Tuesday, May 17, 2011

MacArthur's War

For our third alternate history novel, Doug Niles and I turned from the European Theater to the Pacific with MacArthur's War: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan. Using the original battle plans for the US plan Operation Downfall and the Japanese response known as Ketsu-Go, we explored what might have happened had we not had the atomic bomb.

Here's the opening of the invasion of Kyushu.

Monday, 19 March 1945

Approaching Beach Pontiac, “Roadster” Beach Zone, Kyushu, Japan, 0815 hours (Operation Olympic X-Day, N-Hour +0215)

As the Higgins Boat churned toward the beach, the chop increased into gray swells, lifting the little landing craft onto the crests, and then dropping it precipitously into the troughs. The bow kept lifting up and slapping hard on the water. Already, nearly a third of the Marines had puked, the vomit mixing with the sea spray and coating the bottom of the boat. Whether the vomiting was seasickness or nerves, Pete didn’t know. From the sickly white looks of terror on a lot of faces—officers as well as enlisted—nerves certainly played a big part.

This was Pete’s fourth beach landing. The first was Gavutu, part of the Guadalcanal, which had been nasty. He’d just made lance corporal then. In the Philippines, where he went from corporal to staff sergeant, the opposition was pretty tough, but he was in a pretty late wave. At Okinawa, the landing unopposed. Nothing from the enemy for about two weeks, then the shit hit the fan.

What else could he do? How else could he prepare his men for what they were about to experience?

“Everybody’s scared shitless,” he shouted over the roaring diesels. “Some get scared before, some during, and some after. Your best bet is to get scared after. Before is okay. During can get you killed.” That was true enough. “I’m scared shitless the whole time, but I keep moving. I don’t bunch up with other Marines. I don’t freeze. Those three things get a lot of men killed. Focus on your job. Afterwards, you can get the shakes. But that’s what booze is for.”

Pete didn’t know if a Marine gunnery sergeant was supposed to admit he was terrified, but it was the truth. The biggest reason he hadn’t died so far, though, is because he didn’t let his fear freeze him. He kept moving. He hoped that advice would make the soldiers a little calmer. A few were listening in, and that was good. Calmness was increasingly in short supply as they got closer and closer to the beach.

As for Pete, he felt the odds were against him. He’d done this before. So many people had died around him, it was simple justice that it would be his turn this time.

Down in the boat, he couldn’t see the action, but he could hear it. A barrage of explosions, swooping aircraft engines, and the occasional gush of water were about all that could make it over the diesels of the Higgins boat. Overhead, the dawn skies had turned brimstone black from the incredible barrage, as if marking a signpost: “You are now entering hell.”

The boat churned onward, bouncing more violently as they neared the breakers. Closer to shore, the Japanese artillery opened up with a barrage so intense it felt like rain. Pete couldn’t stand not seeing any more, so he stuck his head up. His stripes kept the three-man crew from ordering him to keep his head down and the rest of him the hell out of their way, but he stayed carefully to the side anyway.

Plumes of water shot up as shells hit the water. Many rounds fell short, spuming ocean and sand up from the shallows. Other shells hit true. A burst of flames marked the funeral pyre of a nearby landing craft that didn’t make it in—the boat was incinerated, a whole platoon killed, at the moment of impact. Another boat about twenty yards to the right took a direct hit. Pete could see bodies and body parts flying into the air. A minute later, there was an explosion right in front of them. As the boat hit the wave, it was lifted several feet into the air, canted to the right, and came crashing down, knocking men and equipment everywhere. One of his men fell out of the boat altogether. He couldn’t tell who it was. The poor bastard was probably drowning, and there was nothing anyone could do. Maybe he’d get lucky and shed his equipment before he died. Maybe.

Pete could see the boat’s coxswain struggling to keep on course. At least there wasn’t too much danger from mines. Divers had been busy for several nights clearing safe lanes. Still, they might have missed a few.

There was a horrible skidding and scraping sound from underneath the boat as they reached shallow water. The front bow began to open.

