BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
Encirclement of the Umurbrogol Pocket
With southern and eastern Peleliu captured, there now
began an encirclement of the Japanese defenders in central Peleliu, and
an attack against the Japanese defending northern Peleliu and nearby
Ngesebus and Kongauru. This was the obvious next tactical phase for
combat on Peleliu. However, securing it was less necessary for the basic
Peleliu tactical and strategic goals than for the mopping-up of the
island. As the 1st Marine Division's Assistant Commander, Brigadier
General Oliver P. Smith, later phrased it, "by the end of the first
week, the Division had control of everything on the island that it then
needed, or later used."
The airfield had been seized, was under repair and
improvement, and in use. It was no longer any threat, if it had ever
been, to MacArthur's long-heralded return to the Philippines. Peleliu's
best logistical beach (Purple) had been secured, providing a secure
logistic axis to the main battle areas. The Japanese defenders in their
caves, and in northern Peleliu and on Ngesebus, retained some capability
to harass American rear installations, but that was sharply curtailed by
the Marines' counterfire.
Only two significant Japanese capabilities remained:
they could bitterly resist from their cave positions and they had a
limited capability to reinforce Peleliu from Babelthuap. Such
reinforcement could only be by small-unit infiltration, which faced U.S.
naval screening operations in the area. Likewise, American encirclement
of the stubborn Umurbrogol Pocket faced two obstacles. First was the
lack of additional maneuver regiments from III Amphibious Corps reserve.
General Geiger in fact had no corps reserve pending the release of some
units from the forces involved in the seizure of Angaur. That landing by
the 81st Infantry Division (less the 323d RCT) had been launched on 17
September, after which there was no corps reserve.
The operation on Angaur, the planning which attended
it and the decision on its timing, impacted heavily upon the Peleliu
operation. The naval planners early on proposed landing on Angaur before
Peleliu. Only when Major General Julian C. Smith, commanding
Expeditionary Troops/X-Ray Planning Group, explained that such timing
would invite the numerous Japanese in northern Palau to reinforce
Peleliu was it agreed that Angaur be assaulted only after the Peleliu
landing was assured of success. However, the Angaur landing was
initiated before the Peleliu landing had been clearly resolved. The
commanding general of the 81st Division wanted to land as soon as
possible, and he was supported in his view by his naval task unit
commander, Rear Admiral William H. P. Blandy. Opposing the 17 September
date for the Angaur landing was Marine Major General Julian Smith. Smith
argued that committing the element of III Corps Reserve be fore the
Peleliu operation was more fully developed would be premature. His
advice was ignored by Vice Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson.
A related decision on 17 September committed the III
Corps' final reserve to the Ulithi landing. The task was assigned to the
Western Attack Force, which was ordered to seize Ulithi with "available
resources." Over General Smith's advice, Wilkinson chose to commit the
entire 323d RCT, the 81st Division's other maneuver element. The 321st
subsequently and successfully occupied an undefended Ulithi while
reserves were sorely needed at Peleliu.
By 20 September, the 81st Division had defeated or
cornered all survivors of Angaur's 1,400 defenders. The 8lst's commander
declared Angaur secure. He tasked his 322d RCT to complete the mop-up,
and reported to General Geiger that the 321st RCT was available for
further operations. The lack of enough troops to begin encircling
Umurbrogol was no longer an obstacle.
The other obstacle to reinforcing the division on
Peleliu and encircling the Pocket lay in the thinking of General
Rupertus, who clung to a belief that his Marines could do it without
help from the Army. The III Corps plan tasked the 81st Division to
reinforce the Marines in seizing Peleliu and then to relieve the 1st
Marine Division for the mop up, but the general continued to exhort his
commanders to "hurry up."
Earlier, General Rupertus and Colonel Puller had
shrugged off a suggestion from the 5th Marines' "Bucky" Harris that they
take a look at the Umurbrogol Pocket from the newly available light
planes of Marine Observation Squadron 3. Harris' own aerial
reconnaissance, made immediately after those planes arrived on 19
September, had altered his view of the Umurbrogol from sober to grave.
It convinced him that attacking the Pocket from the north would be less
costly than the originally planned and ordered attempts from south to
north. Both Puller and Rupertus responded to Harris that they had their
The prelanding scheme of maneuver was built on the
tactical concept that, after capturing the airfield, the 1st Marine
Division would push north along a line across the width of the main or
western part of the is land. Once abreast of the southern edge of
Umurbrogol, that concept and maneuver scheme were reflected in a series
of four west-to-east phase lines, indicating an expected linear advance,
south to north. Clearly, it was expected that the advance along the
flatter zones west and east of Umurbrogol would be at approximately the
same pace as that along the high-central ground of Peleliu. Such
thinking may have been consistent with Rupertus' prediction of a
three-day assault. Developments in Sabol's sector to the west, and in
the 5th Marines' sector to the east, apparently did not change
division-level thinking. Until additional forces became available, such
a linear advance may have seemed all that was possible.
the troops entered the Umurbrogol Mountain, they found sinkholes and
difficult terrain much as pictured here. Japanese soldiers in the caves
and heights above could fire at will at the Marines, who were like so
many "fish in a barrel." Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
Even so, there was no apparent reexamination of the
planned south-to-north linear advance, and for days after the Pocket was
sealed off at its northernmost extremity, the division commander kept
ordering attacks from south to north, generally following the initial
landing plan. As had been revealed to "Bucky" Harris in his early aerial
reconnaissance of the Umurbrogol Pocket, such attacks would offer little
but casualties. Troops, heavily supported, could advance into "the
Horseshoe" and into "Death Valley," but the positions they reached then
proved untenable and withdrawal was usual at day's end.
Some part of this thinking may have well come from
the inadequacies of the map in use. The 5th Marines in early October
produced a new and more representative sketch map. It located and
identified the details within Umurbrogol sufficiently to facilitate
maneuver and fire coordination.
That mapping effort, incidentally, led to the
misnaming of Honsowetz' Hill 100, where Captain Everett P. Pope earned
his Medal of Honor. The 5th's mapping team, launched after Harris'
regiment was committed against the Pocket, encountered Lieutenant
Colonel Walt, the regimental executive officer, on Hill 100 during their
sketching, and so named the hill.
Even after General Geiger had ordered General
Rupertus on 21 September to stand down Puller's shattered 1st Marines,
General Rupertus expressed the belief that his Marines, alone, would
shortly clear the entire island. After taking a closer look at the
situation on the ground. Geiger ordered RCT 321 from Angaur and attached
it to the Marine division. Encirclement of the Umurbrogol Pocket now
became tactically feasible.
Capture of northern Peleliu and Ngesebus became more
pressing with the discovery on 23 September that some part of the
enemy's substantial troop strength in the northern Palaus was being
infiltrated by barge from Koror and Babelthuap into northern
Although the naval patrol set to protect against just
that reinforcing action had discovered and destroyed some of the
Japanese barges, most enemy troops seemed to have waded ashore on the
early morning of 23 September. Colonel Nakagawa suddenly had
reinforcements in the form of a partially mauled infantry battalion in