Peleliu is a small island that forms part of the nation of Palau in the Pacific. It’s about five hours flying time south of Japan and three hours east of the Philippines. It’s now, like the rest of Palau, beautiful, peaceful and home to more shades of blue in the sea and sky than you or your camera lens would ever have thought possible.
Blue wasn’t always the colour.
Between September and November 1944, it was the site of an incredibly fierce battle between US and Japanese armed forces. Peleliu island is about 14 square miles of terrain; during the three months of fighting, the casualty rate worked out at just under 1,000 men killed per square mile of island. Close to 1,800 American servicemen died; of the 11,000 Japanese soldiers defending the island, only 202 were captured alive.
The battle was fought over the fact Peleliu had an airfield, and was within range of the Philippines, from where the US planned to eventually launch strikes against the Japanese mainland. The plan to attack Peleliu was a contentious one – not all of the US high command thought Peleliu was strategically important, and after the battle, the US found the airfield was barely operational, and posed almost no threat to US forces elsewhere in the Pacific.
I’m from the UK, and visited Palau in October 2008. I took a day trip to Peleliu with a Japanese tour group. I took some photos, and made some notes. The photos are all hosted on Flickr. You can see the images as a slideshow on Flickr, check out the full set, or read the rest of this post to see what I saw.
This shallow stretch of idyllic Pacific ocean is where US forces first landed on Peleliu; called ‘Orange beach’, the US Marines arrived here at half eight in the morning on September 15th, 1944. This map of Peleliu shows the landing beaches quite clearly, all grouped together at the south of the island, near the Japanese airfield.
Unlike previous battles in the Pacific, the Japanese opted not to put all their effort into defending the perimeter of the island, so while the marines faced resistance when they landed, it was only going to get worse when they advanced into the island’s interior. Below is a picture from Google’s archive of images from Life magazine which shows what it was like for the US forces approaching Peleliu. Here’s how Time Magazine’s Robert Martin described it:
‘Peleliu is a horrible place. The heat is stifling and rain falls intermittently — the muggy rain that brings no relief, only greater misery. The coral rocks soak up the heat during the day and it is only slightly cooler at night… Peleliu is incomparably worse than Guam in its bloodiness, terror, climate and the incomprehensible tenacity of the Japs. For sheer brutality and fatigue, I think it surpasses anything yet seen in the Pacific, certainly from the standpoint of numbers of troops involved and the time taken to make the island secure.’
When you arrive on Peleliu, it doesn’t take long to start spotting the remains of the war. This is partly because while the US helped rebuild Peleliu (and Palau as a whole – the country only become fully independent in 1994), they just moved the civilian population from the south of the island to the north and started afresh. The south of the island and its thick jungle still contain plenty of WW2 relics.
While the Japanese tactics were different to the ones they had used previously, the US relied on a similar approach to previous Pacific island battles, pounding Peleliu with tonnes of heavy shells fired from battleships before landing troops. They were confident they had destroyed most of the Japanese garrison and that when the Marines landed there would be little resistance.
Despite the damage done to the island (seen above, in another image from Life), the Japanese troops survived by sheltering in their caves. When the marines landed, they found Peleliu extremely tough going – no surprises when they were being shot at from well concealed sniper positions such as this one.
Like the rest of the Palau islands, Peleliu is made mostly from extremely tough volcanic limestone. Its toughness made it ideal for turning into defensive fortifications, and once stripped of its vegetation, it was razor sharp on the feet and extremely hostile to navigate.
Unlike previous battles in the Pacific, the Japanese didn’t place the entire emphasis of their strategy on defending the beaches – they fortified the island, in particular a mountain called Umurbrogol. The Japanese riddled Umurbrogol with a huge network of caves and tunnels from which to operate (this image shows a plan of one complex). Once they had completed their work, they evacuated the civilians, and waited for the Americans.
Below you scan see the entrance to one of the Japanese caves, and beneath that, a shot from inside, looking back to the entrance. The entrance itself probably isn’t more than 3 or 4 foot high; inside the cave ceilings are slightly higher, although very uneven – but it’s not a great place to be when, like me, you’re 6 foot 2. It was a horrible place to spend 15 minutes, but caves like these were where the Japanese forces lived for the duration of the battle. Inside, you can still see discarded boots, bottles and bullets.
