Sherman that was knocked out by a mine

Solitude in the Shadow of Death: Battle of Peleliu

A personal and revising look at one of World War 2’s forgotten battles: The Battle of Peleliu

I’ll be the first to admit that when I was planning my first trip to Peleliu, my limited knowledge of the battle that raged there during the autumn of 1944, came from recalling grainy re-runs of the eponymous ‘Victory at Sea’ documentary series. To this student of the European theatre and the Eastern Front, the Pacific island campaign regrettably took a backseat to most of my previous reading endeavors and online research. It’s no wonder, however, that Peleliu is considered as a forgotten battle, because even as the landing ramps were lowered and the beaches were being stormed, the eyes of the world were about to turn to the skies of Europe, and the airborne invasion of Holland half a world away. Not only that, but even the local press avoided the invasion after being told that it would be over in only a few days. Today, fortunately, Peleliu is a little less forgotten thanks to recent movies, seasons of ‘Survivor’, and even video games. Thankfully, I was to discover that there is no shortage of well researched and available books on the battle. And as fate would have it, I would discover Eugene Sledge’s, ‘With the Old Breed’.  It wasn’t hard to find.  Widely regarded as the best memoir of WW2, ‘Old Breed’ is so well written and read, that it’s still in print after almost 40 years since its debut.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I would eventually turn to the book as a guide as I attempted to pay tribute to Sledge and his fellow Marines that I got to know through within the binding, and in one case, meet in person.  Using Sledge’s book as my ‘Sherpa’, I eventually would do my best to follow in his footsteps on Peleliu. And even though I wear a size 12 shoe, it’s not even close to being big enough in filling in the footprints of the thousands of Marines and Army infantry who came before me and braved some of the harshest conditions ever endured by American fighting forces while against a deadly and unforgiving foe.   

As I was to learn, Peleliu is part of the Palau island group and is located approximately 500 miles east from the Philippines and is just north of the equator. Discovered by French explorers in the 18th Century, Palau would change hands several times and would eventually be handed over from Germany to Japan as war booty after World War 1 who prized it for its phosphorus mining capability.

During WW2, Palau became a beehive of activity thanks to a large troop garrison, working runways, and harbor that offered protection and repair facilities for the Imperial Navy. Made up of around 300 mostly uninhabited islands that rose up from the depths of the ocean when dinosaurs still roomed the earth, the southern islands of Peleliu and Anguar possessed active airfields capable of landing heavy bombers, making it an inviting target for the U.S. Navy’s island hopping offensive.

Today, the footprints made by Japanese soldiers’ split-toe sandals have been replaced by the bare feet of tourists and honeymooners as Palau has taken its place as a world premier dive and vacation destination thanks to an aggressive eco-tourism campaign, protected fishing grounds, healthy coral reefs, and proximity to Japan and Australia.

Battle of Peleliu

The invasion of Peleliu, ironically codenamed ‘Operation Stalemate II’, was enthusiastically endorsed by General MacArthur with the idea of neutralizing Palau’s airstrips in order to protect his right flank as he prepared to assault the Philippines. Despite Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey’s fervent objection to the invasion, owing to the fact that his carrier-based fighter sweeps have been unopposed, therefore, demonstrating that Palau was impotent, he was overruled. Eventually, senior decision maker Admiral Chester Nimitz gave the command to invade with D-day scheduled for September 15, 1944.

In one of the war’s cruel twist of circumstances and unforgivable yet forgotten slights, not only did Gen. MacArthur order the Marines to take Peleliu as a side show to his main tent and media ready attraction in the Philippines, he also shoved the Marine’s leadership to the bleacher seats at the signing of the Japanese final surrender.  The fierce inter-department rivalries within the Japanese High Command is well documented, but resentment between the Army and Marines, as passive aggressive as it was, mainly had MacArthur to blame.

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The job to take Peleliu would fall to the Leathernecks of the hardened 1st Marine Division, who already distinguished itself on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. Running the division was General William Rupertus, an expert marksman known by many to this day as the author of ‘The Rifleman’s Creed’ (aka ‘My Rifle’). Unfortunately for the Marines, Rupertus cherished his command so much, despite lacking operational combat experience, that he selfishly hid from his superiors a leg injury that he sustained in a training accident that prevented him from participating in pre-invasion preparations and going ashore during the heat of battle. In one of the wars lesser known, ‘what-ifs’, had Rupertus been more actively involved with the preparations and on the beach as the Marines drove inland, the casualty rate might not have been as high. Another factor that several historians think weighed in on Rupertus’ pernicious and detrimental decision making during the battle, like refusing assistance from the Army, was that his cognitive thinking and emotional intelligence had been adversely affected due to losing his wife and children to smallpox while stationed in China in the 1930s.

Marine Pfc. Douglas Lightheart (right) cradles his 30-cal. machine gun in his lap, while he and his buddy Pfc. Gerald Thursby Sr. take time out for a cigarette, while mopping up the enemy on Peleliu Island, September 14, 1944.

