HQ U.S. PACIFIC COMMAND
PEARL HARBOR, HAWAII
26 JULY 1944
While the bloody battles for Saipan, Tinian, and Guam were still being fought, the bitter debate over Pacific strategy between MacArthur and Nimitz boiled up once again. MacArthur, having nearly completed operations in New Guinea, had effectively isolated Rabaul. Truk, the only other major Japanese naval and air base east of the Philippines, had been rendered useless by regular air raids and submarine attacks against Japanese vessels entering and leaving the anchorage.
With the Marianas all but secured, MacArthur once again insisted that it was time to make the invasion of the Philippines the main attack in the Pacific—and demanded that he be given the necessary fleet, air, and ground forces to make his “I shall return” promise a reality. Nimitz, in equally strong terms, asserted that continuing his central Pacific “island-hopping” strategy was the most effective way to beat the Japanese. Long an advocate of using his fast carriers, battleship heavy surface action groups, and amphibious forces for rapid leaps across broad expanses of open ocean, Nimitz once more advocated an assault on Formosa.
In Washington, Admiral King, General Marshall, and the Joint Chiefs tried, as they had in the past, to mediate a compromise between Nimitz and MacArthur. When their efforts failed, they threw the matter to the president. FDR, seeking a fourth term in office, and seeing political advantage in meeting with his two famous commanders, told them to join him for a conference of war in Hawaii. The two men did as ordered, and aboard the USS Baltimore in Pearl Harbor—during the only meetings the three wartime leaders would ever have—they hammered out a strategy for defeating Japan.
After listening to Nimitz and MacArthur, FDR decided that the Philippines were to be the next major offensive. Then, if the Japanese didn’t surrender unconditionally, the Home Islands would be invaded. MacArthur was assigned to be the principal commander for the task. Nimitz would support him with carriers, battleships, cruisers, submarines, and troops, and would protect MacArthur’s right flank by ensuring that the Japanese could not counter-attack from the Palau Islands 600 miles to the east.
MacArthur’s first objective was Mindanao, then Leyte, and finally Luzon and the liberation of Manila. As soon as possible, new B-29 Superfortresses would start reducing Japanese factories, shipyards, military facilities, and cities to rubble. About the only issue left undecided was who would command the invasion of the Japanese Home Islands when it came time.
Immediately after the Hawaii conference, MacArthur and Nimitz went to work completing detailed plans for their respective missions. For Nimitz, disappointment at being directed to support the main attack through the Philippines was tempered by the assignment to secure the Palau Islands. That task meant that the 1st Marine Division—which had been “loaned” to MacArthur for operations in New Guinea and New Britain—would be returned to his control.
By 10 August, with “mopping-up” operations underway in the Marianas, Pacific Fleet planners were able to brief Nimitz on their proposal to “secure” the Palau Islands in plenty of time to release assets—particularly carriers, battleships, and cruisers—to support General MacArthur’s three invasions in the Philippines.
Little was known about the Palau Islands—because they had been ceded to Japan after World War I. The American command believed that the only islands that needed to be taken were Ngulu, Ulithi, and Peleliu. The first two, smaller, and, according to U.S. intelligence, less defended, were to be assaulted by the 81st Infantry Division. The battle-hardened 1st Marine Division veterans of Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and New Britain were assigned to take Peleliu.
Just six miles long, two miles wide, and shaped like a lobster claw, Peleliu featured jungle-covered coral ridges and steep draws that revealed little. Numerous reconnaissance photographs were taken by PBYs, long-range land-based aircraft, and planes launched by the carriers—some by George H. W. Bush, the future president of the United States. Yet, despite all the photo missions, radio intercepts, and debriefings from the coast-watching native islanders, there was very little “hard intelligence” about Japanese strength or preparations on Peleliu.
Bombing missions had cratered the island’s only major airfield, and ever since the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” the Japanese had abandoned their Palau fleet anchorages. From a desk in Pearl Harbor, it appeared that Peleliu was vulnerable to a good, heavy pre-assault bombardment followed by a quick attack by the 1st Marine Division—now resting and refitting on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands. By 1 September, the division, commanded by Major General William H. Rupertus, was expected to be back to its full complement of 19,000 Marines and ready for D-Day on 15 September 1944.
