Battle of Peleliu

Battle of Peleliu
Battle of Peleliu
Part of World War II, Pacific War
First wave of LVTs moves toward the invasion beaches - Peleliu.jpg
15 September 1944: The first wave of LVTs approach the beaches during the American assault on Peleliu.
Date 15 September – 27 November 1944
Location Peleliu, Palau Islands
Result American victory
 United States  Empire of Japan
Commanders and leaders
United States William H. Rupertus Japan Kunio Nakagawa 
1st Marine Division: 17,490
81st Infantry Division: 10,994
14th Infantry Division: Approximately 11,000 men
Casualties and losses
1st Marine Division:
1,252 killed, 5,274 wounded or missing
81st Infantry Division:
542 killed, 2,736 wounded
Total: 1,794 killed, 8,010 wounded or missing
10,695 killed,
202 captured

The Battle of Peleliu, codenamed Operation Stalemate II, was fought between the United States and the Empire of Japan in the Pacific Theater of World War II, from September–November 1944 on the island of Peleliu, present-day Palau. U.S. forces (originally consisting of only the 1st Marine Division, but later relieved by the Army's 81st Infantry Division), fought to capture an airstrip on the small coral island.

Major General William Rupertus—commander of 1st Marine Division—predicted the island would be secured within four days. However, due to Japan's well-crafted fortifications and stiff resistance, the battle lasted over two months. In the United States, it was a controversial command decision because of the island's questionable strategic value and the high casualty rate, which was the highest for U.S. soldiers of any battle in the Pacific War.[1] The National Museum of the Marine Corps called it "the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines".[2]



By the summer of 1944, victories in the Southwest and Central Pacific had brought the war closer to Japan, with American bombers able to strike at the Japanese main islands from air bases secured during the Mariana Islands campaign (June—August, 1944). There was disagreement among the U.S. Joint Chiefs over two proposed strategies to defeat the Japanese Empire. The strategy proposed by General Douglas MacArthur called for the recapture of the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa, then an attack on the Japanese mainland. Admiral Chester Nimitz favored a more direct strategy of bypassing the Philippines, but seizing Okinawa and Formosa as staging areas to an attack on the Chinese mainland, followed by the future invasion of Japan's southernmost islands.

Both commanders' strategies included the invasion of Peleliu, but for different reasons. The 1st Marine Division had already been chosen to make the assault. President Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Pearl Harbor to personally meet both commanders and hear their arguments. MacArthur's strategy was chosen. However, before MacArthur could retake the Philippines, the Palau Islands, specifically Peleliu and Angaur, were to be neutralized and an airfield built to protect MacArthur's right flank.



By the summer of 1944, the Palau Islands were occupied by approximately 30,000 Japanese troops, with about 11,000 men on Peleliu, made up of the 14th Infantry Division, and Korean and Okinawan laborers. Colonel Kunio Nakagawa—commander of the Division's 2nd Regiment—led the preparations for the island's defense.

After their losses in the Solomons, Gilberts, Marshalls and Marianas, the Imperial Army assembled a research team to develop a new island defense strategy. The team chose to abandon the early beach-based perimeter defense tactics and reckless Banzai attacks. The new strategy was only to disrupt the landings, to form a "honeycomb" system of fortified positions inland, replace the fruitless banzai attacks with coordinated counterattacks, and draw the Americans into a bloody war of attrition to wear them down and force them to commit ever more resources to the attack. Colonel Nakagawa concentrated his defenses inland. Using the rough terrain to his advantage, he constructed a system of heavily fortified bunkers, caves, and underground positions.

Japanese fortifications.

The majority of Nakagawa's defenses were based at Peleliu's highest point, Umurbrogol mountain, a collection of hills and steep ridges. Located at the center of Peleliu, Umurbrogol overlooked a large portion of the island, including the crucial airfield. The Umurbrogol contained some 500 limestone caves, connected by tunnels. Many of these were former mine shafts that were turned into defense positions. Engineers added sliding steel armor doors with multiple openings to serve both artillery and machine guns.

The Japanese army dug and blasted other positions throughout Umurbrogol, armed with 81 mm (3.19 in) and 150 mm (5.9 in) mortars, and 20 mm (0.79 in) cannons, and backed by a light tank unit and an anti-aircraft detachment. The cave entrances were built slanted as a defense against grenade and flamethrower attacks. The caves and bunkers were connected to a vast system throughout central Peleliu, which allowed the Japanese to evacuate or reoccupy positions as needed, and to take advantage of shrinking interior lines.

