The Drive Inland: 16-22 September1
THE MORNING AFTER2The "whiskery, red-eyed, dirty Marines," observed a civilian combat artist on the morning of 16 September, "had spent the night fighting in foxholes filled with stinking swamp water; they were slimy, wet and mean now."3 The intervening hours of darkness had been filled with the roar of artillery and the rattle of automatic weapons as the infantrymen beat back localized counterattacks. From time to time, star shells and flares from the U.S. cruiser Honolulu, the six destroyers, and four LCI gunboats remaining in support cast a greenish pallor over the embattled island. Small groups of Japanese, some wearing helmets of dead Marines, infiltrated behind the frontline positions, and furious hand-to-hand struggles occurred in the rear. Three enemy soldiers even made a brief appearance near the division CP before a burst of fire from an alert sentry cut them down.
Under the cover of darkness, shore party and support troops made use of available LVTs and DUKWs to rush ammunition and water up to the front and to evacuate the wounded. In some cases, vital supplies had to be laboriously hand-carried forward so that the morning attack could start on schedule. No new orders were needed. All regiments were to resume the assault and bend every effort to seize the objectives previously assigned (See Map 5).
Following a half-hour air and naval gunfire bombardment, the division jumped off along the entire line at 0800. Two hours later, General Rupertus came ashore to assume direct control of the advance. The day turned extremely hot--105 degrees in the shade--and the men, already enervated by their previous day's exertions and their night-long vigil, suffered greatly as they fought exposed to the merciless sun. Canteens quickly emptied, and a rapid resupply proved impossible. As panting men slumped to the ground, often with "tongues so swollen as to make it impossible for them to talk or to swallow,"4 the strength of the attacking units deteriorated rapidly.
Map 5: Peleliu--Second Operational Phase (D+1--D+8) E.L. Wilson
The majority of the riflemen, however, continued to advance in swift rushes through a steady rain of enemy artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire to reach the Japanese entrenched in blockhouses, pillboxes, and other fortified positions. Paced by Shermans, the Marines employed flamethrower and demolition charges to eliminate these enemy strongholds or called down supporting arms fire upon particularly difficult fortifications.
On the coral ridges to the north, Puller's 1st Marines ran into bitter dug-in resistance that held down the day's gains. In the center, the 5th Marines cooperated with 2/1 to seize the airfield and to expand east and northeast, while the 7th Marines drove east and south to overrun all of the southern portion of Peleliu except the promontories. Within a few days, both the 5th and 7th Marines accomplished their initial missions and turned their attention northward to aid the hard-pressed 1st, which was finding the going slow over the central ridges.
The second day of the assault, in addition, witnessed two events of some significance: the capture of the first prisoner of war and the official establishment of military government on Peleliu. Members of the naval unit responsible for handling the native population posted the first of ten scheduled proclamations in the name of CinCPOA. To their chagrin, however, not a single Palauan made an appearance, for the Japanese had evacuated them all from the island prior to the landing. Accordingly, the ten men of the military government unit were utilized in various capacities by the Marine division until their transfer to the Island Command on 7 October. Eventually, 15 natives turned up, but they were promptly dispatched to Angaur where a refugee camp already existed.
The prisoner of war taken on 16 September responded freely to questions. A former fisherman from Koror, this second class private had been inducted in July 1944 and trained along with 500 other men as part of a special countermanding force; 200 of these soldiers were assigned to Peleliu after completion of the course. Their mission was to swim out and destroy the American landing vehicles and tanks with grenades and mines. The men of this specially-trained force remained holed up in their caves, however--to escape the bombs and shells of naval planes and warships--until the arrival of riflemen of the 1st Marines. Although the prisoner's information proved to be vague and of little military value, he did make one extremely accurate prediction. When asked about the morale of the Peleliu garrison, the Japanese replied, "Though they die, they will defend."5
SWEEP TO THE SOUTH6As soon as the scheduled D plus one preparatory fires to its front were lifted, the 7th Marines attacked vigorously. On the left, the 3d Battalion pushed rapidly across the island, while
the 1st drove south toward the promontories. Bitterly resisting this two-pronged assault was the 3d Battalion, 15th Infantry, whose veteran troops tenaciously defended their fortified positions till death in true Bushido spirit.
Companies K and I advanced directly east, with L following in reserve. First task of the left flank unit, Company K, was to reduce the fortifications that had held up the unit on the previous day. Aided by point-blank fire from the tanks that paced their advance, the infantrymen quickly seized the barracks area and the three gun positions, but the blockhouse proved to be a more difficult problem. Its five-foot thick reinforced concrete walls withstood direct hits from naval gunfire, 75mm tank cannon, and bazookas; even flamethrowers failed, for one-inch armor plates shielded the blockhouse's gun ports and its two underground entrances. Only after demolition teams worked their way forward under the cover of smoke to lay their charges directly against its massive walls and breached this fortification was forward movement resumed.
The 3d Battalion gained the eastern shore by 0925; then, while Company I organized beach positions to defend against any possible enemy reaction and to support the advance by fire, the battalion shifted its assault south toward the promontories. Company K led the way, followed closely by L in reserve. Free use of flamethrowers and bazookas was made, for numerous pillboxes and concrete gun emplacements were encountered. By noon, however, the foremost elements had eliminated the last two pillboxes barring the way to the sandpit leading out to the southeast promontory. The rifle company, unfortunately, was "unable to continue its advance until a resupply of water could be effected."7 The battalion waited in vain until 1500 before the necessary water arrived. By this time, only a few hours of daylight remained, so the battalion was ordered to dig in, postponing the final assault until the following morning.
What daylight remained was used to bring up tanks that destroyed with pointblank fire one blockhouse, two pillboxes, and several machine gun positions guarding the approach to the promontory. Under the cover of this protective fire, a detail of combat engineers ventured forth onto the sandspit to remove or disarm the numerous enemy mines there, paving the way for the scheduled attack the next morning. The Marines manned positions facing their objective during the hours of darkness, but the only enemy opposition consisted of sniper fire in the rear areas.
The 1st Battalion, meanwhile, had been supported in its southward drive by artillery, naval gunfire, and air strikes, as well as by rocket concentrations from the LCIs that paced the Marines' advance along the western shore. The riflemen succeeded in overrunning numerous enemy-held pillboxes and bunkers, in addition to four 5-inch guns and three lighter dual-purpose antiaircraft guns. By noon, the Marines had reached the shore opposite Ngarmoked Island, but their strenuous exertions
in the blazing sun had so dehydrated them that a halt was called until water could be brought up to restore the troops' strength. Sufficient water did not arrive until late afternoon, however, and the order was given to dig in for the night.
During the lull, the battalion regrouped and prepared to resume the attack. Additional engineers were rushed up to clear away Japanese mines on the beaches to the Marines' front, and a 75mm self-propelled half-track and four 37mm antitank guns had been brought up to the battalion by 1530. Later, under the cover of darkness, demolition experts searched the narrow strip of land linking Ngarmoked Island to Peleliu and dug up the enemy mines that could bar the employment of tanks in the morning attack.8
At 0730 on 17 September, the 3d Battalion's objective, the southeast promontory, was hit by an air strike, but a scheduled mortar preparation was called off when combat engineers, ranging far in advance of the infantrymen, discovered another extensive minefield in their path. For an hour and a half, Shermans and riflemen provided covering fire while the engineers performed their dangerous task of disarming or removing the deadly Japanese mines. Then, at 1000, a platoon from Company L, the reserve of the previous day, began working its way across the sandspit in coordination with two tanks. Twenty-six minutes later, a foothold had been seized on the objective, whereupon the remainder of the company was transported over the open stretch of ground in LVTs that provided protection from small arms fire.
After regrouping, Company L immediately attacked. Opposing the advance were Japanese soldiers manning automatic weapon and rifle positions among the coral crevices or entrenched in pillboxes with mutually supporting lanes of fire. The Marines, slowly battling their way forward, recognized that blazing napalm was the most effective method of rooting out the diehard defenders, and a hurried call went throughout the battalion for additional flamethrowers. Once they reached the front and began burning the enemy out, the advance quickened. By 1215, the rifle company had seized enough ground for the siting of weapons to provide supporting fires for 1/7's assault of Ngarmoked Island; an hour later, the 3d Battalion reported the capture of the entire southeastern promontory.
The two-day struggle southward cost the Marine battalion 7 dead and 20 wounded. In contrast, the last-ditch stand by the isolated Japanese resulted in 441 enemy killed. The startling discrepancy between these two casualty figures clearly demonstrated the outstanding success and superb skill with which the highly-trained Marines employed small unit assault tactics against stubbornly-defended fortified positions.
