Over the captured ridge about the hurt battalion waited, And hardly had sense left to prove if ghost or living passed From hole to hole with sunken eyes and slow ironic orders, While fiery mountains burst and clanged- and there your lot was cast.
-Edmund Blunden, "An Infantryman"
Peleliu may have the distinction of being the most remote American battlefield. For more than a few years, I made plans to get there, and often, after the children went to bed, I would study the Official Airline Guide for the best connections from Guam, Taipei, or Manila. On the map, Peleliu, a southern island in the archipelago of the Republic of Palau, is five hundred miles southeast of Manila, in what colonial mapmakers call the Carolines, part of Micronesia, although for many years in my travel dreams it was as remote as the dusty fields before Troy.
In September 1944, United States Marines, among them my father, launched an amphibious assault against Japanese forces on Peleliu. The strategic purpose of the landing was to protect the flank of General Douglas MacArthur's forces on their return to the Philippines. But instead of overrunning an obscure Japanese garrison and seizing the airstrip, the Marines attacked a network of interlocking caves and coral ridges. The ten thousand Japanese defenders, members of the Fourteenth Infantry Division, were eventually annihilated. But the three combat regiments of the First Marine Division, about the same number of men, suffered dreadful casualities, as if through a twist of fate they had attacked the Union center at Gettysburg.
In the landing my father served as executive officer of the First Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Prior to the invasion, as he wrote in recollection of the battle, "I moved up from captain to major, and became second in command of the nine-hundred-man combat unit. My friend Captain Everett Pope took over C Company which I had commanded for two-and-a-half years and shared with its men the unforgettable experience of war."
In recent years during family gatherings, when others are doing dishes or watching small children, our conversations have drifted to Peleliu. We talk about this general or that battalion, and read aloud from after-action reports, much as we once played with model trains. Like any child-even one now in his forties-I am interested to hear my father's stories of war. But I like to compare his memories with the written histories, not just because of Walt Whitman's remark about the real war not getting into the books. For me my father's recollections are a plumb line against which, at least on Peleliu, I try to measure the angles of history.
The standard accounts lined the shelves in the house where I grew up, although as a child I only looked at their pictures. One came inscribed to my father: "To a great CO," but it was not until the early 1980s, after I read E. B. Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Okinawa and Peleliu, that I sensed what the Marines had endured. At the same time I noticed that my father had, in a casual way, collected an extensive library about Peleliu. He had discovered the Sledge book, now recognized as a classic, in the flyer of an obscure military publisher and said offhandedly: "Here's one I think we ought to have." For Christmas and birthdays in the years that followed came other histories and memoirs. He gave me Bill D. Ross's Peleliu: Tragic Triumph at Christmas 1991 with the inscription: "To Matthew, whose devotion to my W.W. II battles widens our bonds of love."
Most of the larger histories of World War II, if they mention Peleliu
at all, do so only in passing, calling it either "needless" or "forgotten."
In his history of the Second World War, John Keegan bypasses the island.
But in his recent Fields of Battle, about North America, I was surprised
to come across a brief sketch of my father that captures his biography
with elegant simplicity:
I know the life story of a modest American hero, the graduate of a great Ivy League university, who decided on the day he got his degree that America would enter the Second World War, went down the street to the recruiting office, joined the Marines, and spent the next four years leading a company of infantry up island beaches in the Pacific until death and wounds brought him command of his battalion; the war over he married a childhood sweetheart, raised a large family, made a modest fortune, devoted his retirement years to traveling the United States, encouraging other sufferers from a progressive [eye] illness to which he had fallen victim to look on the bright side, see the best in life.
In our conversations my father casts himself neither as the hero of a wartime romance nor as an anonymous legionnaire, but as someone whose fate included a tour of duty in the underworld that is modern warfare. He tells these stories not to boast about his courage or even to prove that war is hell, but to recall friends long forgotten or sacrifices not foretold by the gods but dictated by the stress of battle. His tone is not that of Homer, describing the interventions of Zeus, but the grim humor and the sense of detached self-preservation that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn uses to remember another set of forgotten islands-The Gulag Archipelago.
My window of opportunity opened after several days of business in Manila.
Early on a Saturday morning, I headed to the airport through the city's
glittering high rises and street-level slums. Peleliu was a bloody footnote
in the battle of the Philippines, and in September 1944, those islands
were an American colony. Gazing from the taxi at the shanties, stray dogs,
hanging wash, and occasional glass palace that are the mixed metaphors
of most Asian cities, I found myself remembering Rudyard Kipling's epitaph
for the Philippines, written about earlier colonial wars:
Take up the White Man's Burden-
The savage wars of peace-
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest
The end for others sought,
Watch Sloth and heathen Folly
Bring all your hope to naught.
