Remains of War

by wjw on December 17, 2016

img_0283Here is Beach White 1 on the island of Peleliu, where a horrifically bloody, grinding and mostly unnecessary battle was fought in late 1944.  In the foreground you can see the treads of a Sherman tank, still at the waterline 70-odd years later.  In the middle ground is a weed-filled lagoon across which Chesty Puller’s 1st Marine Regiment crossed, some on foot, some in  LVTs and DUKWs.  In the background is the white line of the reef that stopped many of the landing craft and forced them to throw their passengers into the water to walk to the shore.

The U.S. commander expected to take the island in four days.  It took two and a half months, at the cost of over two thousand American lives (and over 8000 other casualties), plus over 10,000 Japanese, basically the entire garrison.  (Puller’s First Marines suffered 70% casualties before being pulled out of the line.)

Some of the Japanese survived till 1947, living in caves on a diet of crickets, before the Japanese sent out an admiral to convince them to come home.

Lurking behind the holiday tropical scrim of my recent journey to the Pacific has been the horrific tragedy of the Second World War.  I dived Japanese wrecks, I saw platforms and defense works constructed by Korean slave labor, saw graveyards and memorials, and viewed museums filled with hardware scrounged from the battlefield.  All these were paid for by human blood.  Even places like Truk, which were never invaded, were hammered from the air.  It’s 70 years gone, but the ghosts are still there.

I had a day free in Palau before I flew away on the 2:30am flight to Guam.  (You can’t fly for 24 hours after diving.)  I could hang around in the air conditioning and drink till I was speechless, or I could go see someplace I’d heard about.  So I took some sunscreen, my hiking boots, and the world’s ugliest (but most comfortable) sun hat, and set off on a tour.

The reason the U.S. took so long to secure the island was that there were over 500 caves on it, none visible from the air, which the Japanese and their Korean slaves had enlarged and modified and interconnected, so that when a sniper firing from one location was spotted, he could withdraw, scamper down a tunnel, and reappear someplace else.  There were also the usual bunkers and pillboxes.  Everything’s still there, pretty much, even unexploded munitions, all you have to do is find it.

There is also an airfield, which is why the Americans invaded Peleliu and not any of the other Palau islands.  Why they didn’t decide to neutralize the field from the air, as they did at Truk and Rabaul and so many other places, is something of a mystery to me.

I can’t help but think the command of the U.S. Navy became somewhat deranged toward the end of the war, possibly because MacArthur was getting all the headlines.  So many of the Navy’s actions seemed to be publicity stunts designed to steal attention from the Army.  Halsey failing to guard Surigao Strait, Rupertus hurling his men against an entrenched enemy on Peleliu, Halsey’s deliberately sailing his task force into two hurricanes, Spruance pulling desperately-needed close-support warships away from Iwo Jima for a pointless raid on the Japanese mainland . . . a whole lot of people seemed not to be thinking straight.

I mean, once the Marines ran into Bloody-Nose Ridge on Peleliu and started taking serious casualties, I would have just given the order, “Blow everything up, destroy all means of repair, and leave the island to the Japanese!  Hurray, a victory!”

On the second day, the Marines attacked the airfield, ran into a counterattack of Japanese tanks, countered these with tanks of their own, and eventually captured the field.  Which was of only limited use, because in a cave on the mountain at the end of the airfield was a well-defended 20cm mortar, which could rain down destruction on the airfield pretty much at will.  Aircraft used the field anyway, the Corsairs taking off, dumping bombs and napalm on enemy position that were so close they didn’t even have a chance to raise their landing gear, then circling back to re-arm in minutes.

The huge 20cm mortar is still there, in its emplacement.  A Zero fighter lies in bits on the jungle floor.  The airfield remains, its big north-south runway still in use while the smaller side runways are overgrown jeep trails.  One Japanese tank remains, its turret blown off as its ammunition exploded following a bazooka hit.  It’s a weird primitive vehicle, with armor maybe a quarter-inch thick.

The giant concrete Japanese headquarters building stands by the airfield.  Bombs or naval shells had partially collapsed the roof, and I walked warily over the rubble.  Green vines trail through the bomb holes, and long chains of paper cranes (made by Japanese schoolchildren) hang along the concrete pillars.  I had a spooky sense of recognition, since I’d fought over the place in Call of Duty: World at War.  Activision clearly sent someone around to photograph and measure the real thing.

LVTs and other American vehicles are scattered around the island.  I was shocked by how thinly-armored they were.  They were reasonably proof against small arms, but machine guns would punch right through them.  They had been built lightly so they could float, not heavily so they could protect occupants.

