On September 15, we mark the seventieth anniversary of the landings on Peleliu island in the Palau chain by the First U.S. Marine Division during the Pacific War. This was one of those battles that often gets passed over in our national memory. Those marginally knowledgeable of World War II will no doubt be familiar with places like Normandy, Iwo Jima, or Guadalcanal.
But like many of the other battles into which American boys were thrown, few but the most ardent history buffs can relay much, if anything, about the agony that was the struggle for Peleliu. Considered vital to protect MacArthur’s flank in his advance towards the Philippines six hundred miles farther west, the First Marine Division was sent to this 14 square-mile dot in the Pacific to seize its airfield and clear the island of its estimated 11,000 Japanese defenders. The operation, prophetically code-named Stalemate II, was expected to last a mere three days.
The Japanese, mimicking a new and bloody strategy first utilized on Biak several months before, did not meet the Marines on the beaches with anything but a skirmish line of machine guns, mortars, and well-sighted artillery. (Although for the men who landed ashore that day, the carnage and mayhem even this initial action inflicted would haunt them forever.) The real battle for Peleliu, however, would be fought against a tenacious enemy burrowed deep into the island’s rock-hard coral ridges, hidden within a network of caves, bunkers, pillboxes, and interconnected tunnels that were impervious to even the heaviest naval gunfire. The defenders had to be rooted out like rats, one position at a time, with small arms, grenades, demolition charges and, most terrible, flamethrowers. It was a brutal affair that went on for seventy-three tortuous days; the Marines and their Army replacements suffered crippling casualties. When a journalist caught up with an exhausted file of Marines rotating off the sheer coral escarpments that dominated the island, he asked them if this was the 1st Marine Regiment. “Mac, there ain’t no more 1st Marines,” a grim veteran replied.
Adding to the terror of battle itself, the Americans found themselves in a struggle with Peleliu’s forbidding topography. The coral base of the island was too hard to dig adequate foxholes, or bury the dead, so many an American had to share what little shelter he could find with bloating, maggot, and fly-infested corpses…of enemy and friend alike. Adding to the misery, the temperature at times rose to 115 degrees in the shade, the ever-present vile stench of rotting flesh and swamp was in the humid air, and fresh water was scarce due to supply problems. For many veterans who fought throughout the Pacific–the First Marine Division saw action at Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Okinawa–Peleliu remained the battle that stayed with them in the sheer savagery of the action, hostility of the terrain, and abject misery of the conditions.
The visceral hatred such protracted “get or get got” fighting engendered in the combatants gave this and other Pacific battles a distinctly personal and barbaric character. The Japanese were driven by a fanaticism to die for their god emperor–and a military code that viewed surrender as the worst of disgraces. Trapped on an island with no escape, the Japanese steeled themselves to sell their lives dearly, vowing to fight to the last man and take as many Americans with them. For the Marines and soldiers, any pretense of quarter was quickly abandoned as they came upon the mutilated bodies of captured comrades who had been sadistically tortured to death. And given the Japanese penchant for trickery by feigning injury and death only to blow up with hidden grenades both themselves and the unsuspecting corpsmen or medic ostensibly coming their aid, no one was in a mood to take prisoners. Marine veteran Eugene Sledge likened Peleliu to “…two scorpions in a bottle. One was annihilated, the other nearly so.”
When on November 27, after more than two months of non-stop fighting from one end of the superheated rocky island to the other, Peleliu was finally declared secure, both sides had paid a horrific price for their efforts. The fine First Marine Division was shattered. It lost 1,252 KIA and 5,274 wounded. The Army’s 81st Infantry Division lost another 542 KIA and 2,736 wounded. This was the highest casualty rate of any amphibious operation of the war. The Japanese garrison was almost entirely wiped out. Only 202 of the 11,000 defenders were taken alive…and of them only 19 were Japanese military; the rest were Korean and Okinawan laborers.
Tragically, it is debatable whether Peleliu ever needed to be captured at all. The main purpose of the operation, to secure an aerodrome from which to cover the landings on Mindanao, was rendered unnecessary when MacArthur opted to bypass Mindanao and strike first at Leyte in the central Philippines. Admiral Halsey, in fact, had recommended cancellation of the landings in favor of using the Marines on Leyte. But, as author William Manchester, a wounded Pacific War Marine veteran himself, would bitterly write: “[Admiral] Nimitz decided it was too late to recall the Palau force and 9,171 (sic) Americans fell there, tragically and pointlessly.” Since it was expected to be a quick fight, few journalists covered the landings. And those who did found their stories overshadowed by events in the Philippines and Europe. So Peleliu, perhaps the most brutal battle of our most brutal war, remains in relative obscurity. The men who fought there deserve better.
Whether or not the Marines and soldiers of Peleliu suffered and died needlessly, there is no debating they successfully carried out their mission with extraordinary bravery, skill, and perseverance in one of the most inhospitable battlefields onto which men-at-arms have ever been placed, against an enemy whose homicidal fanaticism was matched only by their skill as warriors. We owe this moment, then, to the men of Peleliu, many of whom have now died from causes far removed from that terrible battlefield, to remember their sacrifice, to honor their courage, and give them one final salute as they move into their twilight. Indeed, they should know they are not forgotten…that the seminal moment of their young lives, one they carried to the end of their days, has not slipped away into the collective amnesia of a peaceful society that can never comprehend what happened there and what they overcame to move the country one step closer to a just victory and lasting peace.