By the time the troops began to embark aboard their amphibious ships during the first week of September, what the Americans didn’t know about Peleliu was far greater than what they did. Those who planned the operation, called “Stalemate,” knew that the island had no rivers or streams. They didn’t know, however, that there was no fresh water whatsoever.
U.S. pilots, naval gunfire officers, and Marine intelligence officers knew that early in the war some 3,000 Japanese troops and 500 press-ganged Korean laborers had improved the fleet anchorage and had built an airfield. The Americans didn’t know that the Japanese had constructed hundreds of sophisticated, interconnected caves and tunnels and mutually supporting, hardened fighting positions on the island.
The Marines going ashore knew from past experience that when pressed, Japanese officers would often order their men to conduct suicidal banzai attacks, hastening the defenders’ inevitable collapse. But no one knew that Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, commanding the 10,000 tough Japanese troops on Peleliu, had ordered them to stay hidden in their tunnels and caves and “Make the American Marines come to you—and when they do, kill them.” There would be no banzai attacks on Peleliu.
HQ 1ST MARINE DIVISION, AFLOAT
PELELIU, PALAU ISLANDS
1130 15 SEPTEMBER 1944
It was still early on D-Day, but from his vantage point aboard the amphibious command ship General Rupertus could already tell things were not going according to plan. Four days ago, while making the 2,100-mile voyage from Pavuvu to Peleliu, he had told his regimental commanders that he expected this part of Operation Stalemate to be “tough but quick,” and that it would all be over in “two or three days.” Given the three days of continuous pounding by carrier aircraft and the battleships’ eighteen-inch guns and the cruisers’ eight-inch volleys, there was good reason for optimism.
But now, just three hours after H-Hour, more than twenty-five of his LVTs and landing craft, having taken direct hits from Japanese guns hidden in the coral cliffs, were wrecked or burning between the barrier reef and the shore. Another sixty had been damaged en route to or from the beach and were now useless. His communicators were receiving frantic radio calls from shattered units trapped on the narrow shelf between the water and the jungle, taking heavy casualties. It was obvious that Peleliu was going to be anything but a “quick” battle.
Just prior to the assault waves crossing the line of departure and heading to the beach, Rupertus and his staff had watched the final moments of the pre-assault bombardment. All the lessons learned at Tarawa and since were being applied here. Just before the first wave hit the beach, rocket-firing LCIs and Hellcats sprayed the beaches with 40 mm and machine gun rounds. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, commanding the bombardment force, had gone so far as to claim, “There are no more targets. I have destroyed everything.”
But he was wrong. The shells, bombs, and rockets had not hit many of the targets at all. Or if they had, they had bounced right off the reinforced concrete and coral. Admiral Oldendorf ’s gunners had missed most of the hidden tunnels and caves—mainly because they couldn’t be seen.
Further, the naval shelling of the relatively small island wasn’t quite as devastating as it appeared. The number of rounds fired at the island before the assault had been governed by two factors: known targets ashore on Peleliu, and the requirement to have Oldendorf ’s battleships and cruisers provide the same kind of assault preparation for MacArthur’s troops going ashore in the Philippines.
Since there were few known targets visible on Peleliu, Oldendorf ’s gunnery officers made the assumption that whatever needed to be hit had been. Therefore, they reasoned, firing more rounds both wasted ammunition that would be needed for the Philippines and created more wear and tear on the barrels and breeches. Either condition—a shortage of ammunition in the magazines or worn barrels on the guns—could delay MacArthur’s invasion plans. And given all the attention “Dugout Doug” was getting from Washington and the press, nobody wanted to be responsible for delaying his return to the Philippines.
To make matters worse, MacArthur decided to bypass Mindanao and proceed directly with an assault on Leyte, advancing the timetable for when Oldendorf’s bombardment group would be needed. That decided the matter: Instead of five days’ pre-assault bombardment requested by the Marines landing on Peleliu, the island would be treated to three days of bombing and shelling unless new targets were identified. By the morning of 15 September, no new targets had been found, and Oldendorf departed to link up with MacArthur’s Philippine invasion force.
For the veterans of the 1st Marine Division, 15 September 1944 began well before dawn with a traditional breakfast of steak and eggs. After returning to their troop compartments to draw ammunition and grenades from the armorers, they donned their field transport packs and proceeded up to the weather decks of their ships for a hasty prayer service led by unit chaplains. As dawn was breaking, those assigned to the assault waves went over the side, climbing down cargo nets into the waiting LVTs and landing craft bobbing in a gentle swell beside the assault ships. Churning toward shore, the troops could hear the sound of the battleships’ sixteen-inch shells ripping through the air above them. Those who could look over the gunwales of their boats could see the flash and smoke of the big shells as they exploded ashore.
