Peleliu, Palau Islands, Western Pacific Ocean September 15, 1944

Beginning on this date in 1944 three U.S. Marine Corps infan­try regi­ments—the 1st, 5th, and 7th—of the 1st Marine Divi­sion landed on Japa­nese-held Peleliu, a 6-miles-long by 2-miles-wide speck of coral in the Pacific Ocean’s Palau Island chain. The first wave of Marines was followed less than two weeks later by the divi­sion’s artil­lery regi­ment, the 11th Marines, and by soldiers of the U.S. Army’s 81st Infan­try Divi­sion. The ini­tial objec­tive of the Marines’ Oper­a­tion Stale­mate II was seizing Peleliu’s working air­strip, then the rest of the island all in 3 days—a cake­walk as it described in a pre-inva­sion briefing. Instead, Peleliu and nearby Angaur Island took 74 days and cost 2,336 Amer­i­cans their lives while wounding 8,450. Enemy dead numbered 10,695; a mere 19 soldiers and 200–300 mostly foreign forced laborers sur­vived the car­nage. For the Marines, the Battle of Peleliu was the most bitter fight, and for an objective, it turned out, of questionable strategic value.

Splashing ashore on D-Day, Marine casualties approached 1,300, setting the tone for fighting on Peleliu over the next two months. The island’s craggy hills, steep ravines, almost per­pen­dic­u­lar coral ridges, and rocky coral spine (Umur­bro­gol Moun­tain), chris­tened Bloody Nose Ridge, north of the air­strip favored the defenders. Mole­like, the enemy hid in for­ti­fied pill­boxes and block­houses and in for­mid­able net­works of caves, tun­nels, and caverns large enough to hold entire bat­tal­ions and their large-caliber mor­tars, heavy artil­lery, and ammun­ition. Sliding steel doors protected some hidey-holes and tun­nels. The nature of the unfor­giving terrain made it diffi­cult for Marines to find cover under fire. Enemy sol­diers popped out of their bur­rows to rake Marines with withering auto­matic wea­pons fire or else rolled gre­nades down slopes as men clawed up the heights. For Marines, there was almost no way to avoid the mael­strom of enemy bullets, shells, and hurled chunks of sharp coral. Some men died instantly or slowly bled to death waiting in vain for a Navy corps­man. After only a few hours of combat, Marine com­panies were reduced to half their original size. Six days after landing with 3,251 men, the 1st Marine Regi­ment, led from the front by Col. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, had ascended just several hun­dred yards up Bloody Nose Ridge at a cost of nearly 2,000 casualties.

The bitter Battle of Peleliu dragged on for another eight weeks—to Novem­ber 27, 1944. The 1st Marine Divi­sion seized most of the ter­rain of strategic value in the first week of savage fighting. In a series of exhausting assaults, the divi­sion had taken the air­field, the com­manding ter­rain above it, and all the island south and east of Umur­bro­gol Moun­tain. Yet the cost had been high: 3,946 casual­ties. The divi­sion had lost one regi­ment, the 1st Marines, as an effec­tive fighting unit (replaced by the Army’s 321st Infan­try Regi­ment, 81st Infan­try Divi­sion) and had severely depleted the strength of its other two infan­try regi­ments—the 5th and 7th. Trag­i­cally, the ear­lier June to August 1944 slug­fest by Marine and Army divi­sions on Sai­pan, Tinian, and Guam north­east of Peleliu, whence killer B-29 Super­for­tresses lifted off for targets on the Japa­nese Home Islands, con­signed tiny Peleliu to a foot­note in the his­tory of the Pacific War. Except, that is, for one thing: Peleliu‘s con­quest was the costl­iest amphibious operation in U.S. history.

Some of the most vicious fighting anywhere in World War II was waged in the Pacific Theater. Drawing hea­vily on first­hand accounts, John Costello gives voice to the Marines, soldiers, sailors, and air­men who parti­ci­pated in this grue­some period of mili­tary history in The Pacific War, 1941–1945. Costello’s pano­ramic and detailed account of the fighting in South­east Asia, the East Indies, New Guinea, the Philip­pines, and the Pacific vividly brought home to me that the physi­cal and emo­tional costs of defeating the Japa­nese were as high, and pro­bably higher, as those incur­red in defeating Nazism in Europe.—Norm Haskett

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

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

Left: Veterans of campaigns on Guadal­canal (August 1942–Febru­ary 1943) and Cape Glou­cester (Decem­ber 1943–Janu­ary 1944), rifle­men of the 1st Marine Divi­sion dig in on a landing beach at the south end of Peleliu Island on Septem­ber 15, 1944, and await orders to move forward. Aided by flame­throwers, demo­li­tion charges, bazoo­kas, Sher­man tanks, and rocket-firing (later napalm-dropping) air­craft, Marines over­came well-organized Japa­nese strong­points. On D+2 three bat­tal­ions of the 5th and 1st Marine Regi­ments captured the island’s oper­a­tional air­field. In U.S. hands the air­field could accom­mo­date large bombers that, it was ini­tially thought, would play a vital role in air­strikes on enemy terri­tories and the Home Islands. (It never did.) Just 20 sq. miles in size and gar­ri­soned by over 10,000 army and naval men, the mini­a­ture island was an impor­tant piece in Japan’s Abso­lute Defense Zone, a last-ditch pro­tec­tive cordon safeguarding the Japanese mainland.

Right: A Japanese gun emplacement on Peleliu, Septem­ber 1944. Marines had to blast their way past fana­ti­cal Japa­nese defenders in their well-con­cealed strong­holds of rein­forced con­crete pill­boxes, small caves to monster-size caverns (over 500 of them), and elab­o­rate tun­nel system. It was a blood­bath all around and the costl­iest amphib­ious assault in Marine Corps his­tory. Maj. Gen. William Ruper­tus, aggres­sive com­mander of the 1st Marine Divi­sion, owned up to the car­nage, saying: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking the eggs.” Of his three regi­ments, his battered 1st was finished as a fighting unit, relieved 10 days into the Battle of Peleliu by the Army’s 321st Infan­try Regi­ment, 81st Infan­try (“Wild­cats”) Divi­sion, which had engaged the foe on Angaur Island imme­di­ately south of Peleliu. Ruper­tus, who had wanted the cap­ture of Peleliu to be and remain an all-Marine affair, was finished, too, returning state­side in Novem­ber 1944 to die of a heart attack the following March.

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 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 Japa­nese redoubts on Umur­bro­gol Moun­tain, blanketed in thick jungle, 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 occurred on the first day. Puller’s hard-hit 1st Marine Regi­ment had a casual­ty rate of 70 per­cent (1,749 men). Over a six-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 during World War II, eight were awarded to Marines who fought at Peleliu.

Battle of Peleliu: 1st Marine Division Combat Footage