North Korean and Red Chinese losses were four, five, six times as many as those of the UN troops they faced. Their generals, and the commissars who told those generals what to do, didn’t give a damn. Men were as disposable to them as bullets or boots.
The really scary thing was, they could win that way. The Reds made brave soldiers-often braver than the South Koreans whose fat the United States had pulled off the fire. They swarmed forward against machine guns, against tanks, against damn near anything. From all Cade could gather, worse things would happen to them if they hung back than whatever American shells and bullets dished out.
He and his men trudged through a little village. An old man and a girl of perhaps eight sent them impassive stares. The village looked to have been fought over two or three times in the recent past: likely, once in the American push up to the Yalu and once or twice in the retreat after Chinese troops swarmed over the river and drove the UN forces back.
Cade shook his head. He wished his beard were thicker. It might keep his face warmer, the way it seemed to with some of the older guys. Lice? He’d worry about lice some other time. Or, with DDT ready to kill off the little bastards with one squirt from the spray gun, he might not worry about them at all.
He’d just thought that maybe he’d try a cigarette after all when the Reds hit them from behind. One second, everything was quiet. The next, swarms of men in quilted khaki jackets and caps with earflaps were screaming their heads off and shooting what sounded like a million Russian-model submachine guns. The damn things were good out to only a couple of hundred yards, but inside that range they’d chop you into hamburger.
His own.30-caliber carbine was a piece of junk by comparison. It was an officer’s weapon, one that fired a smaller, weaker cartridge than the good old M-1. Like an M-1, it was only semiautomatic; it didn’t go full auto. At short range, even M-1s were in deep against submachine guns. The cheap, nasty little things threw lead around as if it were going out of style.
But the platoon had a light machine gun. If the Chinks didn’t know it, they were about to get a surprise they wouldn’t like. “Johnson! Masters! Set up in this hooch here”-Curtis pointed to a not too battered hut at the south end of the village-“and give those cocksuckers what-for!”
As soon as the LMG started banging away, the Red Chinese screamed on a different note. Cade and the other American soldiers kept plinking away at anything they saw or imagined they saw. The enemy went on pushing, probing. Without the machine gun, the Americans would have died quickly-or slowly, depending.
Cade sent most of his men down the track. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, get to Hungnam, they were screwed any which way. They’d have to head south through a countryside that was a lot more hostile than anyone could have imagined before things went sour.
To the soldiers at the LMG, Curtis said, “Hang on here as long as you have to.”
“How long is that, Lieutenant?” Masters asked.
“Well-as long as you have to,” Cade answered.
People were calling it the worst American defeat since the Battling Bastards of Bataan went under in the dark, early days of World War II. It was a hell of a way to go into Christmas, only a week away now. And it was why Truman had come to Hawaii to confer with Douglas MacArthur. In October, MacArthur had flown to Wake Island to assure Truman Red China wouldn’t interfere in the Korean War. Which would have been nice if only it had turned out to be true.