Thomas Calabrese — The Battle of Peleliu, code named Operation Stalemate II by the United States military was fought between the U.S. and Japan during the Mariana and Palau Campaign of World War II, from September to November 1944, on the island of Peleliu.
By 1944, American victories in the Southwest and Central Pacific had brought the war closer to Japan, with American bombers able to strike at the Japanese main islands from air bases secured during the Mariana Islands campaign (June–August 1944). There was disagreement among the U.S. Joint Chiefs over two proposed strategies to defeat the Japanese Empire. The strategy proposed by General Douglas MacArthur called for the recapture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa, then an attack on the Japanese mainland. Admiral Chester Nimitz favored a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines, but seizing Okinawa and Taiwan as staging areas to an attack on the Japanese mainland, followed by the future invasion of Japan’s southernmost islands. Both strategies included the invasion of Peleliu, but for different reasons.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor to personally meet both commanders and hear their arguments and MacArthur’s strategy was chosen. However, before MacArthur could retake the Philippines, the Palau Islands, specifically Peleliu and Angaur, needed to be neutralized. U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Division were given the task of defeating the Japanese so that an airfield could be built to protect MacArthur’s right flank. This battle was part of a larger offensive campaign known as Operation Forager, which ran from June to November 1944, in the Pacific Theater.
Major General William Rupertus, Commander of the 1st Marine Division, erroneously predicted the island would be secured within four days because he was basing his findings on previous landings. This turned out to be a gross miscalculation of the enemy’s defenses because after repeated Imperial Army defeats in previous island campaigns, Japan developed new island-defense tactics that included well-crafted and heavy fortifications. After their losses in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas, the Imperial Army’s new plan was to abandon the old strategy of stopping the Marines at the beach with massive resistance which required the Japanese to sacrifice thousands of men. Their new tactics would only disrupt the landings at the water’s edge with mines and obstacles and focus most of their manpower on an in-depth defense farther inland. Colonel Nakagawa used the rough terrain of Peleliu to his ultimate advantage, by constructing a system of heavily fortified bunkers, caves and underground positions all interlocked into a “honeycomb” system. The old ‘banzai charge’ attack was also discontinued as being both wasteful of men and ineffective. These changes would force the Americans into a war of attrition requiring increasingly more resources.
By 1944, Peleliu Island was occupied by 11,000 Japanese of the 14th Infantry Division with Korean and Okinawan laborers. Nakagawa’s defenses were based at Peleliu’s highest point, Umurbrogol Mountain, a collection of hills and steep ridges located at the center of Peleliu overlooking a large portion of the island, including the crucial airfield. The Umurbrogol contained some 500 limestone caves, interconnected by tunnels.
Many of these caves were former mine shafts that were turned into defense positions. Engineers added sliding armored steel doors with multiple openings to serve both artillery and machine guns. Cave entrances were built slanted as a defense against grenade and flamethrower attacks. The caves and bunkers were connected to a vast system throughout central Peleliu, which allowed the Japanese to evacuate or reoccupy positions as needed, and to take advantage of shrinking interior lines.
The Japanese were well armed with 81 mm (3.19 in) and 150 mm (5.9 in) mortars and 20 mm (0.79 in) anti-aircraft-cannons, backed by a light tank unit and an anti-aircraft detachment. The Japanese also used the beach terrain to their advantage. The northern end of the landing beaches faced a 30-foot (9.1 m) coral promontory that overlooked the beaches from a small peninsula, a spot later known to the Marines who assaulted it simply as “The Point”. Holes were blasted into the ridge to accommodate a 47 mm (1.85 in) gun, and six 20 mm cannons. The positions were then sealed shut, leaving just a small firing slit to assault the beaches. Similar positions were crafted along the 2-mile (3.2 km) stretch of landing beaches.
The non-personnel defense of the beaches included thousands of mines and heavy artillery shells buried with the fuses exposed to explode when they were run over. The Japanese positioned a battalion along the beach to defend against the landing, but they were ordered to retreat to more fortified positions once the Marines began their advance inland.
Unlike the Japanese, who drastically altered their tactics for the upcoming battle, the American invasion plan was unchanged from that of previous amphibious landings, even after suffering 3,000 casualties and two months of delaying tactics against the entrenched Japanese defenders at the Battle of Biak. Why Marine leadership failed to adapt may go down as one of the great military plunders of World War II.
American planners chose to land on the southwest beaches because of their proximity to the airfield on South Peleliu. The 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Lewis B. Puller, was to land on the northern end of the beaches. The 5th Marine Regiment, under Colonel Harold D. Harris, would land in the center, and the 7th Marine Regiment, under Col. Herman H. Hanneken, would land at the southern end.
The division’s artillery regiment, the 11th Marines under Col. William H. Harrison, would land after the infantry regiments. The plan was for the 1st and 7th Marines to push inland, guarding the 5th Marines left and right flank, allowing them to capture the airfield located directly to the center of the landing beaches. The 5th Marines were to push to the eastern shore, cutting the island in half. The 1st Marines would push north into the Umurbrogol, while the 7th Marines would clear the southern end of the island. Only one battalion was left behind in reserve, with the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division available for support from Angaur, just south of Peleliu.
