Facts, information and articles about the Battle Of Peleliu, a battle of World War II
Battle Of Peleliu Facts
15 September – 27 November 1944
Paleliu, Palau Islands
American: William H. Rupertus
Japanese: Kunio Nakagawa
American: Approximately 27,000
Japanese: Approximately 11,000
Japanese: 10,700. 200 captured
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Japanese Prepare For Attack On Peleliu
In the summer of 1944 around 11,000 Japanese from the 14th Infantry Division with some Korean and Okinawan workers had occupied Peleliu Island. The Japanese had now devised a new plan of disrupting the landings at the water’s edge and mainly depend on inland defense as opposed to trying to stop the enemy at the beach. Colonel Nakagawa was using the rugged terrain to his advantage. Nakagawa’s defense was concentrated at the highest point in Peleliu which was the Umurbrogol Mountain. The Japanese were also supported by a light tank unit with anti-air ammunition.
The American style of invasion remained unchanged. The American landed on the beaches which were located close to the airfield at the south of Peleliu. The other regiment led by Lewis B. Puller landed at the northern side of the beaches. The 5th regiment was going to push inland guarding the flanks and allow capture of the airfield.
The Battle Of Peleliu
When the marines landed they were caught in crossfire when the Japanese were guarding their positions. The marines were all of a sudden facing heavy fire with Colonel Puller luckily evading death. The 5th Marines made great progress on the first day. They moved towards the airfield but met Nakagawa’s attack forces. Nakagawa sent his tank forces to try and force the marines to retreat. The marines managed to quickly destroy Nakagawa’s tanks and infantrymen. On the second day the Marines had captured the airfield. After capturing the airfield the Marines went on pushing eastwards under heavy fire resulting in lots of casualties.
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Peleliu: A Second-Generation Perspective
My plan was to retrace my father’s steps, starting at White beach, where he landed with the 1st Battalion, then move inland to the Blockhouse and Bloody Nose Ridge, where the invasion forces took dreadful casualties
MHQ, Winter 1998
Peleliu may have the distinction of being the most remote American battlefield on earth. A southern island in the archipelago of the Republic of Palau, it is 500 miles southeast of Manila, in what cartographers once called the Carolines, a part of Micronesia.
In September l944, U.S. Marines, my father among them, launched an amphibious assault against the Japanese forces on Peleliu that were threatening the flank of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s troops as they advanced toward the Philippines. The landings were more difficult than anyone had anticipated. Instead of overrunning an obscure Japanese garrison and seizing the island’s airstrip, the marines had to attack and reduce a network of interlocking caves and coral ridges defended by the 10,000 soldiers of Japan’s 14th Infantry Division. Although the Japanese defenders were annihilated, the three infantry regiments of the 1st Marine Division suffered dreadful casualties in the process.
During the battle my father, formerly a company commander, served as executive officer of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. For many years, during family gatherings, my conversations with my father have drifted to Peleliu. Like any child—even one in his 40s—I am interested in my father’s war stories. I like to compare his memories with current histories of the battle.
It was not until after I read E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa that I sensed what the marines had endured on Peleliu. While I was reading Sledge’s book, I noticed that my father had, in a casual way, collected an extensive library about the battle. However, many of the larger histories of World War II, if they mention Peleliu at all, do so only in passing, calling it either needless or forgotten.
During a business trip to Manila in the Philippines, I finally had an opportunity to go to Peleliu and place my father’s accounts of the battle in context. Air Micronesia makes the two-hour flight from Manila to Koror, the capital of Palau. A friend had arranged for the nephew of Palau’s president to meet my plane when it landed. After I cleared customs, Steve Nakamura and his wife introduced themselves and carried my bag to a waiting taxi. Nakamura had charted a fishing boat that would take me from Koror to Peleliu. We made landfall in Peleliu alongside a concrete pier, and I saw a sign proclaiming, “Peleliu—Land of Enchantment.”
