The Battle of Peleliu: Peleliu

By: Dylan A. Cyr

This article was reprinted with permission from Mr. Cyr.


Pivoting the Pacific War

This change in the style of Japanese tactical defense against American amphibious onslaughts was first witnessed during the battle of Biak. Biak, an island east of the Vogelkop Peninsula, was targeted during MacArthur’s Papua New Guinea campaign. MacArthur had promised Nimitz that bombers from Biak’s airfield would support the Navy’s invasion of Saipan. (The battle was planned for only two weeks.) In May 1944 the American 41st Infantry Division landed. Commanding the Japanese was Lieutenant General Takazo Numata, Chief of Staff of the 2nd Area Army, who had just arrived on a tour. Whether it was his original idea or not, Numata endeavored to adopt a new style of defense – the revolutionary policy of “endurance engagements”.13 

Endurance engagements would be opposed to “decisive engagements,”14  which were utilized during the early stages of the Pacific War. For example, a characteristic of decisive engagements was the infamous banzai charge; the terrifying and ferocious waves of Japanese soldiers hurling themselves at American positions. The Japanese believed that their spirit (in a racial sense) would be able to overcome the Americans’ reliance on technology. Physics proved this race theory wrong. And although banzai charges were harrowing for American defenders, they were nevertheless an opportune moment to wipe out large numbers of the enemy in a short time. The 1st Marine Division had endured banzai charges on Guadalcanal, and despite that their positions were nearly over-run several times, the overall battle casualty ratios were heavily in favor of the numerically inferior Marines.

The new 1944 policy of endurance engagements disavowed the earlier defensive style. Endurance engagements called for a much longer battle that would bleed Americans white.

Many Japanese commanders, by 1944, thought defeat was inevitable. But they also believed that buying time with enemy lives might offer better negotiating terms. The major factor of endurance engagements was a phrase (first integrated into the terminology of the Imperial General Headquarters around mid-1944) called “Fukkaku positions.”15  Fukkaku, in essence, meant the utilization of “underground, honeycombed defensive positions.”16  Lt. Gen. Takazo Numata, on Biak, was the first to implement this into meaningful results. Biak produced tangible results as it “took two months and cost three thousand U.S. casualties, plus the relief of the [American] division commander.”17  Fukkaku defenses were the physical format in which the drawn-out attrition of endurance engagements would be fought for the Japanese in the later stages of the Pacific War.

It was this transition in Japanese defensive tactics that split the Pacific War into almost two separate wars, and accounts for why the last year of the war was so intensely brutal. (Biak was the pivot of this transition.) But for the 1st Marine Division, their pivot would come at Peleliu. Guadalcanal, and Cape Gloucester, for their harrowing moments and adverse environmental conditions, were fought in a different manner than the close-quarters, cave warfare of bloody Peleliu.

Peleliu was different then Biak in that it was the first time that the Japanese had seemingly “perfected” endurance engagements. The Marine Corps had been introduced to proto-versions of this at Saipan, but by August 1944 endurance engagements were becoming policy at Imperial General Headquarters. That month they had published “Defense Guidance on Islands”18  and suggested using a defense-in-depth strategy while avoiding counterattacks like the wasteful banzai charge. At Peleliu, and afterwards, nothing would be the same for the 1st Marine Division, or anyone in the American armed forces. Race theory in military stratagem was replaced by a drawn-out blood-letting that would come to define the exceptionally viscous ending of the Pacific War.


The 1st Marine Division at the Sharp End

“Our Amtrac spun around and headed back out as I reached the edge of the beach and flattened on the deck. The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, and snapping bullets. Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it”19 remembered famous memoirist Eugene B. Sledge. What Sledge and other members of the 1st Marine Division witnessed during the landing on Peleliu was indeed a nightmare. This would be true for the entire battle.

Peleliu was assaulted on September 15, 1944, early in the morning. All three regiments of the division landed on five major sectors of beach located towards the south west of the island. The beaches had already been pre-registered by all types of Japanese artillery and mortar fire. The Japanese also had a gift for fire discipline and amazing accuracy in small-arms and machine-gun fire. Landing crafts were particularly targeted by shells, often with their full payload of men. E. B. Sledge recalled that he “glanced back across the beach and saw a DUKW… roll up on the sand at a point near where we had just landed. The instant the DUKW stopped, it was engulfed in thick, dirty black smoke as a shell scored a direct hit on it. Bits of debris flew into the air. …I didn’t see any men get out of the DUKW.”20 

The 3d and 2d Battalions of the 1st Marine Regiment were towards the north (left flank) and met a particularly difficult situation with, as then-combat correspondent George McMillan put it, “an ugly, jagged coral mound looking something like a decayed and worm-eaten chocolate drop, jutting thirty yards into the sea.”21  The fight for this outcropping, mainly under Captain George Hunt’s Company K of 3/1, was intensely bitter. The guns on this small promontory provided dangerous enfilade fire along the northern part of the marine beachhead. And perhaps more importantly, if the Japanese would break the marines here, then the entire beachhead could collapse. Captain Hunt did hold, but barely, with only about a dozen men left by the next day.

