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In his acclaimed novels of alternate history, Harry Turtledove has scrutinized the twisted soul of the twentieth century, from the forces that set World War I in motion to the rise of fascism in the decades that followed. Now, this masterly storyteller turns his eyes to the aftermath of World War II and asks: In an era of nuclear posturing, what if the Cold War had suddenly turned hot?
Bombs Away begins with President Harry Truman in desperate consultation with General Douglas MacArthur, whose control of the ground war in Korea has slipped disastrously away. MacArthur recognizes a stark reality: The U.S. military has been cut to the bone after victory over the Nazis—while China and the USSR have built up their forces. The only way to stop the Communist surge into the Korean Peninsula and save thousands of American lives is through a nuclear attack. MacArthur advocates a strike on Chinese targets in Manchuria. In actual history, Truman rejected his general’s advice; here, he does not. The miscalculation turns into a disaster when Truman fails to foresee Russia’s reaction.
Almost instantly, Stalin strikes U.S. allies in Europe and Great Britain. As the shock waves settle, the two superpowers are caught in a horrifying face-off. Will they attack each other directly with nuclear weapons? What countries will be caught in between?
The fateful global drama plays out through the experiences of ordinary people—from a British barmaid to a Ukrainian war veteran to a desperate American soldier alone behind enemy lines in Korea. For them, as well as Truman, Mao, and Stalin, the whole world has become a battleground. Strategic strikes lead to massive movements of ground troops. Cities are destroyed, economies ravaged. And on a planet under siege, the sounds and sights of nuclear bombs become a grim harbinger of a new reality: the struggle to survive man’s greatest madness.
Praise for Bombs Away “A fascinating and compelling story of real people caught in forces beyond their control . . . [Harry Turtledove is] the unrivaled monarch of alternate history.”—Analog “Turtledove is an undisputed centerpiece of the alternate-history genre, and now, to his already grand display, he’s adding the ambitious tale of a WWIII that could have happened.”—Booklist “This is Turtledove at his best.”—SFRevu “Alternate-world warrior extraordinaire Turtledove delivers the opening barrage of a new speculative conflict.”—Kirkus Reviews
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Bombs Away
Somewhere to the south and east lay Hungnam, the North Korean port on the Sea of Japan. Second Lieutenant Cade Curtis knew that, if he managed to get there, he could hop aboard a ship and live to give the Koreans and the Red Chinese more chances to kill him as the war ground on.
He and the platoon he led stumbled along a dirt track that he thought led in the right direction. He hoped the track led in the right direction, anyhow. The clouds scudding past low overhead were gray-brown and ugly, like the wool from a filthy sheep. With snow and sleet and hail leaking down out of that uncaring sky, he got only glimpses of them, anyhow. Somewhere beyond them shone the sun. He knew that, but he would have had a devil of a time proving it by anything he could see.
Part of him wished it would warm up. Even with a knitted wool cap under his helmet, even with winter boots and long johns and an olive-drab greatcoat, his teeth chattered like castanets. He and everybody he led might freeze to death before they got close to Hungnam.
But if it did warm up—to the point, say, where it started pouring icy rain instead of the frigid witches’ brew coming down now—the dirt track would turn to a bottomless river of mud. He’d already seen the kind of mud they had here. It could suck the boots right off your feet. Moving fast in that kind of goop (sometimes, moving at all) was impossible. Tanks and halftracks bogged down. Trucks were even worse off. Men on foot had the best chance, but best didn’t mean good.
Somehow, though, what made Americans sink to midthigh often seemed to trouble the Reds much less. Kim Il-sung’s men, and Mao’s, carried their weapons and a few magazines of ammo, maybe a knife for eating and for hand-to-hand fighting, and that was about it. They were mostly scrawny little guys, too. They didn’t struggle through the mud the way so many overloaded Yankees did.
I’m no Yankee, Cade thought. He’d been born in Alabama and lived most of his life in Tennessee. Most of his life . . . all nineteen years. It seemed as full and as rich to him as an octogenarian’s. Why not? It was all the life he had. And if he wasn’t a Yankee to himself, he sure as the devil was to the enemy prowling somewhere too close.
He wished to God he were back in Tennessee. It was Thursday, 23 November 1950. In the States, it would be Thanksgiving. Turkey with all the trimmings. Friendship. Fireplaces. Here not far from the Yalu River, Cade had damn all to be thankful for.
A dead dogface lay by the side of the track, staring up at the sky with blind eyes. Blood had frozen on his face and on his belly. Maybe, sooner or later, someone would pick him up and bring him along. More likely, nobody would bother.
One of the GIs near the tail of the ragged column had managed to get a Camel going in spite of the horrible weather. He blew out a mixture of fog and tobacco smoke. After inhaling again, he said, “We’ll make it back okay to Watchacallit on the coast, right, Lieutenant?”
“Oh, hell, yes, Lefty,” Curtis said, hoping he sounded surer than he felt. Lefty was from Akron or Youngstown or Dayton or one of those other places in Ohio where the glow of foundries lit up the clouds from below at night. They weren’t great big cities, not next to places like Detroit or Chicago or Cleveland, but people who came out of them had that same kind of up-yours-Mac attitude.
