Operation ‘Stalemate II’ – The US capture of Peleliu (Part 2)

The temperature on Peleliu remained at about 115° F (46° C), and the marines lost many men to heat exhaustion: moreover, the marines’ only available water supply was contaminated with oil. Progress was made, albeit only slowly, and by 23 September the 5th and 7th Marines had accomplished their objectives, taking and holding the airfield and the southern portion of the island. After capturing the airfield, the marines brought it back into service as early as 18 September, when Taylorcraft L-2 ‘Grasshopper’ observation aircraft of the VMO-1 squadron started to fly spotting missions for the marines’ artillery and also for naval gunfire. On 26 September , Vought F4U Corsair fighter-bombers of the VMF-114 squadron landed on the airstrip, and almost immediately started to fly dive-bombing missions across Peleliu. The Corsair warplanes also introduced two new weapons to Peleliu: air-launched rockets were able to blow open cave entrances for the infantrymen, and napalm (used for only the second time in the Pacific theatre) was able to burn away the vegetation hiding spider holes, usually killing the holes’ occupants in the process. The Japanese strongpoint at ‘The Point’ continued to cause heavy casualties across the landing beaches, and Puller ordered Captain George Hunt, commanding Company K, 3/1st Marines, to capture the position. The company approached ‘The Point’ with little in the way of supplies and only limited firepower as it had lost most of its machine guns while approaching the beach. One platoon was pinned down for nearly an entire day in a vulnerable position between fortifications, and the rest of his company was also in extreme danger after the Japanese split the company’s line, cutting off its right flank. However, a rifle platoon began knocking out the Japanese gun positions, one after another: using smoke grenades for cover, the marines swept through each hole, destroying the positions with rifle grenades. After knocking out the six machine gun positions, the marines finally faced the 47-mm gun cave. A lieutenant blinded the gun’s crew with a smoke grenade, allowing Corporal Henry W. Hahn to throw a grenade through the cave’s aperture: the grenade detonated the 47-mm ammunition, forcing the Japanese to leave the cave and then be shot.

Company K had captured ‘The Point’, but Nakagawa now sent a series of counterattacks in an effort to retake it. During the next 30 hours there were four major counterattacks against the single marine company, which was desperately short of supplies and out of water. By the time reinforcements arrived, the company had been reduced to 18 men, and had suffered 157 casualties during the battle for ‘The Point’. After securing the airfield, the 5th Marines were sent to capture Ngesebus island, just north of Peleliu, as this was occupied by several Japanese artillery positions and was also the site of an incomplete airfield. The little island was connected to Peleliu by a small causeway, but Harris opted instead for a shore-to-shore amphibious landing as he felt that the causeway would have been preregistered by the Japanese artillery. Harris co-ordinated a preliminary bombardment of the island on 28 September by army 155-mm (6.1-in) guns, naval gunfire, the 11th Marines’ howitzers, strafing runs by VMF-114’s Corsair fighter-bombers, and 75-mm (2.95-in) fire from the approaching LVTs. Unlike the naval bombardment of Peleliu, Harris’s bombardment of Ngesebus island was very effective and neutralised most of the defenders. The marines still faced opposition in the ridges and caves, but the island fell quickly, with relatively light casualties for the 5th Marines: for the loss of 15 men killed and 33 wounded, the 5th Marines inflicted 470 casualties on the Japanese.

‘Bloody Nose Ridge’
After taking ‘The Point’, the 1st Marines moved north into the Umurbrogol pocket, nicknamed ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’. Puller led his men in numerous assaults, but every attack was quickly snuffed out by the Japanese. The 1st Marines were trapped in the narrow defiles between the ridges, with each ridge fortification supporting the other with deadly crossfire. The marines suffered a steady flow of casualties as they advanced slowly through the defiles and across the ridges. Yet again, the Japanese showed excellent fire discipline, striking only when they could inflict maximum casualties. As the marine casualties mounted, Japanese snipers began to take aim at stretcher bearers, knowing that if two stretcher bearers were injured or killed, more would be sent forward to replace them, thereby providing the snipers with a steady flow of targets. Moreover, rather than the Banzai charges the marines expected, the Japanese now infiltrated the US lines at night to attack the marines in their foxholes. The marines therefore started to use two-man foxholes, so that one marine could sleep while the other kept watch for infiltrators.

