Ghosts of Fort Riley
I had completely forgotten about these events until, twenty years later, I hooked up with my buddy Rob when we found ourselves in the same unit deploying to Afghanistan. Fort Riley in Kansas is the home of the famous US Army First Infantry Division, and is one of the Army’s oldest and most haunted posts. While I was a member of the Big Red One, the nickname for the First Infantry Division, I served as a member of the division’s air defense battalion. We had a live fire exercise coming up and so the day before, we had a two and a half ton truck, called a ‘deuce and a half’, loaded with thousands of 20 millimeter ammunition rounds for our M163 Vulcan tracks which we would fire at remote controlled drones the next day. The truck with the ammunition was parked in what was called an ammunition staging area, or ASA, located somewhere deep in the forest.
The ammunition needed to be guarded at all times prior to the unit picking it up and transporting it to the firing point and me and my battle buddies Jerry and Rob were detailed to be the night guards. We were all just privates at the time and we dutifully piled in the back of a HMMWV along with our sleeping gear, flashlights, books, and anything else we thought we needed to pass the time, along with jugs of water, a case of MRE’s, and a cooler of iced drinks. We were also armed with two hard wood batons about three feet long, just in case. The driver of the HMMWV was the sergeant of the guard named Sergeant Herring. He was a short man who was overweight, out of shape, and had the reputation of being a lazy and not a particularly effective squad leader.
Sergeant Herring drove us down the hard ball road out behind the battalion motor pool which turned off onto the tank trails which led to the firing ranges and maneuver training areas where battalions of First Infantry Division tanks and armored fighting vehicles regularly conducted war game exercises. We bounced around in the back for a few miles over meandering fields and low, wooded hills before Sergeant Herring turned off the main tank trail to follow a smaller dirt trail which led deeper into the forest. It was four in the afternoon and the three of us stuck in the back of the bouncing cargo compartment of the HMMWV said nothing while we tried to get comfortable and catch a cat nap. Sergeant Herring turned around, back tracked, took different trails, then back tracked again, obviously lost. Finally, however, he found the trail that he needed to take which led us down into a shallow valley. He was flooring the HMMWV down the winding trail which was only wide enough to allow one vehicle which jostled us around even more in the back. Recklessly Sergeant Herring followed the dirt trail up a slight incline which led to another hard ball road. The incline led to a low plateau with a square compound built on it. The compound was simply a concrete parking lot about a quarter mile square surrounded by two chain linked fences topped with razor wire. Parked in the center of the parking lot underneath the lights was the deuce and a half truck with the ammunition. Two, one story shacks were built outside the fence next to the gate which led into the fenced in parking lot, and Sergeant Herring parked the HMMWV next to the smaller of the two shacks.
“Get your gear and get the hell out!” yelled Sergeant Herring from the driver’s compartment. “This is going to be home until we’re relieved tomorrow.”
Me, Rob and Jerry jumped out the back of the HMMWV and gathered our gear. The door to the small shack opened and another squad leader, a lean, good natured, staff sergeant with a handlebar moustache named Staff Sergeant Sleet came out saying, ”You’re late, Sergeant Herring! It’s almost 1800 hours! My guys are going to miss dinner chow at the mess hall. Did you get lost again?”
“No, I did not get lost,” said Sergeant Herring, offended. But we just smiled and nodded at Staff Sergeant Sleet behind Sergeant Herring’s back.
Three other soldiers emerged from the larger shack, which turned out to be the guard shack. They were friends of ours from Staff Sergeant Sleet’s squad who had the day shift guard duty. We exchanged greetings as they piled into the HMMWV to go back to the main post at Fort Riley, their duty day completed. Staff Sergeant Sleet climbed into the driver seat and said, “Hey, Sergeant Herring, First Platoon will be coming to relieve you at 0800 tomorrow. They’ll be bringing out hot chow for breakfast.”
