BATTLE OF PELILIU
After the battles in the Marianas and Truk, the only major Japanese base between the American fleet and the Philippines was in Palau. The islands of Angaur and Peliliu in Palau were the settings for some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater of World War II. The objective of the invasion of Palau was to secure the U.S. approach to the Philippines from New Guinea and the islands of Micronesia and protect MacArthur's right flank during the invasion of the Philippines by removing the threat of a Japanese air attacks from Palau.
The original plan was to make an amphibious landing on Babeldaob, the largest island in Palau. Most of the Japanese force, including 25,000 men in Koror, were stationed in Babeldaob. The primarily defensive force of 5,300 soldiers, 1,100 naval fighters and 4,000 other men were positioned on Peliliu, a small island at the southern end of Palau archipelago. Later is was decided to attack Peliliu.
The Battle Of Peleliu lasted from September 15 to November 27, 1944. The primary generals and commanders were William H. Rupertus on the American side and Kunio Nakagawa on the Japanese side. Approximately 27,000 American and 11,000 Japanese soldiers took part, with Americans suffering 9,800 casualties and the Japanese: 10,700, with 200 captured. [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, Stevenson is an international banker living in Switzerland. He grew up in New York. historynet.com |||| ]
Matthew Stevenson wrote: “Peleliu is an island the remote archipelago of Palau, 800 kilometers southeast of Manila. In September l944, U.S. Marines, launched an amphibious assault against the Japanese forces on Peleliu that were threatening the flank of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops as they advanced toward the Philippines. Around 11,000 Japanese from the 14th Infantry Division with some Korean and Okinawan workers occupied Peleliu Island. The Japanese devised a plan to disrupt the landings at the water’s edge but rather than stop the enemy at the beach they employed an inland defense. Colonel Nakagawa’s defense was concentrated at the highest point in Peleliu which was the Umurbrogol Mountain. The Japanese were also supported by a light tank unit with anti-air ammunition. ||||
“The landings were more difficult than anyone had anticipated. Instead of overrunning an obscure Japanese garrison and seizing the island’s airstrip, the marines had to attack and reduce a network of interlocking caves and coral ridges defended by the 10,000 soldiers of Japan’s 14th Infantry Division. Although the Japanese defenders were annihilated, the three infantry regiments of the 1st Marine Division suffered dreadful casualties in the process. During the battle my father, formerly a company commander, served as executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment.”||||
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Fighting During Battle of Peliliu
Despite sustaining heavy loses, 15,000 soldiers made it ashore on the first day. An American force landed unopposed at Red Beach on Angaur on September 18, 1944. After the U.S. Marines established a beachhead on the west side of Peliliu they quickly overran the airfield, the only flat area on the island where tank operations were feasible. By the end of the first week the entire island was captured except for the northern peninsula.
Peleliu was an unmitigated disaster. The Marines originally thought the island would be secured in four days. The battle lasted for three months. Most of the island was captured within a week. The costly siege of the north lasted two months and the fighting continued until November 27th.
The Japanese defenses outside Peliliu stayed put on Koror and Babeldaob because an American naval blockade prevented reinforcements from coming to Peliliu plus the Japanese anticipated on an invasion of Koror and Babeldaob which never materialized. A group of supply-laden barges that was sent to Peliliu from Koror to reinforce Japanese forces during the invasion was sunk by American ships.
In what may have been the shortest bombing runs in history, Allied planes dropped napalm and other explosives on enemy positions in ridges a few hundred yards from the landing field. In some cases bombs were dropped 15 seconds after taking off, when their landing gear was still out. Because the Japanese were so well dug in these missions were largely ineffective.
In some cases the Americans held the ridge tops while the Japanese held on to the steep slopes below them. In a site known as the Horseshoe American forces at night floodlight a pond, the only source of drinking water, in hopes of picking of enemy soldiers as they attempted to get water. In another area they hooked up a 300-foot hose to a fuel truck to create a horrid firehose of death to spray fire at Japanese positions.
A leaflet dropped by Japanese planes on American positions read: POOR, RECKLESS YANKEE DOODLE. Do you know about the naval battle one by the American 58th Fleet at the sea near Formosa... Japanese powerful Air Force had sunk their 14 AEROPLANE CARRIERS, 4 BATTLESHIPS, 10 SEVERAL CRUISERS AND DESTROYERS along with sending 1,261 SHIP AEROPLANES into the sea. From this result, we think that you can imagine what shall happen next around Palau upon you...YOU SHALL GET AN VERY STERN ATTACK...WE MEAN AN CRUEL ATTACK!!
