Victory at Peleliu: The 81st Infantry Division's Pacific Campaignby Bobby C. Blair, John Peter DeCioccio
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When the 1st Marine Division began its invasion of Peleliu in September 1944, the operation in the South Pacific was to take but four days. In fact, capturing this small coral island in the Palaus with its strategic airstrip took two months and involved some of the bloodiest fighting of the Second World War in the Pacific. Rather than the easy conquest they were led to expect, the Marines who landed on Peleliu faced a war of attrition from the island's Japanese defenders, who had dug tunnels and fortified the island's rugged terrain. When the Marines' advance stalled after a week of heavy casualties, the "Wildcats" of the 81st Infantry Division were called in, at first as support. Eventually, the 1st Marines Division was evacuated and the 81st Infantry secured the island.
Now Bobby C. Blair and John Peter DeCioccio tell the story of this campaign through the eyes of the 81st Infantry to offer a revised assessment. Previous accounts of the battle have focused on the 1st Marines, all but ignoring the 81st Infantry Division's contributions. Victory at Peleliu demonstrates that without the army's help the marines could not have succeeded on Peleliu.
Blair and DeCioccio have mined the 81st Division's unit records and interviewed scores of veteran participants. The new data they offer challenge the orthodox view that the 81st Infantry merely mopped up an already broken enemy. Allowing their interviewees to tell much of the story, the authors also give a human face to a brutal battle.
Although American efforts in the Palau Islands proved largely unnecessary to ultimately defeating the Japanese, the lessons learned on Peleliu were crucial in subsequent fighting on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The 81st Infantry's contributions are now part of that larger story.
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Victory at Peleliu
The 81st Infantry Division's Pacific Campaign
By Bobby C. Blair, John Peter DeCioccio
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Fox Day For Angaur
The navy started an intensive pre-landing bombardment of Angaur before dawn on 17 September 1944. Private First Class William Somma, Company B, 321st Regiment, was among the thousands of soldiers and sailors watching the Fox Day bombardment. "We could see the battleships bombarding the island." he said. "There were two, one on each end, just bombing away, and the island became a mass of smoke and fire. It's encouraging to see because you think the navy did all the work. But, that wasn't the case." First Sergeant Ed Collins, Antitank Company, 321st, recalled the remarks of the man next to him: "I was standing on the ship with a Japanese [Nisei] interpreter watching the smoke rise from Angaur, hearing him say, 'That's what the sons-a-bitches need!'"
The bombardment, which continued after the assault troops landed, was not a random raking of the island, but a planned shelling of the invasion beaches and inland targets. In addition, escort carrier planes swarmed over Angaur from 0748 to 0800, attacking areas behind the beaches.
At 0400, the navy served the Wildcats aboard the LSTs and transport ships a hearty meal of pork chops and steak, mashed potatoes, and peas. After eating, the assault troops boarded their LVTs and readied themselves for action, eager to prove that they could live up to their creed: "Wildcats never quit, they win or they die." Shortly after 0530, the LVTs containing the first six assault waves roared down the ramps of the LSTs into the ocean. After circling for two hours, each wave proceeded to the line of departure, some twenty-five hundred yards from shore. In each wave, one landing craft followed the other until opposite the line of departure. At this point, each craft turned ninety degrees and crossed the line of departure going toward the beach. Each succeeding wave crossed the line of departure at a specified time interval behind the preceding wave. For the assault troops in the LVTs, it took approximately fifteen to twenty minutes to reach the beach after crossing the line of departure. Leading the first wave of LVTs toward Blue Beach were seven LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) gunboats firing 20mm and 40mm guns and rockets. At Red Beach, six LCIs led the charge; two of them were equipped with the conventional guns and rockets, the other four armed with three 4.2-inch mortars.
At exactly 0830, the first wave, consisting of five LVTs and five LVT(A)1s (Landing Vehicle, Tracked [Armored], or, simply "amphibian tanks" or "amphtanks"), each armed with a turreted 37mm cannon and two .30-caliber machine guns, slowly climbed out of the water and onto Blue Beach. The first wave reached Red Beach six minutes later. On the beaches, the amphtanks peeled off, moving to cover and protect the flanks as the LVTs dropped their rear ramps and the soldiers of the 321st and 322nd Regiments rushed from the vehicles. The following five waves landed within minutes of each other, and within a span of twenty minutes all six assault waves had landed on both beaches.
