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Battle of Peleliu

The Battle of Peleliu, codenamed Operation Stalemate II, was fought between the United States and Japan in the Pacific Theater of World War II, taking place between September and November 1944 on the island of Peleliu. The U.S. Forces, originally consisting of only the 1st Marine Division, later relieved by the Army's 81st Infantry Division, fought to capture an airstrip on the small coral island. U.S. Major General William Rupertus, commander of 1st Marine Division, predicted that the island would be secured within four days, but due to Japan's well-crafted fortifications and stiff resistance, the battle lasted for over two months. The battle remains one of the war's most controversial, due to its questionable strategic value and high death toll. When considering the number of men involved, Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific War.

Background

By the summer of 1944, victories in the Southwest and Central Pacific had brought the war even closer to Japan, with American bombers able to strike at the Japanese homeland. But there was disagreement by the U.S. Joint Chiefs over two proposed strategies to crush the Japanese Empire. One strategy proposed by General Douglas MacArthur called for the recapture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa for an attack at the Japanese mainland. From there, the eventual invasion of Japan would come. Admiral Chester Nimitz, on the other hand, favored a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines, but seizing Okinawa and Formosa as staging areas to an attack on the Chinese mainland as well as the future invasion of Japan's southernmost islands.

As for Peleliu, both commanders' strategies included the invasion of this island, but for different reasons, and the 1st Marine Division had already been chosen to make the assault. To settle this dispute, President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor to personally meet both commanders and hear their respective arguments. After a review of both positions, MacArthur's strategy was chosen. However, before MacArthur could retake the Philippines, the Palau Islands, Peleliu and Angaur specifically, were thought to be necessary for neutralization and building an airfield to protect his right flank. The necessity of the battle was called into question even before the battle commenced and was later considered to be entirely unnecessary.

Preparations

Japanese

By the summer of 1944, the Palau Islands were occupied by approximately 30,000 Japanese troops, with around 11,000 men on Peleliu, made up of the 14th Infantry Division, and Korean and Okinawan laborers. Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, commander of the Division's 2nd Regiment, led the preparations for the island's defense.

After their losses in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas, the Imperial Army put together an anti-amphibious research team to form a new island defense strategy. They chose to abandon their early beach-based perimeter defense tactics and reckless Banzai attacks. Their new strategy was to only disrupt the landings, form a "honeycomb" system of fortified positions inland, replace the fruitless banzai attacks with coordinated counterattacks, with the intent of bleeding out the Americans in a bloody, drawn-out war of attrition. Nakagawa concentrated his defenses inland, using the rough terrain to advantage, constructing a system of heavily fortified bunkers, caves and underground positions.

The majority of Nakagawa's defenses were based at Peleliu's highest point, Umurbrogol mountain, a collection of hills and steep ridges. Located at the center of Peleliu, Umurbrogol overlooked a large portion of the island, including the crucial airfield. The Umurbrogol contained some 500 limestone caves, connected by tunnels. Many were former mining caverns that were militarized into defense positions. Engineers added sliding steel armor doors with multiple openings to equip both artillery and machine guns. The Japanese dug and blasted other positions of varying sizes throughout Umurbrogol, armed with 81 mm and 150 mm mortars, and 20 mm machine cannon, and backed by a light tank unit and an anti-aircraft detachment. The Japanese cave entrances were built slanted, to defend against grenade and flamethrower attacks. These caves and bunkers were connected through a vast system spread throughout central Peleliu, allowing the Japanese to evacuate and reoccupy the positions when needed.

On the beaches, the Japanese again used terrain to their advantage. The northern end of the landing beaches faced a 30-foot coral promontory which overlooked the beaches from a small peninsula, a spot later known to the Americans simply as "The Point". Holes were blasted into the ridge to accommodate a 47 mm gun, and six 20 mm machine cannons. The positions were then sealed shut, leaving just a small firing slit with which to assault the beaches. Similar positions were crafted along the two mile stretch of landing beaches. The Japanese covered the beaches with thousands of obstacles for the landing craft, mainly mines and a large number of heavy shells, buried with the fuses exposed to explode upon being run over. A battalion was placed along the beach to defend against the landing, however, the defenses on the beach were meant to simply delay the American advance, eventually leading them inland to be mauled along the fortified ridges and hills.

