Peleliu: The Forgotten Battle
By Maj Henry J. Donigan - Originally Published September 1994
Like a sponge, Bloody Nose Ridge soaked up the blood of the 1st Marine Division in a grueling month-long campaign.
Fifty years ago, in a forgotten backwater of the Central Pacific, Marines, soldiers and sailors fought the Japanese in one of the most savage and costly battles in World War II. The assault on the island of Peleliu compares to the most famous battles in American history in terms of ferocity and valor. Yet this battle has been all but forgotten except by a few military historians and the valiant men who fought there. This is the story of the legendary fight to seize Peleliu.
The assault on Peleliu was planned as a supporting attack for Gen MacArthur's return to the Philippines. III Amphibious Corps, commanded by MajGen Roy S. Geiger, would conduct the amphibious assault using the veteran 1st Marine Division, commanded by MajGen William H. Rupertus, as the main attack forces. The Army's 81st Infantry Division would serve as the floating reserve until released to assault the nearby island of Angaur.
The plan for the D-day assault called for the 1st Marine Division to land its three infantry regiments abreast across a beach 2,500 yards wide on the southwestern portion of Peleliu. The 1st Marines, under the legendary Col Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, would land on the division left to take the most northerly beach, capture the outlying points from which the beach could be swept by fire to anchor the division flank for the first night, and then wheel left to assault the nose of the Umurbrogol ridge system that ran the length of the northwestern peninsula. The 5th Marines, under the scholarly Col Harold D. "Bucky" Harris, would land in the division center, tying in with the 1st Marines on the left, and seize the airfield-the most critical objective-driving across the island to the eastern shore. It would then turn north to seize the relatively flat northeastern peninsula and its outlying islands. The 7th Marines, led by Medal of Honor winner Col Herman H. Hanneken, would land on the division right flank abreast of the 5th Marines to also drive across to the eastern shore. It would then wheel right to clear the isolated southern rip of the island from where the Japanese could enfilade the entire beach. One battalion of the 7th Marines and the Division Reconnaissance Company would be the division reserve.
This concept allowed the division to land over a wide front on a beach not badly affected by reefs. The open ground leading onto the airfield would facilitate tank operations, which the Marines hoped would permit a quick campaign. However, the division acknowledged some obvious disadvantages to the plan. They recognized that the Japanese would take advantage of the Umurbrogol ridges that commanded the flat, open terrain across the airfield. Therefore, the 1st Marines would have the toughest fight, with the high ground as their objective. To compensate for this, 1st Marines would receive priority of all fire support assets available to the division, including tanks. Further, division planners assumed that 7th Marines would achieve all of its assigned objectives by the end of D-day and would then be available to directly support 1st Marines.
Awaiting the landing force were nearly 11,000 Japanese troops including units from the never-defeated Manchurian Imperial Guards. They had learned from their losses in previous Pacific campaigns and had embarked on a new strategy to exact an extreme toll from the Americans by making them pay for every inch of ground. Beginning on Peleliu and for the remainder of the war, the Japanese would preserve their force rather than expend them in massive suicide assaults.
Thus, the Japanese established an intricate defensive system on Peleliu, covering by fire nearly every square yard from the beaches inland to the island command post deep beneath the coral rock in the center of Umurbrogols. There would be no main line of defense but, instead, a nearly perfect defense-in-depth with the whole island as a frontline. The complex and ingenious defense was based on mutually supporting, fortified positions in rock caves and pill boxes extending into the interior of the island.
Along the beaches were log cradles, concrete tetrahedrons, and barbed wire intermingled with mines. There were extensive antitank defenses consisting of ditches and mined obstacles placed two-or three-deep and flanked by pillboxes which could only be hit by a tank already in the trap.
