The palau islands, about halfway between the marianas and the Philippines, are so remote that none of the European colonial powers had bothered to develop them. Indeed, except for a party of sixteenth-century conquistadores led by Ruy López de Villalobos, few outsiders were even aware of the mini-archipelago until the autumn of 1944. Peleliu is the southernmost isle in the Palau group. Roughly speaking, it was to the Palaus what Betio was to Tarawa — the key to the Japanese defense of the surrounding atolls and volcanic land masses. Today it is the least accessible of the central Pacific's great battlefields, hidden away in the trackless deep like a guilty secret. And that is altogether appropriate. It was a bad battle, fought at a bad place and a bad time, with an enemy garrison that could have been left to wither on the vine without altering the course of the Pacific war in any way.
To grasp what happened on Peleliu, or what ought not to have happened, you need only glance at a map of the Pacific. America's two enormous pincers — the drives of MacArthur and Nimitz — were swiftly approaching one another. In the Pentagon, Peleliu seemed necessary to protect MacArthur's flank when he invaded Mindanao, the big island at the bottom of the Philippines. But then Halsey, cruising off the Philippines, launching carrier strikes at Japanese bases, concluded that Leyte, farther up the Filipino island chain, was held by far fewer enemy troops than had been thought. He radioed Nimitz, suggesting the canceling of all other operations, especially Peleliu, which, he had already predicted, would become another Tarawa. In their place he urged the swift seizure of Leyte.
Nimitz relayed the proposal, accompanied by recommendations of his own, to Quebec, where the Combined Chiefs of Staff were attending a formal dinner as guests of Prime Minister W. L. Mackenzie King. Admirals King and Leahy and Generals Marshall and Arnold excused themselves, read the message, and told a staff officer to cable their approval. There was one small difficulty. In Nimitz's endorsement of Halsey's message he insisted that the convoy of Marines steaming toward the Palaus, which was two sailing days from its objective, steam on and take Peleliu anyway. This defies understanding. The island's only strategic value was that it lay 550 miles east of Mindanao, which, under the new plan, would be bypassed.
Part of the problem lay in U.S. ignorance of the Palaus and the assumption that Peleliu would be easy to take. There were no coast-watchers and therefore no information on what was happening there. Intelligence came from navy frogmen demolishing beach obstacles, submarine shore parties, and aerial photographs. Since the frogmen and the submariners could not see inland, they could not contradict the conclusions of those who had analyzed the aerial photographs and said Peleliu was flat. None of them suspected the presence of jagged limestone ridges overlooking the island's airfield, heights which had been turned into fortresses of underground strongpoints shielded by cement, sand, and coral, all connected by tunnels and virtually impervious to air and naval bombardment. One hulk of rock, later to be christened “The Point” by the Marines who had to take it, rose thirty feet above the water's edge, a bastion of huge fractured boulders, deep gorges, and razor-sharp spikes, the entire mass studded with pillboxes reinforced with steel and concrete. It was Tarawa, Saipan, and Guam in spades.
During the preinvasion bombardment, a gunnery officer on the heavy cruiser Portland glimpsed what lay ahead. Focusing his field glasses on a Peleliu slope, he saw a coastal gun emerge from a coral fissure. Shells were rapidly fired at the U.S. warships and then the gun was dragged back out of sight. The gunnery officer ordered his crews to hit the coral with five salvos of eight-inch shells. It was done. The gun, untouched, repeated its act. Frustrated, he said, “You can put all the steel in Pittsburgh onto that thing and still not get it.” But he was a junior officer, and in a minority. Admiral Jesse Oldendorf ordered his batteries to cease firing. He said he had run out of targets; the Jap defense had been annihilated. William Rupertus, the Marine commander, told his officers: “We're going to have some casualties, but let me assure you this is going to be a short one, a quickie. Rough but fast. We'll be through in three days. It might take only two.” Company K of the First Marines climbed down the cargo nets singing, “Give my regards to Broadway.” The captain of a transport asked the First Marines' CO, Chesty Puller, “Coming back for supper?” Chesty asked, “Why?” The captain said, “Everything's done over there. You'll walk in.” Puller said, “If you think it's that easy, why don't you come on the beach at five o'clock, have supper with me, and pick up a few souvenirs?”
Later, after the First Marines had suffered over seventeen hundred casualties, another naval officer asked an evacuated Marine if he had any souvenirs to trade. The Marine stared at him and then reached down and patted his butt. “I brought my ass out of there, swabbie,” he said. “That's my souvenir of Peleliu.” Painfully aware that they continued to carry prewar equipment, priority still being given to the ETO, and learning that the bombardment had been entrusted to inexperienced naval commanders, the men who suffered on this ill-starred island became bitter. A Marine officer later said: “It seemed to us that somebody forgot to give the order to call off Peleliu. That's one place nobody wants to remember.” Oldendorf conceded that if Nimitz had realized the implications of his decision, “undoubtedly the assault and capture of the Palaus would never have been attempted.” Time called it “a horrible place.” Few Americans at home even knew of the ferocious struggle there. When President Truman pinned a medal on a Peleliu hero, he couldn't pronounce the island's name. Samuel Eliot Morison, rarely critical of U.S. admirals, wrote that “Stalemate II,” as the operation had been prophetically encoded, “should have been counter-manded,” being “hardly worth” the price of over ten thousand American casualties — three times Tarawa's.
The target island, seven miles long and two miles wide, lies within the coral reef which surrounds most of the Palaus. Peleliu is shaped like a lobster's claw. The Jap airstrip had been built on a level field south of the claw's hinge. North of the hinge a spiny ridge of rock dominates the battlefield. Steep, heavily forested, and riddled with caves, it was known as the Umurbrogol until the Marines rechristened it Bloody Nose Ridge. The enemy knew that any assault on the Palaus would have to hit Peleliu's mushy white sand coast because the airfield was there, and because the reef there was closest to the shore. The island's postwar population is about four hundred. In the summer of 1944, over twelve hundred natives had been living here. Most of them left before the battle because U.S. planes, in one of those humane gestures which fighting men will never understand, had showered Peleliu with leaflets warning of the coming attack. Undoubtedly that saved the lives of many islanders, but it cost American lives, too, because the Japanese also read the pamphlets and made their dispositions accordingly.
It was the misfortune of the attackers — the First Marine Division, followed by the Eighty-first Army Division — that their landings coincided with a revolutionary change in Japanese tactics. The murderous doctrine of attrition, which had first appeared as a local commander's decision on Biak, and which would reach its peak in the slaughterhouses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, became official enemy policy in the weeks before the Battle of Peleliu. There would be no more banzai charges. Tokyo knew the war was lost. The Japanese garrisons in the Palaus were written off; their orders were to butcher Marines and GIs, bleeding them white before falling themselves — to dig deep, hold their fire during bombardments and preliminary maneuvering, and infiltrate and counterattack whenever possible. Thus the Peleliu gunports with sliding steel doors; thus the blasting of more than five hundred cunningly located coral caverns, one of them large enough to hold a thousand Japs, well stocked with food and ammunition. Most of the caves were tiered, with laterals, bays, and alternate entrances. Some were six stories deep, with slanting, labyrinthine entrances to deflect flamethrower jets and satchel charges of TNT. Camouflaged so that Americans would unwittingly advance beyond them, these fortresses held Nips drilled to emerge and attack from the rear following seven separate counterattack plans, each to be triggered by a signal flag or flare. On September 14, 1944, there were 10,700 such Japanese waiting, all prepared to die, all aware that the survivors among them would make their last stand on Bloody Nose Ridge. The terrain was their ally. Mangrove swamps, inside the reef, encircled the entire island. Steep-sided ravines — often more like chasms between cliffs — made progress difficult. Finding the fire zones of pillboxes and caverns would be even harder.
