We will be posting free extracts from each story of Alt Hist Issue 8. First up is Mark Devane’s “Dewey Defeats Truman”. This is an alternate history story with a classic what if theme: what would have happened if the atomic bombs had not been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945? “Dewey Defeats Truman” by Mark Devane was inspired by the erroneous headline printed the day after Truman was supposed to have lost the 1948 election. In reality the newspapers got it wrong and Truman was a surprise victor, but what if he had made different decisions in the war against Japan?
Dewey Defeats Truman
by Mark Devane
Monday Morning – Japan
Ashes from the burning town drifted from an orange sky and settled on the sleeve of Lieutenant Dan McClay. He crouched at dawn in a binjo ditch along the road into Iwakuni, just short of the military crest of the hill.
Two scouts slushed down the muddy ditch from the town.
“Burned clear, Lieutenant.”
“The fly boys missed one,” said the other scout. General Curtis Lemay’s 20th Air Force fire-bombed all buildings in the path of advancing American troops.
“The fire department,” said the first scout. “Couldn’t save anything but their own garage.”
McClay had crouched in the urine drainage canal all night, listening to the Air Corps pound the town. Roaring waves of B-29s, skirting the tree tops like an aluminum overcast, raining incendiaries. The sky, a mixture of clouds and smoke, as always, glowed orange from the fires below. Darkness never fell.
Snow would be falling back home, in Vermont, by now. McClay brushed the ashes from his sleeve. He turned back to his platoon sergeant, Sergeant Steven Pulaski, a grizzled tough guy from Chicago, a few yards behind him. “Stand by to move up.”
An emaciated figure emerged from the brush across the road. Dressed in a filthy white kimono, it shouted a guttural threat and brandished a bamboo spear. It was impossible to tell if it was a man or woman and its jaundiced skin was the color of a ripe banana. The apparition lurched forward in slow motion, trying to charge.
As the zombie stepped on the road, a fusillade knocked it down. Writhing on the pavement, it spun and flailed in its own gore.
MacArthur’s orders were to bury all Japanese corpses but there was no time and no strength and no way they were going to dig in the heavily-mined earth. A binjo ditch was the safest place to be.
McClay turned again to Sergeant Pulaski. “Flame-thrower up.”
Mountains rising out of the sea. That was Japanese terrain. The fighting was confined to narrow strips along the coast, which had to be taken foot-by-bloody-foot from a nation of crazed, starving kamikazes. Like this thing, smoking and crackling in the road.
Japan. The mud. The roasted human smell. The chilling rain. The constant killing. They ate as they could and slept in the open.
McClay’s 3rd battalion, 307th Regiment, 77th Infantry Division, Tenth Army, was the point of Douglas MacArthur’s spear, advancing up the southeast coast of Honshu. They faced well-prepared, mutually supporting battlements constructed into a skillful defense-in-depth, including trenches, tunnels and honey-combed caves. All of it elaborately fortified. Anywhere you chose to attack along the narrow avenues of approach, you’d get shot at from other positions.
Yesterday, a well-trained gunner with a Nambu machine gun had kept McClay’s platoon pinned down until a shattered blossom with an anti-tank mine strapped to his back had run into their position and wiped out half of first squad. Shumacher, Frenelli, Shapiro, and a replacement he never got to know. Gone. Somehow, it was his fault. They never found the gunner or even where he had been firing from. The phantom Japanese took everything from the battlefield, even their spent brass, leaving only their corpses and the tracks of their split-toe tabi sandals.
Yesterday’s casualties bought McClay’s battalion a quarter-mile of Japanese road. Another day in Japan, an afterlife in a Stygian region bristling with suffering and death. The bravest were the weariest because they had seen the most horror. A week ago, they had been attacked at night. A figure loomed out of the melee, swinging something heavy. The lanky McClay had partially blocked the blow with the forestock of his M-1, but the tip of a finger was cut off and he was hit in the helmet, knocking him out. In the morning, he came to next to a Japanese officer on his back in his dress uniform. Polished riding boots with leather leggings, shiny Sam Brown belt and bloody white gloves, still clutching his samurai sword. His skull had been blown off above the nose and flies were feasting on the mushy porridge pouring out of it.
McClay grasped the probability. Each such encounter diminished his chances of escaping alive. How he had survived Shuri Castle on Okinawa was a mystery to McClay. That battle now seem liked cucumber sandwiches with afternoon tea. McClay was a fugitive from the law of averages and knew he couldn’t escape the iron law forever. But he wasn’t as frightened as he had been on Okinawa. Death seen every day becomes a familiar face. Why wouldn’t he visit you?
He ached to go home. Home might still be the same but he realized Dan McClay would never be. As he gritted his teeth in the morning for each day’s nightmare, he clutched his scapular and breathed, “St. Michael, defend us in battle.”
Monday morning – Washington
“Mr. President, we’re making exciting progress in Japan!” said an Army major.
