Chapter 2 – Climbing Atop Fallen Empires
It’s a tradition as old as civilization itself, where in their dying days once great empires must give way to the young and ambitious nationstates who have survived the brutal culling that turns many rulers and societies into footnotes in history, those that “almost made it.” Some are not lucky enough to make the cut, unfortunate in both place and time, while other fall out from under their own weight. Hirohito had gotten Japan through its first trials, and in a few short years the world would know whether they would be one of the fortunate ones, or become a failure due to their own over ambition. Naturally, being on this cusp of success or failure, Japan viewed the sickly and frail empires around them as targets, waiting to take their place as they passed away.
Following the conclusion of the successful campaign in China, there was no time for the Imperial Japanese Army to rest. As the navy returned to dock and ground forces established their new garrisons, Hirohito and his staff officers drafted sweeping reforms to the IJA. Prior to Japan’s westward expansion, the Army’s infantry divisions were split into two distinct levels of organization. Half of the army was built around a heavy division, called “Hohei Shidan,” fielding about 18 thousand men split among 12 infantry battalions and three artillery battalions, supported by a wide range of combat, medical, and logistical support staff. The other half was a less bulky division, consisting of 8 thousand men, primarily infantry with some artillery support. Garrison forces were also scattered around the Empire, primarily tasked with defending the Japanese Archipelago, island possessions in the Pacific, and occasionally supporting the primary divisions in their offensives when they were stretched thin. The garrison forces were never meant to be frontline capable, essentially being the size of a reinforced regiment.
This changed drastically when the Army underwent its first expansion in November of 1937, as every infantry division in the IJA was given the difficult task of converting to the Hohei Shidan model. The Garrison troops were no more, as they grew into a force that needed to be capable of going toe to toe with any army across the world. Hundreds of thousands of men were called into service around the Japanese Empire, their paths forever tied into the ever growing IJA. The industrial expansion that concluded shortly before the war in China got its first test, as tens of thousands of uniforms, rifles, artillery, armored cars, and utility vehicles needed to be produced, as well as the countless other materials needed to make a modern army function. All this needed to be produced as fast as the nation’s industry could shoulder. Some divisions weren’t so lucky, as every cavalry division in the Army was disbanded. The Cavalry served well in China, but the IJA was calling for modernization, and moving into battle on horseback was rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Their equipment and men were distributed to the Hohei Shidan divisions, taking some of the burden off of domestic manufacturing. Once the newly trained men were off to their new divisions, the IJA now stood at just over 1 million men.
In September, during the mobilization process, Japan’s expectations in Europe were confirmed as France and Britain signed a formal alliance. It was always assumed that the two would come to each other’s aid regardless of circumstance, but now it was an officially announced to the world, and the Japanese government needed to plan accordingly. After weeks of debate, the conclusion of the American question was finally answered. There were those that hoped that the United States could be swayed to side with Japan, not necessarily on the battlefield, but at least in terms of sympathy and understanding. Japan had no intentions of spreading farther east than the Marshall Islands, but was that something the rest of the world would believe when faced with a wave of sudden Japanese aggression? Not likely, and to make matters worse there were many American interests in the Pacific as well. Any attempt at infiltrating the American government stood no chance. The country rallied around President Roosevelt as he successfully guided the nation out of the great depression, and United States government was stronger than it had been in decades, if not ever. America was now the Arsenal of Democracy, and that foundation was unshakable. Convincing them to side with an expanding imperial power that possessed fascist sympathies would require an act of divine intervention. The United States was going to be an enemy, there was no way around that. The only hope was for the Allies to be weakened as much as possible before this occurred, and the Imperial Japanese Navy needed to be capable of fending off the US Navy when that time came. If they were lucky enough, perhaps any American attempts at intervention could be rendered irrelevant, keeping them out of the fight if possible. For now, Hirohito was going to do as much as he could with the unknown amount of time that he had.
Buying this time would come from conquering the European held islands in the Pacific, primarily in Indonesia. The Dutch East Indies and the colonial possessions of the Netherlands were a prime target, possessing strings of resource saturated islands that were lightly defended. Lightly defended as they were, the location of these island chains proved difficult. Japanese forces would have to sail across large stretches of ocean to reach their destination, and once they got there they would have to secure beachheads and move through countless miles of thick jungle that made habitation difficult. The battle to properly supply these forces would be brutal. To fit this purpose, in November of 1937, eighteen divisions were formally established and began training on the island of Kyushu. These eighteen divisions were to be the marines, called “Rikusentai.” Each division was home to 13 thousand men spread among seven infantry and three artillery battalions. They were to be Japan’s go to force for conquering Indonesia, fighting with specialized equipment allowing them to take and hold beachheads and fight deep into the dense, sweltering jungle. As their training cycles completed, each of these divisions were deployed throughout the island chains of Palau, the Caroline Islands, and the Marshall Islands. They were based with a number of regular infantry divisions who would follow them onto the beach. Meanwhile, the rest of the IJA took station on the French-Indo China border, preparing for the inevitable conflict. It was now December of 1938. The Marines were approaching their final phases of training, and Hirohito simply had to wait for his moment.
