not being told?
“Then why not send in sheriff deputies?” Bernard asked for them all.
“They have no authority. It’s Federal land now. The only law enforcement that can legally go in there now is US marshals in suits and ties or you boys. Guess who got the job?”
“You’ll be in there overnight,” Major Stevens continued. “Spend the night in any abandoned house of your choice. You should be inserted in with full battle gear by 0800 tomorrow, and it will be dark by 1700 hours. Dawn the next day will be at 0730 hours. You’ll be picked up on the east side of the bridge at 1130 hours then for transfer to Northfield. That’s plenty of time to get back to the bridge. So be there. Upon your return from Northfield and completion of debriefing, you will be returned to your previous base assignments the following day. Again, are there any questions?”
“Did you say full battle gear?” Mason repeated in disbelief, expecting a mistake.
“I did. Since Parks failed to successfully perform your mission, we’re taking no chances.”
Carrying guns? In Ohio?
Looks of surprise, concern, and confusion passed between the men like colds.
The major offered no further explanation, but Mason guessed it wasn’t necessary. Full battle gear meant they’d be accompanying a combat infantry company, and that meant the expectation of meeting armed resistance.
They weren’t expecting to hear that answer and they didn’t like it. It sounded threatening. An uneasy feeling swept through the room like a wave of unwelcome flies. Good thing they were going in with a full combat company.
“What fire team will we be going in with?” Mason inquired.
“No team,” the major replied. “You’ll be going in alone.”
Dead silence followed, a shroud that masked the true intentions behind the mission, like a veil concealing a bride’s secrets on her wedding day. Once again, surprised eyebrows went up in the room everywhere. WTF?
DCC units document other units’ missions and not their own. The Army trained them to film combat missions and not ghost towns. This was so unusual as to be a first. The men were all exchanging glances with each other in wonder.
This was not right. No. This was not right at all. Mason’s mind raced with questions, questions the major would not answer. His curiosity consumed him. He couldn’t shake the certain feeling that there were more hidden motives to this mission than meets the eye. No one went into an American town fully armed, weapons locked and loaded. And he was determined to find out why before they left. What about this mission were they not being told?