Bloody Peleliu: Unavoidable Yet Unnecessary
by Jeremy Gypton
Purpose and Planning
The American assault on Peleliu, in the Palau Islands, had the highest casualty rate of any amphibious invasion in terms of men and material in the entire war in the Pacific. Peleliu was viewed as a potential threat to General Douglas MacArthur's invasion of the Philippines; its airfield would enable Japanese planes to strike at American landing and support ships and menace troops once on the ground in the Philippines. Clearly, from MacArthur's perspective, the almost 11,000-man garrison there had to be eliminated before his forces could move, unhindered, on his primary target. Thus, the strategic legitimacy of the Peleliu operation was established. American amphibious doctrine – well-developed and tested from operations from the Gilberts to the Marianas – was up to the task, as well. The 1st Marine Division, a veteran of the Pacific theater, was also ready. Peleliu, however, proved to be quite different from the many previous battles in several fundamental ways, and would end with a high death toll, questionable strategic gain, and yet valuable insights for future operations.
Preparing to Fight
Nimitz, therefore, ordered the planning of an invasion expected to be very much like others fought, and won, over the last year. STALEMATE II, as the operation was eventually designated after some changes, would take place on 15 September 1944, with landings first at Peleliu, and subsequent assaults on Anguar and Ulithi, also in the Palaus. American amphibious doctrine had been refined and improved upon over a year of hard fighting, beginning with Tarawa, and was approaching the efficiency of a well-oiled machine by late 1944.
Land-based targets would be destroyed by massive naval fires, lasting days, and
the landings themselves would be immediately preceded by strafing and bombing
runs by carrier-based aircraft. The troops would be carried to shore in
successive waves, massing on the beaches until they had sufficient force to push
inland. The shallow Japanese defenses, although held with vigor, would
eventually be overwhelmed, and American troops would move and capture the
island. Although fighting in the Marianas had been tougher than expected, this
overall methodology worked, and would be employed again at Peleliu.
Only two minutes off schedule, on 15 September 1944, the first troops began landing at 0832, with the 1st Marines on the far left, 5th Marines in the middle, and 7th Marines on the right (southern) end of the beaches.(11)
The regiments on the flanks were to move inland and wheel outward, while the 5th Marines was to push across the airfield to the eastern side of the island.
Should this be accomplished as planned, the entire southern end of the island –
better than half the entire land mass – would be in American hands, and the rest
of the operation would be over quickly. Rupertus, apparently brimming with
confidence in his men and himself, declared that Peleliu would be taken by the
1st MarDiv in only a few days.
The Japanese, during the Navy's bombardment and Rupertus' blustering, had
hunkered down in their caves, bunkers, pillboxes, and trenches, waited out the
preliminary fires, and then assumed their well-protected, well-hidden positions.
Compared to earlier island assaults, few Japanese were arrayed directly opposite
the beaches. Most were just inland, on the flanks of the beaches, and in the
steep mountains immediately north of the airfield. COL Nakagama's troops
demonstrated a great deal of discipline in not firing wildly at landing craft
while they were far out to sea, and in doing so reveal their positions to naval
fire. During the 3 day bombardment, they also held their fire for the same
reason. Consequently, the vast majority of positions, and virtually all those
holding heavy weapons, were unscathed as of D-Day.
Proven Courage, Slight Reward
A number of points of contention are evident during the planning and execution
phases of the assault on Peleliu. First, and probably foremost, was the decision
to launch the attack at all. Beyond this issue is the actual operational and
tactical execution of the attack itself, especially in terms of leadership and
At the core of the strategic justification
for the attack was MacArthur's insistence that his right flank must be
protected, and that seizing the Palaus was the means by which this should be
accomplished. Nimitz, for his part, had promised MacArthur the support he might
need to return to the Philippines, and agreed with the general's opinion on the
Palaus. Without further information, little intelligence could be produced to
dispute this assessment; after all, the Palaus did present a gap between the two
American axes of advance in the Pacific, and could well serve as a strategic
'shoe horn' the Japanese might use to threaten further moves by either Nimitz or
Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Gypton