Why Peleliu?

Some Background

Japan’s industrial growth during the Meiji Period was nothing short of extraordinary.  Many industrial and business success stories involved large family-owned conglomerates (zaibatsu’s).  Their phenomenal economic growth sparked rapid urbanization, and the population working in agriculture decreased from around 75% (1872) to about 50% (1920).  Of course, there were substantial benefits to this growth, including increased longevity and a dramatic increase in population from around 34 million in 1872 to about 52 million people in 1920.  But poor working conditions in the zaibatsu industries led to labor unrest, and many workers and intellectuals turned to socialism, which the government oppressed.  Radical activists plotted to assassinate the emperor — the so-called High Treason Incident of 1910.[1]  Afterward, the government created the Tokko secret police to root out left-wing agitators.

Some historians focus on Imperial Japan’s expansion beginning in 1931, but it started much earlier.  Japan’s participation on the side of the Allies during World War I sparked a period of economic growth.  It earned the Japanese new colonies in the South Pacific, seized from Germany.  As a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, the Japanese enjoyed good relations with the international community and participated in disarmament conferences.  However, the Japanese deeply resented and rejected the Washington Naval Conference’s imposition of more significant restrictions on Japanese naval forces than it did on the United States and Great Britain (a ratio of 5:5:3), but Tokyo relented once a provision was added that allowed the Japanese to fortify their Pacific Island possessions but prohibited the U.S. and U.K. from doing so.

Between 1912 – 1926, Japan went through a period of political, economic, and cultural transition that strengthened its democratic traditions and improved its international standing.  Known as the Taishō Democracy (also “political crisis”), democratic transitions opened the door to mass protests and riots organized by Japanese political parties, which forced the prime minister’s resignation.[2]  Initially, this Political turmoil worked to increase the power of political parties and undermine the oligarchy.  Ultimately, the government reacted by passing the Peace Preservation Act on 22 April 1925.

The Act allowed the Special Higher Police to suppress socialists and communists more effectively.  When Emperor Hirohito ascended to the throne in 1926, Japan entered a twenty-year period of extreme nationalism and imperial expansion.  Smarting from what they considered a slight by the League of Nations in arms limitations agreements, the Japanese renounced the Five Power Treaty and initiated an ambitious naval construction program.

The sudden collapse of the U.S. economy in 1929 triggered a global economic depression.  Without internal access to natural gas, oil, gold, coal, copper, and iron resources, the Japanese heavily depended on trade relations with countries that had the resources needed to sustain their economy.  When international cooperation prevented the Japanese from obtaining these materials, a very aggressive Japanese government initiated plans to seize areas rich in natural resources.

In 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria in northeastern China to obtain the resources needed to sustain naval construction. Six years later, the Japanese swept into the heartland of China, expecting a quick victory.  Chinese resistance, however, caused the war to drag on.  War is expensive; the cost of Japan’s Chinese adventures placed a severe strain on its economy, but its most significant concern was food and oil.  Japan obtained food from Southeast Asia, and plenty of oil was available in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

Beginning in 1937 with significant land seizures in China, and to a greater extent after 1941, when annexations and invasions across Southeast Asia and the Pacific created the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the Japanese government sought to acquire and develop critical natural resources to secure its economic independence.  Among the natural resources that Japan seized and developed were coal (China), sugarcane (Philippines), petroleum (Dutch East Indies and Burma), tin and bauxite (Dutch East Indies and Malaya), and rice (Thailand, Burma, and Cochin China (Vietnam)).

By 1940, the United States broke one of the Japanese communications codes and was aware of Japanese plans for Southeast Asia.  If the Japanese conquered European colonies, they could also threaten the U.S.-controlled Philippine Islands and Guam.  To confound the Japanese, the U. S. government sent military aid to strengthen Chinese resistance; when the Japanese seized French Indochina, President Roosevelt suspended oil shipments to Japan.