American

Unlike the Japanese, who drastically altered their tactics for the upcoming battle, the American's invasion plan was practically unaltered from their previous amphibious landings throughout the Pacific. They chose to land on the southwest beaches, due to its proximity to the airfield on South Peleliu. The 1st Marine Regiment, under Chesty Puller, was to land on the northern end of the beaches, the 5th Marine Regiment, under Harold "Bucky" Harris, would land in the center, and the 7th Marine Regiment, under Herman Hanneken, would land at the southern end. The division's artillery regiment, the 11th Marines, would land after the infantry regiments. The plan was for the 1st and 7th Regiments to push inland, guarding the 5th Regiment's left and right flank, allowing them to capture the airfield located directly to the center of the landing beaches. The 5th Marines were to push to the eastern shore, cutting the island in half. The 1st Marines would push north into the Umurbrogol, while the 7th Marines would clear the southern end of the island. Only one battalion was left behind in reserve, with the 81st Infantry available for support from Angaur, just south of Peleliu.

On September 4, the Marines shipped off from their station on Pavuvu, just north of Guadalcanal, a 2,100 mile trip across the Pacific to Peleliu. The Navy's Underwater Demolition Team went to work clearing the beaches of its obstacles, while the Navy began their pre-invasion bombardment of Peleliu on September 12.

The battleships , , , and , heavy cruisers , , , and , light cruisers , and , three carriers, and five light carriers dropped 519 rounds of 16-inch shells, 1,845 rounds of 14-inch shells, 1,793 500-pound bombs, and 73,412 .50 caliber bullets onto the tiny island, only six square miles in size.

The Americans believed the bombardment to be successful, as Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf claimed that the Navy had run out of targets. In reality, the majority of the Japanese positions were completely unharmed. Even the battalion left to defend the beaches were virtually unscathed. During the assault, the island's defenders used unusual firing discipline to avoid giving away their positions. The bombardment managed only to destroy Japan's aircraft on the island, as well as the buildings surrounding the airfield. The Japanese remained in their fortified positions, ready to attack the troops soon to be landing.

Battle

Landing

The Marines landed at 0832 on September 15, the 1st Marines to the north on "White Beach", and the 5th and 7th Marines to the center and south on "Orange Beach". As the landing craft approached the beaches, the Japanese opened the steel doors guarding their positions and let loose with heavy artillery fire. The positions on the coral promontories guarding each flank punished the Marines with 47 mm antiboat guns and 20 mm machine guns. "The first 3 waves got in good, the remaining waves caught hell. By 0930, the Japanese had wiped out 60 LVT's and DUKW's.

The 1st Marines were quickly bogged down by heavy fire from "The Point". Commander Chesty Puller narrowly escaped death when a high velocity shell landed a direct hit on his LVT. His entire communications section had been wiped out on its way to the beach by an identical hit from a 47 mm round. The 7th Marines to the south faced similar problems with gun emplacements on their flank. Many of their LVT's were knocked out in their approach, leaving their occupants to wade ashore through the coral reef.

The 5th Marines made the most progress on D-Day, due to their distance from the heavy gun emplacements guarding the left and right flanks. They pushed forward toward the airfield, but were met with Nakagawa's first counterattack. His armored tank company raced across the airfield to push the Marines back, but were soon assaulted by every available tank, howitzer, Naval gun and dive bomber. Nakagawa's inefficient tanks were quickly wiped out, along with its accompanying infantrymen.

At the end of D-Day, the Americans held their two mile stretch of landing beaches, but little else. Their biggest push in the south managed to move a mile inland, but the 1st Marines to the north made very little progress due to the relentless attacks from The Point. The Marines had suffered 1,100 casualties on D-Day, with around 200 dead, and 900 wounded. Rupertus had believed the Japanese would quickly crumble since their perimeter had been broken, still unaware of their enemy's change of tactics.