Japanese Soldiers and Cave Warfare on Peliliu
The Japanese were dug into three kinds of caves at Peliliu: 1) natural limestone ones, 2) artificial ones, and 3) improved natural caves. The soldiers had enough supplies to survive for 100 days. Water was supplied by cave seepage, which was collected by strings running from stalactites to barrels with water. Limestone is relatively soft and easy to dig through. Many of the caves had multiple entrances and some were connected by tunnels. Many of the caves were positioned along side ridges which made them "mutually supporting."
Most of the artificial caves were positioned around the airstrip. Carved out of solid rock and finished with cement, these caves were used to store large caliber shells and bombs. Most of them survived the naval bombardment.
"Water cavities" formed by subterranean streams were almost invulnerable to shell and flame thrower attacks. “Balcony caves” on ridge slopes were good locations for machine-gun nests and sniper positions. "Vertical fault caves,” the largest caves, were often turned into command posts with electricity, communications facilities and living quarters for several soldiers.
The advantage of the caves was that they withstood naval and aerial bombardments and flame throwers attacks. The disadvantage of them was that they were immobile and positioned by nature not according to military tactics. The Japanese soldiers had to wait for Allied soldiers come to them and often the caves were positioned far from strategic military sites. If the Japanese soldiers left their caves they were vulnerable. Also communication and organization was difficult between individual Japanese soldiers.
The Allies moved on the 500 fortified caves on Peliliu primarily with artillery and flame throwers. Artillery was often fired point blank into the caves but artillery proved difficult to move into position in the rugged terrain. Flame throwers mounted on tanks were better than artillery shells because the 150-yard-long spray of chemical fire they emitted carried around corners and penetrated into nooks and crannies where the enemy were dug in.
Another effective tactic was pouring oil and gasoline into the downward sloping caves. Soldiers were often positioned near the lowest point. When the gasoline or oil was set ablaze the soldier burned to death. The Allies also fired white phosphorous shells and threw phosphorous grenades into the caves, which forced the Japanese soldiers to throw on gas masks and dash from the caves where they were cut down by machine gun fire.
Some 1,500 Japanese soldiers and 240 US soldiers were killed in a month of fighting to dislodge the Japanese from their caves. The battle took longer than expected because as Marine Commander and major general William Rupertus said, the "enemy fulfilled his determination to fight to the death.”
Many Japanese soldiers on Peleliu died of starvation, thirst, suffocation and concussions from blasts inside the caves. Forty-nine Japanese soldiers who were not killed and failed to surrender were sealed inside their caves with cement. A few of them managed to dig a passage way between the rock and cement and escape. One U.S. Marine pried gold teeth out of Japanese soldiers with a broken back who was still alive.
Casualties and Legacy of Battle of Peleliu
The Allies reached the tip of the northern peninsula on September 27th. The remaining Japanese forces were encircled and defeated on October 13. The operation to remove the soldiers who remained in their fortified caves was costly in terms of casualties, time and resources. The remaining islands of Palau surrendered on September 2, 1945, when Japan formerly surrendered to the U.S., formerly ending World War II. Some 35,000 Japanese troops were on Koror and Babeldaob at the time of the surrender.
The fighting was the most fierce that American soldiers had experienced up to that point in the Pacific war. The Americans suffered terrible casualties: 1,039 killed, 5,142 wounded and 73 missing in action. American casualties would have been much higher if the Japanese had fired their artillery at the landing crafts bringing the invasion forces ashore.
The ratio of Japanese to American dead was 10 to 1. Some 10,937 Japanese were killed and 2,500 were taken prisoner. More were entombed in the caves are buried and never found. On average 1,589 rounds of heavy and light ammunition was fired for each Japanese death. No one knows how many Japanese soldiers were sealed in the caves. The Japanese made a few Banzai attacks. Many of the prisoners were Korean laborers.
