Appendix A - National Significance, Peleliu Battlefield (excerpted from the National Register of Historic Places Inventory - Nomination Form for the Peleliu Battlefield, Palau Islands by Erwin N. Thompson, NPS Historian, June 1984)
The battle for Peleliu Island, the Gateway to the Philippines, was the longest and one of the most hard-fought battles in the entire Central Pacific amphibious operations of World War II. In contrast to earlier combats where the Japanese had vainly attempted to annihilate the enemy on the beaches, Peleliu's defenses were organized with the main line of resistance established inland, artillery and mortar fire registered on the beaches, and defenses skillfully arranged in depth in order to sustain resistance to an attack while destroying the enemy. Although the crack Japanese troops lost the battle, their new tactics enabled them to inflict heavy losses on American Marine and Army forces and to hold out for 74 days. While some strategists have argued that the capture of Peleliu was not a necessary preliminary for the coming struggle in the Philippines, brave men bled and died in the Palaus for their beliefs and their loyalties. Peleliu marked the conclusion of the Central Pacific drive toward the Philippines. A new phase of the Pacific War was already underway.
Japan seized the Palau Islands, along with the rest of Micronesia, from Germany in World War I. Receiving a mandate from the League of Nations after the war, Japan established its administrative headquarters for Micronesia at Koror, the capital of the Republic of Palau today. On Peleliu Island, thirty miles south of Koror, a phosphate crushing plant was established and, by World War II, an excellent airfield had been constructed. When war came, the Palaus served as a staging area and replacement depot for Japan's forces in the Netherlands, East Indies, and New Guinea.
Even before the U. S. Navy carried out a devastating fast carrier strike on naval installations at Truk Atoll in February 1944, the Japanese had pulled all forward-based elements of the Combined Fleet back to Palau. At this same time, General Douglas MacArthur's Southwest Pacific forces prepared to move into the Hollandia area in New Guinea in their drive toward the Philippines. Concerned that Japanese naval and air power in the Palaus could strike at Hollandia, a large task force of fast carriers under Vice Admiral Marc A. Mitscher raided Palau on March 30 and 31, 1944. Peleliu's fighter planes rose to the defense and many were shot down. American planes succeeded in mining the harbor at Koror and destroyed or damaged 36 Japanese ships.
Spurred on by this raid to strengthen Palau's defenses, Japan transferred the veteran Fourteenth Division under Lieutenant General Sadal Inoue from Manchuria to Palau in April 1944. Inoue established his headquarters at Koror and placed the bulk of his army force on adjacent Babeldaup Island where he planned to fight to the death. He dispatched the reinforced 2nd Infantry Regiment under Colonel Kunio Nakagawa to Peleliu and one battalion of the 59th Infantry Regiment to Angaur, an island seven miles south of Peleliu. Peleliu's garrison amounted to approximately 10,500 men of whom 6,500 were combat troops and some 4,000 were naval personnel.
Nakagawa carefully planned the island's defenses in depth. Potential landing beaches were mined, offshore obstacles erected, anti-tank ditches skillfully located so as to channel enemy tanks toward anti-tank weapons, barbed wire strung, and artillery and mortars placed so as to shell the beaches with direct and enfilade fire. Extensive cave fortifications honeycombed the limestone ridges in the northern half of the island.
The American plan for the invasion of Palau, Stalemate II, as it finally evolved, called for Admiral William F. Halsey to command the Western Pacific Task Forces. Halsey's Third Fleet covered the approach of the Joint Expeditionary Force. Major General Julian C. Smith, USMC, commanded the Expeditionary Troops, and Major General Roy S. Geiger III, USMC, was in charge of the III Amphibious Corps. Under Geiger, Major General William H. Rupertus, USMC, commanded the First Marine Division which was to seize Peleliu, and Major General Paul J. Mueller, USA, commanded the 81st Infantry Division which was to capture Angaur and Ulithi Atoll. Stalemate II was the largest amphibious force yet seen in the Pacific. Its strength totaled 800 vessels, 1,600 aircraft, and 250,000 men.
