The Battle of Peleliu: Introduction

By: Dylan A. Cyr

This article was reprinted with permission from Mr. Cyr.



From September to October, 1944, American and Japanese forces engaged in a particularly bloody island conflict - the battle of Peleliu. The following passages wish to give a brief history of that battle.

Although the retrospective 1942 turning-points of Midway and Guadalcanal had gone in favor of the Americans, the last year of the Pacific War would turn out to yield some of the most intense and ferocious warfare in the Twentieth Century. Peleliu was not a turning-point in the war, but it did witness a palatable transition in the way the Pacific War was being fought on the sharp end3. It also signified an important change for the 1st Marine Division, the principle American force during the campaign. Operationally, the marines learned about contested beach landings, cave and mountain warfare, and how to endure the new defense methods employed by the Japanese.

Peleliu is one of about 200 islands and tiny atolls in the Palau Islands. The Palaus lay at the western-most edge of the massive Caroline Islands in the western part of the central Pacific Ocean. The Palaus are just north of western New Guinea, east of Mindanao, Philippines, and south-west of the southern extent of the Mariana Islands. The political capital of the Palaus is Koror, on the largest island Babelthuap. Peleliu is the southern-most island in the surrounding reef system (of the main island grouping). The northern extent of the Palaus reach to Yap and Ulithi Atoll, while the southern-most island is Anguar, just a few miles from Peleliu. The people of Palau are a mix of Polynesian and Melanesian and are reported to be friendly, fine hosts, and good-natured.

The Palaus were claimed by Spain in 1712, but little was done to integrate them into the empire. In 1899 they were sold to Germany for $4 million in gold to help pay for Spain's war with the United States.2  In 1920, Japan was mandated the islands by the League of Nations, as part of the Treaty of Versailles following the surrender of Germany in World War I. Japan used the Palaus for abundant fishing and extracting phosphate minerals.3  Peleliu was not militarized until 1937 when tension boiled between Japan and the United States over the USS Panay incident. In 1938 military development increased and in 1939 appreciable numbers of Japanese troops started to intensify military constructions like hangers, barracks, runways, and other military installations. By the time of Pearl Harbor , the Japanese had stationed nearly 12,000 troops in the island chain.4 


Selecting the Next Targets

General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz shared a common aversion for each other. By the summer of 1944 both commanders had their own design for the downfall of the Empire of Dai Nippon.5  MacArthur’s plans were wide-sweeping; consisting of moderately-paced offenses into Formosa, Okinawa, all the Philippines islands, and even mainland China – all before Japan proper. Nimitz’s plan was direct but dangerous: a straight drive through the central Pacific towards Japan.6  Nimitz agreed on Formosa and Okinawa but then favored Kyushu and Honshu as the final steps. Nimitz believed invading the Philippines and China were wasteful and too roundabout the real target.

On July 26, 1944, President and Commander-in-Chief Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at the US Naval base at Pearl Harbor to attend a meeting – the only one – with both MacArthur and Nimitz. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were not invited to the meeting, were also divided on how best to end game with the Japanese. Both Nimitz and MacArthur took for granted the inevitable invasion of the Nipponese home islands, but how to get there in the next one to two years was splitting the Joint Chiefs and further provoking inter-service rivalries.

After listening to both MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s operational proposals, FDR decided that the invasion of the Philippines would go ahead, but that Nimitz, controlling all naval vessels in the operation, would not be subordinate to MacArthur. The various invasions included in the Palaus Campaign (Operation Stalemate I, and then II) had been planned before the meeting.7  But now Peleliu was to be invaded for the reason of protecting MacArthur’s eastern flank as he proceeded into the Philippines. (The airfields on Peleliu had helped annihilate MacArthur’s air force in the Japanese attack and seizure of the Philippines at the beginning of the war). The Japanese expected an attack on the Palaus after the Marshalls were taken. Instead, the US Navy went for the Marianas. But now the defenders of Peleliu had had a fair amount of time to build impressive defenses.8  Nimitz was aware of this and knew that the battle would be difficult.