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Burned on hell island.


Taking Peleliu was supposed to be easy. Instead, marines had to take out dug-in Japanese, cluster by cluster, with bombs and flamethrowers.


The 1st Marine Division stormed ashore on Peleliu on September 15, 1944, only to run head-on into a harsh reality: the Pacific island that some had thought was there for the taking looked pretty daunting up close. "The enemy was well equipped with guns and tanks and deeply dug in after years of preparations," wrote New York Times correspondent George Horne. "The hills dominating the important airfield appear honeycombed with emplacements. From the sky control station of this heavy cruiser we could plainly see beach houses and buried pill boxes." The island was indeed crusted with fortifications, though the armor and artillery had been in place only a few months. What made the defenses on Peleliu especially formidable was a Japanese commander with a new plan, a plan that would turn the US Marines' expected quick passage through hell into an extended stay.

The American assault on Peleliu, part of the Palau chain in the western Caroline Islands, came about only after considerable debate over whether it was necessary to capture the island at all. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, thought it was. More than two years after Japanese forces had driven Filipino and American troops, and MacArthur himself, from the Philippines, MacArthur was planning to return the favor. And the Japanese base and airfield on Peleliu, just 500 miles east of Mindanao, would pose a threat to his drive back to the American protectorate.


In early 1944, while MacArthur--joined by Chester W. Nimitz, commander in chief of the Pacific Ocean Areas, and other American strategy makers--plotted the future, US Navy forces began preparing for operations in the Philippines as well as in the Central Pacific (including the invasion of the Marianas, which was scheduled for June). During the second week of February, the air arm of Admiral Marc Mitscher's Task Force 58 pounded Japanese air and naval installations on Truk atoll, Japan's stronghold in the Carolines. Mitscher's pilots destroyed Imperial Japanese Navy vessels in Truk Lagoon and shot down or otherwise destroyed 250 enemy aircraft. Mitscher then dealt Peleliu the same punishment. In the March 30-31 Operation Desecration, his airmen virtually wiped out enemy air assets on Peleliu, seriously damaged the island's airfield, and cleared the Palaus of Japanese shipping. Delighted, Admiral Nimitz declared, "The Western Carolines are at least temporarily neutralized. MacArthur's right flank is safe." The region got considerably safer after the June 19-20 Battle of the Philippine Sea, which bled the Japanese naval air force dry. By July, Nimitz had authorized the capture of the southern Palau Islands, a campaign known as Stalemate II, and set a launch day of September 15.

Chosen to lead the assault was the 1st Marine Division. Comprising the 1st, 5th, 7th, and 11th (artillery) Marine Regiments, Major General William Rupertus's battle-scarred outfit had opened the marine war in the Pacific with its assault on Guadalcanal in August 1942. More recently, from December 1943 through April 1944, it had fought in the jungles of New Gloucester during the Allied campaign for New Guinea. Hoping for a rest and refit back in Australia, where the division had recuperated after Guadalcanal, the men were instead sent to hone their fighting edge on primitive Pavuvu in the Russell Islands. Beautiful from a distance, Pavuvu was a tropical hell whose surface turned to mud after the slightest rainfall. Carving roads out of its scrubby surface and building sanitary living facilities amid swarms of land crabs and rats cost the division valuable training hours. When time allowed, Rupertus's men healed, welcomed fresh marines who were sent to replace the fallen, and rushed to familiarize themselves with new flamethrowers and bazookas and the new amphibian tractors that would get them over Peleliu's surrounding reef.

By this time, the Japanese high command assumed an attack on the Palaus was coming. As part of Japan's Absolute National Defense Zone, whose excellent airfield would put American planes closer to the Philippines and other Japanese-occupied territory, Peleliu was the obvious American target. Just three miles long and two miles wide--barely a dust mite in the vast Central Pacific--Peleliu did not look significant, but the man charged with its defense, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, knew better. Nominally the commander of the Imperial Japanese Army's 2nd Infantry Regiment, Nakagawa now led some 10,500 men, including 6,500 soldiers of the veteran 14th Infantry Division and 4,000 naval infantrymen. He also had 17 tanks at his disposal. But his faith in decimating whatever force the Americans sent his way was founded on his defense plan.