In one of the biggest understatements of the war, Rupertus, arrogantly predicted that the battle would be ”… short but rough. Three days, maybe four”. He was wrong. Had he known that the Japanese planners decided to change their defensive doctrine and strictly forbid wasteful all out suicidal banzai attacks like on Tarawa, he would have made a different prediction, if any.

In his defense, and eerily reminiscent of the overlooked natural fortress like hedgerows in Normandy that caused major problems for the Allies, Intelligence failed the Marines by not noticing the islands’ natural and imposing caves that were expertly enhanced by an elite construction battalion, hedged by Korean slave labor. Carved into mutually supporting positions designed to pour murderous fire into attackers, these caves, approximately 500 in all, were very well hidden, and would have to be taken out one at a time using improvised siege-life tactics.

Thanks to a treasure trove of intelligence captured on Saipan, the Marines knew the approximate size and strength of the opposing force on Palau that was held by General Sadae Inoue and his crack 14th Division. The defense of the lobster-claw shaped island of Peleliu itself was entrusted to the highly capable 44 year-old Colonel Kunio Nakagawa and his combined regiment of 10,500 men.

Using baseball jargon, the 1st Marines and 81st Wildcats could not have asked for a tougher ‘out’.   

US Marine in action at Peleliu Island, Palau Islands, Ca. September 1944
US Marine in action at Peleliu Island, Palau Islands, Ca. September 1944

The fighting on Peleliu from a soldier’s’ perspective would eventually rise so intense that I dare intense that one could dare compare it to the vicious fighting in the streets of Stalingrad. Except, instead of house to house, it was cave to cave. 500 in fact. In both battles, men had to endure extreme temperatures, (on opposite spectrums), had to cope with a hidden enemy that could strike from any direction, were sleep deprived due to harassing enemy action at night, and were asked to fight close quarter and personal combat using any weapon or means necessary, including hands and rocks. While the death toll comparison is obviously apples to oranges, both battlefields had legendary, impenetrable fortresses that altered the course of the battle, and sadly caused cemetery rows to bloat.  

For every ‘Grain Silo’ and ‘Pavlov House’ at Stalingrad, there was ‘Walt’s Ridge’ and the ‘Five Sisters’. Whether it was defending Stalingrad’s highest point on ‘Mamayev Kurgan’, or assaulting ‘The Horseshoe’ on Peleliu, men endured what couldn’t be endured, and through self-sacrifice and valor, persevered over unimaginable conditions and odds. As British journalist Max Hastings wrote of Stalingrad, the same could be true of Peleliu. “… The street is no longer measured by meters but by corpses… Animals flee this hell; the hardest stones cannot bear it for long; only men endure.”

And like its counterpart on the Eastern Front, Peleliu would be more than a battle, it would be a fight to the death. Absolute War. In a battle that involved tens of thousands of men, surrender was almost non-existent. Raised and trained in the ancient bushido code, which shifted in the 1930s from being chivalrous to more brutal and unrepentant, Nakagawa’s soldiers, with their backs to the ocean, served their Emperor with honor, and would wind up causing the Marines their highest casualty rate of the entire war. The net net of Stalingrad to the Allies is well known, but as I will introduce later, Peleliu also played a part in ending the war which would justify the price of the invasion, albeit indirectly.

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Before Peleliu was considered secure, almost 3 months later, the three Marine regiments (1st, 5th, 7th) were rendered nearly effete, and for the first time in Marine Corps history, the Army was called in for support. And soon after taking the nearby island of Anguar with only light casualties, a regiment from the 81st Infantry Division, the 321st Wildcats, landed ashore to assume offensive operations in the still contested pockets in the hills.

After the battle, General Rupertus was shipped Stateside to a desk job, and the 1st Marines would be out of the war until the Battle of Okinawa six months later.

Exploring Peleliu

Now, after a few months of studying and research, I felt prepared for this chance of a lifetime. After changing planes on once contested islands like Guam, and Yap, I arrived on Palau jetlagged but eager to begin exploring. And after experiencing some amazing days in the water in the world’s first shark sanctuary, I headed out to explore several Japanese trenches and AA emplacements literally next to my hotel room on the island of Koror. If one rents a car on Koror to go exploring the island like I did, It’s very hard to get lost since you can navigate by discarded war wreckage. In fact, if you ever forget what room you’re staying in at one particular hotel, you can just remember which inert 500lb bomb is propped up in front of your room as a decoration!

Japanese AA .75mm battery behind hotel
Japanese AA .75mm battery behind hotel. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Having explored the two main islands of Palau and finding a heavily damaged command bunker, as well as a decaying military hospital that’s losing the battle against jungle rot, it was time to go to Peleliu.

