At Peleliu, US forces were rudely introduced to new Japanese tactics for defending islands. Following the losses of islands in the Solomons, Gilberts, and particularly the Marianas, the Japanese decided to no longer base their island defenses on defeating the invasion forces on the beaches. Instead, they would continue to offer some resistance at the beach, but concentrate on in-depth defenses further inland, hoping to cause severe attrition amongst the attackers. Essentially, Japanese forces would fight for time and hope that heavy casualties would weaken the will of the US. Peleliu's terrain offered a model for these type defenses, which would provide the basis for the defenses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Japanese commander on Peleliu would resist the invasion, but base most of his defenses in and around the island's highest ground, the Umurbrogol, a collection of rugged coral-covered hills, steep ridges, sharp peaks, deep defiles, and sheer walls, which overlooked the remainder of the island, including its airfield, the objective of the US attack. The Umurbrogol also contained hundreds of limestone caves, which would serve as ready-made defensive positions. The Japanese improved these caves, added connecting tunnels and more defenses, making the entire area a massive honeycombed defensive position with interlocking fields of fire manned by well-trained infantry, plus naval and air force personnel, armed with large numbers of machine guns, other automatic weapons, mortars, and artillery. Once completed, the Umurbrogol, which would earn the nickname "Bloody Nose Ridge," would be one of the most formidable defensive positions of the entire war.
|Pre-invasion aerial photograph of Peleliu.|
While historians continue to spar over the issue, the sad truth is that the battle probably never should have taken place because by September 1944 the island had lost any strategic value it once held. The stated reason for the operation was to clear the right flank of Douglas MacArthur's planned invasion of the Philippines and provide an air base to support that operation. However, US carrier-based air operations had already largely destroyed Japanese air capabilities in the Palaus, and Japanese forces there thus lacked the means to interfere with any US operations against the Philippines. In addition, the island's airfield never played much of a role in subsequent US operations, certainly not one that could justify the enormous costs of taking it. The losses too caused controversy. The 1st Marine Regiment, for example, in the first two days of fighting suffered around 1,000 casualties, or about 30 percent of is strength. It would eventually take over 1,800 casualties in just five days of action before being pulled out, decimated and exhausted. US units in World War Two were usually taken out of combat once they hit 15 percent losses, yet the regimental commander ("Chesty" Puller) and the divisional commander (William Rupertus), kept pressing their depleted Marine units to attack, while refusing to call in readily available Army troops, denigrating the capabilities of the soldiers (81st Infantry Division) and thinking falsely that the Japanese were on the verge of breaking.
This will be a long entry because I want to do a comprehensive look and do it all at once, but no blow-by-blow accounts here. Just a modern-day look at what must have been in 1944 something akin to fighting in what author Derrick Wright called "the far side of hell."
|LIFE magazine artist Tom Lea's iconic portrait of a Marine on Peleliu with the Umurbrogol rising in the background, Marines Call It That 2,000 Yard Stare. Mr. Lea accompanied the Marines during their assault. "As we passed sick bay, still in the shell hole, it was crowded with wounded, and somehow hushed in the evening light. I noticed a tattered Marine standing quietly by a corpsman, staring stiffly at nothing. His mind had crumbled in battle, his jaw hung, and his eyes were like two black empty holes in his head. Down by the beach again, we walked silently as we passed the long line of dead Marines under the tarpaulins." See more of his Peleliu art here.|
|Following Godwin into the Wildcat Bowl.|
The Invasion Beaches
The three regiments (1st, 5th, and 7th) of the 1st Marine Division landed on Peleliu on 15 September 1944 with the 1st on the left hitting White Beach, while the 5th (center) and 7th (right) hit the Orange beaches.
|The view of White Beach from the Point.|
|White Beach 1 and 2 on 15 September 1944 with the beach end of the Point clearly visible at the top.|
|Marines dig in on White Beach. The Point is the high ground in the background.|
|Further down White Beach is the rusted hulk of an LVT, or Landing Vehicle Tracked, wrecked during the invasion and now a permanent fixture of the island, complete with a massive tree growing through its skeletal frame. The commander of the 1st Marines, whose own assault craft was hit by "four or five shells" after he scrambled out of it, said upon landing that, "I looked down the beach and saw a mess--every damned amtrac in our wave had been destroyed in the water....or shot to pieces the minute it landed."|
Once the beaches were secured, the Marines moved inland. The 1st Marines struggled with the high ground extending inland from the Point, but eventually seized the area and moved toward the northern end of the airfield where the forbidding Umurbrogol awaited. The 5th Marines attacked across the southern part of airfield, while the 7th Marines turned right to seize the southern part of the island.
