The Most Distant Battlefield – Palau Islands, Fed. St. Micronesia

The Most Distant Battlefield
Peleliu, Palau Islands, Micronesia

Drops of sweat plop into the thick dust as my flashlight cuts a swath through the large cave. It is pitch dark and pleasantly cool compared to the extreme 105° tropical heat outside. I learn this is actually several caves, and excavated tunnels lead to more caves, miles of them. Except for the gigantic spiders, prehistoric roaches and omnipresent bats, I am alone. Alone among the living, to be precise, but not without company. The skeletons, some still wearing tattered remnants of uniforms lay frozen in death and time. Nambu machine gun belts are loaded and fed into the weapon, grenades lay on the floor, medical supplies and cooking gear against one wall, sake bottles stacked against another. The walls of the cave entrance are blackened from flamethrowers, but where I am, deep in the cave system, the fighting was hand to hand and illuminated only by the flash of weapons. The native people of this remote island refuse to enter the caves, believing them to be haunted. As I gaze at a skull with round, black eyeglasses laying next to it, I shiver and realize they were right.

The Palau Island group lies some four hundred miles to the east of the Philippines, and as such is considered the gateway to magnificent Micronesia. In the mid-1940’s Palau found itself at one of the historic crossroads and battlefields of World War Two, and it is that fact which found me on the deck of a tramp steamer out of the capital of Koror. My companions were native Palauan women nursing children and chewing betel nut and crew members trolling for Barracuda off the stern, but my thoughts were elsewhere as I scanned the horizon for the tiny island of Peleliu. I was thinking of a friend, Stewart Tremaine of Portland, who must have scanned the horizon just as I am now, almost 55 years ago. I have travelled thousands of miles to visit this most distant and least visited American battlefield of the Second World War, to walk the invasion beaches and among the coral, hills and caves where for two terrible months in 1944, American Marine and Army units fought the most desperate and least reported battle of the Pacific campaign. I came to pay my own respects to surviving Marines I have come to know and to the 10,000 Americans who became casualties in what was supposed to be a three-day walkover. I came to see a piece of what they experienced, and to marvel at the courage that makes men do such things. I also came to build my own internal bridge to the generation that won World War Two and built America, people I once viewed with suspicion, who I have slowly come to realize made possible the indulgences of my own generation. I came to try to learn something about myself.

In late 1944, the tide of war in the Pacific had turned. The Japanese were reeling from a long series of defeats. Guadalcanal in the Solomons was lost, and after the terrible battle of Tarawa, the Gilbert Islands were in American hands. The cream of Japanese naval air power had been lost earlier at the Battle of Midway, and now the rest, some 500 aircraft, lie at the bottom of the Philippine Sea after what U.S. pilots referred to as “the Marianas Turkey Shoot”. The Japanese Navy was battered, the remnants in home waters regrouping for what would eventually be the Battle of Leyte Gulf, then still some weeks distant. Only the Japanese Army remained, strung out in garrisons throughout Micronesia, the last defensive ring before Japan itself.

With the American offensive in the Philippines imminent, Douglas MacArthur was concerned about his flank, represented by the Palau group. It was a misplaced concern. With the destruction of Japanese air power, the Japanese forces in Palau had nothing to threaten American forces with. Many other Japanese garrisons had been bypassed and left to sit out the war. Truk (now Chuuk), also in the Marianas, had a garrison of 30,000 soldiers who would watch their fleet sunk at anchorage, be cut off, bypassed and then left to slowly starve for the next 18 months. The airstrips on Peleliu and Ngesebus, the adjacent island, were not needed for the allied offensive. There was no reason for the Peleliu invasion to occur, and the fact that it was not canceled must be viewed with historical hindsight as a bloody smirch on the records of MacArthur, Admiral Halsey and the U.S. military and political leadership.

On the island of Peleliu, in the autumn of 1944, the American amphibious island hopping campaign ran up against Japanese forces who, knowing what was coming, had created a virtually impregnable fortress, one carved of limestone, jungle and almost intolerable heat.

