Convoy to Fort Riley

I CAN REMEMBER A TIME WHEN I WAS SO YOUNG AND FEELING so invincible that there was nothing in the
world I was afraid of. I had faced down fear in North Africa. With General Patton’s army I stood toe-to-toe against the artillery in Rommel’s Panzer Divisions and gave them better than they dished out to us. We were an army of young men from a country that hadn’t started the war but found itself right in the midst of it before we even got out of church the Sunday Pearl Harbor was attacked. The next thing we knew Hitler declared war on us and we were fighting in Europe. But by 1942, we drove the Germans right out of Africa and jumped across the sea to Sicily.


Then, while Mussolini was still reeling from the punches, we invaded Italy and fought our way up the peninsula until we came to Rome. We were the first invading army to conquer Rome since the Middle Ages, and obviously the first invading army from the New World to ever occupy Rome.

But there we were by early 1944, sitting in Rome after Mussolini fled and the German front collapsing all around us. And as a too young captain in Army Intelligence, I was ordered to oversee the formation of a civilian government under Allied military rule in the magical city of my ancestors that I’d only read about in history books.

Pope Pious himself offered me an audience to discuss our plans for the city government. You can’t even dream this stuff up. It has to happen to you in real life, and then you pinch yourself to make sure you don’t wake up in your own bed outside of Pittsburgh on a winter morning.

I stayed in Rome for three years from the months before the landing at Normandy in 1944, when the German front lines were still only a few miles south of Rome and our boys were slugging their way up the slopes of Monte Casino, to early 1947, when I was shipped back home and my wife and I threw everything we had into the trunk of a used Chevy convertible and drove across the farmland state routes of peace time America from Pennsylvania to Kansas. I’d been away five years.


But now I was home! Driving top-down across Missouri to an assignment that was considered a plum for any young officer on his way up the army ladder: Military Intelligence School, only one step away from Strategic Intelligence, the army’s version of the Ivy League; I was moving up in the world. And what was I? Just a draftee out of Pennsylvania who was chosen for Officer Candidate School, and now fresh from a wartime intelligence command in Allied occupied Europe and ready to begin my new career in Army Intelligence.

Having been in Africa and Europe for so many years, I was anxious to see America again. By this time its people were not stooping under the weight of the depression nor in factories nor in uniform sweating out a desperate war across two oceans. This was an America victory, and you could see it as you drove through the small towns of southern Ohio and Illinois and then across the Mississippi. We didn’t stop overnight to see St. Louis or even to linger on the Kansas side of the river. I was so excited to be a career officer that we didn’t stop driving until we pulled straight into Fort Riley and set up an apartment in nearby Junction City, where we’d live while they got our house ready on the base.

For most of the next few weeks, my wife and I got used to living in America again on a peacetime army base. We had lived in Rome after the war while I was still trying to help pacify the city and fend off the Communist attempts to take over the government. It was as if we were still fighting a war because each day had brought renewed challenges from either the Communists or the organized crime families who had tried to infiltrate their way back into the civilian government. My life was also in danger each day from the different cadres of terrorists in the city, each group with its own agenda. So in contrast to Italy, Fort Riley was like the beginning of a vacation.

And I was back in school again. This time, however, I was taking courses in career training. I knew how to be an intelligence officer and, in fact, had been trained by the British MI 19, the premier wartime intelligence network in the world. My training had been so thorough that even though we were up against crack Soviet NKV Dunits operating within Rome, we were able to out think them and actually destroy them.


Prior to the war, the United States really didn’t have a peacetime intelligence service, which is why they quickly formed the OSS when war broke out. But the Army Intelligence units and the OSS didn’t operate together for most of the war because communication lines were faulty and we never really trusted the OSS agenda. Now with the war over and Army Intelligence having come into its own, I was part of a whole new cadre of career intelligence officers who would keep watch on Soviet activities. The Soviets had become our new old enemies.

In intelligence school during those first months we reviewed not only the rudiments of good intelligence gathering - interrogation of enemy prisoners, analysis of raw intelligence data, and the like - but we learned the basics of administration and how to run a wartime intelligence unit called the aggressor force. None of us realized during those early days how quickly our newly acquired skills would be tested nor where our enemies would choose to fight. But those were confident days as the weather turned warmer on the plains and the days grew long with the coming of summer.

