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September 1918. World War I nears its end in Europe, and the Ottoman Empire offers to surrender to the United States. The British, eager to keep the French out of Constantinople and the Straits, urge President Wilson to accept. A month later, a small American force steams into the Golden Horn. At the Versailles Conference, America accepts a League of Nations Mandate over Constantinople and other parts of Turkey. General of the Armies John Pershing commands American forces.
Smedley Butler stood on the upper walk of the Galata Tower, the streets of Constantinople's European district winding down the low hill to the Golden Horn and the Bosporus below him. The iron railing was hot from the late August sun. He stared east across the dark blue water of the Bosporus to the shore of Anatolia. Smoke rose from Üscüdar, the shattered Asian suburbs of the imperial city, where Dwight Eisenhower and his company had died as Turkish Nationalists drove American troops from Asiatic Turkey. He looked south over the narrow flow of the Golden Horn to Stamboul, the ancient center of Constantinople. The minarets and domes of Süleyman's great mosque were bright in the early afternoon sun, as were the slender towers of the other great mosques of the Ottoman sultans.
"Will the Nationalists move more men across, General?" The young marine second lieutenant commanding the observation post shifted nervously.
"No need to. Mustafa Kemal already has an army behind us. Besides, we have the Governor General's yacht to help."
The U.S.S. Arizona rode at anchor half a mile off the Golden Horn, her twelve 14-inch guns aiming beyond Butler to the Thracian Plain and the Nationalist army investing the city. Aft of her rear turret, an awning blazed white in the afternoon sun, shading Governor General Albert B. Fall's reception for the allied ambassadors. Smedley handed the binoculars to the lieutenant and turned to enter the ancient stone tower. Butler's movements revealed a wiry toughness earned from three decades' campaigning as a marine.
Explosions slapped behind him. He spun around as another explosion banged across the water. A white fountain spouted from the far side of the Arizona. Smoke, gray turning black, billowed over the ship. Shock froze Butler for an instant.
"Call Army headquarters. Order Colonel Patton to full alert."
Butler was breathing heavily from his charge down the interior steps of the tower as he jumped into the rear seat of his open staff car. "Customs dock."
Smedley's aide and Army liaison, Major Shaw, asked, "General, what's happened?" Shaw's gaunt face showed his concern.
Butler gripped the top of the door as the car bounced down the cobbled street. "Explosions on Arizona. Can't tell if the Navy blew themselves up or if the Turks are attacking." The blast of the car's horn forced a way though the crowd of European and Turkish pedestrians. The third and fourth stories of the stone and wooden houses loomed over the Rolls Royce as it slid around a sharp corner onto Istiklal Street. The driver swerved, just missing a small red trolley car, and accelerated toward the water.
* * *
The explosion twisted the deck of Arizona from under John Pershing, hurling him against the aft turret. He dropped to one knee but refused to fall further. A cloud of oily smoke swept across the battleship's fantail. Pershing pulled out a handkerchief and tied it over his nose and mouth. "Damn little good this will do."
"General Pershing, sir, are you hurt?"
The concerned face of an ensign hovered above the general. "I don't think so, son." Pershing stood slowly, testing his balance, feeling his sixty years. He coughed deeply, trying to clear the smoke from his lungs, but only drawing in more. "How is the ship?" He reached to straighten his hat and found it missing.
"Don't know, sir. Captain Hahn and Admiral Kessler were both forward showing some pasha around. With the general's permission, I must get to my station."
"Go." The ship jerked and listed heavily to starboard. Civilians attending the reception shoved past Pershing to the railing. Pershing saw an Army major who commanded the governor general's honor guard. "Reynolds, organize the evacuation here. The Navy is busy trying to save the ship."
Pershing scanned the deck for Governor General Fall's shock of white hair, seeing him far aft, surrounded by a small cordon of aides. As he neared Fall, Pershing called, "Is your launch near, Governor?"
Fall ignored Pershing, helping an American oilman toward a rope ladder recently tied to a stanchion. He turned to Pershing. "Best hurry, General."
Pershing heard a woman's scream of, "Sally," and turned. An American woman bent to help a girl of about five, who sat on the deck holding her leg and crying. Blood stained the hem of the child's yellow dress. An older girl in a matching outfit clung to the woman, her eyes wide with fear.