Having learned the lessons of futile Banzai attacks on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, where Japanese soldiers by the hundreds would attack en mass and be mowed down by American weapons, the Japanese adopted a defense in depth strategy which was designed to take advantage of the caves and coral ridges of Peleliu. The battle in the Palau Group would be an infantry battle, and the Japanese High Command placed the combat hardened 11,000 soldiers of the Fourteenth Infantry Division on Peleliu with one strategic goal: inflict as many U.S. casualties as possible and delay the inevitable. To help accomplish this goal, the Japanese, using slave labor from Palau and Okinawa, tunneled miles into Peleliu; they expanded caves, created deep bunkers, poured concrete pill boxes, created a defensive system that was mutually supporting. Eight-inch naval guns would be run out on railroad tracks from caves to fire, and be taken back in before counter-battery fire could be brought to bear. Mortars and artillery would be fired from caves, and bunkers with machine guns would cover the cave entrances and make any ground attack bloody and difficult. With six months to fortify the island, they created a fortress that remains impressive today.

On Peleliu D-Day, September 15th, 1944, the men of the First, Fifth, and Seventh Marine Divisions waited offshore as naval gunfire raked the island. Thousands of shells fell on Peleliu, and aircraft attacked the island with bombs and napalm stripping the island of vegetation. After five hours the island was a blasted, smoky wasteland. Admiral Jesse Barrett, in charge of the bombardment on the battleship Mississippi, announced that he was out of targets and that the enemy had been suppressed. Even the Marines thought the enemy had been largely eliminated. General William Rupertus, commander of the First Marine Division, gave the go-ahead for a battle he had announced would take “no more than three days, tops”.

The first indication that things would not go smoothly was when the amphibious vehicles carrying Marines to the beach came under direct heavy mortar and artillery fire at the reef, a few hundred yards offshore. The Japanese had retreated to their caves, and the bombardment had not only failed to remove the established “targets” but resulted in the death, according to Japanese records, of only one of the 10,000 soldiers on Peleliu. Soon Amtraks were burning on the reef, first a couple, then eight, then fifteen. There were 26 direct hits on Amtraks in the first ten minutes; within an hour, 60 of the 84 Amtraks used in the invasion were damaged or destroyed. Men and vehicles were vaporized by direct hits from Japanese artillery protected in caves. The surviving Marines making landfall on White Beach and Orange Beach found themselves in a hellish environment, raked by machine gun and mortar fire, unable to dig in because of the hard coral which ripped their clothes and flesh. The heat was extreme: temperatures ranged from 103° to 115° F and in an incredible snafu, there was no drinking water on the beach.

E.B. Sledge, who would go to write a history of the battle “With The Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa” was one of the marines in the Seventh Regiment who landed on White Two and made it to the beach. He recalls:

“Up and down the beach and out on the reef, amtracs and DUKW’s were burning. Japanese machine gunfire made long splashes on the water as though flailing it with some whip. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a group of Marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef…I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of hundreds of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.”

As I walk that beach, I try to understand what the battle was like. The thin layer of sand covers coral, sharp as razors, which gives way to yet more more coral. The beach, perhaps 30′ wide, is now shaded by Mangroves, but on that day there was no shade and death was everywhere. There are parts of amtracs and DUKW’s strewn on the beach, with bits of track and gear boxes strewn about. Rusted shrapnel is everywhere, bullets stuck in coral, waiting frozen in time for a firing pin to drop. Artillery shells, American and Japanese, lie everywhere. Machine gun belts lay encrusted in coral, belt buckles, and a silver flash turns up the dog tag of Private Austin Wortman, Jr., a veteran who survived Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, only to be badly wounded at this place on D-Day. My phone call to him several weeks later triggered memories that by his own admission, had been left buried on Peleliu with his nest friend.

On the left of the invasion beach designated “White One”, a small promontory juts out into the reef, infamous as “The Point”, a heavily fortified series of Japanese bunkers that commanded the beach and looms large in accounts of the landing. I walk toward the Point, remembering the stories of Marine veterans who could barely speak to me of that ghastly place. Paul Jackson, who survived Peleliu and fought with the First Marine Division later at Okinawa told me of watching his best friend die in the explosion of a mortar round fired from the Point at a distance of no more than 200 yards:

“There was machine gun and artillery fire everywhere, scores of dead and wounded men… He was there one minute yelling at me to keep down, and the next second the earth explodes in white coral and blood. I remember feeling numb and wanting to do something, but I was pinned down and so scared I could not move. There was nothing left of him anyway.”

Tom Lea, a reporter for Life Magazine who went in the first assault wave recalled that, “Those Marines flattened in the sand and coral on that beach were dark and huddled like wet rats in death.”