Success, however, did not come so quickly for the 1st Battalion in its final assault on Ngarmoked Island, the southwestern promontory. Early on the 17th, a platoon from Company B, the battalion reserve of the previous day that now held assault positions opposite the objective, moved out in the wake of naval gunfire and mortar fire to gain the far end of the causeway. Here, the onrushing riflemen and their supporting tanks ran head-on into heavily-fortified positions, and the attack ground to an abrupt halt. After an hour of stubborn fighting failed to expand the bridgehead, Colonel Hanneken approved a withdrawal to give the supporting arms a chance to pulverize the enemy fortifications holding up the advance.
While naval gunfire, artillery, and mortars hammered the objective, preparations to resume the attack were made. All available tanks, LVT(A)s, halftracks, and 37mm guns were dispatched forward. By early afternoon, the successful completion of 3/7's mission permitted Major E. Hunter Hurst to release his tank and weapons support for use by Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley's 1st Battalion. Company B, which had been badly mauled by enemy fire that raked the causeway, was replaced in the frontlines by Company A, which jumped off at 1430 following a 10-minute air strike.
In short order, the Marines, now supported by three tanks, broke through the battered Japanese positions and began fighting their way southward. An hour later, Company I moved into reserve behind 1/7, releasing Company C, which crossed over to the promontory and joined the attack on A's right. Shortly thereafter, Company B also moved to Ngarmoked Island and took up reserve positions immediately behind the two assault units that were pressing the attack with vigor. A measure of revenge was granted the fast moving Marines, for they finally succeeded in knocking out the high velocity guns that had enfiladed the Orange beaches for so long. When darkness halted the day's advance, the two rifle companies had a firm hold on both the eastern and western shores and a defensive line running almost halfway across the promontory.
The next day, 18 September, the resumption of the attack was delayed until 1000 to permit a more thorough preparation. Marine artillery blanketed the enemy-held part of Ngarmoked Island, while riflemen, with their armor and supporting weapons, carefully deployed into the most advantageous jump-off positions. Just to the front loomed a sizeable swamp, approximately in the center of the promontory. Company A attacked to the left of this impassable terrain, Company C to the right, with both units reestablishing contact on the opposite side. Company B had the task of seizing a piece of land that protruded from the eastern shore just in front of the line of departure.
Attacking units were instructed to leave bypassed Japanese for later destruction by demolition teams, but Company C was early treated to an example of the enemy's tactics of passive infiltration, i.e., allowing positions to be overrun in order to be in the rear of the
American attacking force. During the advance south around the swamp, 15 riflemen were detailed to remain behind to guard suspected cave openings and pillboxes where Japanese might still be lurking. No sooner had the front lines surged forward than a large number of enemy soldiers suddenly emerged from their concealed holes and took the small Marine detachment under fire. The situation became so critical that both the Division Reconnaissance Company, attached to the regiment since D-Day, and most of Company I had to be committed to maintain control of the bypassed areas.
By 1344, the two attacking rifle companies of the 1st Battalion had seized the southern shore of Ngarmoked Island. Company B, on the other hand, had experienced tougher going; its assault squads, attacking towards the eastern shore, ran squarely into the extensive fortifications that the Japanese had prepared to prevent any penetration into the cove between the two promontories. The advancing Marines continued a yard by yard conquest of the dug-in positions, which seemed to be crowded literally on top of each other. At 1354 the attack stalled, after the Shermans had withdrawn to rearm and the half-tracks had become bogged down in the miry ground. By this time, the company had killed an estimated 350 enemy soldiers and had restricted the pocket of resistance to an area of some 50 square yards.
While waiting for a bulldozer to arrive, Marines in the frontlines could hear the sound of shots, as some of their opponents, faced with the inevitable choice of death or surrender, chose to commit suicide. Other Japanese leaped into the sea and attempted to escape across the tetrahedrons to the southeastern promontory, only to run into 3/7's riflemen, who promptly slew some 60 of them. After the bulldozer extricated the half-tracks, Company B resumed the assault and quickly overran the last remaining defenders, bringing the unit's estimated total of enemy killed that day to 425.
The 7th Marines informed division at 1525 on 18 September that its initial mission on Peleliu was completed. In seizing the southern part of the island, the regiment uncovered much-needed maneuver area and destroyed to the last man an excellently trained and well-equipped Japanese infantry battalion. During its first four days of fighting, the 7th Marines, less its 2d Battalion, accounted for an estimated 2,609 enemy dead. The fierce determination of the Japanese was reflected by the fact that not a single one was taken prisoner. In accomplishing its mission, the regiment suffered 47 killed, 414 wounded, and 36 missing in action, The disproportionate number of Marine casualties to enemy dead was surprising, for the four-day long assault had constantly pitted exposed Marines against entrenched Japanese in strongly fortified positions. Using proven small-unit assault tactics and making full utilization of all supporting arms, especially demolitions and flamethrowers, the Marines succeeded in annihilating the enemy garrison. Only a unit like the 1st Division, containing a sizable number of veteran troops who had been tested in battle, could have executed such a mission with a minimum of casualties.
ACROSS THE AIRFIELD AND UP THE PENINSULA9The first task confronting the 5th Marines as 16 September dawned was seizure of the airfield, the primary objective on Peleliu. Fortunately for the battalions, their night positions placed them in an advantageous location for that day's advance which was to be a turning movement northward, using the extreme left flank of the division as a pivot point. On the left was the 1st Battalion strung out along the woods' edge. The 2d was deployed in the middle about halfway across the open terrain, and the 3d was on the right at the southern fringe of the airfield.
With the coming of daylight, the enemy laid down an intense shelling upon these frontlines. One Japanese shell landed directly on the regimental CP, and another one destroyed vital communications equipment. Several staff officers became casualties, and Colonel Harris' knee was severely injured, making it extremely difficult for him to move about. Division rushed replacements to staff the 5th's CP adequately, which allowed the regiment to jump off on schedule.
At 0800, the 1st Battalion moved out of the woods onto the open runways with two companies in assault, the other in reserve and echeloned to the left rear. Although a few riflemen benefited somewhat from the cover provided by the scrub growth and rubble along the northern fringe of the airfield, most had to brave the open runways in an open order formation with intervals of about 20 yards. "The advance of the assault companies across the fireswept airfield," reminisced the battalion commander, "was an inspiring and never to be forgotten sight."10 Despite heavy casualties, the Marines surged across the exposed runways to reach the main hangar area on the northeast side of the airfield in little more than an hour.
Here, the leading troops encountered stiff resistance from enemy soldiers entrenched among the ruins of the buildings, a large V-shaped antitank ditch, and two stone revetments that housed 20mm guns. As large numbers of the attackers became casualties, the advance faltered, for the Marines' strength had been severely weakened by numerous heat exhaustion cases. When LVTs attempted to evacuate the wounded, they attracted such a deadly rain of fire from Japanese guns emplaced in the commanding ground north of the airfield that Shermans had to run interference for the thin-skinned amphibian vehicles.
A platoon moving in defilade of a Marine tank finally managed to outflank the enemy positions holding up the attack, and, once the reserve company was committed, a vigorous assault overran the Japanese defenders in the hangar area after some furious hand-to-hand fighting. Pushing on, the 1st Battalion gained phase line O-2 before dark, but Japanese gunners on nearby ridges unleashed such an intense and
75MM GUN in firing position on Peleliu. (USMC 95050)
1ST MARINE DIVISION tanks at Peleliu airfield. (USMC 94876)
accurate fire upon the exposed infantrymen that the decision was made to withdraw to the antitank ditch to set up night defenses.
The 2d Battalion spent the day fighting its way up the east side of the airfield through an almost impassable scrub jungle that degenerated into a thick mangrove swamp along the eastern shore. Supporting Shermans could operate only along the fringe of the woods, and the riflemen had to plunge alone into the thicket infested by enemy soldiers, who often had to be ousted in close combat. When darkness began closing in, the Marines tied in with 1/5 on the left flank and fell back a short distance on the open airfield in order to have clear fields of fire to their front.
On the extreme right, the 3d Battalion soon found itself in an unusual predicament as the attack progressed. Company I started the day in reserve, but was shifted northward about noon and used to cover a threatening gap that developed between assault units of the 1st Marines. Company L, meanwhile, remained tied in with 2/5's drive northeastward, while Company K renewed its eastern advance on the left flank of 3/7. As a result, the 3d Battalion's two rifle companies had to overextend themselves to retain contact as they assaulted in different directions. About 1500, Major John H. Gustafson, formerly executive officer of 2/5, replaced Lieutenant Colonel Walt as battalion commander. Walt promptly returned to the 5th's CP and resumed his duties as regimental executive officer, thereby taking some of the load off the injured Colonel Harris. Shortly after this change in command, the 3d Battalion was ordered to displace forward in preparation for relieving the 1st Battalion the following morning.
