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Place of the Loyal Samurai

On the beaches and in the caves of a small Micronesian island, archaeologists have identified evocative evidence of one of WWII’s most brutal battles

July/August 2019

Peleliu WWII Orange Beach InvasionPeleliu WWII Orange Beach Present DayOn the morning of September 15, 1944, some 18,000 U.S. marines from the First Division invaded the tiny Western Pacific island of Peleliu, at the south end of the Palau archipelago. Nearly three years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Americans and their allies were on the offensive, pushing their way across the Pacific. This campaign involved millions of U.S. military personnel, and unfolded over thousands of miles of ocean. Many of the key battles were fought over Pacific islands such as Guadalcanal and Guam, both of which the Americans captured after fierce fighting. They then established bases on these islands as they advanced closer and closer to Japan. By fall 1944, the Americans were eager to begin a long-planned invasion of the Japanese-occupied Philippines. They saw Peleliu, which lies 500 miles east of the Philippines and had excellent harbors and a Japanese-constructed airfield, as a valuable launching pad.

 

Peleliu WWII MapShaped like a lobster claw, Peleliu measures at most five miles long by two miles wide. Because the island is so small, Marine Corps Major General William Rupertus predicted it would be subdued in a few days, despite the 11,000 Japanese troops and at least 3,000 Korean and Okinawan forced laborers ready to defend it. In fact, the battle, code-named Operation Stalemate II, ended up dragging on for more than two months. The marines were reinforced, and later relieved, by 11,000 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 81st Infantry Division. Over the course of the battle, the Americans unleashed an astounding barrage of munitions. Navy ships anchored offshore fired almost 6,000 tons of shells. Navy and marine aircraft dropped at least 800 tons of bombs. In their month on the island, the marines expended almost 16 million rounds of ammunition, including 116,000 hand grenades. The toll on the Americans was great—at least 1,600 died on Peleliu. For the Japanese, the toll was catastrophic. Fewer than 100 soldiers survived. And, in the end, it was all for nothing. The invasion of the Philippines started on October 20, even as the battle for Peleliu raged on.

Sidebar:
 Peleliu Battlefield
Peleliu's Battle

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