The archipelago of Palau in the western Pacific Ocean is 550 miles (890 kilometers) east of the Philippines. It consists of volcanic and coral islands and a large barrier reef which encircles nearly all of the archipelago.
After the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War (April 21 – August 13, 1898), Spain in 1899 sold Palau to Germany. In 1914 control of Palau passed to Japan.
Only two of the Palau islands, Peleliu and Angaur, would be occupied by the Americans in WWII. Koror, the capital of Palau, on the island of Koror remained in Japanese control until the end of WWII.
Peleliu, a platform coralline island, 6.56 square miles, was the location of a brutal battle between the United States (US) Marine 1st Division, the US Army 81st Infantry Division, and Imperial Japanese forces during Operation Stalemate II (September 15 – November 27, 1944). The Japanese had made the island into a defensive fortress.
[Operation Stalemate II. The operation to secure the Palau islands was intended to stop the Japanese from attacking US Army General Douglas MacArthur’s western flank as he fought to liberate the Philippines from Japanese control.]
Other American units involved in the Peleliu battle were the 11th Marine Regiment, Artillery; 12th Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion; 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion; 3rd Armored Amphibian Tractor Battalion; Underwater Demolition Teams (UDTs) 6 and 7; and the 4th, 5th, and 6th Marine War Dog Platoons.
The fight for Peleliu was predicted to last a few days. The island was declared secure after 74 days of fighting.
The invasion of Peleliu was an American victory with a exceedingly high casualty rate; US casualties totaled almost 1,800 killed in action (KIA) and over 8,000 wounded or missing. Japanese losses were over 10,000 KIA.
THE BATTLE OF PELELIU.
Peleliu island was a maze of rocky ramparts, hills, crags, jungles, and caves. The Japanese had built a strong defense of the island. There was a system of over 500 caves and tunnels which allowed Japanese soldiers to move undetected between areas of combat.
Important in the lead-up to the invasion was a plan using Navy UDTs, also known as “frogmen.”
In an article by Toni L. Carrell, Ph.D., Chief Scientist and Principal Investigator, Ships of Exploration and Discovery Research, “… unless the amphibious craft could get over the reef; avoid the mines; navigate the concrete anti-boat obstacles, the coral heads, and boulders; and land on shore, it (the invasion) was doomed to failure. … UDT reconnaissance was integral to all planning.
In the run up to the Peleliu operation, UDT 10 scouted the invasion beaches in USS [United States Ship] Burrfish. The information gathered in August 1944 revealed an array of concrete tetrahedrons, a double row of wooden posts 75 yards from shore, barbed wire, horned mines and, importantly, in some areas the reef was awash with barely two feet of water at low tide. Three days before D-Day, UDTs 6 and 7 deployed along the invasion beaches to destroy obstacles, but more critically, to blast wide ramps into the coral for the amphibious craft. Not only was their mission dangerous and in broad daylight, naval fire support from offshore flew overhead and periodic sniper and machine gun fire from shore targeted the unarmed swimmers in the shallow lagoon. The night before the assault, UDTs crawled ashore to demolish rock cribs, posts, barbed wire, concrete cubes, and set buoys off the reef to mark the newly blasted passageways.”
Carrell also describes the amphibious assault plan to capture Peleliu, “The new plan involved five imaginary parallel lines offshore where various elements of the task force could stage with their ships and troops before the assault. Farthest out at 18,000 yards were the big ships and transports. Next came the LSTs (landing ship transports) carrying the troops in LVTs (landing vehicle tracked) in their cavernous holds. At 6,000 yards from shore, the LSTs opened their bow doors and the small LVTs (sometimes called amtracs) embarked. The fourth line was 4,000 yards from shore, still 30 minutes travel time to the beach. This was the rendezvous line for all of the assault waves to form groups opposite their designated beaches. The final line before the reef was at 2,000 yards and 15 minutes from shore, where the amtracs returned after carrying the assault waves to the beach and where the next groups of men and supplies transferred from small boats to the amtracs. When the troop-carrying amphibious fleet reached the last line at 1,000 yards, they were on their own to cross the reef and get to shore.