Before passing into reserve on 17 September, however, the 1st drove forward against light resistance to regain the previous day's positions on phase line O-2. During this advance, one of the rifle platoons was subjected to a rocket strike from a carrier plane. This unfortunate incident occurred when the man responsible for removing the panels signaling an earlier air strike "had been evacuated as a casualty and provisions had not been made for someone else to take over his responsibilities."11 After taking over 1/5's zone, the 3d Battalion moved out in coordination with elements of 2/5 on its right, but the heavy flanking fire from the Japanese on the central ridges with their clear fields of fire and excellent observation effectively prevented any real gains that day.
On the right, the 2d Battalion resumed its slow advance through the dense jungle between the airfield and the mangrove swamp. When a Sherman attempted to assist infantrymen working their way through the undergrowth at the edge of the airfield, Japanese observers on the ridges called down such a concentration of artillery and mortar fire upon the tank that it departed to spare the nearby Marines. As the men attempted to maintain a skirmish line while moving through the jungle against the sporadic fire of scattered snipers, the enervating heat caused greater casualties than did the Japanese. Platoon
leaders halted their men frequently for rest periods, but the number dropping from heat prostration continued to mount. Day's end, nevertheless, found the battalion some 600 yards beyond phase line O-2, with one flank anchored on the swamp and the other firmly tied in with 3/5's right flank.
On this day, the Japanese fired a few rockets, possibly of the spin stabilized type, although they had a very erratic corkscrew type of trajectory. These rockets appeared to be about the size of 5-inch shells and were loaded with picric acid. The bright, yellow burst caused brief excitement when a few cries of "Mustard Gas" were raised. Prompt reassurance by radio that it was only explosion of picric acid quelled the excitement.12
The next day, 18 September, the 5th Marines' attack on the left ground to a halt by noon, when the 3d Battalion ran into an increasing volume of fire from the same towering central ridges that had prevented any gains the previous day. On the right, in the 2/5 sector, Japanese machine gun and rifle fire from the mangrove swamp on the battalion's east flank made any advance very costly. Artillery and mortar fire had little effect until a call was made for air bursts about 30 feet above the swamp. This proved highly effective and permitted a rapid advance. Jumping off at 0700, 2/5 moved forward rapidly in the face of only scattered resistance, protected from enemy artillery observation by the canopy of tree tops and reached the road leading to the village of Ngardololok and the northeastern peninsula.
The mangrove-choked waters separating this peninsula from the mainland, however, pressed in so close to the road on both sides as to make the approach virtually a causeway. About 1040, a small patrol ventured across to test enemy reaction. When it returned safely without drawing any fire, an air strike was requested to pave the way for a crossing in force. To the Marines' disappointment, the carrier-based planes missed their target completely, and artillery concentrations had to be called down instead to soften up the Ngardololok area.
At 1335, a reinforced rifle company began crossing over the narrow approach route. Unknown to the battalion commander, the 5th Marines' CP had already ordered a second air strike to rectify the earlier abortive attempt. As the company negotiated the open causeway, U.S. Navy planes suddenly swooped down out of the skies to strafe the exposed troops. The Marines pushed on, despite heavy casualties, and established a firm bridgehead.
As if to compound the 2d Battalion's misfortunes that day, the unit was subjected twice more to misplaced American fire. An artillery concentration hit the battalion in the process of displacing forward, and later, mortar fire struck some elements as they crossed the causeway. Of the 34 casualties suffered by 2/5 on 18 September, almost all resulted from friendly fire.
The 3d Battalion's front, on the 18th, had been pinched down between the ridges and the sea to a size manageable by a single company. Accordingly, the
other two companies displaced to positions on the right (south) flank of 2/5. By nightfall, the two battalions were dug in facing the Japanese installations at Ngardololok. The reserve 1st Battalion, which had been flushing out snipers in the rear, now moved up to support the next day's drive.
After dive bombers blasted the objective, the 2d Battalion attacked the remains of Ngardololok during the morning of 19 September. Only sporadic fire from scattered holdouts opposed the advance. As the 2d continued its push forward past the ruins, the 3d Battalion drove southward in the wake of artillery and mortar fire against extremely light resistance. In the following days, the 5th Marines systematically mopped up isolated enemy holdouts on the peninsula, which was secured on 21 September, and the off-shore islands, the last of which was seized on the 23d.
During this period of extensive patrolling, war dogs had about their only opportunity for effective use on Peleliu. Brought ashore on D-Day and sent up to the front lines, the dogs became extremely nervous under the constant shelling. Many even attacked their handlers and had to be destroyed. As a result, the dogs were brought back to the rear areas for night security duty at CPS, while their handlers served as stretcher bearers. when the war dogs operated with patrols of the 5th Marines, however, in a role for which they had been trained, their keen scent saved many Marine lives. On 20 September, for example, a Doberman-Pinscher scouting ahead of Company I's point detected an enemy ambush some 75 to 100 yards away. Once the dog alerted the Marines to their imminent danger, they were able to escape the trap laid by 20-odd Japanese armed with machine guns and other automatic weapons. The fruitful activities of the war dog platoon came to an untimely end when the 5th Marines reached northern Peleliu. An erratic salvo of white phosphorus shells landed in the area occupied by the platoon, and this unfortunate accident marked the end of its activity on the island.13
ASSAULT OF THE RIDGES14Puller's 1st Marines jumped off in the general attack on the morning of 16 September and began a turning movement northward in coordination with the 5th Marines. The first problem of the 3d Battalion, on the left, was the long coral ridge that had blocked any successful advance on the previous day. It was not until noon, after the last fresh company of the regimental reserve, 1/1, was thrown into the struggle, that the riflemen, supported by two Shermans, were able to surge up the slopes and wrest a large portion of the high ground from the entrenched enemy.
With control of the commanding heights in their hands, the Marines were soon linked up with the survivors of company K on the Point. These men had been isolated for some 30 hours, although reinforcements, consisting of shore party personnel and stragglers
on the beach, weapons, and supplies had been brought in over the water by an LVT early on the 16th. By nightfall, even though the mission of reaching phase line 0-1 had not been accomplished by 3/1, the worst features of the tactical situation confronting the battalion--a frontline dotted with enemy-created wedges, and gaps between its own units--had been rectified.
Coordinating its attack on the right flank with that of 1/5, Honsowetz' 2d Battalion, 1st Marines, moved out in the wake of the preparatory fires across the northwestern portion of the airfield. When the advancing riflemen reached the building area, stiffening resistance from Japanese hiding among the ruins, plus a brief loss of contact with neighboring units, slowed the attack momentarily. Despite heavy casualties, however, the battalion overran the enemy defenders in savage hand-to-hand combat and began fanning out toward phase line O-2. The onrushing troops made good progress at first, but the Japanese bitterly resisted all efforts by the Marines to advance toward the important road junction linking the East and West Roads. Despite a substantial gain, the men halted for the night some distance short of phase line 0-2, the west Road.
That night, the enemy made a determined effort to retake the Point regardless of cost. With this strategic elevation once again in their hands, the Japanese could set up their weapons and play havoc with the men, supplies, and vehicles crowded on the White Beaches. The counterattack came at 2200, when an estimated 500 enemy soldiers, following preparatory mortar and grenade fire, suddenly rushed Company K's positions on the coral outcropping. The defenders opened up with automatic weapons and hurled grenades, while supporting artillery and mortars blasted the terrain to the front.
In spite of this concentrated hail of fire, some 30 Japanese still managed to penetrate the frontlines. These attackers were dispatched in fierce fighting, while other enemy troops, attempting to flank the Point along the water's edge, were rooted out of the coral crevices by Marines employing thermite grenades and automatic weapons. By 0200, the counterattack subsided as swiftly as it had begun. The overwhelming fire superiority of the Marines had decided the issue. The light of dawn, remembered Captain Hunt, revealed 350 "more Japanese dead sprawled before our lines. Their rear units, horribly mutilated by our artillery and mortars, had been lugging a 40mm gun, for it lay in their midst, scarred by shrapnel, an abandoned symbol of their efforts to recapture the Point."15 That morning, Company K was finally relieved, but it mustered only 78 men out of the 235 that the captain had led ashore on D-Day.
On 17 September, Colonel Puller had to put all three battalions in the line to press the attack, for his regiment had suffered over 1,000 casualties in just two days of battle. The 3d Battalion was on the left, the 1st in the center, and the 2d on the right, while 2/7 was in reserve, The last-mentioned battalion had finally landed the previous day to support its parent unit's drive south, but
had been diverted north instead to support the more hard-pressed 1st Marines in their assault on the ridges.