However, little did I know that it wasn’t as easy as I thought. Most of Palau’s hotels, dive shops and restaurants are located on the more populated islands of Koror and Babelthuap. However, getting to Peleliu would take some flexibility. Deciding on taking the sure thing, I signed up on a tour that would get to the island via speedboat for a guided day-trip. Only one problem, it was with a Japanese tour group and nobody, including the guide spoke English! After coming this far, I wasn’t going to let a language barrier get in the way of a chance of a lifetime to tour Peleliu, and eagerly signed up. Getting to Anguar, unfortunately, wasn’t in the cards, given its distance and a vicious current that scares even local boat skippers away.

After an excited childhood like Christmas-Eve night of sleep, I greeted my tour guide the next morning, and took my place on the boat, feeling like the new kid in school, but nonetheless welcomed onboard through warm eye-contact and slight smiles of my fellow travelers and eventual friends. Deliberately taking a seat in the bow so that there would be nothing in the way of my first view of the island, we sped off.

As we began the trip under a clear blue sky, I somehow blocked out the beauty of Palau’s world-famous Rock Islands and buried my nose in Sledge’s book as if I was cramming for a final exam. The hushed and serious mood onboard reminded me of a team bus ride where everybody is getting locked in and mentally prepared before a game. This was no sunset romantic sail in the tropics, we were embarking on a solemn vigil and journey of remembrance to pay our respects to the fallen, on both sides.

The beauty of Palau's Rock Islands
The beauty of Palau’s Rock Islands. (Credits: Travis Roland)

After almost an hour, the roar of our twin outboard engines began to soften as we neared our destination. Looking up from my book, I got my first view of Peleliu and saw the unmistakable ridges of the unpronounceable Umurbrogol mountain range. From a distance, the island looked tired and weathered, like an old fisherman whose face has been lined by a lifetime at sea. It felt almost as if we were disturbing a sleeping giant that was protesting our intrusion with a groan as it rose to its feet from a deep slumber, to reluctantly welcoming us. Considering that all of Palau’s islands were once underwater coral reef eons ago, it’s not wonder that Peleliu was looking her age.

Now, gazing at the island form a short distance, I found it hard to adjust my eyes to September 15, 1944 while trying to imagine the inferno that greeted the Marines that fateful day given the absolute beauty of the surrounding shallow aqua blue water and ‘screen saver’ friendly beaches that awaited us.

Skull and danger sign in combat area. October 1944.
Skull and danger sign in combat area. October 1944.

My senses awakened, I took my first steps on Peleliu and felt a rush of accomplishment that I imagined that a marathoner would get after crossing the finish line. Getting that first glimpse of Peleliu made it easy to forget that it took me 35 real-time hours to get there from home door to door.

Trading the cool breeze of the boat ride for punishing humidity that reminded me of Florida in August, I eagerly jumped into our tour’s awaiting passenger air-conditioned van that was equipped with a cooler full of water bottles. Cognizant of the fact that the Marines who landed on Peleliu didn’t have the luxury of fresh water and suffered more from heat exhaustion than enemy bullets, I couldn’t help but shake my head and wonder what it must have felt like to fight in that oppressive heat, under the stress of combat, while having to resort to gut-wrenching water thanks to someone’s bad idea of hauling in the water supply in used oil barrels.

As we drove off, it didn’t take long to notice the detritus of battle and feeling like you were in a time capsule. The sounds and smoke are long gone, but reminders of war are never far from view. The battlefield island is so well preserved that it’s as if time has stood still and the battle raged 7 months ago instead of 75 years ago.

To the local population of around 600-700, the relics of war blend into the island almost as if each relic was a tree. But for someone like me, each discarded rusty shovel, or helmet has a story to tell, except without a voice.

The author with a .50 cal
The author with a .50 cal. (Credits: Travis Roland)
Random ordnance found on Peleliu
Random ordnance found on Peleliu. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Fortunately, local laws make it illegal to remove artifacts from the island for a couple of reasons. First, to maintain and preserve the integrity of the battlefield, and second, for the safety of visitors who might let curiosity and ignorance get the better of them. Today, a detachment of U.S. Navy Seabees, as well as civilian experts from Australia are still combing the island for unexploded explosives. Without even looking, I came come across plenty of small caliber shells and mortar rounds on the island, especially as I went deeper into the jungle.

And like in the fields of Flanders half a world away, it will take years to clean up this installment of the devil’s playground. Thankfully, colorful memento mori alerts are in place to keep visitors alert and safe, so long as they respect the red and white warning markers.

I have read of Japanese tourists sobbing at the first sight of Iwo Jima, which is essentially a mass grave to 20,000 of their countrymen, so I didn’t know what kind of reaction that I would get as our tour began and we stopped at our first Japanese memorial, especially since it was decorated with shrapnel riddled Japanese helmets and uniform kits. Allowing my companions a first look and uninterrupted peace out of respect, the favor would be returned as we also stopped at Marine and Army memorials.