The Japanese also used the beach terrain to their advantage. The northern end of the landing beaches faced a 30 ft (9.1 m) coral promontory which overlooked the beaches from a small peninsula, a spot later known to the Americans simply as "The Point". Holes were blasted into the ridge to accommodate a 47 mm (1.85 in) gun, and six 20 mm cannons. The positions were then sealed shut, leaving just a small firing slit to assault the beaches. Similar positions were crafted along the 2 mi (3.2 km) stretch of landing beaches.

The Japanese covered the beaches with thousands of obstacles for the landing craft, principally mines and a large number of heavy artillery shells, buried with the fuses exposed to explode on being run over. A battalion was placed along the beach to defend against the landing, but the defenses were meant simply to delay the American advance. The invaders eventually would be led inland to be mauled along the fortified ridges and hills.


U.S. Marines in combat.

Unlike the Japanese, who drastically altered their tactics for the upcoming battle, the American invasion plan was unchanged from previous amphibious landings, even after suffering 3,000 casualties and two months of delaying tactics against the entrenched Japanese defenders at the Battle of Biak.[3] On Peleliu, American planners chose to land on the southwest beaches, due to their proximity to the airfield on South Peleliu. The 1st Marine Regiment—commanded by Col. Lewis B. Puller—was to land on the northern end of the beaches. The 5th Marine Regiment—under Col. Harold D. Harris—would land in the center, and the 7th Marine Regiment—under Col. Herman H. Hanneken—would land at the southern end.

The division's artillery regiment—the 11th Marines—would land after the infantry regiments. The plan was for the 1st and 7th Regiments to push in land, guarding the 5th Regiment's left and right flank, and allowing them to capture the airfield located directly to the center of the landing beaches. The 5th Marines were to push to the eastern shore, cutting the island in half. The 1st Marines would push north into the Umurbrogol, while the 7th Marines would clear the southern end of the island. Only one battalion was left behind in reserve, with the Army's 81st Infantry Division available for support from Angaur, just south of Peleliu.

On 4 September, the Marines shipped off from their station on Pavuvu, just north of Guadalcanal, a 2,100 mi (3,400 km) trip across the Pacific to Peleliu. The Navy's Underwater Demolition Team went in first to clear the beaches of obstacles, while U.S. Navy warships began their pre-invasion bombardment of Peleliu on 12 September.

The battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Idaho, heavy cruisers Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis and Portland, light cruisers Columbia, Cleveland, Denver and Honolulu, and three fleet and five light aircraft carriers dropped 519 rounds of 16 in (410 mm) shells, 1,845 rounds of 14 in (360 mm) shells, 1,793 500 lb (230 kg) bombs, and 73,412 .50 in (12.7 mm) machine gun rounds onto the tiny island, only 6 sq mi (16 km2) in size.

The Americans believed the bombardment to be successful, as Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf claimed that the Navy had run out of targets. In reality, the majority of the Japanese positions were completely unharmed. Even the battalion left to defend the beaches was virtually unscathed. During the assault, the island's defenders used unusual firing discipline to avoid giving away their positions. The bombardment managed only to destroy Japan's aircraft on the island, as well as the buildings surrounding the airfield. The Japanese remained in their fortified positions, ready to attack the troops soon to be landing.



Routes of Allied landings on Peleliu, 15 September 1944.

The Marines landed at 08:32 on 15 September; the 1st Marines to the north on "White Beach", and the 5th and 7th Marines to the center and south on "Orange Beach". As the other landing craft approached the beaches, they were caught in a crossfire when the Japanese opened the steel doors guarding their positions and fired artillery. The positions on the coral promontories guarding each flank attacked the Marines with 47 mm guns and 20 mm autocannon. By 09:30, the Japanese destroyed 60 LVTs and DUKWs.

5th Marines on Orange Beach

The 1st Marines were quickly bogged down by heavy fire from "The Point". Colonel Puller narrowly escaped death when a dud high velocity artillery round struck his LVT. His communications section was destroyed on its way to the beach by a hit from a 47 mm round. The 7th Marines to the south faced similar problems with gun emplacements on their flank. Many of their LVT's were knocked out in their approach, leaving their occupants to wade ashore through the coral reef in chest-high or deeper water while being raked by Japanese machine guns; casualties were severe and many who reached the beach alive had lost their rifles and other gear.

