Table of Distances from Peleliu
Seizure of the southern Palaus, with resultant neutralization of this entire island group, was the most important concrete achievement to stem from the elaborate strategic plan designated OPERATION STALEMATE (subsequently STALEMATE II--see Chapter II). The campaign resulting in this seizure was an exceedingly difficult and costly one. The late General Roy S. Geiger, whose judgment in such matters can hardly be described as unsophisticated, declared repeatedly that the battle for Peleliu was the toughest in the entire Pacific war, an estimate corroborated by at least one disinterested authority.1 Because benefits gained were not immediately perceptible, and because the operation itself was largely overshadowed in the public mind by events taking place elsewhere simultaneously or shortly following, there has been a widespread tendency to discount its importance, even to question the necessity for staging it at all.
In early 1944 the Palaus stood as one of the key strongholds in Japan's second line of defense: her first line, once New Guinea and the Marshalls had been eliminated and the central Carolines successfully by-passed; and the most powerful and most strategically placed stronghold remaining in that line following the fall of the Marianas. It lay squarely on the flank of any attack aproaching the Philippines from the southeast, only some 500 miles off Mindanao, and too distant from any U.S. bases, actual or potential, to make permanent neutralization by air or sea attack practicable.
Whether General Douglas MacArthur could have invaded the Philippines successfully with the Palaus still in Japanese control is a matter for speculation now. He did not think so at the time, and neither did Admiral Nimitz nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff.2 Whatever might have been, the Marines hit the Peleliu beaches on 15 September 1944, and history records that nine days after the assault phase was declared at an end, MacArthur invaded Leyte. For better or for worse, his flank had been secured, and with the action which followed the Pacific War entered a new and decisive phase.
Strategic Situation, 1944
The South Pacific Theater had been pinched out as an area of active operations
by early 1944, following the invasion of the northern Solomons and completion of air facilities which insured the neutralization of Rabaul. In the Central and Southwest Pacific Theaters the first tentative steps had been taken on the twin drives to the westward which were to end the war, but not on such a scale as to reveal their full significance. In other words, the handwriting was already on the wall, but the Japanese as yet had been unable to interpret it.
Both Central and Southwest Pacific were under direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The latter was an Allied theater in that its participants included Australian and Dutch3 in addition to the greatly predominant U.S. forces, under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Central Pacific was a U.S. joint theater, one component (together with the no longer active North and South Pacific) of the vast expanse designated Pacific Ocean Areas. Here Admiral Chester W. Nimitz commanded as CinCPac-CinCPOA.4
Thrown on the strategic defensive after Guadalcanal, Japan had reason to consider her strategic position excellent. The war was thousands of miles away from the homeland, and from her major conquests: the Philippines, Netherlands Indies, Malaya, Burma and Indo-China. Hopping from island to island following Guadalcanal, the Americans had required a year merely to secure the Solomons. MacArthur had slugged his way along the coast of northeastern New Guinea only as far as Finschhafen at the beginning of 1944. Her outermost line of defense had been barely dented at Tarawa, and even this loss could be viewed with complacency: if every fortified Japanese position in the Pacific had to be reduced at comparable cost, it was improbable that U.S. troops, the U.S. Treasury or the U.S. public could or would stand the strain.
Her disillusionment was abrupt and startling. The day after Christmas, 1943, MacArthur hurled the 1st Marine Division against the Japanese airfield and staging area at Cape Gloucester, western New Britain, thereby closing in on Rabaul from the south. With his flank thus secured, his forces seized the important Admiralty Islands and commenced a series of amphibious leapfrogging operations westward along the New Guinea coast, by-passing enemy strongpoints to isolate them or take them in flank or rear: Madang, Wewak, Hollandia, Aitape. In February Nimitz's forces struck in the heart of the Marshalls--Kwajalein and subsequently Eniwetok--by-passing the strongly fortified islands of Mille, Jaluit, Wotje, and Maloelap, thus gaining control of the entire group at a stroke. And the Imperial High Command awoke to the fact that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had no intention of fighting the war on Japan's terms. Supposedly powerful Truk, instead of being subjected to costly assault, had been successfully neutralized in a fraction of the time, and with an even smaller fraction of the effort, which had been required to neutralize Rabaul.
This situation had to be reassessed, and quickly. In something like a frenzy, the enemy high command began pouring weapons and fortification materials into the second line of defense and reinforcing the garrisons with veteran troops from the crack Kwantung Army. There was a limit to the time and means available, and the problem was not simplified by the unfortunate proclivity of U.S. submarines for torpedoing transports and supply ships. Thus, when the Marines struck the Marianas, beginning 15 June, they found the fortifications in an early stage of development and many of the new weapons not even mounted.
Saipan fell with a crash that carried the Tojo Cabinet down with it. Tinian and
Guam followed, and the Rota garrison and airfield were neutralized. And with B-29's operating from Marianas airfields, Tokyo itself began to come under long range air attack.
In the Southwest Pacific, MacArthur had continued to parallel the advance in the Central Theater, reaching Cape Sansapor, at the western end of New Guinea, on 31 July. By now his supply line had been stretched so far that logistics loomed as a major problem. So here he paused before mounting his assault on the Philippines until sufficient shipping should be available and Central Pacific forces could secure his right flank.
The turn of the western Carolines had come.
Concept at Top Level
As viewed in relation to the strategic concept of the Pacific offensive as a whole, the seizure of the western Carolines constituted a more or less routine step in gaining control of the approaches to Japan proper: bases from which further attacks, ever closer in, could be mounted.
The direction of advance in the Pacific had been discussed on the highest strategic level as early as the Casablanca conferences in January 1943. The two-pronged drive through the Central and Southwestern Pacific Theaters previously described began to assume definite form in the planners' minds in November-December of that year.5 This occurred during a series of meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff,6 in connection with the SEXTANT conference, held in Cairo, Egypt, and attended by President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, together with their principal advisors. These consultations, of course, were concerned with matters on a global scale, many of which have no pertinence to this narrative. So far as the offensive westward across the Pacific was concerned, the planners not only defined the strategic concept, but set up a tentative time schedule for its execution.
That time schedule, contained in a report entitled "Specific Operations for the Defeat of Japan,"7 makes odd reading today. It must be remembered that in late 1943 progress of the war in the Pacific had not been such as to give any very clear indication of developments to come. Hence, the schedule included a number of operations which were never executed, for a variety of excellent reasons, and omitted some which were executed, including the western Carolines. That no one was inclined to over-optimism is indicated by the fact that the original date set for attacking the Marianas was 1 October 1944.8
But there was no intention of laying down anything resembling a hard and fast schedule. Rather, it was wished to set up a mark to shoot at: a tentative program for planning purposes which would be kept flexible for swift adaptation to drastic short cuts should unforeseeable developments permit. As envisioned at the time, the most important of these might be:
- Early defeat of the Japanese Fleet.
- Sudden withdrawal of Japanese forces from occupied areas.
- Increase in our means such as by acceleration of the assault ship building program and by an earlier defeat of Germany than by 1 October 1944.
- The early collaboration of the U.S.S.R. in the war against Japan.9
As has been seen, it was none of these factors that provided the first swift acceleration
of the Pacific offensive,10 but the surprising ease with which it proved practicable to by-pass enemy strongholds both in the Marshalls and along the coast of New Guinea. Perhaps even more astonishing was the revealed vulnerability of fabulous Truk, which rumor and legend, and no doubt self-delusion which the Japanese did nothing to discourage, had built up in American minds to something resembling a Pacific Gibraltar. There could be no more striking testimony to the flexibility of that tentative schedule than the promptness with which it was adapted in the light of these factors to put U.S. troops in the Marianas three and one-half months sooner than had been contemplated originally.
The first major revision designed to step up the speed and scope of the Pacific offensive was issued on 12 March, largely as a result of the swift success of operations in the Marshalls. This document also contained the first mention of the western Carolines as a specific target with a directive to Admiral Nimitz to: "Occupy the Marianas-Palaus line."11 The target date for the Palaus phase of this mission was subsequently set for 8 September 1944.12
It was designated OPERATION STALEMATE.
