In September 1994, 13 years after Eugene Sledge's classic Marine war memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, was first published, Proceedings magazine published the following article in which the author describes his brutal baptism of fire.
The 1st Marine Division was ordered to seize Peleliu in the Palau Islands, to secure General Douglas MacArthur's right flank for his return to the Philippines. D-Day was 15 September 1944. Our commanding general predicted a three-day battle?a gross miscalculation. The Peleliu campaign turned into one of the bloodiest, most vicious battles of World War II.
I was a 60-mm mortarman in K Company, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. 1st Marine Division, having joined the company as a replacement while the division was in rest camp on Pavuvu in the Russell Islands after the campaign at Cape Gloucester, New Britain. The division had fought the epic Battle of Guadalcanal prior to Cape Gloucester, so I became part of a proud, high-spirited, elite veteran outfit. Even so, it was made up of very young men?85 percent had not become 21.
From June through August 1944, we trained hard in the use of all infantry weapons, tactics, and amphibious assault from amphibious tractors (amtracs) onto a strongly fortified beach. Efficiency and endurance were drilled into us. The veterans taught the replacements all the ins and outs of combat with a ruthless foe. We mastered our own weapons, studied those of the Japanese, and learned to distinguish their sounds.
All the while we led a Spartan existence. In our tent camp we battled Pavuvu's ubiquitous land crabs in our tents; huge rats climbed the palm trees where they thrashed around in the fronds with large fruit bats?the fight usually ended up on top of the tents. Mud was everywhere, and warmed-over C-rations and stale coffee passed for chow. For entertainment, we played baseball and volley ball, ran foot races, and sat on log seats in a coconut grove to watch old B-grade movies.
The high point was a visit by Bob Hope. Pavuvu was off the main routes to or from everywhere, and it was out of his way. But he wanted to put on a show for the 1st Marine Division?he never had a more appreciative audience. After we suffered such staggering casualties at Peleliu, Bob saw some of our wounded at a naval hospital in the States. One teenaged Marine turned to him and said, "Hey Bob, remember Pavuvu?" Hope later wrote that he got so choked up he could not go through the ward with its long rows of cots with all the Peleliu casualties. Years later, he said that, of all the thousands of shows he did for troops during his long career, the Pavuvu show was the most memorable. It certainly was wonderful for us?it was the last light-hearted moment many of my buddies had in their short lives.
We shipped out for Peleliu in late August. Each assault company boarded a tank landing ship (LST) with amtracs loaded in the tank deck. K Company, 5th Marines went aboard LST-661. Many dark stormy nights at sea, a buddy and I stood watch with one of the crew in a 40-mm bow gun tub. The convoy operated under radio silence, which meant the ships depended on their lookouts to help the conning officer maintain station. The Sailor had a sound-powered headphone set connected to the bridge. We crouched under our ponchos and helmet liners on each side of him as we strained our eyes for the stern of the LST dead ahead. During driving rain both ships were heaving up and down and wallowing in heavy seas (as only an LST could). One moment the stern of the ship ahead was barely visible, then, in the blinding rain and inky blackness, it would heave up out of the turbulent sea threatening to come crashing down on us. Inevitably it would slide on through the blackness as our hearts pounded, and the Sailor alerted the bridge. We thought of all those sleeping Sailors and Marines who, unknowingly, were depending on us. We knew that if a collision occurred we would never face disciplinary action because we would be killed instantly.
After our watch was relieved, we went shuddering and shaking to the galley for a cup of hot coffee. The stress would have put a civilian in the hospital.
The assault on Peleliu and capture of the beach was my baptism of fire?and a shock it was. Our amtracs, carrying about 20 Marines each, formed up into waves after leaving the LSTs. The prelanding bombardment had been in progress for some time; the noise was thunderous. We, not being fools, were all scared to death about landing on that Jap-held beach?the veterans because they knew what to expect, the new men because we didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how I would react under fire?nobody ever does until he has experienced the madness of front-line combat. I hung weakly to the side of the tractor and prayed that I would do my duty, survive, and not wet my pants.
We were in the second wave, and our amtrac engine idled as we awaited the signal to go in. As we waited, we marveled at the awesome power of the barrage by battleships, cruisers, destroyers, rocket firing LCIs, supported by Corsairs and dive-bombers strafing and bombing. The beach was a sheet of flame backed by a huge wall of black smoke, as though the island were on fire. The incredible power of the 16-inch salvos from the battlewagons was like nothing any of us had ever experienced. Even above the general din, we could distinguish the rumble of these huge shells as they tore toward the island. When they exploded, trees and debris were hurled high into the air. We had to shout to each other because of the tumult and cursed when the naval officer waved the flag for us to start in. The amtrac engines roared and we lurched forward. Everything my life had been before and has been after pales in the light of that awesome moment.