The 5th Marines made the most progress on the first day, due to their distance from the heavy gun emplacements guarding the left and right flanks. They pushed toward the airfield, but were met with Nakagawa's first counterattack. His armored tank company raced across the airfield to push the Marines back, but was soon engaged by tanks, howitzers, naval guns and dive bombers. Nakagawa's tanks and escorting infantrymen were quickly destroyed.

At the end of the first day, the Americans held their 2 mi (3.2 km) stretch of landing beaches, but little else. Their biggest push in the south moved 1 mi (1.6 km) inland, but the 1st Marines to the north made very little progress because of the relentless attacks from The Point. The Marines had suffered 200 dead and 900 wounded. Rupertus believed the Japanese would quickly crumble since their perimeter had been broken, still unaware of his enemy's change of tactics.

The airfield/South Peleliu

A wounded Marine receives a drink

On the second day, the 5th Marines moved to capture the airfield and push toward the eastern shore. They ran across the airfield under heavy artillery fire from the highlands to the north, suffering heavy casualties in the process. After capturing the airfield, they rapidly advanced to the eastern end of Peleliu, leaving the island's southern defenders to be destroyed by the 7th Marines.

This area was hotly contested by the Japanese, who still occupied numerous pillboxes. Temperatures were around 115 °F (46 °C), and the Marines soon suffered high casualties from heat exhaustion. Further complicating the situation, the Marines' only available water supply was contaminated with oil. Still, by the eighth day the 5th and 7th Marines had accomplished their objectives, holding the airfield and the southern portion of the island.

American forces put the airfield to use on the third day. L-2 Grasshoppers from VMO-1 began aerial spotting missions for Marine and naval artillery. On 26 September (D+11), Marine F4U Corsairs from VMF-114 landed on the airstrip. The Corsairs began dive-bombing missions across Peleliu, firing rockets to open cave entrances for the infantrymen, and dropping napalm; it was only the second time the latter weapon had been used in the Pacific. Napalm proved useful, burning away the vegetation hiding spider holes and usually killing their occupants.

The Point

Front line warning sign on Peleliu October 1944

The fortress atop The Point continued to cause heavy casualties across the landing beaches. Puller ordered Captain George Hunt, commander of K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines, to capture the position. He approached The Point short on supplies, having lost most of his machine guns while approaching the beaches. One of Hunt's platoons was pinned down for nearly a day in a vulnerable position between fortifications. The rest of his company was endangered when the Japanese cut a hole in their line, leaving his right flank cut off.

However, a rifle platoon began knocking out the Japanese gun positions, one by one. Using smoke grenades for cover, they swept through each hole, destroying the positions with rifle grenades. After knocking out the six machine gun positions, the Marines faced the 47 mm gun cave. A lieutenant blinded the 47 mm gunner with a smoke grenade, allowing Corporal Henry W. Hahn to throw a grenade through the cave's aperture. The grenade detonated the 47 mm's shells, forcing the cave's occupants out, where they were shot.

K Company had captured The Point, but Nakagawa counterattacked. The next 30 hours saw four major counterattacks against a sole company, critically low on supplies and out of water. The Marines soon had to resort to hand-to-hand combat to fend off the Japanese attackers. By the time reinforcements arrived, the company had been reduced to 18 men, suffering 157 casualties during the battle for The Point.

Ngesebus Island

The 5th Marines—after having secured the airfield—were sent to capture Ngesebus Island (present day Ngedbus), just north of Peleliu. Ngesebus was occupied by many Japanese artillery positions, and was the site of an airfield still under construction. The tiny island was connected to Peleliu by a small causeway, but 5th Marines commander Harris opted instead to make a shore-to-shore amphibious landing, predicting the causeway to be an obvious target for the island's defenders.

Harris coordinated a pre-landing bombardment of the island on September 28, carried out by Army 155 mm (6.1 in) guns, naval guns, howitzers from the 11th Marines, strafing runs from VMF-114's Corsairs, and 75 mm (2.95 in) fire from the approaching LVTs. Unlike the Navy's bombardment of Peleliu, Harris' assault on Ngesebus successfully killed most of the Japanese defenders. The Marines still faced opposition in the ridges and caves, but the island fell quickly, with relatively light casualties for the 5th Marines. They had suffered 15 killed and 33 wounded, and inflicted 470 casualties on the Japanese.

