TO: CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF
INFO: CHIEF OF STAFF, U.S. ARMY
FROM: CHIEF OF STAFF, U.S. AIR FORCE
SUBJECT: AFTER ACTION REPORT,
DEFENSE OF WISMAR
1. The purpose of this report is to provide details regarding the activities of U.S. forces engaged in combat in defense of the city of Wismar on 7 October, 1633. On that date, joint elements of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force under the command of Lieutenant Edward Cantrell, USN, successfully repulsed a Danish invasion fleet commanded, it was later determined, by Admiral Tesdorf Vedgaard of the Kingdom of Denmark (details of opposing forces at Tab A). During the action, several U.S. military personnel were killed, including the commander of the defense, Lt. Cantrell . . .
Jesse poured himself another three fingers of the local hooch and stared at the beginning of the after action report before him. He didn't know which would run out first—the hooch or his nerve.
You coward, he berated himself. Your knowledge of military operations was a thousand times greater than that kid's. You should have helped him more, come up with a more coordinated plan. What was that "we're only here to provide assistance" crap?
He bent back to his duty. Eventually, he neared the end.
As the still dangerous enemy fleet attempted to rally, Capt. Richter pressed his final attack against a large, as yet undamaged, Danish warship, the Lossen. Despite his wounds, Capt. Richter maneuvered his damaged aircraft above and, by the expedient of ramming, set the warship ablaze amidships. The warship was subsequently totally destroyed by an explosion, probably as the fires reached the ship magazine. After the destruction of the Lossen, the remainder of the Danish fleet withdrew to the west, under continued harassment by the remaining U.S. forces until all anti-shipping munitions had been expended. Estimated enemy losses are at Tab D. The supplementary report of the surviving U.S. naval assets is at Tab E. After the withdrawal of the Danish fleet, all surviving U.S. forces returned to Wismar.
7. A full report of weapons effectiveness will follow under separate cover. However, in the opinion of the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, rockets, such as can currently be constructed, are not the optimum choice for aerial attack. The effectiveness of the rocket attack against the Danish flagship Christiania was due more to the intrepidity of Captain Richter in the attack, than to the inherent suitability of the weapon. It should be noted that the same weapons, when fired from longer distances by surviving elements of the U.S. Air Force, resulted in only minor additional damage to the Danish fleet. In the opinion of the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force, a maximum effort should be made to develop an efficient dive bomb technique for use in future hostilities.
Jesse poured himself another drink.
So why didn't you press in, like you wanted to, hero? Oh yeah, that magic word, "duty." Only one aircraft left in the entire world, after all. Are you sure it wasn't cowardice?
8. In conclusion, the defeat of the Danish invasion fleet was due more to the effect of surprise and the determination of U.S. forces under the leadership of Lieutenant Cantrell, than to any superiority of weaponry or tactics. U.S. military forces should immediately review pre-Ring of Fire concepts of joint operations, in order to ensure greater effectiveness in the application of combat power.
Joseph J. Wood
Colonel, Chief of Staff, USAF
Richter Field, Wismar
Admiral Simpson, it looks as if it is our mutual responsibility to recreate a system of awards and decorations. I thought it likely you would prefer to write any award recommendation you thought appropriate for Lts Cantrell and Wild, though I would, of course, be pleased to endorse anything you submit. I attach my own recommendation for Capt. Richter at Tab F. I would have preferred the Medal of Honor for Hans, but, as I see it, the DFC is within my personal discretion. I find myself unable to wait for the politicians to do the right thing.
Jesse Wood, Col, USAF
Finally finished, Jesse rose to take the messages to the radio operator. For a moment, he stared at what was left of the hooch on the table. A bit to his surprise, there was still half a bottle left. He started to reach for it; but then, almost angrily, turned away and strode out of the room.
The least you can do now is face Sharon half-sober.
After a bit of searching, he found Sharon where he'd first seen her when he landed his plane. At the edge of the airfield, staring out to sea. All that had changed in the hours since, while Jesse had radioed an immediate short account and then forced himself to write what needed to be written, was that Sharon was now sitting on the ground instead of standing up.