Some Geography and History
The Carolines comprise the most extensive island chain in the world, spanning 33 degrees of longitude just north of the Equator westward from the Gilberts and Marshalls to within 500 miles of the southern Philippines. An idea of the smallness of the individual islands (mostly coral atolls) is conveyed by comparative statistics:13 although eight times more numerous than the Marianas, the Carolines contain only slightly more than two-thirds the land area of that neighboring group, members of which, in turn, are unimpressive as compared to islands in Melanesia and Polynesia.
American strategic thinking in late 1943-early 1944 divided the Carolines roughly into three groups. Truk itself lay in the central group. Serving as outlying defenses for that major base were three islands in the eastern group, believed strongly held: Kusaie, Ponape, and Pingelap.
Each of these had been designated a target for U.S. attack during one phase or another of the early planning, to be abandoned as such with the neutralization of Truk itself.
The western Carolines contained three targets considered potentially profitable, their geographical positions forming a rough arc in southwesterly projection of the line achieved with the securing of the Marianas. From northeast to southwest these were Ulithi, a large atoll whose unusually deep and extensive lagoon provided a fine fleet anchorage; Yap, an air base made up of a compact group of four small islands which had long enjoyed some international importance as a center of the Pacific cable network; and the much larger group known as the Palaus. Since the spotlight of immediate history was to focus almost exclusively upon the latter, they will be dealt with in greater detail.
The Palaus (or Pelews) are the westernmost of the Caroline Islands, so far removed from the main body of that chain that, until the Japanese assumed jurisdiction, most geographers regarded them as a separate formation. The group includes 100 to 200 separate islands (depending on the definition of what constitutes an "island"), lying on a generally northeast-southwest axis, neatly bisected by the meridian 134° 30' East
PHOSPHATE LOADING PIER ON ANGAUR. This pre-war photograph, collected by ONI, was typical of meager U.S. intelligence of the Palaus prior to carrier strike in late March 1944.
Longitude. Latitude 7° North lies almost midway across Peleliu, next to the most southerly of the chain.
The nature of the islands varies from typical flat coral atolls in the north to the higher, more rugged results of submarine volcanic action in the central and southern Palaus.14 The formation of the group as a whole is unusual in that all the members, with the exception of Angaur, the southernmost, are included within a complex of fringing and barrier reefs to comprise, by a certain stretching of that term, a single enormous atoll.
The natives of these islands are more or less typical Micronesians, or "Kanakas," as they were called by the Japanese and others before them to distinguish them from the Chamorros of the Marianas: a blend of Polynesian and Melanesian stock, with an increasing infiltration of Malay blood to the westward. This latter influence, stemming from the comparative proximity of the Netherlands Indies, was apparent also in the speech of the Palau Islanders, a dialect outlandish even to other Micronesians, with the frequent occurrence of the characteristically Malay digraph "ng" at the beginning of many place names (Ngesebus, Ngarmoked, etc.) which baffled forthright Americans from places with such honest U.S. names as Nacogdoches, Texas and Pottawatomie, Kansas.15
Their remoteness from the rest of Micronesia had a direct bearing on the history and
development of the Palaus. They were among the last of the islands to be discovered by white men. Although some authorities credit their discovery to the Spanish explorer Villalobos in 1543, the first authenticated visit occurred in 1712: by Spanish missionaries who had long been established in the Marianas. And history contains no further reference to them until 1783.
Spain professed shadowy claims to possession of the Palaus, along with all the Carolines and Marianas, but showed little interest in their development for more than a century. By 1885 her jurisdiction had become so tenuous that colony-hungry Germans had no hesitation in hoisting their flag on Yap and laying claim to the entire area in the name of the new German Empire. Their claim was disallowed at that time. However, in 1899, following disasters suffered in the Spanish-American War, Spain determined to withdraw from the Pacific altogether and found in Germany a ready cash customer16 for all her remaining possessions (Guam and the Philippines had been seized by and ceded to the United States in 1898).
