by Harry Turtledove
Off to the west, the four-inch guns of the flush-deckers protecting the landing fleet boomed. Marine Sergeant Eddie Houlihan, aboard the SS Liberty Glo, nodded somber approval. “That’ll give those filthy Reds something new to think about,” he said.
“Here’s hoping.” Corporal George Veliotis, who led a squad in Houlihan’s section, puffed on a Camel. He gripped the rail as the Hog Islander pitched in the chop of the Bering Sea.
“Here’s hoping, is right. The more of those bastards the shells take out, the less’ll be left to shoot at us.” Houlihan pointed to the barren landscape ahead. “Christ on His cross, will you look at that? The end of June, and still snow on the ground. It ain’t natural, you ask me.”
“No kidding! I’m out of Vallejo goddamn California,” Veliotis said. “I didn’t hardly ever see snow till I joined the Corps. But you was in Siberia just like me. We ran into plenty there.”
“You got that right.” Houlihan remembered plowing through it in a knee-length sheepskin coat—U.S. issue—and a marten-fur cap he’d taken off a dead Bolshevik. He started to reach for the cigarettes in his own breast pocket but arrested the motion. More distant booms came from the west: these from Siknazuak, the town the destroyers were bombarding.
Sure enough, tall columns of water fountained up near the warships. “The nerve of those jerks! Where’d they get the guns, anyways?” Veliotis said.
“From fuckin’ Siberia,” Eddie Houlihan answered wearily. The United States, England, Japan, and the Russian Whites hadn’t been able to keep the Russian Reds from clamping their murderous grip on everything from the borders of Poland to the Bering Strait. But, in withdrawing from the Russian Far East, the Americans had detached Alaska from the new Soviet Union.
As Vladimir Lenin had acknowledged that Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were no longer under his control, so he recognized U.S. possession of the Czars’ old North American province. He aimed to build Communism in what he still held. By his way of thinking, the rest of the world would come around sooner or later.
But here in 1929, Lenin was five years dead. The new guy giving orders in Moscow—Stalin—wanted Alaska back, or at least the part of it that was close to Siberia. Right after the turn of the twentieth century, when a Russian trapper hunting beaver found gold instead, Siknazuak went from nothing to city as fast as toadstools popped up in the wake of rain. Get-rich-quick dreamers flooded in from all over the Russian Empire, and from the USA and Canada as well. Inside of six months, Siknazuak sported an Orthodox cathedral, a Catholic cathedral, an opera house, and eleven brothels.
Bust followed hard on the heels of boom. When the easy gold gave out, so did most of the amenities. Russians went back across the ocean; Yanks and Canucks sailed for home. Only a hardy handful of prospectors stuck around to keep the Eskimos and the polar bears company. Some of them pulled enough gold from the rivers to make a living.
Whatever you said about Stalin, he didn’t think small. Rumor was that he wanted to turn Siknazuak into a labor camp like the ones Lenin had started all across Red Russia. There was still gold in them thar hills. If you didn’t care how many men you spent, you could pry it out.
So Red agitators sneaked into Siknazuak and stirred up the people against the little American garrison. Weapons came in, too. When the sea wasn’t frozen over, there were plenty of muddy beaches to land on. And “volunteers” from the USSR quickly joined the struggle once the shooting started.
All of which meant . . .
Captain Reardon’s shout to his noncoms told exactly what it meant: “Sergeants, corporals, prepare your men! We go into the boats in half an hour. This is American country now. The damned Bolshies agreed to that. If they think they can renege on the deal, they’ve got another think coming, by God! And we’re just the boys who can give it to them.”
Down into the bowels of the Liberty Glo went Houlihan and Veliotis. The air belowdecks was warm and stuffy and smelly, even this close to the Arctic Circle. There wasn’t much preparing for the section leader to do. The men were ready, even eager. They’d long since got sick of being cooped up aboard the freighter.
“Another beach,” one of them said, working the bolt on his Springfield to make sure the action was smooth.
“A little colder than the last one,” Houlihan replied. The private chuckled. Two years earlier, the Corps—including several of the men checking their gear here—had waded ashore in Nicaragua, to make damn sure the government did what the USA told it to do.
The nasty little squabble down there was still going on. The government rolled onto its back and showed its belly soon enough. Guerrillas in the jungle and in the streets kept bushwhacking Americans, though. Some of those SOBs were Reds, too.