“Weapons! Keep ‘em high and dry! Move! Make sure you know where your feet are! Head for cover as soon as you get to shore!” All the platoon sergeants were hollering the same advice at their men. Everybody knew what to do, but when there was live ammo, people tended to forget the small stuff.

“Come on, men! Let’s show those Japs what American Marines can do!” shouted Captain Gilder, and the men piled out of the boat and into the water. The cold came as a shock. The water only came up to Pete’s waist, but some Marines were at chest depth. Holding their rifles overhead, the Marines slogged forward into a hail of machine gun bullets. He could hear them whizzing by like angry bees. He could see them splash into the water. One hit the water directly in front of him only a foot away. He could feel the impact, but not much. Someone screamed, right in his ear, but he didn’t stop to see who or why.

He was in a lottery of death. Skill and experience meant nothing. The bullets hit you or they didn’t. You moved as quickly as you could in the water, but it was agonizingly slow. The water was another enemy, viscous and stubborn and resistant, dragging down his feet with its leaden weight. He pushed on, dragging his boondockers through the soft, shifting sands.

A bullet hit Private McKinlay in the face, spattering blood and pieces of skin and bone around him. He fell backward into the water, probably dead. Pete’s only thought was relief. It wasn’t me. Thank god it wasn’t me. McKinlay was from Ohio, somewhere. That was all he could remember.

Corporal Lichtman, who was ten feet ahead of him, crumpled forward and landed face down in the water. Pete didn’t see what happened. Schubert had been with the company since the Philippines. It wasn’t me. Thank god. It wasn’t me.

More angry bees buzzed by him. Then suddenly there was a sharp pain in his upper right shoulder. Shit! Omigod omigod omigod I’ve been hit! Don’t let me die don’t let me die. His heart pounded in his chest. He vomited the remainder of his breakfast. But he wasn’t falling, wasn’t dying…not yet.

There went one…two…five more of his men. Even those who were only wounded fell with loaded packs into the water. The only ones who stood up again had dropped pack and weapon.

The water was taking on a pink froth, the tinge of curling visible in the curling breakers, the explosions of brine as the waves broke and crashed onto the sloping sand of the shore. The waves dumped more than water onto the beach—they cast limp bodies onto the land and rolled back out to collect more flesh. Some of those bodies lay motionless, soaked and lifeless, while others twitched and groped and clawed their way farther out of the sea.

Ahead of him was the beach, right there. It was only another ten yards or so. Each step he took was an agony of slow motion. He had the strange sensation that the strand of dry land was moving away from him, warping like a funhouse mirror. Waves still carried the detritus of battle, the bodies of Marines cast upon the land as the breakers crested, surged, and broke.

The beach itself looked like the surface of Mercury—the side that always faced toward the sun. It was cratered and alien. A massive DUKW, an amphibious truck that had been torn in half by a direct hit, lay on its side and burned. The huge fire was painful to look at as the intense heat blistered the air for twenty or thirty feet. The constant barrage made the surface roil in a constant tremor. Sand flew through the air in stinging blasts, mixed with spray, tainted with blood. Nothing felt steady.

The beach ahead was littered with corpses from the two earlier waves. Just a quick glance at the bodies told Pete it had to have been hell, worse than any fighting he’d ever seen. Some corpses were intact. Others had been blown apart, body parts strewn randomly and intermixed. Still others had been reduced to a smear of blood, flesh, and char. The air stank. It reeked of petroleum and cordite and gore and shit.

The early waves had put machinery on the beach. A flame-throwing amphibious tank, burned black, still had flames licking out of it. A crewman who had been caught halfway out gave off the smell of cooked meat. He was nearly unrecognizable as a human.  Other amphibious tanks, armored amphibian tractors sporting 75mm howitzers, and various American and Japanese fighters had all been twisted into strange modern sculptures by the application of high explosives.

It was all cover, though. Even the corpses.

He felt warmth in the cold water and realized he’d pissed himself. At least no one would know. And he’d done worse. In the Leyte invasion he’d lost control of his bowels. He hadn’t been the only one, though, not by a long shot.

An artillery shell landed at the water’s edge about twenty feet away. The ground shook under him, a miniature earthquake, and sand spattered up in his face, blinding him temporarily. The spray drenched every part of his body that wasn’t already soaked.

