In honor of Saturday, September 15th, the 68th anniversary of Operation Stalemate II, the amphibious landings on Peleliu Island in the Palau Archipelago, will be remembered. This coming Monday will see the 68th anniversary of Operation Market Garden, the disastrous Allied airborne invasion of the Netherlands

16 Sep

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On the morning of Friday, September 15th, 1944, the 1st Marine Division steamed toward the shores of the southern end of Peleliu, a tiny speck of sand in the middle of the Pacific Ocean many of those marines had never heard of. The American mission planners behind the operation, code-named Stalemate II, had assured the officers in command that there was to be minimal resistance upon landing, as, following the fall of Marianas Archipelago in August, they believed the backs of the Japanese defenders had been broken. They were sorely mistaken. 

In June 1944, with the surrender of Guadalcanal in February of 1943, American, Australian, and British Commonwealth troops sacking Rabaul and destroying the Japanese strongholds on New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, the sights of the American war machine turned north, toward the Japanese Home Islands. Although there was still intense fighting in British and French Indochina, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, General Douglas MacArthur and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz had set their sights on the Marianas and Peleliu, but for very different reasons. As Japanese resistance crumbled south of the Mariana strongholds of Saipan, Tinian, and Guam, the American island hoppers crept closer to the Home Islands, and, if the Marianas fell, American long-range B-29 Superfortress bombers, the first pressurized aircraft in history, would be within striking distance Kyushu. The Marianas also doubled as the half-way point for communications sent from the Home Islands to Japanese garrisons in the Dutch East Indies and New Guinea, and if the archipelago fell, the communications network would be severed, with the only available communications being forced to divert through Kuomintang China, where they could be intercepted by Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists. 

With the defeat of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the devastating Battle of the Philippine Sea, combined with the infamous Marianas Turkey Shoot, the strength of the IJN was at an all-time low. The Philippine Sea had been the worst singular defeat dealt to the IJN since the Battle of Midway, and would only be surpassed by the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October, the largest naval battle in history. The IJN’s failed attempt to stop the American landings on Saipan had actually ensured the landings’ success. By August 10th, Operation Forager, the code-name for the Mariana landings, had been a success, and within the week the first B-29s started arriving from bases in friendly Kuomintang China. 

By late August, the decision on which area to strike next was becoming a hot topic in the American high command. Both Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz, the foremost Allied commanders, agreed the next blow would have to be dealt at Peleliu, but they did not agree on why that was. Nimitz believed that if Peleliu fell, the gateway to Taiwan, which would silence Japanese airbases on the island which had been a thorn in the side of the Allies waging war in China and Indochina, and Okinawa would be opened, and the Americans could bypass the heavily defended Philippines altogether, rather than risking a potentially dangerous and time-consuming landing that could tack more months onto the war, which was already beginning to lose public support. MacArthur, on the other hand, believed that the fall of Peleliu would open the doorway to the invasion and liberation of the Philippines, the archipelago he had lost in May 1942 after putting the islands’ ramshackle and decrepit defenses in the hands of Jonathan Wainwright, who was currently a Japanese POW in Manila. MacArthur’s reasoning for the invasion of the Philippines was more directed at mending the shattered reputation the islands’ collapse had given him rather than their actual strategic importance. Whether or not the Philippines were liberated would not have been important to the war effort. In effect, they could have been avoided and liberated after Japan’s surrender. Yet, President Roosevelt and Chief of Staff George Marshall gave MacArthur’s plan priority, rather than Nimitz’s idea, which was far more strategically sound. 

On September 15th, 1944, Operation Stalemate II was launched. The first waves of marines came ashore around 08:30 Hours, carrying with them the false believe that the Japanese would surrender once the first boots hit the ground. They were wrong. With flights of Dauntless and Avenger bombers, and Hellcat and Corsair fighters and fighter bombers flying overhead, laden with 1,000 pound bombs and casks of napalm directed at shattering Japanese bunkers and rifle pits hidden the underbrush of the island, the Americans were instilled with a false sense of confidence and invincibility. The American planners had set the timetable for the island’s liberation to last three days. They had said that the liberation of Guadalcanal would last three days as well, and it lasted the better part of six months. As the amphibious tractors closed in on the white, pristine beaches, the men began to notice something was wrong. They were coming under fire from artillery ranging from 50mm knee mortars to 200mm modified naval guns and small arms fire ranging from 6.5mm bolt-action Arisaka rifles to 7.7mm Nambu machine guns. As the men dismounted, they were welcomed by a hail of devastating artillery and small arms fire that tore into them, crippling the landing effort and slaughtering the marines, who had no choice but to huddle around a hastily erected seawall. After several bitter, hard-fought hours of hand-to-hand and close quarters fighting, the marines moved inland to assault their overall target: the airfield on the south end of the island. On September 16th, the Marines stood poised to strike and secure the battered airstrip, which had taken a large amount of air and naval shellfire, with the majority of the bunkers and case mate obliterated. Yet, the Marines had not been issued with sufficient water supplies, Peleliu had no natural freshwater, and the heat on island had skyrocketed to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The men were exhausted, and horrifically outnumbered. But they came through, and, being assisted with shellfire from the USS Mississippi, overran the airfield and quickly pushed to the eastern end of the island. The northern end of the island, which had bore the brunt of the Japanese resistance, was still held up with shellfire raining down on them from the Point, a limestone cliff face overlooking the northern portion of the island. 

As September came to a close, all the major objectives on the island, from Ngesebus Island to Bloody Nose Ridge and the Point had been secured, but the Japanese were far from surrendering. It took the Americans until November 27th to uproot the last of the Japanese troops defending the island, and they did not go without a fight. In all, 1,794 Marines had been killed with 8,010 wounded, compared to the Japanese 10,695 killed and 202 captured. The Japanese law of Bushido, the code of the warrior, which had been adopted during the days of the samurai, made it humiliating to surrender, and soldiers more often than not opted rather to commit ritualistic suicide than face the humiliation of surrender. That is why there are generally so few Japanese survivors of these battles. The fall of Peleliu was definitely belated. The landings by General Walter Krueger’s 6th Army on Leyte had begun on October 20th, and Anguar, the island adjacent to Peleliu, which had seen its own amphibious landing on September 17th, had fallen on October 22nd. Yet Peleliu still marked a major victory in the Pacific, as, even if the island itself is not well known, the battle opened the door to the Philippines, which in turn opened the threshold to the last vestiges of Japanese defense in the Pacific, the near-legendary final battles: Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

 

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