My heart pounded as we churned toward that inferno. For all too many young Americans, it was into oblivion?before they had ever really lived. The fleet moved to the flanks and continued to fire as the tractor formations started in. As we moved onto the reef (about 500 yards opposite Beach Orange 2), Jap shells came screaming into the tractor waves. The sound of an incoming artillery shell is one of the most gut-wrenching, unforgettable sounds of combat. The smaller the caliber of the gun, the higher the pitch. The farther away the gun, the longer the excruciating agony of the approach tortures the mind. I saw several amtracs hit. Some burst into flame, and bodies of Marines were blown into the air. Some Marines escaped from the disabled vehicles and suffered the horror of coming in against relentless enemy machine gun fire. I was sickened to see these helpless Marines slaughtered.
We hit a coral head and stalled for terrifying moments. Just as we started in again a huge shell came roaring in and exploded just off our bow. No damage was done, but had we not been slowed by the coral head, that Jap gunner would have hit us dead center. As it was, my heart nearly stopped. Every Marine in that amtrac was sickly white with terror. We got to the beach amid erupting shell bursts and the rattle of enemy machine gun bullets against the steel of our amtrac. Heavy Jap artillery and mortars were pounding the beach, and Marines were getting hit constantly. We piled out of our amtrac amid blue-white Japanese machine-gun tracers and raced inland a few yards.
I hit the deck near my squad mates. Back on the reef I saw burning amtracs and struggling Marines. I felt like weeping over their fate, but we were in a maelstrom of crashing shells and snapping rifle and machine-gun bullets. Our own lives hung by a thread. We were ordered off the deadly beach, and I glanced back at the spot our amtrac had just left. A DUKW (amphibious truck) came in and stopped there, to be hit almost instantly by a large shell that exploded dead center, engulfing it in thick black smoke. I didn't see anybody get out.
We raced inland into the cover of the scrub growth. The company advanced in extended order, stopping at intervals to clear out snipers, or Japs hiding in spider foxholes as they tried to fire at us. We reached our objective, the eastern shore, by afternoon. The heat was terrible, 110-115 degrees Fahrenheit. We were warned to conserve water. Some Marines suffered heat exhaustion and were evacuated. Most returned soon after. While on the eastern shore cliffs, we could see Japs swimming and running along the reef. We killed most of them.
A runner came up with orders to fall back because the Japs had gotten in our rear. The veterans griped bitterly at having to leave such "good shooting." We fell back to the edge of the airfield with L and I Companies in the vicinity, but the thick growth precluded solid contact. We had no contact with the 7th Marines on our right and the 2nd battalion, 5th Marines on our left. The company formed a firing line along a coral trail just within the scrub with good visibility of the airfield and Bloody Nose Ridge beyond. Snafu Shelton (a veteran) and I set up our 60-mm mortar in a shallow crater bordering the trail. Vehicles of some sort were racing across the open field toward our line on the left. "Snafu," I asked, "what are those amtracs doing out there in enemy territory?"
"Amtracs, hell," he snapped, "them's Nip tanks." I shuddered. "Stand by to repel counterattack," came the order. "Mortars stand by to fire."
R. V. Burgin, our squad leader and observer, turned around and yelled the range and direction to us. Snafu set the sight for range and windage. I readied a high-explosive shell. "Fire one!" yelled Snafu. I raised the shell with my left hand. Instantly a blast of .30-caliber machine-gun fire cracked just inches over my hand. The red tracers meant a U.S. gun, and it came from the rear.
"Goddamnit, fire, Sledgehammer!" repeated Snafu. I tried again with the same terrifying results and jerked my hand down. I had no desire to lose it or have that mortar shell explode and kill our squad. I looked to the rear and saw an American Sherman tank as it fired its 75-mm gun to our right around a bend in the trail. It was dueling with a 75-mm Jap field gun on the same trail we were on?we could not see the Japs for the scrub?and the tanker mistook us for Jap infantry supporting the artillery piece. The smoke and dust from exploding shells in the area made his error understandable, but we realized that once he knocked out that Jap gun, he would swing his main gun on us and we would be dead.
Sergeant Hank Boyes ran back to the tank and identified us. The crew told him they were sure glad they hadn't hit any of us. Boyes got on the turret and directed their fire. In addition to the Jap gun around the bend, they knocked out three more 75s, all the while firing their machine guns in a complete circle. There never was a front line on Peleliu. The whole island was a front line.
All this time the tank battle on the left raged until all the enemy vehicles were destroyed. We were all pinned down during the whole affair. Hank was exposed the entire time on the Sherman tank. The Nips fired everything they had at him, but he didn't get a scratch. When it quieted down in our area, four Jap 75s and about 200 infantry had been accounted for. They had all been secreted in the scrub in ambush. Had it not been for Hank's heroic actions, K Company would have been annihilated that terrible day. He was awarded a Silver Star?it should have been the Medal of Honor?and was promoted to gunnery sergeant. He was later wounded, but recovered and served through the long ordeal on Okinawa. Boyes was dignified, modest, and soft spoken. Though a strict disciplinarian, he was fair. He lives in Australia now, but distance matters not?all of us love him like a brother.
