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The Battle of Peleliu was a pivotal moment in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Codenamed Operation Stalemate II, the battle was fought between the United States and Japan from 15 September to 27 November 1944. The objective was to capture the airfield on the small coral island, which was a part of a larger offensive campaign known as Operation Forager. However, the fierce resistance from the Japanese Army, which had developed new island-defense tactics and well-crafted fortifications, led to an extended battle.

The 1st Marine Division led the American forces, and Major General William Rupertus predicted that the island would be secured within 4 days. However, the Japanese defenders fought with such ferocity and devotion to the Emperor that the battle lasted more than two months. The U.S. Army faced heavy casualties, with the island becoming known as the "Emperor's Island" due to the Japanese defenders' clung to their positions until death.

 


AT RIGHT: Peleliu, Palau Islands, September 1944. Marine fire team, possibly near the airfield. Peleliu USMC Photo No. 2-6. From the Frederick R. Findtner Collection (COLL/3890), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH.


 

The battle was significant in driving the war closer to Japan. With American bombers able to strike at the Japanese main islands from air bases secured during the Mariana Islands campaign, the U.S. Joint Chiefs debated over two proposed strategies to defeat the Japanese Empire. General Douglas MacArthur favored the recapture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa, then an attack on the Japanese home islands. On the other hand, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz preferred a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines, by seizing Okinawa and Taiwan as staging areas to an attack on the Japanese mainland, followed by the future invasion of Japan's southernmost islands.

The battle began with the American forces capturing an airfield within two days, pushing their way to the eastern shore, and leaving the southern section of the island to be destroyed by the 7th Marines. The Japanese resistance was severe, and the temperatures of the region increased, exceeding 115 °F leading to heat exhaustion among the troops. Further, the Marines' water was distributed in empty oil drums, contaminating the water with the oil residues.

12015285294?profile=RESIZE_400xDuring the second day of battle on Peleliu Island, the 5th Marines moved forward with the objective of capturing the airfield and pushing towards the eastern shore. In the process, they had to brave heavy artillery fire coming from the highlands to the north, which led to significant casualties. Despite their losses, the Marines managed to capture the airfield and pushed towards the eastern end of the island, while leaving the southern defenders to face destruction at the hands of the 7th Marines. On day two of the landing, crossing the airfield at the southern end of Peleliu was costly for the 5th and 7th Marines (Regiments). "For the second day they [casualties] are put 156, a nearly ludicrous figure. The 1st Marines reported that it had suffered 500 casualties the first day, 1,000 by the end of the second. Whatever the statistics, the 1st was in bad shape. Losses of fifteen percent normally are considered enough to relieve a unit: [Col. Lewsi B.] Puller had 33 percent in 48 hours." (McMillan 1949, 302-303)

 


AT RIGHT: Peleliu, Palau Islands, September 1944. USMC Archives. Marine Shares His Water. Modern Gunga Din-A Marine wounded in action at Peleliu, gets a drink of water from the canteen of a thoughtful buddy. From the Photograph Collection (COLL/3948), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH.


 

Unfortunately, the Japanese still held control over numerous pillboxes in the area, making this region a hotly contested battleground. The heat indices soared up to 115 °F, and the Marines faced immense difficulties in the form of heat exhaustion. Their water supply was also contaminated with oil residue, which increased their discomfort. Despite these challenges, the 5th and 7th Marines achieved their objectives by the eighth day, successfully holding the airfield and the southern part of the island. Nonetheless, the airfield remained under constant threat from Japanese attacks from the heights of Umurbrogol Mountain until the end of the battle.

Starting from the third day of combat, the American forces began using the airfield. L-2 Grasshoppers from VMO-3 conducted aerial spotting missions for Marine artillery and naval gunfire support. Later, on September 26, Marine F4U Corsairs from VMF-114 landed on the airstrip and began dive-bombing missions across Peleliu. They fired rockets into open cave entrances for the infantrymen, making the Japanese defensive positions untenable. The Corsairs operated with short turnaround times, sometimes taking only 10 to 15 seconds from takeoff to reach the target area. Many pilots did not retract the landing gear during air strikes, leaving them down throughout the operation. Once the strike was over, the Corsairs would turn around and return to land at the airfield.

After capturing "The Point," the 1st Marines moved north into the Umurbrogol pocket, which earned the nickname "Bloody Nose Ridge" from the Marines. Led by Puller, the 1st Marines launched numerous assaults, but each one resulted in severe casualties due to heavy Japanese fire. Trapped in the narrow paths between the ridges, the Marines faced a deadly crossfire that made their task increasingly difficult.

As they slowly advanced through the ridges, the Marines took increasingly high casualties. The Japanese demonstrated exceptional fire discipline, waiting for optimal moments to strike and inflict maximum damage. The Japanese snipers began targeting stretcher bearers, realizing that injuring or killing them would result in more Marines coming forward to replace them, making it easier to pick off more Marines. The Japanese also infiltrated the American lines at night to attack the Marines in their fighting holes, leading to more casualties. 