The First Marine Division, thoroughly experienced in the New Britain campaign, was composed of the 1st, 5th, and 7th Marine Regiments and the 11th Artillery Regiment. The 81st Infantry Division had no previous combat experience but had completed jungle and amphibious training in Hawaii. Its 321st and 322nd Infantry Regiments were assigned the capture of Angaur, while its 323rd Regiment was to occupy Ulithi Atoll about halfway between Palau and the Mariana Islands. The two divisions were brought together on Guadalcanal for a week of tactical rehearsals before sailing west.
Beginning in August 1944, the U. S. Thirteenth Air Force began bombing the Palaus. On September 6, Halsey's fast carrier groups started full-scale attacks on the islands. Six days later, a naval gunfire bombardment of Peleliu and Angaur began. D-Day for landing on Peleliu was set for September 15. Mine sweepers and underwater demolition teams began sweeping the waters and removing obstacles from Peleliu's southwestern beaches. Early morning, September 15, found the Third Amphibious Corps off Peleliu. The First Marine Division prepared to land.
Peleliu's southwestern beaches had been code-named White 1 and 2 and Orange
1, 2, and 3. The three reinforced regiments (regimental combat teams (RCTs)),
landing abreast on a 2,200-yard beachhead, touched shore at 8:33 a.m. On the
left (north), two battalions of the 1st Marines landed on Beaches White 1 and
2. In the center, two battalions of the 5th Marines hit Beaches Orange 1 and
2. The 7th Marines came ashore in a column of battalions on Beach Orange 3 on
the right (south). Immediately, murderous Japanese mortar fire and enfilading
cannon fire on both flanks swept the beaches hitting as many as sixty landing
vehicles and fifteen tanks. Observing the smoking vehicles, Colonel Nakagawa
reported, too optimistically, to Koror, "Our forces successfully put the
enemy to rout."
On the 1st Marines' extreme left flank, Japanese gunners placed enfilading fire from positions in a coral outcropping at the water's edge. Seventy yards inland, an unsuspected coral ridge was alive with Japanese who swept the beach with marine gun and rifle fire. A company of Marines successfully reduced the coral outcropping but with heavy casualties. Moreover, the company became cut off from the adjacent unit and would remain isolated for the next thirty hours. The Marine Corps' official history concludes that had the Japanese mounted a major counterattack at this point, "the Marines might have been driven into the sea." The 1st Marines' right flank battalion on Beach White 2 had better success. It reached its first objective 350 yards inland by mid-morning, encountering moderate resistance. There it halted because of the stalemate on the left. By 9 a.m., the 5th Marines had reached its objective, an open space on the west side of the airfield. The left battalion halted at that point because of the inability of the 1st Marines to advance. The right battalion had more success. Although the battalion's units became scattered, one company succeeded in driving across the island and reaching the eastern shore.
The 7th Marines on the southern flank experienced much the same withering enfilade fire as did the 1st Marines. From a small islet and a promontory at the south end of Peleliu, the Japanese delivered heavy fire against the 7th's exposed flank. The regiment continued to make progress, however, until it came up against a heavily fortified area containing the Japanese circular blockhouse. There it dug in for the night to await the assistance of tanks. In the day-long drive, the 7th Marines, too, suffered heavy casualties.
In the late afternoon, the Japanese made their first counterattack when from
twelve to seventeen light tanks emerged in front of
Green-clad marines boarding their LVT's off Bliliou at dawn on D-day, September 15, 1944. (National Archives)
|An F4U "Corsair" releases its bomb over Bloody Nose Ridge. It was a 15-second run from the airfield to the target and pilots often never even bothered to raise their wheels. (National Archives)|
the 5th Marines. Although a few tanks got through to the beachhead, all but one were destroyed. Despite the troubles on the flanks, the Marines had succeeded in establishing a beachhead 3,000 yards long, 500 yards average depth, and a maximum depth of 1,500 yards.