Pershing shoved his way back to the small group, and knelt by the youngest girl. "Here, let me see." Pershing gently examined the girl's leg, which had a slight cut. Emptiness gripped him, as he realizing the girl was only a year or two older than Mary Margaret and that the older girl was near Helen or Anne's age, when all had burned to death before the war. He glanced up at the woman, filled by memories of Frankie, dead in the same fire. He forced himself to concentrate on the present, glad that his touch seemed to comfort the girl. "I don't think it's serious, Madam."
The woman looked down, fear fading as she recognized Pershing. "General, is the ship sinking?"
"Not till you're safe." Pershing spotted Reynolds. "Get these people to the launch, Major."
A rumbling explosion-felt through the deck more than heard-shook the massive battleship. Pershing stumbled as Arizona listed further. At the fantail, he helped a wounded sailor climb over the rail, and felt the man slip from his hands into the arms of sailors on a local caique. He glanced at his hands, seeing the blood and blackened skin that had pealed from the sailor's arms. Pershing wiped his hands on his uniform, trying to ignore the charred-lamb stench of burned human flesh.
"General Pershing." A Navy lieutenant, his white uniform covered in grime, saluted. "Sir, the fire's near the forward magazine."
"Can you flood it?"
"No water pressure. Please abandon ship, General."
Pershing fought his instinct to stay, to help the wounded, knowing his command was ashore. "I'm sorry, Lieutenant." Pershing turned to the stern and climbed down into the steam launch, crowding onto a deck packed with sailors and a few civilians. Fall and the oil tycoon stood on the far side of the launch.
The boat dropped away from the battleship on the fast current, moving out of the heavy smoke from burning bunker oil. Pershing yelled to the boatswain at the wheel, "Get us around to the bow so we can see the damage."
The launch sliced through the calm water toward the dreadnought's bow. The Arizona's port side appeared undamaged, but the ship's heavy list stabbed her 14-inch guns upward, twelve great barrels silhouetted against the sky. The launch rounded the sharp bow.
The foredeck of Arizona vanished in a ball of flame that billowed above the tall masts. Pershing saw-or imagined, for he was never sure-both forward turrets lift upward before crashing back through the main deck. The shock of the explosion smashed into Pershing, knocking him into the crowd of sailors. Sound roared over him, and he raised his arms in protection against falling debris.
The dreadnought shuddered and rolled. Her tall basket-weave masts dipped into the Bosporus, her guns jutting upward. The screams of crewmen flung into the sea rose above the death rattle within the armored hull. The ship vanished beneath the roiling surface. Oil carried fire across the blue water.
* * *
Old Glory and Butler's red flag with his single brigadier's star snapped in the wind as Smedley leapt from his still-moving car. A growing throng of Turks and Europeans crowded the small plaza, voices raised in half a dozen languages Butler recognized, and a dozen he didn't. Black smoke rose from the burning oil marking Arizona's grave. Smedley stared in shock at the flock of small boats circling, seeking survivors. "It only took me ten minutes to get here. Battleships shouldn't die that quickly."
A marine sergeant, a stocky, powerful man with gray hair and a face lined from decades of campaigning, saluted sharply. "The swabbies say Turks floated a mine to her on the current, but nobody knows, General."
"Where's Pershing, Sergeant Cooper?" Butler always felt rapport with Cooper, a relic of the old Marine Corps whom he remembered from the march on Peking and the Panama Battalion.
"With the Governor General, I hope, sir. His launch is picking up survivors."
Butler glanced around the long, narrow promenade, only a few feet above the swiftly moving Bosporus. Four- and five-story stone and brick buildings, mainly occupied by European or local Greek-owned business, crowded the waterfront in a jumble of pastels and stonework. Behind them, buildings climbed the low hill to the medieval gray stones of the Galata Tower with its layer-cake crown of balconies. The crowd grew rapidly, and Butler's hand brushed his holstered .45 at the thought of yet another riot sweeping the city.
Smedley relaxed slightly as two trucks loaded with marines bounced to a stop. "Good timing," Butler said. "Major Shaw, keep the promenade clear, but go easy. The city could go up like a ton of dynamite. Don't light the match."
"I understand, sir." Shaw saluted.
"Sergeant, where's your phone?"
Cooper pointed to a low wooden shack. "Inside, General."