Lieutenant Colonel Sabol's 3d Battalion pushed steadily ahead against light sniper fire for a gain of 700 yards, and only the danger of overextending itself prevented the battalion from advancing farther up the west coast that day. In the middle, the 1st Battalion's attack ran squarely into a heavily fortified group of mutually-supporting positions consisting of a huge reinforced-concrete blockhouse with four-foot thick walls and 12 pillboxes emplaced nearby. A hurried call to the battleship Pennsylvania brought 14-inch armor-piercing and high explosive shells slamming into this unmarred fortification that had somehow escaped the preparatory bombardment of the island. The shells breached the walls, and concussion killed the 20 enemy soldiers inside. Other supporting arms, meanwhile, had eliminated the surrounding pillboxes.
Resuming the advance, Major Raymond G. Davis' 1st Battalion surged forward across the road marking phase line O.2. Here, the terrain began sloping upward as the riflemen approached the foothills of the Umurbrogol Mountains. Since the entrenched foe to its front was pouring down a very heavy volume of fire that inflicted severe casualties, the battalion quickly regrouped and drove straight up the slopes. Aided by tanks, the infantrymen made good use of their bazookas to knock out 35 separate Japanese-infested caves before digging in for the night. Marine positions had been firmly established on the forward slopes of the first series of hills, notwithstanding the enemy commander's claim that this assault had been "repulsed by our timely firing."16
During its rapid advance to the right on 17 September, the 2d Battalion gained the distinction of being the first to encounter the Umurbrogol ridges, a misshapen conglomeration of soaring spires, sheer cliffs, and impassable precipices that was to become infamous in the weeks ahead. Some of the problems confronting the 1st Marines in its assault of this high ground were recorded by the regiment's history:
Along its center, the rocky spine was heaved up in a contorted morass of decayed coral, strewn with rubble, crags, ridges and gulches thrown together in a confusing maze. There were no roads, scarcely any trails. The pock-marked surface offered no secure footing even in the few level places. It was impossible to dig in: the best the men could do was pile a little coral or wood debris around their positions. The jagged rock slashed their shoes and clothes, and tore their bodies every time they hit the deck for safety. Casualties were higher for the simple reason it was impossible to get under the ground away from the Japanese mortar barrages. Each blast hurled chunks of coral in all directions, multiplying many times the fragmentation effect of every shell. Into this the enemy dug and tunnelled like moles; and there they stayed to fight to the death.17
Early in the morning, the 2d Battalion surged forward to overrun the important road junction that the Japanese had defended so bitterly the previous day. Continuing up the East Road that ran along the base of the ridges, the exposed infantrymen came under increasing fire from enemy soldiers entrenched
on a 200-foot ridge to the left flank. This high ground, called Hill 200, paralleled the road and formed a threatening salient into the battalion's center. From these commanding heights, observers called down accurate artillery and mortar concentrations not only on the 2d Battalion, but also on the troops of the 5th Marines moving across level ground on the extreme right.
Orders came down from regiment for the troops advancing up the East Road to wheel left and take the ridge under assault. As the Marines attacked up the steep slopes, the Japanese unleashed a devastating fire of mortars and machine guns, while mountain guns and dual-purpose artillery pieces suddenly emerged from hidden positions to blast away at pointblank range before disappearing again into caves. Casualties mounted alarmingly, and many of the tanks and LVT(A)s brought up to support the infantry were knocked out by the accurate enemy tire. The Marines grimly continued climbing upward, however, and succeeded in clearing the crest of all defenders by nightfall. The men dug in quickly, for a slightly higher ridge to the west, Hill 210, still remained in the possession of the Japanese, who now brought a heavy and concentrated fire to bear on the newly-won Marine positions.
As this sustained enemy fire continued throughout the night, casualties became so heavy that a company from 2/7, the 1st Marines' reserve battalion, had to be rushed up the hill to bolster the depleted strength of the defenders. An overwhelming Japanese counterattack to retake this vital terrain probably was prevented only by the well-placed naval salvos on the enemy-held approaches to Hill 200. Elsewhere, however, the alert foe spotted the gap that developed between the 1st and 2d Battalions as they tied in their lines after dark. Infiltrating in force, the Japanese began exploiting their opportunity. Not until another reserve company from 2/7 fought its way forward into positions covering this void in the 1st Marines' line was the enemy finally contained.
During this same night, Colonel Nakagawa displaced his CP farther inland to a cave deep within his prepared final defensive perimeter in the Umurbrogol ridges. Such a move by the enemy commander underscored the tactical importance of the Marines' seizure of Hill 200. This accomplishment of the 2d Battalion removed a dangerous Japanese salient and replaced it with an American one jutting into the enemy-held terrain; the feat also eliminated the heavy flanking fire that had been hampering the progress of 2/1 and the 5th Marines. All that Colonel Nakagawa admitted to his superiors that night, though, was that "under protection of heavy naval gunfire, an enemy unit composed of two tanks and approximately two companies of infantry successfully advanced up to a high spot on the east side of Nakayama (Hill 200)."18
On 18 September, the same day that the 7th Marines finished its seizure of the promontories and the 5th Marines began its sweep up the northeastern peninsula, the 1st Marines returned to its bitterly-contested, yard-by-yard assault on the central ridges. Some of the
difficulties involved in fighting over this terrain, according to Lieutenant Colonel Spencer S. Berger, whose 2/7 joined the struggle on the Umurbrogols that day, were:
. . . there was no such thing as a continuous attacking line. Elements of the same company, even platoon, were attacking in every direction of the compass, with large gaps in between. When companies were asked for front lines they were apt to give points where the Company Commander knew or thought he had some men. It did not mean that he held a continuous unbroken line across his front. There were countless little salients and countersalients existing.19
Three days of continuous assault on fortified positions had so depleted Colonel Puller's rifle battalions--the 1st Regiment had suffered 1,236 casualties--that frontline replacements were absolutely essential, if the attack was to continue. To remedy the situation, Puller ordered the supporting units stripped of personnel to fill the gaps in his rifle platoons. Out of the 473 men jumping off in the 3d Battalion's zone on the 18th, for example, 200 were fresh from regimental headquarters. The 1st Pioneer Battalion also sent up 115 men to strengthen the assaults units. Just prior to the morning's attack, the 2d Battalion, 7th Marines relieved 1/1, which then passed into reserve.
The 3d Battalion moved forward on the left between the central ridges and the western coast against only scattered rifle fire, but was held to a day's gain of merely a few hundred yards because of the necessity of remaining tied in with 2/7. This battalion found the going slow in the center over the rugged coral ridges, where it cooperated with 2/1 in pinching out the enemy-held Hill 210 that jutted into the Marines' lines. The attackers stormed up both sides of this threatening salient, and their determined rushes finally carried the crest.
In 2/1's zone, the Japanese had been subjecting the riflemen on the northern slopes of Hill 200 to severe artillery and mortar fire in addition to savage counterattacks. By 1400, the battalion had withdrawn its men a short distance from its hard-won conquest of the previous day after reporting that its situation was desperate. Puller's reaction was typical. He instructed Lieutenant Colonel Honsowetz to hold at all costs. Marine mortars immediately placed a smoke screen on the hill to obscure Japanese vision, while Company B of 1/1 was ordered forward from its reserve area to assist.
This rifle unit aggressively assaulted the nearby enemy-held ridges in an attempt to divert fire from the sorely-pressed Marines on Hill 200. The closest ridge, Hill 205, was seized with light casualties, but when the riflemen attempted to press the attack toward the next row of commanding heights, they ran into the precipitous coral rampart that marked the perimeter of Colonel Nakagawa's final defensive positions. Unable to scale the almost sheer cliffs in the face of withering fire from Japanese entrenched on high ground both to the front and flanks, Company B was stopped cold. This failure terminated the day's action. On the extreme right of 2/1, meanwhile, some Marines had succeeded in moving along the base of Hill 200 to reach the ruined village of
Asias and to tie in with the 5th Marines before halting for the night.
This day's assault pushed the 1st Marines' total casualties over the 1,500 mark, but the regiment had straightened its frontline, located the Japanese weakness along the western shore, and discovered the strongpoint of enemy resistance within the Umurbrogols. Puller would order an all-out attack the following morning in hopes of breaching Colonel Nakagawa's defensive positions among the ridges, but the high tide mark of the southern assault had been reached. Henceforth, the Marines were committed to a bitter war of attrition with a fanatical and tenacious foe, who had converted the jumbled coral cliffs, ravines, and precipices of the Umurbrogols into a nearly impregnable fortress.
