Few Americans today know of Peleliu, a speck of an island in the southwest Pacific.  A part of the Palau group of the Caroline Islands, Peleliu is only six miles long and two miles wide.  It lies 550 miles due east of the Philippines in splendid isolation.  Covered with dense green vegetation and surrounded by turquoise-blue water lapping against white sandy beaches, Peleliu appears to be a tropical paradise.

Of all the unnecessary U.S. operations of World War II, Peleliu was both the most unnecessary and the costliest.  During the summer of 1944 our high command decided that Gen. Douglas MacArthur would finally return to the Philippines with a landing on Leyte Island, scheduled for October.  To protect his flank it was thought that Peleliu, with a large Japanese airfield, must be secured.  Adm. William “Bull” Halsey argued in vain that the operation was unnecessary, that Peleliu should be leapfrogged.

The Marine in command of the operation, Maj. Gen. William Rupertus, estimated that it would require only two or three days to secure the island.  A 55-year-old career officer and veteran of the Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester campaigns, Rupertus understood the tenacity and fanaticism of the Japanese.  Neither Rupertus nor U.S. intelligence, though, knew the Japanese had turned Peleliu into one big pillbox.  In hundreds of underground caves and tunnels, some with steel doors, they had 14,000 crack troops and ammunition and materiel stockpiled.

For several days before the invasion, Navy ships shelled Peleliu.  Naval and Marine aviators dropped bombs on the island.  Much of the island’s vegetation was obliterated.  The Navy admiral in command, Jesse Oldendorf, announced that the Navy had “run out of targets.”  Piece of cake.  The Marines would walk ashore.

At 0830 on 15 September 1944, as Marines neared the beach, Japanese machine-gun, mortar, artillery, and small-arms fire suddenly roared from hundreds of concealed positions.  The noise was deafening.  Some landing craft exploded in balls of flame.  The smoke was so thick it was like a dense fog.  “It was the closest thing to Hell,” said a Navy coxswain, “I ever want to see.”  Some cursing, some praying, some silent, the Marines of the 1st, 5th, and 7th Regiments of the 1st Marine Division came stumbling ashore.

As difficult as the landing was, it was merely a warm-up to taking the island’s high ground, the Umurbrogol Mountains.  Aided by the rugged terrain, their careful preparation, and new tactics, the Japanese would inflict more than twice as many casualties on the Marines on Peleliu as they had on Tarawa.  Proportionally, Marine casualties on Peleliu equaled those suffered on Iwo Jima.  Iwo is well known.  Peleliu is all but unknown.

The 1st Marine Regiment, commanded by Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, already a legend in the Corps, suffered the brunt of the casualties.  The Regiment’s 1st Battalion had an astounding casualty rate of 71 percent; 2nd Battalion, 56 percent; 3rd Battalion, 55 percent.  How the regiment remained operational is inexplicable.  Instead of the two or three days of fighting that had been anticipated, the Marines fought for more than a month and suffered nearly 9,000 casualties.  Eight men received the Medal of Honor, most awarded posthumously.

Savage, small-unit actions occurred daily from one end of the island to the other—in the Five Sisters, at China Wall, in Death Valley, on Bloody Nose Ridge, along Wildcat Trail.  Russell Davis, a Marine rifleman with 2/1, described what it was like:

I picked up the rifle of a dead Marine and I went up the hill.  I remember no more than a few yards of scarred hillside, blasted white with shellfire and hot to touch.  I didn’t worry about death anymore.  I had resigned from the human race.  I only wanted to be as far forward as any man when my turn came.  My fingers were smashed and burned, but I felt no pain.  I crawled and scrambled forward and lay still, without any feeling toward any human thing.  In the next hole was a rifleman.  He peered at me through red and painful eyes.  Then we both looked away.  I didn’t care about him.  He didn’t care about me.  I thought he was a fool and he probably thought I was the same.  We had both resigned from the human club.  As a fighting outfit, the First Marine Regiment was finished.  We were no longer even human beings.  I fired at anything that moved in front of me.  Friends or foe.  I had no friends.  I just wanted to kill.


During late October the Marines, having annihilated all but a few holed-up Japanese, were relieved by soldiers of the 81st Infantry Division and taken by boats to Navy ships offshore.  As the Marines struggled up the cargo nets onto the decks of the ships, they were stunned to see Navy officers scrubbed, clean shaven, and starched.  One of the ship’s officers asked, “Got any souvenirs to trade?”  A Marine stood silent for a moment, then reached down and patted his own rear end.  “I brought my ass out of there, swabbie.  That’s my souvenir of Peleliu.”