After the battle the airbase at Peliliu was used by Army and Naval planes in the fighting against the Japanese in the Philippines. Even so most historians now believe that the Battle of Peliliu was unnecessary. Palau was never used as an important base during the invasion of the Philippines and Japanese air force had been largely neutralized by aerial bombing raids during the battles for of Chuuk and the Marianas. Many other Japanese island bases had been skipped on the hopscotch approach to the Philippines and the Japanese mainland.
Beginning of the Battle of Peliliu
Two months before the Battle of Peliliu, Allied air strikes sunk a large number of Japanese ships in Palau and set fire to fuel tanks and other military facilities there. Some of the heaviest bombing took place in southern Babeldaob and Malakal Island.
The invasion was preceded by nearly three days of non-stop naval bombardments, which one commander boasted was so thorough the U.S. Navy "would run out of targets" before the assault. Unfortunately he was wrong. Although most of the exposed above-ground targets were annihilated, the Japanese who hid out in caves and fortified positions were largely untouched. When the invasion began on the west side of Peliliu, 17 of the first 18 tanks that went ashore were hit.
The battle of Peliliu began on September 15, 1944 when the approximately 30,000 Marines landed on the beaches and reefs of Peliliu and Angaur and suffered heavy losses. In a scene that was sort of tropical version of the Normandy invasion, the bloated bodies of dead marines bobbed up and down in the surf and were picked apart by crabs on the beach. Some 210 Marines were killed and 900 were wounded on the first day. Four hospital ships off the shore of Peliliu received 2,343 wounded Americans in the early days of the fighting. The average life span of the first wave of Marines who landed on the beach after they got of their landing crafts was 46 seconds.
Underestimated the Japanese Resistance at Peleliu
Matthew Stevenson wrote: “Although there were discussions at the highest levels—including President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hawaii in July 1944—about canceling the landing at Peleliu, the Americans had decided to proceed with the invasion, in part because few of the commanding generals expected much resistance from the Japanese defenders. Brig. Gen. William Rupertus, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, predicted the battle would be decided in three days. [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
“After a preparatory shelling of the island, Admiral Jesse Barrett Oldendorf confessed that his warships had run out of targets. The legendary commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, told his men, including my father, that after the naval bombardment all they might be asked to do is “police up the area with the bayonet.” But optimistic expectations about the opposition on Peleliu were quickly proved wrong. Waiting to transfer to landing craft, my father remembers his first sense that things might go wrong for the Americans on Peleliu: “As the boats loaded, circled, and fanned out in the long line of the first assault wave, I felt the odds were with us. The first hint that they weren’t and that all was not well came as Japanese mortar and artillery shells fell among the advancing boats, with two direct hits close by.”
Landing at Peleliu
The Americans launched an amphibious landing similar to that used at Normandy and other island invasions. One regiment landed on the beaches close to the airfield at the south of Peleliu. Another regiment led by Puller landed at the northern side of the beaches. The 5th regiment was going to push inland guarding the flanks and allow capture of the airfield. When the marines landed they were caught in heavy crossfire. Colonel Puller evaded death. The 5th Marines made great progress on the first day. They moved towards the airfield but met Nakagawa’s attack forces. Nakagawa sent his tank forces to try and force the marines to retreat. The marines managed to quickly destroy Nakagawa’s tanks and infantrymen. On the second day the Marines had captured the airfield.
Matthew Stevenson wrote: “The 1st Marine Division’s three infantry regiments landed abreast along two beaches, code-named “White” and “Orange.” On the left the 1st Marine Regiment came ashore at White beach; their objective was to push straight inland. The 5th Marine Regiment, in the center, was to capture the airfield, while the 7th Marine Regiment, on the right flank, swung right and secured Peleliu’s southern tip. [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
“Not only was it difficult for the marines to dig for cover in the hard coral surface, but the Japanese had registered mortars, artillery, and machine guns that covered every inch of the beach. Tom Lea, an illustrator for Life magazine who came ashore in the first wave, recalled, “Those Marines flattened in the sand on that beach were dark and huddled like wet rats in death….”One of my father’s close friends, Fendall Yerxa, who served on Colonel Puller’s regimental staff, remembers how, weighed down with a soaked pack, his mind moved off the beach faster than his encumbered legs. He also remembers the withering fire that came down the beach from what became known as the Point, a redoubt on the American left flank that looms large in accounts of the battle.” ||||
E. B. Sledge wrote in "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa": “It was hard to sleep that night [before the invasion.] I thought of home, my parents, my friends -- and whether I would do my duty, be wounded and disabled, or be killed. I concluded that it was impossible for me to be killed, because God loved me. Then I told myself that God loved us all and that many would die or be ruined physically or mentally or both by the next morning and in the days following. My heart pounded, and I broke out in a cold sweat. Finally, I called myself a damned coward and eventually fell asleep saying the Lord's prayer to myself. [Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
“Everything my life has been before and after pales in the light of that awesome moment when my amtrac started in amid a thunderous bombardment toward the flaming, smoke-shrouded beach for the assault on Peleliu… Shells crashed all around. Fragments tore and whirred, slapping on the sand and splashing into the water a few yards behind us...The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, snapping bullets. Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it… Up and down the beach and on the reef, a number of amtracs and DUKWs were burning, Japanese machine gun bursts made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with some giant whip. +\
I caught a fleeting glimpse of some Marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef. Some fell as bullets and fragments splashed among them… I turned my face away and wished that I were imagining it all. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust...The way it fell it looked as if the artillery lads were trying to burn out their barrels, so fast and furiously did the shells go over the Raiders. Out of this barrage grew an apocryphal story: a Jap officer is supposed to have asked later, upon his capture, to see the 'automatic artillery' we used that night".
Chaos During the Landing at Peleliu
E. B. Sledge wrote in "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa": “We moved rapidly in the open, amid craters and coral rubble, through ever increasing enemy fire… I clenched my teeth, squeezed my carbine stock, recited over and over to myself, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”...The sun bore down unmercifully… Smoke and dust from the barrage limited my vision. The ground seemed to sway back and forth under the concussions. I felt as though I were floating along in the vortex of some unreal thunderstorm. Japanese bullets snapped and cracked and tracers went by me on both sides at waist height…[Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
“The farther we went, the worse it got. The noise and concussion pressed in on my ears like a vise… It seemed impossible that any of us would make it across… To be shelled by massed artillery and mortars is absolutely terrifying, but to be shelled in the open is terror compounded beyond the belief of anyone who hasn't experienced it. The attack on Peleliu’s airfield was the worst combat experience I had during the entire war.+\
“We moved on and finally halted near an abandoned Japanese machine gun bunker… We ate our rations, checked our weapons, and prepared for a long night… We felt isolated listening to the moisture dripping from the trees and splashing softly into the swamp. It was the darkest night I ever saw. The overcast sky was as black as the dripping mangroves that walled us in. I had the sensation of being in a great black hole and reaching out to touch the sides of the gun pit to orient myself. Slowly the reality of it all formed in my mind: we were expendable! It was difficult to accept. We come from a nation and a culture that values life and the individual. To find oneself in a situation where your life seems of little value is the ultimate in loneliness. +\
“Even before the dust had settled I saw a Japanese soldier appear at the blasted opening. He was grim determination personified as he drew back his arm to throw a grenade at us. My carbine was already up. When he appeared, I lined up my sights on his chest and began squeezing off shots. As the first bullet hit him, his face contorted in agony. His knees buckled. The grenade slipped from his grasp. All the men near me…began firing. The soldier collapsed in the fusillade and the grenade went off at his feet...I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man's face filled me with shame and disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing.
