Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Operation Stalemate II: The Invasion of Peleliu

First Division Marines head for the beach as their LVTs churn past the offshore line of LCI gunboats on September 15, 1944. USS LCIG-452 can be seen in the center and USS Mississippi (BB 41) is likely bombarding in the left distance. (80-G-59498, Naval History and Heritage Command)
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator 
“As more than one Marine historian has said, it's unfortunate to the memory of the men who fought and died on Peleliu that it remains one of the lesser-known and poorly understood battles of World War II.” -Eugene B. Sledge, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa 
Map of Peleliu with invasion beaches

This year marks the 76th anniversary of Operation Stalemate II, the invasion of Peleliu. Part of the Palau Islands in the Pacific Ocean, the island Peleliu is only 6 miles long, 2 miles wide. Military strategists deemed it a target in hopes that it could be used to support a future invasion of the Philippines. Located approximately 600 miles east of the Philippine Islands, the island has an extremely hot climate as well as high humidity, creating less than ideal conditions for the invading Marines. 
USS Maryland (BB 46) provided gunfire support with its 16-inch/45-caliber guns (80-G-455340, Naval History and Heritage Command)

The 1st Marine Division had the task of taking Peleliu, and would later be supported by soldiers from the Army’s 81st Infantry Division. Naval gunfire support centered around five battleships, including three built at Newport News Shipbuilding: USS Pennsylvania (BB 38), USS Maryland (BB 46), and USS Mississippi (BB 41). Prior to the Marines' landing on Peleliu, these battleships fired 519 rounds of 16-inch ammunition and 1,845 rounds of 14-inch ammunition, as well as shells from smaller caliber guns. Seven cruisers also lent their firepower to the three days of pre-invasion bombardment, and Navy aircraft from 19 aircraft carriers hit targets around the island, dropping 1,793 500-pound bombs.

 5-inch gun mounts aboard USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) fire at targets on Peleliu (Navsource)

Smoke billows from the pre-invasion bombardment (80-G-59497, Naval History and Heritage Command)

Despite the tremendous amount of firepower poured onto the island, the Japanese defenders remained safe in the various caves on Peleliu, having spent months preparing their defenses. The 10,000 Japanese troops under Lt. Col. Kunio Nakagawa had adjusted their tactics based on previous battles. Instead of immediately opposing the landing force, they developed a series of defenses inland, utilizing the terrain to their advantage.

Major General William Rupertus was in command of the invasion force. The 1st Marine Division would land at beaches divided into three landing areas with the three regiments (1st, 5th, and 7th Marines) of the division assigned different objectives. The invasion force had various support units, including three platoons of Marine War Dogs.
A Marine war dog and handler take a break (US Marine Corps Archives)

The initial landings took place at 8:32am on September 15, 1944. As the Marines made their way toward the beach, the Japanese held their fire and waited until the amphibious vehicles were in range. Then, the Japanese opened up with deadly accuracy, firing from concealed positions. The first wave suffered heavy casualties. The Marines managed to make it to their assigned beach sectors, and from there, attempted to carry out their objectives while facing heavy resistance.
Marines move forward slowly under heavy fire (US Marine Corps Archives)
On day 2 of the invasion, the 5th Marines captured the airfield despite heavy casualties. On day 3, Navy Seabees had the airfield ready for flight operations and F-4 Corsair fighter bombers from VMF-114 started to arrive at the airfield on the 11th day of the operation. They would provide much-needed close air support for the rest of the campaign. 

The island’s high ground, referred to as “The Point,” the Umurbrogol Pocket, would eventually earn a new name, “Bloody Nose Ridge.” The fight for the ridge was extremely costly for the 1st Marines. The Japanese not only held the high ground, but they also had well-concealed machine gun and mortar positions. The enemy maintained fire discipline, firing only when the Marines were in the kill zone. The 1st Marines suffered 70 percent casualties trying to capture the fortified position. The 81st Infantry Division was sent in after the Marines were bloodied from repeated attempts to take the ridge. With the Army's assistance, and using siege tactics, the high ground was taken. The island was declared secured on November 27, 1944.
Marines move through the rough terrain on the island toward the front lines (US Marine Corps Archives)

This operation was expected to take 3 to 5 days, but ended up taking 2 months, 1 week, and 5 days. The price to capture the island and the airfield was extremely costly. The 1st Marine Division suffered over 6,000 casualties, making them unable to fight again until the invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. The Army’s 81st Infantry Division took over 3,000 casualties. Ultimately, Peleliu would never be used as a staging area for future operations in the Pacific theater. 

A Navy corpsman gives water to a wounded Marine on Peleliu (US Marine Corps Archives)

Despite the heavy losses, the military learned valuable lessons about how to assault heavily-fortified positions. These lessons proved to be extremely helpful during the invasion of Okinawa in 1945. The lessons learned from “Bloody Nose Ridge” and how to assault a fortified position have been incorporated into Marine officer training at Quantico. The tactics used by the 5th Marines incorporating combined arms, concentrated fire, and movement during their assault on the airfield are taught at the Marine Corps’ School of Infantry.

Dedicated to Dot O. Headrick, who landed on Peleliu with the 5th Marines.

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