Air Micronesia, a subsidiary of Continental Airlines, makes the two-hour ocean hop from Manila to Koror, the capital of Palau. My fellow travelers were heading into the sunshine for rest and relaxation, if not snorkeling in the islands' pristine waters. Even though we flew south along the Philippine east coast, above volcanic peaks and mud flats, the flight felt like the shuttle to Houston until the Boeing 727 dropped below the clouds to make its approach across coral reefs and turquoise waters, which evoke idyllic dreams more than desperate attacks into no-man's-land.
By coincidence, my friend Doug Adler represented Palau in some of its dealings with the American government, which had a mandate for the islands until they gained limited independence in 1994. He arranged for the nephew of the president to meet my plane, and after I cleared customs, Steve Nakamura and his wife introduced themselves and carried my bag to a waiting taxi.
From my years of planning, I knew Peleliu was either fifteen minutes by air taxi from Koror or a more leisurely afternoon on an inter-island steamer, which one guidebook said cost five dollars. But Steve, a Palauan in his late twenties who wore an open shirt and a warm smile, discouraged me from either option. The planes, he hinted, were unreliable, and he said the steamer had departed. Instead for my account he had chartered a fishing boat for $350, making me think I might be the only catch of the week.
The bridge between the airport and Koror had recently collapsed, so the taxi took us to a makeshift ferry landing, and we waited under a thatched awning, like characters in Lord Jim, before crossing to the far shore. Because of the U.S. trusteeship, Koror feels like a small American town that has washed up on a tropical shore. The shops sell Budweiser, the post office has a ZIP Code, and many of the houses look like those on the fringes of American military bases. At the time of independence, the U.S. government agreed to large subsidies for the islands in exchange for Palau's consent to ports-of-call by ships armed with nuclear weapons-the kind of Faustian compromise that Joseph Conrad would understand better than Thomas Jefferson.
I expected my fishing boat to look like those that congressmen charter off Bimini. But this was an ordinary speed boat that had a few fishing poles thrown under the wheelhouse, and the captain, not exactly in dress whites, was asleep on the life jackets when we arrived at the pier. By water Peleliu is a little more than an hour south from Koror, and our boat made sweeping arcs among the reefs and sandbars that connect the chain.
After World War I, a League of Nations mandate gave control of Palau to the Japanese, who later began to fortify the islands, including the construction of an airfield on Peleliu. In response, the American military formulated contingency plans for a possible war with Japan, and, in particular, the U.S. Marine Corps developed the strategy of island hopping, which would allow it to leapfrog across the central and western Pacific toward the Japanese mainland-attacking some Japanese fortifications but leaving others to wither on the vine. The Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Earl H. (Pete) Ellis, who helped develop these plans, died mysteriously in 1923 in Koror, where he was posing as an American businessman-probably with shoes, a suitcase, and travel plans much like my own.
We made landfall in Peleliu alongside a concrete pier by climbing over a rusting steamer that I suspect was my five-dollar inter-island ferry. Near the dock was the kind of shed I associate with abandoned rail spurs and, with the tourist trade in mind, a sign proclaiming "Peleliu-Land of Enchantment," although at that moment the only spell cast seemed to be on the dogs sleeping in the shade of the afternoon sun.
From the guidebooks, not just the hand-painted sign, I had the impression that Peleliu was a tourist destination, and I imagined beach hotels where once there had been entrenched battalions. But we had to hitchhike to our guest house. We got a ride in the back of a pickup truck, and when Steve had it stop so that I could meet the governor, his excellency was outside mowing his lawn. Our rooms for the night were in the island's only lodging, run by a Japanese couple, who, as if in hiding since the end of the war, had the walls decorated with posters of zeros, Japanese cruisers and carriers launching their squadrons.
My weekend plan was to retrace my father's steps, starting at Beach White, where he landed with the First Battalion, and moving inland to The Blockhouse and finally Bloody Nose Ridge, where the invasion forces took dreadful casualties attacking a system of coral ridges that were as well defended as the cloisters at Monte Cassino. But when Steve and I, in a borrowed car, made a short excursion before dinner, we got lost immediately. At Anzio and Salerno you cannot see the landing beaches for the markers. But on the jungle roads that cross the small island, the battle for Peleliu is as faceless as an encounter at sea. When I expressed frustration to Steve, who grew up on Peleliu, about the fog of war that obscured the battlefield, he confessed: "In school, we studied American history, not Peleliu history."
That evening, as I pored over the maps in my regimental histories, a guardian angel arrived at the guest house in the form of Tangie Hesus. I knew before arriving that he was Peleliu's "state historian," but I despaired that I would find him on an island with so few telephones. But Steve rounded him up just after nightfall, and before me stood not an Oxford don but the happy presence of a Peleliu native in his mid-thirties wearing Marine Corps fatigues. When I said that I was a friend of Everett Pope, who had returned to the island in 1994, fifty years after the battle, such was his glee that I might well have invoked the image of a tribal god.