|Same shot in 1944. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers in the building were killed by just the terrific concussion of the giant battleship shells.|
|Bombed out ruins of Japanese headquarters/administrative buildings on the north side of the old airfield. The 1st Marines seized this area.|
|Bunker protecting the island's power plant.|
|There are numerous old wrecked LVTs strewn around the island. Their stories are mostly unknown.|
|Another destroyed LVT.|
|The remains of an unfinished position behind the beaches, probably for anti-aircraft guns.|
|Same position in 1944.|
|The "Lady Luck," a tracked amphibious assault craft, which drove over a pesky Japanese gun emplacement during the battle, left to rust away in the jungle.|
|The Lady Luck in 1944 and the Japanese gun it destroyed.|
Museum. The museum was small, but contained a rather impressive array of battlefield relics.
Within a couple of days of the invasion, the Marines were butting up against the Umorbrogol and discovering that the real fight was only just beginning, this despite already having suffered a few thousand casualties and killing a substantial portion of the Japanese garrison. The 1st Marines would be the first to enter the Japanese stronghold, beginning with some high ground (hills 160, 200, and 210--the hills were named for their elevation) that gave the Japanese the ability to see a large part of the southern end of the island and direct artillery fire on the US-occupied airfield and the landing beaches where supplies poured ashore. Marines would battle their way up these hills, engage in close-quarters combat, and take heavy losses. Unfortunately, securing the crest of one hill or ridge only put the marines under fire from the next one, setting a pattern for the rest of the fight for the Umurbrogol "Pocket," where an estimated 2-3,000 determined Japanese troops prepared to defend an area about 1,000 yards long and 500 yards wide. Here, they would hold out from the end of September until almost the end of November, determined to take as many American lives as they could before succumbing. Once the 5th and 7th Marines secured other parts of the island, they too would take their part in subduing the Pocket, as would Army troops from the 81st Division. All would experience and long remember the horror of such infamous places as "the Five Sisters," "the Five Brothers," "Death Valley," "the China Wall," "the Wildcat Bowl," "Walt's Ridge," and "the Horseshoe." Judging by statements from the marines who fought on these hills and had previously fought on Guadalcanal and would later fight on Okinawa, this was their toughest fight of the war. To get an appreciation of the terrain, here are a few shots taken of the Umurbrogol during and after the battle, followed by our photos. Our photos fail to capture the breadth of the originals simply because there are few vantage points from which to take in the vegetation-covered entire area.
|Another view of the Horseshoe, this time from the opposite (north) end with Walt's Ridge on the left and the Five Brothers on the right. One marine said the terrain was "like the surface of a waffle iron, only magnified about a million times."|
|Great shot of the sheer nature of the ridge walls.|
|An armored bulldozer closes up a cave.|
|A favorite and probably most effective method for destroying cave positions: Long-range flamethrower.|
|Tanks and infantry move into "the Horseshoe."|
|Tanks and infantry attack the Five Brothers.|
|Tanks and infantry under fire in the Horseshoe.|
|More shots of the ridges and the caves.|
|The Horseshoe today with Walt Ridge on the right. It was almost amazing how the vegetation had returned to consume everything.|
|The Horseshoe with the Five Brothers in the left background.|
|Two of the Brothers.|
|View from atop the Five Sisters, looking back over the airfield with the landing beaches in the right background. In the trees below is the entrance to Death Valley, plus hills 200 and 210.|
|Looking down from the Five Sisters on the Horseshoe, with the Brothers on the left.|
|Entrance to the Wildcat Bowl (it stretches off to the left).|
|Hills 200 (left) and 210 (right). The Japanese commander has his command post in this area until driven out by advancing marines.|
|Marines tell of a couple of hidden guns such as this one inflicting heavy casualties on troops attacking hills 200 and 210.|
|A lot of marines fell in this area.|
|Heading into what is thought to be a Japanese ammunition bunker under Hill 200 because contains ammunition carts, among many other rusted pieces of military equipment.|
Death Valley is probably no more than 75 yards across at its widest point. On one side, it has the forbidding "China Wall," the side of a ridge so named because of its verticle 200-foot walls, which are best suited for mountain climbers, not marines and soldiers. It was honeycombed with multiple layers of Japanese defensive positions. On the other side was a lower and not quite so steep ridge with fewer, but still deadly, defensive positions. Death Valley was perhaps the toughest area to clear for the marines and soldiers and was the last bit of the Umurbrogol to be captured. It also held the last Japanese holdouts, including their commander, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa.
