Until the 1st Marine Division clawed its way ashore on Peleliu and began its grueling fight in the Umurbrogol highlands against a virtually invisible enemy, the American advance westward across the Pacific in 1944 appeared invincible. In the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur had captured most of New Guinea. Admiral Chester Nimitz, his counterpart theater commander in the Central Pacific, had seized Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshalls, followed by Saipan, Tinian, and Guam in the Marianas. The Japanese were desperate to stem both tides. By September they anticipated MacArthur would soon invade the Philippines, most likely in concert with a Nimitz offensive in the Japanese-owned Palau Islands.
During the Pacific war, the Palaus provided a sheltered passage for Japanese oil tankers steaming north from the Dutch East Indies to the Home Islands, a route largely protected from U.S. submarines by shallow water and local air bases. The linchpin protecting this vital flow of oil was the two-mile-by-six-mile island of Peleliu, and there the Japanese built the largest bomber strip in their Pacific islands.
Peleliu's strategic location caught the attention of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff as they selected Pacific campaigns for 1944. They found other objectives in the Palaus, including Ulithi, whose deep-water lagoon could provide a fleet staging anchorage for future assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and Angaur, Peleliu's smaller neighbor, whose flat terrain might yield a future bomber strip. But the Joint Chiefs accorded highest priority to seizing Peleliu's bomber field. The planners reasoned that capturing Peleliu would remove a significant Japanese threat to MacArthur's seaborne invasion of the Philippines and establish U.S. air superiority throughout the Palaus. These assessments spawned Operation Stalemate, the code name for the forcible seizure of Peleliu, Angaur, and Ulithi.
The rapid advance of American forces in 1944 forced Japan's Imperial General Headquarters (IGHQ) to redeploy certain veteran infantry divisions from the Soviet border in Manchuria to reinforce their endangered Pacific islands such as Peleliu. Major General Sadae Inoue's 14th Division departed the frigid Ussuri River region and arrived in the steamy Palaus in April. Inoue deployed most of his troops on the large island of Babelthuap, posted a battalion on Angaur, and ordered the reinforced 4th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, to defend Peleliu. Nakagawa had a keen affinity for defensive warfare. At his request, Japanese mining and tunneling engineers arrived to convert hundreds of fissures and crevices in the steep slopes of the Umurbrogol into a series of mutually supporting strongpoints.
The Joint Chiefs assigned Operation Stalemate to the Central Pacific Forces of Admiral Nimitz, with a mid-September target date. Nimitz entrusted the mission to Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey, commanding the U.S. Third Fleet, and selected Marine Major General Roy S. Geiger to command the assault troops of the III Amphibious Corps. Geiger—former enlisted rifleman, pioneering Marine aviator, and distinguished commander of the "Cactus Air Force" on Guadalcanal—was well-qualified to command Stalemate's joint-service assault troops.
At Peleliu Geiger's III Amphibious Corps consisted of the 1st Marine Division, commanded by Major General William H. Rupertus, and the Army's 81st Infantry Division, the "Wildcats," led by Major General Paul J. Mueller. The veteran Marines would lead the assault on Peleliu. The well-trained Wildcats, as yet unblooded, would initially assault Angaur and Ulithi and then reinforce the Marines.
The outcome of the opening battle for the Umurbrogol would reflect the strengths and weaknesses of General Rupertus. Few general officers in the Pacific could match his eight months of experience leading troops in close-quarters jungle fighting at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester. Yet the experience also bred overconfidence. Rupertus expected the Japanese to defend Peleliu with the same predictable tactics of 1942: stiff initial resistance followed by a spectacular but sacrificial banzai attack ending the battle. As he confidently announced to his Marines embarking for the Palaus: "This will be rough but fast. We'll be through in three days, maybe two."
The division commander's hubris should have been tempered by foreknowledge of Peleliu's unique terrain and the capabilities and intent of the enemy. Unfortunately intelligence collection and analysis for Stalemate was the worst of any amphibious campaign of the war. Not until D-day—after naval gunfire and air strikes had burned away much of the island's vegetation—did the landing force discover the upthrust spires, narrow canyons, and sheer cliffs of the Umurbrogol that dominated the airfield and landing beaches. No other extreme terrain in the Pacific war—not even Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi—would cost U.S. forces so much time and blood to seize and hold.