Next morning we were ordered to capture the airfield, and we started across at a trot in the searing heat, into the face of Bloody Nose Ridge. That attack was the worst experience any of us had during all of World War II. The Nips smothered the open ground with artillery, mortar, and machine-gun fire, and the company had to go about 200 yards through the thickest fire I ever saw. The ground rocked and swayed from shell concussions, and streams of machine-gun tracers streaked past our ears.
I expected to get hit any moment as I saw Marines crumple, pitch forward, or sag to the deck in death. I don't know how many losses any of the companies had, but it was an awful experience. Years later, a retired Marine Corps general who had witnessed the attack told me it was a foolish mistake by the division commander.
As we fought through that first week onto the ridges, we slowly realized that he had sent us into a death trap on Peleliu. Amphibious doctrine stated that the ratio of an assault force should be three-to-one over the defenders. The division's three infantry regiments?the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marines?each numbered about 3,000 infantrymen, excluding attached specialists who were not fighting infantry. We hit Peleliu with 9,000 Marine infantrymen. It was known that the Japs had more than 11,000 troops dug into those cement-hard coral ridges; rather than 3:1, we were outnumbered.
The 1st Marines were shot to pieces the first week, and I lost many a good friend. A note from the commanding general was read to all units on the line about D+5 or D+6, stating that we didn't need Army help to finish the job. It was met with curses and fervent hopes that the CG would burn in the nether regions. Fortunately, Major General Roy Geiger, the corps commander, ordered the CG to relieve the 1st Marines, and the 321st Infantry came to our aid. We were glad to see those dogfaces, and they did a good job.
The fighting in the ridges was exhausting and costly. Flamethrowers were indispensable. Any cave we attacked was covered by heavy Jap fire from other mutually supporting positions, and all were interconnected within the ridges. The Japs fought like demons, and shot our stretcher teams?the corpsmen and the wounded. We hated them with a passion known to few antagonists. Some writers blame it on racism. I don't believe that. The Code of Bushido by which the Japs fought fostered brutality. We never took prisoners, even when some few tried to give up. They often tried to throw a grenade at us. After taking a position we routinely shot both the dead and wounded enemy troops in the head, to make sure they were dead. Survival was hard enough in the infantry without taking chances being humane to men who fought so savagely.
The shell-blasted ridges took on the character of a moonscape. They were also a garbage dump, what with rotting enemy dead that we couldn't bury in the hard coral, discarded rations, and human excrement from thousands of men in a restricted area. The stench was nauseating. Huge green flies swarmed off Jap corpses and covered our C-rations. Too fat to be blown away, they had to be picked off. We covered our dead with ponchos and put them behind our positions. Our body filth from sweat, rain, and dust made us miserable, but it was unavoidable.
The Japs raided our lines every night but we always stopped them, though not before they caused casualties. The 1st Marine Division fought in this hell for 30 days and nights, and was shattered. It suffered 6,526 killed and wounded. My company sustained 64 percent casualties, including our beloved commander, Captain Andrew Haldane. The Jap garrison was all but wiped out; almost 11,000 were killed. Seven soldiers were captured and a few Korean laborers. It was all a criminal waste, because the island should have been bypassed. We realized that then, 50 years ago.
The awful struggle was a testament to the skill and bravery of the Marines against a tenacious foe. But our division intelligence section lacked critical information regarding:
- The large coral ridge complex, containing more than 500 connecting caves.
- The enemy plan to conserve manpower and fight a battle of attrition.
- Enemy plans for intensive night infiltration, greater than Marines had previously experienced.
There had never been anything like Peleliu in the Pacific?it set the stage for the bloodbaths of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But they had strategic significance. As it turned out, MacArthur walked into the Philippines with little opposition. I shall always harbor a deep sense of bitterness and grief over the suffering and loss of so many fine Marines on Peleliu for no good reason. It was my privilege to fight alongside them, fine, courageous, loyal and dependable men who filled the ranks of the finest division in World War II.
We must never forget them.
Walking in My Father's Footsteps
By Henry SledgeAs a teenager, I would listen with rapt attention as my father, Eugene B. Sledge, recounted fighting the Japanese on Peleliu. I was always interested in his wartime experiences, and the thought of visiting the desolate, far-away island captivated me. While visiting my parents in the summer of 1999, Dad mentioned that the 55th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu was approaching and a group of veterans and historians was going to the island. I then and there decided to see Peleliu for myself.
Visiting Orange Beach 2, where Dad landed in his LVT on D-day, was a visceral experience. I spent several minutes walking alone along the flat, sandy shore, making mental notes. The sand was clean, and the air, while characteristically hot and humid, smelled fresh.
The ground in the White Beach area, a few hundred yards north, was sharp coral. I thought about how the water, now so clear, ran red with Marine blood that day in 1944. Reaching down and touching the coral, I imagined hitting the deck to avoid enemy fire. It was easy to understand why the Marines' dungarees were torn and bloody after fighting in this environment. Just off the beaches the scrub growth began. While walking through it I looked down and saw an unexploded Japanese grenade. It was rusty, but completely intact.
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 chunk 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.