Japanese air power in the Palaus had been very thoroughly knocked out long before the assault took place, and with the prompt capture of the main airfield at Peleliu whatever capacity the enemy might have had for sending in aerial replacements was effectively disposed of. Wreckage of 127 planes was found on Peleliu, most of it probably dating back to the powerful carrier strike of 30 March-1 April, when 168 Japanese planes were claimed destroyed either in the air or on the ground. Thereafter the task of keeping the secondary field on Babelthuap neutralized was a simple matter. Enemy air activity during the operation was confined to a few minor nuisance raids by individuals, believed to be float planes from Koror, which resulted in no reported casualties or damage.
U.S. air power proved effective in its basic mission of keeping the enemy neutralized. That it produced no more far-reaching results on the tactical level should be attributed to natural conditions rather than lack of skill or effort.
Air support prior to and for two weeks following the landing was furnished by the Navy: the carriers of Task Force 38 and Task Group 32.7 from D-minus 8 to D-minus 1; escort carriers of TG 32.7 augmented by units of TG's 38.4 and 38.2 from D-Day through D-plus 3; and by the escort carriers exclusively from that date until D-plus 13. Altogether more than 300 missions, planned and called, were flown during this period, dropping a total of 620 tons of bombs of all types, including Napalm.1
During the early phases of the assault, especially prior to setting up of artillery, air was used almost exclusively as a close support weapon. Here, where the terrain was more or less open and level, "In General, the regimental commanders expressed themselves as being well pleased with the air missions." There was much criticism, however, of the inefficiency of the strafing attacks owing to the pilots' practice of pulling out of their runs at an altitude of about 1,800 feet.2
Also notable at this time was the effect on the enemy of the ubiquitous aerial observers. So promptly were weapons positions spotted and brought under attack that the Japanese exposed themselves as little as possible, thereby reducing their volume of fire during a crucial stage of the operation.
Beginning with D-plus 2, however, the practice was to call close air missions only on targets denied the artillery, generally in defilade or on reverse slopes, and after D-plus 6, the Navy air arm was used almost
exclusively as a deep support weapon. It will be noted that by this time the fighting had progressed well into the ridges: jumbled, jungled terrain where spotting friendly front lines was next to impossible and where coaching fliers onto specific targets was exceedingly dangerous owing to the inaccuracy of the operational maps. Since the location and nature of the great majority of Japanese installations on the northwestern peninsula rendered them impervious to effective air attack, even had it been possible to pin-point them, the tactical value of aviation approached negligibility.
The 1st Division's own observation planes (VMO-3) began operating from the Peleliu airfield on D-plus 4 and continued skillful direction of artillery fire until the enemy-held pocket became so constricted as to bar massed fires as dangerous to friendly troops.3 Then, on 28 September Marine air units of MAG 11 based on the island assumed the support function, and the carriers were released for other missions. Striking changes in employment and methods became noticeable immediately.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of Marine aviation's participation in the Peleliu campaign was the opportunity afforded for perfecting the practice and techniques of that Corps specialty, close air support, which had been relegated to a secondary role owing to the protracted employment of the air arm in neutralization missions in the Solomons, Bismarcks and Marshalls.
The splendid close support which made the shore-to-shore assault on Ngesebus one of the most effective operations of its kind in the whole Pacific has been dealt with in passing. Dive bombing with pin-point precision, strafing at treetop level the pilots of VMF 114 so stunned the defenders that Japanese in well manned, well prepared beach installations were incapable of opposing the landing. Throughout all the subsequent fighting on Peleliu, the Marine fliers of all the squadrons continued to display great daring, ingenuity, professional skill and an eagerness to cooperate that raised the morale of the ground troops immeasurably:4 not only the Marines, who were happy to be working with their own people, but the 81st Division Wildcats as well, who seldom made an attack without called air preparation.
Yet it would be difficult to substantiate a report that all of this fine work, with the conspicuous exception of Ngesebus, had any important tactical effect on the outcome of the campaign or the duration of the fighting. It was through no fault of the fliers that the underground enemy were simply proof against any methods of air attack yet developed.
1. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, Annex L, 1.
2. Ibid, 4, 5.
3. 1st MarDiv SAR, II, 4.
4. MAG 11 Report on Palaus Operation.
Transcribed and formatted for HTML by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation