Approaching Orange Beach 2
Peleliu Island, Palaus Group
8:30 a.m., September 15, 1944
His heart pounding in his throat, Private First Class William J. Leyden raised his head above the side of the amphibious tractor and got his first glimpse of the beach ahead. It was anything but reassuring.
Enemy mortar shells and high-explosive artillery rounds were blasting the shoreline as far as Leyden could see in both directions, sending up huge water spouts in the surf. Further inland, the big guns of Navy ships, firing since dawn from several miles out to sea, raised towering clouds of coral and rock, fire and smoke, as they hammered at Japanese targets still invisible behind walls of flame. Carrier-based Hellcat fighter planes roared low over the beach, their wing guns spitting .50-caliber tracers at enemy pillboxes and gun pits.
All of it was dead ahead and alarmingly close now only a couple of minutes away, Leyden figured. He shuddered and tried to steady himself on rubbery knees, feeling as if the jaws of hell were opening to swallow the amphibious tractor and everyone in it.
Leyden was in the first wave of Marines about to storm ashore on an obscure speck of an island called Peleliu 600 miles west of Mindanao in the Philippines. Until a few days ago, he and his comrades had never heard of the place, but the brass said it had to be taken to protect the flank of Army General Douglas MacArthur's forces when MacArthur made good on his promise to liberate the Philippines from two and a half years of brutal Japanese occupation.
Leyden was supposed to be the first of a dozen men to exit the right side of the amtrack while another dozen went out the left side. But the skinny rifleman-scout from New York was only eighteen, untested in combat, and jittery as hell. The thought of leaving the protective confines of the tractor and exposing himself to hostile fire for the first time filled him with anticipation and dread. This was the moment he'd been training for, and anticipating with a mixture of excitement and forboding, ever since he'd joined the Marines on his seventeenth birthday. Still, he couldn't shake the thought that maybe he didn't have what it took to get through the next few minutes.
Would he live up to his own and his buddies' high expectations, or would he freeze up? Even worse, would he turn and run?
Leyden squeezed his eyes shut and called on his faith for strength. He pictured his devout Irish Catholic mother saying a novena for him at this very moment.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee . . .
Opening his eyes, Leyden found Corporal Leonard Ahner, his friend and fire team leader, staring at him from inches away. Ahner, a lanky Hoosier from Huntington, Indiana, had been through the landing at New Britain the year before, so he had a good idea of what to expect.
"You scared, Bill?" Ahner asked. There was no condemnation in the veteran's question.
"Nah, I'm okay," Leyden said, fighting the butterflies in his stomach. He could hardly hear his own voice for the explosive roar around him.
"Well, if you ain't scared, you're the only guy here who ain't," Ahner said with a crooked grin. "I'll go out first if you want me to."
Leyden shook his head. "No, I'm ready. I'm okay."
He glanced at the faces of his squad mates lined up behind him, a grim-visaged cross section of young America: PFC Marion Vermeer from Washington state, PFC Roy Baumann from Upper Wisconsin, PFC Ray Rottinghaus from Iowa, Corporal Ted Barrow from Texas. Leyden couldn't imagine a greater disgrace than letting these guys down. He'd rather die than let somebody else do his job for him. Yet he knew that Ahner was right that every man around him was gripped by the same conflicting feelings. Each was lost in his own thoughts, imagining the best and worst of himself and what the Japanese would throw at them. Each knew what was expected of him. Each wanted to do his job, but nobody wanted to die doing it.
Just relax, a voice in his head whispered. Hell, this probably isn't even the most dangerous thing you've ever done.
Actually, that was true. The craziest, riskiest, most foolhardy thing he'd ever done was when he was twelve years old, and he and his best friend, Donald Munoz, had decided to take a ride across Brooklyn on top of a subway car. They'd been okay in the first three tunnels, where the clearance between the roof of the coach and the tunnel was about a foot and a half. But in the fourth tunnel, they'd come to a place where the clearance was much less no more than eight or nine inches. Donald had been killed instantly, and Leyden himself had spent weeks in the hospital with a fractured skull.
That was something he'd never, ever wanted to think about, and usually he'd been able to keep it firmly locked away in the back of his mind. But now, with the panoramic hell of Orange Beach 2 spread out ahead of him, the memory of the horror in the subway tunnel was somehow reassuring. Almost comforting.
If I could live through that, he thought, I can live through anything.
A few dozen yards behind Leyden, the amtrack carrying Corporal R. V. Burgin's mortar squad was coming under increasingly heavy fire. But the nervous tension that had kept Burgin awake much of the night was gone now, replaced by a feeling of calm fatalism. His worries about the trip to shore had eased the moment he'd noticed the sign with the big "13" posted on the side of his amtrack.
Lots of people might have interpreted the number as a bad omen, but it was a kind of good-luck charm as far as Burgin was concerned. The wiry young Texan had celebrated his twentieth birthday just over a month ago on August 13. His father had been born on May 13, and two of his brothers had birthdays on November 13. He considered the number lucky enough that he'd even chosen to join the Marines on November 13, and so far, everything had worked out pretty well. He'd seen men die all around him on New Britain, but up to now he'd come through without a scratch. He took his favorite number on the amtrack as a sign that his good luck was still holding.
