Peleliu – Inside the Pacific War’s “Bitterest Battle”

Marine Pfc. Gerald Thursby Sr. (left) and Pfc. Douglas Lightheart take a break amid heavy fighting on Peleliu. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)“For sheer brutality and fatigue, I think [Peleliu] surpasses anything yet seen in the Pacific.”
By Joseph Wheelan 

GENERAL William Rupertus, the 1st Marine Division commander, confidently predicted that the island of Peleliu — the primary objective of Operation Stalemate — would fall within four days.

“Rough but fast,” he said to reporters a few days before D-Day, Sept. 15, 1944. 

Thirty of the 36 reporters accredited for Stalemate promptly departed for other battlefields that they hoped would provide better bylines.

The six correspondents that landed on the sweltering island saw things they could never forget during what the National Museum of the Marine Corps describes as “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines.”

Overshadowed by major developments in Europe and the Philippines, Peleliu quickly disappeared from newspaper front pages.

It was not widely known that Stalemate lasted 74 days — and not four.

The Japanese radically changed their defensive strategy during the summer of 1944 after the loss of the Mariana Islands and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s shattering defeat at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. 

Believing that the war was lost, influential Japanese generals made it their goal to compel the Allies to abandon their insistence upon unconditional surrender. A negotiated peace might preserve the emperor’s prerogatives and permit Japan to keep some of its conquests.

To reach that goal, the generals believed, Japanese forces must inflict unsustainable losses on the Allies during every island battle. 

The new strategy forbade fighting at the water’s edge with massed banzai charges. Instead, the Japanese would contest the beaches mainly with mortar and artillery fire, and wage cagey attritional battles inland from heavily fortified caves and bunkers. 

The first wave of LVTs approach the shore. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)Peleliu’s 500 natural and manmade caves were transformed by engineers and miners into what one soldier described as “a large unsinkable warship,” manned by Colonel Kunio Nakagawa‘s nearly 11,000 men. The defenders were believed to be some of “the best fighters in the Japanese Empire.”

Peleliu was the new strategy’s first major test. It would become the template for the bloody 1945 defenses of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The 1st Marine Division and Stalemate’s reserve, the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, were walking into a hornet’s nest. 

Misleading aerial reconnaissance photographs of Peleliu’s highlands, showing a long ridge swathed in riotous jungle, clouded matters further.

Naval and artillery fire would strip away the green mantle to reveal a torturous maze of cliffs, gullies, caves, tunnels, and box canyons — transformed into a network of mutually supporting positions, some protected by sliding steel doors.

Finally, there was the overarching question of whether Stalemate was even necessary. Its justification had been the perceived threat of Peleliu’s airfield to General Douglas MacArthur‘s impending invasion of Mindanao, 500 miles away in the Philippines.

Carrier air strikes, however, had neutralized the airfield in March, and then, just two days before D-Day, Admiral William Halsey recommended canceling the Mindanao and Stalemate operations altogether. He believed that Leyte, beyond the range of Peleliu’s airfield if it had been operable, would be a better target.

Halsey’s superior, Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander of Pacific naval operations, agreed to scratch Mindanao in favor of Leyte, but said the Stalemate invasion fleet was already at sea and must proceed. 

Amtracs headed toward the Peleliu beaches on D-Day, September 15, 1944. (USMC photo)On D-Day, reveille sounded at 3 a.m. for the 9,000 assault troops on the transports off Peleliu. After a steak-and-eggs breakfast, Marines in the first three waves boarded the tracked amphibious landing vehicles — amtracs — rumbling below-decks.

At 5:30 a.m., the naval bombardment force opened fire on the six-mile-by-two-mile island. It was quickly engulfed in black smoke. Cheering Marines at the ship railings chanted, “Burn! Burn!”

The deafening naval gunfire inspired the hope that this would be another unopposed landing for the 1st Marine Division, like Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester.

“It was beyond our imagination how anything could be alive, so we were beginning to feel pretty good,” said Bill Tapscott of the Seventh Marines. 

So good that aboard some of the first-wave amtracs, the Marines loudly sang “Beer Barrel Polka” and “Give My Regards to Broadway.”

Lionel Rowe, the captain of the transport Crescent City, confidently told Colonel Lewis “Chesty” Puller, the much-decorated commander of the 1st Marines, “You’ll walk in. Nothing could have lived through that hammering.”