The survivors of that first assault wave recall that there was no sign of life on the island until the naval gunfire had ceased and the LVTs and armored amphibians reached the coral reef some 600 to 700 yards from shore. Then all hell broke loose.
Japanese gunners, protected from the U.S. barrage by their deep caves and tunnels high above the landing beaches, rolled their artillery, mortars, and even German 88 mm guns out as soon as the naval gunfire stopped raining down on the island. Strafing by carrier aircraft and rockets fired from the LCIs, both delivering suppression fire on the beach, did nothing to deter the Japanese gunners who were, in most cases, 800 to 1,000 meters back from the water’s edge. The delivery of a last-minute smokescreen by the rocket ships didn’t protect the Marines either, since the Japanese didn’t need to see their targets. Their aiming points had all been pre-registered.
Most of the first wave of LVTs that did manage to make it ashore at 0832 were promptly struck by fire plunging from the cliffs above. The assault beach quickly took on the appearance of a junkyard. Scores of Marines exiting their Amtracs were felled by flying shrapnel as they tried to press forward out of the killing zone and into the scarce cover. As the second assault wave hit the beach five minutes later, they piled in atop the wreckage of the first wave. The Marines rushing out of their vehicles were greeted by Japanese shellfire and screams of “Corpsman up!”
For Marines in combat, the courage and skill of their Navy medical corpsmen are often the determining factors in who crosses that thin line between life and death on the battlefield. For those in B Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment that terrible morning on Peleliu, one of those who answered the call was eighteen-year-old Pharmacist Mate Third Class John Hayes. It was his baptism by fire.
PHARMACIST MATE THIRD CLASS
JOHN HAYES, USN
B Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines
Peleliu, Palau Islands
15 September 1944
We went to the galley and had our first decent meal, steak and eggs—the last meal until we got off of the island. About seven o’clock, we started climbing down the cargo nets into the landing craft. I climbed over the side with all of my medical gear and six rounds of 60 mm mortar ammunition.
As we headed into the beach, it was apparent that things weren’t going as planned. We got hung up on the reef and had to go into the water well off the beach. It was bad when we went over the side of the landing craft. I’m six-foot-seven and the water was over my head. I went right to the bottom and finally got up so that my head was above water and we all walked to shore as fast as we could. But when we waded out of the surf, everybody was backed up. Bodies were floating in the surf and body parts were everywhere. It was real carnage.
The first wave of shelled Amtracs were burning on the beach. Some had gotten hung up on the reef and others were shot on the way in.
Every soldier, airman, sailor, and Marine thinks that his battle is the worst and that’s what we were thinking when we got on to Peleliu.
I guess, of course, in every serious episode of life there’s a little humor. One of my platoon members had called for a corpsman, so I picked up my bag and I ran to him. And he says, “Doc, I’m hit.”
I said, “Where are you hit?” He says, “I’m hit in the butt.” And so I looked him over and I couldn’t see any blood. He said, “I feel the blood running down my butt.”
I said, “Well I don’t see any blood.”
A sniper had put a round through his canteen, and the hot water was running down the cheeks of his butt, so he thought he was hit.
So I told him, “You’re not getting out of here that easy.”
Peleliu was a battle of inches. They stopped us on the beach and we had to fight for every inch after we got there.
A platoon sergeant was near me and I said, “You know, I’m scared.”
He said, “So am I.”
I said, “You can’t be scared, you’re a veteran of Guadalcanal. He said, “You’re gonna be a veteran in five minutes.” And I was.
That first night ashore we expected banzai attacks but there weren’t any. Still, nobody got any sleep. We dug in the sand, threw flares up all night long, and exchanged fire. It was a long night, but we didn’t have the heavy casualties we’d had during the day.
We had a lot of wounded. We’d do what we could for them, keep them from going into shock, bandage their wounds, and evacuate them out to the hospital ship. Our battalion surgeon, Dr. Robert Haggerty, did a masterful job under those circumstances.
