A/N: Welcome back folks, here's chapter one of a new series continuing from my previous story: "The Rift, The Eagle, Rising Sun, and Sozin's Comet. If you haven't read that story I would recommend reading that first, as, if you don't, not alot of this will make sense or seem completely unfounded. This time set years after the decades of that story. There will be flashbacks occurring throughout so pay attention to the dates mentioned at various sections in the story. As before, I will try to stick as closely as possible to the established timeline of the series, taking into account names of places and geographical details of the ATLA/LOK world, as well as other details large and small in the series to make this as immersive and coherent as possible. But for flow and setting of this plot, some of the timelines will be slightly different. For example, in the series Korra should be roughly 21 during season 4 with Kuvira and the earth Empire, but here she'll be slightly older, and will have been in hiding and inactivity for a much longer time. Also, here we are, skipping the first 3 seasons of LoK and going straight to season 4. In the future I may write series for each of them, or stories following Aang's ambitious efforts in the years from 1949 to his death in 1996 A.D. at the age of 66 years old (...or technically 166). But of course that's getting realllyyyyy far ahead of ourselves here, but there will be bits and pieces of hints here and there of what happened from then to now. I hope you enjoy watching the events of this story unfold. I hope for your support in this series as well.
Ch1: The United Forces
Hiroaki Takeda, a former lieutenant of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had settled into a comparatively tranquil and calm lifestyle following the conclusion of the war. For him and tens of thousands of others, the war took a significantly different turn of events than what the world understood. And despite those events, as surreal as they still seemed to him, Hiroaki never once returned to that world.
After 1949, when the Japanese and US fleets, what remained of the carrier groups which had originally disembarked for Midway in 1942, had returned finally and dropped anchor in Osaka, Japan after missing for seven years, Hiroaki-, Hiro for short, settled down into a simple and mundane job. After finally being released from the custody of the US Military Police, with a stern slap on the wrist, he was allowed to reintegrate into Japanese society. From the day he had taken off his IJN dress uniform at the start of 1950, almost a decade ago, now, he never put it on, and never touched a weapon since. Rather, he had settled and took a job working in the family's tailoring shop. The Takeda's were relatively known in the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the lush Ginza-District of Tokyo for producing very fine and well-tailored suits and, on occasion, dresses and gowns. A skilled warrior with adept leadership, shooting skills, and attention to detail, Hiro now had a very keen eye for the fit of a jacket, a steady hand for cutting fabric, and never glossed past any of the smallest imperfections; even if the client never noticed them.
He had been enjoying a peaceful and fulfilling life. No more action. He worked diligently behind the consulting desk, on the sales and measuring floors, and in the back cutting and sewing room with no issues and had soon developed a sort of daily routine which he followed with military-accuracy. His wife, Nanami, often was behind the counter, but also tuned in to help with measurements. Her bright but elegant and modest smile was said to be a convincing role in luring the many passing clients to come through their doors to get their first suit, or additions to their expanding wardrobe. Gone were the days of his cold, and at times, terrifying, aura of authority and indifference.
The former navy lieutenant still, however, would think back on that world. The Bending World as they now formally called it. The supernatural alternate world was mentioned every now and then in the Japan Times, but the news was often months out of date. He remembered passing through the depths of the mighty Pacific, falling through what seemed to be a dark abyss aboard the Takao-class heavy cruiser, Haguro. The frigid and freezing waters off the Northern Water Tribe still sent shivers through his body from memory alone. Hiro would remember the fighting in the Fire Nation Royal Palace, and how he unloaded his Type 14 Nambu at Fire Lord Ozai, killing the ruler and placing the Princess, Azula, as head of state in the Fire Nation. The brutal shelling and fighting at Kyoshi Island, dueling the US Fleet still kept him up at night occasionally. And he'd never forget the heat and the near-death fight aboard Azula's ship during Sozin's Comet. And after all had been said and done, he waited seven long years, in that world, before he could finally set foot in Japan once again. He was glad it was all over. That he could come back to his lovely and devoted wife, Nanami, who had never lost hope during those seven years, and was able to soon raise a son of his own; now nine-years old. The joy and the satisfaction of being allowed to return to his home country, and live this life was more than enough to keep him here. And for a number of years after, the idea of ever leaving Japan again never came up. He felt as though he would lose it all, should he sail away from her shores again. But nine years was a long time.
The more he heard of the Bending World, now that travel in between seemed to be becoming more and more normalized, the more he was curious as to how it was developing. He cursed himself every now and then when he would imagine going, as there were troubles around his own country to deal with. Rebuilding a war-torn Japan, and if necessary needing to step up once again to defend the island should the nearby wars in Asia spill over and touch the Land of the Rising Sun. Of which none ever did. But he wondered. Oh, how the former lieutenant wondered. But even if he was to act on a now subtle desire to take up arms again, what would allow him to do so.