American War Memorial
American War Memorial. (Credits: Travis Roland)
Japanese memorial
Japanese memorial. (Credits: Travis Roland)

As we made our way up our first trail silently on foot and in single file, I grinned to myself from the back of the line as my mind tricked myself into making it feel as I was on an enemy patrol. The average height of a Japanese soldier was 5’3, (a foot shorter than me), just like many folks on the tour. A signature moment happened on an invasion beach as folks came to me using the few English words they knew asking why we called the beaches White, Orange and Purple while pointing to a map. Smiles and nods told me that I was able to convey to them that these were the code names that we used during the invasion. From that point on, my companions became comrades instead of strangers, which came in handy as the day progressed and we trekked over rugged terrain under the stifling heat.

Later, a true bonding moment happened when we made our way into the jungle and rocky foothills when the tour guide asked me to come forward and see if I could identify a discarded wrench looking tool that he didn’t recognize. Channeling my old military bearing to make it look like I knew what I was doing, I made my way up a short but steep incline to inspect what would be a specialized tool for an American tank. But after only a few steps, I slipped on loose shale and began sliding backwards and off balance. We were on ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’, scene of some of the most intense fighting in the Pacific, but today, the hands of my former enemy were there to catch and brace me. The incident might have lasted only for a few seconds, but the gravity and magnitude of the moment will last a lifetime. After thanking my ‘saviors’, I tricked my mind into thinking that the spirits of fallen soldiers on both sides were smiling down on us.  

After visiting a large coastal cannon that was left intact because it faced harmlessly in the wrong direction, and inspecting one of the 13 light Japanese (Ha-Go) tanks that was part of a failed counterattack on D-Day, we piled back into the van.

Assorted equipment on Bloody Nose Ridge
Assorted equipment on Bloody Nose Ridge. (Credits: Travis Roland)
Japanese Coastal Artillery. Untouched since it faced the wrong direction
Japanese Coastal Artillery. Untouched since it faced the wrong direction. (Credits: Travis Roland)

I can recall the exact moment when I told myself that I had to come back and get an in-depth and personal look when we sped by several abandoned landing craft stranded on an invasion beach without even blinking an eye to stop in order to get to our next destination, which was a lunch break of all things.  

Unacceptable! It took everything that I had to not jump out and do a duck and roll onto the road to go see them. Understandably, we were on a strict time table and there simply isn’t enough time to see everything in one day and go beyond the easily accessible ‘dog and pony’ highlights. Wanting more than a spoon size sample of Peleliu, I channeled my inner Douglas MacArthur, and vowed to return.

And thanks to some fortunate life events, I did return a year later. But this time, I felt more like a welcomed guest instead of an intruder, having passed my initiation the year before. Indeed, this time I wasn’t interested in a tidy packaged day tour with its easily accessible artifacts, and lunch. I needed to get my feet wet (literally) and my hands dirty and venture out for some real exploring and get an intimate look at the battlefield. As mentioned, Peleliu caused the Marines their highest casualty rate of the war, and now it was time to dig deep and see where and why.

Having found a hotel on Peleliu that picks you up on Koror thanks to my wife who must have been a travel agent in another life, I was able to establish base camp and venture out on my own for several days and nights.  This not only gave me the luxury of combing the battlefield on my timetable, it also provided a way to experience what dusk and night felt like on the island, which for the Marines on Peleliu, was terrifying owning to having to deal with nimble teams of silent Japanese infiltrators, and suspicious shadows.  As one ‘raggety-ass’ Marine on Peleliu put it years later, ‘by day we wished for night, and at night, we wished for day’.   The infiltrators didn’t inflict many casualties, but were ‘MacBeth’ like in killing much needed sleep.  

Incidentally, one of the ways that our troops dealt with the assassins, who were known to taunt and heckle the Marines in English, was to assign passwords that included the letter L, like Honolulu, which apparently was hard for the enemy to pronounce.   

I don’t believe in ghosts, and I’ll credit the intense and draining heat on the island to make me want to turn in early each night, but I am not afraid to admit that a part of me would rather be indoors when it’s dark on the island with the doors locked.  At night the darkness is not just suffocating, it’s isolating, intimidating, and the only place that I’ve been where I’m outside and still felt claustrophobic.

Still on Duty.. Sherman Tank
Still on Duty.. Sherman Tank. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Having visited my share of better known, easier accessible and well trampled battlefields, I could hardly contain myself that apart from the massive coconut crabs scurrying about, I was about to have an entire World War Two battlefield to myself for several days.  Here, there would be no casual day tripping tourists from Paris to avoid, like in Normandy, or yapping middle-schoolers spilling out of squeaky buses like at Gettysburg. Now, the shuffling of crowds have been replaced by the gentle swaying of lazy coconut trees, and constant yet reassuring drone of insects. This week, I was Peleliu’s employee of the month, and I had the parking spot of my choice. And thanks to a rented van, I set off on the island, determined to follow the steps of Sledge’s K/3/5 company, whose legendary CO (Captain Andrew (Ack Ack) Haldane, KIA 10/14/44 by a sniper.) grew up near me, as best as I could.