Until now, Japan's defensive doctrine for its Pacific island outposts had been clear enough: attack invaders at the waterline with every available weapon and drive them back into the sea. Such tactics had exacted bloody tolls from marine divisions at far-flung islands like Tarawa in November 1943, but they had not prevented the leathernecks from wresting away such places. Assigned to Peleliu in May 1944, the 46-year-old Nakagawa had quickly recognized the futility of isolating his entire force at the water's edge, where repeated blows might quickly wipe it out. Instead, he proposed a defense that grounded scores of mutually supporting gun emplacements and machine-gun nests in the island's bumpy terrain. Operating in such a matrix, the marines would be exposed to fire from several emplacements every time they attacked one. If some Japanese army planners had begun to see the wisdom of such thinking in the aftermath of numerous failures against US Marine assaults, others were not ready to implement it on a large scale. Nakagawa's idea drew a swift denunciation from his superior, Lieutenant General Hideyoshi Obata. In the end, the Japanese went with a modified version of Nakagawa's original plan, featuring a central command bunker from which Nakagawa could mobilize and shift his reserves.


THE DEFENDERS' TOPOGRAPHICAL ADVANTAGES included the Umurbrogol Mountains, a spine-like series of heights that creased the twin-pronged island's northern branch. The mountains offered the Japanese concrete-tough cover and ideal shelter for an elaborate multilevel system of tunnels that could shelter 1,000 combat troops. Through these passageways, soldiers could quickly be rushed to, or evacuated from, threatened defense points. If Nakagawa's numbers were limited, his system would help him contest every inch of ground. Marines would not take the island until they had paid a stiff price in dead and wounded.

The American attack plan included the usual pre-assault naval bombardment. For Peleliu that meant three days of fire from 5 battleships, 5 heavy cruisers, 3 light cruisers, and 21 destroyers. The air groups from 19 aircraft carriers would also work the island over and then provide close air support in the days that followed. Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf was in command of the invasion fleet and was responsible for carrying out the bombardment, which began on September 12. On September 14, Oldendorf informed Nimitz that the work was complete, with all targets on his master list destroyed. He then allowed some of his ships to sail west and join the fleet gathering for the upcoming Allied invasion of the Philippines.

Despite the apparent success of the bombardment, troublesome signs abounded. The bombing had stripped away much of the island's vegetation to reveal far more rugged fortifications and natural strong points than expected. It had also failed to produce any large secondary explosions, which suggested that Nakagawa's fuel and ammunition dumps remained intact.


In late August, the 1st Marine Division was shipped to Guadalcanal to rehearse for the upcoming landings. Though bolstered by fresh replacements, the division remained a little understrength at roughly 17,000 men. For the Peleliu invasion, its three reinforced infantry regiments would get a hand from Sherman tanks of the 1st Tank Battalion. In reserve, Rupertus had an army outfit, the 81st "Hellcat" Division. He would also, for the time being, withhold one battalion of the 7th Marines. The attack plan was simple enough: seize a beachhead, power east across the island, then split off to the north and south to corner and destroy enemy remnants. By early September the division was packed into LSTs (Landing Ships, Tank) and trans ports, winding their way some 2,100 miles northwest to Peleliu.

Along the way, junior officers prepped their charges with helpful reminders. "Remember what you've been taught," Second Lieutenant Charles "Duke" Ellington told his 5th Marines platoon. "Keep your heads down going in on the amtrac [amphibious tractor]. Get off the beach fast. The Japs'll plaster it with everything they've got, and if we get pinned down on the beach their artillery and mortars will ruin us. Come out of your amtracs ready for anything." Some officers encouraged their men to brace themselves for a long, hard campaign.

On the eve of the operation's D-day, Major General Rupertus dispatched a message to his troops that commended them for their service to date and offered the following morsel: "Within 48 hours from the time that the first Marine puts foot on enemy soil, our country should have still another base from which to continue the march to Tokyo." His comments were intended to stiffen morale and resolve, but they indicated that the assault should be over in just two days, an idea that worried some officers who were bracing their young marines for anything. Major Gordon D. Gayle, commander of the 5th Marines' 2nd Battalion, was one of them. "I think it had a very negative effect because some people believed it," he noted later, "and if you were in my position, you couldn't discredit the Division Commander's statement, but neither could you believe it."

