BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
The Umurbrogol Pocket: Peleliu's Character Distilled
Colonel Harris brought two firm concepts to this
final effort for his 5th Marines. First, the attack would be from the
north, an approach which offered the greatest opportunity to chip off
one terrain compartment or one ridge at a time. His 1st Battalion
positions along the east side of the Pocket would be held statically,
perhaps incrementally adjusted or improved. No attacks would be launched
from the south, where the 3d Battalion was positioned in reserve.
Colonel Harris' aerial reconnaissance during the
first week on Peleliu had convinced him that siege tactics would be
required to clear the multitude of mutually defended positions within
Umurbrogol. As he had earlier expressed himself in the presence of the
corps and division commanders visiting his regimental CP. Harris
continued with his policy to "be lavish with ammunition and stingy with
. . . men's lives." He was in a strong command position to prepare
support thoroughly before ordering advances.
The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, relieved 3d Battalion,
7th Marines in position on 5 October, but did nothing but reconnoiter
positions where heavier firepower could come into play. Engineer dozers
were brought up to prepare paths into the north ends of the box canyons,
along which LVT flame throwers and tanks could later operate. A light
artillery battery was emplaced along the West Road to fire point-blank
into the west facing cliffs at the north end of the Pocket, as were
weapons carriers and tanks later. Troublesome sections of certain cliffs
were literally demolished by direct fire, and the rubble dozed into a
ramp for tanks to climb toward better firing positions. Light mortars
were used extensively to strip vegetation from areas in which firing
caves were suspected, and planes loaded with napalm-filled belly tanks
were used to bomb suspected targets just south of the key Hill 140,
which 2/5 had selected as its key objective.
Marine riflemen accompanied by tanks push forward to the
enemy water supply and rid it of Japanese troops once and for inner
recesses of Horseshoe Ridge in an effort to cut off the all. The going
got no easier as the Americans pushed forward. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
As 2/5 picked off successive firing positions in the
north, 3/5 on 7 October sent a tank sortie into the Horseshoe. This
time, the mission was not to seize and hold, but to destroy by fire all
identifiable targets on the faces of the Five Sisters, and on the
western (lower) face of Hill 100 (Pope Ridge). When all ammunition was
expended, the tanks withdrew to rearm then returned, accompanied by LVT
flame-throwing tanks and guarded by small infantry fire-teams.
Considerably more destruction was effected, a large number of Japanese
were killed in caves, and many of the Japanese heavy weapons in those
caves were silenced. Previous to this time, some single artillery pieces
firing from within the Horseshoe had occasionally harassed the airfield.
No such nuisance attacks occurred after the 7 October tank sorties.
Marines who fought on Pope Ridge would not recognize it
in this photograph of the southern end of the ridge looking north
showing how the vegetation took over. Caption and photo by Phillip D.
For the next six days, the 5th Marines headquarters
afforded all available support to small, incremental advances by 2/5
from the north. Light mortars were repeatedly used to clear all
vegetation from small objectives and routes of advance. Both tanks and
artillery were used at point-blank ranges to fire into all suspected
caves or rough coral areas. Aerial bombardment with napalm was used to
clear vegetation and, hopefully, drive some defenders further back into
their caves. All advances were very limited, aimed simply at seizing new
firing positions. Advances were made by squads or small platoons.
The last position seized, Hill 140, just north of the
Five Brothers, afforded a firing site to which a 75mm pack howitzer was
wrestled in disassembled mode, reassembled, sand bagged, and then
effectively fired from its then-commanding position. It could fire into
the mouth of a very large cave at the base of the next ridge, from which
serious fire had been received for days.
Sandbagging this piece into position posed special
problems, since the only available loose sand or dirt had to be carried
from the beach, or occasional debris slides. Nevertheless, the use of
sandbags in forward infantry positions began to be used in creasingly,
and the technique was later improved and widely used when 81st Infantry
Division soldiers took over further reduction of the Pocket.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
By this mode of careful advance, a number of small
knobs and ridges at the head of the two murderous box canyons were
seized. Direct fire could be laid into the west face of Walt and Boyd
Ridges, whose tops were occupied by 1/5, but those cave-filled western
slopes were protected by other caves on the opposite, parallel ridge
known as Five Brothers.
