Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Army of Shadows

Academic journal article Pennsylvania Literary Journal

Army of Shadows

Article excerpt

Matt shivered. It was 5:00 AM, and the altitude was 4000 feet. A bright moon gave a pale illumination to the New Mexico desert. Matt was wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Many of the other marchers, probably more experienced, wore sweatshirts that would go in their packs as soon as the sun came up.

Then he saw the white Bataan surrender flag rise slowly above the crowd. Everyone came to attention, those in battle dress snapped to the salute. An officer stepped to a microphone to read the Roll of Honor of Bataan veterans who had died since last year's Memorial March. After each name, a different soldier in the crowd called "Here!" At the end of the Roll Call, a bugle lifted the silver notes of Taps into the predawn air.

Matt had moved to New Mexico eight years ago. During his long relationship with Chantal, he had turned down several opportunities at larger hospitals in order to stay in Philadelphia. Soon after they finally broke up, he accepted the job in Las Cruces. He had long been familiar with the story of the Americans who had fought and been captured in the Philippines in 1942. One-fifth of them were from New Mexico, and the annual Bataan Memorial Death march, at the White Sands Missile Range, honored their memory.

Applause began to spread through the darkness, and the throng parted to make way for three Bataan survivors and their military escorts. Amiable, elderly men, wearing American legion hats, they shook hands as they moved through the crowd. "Thank you. Thank you for coming. God bless. God bless you all."

A howitzer boomed to start the civilian marchers. The route through the base was on pavement. They passed the training and technical areas, the Center for Counter Measures, the Gym, the Bowling Center, and signs saying No Photography.

The sky above the mountains was beginning to lighten when the second gun sounded, starting the military lightweight division. The heavyweight division, which marched with 35-pound packs, started ten minutes later.

Soldiers in battle dress, some already sweating heavily, began to jog past. Most of the civilian and military participants were there just to complete the 26-mile course. But among the elite military units, there was vigorous competition to see who would finish first in each division.

Although the sun was still below the horizon, the sky in the east was blazing like the heart of a log fire. They passed the base museum, an outdoor park containing a small forest of rockets and missiles: Hound Dog, Pershing, Sidewinder, Patriot, Honest John.

A woman walking next to him was saying something. He had to ask her to repeat it. "I was wondering if that was a flying saucer?" Early forties, petite, dark hair down her back in a single braid. She was looking at a shallow conical disc fifty yards to their right. Fifteen feet in diameter, its aluminum shone dimly in the dawn.

"It's a Pepp Aeroshell," he said. "Built by NASA for the Viking landing on Mars."

"Looks just like the pictures of UFOs. Do you know what that big rocket on the left is?"

"It's a V-2. You probably know that the Americans captured Wernher von Braun, the German rocket designer, at the end of the war. This was where they brought him, and he built a V-2 here."

"That's what they used to call a doodlebug?"

"No, those were the V-Is. A kind of slow-flying drone. TheV-2s went way up and came down faster than the speed of sound. The warhead had two tons of explosive. The first thing you heard was the bang. If you were lucky. The V stood for Vergeltungswaffe, revenge weapon. Goebbels told the Germans it was going to win the war, but you know, the average V-2 killed less than two people." He was talking too much. That came of living alone.

"Interesting. You're in aviation?"

"No, I'm a hospital administrator. What brings you to White Sands?"

"My grandfather was at Bataan."

"Is that right? Did he survive?"

"Yes, he did. He died when I was six. …

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