The most unique and troublesome aspect of the defense was the system of over 500 natural and man-made caves honeycombing the length of the Umurbrogols, in which all artillery, heavy mortars, and the newly received 200mm rockets were located. Most caves were connected by tunnels that had multiple entrances, often on both sides of the ridgeline. The sophisticated tunnel network, which stretched to as much as six stories high, was a maze of protective compartments, fighting positions, storage areas, and living quarters. Caves could accommodate as few as one soldier or as many as several hundred. The mouths of caves containing guns were protected by semiautomatic sliding doors, which would open just long enough for a round to be fired and then slam shut. There was also a miniature railroad that the Japanese used to move guns from opening to opening to fire a few rounds. All the caves had either natural or carved-out rifle slits along their side passages, almost impossible to see from the outside.
En route to Peleliu, Gen Rupertus displayed great optimism about the Peleliu campaign, predicting that the fighting would be over in less than a week. He shared his optimism with several senior Marine officers and newsmen in a written statement that read: "It will be a short operation, a hard fought 'quickie' that will last for 4 days, 5 days at the most." As a result, many of the 36 news correspondents accredited to the division chose not to go ashore, leaving just a handful to report the bitter struggle that was to come.
By the early hours of D-day, 15 September 1944, a tremendous armada of ships had assembled off Peleliu. The Navy had completed an intense 10-day program of aerial bombing, augmented by an unrelenting 3-day surface bombardment using naval guns of every caliber, including massive 16-inch shells. This destroyed the more conspicuous enemy installations above ground and sheared off a large number of trees and vegetation on the island. Some 24 hours before the landing, the commander of the fire support group signaled that all known enemy targets on the island had been destroyed. According to plan, the bombardment was renewed at 0550 on D-day in a deafening cacophony of flame and concussion, as thousands of Marines witnessed the fusillade from the decks of ships and landing craft.
As dawn broke, the island of Peleliu was engulfed in a firestorm of coordinated preparation fire. Veteran Bill Tapscott, landing with the 7th Marines, described the scene:
From all the firepower we were seeing and hearing we were wondering . . . how in the world can anything survive. It was beyond your imagination how anything could be alive, so we were beginning to feel pretty good . .. By eight o'clock it was fully light. I was watching this one plane . . . dropping napalm. All of a sudden [it] was one big ball of flame . .. falling to the ground.
The torrent of explosives that was raining on Peleliu only fueled the optimism started by the division commander about a quick battle. However, others were skeptical. One veteran recalled wondering if he would ever see another sunrise. BGen Oliver P. Smith, assistant division commander, recalled his own feelings of caution. The experienced veteran "Chesty" Puller was even more wary, stating, ". . . they'll have . . . fortifications like we've never seen before." He was sure that the landing force would meet heavy resistance.
Peleliu scholar Professor Harry A. Gailey wrote of his feelings about the Peleliu landing: "I can't imagine any [assault] more frustrating, bloody, and filled with potential disaster than the first few hours on Peleliu." Few anticipated what was awaiting the Marines on that clear, bright morning. They would find a rugged coral island with the airfield shaped like an Arabic numeral "4" occupying the wide, flat southern portion immediately east of the landing beach. The limestone ridges and most of the island outside the airfield were thickly wooded with occasional wild palms and open grass areas. Northeast of the flat ground the terrain forked to a series of coral islets and tidal mangrove swamps with the coral and limestone ridges of the Umurbrogols running in a parallel prong to the northeast. This was the terrain in which the Marines would fight, the true nature of which had not been revealed by photo intelligence. No one anticipated the impenetrable coral, which made digging almost impossible and absorbed the sun like molten lava. It would also slice the body as one hugged the ground in a struggle to survive. Nor did anyone anticipate the unimaginable heat and humidity that prevailed during the battle.
The ferocious barrage that preceded the Marines lifted as the first wave of amphibious tractors (amtracs) approached the beach and landed at 0832. Records show that few Japanese were injured by the preparatory fires. As if on signal, the first wave was subjected to a furious volume of preregistered indirect and flanking direct fires. The Japanese had the waters from the reef to the beach and from the high water mark inland perfectly ranged with their weapons. Amtracs and DUKWs of the follow-on waves were hit crossing the reef shelf and sank or burned. The Japanese guns on the southern point of the island were particularly deadly, badly carving up the flank of the 7th Marines and casting platoons and companies into confusion.