Thinking along with Houlihan, George Veliotis said, “No trees for the fuckers up here to hide behind. They got to show themselves, and when they do we punch their tickets for ’em.”
“There you go,” one of the leathernecks said. Several others nodded. Making bad guys say uncle to Uncle Sam was what they did for a living. They’d been doing it for a long time, most of them. They had plenty of practice, and they were good at their trade.
Houlihan’s section was assigned to four of the starboard lifeboats. The boats had gas-powered engines, and oars in case the engines didn’t work. They boasted steel shields at the bow that might stop bullets . . . or might not. The Liberty Glo carried extra boats, enough to land the two companies of Marines she carried.
Being in the first wave meant not needing to wait around. That was good. Of course, it also meant the unfriendlies waiting behind the beach stood a better chance of plugging you. That wasn’t so hot. Houlihan lit a Camel of his own and tried not to think about it. Meat packers fell into sausage grinders. Coal miners had tunnels collapse on them. Steelworkers burned to a crisp. Marines got shot. Every line of work came with risks.
“Luck, you dumb sonsabitches,” said the petty officer bossing the crew that would lower them into the water.
“Your mother, swabby,” Houlihan replied. They grinned at each other.
“Lower away!” the petty officer yelled. Ropes creaked through pulleys. Down past the Liberty Glo’s rust-streaked flank went the boat. When it settled into the Bering Sea, it had only a foot of freeboard. That would have to do. Leathernecks released the ropes from their anchor points.
At the stern, a marine yanked the motor’s starting cord. Nothing happened. He yanked it again. Still nothing. Again. Nothing one more time. Houlihan opened his mouth to order the men to start rowing. But then, on the fourth try, the engine farted to life.
“Get us to shore, quick as you can!” Houlihan said.
“I’ll do my goddamnedest, Sergeant,” the marine promised. The boat put-putted forward, bouncing over and through the waves. A couple of leathernecks lost breakfast. They’d got used to the Liberty Glo’s rolling and pitching, but this felt more like riding a fractious mule.
When they were still half a mile from land, machine guns on or behind the beach winked to venomous life. Somebody’d guessed they might come ashore near the tiny hamlet where the Siknazuak River flowed into the sea. Bullets splashed into the water and spanged off the shield at the bow.
A roar overhead made Houlihan look up. Curtiss Hawks off the newly commissioned Lexington stooped on the Reds like their bird-of-prey namesakes. The biplane fighters carried two machine guns apiece. They could spit a lot of bullets very fast. Some of the Russians fled or were cut down. Others turned their weapons against the aeroplanes. One went down, all aflame; the others made attack run after attack run.
Lumbering Martin T3Ms joined the party. They were properly torpedo aeroplanes, to be used against enemy shipping, but clever mechanics aboard the American carrier had rigged them to carry ordinary bombs instead. Explosives chewed up the coastline.
Along with several other marines in the lifeboat, Eddie Houlihan whooped. “That’s giving it to the rotten Bolshies!” he shouted.
The boat’s keel scraped on muddy sand. Before he hopped out, he made sure the safety on his rifle was off and that he had a round chambered. His bayonet glinted in the warm sunshine.
“Let’s go and take ’em!” he said. Screaming like banshees—no doubt partly to muffle the inner noise of their own fear—the leathernecks sprang to the attack.
* * *
It was only half a dozen miles from the mouth of the river to Siknazuak. A few Russians lingered in the handful of riverside houses and tried to delay the marines, but soon pulled back when they realized they couldn’t. Houlihan exulted. With support from the sea, with American aeroplanes ruling the sky, this would be more a triumphal procession than a fight.
Only it wasn’t. A dirt road paralleled the beach. Inland from the road was what looked like a flower-dappled meadow. Men hurried to get away from the sea and outflank the Reds.
They didn’t hurry for long. What looked like grass- and shrub-covered land turned out to be grass- and shrub-covered swamp or bog. Every marine had sixty or seventy pounds of ammo and rations and dry socks and other junk on his back. The men went into the muck as if into quicksand. Moving through it at all was bad. Moving through it at any speed was impossible.
“Can we, like, get wood and corduroy a road through it?” Corporal Veliotis asked.