Japan was now able to regain some of its military strength back. Originally, the US terms for the Japanese surrender was for Japan to never have such a prominent military of its own again. No carrier fleets or battleships. No masses upon masses of troops-..Certainly no nuclear capabilities. But all that was eventually lessened years after their return as a result of constant pushing and prodding by Avatar Aang, of all people. Although the young man, twelve years old when Hiro had first learned about him, was fully against war, standing armies, and weapons in general, he argued for Japan in the light of fairness. It took many years for the world to listen to Aang as well, as to them he was just some strange alien boy from another unrelated world with pagan and/or demonic or God-given powers to move the elements with his mind; this fact, still was not easily accepted. Despite this, Japan's armed forces remained primarily domestically-oriented and small. They had a single aircraft carrier, outdated by 1958's standards, a small handful of light warships. Their tanks were largely left over American tanks from the occupation when they were only allowed to have a Self-Defense Force. And although there were carriers, battleships, and heavy cruisers which returned to Japan in 1949, many were no longer in Japanese possession. The US Navy commandeered all the IJN capital ships immediately upon their arrival, and only salvaged a few. Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu served as carriers for a year after in the US Navy, but were deemed too outdated, obsolete, and unnecessary burdens and were scrapped. Atago and Haguro, heavily damaged and partially restored Takao-class heavy cruisers, were eventually sold off to defensive forces of the early United Republic in the Bending World. And Yamato, the flagship of the Imperial Navy during the war, saw use repurposed into the US Navy during the Korean War. She underwent repairs and an extensive overhaul before being returned to sea and seeing action shelling the Korean Peninsula.
Hiro remembered the day Yamato was relaunched vividly. The ship slid into the water after leaving dry dock; without as much pomp and circumstance as years before in 1941, when she was commissioned. The onlookers, veterans and sons of Japan alike, were grim, as if a large piece of national identity was taken from them; what little of it remained at the time. The super ship was still grand, but it lacked that air of elegance and refinement to it, this time the battleship-gray hull and structures were just that: gray and cold. The sixteen-petaled golden chrysanthemum crest, a mark of Japan and its Emperor, had been removed from the bow, at the request of the Japanese people, where it was held in storage for safe keeping. No longer was it referred to as Yamato either, the US Navy didn't even really know what to name it for a while, eventually settling on designating the former Japanese flagship as USS Montana for the entirety of its service life. On the port and starboard bow, the hull number, BB-65 was painted just rear of the anchor in stark white, and the Stars Spangled Banner flew high above the ship's mast. Hiro, formerly Lieutenant Takeda, felt saddened inside as well that day. There were talks, now that the US Navy was once again considering shedding some of its warships to downsize, that Yamato was destined for two fates: potentially being acquired and fielded by the growing United Republic, or slain by the smelter's torch and cut up for scrap metal.
Of course, this peaceful and tranquil streaked life would change for Hiroaki one day.
Hiroaki had one of his favorite suits on. A hefty wool suit, a deep and dark navy blue with subtle herringbone weave. The jacket, a double breasted six-on-two configuration with a strong roped shoulder, full chest, tailored waist, and with excellent drape. The full cut matching trousers, hung straight with the hem just resting on the top of his well-shined black oxfords. It was not his old uniform but it certainly had the same flare and strong appearance to it. He was busy, heavy steel fabric scissors in his hand, cutting the front panel piece for a blazer from a bolt of finely woven wool fabric when he heard his wife call from the store front.
"Hiro!" Nanami called to him, "You have a visitor! He stepped out to finish his cigarette!"
"Okay! I'll be out there!" the former officer replied, gently setting down one of his tools of his trade.
Hiroaki stopped before the full-length mirror and pulled down on the hem of his coat, to reset how the jacket rested on his body. His presentation was important, a lesson he retained from his days in the navy. He fixed his necktie to ensure it was just right, and quickly inspected the mirror-shine on his shoes to see if there were any scuffs he needed to quickly buff out. Having been satisfied with his presentation, he stepped toward the entrance quarter of the store in a dignified manner.
The sound of his leather-soled shoes against the polished and sturdy wooden floor, the heavy thud that came from each step, brought back images of an officer pacing the deck atop the command bridge of a warship on the high seas. Hiro never stopped carrying himself in that dignified military composure, despite his wife's wishes.
The brass bell, a chime, which hung in the corner of the door clanged as the door quickly was thrown open. And a similar pair of presence was felt. The same, thud, thud, thud, of leather shoe soles against the wooden floor and a similarly tailored presence came in. The man's trousers, dark green, similarly were hemmed just touching the top of his well shined black service shoes. His tunic, four buttoned, had a strong shoulder structure, four box pleat pockets, two breast pockets and two hip pockets, and a fabric belt which cinched the waist of the jacket with the belt buckle flush with the button line. A matching set of twin silver bars were pinned on the edge of his shoulder epaulets, and on the lapel of the coat were the insignia of the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor; the symbol of the US Marine Corps. The man held his barracks cover tucked between his arm and sides. Hiroaki knew this man well.
"Irasshaimasse," he respectfully greeted, with a stoic look on his face. He bowed to greet the incoming customer. After straightening out and meeting the American officer's eyes Hiroaki continued in Japanese, "I'm sorry. But ever since returning from the Bending World, I still have not gotten much better at English. It may be difficult for us to talk as we did when we could miraculously understand each other, there, Joe-san" he said, regrettably, knowing the American officer likely did not understand.
"But I can understand you," Joe replied in his best Japanese pronunciation, "At least, a little."
Hiro's face lit up. His eyes widened, he could not believe his old comrade, former enemy, and old friend, was able to speak his native tongue. "You have studied Japanese, lieutenant? Your army made you learn it for the occupation?"