Stewarding the small fleet at each line were submarine chasers, patrol craft, and Higgins boats, hoisting signaling flags, forming up the waves, and in constant radio contact. Preceding the first waves of personnel were armored LVT(A)s (amphibian tanks) armed with machine guns and howitzers, to neutralize beach defenses and support the landings. LCI(G) (landing craft, infantry, gunboats) armed with rockets stood offshore at the 1,000-yard line and raked defensive positions and provided covering fire for the LVT(A)s. Overhead, naval gunfire pummeled the island and aircraft bombed and strafed. The landing was a complex maneuver requiring precise timing and coordination.”
After days of US heavy naval and aerial bombardment of Peleliu the 1st Marine Division began landing on the beaches of the island at 0830 (military time) on September 15, 1944. The 1st Marine Regiment landed on beaches White 1 and 2; the 5th Marine Regiment landed on beaches Orange 1 and 2; and the 7th Marine Regiment landed on beach Orange 3.
The airfield on the southern part of Peleliu (see map at the start of this story) was captured within the first week. Marine F4U Corsair fighter planes then used it to fly close air support missions. They were “so close” to the action that pilots didn’t raise their landing gear while airborne; a military operational mission (also known as a sortie) could be flown in a matter of 30 minutes from take-off to landing.
The Umurbrogol Mountain and ridge lines were particularly dangerous for the Marines in combat; narrow valleys and peaks, sinkholes, steep coral hills, and straight drops down the ridges along with hard surfaces which prevented the digging of foxholes took their toll on men KIA and wounded. This combat sector on Peleliu became known as “Bloody Nose Ridge.”
THE STORIES OF THREE MEN WHO SURVIVED THE BATTLE OF PELELIU.
Joe W. Clapper, 1st Marine Division. Oral History interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 28, 2010. He was interviewed at the 1st Marine Division Association Reunion in San Antonio, Texas.
Joe W. Clapper was born March 22, 1924, in Jonesboro, Indiana. His family would later move to Kalamazoo, Michigan. After graduating from high school in June 1942, he enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve.
After training in San Diego and Camp Elliott, California, Joe sailed on a Liberty ship to Melbourne, Australia. He was assigned to K Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, as a replacement.
While in Melbourne Joe said the Marines had training exercises at the cricket grounds. [Today it is the site of the Australian Open tennis tournament.] He, as many WWII US service members commented, liked the friendly Australians.
From Melbourne the 1st Marines went to Goodenough Island off New Guinea. Upon leaving Melbourne the stevedores were on strike, so the Marines had to load their own ships.
On December 26, 1943, the 1st Marines came ashore and saw action at Cape Gloucester, New Britain, as part of Operation Cartwheel (1943 – 1944). An important objective of Cartwheel was to neutralize a major Japanese base at Rabaul, New Britain.
In April 1944 the 1st Marine Division left New Britain and went to Pavuvu Island in the Russell Islands to rest and train for the assault on Peleliu. The Russell Islands are comprised of two small islands Pavuvu and Banika, as well as several islets, which are northwest of Guadalcanal and part of the Solomon Islands chain.
The Battle of Peleliu began on September 15, 1944. Joe, in his interview, said reveille, the military wake up call, was at 1 am. The ship served steak and eggs that morning. And then began the transfer of the men from the larger ships (the process described earlier in this story) to the beaches.
When Joe landed on White beach in the first assault wave as Japanese machine gun fire raked the beach and sand was flying through the air, he said, “It was like trying to run between raindrops.”
Near the end of the first day of battle Joe’s life was saved by a young Marine. It had been discovered that the Marine was 15 years old. The paperwork to send him back to the US had not been completed, so J. M. Morsy (exact name inaudible in the interview) from Harlan County, Kentucky, went on the Peleliu operation. Joe called him “Junior.” Junior had yelled at Joe, “look out Joe, a Jap.” Joe said he turned to look after the warning and was looking into the rifle barrel of a Japanese soldier. Junior killed the soldier. Joe in his interview was still very grateful that Junior, who should not have been there, had saved his life.
On the second day of the battle Joe saw a good friend of his die. Fortune Orlando Rosenkrans, III, from Pennsylvania, nicknamed “Rosie,” was fatally shot in the chest, and the bullet “blew his lung out” his back. Joe still carries that image of “Rosie” with him.
On that same day after “Rosie” died, Joe was hit by a bullet in the left upper chest area. A US Navy Corpsman put a bandage on the wound, and Joe was evacuated to the beach and transferred to a hospital ship offshore. Joe commented in his interview that the beach was “carpeted” with dead Marines.