Bloody Nose Ridge

A Corsair drops napalm on Japanese positions atop Umurbrogol
Marines waiting in their foxholes.

After capturing The Point, the 1st Marines moved north into the Umurbrogol pocket, named "Bloody Nose Ridge" by the Marines. Puller led his men in numerous assaults, but every attack was quickly neutralized by the Japanese. The 1st Marines were trapped within the narrow paths between the ridges, with each ridge fortification supporting the other with deadly crossfire.

The Marines took increasingly high casualties as they slowly advanced through the ridges. The Japanese again showed unusual fire discipline, striking only when they could inflict maximum casualties. As casualties mounted, Japanese snipers began to take aim at stretcher bearers, knowing that if two stretcher bearers were injured or killed, more would have to return to replace them, and the snipers could steadily pick off more and more Marines. In place of their banzai attacks, the Japanese infiltrated the American lines at night to attack the Marines in their foxholes. The Marines built two-man foxholes, so one could sleep while the other kept watch for infiltrators.

One particularly bloody battle on Bloody Nose came when the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines—under the command of Major Raymond Davis—attacked Hill 100. Over six days of fighting, the battalion suffered 71% casualties. Captain Everett Pope and his company penetrated deep into the ridges, leading his remaining 90 men to seize what he thought was Hill 100. It took a day fighting to reach what he thought was the crest of the hill, which was in fact another ridge, occupied by more Japanese defenders.

Trapped at the base of the ridge, Pope set up a small defense perimeter, which was attacked relentlessly by the Japanese throughout the night. The Marines soon ran out of ammunition, and had to fight the attackers with knives and fists, even resorting to throwing coral rock and empty ammunition boxes at the Japanese. Pope and his men managed to hold out until dawn. When they evacuated the position, only nine men remained. Pope later received the Medal of Honor for the action.

Two marines {Marine Pfc. Douglas Lightheart (right) cradles his .30 in (7.62 mm) machine gun in his lap, while he and Pfc. Gerald Thursby Sr. take a cigarette break}, during mopping up operations on Peleliu on 14 September 1944.

The Japanese eventually inflicted 60% casualties on Puller's 1st Marines, who lost 1,749 out of approximately 3,000 men. After six days of fighting in the ridges of Umurbrogol, General Roy Geiger, commander of the III Amphibious Corps, sent elements of 81st Infantry Division to Peleliu to relieve the regiment. The 321st Regiment Combat Team landed on the western beaches of Peleliu—at the northern end of Umurbrogol mountain—on 23 September. The 321st Regiment, and the 5th and 7th Marines took turns attacking the Umurbrogol, and all suffered similar casualties.

By mid-October, the 5th and 7th Marines both lost around half their men while clawing their way through the ridges. Geiger then decided to evacuate the entire 1st Marine Division, to be replaced by more 81st troops. The 323rd Regimental Combat Team landed on 15 October, and by the third week of October, almost all of the Marines had been evacuated back to Pavuvu.

The Army troops battled the remaining Japanese on Bloody Nose Ridge for another month before securing the island. On 24 November, Nakagawa proclaimed "Our sword is broken and we have run out of spears". He then burnt his regimental colors and performed ritual suicide. He was posthumously promoted to Lieutenant General for his valor displayed on Peleliu. On 27 November, the island was declared secure, ending the 73-day long battle.

A Japanese lieutenant with his 26 2nd Infantry soldiers and eight 45th Guard Force sailors held out in the caves in Peleliu until April 22, 1947 and surrendered after a Japanese Admiral convinced them the war was over.


Marines in a hospital on Guadalcanal after being wounded in the Battle of Peleliu

The reduction of the Japanese pocket around Umurbrogol mountain is considered[4] to be the most difficult fight that the U.S. military encountered in the entire Second World War. The 1st Marine Division was severely mauled and it remained out of action until the invasion of Okinawa on 1 April 1945. In total, the 1st Division suffered over 6,500 casualties during their month on Peleliu, over ⅓ of their entire division. The 81st Infantry Division suffered nearly 3,300 casualties during their tenure on the island.