Houlihan shook his head. “You were the one who reminded me there weren’t any trees around here. I sure don’t see any. Do you?”
“Fuck me, that’s right. Somebody told me the closest ones are sixty miles away,” Veliotis said gloomily. “This shit is worse’n the trenches in a rainstorm in the middle o’ winter.” He slapped at his cheek and looked at his blood-smeared palm. “Fuck me,” he repeated. “At least inna trenches in the wintertime, ain’t no goddamn mosquitoes.”
“You sure that’s what they are?” Houlihan had already smashed some himself and been bitten several times anyway. “Swear to God, I think I seen ’em takin’ off from the Lex’s flight deck.”
“They’re big. They ain’t that big.” Veliotis slapped again. “I don’t think,” he amended.
One of the houses in the tiny town had a machine gun in it or under it. Only people who wanted to kill themselves charged a machine gun across open ground. European soldiers of every nationality had proved that the hard way during the Great War. Doughboys and leathernecks came late to the big dance, but not too late to have that lesson also painfully burned into them.
“I wish to Jesus we had us a wireless set to let us talk to the aeroplanes up there,” Houlihan said unhappily. “They can’t see the flashes, I bet.”
“Wish for the Moon while you’re at it,” Veliotis replied. “Speaking of the Moon, maybe we can get closer to that damn gun when it gets dark and . . .” He ran down like a steam engine with the fire under it doused.
“Uh-huh,” Houlihan said. Siknazuak lay within a couple of degrees of the Arctic Circle. At this season of the year, the Sun barely dipped below the far northwestern horizon before popping up again in the far northeast. Night didn’t fall; even the twilight would stay plenty bright enough to let the Reds at that machine gun see the marines advancing on them.
A couple of Browning Automatic rifles opened up on the house. BARs were light enough for one man to carry. They didn’t travel on a heavy wheeled mount, the way proper machine guns did. They put a lot more lead in the air than Springfields could. Against a proper machine gun, though, they were fighting out of their weight.
As if to underline that, a couple of rounds cracked past not far enough above Houlihan’s head. He used his entrenching tool to dig himself deeper into the gritty mud of the beach. A few feet away, George Veliotis was doing the same thing.
“Hope to hell some goddamn officer too dumb not to get his nuts shot off don’t yell ‘Follow me!’ an’ get hisself an’ a bunch o’ good men killed for nothin’,” Veliotis said.
“You and me both,” Houlihan agreed. There were officers like that. They did get men killed. Little by little, sergeants rubbed the bright sheen of stupidity off them. That wouldn’t have happened with all of them yet. As Veliotis said, it took only one to drag down a bunch of leathernecks with him. Marines admired bravery and would follow a leader, no matter how foolhardy.
But they didn’t have to this time. Maybe there was some way of signaling the planes after all, or maybe one of the flyboys zooming from east to west saw the flames spitting out of the Red machine gun’s muzzle. Any which way, fighters and bombers worked the house over and left it a burning wreck.
The marines raised a cheer. An officer’s brass whistle shrilled. “Come on!” the man yelled. “Let’s finish them off while they’re groggy!” Pistol in hand, he trotted forward.
It wasn’t Captain Reardon. Reardon had better sense than that. But an order was an order. Muttering an Our Father under his breath, Sergeant Houlihan scrambled to his feet. He waved his section forward, too, hoping the Maxim gun really and truly was knocked out. If it was playing possum, plenty of Americans would be very sorry very soon. Maybe prayer would mean he wasn’t one of them.
Maybe. But probably not.
As soon as the muzzle flashes started up from the ruins, Houlihan hit the dirt. He wished he were more surprised than he was. His time fighting the Bolsheviks in Siberia had taught him only too well that they knew everything there was to know about camouflage, plus a little more nobody else had ever figured out. They could kill you from places where you never dreamt they were hiding . . . till too late.
George Veliotis went down just as fast as Houlihan. Fair enough—he’d had the same schooling. Some of the young leathernecks were slower, and some of them paid for it. So did the officer with the whistle who’d confidently sent the marines forward toward the battered house. He cartwheeled across the beach, crumpling in a thrashing, bleeding heap. The noises he made might have come from a dog smashed by a big White truck.