For the men charged with wresting Peleliu from its dug-in defenders, September 15 began before sunrise. Eugene B. "Sledgehammer" Sledge, part of a 5th Marines mortar crew, recalled "We tumbled out, dressed and shaved, and got ready for chow--steak and eggs, a 1st Marine Division tradition honoring a culinary combination learned from the Australians. Neither the steak nor the eggs were very palatable, though; my stomach was tied in knots." Shortly before the 8:30 A.M. launch time for the operation, the first wave of marine-filled amtracs began whining its way toward Peleliu's beaches.


The Japanese response was not long in coming. The tractors were about a half mile from shore when Japanese guns opened up, recalled Robert Leckie, a machine-gunner in the 1st Marines' 2nd Battalion: "The water began to erupt in little geysers and the air became populated with exploding steel.... The enemy was ... receiving us with mortar and artillery fire.... The beach ... was already a litter of burning, blackened amphibian tractors, of dead and wounded, a mortal garden of exploding mortar shells." To veteran marines, the loud welcome was no surprise. "It's the same old story," said one. "You can put all the steel in Pittsburgh in there and they still come out of holes when we land."

Rupertus's three regiments assaulted Peleliu's southwest shore with Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller's 1st Marines on the left (northernmost) on beaches White 1 and 2; Colonel Harold "Bucky" Harris's 5th Marines in the center on beaches Orange 1 and 2; and Colonel Herman Hanneken's 7th Marines on the right (southernmost) on beach Orange 3. Immediately, the men of Puller's 1st Marines found themselves caught in a torrent of fire from rifles, machine guns, and 25mm cannons positioned in a cluster of Japanese pillboxes that was quickly dubbed the Point. Puller, who landed in the first wave, had barely climbed from his amtrac when a handful of anti-boat shells struck it, killing his communications officer and putting him out of touch with his superiors. Puller scanned the area and "saw a mess--every damned amtrac in our wave had been destroyed in the water ... or shot to pieces the minute it landed."

On the Orange beaches, enemy resistance was less intense, but not by much. Tom Lea, a Life magazine artist and correspondent, remembered "I fell flat on my face just as I heard the whishhh of a mortar.... Fifteen yards away, on the upper edge of the beach ... it smashed down four men from our boat. One figure seemed to fly to pieces. With terrible clarity 1 saw the head and one leg fly through the air. Lying there in terror ... I saw a wounded man near me, staggering in the direction of the LVTs. His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand." Lea would later capture what he saw in a painting titled The Price.

The sandy turf was indeed a killing zone. "When we reached the shore and debarked I saw one hell of a sight up and down the beach," recalled machine-gunner Jim W. Johnson. "The sand was already littered with dead and mutilated bodies of US Marines--bodies of old salts and Selective Service recruits lying side by side ... All the armored amphibs I could see had been knocked out and [were] burning." Unwilling to be pinned down, the men of Harris's 5th Marines moved forward on the Orange beaches and fought their way inland to the western fringe of the coveted Japanese airfield.


By late that day, Harris's 5th and Hanneken's 7th Marines had taken up positions on the airfield's western edge, where they waited in grim anticipation of a banzai charge that the Japanese had no intention of launching. At about 4:40 P.M., however, a serious counterattack materialized on the 5th Marine lodgment. The Japanese attacked from the north with infantry and 13 to 17 Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks that were so poorly armored that virtually any ammunition larger than .30 caliber could penetrate them. By the time of the attack, eight M4A2 Sherman tanks of the 1st Tank Battalion's A and B companies were in place to help 5th Marine riflemen break it up with their bazookas, rifle grenades, and mortars.

The imperial army armor advanced steadily ahead of the infantry line, then suddenly bolted toward the marines as wild-eyed Japanese soldiers clung to their hulls and others were left behind in the dust. Platoon Sergeant Edward D. Miller responded by ordering his platoon of Shermans from the 1st Battalion's Company A directly at the enemy. The gunner in Miller's tank, Corporal Edward E. Brooks, recalled "The Japanese came out in wedge formation. We charged down the middle of them to bust them up. Firing right and left, we got five. Then the Japanese artillery got a hit on us and knocked out our steering, so we couldn't turn but could only go backward and forward." All the while, the wounded Miller (whose bravery earned him the Navy Cross) remained in the tank's open turret, exposed, so he could better direct the action. In roughly 30 minutes, the Japanese armor disappeared amid torrents of marine tank, bazooka, and small-arms fire augmented by a single 500-pound bomb dropped by a navy plane.


