Pelileu Then and Now
by John Sledge
I turned the small piece of coral over in my hand, its white dust chalking my fingers. My younger brother Henry was sitting across from me, his lap full of souvenirs from his recent trip to Peleliu, the isolated Pacific island where our father fought in World War II. Besides the coral, he had a jar of sand from the landing beach, coarse and brownish pink in color, a piece of concrete from a Japanese pillbox, a few shell casings and hundreds of photographs. The coral was especially significant, however. For here was an actual piece of the place we had heard so much about all our lives. As children, we witnessed firsthand Dad’s terrible flashbacks, and stared at the tangible relics of his war--stained and faded dungarees in the closet, a Japanese canteen, his razor-sharp Ka-bar knife and well-oiled pistol. World War II was an every day reality for all of us. As I stared at the coral, I could conjure distant Peleliu over 50 years ago; blindingly white in the tropical sun, a surreal stage for the desperate life and death struggle that took place between the American Marines and the elite Japanese Kwantung Army.
Dad wrote about his war experiences in the memoir
Few Americans have heard of Peleliu. The 1st Marine Division in September of 1944 assaulted it in order to secure MacArthur’s right flank for his invasion of the Philippines. The island is a tiny two by six mile coral rock in the Palau Islands, which form the western part of the Caroline Islands chain. During World War II it had a small airfield, and was defended by 10,000 Japanese troops. Some American planners actually favored bypassing the island and starving the garrison, but Admiral Chester Nimitz insisted the attack take place.
Dad was a 21 year old PFC at the time, uncertain of what lay ahead. He and his comrades were told the battle would be "short but rough." As it happened, however, the Japanese changed tactics on Peleliu, abandoning their suicidal banzai charges in favor of a sophisticated defense in depth with mutually supporting positions on the island’s sheer coral ridges. The landing was hotly opposed, and the Marines had to fight for every yard of ground. Though Dad subsequently saw combat on a larger scale on Okinawa, he always commented on the particular savagry of the fight for Peleliu. No quarter was asked or given as the battle raged over the blasted coral terrain. When the Japanese got access to Marine dead or wounded, they butchered them horribly. And Dad writes honestly of how his comrades harvested gold teeth from dead Japanese, and in at least one case, a live one.
Because of the new Japanese tactics, Peleliu dragged on for over a month. Of the 235 men in Dad’s company, only 85 were left unhurt at battle’s end. The Japanese were killed nearly to a man. Peleliu seared itself into my father’s consciousness and he lost faith in the claim that man is basically good. But as he is still quick to note, Peleliu taught him that human beings could do extraordinarily noble things. He and his comrades forged an unbreakable bond in that fiery crucible, a bond that a peaceful nation cannot comprehend.
It was a desire to fathom these experiences that led my brother to the other side of the world. Today’s Books page offers some of his meditations on that emotional journey of discovery.
John Sledge edits the Register’s Books page. He may be reached at P.O. Box 2488, Mobile, Al. 36652.
PELILEU THEN AND NOW
"Will no one tell me of what she sings, of far off unpleasant things, and battles long ago."-Tennyson
Henry Sledge’s Note:
My trip to Peleliu was the fulfillment of a dream. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to visit this tiny coral atoll where my father received his baptism of fire. Other than what Dad had to say about Peleliu in his book, "With the Old Breed" (1981), I knew very little about the island, other than it was very small and remote. Today, a few hundred natives live on Peleliu, but they stay close to their villages on the coast and do not venture inland towards the rugged recesses and steep cliffs of Bloody Nose Ridge, where some of the worst fighting occurred. At night the wind whistles and howls through the canyons and caves there, and the natives believe that ghosts prowl the old battlefield.
The world’s best scuba diving is found off the shores of Peleliu, and there is currently talk of building a resort hotel to attract divers. Personally, I hope this never happens. There is no other place in the world where one can see the things that are to be found on this island. The detritus of war is everywhere-unexploded hand grenades, artillery shells, the remains of fighter planes, tanks and amtracs, and most eerily, human bones, some blackened by flame-throwers.
My trip to Peleliu, while physically and emotionally exhausting, was well worth the effort. Struggling through 90-degree temperatures and oppressive humidity, I gained a deeper appreciation for the achievements and sacrifices of those young Marines 55 years ago. In the following article I have interspersed selections from my travel journal with excerpts from Dad’s book, which are here reprinted by permission.
D-Day, September 15, 1944
"Hit the beach!" yelled an NCO moments before the machine lurched to a stop.
The men piled over the sides as fast as they could. I followed Snafu, climbed up, and planted both feet firmly on the left side so as to leap as far away from it as possible. At that instant a burst of machine-gun fire with white-hot tracers snapped through the air at eye level, almost grazing my face. I pulled my head back like a turtle, lost my balance, and fell awkwardly forward down onto the sand in a tangle of ammo bag, pack, helmet, carbine, gas mask, cartridge belt, and flopping canteens.
* * * * *
Shells crashed all around. Fragments tore and whirred, slapping on the sand and splashing into the water a few yards behind us. The Japanese were recovering from the shock of our prelanding bombardment. Their machine gun and rifle fire got thicker, snapping viciously overhead in increasing volume.
Our amtrac spun around and headed back out as I reached the edge of the beach and flattened on the deck. The world was a nightmare of flashes, violent explosions, and snapping bullets. Most of what I saw blurred. My mind was benumbed by the shock of it. –E. B. Sledge, "With the Old Breed."
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Peleliu is located half a world away from Alabama. In order to get there I flew from Birmingham to Los Angeles, thence to Hawaii, thence to Korror, an island in the Palaus chain, and thence by boat to Peleliu itself.