This, then, was the ghastly stage which awaited three regiments, veterans of Guadalcanal, who had been recuperating in the Solomons. They landed abreast: Puller's First Marines on the left, the Fifth Marines in the center, and the Seventh Marines on the right. The instant they reached the reef it burst, as Saipan's had, in a sheet of fire, steel, and lead. Only the Fifth landed more or less intact, threw a loop over the southern runways on the airfield, and, crossing the island, anchored on the far shore by evening. For the other regiments the landing was Tarawa without a seawall. To the right of the Seventh, obstacles which had eluded the frogmen marooned blazing amphtracs on the reef and forced the rest to come in single file, each in succession a lonely target, so that Marines jumped off and waded in instead. But the First Marines, moving under the muzzles of the largest pillboxes, faced the hardest task of all. Those who reached the beach were trapped by enfilading fire from the Point. One company was down to eighteen men. In a coconut grove near the water's edge the dead and dying, furled in bloody bandages, lay row on row, the corpses grotesquely transfixed in attitudes of death and those still alive writhing and groaning. Ahead, in craggy jungle laced with enemy machine-gun nests, lay knobs and wrinkles of stone which, as the riflemen approached them, were christened Death Valley, the Horseshoe, the Five Sisters, the Five Brothers, and Walt Ridge.
At 5:30 p.m. of the first day, the Japanese counterattacked across the airfield from a wrecked hangar, led by thirteen light tanks. With Nip infantry clinging to them at every possible place, the tanks raced, their throttles open, like charging cavalry. The Marines fired back with everything they had: bazookas, 37-millimeter antitank guns, pack howitzers, Sherman tanks armed with 75-millimeter guns, and, at the moment of collision between the two forces, a well-timed lunge by an American dive-bomber. One man rushed a Jap tank with his flamethrower and was cut down when a burst of machine-gun fire ripped open his chest. Marine infantry held fast; several Nip tanks reached our lines, prodding with their grotesque snouts, but their skin of armor was too thin to withstand the concentrated fire, and Marines standing in full view of their gunners, some even perched on rocks, blazed away until the last tank blew up.
Digging foxholes on Peleliu, as on so many islands, was impossible. Beneath the dense scrub jungle lay solid limestone and coral. At midnight the Japanese opened fire with heavy mortars; then their infiltrating parties crept close to Marine outposts. The cruiser Honolulu and three destroyers sent up star shells, exposing the infiltrators to our small-arms fire. Fire discipline had to be tight; amphtracs were bringing in ammunition as quickly as possible, but some units ran out of it; one company commander led his men in throwing chunks of coral at the Nips. Sniper fire, the scuffling of crawling Japs, and the wounded's cries for corpsmen continued until dawn, when the enemy mounted new mortar and grenade barrages. Marine radios had been knocked out and were useless for calling in supporting fire from our artillery and mortars, and some companies had lost two men out of every three, but the American lines held fast and the airfield was seized by the Fifth Marines. With the Seventh Marines driving south, the first assault on Bloody Nose Ridge fell to Puller's regiment, which had already suffered the heaviest losses in the attacking force.
They confronted an utterly barren land. Naval gunfire had denuded the Umurbrogol, leaving naked mazes of gulches, crags, and pocked rubble which became coral shrapnel as the enemy artillerymen found their range. The sharp rock underfoot sliced open men's boondockers and, when they hit the deck as incoming shells arrived, tore their flesh. They mounted the first scarp and found another, higher, rising beyond it; thirty-five caves had to be blown up before they could advance further. Then a ferocious counterattack threw them back. This went on, dawn to dusk, with hand-to-hand struggles in the dark, until, on the sixth day, the First Marines' three companies, 612 men, had been reduced to 74. Platoons of the Seventh Marines were fed into the lines and immediately pinned down. GIs of the Eighty-first Division arrived while the Fifth Marines attacked the Umurbrogol from the north. Everyone was waiting for the banzai charge which had ended other battles. Slowly they grasped the enemy's new tactics. A Marine company would scale a bluff unmolested; then the Japanese would open up on three sides with infantry fire, mortars, and antitank guns, killing the Americans or throwing them to their death on the floor of the gorge below.
The Ridge had become a monstrous thing. Wounded men lay on shelves of rock, moaning or screaming as they were hit again and again. Their comrades fell and tumbled past them. Some men committed the ultimate sin for Marines, throwing away their rifles and clawing back down the slopes. Down below, a shocked company commander yelled, “Smoke up that hill!” Under roiling clouds from smoke grenades, those not hit tried to lead or carry the wounded down. One infantryman, bleeding badly, cried, “You've done all you could for us. Get out of here!” The company commander ran up, carried one casualty down, and laid him in defilade beside a tank hulk. As he straightened, a mortar shell killed him. His exec, a second lieutenant, sprinted up to help; he was killed by an antitank shell. The company was down to eleven men, finished as a fighting unit.
Bloody Nose Ridge, 1978
Now the slow, horrible slugging of attrition began. Hummocks of shattered coral changed hands again and again. Cave entrances were sealed with TNT; the Japs within escaped through tunnels. Corsair fighters dove at pillboxes; their bombs exploded harmlessly. Tongues of wicked fire licked at Nip strongpoints from flamethrowers mounted on Shermans; Japs appeared in ravines and knocked the Shermans out with grenades. Using the airfield was impossible; cave entrances overlooked it. Slowly, moving upward in searing heat — the thermometer seemed stuck at 115 degrees in the shade — Marines rooted out enemy troops or sealed them off, hole by hole. The island was declared secure on September 30, but eight weeks of desperate fighting lay ahead. By the end of October, when GIs arrived in force, the defenders had been reduced to about seven hundred men. The Japanese commander burned his flag and committed hara-kiri. Yet two months later Japs were still killing GIs poking around for souvenirs. The last of the Japs did not surface until eleven years later.
We used to say that the Japanese fought for their emperor, the British for glory, and the Americans for souvenirs. One wonders how many attics in the United States are cluttered with samurai swords and Rising Sun flags, keepsakes that once seemed so valuable and are worthless today. I collected them like everyone else, but I shall never understand men whose jobs kept them away from the front, who could safely wait out the war — “sweat it out,” as we said then — yet who deliberately courted death in those Golcondas of mementos, the combat zones. You heard stories about “Remington Raiders,” “chairborne” men ready to risk everything for something, anything, that would impress families and girls at home. I didn't believe any of them until I saw one. Even then I wondered what he was looking for. I suppose he was partly moved by a need to prove something to himself. He succeeded.
Our war, unlike our fathers', was largely mobile. It was just as bloody and, because of such technological achievements as napalm and flamethrowers, at least as ugly, but we didn't live troglodytic lives in trenches facing no-man's-land, where the same stumps, splintered to matchwood, stood in silhouette against the sky day after desolate day, and great victories were measured by gains of a few hundred yards of sour ground. Nevertheless, there were battles — Bloody Nose Ridge was one — where we were trapped in static warfare, neither side able to move, both ravaged around the clock by massed enemy fire. I saw similar deadlocks, most memorably at Takargshi. It wasn't worse than war of movement, but it was different. Under such circumstances the instinct of self-preservation turns the skilled infantryman into a mole, a ferret, or a cheetah, depending on the clear and present danger of the moment. He will do anything to avoid drawing enemy fire, or, having drawn it, to reach defilade as swiftly as possible. A scout, which is essentially what I was, learned to know the landscape down to the last hollow and stone as thoroughly as a child knows his backyard or a pet a small park. In such a situation, certain topographical features, insignificant under any other circumstances, become obsessions. At Takargshi they were known as Dead Man's Corner, Krank's Chancre, the Hanging Tree, the Double Asshole, and the End Zone. It was in the End Zone that I met the souvenir hunter. We were introduced by a Japanese 6.5-millimeter light machine gun, a gas-operated, hopper-fed weapon with a muzzle velocity of 2,440 feet per second which fired 150 rounds a minute in 5-round bursts. Its effective range was 1,640 yards. We were both well within that.