CASUALTIES, CORPSMEN, AND CLIMATE20To speed evacuation of the wounded during the assault, medical planners arranged for the empty amphibian vehicles to carry casualties on the return trip from the beach to the transfer line. Here, waiting boats finished transporting the injured Marines the rest of the way to the ships. Those LVTs and DUKWs evacuating men to whom minutes meant the difference between life and death made a beeline for the nearest transport still flying the signal flag that indicated empty beds, and then hurried back to the line of transfer to resume their primary task. So successfully did this humane plan work that wounded Marines were being treated on ships within an hour of the initial landing. An unfortunate drawback, however, was that the unexpectedly large number of casualties right from the start tied up an excessive number of amphibian tractors. As a result, the shortage of LVTs and DUKWs was intensified, and later waves of troops and supplies were delayed in being transported across the reef and onto the beach.
For support of the combat teams, Company A of the 1st Medical Battalion was attached to the 1st Marines, Company B to the 5th, and Company C to the 7th, while a surgical team from Company D was especially assigned to 3/5 for its later Ngesebus operation. These medical companies had come ashore early, but their equipment had been delayed in landing. Not until 21 September were any of them set up and operating with adequate hospital facilities. Prior to this date, the units aided the shore party in collecting and evacuating the wounded, and provided replacements for the RCTs' organic medical personnel, who had suffered severe losses.
Although 40 hospital corpsmen and 96 stretcher bearers accompanied each combat team, the high initial casualty rate quickly revealed a need for more. The stretcher bearers, fortunately, had received actual practice in first aid during the staging period, and they formed a nucleus of trained personnel when rear echelon troops were pressed into service. These men came from all supporting and garrison units for, as the
CLOSE FIGHTING at edge of Peleliu airfield. (USMC 95260)
CASUALTY is hoisted aboard amtrac en route to hospital ship off Peleliu. (USMC 94940)
G-1 officer remarked, "I had no difficulty in obtaining volunteers for this important task, so anxious were the 'rear area' men to aid their infantry 'brothers.'"21
Over and above the toll exacted by the seemingly ubiquitous enemy fire, there were the many victims of the tropical island itself. "Peleliu is a horrible place,"22 remarked a civilian correspondent, and Marines echoed his sentiments. The blazing sun, stifling heat, jagged coral, rugged terrain, and lack of readily available water all combined to make the island a living hell.
Heat exhaustion cases increased alarmingly as the fighting progressed, and stocks of salt tablets ashore quickly disappeared. Since they "were worth their weight in gold in preventing heat exhaustion,"23 all salt tablets that the support ships could spare were sent ashore. Although several combat commanders believed that they lost as many men to the enervating heat as to enemy fire, no definite count of such casualties existed.24 The high incidence of heat prostration cases, nevertheless, severely overloaded the limited medical facilities and incapacitated valuable, trained Marines during the critical assault phase.
Compounding the unpleasantness of Peleliu was the unforgettable "sickening stench of decaying bodies which added to the difficulties under which the troops fought."25 Not enough men could be spared during the first few days to collect and bury the dead whose bodies lay where they fell, exposed to the elements and insects. To prevent the spreading of disease by flies, three 15-men sanitary squads, equipped with knapsack sprayers, came ashore on D-Day and followed the combat teams, carefully spraying the newly-developed insecticide, DDT, on opened enemy supply dumps, bodies, uncovered human feces, and other fly-feeding and breeding places. Twelve days later when the tactical situation permitted, low-flying aircraft dusted all of Peleliu with DDT, while the malaria control unit operated a truck-mounted power sprayer in the swamps and other suspected areas.
Peleliu was the scene of the first large-scale combat testing of DDT as a sanitation control agent. All mosquito nets and jungle hammocks were treated with a combination of DDT and kerosene, as were tents and other personnel shelters that came into use later. Sanitation experts soon made the discovery, however, that while the new insecticide worked excellently against adult flies and mosquitoes, it proved ineffective in killing the larvae. As a result, flies continued to breed, despite the combined efforts of planes, trucks, and portable DDT sprayers. In fact, the swarms
of flies exceeded anything that American troops had seen to date. During the second week in October, a gradual decline in the fly population set in. Apparently, the exertions of the DDT sprayers had not been in vain. "Probably for the first time in the history of military operations," stated the corps after action report, "there had been a negligible number of casualties that could be attributed to flies or mosquitoes."26
SUPPORTING THE DRIVE INLAND27For the first few days on Peleliu, conditions for rendering effective logistic support to the assault units left much to be desired. The inadequate beach space for receiving the mountains of materiel required to keep the advance alive permitted little organization of the support area. Supply dumps, bivouac areas, artillery emplacements, and equipment were located helter-skelter on the first piece of unoccupied land. This random location of logistical activities made more difficult the tasks of coordinating and controlling resupply missions, undertakings which were frequently delayed because motor vehicles had severed vital telephone lines. Marines under enemy fire soon discovered that it was much faster to lay a new line than to search for a broken one. Adding to the cluttered appearance of the beachhead were the countless foxholes and shell craters that pockmarked the entire area.
When Rear Admiral John W. Reeves, Jr,, responsible for the future base development of the Western Carolines Area, visited Peleliu shortly after D-Day, he was appalled by what he saw. The admiral at once requested through higher channels that certain artillery batteries be displaced immediately to allow supply dumps to occupy their permanent locations in accordance with the base development plan. General Rupertus, however, countered with the argument that these batteries firing from their present positions were essential in order to support the infantry and that it would be folly to tamper with an already critical tactical situation just to simplify some future garrison function. Since the recommendations of the ground commander are usually accepted during the combat phase, nothing ever came of Admiral Reeves' complaint.
As the assault troops pushed inland, regimental dumps displaced forward to support the attack. The Marines were fortunate in that the island's roads were capable, at least temporarily, of handling the division's transportation needs. For hauling supplies up to the front, each regiment had four LVTs, augmented by six 21/2-ton cargo trucks once they became available,
To facilitate unloading at the beach, a detachment of the 1054th Naval Construction Battalion (Seabees) began installing a pontoon causeway from Orange Beach 3 to the outer reef on 18 September, and the first LST unloaded over it on the following day. When additional pontoon causeways were added at the reef, the simultaneous unloading of three LSTS became possible. By 21 September, when the need for more unloading points became pressing, elements of the 1st Engineer Battalion and the 73d Seabees began work on access roads leading to the eastern and southern beaches. Two days later, both these beach areas were receiving LSTS for unloading.
On 19 September, the 33d Seabees started clearing the Peleliu airfield of all land mines, duds, debris, and shell fragments. Once the heavy engineering equipment began coming ashore, work on the repair of the existing fighter strip was immediately begun. Within 72 hours after having received the construction equipment on 20 September, the Seabees had cleared and leveled an operative strip, 260 feet by 3,875 feet, complete with runway lights.
The 1st Pioneer Battalion continued its shore party function, often unloading around the clock, until 28 September, when stevedores of the Island Command took over the beaches and supply dumps. While engaged in performing their assigned mission, the pioneers operated bulldozers on two different occasions to knock out enemy-held pillboxes; they supplied frontline troops directly from the shore dumps, often going to great lengths to locate vitally needed items; and once they even relinquished their own machine guns to fill an urgent infantry request.
Although during the initial phases of the landing no infantryman or artilleryman suffered from lack of ammunition--thanks to the acuity of the logistic planners and their innovations such as the waterborne supply beach--Marines found it difficult to build up desirable levels of 105mm and 81mm ammunition, as well as 60mm illuminating shells. Selective discharge of these needed items took place the day after the first ammunition resupply ship dropped anchor at Kossol Roads on 21 September. The high rate of ammunition expenditure continued, however, because of the strength of the enemy's defenses. The heavy fighting also resulted in many weapons being either damaged in combat or lost through carelessness. The 5th Marines, for example, had lost or damaged over 70 percent of its flamethrowers and bazookas by 17 September. In spite of the heavy fighting, which demanded large amounts of ammunition, weapons, and supplies, and the unforeseen beach congestion, which seriously hindered resupply operations, no real shortages of shells, weapons, or supplies developed during the first couple of weeks.
TACTICAL SUPPORT28Until Marine artillery was emplaced ashore on Peleliu and could assume responsibility for providing direct fire support to the infantry battalions, carrier-based aircraft had to fill part of the gap. As early as 17 September, however,
the reduction of all targets, except those in defilade or on reverse slopes, became the exclusive province of the artillery, and, by the 21st, almost all air missions were of the deep support type. On the whole, Marines were satisfied with the kind of air support given them by the naval pilots, but felt that their attempts to strafe were "of little value, due to the fact that the strafing runs were begun and completed at too high an altitude; pullouts from such never were made under 1,800 feet."29
One other vexation was that some naval officers, prior to the landing, had led the Marines to expect too much from the use of napalm, considered at that time somewhat of a miracle weapon following its limited employment during the Marianas campaign. One briefing officer ever assured 1/7 that its assault to the south on Peleliu would encounter the infantryman's dream, "an objective stripped of concealing vegetation and devoid of live enemy soldiers."30 The disappointment experienced by these Marines when they ran into some 1,500 elite Japanese troops who tenaciously resisted the southward advance can be imagined. Later, after the results of the first extensive use of napalm had been analyzed, the division recommended that the new weapon "should be used either on pinpoint targets or in such quantities that complete saturation of an area can be achieved. It is wasted when used in small quantities in area bombing."31
Carrier-based planes also provided aerial observation until Marine Observation Squadron-3 (VMO-3), whose first planes touched down on the partially repaired airstrip on 18 September, began operating ashore. The 11th Marines' battalions, in addition, had forward observers up with the advance infantry units. Since the officers coordinating the missions of air, naval gunfire, and artillery were all located at the division CP, each prospective target was assigned to the supporting arm best suited to reduce it.
