BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
The Early Battle in the Division Center
On D plus 1, when the 1st Marines had launched their
costly Umurbrogol assault, the 5th Marines on its right also faced an
assault situation, but one of substantially less opposition and easier
terrain. Lieutenant Colonel Boyd's 1/5 had to fight across the airfield,
from southwest to northeast, and through the built-up area similar to
that which faced Honsowetz's 2/1. The battalion was subjected to
observed fire from the Umurbrogol and to small arms fire from Japanese
defenders in the rubble-filled built-up area. Boyd's coordinated
tank-infantry attack quickly carried the day. He soon had control of
that area, and the east- west, cross-island road, which could lead the
5th toward its next objective, the eastern peninsula of Peleliu.
conference held in the 1st Marine Division command post, Col Harold D.
"Bucky" Harris, 5th Marines commander, center, explains to MajGen Roy S.
Geiger, Commanding General, III Amphibious Corps, left, and MajGen
William H. Rupertus, commander of the division, his plan of operations
in northern Peleliu. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 95661
On the 5th Marines' right, 2/5 had a more difficult
time. Its progress was stubbornly opposed by infantry from the woods on
its right, and by artillery from Umurbrogol, which took a particular
interest in the tanks 2/5 was using to support its attack along the edge
of the woods. Whether the Japanese infantry in those woods had been
posted to defend that position, or whether they were just surviving
Japanese infantry from the D-Day counterattack, was never established.
The fight took all day and inflicted heavier casualties on Gayle's
battalion than had D-Day. By dusk, 2/5 had battled beyond the north end
of the airfield, and halted for the night near the woods concealing the
approaches to the eastern peninsula.
As the two-battalion attack of the 5th Marines (D
plus 1) was heavily engaged on its front and right, the regimental
headquarters near the beach was hit by an artillery barrage which,
coupled with D-Day's loss of 3/5's commanding officer and executive
officer, engendered a significant rearrangement in command assignments.
The early D plus 1 barrage hit the regimental CP, took out numbers of
the staff, and buried the regimental commander in the crumbling Japanese
antitank trench in which the CP was "sheltered." Fortunately, the burial
was temporary, and Colonel Harris emerged with a twisted and battered
leg, but still able to hobble. Two of his principal staff officers were
casualties, and his sergeant major killed. Harris elected not to be
evacuated, but he needed help in the regimental CP. Ordering Lieutenant
Colonel Walt back from the 3d Battalion to the regimental CP, Harris
directed the commanding officer of 2/5 to send his executive officer,
Major John H. Gustafson, to take command of 3/5. Then Harris directed
Boyd to send his 1/5 operations officer, Major Hierome Opie, to join 3/5
as Gustafson's executive officer.
Fortunately, 3/5 was having a relatively quiet day,
unlike its hair-raising regrouping on the night of D-Day. After
daylight, as 2/5 attacked north, 3/5 stretched along the east edge of
the mangrove lagoon which separated Peleliu from the eastern peninsula.
In that position, 3/5 also tied into 3/7 as that battalion attacked
south. Thus 3/5 protected each regiment's flank against any Japanese
movement across the intervening water, and into the rear of the
attacking battalions. No such threat developed, and as the afternoon
grew on, there emerged a more pressing employment for 3/5.
As Walt returned to his post beside the now only
semi-mobile Harris, Major Gustafson was told to get 3/5 to position to
bolster and then relieve 1/5, as it closed in on its 0-2 objectives.
Throughout the next day (D plus 2), the 5th Marines
kept tied in with the 1st Marines on its left and captured some control
of the foot of the East Road. On the right, 2/5 hacked and combed its
way through the jungle and mangrove north of the airfield, alongside the
road leading toward the eastern peninsula. The thick scrub, nearly
impenetrable, reduced progress to a crawl. It compensated by concealing
most of the advancing Marines from enemy observation from high ground to
2/5's north and northwest.
That 5th Marines' forward position generally
coincided with the northeast sector of the airfield earlier mentioned.
Possession of that visual boundary meant that in most places on the
regimental right, front-line Marines were spared the hostile observation
and directed fire from Umurbrogol. As with the 7th Marines, largely
hidden in the jungle of the south, this lessened the need for headlong
assault. There would now be freedom to maneuver more deliberately and to
coordinate supporting fire more carefully.
The 7th Marines' Complete Destruction of Enemy in the South
In the south, from D plus 1 through D plus 3, the 7th
Marines was in vigorous assault against extensive fortifications in the
rear of the Scarlet Beaches. These were defended by a full battalion,
the elite 2d Battalion, 15th Regiment. Although isolated and
surrounded by the Marines, this battalion demonstrated its skill and its
understanding of Colonel Nakagawa's orders and mission: to sell Peleliu
at the highest possible price. The 7th Marines attacked with 3/7 on the
left and 1/7 on the right. They enjoyed the advantage of attacking the
extensive and well-prepared defenses from the rear, and they had both
heavy fire support and the terrain for limited maneuver in their favor.
Both sides fought bitterly, but by 1530 on 18 September (D plus 3), the
battle was substantially over. The Marines had destroyed an elite
Japanese reinforced infantry battalion well positioned in a heavily
fortified stronghold. Colonel Hanneken reported to General Rupertus that
the 7th Marines' objectives he had set for D-Day were all in hand. The
naval gunfire preparation had been significantly less than planned. The
difference had been made up by time, and by the courage, skill, and
additional casualties of the infantry companies of 1/7 and 3/7.
Now the 7th Marines, whose 2d Battalion was already
in the thick of the fight for Umurbrogol, was about to move out of its
own successful battle area and into a costly assault which, by this
time, might have been more economically conducted as a siege.