Bill Tapscott described his experience landing with the 7th Marines on Peleliu:
About 2,000 yards out, there was a big coral reef. If the amtracs [got hung up] they were sitting ducks. The Higgins boats couldn't go over it. If you don't [sic] get out, the coxswain might shoot you. We hit the reef [and] we all got out. That water was . . up to my chin. I had a full pack . . . We were about two thousand yards out . . . [some amtracs and Higgins boats made it through]. I was . . . [bobbing] in the water trying to keep my head up and move forward. There was a Japanese Nambu machinegun firing . . . everywhere [and there were] mortars dropping in the water. I got to the beach before noon ... it took me two and a half hours. As soon as I got on the beach, I fell face down ... There was firing going on all around us-line mines [sic?], knee mortars, dropping shells on us, everything in the world ... I don't know how in the world the Japanese survived, they were really dug in ... this island is nothing but coral rock. You could drop a bomb on it and all it would do was ricochet. It had to be a direct hit... our planes were still bombing . . . coming pretty close to us.
From the heavy cruiser Portland, the gunnery officer watched as a steel door in the limestone ridge opened to let a gun fire on the beach, and the ship returned five salvos of 8-inch fire each time the Japanese gun fired again. He commented in frustration, "You can put all the steel in Pittsburgh on that thing and not get it."
Marines continued perilously to reach the beach as combat power slowly built. On the 1st Marines' front, the lines were no deeper than about 50 yards inland. By 1000, with the regimental reserve already committed, the Japanese infantry swarmed over the front. There was a great deal of close fighting and enemy artillery fire. On the left portion of the line, 3d Battalion, 1st Marines had landed to find strongly entrenched Japanese who resisted violently. Company K, on the division left flank, took the blockhouse commanding the northern point at the cost of over half its men. By noon, they were nearly out of food, ammunition, and precious water. Isolated from the rest of the regiment, they awaited for the inevitable counterattack.
The amtrac-borne assault waves of the division pushed ashore on schedule. Although they took significant losses, they were able to keep up the momentum of the landing. The 5th Marines in the center were shielded from the direct flanking fire experienced by the 1st and 7th Marines, but they still received artillery and mortar fire. Otherwise, they met only scattered resistance, finding more favorable terrain for cover and maneuver than elsewhere. By late morning, the regiment's two attacking battalions were having difficulty remaining tied in. Therefore, the reserve battalion here was also committed to close the gap.
Sherman tanks of the 1st Tank Battalion began to land with the fourth assault wave to reinforce the fragile beachhead. This was much earlier than in any previous Marine amphibious operation. However, the enemy fire was so furious that of the 30 tanks that landed on D-day, over half received from one to four hits from high explosive shells before reaching shore. Fortunately, only a few were knocked completely out of action.
The heat on Peleliu was incredibly intense. A blazing sun, reflected off the white sand and coral, turned the entire arena into a furnace. The temperature on D-day was a scorching 105 degrees in the shade and would soar to 115 degrees Fahrenheit on subsequent days. Heat casualties mounted, and water ran critically short as Marines quickly depleted their canteens in the first hours of battle. There was little if any shade. Faces blistered and lips cracked. The wounded suffered. Helmets without cloth covers were too hot to touch. Everyone was weakened and near exhaustion. Most units were not resupplied until D+1. Water came from the ships in 55-gallon drums and Marines drank vehemently, only to find the water contaminated-tainted with oil, causing many to get violently sick.
As expected, the Japanese had responded aggressively to the landing once they regained their balance. Around noon the signal was given to prepare to execute a well-rehearsed counterattack plan. Enemy troops, including the mobile reserve, began to assemble from many parts of the island through the various tunnel networks. The Japanese were optimistic that they could break the back of the struggling landing force.