By dawn on September 16, 200 marines had been killed and 900 wounded. Company K of the 1st Marines' 3rd Battalion, led by Captain George Hunt, was clinging desperately to the Point. Hunt's continuing assault on this complex had left some 400 Japanese defenders dead, but also whittled his own unit down to just 18 battle-fit men. Offering some help, amtracs were growling back and forth from offshore transports, ferrying in supplies and carrying out the wounded. Finally, portions of the 1st Marines' 1st Battalion, supported by a pair of tanks, broke through Japanese positions to firm up Hunt's besieged line. It was just in time. At 10 P.M., some 500 Japanese troops assaulted the Point head-on and along Hunt's right flank. Aided by mortar and artillery fire called in by hustling communications men, the marines put up a stiff defense. Nearly the entire Japanese attack force fell in a blitz of bullets, steel shards, and thermite grenades that left gnarled trees and brush draped with enemy body parts. The Point held. Hunt would receive the Navy Cross.

The island's heat, meanwhile, was afflicting marines battling for an airfield whose runway of crushed white coral reflected 115degree temperatures up and into their faces. Severe dehydration and heat stroke were the result. Salt pills helped, and navy ships sent ashore 55-gallon drums filled with drinking water. But many of these oil drums had not been thoroughly scrubbed of the oil they had held, and desperately thirsty marines gulped down mouthfuls of contaminated water. "I was amazed that the water looked brown in my canteen cup," Sledge recalled. "I took a big gulp--and almost spat it out despite my terrible thirst. It was awful. Full of rust and oil, it stank. I looked into the cup in disbelief as a blue film of oil floated lazily on the surface of the smelly brown liquid." But even bad water seemed better than none, and many marines drank it anyway--slaking their thirst in exchange for severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting.

By the end of September 16, the 5th Marines occupied about 90 percent of the airfield and had reached Peleliu's eastern shore. Meanwhile, driving south, the 7th Marines had wrapped up all of the island but its southernmost tip. From there, the Japanese refused to budge from a concentration of bunkers, blockhouses, and pillboxes. Their guns sprayed anything that approached. The 7th Marines gradually claimed the ground, but only by creeping in close to smoke out defenders or seal them permanently in their cave bastions.

While Puller's 1st Battalion held the Point, his other battalions attacked north beyond the airfield in the face of heavy Japanese resistance. By the morning of September 17, his regiment had taken 30 percent casualties--roughly 1,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. But Puller got no sympathy from Rupertus, who had stepped ashore on September 16. Although Puller had been sending his men head-on into the teeth of the Japanese defenses, they were, Rupertus asserted, advancing too slowly. "Goddamn it, Lewie, you've got to kick ass to get results," he snorted at his subordinate. "You know that, goddamn it!"

The 1st Marines plowed ahead until Puller's units were nearly cut to pieces, but Puller continued to send them straight at the entrenched enemy, while demanding more speed from his officers. By early on the 17th, he was determined to secure Hill 200, a chunk of coral protruding from the southern section of the Umurbrogol Mountains that was severely hampering the advance. Marines would soon dub this section of the mountains "Bloody Nose Ridge." Assigning its capture to his 2nd Battalion, Puller told its commander, Colonel Russell Honsowetz, "I want that ridge before sundown, and I mean, goddamn it, I want it!"


Moving out, Honsowetz's men ran into meat grinder of Japanese bunkers unlike anything they had ever seen. Packed carefully into the hillside, the enemy positions created interlocking fields of fire with virtually no breathing room between them. A storm of shot and shell erupted from Hill 200's summit. Japanese gun crews wheeled 37mm cannon out of hiding places, fired point blank at bewildered marines, and then disappeared. Sniper rifles added precision fire to the sheer volume of heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. "We got partway up the ridge, and then the hills opened and fire poured down on our heads," Private First Class Russell Davis recalled. "We could do nothing but huddle together in terror.... We were witless and helpless with nothing to do but lie there and take it."

