The Battle of Peleliu: The Old Breed
By: Dylan A. Cyr
This article was reprinted with permission from Mr. Cyr.
The Old Breed and the Wildcats
The Palau campaign, encompassing Peleliu, Ngesebus, Anguar, Ulithi, was to be seized by the III Amphibious Corps under the leadership of Major General Roy S. Geiger. The Corps comprised of two divisions, one Army and one Marine. Maj. Gen. Paul Mueller commanded the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, nicknamed “the Wildcats.” The Wildcats were green and untested, but well-trained and eager to fight. Maj. Gen. William Rupertus commanded the 1st Marine Division, “the Old Breed,” who had already been one of the most integral units in the early phases of the Pacific war.
The 1st Marine Division was experienced and of heroic-value stateside. They had held the line against crushing odds on Guadalcanal and were the main factor in that turning-point of the Pacific War. After rehabilitation in Melbourne they were sent to Cape Gloucester on New Britain to protect MacArthur’s eastern flank as he advanced along the north coast of New Guinea. (Cape Gloucester and Peleliu earned the Old Breed the alternative, but less popular nickname of “MacArthur’s Marines”). Both Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester witnessed extreme environmental adversity but did fashion the Old Breed into perhaps the world’s pre-eminent jungle fighting military unit. However, the 1st Marine Division was not experienced in cave or mountain warfare. Peleliu would be where they would learn it.
The Japanese Prepare the Palau Islands
As early as April 1944 the veteran 14th Infantry Division of the Kwangtung Army moved to the Palaus. The 14th Division’s battle history dated back to Sino-Japanese War of the mid-1890s. Since then they had engaged both the Russians and the Chinese. They were well-trained, battle-hardened, and quite proud. During inter-service conflicts, the Imperial Japanese Army most often expressed disdain for garrisoning far-off and obscure Pacific islands: they would have rather dealt with the Soviets. They felt the Americans were the business of the Navy. However, the 14th Division took their new job in stride, and were actually “boastful of their new motto, Breakwater of the Pacific”.9 By this date in the war the Japanese Imperial Army was taking on the majority of responsibilities for what was called the Absolute National Defense Sphere; reflecting the Navy’s continuous and crushing defeats.10
With the time afforded to them by Nimitz’s focus on the Mariana Islands, the 14th Division, about 25,000 troops under the skilled leadership of Maj. Gen. Sadae Inoue, further intensified the already impressive defense systems being constructed on Peleliu. The number of Japanese now in the Palaus had doubled since Pearl Harbor. The Palaus had received increased attention from the highest Japanese military governing body – the Imperial General Headquarters – ever since the Navy’s Combined Fleet had abandoned Truk when the Americans were assaulting the Marshalls.11 Leaving Truk implied a significant gap in the center of the Japanese defense, and to make up for this the Palaus needed to be further reinforced to help maintain connections to the former-Dutch East Indies.
The majority of the 14th Division was stationed on Babelthuap. Peleliu received a reinforced regiment, Anguar a reinforced battalion, and a smaller garrison was deployed on Yap. On Peleliu the highest ranking Japanese officer was Colonel Kunio Nakagawa (a Navy Admiral). However, Nakagawa was under the watchful eye of General Inoue’s assistant, Maj. Gen. Kenjiro Murai, who was sent to insure that inter-service rivalries were subdued. Nakagawa controlled the 2d Infantry Regiment augmented by two battalions from the 15th Infantry Regiment; totaling about 10,000 Army and Navy forces on Peleliu.12 The Japanese defenders had a much longer battle history then either of the American Divisions. But the key to why they would inflict such heavy losses on the Old Breed laid at the heart of the Pacific War’s most significant tactical/operational transition: the Japanese defensive metamorphosis from impatient fanaticism to patient determination.