Peleliu, Palau Islands, Western Pacific Ocean November 27, 1944

On this date in 1944, after 74 grueling days Pele­liu was declared secure, although iso­lated poc­kets of Japa­nese resis­tance took many more days to exter­mi­nate. The battle for the island, ironically code­named Oper­a­tion Stale­mate II, turned out to be the costli­est amphib­ious oper­a­tion in U.S. history: 2,336 Amer­i­cans out of nearly 48,000 service­members who took part in the inva­sion lost their lives. Amer­i­can wounded numbered 8,450. A staggering 10,695 Japa­nese perished on Pele­liu and sur­rounding islands. Between 200 and 300 Korean and Oki­na­wan forced laborers sur­vived the carnage as did 19 Japanese soldiers.

The U.S. decision to capture Peleliu Island was reached jointly by Presi­dent Frank­lin D. Roose­velt, Adm. Chester Nimitz, Com­man­der Pacific Ocean Area, and Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur, Supreme Com­man­der South­west Pacific Area. The two mili­tary chiefs fre­quently argued over the allo­ca­tion of scarce resources in the Pacific Thea­ter. Month by month Nimitz’s suc­cess­ful island-hopping across the Cen­tral Pacific had shrunk Japan’s Abso­lute Defense Zone, that coun­try’s last-ditch oce­anic defen­sive peri­meter. Mac­Arthur’s advance from New Guinea north toward the Philip­pines had the same effect. It now remained for Roose­velt, as U.S. com­man­der in chief, to decide the stra­te­gic next step: either cap­ture For­mosa (Tai­wan), the large island off the Chi­nese main­land prior to moving against Oki­nawa, seen as an essen­tial U.S. staging area for the inva­sion of the Japa­nese Home Islands, or retake Japa­nese-occu­pied Philip­pines and after­wards assault Oki­nawa. Nimitz favored striking For­mosa first, MacArthur the Philip­pines. At a July 1944 meeting attended by all three senior par­tici­pants and their staffs in Hawaii, Roose­velt came down on the side of MacArthur, with Nimitz offering to pro­tect MacArthur’s right flank during the coming offensive.

There was a problem though: the tiny coral islands of Peleliu (20‑square-miles/­52‑square kilo­meters in size with a working air­strip) and near­by Angaur, two among roughly 100 islands in the West­ern Pacific Palau Islands chain, lay 600 miles to the east of the Philip­pines. Garri­soned by nearly 11,000 Japa­nese war­riors in well-crafted forti­fi­ca­tions of rocky caves and inter­con­necting tun­nels, the twin specks of land posed a serious threat of aerial attacks against U.S. troop trans­port and supply lines to the Philip­pines. Both Maj. Gen. William Ruper­tus of the 1st Marine Divi­sion and Maj. Gen. Paul Mueller of the U.S. Army’s 81st Infan­try Divi­sion pre­dicted the quick cap­ture of Peleliu. In a pre-invasion briefing Rupertus told his men Peleliu would be a 3‑day “cakewalk.”

It was anything but. Veterans of campaigns on Guadal­canal (August 1942 to Febru­ary 1943) and Cape Glou­cester (Decem­ber 1943 to Janu­ary 1944), the 1st Marine Divi­sion came ashore at the south end of Peleliu Island on Septem­ber 15, 1944. Marine casual­ties on D‑Day approached 1,300, setting the tone for fighting on Peleliu over the next two months. Using a com­bi­na­tion of flame­throwers, hand grenades and demo­li­tion charges, bazoo­kas, M4A1 Sher­man tanks, and rocket-firing (later napalm-dropping) air­craft, Marines strove to over­come well-organized Japa­nese strong­points. On D+2 three bat­tal­ions of the 5th and 1st Marine Regi­ments occupied the island’s oper­a­tional air­field. (It was thought Pele­liu’s air­field would play a vital role in air­strikes on enemy terri­tories and the Home Islands; instead, the Mariana Islands of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam north­east of Pele­liu did.) Japa­nese gun emplace­ments forced Marines to blast their way past fana­ti­cal defenders in their well-con­cealed strong­holds of rein­forced con­crete pill­boxes, caves ranging from small to monster-size caverns (over 500 of them), and an elab­o­rate tun­nel system. It all devolved into a blood­bath. Fifty-four-year-old Marine general Ruper­tus, an old-school leather­neck, owned up to his role in the car­nage, saying: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs.”

The Meat Grinder That Was Peleliu, September 15 to November 27, 1944

Battle of Peleliu: Marines aboard amtraks on way to Peleliu beach, 9/15/44Battle of Peleliu: 1st Marine Division advances on Peleliu in landing craft, 9/15/44

Above: U.S. Marines aboard amphibious war­fare vehicles (am­traks) and landing craft head toward Pele­liu’s beaches. Peleliu’s defenders had laid wire-controlled explo­sives around the island simi­lar to laying mine­fields except these explo­sives were aerial bombs adapted for a defen­sive pur­pose. Luckily the intense pre-inva­sion naval and air bom­bard­ment had cut many of con­trol wires, rendering some explo­sive devices use­less. Even devices that were still in­tact failed to deto­nate, chiefly because their operators had been blinded by smoke.