The bunkers are still there, covered, as is all of Peleliu, with a nearly impenetrable second growth jungle. I bushwhack through, and come upon more shells, unexploded grenades, ordinance of all sorts. Again and again I wonder not at how many Americans were casualties but that there were not more. The defenses were incredibly strong, mutually supporting, and nearly impossible to take by frontal assault.

Company K of the First Marines’ Third Battalion was ordered to take the Point at all costs. Captain George Hunt, the commanding officer, looked up and saw a scene that he thought would lead to his death. His battalion numbered 335 men. After a hellish day and sleepless night of constant counter-attacks, they would succeed, but only 61 of them would survive the effort.

I walked inland from the beach over the 100 yards that were filled with Japanese machine gun nests that killed and wounded hundreds on D-Day, and come up against a coral ridge some 40′ high and strung out along the full length of White Beach. Not shown on any map, this ridge was heavily fortified and ringed with caves (indeed, pre-invasion maps showed few ridges or hills of size, remarkable in view of the Umbrogal Mountains on the spine of Peleliu, with hills several hundred feet high) It was against this the First Marines would attack, and beyond this ridge lay the main defenses on what would become known as Bloody Nose Ridge.

By Day 2 casualties were extreme, as high as 85% in some rifle companies. By Day 6, Company B would be down to 38 men from its original strength of 230. Company C had only 17 men. Such casualty numbers were the rule, not the exception. One hill would be taken, only to have Japanese infantry jump out of hidden caves and fire into the backs of advancing marines. As I approach Bloody Nose Ridge, I marvel at how mortal men could do what the Marines did. The terrain is impassable. There are sheer cliffs 50″ high leading to a series of hills that would be baptized in the blood of brave men and given euphemistic names like “the Five Sisters”, “The Five Brothers”, “China Wall”, ” Death Valley” and hills named for their relentless elevations, “Hill 100″, Hill 200″, “Hill 205″. Swamps, and the incredible sapping heat and humidity, are everywhere.

I traveled with Tangie Hesus, a native of Peleliu, curator of the small Peleliu museum and a guide (the only guide) for the battle. It is late, dark now, and when we return to the village where he runs a home stay for the occasional visitor, we stopped and turned out the lights on the car. The blackness is total, the sounds of the jungle muted in the dark. The heat and humidity remains intense, now joined by clouds of insects seeking a meal. I wanted to feel what it was like to here in the dark, for it was at night that Peleliu was most horrifying.

When the Japanese would emerge from their caves in twos and threes, sometimes in company strength, and slowly, quietly, work their way into the Marine lines with bayonets. Known as infiltrators, they insured no marine would sleep, and the nights were filled with the screams of wounded men in hand to hand fights for their life. These were not the well known Banzai charges, these were the things of nightmares, and when morning came, men looked around to see which friends had been killed the night before. “Can you imagine….” Tangie says and lets the sentence die in the black heat of the jungle evening.

On D-Day +5, 1st Lt. Stewart Tremaine was with the rest of Company I, Third Battalion, 7th Marines who had been ordered into the Umurbrogal Mountains. Now a distinguished attorney in Portland, Oregon, Tremaine recalled to me his memories of the night before they assaulted the ridges.

“I was lying against a tree, hot, thirsty and bone tired. We were on edge, of course, because we knew the Japanese would infiltrate our lines at night, and we were already suffering from sleep deprivation and lack of water. As I leaned against that blasted tree, I heard Japanese voices and smelled fish cooking. They were in caves directly under us, and it was tough knowing they were so close, so comfortable, and would soon be trying to kill me”.

The next day, Tremaine’s battalion made total gains of only 80 yards, losing scores of men to snipers, mortars and Nambu machine gun fire. They spent a sleepless night with Japanese infiltrators killing several men in their foxholes. Scouts from Tremaine’s Company found the Marine dead were booby-trapped, and the message passed to use caution when recovering dead comrades.