Starting on the same section of road where a senior officer would lose his life after ignoring verbal warnings about snipers, I began my self-guided odyssey into history.

Although after 5 minutes, I wished that I had skipped the first stop.  The 1,000 man cave. The cave is a just what is sounds like, a huge underground labyrinth of tunnels and mutually supporting shelters designed to house and protect hundreds of troops. Expertly carved out by soldiers who were tunnel workers and miners in civilian life, the cave not only billeted and safeguarded many soldiers, it also provided communications and medical facilities.

Today, some of the entrances are blackened and permanently scarred from being on the wrong end of a flamethrower, as if to remind visitors about the grisly business of war in the Pacific that once was.

Blackened tunnel entrance from flamethrower
Blackened tunnel entrance from flamethrower. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Crouching to avoid cutting my head on the sharp and jagged ceiling, somewhat successfully, and guided by an underpowered pocket torch, I ventured in aimlessly but deliberately, as if I knew where I was going. Welcoming the cooler but stale air in the cave, its letter shaped tunnels opening in many directions, I crouched in slowly, and carefully tried not to disturb longed abandoned sake bottles.  Suddenly, I felt like I was being watched. Except, as I was to find out, whatever was watching me had more than 2 eyes.

Although harmless to humans, the solid black, hand sized, (comma) cave dwelling spider-like bug known as a whip-scorpion, (as I was to find out), inches from my head, was looking at me as if he owned the place. Actually, it does. To this sea-going New Englander, who has up until that moment, had no idea that whip-scorpions even existed, it might as well have been Shelob from ‘Lord of the Rings’. I might have swam with sharks and manta rays in open water the day before with my wife and friends, but in that dimly lit cave, I wanted ‘out of the water’, or in this case cave. Defeated, I made a hasty retreat out the way that I came in, and somehow managed not to hit my head or get lost. Flicking at my shirt in case I was carrying uninvited passengers, I regained my composure outside the cave just in time before a villager strolled by, and drove, actually sped off to my next destination. A destination that didn’t have to exist.

Exploring a downed Zero fighter plane
Exploring a downed Zero fighter plane. (Credits: Travis Roland)
US aircraft boneyard on Peleliu
US aircraft boneyard on Peleliu

In every battle, there are careless and preventable casualties that take place. Peleliu, unfortunately, was no exception. My next stop was to see a knocked-out Sherman tank with a bleak and somber history. Resting on private property, it only takes a short and slightly uphill hike past a boneyard of aircraft parts to get to. After contributing a small tithe in the voluntary courtesy box, I reached it at the far end of a clearing, giving me time to pause and reflect before actually getting to it.

Having been called in to provide direct fire support and cave suppression in the closing stages of the battle, the tank was asked to shield two naive airmen who wandered up from the airstrip and into no-man’s land in search of souvenirs. Their lack of judgement would wind up costing 4 of the 5 tank crewmen their lives as the tank backed over a buried aerial mine as it made its way to safety. Today, the tank remains on its side, its valuable parts long since removed during the battle. A well done memorial with the names of the killed tankers sits close by, ensuring that the four young men’s names will live on for years to come. Being able to ponder the gravity of the moment, undisturbed, at such a macabre and sobering shrine, underwritten by the names of the fallen tankers, paid for the trip in of itself. With a heavy heart, I made my way back to the van.

Sherman that was knocked out by a mine
Sherman that was knocked out by a mine. (Credits: Travis Roland)

For my first off the beaten path stop on the off the beaten path island, I pulled over near what was once codenamed White Beach. Grabbing my snorkeling gear and camera, I set out on foot through the jungle and towards the ocean. Known as ‘The Point’ this small stretch of beach and sand proved a nightmare for Marine Corps legendary Colonel Chesty Puller and his 1st Marine Regiment from the very beginning. It didn’t take long to see why. Still visible and looking like they can still spit fire, are various battle scarred case-mates with heavily corroded .47mm anti-boat cannon barrels protruding towards the water. It was here that the Japanese defenders, who survived a withering pre-invasion bombardment, welcomed the invaders with a steel inferno, causing hundreds of casualties and loss of numerous landing craft. Today, reminders of the battle are abundant from bunkers, to half buried barbed wire strings and other military accruements. ‘The Point’, like most places on Peleliu has the lurking danger of explosives laying around, and after getting a good look, I decided not to add to the island’s casualty list and carefully watched where I stepped, while avoiding one-man spider holes that still dot the area. Being able to explore the island alone has its advantages, but stepping on rusted yet still dangerous explosives isn’t one of them.

