Peleliu: a return to 1944
Text and photos
©by Robert W. Bone
KOROR, Palau -- We fought our way up a difficult
jungle rise, grabbing at wet tropical foliage that seemed to
grab back at us, slapping at bare legs and faces as we tried to
The day was forebodingly dark. It had been raining
off and on, and now it was on again. But Tangie Hesus, our
diminutive and indefatigable Palauan guide, urged our little
group onward, explaining there was shelter ahead.
Hesus and wreckage of Japanese Zero
Our uphill struggle was nothing compared to the
travails of Americans and Japanese more than a half-century
earlier. We were exploring the South Pacific island of Peleliu,
the scene of one of the bloodiest and most useless
battles of World War II.
The tiny island of Peleliu is today one of the
states of Palau, a recently independent nation of islands in the
Caroline group. Palau is largely unknown to Americans of the
1990s, except avid scuba divers. For them, it offers perhaps the
clearest and cleanest waters and the richest collection of
colorful ocean fish in the world.
But the atmosphere at Peleliu, a 20-minute light
plane ride from Palau's capital of Koror, is different. Here,
thousands died violently or miserably between Sept. 15 and Nov.
25, 1944. Estimates put the toll at nearly 2,000 American
soldiers and Marines plus 11,000 of the island's Japanese
equipment in place
for more than a half century.
As we grappled our own way up the hill, I thought
about stories I had read: Allied commanders, flushed with recent
victories, thought Peleliu would be a two-day cakewalk. They
also thought the island was flat. Advance intelligence had
failed to discover that it was full of rugged hills and ridges
into which the Japanese had bored an elaborate system of
virtually impenetrable caves and tunnels. At this stage in the
war, they were no longer trying to beat back Allied forces on
the beaches. Instead, they now relied on heavy firepower from
camouflaged and well-protected interior positions.
Moreover, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister
Churchill had decided that the assault on the Philippines was to
begin immediately. But the wheels of fate were already in
motion. The Peleliu operation was not turned back.
at the mouth of a cave.
Thunder was echoing off the hills. The rain came
down harder, and I remembered reading that GIs had come across
similar weather a few days into the invasion. I moved over a
muddy rise and suddenly found myself staring into the mouth of
one of the meanest, greenest, heavy gun barrels I had ever seen,
its rifling still apparent after 52 years. Except for the moss
on its metal surface, it looked ready to fire.
With the accompanying thunder, lightning, and the
torrential downpour, the sight was one of the most startling
experiences I had had since we began exploring the island. Sure
enough, we found shelter behind the gun, which was mounted at
the mouth of one of the thousands of caves still present on the
We explored a few tunnels, and after the rain let
up, we made our way past the old cannon and down the hill to
return to Tangie's van. He took us to other remnants of war --
ruins of burned-out block houses, wrecks of tanks and planes,
the sharp coral-strewn invasion beaches, and to various lonely
shrines erected by Americans and Japanese in the years following
We also went to a one-room museum where he had
gathered a collection of war's detritus -- hand grenades,
bayonets, Coke and sake bottles, and some poignant reminders of
the personal nature of war such as letters home.
now turned into a private home.
As we returned to the airfield, Tangie apologized
because the bad weather had kept us from some of the more
elaborate caves and tunnels. These included one that had housed
more than 1,000 Japanese, until they were finally killed by a
new and more powerful flame thrower that had just entered into
We were glad we came, and the rain suited the mood
of the place. But we were also glad to leave Peleliu and fly
back to Koror and the cheerful and sunny Palau of today.
Like some other places in the world, Peleliu, I
thought, should be seen once -- preferably in the rain -- and
IF YOU GO . . .
Continental Micronesia Airlines has flights from
Honolulu to Palau, via Guam and Yap, three times a week.
Standard coach fares begin at $1,261 round trip.
The all-day, air and ground tour of Peleliu from
Koror costs around $100, including lunch. Make arrangements at Palau
Island Adventures on Palau or with the Palau Visitors Authority.
For information on Palau and elsewhere in
Micronesia, call Continental Micronesia at 1-800-945-9955.