Exploring Peleliu 60 Years After the Battle
By: George Thomas
This article first appeared in The Old Breed News, The Official Publication of the 1st Marine Division Association, Vol. LIV, Number 6
Peleliu veterans (L to R): Jack Thomas, Joe Clapper, Glenn Tycer, Gene Goodwin, Japanese survivor Tsuchida Kiyokazu, Red Womack, Melvin Simons, Leo Griego.
Getting to Peleliu
When the opportunity arose to visit Peleliu I had to take it.
Military Historical Tours was organizing a trip to Peleliu in time for the 60th anniversary of the September 15, 1944 landing. Opportunities like that diminish as veterans age and interest wanes.
People take these tours for several reasons. There are the students of the battle who want to see the "real" place and not just maps and narratives. There are the battle veterans who want closure or a better understanding of why this battle was even fought for this tiny 3 by 8 mile coral island. However, the majority of the people are children of the veterans who came either with their veteran dad or the memory of their father.
In my case, it was the memory of my uncle Pvt. Michael A. Lazaro, H&S Co. of the 1 st Pioneer Bn., 1st Marine Division who was killed in action on Bloody Nose Ridge on October 14, 1944 the day after I was born. He was on patrol with I-3-5 at the time. In my mind, I was visiting him since his body was never recovered.
Our group consisted of sixteen people. Our tour director Jim Pilkington has visited the island on several occasions and is very knowledgeable about the location of many war relics strewn all over island. Our trip originated in Los Angeles requiring a transfer in Honolulu and one in Guam . On Guam, we took a flight to Koror, capitol of the Republic of Palau, with a stopover in Yap. Yap, along with Peleliu, was a target in the 1944 Stalemate campaign. The invasion of Yap was cancelled, but not Peleliu.
The Palau International Airport is actually located on Babeldaob, the largest of the Palau islands. To reach Koror, which is situated on Koror Island, you need to cross the Japan - Palau Friendship Bridge erected by the Japanese in 2002 to promote goodwill between the two countries.
Palau celebrated its 10th independence anniversary on October 1, 2004 but the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu is also treated by the Palauans as their day of liberation. Koror was occupied by the Japanese between the two world wars but in WW II the Americans chose to bypass the 25,000 man garrison on Babeldaob for the smaller island of Peleliu with its airstrip and 10,000 defenders.
Peleliu is located 26 miles southwest of Koror and our group boarded a fishing boat that took us to battle sites by way of the absolutely beautiful Rock Islands. There were numerous small outcroppings of bun-shaped coral with the base of the outcroppings clear of any foliage but with the top lush green. Surrounded by reefs, these outcroppings were unique and beautiful. The Republic of Palau depends upon tourism and many divers visit the numerous reefs and submerged war wrecks and it is obvious why they come. For fun, we threw out a line and we did catch a fish. It was not a keeper.
After navigating through numerous reefs that would wreck havoc on boats unfamiliar with the area, we came upon the north side of Peleliu Island off of Amber Beach. We were greeted by dolphins that quickly outran our boat. It was a gorgeous day with perfectly blue skies unlike the invasion morning of September 15, 1944. As we came around the Point and White Beach 1 we strained to familiarize the coast line with that of the invasion beaches on our battle maps. What appeared confusing was that Orange Beach 3 now has a fully functional dock, thanks to the efforts of WW II Seabees who blew away the reef so that larger ships could dock. This made the beach appear narrower than what our veterans remembered. After docking our boat we walked the beaches and bottled some sand for mementoes.
Looking toward Orange Beach 3 from Orange Beach 2. The man-made reef in the background was not present during the invasion.