As I stood yards away from the beach, I realized that I was in the vicinity where artist Tom Ley, who was covering the battle for ‘Life Magazine’, sketched his famous image of a mortally wounded Marine, limping with a look of horror on his face and left arm in taters, barely attached to his body. Looking down, I found the tail fin of an expended mortar round, and wondered out loud if that was the cause of the young Marine to lose his life.  

And speaking of magazines.  Through happenstance, I found a plaque dedicated to future managing editor of ‘Life’, George Hunt as I made my way out of the water after a cool-off swim.  It was here on ‘The Point’ where Hunt earned a Navy Cross by ‘aggressively organizing multiple assaults on numerous bunkers and emplacements, while eventually holding off a series of counterattacks with limited men and ammunition, eliminating over 400 Japanese soldiers in the process’, according to his citation.  

Japanese HQ's on Palau, strafed by US fighters
Japanese HQ’s on Palau, strafed by US fighters. (Credits: Travis Roland)
Japanese HQ's on Palau, strafed by US fighters
Japanese HQ’s on Palau, strafed by US fighters. (Credits: Travis Roland)

My next stop was back to a place that lives in Marine Corps lore, Bloody Nose Ridge.

Bloody Nose Ridge, as the Marines would name it, is part of the Umurbrogol mountain range and is comprised of porous hard coral limestone, pocked with numerous caves and crevices that were occupied by a ferocious enemy ordered to kill as many Americans as possible before dying.

And as if the Japanese defenders weren’t trouble enough, the Marines had to contend with explosions that would turn the coral landscape into flying razor blades that could easily shred body and uniform alike.

One observant Marine likened the Umurbrogol ridges to that of a waffle. Once you summited a peak, there would be another, followed by another hardscrabble ridge, each one with its own devilry and lurking danger. Even today, hiking on Bloody Nose Ridge is daunting, and still feels haunted thanks to the towering lush vegetation and banyan trees that block out the sun during daytime.

‘Chesty’ Puller, veteran of WW1, and known to lead from the front while hiding a leg wound received on Guadalcanal, may be the most decorated Marine in history and veteran of three wars, however, it’s safe to say that Peleliu, and especially ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’ was not his finest hour.  Callously ordering his depleted 1st Marine riflemen to repeat costly frontal slap-dash assaults, Puller’s vainglory blocked out the advice of his officers to change tactics which resulted in many needless casualties.   Puller’s stubbornness on Peleliu harkens Greek mythology, where we find Sisyphos wandering the underworld as he keeps pushing a boulder uphill, only to have it fall back on him over and over.  

Luckily, the Marines dwindling supply of men were well led by other capable officers who could made solid tactical decisions, including Gen. Max Geiger, who on Okinawa, would be the first Marine ever to have command of Army divisions.  And with the help of the 7th and 5th Regiments and eventually the Army, were able to push the Japanese back by switching to siege-like tactics that employed bulldozers and TNT instead of frontal assaults.

Ultimately, after only 6 days of combat, Puller’s regiment would be taken off-line and sent back to the crab and rat infested ‘rest’ island of Pavuvu, their initial jumping off point near Guadalcanal.  Being alone on Bloody Nose Ridge without identifiable bearings, amongst endless rock formations, coupled with the threat and ever present danger of unspent ammunition lurking around, was surreal and overwhelming.  After some further exploring, I felt that I rendered Bloody Nose Ridge the respect that it deserved and made my way out, not forgetting to leave a flower for the hero that I never knew, Capt. Haldane, on the 1st Marine Memorial.  

Ordnance on display in Peleliu's museum
Ordnance on display in Peleliu’s museum. (Credits: Travis Roland)

After carefully exploring a little more inland and seeing more evidence of battle, it was time to leave Peleliu behind and make for neighboring Ngesebus island with the pre-arranged help of a local fisherman and his tiny skiff. This postage-stamp sized island was assaulted by a battalion after an intense but short bombardment thanks to the guns of the Navy, and dive-bombing Corsairs of the Marines whose planes were so close by on Peleliu, they didn’t even bother to raise their landing gear. Garrisoned by about 500 soldiers and connected to Peleliu at the time by a causeway, it’s still under construction fighter strip was a good enough reason to justify the assault.

It didn’t take long to realize that this wasn’t my guide’s first time on Ngesebus as his deliberate footsteps indicated that he knew where he was going. Since he also didn’t speak English, he let his trusty machete do the talking as we began exploring the unpopulated overgrown island. Battle debris wasn’t hard to find as I was shown numerous vehicles, strangely well-preserved cannons, and moss-covered AAA guns lying in their final resting spot, helplessly awaiting nature to run its course.

As we made our way to the overgrown airstrip, now, incidentally, an abandoned cannabis farm judging by my guides universal hand gestures, we began to wrap up the tour. But I wasn’t done. Referring to Sledge’s book, I knew that we were close to the two reasons why I wanted to visit Ngesebus in the first place. A .75mm Japanese cannon with a nefarious history, and a ‘celebrity’ bunker. Now I became the guide and with a little bit of luck and dead reckoning, happened to find the bunker. A diagram in ‘Old Breed’ helped me confirm that it was the right one, especially since there were no other bunkers on the island like it that I could see. Looking back, this find is my ‘Sgt. Pepper’ moment of battlefield archeology, especially given its location and how the squad level battle for it was prominently featured in HBO’s ‘The Pacific’ mini-series.