"It's captain now," Joe corrected. "And, no. The Corps did not make me study Japanese…Rather, I did it of my own free will."
"You studied Japanese, just to come here, talk to me, and buy a suit?" Hiro asked, still perplexed.
"No," Joe cut him off. "You're not that important," the captain teased. "Know your place in the world. No-, rather I learned a little for the sake of my girlfriend. And..still learning! She is teaching the rest," Joe chuckled, grinning a bright smile. He was happy to see the man he fought alongside on Azula's ship all those years ago.
"You're dating a Japanese girl," Hiro remarked, smiling, as if he couldn't believe it. His eyes looked around the room as if searching for some answer. "What happened to your girl? The one you left back home in Tennessee?"
"Seven years was a long time," Joe revealed, "She thought I was dead. Moved on. And I can't blame her. I'm over it truthfully. Happier now.
"Hm, of course you are," Hiro simply replied. "So, what brings you here? How's America taking Aang's overly ambitious ideas of world peace and an end to all wars?"
"Hah," Joe laughed out loud, "To tell it to you, Truman brushed it off as non-sense with bigger problems at hand, and President Eisenhower only gave the avatar the light of day with a brief audience when Aang started to talk about freely traveling between the worlds. I see how Aang is frustrated, but at the same time from the perspective of an American president who just finished World War Two, and one who was a former five-star general in World War Two, I can see how witchcraft and practically children speaking about peace-not-war is nonsensical."
"I heard Aang ramped up his intensity after seeing Auschwitz. He certainly did again after Hiroshima, and Manzanar," Hiroaki recalled.
"Yeah," Joe sighed, Aang's voice got even louder after those visits. "I remember him saying, he saw those in a nightmare back on the Enterprise during the war, and was hoping he could stop it."
"Hmmph," Hiro sighed as well, looking toward the floor. "Well, we did warn him. He needed to learn somehow, we were serious, I guess."
"Yeah," was all Joe could say, as he jammed his other free hand into his trouser pockets and looked around the room. He caught sight of a Japanese navy officer's peaked cap. "You still kept this from your uniform? And display it in the store front?" Joe walked over to the uniform cap, which sat atop the wooden drawers.
"It's not mine," Hiroaki replied, "It was my fathers. From when he was in the Emperor's navy. This is his tailoring shop."
"How's business been?" Joe asked.
"Slow," Hiroaki quickly returned. "Not too many clients. It's starting to pick up now, but, the years right after the war, times were hard."
"You'll get more customers once your country finds a way to make the trip from Osaka to Tokyo faster, I'll tell you that," Joe interrupted. "Took forever to come up the Tokaido line."
"Word is," Hiroaki started, "I heard they are planning some kind of express line to cut through the mountains. A straight line from Tokyo to Osaka, and some kind of 'high-speed train system' is being discussed…I don't think it'll work. Too ambitious," Hiroaki groaned.
"Ambition is a good thing to have, though. Without it, no progress will occur," Joe transitioned.
"Is that what you came here for? To buy a suit from ambition? You going to marry that girl of yours?" Hiroaki pried, grinning.
"I'm thinking about it, Takeda-san. I really am. But no, that's not what I am here for. And truth be told, I already have a fine suit. Don't need another one."
"Yeah, a good suit I bought from Brooks Brothers last time I was in San Francisco," Joe replied.
Hiroaki scoffed, "Hah. Brooks Brothers. Yeah you do need a suit from me. So you can know how a suit should fit."
"Yeah, well you're looking mighty snazzy yourself, partner. Maybe I will come by and buy a suit from your family one day. But not from you," Joe clarified.
"And why not from me?"
"Because I think you're bored here. You got an eye for it, I'll give you that, but a little bird tells me you want to get back in the fight. I can see it. The bushido warrior in you still has fight in him," Joe enticed.
"A warrior without a war, however," Hiro sighed. "What is there to fight?"
"More than you'd think. And you wouldn't believe you if I told you," Joe answered.
"There are no wars, now," Hiroaki reminded, "A lot of sword rattling from your country and the Soviet Union, but no fighting. Not yet."
"Not here," Joe corrected. "I have a proposition for you, though."
"Tell me more," Hiro asked, orienting his ear to the American officer.
"You see, the Bending World," Joe led with, "The 'United Republic' that is in formation and growth right now…kind of like the United Nations of their world..this time being actually a sovereign entity. Well, they need their own peace-keeping forces. They need an Army. And Uncle Sam, well, in exchange for some privileges in resources and finance, offered to rear their military. Build 'em up, supply 'em, organize, and train 'em," Joe explained. "And that's where I-...Where, we, come in."
"Because I've been there. I know the world, and am somewhat familiar with them. Or atleast the Pentagon thinks. I've been given a good amount of authority in training, organizing, and leading their newly formed army. And I could use some close folks to help. You and I..we've both been in the shit over there. You have just as good of an understanding, if not more, as I do. What do you think?"
Hiroaki looked to his wife, who stood there with no expression, as if to remain completely neutral to whatever he decided. "I don't know…"
"Takeda-san, I know you care about those people. Maybe not at first, but you did toward the end. I saw it when we were pulling away from that shore the last time on the day we returned in 1949. It's not perfect over there, right now. Far from it. And they need our help too. And as much as I respect the kid, the Avatar has got his hands full and is a little too soft on issuing consequences. Plus I need my old partner back." Joe turned to face the former officer, "I came straight here the moment they let me pick my associates."
