The Unknown Soldier: 1953: Death at the Inn of the Red Swan, Chapter 1: South of the 38th Parallel

by Blackwolf247, with Doc Quantum

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Dateline: Korea, 1953:

It was cold, colder than a winter even this close to the Arctic has a right to be. We’re somewhere deep within the mountains in Japanese-occupied South Korea. Why am I here with two Marines wearing white and taking pictures of a Jap installation? It’s my job. I am Naval Intelligence, after all.

The sergeant, called only Sarge by anyone who knows him, told me we’ve got to get moving out of here pretty soon. I understand he and his pal Gunner have been really good companions in this mission.

Whatever the Axis has going on here, I dare say the Emperor, kept safe in his palace back in Nippon, is probably less aware of it then my C.O. back in Washington.

The Korean War has been dragging on since 1951, when the puppet government of South Korea invaded North Korea, which has been fortified by the Allies since 1946. Back when the Empire of Japan won the war in the Pacific at the end of ’45, it looked like Asia was just as lost to Imperial Japan as Fortress Europe was to the Third Reich. The Japanese had a whole two months to celebrate their victory and finally rest from war, when the Nazis, being the opportunistic, greedy types that they were, decided to make the Empire of Japan a vassal to its own empire.

As the world watched, the two most powerful empires in the world came to a standoff. And then something happened that none of us expected. The U.S., having lost the war in the Pacific and been forced to surrender Hawaii and everything east of there to the Japanese, left a nasty present for the Emperor during the withdrawal. Instead of allowing Imperial Japan to take over the naval base in Pearl Harbor, which would pose an ongoing threat to all of America, President Thomas Dewey left one atomic bomb in Oahu. It was the explosion that rocked the world, since it gave the Allies new hope that both Japan and Germany could now be defeated, especially since there were rumors that the U.S. had a second bomb it was planning to use on Germany.

Hitler, faced with a series of new uprisings all over Nazi-held Europe, knew he had to respond to what he perceived as an American challenge to German supremacy over the world. He could not challenge the U.S. directly, since they had the atom bomb, but he could show the world that he, too, held this power in his grasp and was just as willing to use it.

Mere days after Hawaii was decimated, the Third Reich made its final demand for Japan to concede to its will and become little more than a colony, Germany’s own place in the sun. When the demand was refused as predicted, Hitler’s response was to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, one in Hiroshima and the other in Nagasaki. While the news that Germany also had the atom bomb sent a resounding wave of fear across the world, securing the Third Reich’s supremacy in Europe, it also backfired for them in Asia.

With much of Japan in ruins, the Empire of Japan itself began to quickly crumble, and not even a new puppet government headed by Japanese leaders handpicked by the Nazis could keep it together. A tidal wave of freedom washed over Southeast Asia, enabling many governments to throw off the yoke of their Japanese oppressors. Australia was one of the first to run the Japanese out of their country, followed by India, China, and Indochina. The Koreans tried it next, but the Japanese managed to dig in at the 38th parallel. When the United States stepped in to assist North Korea, threatening a new war in the Pacific, a weakened Imperial Japan relented and signed a treaty allowing it to keep only South Korea.

Ever since then, the Asia problem had dominated the affairs of both the Third Reich and its vassal state, the weakened Empire of Japan. Over the next five years, Imperial Japan bided its time, slowly regaining its strength with aid from Nazi Germany in exchange for its eternal servitude. And then, in January, 1951, Japan made its first major move in Asia. South Korea, encouraged by Imperial Japan’s growing strength, invaded North Korea. America and its Allies — England, Canada, and Australia, amongst others — quickly amassed their troops and helped North Korea defend itself against the invaders from the south.

It was a sign of the times, I suppose. The Allies and the Axis could no longer fight each other directly without engaging in a new war that could result in half the world being blown to bits by the atom bomb. So they began fighting each other indirectly by supporting opposing sides in smaller wars. Similar conflicts were starting to happen throughout Indochina as well as Africa and even Latin America. It was George Orwell who coined a term for this kind of peace that is no peace. He called what we’re in now a cold war. And given my current circumstances, I’m inclined to agree with him.

Lord, it’s cold. My thoughts keep running back and forth on why I’m here. To take pictures, of course. That’s what I do. We’ve got three days to make it back to the coast with the hope that our sub hasn’t been found and sunk or captured. Three more days in this frozen hell-hole.

How close to the Arctic Circle are we, anyway? Feels to me like we’re right on it. Gunner says it’s quite a ways north of us. He adds that this isn’t any colder than a North Dakota winter. Remind me never to go to North Dakota. Sure hope we make it safely back to America. I can’t wait to get back home.

We found ourselves emerging from the snows near the Sea of Japan, where a fishing boat was undergoing some repairs. A tall Asian man waved to us to hurry, and within seconds the three of us were aboard the boat in the galley as it pulled out.

The Asian in a quilted green jacket served us hot green tea and offered us some rice cakes. “Not much, but you’ll eat better aboard the sub,” he said to us in clear English.

“Not a problem, Captain,” Sarge told him. “We appreciate the pickup.”

“Glad to help. Any time we can stick it to the Emperor, we do.” He snorted as he lit a cigarette. “Fact is, I am glad you came when you did. Permission to fix our boat was almost up.”