For the first two weeks ashore, Marine artillery performed according to the operation plan, delivering preparatory, harassing, and interdicting fires as requested. When corps artillery came ashore on the second day, it was placed under control of the 11th Marines and tied in with the regimental fire direction center. Most artillery units massed their fires northward to support the assault on the ridges, but the 3d Battalion and a battery of the 3d 155mm Howitzer Battalion faced south to assist the 7th Marines' drive to the promontories. On 18 September, these units also shifted their fires northward against the entrenched Japanese amidst the central ridges. One battery of the 8th 155mm Gun Battalion, meanwhile, had taken up firing positions in anticipation of providing supporting fires for the 81st Infantry Division's landing on 17 September, but the expected call never came and this unit also faced about on the following day.
As a close support weapon on Peleliu, armor ranked just behind artillery, and far ahead of air or naval gunfire. "Tanks were so invaluable during the
first few days that tank units enroute to support designated units were repeatedly intercepted by other units in dire straits which would beg for tank assistance.32 Whenever possible, this aid was given by the tankers before continuing on to their assigned destinations. Until the 155mm guns came ashore, the Shermans provided the only flat-trajectory, high-powered weapon that proved effective in sealing caves, blasting pillboxes, and reducing other fortifications. In fact, the tanks served as mobile artillery.
Because of the elaborate enemy underground defenses and the high value that Marines placed upon tank support, the Peleliu operation resulted in the longest continuous commitment in action experienced by any Marine tank battalion up to that time. The Shermans were seldom in reserve, even in the later stages, and often had to rearm several times daily. Their ammunition expenditure on D-Day, for example, was so high that an advance on the following day was possible only after shells were salvaged from damaged vehicles.
Throughout the campaign, supporting armor fought together with the assault troops as a team; only on three minor occasions did tanks ever advance without accompanying infantry. Because of the Shermans' better communication system and their constant presence near rifle units, division frequently made use of the tank radios to locate infantry elements or to pass on instructions to them.
Owing to mutual respect and admiration, the teamwork between the riflemen and the tankers was superb, and each went to heroic lengths to support the other. On one occasion, a rifle squad protecting the advance of a tank platoon melted away under enemy mortar fire until only two survivors remained, but these infantrymen doggedly kept on with their task of shepherding the Shermans. As if in an attempt to match the undaunted courage of their supporting infantrymen, the tankers reciprocated by risking both their bodies and their vehicles to aid hard-pressed Marines. Whenever the job could not be done any other way, the Shermans maneuvered into the most vulnerable positions, and crew members fought with part of their bodies protruding from the tanks' interiors to gain better observation. Indicative of the danger inherent in this practice was the high casualty rate among the tank battalion's officers. Eight out of the total 31 were killed, and only eight emerged from the long harrowing campaign unscathed. No Sherman was ever lost to close-in enemy assaults, however, for not even suicidal-minded Japanese, lugging bangalore torpedoes or demolition charges, ever succeeded in breaking through the protective screen of Marine riflemen.
The Marines especially valued the tanks for their ability to quickly and safely reduce enemy fortifications that proved impervious to either infantry weapons or assaults. With their heavy armored plates warding off the hail of deadly automatic fire from Japanese fortifications, the Shermans could move up to pointblank range. After firing three or four rounds of high explosives, the gunner would shift to white phosphorus shells, a few of which usually
silenced all enemy resistance. One tank crew actually destroyed 30 pillboxes and fortified positions within a single day's action.
Often, two Shermans would work in coordination with the thin-skinned LVT flamethrower to remove a particularly dfficult position. After moving up and blasting the enemy fortification, the tanks would lay down covering fire while the flamethrower placed itself in between the protective hulls of the Shermans and burned out the target. As an experiment, a small capacity flamethrower was installed in a Sherman, but the short range of the burst necessitated the tank's moving in at such close range that it became vulnerable to close-in enemy assaults, against which it was helpless since its bow machine gun had been removed to permit installation of the flamethrower. Primarily because of its lack of success in combat, this specially-equipped tank destroyed only a few enemy fortifications, and its assigned missions were more like battlefield experiments than anything else.
Another innovation tried by the 1st Tank Battalion on Peleliu was spaced armor. While still in the staging area, the tankers welded spare track over the turret and front slope plate of each Sherman, since earlier tests had demonstrated that this technique would increase the vehicle's resistance to both armor-piercing and large high-explosive projectiles. This unique use of spare track proved extremely effective and was officially credited with preventing the destruction of three tanks from direct hits by 75mm armor-piercing projectiles.
Without question, however, the most significant armored innovation on Peleliu was the flexible basis of tank employment. Previously, a tank company was attached to a rifle regiment and remained with it throughout the campaign regardless of whether the unit was in reserve or fighting over terrain unsuitable for tank employment. For the initial assault, Company A of the 1st Tank Battalion was attached to the 1st Marines, Company B to the 5th, and Company C to the 7th, but even after control reverted to the battalion commander on 16 September, the tank units still remained in direct support of the regiments. The radical departure from previous tank employment doctrine came when the insufficient number of Shermans within the division resulted in a widespread shifting of tanks and crews. Although the tank company commanders and liaison personnel remained permanently attached to the various regiments to insure continuity of liaison, the tank platoons were freely shifted from one rifle unit to another to replace battle losses, support a major effort, or take advantage of terrain suitable for tracked vehicle operations. The new policy proved its worth, since the maximum utilization of the limited number of tanks was realized.
The 1st Tank Battalion also experienced certain difficulties on Peleliu, for an "over-optimistic logistic concept of the Palau Operation resulted in an entirely inadequate amount of spare parts and maintenance equipment being taken forward."33 Only by the salvaging of parts from damaged vehicles was the
average of 20 operative tanks maintained throughout the campaign. Moreover, the repair crews suffered considerable casualties while stripping the immobile tanks under the identical enemy fire that had knocked them out. "Additional spare parts," the tank battalion reported, "would have saved both men and time."34 Just three tanks equipped with bulldozer blades and one tank retriever were landed, but they quickly proved invaluable. Besides serving to clear away debris and to fill antitank ditches, the tank-dozers were found to be quite useful in sealing up apertures of Japanese bunkers while the occupants were still active and firing.
Like the tankers, the combat engineers, including Headquarters and Service Company of the 1st Engineer Battalion, landed with the infantry regiments to which they were attached. Even after reverting to battalion control on 26 September, the engineers still worked closely with the assault troops. Often, details of combat engineers went forward of front lines to hack out trails, clear away mines and boobytraps, or blast enemy-held caves and fortifications. As the official report stated, demolitions proved to be "the greatest engineer problem."35 One demolition team attached to 3/1 was credited with killing over 200 Japanese during a five-day period of neutralization of enemy pillboxes and caves. These demolition experts also cleared away coral heads that impeded the landing of amphibian vehicles, blasted water wells in the coral subsurface, deactivated duds and boobytraps, and cleared the beaches and access roads of all mines.
DEADLOCK AMIDST THE RIDGES36By the fifth day of the assault, practically all those Japanese who were able to withdraw before the swift onslaught of the Marines had rejoined Colonel Nakagawa's main forces in the Umurbrogols. Here, according to General Inoue's master plan, the decisive struggle for Peleliu would be waged. In contrast to earlier Pacific campaigns, no large-scale banzai charge was contemplated. General Inoue had specifically warned the Peleliu Island Commander against wasting his battle strength in futile attacks; instead, Colonel Nakagawa was instructed to defend his hold on the high ground to the last man in an attempt to deny, or at least delay, the use of the airfield to the invading Americans. As long as some of the Japanese remained in their fortified positions, hidden high-velocity guns could bombard the airstrip, or suicide squads armed with high explosives could sally forth to wreak havoc on the runways. As a result, the advancing Marines were forced to assault each enemy emplacement individually, while Japanese artillery and mortar fire continued its rain of death and destruction along the front and to the rear.