It was after sundown, but there was still enough light in the western sky to allow him to see her face clearly. The tears had dried. He thought she had none left to weep.
Awkwardly, he sat down next to her. "Sharon, I'm sorry—"
"Don't apologize, Jesse," she said softly, not moving her eyes from the same spot on the now-invisible horizon where, hours earlier, columns of smoke had marked the funeral pyres of her fiancé and two of his closest friends. "You owe Hans that much, at least. The world owes him that much."
Her dark eyes were shadowed, but Jesse was relieved to see the composure in them. Grief-stricken Sharon Nichols might be, but she was not struck down by it. In that moment, Jesse could see the lines of her father's face in the daughter. Not the roughness and near ugliness of his features, simply the strength in them.
"Hans was not a complicated man, Jesse. Bright, yes. But not complicated. I think that was the reason I fell in love with him, even though part of me thought the whole idea was nuts. I just . . . couldn't resist that simple, uncomplicated adoration." The last word ended with something of a gasp. She covered her mouth, holding in the sorrow.
Jesse took a long, deep breath, fighting off his own tears. "No, he wasn't complicated. Paladins never are. I guess, anyway. Not sure. Hans is the only paladin I think I ever met."
A half-sob, half-laugh came from behind Sharon's fingers. "Paladin!" She lowered her hand, exposing a sad little smile. "Not a bad word, actually. If we ignore the 'chaste' part of the business. That he wasn't, I can tell you. He threw himself into lovemaking with the same enthusiasm he did everything else."
After a bit, the smile faded away. "Oh God, Jesse, I'm going to miss him. So much."
"Yeah. Me, too."
She shook her head. "But—promise me. No apologies. That would detract from his sacrifice. From his whole life. He was no boy, led astray. Never think it, just because he wasn't complicated. Never think it."
Jesse started to weep. Sharon put her arm around his shoulders and hugged him close. Her own eyes were moist, but no tears came.
She lifted her head a bit. The stars were coming out, with all the clarity of a sky not polluted by a later century's flood of lights.
"The only reason they seem to twinkle," she murmured, "is because the air gets in the way. The stars themselves are pure and bright and simple. Don't confuse what you see with what there is, Jesse. Hans Richter was our bright shining star. And that's all there is to say. Now, and forever more."
* * *
That night, Mike found Veronica Dreeson at the Simpsons' house. Hans' grandmother had been staying there since she arrived in Magdeburg.
Admiral Simpson was still at his office in the shipyard. Mary Simpson, who had left the naval base an hour earlier, let him in the door.
"I haven't had the heart to tell her yet, Mr. President," she whispered as he came through. "I should have, I suppose, but . . ."
"Not your job, Mrs. Simpson. Mine." He saw that Veronica was preoccupied with reading something, and was seated far enough away not to hear them. "God damn it all to hell," he muttered wearily. "How do you tell someone that the nation which saved half her family just shattered it again?"
But he didn't have to tell her. Once he stepped forward into the room and Veronica looked at him, something in his face did the job.
"Which one?" she asked.
Mike looked away.
"How many?" she asked.
Still, he couldn't meet those hard old eyes. "Gretchen and Jeff are fine, Veron—"
A bit surprised by the words, Mike was finally able to look at her. He was even more surprised to see that the hard face showed no signs of grief beyond something faintly discernable in the set of her eyes.
"I could tell by your face. You understand very little, Michael Stearns. Someday you may come to understand the difference between sorrow and despair. But I hope not. I would like to think my young boys did not live and die in vain."
That same night, after getting the news from Frank Jackson, James Nichols stared at the walls of an empty house. Realizing for the first time how much he had been looking forward to a grandchild.
An empty house. Melissa gone. Sharon gone. Hans gone forever.
There was a knock on the door. When he opened it, Tom Stone bustled through with his three teenage sons. One of them was carrying a cardboard box.
"Bummer, man," Stoner pronounced. "Really is."
"How'd you know?" James asked.
"The whole town probably knows by now," said Tom's oldest son Frank. "There's a line of people standing outside Mayor Dreeson's house, waiting to give their condolences."