March across the Pacific

In December 1941, Japanese Imperial forces assaulted the U. S. Navy Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and invaded Siam, Malaya, Hong Kong, Gilbert Islands, Guam, Luzon, Wake Island, Burma, North Borneo, the Philippines, and Rangoon.  The invasion of the Dutch East Indies and Singapore and the bombing of Australia followed in January 1942.

The U.S. and its allies initiated offensive operations against the Empire of Japan on 18 April 1942 with the sea-borne Doolittle Raid on the Japanese capital city, Tokyo.   The Battle of the Coral Sea, Battle of Midway, and the landing of U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal soon followed.  From that point on, the Allies moved ever closer to the Japanese home islands, and with each successful island battle, American air forces became a more significant threat.

Between June and November 1944, the Allied forces launched Operation Forager against Imperial Japanese forces in the Mariana Islands.  The campaign fell under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as Commander-in-Chief, U. S. Pacific Fleet and Commander, Pacific Ocean Area.  Admiral Nimitz initiated Forager at the request of General Douglas MacArthur, who was planning his much-promised return to the Philippine Islands.  MacArthur believed that Japanese forces on the Palau Islands offered a substantial threat to his plans for the Philippines.  He requested that Nimitz neutralize that threat as part of his more extensive Marianas Campaign.

Concurring with MacArthur’s threat assessment, Admiral Nimitz ordered the seizure of Peleliu Island, some nine-hundred-fifty miles east of the Philippines.  Nimitz assigned this mission to the 1st Marine Division with two objectives: (1) Remove any Japanese threat from MacArthur’s right flank, and (2) Secure a base of operations in the Southern Philippines.  The Marine operation plan was code-named Stalemate II.  As it turned out, the code name was prophetic.

After evaluating the mission, Major General William H. Rupertus, Commanding the 1st Marine Division, predicted that the Division could seize Peleliu within four days.  The general’s assessment was excessively optimistic either because allied intelligence was grossly inadequate or because General Rupertus suffered from the early stages of an illness that claimed his life six months later.  The Battle for Peleliu would not be the piece of cake General Rupertus anticipated.

On Peleliu

The island

Just under six miles long (northeast to southwest) and two miles wide, the island was a tiny piece of real estate.  The island’s highest point, at 300 meters in elevation, was Umurbrogol Mountain, a hypsographic (limestone) formation with many natural caves, geographic fissures, narrow valleys, and rugged peaks.  Thick jungle scrub vegetation completely covered the slopes of the mountain ridges masking their intricate contours from aerial observation.

The Japanese

Following significant losses in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, the Imperial Japanese Army developed new defensive strategies and tactics.  They abandoned their old strategy of trying to stop the Allies on the beaches, where Japanese defenders would be exposed to naval gunfire.  Their new strategy was to disrupt the amphibious landing as much as possible and implement an in-depth defense at locations further inland.  This new strategy, which the Allied forces would also experience at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, was to kill as many Americas as possible.

The Japanese island commander, Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, exercised command authority over the 2nd Infantry Regiment, 14th Imperial Japanese Infantry Division.  Artillery, mortar, tanks, and numerous Koran and Okinawan laborers augmented Colonel Nakagawa’s three-thousand infantry — in total, he commanded 10,500 men.  In defense of Peleliu, Nakagawa made good use of the island’s terrain — its caves and fissures, to create heavily fortified bunkers and underground positions interlocked in a honeycomb fashion.

Nakagawa also used the beach terrain to his advantage.  The northern end of the landing beaches faced a nine-meter coral promontory that overlooked the beaches from a small peninsula.  The Marines tasked with assaulting this promontory called it “the point.”  Nakagawa’s promontory defense included 47mm guns and 20mm cannons supporting a battalion of infantry.  He also mined the landing area with anti-tank mines and improvised explosive devices from 150mm howitzer shells.

