Exploring a Pacific Island Battleground

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

PELELIU, Palau — We fought our way up a difficult jungle rise, grabbing at wet tropical foliage that seemed to grab back at us, slapping at bare legs and faces as we tried to move forward.

Click to enlarge.

Guide Tangie Hesus inspects the World War II remains of a Japanese Zero. (Click to enlarge.)

The day was unusually dark. It had been raining off and on, and now it was on again. But Tangie Hesus, our diminutive and indefatigable Palauan guide, urged our little group onward, explaining there would be shelter ahead.

Our uphill struggle was nothing compared to the travails of Americans and Japanese more than a half-century earlier. We were exploring the South Pacific island of Peleliu, the scene of one of the bloodiest and perhaps most useless battles of World War II.

The tiny island of Peleliu is today one of the states of Palau, a recently independent nation of islands in the Caroline group. Palau is largely unknown to Americans today, except for avid scuba divers. For them, it offers perhaps the clearest and cleanest waters and the richest collection of colorful ocean fish in the world.

But the atmosphere at Peleliu, a 20-minute light plane ride from Palau’s capital of Koror, is different. Here, thousands died violently or miserably between Sept. 15 and Nov. 25, 1944. Estimates put the toll at nearly 2,000 American soldiers and Marines plus 11,000 of the island’s Japanese defenders.

As we grappled our own way up the hill, I thought about the stories I had read: Allied commanders, flushed with recent victories, thought Peleliu would be a two-day cakewalk. They also thought the island would be flat.

Advance intelligence had failed to discover that it was full of rugged hills and ridges into which the Japanese had bored an elaborate system of virtually impenetrable caves and tunnels. At this stage in the war, they were no longer trying to beat back Allied forces on the beaches. Instead, they now relied on heavy firepower from camouflaged and well-protected interior positions.

Moreover, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had just met and decided that the assault on the Philippines was to begin immediately, and further island conquests en route were unnecessary. But the wheels of fate were already in motion. The Peleliu operation was not turned back.

Thunder was echoing off the hills. The rain came down harder, and I remembered reading that GIs had come across similar weather a few days into the invasion. Then I moved over a last muddy rise and suddenly found myself staring into the mouth of one of the meanest, greenest, heavy gun barrels I had ever seen, its rifling still apparent after more than 50 years. Except for the moss on its metal surface, it looked ready to fire.

With the accompanying thunder, lightning, and the torrential downpour, the sight was one of the most startling experiences I had had since we began exploring the island. Sure enough, we found shelter behind the gun, which was mounted at the mouth of one of the thousands of caves still present on the island.

We explored a few tunnels, and after the rain let up, we made our way past the old cannon and down the hill to return to Tangie’s van. He took us to other remnants of war — ruins of burned-out block houses, wrecks of tanks and planes, the painfully sharp coral-strewn invasion beaches, and to various lonely shrines erected by Americans and Japanese in the years following the war.

Finally we went to a one-room museum where Tangie had gathered a collection of war’s detritus — hand grenades, bayonets, Coke and sake bottles, and some poignant reminders of the personal nature of war.

There was an optimistic letter from an American private on Peleliu to his sister, telling her he was in fine health and “not to worry about me,” four days before he was killed. And there was a Japanese flag with hand-scrawled characters on it. Tangie translated them for us: “We’re just a bunch of boys who know we’re going to die, and we miss our mothers.”

As we returned to the airstrip, Tangie apologized because the bad weather had kept us from some of the more elaborate caves and tunnels. These included one that had housed more than 1,000 Japanese, until they were finally killed by a new and more powerful flame thrower that had just entered into the war.

We were glad we came, and the rain certainly suited the mood of the place. But we were also glad to leave Peleliu and fly back to Koror and the cheerful and sunny Palau of today.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Bob,
    Very interesting article, and it struck a cord for several reasons. Many years ago I had occasion to visit Tinian, which the Japanese occupied early in the war, and where the bombs were loaded onto the Enola Gay. I saw firsthand the bombed-out Japanese communication center and the caves where they dug in during the U.S. takeover. I also saw Saipan’s caves to which the Japanese retreated.

    Also, your description of the stormy weather during your hike reminded me of a similar situation while I was on Kosrae in Micronesia. At the time, I doubted if I would get off that mountain alive. Fortunately, we had an excellent guide. Your article really brought back memories and reminds us of how war affects us in a very personal way.

  2. Bob Bone says:

    Thanks for you comment, Jennifer!
    Aloha. Bob.

  3. Christie Adams says:

    Bob, my father, a Marine, fought on Peleliu during World War II. He (Major Hank Adams) is mentioned on page 248 of this web site about the history of the U.S. Marine Corps operations in World War II: http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USMC/IV/USMC-IV-III-7.html

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