Lefty tossed away the butt. “I ain’t had this much joy since we left the fuckin’ reservoir, y’know?”
“Not that long ago,” Cade said.
“Yeah, well, time flies when you’re havin’ fun, right?” Lefty fired up another cigarette with his Zippo. A beat slower than he might have, he held out the pack to Curtis. “You want one?”
“No, thanks. Never got the habit,” Cade said. Combat turned a lot of guys into smokers. From what they told him, you got a little buzz and a little relaxation. And cigarettes came with your K-rations. They couldn’t very well be bad for you, could they? He hadn’t found out for himself yet. One of these days, maybe, but not yet.
Off in the distance, American 105s rumbled. With luck, the heavy shells would blow some Reds straight to the devil. Big guns? Armor? Airplanes? In every category like that, UN forces—Americans, mostly—had an enormous edge on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China.
The enemy knew it as well as Cade did. You couldn’t very well fight this war without knowing it. So it seemed logical that the side at a disadvantage in weaponry couldn’t hope to win, and might as well throw in its hand.
But the Reds came at it from a different angle. The only way for them to put out a fire was by piling bodies on it? Okay, they’d do that. Casualties didn’t worry them, any more than casualties had worried Stalin when he took on the Nazis. We need to spend a division to get rid of an American regiment? Fine. Spend it, and make sure the next division’s ready to go behind the lines.
North Korean and Red Chinese losses were four, five, six times as many as those of the UN troops they faced. Their generals, and the commissars who told those generals what to do, didn’t give a damn. Men were as disposable to them as bullets or boots.
The really scary thing was, they could win that way. The Reds made brave soldiers—often braver than the South Koreans whose fat the United States had pulled off the fire. They swarmed forward against machine guns, against tanks, against damn near anything. From all Cade could gather, worse things would happen to them if they hung back than whatever American shells and bullets dished out.
He and his men trudged through a little village. An old man and a girl of perhaps eight sent them impassive stares. The village looked to have been fought over two or three times in the recent past: mostly likely, once in the American push up to the Yalu and once or twice in the retreat after Chinese troops swarmed over the river and drove the UN forces back.
Cade shook his head. He wished his beard were thicker. It might keep his face warmer, the way it seemed to with some of the older guys. Lice? He’d worry about lice some other time. Or, with DDT ready to kill off the little bastards with one squirt from the spray gun, he might not worry about them at all.
He’d just thought that maybe he’d try a cigarette after all when the Reds hit them from behind. One second, everything was quiet. The next, swarms of men in quilted khaki jackets and caps with earflaps were screaming their heads off and shooting what sounded like a million Russian-model submachine guns. The damn things were good out to only a couple of hundred yards, but inside that range they’d chop you into hamburger.
His own .30-caliber carbine was a piece of junk by comparison. It was an officer’s weapon, one that fired a smaller, weaker cartridge than the good old M-1. Like an M-1, it was only semiautomatic; it didn’t go full auto. At short range, even M-1s were in deep against submachine guns. The cheap, nasty little things threw lead around as if it were going out of style.
But the platoon had a light machine gun. If the Chinks didn’t know it, they were about to get a surprise they wouldn’t like. “Johnson! Masters! Set up in this hooch here”—Curtis pointed to a not too battered hut at the south end of the village—“and give those cocksuckers what-for!”
As soon as the LMG started banging away, the Red Chinese screamed on a different note. Cade and the other American soldiers kept plinking away at anything they saw or imagined they saw. The enemy went on pushing, probing. Without the machine gun, the Americans would have died quickly—or slowly, depending.
Cade sent most of his men down the track. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, get to Hungnam, they were screwed any which way. They’d have to head south through a countryside that was a lot more hostile than anyone could have imagined before things went sour.
To the soldiers at the LMG, Curtis said, “Hang on here as long as you have to.”
“How long is that, Lieutenant?” Masters asked.
“Well—as long as you have to,” Cade answered. Till you make them kill you, he meant, and they knew it. He’d never had to give an order like that before. He hoped to Christ he never would again. With his rear guard set, he went after his retreating men. Behind him, the machine gun barked death at the Chinese.
Not quite so smoothly as Harry Truman might have liked, the Independence touched down at Hickam Field west of Honolulu and taxied to a stop. The DC-6’s four big props windmilled down to motionlessness. Truman had traded in FDR’s executive airplane, the Sacred Cow, for this more modern one in 1947. He’d named it for his own home town. The bald eagle on the nose warned the world of America’s strength.
Warm, moist, sweet-smelling air came in when they opened the door. Truman grumbled under his breath just the same. In spite of that fierce-beaked eagle, America wasn’t looking any too strong right this minute. The Red Chinese had cut off something like three divisions’ worth of troops between the Chosin Reservoir and Hungnam. In spite of air raids and naval gunfire and godawful casualties of their own, the Reds were chewing them up and spitting out the bloody bones.