He kept slogging through the water, rifle over his head. Bullets buzzed angrily past him to slap against the water. Waves surged from behind him, pushing him. He’d been fighting the water all the way in, and now he hated that irresistible propulsion, impelling him in the direction he had been trying to go.

Another Marine in Fox Company fell. He saw the face, he knew who it was, but for the life of him he couldn’t think of the man’s name. The body hit the surface of the water and began to sink slowly. Who the hell was that? (It wasn’t me it wasn’t me it wasn’t me…)

The water receded below the level of Pete’s knees. He could move faster now, pulling his feet free of the clutching surf. Finally he was on the beach. Twenty more feet and he’d be temporarily safe behind a metal nightmare that looked like it had its origins in a P-38. Other Marines had already reached it. Another artillery shell burst a few feet away. The explosion knocked him sideways. He crawled behind a Marine corpse for shelter.

Pete’s ear hurt. He reached up with his good arm and touched it. When he looked at his hand there was blood. He noticed that all the battle sounds had become distant. The explosion had knocked out most of his hearing.

Pete took a look at the dead Marine. His stomach had been torn open and the guts were spilled onto the beach. He glanced at the face. Private Palermo. Second Platoon. Good looking. He’d done some professional crooning in nightclubs before the war and everybody kidded him about being the next Sinatra. It wasn’t going to happen now.

Pete shouted through the din at Privates Carr and Sullivan, who had just escaped the deadly surf at the cost of their packs and rifles, “Take what you need from the bodies. Rifles and ammunition first.”

Carr looked at him in shock, like he’d just proposed eating the dead. He said something Pete couldn’t hear.“Dammit,” Pete shouted, “Take what you need! They don’t have a use for it any more!”

Then it all stopped mattering to Carr as red flowers appeared on his chest and he, too, crumpled forward. That motivated Sullivan to dive onto his belly and begin creeping forward to Pete’s position.

“Stay the fuck away from me,” Pete yelled. “Groups attract more fire. I don’t want to be hit by the bullet with your name on it! We all meet up at the end of the beach.”

“Fuck you, Gunny,” Sullivan gasped. “I’m gonna take the rifle and supplies off—shit, it’s Palermo.”

Pete suddenly realized he could hear the words through a loud ringing in his ear. His hearing was coming back, though slowly. Pete patted Sullivan on the shoulder by way of an apology. The sudden sharp pain in his arm reminded him that he had a little scrape to take care of, but right now nothing was more important than moving forward. Pete looked around for his next bit of cover, and did a sprint.

Gasping for breath under the weight of pack and supplies, he dived for cover behind the wreckage of the P-38. He felt himself trembling all over. He was wet and cold, colder than he should be.

Fox Company was spread out along several hundred feet of Beach Pontiac. They needed to be pushed forward, when the temptation was to stay behind the first piece of decent cover you found. That was part of Pete’s job.

Crouching low and dodging as best he could, Pete started to work his way across the line, getting his company re-organized, collecting stragglers, and helping men who’d been separated from their teams. Twice he hid behind corpses and felt bullets thud into the already-dead bodies. The spray of blood and other fluids stuck to his face.

In between the P-38 and the burning tank, Pete could see Captain Gilder. He was pointing toward a couple of wrecked tractors about twenty yards ahead of them. “Platoons! Move forward and take cover behind those tractors!” The lieutenants passed the word and the sergeants pushed their men forward—for those platoons that still had a lieutenant. Fox Company was already down two lieutenants, one a shavetail. Sergeants were running the show now.

Pete took a deep breath and started his run toward the tractors. He saw bullets ping off metal hulks and thud into the sand. He could hear them. He felt as if he was running in a dream, his limbs heavy and unresponsive. And then, suddenly, he was almost at the tractor and he dived once again and threw himself on the ground next to Captain Gilder.

The captain said something. Pete couldn’t make it out.

“I stood too near an explosion, Captain. My ears…I can hear a little.”

“How are we doing?” shouted the captain.

