The epic battle of Peleliu in 1944, in the island nation of Palau, did not in itself rid Palau of the Japanese. Large Japanese forces remained on the larger islands of Koror and Babelthaup, and while cut off from Japan still posed a minor threat to the security of the American base on Peleliu. Hundreds of small islands dotted the ocean between the isolated Japanese and Peleliu, and some could hide Japanese forces and be used to stage raids on Peleliu.
In order to ensure that enemy forces did not attempt a surprise attack, U.S. Navy boats were assigned to patrol among the Rock Island chain. It was on one of those patrols, on April 28, 1945, that a group of Japanese soldiers were seen swimming off a beach at the Island of Abappaomogan.
Only 1,000 yards long, Abappaomogan had fresh water, heavy canopied jungle and high, sharp coral ridges dotted with small caves. It had one sandy beach that allowed a boat landing, and it was off this beach that the Japanese were seen swimming. An LCI with 10 men was sent to the Island. Their laconic report noted that “they were taken under fire and left the island after suffering light casualties.”
The Japanese report of the incident was more concise:
After firing all over the area, they [Americans] advanced to the saddle before the 4 man barracks … the enemy threw grenades at the entrance. Waiting and ready on the cliff at the left side of our communications path, 6 men saw the approach of the enemy and quickly firing grenades, hurled them at the enemy. From the right side we fired with a light machine gun. On hearing the sound of this firing the one man on the saddle and the six men on the beach fled to the boat. After this we received machine fun fire for about an hour from the subchaser which was standing off the sand beach.
It was clear that a small reconnaissance party was not going to dislodge the Japanese, and on May 8, 1945, a two company composite unit of the US Army’s 111th Infantry, 81st Division, commenced a reconnaissance in force. The 81st Infantry Division had been part of the original assault component for the Peleliu campaign and had assaulted and taken the island of Anguar. Later, as the Marine casualties mounted on Peleliu itself, Marine Gen. William H. Rupertus reluctantly and belatedly called in the 81st to assist with the Peleliu assault. After Peleliu was secured, the 81st had stayed on to garrison the island.
It was the contingent from this force that, accompanied by Marine Lt. Ray Gripman, that now had the task of clearing Abappaomogan Island. Lt. Gripman had been part of a small Marine intelligence group that had entered and mapped the Japanese Peleliu cave system as much of the battle of Peleliu still raged.
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Foray into Abappaomogan
The men of the 81st Infantry first took Emogen, a neighboring island, without resistance, for use as a base. They then landed on Abappaomogan, on what was called Blue Beach. In contrast to the noise, smoke, confusion and fire of other such assaults, the landing at Abappaomogan was unnaturally, eerily, quiet.
The landing itself was unopposed. But less than 100 yards inland, the land rose on a steep slope that required rope assistance to ascend. As the after-action report notes: “A few enemy individuals armed with rifles or hand grenades could easily deny the high ground to assault troops …”
Once on top of the cliff, the two companies began to move inland and soon made contact at the north end of the island:
… contact was made with Japanese troops who were using a machine gun, grenades, and small arms fire …
Combat is a very personal thing. All the famous battles and grand strategies are, in reality, just a series of individual conflicts that somehow coalesce into the whole. And for every famous battle, there are hundreds of small solitary skirmishes that are lost to history. The fight for Abappaomogan is not even a footnote in the history books, but for the next 50 years Ray Gripman would be haunted by the memories of that small battle.
He recalled that they landed on the opposite side of the island from where the Japanese were observed and pushed overland through the high rugged coral and jungle terrain. An estimated 23-man Japanese garrison waited somewhere ahead, initially keeping their distance as the Americans advanced. As night fell on May 10, no contact had yet been made, and the Americans set up a night defensive perimeter. It was then that the Japanese attacked.
Returning to Peleliu
Fifty years after war’s end, former Marine Reservist Ray Gripman and his wife, Louise, Jim Cross — the son of Peleliu veteran Bob Cross — and Darryl Gemmel, a 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Corps veteran and this author returned to Abappaomogan to retrace Ray’s footsteps in the forgotten battle. The ride out to the island, was picturesque and relaxing. Along the way, the clear waters revealed the remains of a Japanese Zero. Landing on the beach where the Japanese soldiers had been seen, we wondered if they knew then that their short beach trips would be one of their last pleasurable experiences on earth.