For Tangie, men like Pope or Ray Davis, who commanded the First Battalion, or my father, whom he knew by name, were legends whose spirits inhabited the desolate crags and jungle trails of the battlefield, where each day he guided returning veterans or accidental tourists who found their way to Peleliu. I discovered in Tangie not just a kindred spirit for the battle, but a one-man historical society and the curator of a museum, which, without funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, manages to keep Peleliu alive with displays devoted to personal narratives of the fighting- faithful, in its remote way, to John Keegan's thesis that the face of battle is best understood from those who were there.
The next morning I ate a breakfast of baked fish on the terrace overlooking the shallow waters encased by coral. The tide was low, revealing not a blue lagoon but a great reach of mud and rocks, as if it were a Maine potato field in springtime. It was through such murky waters that the three regiments of the First Marine Division launched their attack, from an armada of naval warships that had assembled beyond the reef. Over breakfast I was reading The Devil's Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu written by a Connecticut newspaperman, James H. Hallas, who quotes a D-Day tank crewman on this stretch of water: "When the tide went out that night, you could have walked 300 yards across the beach on the bodies of dead Marines."
Although there were discussions at the highest levels, including with President Roosevelt in Hawaii in July 1944, about canceling the landing at Peleliu, the decision was taken to proceed, in part because few of the commanding generals expected much resistance. General William Rupertus, who commanded the First Marine Division, said it would be a "quickie" and predicted the battle would be decided in three days. After shelling the island prior to the landings, one of the offshore admirals confessed that his warships had run out of targets. The legendary commander of the 1st Marine Regiment, Colonel Lewis ("Chesty") Puller, told his men, including my father, that after the naval bombardment they might only be asked to "police up the area with the bayonet."
Waiting to transfer to landing craft, my father remembers his first
sense that the tides on Peleliu might run against the Americans:
As the boats loaded, circled and fanned out in the long line of the first assault wave, I felt the odds were with us. The first hint that they weren't and that all was not well came as Japanese mortar and artillery shells fell among the advancing boats, with two direct hits close by.
The three Marine regiments, about nine thousand combat troops, landed abreast along two horseshoe beaches, code-named White and Orange. On the left, as they landed from the west, the 1st Marines came ashore on Beach White, with the objective of pushing straight inland. The mission of the 5th Marines, in the center, was to capture the airfield, while the 7th Marines, on the right flank, were to wheel right and secure Peleliu's southern tip. Many of these best-laid plans, however, never got off the beach.
Most of the veterans I interviewed described their shock when they first
realized that the burning wreckage along the shore had Marines, not Japanese,
inside, reminiscent of the disaster at Tarawa. Many expressed the feelings
that Sledge recorded:
Up and down the beach and out on the reef, a number of amtracs and DUKWs were burning. Japanese machine-gun bursts made long splashes on the water as though flaying it with some giant whip. ... I caught a fleeting glimpse of a group of Marines leaving a smoking amtrac on the reef. . . . I had tasted the bitterest essence of war, the sight of helpless comrades being slaughtered, and it filled me with disgust.
By driving down an unmarked jungle path, Tangle and I found Beach White, which almost until the water's edge sits under a gloomy mangrove canopy, as if in a backwater on the Georgia coast. Perhaps twenty yards across, the beach where the 1st Marines landed is covered with chunks of coral, some so gnarled as to resemble animal skulls. Not only was it impossible for the Marines to dig for cover in the rocky sand, but registered on the beach were Japanese mortars, artillery, and machine guns that had withstood the naval barrage and now raked the sands in search of casualties. An illustrator for Life magazine who came ashore in the first waves, Tom Lea, recalls: "Those marines flattened in the sand on that beach were dark and huddled like wet rats in death." One of my father's close friends, Fendall Yerxa, who served on Puller's regimental staff, remembers the sand "popping" and how, weighed down with a soaked pack, his mind moved off the beach faster than his encumbered legs. He also remembers the withering fire that came down the beach from what came to be known as The Point, a redoubt on the left flank that in the legends of Peleliu looms as large as an Arthurian castle.
K Company of the Third Battalion, commanded by Captain George P. Hunt, had the mission after landing to capture The Point and thus subdue the Japanese crossfire. Of the 235 men who sought this objective, more than two-thirds were killed or wounded, and the survivors, including Captain Hunt, had to defend their gains on The Point against suicidal counterattacks, which he describes in Coral Comes High, the best book written about the landing.
