We will be providing extracts of each of the stories in the latest issue of Alt Hist. Check out the first one below.
Set in a world in which the early Cold War grows very hot, “B-36”by Douglas W. Textertells the tale of what might have happened if the Soviet Union had taken Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. In this world, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal orders a B-36 piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Drummond and a very special mission commander to fly to the Soviet Union with a secret “gimmick” on board. The results of the mission are world-changing.
Visit the page for Alt Hist Issue 6 if you want to order a copy to read more of this and other stories.
Free Extract from “B-36”by Douglas W. Texter
As Soviet troops overwhelmed US forces in West Berlin on July 5th, 1948, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Drummond soared over Key West, Florida, at 10,000 feet. He and his crew were on their way back to Eglin Field, the proving-ground command for the USAF. They were passing over the bridge to the Keys and into the Gulf toward home.
The new B-36 Peacemaker, the 44-2004, that Drummond was putting through its paces was a monster, its size making the B-29s he had flown over Japan three years before look tiny. Each tire on the main landing gear was taller than a human being. As Drummond’s arms, sore from fighting the stick, indicated, the B-36 was proving anything but easy to fly. Not only that, but the plane’s six engines possessed a disconcerting tendency to burst into flames at inopportune moments. Drummond thought that the combustibility problem had something to do with the locations of the engines. Mounted on the rear of the wings, they pushed the plane rather than pulled it. The warning lights indicated that a couple of them were very hot now.
“Radio traffic, sir, about Berlin,” Sparks said.
“Good or bad news, Sparks?”
“’Fraid it’s very bad, sir. Clay has surrendered, and the Russians are storming the rest of Germany. The Ruskies even shot down the Candy Bomber.”
“No shit?” said the copilot, Major Ben Matthews. He let out a whistle. “I actually knew Halvorsen. I met him flying transports to South America. Mormon. Wore weird underwear, saw it in a locker room once. But he was a good pilot. Too bad.”
Drummond shook his head. The demise of Uncle Wiggly Wings was the least of their problems. There existed only one way to stop the Soviets if they weren’t going to halt at the border with France. And as a Progressive, a Wallace supporter, Drummond hated to even think about that solution. He had seen Hiroshima after Tibbets had destroyed it. Although he didn’t know the candy bomber, he did indeed know the atomic bomber, and Drummond did not like him and what he stood for.
He had met Paul Tibbets in the Pacific, at an officer’s club. They had talked for a while, and Tibbets had seemed to take a liking to him. Tibbets had even talked about bringing Drummond into his 509th Composite Bomb Group, which had been up to something very special. While Drummond had been flattered, he had thought Tibbets’ eyes looked glazed over, as though he were on some kind of holy mission. Drummond didn’t believe in holy missions involving long-range bombers. Although he lived to fly the big planes, he was far to the left of most pilots he had met. War might be necessary, but it was never holy. After politely listening to Tibbets, he had turned down the offer. And in retrospect, he was glad he had. Drummond was a bomber pilot, and he understood that the destruction of war served larger ends. But atomic destruction was so terrible that it seemed to serve no ends at all.
Unfortunately, at the moment Drummond had more pressing problems than world affairs. An alarm sounded. “Skipper,” Matthews said, “Engine Six is on fire.” A bit of panic laced the co-pilot’s voice.
“Take it easy. Let’s fly the plane, Ben,” Drummond said.
Drummond knew that there existed two kinds of pilots in the world. The first kind, at any sign of danger, panicked and prayed to God or screamed out the names of his wife and children. Dramatic but ineffective. The second kind just flew the plane. In a B-29 over Japan during a very bad mission, Drummond had once listened to the voice of his squadron commander, Max, whose plane had burned. Max’s voice had been dead calm as he gave orders to the gunners, feathered one engine, and tried to pull out of a dive. Max flew the plane until the moment of impact. His gunners even took out a Zero on the way down. No panic there. Drummond aspired to that kind of calm.
“Put the fire out, and feather the engine,” Drummond said. He checked his watch: about two hours or so until they made it back to Eglin. The B-36 was a miracle in aviation technology, able to fly from the US to Europe without refueling. But they had to work out the engine problems before the behemoth was put into regular service.
