Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
The Japanese Defenses
The Assault in the Center
The Assault Continues
The Early Battle in the Division Center
The 7th Marines' Complete Destruction of Enemy in the South
Maneuver and Opportunity
Encirclement of the Umurbrogol Pocket
Encirclement of Umurbrogol and Seizure of Northern Peleliu
The Umurbrogol Pocket: Peleliu's Character Distilled
Post-assault Operations in the Palaus
Was the Seizure of Peleliu Necessary? Costs vs. Benefits
The Divisions and their Commanders
For Extraordinary Heroism
Special Subjects
The Changing Nature of Japanese Tactics
Naval Gunfire Support for Peleliu
A Horrible Place
Special Reef-crossing Techniques
A Paucity of Reserves
Tom Lea's Paintings

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.

painting of beach landing
"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 corps.

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.

painting of Marine
"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 Americans.

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) 95253

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division