About 1650 the Japanese launched a bold, well-planned, tank-infantry attack across the northern portion of the airfield at a time when the farthest advance of Marine units was a mere 200 yards inland, far short of the airfield. There were many gaps in the Marine line. Mustering most of their tanks, about 13, the Japanese smashed fortuitously into the seam between the 1st and 5th Marines, breaking through all the way to the beach. They opened fire on the wounded in the evacuation station. At this point, five Marine tanks surged forward out of defilade positions and engaged in a violent tank battle over the heads of Marines cowering low in their holes. It was the only tank battle of its kind that the Marines would fight in the Pacific War. When the fight was over, all 13 Japanese tanks were destroyed, and all enemy troops participating in the attack were dead. This attack, however, had been far different from the senseless, suicidal banzai charges experienced during the previous campaigns.
Morale now soared across the division as many of the Japanese withdrew into the Umurbrogols, which the 1st Marines were now calling "Bloody Nose Ridge." The lines pushed deeper into the moonlike terrain as the regiments prepared their night defensives, reorganized their positions, and assessed the general situation. Unable to dig foxholes into the coral island, the men used depressions, coral rubble, and any other suitable cover to fortify their night positions.
The losses on D-day were staggering and not yet fully realized. Puller's 1st Marines had suffered most at the foot of the ridges, but they did not report the ferocity of the fighting in their zone nor the extent of the casualties. Puller had declined all offers of assistance, reporting that the situation was well in hand. It was later determined that the division had suffered 1,298 casualties, over 10 percent of the assault force.
BGen O. P. Smith established an advanced division command post ashore and worked feverishly to establish communications between units. Gen Geiger had made it ashore briefly to assess the situation while Gen Rupertus, suffering from a broken ankle sustained during a landing rehearsal, remained afloat with his staff. As a result, situational awareness at the division level was limited. It would remain so, compounding the gross underestimation of the situation on Peleliu prior to the assault.
The veterans of the division braced for the drunken banzai charges like those they had experienced on Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester, confident that when they came, they could mow the enemy down. All night, the Japanese tried to infiltrate the lines, but their effectiveness was weakened from the failed counterattack of the previous afternoon. Tom Lea, one of the few combat correspondents ashore, reported no less than four banzai charges, though these were local attacks and not massed suicide assaults. He told of Japanese entering the lines wearing the helmets of dead Marines, sneaking into fighting positions, cutting Marines' throats.
The failure of the Japanese D-day counterattack assured the Marines of a foothold on the island. Therefore, the enemy defenders chose to bleed the division to death by extracting a terrible price for every inch of ground, using the sophisticated defense-in-depth exactly as it was designed to be used. With the United States controlling the air and sea, there was apparently little chance that the Japanese could be significantly reinforced.
On D+1, with the landing phase complete, the assault phase of the operation commenced. There were no further counterattacks and the Japanese on the southern portion of the island were isolated and without communications. Thus, in accordance with the operations plan, the 2d and 3d Battalions, 5th Marines (2/5 and 3/5) advanced across the edge of the airfield to the eastern shore, cutting the island in two. Marine veteran Eugene B. Sledge, author of
With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, remembers the attack across the airfield vividly:
Our artillery, ships, and planes . . . [laid] down a terrific amount of fire in the preparation for our attack . . . we would move out when it ended. As I lay on the blistering hot coral and looked across the open airfield, heat shimmered and danced . . . 'Let's go,' shouted an officer . . . we moved at a trot, in widely dispersed waves . . . across the open, fire-swept airfield. My only concern then was my duty and survival . . . [the noise was deafening] . . . [The Japanese fired heavy weapons from the 300-foot-high ridges dominating the airfield from the north] . . . shells screeched and whistled, exploding all around us . . . it was more terrifying than the landing . . . we were exposed, running . . . through a veritable shower of deadly metal . . . tracers went by me on both sides at waist height . . . steel fragments spattered down on the hard rock like hail on a city street. I saw Marines stumble . . . as they got hit . . . The farther we went, the worse it got. The noise . . . pressed on my ears like a vise. [I awaited ] the shock of being struck down at any moment. It seemed impossible that any of us could make it across. We passed several craters that offered shelter, but I remembered the order to keep moving. Because of the superb discipline and excellent esprit of the Marines, it never occurred to us that the attack might fail. How far we had come in the open I'll never know . . . It must have been several hundred yards. Everyone was visibly shaken by the thunderous barrage we had come through. When I looked into the eyes of [our] fine Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester veterans, some of America's best, I no longer felt ashamed of my trembling hands. The attack across Peleliu's airfield was the worst combat experience I had during the entire war. It surpassed all the subsequent horrifying ordeals on Peleliu and Okinawa.
