WHEN WE FINALLY reached Koror, the economic center of the Republic of Palau, we were very happy to be there; our flight from Los Angeles, with stops at Hawaii and Guam, had lasted 15 hours. A little sleep, showers, then we were off to Peleliu on a spirited 45- minute cruise, speeding 30 miles an hour in a 20-foot boat through the Rock Islands, uninhabited coral hummocks famous for their beautiful lagoons and beaches. The sea got choppy, soaking those of us on the outboard side to the amusement of our better-situated fellow passengers. Peleliu appeared and we were soon at the north dock. We stowed our gear beneath tarps amidships, and within minutes were passing a huge cave and a machine gun emplacement built into a hill—signs that we were nearing one of the last unspoiled battlefields of World War II.
Peleliu is one of the Pacific island nation’s 16 states. The island, shaped like a lobster claw, is about eight miles long and two miles or so at its widest. Much of Peleliu is uninhabitable, most notably the ridges of Umurbrogol Mountain on the western lobe.
Peleliu is legendary not because of what its conquest accomplished, but for the valor and violence that its conquest required. On September 15, 1944, the 18,000-man 1st Marine Division began landing on Peleliu in Operation Stalemate II, meant to support General Douglas MacArthur’s invasion of the Philippines. One month and more than 6,000 casualties later, the 1st Division was withdrawn. The U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division stepped in, taking another 3,278 casualties before declaring Peleliu secure. Of 11,000 Japanese defenders, 200 survived. (A few remained in hiding until 1947.) MacArthur wound up not needing Peleliu, which was forgotten—except by those who fought there.
During my March 2012 visit, I found that Peleliu looked, curiously, as it did both before the war and after the battle. The island’s vibrant plant life, once erased by shellfire, has returned with a vengeance in peacetime. But the battle is never far away. Peleliu’s caves, bunkers, and tunnels are still littered with relics—Japanese mess kits, ration cans, boot soles, and Coke bottles dated 1944. By a low ridge near the landing beach is a barbed wire dump, complete with corkscrew stakes and oxidizing curls of concertina wire. Inland, I came upon three ruined M1 rifles, stocks long gone. One Garand was so rusted I thought it was a vine until I tugged on it. Nearby, a corroded Japanese machine gun lay atop a boulder— whether newly placed or lying there since 1944, I couldn’t tell. Live hand grenades and mortar rounds regularly crop up. Palau forbids the removal of artifacts, and posts signs warning of the danger they pose. An ordnance removal service is on the job and still has years of work ahead.
The day of the invasion, the 1st Marine Regiment landed on a concave strand designated White Beach 1 and White Beach 2. In concrete bunkers on two points covering the landing zone, the Japanese had placed murderously effective antiboat guns. In the first minutes of the assault, 26 amphibious vehicles lay burning in the water there. Dead and wounded Marines dotted the narrow strand. General Raymond Davis, who as a 29-year-old major commanded the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, on Peleliu, told me about it a few years ago. “My battalion was in reserve, and I had to fight my way across the beach,” he said. “It was madness!”
Walking White Beach at low tide, two friends and I found a lump of copper-clad slugs, casings oxidized to nothing, the fused remains of a box of .30-caliber ammo. In the shallows lay steel from a destroyed amphibious vehicle, engine parts, and less recognizable metal chunks. I spotted the embrasure of a bunker, nearly invisible amid the coral rock camouflaging it. Inside are an antiboat gun’s rusty shards.
Two hundred meters inland we reached a low ridge studded with automatic weapon positions. A bunker stands undamaged, anchoring the left flank of the ridge, whose length is a catalog of battlefield detritus: sake and beer bottles, spent casings, food tins, and unexploded ordnance. Marines took and held this spot, which was how that barbed wire dump and a trench full of Coke bottles came to be. Behind the ridge squats a huge concrete building that houses a museum. The pocked exterior is scarred by two giant holes from 14-inch rounds fired by the USS Mississippi as part of the pre-invasion shelling. During the battle, the blockhouse functioned like “a fortress because of all the pillboxes surrounding it,” Davis said. “I took 25 casualties, including three dead, before it was knocked out.”
We drove a mile or so on a potholed road through thick scrub to Bloody Nose Ridge, at Umurbrogol Mountain, which a Marine called a“monster Swiss cheese of hard lime stone pocked beyond imagining with caves and crevices.” Here the Japanese uncorked a new strategy: instead of defending the beaches, they executed a defense in depth, hoping to bleed the Marines and succeeding. Five days of attacking the heights cost 70 percent of Ray Davis’s battalion. Losing more than half its men here, the 1st Marine Regiment had to be pulled off the line.
Jungle again covers the mountain, and climbing its ridges is a demanding adventure. They rise 30 to 40 feet, separated by narrow ravines, all jagged and untrustworthy rock. We carried water fortified with electrolyte tablets—the modern version of the horrid mix Marines forced down to fight dehydration—and needed every drop. At one point we crossed a wet, slippery path a yard wide, a 30-foot plunge into razor sharp coral on either side. Imagine doing that while lugging weapons and equipment, and taking fire from all directions.
Such tourism is not for the faint of heart but is worth the effort, for everywhere are caverns and fighting positions. We capped our day-long trek with a visit to the last headquarters of Japanese commander Colonel Kunio Nakagawa: a cave his troops expanded several dozen yards into solid rock. The floor was thick with rubber boot soles, cans and bottles, and cartridges. Returning to our vehicle, we stopped at the memorials honoring the 1st Marine Division and the 81st Infantry Division that overlook the landing beaches.
During our four-day excursion, we also visited Thousand-Man Cave, a 300-foot shelter near our motel. The emplacement’s 8-inch coastal gun, set facing the beaches, was never fired but testifies to Japanese defensive capabilities. Other stops included Horseshoe Valley, Wildcat Bowl, Five Sisters, Five Brothers, Death Valley—parts of Umurbrogol that earned their nicknames through hundreds of American casualties.
During my years in the Marine Corps I served with many Peleliu veterans whose stories came to life as I walked the battle ground. Amid remnants of fighting positions and in relic-strewn caves, I could visualize the carnage. The sacrifices came home when one of my companions invited me to join him for a very personal walk on White Beach 1, where he bent by the water’s edge to place a small American flag. Around it he spread soil from his home in California that he had carried across the Pacific. Then he stood, head bowed, honoring his father, killed in action the first day of the battle.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.