The airfield/South Peleliu

On D+1, the 5th Marines moved to capture the airfield and push toward the eastern shore. They quickly raced across the airfield under heavy artillery fire, suffering heavy casualties in the process. After capturing the airfield, they rapidly advanced to the eastern end of Peleliu, leaving the island's southern defenders to be wiped out by the 7th Marines. This area was hotly contested by the Japanese, who still occupied numerous pillboxes. Temperatures remained around 115°F (46°C), and the Marines soon suffered high casualties from heat exhaustion. Further complicating their situation, the Marines' only available water supply was contaminated with oil. Still, by D+8 the 5th and 7th Marines accomplished their objectives, holding the airfield and the southern portion of the island.

Having quickly captured the airfield, the U.S. Forces put it to use as early as D+3. The "Grasshoppers" (VMO-1) soon began aerial spotting missions for Marine artillery and Naval gunfire. On September 26 (D+11), the Corsairs of the VMF-114 landed on the airstrip. The Corsairs began dive-bombing missions across Peleliu, and also brought two more useful weapons to the fight against Japanese fortifications. Corsairs fired rockets, to blow open cave entrances for the infantrymen, and also delivered napalm attacks—only the second time the weapon had been used in the Pacific. The napalm proved useful, burning away vegetation hiding spider holes, and killing their occupants.

The Point

The fortress atop The Point continued to cause heavy casualties across the landing beaches. Puller ordered Captain George Hunt, commander of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, to capture the position. He approached The Point short on supplies, having lost most of his machine guns while approaching the beaches. One of Hunt's platoon's was pinned down for nearly an entire day in a vulnerable position between another fortification. The rest of his company was also in extreme danger after the Japanese cut a hole in their line, leaving his right flank cut off. Soon, a rifle platoon began knocking out each gun position, one by one. Using smoke grenades for cover, they swept through each hole, destroying the positions with rifle grenades. After knocking out the six machine gun positions, the Marines faced the 47 mm gun cave. A company Lieutenant blinded the gunner with a smoke grenade, allowing a Corporal to throw a grenade through the cave's aperture. The grenade detonated the 47 mm's shells, forcing the cave's occupants out, where they were all shot.

K Company had captured The Point, but Nakagawa sent counterattack after counterattack to recapture the valuable piece of terrain. The next thirty hours saw four major counterattacks against a sole company, critically low on supplies and out of water. The Marines soon had to resort to hand-to-hand combat to fend off the Japanese attackers. By the time reinforcements arrived, the company had been reduced to 18 men, suffering 157 casualties during the battle for The Point.

Ngesebus Island

The 5th Marines, after having secured the airfield, were sent to capture Ngesebus Island, just north of Peleliu. Ngesebus was occupied by many Japanese artillery positions, and was the site of an airfield still under construction. The tiny island was connected to Peleliu by a small causeway, but 5th Marines commander Bucky Harris opted instead to make a shore-to-shore amphibious landing, predicting the causeway to be an obvious target for the island's defenders. Harris coordinated a pre-landing bombardment of the island on September 28, carried out by Army 150 mm guns, Naval gunfire, howitzers from the 11th Marines, strafing runs from the VMF-114, and 75 mm fire from the approaching LVT's. Unlike the Navy's bombardment of Peleliu, Harris' assault on Ngesebus was highly successful, neutralizing the majority of the Japanese defenders. The Marines still faced opposition in the ridges and caves, but the island quickly fell, with minimal casualties for the 5th Marines. They had suffered only 15 killed and 33 wounded, and inflicted 470 casualties on the Japanese.

Bloody Nose Ridge

After capturing The Point, the 1st Marines moved north into the Umurbrogol pocket, named "Bloody Nose Ridge" by the Marines. Puller led his men in numerous assaults, but every attack was quickly neutralized by the Japanese. The 1st Marines were trapped within the narrow paths between the ridges, with each ridge fortification supporting the other with deadly crossfire. The marines took increasingly high casualties as they slowly advanced through the ridges. The Japanese again showed unusual firing discipline, striking only when they could inflict mass casualties. As casualties mounted, Japanese snipers began to take aim at stretcher bearers, knowing that if two stretcher bearers were injured or killed, more would have to return to replace them, and the snipers could steadily pick off more and more Marines. In place of their banzai attacks, the Japanese would infiltrate the American lines at night to attack the Marines in their foxholes. The Marines built two-man foxholes, so one could sleep while the other kept watch for infiltrators.