Securing the Point and the Blockhouse at Peleliu
After capturing the airfield the Marines went on pushing eastwards under heavy fire resulting in lots of casualties, especially at Blockhouse and Bloody Nose Ridge. Matthew Stevenson wrote: “Company K of the 1st Marines’ 3rd Battalion, commanded by Capt. George P. Hunt, had the mission of capturing the Point and subduing Japanese crossfire. Of the 235 men Hunt led against the Point, more than two-thirds were killed or wounded taking the position. “Imagine if an officer less brave than George Hunt had the job of securing the Point,” is my father’s rhetorical question about the savage battle for the flank and the consequences of failure. But my father never saw the Point because the remainder of the 1st Battalion had pushed directly off the beach into a series of bunkers and pillboxes. The battalion sustained heavy casualties as it attacked a fortified blockhouse that the navy had missed, despite its claims of having exhausted all available targets. [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
“Several assaults had failed to break resistance at the Blockhouse, which only gave way after 16-inch shells were fired onto it from the battleship Pennsylvania. As executive officer, my father set up the battalion’s rear command post in the Blockhouse. In addition to being a headquarters, the Blockhouse also became the battalion aid station. Because of his proximity to the aid station, my father organized the stretcher-bearers who brought in the wounded from, among others Company C—his former command. ||||
“Casualties among the men in my father’s battalion were 71 percent; its three rifle companies were nearly wiped out. After six days of fighting, Company B had 36 enlisted men and two officers, Company C had 15 men and 2 officers, and Company A had 65 men and two officers. “Looking back,” my father reflects, “I have often felt that becoming battalion exec instead of remaining a company commander could have been the event that saved my life. No longer being required to lead a company directly into battle could have made the crucial difference between living and dying.” ||||
Brutality and Greed by American Soldiers at Peleliu
E. B. Sledge wrote: "During a lull the men stripped the packs and pockets of the enemy dead for souvenirs. This was a gruesome business, but Marines executed it in a most methodical manner. Helmet headbands were checked for flags, packs and pockets were emptied, and gold teeth were extracted. Sabers, pistols and hari-kari knives were highly prized and carefully cared for until they could be sent to the folks back home or sold to some pilot or sailor for a far price. [Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
“The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where the antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred. It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with that particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn't simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps.” +\
Later: “While I was removing a bayonet and scabbard from a dead Japanese, I noticed a Marine… dragging what I assumed to be a corpse. But the Japanese wasn't dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn't move his arms..The Japanese's mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar knife on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim's mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open ear to ear. He put his foot on the sufferer's lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier's mouth...I shouted, "Put the man out of his misery.' All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier's brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.” +\
Death at Peleliu
Sledge wrote: “Each morning just before sunrise, when things were fairly quiet, I could hear a steady humming sound like bees in a hive as the bluebottle flies became active with the onset of daylight. They rose up off the corpses, rocks, refuse, brush and wherever else they had settled for the night like a swarm of bees. Their numbers were incredible. [Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
“To the noncombatants and those on the periphery of action, the war meant only boredom or occasional excitement; but to those who entered the meat grinder itself, the war was a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines -- service troops and civilians.” +\
Later: “At first glance, the dead Japanese machine gunner appeared about to fire his deadly weapon. He still sat bolt upright in the proper firing position. Even in death his eyes stared widely along the gun sights… The crown of the gunner's skull had been blasted off...As [a Company K rifleman and I] talked, I noticed a fellow mortarman sitting next to me. He held a handful of coral pebbles in his left hand. With his right hand, he idly tossed them into the open skull of a dead Japanese machine gunner. Each time his pitch was true, I heard a little splash of rainwater in the ghastly receptacle. My buddy tossed the coral chunks as casually as a boy casting pebbles into a puddle on some muddy road back home; there was nothing malicious in his action. The war had so brutalized us that it was beyond belief.
Attack on Bloody Ridge at Peleliu
Matthew Stevenson wrote: “Once the marines came off the beach at Peleliu and survived nightmares like the Point or the Blockhouse, they encountered coral hills that had gone undetected by the pre-invasion intelligence. These hills stood higher than the dunes above Normandy’s Omaha Beach. Toward the end of the second day of fighting, the 1st Marines, with the 1st Battalion in the center, attacked the first of these coral hills, the mountainous Umbrogol. The marines nicknamed the Umbrogol “Bloody Nose Ridge.” [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
Russell Davis, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, described the attack on the ridge: “Old marines talk of Bloody Nose Ridge as though it were one, but I remember it as a series of crags, ripped bare of all standing vegetation, peeled down to the rotted coral, rolling in smoke, crackling with heat and stinking of wounds and death. In my memory it was always dark up there, even though it must have blazed under the afternoon sun, because the temperature went up over 115, and men cracked wide open from the heat. It must have been the color of the ridge that made me remember it as always dark—the coral was stained and black, like bad teeth.”
Stevenson wrote: “Until the marines attacked Bloody Nose Ridge, the invasion, while costly, had been a textbook operation. Mobile, lightly armed assault troops had established a beachhead and seized the airfield. Offshore there were large numbers of U.S. Army troops available as reinforcements. But the marine commanding general, Rupertus, never called for the Army and instead sent his badly depleted battalions, including the First, into the ridges, much the way World War I generals hoped that one more frontal assault would break through the enemy trenches.”
