The Battle of Peleliu was one of the bloodiest battles fought by the United States against the Japanese during the Mariana and Palau Campaign in World War II. 

The battle, codenamed Operation Stalemate II, took place from September 15 to November 27, 1944. It involved the 1st Marine Division and the Army’s 81st Infantry Division. The National Museum of the Marine Corps called it “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines.”

Even before the Battle of Peleliu, there was controversy over whether the operation was even necessary. The controversy continues to this day.

The battle was fought over the existence of an airstrip on the island and was part of Operation Forager, the larger Allied offensive campaign, which took place between June and November 1944 in the Pacific Theater. 

 

Which Way to Tokyo?

By the summer of 1944, American forces were gradually pushing the Japanese out of the Southwest and Central Pacific. The war was inching closer to Japan. Long-range American B-29 bombers were now able to strike at the Japanese mainland from Mariana Islands airbases that had been taken in heavy fighting during the early summer (June-August 1944). 

However, there was disagreement among the U.S. Joint Chiefs over the two proposed strategies to defeat the Japanese. Army General Douglas MacArthur favored the capture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa and then the eventual invasion of Japan itself. For MacArthur, however, the Philippines was a personal objective as he’d been forced out of there early in 1942 by the Japanese invasion.

Navy Admiral Chester Nimitz’s plan involved a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines and seizing Okinawa and Taiwan as staging areas for an attack on the Japanese mainland. 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor and had meetings with both MacArthur and Nimitz to plan a strategy. In the end, MacArthur’s plan was adopted. Peleliu, it was decided, needed to be taken to protect MacArthur’s right flank and to seize its airfield to support the upcoming campaign.

Just about a month before the invasion, however, Admiral Bull Halsey proposed bypassing the Palaus since his carrier pilots had encountered scant Japanese aircraft in the area. Nevertheless, the operation was deemed necessary and the U.S. deployed its largest fleet to date in the Pacific with over 1,600 ships and more than 800 aircraft. 

 

The Japanese Preparations

There were about 11,000 Japanese defenders with 17 tanks on Peleliu. The defenses of the island were planned by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, commander of the 14th Division’s 2nd Regiment.

From studying earlier campaigns, Nakagawa opted to change the Japanese strategy. He decided that they wouldn’t try to stop the Americans on the beaches, since that would subject them to heavy naval gunfire. Banzai charges also were by then recognized as ineffective and a waste of manpower. 

Instead, as the Naval History and Heritage Command published, the Japanese plan was to force the Americans

“to be channeled into ‘kill; zones beyond the beaches. Arranged in successive lines and using the natural terrain, systems of camouflaged and heavily fortified positions with interlocking fields of fire were constructed on reverse slopes and among other masking terrain features that favored the defenders. Greater flexibility was accorded to subordinate leaders and they were charged to seize tactical opportunity wherever possible, adapting their movement to take advantage of cover and concealment and bringing fire to bear when its effect would be greatest. The Japanese ‘Palau Sector Group Training for Victory’ directive, captured during the battle, stated: ‘It is certain that if we repay the Americans (who rely solely upon material power) with material power[,] it will shock them beyond imagination….'”

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So, the Japanese built a honeycomb of tunnels and underground bunkers with interlocking fields of fire. This would force the Americans into a war of attrition as the bunkers and strongpoints would have to be assaulted one at a time.

Because of the heavy vegetation on much of the island, aerial reconnaissance offered American officers scant information on Japanese dispositions. This led Major General William H. Rupertus, the commander of the Marine 1st Infantry Division, to unwisely predicting that Peleliu would be secured in only four days. His comment, unfortunately, was picked up and disseminated by the press. That prediction was short by two months, one week, and one day. 

Battle of Peleliu invasion
The first wave of LVT(A)s move toward the invasion beaches, passing through the inshore bombardment line of LCI gunboats, 15 September 1944. Cruisers and battleships are bombarding from the distance. The landing area is hidden by dust and smoke. (U.S. Navy)

 

The Battle of Peleliu Begins

After several days of naval bombardment, the Marines began their assault at 0832 hours on September 15. Japanese artillery, protected by the bunkers and steel blast doors, began pouring 47mm and 20mm fire on the landing craft. In less than an hour, 60 LVTs and DUKWs were destroyed. 

Very little progress was made on the first day of the Balle of Peleliu as the Marines were pinned down by heavy Japanese resistance and suffered 200 KIA and 900 wounded. Despite this, General Rupertus believed that Japanese resistance would soon crumble. 

