This story begins on a train traveling in Switzerland, wherein a wheelchair-bound Dr. Zeitman and his nurse enter their compartment to find a man in trenchcoat and hat waiting for them. The man turns to reveal himself as the Unknown Soldier, with a .45 automatic in his hand.
The Soldier has been sent to intercept Zeitman, who is on his way to a Nazi prison to assist a British Lord, Buford Rodney, a medical researcher studying in Germany who has not been allowed to leave. Dr. Zeitman requested to assist Rodney in his continuing experimental research. The Soldier disguises himself as Zeitman in order to reach Rodney and break him out of the prison; the British believe liberating Lord Rodney will boost national morale, to "bring England a hero." German Nationals will attack the Nazi prison as cover for the Soldier to extricate Lord Rodney. The Soldier is also sent with a "partner" on this mission, as Zeitman's nurse is replaced with young, inexperienced agent Lisa Forbes. Though dismissive of her, the Soldier begins his impersonation in earnest.
Once at Durstagg, Zeitman and his nurse are directed to Lord Rodney's extensive lab within the prison. Rodney is immediately attacked by one of his "assistants," a one-armed prisoner who is quickly shot by the Nazi Commandant. Later, Zeitman and his nurse are witness as Lord Rodney performs a new amputation technique on a prisoner strapped to a table. The prisoner is a guinea pig, testing the combat amputation process, completely devoid of anesthetic; the prisoner dies from the shock as Lord Rodney reveals "the knowledge gained is reward enough for me." Lord Rodney's assistants in his lab, in fact, are all former experimental amputees of one stripe or another. Under Nazi guns, the deformed prisoners perform menial tasks in Lord Rodney's lab. Rodney goes on to introduce Zeitman to the other ongoing prison experiments: skeletal prisoners under the conditions of starvation in "Project 37," while "Project 14" details various forms of gangrene rotting the bodies of the "specimens." Lord Rodney has no concern whatsoever about the "lives" he is destroying--results fully occupy him.
Zeitman's fake nurse flees the lab in horror. Zeitman chastizes her for nearly compromising the mission. The nurse is sent to secretly inform Lord Rodney of the extraction, and almost immediately Zeitman hears a shot and discovers his nurse, dead, with Lord Rodney and the Commandant standing over her. "Your pretty nurse here was a spy!" Zeitman is informed by the Nazi. "Unfortunately, she was shot while trying to escape--before we had a chance to question her!" The smug Nazi agrees Zeitman knew nothing of the deception, but Zeitman is placed under guard.
In the night, the German Nationals assault the prison. Zeitman goes into action, killing his guard and climbing down to Lord Rodney's lab window. Rodney himself continues to work under armed guard. The Soldier kills the guards and informs Rodney of the escapeway: "C'mon, Rodney. You may be a crud in my book, but a brave little lady died to bust you outa here..."
Rodney refuses, however, and pulls a Luger on the Soldier: "I don't want to leave! The Nazis have provided me with opportunities I couldn't possibly give up! Which is why I had to kill the girl!"
Rodney understands that Britain would never allow him the alacrity under the Nazi regime, and thus he decides to kill the Soldier as well. However, Rodney is struck by one of his amputee assistants, losing his gun. As the deformed prisoners close in on Rodney, the Soldier snatches up the gun to hold them at bay. The prisoners articulate the horrors of Lord Rodney's callousness to the Soldier, while Rodney begs for his life. In the end, flanked by grotesque reminders of rotting, dying prisoners, the Soldier leaves Lord Rodney in the hands of those he'd tortured and maimed: "So long, hero."
Lord Rodney's screams follow the Solder, who returns to England. The Brits are celebrating Lord Rodney with placards and signs, as the Soldier's military liason laments the "official" story of Rodney's death: "It's a shame (he) had to give up his life trying to save Miss Forbes..." The Soldier's response? "...some heroes are better off as martyrs."
This issue, Michelinie's script smashes in with his most prominent theme during his run: moral choices made under the most extreme of circumstances. In the first two stories, the Soldier's mission takes precedence, but here, confronted with Lord Rodney's atrocities, he acts with a clear moralistic decision. Lord Rodney deserves to die, at the hands of his tormented, and the Soldier allows it.
The understated part of this decision is how the Soldier has already "created" the cover story of Lord Rodney's death, minus any implication in the horrors of the prison. In fact, the Soldier's story is his own, not a government "cover-up." His choice, clearly, is to allow the Brits to believe the heroic sacrifice of Lord Rodney; the larger decision is to buoy England's morale. Lisa Forbes remains a lost patriot instead of a murder victim, and it seems the Soldier has, again, sacrificed some part of his greater morality to help end the War.
This is a great story by Michelinie, deft and hard-hitting, with Gerry Talaoc's aggressive pencils expertly detailing the atrocities. The story brings into light the Nazi human experimentation, a subgenre in itself of empowerment through torture. This is a bold story as well, considering this is the mid-1970s at DC Comics, a company dedicated to the tried and true story-telling formulae for general audiences. Even considering the "Speedy on heroin" storyline from O'Neil/Adams' GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW comic and other topical subjects a few years earlier, a tale about Nazi science-torture could only appear in a war comic under Joe Orlando's editorship. I imagine a few blind eyes were turned, as "The Hero" comes close to defying a couple of staunch Comics Code Authority guidelines.
However it happened, it's worth noting, and Micheline/Talaoc have hit their stride. The best is yet to come.