We were told to attack up Bloody Nose Ridge, but got kicked back every day. We just couldn’t seem to get a foothold because we didn’t have enough artillery support to get into those caves. The Japanese had German 88 mm guns mounted in those caves on tracks with armor protecting the entrance. They’d roll back that armor door and roll the eighty-eights out and fire at any group of more than two Marines. Those guns took a heavy toll. Then they’d pull the gun back in and close the door. It was only after we were able to get some flame-throwers and have napalm dropped that we were able to make any headway at all.
Our biggest problems were the Japanese fire and heat exhaustion.
Bloody Nose Ridge was a coral escarpment honeycombed with caves. The naval gunfire and bombs had blown most of the leaves off the trees, so every time we moved we were always out in the open.
In the course of the six days that the 1st Marine Regiment was there, we had about 315 killed and we had over 1,400 wounded. That means we suffered 54 percent casualties, the worst casualty rate to that point of any regiment in World War II.
I got hit with shrapnel in the back on the third day but stayed until the sixth day, when they evacuated me to the hospital ship.
The corpsman is always vulnerable. And the Marines all knew that. They protected us. And as a result, there is a very close bond between the Marines and their Navy corpsmen.
One of my friends bandaged me and we just stayed there and toughed it out. On the hospital ship, they didn’t take the shrapnel out. They said it wasn’t impairing anything so they left it in. They sewed me right up over the hole.
I spent six weeks on “light duty,” and then back on Pavuvu we started training for the invasion of Okinawa.
One of the things that I’ve always been very proud of is that I served as a medical corpsman with the Marines. In our military, the group that has the highest number of citations for bravery are the Navy corpsmen assigned to the Marines.
1ST MARINE DIVISION
PELELIU, PALAU ISLANDS
16 SEPTEMBER 1944
By nightfall on D-Day there were slightly more than 7,000 Marines ashore on Peleliu. The 1st and 5th Marine Regiments were hunkered down just a few hundred yards inland from White and Orange Beaches, unable to press inland because of withering fire from Japanese machine guns. Efforts to penetrate further inland during the night were repulsed and at dawn of D+1 their positions were little changed.
Late on D-Day, General Rupertus committed most of the 7th Marines—his reserve—and landed them in the vicinity of “the point.” But by the morning of D+1, they too were being held up by a series of well-fortified pillboxes on the ridge above them. With nearly the entire division now engaged, Rupertus sought a breakthrough.
He ordered the 7th Marines to shift the orientation of their attack and seize the airfield. Major Gordon Gayle was acting commander of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines during the assault on the airfield. It would turn into a “run and gun” tank-infantry battle—a first for the Marines.
MAJOR GORDON GAYLE, USMC
1st Battalion, 7th Marines
Peleliu, Palau Islands
21 September 1944
When I joined the Marine Corps, it was the size of the New York City police force. When the war was over, the Corps was half a million strong.
We went to Guadalcanal in ’42, came out of New Guinea in ’43. We landed in New Britain and came out in May of ’44. It was hot, but not as hot as Peleliu.
After we left New Britain and went down to Pavuvu, a ship came in with replacements. I went down to watch our people leave and watch the new people come off the ship, and the contrast was just mind-boggling. The veterans who were leaving to become the cadre of new units forming up were all thin, lean, sharp-eyed, and walked on their toes, and they were tan.
The new guys coming off the ship were relatively white and heavy, walking on their heels. It was really one of the more impressive experiences that I had during the war. It wasn’t anything you could talk about, because you didn’t want to tell the troops that they didn’t look ready, but it made a terrific personal impression.
My battalion landed on Peleliu in support of the two assault battalions of the 5th Regiment. The 5th Regiment was to land with the 1st Marines on their left and 7th Marines on the right.
It didn’t surprise me that we were going to have bitter resistance. Some of the naval officers seemed to think that their bombardment had destroyed everything there and, Colonel Puller was told by the captain of his ship, “I’ll see you back here for dinner.”
I went ashore in an Amtrac. And as we went in, you could see other LVTs burning on the beach. You could see Marines lying on the beach, and a lot of pandemonium.
There were a lot of mines, and the Japanese had attempted to rig up log obstacles. The tetrahedrons were down on other beaches, but they weren’t on our beach. The obstacles didn’t create any particular problem of moving the tractors in or getting out of them and running to shore. It’s just that there was a fair amount of fire.
I ordered my troops to move out as fast as they could. Our mission was to go through the two assault battalions and cross the airfield. And I told everybody, “Understand that the nice, comfortable trench that the Japanese dug alongside the airfield will be well registered by their guns, so don’t go there.”