Battle of Peleliu: Marines on landing beach, 9/15/44Battle of Peleliu: Japanese fortification

Left: At 8:32 a.m. on Septem­ber 15, 1944, just 2 minutes behind schedule, 3 U.S. Marine Corps infan­try regi­ments—the 1st, 5th, and 7th—of the vet­er­an 1st Marine Divi­sion began landing on Japa­nese-held Pele­liu. Depicted in this photo is one of the first waves of Marines, here seen hugging a sandy beach shaded by jungle and coco­nut palms in the south­west corner of Pele­liu while awaiting orders to move inland. This first wave was pre­ceded by armored amphib­ian trac­tors (LVTAs) mounting 75mm howit­zers. The LVTAs were meant to neu­tra­lize enemy artil­lery positions or other nasty strong­points missed by previous naval and air bom­bard­ment. Less than two weeks later the earlier waves were followed by the divi­sion’s artil­lery regi­ment, the 11th Marines, and by sol­diers of the U.S. Army’s 81st Infan­try (“Wild­cats”) Division after they had taken Angaur Island.

Right: A Japanese gun emplacement on Peleliu, Septem­ber 1944. At this stage in the Pacific War Japa­nese defenders had per­fected their fukkaku tactics (“endur­ance engage­ments”), which avoided high-cost, waste­ful “deci­sive engage­ments” char­ac­ter­ized by, for example, the infamous ban­zai charge. Amer­i­cans looked upon Japa­nese ban­zai charges as oppor­tune moments to wipe out large num­bers of the enemy in short order. Fukkaku tac­tics envi­sioned a war of drawn-out attri­tion that would exact a terrible toll on enemy invaders for every bit of turf they gained. To great effect, Japa­nese army and naval person­nel used natural fea­tures on Pele­liu to con­struct pill­boxes and bunkers amid coral ridges and rock out­crop­pings. They also made excel­lent use of natural caves, enlarging them to pro­vide cover for hun­dreds of fighters. Fukkaku reduced the Amer­i­can advance on Peleliu to a bloody crawl. After Pele­liu the Japa­nese used the drawn-out fukkaku stra­ta­gem in every island encounter they had with Allied sol­diers and Marines. Only Shōwa Emperor Hiro­hito’s “Rescript on the Termi­na­tion of the War,” broad­cast to his sub­jects on August 15, 1945, dissuaded his country­men from applying the fukkaku stra­ta­gem on Japan’s American victors later in the year.

Battle of Peleliu: Marine throwing Molotov cocktail, "Suicide Ridge"Battle of Peleliu: Navy corpsman

Left: During one of many close-quarter engage­ments in the dense jungle of Peleliu, a Marine hurls a Molo­tov cock­tail (armed raised center in photo) toward crack enemy sol­diers along a bitterly con­tested ele­va­tion nick­named “Suicide Ridge.” George Peto, a ser­geant in Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller’s 1st Marine Regi­ment, said after an encounter with the fire-breathing colonel, who hobbled around the battle­field on a swollen leg: “I would have followed that man to hell and that is exactly what we did on Peleliu.” That adoring sen­ti­ment wasn’t shared by many battle-weary leather­necks in Puller’s regi­ment; quite a few never for­gave their com­mander for the hor­rific losses they sus­tained in Puller’s ver­sion of repeated and fruit­less banzai charges on well-concealed Japa­nese redoubts on Umur­bro­gol Moun­tain, blanketed in heavy jungle vege­ta­tion, rather than opting to flank and envelop the moun­tain. Saying he was only following orders, Puller later admitted: “It was more or less of a massacre.”

Right: A Navy corpsman offers a wounded Marine a drink from his can­teen. The 1st Marine Divi­sion lost 6,786 killed, wounded, or missing on Peleliu, over a third of their entire divi­sion; 1,111 casual­ties, including 209 killed in action, occurred on the first day. Puller’s hard-hit 1st Marine Regi­ment had a casual­ty rate of 70 per­cent (1,749 men). Over a 6‑day period the 1st Marines’ 1st Bat­tal­ion alone suffered a 71 per­cent casual­ty rate. Marine mortar­man Pfc. Eugene B. Sledge, author of the classic World War II memoir With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, later wrote: “We in the 5th Marines [Regi­ment] had many a dead or wounded friend to report about from our ranks, but the men in the 1st Marines had so many it was appalling” (p. 103). Twenty days later Sledge recorded that the ranks of his 5th Marine Regi­ment were just about as deci­mated as the 1st Marines’ had been. Begin­ning in mid-Octo­ber, the Marines were grad­ually replaced by the Army’s 81st Infan­try Divi­sion, which sus­tained 3,300 casual­ties during their time on the island. Of the 14 Medals of Honor awarded to Marines for valor during World War II, eight were awarded to Marines who fought on Peleliu. Only three survived the battle to receive their medals.

Battle of Peleliu: 1st Marine Division Combat Footage

Continue Reading