September 14, 1999
Today was sunny, hot and very humid. Things got underway in good order. The members of my tour group, many of them Peleliu veterans, and myself all loaded up on two boats to make the one-hour ride to Peleliu. The high point on the way over was seeing the wreck of a Japanese Zero fighter plane under several feet of water.
As the island came into sight I felt captivated. Of course there was no comparison to what the island looked like 55 years ago, when it was sheathed in smoke and flames. Now it is all green and peaceful. I noted the reactions of the veterans as we got closer. They were very alert, and I could only wonder what was going through their minds.
Once ashore, we piled into two vans and began our windshield tour of the island. We checked out a few pillboxes and emplacements off of the West Road, then headed to the assault beaches. I was amazed that there was no sand here, only razor sharp coral. I could not imagine hitting the deck under withering shellfire in this stuff. Your hands, elbows and knees would be cut to ribbons. Not far out in the water I spotted the treads of an American Sherman tank. Slightly inland we saw Japanese gun emplacements that had enfiladed the entire landing area. None of these guns had been knocked out by the heavy prelanding bombardment. Everywhere there was live ordnance-Japanese hand grenades, 75-mm shells, spent shell casings, etc.-Henry Sledge
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September 28, 1944
The amtrac took up a position on a line even with us. It’s commander, a sergeant, consulted Burgin. Then the turret gunner fired three armor-piercing 75-mm shells at the side of the pillbox. Each time our ears rang with the familiar wham-bam as the report of the gun was followed quickly by the explosion of the shell on a target at close range. The third shell tore a hole entirely through the pillbox. Fragments kicked up dust around our abandoned packs and mortars on the other side. On the side nearest us, the hole was about four feet in diameter. Burgin yelled to the tankers to cease firing lest our equipment be damaged.
Someone remarked that if fragments hadn’t killed those inside, the concussion surely had. But even before the dust settled, I saw a Japanese soldier appear at the blasted opening. He was grim determination personified as he drew back his arm to throw a grenade at us.
My carbine was already up. When he appeared, I lined up my sights on his chest and began squeezing off shots. As the first bullet hit him, his face contorted in agony. His knees buckled. The grenade slipped from his grasp. All the men near me, including the amtrac machine gunner, had seen him and began firing. The soldier collapsed in the fusillade, and the grenade went off at his feet.
Even in the midst of these fast-moving events, I looked down at my carbine with sober reflection. I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man’s face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing.
My combat experience thus far made me realize that such sentiments for an enemy soldier were the maudlin meditations of a fool. Look at me, a member of the 5th marine Regiment-one of the oldest, finest, and toughest regiments in the Marine Corps-feeling ashamed because I had shot a damned foe before he could throw a grenade at me! I felt like a fool and was thankful my buddies couldn’t read my thoughts.
Burgin’s order to us to continue firing into the opening interrupted my musings. We kept a steady fire into the pillbox to keep the Japanese pinned down while the flame-thrower came up, carried by Corporal Womack from Mississippi. He was a brave, good natured guy and popular with the troops, but he was one of the fiercest looking Marines I ever saw. He was big and husky with a fiery red beard well powdered with white coral dust. He reminded me of some wild Viking. I was glad we were on the same side.
Stooped under the heavy tanks on his back, Womack approached the pillbox with his assistant just out of the line of our fire. When they got about fifteen yards from the target, we ceased firing. The assistant reached up and turned a valve on the flamethrower. Womack then aimed the nozzle at the opening made by the 75-mm gun. He pressed the trigger. With a whoosh the flame leaped at the opening. Some muffled screams, then all quiet.
Even the stoic Japanese couldn’t suppress the agony of death by fire and suffocation. E. B. Sledge, "With the Old Breed."
* * * * *
September 16, 1999
It wasn’t long before I heard yelling. With the voices guiding me, I hurried on in their direction until I reached them-Eric and Sean had found the pillbox that Dad’s mortar outfit had attacked 55 years before. Eric was yelling in jubilation, and I began to literally shake with excitement when I saw the structure for the first time. It was covered with undergrowth and moss and filled probably chest high with water, but we were sure that it was the same pillbox. On one side we saw the large shell hole made by the amtrac’s 75-mm gun. The hole was still charred black from Womack’s flamethrower.
I could imagine Dad and his fellow Marines-dressed in their green dungarees with cartridge belts and helmets with camaflouge covers, sun-tanned and grimy with sweat and coral dust. When they came up on the pillbox, they thought it was empty. Sergeant Burgin ordered Dad to look inside, and a Japanese soldier nearly blew his head off with a machine gun. The Marines then scrambled onto the top of the pillbox and began dropping grenades into its vent pipes. However, unbeknownst to them, a series of concrete baffles inside protected the enemy. When Japanese threw a grenade out at them, the Marines pulled back and called up the amtrac for support. When the action was over, the Marines counted over forty dead Japanese soldiers in and around the pillbox. There had only been a dozen men in Dad’s outfit. As he wrote in his book, if the Japanese had surprised them and rushed them, "we would have been in a bad fix."
As I stared at the pillbox, I realized that this was the spot where Dad had dispatched an enemy soldier with his carbine. I know he killed many with his mortar, but this had been different. I could not believe that I was standing on the very ground where he had been at one of the most difficult times of his life.
Unfortunately, we were running out of time and we needed to head back to the beach so we could meet our boat. Eric and Sean were, I think, as excited as I was at our discovery. This was a site that Eric had been hunting for years on previous trips, and now he had found it. Before we left, I took a chunk of concrete from the pillbox as a souvenir. I was tired and drained from this very successful day. The cold beer that we shared down by the water behind our bungalows tasted wonderful. The Pacific sunset was beautiful, and it was a fitting end to an eventful day.-Henry Sledge