Flesh and blood weren’t made to bear such shrieks coming from other flesh and blood. Houlihan was a hard case, as any career marine had to be, but he wanted to jam his index fingers into his ears to shut out the agony. What was there to stop the same thing from happening to him? Only luck, and luck had a way of running out. That lieutenant’s sure had.
“Sweet Jesus, why don’t they shoot him again and put him out of his misery?” the sergeant said.
“If they don’t, one of us should,” Veliotis said. Houlihan nodded. He’d never had to do that himself, but he’d heard about people who had. If he took a horrible wound like that, he hoped someone would do it for him.
If he didn’t want to take a wound like that, he and the rest of the Americans had to silence the machine gun. Otherwise, it would get them all.
“Come on, boys!” he called to the leathernecks he led. “Advance by squads—fire and move!”
The Germans had learned that trick in 1918, and damn near taken Paris with it. One group banged away and made the enemy keep his head down. The other scrambled forward to new firing positions, then opened up in turn. It worked a hell of a lot better than marching forward in waves to get mown down, the way the English had in the ghastly slaughterhouse of the Somme.
A BAR man worked his way up to within three hundred yards of the machine gun. He put two twenty-round boxes into the wreckage of the house as fast as he could. A couple of rifles kept shooting back, but the murder mill fell silent again.
“Those fuckers mean it this time, or are they sandbagging again?” Veliotis asked.
“That’s the question.” Houlihan remembered To be or not to be: that is the question from a ninth-grade English class. That was as much schooling as he’d got. He’d gone into a canning plant the next summer, and hadn’t come out again till he joined the Corps. It was, pretty much, the same question the corporal had asked. If he stood up and the Reds were sandbagging, he wouldn’t be any more.
He stood up anyway. “Come out, you bastards!” he shouted through cupped hands. “Rukhi verkh!” He hadn’t thought he remembered the scrap of Russian. It meant Hands up!
And damned if it didn’t work. Somebody in the ruined hamlet waved something white. The leathernecks’ firing slowed and then stopped. Out stumbled a dozen or so Russians in baggy khaki uniforms, most of them with their hands over their heads. Two were wounded, so they couldn’t raise theirs.
“Good job, Sergeant,” Captain Reardon said. “I’ll write you up for that so it doesn’t get forgotten.”
“Thank you, sir,” Houlihan answered, for all the world as if he gave a damn. If he lived, he might eventually make gunnery sergeant. He wouldn’t make lieutenant if he lived longer than Methuselah.
The captain had binoculars on a leather strap around his neck. He raised them to his eyes and peered westward. When he let them fall again, he was grimacing. “They’ve got at least one barbed-wire belt, maybe two, between us and Siknazuak,” he reported. “They go from the water’s edge to where the bog starts, and the Bolshies likely have men in foxholes and trenches behind the wire.”
“Happy day,” Houlihan said. “Any chance at all of sending guys through the shit to get around ’em? Maybe strip off their packs, just have ’em take a rifle and some ammo?”
“I’d like to, but it would be murder,” the captain replied, and Eddie Houlihan damn near gave him a kiss: an officer who cared about his men’s lives was more precious than rubies. Reardon went on, “Let’s just move up to the western edge of this worthless little place and wait for a little bit. I know we’ve got a couple of Stokes mortar teams on the beach behind us, and there are supposed to be armored cars and even a couple of light tanks coming ashore.”
“Sounds good to me, sir,” Houlihan said. “They won’t throw us back into the ocean, anyways.”
The hamlet was smashed and smoldering, thanks to the planes from the Lexington. Houlihan didn’t care. Smoke from the burning houses would only make it harder for the Reds farther west to draw a bead on him. A stern-faced icon of Jesus Christ, His hand raised in a gesture of benediction, a gilded halo behind His head, lay outside one shattered cabin. It had to be Orthodox; it wasn’t the kind of image Catholics used. But Jesus was still Jesus, wasn’t He? Houlihan picked up the icon and leaned it against what was left of a wall. You didn’t want to take chances with stuff like that.
One of the other company commanders ordered his men forward along the dirt road toward the next Red position. As soon as the Russians saw them advancing, they sent a long burst of machine-gun fire at them to let them know they still had plenty of Maxims. The leathernecks quit advancing and began to dig in. Their captain swore, but didn’t try to make them push any farther. Two of them wouldn’t anyway—one clutched his leg and howled, while the other lay motionless, his blood soaking into the hard-packed ground.