"We just came from there ourselves," added one of the other boys. Ron, that was. "Annalise is taking it pretty hard, but she's trying to bear up. It'd be a lot easier for her if Gramma were still here."
"The whole town's bummed out," said Stoner. "Really bummed out. Those kids were . . . you know. Special."
He gave Nichols a scrutiny. "I figured you'd be in bad shape too. That's why we came over. Keep you some company and—"
He gestured toward the cardboard box in the hands of his son Gerry. The box was covered, so Nichols couldn't see what was in it.
Given Stoner, on the other hand, he thought he could guess.
"I am not in the mood to get high," he growled.
Stoner's eyes widened. "Hey, doc, take it easy. It's not grass. It's flowers. I grow them too, y'know."
"Oh." James felt a bit sheepish. "Thanks."
He started to reach for the box but Stoner took his outstretched arm and started leading him toward the door. "They're not for you, man. They're for the shrine. But we thought—you being Sharon's dad, and all—that the honor of placing the first flowers should go to you."
When they showed him, James felt his spirits lift. Not much, but some. Stoner and his boys had already set up the receptacles for the flowers—two very large terra-cotta pots, placed on either side of a little walkway. The walkway led to the trailer complex where, in the days after the Ring of Fire, Jeff Higgins and Jimmy Andersen and Eddie Cantrell and Larry Wild had taken into their home and hearts a man named Hans Richter and his family.
It was fitting, he decided. That somewhat ramshackle trailer complex was perhaps the truest symbol of what those courageous youngsters had died for. And, somehow, an old hippie had figured out the perfect memoriam to paint on the flowerpots.
One read: Gone but not forgotten.
The other: We remain.
The next morning, sitting at his desk, Admiral John Simpson finished reading Colonel Wood's after action report—for perhaps the tenth time since it had arrived the night before. His jaws tight, he set it aside and picked up the attachment. That, he had read perhaps twenty times. Whatever comfort there was to be found, would be found there.
Captain Hans Richter, assigned to the 1st Air Squadron, U.S. Air Force, distinguished himself in aerial combat against enemies of the United States, during the defense of Wismar, 7 October, 1633. On that date, Capt. Richter was ordered to support U.S. naval forces defending the strategically vital city of Wismar against a Danish invasion fleet. In response to orders, Capt. Richter provided vital tactical information to U.S. naval forces preparing to attack the enemy. He continued to conduct essential reconnaissance until, in the course of combat operations, the chain of command of U.S. forces was disrupted. Capt. Richter, recognizing that continued offensive operations could rout the enemy, immediately pressed an independent attack against the enemy flagship. In this attack, he severely damaged the enemy ship, at the cost of severe personal injury and damage to his aircraft. Despite his wounds, Capt. Richter continued his attack against the enemy armada. He subsequently attacked another Danish warship, which he destroyed, though suffering fatal injuries. This last attack broke the fighting spirit of the Danish fleet and ensured the safety of Wismar. Through his courage and determination against superior enemy forces, Capt. Richter brought great credit upon himself and the United States Air Force and is hereby awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
By Order of
Jesse J. Wood, Colonel, USAF
Chief of Staff
Not much comfort, but some. John Chandler Simpson had spent the time since the news came, much as he was sure Colonel Wood had done. Berating himself.
Chain of command. Senior service. Strategy. Tactics. The whole panoply. And in the end, what did it all come down to? The courage of young lions. Nothing else.
For the first time in his life, he felt like an old man.
When Mike walked into Simpson's office, the admiral was sitting behind his desk. Stiff, upright; the chair slanted so he could stare out the window. He glanced at Mike, then returned his eyes to the glass.
Mike studied him, as he closed the door and stepped forward. Simpson's face was not "wooden" now. It looked as if it were carved from stone. Pale stone. That was grief, Mike understood, being controlled the only way the man knew how to do it.
"I'll want the Navy Cross for Lieutenants Cantrell and Wild," Simpson said abruptly. "And the Silver Star for Gunner's Mate Bjorn Svedberg. They'll all get the Purple Heart, of course."
He glanced back, still stone-faced. "Excuse me. Bad manners. Please have a seat, Mr. President."
