Author’s Note: This is the first in a series on the US Marine Corps’ fight for the island of Peleliu. I’ve undertaken this study as background research for a novel in progress, and also as a way — I think — to better understand my grandfather’s experience as a Marine in World War II. In an age where honor, code, and taking an oath to defend something larger than the self are often derided, I am continually drawn to the story of these men — who stared real fascism in the face, and refused to blink.
By 8 a.m. on September 15, 1944, the United States’ First Marine Division, supported by waves of preparatory aerial bombardment and naval gunfire, had launched the invasion of the tiny southern Pacific island of Peleliu. This highly choreographed and immensely difficult movement ashore was the opening gambit in what became a months-long fight full of unimaginable horrors, and marked a signal change in Japanese tactics in the pacific. The banzai charges of Guadalcanal and New Britain, where the beaches were often undefended and the Japanese waited for the Marines to come ashore before engaging, and where waves of Japanese defenders would assault Marine positions in suicidal frenzies, were replaced by extremely complex defenses in depth, highly fortified and defendable positions, and a bushido mindset that saw surrender as an unconscionable shame to the individual soldier, his unit, his family, and his emperor.
Although the fight would drag on for months, it was the first six days of combat on Peleliu that would result in the utter destruction of the First Marine Regiment, combat marked by fighting of such unlimited, close-in, and relentless savagery that the men who fought in it, and who survived it, were tattooed forever by their travails in what can only be understood as outright hell on earth.
Jack Ainsworth, considered ancient by the mostly teenage Marines at a mere 27 years old, was a former China Marine recalled to active duty when the war started. Ainsworth served on Peleliu as First Sergeant for Charlie Company, 1stBattalion, 1stMarines, and would ultimately receive a Silver Star for his actions on Hill 100, at the foot of Bloody Nose Ridge, where he was cited for “frequently clos(ing) with the enemy in desperate hand-to-hand combat”. Ainsworth somehow managed to capture the earliest moments of the invasion in a diary he kept on steno pads throughout the fighting:
“The time is now 0857 and we have moved out of rendezvous and up to the line of departure…we’re coming into the transfer area now and all men have their gear on and are standing up in the boat taking in everything. 0911, the amph-tracks just blew up from enemy fire and are burning badly. One of our planes is coming down in flames over the island. The Nips are throwing everything they have at us now, but we’ve got to get on that beach. Jap mortar fire is falling everywhere on the beach and just off the beach in the shallow water where the men have to get out of the tractors and wade in. I imagine the casualties are going to be fairly high for the first few waves…We are still too far out to see plainly if there is any hand-to-hand fighting on the beach but if there is, we will be in it before too long…Mortar shells are starting to drop in front of my tractor now and are getting closer as we move in. They’re dropping all around us now and the gunners on the machine guns are yelling at the men to keep down low…Three more tractors full of men just blew up on the right of mine…We had to wade in from where our tractor stopped along with stumbling and crawling over the sharp coral heads and through much barbed wire to the protecting cliffs…From our position under the cliffs we can see Marines being blown to bits by mortar and artillery fire and our own tractors being blown out of the water and burning the occupants alive. This may be another TARAWA…”
The landing was not to become another Tarawa, where 2ndDivision Marines had been forced to wade ashore through up to 800 yards of water while being shelled and relentlessly strafed with accurate machine gun fire, but it was bad enough.
Russell Davis, writing in “Marine at War,” described his experiences on the beach after running the gauntlet of fire inside the reef, escaping his amtrac, and finally getting onto solid ground:
“Things had changed on the beach. In the mist and smoke objects began to appear in detail. From the one high, whispering drone of passing death, individual sounds broke clear. Shell fire slammed in. Mortars carrumped. Small arms fire picked its way through the heavier sounds. Men cried and called.
“Great fear had emptied the world of faces for me, but suddenly they all came back into view. I was among men and things, on the beach. It was a very crowded beach. The gray sand was covered with litter: splinters of coconut log; fragments of coral, gas masks, helmets, broken weapons and mortar shell cases – and of man himself, who was no more than litter on that beach.
“An officer who described the place later reported a bloody, vicious scene, but I remember it differently. I remember the litter rather than any great horror. Many men had been hit there, but they weren’t very noticeable. They quietly bled and died in the sand, without being conspicuous.”
