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The Battle of Peleliu: Shocked Beyond Imagination

WWII

The Battle of Peleliu: Shocked Beyond Imagination

On the eve of the Battle of Peleliu, the Marines were told it would be “very tough but very short.” Unfortunately, it would prove to be one of the bloodiest and most neglected battles of the Pacific War.

On the eve of the Battle of Peleliu, the Marines were told it would be “very tough but very short.” Unfortunately, it would prove to be one of the bloodiest and most neglected battles of the Pacific War.

by Al Hemingway

As he watched the preliminary bombardment from the railing of his ship, Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller had deep reservations. The island that lay in front of him was Peleliu, just one small speck of coral in the Palau chain. Although the Marines had been reassured that the U.S. Navy had plastered every inch of the place with thousand of rounds of ammunition, Puller was not convinced that this campaign would be as easy as everyone claimed.

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Puller went to the bridge of the ship to say his farewells. One navy captain casually asked if he would return for supper. Puller did not share the naval officer’s enthusiasm about a quick victory.

One of the Worst Invasions of World War II

“If you think it’s that easy why don’t you come on the beach at five o’clock, have supper with me, and pick up a few souvenirs?” he snapped. Puller’s concern about the impending Battle of Peleliu was right on target. The invasion would be one of the worst the Marines would encounter during World War II.

By 1944, although they were still a formidable foe, the Japanese were in a defensive mode. At Imphal and Kohima, British and Commonwealth Forces had halted the Japanese momentum and began driving them into central Burma. Meanwhile, the U.S. had taken the Solomon Islands, Tarawa in the Gilbert chain, New Britain in the Admiralties, and Guam, Tinian, and Saipan in the Marianas. The Allies now looked for other staging areas that could support future invasions and, ultimately, the seizure of the Japanese homeland.

Operation Stalemate

President Frankdlin D. Roosevelt was ultimately convinced by General Douglas MacArthur that the Luzon-Leyte approach to defeating the Japanese Empire was the more feasible method. First, the capture of Morotai was essential to protect MacArthur’s left flank from Japanese air assaults. The seizure of Peleliu and Angaur would secure his right flank.

The operation was called “Stalemate.” Several of the islands in the Palau group caught the attention of the planners. An archipelago that stretched over a hundred miles, the Palaus boasted many islands. The largest was Babelthuap and it possessed an airfield. However, it was soon eliminated as an objective. It was discovered that the airstrip was still under construction and could not be expanded. Also, the island was very rugged and well garrisoned. To complicate matters, the U.S. Army’s 77th Division, originally slated for the operation, had to be pulled and sent to Guam.

Stalemate was scrapped. A new directive was issued entitled Stalemate II. The U.S. Army’s 7th and 96th divisions made up the Eastern Attack Force, which was led by Vice Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson. It would move on Ulithi and Yap, their new objectives. The U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division, known as the Wildcats, and the 1st Marine Division, would be the nucleus for the Western Attack Force, headed by Rear Admiral George Fort. The assignment to take Angaur was given to the Wildcats; Peleliu was handed to the Marines.

Peleliu, one of the southernmost islands in the chain, already had a working airdrome, and it was given priority.

Peleliu Was Given Priority

Peleliu, one of the southernmost islands in the chain, already had a working airdrome, and it was given priority. In addition, the smaller island of Ngesebus, lying off Peleliu’s north shore and connected by a causeway, had an auxiliary fighter airfield. Situated just seven miles from Peleliu’s southern tip, Angaur was also chosen for potential airstrips that could handle the larger bomber aircraft.

On a map Peleliu resembled a lobster’s claw. Approximately 20 square miles in size, it was encompassed by a “fringing-reef nearly 1,000 yards wide.” The southern end, where the airfield was located, was relatively level and open. On the eastern edge of the airfield was a thick mangrove swamp. To the west and south “lay scrub jungle liberally interspersed with wild coconuts and occasional grass-grown clearings.”

In the center of the upper claw, just north of the airstrip, was a series of coral ridges blanketed by thick jungle, called the Umurbrogol Mountains.

Several main roads, emanating from the airstrip, traversed the east and west coasts of this upper claw. They eventually met in the north and ended at the village of Akalokul. Here, there was a phosphate plant, radio station, and a “hand-operated narrow gauge railroad.” On the lower pincer of the claw, the Japanese had built a radio direction finder and a power plant.

Some Help From Military Intelligence

The Marines’ greatest concern was Umurbrogol Mountain. “There was never any question in the minds of the 1st Division planners but that the high ground north of the airfield was the key terrain feature of the island,” said Brig. Gen. O.P. Smith, 1st Marine Division assistant commander.

One thing in favor of the leathernecks was the enemy’s troop disposition on Peleliu. When Saipan fell to Marine and Army units in July, a large number of files were seized. Saipan had been headquarters to the Japanese 31st Army. The enemy had a penchant for maintaining meticulous records. The Japanese did not let the Marines down; these papers named the units stationed at Peleliu and the nearby island of Ngesebus.

A total of 25,000 enemy soldiers were in the Palaus. The “backbone” of the enemy troop strength on Peleliu was the 14th Division, one of the best units in the Japanese Imperial Army. It consisted of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, including one artillery battalion; the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, including one 75mm artillery battalion, an 81mm mortar company, and 155mm mortar company; a tank unit comprised of 17 tanks; and mixed supporting units. In addition, the 53rd Independent Mixed Brigade, one independent infantry battalion, and the usual naval and construction personnel completed the complement of troops.

Commanding the 14th Division was Lt. Gen. Sadae Inoue, a “stable and competent if uninspired” officer. His orders, given to him by War Minister Hideki Tojo prior to his leaving Tokyo, were straightforward. The islands must be held to the very last man. It was the first position barring the enemy from penetrating the Pacific. Peleliu and Angaur must be fortified as important air bases.

This article is from the May 2005 issue of WWII History Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.

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