Vigorous German exploitation had made substantial progress in developing the economic possibilities of the islands prior to 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, however, Japan, ever the opportunist, grasped the chance to join the nations allied against the Central European powers and set about seizing everything within reach. That nation's title to all former German Pacific colonies north of the Equator was legitimized, more or less, by League of Nations Mandate in 1920. So far as the Palaus were concerned, this title remained undisputed, even after Japan withdrew from the League in 1935, until a certain morning in September 1944.
Japanese economic development followed in general the lines begun by the Germans. In the Palaus, where physical conditions prohibited agricultural development on any large scale,17 this took the form of exploitation of mineral resources. The Germans had discovered rich phosphate deposits on Angaur and had already placed that industry on a profitable basis prior to their ousting. Their successors not only expanded operations there, but discovered additional deposits on neighboring Peleliu and built a refinery on that island to exploit them. This attempt was less successful, however, and both mining and refining had been abandoned some time prior to the U.S. invasion.18
But it was governmental rather than commercial activity that gave the Palaus their greatest importance, especially in American eyes.
Under the Japanese, administrative headquarters for all of the mandated territory, including the Carolines, Marianas and Marshalls, was set up at Koror, a pleasant little town situated on a small island of that name in the central Palaus. This was, of course, strictly a civilian agency, but with the Japanese it was difficult to tell where civilian functions left off and the military began--if, indeed, there were any clear-cut line of demarkation. Under the terms of the Mandate, they were specifically prohibited from fortifying any of the territory entrusted to them, but the extreme secrecy with which the Japanese imediately cloaked all their activities and the pointedness with which they attempted to exclude all foreigners soon gave rise to lively suspicions that they were doing so, regardless. It was in an ambitious one-man effort to penetrate this precursor of the Iron Curtain that the Marine Corps' somewhat fabulous Lieutenant Colonel Earl H. Ellis lost his life in 1923.
KOROR WAS A PLEASANT LITTLE TOWN before the war. Another early ONI photograph, undated.
Ellis died at Koror under circumstances which are still shrouded in mystery. His is an unusual and dramatic story,19 but it is pertinent to this narrative only in that he did not return alive to report what he may have discovered. No one else attempted the mission during the duration of the Mandate, and with Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations, in 1935, even theoretical higher control ceased to exist over the territory she refused to relinquish. Thus, when they first began to figure in U.S. strategic deliberations, the Palaus, which had never previously been considered of much importance to anybody, came very close to being a complete enigma.
The only existing sources from which information could be derived were scattered and fragmentary: old navigational charts, a few reports made during the German occupation (all dating prior to 1914), and a little very incomprehensive material which had leaked out of Japan, supplemented by some more or less random aerial observations made earlier in the war.20 What these disclosed can be summarized briefly.
The principal island extends northward from approximately the center of the group. Babelthuap (sometimes called Palau Island) a "limited land mass" in the military sense, larger (roughly 20 miles by five miles) than
either Saipan or Tinian and second in size only to Guam in all Micronesia. Surrounded by wide fringing reef, its terrain rugged and jungled, Babelthuap was an ideal base for ground troops in large numbers and formidable defenses, but boasted only a single, not very prepossessing air strip still under construction.
Immediately to the south lay a complex of small islands, including Koror, where there were some sea plane facilities and AA defenses. A deep-water lagoon provided limited anchorage facilities, but the approaches were tortuous through a maze of reef channels. A larger and more useful anchorage, Kossol Passage,21 sheltered from the sea by islands to the north of Babelthuap, constituted the most important tactical feature from a naval point of view.
The principal air installations were situated on Peleliu (described in detail subsequently), the southern-most island within the reef system: a two-strip, hard-surfaced bomber-fighter field with complete servicing facilities, on Peleliu proper, and an auxiliary fighter strip building on the smaller island of Ngesebus, off-lying to the north. And seven miles still farther south lay Angaur, center of the phosphate industry, a comparatively level island except for its northwest quarter suitable for the development of additional air installations.
Earliest wartime intelligence indicated that the Palaus were being used mainly as a staging area and replacement center for troops, aircraft and naval units destined for the Netherlands Indies and New Guinea, much in the capacity that Saipan served Truk, Rabaul and their dependencies. And as was subsequently proved, the Palaus garrison, prior to the frantic Japanese reinforcing activities which followed the fall of the Marshalls, consisted mainly of the rear echelons of units engaged in those areas.
