BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
The Japanese Defenses
On the enemy's side, Lieutenant General Sadae Inoue,
a fifth generation warrior of stout military reputation, commanding
the 14th Infantry Division, fresh from the Kwangtung Army
in China, met in Tokyo in March 1944 with Japanese Premier Hideki Tojo,
who was also Minister of War. Tojo had concluded that Japan was no
longer able to hold the Palaus against growing Allied naval dominance
in the Western Pacific. Instead, he had decided to sell the Palaus to
the United States at the highest possible cost to Americans in blood and
time. He ordered Inoue to take his division to the Palaus, to take
command of all Japanese forces there, and to defend the Palau Islands as
long as possible, denying its use to the Americans and killing as
many as possible in the undertaking.
As his division sailed to the Palaus, Inoue flew
ahead, reconnoitered his new locale by air for two days, and concluded
that Peleliu (with satellite air strips on Angaur and Ngesebus) was the
key to his defenses. Earlier U.S. attention to Peleliu during the Task
Force 58 March strikes seemed to confirm that judgment. To defend
Peleliu, Inoue immediately settled upon a commander, a mission, and a
force level. Peleliu had for some time been under occupation and
administrative command of a rear admiral, who had used his forces'
construction resources and capability to build blockhouses and many
reinforced concrete structures above ground, while improving
existing caves and tunnels under Peleliu's rich concealment of
overlying jungle, scrub, and vines.
"The Beach . . . My First View as I Came Around From
the Ramp of our LVT We ground to a stop, after a thousand years, on
the coarse coral . . . . And we ran down the ramp and came around
the end of the LVT, splashing ankle-deep up the surf to the white beach.
Suddenly I was completely alone. Each man drew into himself when he ran
down that ramp, into that flame. Those Marines flattened in the sand on
that beach were dark and huddled like wet rats in death as I threw my
body down among them. Caption by the artist, Tom Lea
In these underground installations, the admiral's
personnel had well survived the Task Force 58 March attacks. Above
ground, planes and installations were demolished. As Task Force 58
departed, the Japanese emerged, repaired what they could, but continued
to focus upon underground installations. Together with a few Korean
labor troops, their numbers totaled about 7,000, most of them lacking
training and leadership for infantry action.
Leadership arrived in the person of Colonel Nakagawa,
with his 6,500-man 2d Infantry Regiment (Reinforced). They had
long battle experience in China. They were armed with 24 75mm artillery
pieces, some 13-15 light tanks, about 100 .50-cal. machine guns, 15 81mm
heavy mortars, and about 30 dual-purpose antiaircraft guns. Already on
the island were a large number of very heavy (141mm) mortars, naval
antiaircraft guns, and rudimentary rocket launchers for sending up
large, unguided naval shells. Most significant, the regiment had Colonel
Nakagawa and his battle-disciplined officers and noncommissioned
officers. Nakagawa had already been awarded nine medals for leadership
against the Chinese and was viewed as a "comer" within his officer
Immediately upon arrival, Nakagawa reconnoitered his
prospective battle area from the ground and from the air. He identified
the western beaches, the Marines' White and Orange Beaches, as the most
probable landing sites. He immediately ordered his troops to dig in and
construct beach defenses. At this time, a bureaucratic conflict arose.
Vice Admiral Seiichi Itou, who was the senior officer and the senior
naval officer on Peleliu, resented being subordinate to an Army officer
much junior to him.
From Koror, Lieutenant General Inoue dispatched Major
General Kenjiro Murai to Peleliu, to assume island command and to
maintain "liaison" with Colonel Nakagawa. Murai was young, highly
regarded, and, as the personal representative of Lieutenant General
Inoue, was considered senior to the admiral. He left Nakagawa's
operational mission firmly in Nakagawa's hands, as Inoue intended.
Throughout the campaign, Nakagawa exercised operational control, and was
assisted and counseled, but not commanded, by General Murai.