The final run to the beaches was largely but not entirely unopposed. The landing crafts coming into both beaches received sporadic rifle fire while mortar shells fell among them. Luckily, the mortar shells missed, and the initial landings came off quite smoothly. Even so, for those like William Somma, the scene may not have been reassuring. "You could see dead bodies floating in the water off the island. It was Japanese. That was my first sight of combat."
Hitting Blue Beach were the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 321st RCT. "After landing on Blue Beach, I looked around and saw every member of my squad lying on their stomachs watching me," said Staff Sergeant John Spielmann, squad leader for the 1st Squad, 2nd Platoon, B Company. "I heard an officer yell to get off the beach, and I got up and started running. I glanced over my shoulder and my squad was right behind me."
Private First Class Roy Bergeron, 3rd Platoon, Company B, 321st RCT, remembered, "On Blue Beach, we lost one man and killed two Japs. My buddy that I stayed with on the ship all the way over, he was the first one got killed. Hess [Private First Class Charles R. Hess] was his name. They came out of a pillbox and shot him right on the beach. The pillbox was about one hundred yards in front of us."
Landing abreast on Red Beach in a column of companies formation, the 322nd Regiment's 1st and 3rd Battalions encountered small-arms fire and occasional mortar rounds. But when the fifth wave landed, Japanese machine guns opened up on the left flank of the beach. Time correspondent John Walker observed this incident and later wrote, "For a moment the beach seems quiet as a line of men in greenish drab, herring bone-twill jungle uniforms moves over a rise in the background. Then a Jap pillbox at the extreme left of the beach coughs machine-gun fire. Two Americans drop, riddled, and other troops are pinned down momentarily. But an amphtank rolls into position 30 yards away, pumps shells into the pillbox, then stands guard."
After the first six waves had landed, supporting waves began arriving in LCVPs (Landing Craft Vehicle, Personnel, popularly known as Higgins boats). Private Clifton Dantin landed on Blue Beach with the 321st Antitank Company. "We trained with the 57mm and the 37mm, and we went over with the 37mm guns. That day we didn't have much action. That night our squad slept in the big [antitank] ditch."
After securing the beachheads, the 321st and 322nd RCTs had two objectives for Fox Day. First, drive inland 275 to 500 yards to the 0–1 line. Second, and the most important, join the two regiments together to reduce the chance of either regimental landing team being rolled up from the flank during an expected counterattack in the night. To accomplish the second objective, the invasion plan had the area between Cape Ngatpokul and Cape Ngariois being bypassed by the front line troops heading for the 0–1 line. The bypassed area would be cleared after the two regiments had joined.
The success of the landings was attributable to several factors. Unlike nearby Peleliu, the Japanese garrison on Angaur was too small to defend all of the possible landing sites. As a result, Major Goto had to guess at the most likely place for the Americans to come ashore. He chose Green Beaches Two and Three on the southeast side of Angaur, the best landing beaches on the island, and elaborately fortified them. But, he guessed wrong. American planners decided on the cramped, narrow Blue and Red Beaches on the northeast side of Angaur because photographs showed them to be less heavily defended. Another factor was the absence of a fringing reef at Blue and Red Beaches, allowing the supporting LCIs to come near the shore, firing mortars, rockets, and machine guns.
To compensate for his lack of troops, Major Goto positioned the remainder of his men around the center of the island where he could readily move them to meet the Americans wherever they landed. Here again, the Americans foiled his plans. Angaur's small size allowed navy guns to blanket the island during the landing, forcing the Japanese defenders to remain concealed. In addition, continuous strafing and bombing by planes up to the moment the Wildcats landed also hampered movement by the defenders.
Finally, the 323rd RCT, in reserve, further confused and misguided the enemy. Even as the first waves streaked to shore, soldiers of the 323rd RCT formed assault waves off the west coast of Angaur. After a feigned landing, the troops returned to their ships. We do not know how much this affected the thinking of Major Goto; at least he had to pause, withholding a full response until the situation became clear.