Hiro mulled it over for a moment. The clock in the store front ticked louder than ever in the still room. "I have a kid now. And I have my wife waiting for me. I can't make her wait years again."
"It won't be years!" Joe quickly reassured me. "More like a month or two here and there. Travel between that world and ours is getting easier and easier. Soon, I've heard we'll be able to fly there in the coming years, rather than tumble through the Pacific on a ship. We're there to train them, not to fight their wars."
Hiro looked at his loving wife. She knew what he was inclined to do. She could see it on his face every time he unfolded the newspaper and his eyes rapidly scanned the pages back and forth for news about the Bending World or the Avatar. He couldn't hide it from her. "Go," she said softly. "But..just come back to me. Just like before, you promised. Come back to your son."
"Of course," he replied, with an assuring smile. Hiro turned to face Captain Stevenson. "Okay. I'm in," he said, taking his fedora hat in hand from the counter top.
"Atta-boy," Joe replied, in English this time.
"Atta…boy?" Hiro asked, tilting his head in confusion.
"Yeah…I can't wait to be able to just talk and for you to be able to just understand," Joe said, talking about the phenomenon of universal language understanding that occurs only in the Bending World. "Truth be told my Japanese ability is being stretched pretty thin right about now."
Having taken off from US Naval Air Station Atsugi, the pair found themselves onboard a twin engine transport, a Douglas R4D Skytrain; the Marine Corps and Navy's designation of the C-47 transport plane used widely during the war which in turn was based on the Douglas Dc-3 airliner.
The plane glided swiftly into the skies above the Greater Tokyo Region, climbing into the clear night skies. Out the port side, the full moon could be viewed clearly as it was large and bright this evening. And out the starboard side, Hiro got a full view of the majesty of Mount Fuji. Soon as they reached their cruising altitude, the cabin became peaceful, with the only noise being the loud droning of the twin radial engines mounted just outside on the wings. This was Hiro's first time leaving Japan since returning, as well as his first time on military property since disembarking the GMC transport truck which dropped him off at Yokota Air Base years prior. The two of them were still well dressed in their dress clothing, but Joe had already dozed off and was asleep well before the wheels lifted off the runway. Into the quiet night sky, the transport flew its course towards the Midway Atoll, the same area which they had passed and reemerged from all those years back. As Japan shrunk into the distance, Hiroaki became drowsier and drowsier, but he didn't allow himself to fall asleep until he could no longer see Japan from the aircraft.
The sun was now approaching off the bow- or nose of the plane, directly ahead as the lone aircraft approached the Midway islands. It was still dark, but the yellow rays of the sun were starting to break through the horizon. The R4D was rocking and rolling in some light turbulence, which woke Hiro up from his sleep. He quickly removed his hat from his face and scanned the cabin. Captain Stevenson had already woken up.
"Wakey wakey," Joe called out above the drone of the engines and the rattling of the airframe. "Just in time, we're going to pass through soon."
"Are we?" was all Hiro could manage to say at an adequate volume, still waking up.
"No, we're still over the Pacific, approaching Midway. But we'll pass through soon!" Joe announced, tightening his seat restraints.
Seeing this, Hiro followed the Captain and cinched his seatbelt as tight as he could, anticipating what was to come. They weren't in a fortified seventy-two-thousand-ton battleship this time, but in a comparatively fragile airplane. And several thousand feet in the air too!
"So," Hiro began, trying to alleviate his concerns, "You've done this before, right?"
"Me?" Joe asked, "No-. No, this is the first time! I came back last time on a destroyer!"
Hiroaki looked around the plane again. There was no one else on except them and the three members of the flight crew in the cockpit. All the other seats were empty, and there was barely any other cargo onboard, spare a few crates of M1 rifles and ammunition. This was an empty plane, flying with less cargo than the fuel was worth; something unusual for a military transport.
"But, America has done this before, right? Sent a plane through the rift?" Hiro asked again.
The cabin shook even more violently. It seemed like the plane was now being tossed around in the winds. The red lamp within the passenger compartment, usually used to convey standby when the plane was being used to deploy paratroopers, came on.
"Hahaa," Joe droned on. "Well, yes and no. This time though-" he garnered his courage, "This time! This is the one!"
"What?!" Hiro reacted, clutching the aircraft tightly.
"Here we go, boys! Hang on!" the pilot announced.
The transport flew into a thick cloud. The lonely yet large cloud which seemed to sit imposingly amid an otherwise clear twilight sky. Immediately as the plane entered, engulfed by the vapors, it was surrounded in darkness. It was just the droning of the engines which remained, but otherwise, suddenly the turbulence had ceased. It was hard to tell whether they were moving or just suspended in the air. There were no breaks or pockets in the clouds either. The cloud bank might as well have been thick wads of cotton pressed up against the aircraft windows. "Stand by for jump."
Hiro could hear the sound of energy building, garnering power, and charging. There were flickers of white light, like sparks, forming outside around the wings. The former IJN officer shut his eyes, not knowing what was to come next. Joe did the same.
Crack! Bang! The thunderous boom blasted outside. The entire airframe was suddenly jolted sharply up, in a single brute force of turbulence. Just like before, their sense of direction had been lost. Which way was up or down? Hiro looked outside, and the cloud layer was rapidly thinning. It seemed their speed had increased, followed by the sensation of falling.