My plan was to retrace my father’s steps, starting at White beach, where he landed with the 1st Battalion, then move inland to the Blockhouse and Bloody Nose Ridge, where the invasion forces took dreadful casualties attacking a series of well-defended coral ridges.
That evening, as I pored over the maps in the regimental histories I had brought along, a guardian angel arrived at the guesthouse in the form of Tangie Hesus. I knew before arriving that Hesus was Peleliu’s local historian, but had assumed I would be unable to find him. Fortunately, Nakamura had located him just after nightfall, and before me now stood a Peleliu native in his mid-30s wearing Marine Corps fatigues.
For Hesus, the men of the 1st Marine Division were legends whose spirits inhabited the desolate crags and jungle trails of the battlefield where he guided returning veterans or accidental tourists who found their way to his island.
The next morning I ate breakfast overlooking shallow waters encased by coral. It was through such murky waters that the 1st Marine Division launched its attack from an armada of warships that had assembled beyond the reef.
Although there were discussions at the highest levels—including President Franklin D. Roosevelt in Hawaii in July 1944—about canceling the landing at Peleliu, the Americans had decided to proceed with the invasion, in part because few of the commanding generals expected much resistance from the Japanese defenders. Brig. Gen. William Rupertus, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, predicted the battle would be decided in three days.
After a preparatory shelling of the island, Admiral Jesse Barrett Oldendorf confessed that his warships had run out of targets. The legendary commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, told his men, including my father, that after the naval bombardment all they might be asked to do is “police up the area with the bayonet.” But optimistic expectations about the opposition on Peleliu were quickly proved wrong. Waiting to transfer to landing craft, my father remembers his first sense that things might go wrong for the Americans on Peleliu: “As the boats loaded, circled, and fanned out in the long line of the first assault wave, I felt the odds were with us. The first hint that they weren’t and that all was not well came as Japanese mortar and artillery shells fell among the advancing boats, with two direct hits close by.”
The 1st Marine Division’s three infantry regiments landed abreast along two beaches, code-named “White” and “Orange.” On the left the 1st Marine Regiment came ashore at White beach; their objective was to push straight inland. The 5th Marine Regiment, in the center, was to capture the airfield, while the 7th Marine Regiment, on the right flank, swung right and secured Peleliu’s southern tip. Soon after the landing, however, the plans fell apart. E. B. Sledge recorded:
Up and down the beach and out on the reef, a number of amtracs and DUKWs were burning. Japanese machine-gun bursts made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with some giant whip…. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a group of marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef…. I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.
Hesus and I found White beach, which sits under a gloomy mangrove canopy. Perhaps 20 yards across, the beach where the 1st Marine Regiment landed is covered with chunks of coral. Not only was it difficult for the marines to dig for cover in the hard coral surface, but the Japanese had registered mortars, artillery, and machine guns that covered every inch of the beach. Tom Lea, an illustrator for Life magazine who came ashore in the first wave, recalled, “Those Marines flattened in the sand on that beach were dark and huddled like wet rats in death….”
One of my father’s close friends, Fendall Yerxa, who served on Colonel Puller’s regimental staff, remembers how, weighed down with a soaked pack, his mind moved off the beach faster than his encumbered legs. He also remembers the withering fire that came down the beach from what became known as the Point, a redoubt on the American left flank that looms large in accounts of the battle.
Company K of the 1st Marines’ 3rd Battalion, commanded by Capt. George P. Hunt, had the mission of capturing the Point and subduing Japanese crossfire. Of the 235 men Hunt led against the Point, more than two-thirds were killed or wounded taking the position.
“Imagine if an officer less brave than George Hunt had the job of securing the Point,” is my father’s rhetorical question about the savage battle for the flank and the consequences of failure.
But my father never saw the Point because the remainder of the 1st Battalion had pushed directly off the beach into a series of bunkers and pillboxes. The battalion sustained heavy casualties as it attacked a fortified blockhouse that the navy had missed, despite its claims of having exhausted all available targets.
Leaving White beach, I walked to the Blockhouse along a small dirt road. Several assaults had failed to break resistance at the Blockhouse, which only gave way after 16-inch shells were fired onto it from the battleship Pennsylvania.
