As 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 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.