The battle was controversial due to the island's lack of strategic value. The airfield captured on Peleliu was of little use for the attack on the Philippines. The island was never used for a staging operation in subsequent invasions; the Ulithi Atoll, in the Caroline Islands north of the Palaus, was used as a staging base for the invasion of Okinawa. In addition, few news reports were made on the battle. Due to Rupertus' "3 days" prediction, only six reporters bothered coming ashore. The battle was overshadowed by MacArthur's return to the Philippines and the Allies' push towards Germany in Europe.

The battles for Angaur and Peleliu showed Americans the pattern of future Japanese island defense which would be seen again at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.[5] Naval bombardment prior to amphibious assault at Iwo Jima was only slightly more effective than at Peleliu, but at Okinawa the preliminary shelling was superb.[6] Frogmen performing underwater demolition at Iwo Jima confused the enemy by sweeping both coasts, but later alerted Japanese defenders to the exact assault beaches at Okinawa.[6] American ground forces at Peleliu gained experience in assaulting heavily fortified positions such as they would find again at Okinawa.[7]

On the recommendation of Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., the planned occupation of Yap Island in the Caroline islands was canceled. Halsey actually recommended that the landings on Peleliu and Angaur be canceled, too, and their Marines and soldiers be thrown into Leyte Island instead, but was overruled by Nimitz.[8]

Honors and recognitions

The nation's highest award: The Medal of Honor was presented to eight Marines in the fight for Peleliu, five of whom were decorated posthumously (indicated by *):

The Peleliu Battlefield was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1985.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Military History Online – Bloody Peleliu: Unavoidable Yet Unnecessary
  2. ^ World War II: Central Pacific Campaigns: Peleliu
  3. ^ Alexander, Storm Landings, p. 110.
  4. ^ "USMC Historical Monograph – The Seizure of Peleliu, by Major Frank O. Hough, USMC, Chapter V: A Horrible Place". Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  5. ^ Morison, 1958, p. 46.
  6. ^ a b Alexander,Storm Landings, p. 95.
  7. ^ Morison, 1958, p. 47.
  8. ^ "The Seizure of Peleliu, Appendix B – STALEMATE II and the Philippines Campaign". Historical Branch, G-3 Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  9. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2009-03-13. 
  10. ^ "Australia's War 1939–1945: Parer's Last Reel". Australian Government Department of Veterans' Affairs. Retrieved 2010-04-11. 


  • Alexander, Joseph H. (1997). Storm Landings: Epic Amphibious Battles in the Central Pacific. ISBN 1557500320. 
  • Alexander, Joseph H. (1997). "Heading for the Philippines". The Battle History of the U.S. Marines: A Fellowship of Valor. Harper Perennial. ISBN 0060931094. 
  • Blair, Bobby C., and John Peter DeCioccio. Victory at Peleliu: The 81st Infantry Division's Pacific Campaign (University of Oklahoma Press; 2011) 310 pages
  • Gailey, Harry (1984). Peleliu: 1944. Nautical & Aviation Pub Co of Amer. ISBN 093385241X. 
  • Hallas, James H. (1994). The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu. Praeger Publishers. ISBN 0275946460. 
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot (1958). Leyte: June 1944 – Jan 1945, vol. 12 of History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316583170. 
  • Ross, Bill D. (1991). Peleliu: Tragic Triumph. Random House. ISBN 0394565886. 
  • Rottman, Gordon; Howard Gerrard (2002). Peleliu 1944: The Forgotten Corner Of Hell. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1841765120. 
  • Sledge, Eugene B. (1990). With the Old Breed: At Peleliu And Okinawa. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195067142. 
  • Sloan, Bill (2005). Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 – The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0743260090. 
  • Wright, Derrick (2005). To the Far Side of Hell: The Battle for Peleliu, 1944. Fire Ant Books. ISBN 0817352813. 

Further reading

  • Camp, Dick (2009). Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15–21, 1944. Zenith Press. ISBN 0760334935. 
  • Hallas, James H. (1994). The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu. Praeger/Greenwood. ISBN 0275946460. 
  • Sloan, Bill (2005). Brotherhood of Heroes: The Marines at Peleliu, 1944 – The Bloodiest Battle of the Pacific War. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0743260090. 

External links

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