“Doing my best, Skipper,” Matthews said. “Haven’t had an engine on fire since two ME-109s almost took us out over Berlin.” After a minute, the alarm was silenced. “Number Six out and feathered,” Matthews said. The co-pilot’s voice was calmer now. Their airspeed slowed to around 185. While the B-36 could carry 80,000 pounds of bombs and cross oceans, it had a maximum cruising speed fully loaded of about 230 miles an hour. Thank God, Drummond thought, that it was also armed to the teeth and could reach 50,000 feet, above the ceiling of almost all pursuit planes.
“Let’s give the mechanics a workout,” Drummond said to Matthews. He turned on the intercom and said, “Drummond to crew quarters.”
“Sergeant Watkins here, sir.”
“Sarge, sorry to interrupt your card game, but I just feathered Number Six. Do you want to take somebody and go have a look at it?”
“Yes, sir. I was losing anyway. We’ll be in the communications tube and then the wing in five minutes.”
“That is amazing,” Matthews said to Drummond.
“It sure is, Ben,” Drummond said. “Welcome to the future.”
And that future, Drummond knew, was enormous. The B-36 was so big that it carried 15 crew members, and the plane could hold enough fuel to stay in the air for up to 40 hours, so they had sleeping quarters on board. A communications tube ran over the bomb bay between the forward and aft cabins. The wings were huge and hollow so that mechanics could get inside them and crawl out to effect repairs in flight.
As they limped back to the Florida panhandle, Matthews said, “Think the President will declare war on the Ruskies?”
“I have no idea, Ben. It’s a disaster, either way.”
“You got that right, Skipper.”
As they approached Eglin, Sergeant Watkins came on the intercom. “We took a look, sir. It’s not too bad. About an hour’s worth of work when we get on the ground. I’ll also make sure that we have all the tools we need if one of these babies goes out on us again.”
“Sounds good, Sarge. Ben, ready to do the landing checklist?” They went through the list, and the landing gear clicked into place. Drummond lined the plane up with the ultra-long runway designed to accommodate the B-36. They would need every inch of it to stop, Drummond knew. Piloting the B-36 was like flying a house.
They landed at about 120 miles an hour. Matthews put on the brakes and read out the descending speed: 90, 80, 70, 60, 50, and then they were safe, not about to speed off the end of the runway. They taxied to the huge hangar that accommodated the B-36.
After killing the engines, Drummond said over the intercom, “Gentlemen, a pleasure to fly with you.” As the rest of the crew left the B-36, Drummond spent about 10 minutes in the Aircraft Commander’s seat filling out the flight report: “These problems must be corrected before the B-36 becomes fully operational and is put into production. Once this difficulty is addressed, the B-36 promises to deliver the strategic superiority desired by the US Air Force.” That sounded official and optimistic, he thought as he put the cap back on his fountain pen.
After exiting the plane, he walked into the hangar locker room, changed into civies, and walked over to where his motorcycle was parked. Although his wife Jenny had told him that he was too old to ride, he loved the feeling of the warm humid air in his face as he drove to and from the little bungalow he and his wife and son lived in. He kick started the bike and headed for home.
Just another day at the office.
Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Drummond turned his motorcycle into the driveway of the family bungalow. Levittown this wasn’t, but it was comfortable in a tropical sort of way. Jenny’s little red convertible sat next to the house. White picket fences, over which red roses climbed, surrounded the bungalow. The top of a palm tree swayed in the breeze. This place bore no resemblance to where he had grown up, in Erie, Pennsylvania, with its knee-deep snow, dark basements, and huge, spidery coal furnaces. The bungalow didn’t even have a basement or a furnace, and everybody complained about the cold if the temperature dropped below seventy.
After turning off the bike’s engine, Drummond heard his 12-year old son, David, playing “The Drunken Sailor” on his trombone. He smiled. Maybe the kid would be the next Tommy Dorsey. Then Drummond heard David hit a wrong note, and thought: maybe not.
He walked to the screen door and opened it. Jenny sat on the couch reading for her course work for her Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Florida. They had met in Cambridge at a party on Massachusetts Avenue in 1936. Excited about Spain and the fight against Franco, she had been the charming local Irish girl with the brains to get into Radcliffe. He had been the MIT engineering student who jabbered about becoming a pilot.
“How’s that paper on Moby-Dick coming?” he asked.
“Hey, honey! I’m sailing round Perdition’s horn. How was the flight?”