Butler stepped into the small guard post, his boots clicking on the plank floor. He cranked the handle on the phone.
"Headquarters, Lieutenant Zack."
"General Butler here. Is the garrison on alert?"
"No, sir. Not without Colonel Patton's orders. I'm trying to reach him, sir."
"Where is Colonel Patton?"
"Not quite sure, sir. He's playing a polo match against the wogs, General, over in Stamboul." The answer came with obvious reluctance. "Civilizing them, he said."
Smedley Butler took off his broad-brimmed campaign hat for a moment and wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve, brushing his dark hair back, using the gesture to bring his temper under control. "Full alert. Now. Send the Army to reinforce the perimeter."
"Marine riot squads into the streets. If the residents of Stamboul see this as a signal to attack foreigners, the sultan's police won't stop them. Send every vehicle you can spare to move the wounded to hospital."
"Yes, sir, General."
"Damn Patton!" Butler said in a harsh whisper as he walked from the building. "Aristocratic bastard should be on duty, not playing polo. No wonder the Turks ambushed him in Armenia."
"We finally have some ambulances, sir." Sergeant Cooper saluted. "And the governor general's launch just landed."
Butler glanced at the flock of aides circling Fall as he walked away from his launch. The governor general's shock of white hair was like a flag in the center of the crowd. His voice, loud as always, carried his New Mexico drawl across the plaza.
Butler pushed through the gaggle of sycophants around the governor general. "Governor Fall, was General Pershing injured?"
"Nigger Jack's playing nurse..." Recognizing Butler, Fall sputtered to silence, then continued, his voice petulant. His bronzed face, white hair and drooping mustache made him look like a carnival pitchman. His blue eyes were narrow and cold. "Pershing is still on my launch. Bring him to me, General Butler."
Pershing's normally immaculate uniform was covered in soot and dirt. He helped a sailor, whose right leg twisted hideously at the knee, stagger to the dock. Butler took the sailor's other arm and the two generals eased the man to a stretcher.
"Glad you made it ashore, General. We were afraid you'd been caught in the explosion."
"There were children aboard. I could not abandon them to a fire." Pershing's voice broke slightly as he talked.
"I understand, sir," Smedley said.
"General Pershing, we must talk. Now." Albert Fall's drawl cut through the cries of the wounded. He indicated the tall, chunky oilman he had escorted from the sinking Arizona. "You have not met Mister Walters. He landed from the Princess Matoika yesterday to sign a new concession with the sultan's government. We must stop the Nationalists, General. They refuse to honor the sultan's agreements."
"Mister Walters, you will excuse us, sir, as this conversation may involve military matters," Pershing said.
Fall started to object, then followed Pershing and Butler into the nearby guard shack. "General Pershing, the Army has allowed Mustafa Kemal and his followers to become an irritation. Get rid of this bandit."
"Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish Nationalists have just driven a hundred and fifty thousand Greek troops from Anatolia. He has twenty thousand of his men at our backs in European Turkey." John Pershing's tone made his contempt for Fall clear. "We have twenty-five hundred troops holding our perimeter and General Butler's fifteen hundred marines holding the city. If we stay in Constantinople and the Turks attack, we die, Governor. We must evacuate."
"I give you orders, General. You do not order me," Fall nearly shouted.
"I advised President Wilson to reject this mandate. He did not. With Wilson gone, President Harding refuses to send more troops, and yet you block a diplomatic solution with Mustafa Kemal. The American Mandate is over, Governor."
"I am not here to surrender American interests to a wog," Fall said, his New Mexico drawl thicker as his voice rose again. He pulled out a cigar and lit it, not offering one to Pershing or Butler.
"You don't defend American interests, Governor. You defend American companies," Butler said. "You ordered the sultan to revoke European oil concessions and give them to Americans. There is a price for that. The French signed a treaty with Kemal last year. The British are about to. You have isolated us from European help to defend your racket."
"We do not need Europe, General Butler. You didn't run from the Niggers in Haiti. Why do you run from the Turks?" Fall puffed a cloud of cigar smoke into the air.
Butler spun and walked to the far side of the room so as not to strike the politician. Fall's voice rose behind him, "General Pershing, remove this man from his command."
"No, Governor, I shall not."
Excerpted from Alternate Generals II Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 9, 2010
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