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Peleliu’s Battle

July/August 2019

Peleliu WWII Battlefield LandscapeIn the years since the Battle of Peleliu, Palauans have largely avoided the ridges and caves where the worst fighting took place, wary of chancing upon the ubiquitous unexploded ordnance and disturbing the human remains that were left at the end of the war. But these areas were once very much a part of Palauan life. In their surveys of the battlefield, archaeologists led by Rick Knecht of the University of Aberdeen and Neil Price of Uppsala University have found Palauan pottery likely dating back many centuries near every natural cave used by the Japanese during the battle, as well as large prehistoric shell middens in sections of remote jungle. “The battle was fought on a Palauan cultural landscape,” says Knecht.

 

Peleliu, along with the rest of the Palauan archipelago, was settled at least 3,000 years ago by migrants from islands in Southeast Asia. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Palau was colonized by Spain, then Germany, and, in 1914, by Japan. In preparation for war, two of Peleliu’s five traditional villages were razed to make way for an airfield constructed by the Japanese in the late 1930s. The Japanese used forced Palauan labor to dig many of the caves in which they would hide during the battle, but evacuated the island’s natives before the Americans invaded. Peleliu’s remaining three villages were destroyed in the battle, along with the island’s previously abundant vegetation. “When people returned [in 1946], they found their island devoid of anything green,” says Sunny Ngirmang, director of Palau’s Bureau of Cultural and Historical Preservation. “It was all white limestone, and you could see from one side of the island to the other—that’s how bare it was.”

 

Arguably even more damaging for the returning islanders than the destruction of their villages and environment was the loss of almost all of the island’s olangch—natural or constructed markers such as stones, trees, and burial sites that served as prompts to the recollection of important memories and stories. The battle had effectively erased thousands of years of the island’s history. Nonetheless, the Palauans have come to see themselves as custodians of the more recent historical record left behind by the battle. “The war was destructive to people who had no say about it whatsoever,” says Ngirmang, “but its legacy remains in the hearts of those who were affected. Their stories have been passed on from generation to generation and now it has become a part of our own history.”

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