The 7th Marines continued its assault to clear the Japanese isolated on Peleliu's southern tip. It was a slow, costly, and agonizing fight as many of the enemy were now underground. The 1st Marines were stopped cold at the base of Bloody Nose Ridge. Lacking sleep and water, and with the temperature even hotter than D-day, the Marines fought on in a state of near exhaustion. By now, Gen Rupertus, walking with a cane, was finally ashore. By nightfall, it was clear that the Japanese-infested Umurbrogols were the enemy center of gravity, and controlled the rest of the island by fire. It was obvious that the ridges had to be taken, and it would take the resources of the entire division to do it. The division commander ordered a general assault for the morning of D+2.
Gen Rupertus remained optimistic that the Marines were on the verge of victory. In fact, on 16 September he released the 81st Division as the floating reserve to commence its assault on Angaur. There they encountered only a reinforced Japanese battalion, a force much smaller than estimated. The "Wildcats" had little difficulty declaring the island secure in 4 days. Angaur would have two 6,000-foot runways ready to support the war effort by 17 October.
During the next week the 7th Marines, less one battalion, systematically reduced the remaining enemy defenses on the southern end of the island. The 5th Marines drove straight north and east across the airfield, counting 130 destroyed Japanese aircraft in the crossing, eventually completing the sweep of all the low ground beyond the airfield, the small islands onshore, and all the northeastern lowlands.
The 1st Marines launched its attack on D+2, with one attached battalion from the 7th Marines, to reduce the Umurbrogol ridges. They advanced straight up the precipitous slope of Bloody Nose, gaining 500 yards, but at a terrible and bitter cost. The enemy-filled caves were given names such as the "Horseshoe," "Death Valley," and "Walt's Ridge."
Author George McMillan wrote a description of Bloody Nose Ridge:
[There were] no roads, hardly any trails. There was no secure footing on the ridge. It was impossible to dig in. The jagged rock slashed shoes and clothes and tore their bodies every time they hit the deck. Casualties were higher simply because it was impossible to get under the ground away from Jap mortar barrages. Each blast hurled chunks of coral multiplying many times the fragmentation effect of every shell.
Marine fighters from VMF-114 began operating from Peleliu's captured airfield on D+3, flying some of the shortest close air support missions on record. Corsairs took off from the strip to drop napalm on the ridges 15 seconds beyond the runway. So close were these missions that the planes' wheels were never retracted, allowing them to return immediately to the airfield to quickly rearm. The men on the ground were heartened by their bravery.
The cost of the fighting to the 1st Marines was staggering. It was being chewed up in a brutal, methodical reduction of Japanese positions in a grinding, slow-moving frontal assault. Marine artillery was now playing a big supporting role, firing directly into the openings of Japanese caves and emplacements. At least one battery, which had lost all its guns to mortar fire, was put into the fight as infantry. The only other replacements that division could provide were "specialists"-untrained as infantrymen.
The fight took on a special savagery. Many officers had been killed. Many others who were wounded pressed on. "Chesty" Puller, one of the most highly decorated Marines in history and already the holder of three Navy Crosses, led his 1st Regiment while being carried at times from place to place on a stretcher. He continued to locate himself perilously close to the frontlines. Despite his regiment's incredible losses, he pushed his battered battalions forward in an unrelenting assault. Like all who fought on Peleliu, he possessed a fanatical hatred for the Japanese, aggravated by the loss of his brother during the recent fight for Guam. For most, the hatred of the Japanese had become highly personal.