At 0800 on 22 September, 3/7 jumped off for the initial assault into the Umurbrogal along with the rest of the Seventh Marines. Little did they know they were heading into a well designed trap. Initial opposition was surprisingly light, and they moved the first 100 yards quickly, their way masked by smoke shells and phosphorus. At 250 yards, they reached the mouth of a long, narrow valley, and opposition increased. Hill 200 to the right was occupied at its crest by the 2nd Battalion, but the steep faces of the valley walls below them were riddled with gun emplacements, machine gun nests and sniper pits called “spider holes” that could not be reached from above. The Marines were entering an area that would become famous in Marine lore as “Death Valley”, the heaviest defended real estate on all of Peleliu, an area surrounded on all sides by sheer cliffs and gun emplacements. By now, 3/7 was actually within 100 yards of Nakagawas command cave. They would get no closer than that for six bloody weeks.

The Japanese exercised exceptional fire discipline, waiting for the full batallion to enter the valley floor. Then all hell broke loose. The official Marine history of the battle describes it as such: “The depleted units found themselves in a topographical funnel, with sheer sides from which mutually supporting dug-in enemy positions covered the low ground with fire from every angle and which were impervious to infantry assault.”

Stewart Tremaine was at the battalion command post waiting for water when the order was given to withdraw. Marine batteries began lobbing smoke and phosphorus shells to cover the retreat. Within seconds, an artillery round of unknown origin dropped directly into the command post. First Sergeant William Mulford, who would survive Peleliu and go on to fight with the 7th Marines at Okinawa remembers it clearly:

“A working party had just arrived at the command post with five gallon water cans. I was with Pfc George Doney, who was sitting on a water can when the shell hit. His head was blown completely off, blood pumping from his jugular before he fell over. Of the thirteen men at the command post, three were killed outright, three were untouched, and the rest were wounded. Lt. Tremaine had all his clothes blown off and was terribly burned”.

Tremaine would be evacuated and spend over a year in hospitals recovering. He has managed to block out many memories of that battle, and does not regret the memory loss. His conversation with me, which would ultimately lead to his return to Peleliu for the 55th anniversary of the battle, was the first time in 55 years he had spoken of the battle.

“I remember only bits and parts of the battle. Much of it is a complete blank. I think I am fortunate not to remember more. I remember being afraid all the time, and as hot and thirsty as I have been in my life. I remember looking up into those hills and praying, because the enemy position was virtually impregnable. I remember friends disintegrating before me, and men losing their minds. I don’t remember getting blown up, just waking up on the hospital ship in agony. I do not want to remember most of that terrible place.”

One could actually say that Tremaine was lucky. By the time his battalion was withdrawn two weeks later, Companies I&L, with a combined strength of 470 men, could only bring 80 men to the colors. There was not one line officer left, and of the 80 survivors, a total of 16 escaped without wounds.

The Marine losses in the withdrawn battalions had now reached 60%. In the first week of battle, Marine losses reached 4,00 men. And it was only the beginning.

The bravery of the Marine infantry was matched by the egomania and stupidity of their commanders. Marine doctrine states that when a regiment is reduced in number by 15% it is no longer considered a battle capable unit, and yet by D-Day plus 7, many units were down to 40%. The blame for this must rest with General Rupertus, who had the 81st US Army Division sitting offshore, and with Colonel Lewis P. “Chesty” Puller, commander of the First Marine Division, who sent his depleted infantry regiments to their deaths in hopeless assaults. Rupertus stubbornly refused to call in the Army reinforcements, and Puller, a man of courage but questionable judgment refused to ask for them (a deadpan Captain Everett C. Pope called Colonel Puller “the best platoon leader in the history of the Marine Corps”).

There is an area against the ridges called “The Horseshoe” a low spot ringed by high hills and sheer cliffs, an area where American troops fell by the hundreds, that was the scene of desperation caused by such command attitudes. Hill 100 sits on the right as you enter the Horseshoe from the invasion beach side, and from the bottom, seems to have a commanding view. It was thought that Hill 100 may have given the Marines high ground to provide fire support for troops attacking the Horseshoe. To this hill, on the orders of Chesty Puller, Captain Everett Pope led the remnants of Company C, now only 90 men, with orders to take and hold the hill. As it turned out, Hill 100 was a trap, completely covered by Japanese artillery, mortars and rifles. Joseph Seifts, a survivor, remembers it this way:

“We started up the slope with about 30 men left. By the time we got to the top, there were only about 20 of us left…we had no machine guns or mortars. The Japs hit us at 11 o’clock that night. We had to hold the hill. Because at the bottom lay all our wounded. We stopped attack after attack…I was never so glad to see daylight.”