One particularly bloody battle on Bloody Nose came when the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, under the command of Major Raymond Davis, attacked Hill 100. Over six days of fighting, the battalion would suffer 71% casualties. Captain Everett Pope and his company penetrated deep into the ridges, leading his remaining 90 men to seize what he thought was Hill 100. It took an entire day of bloody fighting to reach what he thought was the crest of the hill, but ending up being the nose of yet another ridge, occupied by more Japanese defenders. Trapped at the base of the ridge, Pope set up a small defense perimeter, which was attacked relentlessly by the Japanese throughout the night. The men soon ran out of bullets, and had to fight the attackers off with knives and fists, even resorting to throwing coral rock and empty boxes of ammunition at the Japanese. Pope and his men managed to hold out until dawn. When they evacuated the position, only 9 men remained. Pope would receive the Medal of Honor for his actions.

The Japanese eventually inflicted 60% casualties on Puller's 1st Marines, who lost 1749 out of approximately 3000 men. After six days of deadly fighting in the ridges of Umurbrogol, General Roy Geiger, commander of the III Amphibious Corps, sent elements of 81st Infantry Division to Peleliu to relieve the regiment. The 321st Regiment Combat Team landed on the western beaches of Peleliu, at the northern end of Umurbrogol mountain, on September 23. The 321st Regiment, and the 5th and 7th Marines all took their turn attacking the Umurbrogol, and all suffered similar casualties. By mid-October, the 5th and 7th Marines both lost around half their men while clawing their way through the ridges. Geiger then decided to evacuate the entire 1st Marine Division, to be replaced by more 81st troops. The 323rd Regimental Combat Team landed on October 15, and by the third week of October, most all of the Marines had been evacuated back to Pavuvu. The Army troops headed off to battle the remaining Japanese on Bloody Nose Ridge, fighting it out for another month before finally securing the island. At the end Nakagawa proclaimed "Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears". He then burnt his regimental colors and committed ritual suicide. He was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant General for his valor displayed on Peleliu.

Aftermath

The reduction of the Japanese pocket around Umurbrogol mountain is considered to be the most difficult fight that the U.S. military encountered in the entire Second World War. The 1st Marine Division was severely mauled and it remained out of action until the invasion of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. In total the 1st Division suffered over 6500 casualties during their month on Peleliu, over a third of their entire division. The 81st Infantry Division suffered over 3000 casualties during their tenure on the island.

The battle was controversial due to its lack of strategic value. The airfield captured on Peleliu was of little use for the attack on the Philippines. The island was never used for a staging operation in subsequent invasions; the Ulithi Atoll, in the Caroline Islands north of the Palaus, was used as a staging base for the invasion of Okinawa. In addition, few news reports were made on the battle. Due to Rupertus' "3 days" prediction, only six reporters bothered coming ashore. The battle was overshadowed by MacArthur's return to the Philippines and the Allies push towards Germany in Europe. It was said the only useful aspect of the battle was the experience gained in battling the heavily fortified positions across the island. Japan would use these tactics with even greater success at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, inflicting the worst casualties of the Pacific War on the Marines and soldiers.

On the recommendation of Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., the planned occupation of Yap Island in the Palaus was cancelled. Halsey actually recommended that the landings on Peleliu and Angaur be cancelled, too, and their Marines and soldiers be thrown into Leyte Island instead. But Halsey was overruled by Nimitz.

Honors and recognitions

The nation's highest award: The Medal of Honor was presented to eight Marines in the fight for Peleliu, five of whom were decorated posthumously (indicated by *):

See also

The amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu (LHA-5) was named in memory of the battle.

Notes

References

Further reading

  • Hallas, James H. (1994). The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu. Praeger/Greenwood. ISBN 0275946460.
  • Sloan, Bill (2005). Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 -- The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743260090.

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