At Takargshi, as so often elsewhere, I was carrying a message to the battalion operations officer. All morning I had been hanging around Dog Company CP, content to lie back on the oars after a patrol, but the company commander wanted heavy mortar support and he couldn't get through to battalion. The Japs had jammed the radio; all you heard was martial music. So I was drafted as a runner. If there had been any way to shirk it I would have. There was only one approach from here to battalion. I had come up it this morning, at dawn. The risk then had been acceptable. The light was faint and the rifles of the section covered me on the first leg, the one dangerous place. Now, however, the daylight was broad, and since I wasn't expected back until dusk, I couldn't count on covering fire from anybody. Still, I had no choice, so I went. I remember the moment I took off from the Dog CP. The stench of cordite was heavy. I was hot and thirsty. And I felt that premonition of danger which is ludicrous to everyone except those who have experienced it and lived to tell of it. All my senses were exceptionally alert. A bristling, tingling feeling raced up my back. Each decision to move was made with great deliberation and then executed as rapidly as a Jesse Owens sprint. I had that sensation you have when you think someone is looking at you, and you turn around, and you are right. So I made the ninety-degree turn at Dead Man's Corner, stealthily, dodged past Krank's Chancre, burrowed through the exposed roots of the Hanging Tree, bounded over the Double Asshole — two shell holes — and lay in defilade, gasping and sweating, trying not to panic at the thought of what came next. What came next was the End Zone, a broad ledge about thirty yards long, all of it naked to enemy gunners. Even with covering fire three men had been killed and five wounded trying to cross the Zone. But many more had made it safely, and I kept reminding myself of that as I counted to ten and then leapt out like a whippet, my legs pumping, picking up momentum, flying toward the sheltering rock beyond.
On the third pump I heard the machine gun, humming close like a swarm of enveloping bees. Then several things happened at once. Coming from the opposite direction, a uniformed figure with a bare GI steel helmet emerged hesitantly from the rock toward which I was rushing. Simultaneously, I hit the deck, rolled twice, advanced four pumps, dropped and rolled again, felt a sharp blow just above my right kneecap, dropped and rolled twice more, passing the shifting figure, and slid home, head first, reaching the haven of the rock. My chest was pounding and my right knee was bloody and my mouth had a bitter taste. On my second gulp of air I heard a thud behind me and a thin wail: “Medic!” My hand flew to my weapon. Infantrymen are professional paranoiacs. Wounded Marines call for corpsmen, not medics. As far as I knew, and it was my job to know such things, there wasn't supposed to be a GI within a mile of here. But as I rose I saw, crawling toward me, a wailing, badly hit soldier of the U.S. Army. His blouse around his stomach was bellying with blood. And he wasn't safe yet. Just before he reached the sanctuary of the rock, a 6.5-millimeter burst ripped away the left half of his jaw. I reached out, grabbed his wrist, and yanked him out of the Zone. Then I turned him on his back. Blood was seeping through his abdomen and streaming from his mangled chin. First aid would have been pointless. I wasn't a corpsman; I had no morphine; I couldn't think what to do. I noticed the Jap colors sticking from one of those huge side pockets on his GI pants. It wasn't much of a flag: just a thin synthetic rectangle with a red blob on a white field; no streaming rays, no kanji inscriptions. We'd kept these thin, unmarked little banners earlier in the war and thrown them away when we found that the Japs had thousands of them, whole cases of them, in their supply dumps.
The GI looked up at me with spaniel eyes. One cheek was smudged with coral dust. The other was dead white. I asked him who he was, what he was doing here. Setting down his exact words is impossible. There is no way to reproduce the gargling sound, the wet sucking around his smashed jaw. Yet he did get out a few intelligible phrases. He was a Seventy-seventh Division quartermaster clerk, and he had been roaming around the line searching for “loot” to send his family. I felt revulsion, pity, and disgust. If this hadn't happened in battle — if, say, he had been injured at home in an automobile accident — I would have consoled him. But a foot soldier retains his sanity only by hardening himself. Though I could still cry, and did, I saved my tears for the men I knew. This GI was a stranger. His behavior had been suicidal and cheap. Everything I had learned about wounds told me his were mortal. I couldn't just leave him here, but I was raging inside, not just at him but he was part of it, too.
The battalion aid station was a ten-minute walk away. This trip took longer. I had slung him over my shoulders in a fireman's carry, and he was much heavier than I was. My own slight wound, which had started to clot, began bleeding again. Once I had him up on my back and started trudging, he stopped trying to talk. I talked, though; I was swearing and ranting to myself. His blood was streaming down my back, warm at first and then sticky. I felt glued to him. I wondered whether they would have to cut us apart, whether I'd have to turn in my salty blouse for a new one, making me look like a replacement. I was wallowing in self-pity; all my thoughts were selfish; I knew he was suffering, but his agony found no echo in my heart now. I wanted to get rid of him. My eyes were damp, not from sorrow but because sweat was streaming from my brow. Apart from unfocused wrath, my strongest feeling was a heave of relief in my chest when I spotted the canvas tenting of the aid station on the reverse slope of a small bluff.
Two corpsmen ran out to help me. He and I were stuck to each other, or at least our uniforms were; there was a smacking sound as they swung him off me and laid him out. I turned and looked. His eyes had that blurry cast. There we were, the three of us, just staring down. Then one of the corpsmen turned to me. “A dogface,” he said. “How come?” I didn't know what to say. The truth was so preposterous that it would sound like a desecration. Fleetingly I wondered who would write his family, and how they would put it. How could you put it? “Dear folks: Your son was killed in action while stupidly heading for the Double Asshole in search of loot”? Even if you invented a story about heroism in combat, you wouldn't convince them. They must have known he was supposed to be back in QM. I avoided the corpsman's eyes and shrugged. It wasn't my problem. I gave a runner my message to the battalion CP. My wound had been salted with sulfa powder and dressed before I realized that I hadn't looked at the corpse's dog tags. I didn't even know who he had been.
Today Peleliu can be reached only from the Palauan island of Koror, itself no hub of activity, though powerful interests would like to make it one. Robert Owen, district administrator for the Trust Territory, tells the sad tale. Owen is one of those tireless American advisers who serve in the tropics much as Englishmen served a century ago: underpaid, overworked, and absolutely devoted to the islands. But after twenty-nine years here he has decided to quit. His whole career has been a struggle for Palauan ecology, and he has just about lost it. Fishermen smuggle in dynamite, devastating the waters; the streams are contaminated with Clorox; the topsoil, already thin, is vanishing because of inept use of chemicals that create erosion.
But the real rogues, in Owen's opinion, are a consortium of Japanese and Middle East petroleum titans, led by an American entrepreneur, who want to build a superport here to service supertankers. “The Japanese,” he says, “want to export their pollution.” Every supertanker eventually defiles the water around it — recently twenty-three hundred tons were spilled in French waters — and Owen predicts the end of the Palaus' delicate environment, the destruction of irreplaceable flora and fauna. The natives approve of superport plans because they think their standard of living will rise, but in Puerto Rico, he has tried to tell them, it was the wealthy, not the poor, who reaped the profits of a similar project. He is appealing to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has the power to reject the plans. He doubts it will.
Although I am sympathetic, my contract is with the past and his with the future. We glide past one another like freighters flying the same flag of convenience but bound for very different destinations. Yet I know he is right; it would be tragic to lose the Palaus. That thought may startle those who fought here, who remember only the horror and the heat. In peacetime, however, the islands' aspect is altogether different, and you become aware of it long before you reach Peleliu. Checking in at the thatch-roofed hotel, you rent a Toyota Land Cruiser and drive to the ferry slip. The ferry — actually a small launch powered by twin 85-horsepower Johnsons — takes you past the breathtaking Rock Islands, which resemble enormous green toadstools, narrow at the bottom, because of erosion and sea urchins, and swelling into dark green caps of vegetation above. Some of the islands have natural caves. The Japanese used these for storage; deteriorating wooden boxes and corroded tin containers may still be found there, and one cavern, which was used to stockpile Nipponese ammunition, is black where an American demolitions team blew it up. These are great waters for snorkeling, clear and abundant with life. Tuna are thick, and so are mackerel, bonito, marlin, sailfish, and flying fish. But there are also sharks and barracuda, and, most menacing of all, giant tridacna clams, some four feet across, whose traverse adduction muscles can grip divers and carry them to a drowning death. Before the battle, the great clams were a special threat to navy frogmen, who carried long knives to cut the creatures' muscles.