Eventually, a lethal mix of navy shells and fire from 105mm howitzers of the 11th Marines allowed the marines to continue up the ridge. Unknown to them, Peleliu's vast tunnel system was feeding enemy reinforcements onto Hill 200 and evacuating others from threatened emplacements. Lugging grenades and satchel charges to destroy the emplacements, the 2nd Battalion climbed to the crest of Hill 200 around twilight on the 17th but came immediately under fire from soldiers dug in on the height behind it, the slightly taller Hill 210. By this time, Puller had recognized that continual head-on attacks were decimating his regiment, and he contacted Rupertus's chief of staff to request that support troops be armed and sent forward. He was refused.

What some had envisioned as a two- or three-day campaign for puny Peleliu had quickly become something else. Puller was now attacking the edge of the twisting Umurbrogol ridges into which Nakagawa had cemented his command post, and the dwindling legions of Japanese diehards were defending it with relentless viciousness. By September 23, Puller's 1st Marines was too shot-up to continue and was replaced by a regiment from the 81st Division, the 321st. (During the previous week the 81st had secured Angaur, seven miles to the south, and Ulithi, 200 miles to the north.)

IN THE painful WEEKS THAT FOLLOWED, marines and soldiers would suffer within a sophisticated pattern of defenses designed to end as many American lives as possible, a system that would soon bedevil leathernecks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In the Umurbrogol ridges, the Americans continually advanced up unforgiving ledges, fighting in and around knots of coral and caves that they would remember as Death Valley, Five Brothers, Old Baldy, and Wildcat Bowl. Beating the enemy meant wiping him out, and on Peleliu that meant blasting and burning him out--with tanks, flamethrowers, cave-sealing explosives, and even canisters of napalm dropped by marine aircraft and set ablaze by tracer fire. "We knew all along that Peleliu would be tough, but its importance warranted the effort," Nimitz told reporters in mid-October. "Even if it had been tougher we still feel we had to take it out to protect our long line of supply."

The job certainly could not have been much harder. A month of merciless foot-by-foot fighting wore out the 1st Division's men, even as Rupertus insisted that they could finish the job alone. But his command would soon be needed for another island assault, and on October 16, the balance of Major General Paul J. Mueller's 81st Division arrived to relieve it. Mueller's Hellcats would need six more weeks to clean out the Umurbrogols, at a cost of 1,400 casualties. Not until November 27 was Peleliu officially declared secure. Three days earlier, Nakagawa, whose defensive blueprint would exact a toll of thousands more marine casualties in the coming months, had committed ritual suicide in his surrounded bunker.

Without the threat of Peleliu-based planes to worry him, MacArthur had meanwhile sent the US Sixth Army storming after Luzon on October 20, kicking off the last phase of his quest to recapture the Philippines. Debate over the value of Peleliu's bloody conquest would continue long after the war. For its reward, the 1st Marine Division received a free trip back to Pavuvu, where it would spend the next several months licking its wounds. Its astounding casualty totals came to roughly 6,500-1,050 killed in action and 5,460 wounded. After that would follow a trip to Okinawa, a much larger hell.


Lewis Puller had a noteworthy physical capacity for displaying military medals. That was a good thing, since he had a lot of medals to display.

"Chesty" was the name they gave this marine officer who naturally assumed the posture so often prescribed by barking drill sergeants in movies: "Chest out!" A native of West Point, Virginia, Chesty Puller came to Peleliu a veteran of 1930s action in Nicaragua and China and of WWII campaigning that included Guadalcanal, where he caught two sniper bullets and earned himself a Purple Heart. After leading the 1st Marine Regiment against the Japanese on Peleliu, he was sent back to the States to train new troops. He returned to front-line duty with the 1st Marines during the Korean War and built up his already impressive combat resume.

By the time health problems forced retirement in 1955, this one-time enlisted man who graduated from Officer Candidate School had earned more than two dozen medals during his rise to the rank of lieutenant general. His breastful of awards included five Navy Crosses, giving him a collection of this coveted medal that no other marine would best.


Brian John Murphy, a contributing editor of America in WWII, has written several articles on the Pacific war for the magazine.
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Author:Murphy, Brian John
Publication:America in WWII
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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