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
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
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
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,
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
“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
“You’re not supposed to be in here, “ I told Brownie. “You better
“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.