Before the war broke out and when I was in high school back in California, Pennsylvania, my hometown, I was something of a bowler. It was a sport I wanted to get back to when the war ended, so when I got to Fort Riley, one of the first places I looked up was the bowling alley on the base, which had been built in one of the former stables. Fort Riley was a former cavalry base, the home of Cutter’s 7th Cavalry, and still had a polo field after the war. I started practicing my bowling again and was soon rolling enough strikes that the enlisted men who bowled there began talking to me about my game.


Before too many months had passed, M. Sgt. Bill Brown - the men called him “Brownie” - stopped me when I was changing out of my bowling shoes and said he wanted to talk.

“Major, sir, “ he began, more than a little embarrassed to address an officer out of uniform and not on any official army business. He couldn’t possibly have realized that I was a draftee just like him and had spent the first few months in the service taking orders from corporals in boot camp.
“Sergeant?” I asked.
“The men at the post want to start up a bowling league, sir, have teams to bowl against and maybe come up with a team to represent the base, “ he began. “So we’ve been watching you bowl on Saturdays.“
“So what am I doing wrong?” I asked. I figured at first maybe this sergeant was going to give me a tip or two and wanted to establish some authority. OK, I’ll take a tip from anybody. But that’s not what he asked.
“No, sir. Nothing at all, “ he stammered. “I’m saying something different. We, the guys, were wondering if you’ve bowled before - do you think maybe you’d like to become part of the team?” He had gotten more confidence the more he framed his request.
“You want me for your team?” I asked. I was pretty surprised because officers weren’t supposed to fraternize with enlisted men at that time. Things are very different now, but then, fifty years ago, it was a different world, even for much of the officer corps that started out as draftees and went through officer training.
“We know it’s out of the ordinary, sir, but there are no rules against it. “ I gave him a very surprised look. “We checked, “ he said. This was obviously not a spur of the moment question.
“You think I can hold up my end of things?” I asked. “It’s been along time since I’ve bowled against anybody. “
“Sir, we’ve been watching. We think you’ll really help us out. Besides, “ he continued, “we do need an officer on the team. “

Whether out of modesty or because he didn’t want to put me off, he had completely understated the nature of the bowling team. These guys had been champions in their own hometowns and, years later, you could have found them on Bowling for Dollars. There was no reason in the world I should have been on that team except that they wanted an officer because it would give them prestige.

I told him I’d get back to him on it because I wanted to check on the rules, if there were any, for myself. In fact officers and enlisted personnel were allowed to compete on the same athletic teams, and, in very short order, I joined the team, along with Dave Bender, John Miller, Brownie, and Sal Federico. We became quite a remarkable team, winning most of our matches, more than a few trophies, and had lots of exciting moments when we made the impossible splits and bowled our way all the way to the state finals. We ultimately won the Army Bowling Championships, and the trophy sits on my desk to this very day. Magically, the barrier between officer and enlisted man seemed to drop. And that’s the real point of this story.

Through the months I spent on the team, I became friends with Bender, Miller, Federico, and Brown. We didn’t socialize much, except for the bowling, but we also didn’t stand on ceremony with each other, and I liked it that way. I found that a lot of the career intelligence officers also liked to see some of the barriers drop because sometimes men will speak with more honesty to you if you don’t throw what’s on your shoulders into their faces every time you talk to them. So I became friends with these guys, and that’s what got me into the veterinary building on Sunday night, July 6, 1947.

I remember how hot it had been that whole weekend of July 4th celebrations and fireworks. These were the days before everybody had to have air-conditioning, so we just sweltered inside the offices at the base and swatted away the fat lazy flies that buzzed around looking for hot dog crumbs or landing on chunks of pickle relish. By Sunday, the celebrations were over, guys who’d had too much beer had been dragged off to their barracks by members of their company before the MPs got hold of them, and the base was settling down to the business of the week.


Nobody seemed to take much notice of the five deuce-and-a-halfs and side-by-side lowboy trailers that had pulled into the base that afternoon full of cargo from Fort Bliss in Texas on their way to Air Materiel Command at Wright Field in Ohio. If you had looked at the cargo manifests the drivers were carrying, you’d have seen lists itemizing landing gear assembly struts for B29s, wing tank pods for vintage P51s, piston rings for radial aircraft engines, ten crates of Motorola walkie-talkies, and you wouldn’t think anything of the shipment except for the fact that it was going the wrong way.


These spare parts were usually shipped from Wright Field to bases like Fort Bliss rather than the other way around, but, of course, I wouldn’t know that until years later when the real cargo on those trucks fell straight onto my desk as if it had dropped out of the sky.