Harry Truman was having a rough morning. It started with his campaign staff. His challengers for President, Governor Thomas Dewey, as well as Senator Strom Thurmond of the Dixiecrats, demanded answers to questions about casualties. Dewey said America was a last bastion of civilization and the enemy of the American people, indeed of mankind, was not in Tokyo, but Moscow.
Thurmond, running strong in the Democratic stronghold of the South, claimed Truman had squandered the legacy of FDR. Polling well behind Dewey, the campaign staff worried Truman might finish behind Thurmond.
DJ-Day had been the most glorious episode in the legendary history of the Marine Corps. All six Marine divisions had gone ashore on southern Honshu, line abreast and facing a typhoon of lead. The American people did not know that the Marine Corps was no longer a functioning organization, much less a combat formation. Off the beachhead, the heavy slugging then fell to the Army.
Truman’s White House classified the casualty lists in the interests of national security and impounded all mail from the Far East. But the families of those who would never come back had to be notified eventually. The pace of notification, soldiers solemn on the doorstep, had been staggered to deaden the shock, but the American people harbored a growing suspicion something calamitous had befallen them in Japan, as well as a darkening distrust of the White House.
Truman sat now with General George Marshall and Admiral Chester Nimitz, their aides and briefing officers, all of them hanging on Truman’s tortured facial expressions and wounded body language, as he absorbed the shock of his weekly briefing on Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu. Truman’s face was haggard and pinched, his movements awkward and crabbed, like a man with chronic back pain. There was a tremor in his left hand.
Truman turned to Nimitz. “Joe Kennedy called me again. He’s looking for his second son. What’s his name?”
“Jack,” answered Nimitz. “Lieutenant, junior grade.”
“I told you three months ago. Lt. Kennedy’s PT Boat went missing off Kagoshima. I ordered a two-day sea-and-air search, at your request. Not something we do for every missing PT Boat. Nothing turned up. He and his crew are listed as lost at sea. The families haven’t been notified yet.”
“Change that to missing in action,” Truman said. “And no more family notifications until after the election.” He looked around the room. “Everybody clear on that? Now, go ahead, Major.”
There were other well-known names on the secret casualty lists. The movie star Tyrone Power. A promising young baseball player named Ted Williams. As well as the long list of the anonymous dead, the brave that Americans would never know: Captain Ed McMahon, Private JD Salinger, 1st Lt. John Glenn, Corporal Rod Serling, Staff Sgt. Charlton Heston.
“We’re on the outskirts of Iwakuni, an important gateway to Hiroshima,” the enthusiastic major continued. His brass buttons gleamed as he pointed at a map with multi-colored pins.
“Hiro-what?” asked Truman.
“Hiroshima. An industrial city. Sort of a Japanese Detroit.”
“One year later, over a thousand casualties a day, and we’re approaching the Japanese Detroit. That is exciting,” said Admiral Nimitz, who had succeeded Ernie King as Chief of Naval Operations. The Navy was dead-set against Coronet. King had resigned when MacArthur had cancelled Operation Olympic, an attack on the southern island of Kyushu, and gone straight to Honshu.
The defense of the Home Islands was led by General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, who had captured 130,000 British troops, with 30,000 Japanese, at Singapore. MacArthur had counted on surprise but Yamashita, a samurai of the old school, was familiar with his tactics of bypassing strongholds and on the day of the landing, the Imperial Japanese Army was locked and loaded.
“Chester,” said General Marshall, US Army Chief of Staff, “what choice did we have? Your blockade starved the Japanese, but they didn’t surrender, like you promised. It only gave them time to fortify.” Marshall, a bearish man, was the brains behind the destruction of the Third Reich. Truman had already decided to replace his Secretary of State, a squishy fellow named Byrnes, with Marshall as soon as the war was over. Western Berlin had been blockaded by the Russians, the Berlin Airlift was underway and Byrnes was still talking about ways to compromise with the Kremlin.
“We didn’t give the blockade long enough,” growled Nimitz. Nimitz, a lean man who spoke with a Texas twang, was the hero of the Battle of Midway, upon which had hinged the fate of the nation.
“Two years was plenty,” Marshall retorted. “While we fiddled with your blockade, the Russians took Hokkaido.”
As the Army-Navy game kicked off, Truman’s chief-of-staff, Admiral William Leahy, entered the room. Leahy, not only an Admiral but a former ambassador to France, had been called out of military retirement by President Roosevelt to serve as his wartime chief-of-staff. Truman asked the gruff and experienced hand to stay on until the war was over. The weary look he gave Truman told him his day was not going to get any sunnier.
Leahy took a seat at the end of the room, against the wall. He closed his eyes and massaged his forehead. “Leave us, please.” The aides and briefing officers gathered their papers and left. Leaving Truman, Leahy, Nimitz and Marshall.
“Mr. President,” said Leahy, “Art Sulzberger of the New York Times called me. He knows about the Manhattan Project and he is going to print on Sunday.”
END OF FREE EXTRACT
Don’t forget to order your copy of Alt Hist Issue 8 to read the rest of this story and others.