Brewings of discontent began to stir in Europe, as Hungary kicked off 1939 by invading its neighbor Czechoslovakia. No German’s crossed the border, but the German Reich backed the Hungarian offensive, and Hitler continued his posturing in Europe. Europe was a powderkeg, and the Wehrmacht were holding the match, waiting to drop it at the time most convenient for them. Japan sat and waited, prepared to strike when the European colonies in Southeast Asia were at their most vulnerable. As the sun rose over Palau on the 5th of October 1939, the Japanese fleets left their ports and sailed towards New Guinea and Borneo. For the second time in two years, the Empire of Japan was going to war.
The Imperial Japanese Navy had strengthened considerably since 1937, reaping the full benefit of the industrial expansion and acquisition of natural resources in China. The IJN fleet was destroyer heavy 1937, now allowing the Navy to focus on its larger capital ships. When the IJN sailed for the Dutch East Indies, they boasted 3 carriers and 3 light carriers, 6 battleships, 4 battlecruisers, and 21 heavy cruisers.
The new editions were the two Nagato class battleships, both untested and chopped to the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. Yamamoto’s fleet would be taking the lead, and the whole IJN was watching. The senior admiral was tasked with taking his fleet straight to the coast of Borneo with the goal of inflicting as much damage to the enemy as possible. The oceans needed to belong to Japan. Yamamoto’s fleet was the largest, composed of the aircraft carriers Ryujo and Hosho. They were on the smaller side, possessing 56 aircraft between them, but they provided a much needed force multiplier. They were accompanied by Haruna and Hiei, Kongo class battlecruisers.
Haruna made a name for itself two years prior, sinking three cruisers in the war with China. Yamamoto also had command of 4 battleships, 4 heavy cruisers, 6 light cruisers, 23 destroyers, and 19 submarines.
The Imperial Japanese Navy met and exceeded all expectations, devastating the Dutch navy in the early stages of the conflict. By the 31st of October the Dutch East Indies had lost 21 thousand sailors and aviators, yet had been unable to sink a single Japanese ship. Admiral Mineichi Koga, commanding Second Fleet in the Java Sea, saw outstanding success hunting down and crushing the Dutch submarine fleet. Of his 17 destroyers, 9 were credited with submarine kills. Some, such as Hibiki, an Akatsuki Class destroyer, sunk as many as three. Supported by the rest of the Koga’s fleet, his destroyers performed feats typically associated with the capital ships. The Nagatsuki, a Mutsuki class destroyer, sunk the Jacob van Heemskerck, a Dutch heavy cruiser, crushing the morale of the Dutch fleet. Merchant shipping was also entirely strangled, and the IJN locked down the Celebes, Java, and Bismarck Sea.
The first ground forces to land ashore were seven divisions under the command of General Shizuichi Tanaka, landing in Borneo as night fell on the 15th of October. Ten days later, General Toshizo Nishio’s 7 divisions made landfall in Sulawesi. These seven divisions would be a part of the first land battle of the war, as two of Nishio’s divisions squared off against a division led by the Dutch General Hein ter Poorten. The IJA saw slow, but steady gains, struggling to move quickly in the harsh landscape that created Indonesia. Both armies suffered casualties measured in the hundreds over the coming weeks.
As Hirohito’s luck would have it, the European powderkeg finally detonated in the first week of December. Germany invaded the Netherlands on December 7th, and as expected the Dutch pleaded with to Britain and France for assistance. No longer willing to sit to the side and be a spectator to German aggression, the Allies welcomed the Netherlands into their alliance as they declared war on the Axis Powers. It was too late for the Dutch, who were utterly crushed under the weight of the Wehrmacht and surrendered two days later. Regardless of their fate, the events that followed were no more than a domino effect. As a result of bringing the Netherlands into the Allied Powers, what was once an affair between Japan and the Netherlands promptly reached global proportions. To the surprise of many, every single member of the Allies signed the declaration of war against the new enemy in the Pacific. The Empire of Japan now had to fight against the United Kingdom, Australia, British Raj, Burma, France, and over a half dozen other lesser allied powers who held possessions outside of the Pacific. The United Kingdom had large amounts of influence in Indonesia, Australia sat just several hundred miles away from the current ground offensive in Western Papua New Guinea, and Japan shared a border with Burma, British Raj, and French Indo-China. No one could contest the power of the Imperial Japanese Navy, but the situation on the ground became significantly more complicated. The mood throughout the military and government was calm, if anything. This precise scenario was anticipated, and everything that Hirohito had assembled over the previous two years was all in preparation for this exact moment. As the IJA armies continued their push in Indonesia, 660 thousand men were given the order to charge to the West, climbing atop falling empires as Japan was making her own.
Ch.1 – Imperial Ambitions