On September 16, the 5th Marines completed the capture of the airfield. In the south, the 7th Marines overcame the blockhouse and reached the eastern shore. It gained all of southern Peleliu by nightfall except two promontories at the southern tip. In the north, the 1st Marines began a turning movement northward against the Umurbrogal ridges beyond the airfield. Quickly running into fierce resistance, the Marines made little progress.
The next day, D+2, the 1st Marines gained a few hundred yards in the level area of the west coast, up West Road, but were thwarted gain in the attempt to gain the limestone ridges, especially at Bloody Nose Ridge. The 1st Marines counted 1,500 casualties in their ranks by the end of this third day of fighting. Meanwhile, the 7th Marines completed the capture of southern Peleliu, including the promontories; and the 5th Marines began an easy drive up the eastern arm of the island.
American light planes were able to land on the airfield on September 19. That same day, the 1st Marines renewed the attack on the ridges, making small gains, but again stopped at Bloody Nose Ridge. To the east, a company of the 7th Marines gained the crest of Walt Ridge but, suffering extremely heavy casualties, was forced to withdraw. During the next three days both the 1st and 7th RCTs assaulted the ridges time and again, without success. By September 22, the First Marine Division had suffered nearly 4,000 casualties, the 1st Marine Regiment alone losing 56 percent of its strength. General Rupertus decided to cease frontal attacks on the southern ridges; instead, he planned a drive up the west coast and an attack on the Umurbrogal complex from the north.
Before the invasion, General Rupertus thought he could capture Peleliu in four days. A week had now passed and despite the heavy casualties, Rupertus was unwilling to call for assistance from army troops of the 81st Infantry Division. He remained so stubborn about this that the corps commander, General Geiger, had to step in and direct the 321st Infantry Regiment to move from Angaur to Peleliu, where it landed September 23. The depleted 1st Marine Regiment was taken off Peleliu on September 30, its casualty figure having reached 1,672.
Another reason Rupertus wished to take northern Peleliu at this time was the 25,000-man Japanese force on Babeldaup that could be expected to reinforce Peleliu. Indeed, on September 23, Japanese barges approached the island from the north. The Americans spotted this reinforcement and sank the barges. Most of the Japanese made it to shore nevertheless. The same scene occurred the following night. It was estimated that from 600 to 700 Japanese reinforcements reached Peleliu.
On September 24, Rupertus sent his unwanted soldiers on a push up the West Road. The 321st RCT reached its objective, discovering along the way a trail running across the ridges toward East Road. A company, directed to explore the trail, moved eastward and succeeded in capturing Hill 100, the northern bastion of the Japanese defenses in the Umurbrogal ridges. The following day, the 321st reached East Road thus dividing the Japanese defenses on the island. At the same time, it pushed north along West Road until it reached the village of Garekoru. The 5th Marines took over at this point to begin the process of cleaning up the northern tip of Peleliu and its elaborate caves in the Amiangal ridges. On September 28, the 5th Marines also occupied Naegebus Island and its unfinished runway. Marine Fighter Squadron 114 provided air support on this occasion.
As September drew to a close, Japanese losses were estimated to be over 9,250, while the First Marine Division's casualties had mounted to over 5,000 men.
On September 30, the 7th Marines began an assault on the Umurbrogal ridges in an effort to reduce the pocket, which measured about 1,500 yards north to south and 500 yards in width. Elements of the 5th Marines joined the attack the following day. By October 3, the Marines had captured the crests of two important ridges, Walt and Boyd, on the eastern side of the pocket, thus opening East Road. The 7th Marines, particularly, experienced heavy casualties in this four-day fight. By the evening of October 4, the 7th "was no longer able to function as an effective combat unit on the regimental level." Rupertus ordered the 5th Marines to relieve the 7th.