The lights in the aircraft flickered, died, and now came to life. Just like his sense of gravity and direction; which now felt like they were oriented straight down! Alarms and buzzers frantically sounded. Hiro looked out the window, he could tell it was no longer the Pacific Ocean outside, somehow. The plane was in a near-nose-dive. He could see the wings flexing under intense strain. Bracing for dear life, there was nothing he could do except to trust the flight crew. It would be over soon, one way or the other, he thought.
"Hang on, lads!" a shout came from the cockpit.
They could see the sea and a shoreline rapidly approaching. Slowly, the plane began to pitch its nose out of the nive. Joe looked out the windows at the wings, praying that they didn't snap or shear off from the strain and force of the dive. The two engines roared, louder than ever as they maxed out the thrust capabilities. The G-forces felt as though they would crush the occupants of the plane. The plane pulled up out of the dive, coasting and gliding in between two peaks and sailing into a valley before climbing back to altitude. It was only when both Hiro and Joe felt a floating feeling, as the plane leveled back out at cruising altitude, that there was a long overdue exhale and sigh of relief. They had made it.
Hiro breathed heavily as he would sharply turn to look out the window at the expansive landscape. He was back, and he knew it.
"Well…There are definitely some kinks to work out. Especially with orientation," the pilot announced, "But..for what it was. THAT wasn't so bad," he chuckled. "I mean, we could have exploded mid-passage like the last one after all."
Hiro could now fully understand the English announcement perfectly, despite not speaking the language. He looked to Captain Stevenson, who was nervously laughing along with the crew. "Not so bad, he says," Hiro remarked.
"Yes, well," Joe tried to compose himself, "I told you this would be the one to make it, didn't I?"
"Aang had to phase us through?" Hiro asked.
"No. Not that time, Takeda-san," Joe replied. "That was entirely a man-made passage."
"How? I thought the Avatar had to personally sign off, essentially, and open the doors himself," Hiro recalled.
"Normally, yes. But things have been in the works with whatever we could scrape up in research. And a certain research team in New Mexico never stopped trying to push boundaries on what is known and understood. It seems like they somewhat succeeded, partially. And actually this is something I wanted to talk to you about."
"Oh?" Hiro questioned, looking out the window once more. He could see the towering peaks of what he recognized as the City of Omashu in far off distance. Down below he could identify miles upon miles of railroad tracks, snaking their way across the previously barren landscape. The world had evolved since last he saw it.
"Yes, you are part of a training group for what they've dubbed the United Forces. But we're also here to spearhead an operation deep in the Earth Kingdom," Joe revealed.
"You didn't tell me this," Hiro accused.
"Well, the training and guidance was always going to be more live, frontline, hands-on, guidance than in a barracks. Would you have it any other way?"
"I guess not," Hiro accepted. Truthfully, he was somewhat anticipating some action. "So who are we fighting?"
"Well, you're not going to believe it. I'll save that for later, lest I overwhelm you. For now, we'll land, you'll meet the troops, and we'll change you into something more practical. Can't have you slinging a rifle in combat in that double-breasted suit of yours now, can we?"
The Douglas R4D set down at an airbase at the foot of the Taihua Mountain Range. From the flat land looking at the mountains, the peaks towered over the moderately sized airfield and surrounding military quarters. Up until now the mountain range had been revered and trekked with great care, posing a challenge for merchants and travelers. Located southwest from Ba Sing Se, it was a dangerous dividing barrier that managed to stop entire armies. According to local lore and history, the mountains have swallowed up entire armies in the days of Ba Sing Se's founding, several thousands of years ago. And in the days of Kyoshi, it was said that many notorious Dao Fei, criminals and outlaws, would take refuge in the mountains' treacherous and unforgiving landscape, as the geography would stop any pursuing forces. Merchants and travelers often went around the mountains all together rather than risk passing through, especially in the winter.
Things, of course, were very different now. Military warplanes and transports simply flew over the towering peaks, and the advent of paved and semi-paved roads and the use of cars, trucks, and buses, made going around the mountains and through the safer valleys much easier. There was speculation that either the Union Pacific Railroad, or Japan National Railways, or both combined, would build a railroad line straight through the center of the mountain range, ignoring its once feared terrain with numerous tunnels and bridges. However, the mountain pass still posed a very significant threat. Travelers and locals from the surrounding towns and thoroughfares have been reported to go missing, and have been for years. Originally the phenomenon was unexplained, but the more modernized and mechanized the world became, the more they were eventually able to deduce. Hidden within the mountains was a final remaining stronghold of a war long over.
The next two days found Hiroaki, now referred to by the men and women in training of the United Forces by his former rank of Lieutenant, attired in US Marine Corps green fatigues and M1 helmet. He moved low, keeping his head down and body hunched close to the ground, as he moved along the treeline. A small army had effectively been staged to attack a single stronghold. There was over a hundred fresh new soldiers, half of them were armed with small arms, and the other half were benders from the three nations intermixed within the ranks. Holding just ahead of the infantry line were a few former US M4A1 Sherman tanks, crewed by the United Forces. In addition, being well within the Earth Kingdom, several platoons of Earth Kingdom soldiers sent by Earth King Kuei himself, also were staging for a frontal assault.
