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World War II: Battle of Peleliu

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World War II: Battle of Peleliu

US Marines during the Battle of Peleliu, 1944

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy

Battle of Peleliu - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Peleliu was fought September 15 to November 27, 1944, during World War II (1939-1945).

Forces & Commanders

Allies

  • Major General William Rupertus
  • Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf
  • 1st Marine Division (17,490 men), 81st Infantry Division (10,994 men)

    Japanese

  • Colonel Kunio Nakagawa
  • approx. 11,000 men

  • Battle of Peleliu - Background:

    Having advanced across the Pacific after victories at Tarawa, Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam, and Tinian, Allied leaders reached a crossroads regarding future strategy. While General Douglas MacArthur favored advancing into the Philippines to make good his promise to liberate that country, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz preferred to capture Formosa and Okinawa which could serve a springboards for future operations against China and Japan. Flying to Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt met with both commanders before ultimately electing to follow MacArthur's recommendations. As part of the advance to the Philippines, it was believed that Peleliu in the Palau Islands needed to be captured to secure the Allies' right flank (Map).

    Battle of Peleliu - The Allied Plan:

    Responsibility for the invasion was given to Major General Roy S. Geiger's III Amphibious Corps and Major General William Rupertus's 1st Marine Division was assigned to make the initial landings. Supported by naval gunfire from Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf's ships offshore, the Marines were to assault beaches on the southwest side of the island. Going ashore, the plan called for the 1st Marine Regiment to land to the north, the 5th Marine Regiment in the center, and the 7th Marine Regiment in the south. Hitting the beach, the 1st and 7th Marines would cover the flanks as the 5th Marines drove inland to capture Peleliu's airfield. This done, the 1st Marines, led by Colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller were to turn north and attack the island's highest point, Umurbrogol Mountain. In assessing the operation, Rupertus expected to secure the island in a matter of days.

    Battle of Peleliu - A New Plan:

    The defense of Peleliu was overseen by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa. Following a string of defeats, the Japanese began to reassess their approach to island defense. Rather than attempting to halt Allied landings on the beaches, they devised a new strategy which called for islands to be heavily fortified with strong points and bunkers. These were to be connected by caves and tunnels which would allow troops to be safely shifted with ease to meet each new threat. To support this system, troops would make limited counterattacks rather than the reckless banzai charges of the past. While efforts would be made to disrupt enemy landings, this new approach sought to bleed the Allies white once they were ashore.

    The key to Nakagawa's defenses were over 500 caves in the Umurbrogol Mountain complex. Many of these were further fortified with steel doors and gun emplacements. At the north of the Allies' intended invasion beach, the Japanese tunneled through a 30-foot high coral ridge and installed a variety of guns and bunkers. Known as "The Point," the Allies had no knowledge of the ridge's existence as it did not show on existing maps. In addition, the island's beaches were heavily mined and strewn with a variety of obstacles to hamper potential invaders. Unaware of the change in Japanese defensive tactics, Allied planning moved forward as normal and the invasion of Peleliu was dubbed Operation Stalemate II.

    Battle of Peleliu - A Chance to Reconsider:

    To aid in operation, Admiral William "Bull" Halsey carriers commenced a series of raids in the Palaus and Philippines. These met little Japanese resistance led him to contact Nimitz on September 13, 1944, with several suggestions. First, he recommended that the attack on Peleliu be abandoned as unneeded and that the assigned troops be given to MacArthur for operations in the Philippines. He also stated that the invasion of the Philippines should begin immediately. While leaders in Washington, DC agreed to move up the landings in the Philippines, they elected to push forward with the Peleliu operation as Oldendorf had begun the pre-invasion bombardment on September 12 and troops were already arriving in the area.

    Battle of Peleliu - Going Ashore:

    As Oldendorf's five battleships, four heavy cruisers, and four light cruisers pounded Peleliu, carrier aircraft also struck targets across the island. Expending a massive amount of ordnance, it was believed that the garrison was completely neutralized. This was far from the case as the new Japanese defense system survived nearly untouched. At 8:32 AM on September 15, the 1st Marine Division began their landings. Coming under heavy fire from batteries at either end of the beach, the division lost many LVTs (Landing Vehicle Tracked) and DUKWs forcing large numbers of Marines to wade ashore. Pushing inland, only the 5th Marines made any substantial progress. Reaching the edge of the airfield, they succeeded in turning back a Japanese counterattack consisting of tanks and infantry (Map).

    Battle of Peleliu - A Bitter Grind:

    The next day, the 5th Marines, enduring heavy artillery fire, charged across the airfield and secured it. Pressing on, they reached the eastern side of the island, cutting off the Japanese defenders to the south. Over the next several days, these troops were reduced by the 7th Marines. Near the beach, Puller's 1st Marines began attacks against The Point. In bitter fighting, Puller's men, led by Captain George Hunt's company, succeeded in reducing the position. Despite this success, the 1st Marines endured nearly two days of counterattacks from Nakagawa's men. Moving inland, the 1st Marines turned north and began engaging the Japanese in the hills around Umurbrogol. Sustaining serious losses, the Marines made slow progress through the maze of valleys and soon named the area "Bloody Nose Ridge."

    As the Marines ground their way through the ridges, they were forced to endure nightly infiltration attacks by the Japanese. Having sustained 1,749 casualties, approximately 60% of the regiment, in several days fighting, the 1st Marines were withdrawn by Geiger and replaced with the 321st Regimental Combat Team from the US Army's 81st Infantry Division. The 321st RCT landed north of the mountain on September 23 and began operations. Supported by the 5th and 7th Marines, they had a similar experience to Puller's men. On September 28, the 5th Marines took part in a short operation to capture Ngesebus Island, just north of Peleliu. Going ashore, they secured the island after a brief fight. Over the next few weeks, Allied troops continued to slowly battle their way through Umurbrogol.

    With the 5th and 7th Marines badly battered, Geiger withdrew them and replaced them with the 323rd RCT on October 15. With the 1st Marine Division fully removed from Peleliu, it was sent back to Pavuvu in the Russell Islands to recover. Bitter fighting in and around Umurbrogol continued for another month as the 81st Division troops struggled to expel the Japanese from the ridges and caves. On November 24, with American forces closing in, Nakagawa committed suicide. Three days later, the island was finally declared secure.

    Battle of Peleliu - Aftermath

    One of the costliest operations of the war in the Pacific, the Battle of Peleliu saw Allied forces sustain 1,794 killed and 8,040 wounded/missing. The 1,749 casualties sustained by Puller's 1st Marines nearly equaled the entire division's losses for the earlier Battle of Guadalcanal. Japanese losses were 10,695 killed and 202 captured. Though a victory, the Battle of Peleliu was quickly overshadowed by the Allied landings on Leyte in the Philippines, which commenced on October 20, as well as the Allied triumph at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The battle itself became a controversial topic as Allied forces took severe losses for an island that ultimately possessed little strategic value and was not used to support future operations. The new Japanese defensive approach was later used at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In an interesting twist, a party of Japanese soldiers held out on Peleliu until 1947 when they had to be convinced by a Japanese admiral that the war was over.

    Selected Sources

  • Military History Online: Battle of Peleliu
  • History of War: Battle of Peleliu
  • USMC: Seizure of Peleliu

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