These things, and not much more, were known to U.S. strategists on the highest level at the time the Western Carolines operation was determined upon and the responsibility for formulating definite plans was passed along by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the top echelon in the Central Pacific.
1. Fletcher Pratt, The Marines' War (Sloane Associates, 1948), Chap. 20; "Peleliu: The Hardest Battle."
2. It is scarcely conceivable that the operation would have been planned and carried through had it been otherwise. The only high officer to go on record against it in advance was Admiral W. F. Halsey. See Appendix B.
3. As did Seventh Fleet, attached to this area command. Occasionally British naval units also operated here as well.
4. Commander-in-Chief Pacific Fleet, and Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Areas. The former title represented Nimitz's naval command, the latter his over-all command under the Joint Chiefs of Staff. As his opposite number, MacArthur held the title of CinCSoWesPac: Commander-in-Chief Southwest Pacific Area, later shortened to CinCSWPA. His official JCS title was actually Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, but this never was used in this area.
5. "Over-all Plan for the defeat of Japan," CCS 417 and 417/1.
6. CCS comprised the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and British Combined Chiefs of Staff (or their representatives) meeting together. American representatives at this meeting were Admirals King and Leahy, and Generals Marshall and Arnold. British: General Brooke, Air Chief Marshall Portal, and Admiral Cunningham.
7. Report to the President and Prime Minister, CCS 426/1.
8. Admiral Nimitz's Campaign Plan GRANITE based on the foregoing concept, set 15 November as date securing the Marianas should be completed.
9. Enclosure to CCS 397 (revised).
10. Japanese forces withdrew only in the strategically unimportant Aleutians, Germany did not surrender during this interval, and U.S.S.R. very definitely failed to "collaborate." However, acceleration of the ship building program and subsequent defeat of the Japanese Fleet in the Philippines Sea (19 June) had important effects in the speeding up of later operations.
11. JCS 713/4, 12 March 1944.
12. Campaign Plan GRANITE II, 3 June 1944. Issuance of this document followed preliminary planning steps by Admiral Nimitz which had already set this tentative target date. See Chapter II.
13. Pacific Islands Handbook, 1944.
14. The terrain of the southern Palaus is described in detail as it affected operations there. As the northern islands never entered strategic or tactical consideration, they are omitted from this discussion.
15. Most Americans came to pronounce the digraph as though it were a syllable: "neg" ("Negesebus"). A closer, but not too close, approximation would be "n'y": "N'yesebus," much in the manner of that non-Malay city on Manhattan Island, known to its natives as "N'York."
16. The price was $4,000,000. Pacific Islands Handbook, 1944.
17. Much of the surface of the larger islands is rough and broken, the soil shallow and not very fertile above coral limestone bedrock pushed up from the floor of the ocean by the volcanic action which had brought the islands themselves into being. In many places even the jungle failed to attain any great luxuriance.
18. Deposits of low-grade bauxite ore had recently been discovered on Babelthuap, but no attempt to exploit this had been started.
19. The most complete extant account of Ellis' adventure, compiled entirely from official sources, appears in Saturday Evening Post, 23Nov46: "The Marines' First Spy", by Major John L. Zimmerman, USMCR, formerly a member of Historical Division, U.S. Marine Corps. This has been substantiated and somewhat supplemented by new material now in possession of Marine Corps Historical Division.
20. Compiled in Joint Army-Navy Intelligence Study (JANIS) #103.
21. Described as a "reef-and-land-protected anchorage of considerable size." Third Fleet Action Report Palaus, Ulithi, Morotai, 5, hereinafter cited as 3d Flt AR. Kossol Passage proved to be swept by a heavy swell during foul weather, which limited its over-all value, though it was useful in many ways during the immediate operation. Commander Amphibious Group Five (CTF 32) Report of Amphibious Operation to Capture Peleliu and Angaur, hereinafter cited as CTF 32 OpnRpt.
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