Once you have reached Peleliu, you are on your own, unless, as in my case, you have a native acquaintance. My friend is Dave Ngirmidol, a short, swart, powerfully built history major from California State University in Northridge and now a Trust Territory employee. Dave is waiting for me at the island's only dock with a Mazda pickup truck and three islanders: Hinao Soalablai, the island's young magistrate; Ichiro Loitang, an elderly Papuan who ran the island after all the Japanese had been wiped out and before American Military Government arrived; and Kalista Smau, whose chief qualifications for this field trip are her beauty, her lovely smile, and the brightest green Punjabi trousers I have ever seen.
Dave Ngirmidol and the author alongside an abandoned American tank
Miss Smau also carries, in a basket balanced on her head, box lunches and raspberry-flavored soda. She offers a bottle, and I boorishly drain it. I am apologetic, but she is delighted; Dave explains that I have paid her a great compliment. So off we go in the little truck, bouncing over deeply rutted paths and ducking to avoid tremendous swooping branches. In Koror I asked a botanist to identify Palau foliage. He threw up his hands; thirty or forty major genera have been classified, he said, and they haven't been able to explore beyond the outermost fringes of the rainforests.
The road becomes a sticky, humid trough, but if I am uncomfortable, my companions are not; they are eager to tell me what the war did to Peleliu. Regrettably, they are not always reliable. Every great battle becomes a source of apocrypha. Near the water we come upon a small beached yacht, the Por Dinana, once white but now rusted, and my guides tell me it was General MacArthur's headquarters, which is a geographic impossibility; MacArthur was never within a hundred miles of Peleliu. Still, they know what they actually witnessed. For ages the islanders had lived in thatched A-frame huts, eating coconuts, pandanus fruit, breadfruit, and taros, starchy tubers much like potatoes. Then the Japanese, their ostensible protectors, rounded them up, put them in camps, and assigned them to forced labor. There was a lot to do; Peleliu was being heavily fortified. Importing coastal defense guns, the Japanese sited them so they could dominate Toagel Mlungui Strait, the narrow channel through which American battleships would have to pass. They overlooked air power, even when U.S. planes were overhead every day dropping their leaflets, telling the natives to get out while the getting was good.
One reason so few of the evacuees returned after V-J Day was the postwar craze — it still flourishes — of Modekne, a nativist religion preaching a return to prewar simplicity. Modekne's center was and is Koror, where natives dispossessed by the fighting put down roots. On Peleliu there were more corpses than people, and very little activity. The Americans disposed of their Higgins boats by sinking them and then departed — that is, most of them departed; when we reach the serene invasion beach, rimmed by Samoan palms and conifers, I find near it an imposing fence bearing a sign informing me that this is a “Federal Program Campsite — CITA Project No. VIII.” Dave explains that Americans are training islanders in new skills; he doesn't know which, and there is no one around to instruct us.
Trudging through the brush at the base of Bloody Nose Ridge, I find ten-inch Nip guns, oiled and ready for action. Who has been cleaning them? My companions seem as astonished as I am. The only possibility is the Japanese who arrive in the Palaus, as elsewhere, in large numbers, and who have erected two monuments to their dead. We speculate upon their motives and settle for the cliché that Orientals (the islanders do not regard themselves as Orientals) are inscrutable.
A Japanese gun, mysteriously oiled and ready for action
Now I decide to ascend the ridge. My young companions are dismayed. At my age, they argue, the climb is folly, and I know they are right, but I have to do what I have to do. If the decision is irrational, so was my enlistment in the Marine Corps and all that followed. The girl and Loitang stay below, preparing our lunch. Dave ascends first, pulling me up over the huge stones, deep clefts, steep pinnacles, and beetling outcroppings while the magistrate propels me upward. I reach the crest filthy and bleeding from scratches. There I find the only American monument on Peleliu, or, to be more exact, what is left of the monument. It is a granite column with a white limestone inscription which reads:
S. AR Y
Exhausted as I am, I feel a surge of fury. To commit brave men to a needless struggle was criminal; to consign them to oblivion is profane. Is this the apotheosis of our mourning? Can we fo et them so completely? Are the Japanese prouder of their men than we? Can't the Pentagon spare a few token dollars out of its billions for a decent memorial? Can't the American Legion and the VFW, so adept at lobbying for live veterans, pause to propose a suitable tribute to those who, though they cannot vote, safeguarded our right to do so? Back on the beach I nibble bleakly on a sandwich, poking at driftwood and clots of seaweed with my field boot. There are times when one understands the pull of primitive superstition. A recent article in the Marine Corps Gazette complained that the “American news media … contributed to the almost total neglect of this historic battle by focusing the American public's attention on events in Europe and in the Philippines as Peleliu dragged out its bloody course.” The press is, of course, everyone's scapegoat. The fact is that the liberation of France, the Lowlands, and the Philippines was more fascinating, and also more successful, than this pointless hammering of American flesh on a distant anvil of despair. No, Peleliu — like Arnhem, which was being fought simultaneously on the other side of the world — appears to have been doomed from the very outset. It almost seems as though both were hexed.
The American monument at Peleliu
A typical Japanese monument
On the map the island of Leyte, MacArthur's first Philippine target, resembles a molar tooth, its roots pointing downward. To the south lies Mindanao, as big as Ireland; to the north, Luzon, nearly as large as England. In the predawn hours of Friday, October 20, when fighting was still heavy around Peleliu's airstrip, MacArthur stood aboard the cruiser Nashville, waiting for the first waves of his 200,000 veteran GIs to leap ashore on Leyte's east coast, the last place the Japanese expected him. The vain, brilliant general had perfected a battle plan which he considered his best yet. After the war Vincent Sheean agreed: “His operations towards the end … were extremely daring, more daring and far more complicated than those of Patton in Europe, because MacArthur used not infantry alone but also air and seapower in a concerted series of jabbing and jumping motions designed to outflank and bypass the Japanese all through the islands.” When all else is said about this baffling, exasperating man, the fact remains that in all his campaigns he was remarkably economical of human life; his total casualties from Australia to V-J Day (90,437) were fewer than the ETO's in the single Battle of the Bulge (106,502).
At daybreak the U.S. warships opened fire on the beach. The general watched from the Nashville's bridge. The shore was dimly visible through a rising haze shot with yellow flashes; inland, white phosphorus crumps were bursting among the thick, ripe underbrush of the hills. As the first waves of American infantry hit Red Beach, MacArthur descended a ship's ladder to a barge. Fifty yards from shore they ran aground. That was unexpected. The general had counted on tying up at a pier and stepping majestically ashore, immaculate and dry. Most of the docks had been destroyed in the naval bombardment, however, and while a few were still intact, the naval officer serving as beachmaster — whom no one, not even MacArthur, could overrule — had no time to show the general's party where they were. When he growled, “Let 'em walk,” they had no choice. MacArthur, greatly annoyed, ordered the barge ramp lowered, stepped off into knee-deep brine, and splashed forty wet strides to the shore, eliminating the neat creases of his trousers. A newspaper photographer snapped the famous picture of this.
MacArthur's scowl, which millions of readers interpreted as a reflection of his steely determination, was actually a wrathful glare at the impertinent naval officer. When the general saw a print of the photograph, however, he instantly grasped its dramatic value, and the next day he deliberately waded ashore for cameramen on a safe beach which had been secured by troopers of the First Cavalry Division. Later the First Cavalry's troopers, seeing the photograph taken the day before, condemned it as a phony. Another touch had been added to MacArthur's antihero legend.
Standing in a rainstorm, holding a hand microphone, he broadcast to Filipinos: “People of the Philippines, I have returned. … Rally to me. … As the lines of battle roll forward to bring you within the zone of operations, rise and strike. Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearths, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike!”
Now that the general had committed himself to Leyte, now that his men were pouring ashore, the Japanese navy and air force made their last great move of the war. Their commanders still cherished the hope of changing the fortunes of war at sea, preferably while our warships were covering a landing. This was the hour. Four separate Jap forces sailed against Halsey's powerful main fleet, which was protecting the operation, and Thomas Kinkaid's weaker group of old battleships and small carriers. The enemy admirals knew they could no longer match our power, so they hatched a brilliant plan. Leyte Gulf, where MacArthur was, could be reached through two straits, San Bernardino to the north and Surigao to the south. The Japanese center force was to head for San Bernardino while two southern forces steamed into Surigao. At the same time, a fourth force, acting as a decoy, was to lure Halsey away to the north. Kinkaid would be helpless. Banzai.