On Blue Beach's left flank, Company B had the tough assignment of moving south about five hundred yards around Rocky Point, reducing Japanese defensive fortifications along the way, and occupying the 0–1 line from the shore northward to Company A on its right. Companies A, E, and F, in that order from south to north, were to move in a generally westward direction to occupy the 0–1 line, all the while maintaining contact with the companies on their flanks. Company G, on the right flank of Blue Beach, was to move northward to achieve the linkup with the 322nd RCT, and then occupy the 0–1 line near the regimental boundary.
Although Japanese resistance consisted only of scattered mortar, sniper, and machinegun fire, movement inland off Blue Beach progressed slowly, with both battalions advancing only one hundred yards in the first hour of the invasion. An antitank ditch and wall just behind the beach, a few pillboxes, and strands of barbed wire slowed the Wildcats. Mines presented another problem. Just beyond the beach, a jumbled mass of shattered tree trunks, limbs, and severed vines resulting from the pre-invasion bombardment also hindered the forward movement.
Yet support waves continued to land, resulting in a dangerous concentration of men and equipment on the beach. Finally, armored bulldozers arrived. Once the armored bulldozers started cutting trails inland through the jungle, the situation began to ease, although Japanese mortar fire continued intermittently during the day.
In addition to the armored bulldozers, Sherman tanks now added their punch to the drive inland after air strikes destroyed several pillboxes. A change in terrain also helped the frontline troops, as farther inland the dense coastal jungle gave way to open ground. By 1000, the Wildcats had extended the beachhead to an average depth of two hundred yards. Japanese resistance remained light, and the invasion seemed to be gathering momentum.
At 1140, Colonel Robert F. Dark, commander of the 321st RCT, landed on Blue Beach and assumed command of his regimental combat team. He established his headquarters by Blue Beach. At the same time, the 3rd Battalion, the division reserve, landed and assembled on the northern edge of the beach.
In an effort to link up with the 322nd RCT, Company G bypassed pillboxes on the northern edge of Blue Beach. Planes called in at 1137 bombed and strafed these Japanese emplacements, but could not knock them out. The Japanese defenders in them continued to harass and slow the Wildcats moving north.
Companies A, E, and F driving primarily westward into the center of Angaur encountered less Japanese resistance, and before 1200 reported that they had reached the 0–1 line.
On the south end of the beach, Company B, trying to push south along the coast, encountered the strongest Japanese opposition. Pillboxes, bunkers, and caves in the Rocky Point area, part of the Green Beach Three defensive system, gave cover to Japanese artillery, mortars, machine gunners, and snipers. Heavy fire from these fortifications made advancement south extremely hard and slow. Rocket, bombing, and strafing attacks by the carrier planes did not even slow the rate of fire. Additionally, the Japanese had heavily mined this area.
On Angaur, as on Peleliu, the Japanese commanders integrated defensive positions, including machine-gun nests, bunkers, pillboxes, blockhouses, antitank ditches, rifle pits, and interconnecting tunnels and trenches, into a defense in depth. Every position covered and supported the others. If one was overrun, it could be fired on and perhaps regained with a swift counterattack.
Furthermore, wherever possible, defensive positions utilized local terrain and materials. In the case of Angaur and Peleliu, this meant putting defensive positions in natural and fabricated caves in coral and limestone cliffs, and making other fortifications from dirt, rocks, coconuts, and sand. The Japanese often reinforced these positions with coconut logs, sand-filled ammunition boxes and oil drums, and sometimes with steel reinforced concrete. Some of these fortifications had multiple firing slits facing in different directions. These caves, bunkers, pillboxes and blockhouses were often impervious to naval, air, and artillery bombardment. Food, ammunition, and water were stockpiled in specially built storage areas, and protected sleeping compartments were constructed as well. Masters at jungle camouflage, the Japanese took great care in making their defensive works difficult to spot. Well-disciplined Japanese troops held their fire until the American soldiers were almost on top of them. Periodically, the Japanese would allow the Americans to pass them by, and then attack from the rear. Very seldom did the Wildcats actually see the Japanese soldiers they were attacking.
Once revealed, destruction of a system of Japanese strongpoints required knocking out and capturing one, holding it, then attacking the next. It was a coordinated effort involving riflemen, BAR men, flamethrowers, bazookas, and demolition teams. When possible, tanks, planes, and ships joined the fray. In the Rocky Point area, the job of blowing up the entrenched Japanese on Fox Day fell to Sergeant Nolton Brown and his demolition squad from the Mine Platoon, 321st Antitank Company, attached to Company B.