A notably bloody episode on ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’ occurred when Major Raymond Davis’s 1/1st Marines attacked Hill 100 and, in the course of six days of combat, suffered 71% casualties. Captain Everett Pope led his company deep into the defile/ridge complex, leading his remaining 90 men to take what he believed to be Hill 100. It took an entire day of bloody fighting to reach what he thought was the crest of the hill, only then finding that it was merely the nose of yet another ridge, occupied by still more Japanese defenders. Trapped at the base of the ridge, Pope set up a small defensive perimeter, which the Japanese attacked right through the night. The marines soon exhausted all their rifle ammunition, and had to fight off the attackers with knives, lumps of coral rock and empty ammunition boxes. Yet Pope and his men managed to hold out until dawn, when the surviving nine marines evacuated the position. The Japanese eventually inflicted 60% casualties on Puller’s 1st Marines, who lost 1,749 out of about 3,000 men.

After six days of fighting in the defiles and ridges of Umurbrogol, Geiger, commanding the III Amphibious Corps, sent elements of 81st Infantry Division to Peleliu to relieve the regiment. The 321st Regiment Combat Team landed on the western beaches of Peleliu, at the northern end of the Umurbrogol mountain complex, on September 23, and part of the regiment headed north along the western coast of Peleliu along the flank of the Umurbrogol complex and last the northernmost Japanese positions on Mt Kamilianlul before dividing into two columns at advanced the rest of the way along the western and eastern coasts of the northern peninsula past Mt Amiangal to reach the island’s northern tip on 30 September. Father south, in the Umurbrogol complex, the 321st Infantry and the 5th and 7th Marines all took their turns in attacks on the Umurbrogol complex, and all suffered similar casualties. By mid-October, the 5th and 7th Marines had each suffered about 50% casualties as the two regiments clawed their way through the ridges.

Shift of emphasis to the army
Geiger then decided to replace the 1st Marine Division with the rest of the 81st Division. The 323rd Regimental Combat Team landed on 15 October, on Peleliu’s west side just forward of the US positions at the southern edge of the Umurbrogol complex, and by the third week of October almost all of the marines had been evacuated back to Pavuvu. The army troops headed off to battle the remaining Japanese on ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’, where the fighting lasted for another month before the US forces finally secured the island on 27 November. Nakagawa finally burned his regimental colours and committed ritual suicide. A Japanese lieutenant with 26 soldiers of the 2nd Regiment and eight sailors of the 45th Guard Force held out in the caves in Peleliu until 22 April 1947, surrendering only after a Japanese admiral convinced them the war was over. This was the last official surrender of World War II.

The reduction of the Umurbrogol mountain complex is considered to be the most difficult fight that the US military encountered in World War II. The 1st Marine Division was severely mauled and it remained out of action until the invasion of Okinawa on 1 April 1945. In total the 1st Marine Division suffered 6,499 casualties (1,252 dead and 5,274 wounded) during its month on Peleliu, more than one-third of the whole division. The 81st Division suffered 3,278 casualties (542 dead and 2,736 wounded), bringing the US losses on the island to 9,804 (1,794 dead and 8,010 wounded).

The battle was controversial as Peleliu lacked real strategic value. The airfield was of little use for the attack on the Philippines. The island was never used for a staging operation in subsequent invasions: Ulithi atoll, in the Caroline islands north of the Palau islands, was used as a staging base for the ‘Iceberg’ invasion of Okinawa. But the battles for Angaur and Peleliu showed the US forces the new Japanese tactics for island defence, and this proved important in the planning of ‘Detachment’ and ‘Iceberg’ against Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The naval bombardment before ‘Detachment’ was only slightly more effective than at Peleliu, but that before ‘Iceberg’ was telling in the extreme. Frogmen performing underwater demolition at Iwo Jima confused the enemy by sweeping both coasts, but later alerted the Japanese defenders to the exact assault beaches at Okinawa. US ground forces at Peleliu gained experience in assaulting heavily fortified positions such as they would find again at Okinawa.