Up came a mortar team. They planted their nasty little weapon behind a house that was still mostly standing so the Bolsheviks wouldn’t spot any flash. One man carried a big canvas sack full of the finned bombs the tube threw. Captain Reardon sneaked a peek around the edge of the building. “I’d say the machine gun’s about three-quarters of a mile west of here, near the road,” he told the mortar men. “Can you hit it?”
“Reckon so, suh,” answered the redheaded corporal in charge of the piece. A lot of marines had Johnny Reb granddaddies. “Long range, but not too long.”
He fiddled with the mortar to point it in about the right direction. The guy with the sack of bombs dropped one down the tube. The small bang that sent it on its way sounded more like a pistol shot than an artillery boom.
Reardon watched the bomb fall. “A hundred yards short, fifty to the left,” he said. The corporal turned his set screws. Another bomb went on its way. “Fifty yards long,” Reardon announced. More twiddling, then another bomb down the tube.
When the captain leaned out to observe that one, he fell over before he could say anything. He kicked a few times, then lay still. Blood and brains puddled under him; one side of his head was blown out. Whether a sniper was waiting for him to show himself again or he’d just stopped one of the bullets that flew across any battlefield didn’t matter. He wouldn’t be giving any more ranging instructions now.
Sergeant Houlihan gulped for more reasons than one. He’d liked the company commander—not a feeling a noncom was used to having. And now he would have to tell the mortar crew where to land their bombs. He might also have to take the company himself, depending on whether the two lieutenants were still fit for duty.
First things first. He yanked off Captain Reardon’s field glasses, swearing when he got blood on the strap. He didn’t look out from the same place Reardon had. Instead, he went inside the house and peered out through a hole in the wall.
“What’s the word, Sarge?” asked the corporal who bossed the mortar.
“Dunno. The Maxim’s quiet. Maybe you killed the crew, or maybe they’re laying for us again. Let’s wait and see if they start up.”
Fifteen minutes passed. The machine gun stayed silent, which proved exactly nothing. Then, overstrained engine growling as it worked harder than it wanted to, an American armored car lumbered up. It rolled past the hamlet, tires spitting up sand behind it. The machine gun in its little turret sprayed the Red trenches with lead.
That provoked the enemy machine-gun crew. They spat a stream of bullets at the armored car. Some struck sparks when they ricocheted off steel. But the only way they could hurt the vehicle was by splashes getting through the driver’s visor grill and putting him out of action. Stalin’s minions would have done better to ignore the armored car and wait for the leathernecks who’d follow it.
The car engaged the Bolsheviks’ Maxim. And Houlihan ordered the mortar crew to start shooting at it once more, too. Now that he knew where it was, he could direct the bombs as Captain Reardon had. The fourth one came down right on the machine gun. He saw it fly up in the air, and part of one of the Russian soldiers with it.
“Nailed the bastards!” he bawled cheerfully. It wasn’t enough revenge for Reardon, but it was some. “Can you guys traverse that critter so you land bombs all along their line?”
“If you tell us where they’re falling, we can,” the corporal said.
Mortar bombs and machine-gun bullets were plenty to make the Bolsheviks pull back to their last line in front of Siknazuak. A few got shot pelting across the beach, but only a few. Wary of more enemy machine guns, the leathernecks didn’t pursue with anything like ferocity.
When they reached the foxholes, they took charge of the wounded the Russians had left behind. “Why you do this?” asked an English-speaking soldier with a shattered foot. “Alaska Russian hundreds of years before you steal. We just take back our own.”
Eddie Houlihan knew nothing about the politics. He cared nothing, either. He gave the hurt Red a cigarette while a corpsman worked on him and said, “It’s ours now. The president ain’t gonna let you steal it back. He told us to stop you, so here we are.”
After sucking in smoke and blowing it out again, the wounded man—whose thin, dark features shouted that he was a Jew—shook his head. “He is oppressor,” he said earnestly. “World proletariat must unite, wipe out whole oppressor class.”
“Tell it to the army,” Houlihan said. “I don’t gotta listen to that kind of crap.” He looked around for George Veliotis. “George, you take the section when we move up? I’ve got me a platoon, I betcha—maybe the whole damn company.”
“Whatever you need, Sarge,” Veliotis replied, which was always the right answer from a marine.
One of the lieutenants, a smooth-faced kid named Grover Whitfield, was still on his pins, so Houlihan didn’t have the company. “We take out that last line,” Whitfield said. “Then we go on and take Siknazuak. Then the fight’s over and America keeps Alaska.”
He made it sound simple. Well, he was a kid. What happened if the Reds in Siknazuak went up into the hills behind the town and kept on making trouble? They could certainly do that as long as summer lasted, killing caribou and musk oxen and birds to stay alive. When winter slammed down? Houlihan wouldn’t have wanted to try it, but you never could tell. He’d seen in Siberia that Russians were masters at making do with next to nothing.
But none of that was his worry. They’d tell him what to do, and he’d keep doing it till somebody shot him. One reason he liked life as a leatherneck was that, most of the time, it was really, really simple.
They didn’t advance on the last line of wire till the sun finally slid just under the horizon. It wasn’t night; it was nothing like night. But, if it didn’t get dark (and it didn’t—he still had no trouble seeing colors), it got darker. Clouds rolling in from the northwest helped.
Sure as the devil, Stalin’s men had more Maxim guns. The American marines scraped holes in sand and mud and dirt. Mortars went to work. So did not one but two armored cars. Even so, they needed over an hour to kill the guns. By then, most of the Reds who weren’t part of their crews had hightailed it back toward Siknazuak.
They fired occasional Parthian shots as they retreated. A man cutting wire not twenty feet from Houlihan took a bullet in the shoulder. Houlihan helped get a wound bandage on the hole and sent him to the corpsmen. The guy could walk and he could cuss. The sergeant took those for good signs.
Officers’ whistles squealed. “On to Siknazuak!” Lieutenant Whitfield called grandly. They’d taught him well at Annapolis. He led from the front.
He advanced on Siknazuak for about a hundred yards. Then one of his marching boots came down where it shouldn’t have. When the land mine blew, it threw him aside like a crumpled sheet of paper. What was left of him lay shrieking on the beach. Mercifully, he didn’t shriek for long.
Another leatherneck trod on a mine a minute later. Half the leg that hadn’t stepped on it stayed where it was, foot still in boot. But the rest of him was just . . . gone.
Houlihan muttered more Hail Marys and Our Fathers. He wished he had rosary beads to tell. The top part of his mind knew prayer wasn’t likely to make much difference, but when you stumbled through the valley of the shadow of death you didn’t listen to the top part of your mind one whole hell of a lot.
Sappers came forward. Crawling on their bellies like reptiles, they probed the ground ahead of them with long sticks. Houlihan would have had to use his bayonet. He would have been sure to blast himself to hell if he touched off a mine. The sappers were just very likely to.
Every so often, though, they’d dig out an infernal device and mark it with a strip of red cloth so others wouldn’t step on it by accident. Then they’d go on. The other marines slowly followed.
One of the American armored cars drove over a mine. It wasn’t a big one, one that could blow up a tank. But it was plenty big enough to smash a tire and wheel and set the engine on fire. The armored car stopped abruptly, listing to port and pouring thick black smoke up into the gray-blue sky. The men who crewed it bailed out and huddled behind it. They carried only pistols, which made them pretty much useless at anything out past thirty yards.
More bombers from off the Lexington buzzed by overhead. They dropped their deadly loads on Siknazuak. The destroyers out in the Bering Sea kept pounding the town, too. They didn’t care what happened to the civilians inside, as long as they smashed the Bolshevik soldiers.
Eddie Houlihan didn’t give a damn about the civilians, either. Most of them were bound to be Russians, and a lot of the damn Russians were bound to be Bolshies. They were probably helping Stalin’s men for all they were worth. And . . . Turning to George Veliotis, Houlihan said, “The more of those sonsabitches the bombers and the ships blow up, the less’ll be left to try and kill us when we get there.”
“You said the same thing on the Hog Islander, but it sure as shit ain’t like you’re wrong,” Veliotis said. “You always was a guy who thinks pretty straight.”
“Oh, darling, you thay the thweetest things,” Houlihan lisped. Both dirty, stubbly marines chuckled.
Copyright © 2018. Liberating Alaska by Harry Turtledove