Staff Sergeant Sleet then yelled back at his team, “Hey, guys! We aren’t going to make chow time tonight so pizza is on me! Sergeant Herring got lost again!” The soldiers in the back of the HMMWV laughed as Staff Sergeant Sleet pulled away from the compound. As they turned on to the dirt trail, my buddy Paul who was sitting in the back of the HMMWV, suddenly yelled to me, Rob, and Jerry, “Hey! Watch out for ghosts! They say this ASA is haunted!”
We stood there watching the HMMWV disappear and I turned to Sergeant Herring and said, “What did he mean by this ASA is haunted?”
“Nothing. It’s nothing!” replied Sergeant Herring, sounding angry and flustered.
Sergeant Herring pointed at the larger shack and said, ”Throw your gear in there. That’s where you three will be spending the night. You’ll each be doing roving patrols around the perimeter of the fence in one hour shifts. You!” Sergeant Herring pointed at me. “I saw how you laughed when Sleet said I got lost. You pull first guard rotation. Get out there!”
“Do we have radios?” I asked? “You know, in case of ghosts?”
“Knock it off,” said Herring. “We don’t need comms because there’s no such thing as ghosts.” In other words, Sergeant Herring had forgotten to bring the radios, meaning we had no communication between the ASA and our headquarters if something unexpected should occur way out here in the middle of nowhere.
Sergeant Herring gathered his gear, including a portable television, a cooler, and a mini-grill and stomped off towards the smaller guard shack that was meant for the sergeant of the guard and had electricity and air conditioning. Jerry and Rob took our gear and walked towards the guard shack while I secured one of the wooden batons and began my patrol around the perimeter fence.
Each side of the fence was a quarter mile long and a small path circled the outside of the fenced lot. The guard shacks were located on the eastern side of the fence. The north and south sides of the fence were clear of foliage and the plateau dipped steadily about ten to twenty feet down towards the forest. On the west side, however, the forest grew right up to the fence line. I began walking around the perimeter, enjoying the sounds of nature, the cool breeze, and the crimson sky as the sun slowly set in the west. When I turned the corner to walk the western side of the fence, however, the trees seemed to swallow all light and it felt colder, although there was no breeze. Also, there didn’t seem to be any animal noises, such as birds chirping. I completed that quarter mile stretch and when I emerged on the north side of the fence, the birds chirping noise returned. I completed the circuit about four times before my hour was up and I returned to the guard shack where Jerry was getting ready for his shift. I didn’t say anything about how weird I felt walking the quarter mile section of the western perimeter and just rolled out my sleeping bag on the bare concrete floor, heated up an MRE meal of tuna with noodles and washed it down with an iced soda from the cooler while talking with Rob about when he was going to get up with that exotic dancer from Tiger Island in Junction City.
An hour later, Jerry had completed his shift and Rob left to take his turn. It was getting darker and there was no electricity in our guard shack so Jerry and I just sat around eating snacks while Jerry bugged me about when I was going to get up with that exotic dancer at Tiger Island in Junction City. At 9 pm, Rob had completed his shift and I got up to begin my second guard rotation. Rob handed me the baton and a flashlight.
“Here,” he said. “You’ll need this.”
“Hey, thanks.” I said. Then I noticed that Rob seemed a bit nervous.” You all right, man?” I said.
“Yeah,” answered Rob. “It’s just that the flashlight seems to go dim on the western perimeter, where the woods go all the way up to the fence. Eh. Probably just because of the trees.”
“Yeah, probably,” I said. “Or maybe it’s ghosts!”
I stepped outside of the shack and breathed in the warm, night air, grateful for the breeze. The moon was out and full which bathed everything in a soft light. The lights inside the ASA were lit and shone brightly down on our ammunition truck. Lights were also on in Sergeant Herring’s shack, although he had pulled down the blinds. Even at this distance, I could hear the sounds of a porn movie being played on his television. I shuddered and hoped he had also locked the door.