I had expected The Point to loom like Pointe du Hoc, which a Ranger battalion scaled and defended, in similar desperate circumstances, during the Normandy invasion. But instead, Tangie and I climbed among scattered boulders and what seemed like the neolithic roots of a petrified forest. It was easier to imagine cavemen than twentieth-century Americans carrying fire to such a primeval battleground.
"Imagine if an officer less brave than George Hunt had the job of securing The Point?" is my father's rhetorical question about the savage battle for the flank and the consequences of failure. But my father never saw The Point, as the First Battalion had pushed directly off the beach into a series of bunkers and pillboxes, which inflicted heavy casualties, and a fortified blockhouse that the navy had missed despite its "exhaustion of available targets."
Tangie and I walked to The Blockhouse along a small dirt road that, despite the walls of jungle vegetation that have grown since the battle, still evoked those quiet lanes that traverse the Antietam farmland. Several infantry assaults failed to break its resistance, which only gave way after sixteen-inch shells were called over the horizon from the battleship Pennsylvania.
As executive officer, my father set up the rear command post in The
Blockhouse, which became, in addition to a supply base, the battalion aid
station. Among other jobs, he organized the stretcher bearers and thus,
like Charon on the River Styx, had to watch many friends-especially the
men from C Company whom he led through Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester-being
ferried from the world of the living to that of the dead. Casualties among
the 950 men in the First Battalion on Peleliu were 71 percent, but its
three rifle companies were nearly wiped out. After six days of fighting,
B Company had thirty-six enlisted men and two officers, C Company had fifteen
men and two officers, and A Company had sixty-five men and two officers.
To put this in perspective, Roman legions used the word decimated to describe
casualties of one in ten. "Looking back," my father reflects,
I have often felt that becoming battalion exec instead of remaining a company commander could have been the event that saved my life. No longer being required to lead a company directly into battle could have made the crucial difference between living and dying.
Casualties in the early assault regiments in Normandy, like those of combat Marines on Peleliu, were more than one in two. But once the Americans had pierced the outer walls of Fortress Europa, they could move inland with tanks and artillery. Once Marines came off the beach at Peleliu and survived nightmares like The Point or The Blockhouse, they encountered coral hills, undetected in the pre-invasion intelligence, higher than the dunes above Omaha Beach.
Toward the end of the second day of fighting, the 1st Marines, with
the First Battalion in the center, attacked what they called Bloody Nose
Ridge. All the books about Peleliu describe the sharp ends of the Umurbrogol,
its local name, but none is more compelling than a short memoir by Russell
Davis, an infantryman with the Second Battalion, whose only book compares
favorably to another he admires, The Red Badge of Courage:
Old Marines talk of Bloody Nose Ridge as though it were one, but I remember it as a series of crags, ripped bare of all standing vegetation, peeled down to the rotted coral, rolling in smoke, crackling with heat and stinking of wounds and death. In my memory it was always dark up there, even though it must have blazed under the afternoon sun, because the temperature went up over 115 [degrees], and men cracked wide open from the heat. It must have been the color of the ridge that made me remember it as always dark-the coral was stained and black, like bad teeth.
Tangie and I drove his borrowed car up the narrow, dirt path that leads to a small plateau among the ridges. Halfway up we passed the only battlefield sign on the island-indicating the direction to Bloody Nose Ridge, where a small obelisk remembers the deeds of the First Marine Division and those from its ranks who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Everett Pope.
The monument has a commanding view of the surrounding valleys, like a box seat at the opera. But nowhere on the nearby ridges or down in the dark canyons was there a sign of civilization. I could hear the lonely caw of jungle birds or watch low clouds swirl on the distant hilltops, as if in a legend of Transylvania or the Black Forest. Nothing about this twisted ground connected to the American imagination except Edgar Allan Poe's description of the house of Usher: "An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all."
The sheer cliffs, almost parapets, the sense of a moat in the valleys recalled errant quests, and neither Americans nor Japanese would have been surprised had the defenders poured boiling oil on the assault forces-as, for most of those who tried to scale these ramparts, the experience of the heat and fire echoed medieval battles. As Russell Davis described the jousting:
From the base of the cliff, we would pick out each man and follow him until he got hit, went to ground, or climbed to the top. Not many made the top. As they toiled, caves and gullies and holes opened up and Japanese dashed out to roll grenades down on them, and sometimes to lock, body to body, in desperate wrestling matches. Knives and bayonets flashed on the hillside. I saw one man bend, straighten, and club and kick at something that attacked his legs like a mad dog. He reached and heaved, and a Japanese soldier came end-over-end down the hill. The machine-gunners yelled encouragement.
Until the Marines attacked Bloody Nose Ridge, the invasion, while costly, had gone according to American military doctrine. Mobile, lightly armed assault troops had established a beachhead and seized the airfield. Offshore among the reserves was heavy armor and army regiments that could press the land campaign. But the Marine commanding general, Rupertus, never called for the army and instead sent his badly depleted battalions, including the First, into the ridges, much the way World War I generals hoped that one more frontal assault would break the enemy trenches.