Puller wasn’t buying it.

“We’re going to catch some red fire,” he shot back.

The day before, Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, the naval bombardment commander, announced that his gunners had run out of targets after three days of shelling Peleliu.

The first wave of LVTs approach the shore. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)But as the amtracs approached the island’s imposing, 500-yards-wide coral reef, pre-registered enemy mortar and artillery fire began raining down. The singing stopped. Amtracs erupted in fiery explosions, with bodies flung high into the air.

The intact landing vehicles crawled over the reef and crossed the lagoon beyond it to the five southwest landing beaches, already cratered by mortar fire. 

The 1st Marine Division was experiencing its first opposed landing of the Pacific War. 

While 26 amtracs burned in the water, the assault force splashed ashore amid the crash of mortar and artillery fire and the high-pitched buzz of Nambu machine-guns blazing from bunkers a few hundred yards inland. 

Navy Corpsman Brooking Gex’s amtrac passed through a scrum of floating bodies. Ashore, he said, “the air was thick with the screams of the wounded and dying.”

Life magazine illustrator Tom Lea saw pieces of iron and men sail into the sky when enemy 75mm artillery fire plowed into a half-dozen amtracs approaching the beach. Other Marines, lashed by machine gun fire, “fell with bloody splashes into the green water,” he said. 

Ashore, the Marines, aided by armored amtracs, began destroying the pillboxes that poured fire onto the landing beaches. 

D-Day scene on a Peleliu beach. (USMC photo)At the northernmost landing beach, a 30-feet-high coral ridge jutted to the water’s edge. Defended by 500 Japanese soldiers, “the Point,” as it became known, bristled with pillboxes, spider holes, small caves, and a large bunker harboring a 47mm anti-boat gun. Untouched by the naval bombardment, its guns sprayed the beaches with murderous enfilading fire.

In a bloody attack on the stronghold, 1st Marines systematically wiped out its defenders, and knocked out the anti-boat gun with a grenade that ignited a roaring fire, incinerating the gun crew. After the Point was secured, the attackers reported that just 18 effectives remained of the 102 that began the assault. 

By midday, the Fifth Marines were dug in along the edge of Peleliu’s airfield, Stalemate’s ostensible objective. Completed in 1939, its two runways had once accommodated enemy fighters and bombers. It was now littered with the debris of those aircraft, and pitted by naval gunfire and bombs.

From its northern edge rose the hills and ridges known collectively as the Umurbrogol, where most of Colonel Nakagawa’s men awaited the Marines in ingeniously concealed caves, bunkers, and tunnels.

At 4:50 p.m., enemy artillery and mortar fire suddenly erupted from the Umurbrogol, and hundreds of Japanese infantrymen and more than a dozen small, lightly armored tanks emerged from dust clouds obscuring the airstrip. 

The counterattack’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Arrayed against it were nearly three Marine battalions, supported by Sherman tanks and heavy weapons. They blistered the attackers with a hurricane of gunfire. Just two enemy tanks escaped destruction. The infantrymen melted away.

Marines armed with a .30-caliber machine gun and a Browning automatic rifle battle entrenched Japanese. (USMC photo)While the Seventh Marines fought a bitterly contested battle for control of southern Peleliu, on Sept. 17 the 1st Marines began the Sisyphean task of seizing the Umurbrogol’s jumbled hills and 300-feet-high ridges.

The Japanese rarely emerged from their underground caves and bunkers to fight in the open. Upon attacking one stronghold, the Marines were met by furious enemy gunfire from hidden positions nearby. Each had to be neutralized with satchel charges, grenades, and flamethrowers, often at great cost.

Finding it nearly impossible to dig foxholes in the tough coral, the Marines piled rocks and coral around their positions. As they crawled up the hills and ridges, staying low to avoid becoming casualties, the jagged coral tore at elbows, knees, clothing, and shoes.

Making it all worse was Peleliu’s oppressive heat and humidity, and the lack of shelter from it. Peleliu broiled in 110-degree equatorial temperatures, and received 120 inches of rain annually. 

Time magazine correspondent Robert “Pepper” Martin, who had covered other Pacific war campaigns, was shocked by the suffocating heat and savage fighting. “For sheer brutality and fatigue, I think [Peleliu] surpasses anything yet seen in the Pacific.”

