Cress column — Peleliu: Forgotten battle of World War II

Published 2:59 am Tuesday, October 14, 2014

By Rodney Cress

Special to the Salisbury Post

On Sept. 15, 1944, the Navy had just completed a 10-day aerial bombing of the island of Peleliu in the Central Pacific.  The island was inhabited by 11,000 Japanese soldiers ready for battle.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur viewed Peleliu, part of the Palau Island group, as a threat to the invasion of the Philippines and thus the 11,000 Japanese soldiers there had to be eliminated. The 1st Marine Division was given the awesome task of eliminating the Japanese.

What followed was one of the most famous battles in terms of valor and savagery of WWII.  Three infantry regiments were to cross 2,500 yards of beach on the southwestern side of the island.  Under the leadership of Co. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, Col. Harold Harris and Medal of Honor recipient Col. Herman Hanneken, the Marines were about to embark on a battle that will go down in history.

Backed up by the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, one of the first missions was to secure the airfield to establish landing for the large amount of supplies needed for the battle.  The Japanese units also consisted of the Manchurian Imperial Guard, never before defeated in battle, and the backbone for the Japanese to maintain their spirit.

The beach itself was covered with barbed wire, log cradles, concrete bunkers and mines. The Japanese had dug deep trenches to stop tank movements, and more than 500 caves were dug out and secured to protect the heavy weapons. Caves that housed the larger 8-inch guns had sliding doors that would open long enough to fire the artillery and then would close again. The Japanese were armed with 24-75mm artillery pieces, 13 light tanks, 100 .50-caliber machine guns, 15 80mm heavy mortars and 30 antiaircraft guns.  Even a small railroad was used to transport weapons from one point to another. It was quite an accomplishment and meant this battle would not be a quick one but one that would require all the Americans could muster to be successful.

The first wave on the beach by the Marines was at 08:32. The Japanese had already plotted artillery for the beach and flanking direct fire as the Marines took a heavy toll immediately from mines, mortars and incoming shells.  The Japanese then stormed the beach for close fighting with fixed bayonets, and Company K lost nearly half of its men. But the Marines kept pushing on with reinforcements on the way.  Some 30 Sherman tanks were now on the beach and received heavy fire but only a few were lost while knocking out 13 Japanese tanks. By the end of the bloody first hour of battle, all five battalions were ashore.

The Japanese retreated to the southern tip and dug in. Successfully they stopped the Marines at the base of Bloody Nose Ridge in one of the most savage battles so far. Marine pilots dropping napalm on the caves and ridges gave an emotional lift to the exhausted Marines, beaten down also by the sharp coral reef rock and 105-degree heat with little water and food left. Drinking water became contaminated with oil, and no shade could be found. It quickly came clear to Marine commanders that the Japanese were totally prepared for this battle and had laid out strategic points of attack prior to the Marine landing. In other words, the Marines were sitting ducks until they were able to push the Japanese back. The Japanese shifted later in the battle to the northern point but were quickly out-flanked by the 5th Marines.

The intense battle for Peleliu continued until Oct. 15, 1944, when the staggering toll of dead and wounded became a reality.  It was then the Marines felt they had won enough of the battle to hand it over to the Army’s 81st Division where they would fight for another 6 weeks until November 27 when no more resistance by the Japanese existed.

The 5th Marines casualties were 1,378 men; the 7th Marines casualties were 1,497 men while the total 1st Marine total casualties were 6,786 with 1,300 killed in action. Eight Medal of Honor medals were given out, five were posthumously. The Army’s 81st Division had suffered 3,278 casualties. Almost 10,900 Japanese were killed on this 6-by-2-mile island.

The battle of Peleliu has gone down as one of the most vicious, most costly and one of the toughest fights of the war. But like so many other battles, it has been overshadowed by the bigger-name battles. Peleliu had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious invasions of the entire war in the Pacific. The Marines and Army fought well here and at great sacrifice. Their reward was the Presidential Unit Citation for Extraordinary Heroism.

Peleliu is to be remembered and honored in history and placed among the other great battles of WWII. Battles like this continue to prove that America is the home of the brave and that we will fight for freedom at whatever cost.

Sources: Marine Corps Association & Foundation