Salvo by salvo the two huge fleets roared away at one another over an area as large as France. Nippon's southern prongs had no luck. Torpedoes and gunfire wiped out the first of them; the second turned back after firing at radar pictures which were really islands. In the beginning the center force also seemed luckless. American submarines destroyed two of its cruisers; its largest battleship was sunk by planes. Actually these losses were a break for the enemy. Halsey, learning of them and assuming that the rest of that force was retiring, took out after the fourth force — the bait — leaving San Bernardino Strait unguarded. In the darkness the Japs slipped through unobserved. But the Nips milled around, confused by intercepted American messages, and turned back as U.S. destroyers made smoke. American warplanes flew in pursuit of the retreating enemy and Halsey returned at flank speed. Thus ended the Battle of Leyte Gulf. It had involved 282 warships, compared with 129 in the Spanish Armada and 250 at Jutland, until then the greatest naval engagement in history. And unlike Jutland, which neither side won, this action had been decisive. After the last distant broadside had been fired the Americans had lost one light carrier, two escort carriers, and three destroyers. They had sunk four carriers, three battleships, six heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers. Except for sacrificial kamikaze fliers, who made their debut in this battle, Japanese air squadrons and naval strength would never again be serious instruments in the war.
MacArthur would tolerate no criticism of Halsey in his mess. He slammed his bunched fist on the table and roared, “Leave the Bull alone! He's still a fighting admiral in my book.” Halsey had been loyal to him in earlier struggles, and he was reciprocating. Though both men were prima donnas, they remained on the best of terms, perhaps because each recognized himself in the other. Among other things, the admiral admired the general's courage. On Leyte MacArthur had chosen as his CP a two-story stucco-and-concrete mansion, previously owned by an American businessman named Walter Price, at the corner of Santo Niño and Justice Romualdez streets in the town of Tacloban. The home was the most spacious in the community — the Japanese had used it as an officers' club — and therefore a prime target. As he was striding back and forth on the wide veranda, MacArthur suddenly halted and pointed at the yard, saying, “What's that mound of earth there by the edge of the porch?” One of his men explained that it was an elaborate bomb shelter built by the Japanese. The general said, “Level it off and fill the thing in. It spoils the looks of the lawn.” Though Radio Tokyo broadcast that they knew the general had established his “headquarters in the Price house, right in the center of town,” and though Zeroes and Mitsubishis attacked Tacloban daily, often missing MacArthur by a few feet or less, he refused to move. This is the man we called “Dugout Doug.”
His greatest problem was the wet weather, which erased the margin that superior air power should have given him. He had called Leyte a springboard, but it was proving to be a very soggy one. In forty days, thirty-four inches of rain fell, turning the island into one vast bog. Runway grading was impossible. GIs captured five airfields, but the island's drainage system was such that they had become useless mud flats. To top that, Leyte was struck by an earthquake and three typhoons during the fighting. The Japanese, with firm fields on surrounding islands, swooped in low over the hills, permitting their land commanders to reinforce Leyte easily. Yet the doubts of Tomoyuki Yamashita, the enemy commander, were growing daily. He knew that Leyte was a lost cause, that eventually the weather would improve. MacArthur extended his flanks in the first week of November, and by Thanksgiving he had the enemy garrison trapped. Fighting continued until Saint Patrick's Day, 1945, but long before then the general was plotting his invasion of Luzon and the recapture of Manila. For Dai Nippon, Leyte had been a catastrophe. Apart from the destruction of their planes and the backbone of their fleet, the Nips had lost sixty-five thousand front-line troops. Their supply lines to the Dutch East Indies, vital for raw materials they needed to survive, had been pierced. Even Hirohito despaired.
My arrival in Tacloban is both spectacular and disconcerting. At President Marcos's insistence, I am once more ensconced in a gleaming limousine, part of a cavalcade flanked by motorcycle outriders. Sirens scream again; red lights flash; a phalanx of Philippine generals and high officials accompanies me at every stop. The explanation, which I demand, is that guerrillas and Moro secessionists lurk in the rice paddies and among the hillocks in the countryside. That is hardly satisfactory for a knee-jerk FDR liberal, but I have no alternative. In time we draw up to the Price house under a hurriedly erected sign whose paint is still wet: distinguished visitors — welcome to leyte. The building is imposing, of white stucco with green trim surrounded by a fence of painted Marsden matting. It is also unoccupied. Until recently the mansion housed the offices of a Regional National Economic Development Authority — whatever that was; I am just reading my notes — and before that it was a school: “Notice: Undergraduate Students Are Not Allowed to Make a Research Here,” reads a mysterious warning on one door. But none of the subsequent occupants have removed evidence of the Japanese determination to kill MacArthur here. Walls are pocked and pitted by machine-gun bullets, one wall is marred by a hole made by a 20-millimeter shell, and a .50-caliber slug is still embedded in plaster above the bed in which the general slept.
Outside, the brooding mass of Samar is visible on the left; Leyte's Red Beach is a short stroll from here, and I and my mob head for it. Various signs accost me along the way: the delights of San Miguel beer are described; a beverage called Miranda is advertised as “the Sunshine Drink”; Coke and Pepsi are available (“Have a Pepsi Day”); and a placard urges us to buy “Unisex Fashions,” though how such clothing could achieve popularity in one of the world's most male chauvinistic countries I do not know. Presently the landscape becomes more attractive. Straw huts are tidy and picturesque, the shrubbery is riotously green, and amid its waxen leaves you see the red flowers of santan and the white blossoms of the Doña Aurora, named for the widow of Manuel Quezon, the Philippines' George Washington.
In a vast reflecting pool stand statues of MacArthur and the six men who trudged ashore with him. They are depicted exactly as they were in the famous photograph, but each is twice life-size. A three-tiered memorial carries inscriptions from the general's invasion speech and a tribute from Marcos. There is one peculiar error. MacArthur's collar bears five-star ornaments, but he didn't achieve five-star rank until December 16, 1944, nearly two months after he waded in. It is a small slip; pointing it out to my hosts now would be needlessly rude. Instead, I turn to a four-and-a-half-foot seawall beneath which the surf laps listlessly. I bound down. There can be no doubt that I am where I mean to be. The temptation to plunge in is irresistible. I wade out and back; the spectators, including several small children from the huts, watch solemnly, almost standing at attention. This ground is sacred to them. Like the Guamanians, they celebrate Liberation Day every October 20 by reenacting MacArthur's return with landing craft and fireworks simulating shellfire. In 1969, the twenty-fifth anniversary, they even dropped paratroopers. To me, however, peeling off my socks and wringing them out, the experience is flat. Unlike my feelings on the shores of the Canal and Tarawa, I cannot identify with what happened here — cannot re-create it because I neither served here nor knew anyone who did. And my well-meaning escorts are no help. You cannot evoke the past in a crowd. I need solitude.
The author at Leyte, where MacArthur waded ashore
The Filipino monument to MacArthur's landing party
But I am not going to get it, not on this trip. By motorcade and then by air I am borne to Lingayen Gulf, 450 miles closer to Japan and thirty-five years after MacArthur landed here on Luzon and opened his drive toward Manila. In addition to my retinue, all the local officials turn out to welcome me — one suspects that Marcos would have their heads if they didn't — and after ceremonial bows and murmured greetings, we stroll along a strip of beach, though not all of it. This incomparable shore goes on and on, 124 miles of it, as though New York's Jones Beach extended southward to Wilmington, or Malibu Beach to San Diego. For the historian, however, the chief spectacle is near a monument to MacArthur's landing of January 10, 1945. Passing a graceful promenade, I stumble upon dalakorak, small creeping vines that seem to be underfoot everywhere, and come upon a playground. How often on this trip I have seen children romping beneath silent guns, I think, and how splendid a tribute that is. Rehearsing his invasion speech the night before the Leyte landing, the general had anticipated “the tinkle of the laughter of little children returning to the Philippines.” His outspoken physician had said, “You can't say that.” MacArthur said, “What's the matter with it?” The doctor said, “It stinks. It's a cliché.” The general muttered but crossed it out. One wishes he had found another way of saying it. Continuity of the generations is, after all, the only bright sequel to war.