Over everything hung the terrible stench of putrefying Japanese corpses and the combatants’ unburied excrement.

General Rupertus believed that the Japanese would crack under relentless pressure. He issued the same orders almost daily: “All infantry units will resume the attack with maximum effort in all sectors at 0830.”

Puller’s 1st Marines led the daily headlong attacks against the fortified ridges, where Marines might reach a hilltop but be unable to hold it. Within days, the bloody attacks reduced battalions to the size of companies, and companies to platoon size. “We got the crap beat out of us and took many casualties,” said Pfc George Peto after one failed assault.

They struggled to seize strongpoints that they nicknamed the Five Sisters, the Five Brothers, the Horseshoe, China Wall, and Death Valley, and the many hills denoted by their heights in meters.

Their maps were often inaccurate. When Captain Everett Pope’s company swarmed Hill 100, they discovered that a taller, Japanese-held hill loomed over it — from which attacks came all night long. Out of ammunition, nine surviving Marines withdrew at daybreak.

A Navy corpsman tends to a wounded Marine. (Image source: WikiMedia Commons)In six days, Puller’s regiment sustained 1,749 casualties among the 3,252 men that landed on D-Day — 56 percent. Its 1st Battalion reported a shocking 71 percent casualties. Yet, the 1st Marines were credited with killing 3,942 enemy soldiers — two for every Marine killed or wounded. 

After one week, the 1st Division reported 3,820 casualties, and counted 8,792 enemy killed. 

Rupertus and Puller were appalled by the bloodletting. “This thing has just about got me beat,” the general tearfully confided to an aide. Puller believed that his men were dying for no good purpose.

After reviewing Puller’s casualties on Sept. 21, Marine General Roy Geiger, Stalemate’s overall commander, ordered the regiment relieved. 

Rupertus had insisted that the Marines alone would secure Peleliu — without any help from the Army, which he habitually derogated. But now Geiger summoned the 81st Division’s 321st Regiment to Peleliu.

Two days after Peleliu’s D-Day, General Paul Mueller’s 81st Division invaded the smaller, nearby island of Angaur. Its 1,400 Japanese defenders, engineers, and laborers fiercely resisted Mueller’s regiments for weeks.

When the 1st Marines left the highlands, they were rail-thin and filthy, in torn, stained uniforms. Many hadn’t eaten or slept in days. 

“Eyes glazed and distant, they looked like hell,” said Pfc Sterling Mace of the Fifth Marines. “They shambled along like dead men,” said another observer.

Unable to walk unaided, Puller was evacuated to the Pinckney, where doctors removed a two-inch-long piece of shrapnel that had festered in his leg since Guadalcanal.

Corsair bombs Japanese positions on Peleliu’s ridges. (USMC photo)Navy Seabees cleared the airstrip’s runways of mines and 130 derelict enemy aircraft, and Marine Corsairs began bombing and napalming the central highlands. With the airfield so close to the ridges, bombing runs lasted just 15 seconds.

On Sept. 23, the 321st Regiment began marching up the west road skirting the highlands. The 321st and the Fifth Marines would adopt a more patient approach to destroying the Japanese, using heavy weapons to soften up objectives before sending in infantrymen.

The Army relieved the rest of the 1st Division three weeks later and began siege operations against the dwindling Japanese force in the so-called Umurbrogol Pocket. 

Stalemate ended Nov. 27 when soldiers stormed Colonel Nakagawa’s last redoubt and discovered that he and his co-commander, General Kenjiro Murai, had committed suicide. 

On Peleliu and Angaur, 14,330 enemy soldiers and laborers were killed, while 10,786 of the 28,000 Marines and soldiers who fought there were killed or wounded.

Sadly, the hard lessons in overcoming the attritional defenses on Peleliu — with flamethrowers, satchel charges, and napalm — were not transmitted to the Marines that assaulted Iwo Jima three months later. They had to be re-learned, at great loss of life.

Joseph Wheelan is the author of Bitter Peleliu: The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War’s Worst Battlefield, and the author of two other books about the Pacific war: Midnight in the Pacific: Guadalcanal, the World War II Battle That Turned the Tide of War; and Bloody Okinawa: The Last Great Battle of World War II.


Frequently Asked Questions

What is the significance of military history?

