Chapter 4 – The Meeting of Steel Giants
Emperor Hirohito had accomplished his objectives for Japan, and had it been up to him, the newly expanded Empire was willing to call for peace, taking her new territories and lands and staying within her own borders, using her proud Army and Navy to protect its new domains and show the world just how powerful and influential Japan had become. This opinion was not shared with the Allies, as Japan had done the world a great injustice by seizing their own rightful territories, and the lands of those weaker than them. Committed to the romantic ideas of liberation, the Allies would not stop until the Japanese Empire had been cast down.
First blood between the Empire of Japan and the United States of America was months in the making, and less dramatic than many had expected. In February of 1943, American submarines began sinking Japanese merchants boldly close to the home islands. This was an insult to the prowess of the Japanese Navy, who were quickly recalled from the Indian Ocean to deal with this threat. In March, the three grand battle-fleets were all folded into one 104 warship fleet under the command of Admiral Yamamoto with one simple instruction: Sink every American ship in the Mariana’s Region, or die trying. The giants were finally going to collide.
On the 22nd of April, 1942, American and Japanese forces made first contact. Reconnaissance aircraft from the light carrier Chitose spotted a 26 ship formation under the command of Admiral “Bull” Halsey, and the available carriers launched sorties to engage the threat. Over the course of several hours, 6 Wickes-class destroyers, the USS Bernadou, Ellis, Lea, Tarbell, Howard, and Hogan, were struck and drifted towards the bottom at the cost of a torpedo bomber from Soryu. The Battle of Iwo Jima had begun. The disproportionate response of the Japanese Navy was unexpected by American forces in the region, proving that overwhelming force was sometimes the preferred option compared to trickery or sound strategy. Over the next 24 hours, hundreds of Japanese aircraft swarmed the American formation sinking the USS Independence, Cabot, Annapolis, and Wake Island, the ever vital American light carriers in the Pacific. Their escorts went down with them. The relentless anti-submarine effort claimed 26 American submarines over the course of the week. A week after it began, the Battle of Iwo Jima was over, and all but one Japanese destroyer could return home. The initial confrontation between the two of the world’s giants was as violent as expected, but significantly more lopsided than anyone had imagined. Due to previous commitments to Europe, and out of intimidation, the United States was essentially kicked out of the Pacific for the time being. Yet, the success posed an interesting “problem” to Japanese admirals. With the exception of the submarine fleet, all of the American warships were sunk by flight wings stationed aboard aircraft carriers. Were the proud and numerous battleships and battle-cruisers of the Japanese Navy obsolete before they could even be used in battle? It appeared as if centuries-old naval doctrine was about to be flipped on its head.
With the door open to the Philippines, General Terauchi led 10 divisions in the initial invasion beginning on June 6th, 1942. General Ando followed with 8 marine divisions several weeks later, cutting off the Philippine retreat towards Manila. The Philippines were now definitively part of Japanese occupied territory, but holdouts would remain and continue to fight for nearly another year. The Indonesian campaign continued uncontested, as General Tanaka and his seven famed island-hopping divisions began their invasion of the Solomon Islands in Mid-September. While Japanese infantry was hitting the beach in the Solomon’s, Field Marshall Hata began to break the Allies in India. Allied forces were pedaling backwards fast, growing increasingly disorganized as Hata finally applied the constant and overwhelming force he spent the last two years waiting to use. The first Japanese forces marched into Delhi on December 4th, and with this objective accomplished the fall of British Raj was no longer a question of “if,” but “when.” Broken and collapsing, the Allies stood no chance as Hata was now able to drive the opposing force into the sea while attempting to minimize his own casualties. 33 days later, British Raj formally surrendered, taking away the last Allied territory on the Asian mainland. Almost 1,400,000 Indian soldiers died in the effort. It was now the beginning of 1943, and Japan had buried 600 thousand of her own to get this far in the second and final effort to complete her conquest of the Pacific.
The conquest of Europe was an even more devastating endeavor, with the German Reich losing 800 thousand men to the Soviet Union, and another 350 thousand lost between Finland, Italy, Romania, and Hungary. The losses endured by the Axis paled in comparison to the Soviet Union, who welcomed in the new year with 8 million dead: A rate of nearly 11,000 men a day since the war began.
With the stranglehold of the Pacific nearly complete, the debate over naval doctrine was still raging among Japanese admirals. The believers in the colossal capital ships like the battleships and battle cruisers insisted that their ships were far from becoming obsolete. They just hadn’t had their chance in this war. Those who supported a carrier based doctrine had plenty of evidence to back them up, but the midst of war was no time for experimentation. In February of 1943, the hulls of 5 new Nagato-class battleships were laid down, scheduled for completion during the winter of the same year.