Among my father's books are some from World War II that he read during
lulls in the fighting, and many are memoirs of the Great War, with titles
like Education Before Verdun. Little did he realize that accounts of his
own battalion would later read like those before Passchendaele or the Somme,
such as this from Harry A. Gailey's Peleliu:
The Marines of the 7th were exhausted and [Col.] Puller sent what was left of A Company of 1/1, a total of 56 men, through their lines to continue the attack. He did this because he assumed from his maps that there was a uniform slope to the hill mass. However, Company A encountered a nearly sheer 150-foot cliff. The Japanese hit the company with heavy small arms, machine-gun, and mortar fire. Only six men of the entire company regained the relative safety of the lines of 2/7 some 150 yards to the rear without being hit. The rest had been killed or wounded.
Nor did it help the Marines attacking Bloody Nose Ridge to call in either air cover, artillery, or naval gun ships. Dug in under the ridges, my father recalls:
As the next hideous night fell, our men held what ground they had chewed out inside the limestone ridges. All the jungle foliage had long since been blasted away; the landscape seemed like the mountains of the moon. As the hours progressed, a forward observer, a young ensign from the battleship Mississippi, appeared and declared himself ready to direct fire from its big guns on the enemy positions if I could orient them to him.
They crept forward to a small ravine between the American and Japanese lines and
. . . for the rest of the night we called in salvo after salvo, hour after hour, on the honeycombed ridges facing the fast dwindling strength of our companies. But as morning came, and our fire ceased, the Jap machine guns and mortars resumed their lethal chorus.
As Homer wrote:
for all the world as if all Troy were torched and smoldering down from the looming brows of the citadels to her roots.
If the spirit of Achilles was alive on Peleliu, it was embodied in the personality of Lewis Burwell Puller, known throughout the war by his nickname "Chesty." In the 1950s, after the Korean War, he would retire from the Marine Corps as its most decorated officer. But by the time he landed on Beach White, he was already a legend. In the colonial wars of Haiti and Nicaragua, Puller won several Navy Crosses for leading assaults against rebel strongholds. On Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester his battalions won important battles, although at the cost of heavy casualties. On Peleliu he commanded the three battalions of the 1st Regiment. As Craig Cameron writes in American Samurai: "Puller was not a man who would question Rupertus's wisdom in pressing costly frontal attacks or spare either himself or his men in carrying out his orders."
By my father's account, Puller was a short man, with steel gray eyes, a deep voice, and a swelling chest-almost like that of a bantam rooster-from which he took his nickname. He spoke with a southern, Tidewater drawl, and, had he been born in a different era, he might well have been one of Lee's lieutenants-the biographies of whom he often read in battle.
With the officers in his command, Puller was cool and direct. He resented the intrusions of military brass, especially parade ground generals and junior officers who perhaps did not share his zeal for combat. James Hallas writes that "to Chesty, low casualties among lieutenants indicated that the attack was not being pressed with sufficient vigor."
Puller was a mustang, meaning commissioned from the ranks, and with the enlisted men he had a natural affinity. "The men loved Chesty," is a phrase my father has often used, "and he loved them." During the thick of a battle, Puller would come forward, crouch low near a rifleman, and ask, "How's it going, old man?" Just as Jay Gatsby called everyone "old sport," Puller's name for everyone was "old man," with the usual prescription in battle to "just keep pushing." "Whenever he remembered a name," my father quips, "he usually mispronounced it."
Puller was physically brave but disinterested in tactics or strategy. Everett Pope remarks with both irony and appreciation that he "was the greatest platoon leader in the history of the Marine Corps." But many of the officers and men I asked about Puller refused to answer, not wanting to be at odds with a legend.
Puller had a habit of humiliating junior officers, to the delight of the enlisted men. Jim Rogers, a battalion officer on Peleliu, remembers Puller, on Pavuvu, ordering him to stand at attention in a deep puddle. A man with Joycean sparkle, Rogers survived Peleliu to become a Catholic priest outside Boston. He wrote in one letter: "Your father and I were best friends, as you know, and I have the greatest respect and affection for him. Puller thought highly of him and that's one of the few good things I can say about Chesty."
It was on Pavuvu, after telling the assembled Marines that all they might have to do on Peleliu would be to police up with the bayonet, that Puller added: "Still, I wouldn't mind having insurance on some of you boys," to which they responded with cheers. During the landing, the commander of the regimental weapons company, Bob Thomases, asked Puller: "During the attack, sir, where do you want me?"
"Just stick with me, old man," Puller replied with tactical insouciance. "That way I'll know you aren't yellow."