Peleliu has several Japanese graveyards/memorials, of which this is one. If I remember rightly, this shrine was built by a Japanese soldier who survived the battle (one of only 200 of the original garrison of 11,000 who did), who then went on to become a successful businessman running book shops in Shibuya. The man in the blue shirt on the right was our guide, Kikuchi-san.
Peleliu takes an hour or so to get to via boat from Koror, Palau’s capital, so while we’d set off early in the day, after seeing the landing beaches and the first set of caves, it getting towards lunch time, and really warming up. In the sun, the temperature was comfortably over 30 degrees Celsius, and once you got away from the sea, the humidity really started to rise. Everyone on the tour group clutched their bottle of chilled water and regularly took new ones from the chiller box in the back of the tour’s Toyota minivan.
Once we’d finished at the graveyard, our small group piled back into the Toyota and hit the road, throwing the windows open and glad of the breeze. Next stop: what was once the HQ of the Imperial Japanese Navy on Peleliu. A two level concrete structure built in the 1920s, it’s now a beautiful, quiet run that is gradually becoming part of the jungle. We were free to explore – even up the crumbling staircase. Spookily, it was, when we visited, decorated with brightly coloured chains of paper cranes, hanging still in both sunlight and shadow. It’s a common custom in Japan for children to make these for ceremonial occasions – and I think Kikuchi-san told us they were brought by school children on a history trip.
Peleliu’s climate is exhausting; hot and humid, it pulls the energy out of you. The suffering of the soldiers – both Japanese and US – from combat was compounded by the climate. It also exacts a real toll on buildings and equipment, as you can see from this shot of a concrete bunker. I’ve never seen concrete rot before:
Once we left the naval HQ, we drove towards Umurbrogol mountain, the site of the fiercest fighting on Peleliu. Initial aerial photos made it look to US planners like a relatively simple mountain that the Marines would have little trouble capturing. They were wrong:
“Instead of a gently rounded hill, the Umurbrogol area was in fact a complex system of sharply uplifted coral ridges, knobs, valleys, and sinkholes. It rose above the level remainder of the island from 50 to 300 feet, and provided excellent emplacements for cave and tunnel defenses.” Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC, 1
Even now, backed up by bottles of chilled water and carrying only a few pieces of camera equipment, it’s not easy to climb. The path leads on a very circuitous route, framed on each side by steep drops, cliffs of sheer stone and thick foliage. The heat hangs in clusters, the sunlight waiting for you to pass through, baking on your skin when you do.
This huge Japanese gun remains in a hollow, looking out over the island:
While these ferns proved nature’s tenacity…
By growing in this US landing craft’s engine bay.
This Japanese tank was much smaller than the American one. Though it has been abandoned, it makes a nice memorial; nature is reclaiming it.
There are many memorial plaques on the mountain, some in English, some in Japanese, some in both. This one was placed outside a cave where several Japanese officers committed ritual suicide. As the Americans advanced slowly up the mountain2 – taking horrendous casualties as they did, and causing the troops to name it, with typical Marine corps black humour, ‘Bloody Nose ridge’ – they resorted to using flamethrowers to clear the caves. Today, you can still see the scorch marks on the wall.
The group paused here while our guide, Kikuchi-san spoke about the battles.
As with most of the tour, it was in Japanese (which I don’t speak well), but he kindly translated for me. After Kikuchi-san had finished his talk, the Japanese on the group were silent and offered prayers to the soldiers. It was a very sad moment, and difficult to know what to think. Part of me was flattened by how useless the whole fight was – how strange that something people were willing to fight to the death for has faded in sixty years to the point that I can visit the battlefield as a tourist, on a tour with the ‘other side’ – yet you can’t help but be moved by the bravery and tenacity displayed by both sides. Perhaps what you feel most keenly on Peleliu is the passage of time; how powerful the process of the minutes moving onwards is.
This is the view from the top of Umurbrogol.
The battle on Peleliu became the inspiration for the phrase ‘thousand yard stare’, after the title of a painting by a war correspondent there, Tom Lea. Previously known for jingoistic, ‘Go America’ images, Peleliu altered Lea’s approach.
According to Wikipedia, Lea said about the marine who was the subject of the painting:
“He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”
This image shows our guide, Kikuchi-san, at one of the memorials to Japanese and American soldiers. It looks out over the beautiful Pacific and blue is the colour.
1 Taken from BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu, by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)
2 Gayle’s write up is is very detailed when it comes to the action on the mountain.