The question cracked by my ear like the round from the Arisaka rifle fired at me by the famed Japanese sniper nicknamed "The Fox."
"Why did you attack Japan in World War II?"
My wife Judy gasped, though I was not totally surprised. We were attending a luncheon in the Shrine of Mito City hosted by World War II Japanese veterans of the 2d Infantry Regiment Association, and in attendance were Japanese historical revisionists as well as those Americans who sought to compromise the B-29 atom bomb exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
One question for which I was unprepared was posed to me the day before in the auditorium of the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. "Do you think the United States accomplished its objectives in World War II as did Japan?" I might have made a belligerent response had not our interpreter, Isao Ashiba, whispered, "Watch out, Mr. Wagner, it's a loaded question; take your time to think about your answer." That day, Mr. Ashiba became my friend.
If "like the crack of a bullet by my ear" was an apt metaphor for "Why did you attack us?" then the question whether "the USA accomplished its goals in World War II as did Japan," could be likened to the great dismay caused by the large mortar shell dropped among us several hundred yards inland from our Orange Beach landing zone at dusk on D-day of our invasion of Peleliu. Instead of a deadly explosion, green vapor seeped out to envelop us. "Gas!" yelled a panic-filled voice. A handful of troops beetled back toward the beach to retrieve gas masks, which most of us had discarded to lighten loads. When clearer heads prevailed, the crisis was resolved; the shell had been a marker signal. Similarly, with a moment to evaluate the question at the symposium, I felt my answer come clear.
Those first several days inland from Orange Beach could be described only as the cruelest nightmare. Our men and equipment were becoming casualties at a terrible rate from a nearly invisible enemy who had zeroed-in over previous months on all elements of the island's terrain. The heat and humidity soared. A dreadful pre-invasion logistical error had caused our supply of drinking water to be pumped into oil-contaminated containers. At times more men were going down from heat exhaustion than gunfire. Those first few nights we expected but did not receive the typical Japanese mass suicidal attacks from unknown numbers of fanatical defenders hiding in coral caves and ridges.
Also unknown to us during the first 48 hours of the landings, our northernmost flank was in jeopardy of being wiped out and the whole of our White Beach sector rolled up and overrun. Were it not for the heroic defense from K Company of the 3d Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment at "The Point," this salient flank cut off from the main body of 1st Marines could have proved disastrous. Though whittled down from 235 to 78 effectives, K Company gave a superb account of itself and held to close ranks, causing an estimated 800 Japanese casualties.
My close call with The Fox came along the West Road adjacent to Deadman's Curve, so named for his lethal marksmanship. He was reputed to have dispatched some 90 1st Marine Division assault troops during the month following our 15 September 1944 initial landings. Even allowing for the exaggeration factor, which so often fills moments of boredom in war, he was an effective killer, and his tools were stealth, patience, and accuracy. This pattern indicated The Fox pulled the trigger to put a bullet through the chest of Colonel Joseph Hankins, the highest ranking Marine to die at Peleliu.
When the jungle covering was peeled back by the onslaught of a massive pre-invasion bombardment from sea and air, though causing few Japanese casualties, it revealed this tiny two-by-six mile island in its naked form unknown previously to our intelligence people. Exposed was an impenetrable backbone of ridges perforated by networks of natural and engineered caves presenting a veritable limestone fortress which, commanded by the brilliant defensive tactician, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, prolonged the duration of the battle predicted to require only three days by the 1st Marine Division's commanding officer, General William Rupertus, to nearly three months. How prescient was the code name "Stalemate" assigned to this impending military operation.
After the beginning of the war, the Japanese high command fortified a honeycomb of natural and artificial caves throughout the island into hidden interconnecting tunnel strongholds. The men of the 1st Marine Division hurled themselves at this Japanese coral fortress defended primarily by the crack 2d Regiment of the 14th Manchurian Division. After three weeks of combat, our 1st Division infantry units became ineffective as a fighting force and they were relieved by units of the Army's 81st Wildcat Division. But these Marines had broken the back of the 12,000-man Japanese force skillfully led by Colonel Nakagawa and driven the survivors into a defensive tunnel bastion just as skillfully engineered.
A few Japanese escaped to Koror, capital of the Palaus 30 miles to the north, and approximately 150, mostly Korean laborers, were taken captive. Casualties for U.S. forces numbered 10,000, with 2,000 dead.
At battle's end, the Japanese senior officers—Colonel Nakagawa and Major General K. Murai (who was serving as an adviser to Nakagawa)—committed seppuku, ceremonial suicide, in their last command post, a large, well-shaped vertical cavity positioned naturally in the China Wall, a limestone-serrated ridge among the Umurbrogol Mountains. Japanese resistance officially ended there on 25 November 1944 with the code message, "Sakura, Sakura"—"Cherry, Cherry"—meaning, "it has ended here," sent through the underwater telephone cable to military headquarters at Koror.