Burgin and his squad were still several hundred yards from the beach, and the naval shelling from behind them had dwindled to almost nothing. For a few moments, there was an eerie, almost total silence broken only by the low rumble of the amtrack's engine and the water lapping against its hull.
Then enemy shells began to burst along the beach and in the waves ahead. Seconds later, Burgin felt the tractor bump the reef and stall, twisting helplessly as the driver tried to wrench it free. A few yards away, a Japanese mortar shell slammed into the water. Then another. And another.
On the opposite side of the amtrack, Burgin saw Platoon Sergeant John Marmet grabbing at his .45 and screaming at the driver: "Get this damned thing moving, or I'll kill your ass!"
The driver did his best to comply, gunning the engine hard as the tractor's treads clawed at the reef. Ever so slowly, the treads caught and the amtrack eased forward. Just as it did, a 75-millimeter enemy shell exploded thirty yards dead ahead.
Burgin's throat felt powder-dry. If the driver hadn't gotten the amtrack hung up on the reef, he realized, the shell could easily have landed right in his lap.
He closed his eyes and thanked God for good old lucky 13.
The flamethrower and its twin fuel tanks on Corporal Charles "Red" Womack's back felt more like 700 pounds than just seventy. The tanks were brim-full of napalm and diesel, and each time the amtrack carrying Womack's weapons section topped a wave, he could feel the weight crushing down against his neck and shoulders. It would be worse when he hit the beach in three or four minutes and had to haul his weapon through the surf and sand to find cover.
It was a good thing that his high school football coach had made him spend lots of time working out with weights and blocking sleds, Womack thought. He hadn't enjoyed those workouts at the time, but they'd made him one of the best defensive tackles in the state of Mississippi at 180 pounds. They'd helped make him a damn good flamethrower operator, too.
In his last battle at Cape Gloucester on New Britain, Womack had manned a .30-caliber machine gun similar to the one his father had fired in France in 1918. But for reasons he still didn't fully understand, he'd volunteered as a gunner in a new flamethrower section after the Cape. It wasn't a very good job, Womack admitted, but he was strong enough to handle it as well as any of the other five gunners assigned to the Third Battalion of the Fifth Marine Regiment. He was a little uneasy because he'd never used his new weapon in combat.
Just think about it like it was a football game, he told himself. You'll do all right.
He glanced over at his best buddies, PFCs John W. Louder and Don "Chick" Meyer. Somber-faced, jaws tight, they stared straight ahead, but Womack drew comfort from the sight. The three of them had stood on the deck of their LST early that morning, watching the Navy shells streaking overhead and kidding each other nervously. Like most of the other guys in the outfit, Louder and Meyer both called Womack "Red" because of his carrot-colored hair and beard.
"Hey, Red," Meyer had joked. "When we get ashore, don't forget you're supposed to barbecue those Nips, not tackle 'em."
With only a minute or so to go until the amtrack clattered onto the beach, Womack groped in the pocket of his dungaree shirt and took one last look at the photo of Hilda Hughes, the girl he'd married back in McComb, Mississippi, a few weeks before he shipped out for overseas.
For several seconds, Womack stared intently at the smiling face in the picture, then slipped it hurriedly back into his pocket. He closed his eyes and saw a neat house with a tree-shaded yard, where Hilda was planting flowers and children were laughing and playing. It was an imaginary scene, not yet real, but if he lived through the next few minutes, maybe it would be someday.
Then the amtrack bumped the shore as enemy machine gun and small-arms rounds rattled off its gunwales. The rear exit ramp dropped open. It was time to go.
It was a battle the First Marine Division was expected to win in seventy-two hours or less. Instead, the battle for Peleliu would stretch into thirty days of continuous, no-quarter combat against enemy defenders burrowed into more than 600 fortified caves, bunkers, and pillboxes on a tiny chunk of coral and limestone half a world away from home. It would be among the bloodiest, most costly battles the Marines ever fought, before or since.
Survivors recall the struggle for Peleliu as the toughest, most savage fight of the Pacific war, yet the vast majority of twenty-first-century Americans have never heard of it. As an added irony, many post-World War II military historians have described the battle as strategically pointless one they maintain should never have happened. Even while Marines were dying there, it became clear that Peleliu posed no offensive threat to MacArthur's Philippine invasion and could easily have been bypassed by U.S. forces. Because of this, Peleliu not only ranks as the least-known major battle of World War II but is often dismissed as unnecessary. Yet the hard lessons learned there helped prepare the Marines for larger battles to follow, especially on Okinawa.
Less than a third of the way through the Peleliu fight, one of the First Marine Division's three infantry regiments was cut to pieces and forced out of action with nearly six out of every ten men in its ranks either killed or wounded. Before the issue was finally settled, almost half the enlisted men and officers in the other two regiments became casualties as well.
This is the story of what happened to these Marines during thirty terrible days from September 15 to October 15, 1944, as they faced an insidious new kind of defensive warfare in some of the most excruciating conditions ever endured by American fighting men.
Much of the following narrative focuses on the hour-by-hour struggles of a dozen or so courageous young individuals, but it also captures the broader story of 16,000 Marines all members of an incredible brotherhood.
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Sloan