The Marines

Rupertus’ operational plan called for landing his three infantry regiments along a 2,200-yard beach on the island’s southwest coast.[3]  His operation plan called for the 1st Marines to land its 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion on White Beach Two and White Beach Three; the 1st Battalion would serve in regimental reserve.  The 5th Marines would land two battalions at Orange Beach (retaining one battalion in reserve), and the 7th Marines would also land on Orange Beach, south and to the right flank of the 5thMarines.  Again, one battalion of the 7th Marines would be held in reserve.

The regimental commanders were Colonel Lewis B. Puller (1stMar), Colonel Harold D. Harris (5thMar), Colonel Herman H. Hanneken (7thMar), and Colonel William H. Harrison (11thMar).

The Battle

D-day was 15 September 1944.  Rupert intended to land 4,500 of his men in the first 19 minutes.  The initial eight waves (in amphibious tractors) followed a single wave of tractors with mounted 75mm howitzers.  The most challenging assignment fell to the 1st Marines: Rupertus ordered Puller to drive inland, pivot left, and attack northeast straight into Umurbrogol Mountain.  Puller’s Marines renamed that mountain Bloody Nose Ridge.  They called it that for a good reason: it was Nakagawa’s main defense.

At the end of the first day, the Marines held the landing beach … period.  The 5th Marines made the most progress that day, but a well-organized Japanese counterattack pushed the regiment back toward the ocean.  Naval gunfire and air support destroyed Nakagawa’s armored-infantry attacking force.  At the end of the first day, Marine casualties included 200 dead and 900 wounded.  At the end of the first day, General Rupertus still had not figured out Nakagawa’s new defense strategy.

On Day Two, the 5th Marines moved to capture the airfield and push toward the eastern shore.  Japanese artillery inflicted heavy casualties as the Marines proceeded across the airfield.  The ground temperature on Day Two was 115° Fahrenheit, so in addition to losses due to enemy fire, Marines dropped due to heat exhaustion.  The water provided to the Marines was tainted with petroleum residue and made them sick.

From his position, Puller ordered Kilo Company to capture the point at the end of the southern-most location of his assigned landing site.  Despite being short on supplies, the Kilo Company commander executed Puller’s order.  Within a short time, the Marines had advanced into a Japanese kill zone, and Kilo Company was quickly surrounded.  One platoon, however, began a systematic, highly aggressive effort to eliminate the Japanese guns with rifle grenades and hand-to-hand fighting.  After eradicating six machine gun positions, the Marines turned their attention to the 47mm gun, which was soon destroyed.

No sooner had Kilo 3/1 captured the point when Nakagawa ordered his men to counterattack.  In the next 30 hours, the Japanese launched four major assaults against that one rifle company.  Kilo Company was running low on ammunition; they were out of water — and surrounded.  These Marines had but one strategy remaining: close combat.  By the time reinforcements arrived, there were only 18 Marines left alive in Kilo 3/1.

After securing the airfield, Rupertus ordered Colonel Harris’ 5th Marines to eliminate Japanese artillery on Ngesbus Island, connected to Peleliu by a man-made causeway.  Harris, however, was unwilling to send his Marines across the causeway.  He decided, instead, on an amphibious assault across the sound.  Even though pre-landing artillery and close air support killed most of the island’s defenders, the 5th Marines faced lethal opposition from the ridges and caves.  In executing Rupertus’ order, Harris gave up 15 killed and 33 wounded.

After capturing the Point, Puller’s 1st Marines moved northward into the Umurbrogol pocket.  Puller led his Marines in several assaults, but the Japanese repulsed each attempt — but worse for these Marines, their advance found them confined to a narrow area of operations between the two ridges, each one supporting the other in a deadly crossfire.  This was the reason the Marines called it Bloody Nose Ridge.[4]  Puller’s casualties increased by the minute.  The Japanese defenders demonstrated exceptional fire discipline, striking only when they could inflict the maximum number of casualties.  Japanese snipers even killed the stretcher-bearers sent to evacuate wounded Marines.  After dusk, Japanese infiltrators actively searched for weaknesses in Puller’s line of defense.