On September 4, the Marines shipped off from their station on Pavuvu, just north of Guadalcanal, a 2,100-mile (3,400 km) trip across the Pacific to Peleliu. A U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team went in first to clear the beaches of obstacles, while warships began their pre-invasion bombardment on September 12.
The battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Idaho, heavy cruisers Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis and Portland, and light cruisers Cleveland, Denver and Honolulu, led by the command ship Mount McKinley, subjected the tiny island, only 6 square miles (16 km) in size, to a massive three-day bombardment, pausing only to permit air strikes from the three aircraft carriers, five light aircraft carriers, and eleven escort carriers with the attack force. A total of 519 rounds of 16 in (410 mm) shells, 1,845 rounds of 14 in (360 mm) shells and 1,793 500 lb (230 kg) bombs were dropped on the islands during this period.
Once again, a serious error in judgement occurred when the Americans believed the bombardment was successful, especially after Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf assured the Marines that the Navy had hit every target. In reality, the majority of the Japanese positions were completely unharmed, even the Japanese battalion left to defend the beaches was virtually unscathed and they were waiting for the Marines
Captain Lewis Drury, commanding officer of Delta Company, 1st Raider Battalion was assigned to get behind enemy lines prior to the main invasion, disrupt the remaining Japanese forces and relay pertinent information back to the Division. He was told that this would be a simple ‘mop up’ operation and his men would be off the island in a couple of weeks and then to Australia for some much needed rest and recreation. His Marines were cautiously optimistic, but these were battle hardened and cynical veterans who knew better than to assume anything until they had first-hand knowledge.
There would be two Navaho ‘codetalkers’ assigned to Delta Company; Corporal Yazzie Brightmountain and Enoch Redhorse. On September 13, 1944, the Marines parachuted out of four Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft into the dark of night at 0400 hours and landed just east of White Beach. Once the company reorganized, Captain Drury immediately sent one dozen scouting patrols in various directions to recon the area and one by one they returned.
“Something ain’t right, there’s a large force of Japanese about two hundred yards from the water, but we didn’t see any fortified positions,” Sergeant O’Reilly reported.
“Same with us, “Corporal Pierce seconded, “They look like they’re ready to move out on short notice.”
Captain Drury looked inland and the saw Umurbrogol Mountain and his gut instincts told him that is where the Japanese were entrenched. He turned to Corporal Redhorse, “Call in and tell them that we’re moving inland.”
Delta Company moved out and when they got close enough, Captain Drury pulled out his binoculars and saw numerous openings in the mountain and Japanese soldiers moving about. Since there was no attack at this time, the Japanese left the steel doors open for ventilation since it was extremely hot(115 degrees) on the island. In every opening, there was an artillery weapon and their fields of fire covered the entire island.
Captain Drury radioed in about the fortified enemy positions and was ordered to stay in position and wait for the invasion, then relay information to advancing Marine units. Delta Company found concealment in the thick vegetation and coconut groves.
U.S. Marines landed on Peleliu at 08:32, on September 15, the 1st Marines to the north on White Beach 1 and 2 and the 5th and 7th Marines to the center and south on Orange Beach 1, 2, and 3. As the other landing craft approached the beaches, the Marines were caught in crossfire when the Japanese fired 47 mm guns and 20 mm cannons at the approaching Marines and by 09:30 the Japanese had destroyed 60 landing crafts.
Colonel Chesty Puller narrowly escaped death when a dud high velocity artillery round struck his landing craft, but his communications section was destroyed on its way to the beach by a hit from a 47 mm round. The 7th Marines faced a cluttered Orange Beach 3, with natural and man-made obstacles, forcing the amphibious landing craft to approach in column. Even though Captain Drury knew that he should go to the ‘Point’ the highest part of the island, he changed his mind when he saw fellow Marines on the lowlands were being ripped to shreds by Japanese artillery. He met up with the 17th Seabees Battalion, and his men humped ammo, brought the wounded back and helped bury the dead.
On the second day, Captain Drury and his men joined up with the 5th Marines and moved to capture the airfield and once again they came under heavy artillery fire from the highlands to the north, suffering heavy casualties in the process. “Damn it!” Captain Drury cursed, “We’ve got to take out their artillery!”
When they eventually secured the airfield, Captain Drury and his men decided to leave the 5th Marines and head to the Umurbrogol Mountain. Colonel Puller knew it was a suicide mission, but the situation was dire and desperate, “Good luck, Captain.”
“Thank you sir,” Captain Drury responded and called out to his men, “We’re moving out.”
It was a good thing that Delta Company left when they did because further complicating the situation was the fact that much needed water was delivered in empty oil drums and the petroleum residue caused many Marines to get sick to their stomach. The men of Delta Company were hot, tired and thirsty and they were going into the most dangerous areas of the island. Even as they moved out, the Japanese continued their artillery barrage from the high ground.