Harry A. Gailey’s Peleliu described one marine attack: “The Marines of the 7th were exhausted and Puller sent what was left of A Company of 1/1 [1st Battalion, 1st Marines], a total of 56 men, through their lines to continue the attack. He did this because he assumed from his maps that there was a uniform slope to the hill mass. However, Company A encountered a nearly sheer 150-foot cliff. The Japanese hit the company with heavy small arms, machine-gun, and mortar fire. Only six men of the entire company regained the relative safety of the lines of 2/7 [2nd Battalion, 7th Marines] some 150 yards to the rear without being hit. The rest had been killed or wounded.”
Artillery was little help to the marines attacking Bloody Nose Ridge. Stevenson’s father recalled: “As the next hideous night fell, our men held what ground they had chewed out inside the limestone ridges. All the jungle foliage had long since been blasted away; the landscape seemed like the mountains of the moon. As the hours progressed, a forward observer, a young ensign from the battleship Mississippi, appeared and declared himself ready to direct fire from its big guns on the enemy positions if I could orient them to him.” The ensign and my father crept forward to a small ravine between the American and Japanese lines, and “for the rest of the night we called in salvo after salvo, hour after hour, on the honeycombed ridges facing the fast dwindling strength of our companies. But as morning came, and our fire ceased, the Jap machine guns and mortars resumed their lethal chorus.”
Chesty Puller and the Battle at Peleliu
Matthew Stevenson wrote: “One of the most colorful personalities on the island during the battle was Chesty Puller. In the colonial wars of Haiti and Nicaragua, Puller was awarded several Navy Crosses for leading assaults against enemy strongholds. On Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester he won important engagements, although his men suffered heavy casualties. With the officers in his command Puller was cool and direct. He resented the intrusions of military brass, especially parade-ground generals and junior officers, who perhaps did not share his zeal for combat. James Hallas wrote, “To Chesty, low casualties among lieutenants indicated that the attack was not being pressed with sufficient vigor.” [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
“Puller had been commissioned from the ranks, giving him a natural affinity with enlisted men. “The men loved Chesty,” my father said often, “and he loved them.” During the heat of a battle, Puller would come forward, crouch low near a rifleman and ask, “How’s it going, old man?” Puller was physically brave but disinterested in tactics or strategy. Everett Pope remarked, with both irony and appreciation, that he “was the greatest platoon leader in the history of the Marine Corps.”
“But many of the officers and men whom I asked about Puller refused to answer, not wanting to be at odds with a legend. Puller had a habit of humiliating junior officers, to the delight of the enlisted men. Jim Rogers, a battalion officer on Peleliu, remembers Puller on Pavuvu ordering him to stand at attention in a deep puddle...Puller’s trademark was to have his command post far forward. But on Peleliu, Yerxa recalls how that led to permanent confusion in the regiment, as much of the time headquarters officers were taking cover instead of commanding. Nor did Puller have his legendary mobility on Peleliu due to a flare-up of a thigh wound from an earlier battle that left him hobbling. “Puller had no idea what was going on,” is Pope’s assessment; “We never saw Chesty,” is my father’s.