Between October 6 and 14, the 5th Marines made repeated attacks on the pocket, steadily making small gains, particularly in the north and northwest. It captured such landmarks as Baldy Ridge, Ridge 120, Ridge 3, Hill 140, and knobs of coral not named. Then, on October 14, General Rupertus withdrew all the First Marine Division from the battle lines, replacing it with the 321st RCT and a battalion of the 323rd Infantry Regiment freshly arrived from Ulithi Atoll. Rupertus remained in command at Peleliu until October 20 when Major General Paul J. Mueller, commanding the 81st Infantry Division, replaced him. During the month the First Marine Division fought on Peleliu, it suffered no fewer than 6,265 casualties, of which 1,124 were dead and 117 were missing.
Colonel Nakagawa reported on October 14 that his force had been reduced to 1,150 armed men.
The 81st began a methodical tightening of its lines around the pocket on October 21. Not without difficulty it captured the northern hills called the Five Brothers, one by one. In Horseshoe Valley, west of Walt Ridge, it succeeded in cutting the Japanese off from their water supply at Grinlinton Pond. (This accomplishment was offset by heavy rains that replenished the Japanese water supply.) On November 2, the 323rd RCT captured the Five Sisters, including Bloody Nose Ridge against which the 1st Marines had hurled itself so long ago. Japanese fighting strength was now reduced to 350 men. Little action occurred on either side between November 4 and 9 as a typhoon swept over Peleliu. On November 13, the assault and occupation of Peleliu was again announced, this time by General Geiger.
That same day, the two infantry regiments began the final drive. On November 24, the Japanese burned the 2nd Infantry's regimental flag and all secret documents. In the evening a last radio message was sent to Koror advising that the 56 remaining combatants had organized into 17 raiding groups and would hide in the jungle and caves to harass the enemy. During the night, General Murai and Colonel Nakagawa committed suicide. It had taken U. S. forces almost 2-1/2 months to complete what began as a four-day operation.
The 81st Division did not declare an end to organized resistance until November 27:
At 1030, 27 November all organized resistance on Peleliu ceased when the Commanders of the battalions of the 323rd Infantry met at the cave which had been the headquarters of Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, Commanding Officer of the 2nd Regiment, 14th Japanese Imperial Division and the last high ranking Japanese Commander on Peleliu.
The division's casualties in the Palaus amounted to 542 killed and 3,275 wounded or injured. For months to come, Japanese continued to be captured or killed on the island. In January 1945, a Japanese raiding party landed on Peleliu. It was swiftly wiped out. Twenty-seven Japanese surrendered in April 1947. As late as 1955, a Korean civilian was seized on Peleliu -- two years after the Korean War.
As they had in earlier battles, Japanese-Americans (Nisei) performed important duties on Peleliu as interpreters and translators. The Third Amphibious Corps reported also that it had made extensive use of the famous Navajo Talkers in their radio communications. Not so successful was the use of the Marines' war dogs. While the dogs served well in the beginning on sentry duty and patrols, they became increasingly nervous and tired under the strain of heavy mortar fire. As the battle progressed, many of their handlers were killed or wounded and strangers could not work the dogs. An exceptional dog was Duke, Z876, a German shepherd, who carried twenty pounds of maps and papers 1-1/2 miles across the airfield under heavy enemy mortar fire.
The remaining Japanese in Palau, some 25,000, spent the rest of World War II
waiting for the enemy to land so that they could give their lives for their
Emperor. The opportunity never came. On Peleliu, U. S. Navy Seabees reconstructed
the Japanese airfield and built a naval base. Army engineers hacked a bomber
field out of the jungle on nearby Angaur. Ulithi Atoll became an important fleet
anchorage, especially for the 1945 invasion of Okinawa.
Bloody Nose Ridge, Five Sisters, Five Brothers, China Wall, Death Valley, Snipers' Mile, Hell's Pocket, Baldy Ridge... The Palau operation turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific War -- and one of the most forgotten.
go back to Table of Contents
Return to National Park Service, Pacific Islands Support Office, web page