When they reached the mountain ridges, Captain Drury and his men began knocking out the Japanese gun positions one by one. Using smoke grenades to obscure the enemy’s visibility, the men of Delta Force swept through each hole, destroying the positions with rifle grenades and close quarter combat. They knocked out nine machine gun positions then faced a 47mm gun cave. Sergeant Hanson blinded the gunner’s visibility with a smoke grenade allowing Captain Drury to launch a rifle grenade through the small opening. The grenade detonated the 47mm shells causing a series of secondary explosions. The Japanese soldiers opened the steel door to escape, some were on fire and their ammunition belts were also exploding. The Marines shot them down.
Captain Drury instinctively saw the opportunity to get inside the cave complex and took it, “Let’s go!” His men followed him inside the cave and they began moving through the elaborate tunnel complex. The Marines fought the Japanese soldiers in vicious hand to hand combat and this diversion allowed Colonel Puller and his Marines valuable time to make their assault and take control of the ‘Point.’
1st Marines then moved north into the Umurbrogol pocket, named “Bloody Nose Ridge” by the Marines after Captain Drury got into hand to hand combat with a Japanese officer and sustained a broken nose. Colonel Puller led his men in numerous assaults, but every one brought on severe casualties by the Japanese. The 1st Marines were trapped within the narrow paths between the ridges, with each ridge fortification supporting the other with deadly crossfire.
They received air support from a squadron of F4U Corsairs who began dive bombing missions across the island, firing rockets into open cave entrances and dropping Napalm. This was only the second time that Napalm had been used in the Pacific and it proved especially useful burning away vegetation where Japanese soldiers were hiding, and in many cases killing them.
Delta Company had lost most of its men and Captain Drury was down to twenty three Marines. As casualties mounted, Japanese snipers began to take aim at Corpsmen and stretcher bearers. They knew that Marines would continue to run into the line of fire to retrieve their fallen brothers. Later that night Captain Drury and his Marines built two-man fighting holes, so that one Marine could keep watch for infiltrators. Delta Company was attacked relentlessly by the Japanese throughout the night and when they ran out of ammunition, they fought their attackers with knives and fists. Hell, they even threw coral rocks and empty ammunition boxes at the Japanese.
By the time dawn finally arrived, Captain Drury was down to nine men so he joined up with Major Raymond Davis of 1st Battalion, 1st Marines and over the next six days of brutal fighting, the battalion suffered 71% causalities. The Marines thought that they reached the crest of Hill 100, only to find out that there was another ridge behind it with more heavily fortified Japanese positions.
Captain Drury fought his way to the highest point of the ridge, killing a dozen Japanese soldiers along the way with a 30 caliber machine gun that he was carrying. He directed air strikes that destroyed Japanese gun positions then saw in the distance, Seabees (construction battalion) approaching with bulldozers and called out, “Follow me!”
They ran through hostile fire until they reached the bulldozers where Captain Drury positioned Marines with flamethrowers on the front of the heavy equipment, what couldn’t be smashed would be incinerated. Satchel charges were dropped down every enemy hole they came across and the ground routinely shook from the internal explosions.
Captain Drury met up with Colonel Puller and General Geiger and they decided to use the same strategy to destroy the remaining Japanese positions. With non-stop air strikes and the Seabees’ equipment, the Marines started to make steady progress. It was bloody and costly, but at least they were moving forward.
Colonel Nakagawa’s command center was the last remaining stronghold and was heavily protected by the most zealous Japanese soldiers on the island. When a scouting patrol determined its location, Colonel Puller asked for volunteers to’ cut the head off the snake’.
“I’ll go,” Captain Drury grimaced as a corpsman bandaged a bullet wound to his left arm.
“Are you up to it?” Colonel Puller asked.
“Probably not, but what the hell,” Captain Drury replied with a sly grin.
“Take whatever men you need.”
On 24 November, Captain Drury and his group of Marines fought through Japanese defenses and found Colonel Nagagawa’s command center located inside the mountain. Flamethrowers seared the exterior of the area, forcing many Japanese soldiers to attempt their escape through a canopy of fire, where they were shot by Marine riflemen as they came out the other side.
When that was accomplished, Captain Drury led his Marines through a cave opening and began neutralizing the remaining enemy soldiers in vicious hand to hand combat. A Japanese Officer stood defiantly before them with his regimental colors draped over his shoulders and said, “Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears,” then as the Marines approached, he drove a razor shape blade deep into his abdomen and committed ritual suicide.(Hari Kari)
On 27 November, the island of Peleliu was declared secure, ending the 73 day-long nightmarish battle.
The battles for Angaur and Peleliu showed Americans the pattern of future Japanese island defense which would be seen again at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Naval bombardment prior to amphibious assault at Iwo Jima was only slightly more effective than at Peleliu, but at Okinawa the preliminary shelling was much improved. On the homefront the battle of Peleliu remained controversial due to the island’s lack of strategic value and the high casualty rate. The Japanese lacked the means to interfere with potential US operations in the Philippines, and the airfield captured on Peleliu never played a key role in subsequent operations.
There were many brutal and epic battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II, but none were more difficult or had a higher casualty rate than the Battle of Umurbrogol Mountain and the infamous Ridges of Peleliu.