Other intelligence shortfalls surfaced. Although the Marines knew that 10,000 Japanese defended Peleliu, they had little information about their quality. It took too long to realize they were facing one of the oldest regiments in the Imperial Japanese Army, an outfit full of pride and tradition and superbly led by Colonel Nakagawa, who would become one of the most formidable opponents the Marines ever fought. Nor were the Leathernecks forewarned of the matrix of 500 caves in the Umurbrogol escarpments—each fully provisioned, manned, and armed.
Another significant intelligence failure occurred on the operational level. For all its code-breaking success to date in the Pacific war, U.S. naval intelligence failed to intercept an urgent message in mid-August from Japanese IGHQ ordering island commanders to abandon the standard doctrine of defense at the water's edge. Transmitted shortly before Peleliu, IGHQ's "Defense Guidance on Islands" established a new doctrine of prolonged attrition—increasing the lethality and length of Japanese resistance in order to erode the will of the American people to continue the war. Commanders could "disrupt" enemy landings with light forces, but they were ordered to preserve the main body in interior strongpoints, forcing the enemy into costly frontal assaults. Wasteful banzai counterattacks were now forbidden.
The first Americans died at Peleliu during 12-14 September as the advance force commenced naval shelling, carrier air strikes, minesweeping, and underwater demolition team operations. Japanese gunners shot down a strafing Navy attack aircraft on the 12th. On the 14th the destroyer minesweeper USS Perry (DMS-17) hit a mine and instantly sank.
Friday, 15 September 1944 dawned clear and hot on Peleliu. The final naval bombardment reached a crescendo as Marines boarded their amphibian tractors (LVTs). In one of the LVTs chugging shoreward, 20-year-old Private First Class Eugene B. Sledge of the 5th Marines, anxious about his first combat landing, stared at the blazing island and thought, "My God, none of us will ever get out of that place alive."
Navy control craft led the assault waves of Marine LVTs toward the reef. General Rupertus had chosen to land all three infantry regiments abreast on a 3,000-yard stretch of beach along Peleliu's southwest coast. Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller's 1st Marines would land on White Beaches 1 and 2 to the north, Colonel Harold Harris' 5th Marines on Orange Beaches 1 and 2 in the middle, and Colonel Herman Hanneken's 7th Marines on Orange 3 to the south. A line of armored amphibians preceded the first wave, firing their snub-nosed 75-mm howitzers as they crossed the line of departure and trundled over the island's reef.
Japanese gunners on the high ground gripped firing lanyards as they watched wave upon wave of assault craft approach the island. Then came Colonel Nakagawa's signal, and hidden guns blazed from scores of caves along the southwest rim of escarpments. Preregistered artillery and heavy mortar shells exploded among the leading waves.
One particular Japanese gun position carved into the face of a coral promontory jutting from the north end of White Beach (soon dubbed the "Point") almost singlehandedly derailed the 1st Marines' landing. Invisible from the sea and fortified with concrete, the bunker's 25-mm machine-cannon crew surprised the assault waves with close-range flanking fire, raking the sides of thin-skinned LVTs with high-explosive incendiary and armor-piercing tracer shells. Stricken vehicles lurched to a stop in the shallows, fires quickly billowing as survivors scrambled over the gunwales. The Japanese gunners enjoyed an unimpeded shooting gallery until a rifleman of Captain George Hunt's Company K, 1st Marines crept up and fired a rifle grenade through the bunker's aperture, detonating reserve ammunition and roasting the crew.
The combination of enfilade fire from the Point and high-angle fire from the Umurbrogol left as many as 60 Marine LVTs and amphibious trucks (DUKWs) burning in windrows along the water's edge. A turning point came when the division's M4 Sherman medium tanks roared across the beach, less than 18 minutes after H-hour, a new record for the Pacific war. The Marines rose from the sand, followed the surging armored vehicles through openings in the dunes, and fanned out, the 7th Marines bearing right, the 5th Marines advancing straight ahead to the edge of the runway, and the 1st Marines sidling left uphill, slowed by what would become an epic 36-hour battle by Hunt's K Company to hold the Point against Japanese counterattacks.
