Day Two in Hell

The Naval bombardment at Peleliu had gone on since September 12th. The invasion on the 15th was literally hell on earth for the invaders and defenders. Day two was even worse.

The battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi, Tennessee and Idaho, heavy cruisers Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis and Portland, light cruisers Columbia, Cleveland, Denver and Honolulu, and three fleet and five light aircraft carriers dropped 519 rounds of 16 in (410 mm) shells, 1,845 rounds of 14 in (360 mm) shells, 1,793 500 lb (230 kg) bombs, and 73,412 .50 in (12.7 mm) machine gun rounds onto the tiny island, only 6 sq mi (16 km2) in size.

The Americans believed the bombardment to be successful, as Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf claimed that the Navy had run out of targets. Major General William Rupertus had convinced his superiors that his Marines would have the island secured within four days. The Japanese under Colonel Nakagawa had other plans.

The Japanese had studied the previous attacks and determined that the traditional beach defenses were not effective in stopping the Americans. They also determined that the Banzai attacks were horrible wastes of human life and adjusted both of their strategies to fight a different kind of battle. The Americans were not so blessed. Their strategy remained the same as it had been all through the Pacific War to date and the results could be predicted.

The American’s came to the beachheads in lightly armored Amtracks and quickly found out how ineffective the bombardment had been. The defenders had literally honeycombed the island with a series of caves and used interlocking fire to reap a heavy toll on the invaders. A large cannon on the top of hill was hidden behind several bomb proof metal doors, only emerging between shelling from the ships nearby. This horrible weapon killed many sailors and Marines before they even hit the beach.

The morning of day two revealed another of the tactical changes the Japanese had made. Instead of the shrieking banzai attacks, they snuck quietly into the foxholes of the exhausted Marines and killed them where they lay. The casualty rates were the highest of the Pacific War and took the First Marines out of action until 1945. Another tactic the Japanese realized was the American’s use of stretcher bearers during the attack. Snipers would target those lifesaving men in order to draw out more victims. It is a credit to the men who still went to help their fallen comrades that they continued to do so all through the battles.

The Marines had many enemies on Day Two. The 110 degree heat from the first day was replaced by the 112 degree heat of day two. The hard coral was brutal on the men who kept finding more and more spider holes filled with snipers and machine guns. Even the water they needed so badly worked against them. Someone who was tasked with providing the fresh water for drinking had loaded 55 gallon barrels that had not been sufficiently cleaned from the oil that had been in them before. Many of the Marines succumbed to water poisoning as they tried to quench the unrelenting heat. Add the shell shock effect on many young Marines and combat fatigue resulting from too many horrors to imagine, and it is easier to understand the losses.

By the time the First Marines secured their objectives, they had gone from 3500 men to only twenty seven effectives.  A battle that was only supposed to last four days lasted instead to three months. The Japanese survivors finally surrendered in 1947, a full two years after the war itself was over.

What did we gain? Strategically, not very much. The little island was not very useful for the battles soon to come to regain the Philippines. Many island fortresses were bypassed in the race across the Pacific and the use of the atomic bombs finally convinced the Japanese leadership of the further futility of pursuing the war. In proportion to the number of men involved on both sides, Peleliu would have a lasting mark as the bloodiest and most costly victory of the Second World War.

Shortly after the battle rage slowed to an ebb, MacArthur landed on the Philippines and began the brutal campaign of liberation. The war had a long way to go before its conclusion, but in the heat of the second day it ended too quickly for some of America’s finest. God rest their souls.

For more background… and some very great pictures:

Semper Fi

Mister Mac

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