The Battle of Peleliu: Lessons Learned

By: Dylan A. Cyr

This article was reprinted with permission from Mr. Cyr.

 

Costs and Lessons

The total battle casualties were 9600: comprising of 3100 soldiers, 6500 Marines, and just under 1200 dead. For the Japanese, including Anguar, about 16,000 were killed or captured. In a battle ratio, this would indicate that it took one wounded, killed, or missing US soldier and marine to kill or capture one and a half Japanese. These cold numbers alone indicated a brutal battle. In terms of intensity and duration, Peleliu had taken combat in the Pacific War to a new level. For the survivors, the various mental and physical affects on them would reverberate throughout their entire lives.

Peleliu did yield important strategic results and lessons. Military historian Joseph Alexander, in defense of Peleliu’s usefulness to the American Armed Forces, explained the various lessons learned.

Peleliu became a significant aircraft center for maritime patrol crafts and long-range bombers.29  It made sure that the Japanese, left dangling in the Caroline Islands, could not escape now. Ulithi turned out to be an invaluable natural anchorage that would be used in future operations (like Okinawa). And of course, there was one less Japanese Army to be concerned about. The 1st Marine Division learned some valuable tactical lessons that would be utilized later on during the Okinawan campaign. Added to jungle warfare experts, they were now experienced cave and mountain warfare. They learned better tank-infantry coordination and the use of close air-support.30  Peleliu was also the 1st Marine Division’s first major “storm landing” – a heavily resisted, naval-supported, violent beach landing.31 

Unfortunately, others were learning from Peleliu as well. General Kuribayashi, the commanding office for the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima, and General Ushijima on Okinawa, learned from Biak and Peleliu. They had the time and the wherewithal to insure that the lessons from endurance engagements during those conflicts would be implemented on their respective island fortresses. It was here, starting at the pivots of the Pacific War, that would insure that the remaining year of the war would also be the bloodiest period of the war. As Alexander has noted, “While no one knew it at the time, it would be Peleliu – not Saipan or Guam – that would reflect the future of storm landings to come at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and, potentially, Kyushu. Whatever could be learned here, at whatever cost, would help prepare for the even bigger bloodbaths ahead.”32 

 

Epilogue

Planners assumed Peleliu would be difficult, but they did not guess at how protracted it would be, nor that it would utterly drain the 1st Marine Division. Conversely, MacArthur’s return landings in the Philippines turned out to be less difficult than expected. When these two factors were combined it lead some military enthusiasts, veterans, and historians to conclude that Peleliu was a mistake.33 

This, in turn, has helped to drive Peleliu into the proverbial “forgotten category” of 20th Century battles. For instance, the generally fine James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of World War II has only a paragraph of basic information.34  The interesting H. P. Willmott’s The Second World War in the Far East only provides cursory notes to Peleliu and the Palaus, and only in relation to naval warfare.55  The one paragraph definition of “Palau Islands” in The Macmillan Dictionary of The Second World War is scant and confusing. And to put that entry into context, the second entry over – “Palestine” (which saw no important military action in the war) received three full paragraphs.36  These examples could continue.

For those of us who are “Peleliu Enthusiasts,” we seem to be in a bit of a bind: the battle is generally forgotten, but we must admit that it could be worse. For comparison, the 1st Marine Division’s previous battle, Cape Gloucester on New Britain, often receives nothing. With this in mind, we need to stay positive and encourage each other. Steps are in place – like this very website – to ensure that Peleliu and the 1st Marine Division have a maintained and lively legacy. There are superb books, enthralling memoirs, and professional histories about the battle. Many WWII veterans are quite hands-on and have taken responsibility for maintaining their own honorable histories. The 1st Marine Division Association is a very active and positive organization. When we stay positive, we accept that more histories and recognition about Peleliu are bound to come.

In fact, more are coming.