|Heading into Death Valley. China Wall on the right.|
|There is a loop trail into Death Valley.|
|Snapshot of the terrain.|
|Japanese cave in Death Valley. Some were small, fit for one or two men, while others could fit dozens of men and multiple weapons systems.|
|After its capture by the 81st Division in late November.|
|And today. The entrance is at the top of the cut in the far center of the photo.|
|Up the cut and down into this defile.|
|And through another cut to the cave. A very well-concealed and protected position.|
|Old mortar shells laying around. Complete shells and the fragments of many others were everywhere it seemed.|
|The cut went completely through the ridge.|
|Across from Nakagawa's cave was a communications cave, judging by the remnants of radios scattered about.|
|Munitions, like these collected shells, were scattered about the valley.|
|A couple positions in the China Wall. Some of the entrances were protected by log revetments, others by coral-filled oil drums.|
|Remnants of a Japanese machine gun.|
|An old Japanese bicycle. These were the Japanese mode of transportation around the island.|
The Five Sisters were another group of rugged knobs sitting atop a ridge. They figure prominently in the histories of the battle. Japanese soldiers would hold out in its caves until almost November. Today, it is known for an observation platform which sits on top of one of the Sisters and several monuments.
|Recognizing a pilot shot down over the Umurbrogal. Aircraft taking off from Peleliu's airfield that flew missions supporting the attacks often did not even raise their landing gear before dropping their ordnance.|
|Napalm strike on the Five Sisters.|
|Monument on top of the Sisters to the 323rd Regiment, a unit of the 81st Division, which participated in the reduction of the Umurbrogol pocket.|
|And a Japanese shrine dedicated to the dead. Most of the bodies were never recovered, although over the years, the Japanese government has sent delegations to the island to recover remains.|
|Not far away is a monument to the 1st Marine Division, including its 8 members who won the Medal of Honor in the fight for Peleliu.|
|The story is that the Japanese did not have any ammunition for this formidable 200mm coastal defense gun. Our guide told us there was another such gun in a cave on the northern part of the island.|
Wildcat Bowl. The 81st "Wildcat" Infantry Division named this area because it spent a considerable amount of its time in the Umurbrogol pocket assaulting positions in its confines. The terrain is similar to Death Valley, but the valley floor is wider.
|There is a foot path part way up into the Wildcat Bowl.|
|Japanese position, well-hidden even today.|
|Aerial bomb laying on the valley floor.|
|Remnants of another Japanese artillery piece.|
|With live ammunition still laying nearby.|
|Our cameras were not the best for taking photos in the dark of the cave, even with flashlights, but perhaps these photos give you a sense of what lay about.|
81st Division monument. The Wildcats of the 81st began participating in the Peleliu operation eight days after the beach landings with the arrival of its 321st Regimental Combat Team (RCT) to replace the decimated 1st Marine Regiment. The 81st had attacked the nearby island of Angaur while the Marines landed on Peleliu. The 323rd would help the 5th and 7th Marines seal and then begin reducing the Umurbrogol pocket. At the end of October, the 81st would take over the entire Peleliu operation, and its 321st and 323rd RCTs would finish out the fight. They essentially laid siege to the pocket, building sandbagged positions in a tighter and tighter ring, while running tank-infantry combat patrols into Death Valley, the Wildcat Bowl, the Horseshoe, and along the ridges, each day killing more Japanese with explosives, gunfire, and flamethrowers or simply sealing up the cave entrances with armored bulldozers. From mid-October to the end of the campaign on 27 November, the 81st claimed to have killed 1,300 Japanese and captured 143. It was thankless, difficult, and deadly work, and largely forgotten as the war moved on. The 81st, which appears to have felt slighted by the accolades given to the 1st Marines (the Marines for example, had eight Medal of Honor winners, while the Wildcats had none), suffered about 1,400 casualties on Peleliu and another 1,600 on Angaur. Nearly 2,000 others suffered non-combat injuries or were afflicted with such tropical diseases as amoebic dysentery, yellow jaundice, hepatitis, and dengue fever.