Puller's trademark was to have his command post far forward. But on Peleliu, Fendall Yerxa said that position led to permanent confusion in the regimental command, as much of the time staff officers were taking cover. Also, on Peleliu, Puller didn't have his legendary mobility, because a flare-up of a thigh wound from an earlier battle left him hobbling. "Puller had no idea what was going on," is Pope's assessment. "We never saw Chesty," is my father's.
As a consequence, gaps often developed in the lines of the 1st Marines. The official history describes one incident:
As the exhausted Marines settled in, a more serious threat developed as the enemy discovered a gap between 2/1 and 1/1 and began to infiltrate the weak spot. To seal the hole, F Company, 7th Marines had to be committed. This outfit fought its way into position and managed to close the gap.
But it was my father who discovered this particular gap, and he tells
the story whenever he is asked about Puller's habits of command:
It was then that it became clear to me that there were no friendly troops on the battalion right flank. It was completely open, entirely vulnerable to a Japanese counterattack which, had it taken place, could have allowed them to surge all the way to the beach line and create near total havoc. I called Col. "Chesty" Puller, regimental commander, to warn him of the peril and the urgent need for reinforcements. When I reached him on the field telephone he was true to form. First he confused me with Steve Sabol, commander of the Third Battalion. When this was cleared up, his gruff voice spoke its usual formula, "Just keep pushing, old man."
I stood transfixed, my runner beside me as we heard Japanese voices and the click of weapons on the far side of the vital road in question. Unbelieving I called again. This time I got Lt. Col. "Buddy" Ross, regimental exec, who instantly perceived the urgency. "Stay right there, Steve, don't move; I'm sending up a unit from the Seventh. Tie them into the line as soon as they get there." Within what seemed minutes, they appeared and immediately took up firing positions to plug the gap. No sooner was this done when there came wild shouts of "Banzai" as the Japanese poured across the road into the devastating but crucially effective fire of the newly arrived Marines. That day, or perhaps just a portion of it, was saved. More crises were to follow soon.
Craig Cameron sketches a portrait of Puller that makes him hard to distinguish
from the fanatical enemy he was fighting. Of Peleliu he writes:
The course of the fighting began increasingly to take on the appearance of a test of wills between the implacable Japanese in their caves and Puller's regiment. On Guadalcanal it had been a test of wills between warrior representatives [i.e., each army]; on Peleliu, Puller made it more personal. It was, moreover, a test of endurance in which the Japanese did not play fully human roles but were instead faceless elements in the landscape, deadly, but to be conquered along with the heat and blasted coral ridges. He had strong and well-founded faith in his men, and they always responded to his repeated calls for attack.But Puller, too, was a man in the chain of command. In another widely reported conversation, the divisional chief of staff, John Seldon, asked Puller, who like Honsowetz was requesting additional men to attack: "Anything wrong with your orders, Lewie?"
There is a famous photograph of Puller at his command post during the battle-shirtless, smoking a corncob pipe, and favoring his good leg-for which the caption could easily read:
Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.When the III Corps commander, General Roy Geiger, went forward to Puller's command post on the sixth day of the fighting, he decided, as Gailey writes, that Puller was "out of touch with reality." Shortly thereafter, the 1st Marines, with more than 50 percent casualties, were pulled from the line.
In broad daylight one could stand at the south of Horseshoe Valley and study at leisure the precipitous slopes and sheer cliffs that were its walls. It was eerie. You could almost physically feel the weightless presence of hundreds of hostile eyes watching you. Yet there was no sign of the enemy: no movement, no shots, only a lonely silence.The only monument in the Horseshoe is Japanese, a small oriental shrine, but nothing to remember the hundreds of young Americans killed or wounded here. "War," my father likes to quote William Tecumseh Sherman, "is about dying in battle and then getting your name misspelled in the newspapers." On the right as you enter the Horseshoe is a hill covered with jungle brush that Tangie and I climbed like two boys playing in the woods after school. I wanted to reach the top because it was there that C Company made its last desperate stand and its captain, Everett Pope, won the Medal of Honor.
My father remembers Pope leading away the remnants of his old company:
After another day of futile struggle against the fortified limestone catacombs, the battalion was withdrawn and regrouped. Ev Pope and what was left of "C" Company (90 men) were detached and sent in support of the Second Battalion. With a heavy heart I watched him go, knowing so well that in combat any attached unit is always given the dirtiest, the most dangerous assignment. Theirs was to be no exception.
Pope and his ninety men were ordered to take Hill 100, which on the Marine Corps maps appeared to be an isolated knob and might, if taken, give the Marines high ground to support the attacks, across the Horseshoe, against Bloody Nose Ridge. But Hill 100 turned out to be the head of a whale, and for one long night the Japanese attacked along the humpback against the few Marines who had struggled to the top.
