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Peleliu

Digital relief map of Peleliu

Photograph of Umerbrogal Ridge at Peleliu

U.S. Marine Corps. Via ibiblio.org

Peleliu (134.23E 6.995N) is a small island in the Palau group. It is about 6 miles (10km) long and two miles (3 km) across. Its southern half is relatively flat and protected by coral reefs, which made it a good site for a military airfield to protect the nearby Kossol Anchorage. Its northern half is dominated by the Umerbrogal Ridge, a 300' (90m) coral formation, which was heavily fortified by the Japanese during the war. The whole island was covered in dense jungle, and much of its coastline was mangrove swamp.

The Japanese began building military facilities on Peleliu in the spring of 1939, when a force of 3000 naval troops and 500 Korean laborers were dispatched to the island. A modern airfield was completed on the southern half of the island by the end of the year, with one 6000' (1830m) and one 3500' (1070m) runway and excellent facilities that included a two-story reinforced concrete headquarters building. A satellite field was constructed on Ngesebus, just north of Peleliu, and a 500 yard (460m) causeway was constructed connecting the two islands. The Japanese also constructed a road network that included roads along both the east and west sides of Umerbrogal Ridge. Because the island had no natural sources of water, the Japanese constructed a system of cisterns for trapping rainwater.

The island produced small amounts of phosphate that were refined at Akaraoro Point, the northern tip of the island. This was converted to a blockhouse prior to the Allied invasion. The Japanese sited most of their beach defenses along the southwest coast, which they correctly guessed would be the location of any Allied landing, since the reef here narrowed to 600-700 yards (550-640 meter) wide. However, the majority of the Japanese defenders were dug in at Umerbrogal Ridge.

STALEMATE II: The Peleliu Campaign

The Peleliu campaign was one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Pacific War. It did not help that the campaign was poorly planned and implemented. No American had ever set foot on the island, and the heavy jungle foiled aerial photoreconnaissance, concealing the jagged ridges dominating the airfield. The main assault force, 1 Marine Division (Rupertus), was exhausted from earlier tough campaigns, its ranks filled out with green recruits who could not be properly trained at its primitive base camp in the Russell Islands. The size of the Japanese garrison was grossly underestimated (it was about 5300 combat troops built around 2 Regiment plus a battalion from 54 Independent Mixed Brigade, another battalion, and a company of tanks, and 5000 service troops) and planning was almost perfunctory. Rupertus told reporters and the men of his division he expected a tough but short fight, with Japanese resistance collapsing after just a few days.

An underwater demolition team brought in by submarine Burrfish reconnoitered the beaches on 13 August 1944. Four men of the team later went missing while reconnoitering Yap.

Preliminary bombardment of Peleliu began on 12 September 1944. The bombardment group consisted of five battleships, five heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and 14 destroyers under Oldendorf, with air cover provided by a number of escort carriers under Ralph Ofstie. Distant cover was provided by a fast carrier division under William Sample. Overall command was exercised by "Ping" Wilkinson. Meanwhile UDTs cleared coral heads and obstacles and minesweepers swept the waters around Peleliu.

Elements of 1 Marine Division began landing on the 15th in LVTs. Tanks were brought in on LCTs launched from LSDs. The Marines quickly overran the jungle terrain in the south, but 1 Marine Regiment on the northern end of the beachhead was pinned down by heavy fire from The Point, a limestone promontory just north of the invasion beaches. The Point had been heavily bombarded but to little effect, and it gave the Japanese a strongpoint commanding the entire northern beachhead. The commander of 1 Marine Regiment, Colonel "Chesty" Puller, had proven fearless under fire at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, but he was a maverick who resented close supervision by his superiors, and he seemed oblivious to the plight of his men in the killing zone. When Oliver Smith, the division executive officer, finally established contact with Puller, Puller told him he had taken just 40 casualties and needed no reinforcements. In fact, at that point, his men were mostly pinned down and casualties were approaching 500 men. Part of the problem may have been that Puller was himself exhausted from previous campaigns and was suffering from an old leg wound that had never properly healed and made it almost impossible for him to make his customary walks around the front line. However, a single company under Captain George Hunt successfully stormed The Point, and managed to hold it against repeated Japanese counterattacks over the next two days.

The advance by the other two Marine regiments to the edge of the airfield led to the second largest tank battle of the Pacific War. Late in the afternoon, about 13 Japanese light tanks with infantry counterattacked and were annihilated by American tanks, artillery, and bazooka teams. The next morning, the Marines charged over the open ground of the airstrip in what many participants considered the worst fire fight of the war. Heavy Japanese fire from the airfield headquarters blockhouse was neutralized by Marine tanks and infantry supported by 14" (356mm) shell fire from Mississippi.