Only a few steps off the beach, the jungle intervened. Climbing up over the roots on the steep, slippery slope, we used vines to assist us. Before we were halfway up, we were all wringing wet from the enormous weight of Abappaomogan’s heat and humidity. Reaching the top, Gripman recalled the first enemy engagement. The sentries, he said, heard the rustling noise of the Japanese attempting to infiltrate the American platoon from downslope. “There was more than one,” Gripman remembered, “but [one] got up there and they opened fire on him, and he stood up and hurled a grenade. It hit a tree and bounced back and went off in his stomach. We were so close that all his pieces fell on us and in the morning, I went down and looked at what was left.”
Gripman took the dog tag, and learned years later, that the soldier was Sergeant Kawamura of the Imperial Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment. Kawamura had been badly wounded in China and was on his fourth hitch at the time of his death.
In the morning, the Americans moved toward the “basin” and Hill 223, the suspected Japanese area of activity. Japanese positions on Hill 223 took them under machine gun, rifle and grenade fire from various caves near the basin. The machine gun position was overrun, and the Japanese suffered several casualties, fighting to the last when cornered, the Official Report noting:
Assault squads were engaged in cleaning out caves in basin using WP and Fragmentation Hand Grenades and Flame Throwers…A number of enemy personnel were killed by fire and grenades in the caves and caves were closed by demolition charges …
The next day, mop up continued. Moving across an elevated part of the island, the Americans encountered a large, steep-walled, funnel-like sinkhole, at the bottom of which was a small shallow pool of stagnant water.
Fast forward 50 years again, and Gripman was able to lead us to the area. One can hardly imagine a more fetid, sinister and seemingly uninhabitable spot. Moisture dripped from every living and inert thing. Around the base of the sinkhole, where little direct sunlight could penetrate, were several very small limestone caves — the living and command area of the Japanese commander.
In the reconnaissance of 50 years later, nothing unusual stood out at first, but as our eyes adjusted to the gloom we could see the debris of war. Wading across the water we encountered unexploded Japanese and American ordnance. In the caves themselves, more Japanese ordnance and the debris of everyday living, fragments of crates, discarded battery packs and empty food cans. Just outside the entrance of one cave lay a human femur. If there is such a thing as glory in war, it was missing in this dismal, dark cavity.
A Marine Remembers
As Gripman recalled, in 1945 he had led the way into the caves.
“There were cans at the entrance — stacks of square, 5-gallon cans, forming baffles inside the cave. I remember it was pitch dark inside, only big enough for one person. I remember an awful feeling of not knowing if somebody was inside,” he noted.
One cave he entered was an officer’s quarters with a crude desk in the corner on which were a stack of personal photographs, a logbook and a flag bearing the signatures of the soldier’s family. As Gripman later learned, the log entries, made only hours earlier, contained details of the landing and the approach of America troops. Additionally, the officer’s “… sword and pistol were beside the desk and there were many official documents in the cave.”
The Official Report notes:
Large quantities of stores were found, also demolition and medical supplies. Samples of all were taken by Lieutenant Gripman and sent to Island G-2 for examination.
The captured equipment was taken to Green Beach and the American force returned to Eomogen for the night. Returning the next morning, May 11, their landing was preceded by a 15 minute artillery and napalm prep on the beach and Hill 223.
It now came down to finding and eliminating the last few Japanese forces. Pushing deeper into the interior in the northern sector of the island, they finally discovered a cave that, as Lieutenant Gripman believed, contained the remaining Japanese soldiers and their commanding officer. Those inside the cave must have been incredibly alarmed listening to the American approach.
For his part, Gripman remembered the chilling sound of terrified voices from within the cave, babbling in excitement and in what, to his ear, sounded like a prayer chant. When the first blast of grenades thrown into the opening failed to silence the voices inside, a second volley of phosphorus grenades produced a reverberant flash. Silence followed.