At daybreak, Pope had a defensive perimeter the size of a two car garage. His men were throwing rocks along with an occasional grenade in an effort to save what little they had left (a rock hitting the coral sounded just like a grenade and would slow the Japanese for a few seconds). Out of ammunition, and with only eight men left, he struggled back down the hill. Pope recalled that:

“My most vivid memory, after being driven off the hill, is that Puller would have me court-martialed for having failed to hold. Late that afternoon, Puller ordered what was left of us (with replacements, there now twelve in Company C) to take the hill again. Since there were only a few of us left, it was clearly to have been a suicide mission.”

At the very moment Pope prepared to lead his men to their certain deaths, the order was remanded. Puller would subsequently try, and fail, to keep Pope from getting the Medal of Honor for his heroism. Hill 100 would not be taken until two weeks later, and the mutilation of the American dead would make it difficult for the survivors to forgive even the Japanese of today.

The next day I arose early, to climb Bloody Nose Ridge before the temperatures and humidity makes it impossible. There is a staircase now that leads to the top, but it is still a steep, difficult climb. As I climbed, I marvel at how men could attack these cliffs, these caves, and the ridges, while under direct fire in 110° heat. I stop halfway up and walk out to a tiny promontory. From here, I look down into the Horseshoe from the top of a sheer 100′ cliff. I sat down on the ground, and felt something beneath me. I find myself sitting on top of a rusted Japanese hand grenade, and around it are bullets, spent .45 caliber slugs, Nambu machine gun rounds and .30 caliber rounds. I wonder how many Americans died trying to take this one spot, this insignificant little ledge, and tried to picture the grieving parents. I remember the photos of Marines finally relived by the Army on October 29th, their eyes sunken into blackened, emaciated faces, and recall that the famous World War 2 photo “The Far-away Look” was of a Marine Peleliu veteran.

As I reach the top of the ridge, I am struck by the size of Peleliu, only 5 miles long and one mile wide. From my vantage point I can see from the invasion beaches, and by turning, see the Valley of Death and Wildcat Bowl, where hundreds died in the heat and dust of Peleliu. The Five Sisters stand to my left, the Brothers to my right. I look a few hundred yards distant and there is The China Wall, sheer cliffs riddled with caves which could finally only overcome when a massive road was literally built up the side (under constant fire) so that tanks and artillery could be brought up to fire point blank into the caves. This was the last Command Post where on November 18th, 1944, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, the Japanese commander, radioed his last message to his commander on Babeldoab: “All is over on Peleliu”.

The casualties tell the story of the battle, but only part of it. The Japanese defenses were the best the Marines would encounter in World War II. They were ready, and dedicated. To kill each Japanese soldier, the Marine Corps calculated it took 1,589 rounds of ammunition from .30 caliber to massive artillery shells to kill one Japanese soldier. The intent of the Japanese military was to hold Peleliu as long as possible and cause maximum American casualties. In this, they were eminently successful.

The battle was ended, but the opposition was not. Japanese hold outs would continue to ambush occupying soldiers to the end of the war and beyond (one soldier was shot by a sniper in late 1946, but was refused a Purple Heart because the war was over). Incredibly, in the autumn of 1947, two years after the war ended, a group of 38 Japanese soldiers walked out of a hidden cave and surrendered to American officers. The last survivor was captured in 1957. The battle for Peleliu, which was supposed to be over in three days, lasted almost three months and resulted in 10,000 American casualties, including 1800 dead. Of the 11,000 man Japanese garrison, a total of 18 soldiers surrendered during the battle, the rest having fought to the death. For every one square mile of Peleliu, 2400 men died in battle.

I sat on the Peleliu wharf, waiting for the steamer that will take me back to the Palauan capital of Koror. I pondered many things. I wondered at the heart and bravery of the Americans who fought here, and how men can do such things. I thought of the Japanese infantry, brave soldiers deserving of a better cause, and realize that now I, like my Marine survivor brethren, hold a grudge. I wonder about myself, too, a child of the 60s who for too long ignored the men and women who lived through the Depression, won the war, and created the American middle class to which I now belong.

I wondered how I can articulate what I have seen to my friends and the veterans I have come to know. Above all, I wondered if I have any of the courage so commonplace among these heroes, that seems so rare among my contemporaries. An hour later, when the old Peleliu Islander draws up to the mooring, I am still wondering…

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment