Preparing to Fight
by Jeremy Gypton
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.
While U.S. doctrine had evolved greatly, it seemed, from the American perspective, that the Japanese were incapable of adapting their tactics. In almost all island defenses, they had exacted high casualty rates from the Americans, but in the end suffered, effectively, 100% casualties, of which generally 99% were killed. Offensive-minded dogma seemed to overrule any pragmatic good sense.
Japanese tactics, however, were undergoing a significant transformation, a change as of yet unknown to the Americans. Conscious of their loss of strategic and operational initiative, and the loss of the entire eastern portion of their sphere of control, the Japanese had drawn their final 'line in the sand,' a construct referred to as the "Absolute National Defense Zone."(5) In order to hold this line, the Imperial General Headquarters directed that island defenses were to be conducted in such a manner that American forces would be bogged down and bled white over long periods of time, in hopes of bringing about a negotiated end to the war.(6) Bloody but short-lived banzai charges could not be sustained long enough to exact such casualties; therefore, changes needed to be made in how the Japanese were to defend their islands. If such changes could be instituted, and they worked, it was believed that the Americans simply would not have the stomach for such attrition-heavy warfare.
COL Nakagawa planned to use what were later referred to as fukakku tactics, which would make use of well-entrenched soldiers, caves, natural barriers on and off the island, and vast underground positions honeycombed throughout his area of operations. The terrain of Peleliu was perfectly suited to this approach, with dense undergrowth, sharp coral and rock outcroppings near the most likely invasion beaches, and a coral reef surrounding the entire island. Additionally, other beaches were less likely as landing sites due to difficult terrain features on or immediately inland of them. Finally, and most significantly, the northern reaches of Peleliu were dominated by a series of steep and craggy ridge lines and hills, known as the Umurbrogol Mountains. At 500 hundred feet about sea level, the highest peak held a commanding view of the island, to include the airfield to the south.
Throughout the many hills, draws, small valleys, and crags of the Umurbrogols, the Japanese blasted caves of varying sizes, from those so small they could only fit a few men, to one large enough to host 1000.(7) From these caves Nakagawa's men sited their weapons, to include 20 81mm mortars, 20mm automatic guns, and 4 150mm mortars. These were in addition to a light tank unit, consisting of fewer than 20 tanks, an antiaircraft detachment, and the normal compliment of rifles and grenades adequate to arm the almost 11,000 Japanese.(8) Along the beaches were arrayed thousands of obstacles and munitions, as well, to include many heavy artillery shells, buried upright with their fuses exposed in order to detonate when run over, in the same manner as a standard anti-tank mine. COL Nakagawa planned to fight a delaying action along the beaches, essentially sacrificing a battalion worth of troops there; the real battle, and the attrition, would take place inland once American troops were fully committed to the island.
While the Japanese were planning and constructing their defenses on Peleliu, the 1st Marine Division was busy planning their attack. Other operations in the Palau Islands would involve the army's green 81st Infantry Division, commanded by MG Paul Mueller; additionally, the 81st would serve as a possible reserve for MG William Rupertus' 1st MarDiv, should they be needed. The American plan was more or less identical to those successful attacks launched over the previous year. Beaches on the southwestern corner of the island were chosen, mainly due to their proximity to the airfield. A pre-invasion naval bombardment was scheduled to last 2 days, and involve several battleships and cruisers. When ground commanders complained that this was too short, it was extended to three days, but without a corresponding (one would think 50%) increase in ammunition; hence, the bombardment would last three days, albeit with two days' worth of ammunition.
1st MarDiv, during this period of planning, was stationed on Pavuvu, an inadequately small spot of land in the Russell Islands. Intended as a place for rest, reorganization and retraining for the tired division, it ended up providing little opportunity for any of these. Forced to construct their own camps on the barren island during time that would have been better used for combat training, the marines were also re-equipped piecemeal, with new weapons and vehicles coming to them in fits and spurts, even up to the days before their departure for the long sea voyage to Peleliu.
When the marines arrived in the Palaus in September, just before D-Day, they witnessed yet another of the navy's massive bombardments, even if for only 3 days. Tiny Peleliu, described as being mostly low and flat by aerial photograph analysts, and only about 6 square miles in size, was battered by shells from the old battleships and cruisers, strafed by carrier planes, and finally pummeled by rockets launched from landing vessels immediately before the first troops stormed ashore. The noise was nearly deafening, the smoke thick, and the entire spectacle awesome, as such bombardments generally were. The few Japanese planes on the island were destroyed, as were most of the buildings around the airfield. During the naval fire on D-Day alone, some 1400 tons of ammunition were rained down on exposed and suspected Japanese positions.(9) In fact, believing the fires to be so devastating and effective, Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, declared that he had "run out of profitable targets."(10)
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.
Written by Jeremy Gypton
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Gypton