At 0700 on 19 September, the attack was resumed along the entire 1st Marines'
front. Colonel Puller had received no new directives; his regiment still had the assigned mission of seizing the high terrain up to phase line O-2. The 3d Battalion, unmolested except by snipers, moved up the western coastal flats for some 400 yards before halting in order to retain contact with neighboring units advancing more slowly over the ridges. Here, 2/7, still under operational control of the 1st Marines, overcame stiff resistance to seize the forward slopes of Hills 200 and 260, for a day's gain of 300 yards. Company A of 1/1 passed through to press the attack, but it ran headlong into a sheer 150-foot cliff which, coupled with heavy enemy fire, stopped the assault cold. Only six men out of the entire rifle company managed to regain 2/7's lines without either being killed or wounded.
It was the 2d Battalion, however, that first tested the strength of Colonel Nakagawa's final bastion. After a 500-yard advance in the face of increasing enemy resistance, the foremost assault units encountered the same foreboding hill mass that had blunted the attack of Company B the previous day. This dominating piece of terrain became known as the Five Sisters, because it contained five peaks; they averaged 250 feet in height and were separated from each other by steep cliffs. The southern face was at first dubbed "Bloody Nose Ridge" by the Marines. No sooner had the battalion consolidated its forward positions than it launched a full-scale assault directly at the forbidding height.
Preparatory air and artillery strikes thoroughly plastered both the forward and reverse slopes of the hill mass, while all tanks and mortars attached to 2/7 were brought over to support the all-out effort of Honsowetz' battalion. Rushing forward in small groups to minimize casualties from the terrific enemy fire, the Marines grimly fought their way ahead, and their Shermans, mortars, and LVT flamethrowers ventured as far forward as possible to provide direct fire support. Despite the vigor and determination with which the riflemen pressed the assault, it collapsed completely by noon. Even the most pessimistic Marine present there that day did not dream that the defenders of the Five Sisters would frustrate all attempts to storm them for over two months.
Later in the afternoon, the attack was resumed. This time, the battalion commander committed all three of his rifle companies in a frontal assault, meanwhile attempting an enveloping movement from the east with Company C of 1/1, fresh from regimental reserve. If this force could seize Hill 100 (later to be christened Walt Ridge) whose summit dominated the East Road and adjoining swampy terrain, a springboard would be gained for an attack on the hill mass from the rear.
Captain Everett P. Pope led the 90 men of Company C through a swamp on the right flank of 2/1 to emerge on the East Road. No sooner had the group begun assault operations against two large pillboxes discovered near the base of Walt Ridge, than a Japanese machine gun opened up from the right flank across a small pond some 50 yards away. Pinned down without any hopes of reaching the enemy gunner, whose accuracy inflicted numerous casualties,
Captain Pope finally withdrew his men for another try along a different approach.
The concentrated Japanese fire, meanwhile, was exacting a stiff toll among the exposed men of the 2d Battalion as they struggled toward the towering Five Sisters. The losses within two of the rifle companies that afternoon became so great that they were combined in the field into a still-understrength company, even though a squad of men from the 4th War Dog Platoon had been thrown in as a reinforcement.
It was late afternoon before Company C, now supported by the division reconnaissance company, was in position to renew its assault on Walt Ridge. This time, Captain Pope planned to approach by way of a causeway over a large sinkhole and to continue up the East Road to the base of the objective. Armor was scheduled to spearhead the advance, but the first Sherman to venture onto the narrow causeway slipped off to one side, while a following tank also lost its traction and slid off the other side.
Since the partially-blocked route barred the approach of additional tanks, Captain Pope's men did the only thing left to them. Crossing the exposed causeway in squad rushes, the riflemen raced on to the base of the ridge, paused briefly to catch their breaths, and then assaulted directly up the slopes. With only machine gun and mortar fire supporting them, the climbers clawed and pulled their way up the rugged slides, and the swiftness of their attack took the enemy by surprise. The Marines carried the crest, but, to their disappointment, they immediately received extremely heavy fire from positions about 50 yards up the ridgeline, where the Japanese held a knoll that completely dominated the newly-won terrain.
Reluctant to abandon the summit that had cost them so many dead and wounded, the men of Company C held out in their isolated and exposed positions throughout the night, while the enraged foe hurled everything he had into the struggle in a desperate bid to oust the Marines from the vital crest. Machine gun bullets crisscrossed the entire ridgetop, and large-caliber shells and mortar rounds plummeted down from above with devastating effect. Using the darkness as a shield, Japanese infantry moved forward to launch one savage counterattack after another. Before dawn arrived to bring surcease to the besieged Marines, they had expended all of their ammunition and were forced to use their fists, broken ammunition boxes, and chunks of coral to hurl their assailants back down the slopes. Only Captain Pope and 15 men remained when the first light of morning revealed to the weary survivors that the enemy had moved up machine guns, which now opened with deadly effect. Since the Marines' positions were clearly untenable in the face of this new threat, permission was granted to withdraw.
That morning, 20 September, the 1st and 2d Battalions of Puller's regiment combined in a final all-out effort to retake Walt Ridge. Every available supporting arm, from LVT (A)s to 37mm guns, was brought up as far as possible,
while regimental headquarters was stripped of personnel to bolster the depleted ranks of the assault units. Even a provisional company was formed of cooks, wiremen, and supply handlers, who manned 12 machine guns in support of the attack.
Somehow the weary Marines, already exhausted physically and mentally by five days of constant assault over rugged terrain and against fanatical resistance, summoned up enough reserve energy and courage to make another valiant attempt. One private remembered the ensuing assault that sixth day, when he and his comrades were waved forward toward the towering ridges by their sergeant:
'Let's get killed up on that high ground there,' he said. 'It ain't no good to get it down here.' As the men stumbled out for him, he said, 'That's the good lads.'
The whole motley lot--a fighting outfit only in the minds of a few officers in the First Regiment and in the First Division--started up the hill, I have never understood why. Not one of them refused. They were the hard core--the men who couldn't or wouldn't quit. They would go up a thousand blazing hills and through a hundred blasted valleys, as long as their legs would carry them. They were Marine riflemen.37
Their bold rushes that day carried some of them to positions so advanced that the Marines killed in the fighting could not be removed for many more days. Their heroic sacrifice was in vain, however, for the seized ground proved untenable in the face of the concentrated and sustained enemy fire, which had already knocked out so many tanks and other supporting arms. "Despite the intense barrage, weapons which were not hit continued firing. The mortars glowed red, and machine guns blew up, but those that could, continued to fire.38
An accurate, if terse, account of the day's furious struggle was contained in Colonel Nakawaga's report to General Inoue that night:
Since dawn, the enemy has been concentrating their forces . . .vainly trying to approach Higashiyama [Walt Ridge] and Kansokuyama [Hill 300] with 14 tanks and one infantry battalion under the powerful aid of air and artillery fire. However, they were again put to rout receiving heavy losses.39
That afternoon, the battered Marines of the 1st and 2d Battalions were relieved in their frontline positions by 1/7, while 3/7 replaced 2/7. The 3d Battalion, 1st Marines, still remained in its zone along the western coast for two more days, but the rest of the regiment had sustained too many losses and been strained too often to the breaking point during the battle of the ridges to be effective in any further assault effort.
On 21 September, two companies of the relatively fresh 1/7 moved up the East Road in column to attempt recapture of Walt Ridge. The lead unit, Company C, which was scheduled to make the assault, passed over the causeway, still partially blocked by the immobilized Shermans, and continued up the road
to the point where it skirted the base of the objective. Here, supporting tanks, which had to bypass the causeway sinkhole, joined the advance.
As the leading elements of Company C came abreast of the ridge, enemy fire increased, and when the assault up the eastern slope began, the Japanese greeted the Marines with a mortar barrage that completely blanketed them. Soldiers in the caves above sprayed the scrambling Marines with automatic fire and lobbed grenades down on them, while artillery pieces, cunningly concealed on nearby high ground and impossible to spot, blasted the attackers. Weakened by excessive losses and unable even to hold the ground gained, the Marines evacuated the hillside and returned with their support unit, Company A, to the battalion lines, where Company B had remained poised all day.
On the same day, 3/7 assaulted over the ridges in the center. After a fast start, the progress, "for the rest of the day was slow and tedious and measured in yards."40 Since it was evident that the only real gains would be made over the level ground, the battalionsı zones were shifted, which narrowed 3/1ıs front and permitted this left flank unit to exploit the enemyıs weakness in the area without breaking contact. Before 3/1 was relieved two days later, it succeeded in pushing a tank-infantry patrol forward 1,000 yards to reach the village of Garekoru without encountering serious opposition.
The next day, 22 September, the 3d Battalion, 7th Marines, attacked across the left portion of the ridges over terrain that steadily grew more difficult. The dayıs gain was a mere 80 yards, for skillfully concealed Japanese machine guns pinned the lead units down time and time again. In the center of the ridges, the 2d Battalion, whose exhausted troops had been brought out of reserve, remained on the defensive and did not attempt any offensive action. On the right, however, the 1st Battalion spent most of the day making careful preparation to seize the Five Sisters.