Chesty Puller and Confusion at Peleliu
Gaps often developed in the lines of the 1st Marines. One history of the battle describes a typical incident: “As the exhausted marines settled in, a more serious threat developed as the enemy discovered a gap between 2/1 and 1/1 [2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, and 1st Battalion, 1st Marines] and began to infiltrate the weak spot. To seal the hole, F Company, 7th Marines had to be committed. This outfit fought its way into position and managed to close the gap.” [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
Stevenson’s father discovered one gap, and described how Puller dealt with it: “It was then that it became clear to me that there were no friendly troops on the battalion right flank. It was completely open, entirely vulnerable to a Japanese counterattack, which, had it taken place, could have allowed them to surge all the way to the beach line and create near total havoc. I called Col. Chesty Puller, regimental commander, to warn him of the peril and the urgent need for reinforcements. When I reached him on the field telephone he was true to form. First he confused me with Steve Sabol, commander of the 3rd Battalion. When this was cleared up, his gruff voice spoke its usual formula, “Just keep pushing, old man.” ||||
“I stood transfixed, my runner beside me as we heard Japanese voices and the click of weapons on the far side of the vital road in question. Unbelieving I called again. This time I got Lt. Col. Buddy Ross, regimental exec, who instantly perceived the urgency: “Stay right there, Steve [my father’s nickname], don’t move; I’m sending up a unit from the Seventh. Tie them into the line as soon as they get there.” Within what seemed minutes, they appeared and immediately took up firing positions to plug the gap. No sooner was this done than there came wild shouts of “Banzai” as the Japanese poured across the road into the devastating but crucially effective fire of the newly arrived marines. That day, or perhaps just a portion of it, was saved. More crises were to follow soon.” ||||
On Puller at Peleliu, Craig Cameron wrote: “The course of the fighting began increasingly to take on the appearance of a test of wills between the implacable Japanese in their caves and Puller’s regiment. On Guadalcanal it had been a test of wills between warrior representatives [i.e., each army]; on Peleliu, Puller made it more personal. It was, moreover, a test of endurance in which the Japanese did not play fully human roles but were instead faceless elements in the landscape, deadly, but to be conquered along with the heat and blasted coral ridges. He had strong and well-founded faith in his men, and they always responded to his repeated calls for attack.” When the III Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger, went forward to Puller’s command post on the sixth day of the fighting, he decided, as Gailey wrote, that Puller was “out of touch with reality.” Shortly thereafter, the 1st Marines, with more than 50 percent casualties, were pulled off the line. ||||
Massacre at the Horseshoe at Peleliu
Down the hillside from Bloody Nose Ridge was the Horseshoe, a vast amphitheater in which scores of members of the 1st Marines were killed and wounded. Capt. Hank Hough wrote: “In broad daylight one could stand at the south of Horseshoe and study at leisure the precipitous slopes and its sheer cliffs. It was eerie. You could almost physically feel the weightless presence of hundreds of hostile eyes watching you. There was no sign of the enemy, no movement, no shots, and only a lonely silence.” [Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
On the right as you enter the valley is a jungle-covered hill called Hill 100. Here Company C made its last desperate stand and its captain, Everett Pope, earned the Medal of Honor. Stevenson’s father remembers Pope leading away the remnants of his old company: “After another day of futile struggle against the fortified limestone catacombs, the battalion was withdrawn and regrouped. Ev Pope and what was left of C Company (90 men) were detached and sent in support of the 2nd Battalion. With a heavy heart I watched him go, knowing so well that in combat any attached unit is always given the dirtiest, the most dangerous assignment. Theirs was to be no exception.” ||||
The younger Stevenson wrote: Pope and his 90 men were ordered to take Hill 100, which on the Marine Corps maps appeared to be an isolated knob, and might, if taken, give the marines high ground to support the attacks across the Horseshoe against Bloody Nose Ridge. But Hill 100 turned out to be the head of a whale, and for one long night the Japanese attacked along the humpback against the few marines who had struggled to the top. One of the men who made it to the top of the hill was Joseph Seifts, who remembers: “We started up with about 30 men. By the time we got to the top there were only about 20 of us left…. We had no machine guns or mortars. The Japs hit us I believe around 10 or 11 at night. We had to hold the hill. Because at the bottom of the hill lay all of our wounded. We stopped attack after attack…. I was never so glad to see daylight…. I still have bad memories of Peleliu.” ||||
Russell Davis wrote: “The remnants of our 2nd Battalion spent a terrible night up there. But, for the few men up on the higher ridge—mostly from C Company, 1st Battalion—it was far worse. All through the night we could hear them screaming for illumination or for corpsmen, as the Japs came at them from caves which were all around them on the hillside. Men were hit up there and we could hear them crying and pleading for help, but nobody could help them…. The cries of Americans and Japanese were all mixed together.”
When dawn broke on Hill 100 Pope’s perimeter was the size of a tennis court. He had no ammunition and only about eight men; he led the survivors off the hill. “I saw no good reason for us all to die there—as was about to happen,” remembers Pope. “My most vivid memory, after being driven off the hill, is that of expecting that Puller would have me court-martialed for having failed to hold—i.e., for not having died up there. As your father will recall, late on the afternoon, Puller ordered C-1-1 [Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines], to take the hill again. Since there were only about 12 to 15 of us left, it was clearly to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller’s).” As Pope prepared to lead his men back into battle and to their deaths, he received orders canceling the attack: “I have always believed that your father and Ray Davis succeeded in convincing Puller to call off the mission. Why Puller wanted us all dead on the top of that hill has never been clear to me.” Without Company C, the 1st Battalion (normally about 950 men and officers) was reduced to a little more than 100 infantrymen and four officers.