A week of such siege-like activity pushed the
northern boundary of the Pocket another 500 yards south. On 12 October,
the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines was called in to relieve 2d Battalion, 5th
Marines. The relief was seriously marred, primarily because the forward
positions being relieved were so close to the opposing enemy. The
incoming troops, including a company commander, were picked off by
snipers during this exchange, and a small group of enemy reoccupied a
position earlier subdued by frequent interdiction fires. Despite these
losses and interruptions, the relief was completed on schedule, and on
13 October, 3/5 continued the slow and deliberate wedging forward.
Directly south of Hill 140, there seemed no feasible
axis for advance, so 3/5's axis was shifted southwest, approximately
paralleling the West Road, and into the coral badlands in front of the
containing lines manned by the composite groups guarding West Road.
While the composite groups held in place, 3/5 operated across their
front, north to south. By this means the coral badlands were cleared out
for an average (east-west) depth of 75-150 yards, along some 500 yards
of the north-south front. This terrain, earlier judged unsuitable for
any but the costliest and most difficult advance, was now traversed with
the aid of preparatory fire-scouring by napalm bombs. Major "Cowboy"
Stout's VMF-114 pilots' bombs fell breathtakingly close to both the
advancing 3/5 front and to the stationary composite units holding just
east of West Road.
A similar effort was then launched from the south by
what was left of Lieutenant Colonel John Gormley's 1/7. Together, these
two advances seized and emptied about one-half of the depth of the coral
badlands, between West road and the China Wall. This clearing action
allowed the composite "infantillery" unit to advance its lines eastward
and then hold, as far as the infantry had cleared, toward the back of
Overall, the actions of the 5th and 7th Marines in
October had reduced the Pocket to an oval some 800 yards, north to
south, and 400-500 yards, east to west. According to Colonel Nakagawa's
contemporaneous radio report back to Koror, he still had some 700
defenders within the Pocket, of which only 80 percent were effective. In
early October, some wag had suggested that the Pocket situation be
clarified by enclosing it with barbed wire and designating it as a
prisoner of war enclosure. Spoken in bitter jest, the concept did
recognize that the Pocket no longer counted in the strategic balance,
nor in completing the effective seizure of Peleliu.
Gordon D. Gayle, commander of 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, outlines in the
sand proposed enemy targets in the north for LtCol Joslyn R. Bailey,
Marine Aircraft Group 11. Looking on are Col Harold D. Harris,e 5th
Marines commander, center, and LtCol Lewis W Walt, behind Gayle, 5th
Marines executive officer. Department of Defense Photo (USMC)
But it still weighed significantly in the mind of
Major General Rupertus, who wanted to subdue the Pocket before turning
over to Major General Mueller the 81st Division's previously specified
mopping-up task. In point of fact, Rupertus' successful seizure of
Ngesebus and northern Peleliu had terminated the enemy's capability to
reinforce the now-isolated Japanese on Peleliu. Creation of that
tactical situation had effectively secured Peleliu.
Without pressing for a declaration that Peleliu had
been effectively secured, which would have formalized the completion of
the 1st Marine Division's mission, General Geiger had for some days
suggested that in continuing his attacks into the Pocket, Rupertus
relieve first the 5th, then the 7th Marines with his largest and
freshest infantry regiment, the 321st RCT, still attached to 1st Marine
Division. To all such suggestions, General Rupertus replied that his
Marines would "very shortly" subdue the Pocket.
Two events now overtook General Rupertus' confidence.
First, the 81st Division was made whole by the return of its 323d RCT,
fresh from its critically important seizure of Ulithi. Second, the
perception that Peleliu was effectively secured was validated by a
message which so stated from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in
Chief, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. Major
General Geiger was directed to turn over command to Major General
Mueller, whose 81st Division was now directed to relieve the 1st Marine
Division, to mop up, and to garrison Peleliu, as long planned. Rear
Admiral George E. Fort, Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson's successor
as commander of operations in the Palaus, was directed to turn over that
responsibility to Vice Admiral John H. Hoover, a sub-area commander.
When relieved by the 81st Division, the 1st Marine Division would embark
for return to Pavuvu.
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)
During the movement and turn over, tactical
operations ashore necessarily remained under 1st Marine Division control
until the 81st Division could move its command post from Angaur. General
Mueller established his CP near Peleliu's Purple Beach on 20 October.
The Wildcat Division thereupon acquired "custody" of the Pocket, and
responsibility for final reduction of its determined, able, battered
Meanwhile, the relief of the 5th Marines by the 321st
RCT took place on 15 and 16 October. While that relief was in progress,
Lieutenant Colonel Gormley's 1/7 was still engaged in the
earlier-described coral badlands action, to make possible the eastward
movement of the containing lines protecting West Road. The relief of 1/7
was accordingly delayed until the next day. On 17 October, a
full-strength Company B, 1/323, newly arrived from Ulithi, relieved
Gormley's surviving battalion, approximately man for man.