"We'd spot a cave, pillbox, or bunker, and we'd crawl until we could get close enough to the side or edge to place a charge," said Brown, explaining how his team attacked the fortifications around Rocky Point. "Most of the time on a satchel charge we'd use a fifteen-second fuse. We'd throw some, but most of the time we'd crawl up there and get them placed where we wanted." A twenty-pound satchel charge was carried in a shoulder bag. The strap for carrying the bag over the shoulder also allowed it to be thrown at or into a fortification. "After we blew them with satchel charges, we'd use a flamethrower just to finish them off, see we got everything in there."
If we wanted to blow something in a certain direction, well, we used shape charges. The fuse was the tricky part. You wanted the charge to explode as quickly as possible so the Nips would not have time to throw them out but enough time for you to get clear. So it depended on the location and terrain as to what fuse you used. Most of the time the small-arms fire would keep their heads down. They didn't want to get shot any more than we did, so you let the bullets fly and they kept their heads down. Sometimes, we'd use flamethrowers. We would throw a little fire at them, and then throw a satchel charge.
Around noon, Lieutenant Colonel Lester J. Evans, commander of the 1st Battalion, sent three patrols inland to the west and south, and they received only light sniper fire. With the major resistance coming from the coastal areas, the way into the interior of Angaur appeared wide open. Although some localized, hard fighting had taken place this morning; casualties had been light. During the morning of Fox Day, the 321st RCT had one man killed and nine wounded.
The 1st Battalion, 322nd RCT, under the command of Major William R. White, landed on the right flank of Red Beach. Companies A and C advanced west by northwest to capture Cape Pkul A Mlagalp and the area south of it to the 0–1 line. Company B moved inland in a southwestwardly direction to the 0–1 line. Thirty minutes after landing, the 1st Battalion had broken through the dense coastal jungle into open terrain.
A patrol from Company C pushed across Cape Pkul A Mlagalp and reached the north coast of Angaur by 1022. Finding that the Japanese had abandoned the pillboxes and bunkers in this area, the Wildcats occupied all of Cape Pkul A Mlagalp by 1120. Continuing to move west and southwest, the battalion soon reached the 0–1 line, where the men prepared temporary defensive positions, awaiting approval to advance again. However, gaps existed along the front line, especially between Companies A and C, resulting from some units taking the easier route inland along the tracks of the Seaboard Railroad, and then spreading out into the jungle along the 0–1 line.
On the left flank of Red Beach, the 3rd Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel Leonard L. Cutshall, faced conditions more like those on Blue Beach: dense jungle debris with no clear paths and an antitank ditch behind the beach. Responsibility for the linkup with the 321st RCT resided in its left flank units, Companies K and L. Company I, on the right flank of Company K, was to move inland and make contact with Company B of the 1st Battalion on the 0–1 line.
Company L moved southeast following the coast with Company K on its right. Company I tried to move to the southwest. These companies faced obstacles much the same as those facing Company G of the 321st RCT, a jumble of twisted and tossed jungle debris, scattered pillboxes, bunkers, and snipers using small-arms fire, mortars and machine guns to hold up the advance. In addition to fortified caves in the cliffs around the coast, the 3rd Battalion unexpectedly met a pocket of resistance from a ridge south of Red Beach, from which the Japanese were lobbing mortar shells to the eastern end of the beach. Nevertheless, the 3rd Battalion reported gains of two hundred yards by 1000.
Excerpted from Victory at Peleliu by Bobby C. Blair, John Peter DeCioccio. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Bobby C. Blair is an independent researcher and writer. Retired after a thirty-two-year career with Phillips Petroleum Company, he now lives in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
John Peter DeCioccio (1948–2004), who began the research for this book and interviewed most of the veterans, worked in the fields of broadcast journalism and mental health in New York and Florida.
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A good account but written with a chip on his shoulder!
I ordered this because my father served in the Army 81st. I wanted to get a better understanding of what he experienced during WWII since he is no longer around to tell the story. This book did an excellent job of telling what appears to be a realistic and balanced account. I would highly recommend it.