Taking Bloody Ridge at Peleliu
Matthew Stevenson wrote: During the night that Company C was fighting and dying for Hill 100, the rest of the 1st Battalion was across the Horseshoe, preparing for a final attack against the face of ridge. My father remembers, “We received orders from regiment that at six o’clock the next morning there would be an artillery barrage on Bloody Nose Ridge, followed at six thirty by a frontal attack by the remnants of the First and Second Battalions...A plea to regiment to send forward any officers and men who could be spared brought old friend Fendall Yerxa back to us along with a dozen or two cooks, bakers and truck drivers, converted overnight into riflemen, and a 37mm gun. Clearly it was to be the battalion’s last throw of the dice. If Bloody Nose Ridge could be taken, our fire from its heights into enemy-held crevices below would eventually dislodge them and Peleliu would be won at last.[Source: “Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective” by Matthew Stevenson, Military History Quaterly, Winter 1998, historynet.com |||| ]
“At first light, all hands took position and waited for the artillery barrage. It was 6:10, then 6:20; only deep silence and the growing horror that there would not be one. But at 6:30 sharp, Maj. Ray Davis gave the command and the men moved out in short rushes, starting up the slope toward the heights that now seemed miles away. Russell Davis was part of the attack as a rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, which was mixed together on the 1st Battalion’s right flank. He remembers that: “The whole motley lot—a fighting outfit only in the minds of a few officers in the 1st Regiment and in the 1st Division—started up the hill. I have never understood why.”
As the men moved up the slopes, my father recalls: “Enemy fire quickened. Minutes later a runner came rushing up to me at the rear command post with a message, ‘Major Davis has been wounded and orders you to take command of the battalion.’ As I ran forward I found men still moving, trying to take what cover they could find, urged on by a young second lieutenant, Junior Thompson. On our right flank, the 2nd Battalion had not moved.” As my father ran forward he realized that “to move farther would be suicide; no one would reach the crest alive.”
His crisis of command was not unlike Everett Pope’s on Hill 100. He ordered the men to halt their attack. Stevenson’s father remembers: “I dispatched my runner, Corporal Hauge, going at top speed, to inform Puller that we were pinned down by heavy enemy fire…. At that critical moment the Japanese ceased their firing. An eerie, never-to-be-forgotten quiet fell, broken only by the faraway rattle of machine guns and the clump of distant mortars. We lay and crouched there, waiting. Waiting for we knew not what. The sun rose higher, turning helmets into ovens. At long last came a runner from regiment, informing us that we were to be relieved by a fresh battalion, from the 7th Marines. Slowly we rose, formed two files on each side of the cart track leading back. The relief took place in full view of the Japanese atop Bloody Nose Ridge. If they had opened up, it would have been the final and apocalyptic carnage. Inexplicably, they did not. We marched slowly away.” For the men of the 1st Marines, Peleliu was over. But the battle dragged on for more than a month, with the men of the 5th and 7th Marine regiments—plus army units—fighting and dying among the coral valleys of the Umbrogol.
Fighting Towards the End of Peleliu
Sledge wrote: “There were certain areas we moved into and out of several times as the campaign dragged along its weary, bloody course. In many such areas I became quite familiar with the sight of some particular enemy corpse, as if it were a landmark. It was gruesome to see the stages of decay proceed from just killed, to bloated, to maggot-infested rotting, to partially exposed bones -- like some biological clock marking the inexorable passage of time. On each occasion my company passed such a landmark, we were fewer in number. [Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
“As I struggled upward [onto the boat] with my load of equipment, I felt like a weary insect climbing a vine. But at last I was crawling up out of the abyss of Peleliu!… I stowed my gear on my rack and went topside. The salt air was delicious to breathe. What a luxury to inhale long deep breaths of fresh clean air, air that wasn't heavy with the fetid stench of death… But something in me died at Peleliu. Perhaps it was a childish innocence that accepted as faith the claim that man is basically good. Possibly I lost faith that politicians in high places who do not have to endure war's savagery will ever stop blundering and sending others to endure it. [Source: Eugene Sledge's "With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa," pbs.org/thewar +]
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
Last updated November 2016