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Fifty years later, we tried to find this area. From the basin cave complex we followed the old Japanese trail over the porous and fractured surface and into a second small valley. Here, we located the enlisted men’s living caves. After more than five decades, overgrowth and jungle rot made it difficult to notice any real difference in the living standards between enlisted and officer/NCO’s. The trail continued from here in two directions with numerous natural caves evident.
However, the steep terrain and jungle overgrowth lacking landmarks made identification difficult, and although we found a cave that Gripman thought was the last stand cave, there were no battle artifacts evident.
In May 1945, the fight for Abappaomogan had come to its inevitable conclusion, adding, through the common wartime experiences of heat, dirt, exhaustion and death, another small set of South Pacific island battle statistics to the war record. In 1994, our small group made its way back to the beach in silence, partly from absorbing a fragment of previously unknown history but as much again from the strain of the hike through the unforgiving jungle and coral terrain with stifling heat and humidity. It was a little taste of what the soldiers of both sides had to endure in 1945, without, of course, the danger and fear.
The story of the fight for Abappaomogan ended in 1945, but that is not the end of the whole story. Ray Gripman returned to civilian life after the war, working for the US government, and the souvenirs from Abappaomogan — the dog tag, the flag, the pictures, and the sword — found their way into a scrapbook or on his wall. Fate, of course, plays no favorites, and one of his postings took him, with no small irony as he noted, to Japan.
There he met, fell in love with and married a Japanese woman — his wife Louise. When he retired from government service, the Gripman’s retired to Mercer Island, Washington. But as the years went by, Ray began to increasingly wonder about the personal life of that long-dead Japanese commander on Abappaomogan and the family he left behind. The prayers of the doomed Japanese soldiers in the last stand cave remained as troubling echoes in his mind. With his newfound ties to Japanese culture came a deep sense of personal loyalty to the families of the deceased and his determination to return his carefully tended relics to their rightful owners.
In 1982, the Gripman’s returned to Japan for a visit beginning an active search to find surviving family members and to bring the Abappaomogan story to an end if possible.
Scarce wartime records and personal inquiries at first stymied them. But then came a break. With Louise’s help as a translator, they located Mrs. Mutsu Kawamura, the widow of the man killed by his own grenade. “It was a very spiritual thing for her,” Louise later recalled. “She had never known when or how her husband had died.”
The Gripman’s concerted efforts next led them to the family of Goro Shiobata, staff sergeant of the Imperial Army’s Fifteenth Regiment, and the owner of the national flag Ray had found in the cave.
By the end of 1982 then, at least the flag and dog tag had been returned. The sword, however, remained unclaimed.
Returning to their Washington home, the couple continued their efforts to find the owners of his remaining souvenirs. Four more years would pass without result. Then, in 1986, they uncovered the owner of the sword. He was Lt. Shoichiro Ohya of the 15th (Takasaki) Division and temporarily on duty on Abappaomogan to relieve a sick officer. In reconstructing the events of 1945, Ray theorized that the young commander (who at the time was, coincidently, his own age — 23) had been writing to the relatives of dead soldiers when he was forced to flee the cave and left the flag and photographs belonging to them behind, along with his own sword.
The Gripman’s now corresponded with the Ohya family who indicated they would be honored to receive the sword. But because Japan has strict laws regarding the possession of lethal weapons, it took two more years of negotiation before permission was given to return the sword to Japan, and then only on the condition that it go to a museum.
In June 1988, the Gripmans again travelled to Japan, this time with the sword. In solemn ceremonies at Takasaki honoring both American and Japanese war dead, Ray Gripman presented the sword, through Lieutenant Ohya’s younger brother, to the Gunma Prefecture Museum of History. In Louise’s words, “The sword is considered the soul of the soldier. When we brought the sword to Lieutenant Oyha’s family, it was like bringing him home.”
Ray Gripman passed away in 2003. The men of WWII, on both sides, are fast fading from history. Each have carried their private memories through the decades since. Some were haunted by ghosts that never went away. Some never stopped hating the enemy. In a sense, they earned that right. Some, though, have tried to exorcise the ghosts and put the past aside. They have learned that forgiveness does not mean forgetting. There was no bitterness in Ray Gripman for his experiences in the war, only sadness that young men of both sides had to spend the best years of their lives killing each other.
Dr. Stuart D. Scott, PhD, contributed to this article.
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