"It's nice to see you again, Takeda-san," the young woman who kept up beside the former IJN officer finally greeted, at just above a whisper. Wearing a heavily armored skirt, armored chest and shoulder pieces, and her face painted in its characteristic white, red, and black makeup, the warrior was no one other than Suki.
"Yeah," the water tribe chief-to-be, Sokka, added. "Always nice seeing old comrades. Glad you can join us."
Hiro clutched the M1 Garand rifle he was issued close to his side. It was bulkier and heavier than his old Arisaka Type 38 rifle, but he did appreciate the semi-automatic capability. "There is practically a small army here," he observed as he moved to join Joe at the forward ranks. "And they're all fresh recruits?"
"Well, not fresh-fresh, but this is one of their first peace-keeping operations," Sokka brought him up to speed.
"Peace-keeping?" Hiro questioned. "You've assembled a small army, with four medium tanks for peace-keeping?"
"Aang emphasizes that the United Forces aren't supposed to be a conquering army. Mainly for resolving conflict, ideally with the least amount of rounds fired," Suki explained. He could sense in her tone too that this seemed a little ridiculous and ambitious of Aang.
"I see." Hiro shook his head at these words. He noticed the M1903 Springfield rifle slung over Suki's shoulder. "I see you have picked up marksmanship too. Officially now."
"Have to adapt to the times," the Kyoshi Warrior gave in. "Tradition, while important and still useful, needs to all accept that modern problems sometimes require modern solutions. A sword, fan, and bow, sometimes won't cut it anymore."
"You were crack shot anyway," Hiroaki recalled, "It would be a waste if you'd never take up a rifle again." He recalled Suki's ability to hit precise shots on Fire Nation airship crews from the saddle of a dodging, diving, and rolling sky bison in evasive flight.
"She's gotten a lot better too," Sokka chimed in. He still carried the M1928A1 Thompson submachine gun he picked up during the Battle of Kyoshi Island over a decade ago.
The trio finally hit the dirt, and took cover behind a small dirt mound on a ridge overlooking a small valley. "Who are we fighting anyway?" Lieutenant Takeda asked. "No one has been clear on that even up until now that I am getting ready to fight some unknown foe."
Captain Stevenson handed him the binoculars he had been looking through. "Have a look for yourself. It's still somewhat unbelievable."
"Unbelievable, why?" Takeda asked, taking up the binoculars after setting his rifle down gently by his side.
"Turns out, the ancients that built that contraption that brought us to this world in 1942…Well, they weren't the only ones looking at other worlds and messing with unbelievable powers," Joe explained.
Through the binoculars, Lieutenant Takeda was surprised by what he was seeing. He looked directly into a relatively modern and fully established military compound. A bunker, built into the side of a mountain on the valley floor. Barbed wire fences surrounded the wide ground that stood before large reinforced concrete and steel blast doors. There were guard towers which housed sirens, searchlights, and machine guns at the corners of the fenceline. Sand bags also entrenched more machine gun positions which guarded the lone dirt road which led to the gates of the facility. There were parked groupings of transport trucks with canvas covers which concealed their beds. Rows of Magirus A3000's and Daimler-benz LGF3000's were parked at various areas all painted in camouflage schemes of dark grays. A Volkwagen Kubelwagen was parked near a small barracks.
The soldiers, bolt action rifles, and magazine fed stamped-steel submachine guns slung over their shoulders, all wore uniforms of black or charcoal gray wool, black boots, and an all too familiar steel helmet; a stahlhelm known to them. And atop the flagpole at the center of the base, just ahead of the large bunker doors…a crimson-red flag, with a white circle, and at the center, the black jagged intersecting lines of the Nazi's Swastika. It was a German military compound! Left over from the war!
"They are Germans!" Hiro remarked, surprised. Exactly as Joe had predicted, the Japanese officer didn't believe what he was seeing. Until now it was commonly accepted that only the US and Imperial Japan had been brought into the Bending World during the war, by complete accident. "How did they get here?"
"We don't know," Joe answered. No one knew how or when the Third Reich managed to establish a bunker in the Bending World. "But, I-..as well as the OSS, believe that the answer to that..and likely other local issues, is inside those heavily fortified doors. And that's why we're here."
"And we're going to fight the Nazis with the intention of ideally not killing any of them? We will be slaughtered," Takeda remarked, bluntly.
"That's what Aang would want us and these boys to do," Sokka remarked.
"Have you read about them in the past ten years? There has to have been many books about the German military and their combat effectiveness. It was common knowledge even to us during the war. And! Those men likely do not know the war is over."
"We have," Suki answered. "And we know."
"And still," Hiro reiterated. "Peace-keeping?"
"Like I said," Joe stated, "That's what Aang would like us to do…But he's not here right now, is he?" He looked at Sokka and Suki. "Any objections?"
There were none.
"Okay, let's do this then," Joe committed.
"Hold," Joe directed the men around him. "Our armor will shake 'em up, first."
The nearest M4 Sherman, bearing the insignia of the Fire Nation on the sides of its hull where the American roundel would normally be, crawled up to the ridge just enough to clear the ridgeline with its 75mm gun. The clanking of its tracks stopped as the tank came to an idling halt just beside the group.