Joe Clapper’s next battle would be the Battle of Okinawa (April 1 – June 22, 1945.)
By war’s end Joe received three Purple Hearts: one Purple Heart for his wound at Peleliu and two Purple Hearts for wounds received on Okinawa (one wounding from shrapnel, and then another wound from Japanese machine-gun fire.)
Joe Clapper passed away January 31, 2019.
John W. Bailey, Jr., US Navy Corpsman, 1st Marine Division. Oral History interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on August 28, 2010. He was interviewed at the 1st Marine Division Association Reunion in San Antonio, Texas.
John W. Bailey, Jr., was born May 31, 1925, in Goodson, Missouri. When he was nine years old the family moved to Santa Paula, California. He wanted to join the US Navy after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, US Territory of Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, and at 17 1/2 years old John persuaded his father to sign the paperwork permitting him to enlist under the required age by the military. In his interview John recalled his father saying to him at the time, “I feel just like I’m signing your death warrant.”
John enlisted in the US Navy on January 7, 1943. He was selected for medical training as a US Navy Corpsman. In September 1943 he shipped out from San Diego, California. The ship docked at the island of New Caledonia, approximately 750 miles (1,210 kilometers) east of Australia, which was the location of a US Marine replacement battalion. Later John and other replacements would sail to Australia where he was assigned to the 1st Marine Division. [The US Marine Corps does not have a medical component and uses the medical resources of the US Navy.]
After the 1st Marine Division left New Britain they went to Pavuvu (as noted in the Joe Clapper story above). Pavuvu with a large coconut plantation on the island had been deserted by the natives when the war began. The Marines needed to construct island infrastructure and their own base. But they fought another kind of enemy on the island — rats and land crabs. John said it was difficult to sleep at night with rats and crabs running through the tents and over its inhabitants, sometimes nibbling on the ears of the Marines. The Marines had contests to see who could kill the most rats; the winner got a bottle of alcohol. As the tale goes Marines would sometimes steal dead rats from each other to ensure a win. In Marine language “Pavuvu” became a 6-letter bad word.
The Marines did leave Pavuvu with a good memory; legendary comedian Bob Hope, representing the United Service Organizations (USO), put on a show for them in August 1944.
The next stop for the 1st Marines was Peleliu on September 15, 1944.
US Navy Corpsman John Bailey landed on White beach that day with the 1st Marine Regiment led by Marine Colonel Lewis Burwell “Chesty” Puller.
“Forty-five days and 1,000 nights” was John’s answer when asked how long he was on Peleliu. He spoke of the Battle of Peleliu in what he called “the horror of all battles.” The following are some of John’s memories of the battle:
John estimated that the temperature on the island could get as high as 115 – 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Pre-landing bombing and further combat decimated most of the trees and foliage that could have provided some shade and cover and concealment when fighting.
Dehydration was a significant issue. Some metal barrels previously filled with gasoline had been brought ashore containing water that was undrinkable. Sunburn and blisters were common in the hot and humid climate; men’s eyes would sometimes swell shut.
Patches of sharp coral could be deadly; some men died of flying shards of coral that flew through the air after the ground was hit with bombs and artillery barrages.
When not out with the Marines as a Corpsman, John worked with the Graves Registration Service units finding, identifying, and burying bodies in a temporary cemetery constructed on the island. It became very important to him to be able to identify bodies so that the families of the dead Marines would know what happened to their loved ones.
John said they could not begin the gathering of the dead Marines for three to four days after the battle began because of the intense and constant fighting. Bodies in that climate after two days could be unrecoverable due to decomposition.
And then there was the “SMELL” of the island because of American and Japanese dead bodies along with the island being used as what John called “one big toilet.” Marine pilots told him they could “smell” the island flying over it.
John Bailey wrote a book, “Islands of Death, Islands of Victory,” published in 2002 based on his memories and experiences on Peleliu as well as other battle sites. In the book he wrote:
“There was a saying: A Marine who had served on Peleliu died and went to heaven. When St. Peter opened the gate the Marine saluted and said, ‘Another Marine reporting sir, I have already served my time in Hell.’ Of such a place was Peleliu.”
After Peleliu the 1st Marine Division returned to Pavuvu and began to train for the Battle of Okinawa.
John Bailey passed away June 26, 2020.