It got quiet that evening right after dark, and I remember that it was very humid. Off in the distance you could see lightning, and I wondered if the storms were going to reach the base before morning. I was the post duty officer on that night - similar to the chief duty officer of the watch on a naval vessel - and hoped, even more fervently, that if a storm were on its way, it would wait until morning to break so that I might be spared walking through the mud from sentry post to sentry post in the midst of a summer downpour. I looked over the sentry duty roster for that night and saw that Brownie was standing a post over at one of the old veterinarian buildings near the center of the compound.

The post duty officer spends his night at the main base headquarters, where he watches the phones and is the human firewall between an emergency and a disaster. Not much to do unless there’s a war on or a company of roustabouts decides to tear up a local bar. And by late night, the base settles into a pattern. The sentries walk their posts, the various administrative offices close down, and whoever is on night watch takes over the communications system - which in1947 consisted primarily of telephone and telex cable.


I had to walk a beat as well, checking the different buildings and sentry posts to make sure everyone was on duty. I also had to close down the social clubs. After I made my obligatory stops at the enlisted men’s and officers’ clubs, shutting down the bars and tossing, with all due respect to the senior officers, the drunks back to their quarters, I footed it over to the old veterinary building where Brown was standing watch. But when I got there, where he was supposed to be, I didn’t see him. Something was wrong.

“Major Corso, “ a voice hissed out of the darkness. It had an edge of terror and excitement to it.
“What the hell are you doing in there, Brownie?” I began cussing out the figure that peeked out at me from behind the door. “Have you gone off your rocker?” He was supposed to be outside the building, not hiding in a doorway. It was a breach of duty.
“You don’t understand, Major, “ he whispered again. “You have to see this. “
“Better be good, “ I said as I walked over to where he was standing and waited for him outside the door. “Now you get out here where I can see you, “ I ordered.
Brown popped his head out from behind the door.
“You know what’s in here?” he asked.

Whatever was going on, I didn’t want to play any games. The post duty sheet for that night read that the veterinary building was off-limits to everyone. Not even the sentries were allowed inside because whatever had been loaded in had been classified as “No Access.“ What was Brown doing on the inside?

“Brownie, you know you’re not supposed to be in there, “ I said. “Get out here and tell me what’s going on. “
He stepped out from inside the door, and even through the shadow I could see that his face was a dead pale, just as if he’d seen a ghost. “You won’t believe this, “ he said. “I don’t believe it and I just saw it. “
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The guys who off-loaded those deuce-and-a-halfs, “ he said. “They told us they brought these boxes up from Fort Bliss from some accident out in New Mexico?”
“Yeah, so what?” I was getting impatient with this.
“Well, they told us it was all top secret but they looked inside anyway. Everybody down there did when they were loading the trucks. MPs were walking around with sidearms and even the officers were standing guard, “ Brown said. “But the guys who loaded the trucks said they looked inside the boxes and didn’t believe what they saw. You got security clearance, Major. You can come in here. “

In fact, I was the post duty officer and could go anywhere I wanted during the watch. So I walked inside the old veterinary building, the medical dispensary for the cavalry horses before the First World War, and saw where the cargo from the convoy had been stacked up. There was no one in the building except for Bill Brown and myself.

“What is all this stuff?” I asked.
“That’s just it, Major, nobody knows, “ he said. “The drivers told us it came from a plane crash out in the desert somewhere around the 509th. But when they looked inside, it was nothing like anything they’d seen before. Nothing from this planet. “

It was the silliest thing I’d ever heard, enlisted men’s tall stories that floated from base to base getting more inflated every lap around the track. Maybe I wasn’t the world’s smartest guy, but I had enough engineering and intelligence schooling to pick my way around pieces of wreckage and come up with two plus two. We walked over to the tarpaulin shrouded boxes, and I threw back the edge of the canvas.

“You’re not supposed to be in here, “ I told Brownie. “You better go. “
“I’ll watch outside for you, Major. “

I almost wanted to tell him that that’s what he was supposed to be doing all along instead of snooping into classified material, but I did what I used to do best and kept my mouth shut. I waited while he took up his position at the door to the building before I dug any further into the boxes.

There were about thirty-odd wooden crates nailed shut and stacked together against the far wall the building. The light switches were the push type and I didn’t know which switch tripped which circuit, so I used my flashlight and stumbled around until my eyes got used to the darkness and shadows. I didn’t want to start pulling apart the nails, so I set the flashlight off to one side where it could throw light on the stack and then searched for a box that could open easily. Then I found an oblong box off to one side with a wide seam under the top that looked like it had been already opened. It looked like either the strangest weapons crate you’d ever see or the smallest shipping crate for a coffin. Maybe this was the box that Brownie had seen. I brought the flashlight over and set it up high on the wall so it would throw as broad a beam as possible. Then I set to work on the crate.