As executive officer, my father set up the battalion’s rear command post in the Blockhouse. In addition to being a headquarters, the Blockhouse also became the battalion aid station. Because of his proximity to the aid station, my father organized the stretcher-bearers who brought in the wounded from, among others Company C—his former command.
Casualties among the men in my father’s battalion were 71 percent; its three rifle companies were nearly wiped out. After six days of fighting, Company B had 36 enlisted men and two officers, Company C had 15 men and 2 officers, and Company A had 65 men and two officers. “Looking back,” my father reflects, “I have often felt that becoming battalion exec instead of remaining a company commander could have been the event that saved my life. No longer being required to lead a company directly into battle could have made the crucial difference between living and dying.”
Once the marines came off the beach at Peleliu and survived nightmares like the Point or the Blockhouse, they encountered coral hills that had gone undetected by the pre-invasion intelligence. These hills stood higher than the dunes above Normandy’s Omaha Beach.
Toward the end of the second day of fighting, the 1st Marines, with the 1st Battalion in the center, attacked the first of these coral hills, the mountainous Umbrogol. The marines nicknamed the Umbrogol “Bloody Nose Ridge.” Russell Davis, an infantryman with the 2nd Battalion, described the attack on the ridge:
Old marines talk of Bloody Nose Ridge as though it were one, but I remember it as a series of crags, ripped bare of all standing vegetation, peeled down to the rotted coral, rolling in smoke, crackling with heat and stinking of wounds and death. In my memory it was always dark up there, even though it must have blazed under the afternoon sun, because the temperature went up over 115, and men cracked wide open from the heat. It must have been the color of the ridge that made me remember it as always dark—the coral was stained and black, like bad teeth.
Hesus and I traveled by car up a narrow dirt path that leads to a small plateau among the Umbrogol. Halfway up I passed the only American battlefield marker on the island—indicating the direction to Bloody Nose Ridge, where a small obelisk remembers the deeds of the 1st Marine Division and those from its ranks who earned the Medal of Honor.
Until the marines attacked Bloody Nose Ridge, the invasion, while costly, had been a textbook operation. Mobile, lightly armed assault troops had established a beachhead and seized the airfield. Offshore there were large numbers of U.S. Army troops available as reinforcements. But the marine commanding general, Rupertus, never called for the Army and instead sent his badly depleted battalions, including the First, into the ridges, much the way World War I generals hoped that one more frontal assault would break through the enemy trenches.
Among my father’s books are some that he read during lulls in the fighting on Peleliu, many of which are World War I memoirs, with titles like Education Before Verdun. Little did he realize that accounts of his own battalion would later read like those describing conditions before Passchendaele or the Somme. The following passage from Harry A. Gailey’s Peleliu described one marine attack:
The Marines of the 7th were exhausted and Puller sent what was left of A Company of 1/1 [1st Battalion, 1st Marines], a total of 56 men, through their lines to continue the attack. He did this because he assumed from his maps that there was a uniform slope to the hill mass. However, Company A encountered a nearly sheer 150-foot cliff. The Japanese hit the company with heavy small arms, machine-gun, and mortar fire. Only six men of the entire company regained the relative safety of the lines of 2/7 [2nd Battalion, 7th Marines] some 150 yards to the rear without being hit. The rest had been killed or wounded.
Artillery was little help to the marines attacking Bloody Nose Ridge. My father recalled:
As the next hideous night fell, our men held what ground they had chewed out inside the limestone ridges. All the jungle foliage had long since been blasted away; the landscape seemed like the mountains of the moon. As the hours progressed, a forward observer, a young ensign from the battleship Mississippi, appeared and declared himself ready to direct fire from its big guns on the enemy positions if I could orient them to him.
The ensign and my father crept forward to a small ravine between the American and Japanese lines, and “for the rest of the night we called in salvo after salvo, hour after hour, on the honeycombed ridges facing the fast dwindling strength of our companies. But as morning came, and our fire ceased, the Jap machine guns and mortars resumed their lethal chorus.”
