The Pacific: Peleliu – Hell on Earth

Their names echo through time – Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, and Midway. But a little known battle on a little known island would define hell on Earth. That place is Peleliu. In the HBO series, The Pacific, episodes five through seven will take place here.

Island hopping was not an easy strategy. Like frogs on a pond, American forces were to make their way to Japan by securing islands necessary to attack the Empire. Priority was given to islands with airfields. Throughout late 1942 and 1943, the US was focused in the Marianas and Solomon Islands. In 1944, the focus began to move north towards the Philippines and the islands of Japan.

As the war got longer, each island became more valuable. The Japanese, having been in possession of the islands since late 1941, had built fortifications and tunnels in the lush tropical jungles. In return, the US used overwhelming force when taking an island. For an island consisting of only five square miles, it would take three months to take and cost the lives of some 20,000+ soldiers. When it was all said and done, the Japanese lost all but 500 men while the US lost almost 1800 men and 6000 wounded out of 17,000 – mostly Marines.

Here is Eugene Sledge’s, author of With the Old Breed, description of the noise at the landing. In the show, The Pacific, Eugene is the young man with the heart murmur.

A Time Magazine reporter wrote:

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. Marines are in the finest possible physical condition, but they wilted on Peleliu. By the fourth day there were as many casualties from heat prostration as from wounds . . . .

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.

The US used short-range artillery to try to get the Japanese out of the caves. Napalm and short-range bombs dropped by planes from the airfield 1100 yards away did not work very well. So, the US fought in close quarters and each cave had to be taken out individually by grenades and eventually flamethrowers. The Japanese would just not surrender.

And through October of 1944, the soldiers of the 1st Marine Division struggled to take an island they were told would only take three days. With the Japanese holed up in a mountainous region known as “The Pocket”, every attempt to clear this 1000 yard by 500 yard area was an exercise in futility. With the Japanese dug in caves, the US were in a shooting gallery most days. On some missions, the US casualty rate was as high as 70%! That is an astounding figure!

The Marines were relieved in October by the US Army 81st Infantry Division. The Japanese commander, Nakagawa, committed sepuku in November and the island was secure. Although, 30+ Japanese soldiers did hold out in the caves of the island until April 22, 1947. A Japanese Admiral would convince them to stand down. The US would take the island but would not use it for staging in retaking the Philippines nor in attacks on Saipan, Okinawa, or Iwo Jima.

Here is an excellent online account of the battle by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Retired). For his extraordinary heroism while commanding the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, on Peleliu, he was awarded the Navy Cross.

For further reading on places in the mini-series The Pacific:
Iwo Jima
Australian War Effort

The Lost Evidence show on Peleliu.
WARNING: At times it is very graphic.


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