The Past is Another Country: Centrifuge by JC Pollock

Former thriller writer, and current scriptwriter, JC Pollock, had a career as a novelist in the 1980s that was steeped in Special Forces experience. It turned out to be not his own, but his friends’, and his career changed direction, towards a place where authenticity is neither valued nor even recognized. But during the time he was “one of us” in SF, his novels were very, very common rucksack weights and teamhouse crapper reading matter; whether he was one of us or not (he was actually, as we understand it, a combat Marine in Vietnam Recon Trooper, good on him), he was perfectly tapped into our ethos.

One of his books, Crossfire, involved elements of the 10th Special Forces Group, at that time based in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and Bad Tölz, Germany. While researching that book, he visited Germany and Bad Tölz, and presented a number of copies of his then-current novel, Centrifuge. After we wrote a post about Mr Pollock recently, one of those presentation copies surfaced, and we had to add it to the Unconventional Warfare Operations Research Library. Most of the other fiction in its 3,000+ volumes amounts to thinly disguised non-fiction: romans à clef. This copy of Centrifuge is different, because its value is in its inscription.

The book tells the tale of Mike Slater, a Vietnam veteran former SF (and compartmented special projects) officer who finds himself and his Vietnam teammates hunted by a Soviet elite military team. The Americans must fight the Russians off — no easy thing in itself — while answering the burning question, why are a bunch of Russians trying to kill a guy over something that happened ten years ago? The book is quite a good thriller and we already had a hardcover copy (in the personal library, not the UWORL).

The book is labeled on the end, in a very neat block script, Staff Duty Officer/NCO at USMC Bad Toelz. (The reason for the variant spellingoe  is an accepted alternative to ö in German).

On the flyleaf, it is inscribed and signed:

This book is dedicated to the Staff Duty Officer, US Military Community Bad Toelz, as an expression of appreciation for the assistance and many courtesies provided me at Flint Kaserne during my visit on 21 April 1984.

Pollock clearly meant it to be kept at the Duty Officer/NCO desk In Flint Kaserne’s rectangular building, a former SS officers’ school.

There were several units based at Tölz in the 1980s. These included the 1st Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), one-third of our operational active-duty Green Berets oriented towards the European theater; the Special Forces Detachment (Airborne) Europe, a support element; the 7th Army NCO Academy, which ran the Army’s pathetic Primary Leadership Development Course, a month-long schoolboy hazing for prospective sergeants; a US Army Europe Ranger camp, Camp Worden, where soldiers briefly experienced a truncated version of Ranger School under the guidance of real RIs; and perhaps some odds and ends. All were under the authority of the US Military Community, whose commander was a colonel, usual a Special Forces officer and a former commander of the 1st Battalion, 10th SFG(A).

The commander of the military community sat at a desk that, legend had it, was cursed. It was inherited by George S. Patton Jr. from the SS Junkerschule commander, who was supposedly dead by his own hand, unable to live in a world without Adolf Hitler. Patton, of course, did not command here long, suffering mortal injuries in a vehicular accident. One of the legends of the desk was that it permanently altered the personality of the man whose workspace was there, and not for the better. “So and so was good as battalion commander, but now that he is the community commander, he’s a jerk,” went the complaint.

There was also, they said,  a ghost, who few saw but many heard walking in hard-soled German boots in the basement.But he’s another story, and we’d have to believe in him to tell it.

Pollock’s vist came at a bad time for 10th Group. Operation Flintlock ’84 was underway, at the time the largest special operations exercise in the world. In many ways it was a success, demonstrating 10th Group’s and Special Operations Command Europe’s ability to near-simultaneously task, prepare, launch, control, and recover hundreds of special operations teams into scores of Unconventional Warfare Operations Areas in many countries for the entire range of special operations missions.

But the static-line parachute insertions of the Special Forces teams, which were used in most cases, went badly. The Air Force was experimenting with training conventional cargo crews to deliver special operations teams. The teams were used to using Air Force Special Operations MC-130E and MH-53E aircraft to hit very small drop zones located in otherwise inhospitable terrain, and the slick C-130 and SOLL II C-141A crews weren’t up to that standard. Teams dropped in rugged mountains, into a lake, and into 150-foot-tall pine trees. In addition, some teams were dropped at unsafely low altitudes. Some teams were dropped in instrument meteorolgical conditions including low fog, and did not see the ground until after they hit it.

It was providential that no one was killed outright in the failed insertion, but there were literally dozens of hospital admissions and several career-ending injuries. Two men on an 11th Group (Reserve) team survived only because the team medic was a combat-experienced SOG recon guy, and he used a dozen liters of blood expander on his two critical patients, one with a crushed face and cranium (and other injuries) and one with a crushed pelvis (and other injuries). The other members of the ream, including the medic, were injured too, but not critically.

A 10th Group NCO landed in a tree and began to shinny down its trunk… but the trunk got wider and wider until he could not hang on. He wound up paralyzed. Another team’s officer snapped his femur like a twig. “I’ll be back in a few days!” he told the men through gritted teeth, but his SF career was over (he went to medical school and became an Army surgeon). On that same team, the team sergeant continued the mission through pain that made moving difficult. Ultimately he could not even bear to speak, and led the team from a poncho hooch and sleeping bag with written notes. On exfiltration, x-rays explained his pain: he broke his back on landing (the team was dropped about 300′ above uneven ground, by an aircrew seeking to impress a female pilot in the jump seat with their low-flying skills).

The last two victims of Flintlock 84 (two guys from the unlucky 11th team, one team member and one 10th Group evaluator) were still in Germany two months later. When they were safe to move, they came back on separate C-9 flights.

This disaster, which would result in an entire floor of the Army’s hospital in Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt (if we recall correctly) being taken over by crippled Green Berets, was unfolding at the very time when Pollock visited. Despite that, he did seem to soak up enough of the atmosphere for it to permeate his next novel, Crossfire. 

How the book came from there to here is not recorded, but we can offer informed speculation. In the US drawdown in Europe, the 1/10th was moved from the unique, beautiful and functional kaserne at Bad Tölz in the mountains, to a scroungy urban barracks in a built-up suburb of grimy industrial Stuttgart. The forests, mountains, ski slopes (not to mention, helipad and airstrip) were now no longer easy no-paperwork day training destinations. Even the beer wasn’t quite as good, something the troops didn’t miss. The kaserne reverted to the Germans, along with many other abandoned American properties, and they were rather at a loss as to what to do with it. Given its SS heritage, razing the building was considered. In the end, the family housing was given over to immigrant/refugee/welfare housing, and soon took on that run-down, filthy look common to housing for those who do not care to house themselves. The Kaserne itself became some kind of office building, and the beautiful courtyard and historic murals (which had been maintaned for the half-century of American occupation) became home of a steel-and-wire-and-glass parking garage so eye-shockingly ugly and crudely dysfunctional that it may have been the work of celebrity society architect Frank Gehry.

And the book that a writer gave to the SDOs of a station that no longer existed? The duty position it was donated to ceased to exist. The book somehow wound up back in the states, in a used bookshop. There’s probably a tale to tell there, but the book’s not talking. And then to us.

Update

After talking to Jim Pollock in July 2013, we corrected errors in his biographical information. The corrections are noted with strikethroughs (errors) and underlining (correction inserted).