We expected the airfield to be defended in depth. And all of those expectations came true. We had been warned that they had tanks, and about mid-afternoon, the Japanese launched a tank and infantry attack across the airfield.
I was in a bomb crater with my intelligence officer. I said, “Send our tanks after them.” I had a platoon of five Sherman tanks, and I sent them into the fight. And they just knocked the Japanese tanks apart, literally.
We had to move as hard and fast as we could in the initial stages. As long as they were up on top of those ridges and looking down on us, we had to keep going.
The significant tactical mistake that was made there, in my judgment, is that the character of the battle changed from a maneuver battle to a siege. General Rupertus never recognized that.
He wanted us to hurry and finish it off. But we needed reserves, and we didn’t have them.
You couldn’t see those caves. The Japanese were in them on both sides, shooting down. You had to go in there with tanks and shoot them up, and that’s what we finally wound up doing.
It became pretty clear that before we landed at Peleliu, somebody at the highest levels in Japan had made the decision to change their tactics. Instead of banzai attacks, they wanted their troops on Peleliu to dig in, hang tough, extract the maximum price, and get the best results that they could.
We captured thirteen Japanese military people out of 10,000. It was partially because of their stubbornness and how hard they resisted. They were tough fighters, and they obviously had a healthy respect for the Marines.
When we went up north, we ran into a hill that had been a mine and was full of Japanese. We had to capture that hill.
We had to get around it on the bottom and were being stopped by all the fire coming out of there. I prevailed upon Colonel Walt, who was executive officer of the regiment, to get a 155 mm gun, which we fired point-blank at 250 yards. We just pulverized the side of that hill and then we went in. That was the kind of fighting that had to be done. Fortunately, my regimental commander knew that. I never got pressured into charging some place where we weren’t ready to go.
My battalion landed, covered, and then took the length of the airfield in two days. It took us a day to get across the causeway, which was 200 or 300 yards. Once we were on the other side, we advanced and covered that whole peninsula in the next two days with no opposition. But then when we got up to the north of the pocket, and started working down, if you made fifty yards in a day, you had a good day.
The final cleanup assignment took until 16 October, when they relieved us. My 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines was the last battalion engaged. The island was actually secured, in my judgment, as soon as we captured the north end. After that, the enemy had no more reinforcement capability. Somebody suggested that we should simply run barbed wire, and designate “the pocket” as a POW enclosure. There was still the thought that the Marines ought to clean it out. And that’s why the campaign continued for another ten days.
The debate over whether or not we needed to go to Peleliu is a very difficult one for me. I lost half my men and 60 percent of my officers there, so it’s hard to think that maybe we didn’t need to take the island.
1ST MARINE DIVISION
PELELIU, PALAU ISLANDS
19 SEPTEMBER 1944
Major Gayle’s tank-infantry-tank battle at the airfield inflicted fifty-nine casualties on the Marines, but it proved fatal for nearly 900 Japanese.
On D-Day, an F4F had belly-landed on the Japanese-held airfield while the Marines were landing. When Gayle’s Marines swept across the runways on 16 October, the body of the American pilot was still in the plane, slumped over the controls, dead. The pilot had evidently done a dead-stick landing and a sniper had shot him in the temple as his plane slid to a stop. By the fourth day, Marine Sherman tanks were operating well beyond the airstrip.
After losing fifteen tanks in the “run and gun” battle at the airfield, the Japanese changed tactics and dug in their remaining tanks, using them like pillboxes at roadblocks. Even that didn’t change the outcome in a tank-to-tank fight. The Japanese light tanks on Peleliu had only half-inch armor and weighed three tons. The Sherman tank weighed ten times that much.
The shells from the Marines’ Shermans were at first ineffective. One tank operator said he was using the standard anti-tank ammo, but the armor-piercing shells were going right through both sides of the Japanese tanks without detonating or causing much damage. Then he changed to high-explosive ammo that detonated much easier and got a “kill” with every hit. The same thing applied to the 2.75-inch bazookas the Marines brought up to the line.
An SBD dive-bomber, returning from another mission, still had a 500-pound bomb while the tank battle was going on. The pilot dove on one of these tanks, plopped the 500-pound bomb right on top of the Japanese tank, and vaporized it. The handful of Marine Sherman tanks wiped out a baker’s dozen of Japanese tanks.