Pete panted for a minute, and said, “It looks like we’ve lost about forty so far.” He had been keeping rough track in his head, and the number was bad. That was a casualty rate of around twenty percent. They’d planned on no more than ten percent, and they were only twenty yards away from the surf.

“I thought the Japanese weren’t supposed to fight us at the beaches,” the captain shouted. “That’s what the briefing said.”

“I guess the Japs missed the briefing,” Pete replied.

“Guess so. Shit. What a complete fucking nightmare.”

Pete looked back. At the water’s edge, the Higgins boats were pulling away, heading back to the transports for another load. At a platoon per load, they would be ferrying troops for hours. As he watched, a Japanese artillery shell hit one of the outgoing boats, and the wooden craft exploded in a hail of splinters. At least it was going out, not in, he thought. Then he thought about the three men on board. Three more down.

Gilder’s eyes were glassy, his skin pallid as he looked frantically around. The captain was a bit shell-shocked, Pete knew, realizing that he felt the same way himself. All around them, the carnage was terrific. The American advance was pressing forward slowly, but at a terrible cost. The Japanese defenders were evidently determined to make the Americans pay a high price for every foot of ground. Artillery shells continued to thunder and lighting while machine gun bullets fell like hail.

Gilder took a deep shuddering breath. “Okay. We’ll do it the way we rehearsed it. Our first objective is those machine gun emplacements. We’re right in line for them, as planned.” They had done this landing under simulated conditions four times, and rehearsed it on paper a dozen more. While “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy,” as the saying went, at least having a plan was a definite improvement over trying to improvise one while people shot real bullets at you.

“Gunny,” the captain said, “get me a real headcount, okay?”

“Yes, sir.” The platoon leaders, the captain, and Pete had walkie-talkies. Pete unhooked his. “Torpedo Two.” Torpedo was a pre-war Pontiac model. Pontiac had stopped making cars for the duration. “Check in.”

“Torpedo Three,” was the first platoon, the only one with an officer left. First Lieutenant Berry had seen the elephant at Okinawa, and had done pretty well. “Eight down.”

“Torpedo Four. Sergeant Schalles commanding. Fifteen down, including the lieutenant.”

“Torpedo Five. Sergeant Townley. Nineteen down, ditto.”

“Torpedo One.” That was Captain Gilder.

Once the captain had a handle on his actual losses—the equivalent of a full platoon—he issued orders. Scouts went out right and left carrying two of the precious walkie-talkies. About ten minutes later, they reported in. The Japanese were holed up in a concrete pillbox on a small hill about forty feet away. There was little cover on the direct line between Fox Company’s position and the Japs. A direct attack would be suicide.

“What do you advise?” asked the captain.

“Circle around and hit it from the rear, sir. More cover there.”

“Roger. Stay in position and report on any changes.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Torpedo One out.”

The captain thought for a moment. “Okay. Gunny, here’s what I want. You take two rifle squads and keep firing. When you hear from me, really open up. I’m going to circle left with the rest of the rifles and our flamethrowers until I’m behind the pillbox, if I can get there. Meanwhile, I want the mortars to circle right, find a good spot, and wait for my signal to send them a little love note from Uncle Sam. Got it?”

“Suggestion, captain.”

“Go ahead.”

“A rifle team with the mortars. In case there are some loose Japs roaming around. And one mortar team here, if you can spare it.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Gilder took a quick swig of water from his canteen. “Go ahead.”

Pete toggled his walkie-talkie. “Torpedo Two to Torpedo Six.”

“Torpedo Six.” That was the scout on the left.

“Mark a route and find a good staging area. You’ve got company for dinner.”

“Torpedo Six. Mark route, find staging area, welcome dinner guests.”

“Confirmed. Two out.”

It took less than five minutes of coordination for Pete to put the teams together. The captain and the mortar team moved out to left and right respectively, keeping low and moving from one bit of cover to another. They now had the other two walkie-talkies, leaving Pete with the last one.

Pete called out, “Good hunting, Captain.”

He had one sergeant, Townley, and a full corporal, Canfield. The mortar team had a lance corporal as team leader. “Let’s spread out the line and fire widely to make them think it’s a whole company back here,” Pete told them. “The better job we do, the better chance the captain has of putting those machine gunners out of commission permanently.” Townley knew weapons, so he could oversee the mortar teams.