As Mike lowered himself into the chair across from Simpson's desk, the admiral added: "I can do that on my own authority. I established the Navy's system of decorations some time ago, you know." The words were not quite a challenge. Not quite.
"You'll get no argument from me," Mike said mildly.
Simpson jerked his gaze from the window and stared at Mike. Then, even more abruptly:
"And what do you propose for Captain Richter?" He gestured toward the citation, which Mike had seen the night before. "Colonel Wood's already awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Most he can do. But I agree with him—it's not enough. Mortally wounded, Captain Hans Richter deliberately flew his plane into an enemy vessel. That calls for the Congressional Medal of Honor, Mr. President. Posthumous, as most of them are."
Anger was starting to seep into his voice now, coloring the ice. Mike was glad to see it come. The anger of a man like Simpson, he could reach. He could do nothing with a man of stone.
"In our old universe, I should say," Simpson half-snarled. "In this new one, who knows? I don't believe you even have a Congressional Medal of Honor. Forgot about it, naturally."
"Yes, I did," said Mike calmly. "My apologies. I'll see to correcting that immediately." He said nothing else; just waited.
Simpson's icy glare held for a few more seconds. Then, he closed his eyes. Took a deep breath, and slowly let it out through half-open lips. By the time the exhalation was finished, the lips looked human again.
"Sorry, Mr. President. That was quite uncalled for on my part."
"No, it wasn't. It was a screw-up. Mine. I guess I never really thought—wanted—ah, hell." He took a deep breath of his own. "I'll see to it, John. Today, if possible. There won't be any problem, believe me."
Simpson's shoulders slumped. With the slump, went all trace of stone from the face. It was still a wooden face, true, but . . .
Such was the nature of John Chandler Simpson. Mike had his full measure now. He could live with wood.
Wearily, Simpson rubbed his face. "Ah, it's all crap anyway, Mike. Just the last parting shot of a man who hates to admit he was wrong about anything." When he removed the hand, to stare back out of the window, he was almost smiling. "You were right, weren't you? When all is said and done. I thought you were insane to think we could build another United States your way. Throw it open overnight to people who had none of our background, customs, traditions."
Mike's mouth twisted. "Well . . . it was a risky enterprise. And still is, John. Risky as hell. I could use your help, that's for sure."
"You'll get it." The words came as sure and certain as John Chandler Simpson could say any words. Which was sure and certain indeed. "I'd be betraying those dead boys if I didn't. The proof is in the pudding. The first Congressional Medal of Honor will go to a German boy—and rightly so. And the other two young heroes were among those who first took him in, and welcomed him with open arms. Which I sure as hell didn't."
He made a fist and rapped the desk with it. The gesture was not an angry one; simply . . . firm. The way, Mike imagined, Simpson had often in times past pronounced that something involving his business was settled and done.
"That's what it all came down to in the end, Mike," he said sadly. "Just the raw courage of four young men. Two Americans, a German and a Swede."
"Two lashes is enough, John." Mike's chuckle was dry; even harsh; but not caustic. "We country boys have lower standards, y'know, than you High Church types. There's no apology needed, and sure as hell no penance. You trained them, remember? You built this Navy, not me, not anyone else. Just like Jesse built the Air Force. Their sacrifice will give you—all of us—the tradition we need. The start of it, anyway. But it couldn't have happened without you either."
Simpson turned his face back to meet Mike. There was pain in those eyes. Not that there hadn't been before; but now, it was plainly visible.
"I like to think so, Mike," he said softly, almost whispering. "I'm not sure I could get through this otherwise."
"Yeah, I know. It's keeping me going too. But it won't happen without—"
An interruption came, in the form of a very worried-looking Dietrich Schwanhausser almost barging through the door.
"Excuse me, Admiral, but General Torstensson—"
Torstensson himself came through the door, shouldering the aide aside. He took two steps into the room, and planted his boots. Then gave Mike and Simpson a look that was part-glare, part-challenge, and . . . oddest of all, more than a trace of simple curiosity.
"So!" he exclaimed, in his thickly accented but quite good English. "Now we will see. The city is erupting beneath our feet, President and Admiral. What do you propose to do about it?"