At 1445, after Marine artillery blasted the enemy front with heavy concentrations, Company B of 1/7 moved out in attack, followed by Company A in close support. Riflemen and supporting tanks made their approach to the objective under a screen of smoke laid down by Marine mortars, while Weapons Company blazed away at Walt Ridge in an attempt to confuse the enemy as to the direction of the attack. For the first 250 yards, the riflemen received only sniper fire; then hidden machine guns on the nearby ridges opened up with a murderous stream of fire.
By this time, the foremost Marines had begun venturing into the mouth of a draw, soon to be known as "Death Valley." Its steep walls on both sides were dotted with mutually-supporting enemy gun emplacements and rifle pits. The accompanying Shermans were barred from entering, for the floor of the declivity proved to be mined, but they fired white phosphorus and high-explosive shells into the caves lining the canyonıs cliffs as the Marine riflemen pushed on. The Japanese gunners, however, with their clear fields of fire, exacted such a heavy toll that a platoon
from Company A was rushed up to bolster the depleted ranks of the assault unit.
The Marines did not venture much farther into the funnel-like canyon before running into a sheer cliff that barred the way. At this point, the lead riflemen were actually within 100 yards of Colonel Nakagawaıs CP and the last enemy stronghold to be reduced during the long campaign. Since the precipitous walls on all three sides made any infantry assault of the Japanese cave positions impossible, a withdrawal was ordered to prevent any additional losses from the deadly rain of fire that raked the Marines. The supporting company and its Shermans moved up under a cover of smoke to support the evacuation, and, by 1830, the entire force had withdrawn.
When darkness settled over the battlefield on 22 September, one phase of the Peleliu campaign had ended and another had begun. No longer would Marines, soon to be reinforced by Army troops from Angaur, suffer prohibitive casualties in fruitless frontal assaults on the ridges from the south. Instead, an end run around Colonel Nakagawaıs devilishly-designed last-ditch positions would be made up the western coast in search of a better attack route to the final pocket of Japanese resistance.
Although the campaign was to drag on for another two months of bitter fighting, the 1st Marine Division in a week of constant assault had seized the vital airfield, the commanding terrain behind it, and all of the island south of the Umurbrogols. Ample room for the proper deployment of both division and corps artillery had been gained, and all hindrances to unloading over the beaches had been removed, leaving only the weather as an unknown factor.
All of Peleliu containing strategic value had been captured by the Marines, but the cost had been high. Casualties totaled 3,946. These heavy losses eliminated one regiment as an effective assault unit and severely depleted the strength of the other two. The 1st Marines, for instance, suffered 56 percent casualties and, among the nine rifle platoons of its 1st Battalion, not one of the original platoon leaders, and only 74 of the riflemen, remained. As a sergeant remarked upon relief, "This ainıt a regiment. Weıre just survivors."41
Table of Contents ** Previous Chapter (III-3) * Next Chapter (III-5)
1. Unless otherwise noted, the material in this chapter is derived from: IIIAC Palaus Rpt; 1st MarDiv SAR; 1st MarDiv WarD, 15-23 Sep44; 1st MarDiv D-2 Jnl, 15-23Sep44; 1st MarDiv D-3 Periodic Rpt, 15-23Sep44; Peleliu Comment File; Japanese CenPac Ops; Smith, Narrative; Boyer, Armd Amphibian Bn; Hough, Assault On Peleliu; Morison, Leyte; Smith, Approach to the Philippines; Isely and Crowl, U.S. Marines and Amphibious War; McMillan, The Old Breed.
2. Additional sources consulted for this section are: 1st MarDiv POW Interrogation Rpts Peleliu, 16Sep-160ct44, hereafter 1st MarDiv POW Interrogation Rpts Peleliu; Richard, U.S. Naval Administration.
3. Tom Lea, Peleliu Landing (El Paso: Carl Hertzog, 1945), p. 22.
4. Worden ltr.
5. Preliminary Interrogation Rpt No. 1, dtd 16Sep44, G-2 See, 1st MarDiv, in 1st MarDiv POW Interrogation Rpts Peleliu.
6. Additional sources used for this section are: 7th Mar R-2 Jnl, 16-18 Sep44; 1/7 Bn 2-3 Jnls, 16-18Sep44; 1/4 HistRpt, 16-18 Sep44; 3/7 WarD, 16-18Sep44.
7. 3/7 WarD, 16Sep44. Colonel Hanneken received the following message at 1324: "3/7 out of water. Troops having dry heaves." 7th Mar R-2 Jnl, 16Sep44.
8. "During the night of D plus 1 many Japs were annihilated while attempting to cross from the southwestern promontory to the unnamed island during low tide. Mortar illuminating shells provided excellent observation of this movement by our troops and the Japs were easy targets for our machine gun and rifle fire." Gormley ltr I.
9. Additional sources used for this section are: 5th Mar OpRpt, 16-23Sep44; 1/5 B-3 Jnl, 16-23Sep44; 2/5 OpRpt, 16-23Sep44; 3/5 Rpt of Ops, 16-23Sep44; 5th War Dog Plat IIIAC, Peleliu OpRpt, 16Sep-18Oct44, dtd 17Nov44, hereafter 5th War Dog Plat Peleliu OpRpt; Boyd, 1/5 PalauOp.
10. Boyd, 1/3 PalauOp, p. 19.
11. Boyd, 1/5 PalauOp, p. 25.
12. Harris ltr.
13. Harris ltr.
14. Additional sources used for this section are: 1st Mar Hist; 1/1 UHist; 3/1 Rec of Events, 16-18 Sep44; 2/7 WarD, 15-18 Sep44; Capt George P. Hunt, "Point Secured," Marine Corps Gazette, v. 29, no. 1 (Jan45), pp. 39-42, hereafter Hunt, "Point Secured."
15. Hunt, "Point Secured," p. 42,
16. Japanese CenPacOps, p. 86.
17. 1st Mar Hist, pp. 11-12.
18. Japanese CenPacOps, p. 87.
19. Berger ltr.
20. Sources of medical data particularly consulted for this section include: IIIAC Palaus Rpt, Encl J, "Medical Report of Palaus Operation"; 1st MarDiv SAR, Phase II, Anx D, "Medical."
21. Col Harold O. Deakin ltr to CMC, dtd 10Mar50, in Peleliu Comment File. Negro Marines from the 16th Field Depot "were most proficient in this type of activity. All Unit Commanders praised their efficiency, zeal and cheerfulness in performing their duties." 1st MarDiv SAR, Phase II, Anx D, p. 3.
22. Robert Martin in Time, 160ct44, p. 38.
23. Col Richard P. Ross, Jr., memo to Maj Frank O. Hough, dtd 7Nov49, hereafter Ross memo.
24. Most heat prostration cases were usually treated at the medical aid stations close to the front, where no records were kept.
25. Ross memo. IIIAC Palaus Rpt, Encl J, "Medical Report of Palaus Operation," p. 5. One chaplain, however, clearly remembered "the havoc dysentery worked with the troops-almost equal to the heat and shells-and how everyone from the top down blamed it on the flies." LCdr Byron E. Allender ltr to CMC, dtd 8Feb50, in Peleliu Comment File.
27. Additional sources used for this section are: 5th Mar Sup-EvacRpt; Blackford, "Giants at Peleliu"; BuDocks, Building the Navy's Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps 1940-1946, 2 vols. (Washington: GPO, 1947), hereafter BuDocks, World War II Hist.
28. An additional source used for this section was 11th MarOpRpt.
29. 1st MarDiv SAR, Phase I, Anx L, pp. 4-5.
30. Worden ltr.
31. 1st MarDiv SAR, Phase II, Anx L, p. 6.
32. Stuart ltr.
33. 1stMarDiv SAR, Phase II, Anx J, p. 9,
35. 1st MarDiv SAR, Phase H, Anx 1, p. 3.
36. Additional sources used for this section are: 1st Mar Hist; 1/1 UHist; 8/1 Rec of Events, 19-23Sep44; 7th Mar R-2 Jnl, 19-22 Sep44; 1/7 HistRpt, 19-22Sep44; 2/7 WarD, 19-22Sep44; 3/7 WarD, 19-22 Sep44.
37. Russell Davis, Marine at War (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961), pp. 113, 114, used with permission.
38. 1st Mar Hist, p. 15.
39. Japanese CenPacOps, p. 88.
40. 3/7 WarD, 21Sep44.
41. George McMillan et al, Uncommon Valor: Marine Divisions in Action (Washington: Infantry Journal Press, 1946), p. 58.