The general would have preferred to come ashore on Luzon almost anywhere but here. As early as 1909 an American writer had predicted that any invader of the island would have to hit Lingayen first. This was where Homma's Japanese had debarked on the fifteenth day of the war. MacArthur valued surprise, usually above all else, but after studying a half-dozen other beaches and searching his memory — he had first served in the Philippines forty-two years earlier — he reluctantly returned to this one. There was just no other way of manipulating the enemy into a series of intricate maneuvers, where MacArthur's prodigious gifts could soar, on the Central Luzon Plain. You needn't be a strategist or even like the man (he wasn't very likable) to appreciate his subsequent feats there. His reconquest of Luzon was awesome. And the Filipinos were jubilant. They already knew of his triumph on Leyte. From the moment he landed at Lingayen and began moving inland by jeep, they decked the jeep with flowers, like a Roman chariot. They kissed his hand, pressed wreaths around his neck, and tried to touch his uniform.
This performance could have been shattered had Yamashita, who had become the legendary “Tiger of Malaya” in the opening weeks of the war, chosen to contest the beachhead. But drained of his best men on Leyte, where Tokyo had ordered him to fight despite his misgivings, he knew he could not expose his Luzon force to U.S. naval gunfire. Instead, he withdrew into the mountains, awaiting his opportunity to descend onto the central plain, the amphitheater both commanders needed to grasp the rainbow's end at the bottom of it: Manila. But the Tiger's chance never came. In a series of lightning thrusts MacArthur invested Clark Field, landed a corps above Bataan, took the invaluable port of Olongapo, put a regiment ashore at Mariveles, seized Nasugbu, south of Manila, without losing a man, and lost just 210 men in overpowering the 5,200 Japanese on Corregidor by landing an airborne regiment on Topside while an infantry battalion, with exquisite timing, leaped from Higgins boats to storm the Bottomside shore. Manila was virtually surrounded. The Tiger had been denied an opportunity to show his claws. He was trapped in a double envelopment, isolated and impotent. In the Pentagon George Marshall, who detested MacArthur personally, was rhapsodic. The outcome was, in fact, unparalleled in modern warfare. Never had such masses of superbly disciplined soldiers been so completely outwitted, foiled, and surpassed on every level. The most gifted officer Hirohito could put in the field was left with his army, tons of equipment — and no one to fight.
Yet every judgment of MacArthur, praising him or blaming him, has to be qualified. Flying in our small plane from Lingayen and its charming playground to Manila, we follow the same route taken by the Japanese Mitsubishi bombers in December 1941, nine hours after Pearl Harbor, when, incredibly, MacArthur's air force was caught on the ground at Clark Field and destroyed. Off the star-board bow lies Mount Arayat, once a stronghold of the Hukbalahaps, the Huk guerrillas who had fought the Japanese occupiers so steadfastly and were so shamefully ignored when the general restored power to the Spanish aristocrats, despite the fact that the most prominent of them had spent the past three years collaborating with the enemy. As we descend for our landing on what was once Nichols Field and is now Luzon's chief airport, the low-slung mountains of Bataan and the placid waters of the bay, with Corregidor at its neck, are on our right. I wonder whether the Mitsubishi pilots noticed them on that first morning of the war and pondered their military significance.
In the 1930s Japanese officers, disguised as bicycle salesmen, sidewalk photographers, and assorted tradesmen, appeared in the archipelago to survey Philippine defenses. Today 80 percent of the islands' tourists are Japanese, but here, as in the Marianas, this is another era; the tourist ministry estimates that three couples out of every four are honeymooners. The Manila they see is not prewar Manila. That city was virtually destroyed in 1945. Yet some landmarks remain. The ageless, gargantuan rubber tree still stands in front of the Army Navy Club. No. 1 Victoria Street, MacArthur's prewar headquarters, has vanished, and the Manila Hotel, just across the street, was leveled by the Japanese near the end of the war when MacArthur was within sight of it and preparing to retake it. Its facade was preserved, however, and a new hotel has been built on the site of the old one, with a MacArthur penthouse on top. Sugar and rice barges continue to drift between the ancient gray stone walls on either bank of the Pasig River, and on the shores jitneys weave in and out of the heavy traffic. Periodically Marcos threatens to abolish the vans, but they perform a useful service, skillfully cutting in and out of the flow of cars. Auto density is very high; Manila's population is now over seven million.
Both foreigners and Filipinos are drawn to the city's magnet for sightseers: Intramuros, the old walled city, with Fort Santiago and San Augustine Church within it. No one knows the exact age of Intramuros, but Magellan arrived in 1521, the Spaniards founded Manila in 1572, and everything within the ancient city had been built by the turn of that century, nearly four hundred years ago. In their last, drunken orgy of destruction, the Japanese tried to reduce Intramuros to ruins, but it was impossible; the stone walls are nineteen feet high and more than twice that thick. At one time they shielded within their triangular perimeter six churches and monasteries, hanging gardens, inner courts, and a maze of cobblestoned streets. Most of that is gone, though the Augustine church still stands as it did when the Nipponese used most of Intramuros for barracks and shawled Filipino women prayed in the church's pews for the safety of their sons, fighting in the guerrilla bands in the hills. Today lovers embrace in dark corners. Outside, one is depressed to see frolicking boys playing war with toy pistols.
As in most countries outside North America and Western Europe, the gap between rich and poor here boggles the mind. It shocks American newcomers, who do not grasp that anything above bare subsistence for the masses hardly exists outside Western Europe and their own fortunate oasis. Most wealthy Filipinos live in Manila's Makati district, in sprawling villas hidden by ivy-covered walls, each with its private police force and snarling Dobermans. In many ways Makati is redolent of San Juan's Condato, or Nassau's Lyford Cay. The average Filipino earns a few pesos, less than a dollar, a week. In Makati, a patrician bride may spend twelve thousand dollars for her wedding dress. Polo is a popular sport among the oligarchy, and although newspapers report some of the conspicuous consumption of the few, the many are not mutinous. Marcos does suppress news of the most shocking extravaganzas. “We're too close to the flames,” he says elliptically, “to play with fire.” Perhaps the most striking evidence of upper-class dominance is the presence of the military cemetery in their midst. Surrounded by the mansions of the aristocracy, the white crosses in Makati rise and fall, in rhythmic undulations of the rolling topsoil, like whitecaps fixed in time. Even the dead belong to the opulent. But the ironies of the Pacific war are endless. Riding up to my room in the rebuilt Manila Hotel that evening, I glance casually at the elevator's control panel. It bears the name of the manufacturer: Mitsubishi.
Once the Joint Chiefs had decided to retake the Philippines, instead of bypassing them, plans for driving toward Formosa or the Chinese mainland were discarded, to be replaced by a direct lunge at the Japanese home islands. Two more stepping-stones were needed: Iwo Jima, in the Volcano Islands, and Okinawa, in the Ryukyus. Iwo Jima was to be seized first, because it was considered easier — which was true, in the sense that Buchenwald was less lethal than Auschwitz — and because Iwo was a major obstacle for B-29 Superfortress fleets raiding Tokyo. The first Superfort attack on the Japanese capital had been staged from Saipan on November 24, 1944, but the results of the raids had been disappointing. Curtis LeMay, their commander, said, “This outfit has been getting a lot of publicity without having accomplished a hell of a lot in bombing results.” Iwo Jima was the chief reason. Situated halfway between the Marianas and Japan, Iwo's radar sets gave Tokyo two hours' warning of approaching B-29s. Zeroes based on the island swarmed around the big bombers both coming up from the Marianas and then returning, when they had often been crippled by flak. Moreover, the Japs flew some raids of their own on our Saipan, Tinian, and Guam bases. Therefore in mid-February, when the house-to-house fighting in Manila was reaching its height, convoys bearing the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Marine divisions steamed toward Iwo.