One of the most colorful personalities on the island during the battle was Chesty Puller. In the colonial wars of Haiti and Nicaragua, Puller was awarded several Navy Crosses for leading assaults against enemy strongholds. On Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester he won important engagements, although his men suffered heavy casualties.
With the officers in his command Puller was cool and direct. He resented the intrusions of military brass, especially parade-ground generals and junior officers, who perhaps did not share his zeal for combat. James Hallas wrote, “To Chesty, low casualties among lieutenants indicated that the attack was not being pressed with sufficient vigor.”
Puller had been commissioned from the ranks, giving him a natural affinity with enlisted men. “The men loved Chesty,” my father said often, “and he loved them.” During the heat of a battle, Puller would come forward, crouch low near a rifleman and ask, “How’s it going, old man?”
Puller was physically brave but disinterested in tactics or strategy. Everett Pope remarked, with both irony and appreciation, that he “was the greatest platoon leader in the history of the Marine Corps.”
But many of the officers and men whom I asked about Puller refused to answer, not wanting to be at odds with a legend. Puller had a habit of humiliating junior officers, to the delight of the enlisted men. Jim Rogers, a battalion officer on Peleliu, remembers Puller on Pavuvu ordering him to stand at attention in a deep puddle. Rogers survived Peleliu to become a Catholic priest. He wrote in one letter: “Your father and I were best friends, as you know, and I have the greatest respect and affection for him. Puller thought highly of him, and that’s one of the few good things I can say about Chesty.”
Puller’s trademark was to have his command post far forward. But on Peleliu, Yerxa recalls how that led to permanent confusion in the regiment, as much of the time headquarters officers were taking cover instead of commanding.
Nor did Puller have his legendary mobility on Peleliu due to a flare-up of a thigh wound from an earlier battle that left him hobbling. “Puller had no idea what was going on,” is Pope’s assessment; “We never saw Chesty,” is my father’s.
As a consequence, gaps often developed in the lines of the 1st Marines. One history of the battle describes a typical incident:
As the exhausted marines settled in, a more serious threat developed as the enemy discovered a gap between 2/1 and 1/1 [2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, and 1st Battalion, 1st Marines] and began to infiltrate the weak spot. To seal the hole, F Company, 7th Marines had to be committed. This outfit fought its way into position and managed to close the gap.
My father discovered this particular gap, and he tells the story whenever he is asked about Puller’s habits of command:
It was then that it became clear to me that there were no friendly troops on the battalion right flank. It was completely open, entirely vulnerable to a Japanese counterattack, which, had it taken place, could have allowed them to surge all the way to the beach line and create near total havoc. I called Col. Chesty Puller, regimental commander, to warn him of the peril and the urgent need for reinforcements. When I reached him on the field telephone he was true to form. First he confused me with Steve Sabol, commander of the 3rd Battalion. When this was cleared up, his gruff voice spoke its usual formula, “Just keep pushing, old man.”
I stood transfixed, my runner beside me as we heard Japanese voices and the click of weapons on the far side of the vital road in question. Unbelieving I called again. This time I got Lt. Col. Buddy Ross, regimental exec, who instantly perceived the urgency: “Stay right there, Steve [my father’s nickname], don’t move; I’m sending up a unit from the Seventh. Tie them into the line as soon as they get there.” Within what seemed minutes, they appeared and immediately took up firing positions to plug the gap. No sooner was this done than there came wild shouts of “Banzai” as the Japanese poured across the road into the devastating but crucially effective fire of the newly arrived marines. That day, or perhaps just a portion of it, was saved. More crises were to follow soon.
Craig Cameron sketched a portrait of Puller that made him hard to distinguish from the fanatical enemy he was fighting. Of Puller and Peleliu he wrote:
The course of the fighting began increasingly to take on the appearance of a test of wills between the implacable Japanese in their caves and Puller’s regiment. On Guadalcanal it had been a test of wills between warrior representatives [i.e., each army]; on Peleliu, Puller made it more personal. It was, moreover, a test of endurance in which the Japanese did not play fully human roles but were instead faceless elements in the landscape, deadly, but to be conquered along with the heat and blasted coral ridges. He had strong and well-founded faith in his men, and they always responded to his repeated calls for attack.
