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Pieces of Kokoda:
The Japanese Army

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2016

Foot soldiers provided the backbone of the Japanese Army in the Guadalcanal campaign, as indeed they were throughout the Pacific war. Japanese industry not only lacked the capacity to produce modern weapons in any quantity; much like Italian industry it also lacked the will. Local designs were more profitable to make without paying pesky license fees to foreign firms.

Our Panzer Grenadier: The Kokoda Campaign game shows the Japanese Army at the peak of its fighting performance. Japanese troops fought with heroic fanaticism, only to be ground down by Marines of equal determination and much greater firepower. Today we'll take a look at what some of the game pieces represent.

Infantry

A Japanese infantry platoon had four squads: three rifle squads and one with three or four of the uniquely Japanese "grenade discharger." Each squad included a Type 96 light machine gun, often called the Nambu after its designer, Capt. Kijiru Nambu. A balky weapon fed by a 30-round magazine (rather than a belt), it used a 6.5mm round but could only accept rifle ammunition at the cost of a greatly reduced rate of fire.

 

Most Japanese riflemen carried the Type 38 6.5mm rifle, usually called the Arisaka. This was one of the longest rifles ever issued — 50 inches long, tipped by a bayonet almost 16 inches long. This met the Japanese requirement for a rifle suitable for bayonet attacks (with fixed bayonet, the weapon was longer than the average Japanese recruit, at 5 feet 3 inches, was tall). Other than that, it had little to recommend it: the small cartridge was underpowered, though post-war tests showed that the rugged action could have taken a much more powerful round. Many shorter Japanese soldiers had a hard time working the bolt while holding the rifle to their shoulder — it was simply too far away. Making it even more difficult to handle, most Japanese officers required their men to keep their bayonets fixed at all times.

By 1939, a replacement began to reach the troops, the Type 99 Arisaka rifle. Of very similar design, it was six inches shorter and fired a much more powerful 7.7mm round. As the war went on more and more of these appeared on the battlefield, but the Japanese never managed to fully replace the older weapon. It did sport a chrome-plated receiver, very useful in humid environments like Guadalcanal.

While officers had their cherished swords, the infantryman's equivalent weapon was his rifle, the focus of the belief that certain physical objects are worthy of reverence for the spirit they possess. A soldier who damaged his rifle not only would face severe physical punishments, he would also have to apologize to the weapon.

The Japanese had great confidence in their close-quarter fighting capabilities, for which either rifle sufficed. In game terms, this has the positive effect of granting the Japanese a special modifier in close combat (something they share with Finns, Gurkhas, Maoris, Somali bande and a handful of others) but they have trouble exiting a close combat that carries over into a subsequent activation.

The Type 89 grenade discharger could fire a standard 50mm hand grenade about 670 meters at maximum range, but only 120 meters with any effective aim. On Guadalcanal the Japanese quickly found that firing them in the jungle could prove hazardous, as the Type 89 grenade had a contact fuse sensitive enough to be set off by jungle vegetation. Called a "knee mortar" by Western troops, the weapon was not actually placed on the leg but fired from the ground like an ordinary mortar. It required a crew of three and a well-trained team could put out an enormous rate of fire — in the Nomonhan battles of 1939, Japanese battalion commanders gathered these squads together to support attacks with impromptu grenade barrages.

A Japanese machine gun platoon had four Type 92 heavy machine guns, a copy of the French Hotchkiss. It fired the 7.7mm round, but was not belt-fed, instead using 30-round strips. The platoon did have much greater manpower than similar units in other armies — 11 men for every gun plus an "ammunition squad" of seven more men in each platoon to help in transport duties. Machine gun platoons were expected to keep up with the advancing infantry in an attack, and press forward with equally suicidal determination. Thus a Japanese Army HMG unit has a movement of 3, compared to 2 for almost all others in the Panzer Grenadier series.

Support Weapons

Like just about every nation on the planet outside the British Empire, the Japanese copied the French-designed Brandt 81mm mortar. Thanks to inferior materials the Japanese Type 97 was slightly heavier than the original and had a slightly lesser range, though not enough to show up in game terms. Early in the war the mortars were not seen as often as they would be in later years; Japanese industry could more easily produce mortar tubes than actual artillery pieces.

     

Instead of mortars, Japanese infantry battalions drew their support from a platoon with two Type 92 70mm infantry guns. This was a short-ranged weapon for an artillery piece, and much heavier than similar light artillery pieces fielded by other nations. But the Japanese provided a large roster of personnel to move the guns, and so they did have some degree of tactical mobility.

The Type 94 37mm anti-tank gun was a licensed copy of the Rheinmetall weapon that equipped the German Army. As such it probably deserves a longer range than we gave it in the game.

Likewise, the 105mm howitzer was a licensed Rheinmetall design, the same design that equipped American batteries as well and the most lethal weapon of the Second World War in terms of total casualties inflicted. However, where American factories poured out over 20,000 of the weapons during the course of the war, during the four years of hostilities Japanese plants managed to complete only twelve.

Tanks

The Japanese brought no tanks over the Kokoda Trail, and there are only two Japanese tank units in the game. The Type 95 Ha-Go light tank had a 37mm gun and two machine guns. Introduced in 1935, by 1942 it was hopelessly outdated and easily destroyed even by the outdated anti-tank weapons issued to Allied troops.

 

The Type 97 "Chi-Ha" medium tank was a development of the Ha-Go and was the most common Japanese tank of the war. It carried a short-barreled 57mm gun in keeping with the tank's infantry support role, and two machine guns. Also no match for enemy anti-tank weapons, it could still provide valuable support against infantry.

Can you lead the Japanese to victory on New Guinea?
Get
The Kokoda Campaign and find out!

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his happy dog, Leopold.