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BRINGING UP THE PAST

When details of war stories metamorphose into tall tales

by Mark Schreiber

ZERO OVER BERLIN, by Joh Sasaki (translated by Hiroko Yoda with Matt Alt), New York: Vertical, 2004, 346 pp., $22.95 (cloth).
BLACK WIND, by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler. New York: Putnam, 2004, 532 pp., $27.95 (cloth).

“Zero over Berlin,” translated from Joh Sasaki’s 1988 novel, is based on the premise that the German Luftwaffe, frustrated by its fighters’ lack of success against RAF Spitfires in the Battle of Britain, thought it might have better luck manufacturing the Mitsubishi A6M Type 0 Carrier Fighter — more familiarly known as the Zero — under license. (The Zero’s name comes from the final digit of the year it was produced, 2600 by the old Japanese calendar, or 1940).

So it is agreed that a pair of new prototypes of the plane are to be flown to Berlin for evaluation by the Germans, and two disaffected pilots from the Imperial Navy, Lt. Keiichi Ando and Flight Sgt. Kyohei Inui, are assigned the mission of getting the planes to Berlin.

Despite the plane’s long cruising range, in 1940, this journey would not have been easy. Japan’s adversarial relations with the Soviet Union precluded a flight over that country. And after Japan’s having signed the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy, its military planes would not have been welcome in airspace controlled by the Royal Air Force.

Thus begins an intricate plan to fly first to Taiwan and Hanoi — areas under Japanese control — after which anti-British nationalists in India, the Arabian Gulf and Iraq will refuel and service the planes at remote landing fields until they reach neutral Turkey and from there, Berlin.

Sasaki does a good job depicting Ando as a true “samurai” pilot of the old school — gallant against his rivals and disturbed by atrocities against civilians.

“I know why I took the mission,” he mutters to his superior. “Given the choice between stupidity and savagery, I’ll take stupidity every time.”

Although the author pretty much admits in his epilogue that the Zero was by no means the superplane some believed it to be, “Zero” provides a fascinating portrayal of a world already at war a year before Pearl Harbor.

High-tech Jules Verne

Much like the works by “techno-thriller” author Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler’s adventures purvey good-old America-centric heroics. Featuring underwater denizen Dirk Pitt and his comrades in arms, they combine well-researched nautical history with the latest scientific developments. Now age 74, Cussler appears to be grooming his son Dirk to inherit the family business, so to speak.

This time trouble arrives in the form of Dae Jong Kang, wealthy head of a South Korean business conglomerate who happens to be a fanatical North Korean mole. Using murder, bribery and other forms of coercion, Kang is bent on wooing South Korean politicians to vote to end the U.S. military presence, with the goal of Korean reunification on the North’s terms.

In the meantime, Kang’s minions are searching for two sunken Japanese World War II submarines that carried a deadly wartime payload: bomblets containing a freeze-dried smallpox virus (code-named “Makaze” or “Black Wind”) developed by biological warfare researchers in the notorious Unit 731.

In a sleight of hand to keep the Americans off balance, the villains assume the guise of Japanese Red Army radicals. So, while Americans are screaming and hollering at the Japanese (after all, who can tell the difference between these sinister Asiatics?), Kang’s minions confiscate the virus from a Yank recovery ship and pay rogue scientists to transform it into an even deadlier bioweapon for use on Californians.

Pitt joins forces with a tough-as-nails daughter in this cliffhanger. While tales about business tycoons who use their wealth to start wars have never come across as very convincing, you can’t read a Cussler novel without getting a snorkelful of authentic nautical history, plus the latest high-tech breakthroughs in oceanographic exploration. It’s all great fun.

Glacial resolve

When six Japanese aircraft carriers launched an attack on Pearl Harbor and other U.S. bases in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, a seventh Japanese carrier, the Yonaga, didn’t make it. The giant ship had sailed too far north and became entrapped inside a glacier.

Its crew somehow manages to survive and keep its contingent of propeller-driven fighter-bombers, and the aging pilots, functioning.

Four decades later, the giant carrier, finally freed of its icy prison, turns southward to complete its original mission — by amazing coincidence on Dec. 7, 1983. (To say the U.S. Navy is astonished by the discovery is an understatement.) The Yonaga subsequently forms an alliance with the Americans to go after a rogue Mideast nation.

This is the plot of “The Seventh Carrier,” the first in a series of novels published by Peter Albano since 1983.

Albano’s tales may be a bit more implausible than most, but such “alternative” novels, about hypothetical battles that were never actually fought, continue to make their appearance in the United States. Similar works in the vernacular also enjoy a loyal following in Japan.