Major Raymond G. Davis commanded the 1stBn 1stMar (1/1) during its assault of Hill 100.[5]  Accurate fire from Japanese defenders and thick foliage hampered Davis’ advance for almost a full day.  Vectoring Captain Everett P. Pope’s Charlie Company toward what Davis thought was the crest of a hill, Davis and Pope were disappointed to find that it was another ridge occupied by a fresh line of Japanese defenders.

On 20 September, Major Davis ordered Charlie Company to take Hill 100, a steep and barren coral slope of a long ridge that the Japanese dubbed East Mountain.  Initially, Captain Pope had the support of two Sherman M-4 tanks, but on their approach to the ridge, both vehicles slipped off the side of a narrow causeway, rendering them ineffective.  Despite intense enemy fire, Pope moved his men safely over the causeway without sustaining any casualties.

Once Pope and his Marines reached the base of the hill, they began to receive well-aimed enemy fire, which continued unabated as the Marines struggled up the hill.  In this fight, Pope lost 60 Marines killed or wounded.  It was then that Captain Pope realized that his maps were inaccurate.[6]  There was no crest — only an extended ridge with high ground and well-defended Japanese positions looking down on the Marines.  From almost point-blank range, Japanese mortars and field guns opened up from atop the cliff.

Pope’s company was at 30% of its effective strength at dusk, and those few Marines were running out of ammunition.  After sunset, Japanese night attacks became vicious, bloody free-for-alls.  Marines fought the enemy with K-Bar knives, entrenching tools, and empty ammunition boxes.  The melee turned into a fistfight with men biting off one another’s ears, and, as the enemy withdrew, the Marines threw chunks of broken coral at them.

Given his combat losses, Captain Pope was forced to deploy his men in a thin defensive perimeter until dawn, when the Japanese began firing again.  By this time, Pope had nine men left alive and withdrew his company under cover of smoke rounds fired from artillery support batteries.[7]  In six days of fighting, Davis’ battalion suffered a loss of 71%.  Puller’s losses within that same period were 1,749 men — a casualty rate of 70%.[8]

With the 1st Marine Regiment no longer effective as a combat organization, Major General Roy Geiger, commanding III Marine Amphibious Corps, sent the U.S. 321st Infantry Regiment to relieve the 1st Marines.[9]  The 321st and 7th Marines finally encircled Bloody Nose Ridge on D+9.

By 15 October, Japanese defenders had reduced the 7th Marines to about half their effective strength.  Geiger ordered Rupertus to pull the 7th Marines out of the fight and replace them with the 5th Marines.  Colonel Harris employed siege tactics to destroy Japanese positions, sending in bulldozers and flame tanks.  In another fifteen days, Geiger determined that the 1st Marine Division was no longer an effective fighting division and replaced it with the U.S. 81st Infantry Division, which assumed operational control of Operation Stalemate II.[10]

The Battle of Peleliu lasted another six weeks (totaling 73 days).  Even then, the island wasn’t completely secured.  A Japanese lieutenant with 34 soldiers held their positions, as they were ordered to do, until 22 April 1947; it took a former Japanese admiral to convince the lieutenant that the war was over.

Military analysts classify the Umurbrogol fight as the most difficult battle the United States encountered in the Pacific War.  The 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,500 casualties — one-third of its combat strength.  Additionally, the U.S. 81st Infantry Division suffered an additional 3,300 losses.

Back in the United States, the Battle for Peleliu became a controversial topic for two reasons.  First, despite MacArthur’s concerns about the possibility of Japanese air attacks, the island of Peleliu had no strategic value to either MacArthur or Nimitz.  Second, nothing at Peleliu justified the loss of so many American servicemen.  However, the Americans gained fore-knowledge of what to expect from future engagements with the Imperial Japanese Army at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.  Despite Marine complaints about the lack of effectiveness of pre-assault naval bombardments, there was no significant improvement in naval gunfire support at Iwo Jima, but some improvement during the Battle of Okinawa.

