I knew something was wrong when we got to the armory. Nobody was hustling. There was no nervous energy or anticipation like when the older guys got called to fight in Iraq. Only two-thirds of the company actually showed up. Some of the other guys had already packed up and headed to Canada or the Adirondacks. Others were buttoned up in their houses and they weren’t leaving for anyone or anything. We knew several of them weren’t even alive anymore. Most of our support units were broken up and folded into the combat branches. The other Guard units were like that too. They put me on a sixty mortar crew. I had no clue how to use one of them, but I could still carry rounds. My MOS suddenly changed from bean counter to pack mule.
We were part of the Mohawk River Campaign. We knew that the Army was preparing for a showdown at Yonkers. We were something of a distraction, to secure the northern flank of the Yonkers group and maybe relieve pressure on Albany. The state capital was heavily infested. My brigade was ordered to defend the northern end of the Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge near Troy. Our officers gave us an hour to pack up and move out.
The regulars at Yonkers had all the latest gadgets. They had to look cool for the TV audiences. We were using old-ass gear. We had M4 carbines like everyone else but most of our hardware and vehicles were at least one generation behind. I could never prove it but I was dead certain that one of my platoon’s M60 machine guns was the same one my grandpa used in Vietnam. We didn’t have MLRS. We had to make do with Paladins instead. The Zoomies didn’t spare much air support for us so we only had some Apaches and a single flight of Thunderbolts.
When we got to the twin bridges there was a steady stream of evacuees. The MPs directed them across. Some of them had walked all the way from Pennsylvania or Massachusetts. We just ignored them and started digging in. We had to. Too many families were short a few members. This family’s grandfather had died from heat stroke along the way. That family’s preschool-aged son had been run over by an off-roading car. And this man’s wife and sister-in-law had been torn apart and eaten in front of him. The people who had just lost someone wailed in despair. I still remember that sound after all this time.
Remember the Syrian refugee crisis back in 2015? Like the Syrians, these refugees weren’t in rags. The credit card servers were still up and these folks bought whatever clothes they needed along the way. But all the camping and hiking clothes were gone by then. These people were wearing whatever was available and that included brand new Hawaiian print shirts, Yankees jerseys, and overpriced crap from Banana Republic. Still others wore fancy suits, wedding dresses, or old Class A uniforms. These were items the wearers couldn’t bear to leave behind.
The bridges were actually a good place to defend. Zack didn’t have much cover since that stretch of the Mohawk mostly consisted of marinas, single-family houses, and small restaurants. The zombies would have to funnel into the bridges and cross about 200 yards of open ground while overlapping fields of fire nailed them the whole time.
We were watching the live feed from Yonkers on our phones and saw them prepping for the big one. I’ll have to hand it to our higher ups. They were a lot more competent than their counterparts at Yonkers. Maybe that’s because they could do their jobs. The press weren’t all over us. We just had some local news reporters who were more focused on the upcoming battle itself. The brass didn’t think we needed to put on as much of a show. That meant we didn’t wear any NBC junk like the kind that suffocated the Yonkers group. We still dug foxholes and put up sandbags, though. Our position looked like something out of Anzio. It did look impressive. A lot of the civilians perked up when they saw us take our positions. They quit running and lost that hunted look on their faces. A few even sat down and started eating. They must have been expecting a show
It was around noon when the MPs and medics shepherded the last refugees across the bridge. Anybody behind them was out of luck. It was eerily quiet. We didn’t even hear birds or insects because they had already cleared out ahead of Zack. After about ten minutes of silence we heard “contact!” in the center of our line. The first zombie appeared from behind a seafood restaurant on the far side of the river. It must have been a college kid on summer break if the Greek lettering on its tank top was any indication. It stood in the middle of the road for a second. It must have smelled us because it turned towards our position, raised its arms, and let out a moan. That sound carries. It shuffled toward us and reached the first span. That’s when one of our sniper teams took the shot. As the headless corpse crumpled onto the hot pavement, we saw another zombie, then two more. The sharpshooters took them down just like they did with that frat boy. A cheer started up and down our line.
That’s when we saw that the individual zombies were gradually being replaced by small groups of them. The sound had attracted every ghoul in the vicinity. The sharpshooters couldn’t handle the sheer number as Zack surged forward as a group. The weapons teams started to get calls for fire missions. I heard the Paladin shells roaring in from overhead, blowing apart any zombie within the blast radius. The mortars went off whenever we saw Zack coalesce and added to the din. Our cheers went up again as clusters of zombies exploded into showers of brown goo. The 60mm round is basically a glorified hand grenade. As we learned that day, it doesn’t get many kills when you need a head shot. We still saw body parts flying everywhere.
Zack funneled into the bridge. Like I said, our officers had a better grasp of the situation than those fossils at Yonkers. They waited for zombies to get halfway across. That way pretty much all of us had targets. The orders came to engage and our direct fire weapons opened up. The zombie horde seemed to shudder to a stop as our fifties, rifles, and Apache cannon ripped into them. So far, so good! We were actually stopping them cold. It was like one of those tower defense video games, except way bloodier. I spent the next hour running between our position and the ordnance vehicles. Then they ran out. A basic ammo load for 60mm mortars contains three hundred rounds and we burned through them like it was going out of style. I heard “rounds complete!” all across our line and then nothing but our steaming tubes.
That’s when we called in air support. Zack was packed onto that bridge like sardines in a can, and each Thunderbolt went on strafing runs from end to end. Suddenly the mass of zombies was gone, replaced by brown ribbons of flesh. That bought us some time but we knew it couldn’t last. Tens of thousands were still massing on the other side. Disaster struck right about then.