William Taylor Stitt, Seabee, Construction Maintenance Battalion Unit #571. Oral History interview for the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas, on July 6, 2011. He was interviewed at his home in San Antonio, Texas.
[A brief history of the Seabees in WWII. The nickname “Seabee” is based upon a heterograph of the first letters of the words Construction Battalion “C B.” Two of its mottos are “We build, We Fight” and “Can Do.”
The US Navy Construction Battalion(s), better known as Seabees, were established in 1942 in response to a need in WWII to build and maintain bases and airfields, pave roadways, and they took on multiple other construction projects around the world in all theaters of war. The work was varied and also involved constructing caskets and making crosses and Star of David grave markers for the temporary cemeteries. During WWII they constructed over 400 bases.
These are but a very few of the locations the Seabees saw action during WWII: (1) Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — outfitted a seaplane base, (2) Morocco — constructed military facilities in Casablanca after landing with American forces during Operation Torch November 1942, (3) Normandy, France, June 6, 1944 — went ashore with the US Army Engineers to destroy barriers and obstacles put in place by the Germans, (4) assisted US General George S. Patton’s troops in crossing the Rhine River at Oppenheim, Germany, March 22, 1945 [One Seabee crew ferried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Rhine on an inspection tour.], (5) Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands — first Seabee crew to build under combat conditions when rebuilding a strategic airfield now called Henderson Field, and (6) Tinian Island, Mariana Islands — after the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) arrived at Tinian with the first atomic bomb later dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, the Seabees helped unload the ship and store the components awaiting assembly; on the August 6 mission, the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay took off from Tinian’s North Field built by the Seabees.
There was heroism, and a price paid by the Seabees in WWII. The Seabees earned 33 Silver Stars and five Navy Crosses. Eighteen officers and 272 enlisted men would be KIA. And construction accidents resulted in more than 500 Seabee deaths.]
William Taylor Stitt, known as “Taylor,” was born June 26, 1915, in Williamsville, Illinois, a small town near Springfield, Illinois. In August 1943 he would enlist in the Seabees.
After training in the US, Taylor was assigned to Construction Maintenance Battalion Unit #571. They travelled from Gulfport, Mississippi, through the Panama Canal, and landed on Banika, Russell Islands. They were based there until they left for Peleliu in September 1944.
With the bombing, strafing, and the pitched battle on Peleliu, the Seabees did not land until about five days after the fighting began. Then they set to work repairing airstrips, working on roads, repairing a battered Japanese administration building for use by the Marines, constructed ammunition storage huts, and worked on infrastructure to support the troops.
There were Japanese snipers on the island. When driving a weapons carrier Taylor noticed a sniper bullet in the clock of the vehicle after he reached his destination.
There were 16 huts of Seabee Construction Maintenance Battalion Unit 571 on the island. They were still based on the island when WWII ended. Taylor was in Hut 1.
Taylor and his friend, Harold Groh (pictured above) from Mankato, Minnesota, would later “hitch” a ride after the war ended on the plane of a USO troop that put on a show on Peleliu. Getting as far as Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, and not finding another flight to the US, Taylor and Harold sailed back to California on the USS Missouri.
One last story. On Peleliu Taylor encountered a Marine friend of his from Springfield. His friend, George, told Taylor, “If I live through the war, I’m going to invent a coffee machine.” In 1957 George R. Bunn founded the Bunn-O-Matic Corporation.
Taylor Stitt passed away on February 14, 2012.
Artist Tom Lea as a combat correspondent on Peleliu with the 1st Marine Division in 1944 would paint an image expressing what he saw. Tom called it the 2000 Yard Stare.
Eight Marines received the Medal of Honor in the Battle of Peleliu:
- Captain Everett P. Pope
- First Lieutenant Carlton R. Rouh
- Corporal Lewis K. Bausell (Posthumous)
- Private First Class Arthur J. Jackson
- Private First Class Richard E. Kraus (Posthumous)
- Private First Class John D. New (Posthumous)
- Private First Class Wesley Phelps (Posthumous)
- Private First Class Charles H. Roan (Posthumous)
Peleliu is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places as the Peleliu Battlefield and has been designated a US National Historic Landmark.
Thank you to the families of Joe Clapper, John Bailey, and Taylor Stitt for their help in researching this story and for permission to use the photographs. Their oral history interviews are in the Archives of the National Museum of the Pacific War.