Knocked out AA cannon, Peleliu
Knocked out AA cannon, Peleliu. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Bypassed by the Marines thinking that it was secure, an alert Sledge motioned to Corporal RV Burgin that he thought he heard voices coming from inside.  Upon closer inspection, Sledge’s hunch turned out to be true and the ensuing close combat action resulted in approximately 18 dead Japanese commensurate with one wounded Marine and a lot of frayed nerves. Burgin would be promised a Silver Star for his leadership here, but unfortunately, sticking to Marine protocol, would never receive it since his CO and XO were killed back on Peleliu before they could write the citation.  A fact that I learned right from the source because I would later be fortunate to sit down with RV in his living room outside of Dallas prior to his death thanks to an introduction through a mutual friend who is the nephew of Capt. Haldane.   

Unfortunately, as I told RV, the bullet riddled bunker is waist deep in muck and slime and possibly human remains, so it was an easy decision not to venture inside. I did however, find a hodgepodge of relics left behind by K/3/5, including heavy weapons, and even a tank to a flamethrower that presumably belonged to Sledge’s friend Womack who used one to clear the bunker according to the book.  

I contemplated in burying Sledge’s book by the bunker as tribute to its author but opted not to. Reflecting back, I guess that I was too attached to the book after all that we’ve been through even with its sweat blotted pages and wrinkled cover.   

 K/3/5 legend R.V. Burgin shortly before his recent passing
K/3/5 legend R.V. Burgin shortly before his recent passing. (Credits: Travis Roland)
The bunker that R.V. and Sledge captured on Ngsesbus. (Credits: Travis Roland)
The bunker that R.V. and Sledge captured on Ngsesbus. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Given the proximity of a large cannon near the airstrip that we found, plus the fact that it was the only cannon (or what was left of it) in the area, I was certain that I found the one which Sledge describes that devastated the 5th Marines in the closing hours of the operation. Heavily camouflaged and undetected, it got off several deafening point blank rounds into a thick rank of unsuspecting Marines only meters away, killing or maiming at least 20 before being knocked out.

Quoting Sledge … ‘to be shelled was terrifying, and to be shelled in the open on your feet was horrible; but to be shelled point-blank was so shocking that it almost drove the most resilient and toughest among us to panic. Words can’t convey the awesome sensation of actually feeling the muzzle blasts that accompanied the shrieks and concussions of those artillery shells fired from a gun so close by. We felt profound pity for our fellow Marines who had caught its full destructive force.’

Today, what’s left of this harvester of death rests harmlessly in its original position as if still on duty and awaiting action.

The .75mm gun that inflicted dozens of casualties on Ngesebus
The .75mm gun that inflicted dozens of casualties on Ngesebus. (Credits: Travis Roland)

My trip to Peleliu now complete, it was time to get back to the more familiar confines on Koror.  And with a day to spare before departing for home, Palau wasn’t going to let me get away without giving up more of its ghosts.  Thanks to a sea kayaking/hiking tour (finally in English!), I would be able to see more amazing battlefield relics above and below the water throughout the islands. This time, I welcomed having guides and cherished being with a group.  I especially liked how I didn’t know ahead of time what we would see or what to expect. That way every paddle on the ocean or footstep on land would yield something surprising and notable, like sunken Japanese barges that now shelter colorful Mandarin fish, planes, massive knocked out coastal cannons, and a lighthouse that was shot to pieces. We even found General Inoue’s garage sized outdoor stone bathtub!

General Sadae's spacious outdoor bath on Koror
General Inoue’s spacious outdoor bath on Koror. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Given the amount of gun emplacements, unforgiving terrain, and amount of troops stationed there, bypassing these islands was easily one of the best decisions that the Americans made in the Pacific campaign. And just because they weren’t invaded, didn’t mean that they were left unchecked. By using the airfields on Anguar and Peleliu now under new ownership, the main garrison was subject to routine bombing and strafing well into 1945. However, not without cost. With a storm whipping up, our boat began our journey home at top speed. Ignoring the stinging salt water hitting my face, I focused on an object protruding in shallow water that we were approaching. An upside down starboard wing of a B-24M bomber and inspiration for a non-profit group (ProjectRecover) whose mission is to retrieve MIA airmen in Palau.

One of two B-24Ms (the other B-24 ‘Brief’ shot down, on VE Day, was filmed as it was hit by AA fire and the footage is often (deceptively) used to show the raid on the Polesti oil refinery in Romania.) lost over Palau, this plane went down with all hands and rest as a poignant and physical reminder of the cost of warfare. Having found both known batteries of AA guns in Palau, the amateur forensic historian in me, given the ground that I covered, tells me that I was looking at one of the few places in the world where one can find the victor and the vanquished of a surface-to-air engagement, at least from WW2.