Captain George Hunt, who would receive the Medal of Honor for his role in capturing and defending “The Point” — a first-day strategic objective because it was a coral mass reinforced with concrete that offered the Japanese defenders enfilade fire onto the beaches — recalled his first few moments on the beach differently:
“The human wreckage I saw was a grim and tragic sight. First it was bewildering; then it made me hot with anger; but finally my feelings cooled to accepting a gruesome inevitable fact. There was Gasser, whose face, always pale, was as white as the sand on which he lay. Shrapnel had shattered his rifle and a piece had penetrated his neck. It was an effort for him to grin, but he did. I saw Culjak, very tall and dark, with a bloody bandage around his arm. Kneeling in a hole in the sand I asked him what had happened to him. He was in the second platoon.
“’I was on the left with Bandy and Dolan trying to keep contact with the third platoon. But I got separated from my outfit. I don’t know what happened to them. Then I ran into a Jap and killed him with a grenade, but he got me in the arm.’
“I saw McMatt lying on his side with a small hole in his stomach which oozed purple blood. Someone had taken off his clothes. Slowly he turned his head toward me, and I saw that his blue eyes were glassy. He opened his mouth, and his white lips formed a word, but no sound came forth. Exhausted by the effort he let his head slump back, and blood was drooling from his mouth. The corpsman who was squatting next to him shook his head.
“These were only three of the wounded and dying which littered the edge of the coconut grove from where we had landed to the Point. As I ran up the beach I saw them lying nearly shoulder-to-shoulder; some of them mine; others from outfits which landed immediately behind us. I saw a ghastly mixture of bandages, bloody and mutilated skin; men gritting their teeth, resigned to their wounds; men groaning and writhing in their agonies; men outstretched or twisted or grotesquely transfixed in the attitudes of death; men with their entrails exposed or whole chunks of body ripped out of them. There was Graham, snuffed out a hero, lying with four dead Japs around him; and Windsor, flat on his face, with his head riddled by bullets and his arms pointed toward a pillobox where five Japs slumped over a machine-gun; and Sharp, curled on his side, still holding his automatic rifle which pointed to a huddle of dead Japs thirty yards away. His aim had been good.”
The nearly ten-thousand Japanese soldiers on Peleliu, who had occupied the island for over twenty years and who had spent much of that time fortifying it with elaborate concrete bunkers, caves, and an immense network of concealed supporting positions, had registered and dialed their mortars over virtually every square foot of the landing beaches and out to the reef some 400 yards offshore.
The landing beaches were enfiladed with hardened machine gun positions and grazing fire on either flank, booby trapped with land mines and improvised explosives, and all the while the Marines remained under accurate fire from mortars and artillery buried and unobservable in the hills beyond. All of this remained true even after several days of naval bombardment and the US Navy’s assurances that there were no longer any targets available to their gunners on Peleliu.
To the direct front of the landing beaches the Japanese were entrenched in well-concealed, fortified, and interlocking machine gun positions supported by snipers, and tank traps full of riflemen.
The fighting on Peleliu, despite its unsurpassed savagery, received very little coverage during the war, and has received precious little since. That table was set before the battle started, when Major General William Rupertus, veteran of the Banana Wars, the occupation of Haiti, author of the infamous “Rifleman’s Creed”, and following the Cape Gloucester campaign named Commander of the First Marine Division, suggested to anyone who would listen that the fight for Peleliu would be “short and sharp” and might, in a worst case scenario, last as long as a week.
Rupertus’ pronouncement — which was eventually revealed to dismayed Marines in a widely read pre-invasion letter — was also heeded by pacific theater combat correspondents who saw in its flippancy a reason to skip the fight and focus on other wartime developments.
Rupertus was a divisive figure long before the battle began, unloved by his command staff, and after his failure to predict a change in Japanese tactics, and for his obstinant refusal to deploy sorely needed US Army reinforcements waiting in troop ships offshore, he would forever after be known to Marines who survived Peleliu as “Rupe the Dupe.”
The First Marine Division was, by the dawn of the invasion of Peleliu, an extremely well-seasoned combat unit. Formed hastily after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they had already fought at Guadalcanal, where the 16,000 Raggedy-Assed Marines of the Old Breed faced nearly 40,000 entrenched, experienced, and highly motivated Japanese soldiers. The Marines had taken the very best the Japanese Army had to offer, had been abandoned by the Navy and left without supplies for weeks, and after months of close-in jungle fighting, had turned the island over to the Army for mop-up operations.