One of the men who went up the hill was Joseph Seifts who remembers:
We started up with about thirty men. By the time we got to the top there were only about twenty of us left. . . . We had no machine guns or mortars. The Japs hit us I believe around ten or eleven at night. We had to hold the hill. Because at the bottom of the hill lay all of our wounded. We stopped attack after attack. ... I was never so glad to see daylight. ... I still have bad memories of Peleliu.
Another with a ringside seat to that night on the ridge was Russell Davis, who wrote:
The remnants of our Second Battalion spent a terrible night up there. But, for the few men up on the higher ridge-mostly from C Company, First Battalion-it was far worse. All through the night we could hear them screaming for illumination or for corpsmen, as the Japs came at them from caves which were all around them on the hillside. Men were hit up there and we could hear them crying and pleading for help, but nobody could help them. . . . The cries of Americans and Japanese were all mixed together.
Pope went to the Marine Corps from Bowdoin College in Maine, where he later served as chairman of the board of overseers. The previous Bowdoin graduate to win the Medal of Honor and who also was president of the college was Joshua Chamberlain, whose 20th Maine Regiment held the Union left flank at Gettysburg. While Little Round Tbp may be on the other side of the world from Hill 100, Chamberlain's account of the fighting could be Pope's account of Peleliu:
Squads of the enemy broke through our line in several places, and the fight was literally hand to hand. The edge of the fight rolled backward and forward like a wave. The dead and wounded were now in our front and then in our rear. . . . Rude shelters were thrown up of the loose rocks that covered the ground.
When dawn broke on Hill 100, Pope's perimeter was the size of a tennis court, he had no ammunition and about eight men, and he led the survivors off the hill. "I saw no good reason for us all to die there-as was about to happen." But he felt anything but a hero:
My most vivid memory, after being driven off the hill, is that of expecting that Puller would have me court-martialed for having failed to hold-i.e., for not having died up there. As your father will recall, late on the afternoon, Puller ordered C-l-1 to take the hill again. Since there were only about 12-15 of us left, it was clearly to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller's).
As Pope prepared to lead his men back into battle and to their deaths, he received orders canceling the attack: "I have always believed that your father and Ray Davis succeeded in convincing Puller to call off the mission. Why Puller wanted us all dead on the top of that hill has never been clear to me."
My father wrote the citation proposing Everett Pope for the Medal of
Honor. The language used is that of military decoration:
... in order to hold ground won . . . remain on the exposed hill . . . attacked continuously with grenades, machine guns . . . suicidal charges . . . resorting to hand-to-hand combat. . . . eight remaining riflemen when daylight brought... he was ordered to withdraw.
On Pavuvu, Puller grilled my father about the nomination, and my father expected Pope to be "knocked back" to a Navy Cross. What he didn't know was that Puller tried to block the award. As Pope relates:
You must read my remarks about Puller with the knowledge that Puller attempted to prevent the award to me of the Medal of Honor. I have seen the files. He always maintained that none in his command would receive it until he did, and as far as I can determine, John Basilone and I are the only two serving under him whose awards were not posthumous.
But the Medal of Honor was awarded - instead of the court-martial Pope feared as he came off the ridge without orders. "I wear it proudly," he told me when we spoke at his summer house in Maine, "not because of anything I did to deserve it. But out of respect for my men who died up there and to prolong, at least for a moment of time, their place in our nation's history. As you know, it was 12 days before my dead on that hill were recovered."
During the night that C Company was fighting and dying for Hill 100,
the rest of the First Battalion was across the Horseshoe, preparing for
a final attack against the face of the ridge. My father remembers:
We received orders from Regiment that at six o'clock the next morning there would be an artillery barrage on Bloody Nose Ridge, followed at six thirty by a frontal attack by the remnants of the First and Second Battalions.
Without C Company, the First Battalion (normally about 950 men and officers) was reduced to a little more than 100 infantrymen and four officers. He continues:
A plea to Regiment to send forward any officers and men who could be spared brought old friend Fendall Yerxa back to us along with a dozen or two cooks, bakers and truck drivers, converted overnight into riflemen, and a 37 mm gun. Clearly it was to be the battalion's last throw of the dice. If Bloody Nose Ridge could be taken, our fire from its heights into enemy-held crevices below would eventually dislodge them and Peleliu would be won at last.
As first light broke, all hands took position and waited for the artillery barrage. Six ten, six twenty. Silence and growing horror that there would be none. There wasn't. But at six thirty sharp, Major Ray Davis gave the command and the men moved out in short rushes, starting up the slope toward the heights that now seemed miles away.
Russell Davis was part of the attack as a rifleman with the Second Battalion, which was mixed together on the First Battalion's right flank:
The whole motley lot-a fighting outfit only in the minds of a few officers in the First Regiment and in the First Division-started up the hill. I have never understood why.