However, optimism remained unduly high, and by 17 September Wilkinson concluded that 81 Division, the floating reserve, would not be needed on Peleliu and sent it to take Angaur instead. By this time aircraft were beginning to land on the airfield (11 Marine Air Group would be based there by 1 October and a 6000' [1830m] bomber strip completed a week later.)

In fact, it took another two months to neutralize the fortifications in the Umerbrogal Ridge. For the first time since Guadalcanal, the Japanese neither made a stand on the beach nor wasted themselves in hopeless banzai charges. Instead, they remained inside their fortifications by day and carefully rationed their fire, seeking to kill as many Allied soldiers as possible before each position was reduced. At night, small parties of Japanese infiltrated the Marine lines, keeping the Americans on edge. Leaving the Japanese in the ridge to their own devices was not an option, as several of the cave fortifications overlooked the airfield.

The fortifications were nearly impenetrable. Marines on the surface could smell Japanese fish and rice cooking in the caves beneath them. On 27 September the Marines encountered a cave containing a thousand defenders. Frontal assaults by the Marines on the fortified ridges sometimes succeeded in seizing the high ground, at a terrible cost in casualties, only to see the Marines driven back off the heights by Japanese counterattacks. Rupertus seemed determined to complete the conquest of Peleliu using his Marines alone, and although Geiger ordered 321 Regiment brought ashore on 23 September to relieve Puller's shattered regiment, Rupertus held the Army troops back, counting instead on 7 Marine Regiment to complete the reduction of the Umerbrogal. Of the 5388 American casualties suffered by early October, 5044 were members of 1 Marine Division.

On 28 September a battalion of 5 Marine Regiment crossed from Peleliu to Ngesebus in LVTs to seize the airstrip and eliminate artillery fire from high ground north of the airstrip. The assault was preceded by an hour of bombardment and air strikes by Corsairs that allowed the battalion to get ashore without a single casualty. By 1500 the airstrip and most of the island had been overrun, at the cost of 28 Marine casualties, but stubborn resistance continued in the remaining high ground of Ngesebus. Though this was just 15' to 20' (5m to 7m) in elevation, it dominated the flat terrain of the rest of the island.  Japanese losses were 440 dead and 23 taken prisoner. Although Rupertus declared the island secured on 30 September, Army troops continued mopping up for some time.

On September 30, elements of 5 Marine Regiment began to be deployed against the Umerbrogal, relieving the exhausted 7 Marine Regiment. The commander of 5 Marine Regiment, Bucky Harris, adopted a deliberate, methodical approach to reducing the Umerbrogal Ridge that departed from traditional Marine shock tactics. Harris brought in tankdozers, flamethrower LVTs, and tanks and artillery to fire directly into cave mouths and pave the way for the infantry, and, in three days' fighting, his regiment took strategic high ground that the other regiments had failed to take in three weeks. Harris even ordered the artillery assigned to his regiment to systematically blast the face of one particularly difficult objective, not so much to drive out the Japanese as to level the slope so that his Marines would have an easier time climbing it. Even with these successes, Harris had to resist continued pressure from Rupertus to hurry up his advance.

Geiger was in a quandary. A direct order to Rupertus to make use of the fresh troops from 81 Division would have effectively stripped Rupertus of his command authority, but no Marine division commander had ever been summarily relieved during combat. The issue was finally resolved by the new amphibious force commander, Fort, who relieved Wilkinson on 12 October. Fort declared the assault phase over and told the Marine generals that 5 Marine Regiment would be relieved by 321 Regiment starting on 14 October. Sloan (2005) has suggested that Rupertus' attitude was a reflection of his poor health (he died a few months later from a heart attack) and his knowledge that this would be his last campaign.

Mopping up took another six weeks, with the last organized resistance ending in a banzai charge on the night of 24-25 November and the suicide of the garrison commander. One measure of the viciousness of the campaign is that the Marines employed 16,000 hand grenades in six weeks of combat. Total casualties were 1,794 Americans killed and 8,010 wounded and 10,695 Japanese killed and 202 taken prisoner.

Tragically, this campaign was probably unnecessary. Though the Palaus were theoretically well placed to stage an attack on the flank of MacArthur’s drive on the Philippines, by this point in the war the Japanese lacked the shipping and air power to maintain the islands even if they had not been taken. However, Nimitz did not feel he had the authority to cancel the operation without first consulting the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Sutherland, MacArthur's chief of staff, argued for the operation. (MacArthur was already embarked for the Philippines and did not break radio silence.)

References

Gilbert (2001)

Gypton (2004; accessed 2011-6-4)

Hoffman (2001)

Leckie (1962)

Marston (2005)
Morison (1958)

Rottman (2002)
Sledge (1981)

Sloan (2005)


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