I went through what the Marines called the “thousand-man cave,” named because of their estimate of the number of soldiers it would hold.  Unbeknownst to the Americans, it was mainly a hospital, long corridors with bays reaching left and right where casualties were kept.  It was so big the Americans decided not to try to take it— they sealed off most of the exits with bulldozers, then planted flamethrower tanks in front of the rest, with orders to incinerate anything that moved.

Inside there’s still medical equipment and a lot of detritus.  Many sake bottles, sandals, medicine bottles, gas masks (to help survive those flamethrower attacks), belts and bits of military gear.  There are bunkers with machine guns still emplaced, though the weapons have long rusted into uselessness, or were wrecked by American engineers.  Anything of actual use to soldiers has been long since broken or carried off.

There were some human remains.  I won’t go into that.

The cave also holds a large colony of bats.  Something we did set them off, and they fled at high speed past us to the exit.  I ducked my head as the chirping cloud neared me, and furry bat projectiles ricocheted off my hat, body, and bare arm— so much for their accurate range-finding abilities.  Fortunately none of them tried to hang onto me, or bite.

Lastly we went up Mt. Umurbrogel, known to the leathernecks as Bloody-Nose Ridge.  Spider holes for snipers are there, but well camouflaged.  Many of the snipers were protected by steel plate.  Our truck only took us so far, and the rest was a steep hike in the swelter of a tropical afternoon, past the Marine and Japanese monuments, to the top of the peak and the Army monument at the top.  I don’t fare well under such circumstances, and I was vaguely surprised that I made it all the way to the crest.  The view was spectacular, with a panorama of the invasion beaches and the entire island.

I was baffled, viewing the limestone ridges, cliffs, caves, and gullies, how any of the American troops survived.  The climb was challenging even in peacetime: in war, under constant sniper fire, it must have been horrendous.

The science fiction fan Rusty Hevelin was a survivor of Peleliu.  He was a weather forecaster, which I don’t know why they needed on the island, because every forecast would have been “temperature 110-115 degrees, chance of rain in the afternoon.”

Rusty shared his tent with another meteorologist.  One morning they were leaving their tent and the other man was shot and killed by a sniper.  If they’d left the tent in a different order, it would have been Rusty who was shot.

Many of the Japanese caves on the ridge were closed by explosives during the fighting.  Whatever was sealed off remains where it was in 1944.

In one way the view was misleading.  The island now is tropical and green, but in 1944 it would have been a blasted hellscape, so heavily bombed that there would scarcely have been a green leaf to be found.

(Almost uniquely in this war, no civilians were killed in the fighting.  The Palauans had been evacuated from the island before the invasion.  Some of the Korean slaves were saved by an American officer who had been raised on a Christian mission in Korea and spoke the language: he crept into the caves at night to contact the Koreans and succeeded in bringing out a couple hundred.)

On the way out I bought a large bottle of a sports drink, along with a bottle of beer and some interesting Japanese crackers.  I chugged both bottles in just a few minutes and felt much better.  I’d become so dehydrated in the 100+ degree heat that I was barely functional.

My camera battery died early in the trip, and I was unable to record much of it.  I’m hoping to share photos with some other folks, but the opportunity hasn’t yet arisen.

Peleliu is a site now for scuba diving and World War II tourism: people on the island now earn a living from visitors, and sometimes from locating unexploded munitions.  The horrific battle is refought by historians and Call of Duty geeks.  The American graveyard is now empty, all the bodies having been taken home, and the chapel is falling into ruin.

Peleliu is left to history now, and the tourists, the gameplayers, and the ghosts.  Requiescat.

PhilRM December 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm

Great piece, Walter.

TCWriter December 20, 2016 at 10:19 pm

My understanding about bats is that they turn off the sonar in their caves to avoid confusing each other, navigating by memory and their limited sight.

John Appel December 21, 2016 at 9:34 pm

Puller’s handling of the 1st Marines at Peleliu is my go-to example for the damaging myths the Marine Corps tells itself right down to this day. Philip Caputo in “A Rumor of War” describes the Marines outside Da Nang destroying their field fortifications under orders from their CO, because fortifications were “against the offensive spirit of the Marine Corps”. More recently, the Marines wanted to have their own area of operations in Afghanistan, rather than being fighting alongside Army units, so they lobbied to open up and begin operating in what had been an otherwise peaceful and mostly Taliban-free province. Guess what? The Taliban went where the targets were.

As a former colleague used to say, “Gotta love the Marines. They have to go to the Navy for doctors and medics, but have their own lawyers and the best PR of any of the services.”

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