Attack on Angaur
On 17 September, meanwhile, the Southern Attack Force (Mueller’s 81st Division with the 321st, 322nd and 323rd Infantry) was landed on Angaur, which is a small volcanic island only 3 miles (4.8 km) long and separated from Peleliu by a 6-mile (9.75-km) strait. By mid-1944 Inoue had stationed some 1,400 men of the 1/59th Regiment, under the command of Major Ushio Goto, on the island. Other Japanese forces in the Palau islands, it should be noted, included two battalions each of the 15th and 59th Regiments plus four battalions of the 53rd Independent Mixed Brigade under the command of Major General Takao Mabuchi on Babelthuap; and the Japanese navy’s 30th Base Force, 43rd and 45th Guard Forces, and air service personnel on Babelthuap, Koror and other islands. Bombardment of the Japanese positions on Angaur by the battleship Tennessee, as well as cruisers and destroyers, as well as a sustained air campaign by the Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers of the fleet carrier Wasp began on 11 September and six days later, on 17 September, men of the 81st Division landed on the north-eastern and south-eastern coasts. Mines and congestion on the beach initially gave more trouble than the inevitable Japanese counterattacks. But resistance stiffened as the Americans advanced on the ‘Bowl’, a hill near Lake Salome in the north-west of the island and the position in which the Japanese planned to make their last stand. From 20 September a battalion of the 322nd RCT repeatedly attacked the ‘Bowl’, but the 750 defenders repulsed them with artillery, mortar and machine gunfire. Gradually the combination of hunger, thirst, artillery fire and air attack took their toll on the Japanese, and by 25 September the US infantry had penetrated the ‘Bowl’. Rather than fight for possession of the caves, the US troops used bulldozers to seal the entrances.

By 30 September 1944 the island was secure, the US forces having suffered the loss of 260 men killed, 1,354 wounded and 940 incapacitated by heat exhaustion, accident and sickness, and the Japanese having lost 1,338 men killed, a mere 59 being captured. Airfields were being constructed even as the battle continued. But the delay in the start of the Palau islands operation meant that the airfields were not ready in time for the start of the ‘King II’ operation against Leyte island in the Philippine islands during October 1944. Halsey had argued before the invasion of the Palau islands that the operation was unnecessary, and military historians have agreed with him, suggesting that the main benefit was the combat experience gained by the 81st Division, which moved on directly from Angaur to Peleliu to aid Rupertus’s 1st Marine Division still encountering extremely stiff Japanese resistance in Peleliu’s central highland. On 21 September the airfield on Angaur came into use by Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bombers.

Seizure of Ulithi
The last stage of the ‘Stalemate II’ campaign was the seizure of Ulithi atoll (between the Palau islands and the Mariana islands) by Colonel Watson’s 323rd RCT of the 81st Division, the landing force delivered by Rear Admiral William H. P. Blandy’s improvised TG33.19. The landing was effected on 23 September with support provided by TG30.8, which had approached the island on the previous day with the cruiser Denver and destroyers Ross and Bryant. The American landing of 23 September then found that the Japanese had pulled out earlier in the month. The excellent anchorage at Ulithi was soon developed as the US Navy’s main forward base in the Pacific (in March 1945, for example, there were at one time as many as 617 ships in the lagoon), taking over from Eniwetok and in essence making ‘Stalemate II’ superfluous. The Japanese submarines I-44, Ro-47 and I-177 were deployed against the landing fleet, but met with no success and the last two were sunk on 26 September and 3 October respectively by the destroyers escorts McCoy Reynolds and Samuel S. Miles.

The 1st Marine Division had lost 1,252 men killed and 5,274 wounded, and the 81st Division had lost 542 men killed and 2,736 wounded. On Halsey’s recommendation, the planned seizure of Yap island in the Palau islands by the XXIV Corps on 5 October was cancelled as superfluous. The island was garrisoned by Colonel Daihachi’s Eto’s eight-battalion 49th Independent Mixed Brigade, totalling 4,000 men, the 3,000-man 46th Base Force of the Japanese navy, and 1,000 labourers. Halsey had also recommended that the landings on Peleliu and Angaur be cancelled as unnecessary and little more than diversions of strength from the ‘King II’ landing on Leyte island in the Philippines, but had been overruled by Nimitz.