The 75mm gun from its turret fired! The ground shook around the metal box as the shell rocketed from the barrel before an erupting poof of smoke. The tank immediately began reversing to duck behind cover after firing, but firing its coaxial and hull machine guns as it retreated. The high explosive shell scored a direct hit on a machine gun tower. The structure exploded into splinters, sending men in the nearby vicinity diving for cover. Another Sherman from the opposite flank, this time bearing the marks of the Earth Kingdom fired right after, sending a shell into the grouping of parked trucks!
"OPEN FIRE!" the American officer ordered as he shouldered his M1 rifle. Volleys of rifle fire sounded out from all around the ridge, down on the German fortifications. Another cannon shot! The shell sent a grouping of Wehrmacht troops flying.
The alarm of the base, an air raid siren began to sound, calling its massive reserves of soldiers to arms. Out from the smaller personnel doors of the bunker, poured platoons of Wehrmacht and SS troops, guns in hand. They quickly took up fighting positions throughout the camp and returned fire. Suki ducked just in time as a round of 8mm Mauser whizzed just overhead, thumping against the trunk of a tree just behind. The United Forces held the advantage of the higher ground and more cover, all they had to do was pick at the enemy from up here, but the large numbers of men were largely untrained and accustomed to their old ways. Order was not fully maintained. Satisfied with the hits from the two tank shots, the Earth Kingdom troops saw this as the opportunity to charge the facility and close the gap. They wanted to go on the aggressive and gain ground; quite early.
"What are they doing?!" Hiro questioned as he jammed another clip of .30-06. Into his rifle.
"Don't break formation! Hey!" Joe shouted.
But there was nothing they could do. Dozens of earthbenders of the Earth Kingdom's Mightiest charged down the hill towards the German fortification, regardless of the incoming rifle and submachine gun fire. Their own M4 Sherman followed closely behind, nearly running over some of their own men as it vaulted over the ridge line, firing on the move.
"Radio!" Hiroaki called the United Forces member nearby, the radio man. "Get those fools on the line! They're charging too early! Now!"
As the young man raised the handpiece to his ear, however, a bullet soared straight and true directly at him. In the blink of an eye, the round punctured straight through the center of his helmet! Hiro shut his eyes, reflexively, just in time to block the blood from getting in his eyes. He watched the young man's corpse fall backward. He was shocked. It had been awhile since he was in this situation.
"I told them not to stand up!" Joe cursed.
Suddenly a terrible tearing sound shred through the air. It sounded like a large piece of canas being torn! The German troops had set up one of many MG42 machine guns and had it drawn on the charging group of Earth Kingdom troops. Twelve-hundred to fifteen-hundred rounds-a-minute of 7.92x57mm mauser tore through the air and cut into the charging mass. Any attempt the earth benders made to fling large stones and boulders, was not fast enough to beat the incoming hail of lead. The lucky and smart ones, quickly ceased the charge and raised a rock barrier to try hiding behind, or burrowed beneath the ground. But these men were few and far between, moving entirely on luck and instinct. The large doors of the bunker began to roll open.
Suki saw it for herself, the gun seemed to spit fire at its muzzle.
"That's the fastest firing gun I've heard," Hiro panicked.
"AN MG42!" Suki identified correctly.
Another MG42 ripped a burst of bullets, this time in the general direction of the four of them. The gunner lay down a terrifying burst of suppressing fire. The shrieking and whistling of bullets overhead forced them to keep their heads down. The MG crew painted the treeline with bullets, and the numerous MGs sent thousands of rounds in all directions. Quickly, the United Forces panicked and ducked for cover to avoid being cut in half or shredded by the hail of lead. So much so, they stopped firing all together. Bullets ricocheted off the hull of the tanks, forcing even them to button-up.
"They have us pinned! What do we do!?"
"We need to flank that gun!" Joe shouted above the fire, "Sokka, Suki, Hiro, on me!" He quickly turned to the fire and earth benders nearby. "Earth and fire benders! Cover!"
The benders acknowledged, garnering their courage.
"Prepare to move!" Hiro called.
"Keep your heads down and return fire," Suki directed a nearby soldier fielding a Browning Automatic Rifle.
"MOVING!" Joe shouted, chucking a smoke grenade, and dashing out of cover as low as possible. Sokka followed right behind, ripping a burst from his Thompson to throw off the machine gunners' aim. Suki and Hiro took up the tail end, both opening fire with their rifles. Dirt, rock, stones, and long range blasts of fire, in addition to the smoke screen, were thrown forth to distract and cover the move.
The bunker doors opened all the way, allowing more SS troops to pour out. The Sherman which had charged down the embankment with the now cowering and pinned Earth Kingdom soldiers was stuck in the soft dirt and unable to back up the incline.
FWOOM! A deep and thunderous blast sounded from the bunker, and the stuck Sherman detonated in a spectacular explosion. A heavy projectile cut straight through the frontal armor like a hot knife through butter and bore clean through the tank before exploding in the engine compartment in the rear. The explosion launched the turret out of the hull, and the Sherman burnt terribly. No survivors.