We started getting calls of attacks in our rear, followed by screams of fear. A number of zombies had fallen into the river and been swept a few hundred yards downstream before they somehow made it to the other bank. Some refugees had brought bitten relatives with them and hid the bites. A few of them died and reanimated in all the chaos. They lurched into the rear areas, which included the field hospital, brigade and battalion headquarters, refugee facilities, and the press tent. Our pieces were dry so we snatched up our carbines and ran to the commotion. It was horrific. Patients were torn apart in their cots. One of the battalion headquarters staff ran into the hospital shrieking that he had just been bit, and a nurse whipped out her pistol and blew his head off. I took out a set of twins who couldn’t have been more than five years old. I found them gnawing on a woman who must have been their Mom. Some older guys from the New York Guard arrived and cleaned out all the infected. The local broadcast showed everything that happened, and I mean everything.
All the while, the fight at the bridge was still happening. In all that excitement we didn’t have any instructions. The combat engineers had set up Claymore land mines on the near side and started detonating them. We saw zombies get shredded beyond recognition. Each Claymore sends out seven hundred ball bearings in a cone. At least there was a guarantee of several head shots and whatever survived the detonation would be missing some limbs. It pushed Zack off our side of the river for a while. The engineers tried to set up another line until some idiot set up a mine backwards. There’s a reason they put “front toward enemy” on every Claymore. He took out himself, most of his squad, and a few rifle teams behind him. Zack poured through the hole. The situation had deteriorated in under a minute and we were just about to get completely swarmed. Then the ground seemed to shake as we heard a massive report. The center part of the bridges seemed to almost jump into the air and then crumbled into the river. The bridges had been rigged with C4 just in case, and that saved our asses. We mopped up whatever was left on our side and flopped down wherever we stood. The battle was over.
According to the US Army’s official history of the Mohawk River Campaign, approximately 3500 National Guardsmen and New York Guard took on a quarter million zombies. The Battle of the Twins is classified as a tactical victory. We did hold the field. We also bought enough time for the New York state government and much of Albany to evacuate. This didn’t feel like a victory, however. We had been in a perfect defensive position and had thrown everything we had at Zack. All we did was slow him down while he tried to find another route around us. There weren’t any celebrations in camp that night. Instead we saw a steady trickle of troops leaving. The MPs didn’t even try to stop them. The remaining brass told us to retreat to Schenectady County Airport and take the last transport planes to Nellis AFB. That was outside Vegas! We were being redeployed west of the Rockies. Just us, no families.
Our company CO gave us a choice. We could stay with the battalion and take the flight out to safety. If we left to go back home, he’d have no choice but to arrest us. He was going to turn his back, put in some Airpods, and listen to one musical selection. He said that once he finished the song and turned back around, anybody who wasn’t there must have gone MIA and there wasn’t anything he could do about that. We learned later that his musical selection was an entire production of Pirates of Penzance. About three-quarters of us were gone by the time he got to “With Cat-Like Tread.”
We divided into separate groups and headed towards our hometowns. My group of thirty-five started the long walk back to Utica. We had enough respect for our CO to not take any vehicles. He risked a court-martial for us and we weren’t going to give him more problems. We just took our carbines, ammo, three days’ worth of MREs, and our rucksacks. We knew that the Utica Armory was still open and that city government was functioning. It was going to mostly be a straight shot along I-90, and about five days at a steady pace. Some of the other guys weren’t from Utica. They were from Sherrill or Rome but decided to stick with us and bring their families along with them once we were squared away at home.
It was a good thing we didn’t take Humvees or trucks because the interstate had been jammed since Yonkers and Twin Bridges. People just didn’t have any more faith in the military and so they ran. We saw overturned school buses, big rigs burnt to a crisp, and wreck after wreck along the way. Too many of those stalled vehicles had bloody handprints smeared along the doors and windows. There were bodies dumped on the shoulder, and other bodies in the cars, still strapped in and grasping at us. It was slow going as we dealt with small groups of zombies along the way. What should have taken five days took an entire week but at least we scavenged enough food when our rations ran out. We’d stop by any gas stations or abandoned houses and refill our Camelbacks. The water was still running.
We also encountered groups of people. Most of them were heading towards Canada. They hoped that the winter would freeze Zack a few months from then. They didn’t cause us any problems. The bandit groups weren’t really a thing until later. Most of these folks were law-abiding citizen types but I noticed a change in their demeanor. Before the outbreak I had learned to tune out the perfunctory “thank you for your service” that I got whenever civilians saw me in my uniform. Nobody said that anymore. Instead we got comments like, “so I guess you didn’t need all those free drinks.”
During the retreat, I stopped to take a breather near a house by the interstate. There was a tuxedo cat sitting on the windowsill. He couldn’t have been out of the kitten stage for very long. He just stared at first and meowed. I saw the doors were boarded up and all the windows were locked. The family had clearly evacuated and left their pet behind. I knew they weren’t coming back for him anytime soon. They had probably left with the understanding that the emergency would be over in a few days. I decided that with so much death and despair around me I’d at least save one living thing. I got some buddies to help me and we carefully broke in through a window. The cat walked up to us and meowed. He still had some water but his food bowl was empty. We found some Fancy Feast in the pantry and watched as he inhaled the contents of two cans. He rubbed himself against our legs and purred as if to say, “everything’s going to be okay now.” We looked at his collar and saw that his name was Jasper. We called the number on his tag and it went straight to voicemail. I still don’t know what happened to them. We gathered whatever cat food and toys we could find and took him with us.
Did I say that solar panels, seeds, and MREs were the best investment I ever made? Well, Jasper was a close second. We would need him in the months to come as we went through some dark times. And they were indeed dark. Now let me tell you about how we prepped for that first terrible winter.
[End of Part 2]