Puller naively thought that the end of the battle was near and pushed his haggard survivors ever forward onto Bloody Nose. They fought through a maze of rubble where every crag, gulch, and ridge sheltered enemy positions. There was no room for maneuver. Marines scaled vertical faces to reach cave mouths so that the highly effective flamethrower, satchel charge, or grenade could be used to subdue the fanatical enemy. Headquarters and other support personnel were thrown into the line. Gains were measured in yards and the number of destroyed enemy positions. Attacks ranged from well-coordinated assaults using air-delivered napalm, bazookas, tanks, and mortars to desperate night fighting where Marines repulsed Japanese infiltrators with rocks, ammo boxes, bare fists, and bayonets. It was primordial violence. As the attack pressed on, one battalion commander called back to Puller stating that his situation was desperate. He reported, "I'm afraid we can't go on, Colonel; there's nobody left here." Puller replied, "You're there ain't you . . . ?" With that, the fight continued.
Typical of the stiff fighting for Bloody Nose was the attack on Walt's Ridge led by Capt Everett P. Pope, commanding Company C, 1/1. Rowland P. Gill wrote this account:
Pope led his 90-man command across a fire-swept causeway, through a swamp, and with a rush pushed the company atop a hill which proved not to be a hill, but a long coral ridge exposed to severe flanking fire. The company couldn't penetrate the coral to dig foxholes and as a result was mercilessly pounded by enemy fire. By nightfall, the company strength was down to 15 men and the captain. All night they held, repulsing the final enemy charge with chunks of coral. Finally the survivors were ordered off the ridge which took another two weeks to seize and hold. Capt Pope received the Medal of Honor for this action.
Rumors of the 1st Marines' costly fight for Bloody Nose spread throughout the division. One veteran remembered being told:
. . . [I just] had a guy from 1st Marines tell me that they got them poor guys making frontal attacks with fixed bayonets on that damn ridge, and they can't even see the nips that are shootin' at 'em. [He] was really depressed [and doesn't] see no way he can come out alive. There just ain't no sense in that . . . It's slaughter.
The indomitable esprit and unrelenting aggressiveness of the fighting men was to become mixed with a degree of bitterness.
On D+5, 20 September, Rupertus ordered an all-out assault on Walt's Ridge. Puller threw every resource belonging to the regiment into the attack. All who could be spared from regimental and battalion headquarters were sent up to the companies. Armored vehicles, guns, and mortars were pushed forward close to the frondines. Air support was used to the maximum extent possible. This was an all-out effort; there was nothing in reserve. The attack failed. Heavy losses were incurred, and the exhausted survivors fell back to where they could safely cover the enemy positions.
What would happen next was possibly the most significant and dramatic event of the battle. Gen Rupertus, realizing that the 1st Marines was spent, was in a state of despair. He had no more reinforcements or replacements to give to the fight for the ridges. Regardless, he refused to request assistance and strongly argued against bringing in army troops. Puller had lost all touch with reality in his frenzied determination to fight the Japanese to the last man, if necessary. He was too proud to admit that his regiment was finished. It took the judgment and courage of Gen Geiger to assess that something was terribly wrong and desperately needed to change. Gen Geiger had spent a good deal of time near the fighting since D-day, and he became convinced that the 1st Marines had reached the end of its effectiveness. He had expected a specific request from Gen Rupertus to pull the 1st Marines off the line. However, he was hesitant to impose his will on his reluctant division commander. On 21 September, Geiger went forward to assess the situation for himself. He saw the condition that Puller was in, injured and exhausted from a week's fighting, yet struggling to fight on. In talking with Geiger, Puller simply refused to admit that his regiment could not fight on. Returning to Rupertus' command post, Geiger reviewed the latest casualty figures and then ordered the 321st Infantry Regiment of the 81st Division from Angaur to relieve the 1st Marines.
The 1st Marines had taken on one of the roughest assignments ever given to a Marine regiment, conducting one of the most fiercely aggressive fights ever waged against an equally determined and savage adversary. They had destroyed over 145 Japanese caves and pillboxes and killed 3,942 Japanese. The price was high. The regiment had suffered 56-percent casualties: 71 percent in 1/1, 56 percent in 2/1, 55 percent in 3/1, 32 percent in the regiment's headquarters and weapons companies. Of the 9 rifle platoons in the 3 companies of 1/1, 74 men and no original platoon leaden remained. The regiment had suffered 1,749 casualties in 8 days of fighting.