12015339277?profile=RESIZE_400xFaced with these difficulties, the Marines built two-man fighting holes, with one Marine sleeping while the other kept watch for infiltrators. However, one particular battle on Bloody Nose Ridge became the most intense one in this region. Major Raymond Davis's 1st Battalion, 1st Marines attacked Hill 100, suffering 71% casualties over six days of fighting. Captain Everett P. Pope and his company penetrated deep into the ridges, leading his remaining 90 men to seize what he thought was Hill 100. It took a full day of fighting to reach what he believed to be the crest of the hill, which was actually another ridge occupied by more Japanese defenders.

 


AT RIGHT: Peleliu, Palau Islands, 1944. Marines Move Across Peleliu, 1944. "Rugged Terrain-Picking their way through the rocky terrain on Peleliu, a column of Marines moves up to the front lines. This is the type of terrain on which the Leathernecks battled the remnants of the Japanese forces on the island." From the Photograph Collection (COLL/3948), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH.


 

Trapped at the base of the ridge, Pope set up a small defensive perimeter, which the Japanese relentlessly attacked throughout the night. The Marines ran out of ammunition and had to fight the attackers with knives, fists, throwing coral rocks, and empty ammunition boxes. By dawn, the Japanese unleashed more deadly fire, and when the Marines evacuated the position, only nine men remained. Pope later received the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Nonetheless, by the eighth day, the 5th and 7th Marines had accomplished their objectives, holding the airfield and the southern part of the island, although the airfield remained under sustained fire from Japanese fighters until the end of the battle. The battle for Peleliu went on for 2 months, 1 week, and 5 days from 15 September to 27 November 1944. The First Marine Division expended 13,319,488 rounds of .30 caliber ammo (carbine, rifle, BAR); 1,524,300 rounds of .45 caliber (pistol and submachine gun); 693,657 rounds of .50 caliber (machine gun); and 97,596 rounds of 60mm mortar. (McMillan 1949, 341) In the aftermath of the battle, losses incurred far outweighed the limited strategic value Peleliu held.

The Japanese inflicted 70% casualties on Puller's 1st Marines, which translates to 1,749 men. After six days of fighting in the ridges of Umurbrogol, Geiger sent elements of the U.S. Army's 81st Infantry Division to relieve the regiment. The 321st Regiment Combat Team landed on the western beaches of Peleliu and encircled "The Pocket" by September 24, along with the 7th Marines. By October 15, the 7th Marines had suffered 46% casualties, and Geiger replaced them with the 5th Marines. Col. Harris adopted siege tactics, using bulldozers and flame-thrower tanks to push from the north. It took the 81st Infantry Division another six weeks of the same tactics to reduce "The Pocket." Finally, on October 30, they took over command of Peleliu.

VIDEO: Across Peleliu With the 5th Marine Regiment (Eugene "Sledgehammer" Sledge)

Peleliu represented Japan's first 'defense in depth' strategy, although the 1st Marine Division encountered tough Japanese resistence on the southwestern beaches of the island. In highlighting this strategy, William B. Hopkins writes "The Japanese placed Col. Nunio Nakagawa in charge of Peleliu's defense. Before the U.S. Marines landed, Nakagawa had fortified 500 caves, most of which were connected by interior tunnels. Some of the caverns were five- and six-stories deep and contained barracks and kitchens." (Hopkins 2008, 254)

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Conquerring Japan on the island was an essential piece of Operation Forager, a campaign that ran from June to November 1944 and included Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Peleliu, and Anguar. Conflict and drama between the Pacific's combined leadership of Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Douglas MacArthur, the latter insisting on retaking the Philippines, while the former wanted a direct line to Japan, and bypassing the Philippines altogether. Either way, the taking of Peleliu was seen as necessary by the U.S. Joint Chiefs, Nimitz, and MacArthur. Peleliu proved fatal for 1,121 U.S. Marines who were killed in action, while 5,142 were wounded and 73 missing in action. (McMillan 1949, 341)

 


AT RIGHT: Peleliu, Palau Islands, 1944. Getting the wounded off the island. Peleliu USMC Photo No. 2-2. From the Frederick R. Findtner Collection (COLL/3890), Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections. OFFICIAL USMC PHOTOGRAPH.


 

In Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific, Marine Corps veteran of Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa, R.V. Burgin writes "We took the island to secure the airfield so the Japs couldn't use it against MacArthur when he was landing on Mindanao, to the west. But we had already bombed it 24-7. We could have made it absolutely unusable. There was no way the Japs could have rebuilt it in time. They were finished as an airpower." (Burgin 2010, 127) 

 

Bibliography

Burgin, R.V., and Bill Marvel. Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific. London: Penguin, 2010.

David, Saul. Devil Dogs: King Company, Third Battalion, 5th Marines: From Guadalcanal to the Shores of Japan. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2022.

Leckie, Robert. Helmet for My Pillow: From Parris Island to the Pacific. New York: Bantam Books, 2010.

McMillan, George. The Old Breed: A History of the First Marine Division in World War II. Nashville: The Battery Press, 1949.

Sledge, E.B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007.

Toll, Ian W. Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Wheelan, Joseph. Bitter Peleliu: The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War's Worst Battlefield. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022.

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