Joseph Wheelan: Bitter Peleliu — The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War's Worst Battlefield

Joseph Wheelan: Bitter Peleliu — The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War's Worst BattlefieldThe 1st Marine Division landed on Peleliu on September 15, 1944, amid a terrific enemy artillery and mortar barrage. Thus began arguably the most underreported major Pacific war campaign.

During the approach to Peleliu, the 1st Division commander, Major General William Rupertus, brashly predicted that Operation Stalemate would be "rough but fast," lasting a mere three or four days.

Upon hearing Rupertus's prediction, 30 of the 36 newspaper reporters accredited for Stalemate elected not to go ashore at all. They departed to seek other assignments that promised more prominent bylines.
They missed a donnybrook of a battle lasting 74 days — not four — that began with a bloody beach landing.

Pfc Robert Leckie, a Guadalcanal veteran, described the beach where he landed as "a litter of burning, blackened amphibian tractors, of dead and wounded, a mortal garden of exploding mortar shells."

Over 74 days of continual combat on the 6-mile-long island, nearly all of Peleliu's more than 11,000 Japanese defenders led by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa perished. Their ingeniously concealed caves and underground defenses were nearly invulnerable to artillery and air strikes. Also carefully designed to protect nearby positions, each one had to be destroyed by infantrymen wielding rifles, machineguns, mortars, grenades, satchel charges, and, with terrible effectiveness, flamethrowers.
Yet, it was a battle that needn't have been fought at all to neutralize an airfield that had already been neutralized.

Two days before Peleliu's D-Day, Admiral William Halsey recommended cancelling Stalemate because the airstrip no longer posed a threat to General Douglas MacArthur's anticipated invasion of the Philippines. But Stalemate proceeded nonetheless.
The battle for Peleliu was waged in stifling 100-degrees-plus heat and high humidity, on unyielding coral-and-limestone rock that afforded little shelter from the searing sun and the frequent torrential downpours.

Peleliu was soon relegated to the back pages of American newspapers because of the exodus of the correspondents — and the front-page headlines generated by MacArthur's return to the Philippines.
During the early weeks of the struggle for Peleliu, the Army's 81st Infantry Division —Stalemate's reserve force — invaded the smaller island of Angaur. Six miles southwest of Peleliu, Angaur was defended by 1,400 soldiers. The 81st later relieved the Marines on Peleliu.

Colonel Nakagawa's defense of Peleliu represented a dramatic break from Japan's earlier battles and grimly foreshadowed the larger island battles that lay ahead in 1945 on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Rather than launching massive banzai attacks in the expectation of stopping the invaders at the water's edge, the Japanese now patiently awaited the invaders from inside carefully prepared caves and underground bunkers, and waged attritional battles.

Japan's military leaders believed that transforming every island struggle into a bloodbath would force the Allies to the negotiating table —and compel them to stop demanding unconditional surrender. A negotiated peace might enable Emperor Hirohito to retain his prerogatives and Japan to keep some of its conquered territory.

Unaware of the radically changed Japanese strategy, General Rupertus and his Maines sailed into a buzzsaw on Peleliu.

In the knife-edge ridges, sheer cliffs, and rock-sided gorges, the campaign became a series of localized battles waged by companies and platoons. The tortuous terrain spawned its own distinctive nomenclature: the Fifth Sisters, the Five Brothers, the Horseshoe, China Wall, Death Valley, Hill 100, Hill 140.

Of the 28,000 combat Marines and soldiers that fought on the two islands until Operation Stalemate's conclusion on November 27, 1944, a total of 10,786 became casualties, or 38.5 percent; 2,336 were killed in action.

A total of 14,338 Japanese soldiers and auxiliaries died on Peleliu and Angaur.
Three months elapsed between the end of Stalemate and the commencement of another amphibious Pacific campaign, Operation Detachment — the invasion of Iwo Jima.

Tragically, the bitter lessons learned on Peleliu were not communicated to the Marines who assaulted Iwo Jima's similarly designed underground defenses. The result was a vindication of the new Japanese attritional strategy; more than 24,000 American casualties in a 36-day battle in which nearly 21,000 Japanese soldiers were killed.

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