Pacific island battle, one of the bloodiest of the war. Peleliu had been taken by Japan from Germany during World War I. Located about 2,400 miles south of Tokyo and having a land area of only about 7 square miles, Peleliu island was largely blanketed by a tropical forest. Before General Douglas MacArthur's forces could retake the Philippines, he would have to neutralize the Palau Islands, and Peleliu specifically, to protect his right flank. Admiral Chester Nimitz also believed that Peleliu was needed as a staging area for the invasion of Leyte. Securing the island would ensure domination of all the Palaus and neutralize Japanese submarine facilities.
Beginning on 12 September 1944, the U.S. Navy began a three-day naval and air bombardment. The naval fire-support group included 5 battleships, 5 heavy and 3 light cruisers, and 14 destroyers. Between 7 and 11 escort carriers provided combat air and antisubmarine patrol. Beginning at 8:32 A.M. on 15 September, the ground force went ashore. It consisted of the 1st, 5th, and 7th Regimental Combat Teams of Major General William H. Rupertus's 1st Marine Division. The assault was made in amphibious tractors (amphtracs and landing vehicles, tracked [LVTs]) across 600-800 yards of coral reef on the southwest corner of the island. Rupertus predicted victory in 4 days.
Colonel Nakagawa Kunio, commanding some 5,000 Japanese troops, had adopted new tactics. The Japanese did not defend at the beaches, but they were well dug in inland to make the attackers pay the highest possible price. The Japanese only had 13-15 light tanks. On the first afternoon, these were destroyed when they tried to break through the attacker's line. The Marine objective on the first day was to secure the high ground, soon known as "Bloody Nose Ridge," but that effort was only partly successful. On 16 September, the advance resumed. On 17 September, led by 1st Regimental Combat Team commander Colonel Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, the Marines attacked the ridges and destroyed many Japanese strong points.
On 22 September, the Marines were reinforced by the U.S. Army 321st Regimental Combat Team of the U.S. Army's 81st Division, which was the floating reserve. The next day, the Americans secured the airstrip, but the Japanese then retreated to prepared positions in caves on Umurbrogol Ridge. On 26 September, the 5th Marines seized Radar Hill, the easternmost and highest terrain on the island and site of a Japanese radar installation. By the end of September, the Japanese soldiers were compressed into a pocket only 90 yards long and 400 yards wide. In mid-October, the U.S. Army 81st Infantry Division replaced the Marines on Peleliu, but the island was not declared secure until 27 November, although some Japanese did not surrender until February 1945.
Even with total U.S. air and naval superiority, lavish naval gunfire and air support, and a 4:1 ground manpower superiority, American forces paid a heavy price for the seizure of Peleliu. U.S. casualties totaled some 9,615, with 1,656 of them killed in action. Of the 6,000 Japanese defenders, only 33 surrendered or were captured. The same Japanese tactics were replicated, more spectacularly, in their defense of Iwo Jima. The seizure of Peleliu, while costly, did neutralize some 25,000 Japanese troops on Babelthuap, the largest island of the Palaus.
James Erik Vik
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