Now that they had some cover and were shooting back, a little life was coming back into his men. Pete duck-walked down the line, staying low. He stopped beside one private. “What’s the matter, son?” he asked, even though the private was maybe two years his junior. The private—the name badge read Sanvito—was aiming his rifle but not firing.

“I’ve—well, I’ve never shot at a human being before.”

“I see. The Japs don’t seem to have that trouble, though, do they?”

“No, Gunny. But—”

“I know. It may surprise you, Sanvito, but you’re not the first Marine to have this problem.”

Sanvito, who was clearly expecting to be bawled out, court-martialed, or shot, looked at Pete. There were tears in his eyes. “I can’t!”

“Okay.” Pete kept his voice calm. If he screwed up, he could ruin a perfectly good potential Marine. “Try this. Don’t shoot at human beings. See that wrecked tank?”

“Uh—yeah, Gunny?”

 “Shoot at that. It’s not a human being.”

“Okay,” the private said, a slight question mark creeping in at the end. He shot.

“Now shoot at that pillbox. Not at the slit, just at the building.”

“Okay.” He shot again.

“This is suppressive fire, Marine. I don’t care if you kill anybody or not. I want them to keep their heads down and not shoot at us. Can you do that?”

“Well, I—I guess—if you put it that way…”

“Good man,” Pete said, patted him on the shoulder, and moved on. He was satisfied to hear a steady stream of rifle shots. It was hard to shoot at humans. A lot more soldiers—even Marines—failed to shoot their rifles in combat that most people suspected. It was one of the many surprises he’d found when he first became a sergeant.

The second mortar team opened fire. Blasts of sand and smoke erupted from the crest of the dune, where the pillbox was located. The crump of explosions, so close in front of him, seemed more real than the distant artillery, the continuing thunder of the naval bombardment.

The Japanese pillbox was taking quite a pounding. Pete could imagine what they were going through. He’d been on the receiving end of a mortar himself.

The walkie-talkie crackled to life. “Torpedo One to Torpedo Two.”

“Torpedo Two.”

“Am passing to the attack. Stop suppressing fire.”

“Roger. Torpedo Six, cease fire.” That was the second mortar team. Then, off the walkie-talkie, he shouted, “Cease firing!”

Now the noise was coming from the hilltop as the captain and the rest of the company moved in. It was hard to tell the grenades from the flank attackers from the background artillery shelling that was still going on.

It was easy to tell when the constant machine gun fire stopped.

“Looks like the captain did it,” Pete shouted, and received cheers in return. “Move forward by squad.” His two squads and the mortar team began to move forward toward the now-silent pillbox; the squad that wasn’t on the move crackled off suppressive fire while the other Marines crawled and scrambled onward.

The radio burst into noise. “Torpedo Five! Stop where you are! The fucking Japs have—”

The titanic explosion threw the pillbox nearly twenty feet into the air.

“Jesus fucking Christ!” said Corporal Canfield. “They mined the fucking thing and blew the shit out of it when they got breached.”

“Yeah, and they took themselves with it,” Sergeant Townley pointed out.

Pete stood there in shock, and then in horror as the torso of a dead soldier landed right in front of him, followed by a red spray that spattered everyone in his small command. He retched and gagged emptily; he couldn’t help it. He went down on his knees, wracked by dry heaves. The smell of blood and offal mixed with the sulfurous odor of gunpowder kept him in spasms for a long minute, even though there was nothing left to come up.

“You okay, gunny?” Townley asked.

“Yeah,” said Pete weakly. He straightened up as best he could. I must look like warmed-over shit, he thought. Hardly a sight to inspire confidence in his men. “Townley, Canfield, each of you send three men to scout the perimeter for survivors. Don’t go closer than about twenty feet. There may be more mines.”

With Gilder and Lieutenant Berry dead, that left Pete in charge.

There were seventeen survivors. Added to his existing force, that gave him the equivalent of three squads.

One platoon.

That was all that remained of Fox Company.

(Copyright © 2007 by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson.)

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