The cemetery at Makati
B-24s had been flying high-level sorties over the island for six weeks, but aerial photographs showed negligible results. Now U.S. warships approached Iwo like hunters stalking a maimed but still vicious tiger. They moved slowly and deliberately, trying to test the enemy's strength and at the same time lure him into action. To the U.S. fliers and naval gunners, Iwo appeared absurdly small prey. The island was just four miles long — altogether, eight square miles — an ugly, smelly glob of cold lava squatting in a surly ocean. In silhouette it was shaped somewhat like the Civil War ironclad Monitor, the “cheesebox on a raft,” the raft in this case being the northern mass of the island and the cheesebox, on the southwest tip, the volcanic crater of 556-foot Mount Suribachi, Suribachi being Japanese for “cone-shaped bowl.” Iwo is Japanese for “sulfur,” and daring pilots who swept low over its three airfields knew why; jets of green and yellow sulfuric mist penetrated the entire surface of the isle, giving it a permanent stench of rotten eggs. Essentially Iwo had changed little since it had risen, hissing, from the sea. Nipponese farmers had tried to grow sugar and pineapples there, with little success; by late 1944 they had given up and returned home. And yet Iwo in some ways seemed quintessentially Japanese. It had the tiny, fastidious compactness of small Tokyo backyards, and its rocks resembled the wind-buffed, water-scoured stones Nips love to collect for their miniature gardens. There the similarity to any civilized community ended, however. Most of the isle was a desolate, barren wasteland of volcanic pumice, finer than sand; more like coarse, loose flour. The only landing beaches were below Suribachi, to the immediate left and right of its base. North of there lay a smoking, blasted wilderness of crags, caves, buttes, and canyons, ending in jagged ridges overlooking the sea.
Samuel Eliot Morison wrote: “The operation looked like a pushover. Optimists predicted that the island would be secured in four days.” Some thought seventy-two hours would be enough. Here, as throughout the war, naval gunnery officers wildly exaggerated the effect of their preinvasion bombardment. One reported jubilantly that a fourteen-inch shell, scoring a direct hit in the mouth of a cave, destroyed a gun, leaving it to hang over the cliff below “like a half-extracted tooth hanging on a man's jaw.” But hundreds of other guns were intact. Holland Smith, warning that “we may expect casualties far beyond any heretofore suffered in the Central Pacific,” and estimating that we might lose fifteen thousand men — which was thought to be ridiculously high and proved to be ridiculously low — asked for a nine-day bombardment, like Guam's. The navy gave him three, explaining that they must depart to bombard the beaches of central Okinawa, where, ironically, there were no defenses. Our naval guns did rock Iwo Jima with more shells than those fired on Saipan, fifteen times as large as Iwo, but it wasn't enough, and even the frogmen, though now skilled and numerous, missed many underwater obstacles on Iwo. The fact is that nothing short of nuclear weapons could have left a serious dent in the enemy's defenses. Here, as in southern Okinawa, the new let-'em-come-to-us tactics approached perfection.
The defenders' CO, Tadamichi Kuribayashi — Holland Smith called him Hirohito's “most redoubtable” commander — had been among the first to conclude that banzai charges, once so effective in Japan's earlier wars with Russia and China, were futile against American firepower. Tokyo had warned him that he could expect no reinforcements. He replied that he didn't need them; the air attacks on Iwo had tipped off the coming invasion, and transports had beefed up his garrison to twenty-one thousand men, led by Japanese Marines. Kuribayashi turned his men into supermoles, excavating the hard konhake rock. They built 750 major defense installations sheltering guns, and blockhouses with five-foot concrete walls, strengthened, in some instances, with fifty feet of earthen cover overhead. Under Suribachi alone lay a four-story galley and a hospital cave. Southward from the volcano lay interweaving iron belts of defense. Altogether there were thirteen thousand yards of tunnels and five thousand cave entrances and pillboxes — a thousand on Suribachi alone. Once he learned of the force about to attack him, Kuribayashi had no illusion about his future. He wrote his wife: “Do not plan for my return.” Rear Admiral Toshinosuke Ichimaru, who led the seven thousand Nipponese Marines, felt the same way. Awaiting the coming assault, he wrote a poem:
Let me fall like a flower petal
May enemy bombs be directed at me, and enemy shells
Mark me their target.
Yet both the general and the admiral were burrowing in. They meant to make the conquest of Iwo so costly that the Americans would recoil from the thought of invading their homeland. They knew the island could be taken only by infantrymen; the U.S. warships' 21,926 shells and the six weeks of B-24 bombing didn't touch them; it merely rearranged the volcanic ash overhead and gave the invaders dangerous illusions of easy pickings. Those illusions were dashed on D-minus-2, when the Japanese mistook a deep reconnaissance by navy and Marine frogmen for the main landing; six-inchers embedded in the base of Suribachi and the face of a quarry to the north roared and quickly sank twelve small U.S. warships. So much for the high hopes. Everyone knew now that just as sure as God made little green Japs, the Higgins boats ferrying in the first Marine waves might as well be tumbrels.
On D-day Iwo seemed to lie low in the water, shrouded in dust and smoke. Two divisions were landed abreast, the Fifth's job being to knife across the isle's narrow neck and seize Suribachi while the Fourth turned northward. The moment they hit the shore they were in trouble. The steep-pitched beach sucked hundreds of men seaward in its backwash. Mines blew up Sherman tanks. Infantrymen found it impossible to dig foxholes in the powdery volcanic ash; the sides kept caving in. The invaders were taking heavy mortar and artillery fire. Steel sleeted down on them like the lash of a desert storm. By dusk 2,420 of the 30,000 men in the beachhead were dead or wounded. The perimeter was only four thousand yards long, seven hundred yards deep in the north and a thousand yards in the south. It resembled Doré's illustrations of the Inferno. Essential cargo — ammo, rations, water — was piled up in sprawling chaos. And gore, flesh, and bones were lying all about. The deaths on Iwo were extraordinarily violent. There seemed to be no clean wounds; just fragments of corpses. It reminded one battalion medical officer of a Bellevue dissecting room. Often the only way to distinguish between Japanese and Marine dead was by the legs; Marines wore canvas leggings and Nips khaki puttees. Otherwise identification was completely impossible. You tripped over strings of viscera fifteen feet long, over bodies which had been cut in half at the waist. Legs and arms, and heads bearing only necks, lay fifty feet from the closest torsos. As night fell the beachhead reeked with the stench of burning flesh. It was doubtful that a night counterattack by the Japs could be contained.
But there was none. Kuribayashi stuck to his battle plan, lying in wait. The next day the U.S. push northward began at an agonizingly slow pace and continued this, week after week, with heartbreaking engagements gaining as little as sixty or seventy yards a day. Curiously, the flag raising atop Mount Suribachi by the Twenty-eighth Marines, the most famous photograph of the Pacific war, was taken early in the struggle, on the fifth day of battle, before the Americans confronted the enormity of the challenge before them. Believing they had reached the first of their three main objectives — the others were conquering the island's backbone and seizing the high ground, sown with mines and pillboxes, between the two completed airstrips — they were unaware that the volcanic slopes beneath them swarmed with Japs, like mites in cheese. Before the annihilation of enemy troops in and around Suribachi — prophetically encoded “Hotrocks” — three of the six men who had anchored the pipe bearing the U.S. colors had been killed in action.
Now the long, bloody, painfully slow drive to the north began. It seemed inconceivable that the island's eight square miles could conceal so large a Nipponese army, but gradually, as the navy corpsmen carried the casualties away in mounting numbers, the Americans realized the scope of their peril. Until Marsden matting could be landed, tanks and trucks couldn't negotiate the pumice. One truck's wheel sank to the axle beside a fence post. Investigating, the driver found it wasn't a post at all; it was a ventilator shaft. Other posts — a long line of them — provided oxygen for Japanese below. Time reported: “On Iwo the Japs dug themselves in so deeply that all the explosives in the world could hardly have reached them.” They were overcome in time, but in the process the Marines lost more men than the enemy. A pattern evolved. Each morning at 7:40 naval gunfire and Marine artillery opened a heavy bombardment. At 8:10 a.m. the Marine infantry jumped off. Tanks lumbered up. Offshore landing craft with their shallow drafts worked inshore, bearing mortars that blasted gullies the men on the island couldn't see. During the first week of the engagement the mortarmen fired over thirty-two thousand shells. But in the end it was the riflemen throwing hand grenades, engineers with satchel charges, and flamethrower teams that sealed off caves and demolished pillboxes. Every yard gained was an achievement in itself. Nimitz later said of Iwo: “Uncommon valor was a common virtue.” A Marine wrote in his diary: “It takes courage to stay at the front on Iwo Jima. It takes something we can't tag or classify to push out ahead of those lines, against an unseen enemy who has survived two months of shell and shock, who lives beneath the rocks of the island, an enemy capable of suddenly appearing on your flanks or even at your rear, and of disappearing back into his hole. … It takes courage to crawl ahead, 100 yards a day, and get up the next morning, count losses, and do it again. But that's the only way it can be done.”
