When someone asks “Have you gone anywhere on vacation?” and I answer “Yes, I went to Peleliu” I get different responses. Some ask “What’s Peleliu – like Disneyland?” Others just go blank, so I offer “It’s an island in the Pacific, part of Palau.” But if that person is a veteran, he might just say “Whoa!” with a little tone of reverence, for whether he is Army, Navy or Marine Corps he probably knows that Peleliu is regarded by many historians to be the most savage battle of World War II – harder, even, than D-Day in Europe, Battle of the Bulge, Guadalcanal, Tarawa or Iwo Jima. It tops the list in the Pacific war in the percentage of American casualties of those who fought there.
Peleliu – not on the original list of the island-hopping campaign but added to appease Gen. Doug MacArthur, who insisted the Japanese airstrips on the island posed a threat to his invasion of the Philippines – was invaded at 08:32, on Sept. 15, 1944. The invasion beach, about a thousand yards wide was split with part designated Orange Beach and the other White Beach. The initial assault was conducted by 9000 Marines after a pre-invasion bombardment, which Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf believed was successful, claiming the Navy had “run out of targets.” In fact, Japanese defenses were “virtually unscathed” and 10,900 Japanese soldiers waited for them. The situation went downhill from there. Hidden gun emplacements on each flank of the beach caught the Marines in heavy crossfire with 47mm cannons, 20mm cannons, heavy and light machine guns and rifles. By 09:30, the Japanese gunners had destroyed 60 landing craft. By the end of the day the Marines had already lost 200 dead and 900 wounded. Struggling to get off the beaches, Capt. George Hunt was assigned to take “The Point”, the Japanese strong-point which commanded the left flank. The 175 men of K Company, who had lost most of their machine guns while landing, fought all day trying to work around the position, finally capturing it but running low on supplies, out of water and surrounded. 30 hours of Japanese counterattacks, often hand-to-hand, failed to dislodge them. By the time Hunt’s Marines were reinforced his command had been reduced to 18 men.
The battle got worse. After taking their initial objectives the Marines pivoted left and began the struggle to fight their way down the length of the small coral island which had two ridges running parallel with a very narrow valley in between. The ridges were riddled with more than 1000 caves – many inner-connected – filled with fanatical Japanese soldiers under orders to fight to the death. One battle on Bloody Nose ridge cost 1st Battalion, 1st Marines 71% casualties over 6 days. In one engagement, Capt. Everett Pope earned the Medal of Honor leading his company. Pope and his company “penetrated deep into the ridges”, fighting to reach the crest of one, and then trapped at the base of the ridge. Setting up a small perimeter, the company “was attacked relentlessly by the Japanese throughout the night. Soon out of ammunition, the Marines “fought with knives and fists, even resorting to throwing coral rock and empty ammunition boxes at the Japanese.” Holding out until dawn, still under deadly fire, they evacuated the position. Only nine men remained of the original 90 that started the fight.
After just 8 days, Chesty Puller’s 1st Marine Regiment had suffered 70% casualties and was pulled off the line, replaced by the Army’s 321st Regimental Combat Team. By 15 October the 7th Marines had suffered 46% casualties and were replaced by the 5th Marines. The bloodfest lasted for another 6 weeks. In the end the American forces – Marine, Army and Navy – suffered 2,336 killed and 8,450 wounded. All but 19 of the 10,900 Japanese completed their orders to fight to the death, the survivors either too severely wounded to resist or knocked unconscious by concussion.
Today, Peleliu is probably the most complete historic battlefield in the world – its own monument to those who fought, suffered and died there. It’s a Pacific paradise with beautiful scenery, a magnet for those who love to scuba dive. But beneath the jungle that covers the small island it is covered in the carnage of battle. My wife and I climbed the paths between the ridges, crawled in, through and out caves littered with Japanese cannon, machine guns, helmets, comm gear and dispatch cases. We saw the wreckage of aircraft – Japanese and American – LVTs with 37mm cannon mounted, destroyed Japanese tanks. We saw Honeysuckle Rose, lying on her side, her belly ripped open by a 250kg bomb the enemy had buried as a land mine. The Marine tank had just completed a mission; the rescue of the 2 man crew of a Navy aircraft downed in no-man’s land, and was returning to the fight when she and her crew died. We walked White Beach and poked around The Point where there’s a monument to Capt. Hunt and his men. It’s hard to describe the humble feeling one gets when realizing the true horror of this small part of the global war and the heroic effort of those who fought here.
But there is a tragic side to this heroism. Most historians believe this battle didn’t need to be fought – that the island could have been neutralized by air and sea units and bypassed. While Doug MacArthur waded ashore in Leyte in front of a worshipful press and movie cameras, men died by the hundreds on the tiny coral island that was Peleliu. High ranking officers of our military had argued against the invasion. But the military is not a democracy like that which it exists to defend. Once their civilian leadership has heard and rejected their opposition they, and the men under them down to the lowest rank, simply salute, say “Aye, Aye, Sir”, do an about face and proceed to carry out the mission as given to them. This has been our way for 273 years, as our young men and women carry out the orders – right or wrong – of our elected (and by default, our people) representatives. So as a free and independent nation as we celebrate Memorial Day remember that,
“If you are reading this, thank a teacher. If you are reading it in English – thank a veteran.”
Jim Barber is author of “SH*TBIRD! How I Learned to Love The Corps”