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The Battle of Peleliu was the Marines' Bitterest Fight in WWII

Read about a hard-fought battle that was supposed to be won in only four days. 

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  • Photo Credit: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections

In 1944, after U.S. troops secured Saipan and the neighboring islands of Tinina and Guam, the next goal became to strategize the best method to take control of the Palau Islands in the western Carolines, east of the Philippines. Although the island of Peleliu, which forms part of the Palau archipelago, is merely six miles long and two miles wide, it was being held by around 11,000 Japanese troops, who would threaten any future Allied operation in the Philippines. 

Both General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz proposed differing strategies on how to approach the defeat of the Japanese Empire. General MacArthur suggested that they recapture the Philippines, then Okinawa, followed by an attack on the Japanese home islands, while Admiral Nimitz wanted to bypass the Philippines, seize Okinawa and Taiwan and then invade Japan’s southernmost islands.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with both, MacArthur’s strategy was ultimately chosen, which primarily required the acquisition of Peleliu and Anguar so that they could be used to protect MacArthur’s left flank. This decision would lead to the Battle of Peleliu, which was expected to be easily secured within four days at most, as confidently expressed by the commander of the 1st Marine Division, Major General William Rupertus. However, this controversial battle would become what the National Museum of the Marine Corps has coined “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines,” lasting from September 15th to November 27th. It amounted to the highest casualty rate of any other amphibious assault during the Pacific War.

Japanese Army's Strategy 

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  • Imperial Japanese Army Colonel Kunio Nakagawa.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Led by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, commander of the Japanese division’s 2nd Regiment, the Japanese army decided that their old tactics of defense using the traditional “banzai charge” attack and meeting the American enemy on the beaches would lead to too many casualties, so they decided to opt for new island defense tactics. These included taking advantage of the surrounding terrain to build fortified bunkers, caves and underground positions in a “honeycomb” system while also filling the beaches with obstacles that would make it difficult for landing craft, and hiding buried mines set to explode to impede the American soldiers' advancement.

The island’s highest point, Umurbrogol Mountain, or “Bloody Nose Ridge,” as coined by American soldiers, contained caves connected by tunnels that were turned into defensive positions by being fortified with sliding armored steel doors and modified to defend against grenade and flamethrower attacks. These bunkers were connected to a trench system, allowing for quick evacuations. With these new strategies in place, the Japanese were far more prepared than the American troops were anticipating. 

American Army's Strategy 

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  • The first wave of LVTs moves toward the beaches, while battleships bombard from a distance.

    Photo Credit: National Park Service

Unlike the Japanese troops, American tactics were mostly unimproved from previous amphibious landings. Their plan was as follows: the 1st Marine Regiment, led by Colonel Lewis B. Puller, would land on the northern end of the beaches; the 5th Marine Regiment, commanded by Colonel Harold Harris, would land in the center; and the 7th Marine Regiment, under Colonel Herman Hanneken, would take up the southern end. The 11th Marines under Colonel William Harrison would land after the infantry regiments once the other troops captured the airfield located at the center of the landing beaches, pushed north into the Umurbrogol, and cleared the southern end of the island. 

On September 12th, a three-day bombardment commenced; a total of 519 rounds of 16 inch shells, 1,845 rounds of 14 inch shells and 1,793 500-pound bombs were used to secure the island. The Americans wrongly assumed that their attack had been a major success that would allow for an easy occupation of the island when in reality, the Japanese were lying in wait from their reinforced positions. 

Setting Foot on Peleliu 

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  • Warning sign to alert soldiers of a dangerous area.

    Photo Credit: National Museum of the U.S. Navy

The Marines set foot on White Beach on September 15th and were immediately met with Japanese artillery fire; within the hour, the Japanese had destroyed 60 of the Americans’ LVTS and DUKWs (both of which are types of amphibious vehicles). The 5th Marines were able to successfully push toward the airfield despite Nakagawa’s first counterattack, but not without suffering 200 casualties and 900 wounded.

Despite suffering greatly from heat exhaustion and having to drink water distributed in empty oil drums, contaminating their water supply, by September 23rd, the 5th and 7th Marines had control of the airfield and the southern part of the island. American troops used napalm, which was only the second time napalm had been used in the Pacific, allowing for easier detection of the enemy’s hideouts and ultimate annihilation.  

Bloody Nose Ridge 

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  • An attack on Japanese bunkers on Umurbrogol Mountain.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once the Marines had successfully captured “The Point,” they moved on to their next objective—securing Umurbrogol, or “Bloody Nose Ridge.” American troops continued to experience immense casualties. One of the Japanese army’s tactics was to take aim at stretcher bearers so that they would be replaced by new Marines who would be steadily targeted by Japanese snipers. One notable conflict at Bloody Nose was fought by the 1st Battalion under Major Raymond Davis over six days of fighting, amounting to 1,749 casualties. Ultimately running out of ammunition, the Americans had to resort to hand-to-hand combat and relied on throwing coral rock and empty leftover ammunition boxes to defend themselves. After the carnage, only nine men from Captain Everett P. Pope's company remained. 

The End of The Battle

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  • Marine riflemen and a bazooka team wait for the enemy.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Once other American troops were able to join in the fight and relieve their brothers-in-arms, by October 30th, the American military was able to take unstable control of Peleliu. It wasn’t until November 24th that Nakagawa announced that the Japanese were surrendering by stating, “Our sword is broken, and we have run out of spears.” He then proceeded to perform seppuku (ritual suicide) in the Japanese tradition observed by samurai warriors, allowing American soldiers to deem the island secured on November 27th.

The Aftermath 

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  • Soldiers reading letters from home.

    Photo Credit: USMC Archives

Even though the American troops eventually won this battle, they were attacked so heavily that the 1st Marine Division remained out of action until the invasion of Okinawa on April 1st, 1945. Of the 28,000 American troops involved, around 1,800 were killed and 8,000 were wounded. This controversial battle was not only divisive because of the large death toll, leading to the highest American casualty rate of all other amphibious operations during the Pacific War, but also because the airfield on Peleliu ended up not playing as crucial a role in ensuing operations as military leaders had previously believed.

At the time, this battle was hardly reported on, as there were only six reporters on-site due to the incorrect prediction that this would be a short and easy win for America. However, the lessons learned from this horrific battle would later aid soldiers at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, as they had a clearer idea of the Japanese army’s war techniques—crucial information acquired not without the sacrifices made by the young soldiers who gave their lives.