Their potential for contribution took another hit, as a second naval battle occurred in the Mariana’s Region on March 1st. Once again Yamamoto’s grand fleet was at the center of the action, routing an American battlegroup under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz. Aircraft from the Japanese Fleet Carrier Kaga sunk the USS Essex, dealing another devastating loss to the United States Navy, and the future of the battleship. After the initial loss of Essex, the battle would continue on for several days. Nimitz would go on to lose 13 destroyers and 3 submarines at the expense of 2 Japanese destroyers.
The IJA’s largest planned naval invasion of yet was prepared and executed in October of 1943, with the aim of capturing what was left of the Dutch colonies. General’s Ando, Tanaka, and Terauchi would all land between Batavia and the Lesser Sunda Islands, leaving the Dutch with no options for retreat as their last island chain fell. Resistance was brief, and the overwhelmed Dutch forces began to backpedal almost immediately. While the 3 island hopping Generals wrapped up their campaign, General Yamashita was invading Ceylon and the Maldives off India. Both sides took minimal casualties, but in terms of territory lost, the damage was done. The Dutch East Indies capitulated on January 2nd, 1944, and the last holdout in Indonesia was the English colony of Singapore.
Shortly before the fall of Indonesia, the world’s media outlets caught wind of the arrival of Japanese diplomats in Berlin. While the specific contents and details of the conference were kept out of the public eye, it was glaringly obvious that strategic interests were the center of conversation. The increasing level of cooperation between the German Reich and Empire of Japan was now impossible to hide, and left world leaders questioning how this would impact the course of world events in both the short and long term.
Rested from the conquest of the Maldives, General Yamashita was given the task of wrapping up the conquest in Indonesia, invading Singapore on March 30th, 1944. The last English forces were overrun and captured on June 9th. With the exception of neutral Siam, Indonesia and South-East Asia now belonged solely to the Empire of Japan. To the south, Australia and New Zealand could wait. They posed nearly zero threat to the expanding Empire. The Imperial Ambitions had been accomplished, and the only question remaining was whether Hirohito could hold in the face of enormous Allied resistance.
The Battle for the Pacific still had room for another major clash, as the United States Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy decided upon August 29th to have it out once again. At the Battle of Kwajalein, Admirals Yamamoto and Raymond A. Spruance squared off in the Pacific’s most destructive naval battle yet. By day’s end, the aging carrier USS Ranger was sunk by aircraft from the Kaga. Japanese battleships also scored critical hits, sinking the 5 American light carriers present, including the Princeton, Monterey, and Vella Gulf. The battle was also the first head to head action battleships. The battleship Kongo was credited with sinking the USS New Mexico, Kirishima dealt the last blow to both the Mississippi and Texas, while the heavy cruiser Aoba sank the USS Idaho. Yamamoto suffered losses of his own, losing the light carrier Chitose to aircraft from the USS Essex, as well as two heavy cruisers, 4 light cruisers, a submarine, and 15 destroyers. Once again, the United States was driven from the Atlantic.
Those faithful to the capital ships had their day, but they were still overshadowed by the successes of the carrier fleet. By the end of the Battle of Kwajalein, among Yamamoto’s famed First Fleet, his 3 fleet carriers Akagi, Kaga, and Soryu accounted for sinking 60 warships between them. Akagi’s notable victims included the Dutch cruiser Jacob van Heemskerk, and the British light carrier HMS Unicorn. Kaga had been able to take credit for sinking the British battleship HMS Royal Oak, and the American carriers USS Independence, Wake Island, Essex, and Ranger. Of his 10 battleships and battle cruisers, another 35 warships had been sunk. Yamamoto’s 11 heavy cruisers, 8 light cruisers, 12 destroyers, and 28 submarines accounted for another 68 combat kills. All total, the combined 74 survivors of First Fleet sank 170 warships. The Imperial Japanese Navy was an outstanding success, and as Autumn fell upon the Pacific, Hirohito felt confident enough to claim victory in the world’s largest ocean. The American’s would surely return, but would likely never recover from the loss at Kwajalein, while the Japanese Navy had the good fortune to begin repairs and grow stronger, as 7 new battleships left their berths at the Chugoku naval base near Hiroshima.
Fall would truly run red, as Germany seized Leningrad on the 15th of September, 1944. The Soviet Union was now beginning to reach 10,000,000 combat deaths, and began to waver under the might of the Axis. Germany and the Axis front sacrificed 3,000,000 men to push so far east, let alone their staggering casualties on the Western Front. Germany could not hold out forever. As the relationship between the Japanese Empire and the German Reich grew ever closer, Japan found herself at a cross roads yet again. What began as an imperial venture into the Pacific threatened to turn into something much more, something that Hirohito nor the would could have never anticipated. Despite so much success, victory was still far from guaranteed. Japanese diplomats met with Germany once again, but the stakes were much higher on this occasion. The Pacific may have been pacified, but Europe was still an unknown quantity, and the future of both Empires now hung in the balance. The final question was whether they would go it alone, or together.