The top was already loose. I was right - this one had just been opened. I jimmied the top back and forth, continuing to loosen the nails that had been pried up with a nail claw, until I felt them come out of the wood. Then I worked along the sides of the five-or-so-foot box until the top was loose all the way around. Not knowing which end of the box was the front, I picked up the top and slid it off to the edge. Then I lowered the flashlight, looked inside, and my stomach rolled right up into my throat and I almost became sick right then and there.

Whatever they’d crated this way, it was a coffin, but not like any coffin I’d seen before. The contents, enclosed in a thick glass container, were submerged in a thick light blue liquid, almost as heavy as a gelling solution of diesel fuel. But the object was floating, actually suspended, and not sitting on the bottom with a fluid overtop, and it was soft and shiny as the underbelly of a fish. At first I thought it was a dead child they were shipping somewhere. But this was no child. It was a four-foot human shaped figure with arms, bizarre-looking four-fingered hands - I didn’t see a thumb - thin legs and feet, and an oversized incandescent lightbulb shaped head that looked like it was floating over a balloon gondola for a chin. I know I must have cringed at first, but then I had the urge to pull off the top of the liquid container and touch the pale gray skin. But I couldn’t tell whether it was skin because it also looked like a very thin one-piece head-to-toe fabric covering the creature’s flesh.

Its eyeballs must have been rolled way back in its head because I couldn’t see any pupils or iris or anything that resembled a human eye. But the eye sockets themselves were oversized and almond shaped and pointed down to its tiny nose, which didn’t really protrude from the skull. It was more like the tiny nose of a baby that never grew as the child grew, and it was mostly nostril.

The creature’s skull was over grown to the point where all of its facial features - such as they were - were arranged absolutely frontally, occupying only a small circle on the lower part of the head. The protruding ears of a human were nonexistent, its cheeks had no definition, and there were no eyebrows or any indications of facial hair. The creature had only a tiny flat slit for a mouth and it was completely closed, resembling more of a crease or indentation between the nose and the bottom of the chinless skull than a fully functioning orifice. I would find out years later how it communicated, but at that moment in Kansas, I could only stand there in shock over the clearly non-human face suspended in front of me in a semi-liquid preservative.

I could see no damage to the creature’s body and no indication that it had been involved in any accident.

There was no blood, its limbs seemed intact, and I could find no lacerations on the skin or through the gray fabric. I looked through the crate encasing the container of liquid for any paperwork or shipping invoice or anything that would describe the nature or origin of this thing. What I found was an intriguing Army Intelligence document describing the creature as an inhabitant of a craft that had crash landed in Roswell, New Mexico, earlier that week and a routing manifest for this creature to the login officer at the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field and from him to the Walter Reed Army Hospital morgue’s pathology section where, I supposed, the creature would be autopsied and stored. It was not a document I was meant to see, for sure, so I tucked it back in the envelope against the inside wall of the crate.

I allowed myself more time to look at the creature than I should have, I suppose, because that night I missed the time checks on the rest of my rounds and believed I’d have to come up with a pretty good explanation for the lateness of my other stops to verify the sentry assignments. But what I was looking at was worth any trouble I’d get into the next day. This thing was truly fascinating and at the same time utterly horrible. It challenged every conception I had, and I hoped against hope that I was looking at some form of atomic human mutation. I knew I couldn’t ask anybody about it, and because I hoped I would never see its like again, I came up with explanation after explanation for its existence, despite what I’d read on the enclosed document: It was shipped here from Hiroshima, it was the result of a Nazi genetic experiment, it was a dead circus freak, it was anything but what I knew it said it was - what it had to be: an extraterrestrial.

I slid the top of the crate back over the creature, knocked the nails loosely into their original holes with the butt end of my flashlight, and put the tarp back in position. Then I left the building and hoped I could close the door forever on what I’d seen. Just forget it, I told myself. You weren’t supposed to see it and maybe you can live your whole life without ever having to think about it. Maybe.

Once outside the building I rejoined Brownie at his post.

“You know you never saw this, “ I said. “And you tell no one. “
“Saw what, Major?” Brownie said, and I walked back to the base general headquarters, the image of the creature suspended in that liquid fading away with each and every step I took.

By the time I slid back behind the desk, it was all a dream. No, not a dream, a nightmare - but it was over and, I hoped, it would never come back.

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