Motoyama Airfield No. 1, close to the beaches, had fallen on the second day, but No. 2 wasn't taken until March 1, and then only by three Marine divisions advancing abreast. There were eighty-two thousand leathernecks on the island now, all of them, because of the caves and tunnels, in constant danger. Two weeks of consolidation followed the capture of the second airstrip; then a full week was needed to take a rocky gorge similar to those on Peleliu. Kuribayashi's bunker was there. Hirohito promoted him to full general, but whether or not the promotion was posthumous is unknown. On March 24 he radioed his last message to the Japanese garrison on a nearby isle: “All officers and men of Chichi Jima” — the nearest Nip outpost — “goodbye.” Then he and Admiral Ichimaru vanished. No trace of either was ever found.
But their men kept fighting. Instead of holing up and awaiting destruction, they donned Marine uniforms stripped from the American dead and crept out of their caves at night with rifles, swords, grenades, and knee mortars, so called because the tube was braced on the knee. (There were also wild stories about “ball mortars,” which, fired from the crotch, emasculated the mortarmen. The myth is worth noting because it illustrates our conviction that the Japs would sacrifice anything for their emperor.) Iwo was declared secure on March 16 and the operation officially completed ten days later, but heavy ground fighting continued, with the Marines taking another 3,885 casualties before GIs arrived to garrison the island. Even then, the soldiers had to spend another two months mopping up. It was depressing; the closer we came to Japan, the more tenacious the defenders were. No one wanted to talk about, or even think about, what would happen when we invaded their home islands.
James Forrestal, secretary of the navy, said of Iwo: “I can never again see a United States Marine without feeling a reverence.” The price of the little island had been 25,851 Marines, including 19 battalion commanders. Battle casualties in the rifle regiments had come to 60 percent in the Third Marine Division and 75 percent in the Fourth and Fifth divisions. But they had done the job. On March 4 the first crippled B-29 had wobbled into a crash landing on Airfield No. 1. Three weeks later, with the battle still raging in the northern pockets of the isle, Superfortresses began regular runs from Iwo's three fields to Tokyo. Before V-J Day, 2,251 B-29s, carrying 24,761 crewmen, had made successful landings on Iwo's airstrips. One Air Corps pilot who made three of them told a Time reporter: “Whenever I land on this island, I thank God and the men who fought for it.”
Of the war's last two great battlefields, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, Iwo is far more difficult to reach today. Yokota, a remote American air base on Honshu, Japan, sends one Coast Guard plane there each week with provisions, but a civilian cannot board it without clearance from Washington. The aircraft is a Lockheed C-130, normally used as a cargo plane; there are no seats and no heat. It is uncomfortable and therefore suitable for your miserable mission. When you land on the seventy-five-hundred-foot jet runway and climb down the ramp, your first full breath is sulfurous. You can almost see the air you are inhaling, and for the first few minutes it is nauseating. Then you board a truck sent to pick up the provisions. Geodetic faults buckle and twist the roads, so that driving is a jarring experience, inducing motion sickness. And then there are the winds. This is a stormy climate. The shape of Iwo is in fact altered slightly by each typhoon. (Recently Suribachi's shape was also transformed by demolitions experts taking safety measures against further volcanic eruptions.)
Your first thought, upon reaching the island, is how to flee from it. Timid visitors may reach a pitch bordering on panic; for some inexplicable reason, newcomers are pursued by an irrational fear that the isle is about to sink into the sea. Actually it has risen thirty-four feet since the war, but it seems too small to survive. The whole of it, including the landing beach, can be seen from the top of Suribachi. Today Iwo is largely green, covered with a low, almost indestructible form of plant life. During the American occupation there was talk of using it as a missile base, but it came to nothing. Only flocks of wild goats share the island with the men stationed there. In 1968, when the United States formally returned it to the Japanese, Tokyo's diplomats expressed gratitude, but they couldn't have been serious.
One has the instinctive feeling that the raging past is very much present here. Japs were still emerging from the ground years after the war, and the number listed as missing is staggering. When intact corpses are found, the Japanese Graves Registration Commission sends its teams with tanks of fuel; the bones are burned, and if the body can be identified, the family is notified. There seems to be no limit to the foreign objects below Iwo's black silt surface. Thus far, 560 major pillboxes have been uncovered. Relatives of slain Japanese who are successful in wangling space on the weekly flight first climb on Suribachi, to view the island, the beach, and the surf. Then they visit the memorials. The chief American monument is a bas-relief of the Suribachi flag raising, and it is sad to note that it is marred by many graffiti. The names are both American and Japanese — A. L. Warren and R. H. Nakamura, for example — suggesting a diaspora of vandals, but the disfigurement is depressing all the same. Even Kilroy had the good taste to leave this place alone.
My flight back to Japan will leave in an hour or so, and I am standing outside a Quonset-hut barracks, talking to Lieutenant Julilo Oshikawa, one of the officers commanding the Japanese troops stationed here. Japanese troops? On Iwo Jima? Yes; and eventually this will be a base for more of Hirohito's soldiers than those who fought here under Kuribayashi. It is startling, but there is a benign explanation. Since 1945 Nippon's civilians have been so hostile toward soldiers wearing their country's uniform that life in the home islands has become unendurable for their Japanese Self-Defense Force. So the government cast about for another depot. Through a bureaucratic freak, Iwo, which could not be accommodated elsewhere in the country's political system, was incorporated into the Tokyo prefecture. When you are on Iwo you are legally within Tokyo's city limits, 660 miles away. Therefore officials in the capital can determine your legal status and clear away batches of paperwork which antimilitarists could exploit. Putting Nipponese soldiers here was a clever solution to a vexing problem, though some Americans may regard it as almost sacrilegious.
The author on the beach at Iwo Jima, with Mount Suribachi in the background
The view of the landing beach from Mount Suribachi
Oshikawa, like his men, is wearing a red baseball cap with yellow felt kanji characters designating his rank and unit — a deliberately unmilitaristic hat — and the last thing he wants to discuss is World War II. Therefore I ask him how his men and the Coast Guard meteorologists get along. Pretty well, he says; they jog together, swap movies and girlie magazines, join in resurfacing the airstrip's tarmac when it becomes riddled by sulfur vents from below, and, until the recent completion of a quarter-mile-high radio tower to beam low-frequency weather and navigational messages to ships, gathered together to gawk at the workmen up there. The servicemen from the two nations have a baseball league, sprint against one another, and play tennis in one of the larger bunkers.
Nevertheless there is tension. The Nipponese are bound to resent the fact that every American has an air-conditioned room and, in most cases, his own stereo. On the other hand, the Japanese have access to an unlimited supply of sake, a drink of great authority, while the coastguardsmen are only issued beer. It has always been that way for U.S. troops, and it is stupid. Solace, any solace, seems the least that can be done for men marooned here. Yet they don't think theirs a hard lot. They like to jog. They like to roam around alone. They all feel attached to Iwo. It is, they say, so very peaceful. And they mean it; they are too young to remember Iwo's fiery hour in history. Men of my generation, of course, take an altogether different view. To us this battle was the latest in a series which began at Pearl Harbor and became worse and worse. Morison quotes a wounded Marine on Iwo: “I hope to God that we don't have to go on any more of these screwy islands.” Morison then apostrophizes: “Only one more, Marine — the even screwier Okinawa — and the war would be almost over.”