The 1st and 3d Battalions of the 5th Marine Regiment took the center, and after fighting their way off the beaches had to defend against a bizarre Japanese tank counter-attack on Peleliu’s airfield. The tank battle occurred in mid-afternoon on D-Day and was over within minutes. As the 5th Marines advanced onto the airfield, light Japanese tanks poured out of the adjacent barracks and hanger areas. All the regiments had lost significant numbers of their tanks on the shores, but luckily for the 5th Marines, their tanks had made it to the airfield just minutes before the Japanese tanks advanced. The Japanese light tanks had no chance against the Shermans and the battle has been described as a “comic opera.”22 

But the Japanese were strongest in the southern beaches where the 3d Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment struggled ashore. The southern extent of the invasion beaches (much like the northern) had their own outcropping that provided deadly enfilade fire. These beaches also had a higher concentration of aerial bombs planted as mines, barbed wire entanglements, and all types of anti-personnel, anti-boat, and anti-tank mines and barriers. By the end of D-Day, all regiments were dug in. (The other battalions of the regiments had also come ashore, except the one reserve battalion.) But the cost of D-Day on Peleliu was 1148 wounded, 92 killed, and 58 missing.23  Col. Nakagawa sacrificed one battalion to bleed and confuse the marines, and there were many more Japanese waiting.

After a few days the 1st Marine Division had secured the beachhead, the airfield, and most of the island. But if that part of the battle was bloody, the next phase was especially trying. All three regiments began the slow and draining process of rooting the Japanese out of the center-part of the island: a honeycombed, coral rock ridge named the Umurbrogol Mountain by the Natives. It was here that the defensive policy of Fukkaku came into play. The Japanese propensity at fire discipline, accuracy, and mental and physical endurance was at its best for parts of the 14th Division on Peleliu. Added to this was the Japanese practice of night infiltrations that often deprived the marines of precious sleep and intensified frustrations.

The horror of Peleliu was bad enough if it were just the Japanese and the Americans. But compounded to this was the adversity posed by daily environmental and living conditions. One particular problem was that the “ground” of Peleliu was solid coral. Often this negated the ability to dig a proper foxhole – the main form of protection for the marines. Proper field sanitation was nearly impossible without the ability to dig. Waste was simply thrown out of the foxholes, including feces (remembering that many of the men suffered from dysentery). Not being able to dig also meant not being able to bury – and so the dead Japanese bodies were simply left exposed (dead marines were placed in body bags or under their ponchos). All this caused a massive insect population boom and flies constantly harassed the marines.

E. B. Sledge remembered that “with human corpses, human excrement, and rotting rations scattered across Peleliu’s ridges, those nasty insects were so large, so glutted, and so lazy that some could scarcely fly. …They refused to move or to be intimidated. It was revolting, to say the least, to watch big fat blowflies leave a corpse and swarm into our C rations.”24  To help solve the problems of insects, the newly developed insecticide DDT was sprayed on the battlefield – but as Sledge noted “I never noticed that the flies became fewer in numbers.”25  Added to flies were land crabs, which had come to be the object of a special hatred from the division who first met the crustaceans on Guadalcanal but especially on Pavuvu. Crabs, eating from the dead, made rustling noises similar to the Japanese night infiltrators and could help to unnerve a listening marine.

The coral rock was so sharp that it destroyed the marines’ clothing and gear. Coral that had been turned into powder settled onto everything, leaving it difficult to remain clean. If grease used to clean guns mixed with this coral powder, then the unfortunate marine would be caked with the resulting paste. Temperatures got as high as 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Intense sweating dehydrated many and left clothing brittle and uncomfortable. Some men passed out from heat exhaustion. The stench of Peleliu was reportedly horrid. Sledge recalled that the marines were “saturated constantly with the putrid odor of rotting human flesh day after day, night after night. …In the tropics the dead became bloated and gave off a terrific stench within a few hours after death.”26  The stifling humidity and heat of Peleliu only worsened living conditions by encouraging insect booms and making the stench that much worse.

These adverse environmental and living conditions (plus many more) combined to the already horrendous conditions of combat, made Peleliu particularly bad. The very air the they breathed, the very ground they slept on, the encroachment of animal life, the blaze of the sun, and so on all seemed to waging their own war with the marines.

Maj. Gen. Geiger declared Peleliu secure on October 12th. On the 15th he ordered the Wildcats, despite Gen. Rupertus’ desire, to relieve the 1st Marine Division. The Wildcats, who had brilliantly secured Anguar and Ulithi, had to finish mopping-up the Japanese – engaging in “Siege Warfare” as the Army called it.27  It took them about another six weeks to eliminate the Japanese (minus the very few Japanese ultra-zealots who hid for another three years). Col. Nakagawa had shot himself in the early hours of November 25th after telling Tokyo “Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears.”28  The 1st Marine Division was disappointed to realize that they would not be rehabilitating in Melbourne, but on the island of Pavuvu; a place where rats, land crabs, and the rot of coconuts would offer little solace after the division’s most intense battle to date.