BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
Was the Seizure of Peleliu Necessary? Costs vs. Benefits
What advantages to the United States' war effort grew
from the conquest of Peleliu? It assured absolute domination of all of
the Palaus, thereby adding, marginally, to the security of MacArthur's
right flank as he continued westward, then northward from New Guinea
into his Philippines campaign. Within the Palaus group, it destroyed
facilities which survived Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's devastating strike
of March 1944. It insured total denial of support to the enemy from
Koror's submarine basing facilities, incrementally decreasing the
already waning Japanese submarine capability east of the Philippines.
The United States position on Peleliu completed the neutralization of
the some 25,000 Japanese troops in northern Palau. The landing on
Peleliu did not contribute to the Regimental Landing Team (RLT) 323
unopposed seizure of Ulithi. Admiral William F. Halsey had earlier
believed that his forces could seize Ulithi without first seizing
The most visible benefit of a subdued Peleliu lay in
its use as a link in the flight path and line of communications from
Hawaii, and from the Marianas, to the Philippines. The holding was a
convenience, but not a necessity.
Such judgment could be disputed, however, by the
survivors of the Indianapolis' 29 July 1945 sinking. Having
delivered atomic bomb parts to Tinian shortly before, the ship was
headed for the Philippines, when it was suddenly torpedoed at night. The
ship went down in 12 minutes, and no report of the contact or the
sinking was received. The fourth day after the sinking, its 316
survivors (from a crew of 1,196) were sighted by a Navy patrol bomber
working out of Peleliu. The sighting led directly to their rescue, and
most certainly would not have occurred, but for American occupation of
the senior officers present, division chaplains dedicate a new cemetery
created at Orange Beach 2. The 1st Division commander, MajGen Rupertus,
with a cane, is near the center and to his right is Col Puller (1st
Marines). Grouped on the extreme right are: BGen Smith, assistant
division commander; Col Harrison (11th Marines), and Col Harris (5th
Marines). Not present at this time was the 7th Marines' commander, Col
Hanneken, whose regiment was still engaged with the enemy. Department of Defense
Photo (USMC) 96989
Tom Lea's Paintings
Life Magazine artist Tom Lea accompanied Marines
Tom Lea, the artist of the paintings which illustrate
this pamphlet, wrote of his experiences on Peleliu in Battle
Stations, published in 1988 by Still Point Press in Dallas. Some of
the sketches from this book were reproduced with commentary in Volume
14, Number 2 of Discovery, a journal published by the University
of Texas at Austin. In this issue, James Jones, author of From Here
to Eternity, wrote: "Lea was one of the artists put in the field by
Life . . . Various of his works appeared in the magazine, and up
until the time he went into Peleliu, most of them could be pretty well
classified as excellently done but high-grade propaganda. There was very
little American blood, very little tension, very little horror. Mostly,
it was what could be called the Bravo America! and This is
Your Boy type of war art. His almost photographic style easily lent
itself to that type of work . . .
"But something apparently happened to Lea after going
into Peleliu. The pictures painted out of his Peleliu experience show a
new approach. There is the tension of terror in the bodies here, the
distorted facial expressions of the men under fire show it, too . .
"One of the most famous, of course, is the
Two-Thousand-Yard Stare portrait of a young marine who has had
all, or more than, he can take. The staring eyes, the slack lips, the
sleepwalker's stance. I've seen men with that look on their faces.
I've had it on my own face. It feels stiff, and the muscles don't want
to work right when you try to smile, or show expression, or talk.
Mercifully, you're out of it for awhile; unmercifully, down in the
center of that numbness, though, you know you will have to come back
Reprinted by permission of Discovery, the
University of Texas at Austin. Tom Lea's artwork in this pamphlet is
reproduced with the permission of the artist. The captions under each
of the Lea paintings are the artist's own words.
Benis M. Frank
"Counterattack" The phone rang. A battalion CO reported the Japs'
infiltration and the beginning of the counterattack. He asked what
reserves were available and was told there were none. Small arms
fire ahead of us became a continuous rattle. Abruptly three
star shells burst in the sky. As soon as they died floating down,
others flared to take their place. Then the howitzers just behind
us opened up, hurling their charges over our heads, shaking the
ground with their blasts.