The relief of the 1st Marines by the 321st Regimental Combat Team, was a major turning point in the battle. It marked the opening of a new phase of operations. Up to this point all the terrain of strategic value had been seized: the vital airfield, the commanding terrain above it, and all of the island south and east of the ridges. Yet the struggle would go on for 2 more months.
Rupertus was finally convinced that it was rime for a change in tactics. There would be no more fruitless attacks into the ridges from the south. Rather a sweep would be conducted up the westem coast around the enemy's last ditch defenses in search of a better way to get into the final pocket of enemy resistance. This was an admission that he had been wrong from the start and that victory was going to take time. The main Japanese strongholds would be reduced by concentrating firepower on a small area of the ridges, seizing that position, and then advancing a few more yards, slowly repeating this process over and over again.
The initial gains of the fresh army regiment were dramatic. The soldiers advanced north up the west road parallel to the Umurbrogols, covered on the flank by a battalion of the 7th Marines. After a week of stalled frontal assaults into Bloody Nose by the 1st Marines, the 321st Infantry had advanced a mile and a half up the western road with patrols probing an additional mile up the road by 24 September.
However, the Japanese provided another surprise by attempting a landing on the northern tip of Peleliu with reinforcements from Babelthuap. Although all the landing barges were destroyed by fire from shore, as many as 600 troops were able to get ashore and immediately disappeared into the tunnel system.
On D+10 (25 September), the 5th Marines were ordered to pass through the 321st Infantry, proceed up the western road, and clear the northern tip of the island and the adjacent island of Ngesebus, which is connected to Peleliu by a causeway. The 5th Marines moved out quickly. Forced marching all the way to the northern tip of the island, at dawn on 26 September they slammed across the northern ridges. Simultaneously, the 321st Infantry turned east from their positions in a flanking movement into the ridges along a broad front, advancing all the way to the crest line. The enemy was knocked off balance by the momentum of these attacks and could only resist with fires from Ngesebus and by fruitless local counterattacks.
On D+13, 3/5 launched a bold shore-to-shore amphibious assault supported by Peleliu-based Marine aircraft and 16 tanks to seize Ngesebus, capture its airfield, and prevent the landing of further enemy reinforcements. This was one of the only amphibious assaults of the war that was supported exclusively by Marine aircraft. One veteran participating in this landing, was particularly impressed by the Marine air support:
Our pilots outdid themselves. Never before did I see pilots take such risks by not pulling out of their dives until the last instant. We talked about this spectacular flying even after the war.
A Marine general observing the Ngesebus assault, also paid tribute to the Marine aviators by saying: "It was the best support I ever saw aviation give any attack."
There was plenty of fighting to be done on Ngesebus although 3/5 made quick work of it. There were numerous pillboxes and fortified positions that required leadership, skill, and tenacity to destroy. Such pillboxes had concrete walls partitioning them into three- to four-man compartments, with each compartment having its own firing ports. Each section had to be destroyed individually. It took a combination of rifle fire, grenades, 75mm armor piercing shells, and finally a flamethrower to kill all of the Japanese inside. Such was the day-to-day business of fighting on Peleliu.
On 27 September, the same day that Ngesebus was assaulted, a symbolic flag raising was held at the division command post. However, with the north now secured, there was still one job left-to isolate the only Japanese remaining on Peleliu in the middle section of the Umurbrogols. It was here that the Japanese commander continued to lead from his command post deep inside the limestone rock. The division proceeded to encircle this area in what became known as the "Umurbrogol Pocket." Clearing it out would be a matter of advancing by inches and sealing up the seemingly endless cave entrances.
On 1 October, with a brutal fight in the Umurbrogol Pocket raging, Gen Rupertus sent his tank battalion back to Pavuvu, believing that they would not be effective in the rough terrain of the ridges and were therefore no longer needed. Gen O. P. Smith later reflected that this was a "bad mistake." The mobile firepower was sorely missed. Of some compensation was the arrival of two more Marine fighter squadrons, VMF-122 and VMF(N)-541, establishing MAG-11 on the island to support the troops in "The Pocket" as highly effective "flying artillery."
