Before our group formally came together in Palau last March, I joined a pre-trip day-long visit to Palau’s southernmost island of Peleliu. My original interest in visiting the tiny Pacific nation was driven in large part by curiosity about my father’s service in WWII. He was a naval aviator in the Pacific theater, flying kingfisher float planes on reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions. Much was written about the war, and in particular Peleliu, in the history books I had been reading to prepare for the trip, but somehow it had escaped me that it was part of Palau. I was excited to see it.
We rode a speedboat 90 minutes south from the main city of Koror, winding past the dozens of uninhabited “Rock Islands,” to sparsely-populated Peleliu. The Empire of Japan had held Palau (in fact, all of Micronesia except Guam and the Philippines) since the end of World War I, so it was already a well-entrenched base of operations for them. There had been plenty of time between the wars to become familiar with the terrain. Throughout our stay, we encountered evidence of their strategic planning. We visited concrete “pill-box” defensive positions on several islands, a secret underground tank garage, and cannon bunkers tucked into hillside lairs in the limestone. We paddled above and snorkeled down to various war debris lying, wasted, in the peaceful blue waters. One was a Japanese “Zero” fighter plane. Our guide/host, Ron Leidich, and his colleagues have made it their mission to ferret out many of the sites, which are now typically smothered by dense vegetation and otherwise lost to memory.
On Peleliu, we had a concentrated military history field trip. The Battle of Peleliu was envisioned by American commanders as an uncomplicated affair that would last only four days. When it began on September 14, 1944, three regiments of the 1st Marine Division, already battle-hardened at Guadalcanal and New Britain, stormed two miles of beaches on the southwest shore near the airfield, They were met by both debilitating heat (up to 115 degrees F.) and withering Japanese resistance. They were later bolstered by troops from the US Army’s 81st Infantry Division. Far from taking a couple of days, it wouldn’t be until November 27 (73 days) that the operation code-named Operation Stalemate II was won.
One reason was the “Thousand-Man Cave,” a honeycomb of tunnels linking some 500 limestone caves underneath what became known as “Bloody-Nose Ridge.” Highly-engineered (and probably largely excavated by Korean slave labor), the tunnels required new offensive strategies. The enemy seemed to appear from nowhere at times. Driven by the warrior creed of bushido, Japanese soldiers would rather die than give up. We also learned that part of their motivation also stemmed from the fact that Japanese soldiers in a unit typically came from the same prefecture; they were fighting (and dying) beside their childhood friends. Of the 27,000 American troops at Peleliu, 9,800 were casualties; of approximately 11,000 Japanese, 10,700 died and only 200 were captured [Source: http://www.historynet.com/peleliu accessed June 9, 2017]
Our day on Peleliu was far different from what the Marines encountered. No longer a war zone, the place was eerily quiet—ghostlike. True, we felt the tropical heat, but we could see in photographs Ron had that the tangled, dense foliage was nothing like the heavily bombed and thus largely deforested place the soldiers knew. In that steamy quiet, we bore witness, clamoring onto rusted cannons and tanks, and casually walking into the caves, bunkers, and pillboxes. At the southernmost point of the island, we visited a Shinto shrine with an arrow pointing the way home for any Japanese souls who might still be lingering.
There are many excellent histories of those dreadful times in that idyllic place. One book I read before the visit to Peleliu was Robert Leckie, A Helmet for My Pillow, which brings Bloody Nose Ridge (and much more) vividly to life. Ron recommended Coral Comes High, by George P. Hunt, and also With the Old Breed, by Eugene Sledge. The Battle of Peleliu is also depicted in the fifth episode of Ken Burns’ TV series, “The War” and in episodes 5, 6 and 7 of the TV mini-series, “The Pacific.” [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Peleliu, accessed June 9, 2017].
We were lucky that Ron is expert on regional WWII history, and a great storyteller. When the day ended, in spite of the horrors it conjured, I knew I wouldn’t have missed the time on Peleliu for anything.