The outcome of the battle for the airfield did little to ease the pressure on the 1st Marines. Their regimental commander, Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, pushed his Marines to move inland even though they were taking horrific casualties. Puller was already a legend—much in the mold of his cousin, General George Patton. His reputation for fearlessly engaging the enemy had grown on Guadalcanal, where he had been seriously wounded. Because his wounds hadn’t healed fully, he probably shouldn’t have been at Peleliu.
Puller’s men paid a terrible price for his aggressiveness and Oldendorf ’s erroneous assumption that the Navy guns had already destroyed all of the Japanese targets on Peleliu. One of the many targets Oldendorf had missed was a large concrete blockhouse in the center of Puller’s zone of action. Puller lost thirty-five of his Marines, killed or wounded trying to take this hardened fortification.
U.S. tanks on Peleliu.
Finally, Major Ray Davis, the commander of Puller’s 1st Battalion, was able to call in fire from the USS Mississippi. The venerable battleship’s fourteen-inch guns quickly damaged the blockhouse enough that Davis’s men could kill the occupants with grenades, demolitions, and flame-throwers.
The men who carried the explosives and flame-throwers were essential to victory for the Marines who fought their way ashore and across Peleliu’s steep coral escarpments. Eighteen-year-old PFC Fred Fox didn’t start out in the Marine Corps as a demolitions expert or as a flame-thrower man. But on Peleliu he learned just how valuable those skills could be.
PRIVATE FIRST CLASS FRED FOX, USMC
1st Marine Division
Peleliu, Palau Islands
22 September 1944
I was seventeen when I joined the Marines in New Orleans. We got on a train to San Diego for boot camp.
At that time, the Battle of Tarawa was in the news. Everybody wanted to do something. I wanted to be a Marine.
I’d taken machine gun training at Camp Elliott in San Diego, but company commander George Hunt said, “We are getting a new weapon called a flame-thrower, and you seem like you’re pretty good at things, so you’re going to take over and run the flame-throwers in my company.”
The flame-throwers and bazookas were two special weapons that they were just getting into a rifle company. While we were aboard an LST, Captain Hunt said, “We’re going to an island called Peleliu.” He had a map and explained to us what we were going to do. “This is ‘the point,’” he said, “and there’s a little cliff about thirty feet high. They can sit inside that cliff and shoot down on our units, so we have take this from the Japs.”
A few people had feelings they were going to get killed at Peleliu. I didn’t ever have that, but a strange thing about it, a good percentage of the people who say those things do get killed. I had a sergeant that was in the tent with me. He had been at Guadalcanal and New Britain. He said, “I know I’m gonna get killed this time. I don’t wanna go—I don’t wanna go.”
We got an order: “All personnel that have special equipment—machine guns, flame-throwers—go down to your Amtracs in the hull of the ship.”
We were in the first wave. As soon as we got ashore, I had the flame-thrower on, and the assistant flame-thrower had a shotgun, and we ran down the beach to the left.
He shot a couple of times with his shotgun, and I tried to shoot the flame-thrower, but it wouldn’t light, so we went back.
The first thing I saw was the platoon commander, and he had blood coming out of his shoulder, so I ran over to him and started to bandage up his shoulder, and a Japanese machine gun started shooting at us.
He said, “Don’t worry about me, just throw me a pistol.” I had a .45 automatic in a scabbard with the flame-thrower, so I took it and tossed it to him with two magazines. He gave me his Thompson submachine gun and some full magazines.
The place they called “the point” was a cliff about thirty feet high with Japanese gun emplacements in it. We almost took the point on the first day, but we lost thirty men when the Japanese counter-attacked. That counter-attack wouldn’t have succeeded if our flame-thrower had been working.
If you wanted to get somebody with your flame-thrower, you had to get close, but you could almost always throw hand grenades at ’em.
We were getting dehydrated the first afternoon. I crawled out to where two Jap officers were, or where their bodies were, and they had canteens on ’em. So I cut off the two canteens, and brought ’em back, and drank nice, clear water. Later everybody was getting canteens off a dead Jap to get water.
The second day the CO said, “We have to know if the Japanese are gonna do a banzai charge.” I told him, “I’ve been out there to cut the canteens off those two Jap officers, so I can crawl out there.”
So as soon as it got dark, I got rid of everything I had that would make noise, took only a new .45 pistol. I’m on the edge of the cliff, on top of it well past the point.