The perimeter lights were on and shining brightly on the north, south, and east sides of the fence, but for some reason, the lights on the west side had failed to come on. When I turned the corner of the western perimeter, everything seemed to go pitch black. I could clearly see all sides of the perimeter, but the western side was totally dark, even with the full moon shining. I turned on the flash light that Roy gave me and, sure enough, it was weak, as if low on battery. The fence was on my right and the forest was to my left as I walked that portion of the perimeter. The flashlight barely illuminated the path and trees five feet in front of me and the whole time I felt as if I were being watched by something. I cursed at Paul for putting the thought in my head that this place was haunted and secretly hoped that he caught an STD from that exotic dancer from Tiger Island.
The quarter mile walk down the dark western perimeter seemed to take hours but eventually I made it to the corner where the forest was no longer at the fence line and the perimeter lights worked. The moon shone brightly in the sky and, for some reason, my flashlight shined a powerful beam of light again. Curious, I turned around and walked back the way I came and my flashlight dimmed like before. Stupid flashlight. I completed my four circuits around the perimeter fence, north, east , south then west, but always dreading the west side. As I said earlier, it felt as if someone or something was watching me from somewhere inside the inky black void of the forest.
At 10 pm, my shift was up and Jerry met me at the shack, ready to take his turn as the roving guard. The sound of a porn movie was still coming from Sergeant Herring’s shack and Jerry rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Three hours straight.” He said, and we both laughed.
I handed Jerry the baton and told him about the flashlight issue , but did not mention how creeped out I felt walking the western perimeter. Jerry thanked me, warned me that the MRE chilli mac that Rob ate for dinner was causing him to pass gas in his sleep, then put on head phones before beginning his guard shift. I walked into the now pitch black guard shack and felt my way to my sleeping bag. Thinking I was too wired up to sleep, I quickly fell asleep.
I woke up at 11 pm when Jerry’s shift was over, listening to Rob tell Jerry that the MRE tuna with noodles that I had for dinner was making me pass gas in my sleep. It was dark inside the shack, save for the moonlight streaming in from the windows and opened door. Jerry responded, but sounded rather worried. Scared even. Jerry mentioned hearing something on the western side of the fence, but he couldn’t make it out. He said it sounded like horses, and the thunder of hooves, but it sounded faint. Feeling somewhat vindicated, I said to Rob as he left for his patrol, “Don’t let the ghosts get you.”
Midnight came quickly and I was pulling on my boots to begin my shift. Of course, I would get the midnight shift. I met Rob at the front of the shack and, perhaps it was a trick of light from the moon, but at that moment Rob was the whitest black guy I had seen. He didn’t look at me, but kept staring out at the western perimeter.
“Man, there is definitely something out there,” Rob said. “Every time I walked that part of the fence, the flashlight gets dim and I keep hearing something.”
“Something?” I said. “I haven’t heard anything. “
“You will,” said Rob. “It sounds like. I don’t know. Like horses and… and yelling. But really faint, just like Jerry said.”
“Go get some sleep, man,” I said as I nervously took the baton and the flashlight from Rob. “I’ll take care of Casper for you. I have to warn you, though, that you might want to keep the window open. The MRE spaghetti and meatballs that Jerry had for dinner is making him pass gas in his sleep. “
So now it was my turn and it was midnight. Admittedly, with some trepidation, I walked the south perimeter fence and turned to walk the western side. Once again, as soon as I turned the corner, my flashlight dimmed as I walked that dark quarter mile corridor. I felt as I was not even there, as if I was somehow outside myself and I was watching myself walking underwater. Yes, it felt as if I were underwater as it had grown cold and the air felt thick and hard to breathe. A mist had also risen up, further obscuring what little I could see ahead of me. The lights indicating the north perimeter seemed miles away. Then, about half way down the western perimeter fence, I heard something off to my left coming deep from within the forest. It sounded like horses galloping back and forth. It was faint, but it was definitely there. There was also something else. It was a feeling somewhat akin to panic, but it wasn’t something I was feeling. It was just like I knew there was panic, but it wasn’t coming from me.
I completed my first circuit around the fence and almost eagerly walked at a quick pace to get to the western side. Once again the warm night air was replaced by an almost graveyard type cold and mist. At about the same spot I could hear it again. The sounds drifting in from somewhere in the dark forest of horses running. But this time, it seemed closer than before, the sounds more distinct. Also, I could hear some of the horses whinnying, as if they were in pain. I tried to shake it off, still arguing with myself that this was just my imagination. The thought of horses in pain suddenly made me feel sad. I’m sorry I got you into this, boy. We’ve been through a lot together. I’m sorry, boy. They ain’t taking any prisoners.