As the men moved up the slopes, my father recalls:
Enemy fire quickened. Minutes later a runner came rushing up to me at the rear command post with a message, "Major Davis has been wounded and orders you to take command of the battalion." As I ran forward I found men still moving, trying to take what cover they could find, urged on by a young second lieutenant, Junior Thompson. On our right flank, the Second Battalion had not moved.
Until that moment, my father's role with the battalion, as its executive officer or number two, was supporting. He had kept the food, ammunition, water, and stretchers moving toward the front lines, but, unlike either Davis or Honsowetz in the Second Battalion, he had not had to carry out Puller's direct orders to assault the ridges. By contrast, Honsowetz had seen some of his men near mutiny when he gave the orders to continue the attack, and Jim Rogers was present when one Marine told the Lieutenant Colonel, pointing toward Bloody Nose Ridge: "I'll go-if you go with me."1 As my father ran forward he realized that "to move farther would be suicide; no one would reach the crest alive." His crisis of command was not unlike Everett Pope's on Hill 100. He ordered the men to halt their attack, but now feared the wrath of Colonel Puller for disobeying orders. "I dispatched my runner, Cpl. Hauge, going at top speed to inform Regiment that we were pinned down by heavy enemy fire."
At that critical moment the Japanese ceased their firing. An eerie, never-to-be-forgotten quiet fell, broken only by the faraway rattle of machine guns and the clump of distant mortars. We lay and crouched there, waiting. Waiting for we knew not what. The sun rose higher, turning helmets into ovens. At long last came a runner from Regiment, informing us that we were to be relieved by a fresh battalion, from the 7th Marines. Slowly we rose, formed two files on each side of the cart track leading back. The relief took place in full view of the Japanese atop Bloody Nose Ridge. If they had opened up, it would have been the final and apocalyptic carnage. Inexplicably, they did not. We marched slowly away.
Sledge describes the relief of the 1st Marines, passing the 5th Marines on their way down from the ridges.
We in the 5th Marines had many a dead or wounded friend to report about from our ranks, but the men in the 1st Marines had so many it was appalling. . . . What once had been companies in the 1st Marines looked like platoons; platoons looked liked squads. I saw few officers.
For the men of First Marines, Peleliu was over. But the battle dragged on for more than a month, with the men of the 5th and 7th Marine Regiments, plus army units, fighting and dying among the coral valleys of the Umurbrogol. Only behind walls of sandbags and flame were American soldiers able to seal the last caverns of death.
Tangie waited for me in the car while I hiked to the top of Bloody Nose Ridge, where the Army Corps of Engineers has built a staircase and the kind of wooden deck found on houses in the Hamptons. From this perch, I could survey an American battlefield that will never be threatened with a K-Mart. The airport on Peleliu consists of a bench placed alongside the pock-marked runway, and no summer houses line the rocky, inhospitable shore as they do in Normandy. Where the fighting took place on Peleliu is as forlorn as a remote national park, although in this case one unencumbered with tourists, park rangers, or historical markers.
If Peleliu has any monuments, they are in its literature, as rich as any from a World War II battle. On the island, it may not be possible to study a diorama of the Horseshoe or buy postcards in a visitors' center. But as I walked beneath the cliffs of Bloody Nose Ridge or along the beaches, I could recall memoirs, histories, battalion reports, biographies, letters, and taped conversations-including those with my father-in which the fighting has the force of verses of The Iliad.
Although the Sledge memoirs were the first book I read about Peleliu,
they remain the standard against which other histories and accounts are
measured. During the fighting he kept notes secretly-some scribbled on
the pages of a Bible- and wrote the first draft of the manuscript immediately
the war. In his history of wartime memoirs, Soldiers' Tale, Samuel Hynes describes Sledge's account as "one of the best of its kind." He continues:
Everything is battlefield, and every action is battle. In his account of his thirty days there, nothing happens except fighting, killing, and dying: it is a personal war of an intensity beyond any other narrative I know.
After I read Sledge in the early 1980s, I mailed a copy to John Keegan,
a family friend, in part to introduce him to what my father had gone through
at Peleliu. In turn, he passed it on to Paul Fussell, who rescued the book
from obscurity by convincing Oxford University Press to reissue a paperback
with his own laudatory introduction. I also mailed a copy of the book to
Sledge, whom I did not know, asking him to inscribe it for my father, and
the intensity of his inscription captures the bond among those that survived
Best wishes to the former company commander of C-l-1 and with greatest respect and admiration for a fine officer I knew by reputation-all I heard was the best about you and your leadership qualities and bravery. 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He is married to Constance Fogler, and they have four children ranging in ages from thirteen to five. They live in Laconnex, Switzerland, which is near Geneva.
His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org