Walking in My Father's Footsteps

By Henry Sledge

At Peleliu's airfield, I found the area where my father's outfit, Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, crossed on the morning of D+1. Again I separated myself from the group. I wanted to be alone to reflect. My father's description of running across this shell-torn field in full battle gear was vivid in my mind. The Umurbrogol ridges several hundred yards to the north, where so much enemy fire originated, were obscured by heavy vegetation on the day of my visit, not blasted and burned bare by naval gunfire as they were during the battle.

Heavily used during the war, the airfield was abandoned and quiet in 1999, with weeds growing in patches through the dazzling white coral runway. I picked up a handful of that crushed coral and let it sift through my fingers as I thought about Dad and his buddies, crouched low, squinting against the bright glare, gritting their teeth, cursing the Japanese, clutching their carbines and rifles, and running as fast as they could. He always told me it was one of the more terrifying moments of the war for him, crossing this wide, open runway with shrapnel and tracer bullets snapping through the air.

While comparatively few Americans visit Peleliu, fewer still venture across the channel to Ngesebus Island. One of our group's main objectives that day was to find a particular Japanese bunker. We located it, overgrown with vegetation. Here Dad's 60-mm mortar section battled and killed the bunker's 17 defenders. A 75-mm shell hole in the bunker's side was still charred around the edges from where a flamethrower had finished off the Japanese inside.

At one end, from the same spot my father had stared down the muzzle of an enemy machine gun, I peered into the structure, only to see murky water and tangled roots. On the ground nearby lay some 60-mm mortar shells covered in thick green moss. At least some of them had to have been his. Before leaving the bunker, I used my machete to hack a chuck of mossy concrete from one of its walls. Now on my bookshelf, that piece of history serves to remind me that I've been to Peleliu, walked its hallowed ground, and seen the rusted remnants of my father's war.

 

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