I ran to the lights marking the north perimeter. What was that? What was that I just felt? It was sadness. But it wasn’t mine. What was going on? I looked at my watch under the lights. My shift was almost over, but how? It usually took me four circuits around the perimeter, but I had barely gone two. I completed my circuit and walked back past Sergeant Herring’s shack (Five hours of watching porn? Really, Sergeant Herring?) and headed towards our guard shack. Jerry was already waiting for me to get back so that he could start his shift.
“Anything new and exciting?” Jerry asked.
“You’ll see,” I answered.
“What does that mean,” Jerry asked, taking the baton and the flashlight from me. “Did you hear something out on the western side where the forest comes up to the fence?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe. Just be careful.”
I was sitting up on my sleeping bag, leaning my back against the concrete wall and trying to figure out what I had just experienced. Sadness. Regret. But they weren’t my feelings or my memories. I heard horses whinnying in pain, but I also swear that I heard human voices as well. About twenty minutes later, I heard a pounding on Sergeant Herring’s shack. Rob and I got up and opened the door to see Jerry pounding on the door to Sergeant Herring’s guard shack and yelling, “What’s out there, Sergeant? You know what’s out there! What is it?”
Sergeant Herring never opened the door. Instead he yelled from inside his shack, “You just shut your mouth, private, and do what you’re told to do! Stop asking me stupid questions and get back out there or I will write you up!”
Rob and I joined Jerry outside of Sergeant Herring’s shack and I said, “Sergeant, it’s me, Private Fox. What’s out there? What are we dealing with?”
Sergeant Herring cursed from behind the door, “Oh, it’s Private Fox! Private Question McQuestionberry! I said stop asking questions! I swear if you don’t shut your mouth and carry out your orders, I will write all of you up for insubordination! Now go away and leave me alone!” Sergeant Herring sounded terrified.
“Of all the ASA’s on this base, they had to put me in charge o this one!” Sergeant Herring complained. “You all will be fine. When it gets lighter, I’ll show you.”
“Show us what, Sergeant?” I asked.
“I said you’ll be fine!” screamed Sergeant Herring as he finally shut off his porn movies and everything went dark inside his shack. “Now go away! Leave me alone!”
Rob and I offered to go with Jerry to finish his shift, but Jerry declined. “That’s fine,” Jerry said. “I got this.” At this point, I could tell that Jerry was more disgusted with Sergeant Herring than he was afraid of whatever it was on the western perimeter.
At 2 am, Jerry’s shift was over and Rob got up to take his place. Jerry didn’t say anything when he got back to our shack and simply shook his head as Rob went out the door.
“I’m not sleepy”, I said. “You want me to come with you?”
“I’m good,” answered Rob as he took the baton and the flashlight from Jerry and disappeared out the door. Jerry rolled into his sleeping bag, lost in thought. Although we were all experiencing the same phenomenon, we didn’t want to talk about it. We were soldiers with a job to do, and we would do what was required of us. There would be plenty of time to sort out what happened later.
I couldn’t sleep so I went outside to get some fresh air. Loud snoring was coming from Sergeant Herring’s shack. I looked to the fence line and saw a figure standing under the lights at the south perimeter at the corner. It was Rob. He was standing stark still, staring west into the thick forest. I walked up behind him.
“I’m at your six, Rob,” I said so as not to startle him, but he still jumped at my voice.
“What are you doing here,” he said. You still got another thirty minutes before you have to be on shift.
“Can’t sleep,” I answered.
“I can’t move,” said Rob. “I can’t bring myself to turn this corner and walk down that path.”
“Come on, “ I said, leading the way. “I’ll go with you.”
As soon as we turned that corner, the flashlight went dim again and the mist seemed to be chest high now. The temperature seemed to keep dropping the further we went down the fence line until, again near the middle of that part of the fence, my fingers began to feel numb from the cold as if I had submerged it in ice.
“Stop, stop, stop,” whispered Rob. He shined the flashlight into the prevailing darkness, but it barely illuminated the trees which seemed to reach out at us. “Do you hear it?”
I nodded. This time, the sound was unmistakable. Somewhere out in the distance of that solid black forest, a battle was taking place. The thunder of horses hooves. The yelling of men. The battle cries of Native Americans. The screams of the dying. It was all there, just beyond the reach of the pathetic illumination from our flashlight. I felt an overwhelming sadness come over me. Somewhere, brave men and horses were fighting and dying. Somewhere out there.
And then, it was gone. Rob’s flashlight shone in full brilliance, illuminating the surrounding woods. The mist was gone as if it had never been there and the cold air was replaced by a cool early morning breeze. I also realized that it had become easier to breathe again, and that the heaviness seemed to have been lifted. Rob and I looked at each other, the sadness also seeming to have vanished and we simply shrugged.
I did my 3 am guard shift around the perimeter but nothing unusual happened, nor did anything unusual happen on either Jerry or Rob’s subsequent shifts. As promised, at 0800 in the morning First Platoon arrived with hot breakfast chow and to take possession of the deuce and a half truck and all of the 20 millimeter ammunition. The sun was rising in the cloudless blue sky and it promised to be a great day of shooting our Vulcan cannons. Sergeant Herring finally opened the door to his shack, appearing to be nicely rested and helped himself to the lion’s portion of the breakfast chow while complaining to the First Platoon leader about how he doesn’t get this new generation of lazy young soldiers. In fact, Sergeant Herring helped himself to so much breakfast chow that Jerry, Rob and I had to content ourselves with hot coffee and dry cereal.
Eager to get out of the ASA, Sergeant Herring yelled at us to get our gear and get in the back of a HMMWV. Jerry, Rob, and I just stared at him.
“Sergeant,” I said. “Last night you said you would show us what was out there when it became light.”
“Show you… show you what?” stuttered Sergeant Herring. “I didn’t say I was going to show you anything!”
“Sergeant,” said Jerry, you told us you would show us what was out in those woods.”
Sergeant Herring cursed again. “Private! I am ordering you to…”
“Isn’t there of grave around here?” interrupted Lieutenant Cook, the big First Platoon leader with the Ranger tab. “You know, Fort Riley used to be a horse cavalry post, and I think it would be a good learning moment to take these young soldiers to see the history of this place, don’t you agree Sergeant Herring?”
“Y…yes….yes sir,” gulped Sergeant Herring.
“Do you know where the graves are located, Sergeant Herring?” asked Lieutenant Cook.
“…yes…” squeaked Sergeant Herring.
“Well, take us there, sergeant!” smiled Lieutenant Cook. “I’d like to see it.”
A visibly pale Sergeant Herring led us, Lieutenant Cook, and about fifteen other soldiers from First Platoon out to the back of the ASA where the woods reached the western part of the perimeter. About midway was a small trail which led down off the plateau and into the woods. It was so small and narrow that one would easily overlook it unless they knew exactly where to find it. In the darkness, Jerry, Rob and I had completely missed seeing it.
The trail wound between thick trees and clinging vines as it descended deeper into the valley for about 150 meters before emerging into a clearing about 25 feet square. There, in the middle of the leaf strewn clearing where two grave markers, each topped with the brass image of a horse. The names on the plaques had faded, so I could not read what was inscribed on them. The morning sun shone down through the trees upon this quiet and solemn place.
“Sir,” said Sergeant Herring. “Buried here are two horses from General Custer’s cavalry troop. They were killed at the battle of Little Big Horn and brought back to Fort Riley to be laid to rest.”
And there you have it. Sergeant Herring had given us the answer to our mystery. None of us ever talked about what happened during our guard duty that night. As a soldier, you learn to accept things as they are, whether they be normal or paranormal, so long as nothing gets in the way of accomplishing the mission. It’s just something that happens which soldiers have to adjust to when performing our duties.