When the III Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger, went forward to Puller’s command post on the sixth day of the fighting, he decided, as Gailey wrote, that Puller was “out of touch with reality.” Shortly thereafter, the 1st Marines, with more than 50 percent casualties, were pulled off the line.
From the monument on Bloody Nose Ridge, Hesus and I came down the hillside into what is known as the Horseshoe, a vast amphitheater of death in which the 1st Marines played out the final acts of their tragedy. In Hesus’ museum, there is a quote from Capt. Hank Hough that describes the Horseshoe: “In broad daylight one could stand at the south of Horseshoe and study at leisure the precipitous slopes and its sheer cliffs. It was eerie. You could almost physically feel the weightless presence of hundreds of hostile eyes watching you. There was no sign of the enemy, no movement, no shots, and only a lonely silence.”
The only monument in the Horseshoe is Japanese, a small oriental shrine, but nothing to remember the hundreds of young Americans killed and wounded here. On the right as you enter the valley is a hill covered with jungle brush. I wanted to reach the top because it was there that Company C made its last desperate stand and its captain, Everett Pope, earned the Medal of Honor.
My father remembers Pope leading away the remnants of his old company:
After another day of futile struggle against the fortified limestone catacombs, the battalion was withdrawn and regrouped. Ev Pope and what was left of C Company (90 men) were detached and sent in support of the 2nd Battalion. With a heavy heart I watched him go, knowing so well that in combat any attached unit is always given the dirtiest, the most dangerous assignment. Theirs was to be no exception.
Pope and his 90 men were ordered to take Hill 100, which on the Marine Corps maps appeared to be an isolated knob, and might, if taken, give the marines high ground to support the attacks across the Horseshoe against Bloody Nose Ridge. But Hill 100 turned out to be the head of a whale, and for one long night the Japanese attacked along the humpback against the few marines who had struggled to the top.
One of the men who made it to the top of the hill was Joseph Seifts, who remembers:
We started up with about 30 men. By the time we got to the top there were only about 20 of us left…. We had no machine guns or mortars. The Japs hit us I believe around 10 or 11 at night. We had to hold the hill. Because at the bottom of the hill lay all of our wounded. We stopped attack after attack…. I was never so glad to see daylight…. I still have bad memories of Peleliu.
Another with a ringside seat to the fighting on the ridge was Russell Davis, who wrote:
The remnants of our 2nd Battalion spent a terrible night up there. But, for the few men up on the higher ridge—mostly from C Company, 1st Battalion—it was far worse. All through the night we could hear them screaming for illumination or for corpsmen, as the Japs came at them from caves which were all around them on the hillside. Men were hit up there and we could hear them crying and pleading for help, but nobody could help them…. The cries of Americans and Japanese were all mixed together.
When dawn broke on Hill 100 Pope’s perimeter was the size of a tennis court. He had no ammunition and only about eight men; he led the survivors off the hill. “I saw no good reason for us all to die there—as was about to happen,” remembers Pope. But he felt anything but a hero:
My most vivid memory, after being driven off the hill, is that of expecting that Puller would have me court-martialed for having failed to hold—i.e., for not having died up there. As your father will recall, late on the afternoon, Puller ordered C-1-1 [Company C, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines], to take the hill again. Since there were only about 12 to 15 of us left, it was clearly to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller’s).
As Pope prepared to lead his men back into battle and to their deaths, he received orders canceling the attack: “I have always believed that your father and Ray Davis succeeded in convincing Puller to call off the mission. Why Puller wanted us all dead on the top of that hill has never been clear to me.”