The four of them now dove into cover with a new angle of fire, not in the sight of the MG42 gunners. Shouldering her 1903 rifle, Suki locked the bolt forward, chambering a round. She was shooting the distance through iron sights. Gently squeezing the trigger, the most careful application of pressure from her index finger to the trigger, the rifle cracked off with a sharp bang. The gunner for one of the MGs recoiled back from the force of the thirty-calibre round striking his chest, silencing one of the guns. She quickly cycled the bolt, and the follow up shot took out the loader, who was in the middle of picking up the machine gun after the gunner was shot. The other '42 fell silent, needing a barrel change. The small squad opened fire on the crew, but it was Suki's bullets that found home, similarly taking out the gunner and assistant gunner with one shot each.
Emerging from the inside of the bunker, a large imposing metal box rumbled forth into the afternoon sun. A heavy tank! One of the most notorious weapons of the European Theater! Out of the large doors, a Tiger I tank lumbered into view. Its 88mm gun was an imposing threat, and its dense armor was readily visible even from this distance. Until now the American Sherman was the most imposing armored vehicle in the bending world, claiming the title from the old Fire Nation tundra tanks, but this tank took that title five times over! Hiro watched its gun swivel toward their direction.
"MOVE!" he shouted as the four of them ran away.
The MG34 bow gun opened fire on the nearby troops as they once again fired their Kwk36 gun. The high explosive shell detonated on impact, obliterating the mound that they were just hiding behind. Fortunately they had managed to escape. The Fire Nation Sherman tank rolled up to try its hand at a tank-on-tank engagement. The Tiger's turret was already traversing.
"We weren't anticipating this!" Joe panicked. "They don't know how to fight this kind of tank!"
The Sherman fired first, targeting the Tiger's frontal armor. "No!" Joe shouted, trying to signal with his hand, "Back! Back! You won't pierce that front!"
But it was too late. The 75mm shell simply ricocheted off the dense frontal armor of the German heavy tank. The Tiger fired and an armor piercing 88mm shell penetrated through the forward armor plates of the Sherman once again, bursting it into flames; ironically.
Approaching from the flank another Sherman tank rolled up to take a shot. The German tank crew already took stock of the new threat. Hiro watched the boxy tank orient its hull ever so slightly toward the Sherman tank without fully turning to face it; angling itself and bracing to absorb a shot. A direct hit straight to its side has a chance of going through at this range, but the angling of the armor increased its survivability by presenting armor that was even more dense in certain areas. The Sherman fired, and the shell bounced off the angled hull. Another shot from the 88mm gun, but this time a miss. The Sherman tank retreated back from view to load. This was the last tank they had on their side.
That tank needs to hit the Tiger's broadside, Hiro deduced. At this range that's the best chance of killing it! But how could he communicate that?
He looked ahead of his position. A mere fifteen meters ahead in a crater from one of the german shells lay just the items he needed. A loaded M9A1 bazooka, and a radio! The crews long gibed and obliterated though.
He bit his lip, and remembered his promise to his wife he left behind in Japan..again. He needed to come back. But he also needed to do this! It was now or never! Lieutenant Takeda slung his M1 rifle and made a mad dash for the crater. A hail of bullets flew at him as an MG42 gunner caught sight of him, but he charged regardless; diving into the depression in the earth into a somewhat safe spot. He pinned the handpiece between his ear and his shoulder as he slowly pulled the rocket launcher towards him.
"Earth Kingdom tank! Earth Kingdom tank! You need to stay in cover! I repeat, stay in cover and move positions now!" he barked, now pulling the rocket launcher towards him.
"We need to cover our troops! They're getting slaughtered!"
"You aren't going to kill it from the front! You need to hit it from the side, or the rear! And the hit must be straight on! No angles! Come around the ridge line and make ready to fire once you come about. I'm going to pin him in place!" Hiro instructed under fire. He hoped they listened, as he dropped the radio so he could focus on his contribution. As best as he could guess on how to use this American weapon system, he sighted the large tank through the optics of the bazooka, targeting its tracks. He prayed to the gods and fired the weapon, sending the rocket flying at the Tiger tank. It hit home. The rocket exploded on impact, destroying the tank's right-side drive sprockets; the metal tracks fell to pieces after the hit. The behemoth was stuck!
The heavy gun turret slowly began to traverse towards his direction, its coaxial machine gun still firing on the surrounding United Forces. The tank tried to drive and orient itself anyway, despite the busted track, but was pinned even further when a group of earthbenders trapped the steel box further with stone pillars. The tank's right side was now vulnerable and exposed.
Cresting the hill just where Hiro wanted them to come from, bearing down on the Tiger's exposed side, the last Earth Kingdom Sherman tank sighted the german heavy tank. A blast from its 75mm gun, but no effect! They had fired too early and the shell hit the ground before the tank. The crew inside frantically reloaded as fast as they could while the Tiger's gun drew closer and closer to target!
Boom! Another shot from the main gun! The 75mm shell hit home this time! Drilling straight through the balkenkreuz painted centered at the Tiger's side. A single small hole now was bored through its armor, and the tank caught on fire! Smoke and fire rose through the cupola on its roof as the metal beast finally died and came to a halt. The crew quickly began to pour out from all the different hatches, cut down by rifle and machine gun fire as they exited.
Just as the tank Tiger was destroyed, the exhausted and thinning German soldiers began retreating. Their guns fell silent, no more terrifying bursts from the 42's. Trench whistles blew and hordes of United Forces soldiers charged the bunker! Chasing the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS back into their bunker. Joe, Hiro, Sokka, and Suki reunited and set off down the hill, following the leading ranks!