“It was pretty good. One of the engines caught on fire and conked out. We’ll get it working right, eventually.”
David, having left the Drunken Sailor with the captain’s daughter for the moment, ran out from his bedroom and said, “Hey, Dad. The Reds are taking Germany. Are you going to go into action?” The boy hugged his father.
“I don’t know, David. We might see some. I hope not. The world’s already had two major wars in this century. A third isn’t going to help anyone.” No more wars, Drummond thought.
Jenny said, “Let’s turn on the radio. Truman is supposed to address the nation.” She walked over to the radio, on top of which sat David’s model B-17. There were a couple of old Seventeens at Eglin. Drummond had even taken David up in one for his tenth birthday. No one on the ground had questioned Drummond about his four-foot-high co-pilot.
After adjusting the dial, Jenny honed in on a signal from the NBC studio in Miami. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the voice said. “We are now switching to our Washington Bureau, where we bring you a live broadcast from the White House.”
There was another pause, and then a voice both familiar and distant came on the air: Harry Truman’s.
“My fellow Americans, I regret to inform you that General Lucius Clay, surrounded by 50,000 Soviet troops under the command of Marshal of the Soviet Union Zhukov, has surrendered Berlin. General Clay and his troops were airlifted out of the city a few hours ago. I have been in telephone contact with Mr. Stalin, who has assured me that the Soviet Union desires only to pacify Germany and protect its borders. At this moment US divisions in Germany, along with some British and French forces, are encountering the vanguard of a Red Army.
“Shortly—in keeping with my belief that it is men who make history and, not, as the Soviets believe, history that makes men—Mr. Stalin and I will be meeting at an undisclosed location to discuss the fate of Germany and arrange a cease fire negotiated according to mutually acceptable terms. While I do understand the Soviets’ desire to protect their Western borders, I will not allow this desire to serve as an excuse to invade not only the western portion of Germany but also France and the rest of Europe. To show Mr. Stalin that we mean business, Secretary of Defense Forrestal, with my approval, will send to England in the next few weeks a squadron of B-29s capable of delivering an atomic bomb to Moscow. While we do not desire war and will enter into good-faith negotiations with the Soviet Union, we will not allow an Iron Curtain to be drawn across France or any other European nation. Immediately after my conference with Mr. Stalin, I will report to you again on the steps he and I have taken to address our concerns. Ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to be calm. We will not be bullied, and we will not be coerced into a war that could mean the end of European civilization. I wish you good afternoon.”
Jenny said, “I think he’s going to let Stalin have Germany.”
“Maybe,” Drummond said. “God knows that right now, we don’t have the strength to push the Soviets back. Maybe, though, Truman has something up his sleeve.” God, not those bombs again.
David looked up at his father and said, “Dad, do you think there will be war?”
“I don’t know. I sure don’t want it, and Truman doesn’t want it. But that Forrestal is a real crusader. He will probably want to punish the hell out of the Ruskies for what they’ve done. Who knows? Maybe the Soviets will just stop at the border with France.”
As they talked, the phone rang. Jenny went over to answer it. “Honey, it’s for you.”
Drummond walked over and picked up the receiver. “Joe Drummond here.”
A voice that Drummond knew came on the line: “Colonel Drummond, this is General Jones.” It was Eglin’s commanding officer. “I have orders for you. This is top secret. You are to leave in three hours with your B-36 from Eglin. You are to fly to Walker Air Force Base, New Mexico. From there, I don’t know your destination. The orders were given by Secretary Forrestal himself. We’re calling your crew back now. You are to talk about this with no one. Is that clear, Colonel?”
“Yes, sir. I’ll get back to the base right away.” He hung up the phone, walked over to Jenny, and said, “I have orders. I can’t talk about them. I have to get back to Eglin.” Drummond thought for a second. Oh, no. Walker is the closest base to Los Alamos.
“Be careful, Joe. I want you back in one piece.” She kissed him. He walked over to David and gave him a hug.
“I’ll see you soon. Keep working on that trombone playing. OK?”
“Sure, Dad,” David said. “Be safe.” Having said goodbye to his family, Joseph Drummond went outside, kick started the motorcycle, and sped back to Eglin and an uncertain future.
END OF FREE EXTRACT
Order Alt Hist Issue 6