Naval gunfire improved exponentially once shore fire-control parties landed and began adjusting fire. The deep waters seaward of Peleliu's reef allowed the ships to close within a mile. Some destroyers used their 40-mm guns to mark suspected cave openings before delivering salvos of 5-in/38 shells.
Nakagawa's light tanks had no role in his defense in depth of the high ground. Late in the day he ordered them to charge across the runway and shoot up the congested beachhead. The dozen or so tanks—some with infantry strapped to the turrets—rumbled forth in a ragged but brave-hearted charge. Startled Marines cut loose with every weapon at hand. A Navy dive bomber swooped down to claim a kill. The Japanese tank crews died fighting, and the Marines probably felt as good at that moment as they ever would on Peleliu.
By sunset on D-day, the Navy and Marines had landed 10,000 troops, their tanks, and most of their field artillery. Navy Beachmasters and Seabees had installed pontoons and floating cranes at the reef to facilitate transfer-line resupply operations. Unlike the Marines' desperate D-day toeholds on Tarawa, the Leathernecks on Peleliu had established a fully functional, two-mile-wide beachhead.
For the 1st Marine Division, these achievements came at the price of more than 1,100 casualties, including 200 killed. Yet the first day's losses at Peleliu measured less than D-days at Tarawa (1,500), Saipan (2,000), or Iwo Jima (2,400).
The Peleliu airfield fell to the 5th Marines on the second day. Soon a Marine fighter squadron landed and quickly began launching its napalm-loaded Corsairs in direct support of infantry attacks in the highlands. Major General Mueller meanwhile landed two regimental combat teams of the 81st Division on Angaur and overwhelmed the Japanese garrison in four days of fighting. The 323rd Regimental Combat Team seized Ulithi Atoll without losing a man.
On 28 September the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines, including Eugene Sledge, executed a shore-to-shore amphibious assault against nearby Ngesebus Island. The crossing, fully supported by Marine Corsairs, naval gunfire, and Army and Marine field artillery, was a small masterwork of joint teamwork. Ngesebus fell in two days. Geiger announced the completion of Stalemate's amphibious phase, releasing most of the ships to support MacArthur's imminent invasion of Leyte.
The situation in the highlands of Peleliu, however, was painfully different. The new disciplined tactics of the Japanese baffled General Rupertus and his veterans. They rarely saw an enemy soldier, only the shadowy infiltrators with blades in their teeth at night. Enduring temperatures as high as 115 degrees, the Marines struggled to overcome an endless array of Japanese caves in broken terrain that forced them into frontal attacks. Each dawn brought a renewed attack order. Artillery and naval guns shelled the heights as the dwindling infantry platoons scrambled upward. Overpowering each cave was a tactical triumph, quickly spoiled by an outburst of fire from a new quarter.
Colonel Chesty Puller's 1st Marines had taken the brunt of the initial fighting for the southwestern parapets (nicknamed Bloody Nose Ridge). Few Marines had experienced more combat missions than the aggressive Puller, already a legend with four awards of the Navy Cross. Yet he, like Rupertus, kept expecting the Japanese line to crack, prompting the battle-ending banzai charge so common in the Solomons.
General Rupertus was hobbled by a broken ankle and could not climb the ridge to see for himself what the 1st Marines were facing. He impatiently ordered Puller to renew the assaults. After five days, General Geiger became appalled by Puller's cumulative casualties and Rupertus' rigidity and finally intervened. He ordered Rupertus to relieve the 1st Marines immediately with Colonel Hanneken's 7th Marines and directed General Mueller to land the 81st Division on Peleliu prepared to fight in the Umurbrogol.