In the past few years, we've witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of conflicts across the globe. There seem to be no shortage countries that are currently involved in armed struggle, including Ukraine, Syria and Libya. Yet, these wars still continue to erupt. Why are we still experiencing war after another war? Is it possible to live peacefully in such close proximity?

Our collective memory holds the answer. Although we may not be aware of it, when we reflect on the events in the 20th century, violence between nations is all too common. We live in an era of great change.

For example, World War II ended 70 years ago this year. However, it occurred during a period that saw rapid technological advancements (including the development of an atomic bomb) which resulted in the creation of a global market. This economic system created the conditions for "globalization," a global political movement.

It's easy to forget the progress made since 1945 as globalization continues. Today's world is more connected than ever. International trade accounts for almost 40% of global GDP. The majority of Americans rely directly on foreign goods for daily life.

Despite the great changes brought about through globalization, humanity struggles with a fundamental problem: conflicts cannot be avoided. Although it is understandable that people want peace and prosperity between nations, it is unrealistic. As long as human beings exist, they will always seek power and wealth.

It is why it is important to learn from past mistakes. To prevent future conflicts we need to recognize the factors that cause us to fight one another.

To prevent future wars, it is important to learn about the history of warfare. Let's look at World War II. What was its cause? How did it begin? How did it start?

What was the original name of the army?

The first army was known as the Roman Army. This force was comprised of soldiers who fought to defend Rome. It included three main divisions: the infantry cavalry and navy.

These soldiers would march across the land armed with spears, swords, and shields and fight against any enemy.

They also rode horses to battle, and when they did they wore armor that protected against harm. These men were well-trained and disciplined, and had been fighting since ancient times.

You can find them in several countries including Spain, Italy, Greece and Italy.

During this period, there weren't any tanks or planes so all attacks were by foot.

Romans believed the gods would aid them in victory if they prayed before going into battle.

These soldiers weren't needed after the fall of the Roman Empire.

After hundreds of years, however, the Romans retreated from their empire.

But what about the army?

It continued to exist, but changed its name from the Imperial Army to the Imperial Army.

It eventually became the army of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the 16th century, "army" was replaced by "infantry".

Modern English can refer to soldiers who fought against the Roman Empire as 'Roman Infantries', or those who fought for Germany in World War II as 'German Infantries.

How many years has the U.S. Military been around?

The United States Army's roots can be traced back to 1775, when General George Washington created the Continental Army. Congress established the United States Marine Corps by enacting legislation in 1784.

The founding of the United States Navy was March 27, 1794 by President George Washington.

In 1815, during War of 1812, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service (USRCS) was created to collect customs duty along America's coastlines.

During World War II was the founding of the United States Office of Strategic Services. In 1947, OSS became the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Department of Homeland Security was created to consolidate federal agencies involved with domestic security after the September 11th attacks.

The U.S Armed Forces currently include the Army (Air Force), Coast Guard Marines, Navy and National Guard.


  • Kimball reports that: Of historians in the field of diplomatic history, 7% are Socialist, 19% are Other, 53% are Liberal, 11% are None, and 10% are Conservative. (
  • Of all services, the U.S. Army has paid the heaviest price since 911, with almost 42,000 active, guard, and reserve soldiers killed or wounded while serving overseas, according to Department of Defense figures. (

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How To

What did the VietCong do to gain support?

The Viet Cong needed to portray the enemy as a bad person in order to gain support. It meant that they had to be depicted as violent, aggressive, bloodthirsty, and violent.

This strategy worked as the American public felt sorry and guilty for supporting an oppressive regime in Vietnam.

The key to making the enemy look bad is to paint him negatively. This means you have to portray the enemy negatively. That's why most VietCong images are either angry, or sad.

You may also see the VietCong depicted in media as courageous, noble, self-sacrificing. These positive images of Viet Cong can give Americans false security and lead them to believe that the war was not worth fighting.

These misleading images can be countered by creating images depicting the VietCong as evil, brutal and ruthless. The more extreme images are better.

The worst way to fight back against propaganda is to ignore it. If it is ignored, it will become a accepted fact.

Instead, confront any propaganda with facts. For instance, you might say that the Viet Contrag killed innocent civilians during Tet Offensive.

It's okay to show the Viet cong in a negative light, as long you provide accurate information. This is the best method to counter misinformation.