World War II: Central Pacific--Peleliu (September 1944)


Figure 1.--Peleliu is perhaps the most controversial of all the Pacific Island campaigns. Gen. MacArthur thought air support was needed for the upcoming invasion of Leyte. The intelligence assessment badly underestimated the Japanese garrison n the island. After a briefy bloody fight for the airfield The Japanese withdrew into well preared defensive positions in the Umurbrogol Mountain ridge. It would take nearly 2 months to root them out at great cost. The 1st Marine Division was chewed up in the process.

Peleliu was one of the Palau Islands acquired by Japan during World War I. Admiral Nimitz with growing naval power had the advantage of selecting the islands to invade. Some islands like Saipan were obvious. Others less so. The Japanese were forced to heavily garison large numbers of islands which they then had trouble supplying. Peleliu was one of those islands. A Japanese research team developed new island defense tactivs. They decided to end the beach-based defense and the reckless Banzai attacks. Instead they adopted a 'honeycom' system of fortified fefensive positions. And Peleliu was pefect for this. The Japanese military began to build defenses beginning with the Panay incident (1937). Using both soldiers and Korean slave labor had built defensive positions throughout the island. Gaves were outfitted with steel doors and protected by inter-locking fire. The Japanese by 1944 had garrisoned the Palau Islands with 30,000 men, including 11,000 men on Peleliu. The primary force was the 14th division commanded by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa. Given its position north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines, it was seen as necessary to take. Adm. Nimitz for the most part chose well, making judicious assessments about which islands were needed to advance across the vast ocean streaches toward Japan. MacArthur wanted Peleliu's airfield to support the Leyte landings. Peleliu proved to be one of the bloodiest of the Central Pacific island invasions. And historians have come to view it as unecessary. The pre-invasion intelligence on Peleliu was probably the worst of any of the island invasions. Operation Stalemaste was initially seen as needed for a staging area for the invasion of the Philippines. Later planners had second thoughts, but Admiral Nimitz decided that the planning had gone too far. The 1st Marine Division was told before going ashore that there would be a tough fight, but it would be over in 3 days. The Marines landed (September 15). The Navy pounded the island for 3 days, but the the carefully prepared Japanese cave positions and underground bunkers were left largely untouched. The result ws a fierce battle which went on for weeks. [McEnery] The Japanese based on previous invasions, decided not to oppose the initial beach landings, but fight on in depth from prepared positions. [Camp] The only running tank fight conducted by the Marines occurred over the airfield. The Japanese fought the Marines for 6 weeks in prepared defenses and then caves. Both sides had casualties of over 10,000 men. The differences was that most of the American casualteswere wounded. All but 200 of the 11,000 Japanese defenders were killed. [Sloan] The 1st Marines suffered 6,500 casualties, 1,300 killed. The Army 81st Division which followed the Marines suffered 3,300 casuaties, over 500 killed. Incredibly, 34 Japanese soldiers held out for 2 years after the battle.

The Islands

Peleliu was one of the Palau Islands acquired by Japan during World War I. It was a volcanic island just 6 miles long and 2 miles wide. Peleliu, in the south of the Palau archipelago is a tranquil, out of the way option for tourists. There's only one village Klouklubed. It is so lyed back that tourists often get the imoressionj that they have the entire island to themselves. It is hardly the place that one could imgine being the site of one the bloodiest Pcifiuc War battles. American and Japanese war relics, however, are scattered across the island and today are one of Peleliu's major attractions. There are some good beaches as well as popular offshore dive sites.

Japanese Quandry

A major problen the Japanese faced is not knowing just where the Americans would strike. There were countless Pacifuc Islands. The Japanese could not garrison all of them. Some islands like Saipan were obvious. Others less so. The Japanese were forced to heavily garison large numbers of islands, but there were so many that they the garrisons were understrength and poorly equipped. And they had great diffculty supplying the many garridin, escpecilly as Amricn air and naval power grew. Peleliu was one of those islands. Even so there was a substntial garrison on the island.

Selection

Admiral Nimitz with growing naval power had the advantage of selecting the islands to invade. Given its position north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines, it was seen as necessary to take. Adm. Nimitz for the most part chose well, making judicious assessments about which islands were needed to advance across the vast ocean streaches toward Japan. MacArthur wanted Peleliu's airfield to support the Leyte landings.

Japanese Preparations

A Japanese research team developed new island defense tactics. They decided to end the beach-based defense and the reckless Banzai attacks. Instead they adopted a 'honeycom' system of fortified fefensive positions. And Peleliu was pefect for this. The Japanese military began to build defenses beginning with the Panay incident (1937). Using both soldiers and Korean slave labor had built defensive positions throughout the island. Gaves were outfitted with steel doors and protected by inter-locking fire. The Japanese by 1944 had garrisoned the Palau Islands with 30,000 men, including 11,000 men on Peleliu. The primary force was the 14th division commanded by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa.

Intelligence

The pre-invasion intelligence on Peleliu was probably the worst of any of the island invasions. And historians have come to view it as unecessary. Operation Stalemaste was initially seen as needed for a staging area for the invasion of the Philippines. Later planners had second thoughts, but Admiral Nimitz decided that the planning had gone too far. The 1st Marine Division was told before going ashore that there would be a tough fight, but it would be over in 3 days.

Campaign

Peleliu proved to be one of the bloodiest of the Central Pacific island invasions. The Marines landed (September 15). The Navy pounded the island for 3 days, but the the carefully prepared Japanese cave positions and underground bunkers were left largely untouched. The result ws a fierce battle which went on for weeks. [McEnery] The Japanese based on previous invasions, decided not to oppose the initial beach landings, but fight on in depth from prepared positions. [Camp] The only running tank fight conducted by the Marines occurred over the airfield. The Japanese fought the Marines for 6 weeks in prepared defenses and then caves. Finally a Banzai charge came. One historian writes, "Machine guns were brought forward and carefully positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire. Company and battalion mortar squads registered their weapons on likely approaches to the front lines. Artillery and naval gunfire observers memorized target numbers so they could call forfire in the darkness. Everyone knew the Japanese were coming and dreaded to hear them screech 'banzai' as they launched human wave assaults .... Fox tried to scrape out a hole in the coral but it was impossible. He piled up rocks for protection and carefully laid out grenades and amunition so he could find them in the dark and then hunkered down -- waiting. 'I guess we all knew that something unpleasant was going to happen .... [T]his was the Japanese's time ... this was time to fight." [Camp]

Casualties

Although one of the lesser kniwn Pacific War campaigns, it resulted in a higher death toll than any other amphibious assault in U.S. military history. Both sides had casualties of over 10,000 men. The differences was that most of the American casualtes were wounded. All but 200 of the 11,000 Japanese defenders were killed. [Sloan] The 1st Marines suffered 6,500 casualties, 1,300 killed. The Army 81st Division which followed the Marines suffered 3,300 casuaties, over 500 killed. Incredibly, 34 Japanese soldiers held out for 2 years after the battle.

Sources

Camp, Dick. Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15-21, 1944 (2011).

McEnery, Jim with Bill Sloan. Hell in the Pacific: A Marine Rifleman's Journey From Guadalcanal to Peleliu (2013).

Sloan, Bill. Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944--The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War (2006).








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Created: 5:19 AM 9/19/2016
Last updated: 8:15 PM 1/20/2019