In five days of brutal fighting Puller's Marines had seized 144 caves at the cost of 1,749 casualties, one of the highest regimental losses of the Pacific war. Lieutenant Bruce Watkins of the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines lost 32 of his 41-man platoon in the repeated assaults, including several men blown up by errant friendly fire from a Navy ship. Watching the regiment's depleted ranks file past, he concluded, "We were a remnant rather than a regiment." Captain Everett Pope of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines would earn the Medal of Honor for leading his decimated company through the nightmarish defense of Hill 100 but remained forever haunted by having to leave his dead on the exposed ridge for two weeks, a sacrilege the Marines had not experienced since Belleau Wood in 1918.
The 7th and 5th Marines and the three Wildcat regiments took their turns in the Umurbrogol and fared somewhat better, steadily driving Nakagawa's remaining defenders into a small, yet nearly unassailable pocket. Each regiment paid an exorbitant price for its limited progress.
Admiral Halsey visited the island to learn why the battle was taking so long and costing so much. His escorts led him to a vantage point near the Umurbrogol, but the Japanese scattered the entourage with a mortar barrage. Shaken but uninjured, Halsey reported the incident to Nimitz: "It is a slow process in digging the rats out. Poison gas is indicated as an economical weapon." It was a gratuitous suggestion. Both men knew President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed the use of poison gas.
The 1st Marine Division lost its combat effectiveness after five weeks of assailing the Umurbrogol. One after another the shot-up regiments came down from the highlands to board transports back to Pavuvu. One survivor said, "Everything about Peleliu left a bad taste in your mouth."
General Mueller assumed command of Peleliu combat operations on 20 October and used siege warfare principles to eliminate the final Japanese pocket. Unable to dig fighting positions in the coral, the Wildcats formed long lines and lugged buckets of beach sand to the ridge tops, providing the assault companies the protection of "moveable foxholes"—sand bags that could be inched forward after each advance. They used block-and-tackle rigs to haul small artillery pieces up the cliffs for direct fire missions against Japanese caves in the adjacent cliff.
Finally, resorting to medieval warfare tactics, they painstakingly constructed an enormous earthen ramp to breach the ramparts of Colonel Nakagawa's last command post. As the ramp rose ever higher, Nakagawa sent a final message to General Inoue: "Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears. Request permission to burn our colors." Nakagawa committed ritual suicide just before the first Army tank roared up the completed ramp and burst into his perimeter.
In the final count, about 10,900 Japanese fighters died defending Peleliu and Angaur; only 19 were captured. The 10-week battle for the islands cost the 1st Marine Division and the 81st Army Division 9,615 total casualties, including 1,656 killed. The casualty lists shocked the nation. Most Americans had never heard of Peleliu, and they struggled to understand the strategic imperative for such a Pyrrhic victory.
Seizing Peleliu yielded certain benefits, but none could justify the cost. Capturing the bomber strip helped protect MacArthur's 20 October invasion of Leyte. Long-range bombers from Angaur provided limited tactical support to subsequent Philippine operations. The U.S. possession of Peleliu effectively bottled up some 40,000 Japanese troops in Babelthuap, Yap, and the western Carolines. Ulithi Atoll provided a valuable fleet anchorage for the final campaigns of 1945. Moreover, the 1st Marine Division learned critical lessons in cave assault and tank-infantry coordination on Peleliu that enhanced its combat effectiveness on Okinawa.
The Battle of Peleliu began brilliantly with one of the finest division-level, opposed landings of the Pacific war, but then came the bitter hemorrhage of fighting an unexpected war of attrition on terms largely dictated by the Japanese. The assault forces deserved far better intelligence support from the Pacific Fleet and much faster tactical adaptability from their senior commanders ashore. Survivors and historians will long debate whether the Joint Chiefs could have achieved their objectives and avoided the high casualties by neutralizing Peleliu's airfield with land-based and carrier air strikes. The Americans had already bypassed larger Japanese strongholds at Rabaul, Kavieng, Kolombangara, and Truk.
"Something in me died at Peleliu," said Private Sledge after two-thirds of his rifle company had been killed or wounded on the island. The battle remains shrouded in bitterness-least known and least understood.