Nakagawa had a sound appreciation of his mission, of
the situation, and of American firepower. He turned his attention to the
fullest use of his principal advantage, the terrain. He so deployed and
installed his forces to inflict all possible damage and casualties
during the anticipated landing, and then to defend in depth for as long
as possible. On Peleliu, that offered a vertical as well as a horizontal
dimension to the defense.
He surveyed and registered artillery and mortar
weapons over the width and depth of the reef off both eastern and
western beaches, with planned heavy concentrations along the fringe of
the western reef. In this he anticipated the American need to transfer
follow-on waves from landing craft to the reef-crossing amphibian
vehicles. He registered weapons on, and immediately inland from, the
water's edge, to subject landing troops to a hail of fire. Off-shore he
laid 500 wire-controlled "mines:'
Colonel Nakagawa directed construction of beach
obstacles, using rails and logs, and ordered anti-tank ditches dug. He
emplaced troops in machine gun and mortar pits along, and inland from,
the beaches, augmented by all the available barbed wire. On the north
and south flanks of the beach, he constructed concrete emplacements to
shelter and conceal antitank and anti-boat artillery sited to enfilade
the expected waves of landing craft.
Inland, he incorporated the already-built blockhouse
and adjacent reinforced buildings into mutually supporting defensive
complexes, with interconnecting communication lines and trenches.
Although believing the western beaches to be the most
probable route of attack, he did not leave the southern (Scarlet) and
eastern (Purple) beaches undefended. He committed one battalion to
organize defenses in each area. The Purple Beaches were thoroughly
organized, with contingent orders to the defenders to move into central
Peleliu if the battle developed from the west, as expected. But the
battalion committed to the south, Scarlet Beach, had orders to defend
those stronger, more permanent emplacements to the end. Nakagawa
assigned about 500 infantry and artillery to defend Ngesebus and about
1,000 naval personnel to defend northern Peleliu. Not under his command
were the 1,500 defenders of Angaur.
"The Price" Lying there in terror looking
longingly up the slope to better cover, I saw a wounded man near me
staggering in the direction of the LVTs. His face was half bloody pulp
and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a
stick, as he bent over in his stumbling, shock-crazy walk. The half of
his face that was still human had the most terrifying look of abject
patience I have ever seen. He fell behind me, in a red puddle on the
white sand." Caption by the artist, Tom Lea
The major part of his force and effort was committed
to the 500 caves, tunnels, and firing embrasures in the coral ridges of
central Peleliu. The naval units' extensive earlier tunneling into the
limestone ridges rendered occupants largely immune to general
bombardments. Only lucky hits into the mouths of caves, or point-blank
direct fire could damage the hidden defenses and their troops. The
tunnels were designed for, or adapted to, various purposes: barracks,
command centers, hospitals, storage and ammunition magazines, cooking
areas complete with fresh water springs and seepage basins, and of
course firing embrasures with elaborate concealment and protective
devices, including a few sliding steel doors. Colonel Nakagawa expected
very heavy prelanding bombardments. He expected his troops to survive
them, and then to carry out his mission of delaying and bleeding the
On Koror, Lieutenant General Inoue was busy with the
bulk of his forces, preparing for expected attacks against Babelthuap.
The Allied "Stalemate" plan had indeed called for invasion of
Babelthuap. As the anticipated invasion drew near, Inoue issued a
proclamation to his troops, clearly reflecting Tojo's instructions to
delay and bleed. He pointed out the necessities to anticipate and endure
the naval bombardment and to use the terrain to inflict casualties on
the attackers. Without actually ordering troops to die, he included the
words, "we are ready to die honorably." He went on to say that dying,
and losing the territory to the enemy, might contribute to the opening
of a new phase of the war.
Engaged in the bitter struggle to establish the Peleliu
beachhead, Marine riflemen get only momentary shelter behind an LVT,
while other Marines atop the amphibian tractor fire at enemy targets.
The name of the LVT was more than prophetic. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)