On the second day, the 5th Marines attacked the airfield in the 115-degree heat with little water while under murderous fire from the Japanese artillery. They succeeded in capturing it despite heavy casualties. They advanced to the eastern edge of the island, cutting off the defenders in the south.

Small observation aircraft began landing on the airfield two days after its capture and helped with directing naval and artillery fire. Eleven days after the airfield’s seizure, Marine F-4 Corsairs began landing.

 

Taking ‘The Point’

But the Battle of Peleliu was not over. The 7th Marines had to take the southern half of Peleliu called “The Point.” Colonel Chesty Puller’s men had to clear out the heavily defended area one pillbox at a time. 

Puller placed Captain George Hunt’s K Co. in charge of the attack. Using smoke grenades to hide their advance, the Marines still suffered heavy casualties in the fighting. But they eliminated the machine gun and 47mm cannon positions. 

Corporal Henry Hahn, under a smoke grenade’s cover, got close enough to a Japanese bunker to throw a hand grenade inside. The grenade detonated the 47mm ammunition and forced the Japanese defenders out where they were shot down. The company then repelled four Japanese counter-attacks. With the Marines running out of ammunition, the fighting turned into hand-to-hand combat.

After being relieved Hunt’s company was down to 18 men, having suffered 157 casualties in the bloody fighting. 

Nine days after the invasion, “The Point” was finally captured.

Type 95 Ha-Go light tank Battle of Peleliu
A destroyed Japanese Type 95 Ha-Go light tank. (Library of Congress)

 

‘Bloody Nose Ridge’

Once “The Point” was captured, the Marines moved on to take what became known as “Bloody Nose Ridge” or the Umurbrogol pocket. Colonel Puller led his Marines in several assaults on the ridge. Yet, they were all repulsed by the Japanese costing the Marines heavy casualties. 

Japanese snipers then started to target the American stretcher-bearers. The Japanese knew that more wounded would require more stretcher-bearers who were easier to shoot in the open. At night, the Japanese would also infiltrate the American defensive lines to attack the Marines in their foxholes. As a result, the Marines would use two-man foxholes to allow one person to sleep and the other to keep watch for Japanese infiltrations.

Major Raymond Davis, commander of 1st Bn, 1st Marines, attacked Hill 100. The battalion had a casualty rate of more than 70 percent.

Marine Captain Everett Pope and his company advanced deep into the ridges of a hill until he and his men became trapped at the base of another ridge by the Japanese. After running out of ammunition during the night, Pope and his men resorted to hand-to-hand combat. They even threw empty ammo cans and coral rock to defend themselves. The men managed to hold out until dawn when they evacuated the position. By that time, only nine Marines remained. Pope would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Because of the heavy casualties, MG Roy Geiger, commander of the III Amphibious Corps, sent the Army’s 321st Regiment, 81st Infantry Division into the fray to relieve the Marines. They landed on Peleliu on September 23. Together the Marines and Army infantry surrounded the Pocket on September 24. 

Fighting raged on Bloody Nose Ridge for weeks. The Marines were pulled off the line on October 30 and the 81st Division took over the Battle of Peleliu. Another month of heavy fighting would ensue. 

On November 24, Nakagawa proclaimed “Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears.” He then burnt his regimental colors and performed ritual suicide. The Japanese posthumously promoted him to lieutenant general for his valor during the battle. On November 27, the island was declared secure, ending the 73-day-long Battle of Peleliu. 

However, one Japanese lieutenant with 34 troops holed up in a cave and refused to come out until 1947 when a Japanese admiral convinced the men that the war had been over for two years. 

Casualties were high for the Americans with 1,544 killed in action and 6,843 wounded. Nearly 11,000 Japanese were killed; only 301 were taken prisoner. 

 

Was the Battle of Peleliu Necessary?

The decision to execute Operation Stalemate II remains a subject of debate. The high cost in blood paid by U.S. forces on Peleliu remains a hot topic. After facing defeats all over the Pacific and with their supply lines shattered the Japanese had rapidly dwindling means by which to wage war. 

Thus, it is doubtful whether the Japanese forces on Peleliu would have posed a serious threat to MacArthur’s push into the Philippines.

The Philippines operation, itself, is a matter of contention. MacArthur got his “I shall return” closure, but again, the cost in blood and materiel — 70,000 casualties, 33 ships, and 480 aircraft — raises questions. The Japanese suffered 420,000 dead and missing. Filipino civilian casualties were also enormous, with up to a quarter-million killed in the Battle for Manila alone.

Peleliu, which was won at such a great cost, would not play any significant role in the final year of the war. The airfield wasn’t used and Ulithi became the U.S. Navy’s primary fleet support hub in the western Pacific.

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