|81st Division monuments and cemetery in 1944.|
|The 81st Division monument today. All US personnel were exhumed and sent back to the States or other national cemeteries after the war.|
|Ruins of the old chapel seen in the 1944 photograph.|
|The cave had multiple entrances and multiple levels, although many of the side passages are now blocked or inaccessible. The upper reaches seemed completely blocked.|
|Simple tribute amongst the cave's refuse to perhaps a Japanese ancestor who died on Peleliu. In addition to hundreds of sake and beer bottles, we would find bones in this cave as well.|
|A large bunker outside the cave.|
|Blockhouse behind one of the beaches the Marines did not storm.|
(This is H writing the conclusion, to give our readers a Japanese-American's perspective of this historic place). Peleliu was hard. I am positive it was harder for the American, Japanese, Okinawan and Korean men who were forced to fight and die there, but 70 years on, it was still hard for me. I have been through many, many battlefields, it is somewhat of a prerequisite to being married to T, but this was my first World War Two in the Pacific battlefield and it hit me harder, and in a more sensitive part of my gut than did Normandy, Verdun, Gettysburg, or even the Vosges forest where the Japanese American 442nd fought against the Germans. Never before have I been forced to face so clearly and closely a place where the country of my birth, the country that has my loyalty and allegiance, faced an antagonist in the country of my ancestry. It shook me to the core. I cried for both sides here, for the Americans who fell, but also for the thousands and thousands of young Japanese men who had no choice but to go to their ugly, horrific deaths after suffering so much in life. The Japanese lost a large part of a generation of men on this tiny coral island and to what purpose. Exactly why did this have to happen? That was the question on repeat in my mind over and over as we slogged through the jungle, rugged hills, caves and beaches. Peleliu is an island full of ghosts, and not many of them are peaceful. It was perhaps fitting then that on the night before we entered the Umubrogol, a terrific ocean squall hit the beach directly in front of our bungalow. I've never experienced another storm like it in my life. Lashing rain, fierce wind, deafening thunder rained down on us, as if to show us that no matter what we experienced during our sanitized visit to the battlefield, it was nothing, simply nothing, compared to what was suffered by the sons, husbands, brothers, grandsons and friends that died on that out of the way, insignificant island in the fall of 1944.
Back to T. Peleliu was not a particularly important battle during the Pacific War, but the place itself is simply fascinating. So much suffering and dying in an area so small and insignificant. To be part of the small number of Americans who have been to the island and tried to picture the intimacy, brutality, and horror of fighting in this tropical paradise is quite the honor. Peleliu was certainly not Normandy, Verdun, or Gettysburg, but it was something I think neither of us will ever forget and probably would not turn down an opportunity to see again.
Last, I would be remiss if I did not note the books that made me smart on the battle of Peleliu and informed this blog entry. All very informative and chock full of good info on a truly unique battle in American and Japanese military history.
|Probably the best of the lot in my view.|
|Recent addition describing the 81st Division's role in the Palaus campaign.|
|Lots of detail and personal accounts. Sloan is a student of the Marines and has written books on their fights on Okinawa and in Korea.|
|Great photos and observations by Eric Hammel, another well-known student of the Marines.|
|Very detailed account of the 1st Marine Regiment's nightmare on Peleliu. Lots of anecdotes and a good guide for tracing the 1st Marines' experience there.|
|Classic first-hand account of a marine's Pacifc War experience. Peleliu was Sledge's first time in combat and his account is extremely vivid and well-written. We reviewed it in a previous blog entry.|
|Official history of the 81st Division. Worth its weight in gold simply for the fantastic photos of the Umurbrogol.|
|Published in 1991, it is probably the first attempt by a professional historian to write about Peleliu. Less focus on the details of the battle and more emphasis on the decisions that led to it.|
|A very well-done Osprey book with good maps, photographs, and summary of the battle in less than 100 pages. We brought a copy along for reference.|
|I've never been able to "get into" Leckie's style of writing, but there is no denying he was a very good and prolific historian, beginning with his classic memoir. Leckie's experience on Peleliu in the 1st Marines was cut short by a wound.|