by Carl Lyren
The battle for Peleliu was one of the most violent and savage conflicts of the war in the Pacific, and it is one of the most forgotten. It pitted the Marine Corps 1st Marine Division – the 1st Marines, the 5th Marines, the 7th Marines – and the Army’s 81st Wildcat Infantry Battalion against more than 10,000 of Japan’s hardened and tough Fourteenth Division, Japanese Imperial Army, out of Manchuria and prepared to fight to the death.
Peleliu was an island six miles long and two miles wide, shaped like a lobster claw. It had a hard-surfaced airfield capable of launching long-range fighter-bombers, and was expected to fall to the Marines within four days at most. That didn’t happen. The heavy three-day naval bombardment before D-day on September 14, 1944 revealed a dominant feature central to the Japanese defense of the island â?? the ominous Umurbrogol ridge. This was a limestone coral reef, 300 feet at its greatest height, that was honeycombed with 500 natural caves of all sizes that had been fortified by the Japanese to be almost totally immune to ordinary artillery, aerial bombing, and napalm attack.
The Japanese commanders saw it as their duty to buy precious time for Japan. They would contest the beaches of Peleliu and exact the highest possible price for them. But they would not throw away their troops by indulging in fruitless banzai attacks. When the going got tough, they planned to pull back to the high ground, and to this end they had fortified the Umurbrogol ridge.
After the beachheads were taken, the 1st Marines beat against the Umurbrogol for six days in the 115 degree heat, destroying one-third of Peleliu’s armament and killing two-fifths of its defenders, but suffering 60 percent casualties.
Next, the 7th Marines attacked the Umurbrogol from the north in a series of grim and grinding fights over 14 days, and were pulled out after suffering 50 percent casualties.
The 5th Marines were next but, after losing 45 percent of their strength in ten days, were also withdrawn.
The last Marine operation on Peleliu took place on October 18. They had killed over 9,000 Japanese, but the Japanese had exacted a heavy toll: total Marine casualties of 7,096 men. Marines won eight Congressional Medals of Honor in this battle.
It would take another month and the 81st Army Division to complete the conquest of Peleliu. And it would be April 1947, 20 months after the war was over, before the last Japanese officer and his 26 men would emerge from the depths of the Umurbrogol for a formal surrender.
At Saipan the Japanese had at last learned that the banzai attack could not succeed against the Marines. At Peleliu we learned that they had learned. Japanese tactics previewed what was to come at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
This is a true story of a forgotten battle, enriched by the voices of forgotten warriors. It should be remembered for what it tells us about man’s ability to strive and not to yield.
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