The closely watched and highly publicized victory at Guadalcanal marked the first time in the Pacific war that Japanese troops had been expelled from enemy-held territory. As such, Guadalcanal was the most significant early turning point in the Pacific theater. Victory on Guadalcanal stopped the Japanese advance, relieved the threat to Australia, and provided offensive momentum to a rapidly growing and increasingly capable American war machine.
Japan, while remaining highly capable and fanatically motivated in the defense, would never again be a strategic offensive threat after the defeat at Guadalcanal. Although final victory would take another three years, the First Marine Division’s early success prompted Vice Admiral “Bull” Halsey to exclaim: “We’ve got the bastards licked.”
Relieved on The Canal by the US Army in November, 1942, the First Marine Division was returned to Camp Balcomb, near Melbourne, Australia, for rest, recuperation, and to await the arrival of replacement Marines. The rest in Melbourne, where the majority of Marines were billeted at the Melbourne Cricket Grounds, became notorious. “The people of Melbourne treated us like royalty,” said one young Marine. “They knew the American victory at Guadalcanal had eliminated the threat of a Japanese invasion, and they called the guys who fought there ‘the Saviors of Australia.’”
Marines on weekend liberty were routinely housed and fed in Australian homes by families whose own sons were away fighting in North Africa or New Guinea. Many Marines took Australian sweethearts, and after abbreviated wartime courtships, were married.
The legacy of that Australian hospitality is still enjoyed by Marines making port-calls today, and there remains an appreciable kinship between the Australian national character and the character of the US Marine Corps, which helps to explain why “Waltzing Mathilda” remains the unofficial anthem of the First Marine Division.
In July, 1943, rested, refitted, trained, and ready for another fight, the First Marine Division shipped out for New Guinea and additional amphibious and jungle warfare training prior to the invasion of New Britain.
Bill Sloan, in “Brotherhood of Heroes,” writes:
“On the day after Christmas of that year, they landed on the western coast of New Britain, a small island across a narrow strait from eastern New Guinea, in what has been called the most nearly perfect amphibious assault operation of the war. To the Old Breed veterans, however, such landings had become routine by now: Another island. Another beach. Another bunch of fanatical Japanese. But climate-wise, New Britain was worse than the others. It was so wet that men’s socks rotted in their boots, and their dungarees fell apart in a matter of weeks.”
Bad as they were, the conditions on New Britain – where it rained, at one point, for thirty days without stopping, and where Marines were in almost continuous combat — were only a taste what was to come at Peleliu. But after battling the Japanese, malaria, dysentery, scrub typhus, malnutrition, and combat exhaustion for months, and after seizing the strategic airfield at Cape Gloucester, the First Marine Division was relieved by Army troops in April, 1944.
What came next can only be seen as one of the great survival stories of any American expeditionary force in history. Although rumors suggested that the Old Breed would return to Australia for R&R, and once again enjoy the hospitality of grateful Australians, they were instead billeted on the stifling island of Pavuvu, a former coconut plantation overrun with land crabs, reeking of dense and rotting mats of coconuts, and made impassible by rains that turned the entire island into a vacuous and sucking swamp.
The choice of Pavuvu was made by Major General Roy Geiger, who would later become the only US Marine to command a United States Army on Okinawa – who never set foot on the place, after recommendations made by his command staff who had done a brief flyover. But the decision, universally derided when Marines first stepped ashore, was ultimately seen as fortuitous because the conditions were so uniformly intolerable that the division, licking its wounds and taking on replacements after the fight for Cape Gloucester, suffered together in virtual isolation.
Bill Sloan describes it well:
“…Pavuvu’s unlovely surroundings and harsh conditions were to have a strangely positive impact on the men sent there in the spring of 1943. Today, aging veterans of the First Marine Division still talk about Pavuvu in much the same way they talk about the actual battles they fought in the Pacific. In certain respects, Pavuvu was more like a battle than a rest camp, and it endowed those who came through it with an intangible asset that few recognized until later.
“’As the months passed, something wonderful happened to the division on Pavuvu,’ said PFC Bill Leyden, who reached the island as a new recruit fresh from the States. ‘It happened without us knowing it, and I’m sure it was never anticipated, even in the upper command echelons.’
“The very wretchedness of Pavuvu created a peculiar, positive chemistry between the battle-hardened veterans and raw recruits who came there. Men who arrived on the island with little in common found unity in its misery. They drew strength and purpose from its adversities. Almost imperceptibly, they came to share a spirit of kinship that helped fuse the First Marine Division into one of the finest fighting forces in modern military history.”
They would need every ounce of that kinship to win the fight for Peleliu.