Starboard wing of a B24 Mitchell bomber
Starboard wing of a B24 Liberator bomber. (Credits: Travis Roland)

Prior to departing for Peleliu, the 1st Marines on Pavuvu were treated to an impromptu USO performance headlined by Bob Hope who went out of his way to stop by. Asked after the war if he remembered that day, an emotional Hope, veteran of thousands of performances, said that the show on Pavuvu was his most memorable of the war since 60% of the audience would wind up as casualties.   

A Fresh Reflection and Defense of Peleliu

There is an indiscrete memorial made of sheet metal standing off of the main road and not too far from the beaches. Its stamped words are written in Japanese so I couldn’t translate it, but I do know that it marks the site where the last Japanese holdout surrendered on Peleliu.  The date…1947.  Almost three years after the final shot rang out.

I’m noticing that the longer WW2 is removed from today’s society, and the years grow, the more people begin to question how mankind could unleash such horror and drop atomic weapons on heavily populated cities.  It’s a valid question. breathe easier if they visited my museum (see below) and read President Truman’s letter sent to Japan through diplomatic channels informing them that the United States possessed a ‘weapon of tremendous destruction’ and encouraged unconditional surrender.  Alas, the warning(s) were ignored and the Japanese military began instructing women and children how to fire a weapon, and expected an entire population to dig in, sacrifice and fight to the death. Documents exist that can prove this.

Even after two atomic bombs were dropped, there was still a will to fight. However, the ominous threat of the Red Army, who by then had already stormed through the Korean peninsula, coupled with the oncoming American fleet that would’ve been the size of a cyclone but more destructive, and angry, helped Japan come to their senses, and finally give in. For the nation that asked its young men to crash their planes into ships, and were known to target our medics on the battlefield, the war was over.

By many estimates, the invasion of Japan would’ve resulted in one million Japanese deaths, and 100,000 American lives, not to mention the humanitarian crises that would have certainly plagued the country afterwards. And no amount of accounting in the world can calculate how many babies wouldn’t have been born after the war had ‘Operation Downfall’ occurred. It’s those kind of statistics that has plagued the former Soviet Union still to this day. With 12 million U.S. servicemen and women in uniform during WW2, there is a good chance that somebody reading this today wouldn’t be here if the invasion was carried out, including myself.

Much like the costly Battle of the Hurtgen Forest in Germany that was ramping up just as Peleliu was winding down, Peleliu is largely forgotten, written off as unnecessary, and considered not shortening the war by a single hour. I disagree.

While I agree with the Hurtgen Forest argument, a battle that had German veterans saying was worse than the Eastern Front, recent reflections have changed my mind about Peleliu. And more through fate rather than design, I believe Peleliu actually helped bring an end to WW2.

Combined with the lessons learned in the last year of the war, including a better understanding of the enemy, and given the fanatical fight to the last bullet mentality instilled in Japan, I believe that Peleliu actually did contribute to ending the war by helping justify the dropping of the atomic bombs, which therefore saved lives, albeit at great and horrific cost to the population. I have yet to meet someone from Japan who disagrees that the bombs weren’t justified if the subject is brought up.

Indirectly and unwittingly, the sacrifice of the soldiers on Peleliu wound up being a gift of life that continues to this day.  

Yes, Peleliu, and even the Philippines could’ve been bypassed both tactically and strategically. But saying that Peleliu didn’t contribute to the pursuit of peace, would be disrespectful to those who paid the ultimate price on that ‘damned’ island. To the veterans today whose candles are flickering out, to the ones who can no longer hear us, they can rest easy in knowing that many of us are here today because of them.  

“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity”. – Edvard Munch

As I made my final boat ride back to the hotel, escorted for a time by a playful pod of dolphins, I shut my brain off, blocked out the world’s problems and surrendered my senses to Palau’s breathtaking scenery. It was refreshing to know that despite all of the horrors and ruinous destruction of the battle, Palau has reclaimed its natural beauty, and all is forgiven. Mindful and respectful of its infamous history while continuing to heal and move forward, Palau, with its jaw dropping beauty, and hospitable natives who will welcome you with the local ‘Alii’ greeting while sporting ear to ear smiles has shown the world that no matter how destructive mankind can be, nature, bridged with the inherent goodness of people, can overcome, reclaim, and thrive.

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2 thoughts on “Solitude in the Shadow of Death: Battle of Peleliu”

  1. Travis, my heartfelt congratulations to you on your trip. I have followed the war and this battle myself as an historian and recently spent 5 days on Palau with my wife on vacation coming from Taiwan. Sadly there was not time on our part nor interest on my wife’s part to make the special trip to Peleliu . Great article. Thanks. Wish you the best.

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