The succeeding weeks of fighting after the relief of the 1st Marines began to whittle down the strength of the 5th and 7th Marines. By D+20 (5 October), the 7th Marines had lost about as many men as the 1st Marines and were finished as a regimental-size assault force. Col "Bucky" Harris of the 5th Marines, like Puller earlier in the fight, led from a stretcher. Both the 5th and 7th Regiments had experienced a far bigger dose of Peleliu's heat, humidity, rain, and backbreaking terrain than the 1st Marines. Eugene Sledge comments about this stage of the battle:
[It was] a nether world of horror from which escape seemed less and less likely as casualties mounted and the fighting dragged on and on. Time had no meaning; life had no meaning. The fierce struggle made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to those behind the lines. . .
The original plan for the seizure of Peleliu provided for the turnover of command from the III Amphibious Corps and 1st Marine Division, to the commanding general, 81st Infantry Division at the end of the assault phase. In accordance with the plan, the relief of the 1st Marine Division commenced on D+30 (15 October 1944), with units of the 81st Division relieving the Marines in place in the pocket. The "Wildcats" would fight on for another 6 weeks before declaring on 27 November that all organized enemy resistance had ceased. However, numerous isolated incidents of fighting continued on the island for some time with the last known Japanese soldier coming out of the caves in 1955.
Adm Halsey sent a message to mark the turnover:
The sincere admiration of the entire Third Fleet is yours for the hill blasting, cave smashing extermination of 11,000 slant-eyed gophers. It has been a tough job, extremely well done.
The 1st Marine Division's reward was a return to Pavuvu , their former staging area, for rest, rehabilitation, and replacements.
Bloody Nose Ridge had soaked up the blood of the division like a sponge. The 5th Marines had suffered 1,378 casualties, about 43 percent; the 7th Marines had sustained 1,497 casualties, about 46 percent; all combined with the 1st Marines casualties, the total for the division was 6,786 casualties with over 1,300 killed in action. Eight Marines won the Medal of Honor. When the fight was finally over, the 81st Division had suffered another 3,278 casualties including those incurred on Angaur. Almost 10,900 Japanese had been killed. There had been a total of more than 14,000 violent deaths within die 6 by 2-mile island. Yet only a short 5 months later, on 1 April 1945, the 1st Marine Division landed on Okinawa.
Five years after World War II, the Commandant, Gen Clifton B. Cates, wrote that the assault on Peleliu was one of the most vicious, stubbornly contested, and least understood batdes of the war. This was significant coming from a six-time wounded veteran of Belleau Wood and Soissons during World War I and later Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima. Gen Geiger called Peleliu "the toughest fight of the war." Noted Peleliu historian Harry Gailey wrote, "In terms of heroism, every man who fought at Peleliu deserved the highest awards his country can bestow."
Yet it remains a mystery why Peleliu has not taken its rightful place among the Corps' most famed battles. Peleliu may simply have been overlooked as a sideshow to MacArthur's return to the Philippines or to the Allied invasion of France. It may have been because so few correspondents went ashore on Peleliu. Some even speculate that the Marine Corps downplayed the battle because of the severe criticism of the Marine tactics and the high casualties incurred at Tarawa, Kwajalein, and Saipan by the Army and the press, preferring that Peleliu was best forgotten.
Eugene Sledge wrote of the sacrifice made on Peleliu:
[We] suffered so much for our country. None came out unscathed. Many gave their lives, their health, and some their sanity. All who survived will long remember the horror that they would rather forget. But they suffered and they did their duty so a sheltered homeland can enjoy the peace.
Fifty years later, it is fitting that we remember the struggle for bloody Peleliu. It was a triumph over the most unimaginable adversity, achieved at great human cost. Peleliu prepared the Marine Corps for the bitter fighting on the tunneled and fortified island of Iwo Jima and the high ground of Okinawa, and sustained the indomitable fighting spirit that has animated the Corps throughout its history. Thus, Peleliu is a battle to be studied, honored, and remembered.