"Artillery Support" At the southern end on our side of the field
opposite the hill our artillerymen had dug holes and carried 75-mm field
howitzers to the sites. As we came down to them these batteries were
firing continuously, throwing shells into the Jap hangars and buildings
at the foot of the hill, and at caves in the hill where Jap mortar and
artillery and machine-gun fire was dealing out misery to marines.
"The Blockhouse" Looking up at the head of the trail I could see the
big Jap blockhouse that commanded the height. The thing was now a
great jagged lump of concrete, smoking, I saw our lead man meet a front
line detail posted by the blockhouse while the other troops advanced
down the hill with the three tanks and the flamethrowers. Isolated
Jap snipers were at work on our slope, small groups of marines fanned
out on both sides of the trail to clean them out, while we climbed
toward the blockhouse.
What did the seizure of Peleliu cost? Marine
casualties numbered 6,526, including Navy corpsmen and doctors, of whom
1,252 were killed. The 81st Division totalled 3,089 casualties, of whom
404 were killed in action. Total U.S. troop casualties was 9,615 for
Peleliu, Angaur and Ngesebus, with 1,656 dead.
By inflicting that many casualties, the Japanese were
successful in implementing their longstanding "delay and bleed"
strategy. The actions cost them an estimated 10,900 casualties, all but
a tiny fraction killed. Just 202 prisoners of war were captured, only 19
of whom were Japanese military (seven Army, 12 Navy). The others were
laborers, largely Korean. Among the Japanese military defenders, less
than two per thousand were captured.
For Extraordinary Heroism
The Secretary of the Navy awarded the Presidential
Unit Citation to the 1st Marine Division, and its reinforcing organizations,
for "extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces at
Peleliu and Ngesebus from September 15 to 29, 1944." In addition,
Marine Aircraft Group 11 and the 3d 155mm Howitzer Battalion were
awarded the Navy Unit Commendation. On an individual basis, 69
participants in the battle for Peleliu were decorated with the Navy
Cross, the second seniormost combat award in the Naval services.
The nation's highest award: the Medal of Honor,
was presented to eight Marines in the fight for Peleliu; five were
decorated posthumously, as indicated by (*): *Corporal Lewis K.
Bausell, USMC, 1/5; Private First Class Arthur J. Jackson, USMC,
3/7; *Private First Class Richard E. Kraus, USMCR, 8th Amphibian
Tractor Battalion; *Private First Class John D. New, USMC, 2/7;
*Private First Class Wesley Phelps, USMCR, 3/7; Captain Everett
P. Pope, USMC, 1/1; *Private First Class Charles H. Roan, USMCR,
2/7; and First Lieutenant Carlton R. Rouh, USMCR, 1/5.
The costs at Peleliu held warnings aplenty for the
remaining Allied operations to be conducted across the Pacific to Japan.
Even with total local air and naval superiority, with lavish naval
gunfire and bombs, with the dreaded napalm weaponry, and with a 4:1
troop superiority, the seizure of Peleliu consumed one American casualty
and 1,589 rounds of heavy and light troop ammunition for each single
Japanese defender killed or driven from his prepared position. A few
months later, the attacks on Iwo Jima and Okinawa would confirm this
grim calculus of war against determined Japanese defenders, ably led, in
The question of whether the Peleliu operation was
necessary remains moot, even today, some 52 years after the 1 September
1944 landing. The heroism and exemplary conduct of the 1st Marine
Division, its Marines and Navy corpsmen, and the soldiers of the 81st
Infantry Division on that miserable island is written in the record. But
there is an enduring question of whether the capture of Peleliu was
essential, especially in view of Admiral William F. Halsey's
recommendation through Admiral Nimitz to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on 13
September 1944, two days before D-Day, that the landing be cancelled. By
that time, it was too late. And Peleliu was added to the long list of
battles in which Marines fought and suffered, and prevailed.