Just before dawn I could hear Japs trying to get around us out in the water. So I had to get back and report. I climbed down the cliff and took about three steps and there were Japs right under me. As soon as I turned, a bayonet hit me right in the chest. I grabbed the bayonet where it’s attached to the rifle, and I had this pistol cocked, loaded, and all I had to do was pull the trigger. I just slammed it right in his face, as hard as I could. I didn’t shoot, but he dropped everything, and I dropped the pistol, grabbed his rifle, and jabbed its bayonet into him.
Then I got a hit several times with a saber, which cut me up real bad so I fell to the ground and played dead.
While all this was going on, our guys picked up a machine gun and started shooting at the Japanese who had attacked me. While the Japanese were dodging the fire from our machine gun, I jumped into the water. As soon as I got down to where I figured our lines were, I yelled for a corpsman. A voice said, “I’ll come and get you.” I found out later on it was Andy Byrnes, the guy who had the machine gun, and he came into the surf and pulled me out of the water. By now it was daylight and as Andy carried me up to our lines, the Japs started shooting at us. Thankfully, Andy got me back safely. He was awarded the Silver Star for this act of valor.
I had a big cut across my back from the saber. I remember lying there on my stomach as the corpsman bandaged me up.
Later that afternoon they brought an Amtrac in and picked up all the wounded. They took me out to a ship called Tryon, not a hospital ship but rigged like one. Five or six days later we got to the Admiralty Islands, where there was a naval hospital. We went from there to a hospital on Guadalcanal and then they put me on a ship back to the United States.
1ST MARINE DIVISION
PELELIU, PALAU ISLANDS
26 SEPTEMBER 1944
The Japanese weren’t the only enemy on Peleliu. The steamy island offered no respite from the sun. By noon every day the temperature would rise to between 110 and 120 degrees.
And in this heat, water was precious. It was also scarce. Forced to bring in their own water supplies, the Marines pumped a whole lot of it into fifty-five-gallon gasoline drums. But the drums hadn’t been washed out and the water was so contaminated that only the most desperate Marines drank it. Instead, they looked for canteens on the bodies of the dead, or for stagnant pools as they moved forward. They scraped the green scum from the surface of the water in a swampy area and drank that, carefully coaxing as much of the filthy water as possible into their canteens.
Along with the heat and thirst, Peleliu’s terrain was yet another nightmare for the Marines. The Japanese took every advantage of every wrinkle in the earth, each furrow, rock, and cave. Some of the caves and tunnels were four or five stories deep, and many had electric lights, furniture, cots, and supplies to help the defenders outlast the Americans. The Japanese were dug in so well that it was impossible to see them or even where their machine gun fire was coming from as it laced into the Marines.
To the attackers, it seemed as though every bunker or fighting position had been laid out so that others could support the one being assaulted. If the Marines got close enough to engage a bunker, cave, or blockhouse, at least two more emplacements opened up from the flanks.
The most difficult terrain to maneuver through on Peleliu was a hilly region called the Umurbrogols, a series of high, zigzagging coral ridges, full of natural caves and dangerous cliffs. The drive was halted for a month in the Umurbrogol area, which the Americans came to call Bloody Nose Ridge.
Twenty-five-year-old Captain Everett Pope from Milton, Massachusetts, came to know the area well. Colonel Puller had ordered Pope, the C Company commander, to seize Hill 100, a strategic piece of terrain on Bloody Nose Ridge. Just after noon on 20 September, Captain Pope led ninety Marines—all that remained of his reinforced company that had numbered 235 on D-Day—into the attack on Hill 100. The temperature was already over 105 degrees as they started up the slope.
CAPTAIN EVERETT POPE, USMC
C Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines
Peleliu, Palau Islands
28 September 1944
We landed on Peleliu on 15 September 1944. We were told the operation would take two or three days to clean up a few Japanese. No one told us the Japanese had been there since 1930. Or that they knew what they were doing, and were very good at it.
I took over Charlie Company when we were getting ready for the Peleliu landing. We went in on an LVT. When we got to the reef, we ground to a halt and got pounded. There were twelve or more LVTs afire on the shore.
The first instinct is to get off the beach. The landing craft attracted a lot of unwanted attention. We got to the beach as fast as we could, but still got shot at wherever we moved. I lost my first Marine right there on the beach.
They didn’t waste any of their people on banzai attacks on Peleliu. In fact, they had a very tactically serious defense.