My father wrote the citation nominating Pope for the Medal of Honor. On Pavuvu, Puller grilled my father about the nomination, and he expected Pope to be knocked back to a Navy Cross. What he did not know was that Puller had tried to block the award. As Pope relates: “Puller attempted to prevent the award to me of the Medal of Honor. I have seen the files. He always maintained that none in his command would receive it until he did, and as far as I can determine, John Basilone and I are the only two serving under him whose awards were not posthumous.”
But the Medal of Honor was awarded, instead of the court-martial Pope feared he would receive for coming off the ridge without orders. “I wear it proudly,” he told me, “not because of anything I did to deserve it. But out of respect for my men who died up there, and to prolong, at least for a moment of time, their place in our nation’s history. As you know, it was twelve days before my dead on that hill were recovered.”
During the night that Company C was fighting and dying for Hill 100, the rest of the 1st Battalion was across the Horseshoe, preparing for a final attack against the face of ridge. My father remembers, “We received orders from regiment that at six o’clock the next morning there would be an artillery barrage on Bloody Nose Ridge, followed at six thirty by a frontal attack by the remnants of the First and Second Battalions.”
Without Company C, the 1st Battalion (normally about 950 men and officers) was reduced to a little more than 100 infantrymen and four officers. He continues:
A plea to regiment to send forward any officers and men who could be spared brought old friend Fendall Yerxa back to us along with a dozen or two cooks, bakers and truck drivers, converted overnight into riflemen, and a 37mm gun. Clearly it was to be the battalion’s last throw of the dice. If Bloody Nose Ridge could be taken, our fire from its heights into enemy-held crevices below would eventually dislodge them and Peleliu would be won at last.
At first light, all hands took position and waited for the artillery barrage. It was 6:10, then 6:20; only deep silence and the growing horror that there would not be one. But at 6:30 sharp, Maj. Ray Davis gave the command and the men moved out in short rushes, starting up the slope toward the heights that now seemed miles away.
Russell Davis was part of the attack as a rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, which was mixed together on the 1st Battalion’s right flank. He remembers that: “The whole motley lot—a fighting outfit only in the minds of a few officers in the 1st Regiment and in the 1st Division—started up the hill. I have never understood why.”
As the men moved up the slopes, my father recalls:
Enemy fire quickened. Minutes later a runner came rushing up to me at the rear command post with a message, ‘Major Davis has been wounded and orders you to take command of the battalion.’ As I ran forward I found men still moving, trying to take what cover they could find, urged on by a young second lieutenant, Junior Thompson. On our right flank, the 2nd Battalion had not moved.
As my father ran forward he realized that “to move farther would be suicide; no one would reach the crest alive.” His crisis of command was not unlike Everett Pope’s on Hill 100. He ordered the men to halt their attack, but now feared the wrath of Colonel Puller for disobeying orders. My father remembers:
I dispatched my runner, Corporal Hauge, going at top speed, to inform Puller that we were pinned down by heavy enemy fire…. At that critical moment the Japanese ceased their firing. An eerie, never-to-be-forgotten quiet fell, broken only by the faraway rattle of machine guns and the clump of distant mortars. We lay and crouched there, waiting. Waiting for we knew not what. The sun rose higher, turning helmets into ovens. At long last came a runner from regiment, informing us that we were to be relieved by a fresh battalion, from the 7th Marines. Slowly we rose, formed two files on each side of the cart track leading back. The relief took place in full view of the Japanese atop Bloody Nose Ridge. If they had opened up, it would have been the final and apocalyptic carnage. Inexplicably, they did not. We marched slowly away.
For the men of the 1st Marines, Peleliu was over. But the battle dragged on for more than a month, with the men of the 5th and 7th Marine regiments—plus army units—fighting and dying among the coral valleys of the Umbrogol.
Before leaving Peleliu I hiked to the top of Bloody Nose Ridge, where the Army Corps of Engineers has built a staircase. From this vantage point, I surveyed an American battlefield that will never be threatened by commercial development. If Peleliu has any monuments, they are in the memories of the men who were there.
Matthew Stevenson is an international banker living in Switzerland with his wife and four children. He grew up in New York and has traveled widely among the Pacific islands.
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