After the battle, press reports revealed that during consultations with Nimitz during the planning phase, Admiral Halsey recommended against the landing at Peleliu; he believed it would have been a better use of amphibious forces to by-pass Peleliu and reinforce MacArthur’s landing on Leyte.  After consulting with MacArthur, Nimitz discarded Halsey’s recommendations because MacArthur didn’t want any help from the Navy.

Eight Marines received the Medal of Honor for courage above and beyond the call of duty during the battle for Peleliu — five of which were posthumous awards.

Sources:

  1. Alexander, J. H.  Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific.  USMC History Division, 1997.
  2. Blair, B. C., and J. P. DeCioccio: Victory at Peleliu: The 81st Infantry Division’s Pacific Campaign.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2011.
  3. Camp, D.  Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15-21, 1944.  Zenith Press, 2009.
  4. Henshall, K.  A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower.  Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
  5. Hook, G. D. (and others).  Japan’s International Relations: Politics, Economics, and Security.  Sheffield Centre for Japanese Studies/Routledge, 2011.
  6. Ross, B. D.  Peleliu: Tragic Triumph.  Random House, 1991.
  7. Sledge, E. B.  With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.  Oxford University Press, 1990.

Endnotes:

[1] Japanese authorities made mass arrests of leftists; twelve were executed for high treason.

[2] A period of political upheaval following the death of the Meiji Emperor in 1912.  Within 12 months, Japan had three prime ministers.

[3] 1st Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Regiment, and 7th Marine Regiment.

[4] The Seizure of Umurbrogol Mountain took five infantry regiments and 60 days of fighting.  At the time General Geiger relieved the 1st Marine Division, it was no longer a fighting force.

[5] Davis received the Navy Cross for his role in the Battle of Peleliu.  He would later receive the Medal of Honor during the Korean War.  A veteran of three wars, Davis would eventually command the 3rdMarDiv in Vietnam.  He retired as a four-star general.

[6] Inaccurate maps are disasters waiting to happen.  Combat commanders rely on maps to target enemy positions for supporting fires (artillery and air support).  Inaccurate maps, therefore, place friendly forces at risk of receiving “friendly fire.”  Nothing will shake a field commander’s confidence more than to realize that he cannot rely on his maps.

[7] Captain Pope was awarded the Medal of Honor.

[8] According to then LtCol Lewis Walt, serving as the XO of the 5th Marines, after a few days into the Battle, Colonel Puller was clad only in filthy, sweat-soaked utility trousers.  He was unshaven, haggard, and unwashed.  Walt said, “He was absolutely sick over the loss of his men.  He thought we were getting them killed for nothing.”  And yet, Puller, the fighter, led his Marines forward.  Brigadier General Oliver P. Smith, ADC, stated, “It seemed impossible that men could have moved forward against the intricate and mutually supporting defenses the Japs had set up.  It can only be explained as a reflection of the determination and aggressive leadership of Colonel Puller.”

[9] Once committed to combat, the assaulting unit has but two options: continue the attack and overwhelm the enemy’s defenses or withdraw.  By the time the 1st Marines had become fully engaged with the Japanese defenders (which wasn’t long), Rupertus had already committed the entire 1st Marine Division to the assault at Peleliu.  At that point, there could be no withdrawal; the division would have to fight until either it defeated the Japanese, or until there was no one left to continue the assault.  When it became apparent to Geiger that Rupertus’ division was no longer able to carry on the attack, he began to commit elements of the reserve division, the US 81st Infantry Division.

[10] Major General Paul J. Mueller commanded the US 81st.  While the 1stMarDiv assaulted Peleliu, Mueller’s division assaulted Angaur Island, Pulo Anna Island, Kyangel Atoll, and Pais Island.  The Palau campaign officially ended in January 1945.  


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Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.

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