The morning of the second day we were charged with taking Hill 100. We ran into this blockhouse that was not supposed to have been there, and we had to pull back until naval gunfire reached in and damaged it. Shortly thereafter, my company, Charlie Company, reached the first objective. It was supposed to have been reached within an hour of the landing. We only reached it the second night.
We were ordered to take that hill, and we moved forward through a swamp and met some very serious opposition—not from the top of the hill, but from the other side of the swampy area. We couldn’t get through to get at the machine guns that were firing at us. We couldn’t get a flame-thrower up, and we couldn’t mount a charge.
Then the decision was made to cross that causeway. After a very tough fight, we managed to get across the causeway and up the slope, and by late that night we got to the top of the hill. We just barely managed to hang on while the Japanese threw everything they had at us. It got to be hand-to-hand combat and sharp raining fire by rifles and grenades.
We ended up at dawn the next morning with no ammunition. We could fight for a couple hours, no more. The Japanese sent in a company of troops as dawn broke, and we were assailed from high ground we couldn’t even see. On our maps it showed Hill 100 to be the highest piece of terrain, but it wasn’t. There was another hill, higher than ours, about 150 yards away. We didn’t hold the key terrain—the Japanese did.
For twelve days and nights we fought, buried our dead, and waited. Nobody could get in there. Every day and night we took casualties, including two lieutenants killed in action. Everybody else was wounded. Our rifle company had taken 95 percent casualties counting killed and wounded.
I was wounded. When I went down to the battalion aid station, they pulled some shrapnel out and told me it wasn’t serious. Only eight of us came off that hill. It was the closest I ever came to being killed.
1ST MARINE DIVISION
PELELIU, PALAU ISLANDS
28 SEPTEMBER 1944
After Peleliu’s airstrip was under American control, Marine Corsairs began to use the field. The aircraft would take off, bomb, strafe, or drop napalm and land again all in the space of five minutes. Many times the pilots wouldn’t even bother to raise their landing gear.
After a week of furious battle, General Roy Geiger came ashore to assess the situation. By the time the amphibious assault force commander made his visit to Peleliu, Puller’s 1st Marines had taken 2,300 casualties. Despite Puller’s objections, Geiger decided that the depleted regiment had to be pulled off of the island. The 1st Battalion had suffered a horrific 70 percent dead or wounded. Ray Davis, its commander, would be awarded the Navy Cross.
General Geiger replaced the 1st Marines with a regimental combat team from the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division, the “Wildcats,” at the end of that terrible first week. Using bazookas, tanks, and flame-throwers, the fresh troops broke the back of the Japanese defenses, though organized resistance didn’t end until 13 October.
After seventy-two grueling days, the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments were finally withdrawn and rejoined the 1st Marines on Pavuvu.
Before committing ritual suicide at the end of October, Colonel Nakagawa sent a final message for Tokyo: “CHERRY BLOSSOM. CHERRY BLOSSOM. CHERRY BLOSSOM.” The meaning: “Peleliu has fallen.”
The victory had come at a ghastly cost. Nearly 600 soldiers, sailors, and Marines received awards for heroism. But the 1st Marine Division suffered a total of 6,500 casualties and the Army lost another 3,000. And for the Japanese it was even worse. Of the 10,000 troops of the original garrison, fewer than a hundred were alive at the end. In April of 1947, two and a half years after the battle for Peleliu ended, thirty-four Japanese soldiers surrendered. They still couldn’t believe that the war was over.
Decades after the Battle of Peleliu, debate continues as to whether the United States really needed to fight the Japanese for the island. There are those who hold to the original premise that an unsecured Peleliu was a threat to MacArthur’s flank and would have made the Allied thrust northward to Japan vulnerable.
Others think it wasn’t necessary. They believe that the U.S. had already driven the Japanese fleet from the island waters and that any air threat from Peleliu could have been ameliorated by regular bombing of the airfield. According to this argument, the 10,000 Japanese troops on Peleliu were no more of a threat than the 120,000 isolated Japanese troops rotting at Rabaul.
Major General Roy Geiger
Peleliu is sometimes called the “forgotten” battle of the Pacific war. But for those who fought there, it will always be remembered. Certainly no one questions the courage and determination of the Marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who fought in this battle and eventually seized this Japanese fortress. One Marine said it best about the bitter struggle: “All gave some; some gave all.”