People were calling it the worst American defeat since the Battling Bastards of Bataan went under in the dark, early days of World War II. It was a hell of a way to go into Christmas, only a week away now. And it was why Truman had come to Hawaii to confer with Douglas MacArthur. In October, MacArthur had flown to Wake Island to assure Truman Red China wouldn’t interfere in the Korean War. Which would have been nice if only it had turned out to be true.
And MacArthur had also been the architect of defeat in the Philippines. Yes, he’d had help, but he’d held command there. Truman hadn’t been able to stand him since well before that. MacArthur had led the troops who broke up the Bonus Army’s Hooverville in Washington when the Depression was at its worst. Didn’t a man have to be what they called a good German to go and do something like that?
Truman didn’t care for looking up at MacArthur, either. Not looking up to, because he didn’t. But looking up at. Truman was an ordinary, stocky five-nine. MacArthur stood at least six even. He seemed taller than that because of his lean build, his ramrod posture, and his high-crowned general’s cap. It wasn’t quite so raked as the ones the Nazi marshals had worn, but it came close.
Looking out a window in the airliner, Truman watched a Cadillac approach the Independence. “Your car is here, sir,” an aide said.
“I never would have guessed,” the President answered. The aide looked wounded. Somebody—George Kaufman?—had said satire was what closed on Saturday night. Well, sarcasm was what got a politician thrown out on his ear. Truman walked to the doorway, saying, “Sorry, Fred. I’ve come a long way, and I’m tired. The weather will be nicer outside. Maybe I will, too.”
By the look on Fred’s face, he didn’t believe it. Since Truman didn’t, either, he couldn’t get on his flunky. The weather was nicer. Washington didn’t have horrible winters. Honolulu didn’t have winter at all. It was in the upper seventies. It never got much hotter. It never got much colder. If this wasn’t paradise on earth, what would be?
The limousine took the President to Fort Kamehameha, just south and west of Hickam Field. The fort had guarded the channel that lead in to Pearl Harbor. It was obsolete now, of course; the Japs had proved as much at the end of 1941. Being obsolete didn’t mean it had got torn down. The military didn’t work that way. No, it had gone from fort to office complex.
A spruce young first lieutenant led Truman to the meeting room where MacArthur waited. The five-star general stood and saluted. “Mr. President,” he rasped. The air smelled of pipe tobacco.
“At ease,” Truman told him. He knew the military ropes. He’d been an artillery captain himself in the First World War. Knowing the ropes didn’t mean he felt any great affection for them. “Let’s do this without ceremony, as much as we can.”
“However you please, sir,” MacArthur said.
They did have a big map of Korea, Japan, and Manchuria taped to the conference table. That would help. Truman stabbed a finger at the terrain between the reservoir and the port, the terrain where the American troops were in the meat grinder. “What the devil went wrong here?”
“We got caught by surprise, sir,” Douglas MacArthur said. “No one expected the Chinese to swarm into North Korea in such numbers.”
“There were intelligence warnings,” Truman said. And there had been. MacArthur just chose not to believe them, and made Truman not believe them, either. The general was finishing up his own triumphal campaign. He’d defended the Pusan perimeter, at the southern end of the Korean peninsula. He’d landed at Inchon and got behind the North Koreans. He’d rolled them up from south to north, and he’d been on the verge of rolling them up for good . . . till the Chinese decided they didn’t want the USA or an American puppet on their border. MacArthur’d guessed they would sit still for it. Not for the first time, he’d found himself mistaken.
“Intelligence warns of everything under the sun,” he said now, with a not so faint sneer. “Most of what it comes up with is moonshine, not worth worrying about.”
“This wasn’t,” Truman said brusquely. MacArthur’s craggy features congealed into a scowl. The President went on, “The question now is, what can we do about it?”
“Under the current rules of engagement, sir, we can’t do anything about it till too late,” MacArthur said. “As long as American bombers aren’t allowed to strike on the other side of the Yalu, the Chinese will be able to assemble as they please and bring fresh troops into the fight in North Korea without our disrupting their preparations in any way.”
Harry Turtledove is the award-winning author of the alternate-history works The Man with the Iron Heart, The Guns of the South, and How Few Remain (winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Novel); the Hot War books: Bombs Away, Fallout, and Armistice; the War That Came Early novels: Hitler’s War, West and East, The Big Switch,Coup d’Etat, Two Fronts, and Last Orders; the Worldwar saga: In the Balance, Tilting the Balance, Upsetting the Balance, and Striking the Balance; the Colonization books: Second Contact, Down to Earth, and Aftershocks; the Great War epics: American Front, Walk in Hell, and Breakthroughs; the American Empire novels: Blood and Iron, The Center Cannot Hold, and Victorious Opposition; and the Settling Accounts series: Return Engagement, Drive to the East, The Grapple, and In at the Death. Turtledove is married to fellow novelist Laura Frankos. They have three daughters—Alison, Rachel, and Rebecca—and two granddaughters, Cordelia Turtledove Katayanagi and Phoebe Quinn Turtledove Katayanagi.