In U.S. newspapers, the front page articles were of General Douglas MacArthur's advances in the Philippines and of the massive Allied airborne attack on Arnhem, Holland, resulting in defeat for trying to take "A Bridge Too Far." News of the grueling victory on Peleliu was relegated to the back pages, if covered at all.
Now shrouded in jungle-green, what evidence of the battle of Peleliu remains? There are memories for a dwindling few. There are artifacts of war overlooked in the past by souvenir and scrap-metal hunters, now protected by the Republic of Palau which has designated Peleliu a historic site and national shrine. There are shrines and mementos to the men of war. And yes, there is much more.
For some who served on Peleliu the sorrow of buddies lost and the nightmares weigh too heavily ever to return. For others, the mystique of the place draws them back. And the lure is not limited to age or veterans of Peleliu.
Three other veterans, not of Peleliu but Vietnam, wrote to me in 1993 after being attracted by a magazine article I wrote in 1991 describing my unsuccessful search for the site of the last Japanese command post. They joined me in a three-day expedition to find it. What we found was rampant jungle that seemed bent on covering up the past.
One of the veterans, Ed Underwood, is a retired Army major and highly decorated Vietnam veteran currently in civil service as an exercise and training specialist with the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, Headquarters U.S. Army Pacific. During his combat tours he served as a psychological operations adviser to the Armor School of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, as an Aero Scout platoon leader, and as a regimental aviation officer with the 11th Cavalry Regiment.
Ed's friend, retired Colonel Lee Harmon, readily joined our search, for he had trudged over the old battlefields of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific and had whetted his intellectual appetite for studying historic war terrain and the tactical maneuvers that occurred there. Like Ed, he was highly decorated for his Vietnam duty. In one engagement while serving in the armored cavalry, he was wounded six times.
The third veteran to join me was Lieutenant Karl Beilan, then-senior investigator for the Kwajalein Police Department in the Marshall Islands. Karl was a Marine Corps enlisted man for an aviation support role in Vietnam. In the past he had trekked former battle zones of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Eniwetok, Saipan, and Peleliu alone to come to terms with himself and to ponder whether he could have withstood the horrors of World War II combat.
After two sweltering days reconnoitering Wildcat Bowl, Death Valley, and Bloody Nose Ridge, we relocated the actual last Japanese command post at the north end of the China Wall. Behind its jungle cover, Lee identified it first. We found the vertical sub-cave entrances to the command post, living quarters, and the communications center, all with protective snipers' ports above. The entrance to the living quarters was filled with rubble blasted loose, probably by Army grenades or charges.
The place was a time capsule of 1944; there was no evidence that anyone had entered it since. Lee found an old aluminum panel and scratched the date and our names on it and placed it in the sniper's post above the communications cave.
Realizing there was yet another mystery to be solved with possible humanitarian implications, Ed and Lee returned to Peleliu and the last command post two months later with a friend, Colonel Ray Barrager. They labored for two days clearing away some of the rock rubble blocking the cave entrance to the living quarters of General Murai and Colonel Nakagawa. They discovered six U.S. Army detonated concussion grenades which had greatly changed the configuration of the chamber. Ed was confident that the human remains they found belonged to Murai and Nakagawa. He then contacted Mr. Bune Fukuchi, Director of the South Pacific Memorial Association of Japan with a detailed message of the discovery and closed with his hopes that this would clarify the ultimate fate of General Murai and Colonel Nakagawa, and their remains could be properly blessed and honored.
Appreciation for Ed's efforts and our discovery swelled among Japanese military and historian circles, and Colonel Nakagawa's widow expressed her hopes to attend the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu scheduled there for 15 September 1994.
Judy and I returned to Peleliu for these ceremonies and were met by Ed, Karl, and Ray. Though this had not been "their war," these men had returned to assist in guiding the veterans and improving the trails, particularly to the last Japanese command post. They also had led six returning Japanese veterans to the site. Sadly, Colonel Nakagawa's widow could not return for the ceremonies. At 92 years old she was just too frail to attempt it.
Along the tricky jungle trail Ray led us to rope railings he, Ed, and Karl had installed to help us veterans up the China Wall and to the large V-shaped crevice that opened into the command post. Looking down on the floor of this 50-foot-diameter well-shaped vertical cavern, we saw groups of U.S. veterans, media people, and family members observing and conversing in hushed tones as six Japanese probed and dug in the living quarters of General Murai and Colonel Nakagawa. The same reverential aura and sense of sanctuary lingered about this place; Judy felt it, too, despite the number of people, despite the array of military artifacts symbolizing death and destruction.
So, how did I answer the question that began this tale? "Why, Mr. Wagner, did America attack Japan in World War II?" After gathering my thoughts, I replied: "When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, we naturally retaliated to keep freedom alive for our country and the world. Both countries believed in what they were fighting for and fought valiantly for their objectives."
Like old warriors parting, the meeting ended with respect for one another.