“Well, Captain,” the Sarge went on, “makes me feel humbled to have some help from the Free Chinese. It really does.”

The captain chuckled. “My first mate Wing and I aren’t with them, but we work with them.” He took a deep drag of his smoke and continued. “Truth to tell, most of the time I can’t make heads or tails out of that Marxist stuff they’re always spouting.”

Gunner said, “You almost sound like an American. I know a number of Chinese-Americans are working with the resistance over here, but–”

“I was born and raised in San Francisco,” the captain interrupted, laughing. “My first officer’s from New York, and trust me — if the Nips ever suspected we weren’t born over here, we’d be dead.”

Finally, I asked, “How long till we meet the sub?”

The captain looked thoughtful. “Tomorrow, sometime after eight bells.” With a shrug he indicated some cupboards. “If we stop suddenly, you three Yanks crawl into these. Go towards the back, and you’ll find some stuff to pull over you. Then pray.” Another shrug. “Not the best hidey-holes, but all we got.”

“Captain Chan,” Sarge interjected, “we’re grateful.”

The captain nodded. “I appreciate that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’ve got fish to catch.”

After the captain left, Gunner turned to Sarge, who was cleaning his lighter. “Didn’t he used to box?

“Yep,” said the Sarge. “I remember him from San Francisco. Weng ‘Chopper’ Chan, Golden Gloves Champion, West Coast Division, 1941.”

I relaxed. That must have been where I knew him from. Of course, with my face hidden under bandages, he wouldn’t have recognized me at all. Unfortunately, at that moment we felt the boat come to a sudden halt.

It was night, and the boat had dropped anchor. Dinner consisted of fish-head stew with rice. Gunner, Sarge, and I were relaxing with some tea and smokes, just about to settle in for a rest, when Wing came down to visit.

Now this fellow is indeed New York City born and bred, but being tall and slender made him look — as did Captain Chan — very much like a Northern Chinese, which in actual fact the rest of the crew were.

Wing lit up, exhaled a huge cloud of smoke, looked relaxed, then stated, “Chan says the sub should be meeting up with us at 0500. Plenty of time to get some rest, if you want it.”

“Rest? Hell, I need to stretch my legs, breathe some fresh air, maybe even relieve myself over the side just to hear the water,” Sarge grumbled.

Wing shook his head. “Too dangerous. Nip patrols might show up yet. The Russkies have also been known to show up sometimes.”

After Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, they placed the White Russians in charge of the former Soviet Union. These White Russians — who had started out as an anti-Communist coalition and ended up becoming as authoritarian as the old Czars or worse — held less influence over eastern Siberia, where there was a large Free Russian presence. But as good little fascists they still answered to the Third Reich and were just as ruthless as the Nazis.

Taking another deep drag of his smoke, Wing said, “As it is, when the sub comes, you three will have a window of about thirty seconds to get aboard.” Then he changed the subject. “How are my Dodgers doing?”

“Them bums!” snorted the Sarge. “Almost had the pennant and blew it in the fourth game!” He shook his head. “Seven to one, and it was downhill from there.” He looked at Wing. “You from Brooklyn?

“Why?” asked Wing. “Don’t I look like I’m from Brooklyn?”

Before Sarge could respond, however, the sudden whump whump of motor fire caused us all to instinctively grab our weapons. It sounded like something big, heavy, and possibly deadly struck the boat. We heard shouting in Chinese.

Wing threw his cigarette down. “$%*&!” he gasped and ran up to the deck of the ship. “Quick — out of sight!”

It was too late. Next thing I knew there was shouting, shots fired, and bodies hitting the floor above us.

Gunner, Sarge, and I grabbed our weapons. Two men we didn’t recognize came down the steps, rifles in hand. We opened fire, and both newcomers fell into bloody heaps in front of us. “Pirates!” I exclaimed.

Within moments, the fighting was over, judging from the sounds we heard above us.

Wing came running back down. “We have to abandon ship. You three will be with the captain and me. What’s left of our crew will take the other boat to the nearest cove. I only hope it’s not where them bastards came from!” At least I assume he said something like bastards in Chinese.

Captain Chan was yelling last-minute instructions to the surviving crew when we came up the stairs. “You three killed two of them, right?” I nodded, and he smiled. “Good for you.” Then he directed us to a rubber life raft. “Let’s go. The sub will be along shortly, I hope.”

As we sat in the raft, crowded but stable with nothing more to do but smoke, the captain eyeballed me heavily. “Why the bandages around your face, if I may ask?”

I chuckled. “My true face must remain unknown. And there’s no way I’m wearing one of them masks like the Freedom Fighters.”

He nodded in acceptance. “Forgive my curiosity, but frankly your appearance disturbed my crew.” I nodded in understanding.

At that moment, Gunner spotted a periscope rising.

All five of us grabbed our weapons, although truthfully, if it had been a Jap sub, we would have stood a snowball’s chance in Hell of surviving.

“Out of the frying pan and into the fire?” Sarge asked me.

I shrugged. “Hopefully not,” was all I could reply.

The sub, when it surfaced, turned out to be solid black. Chan and Wing started to relax, but the sight of who emerged made my blood run cold.

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