The Battle of Peleliu, or Operation Stalemate II, was a controversial battle fought between the US and Japan from September to November 1944 on Peleliu, a volcanic island just six miles wide in present-day Palau. During the course of the battle, Japanese resistance inflicted heavy damage on the US troops. Although it resulted in literal victory for the US, the proportionality of the US method was questioned given the death toll which was higher than any other amphibious assault in US military history.
Throughout 1944, the Second World War brought the fight closer to Japan as the US secured bases close to the main islands during the Mariana Islands Campaign between June to August. As a result, bombers were able to target them from the air. The invasion of Peleliu featured in a variety of proposed plans to defeat the Japanese Empire. Roosevelt eventually choseto carry out General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to recapture the Philippines, followed by the capture of Okinawa, and the attack of the Japanese mainland, with the Palau Islands, specifically Peleliu and Angaur, to be neutralized beforehand, and an airfield built to protect MacArthur’s right flank.
Peleliu was held by a garrison of more than 10,000 Japanese troops, and the island’s airfield would allow Japanese planes to threaten any Allied operation in the Philippines. Prior to this, US forces had perfected their amphibious strategy over a year of hard fighting. Their routine involved the massive naval bombardment of land-based targets, preceded by troop lands and bombing runs by carrier-based aircraft; finally troops would arrive on the shore in waves until they had sufficient numbers to push inland. Such a routine was expected to work at Peleliu.
Throughout the first two weeks of the US’s arrival on Peleliu on September 15, the troops were caught in heavy crossfire, and were bogged down by a mixture of the heavy fire from the extreme left flank and obstacles such as the 30 foot high ridge known as ‘The Point’, amongst other man-made and natural obstacles. At the end of the first day, the US suffered 200 dead and 900 wounded. It took four days to secure the southwest area of the island, including ‘The Point’ and a key airstrip. The Japanese troops’ use of the cave systems of Peleliu to emerge undetected inflicted serious damage on the US.
This continued to debilitate the US troops as they pushed north. They faced heavy artillery fire and a fusillade of small arms from Japanese forces planted within the caves under the Umurbrogol Mountain, nicknamed the ‘Bloody Nose Ridge’. As a result it took eight days to capture ground and US troops sustaining around 50% of their casualties of the entire battle at this site. It turned out to be some of the most vicious and costly fighting seen in the Pacific campaign.
Eventually, the US Army and Marine forces combined to surround the Japanese hiding throughout the mountains. After much bloodshed throughout October, the ridge was neutralised on November 25, with Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, the commander of the Japanese forces, committing seppuku (ritual suicide) in the tradition of Japanese samurai warriors. Following their commander’s bravery, the Japanese defenders refused to surrender, and virtually all of them were killed.
The controversy of the battle focuseson the heavy losses inflicted upon the US forces; nearly 10,000 troops were casualties. Likewise, extensive loss of weaponry and ammunitionincluded 13.32 million rounds of 30-calibre and approximately 150,000 mortar rounds. Aside from this, the island’s lack of strategic value reinforced the belief that the Battle of Peleliu was unwarranted. It is suggested that the defenders of Peleliu lacked the means to interfere with US operations in the Philippines, and the airfield captured on the island never played a key role in subsequent operations, with the Ulithi Atoll in the Caroline Islands being used instead as a staging base for the invasion of Okinawa.
Few news reports reported the battle and the prediction of a ‘three day victory’ motivated only six reporters to report from the shore. The battle was overshadowed by MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and the Allies’ push towards Germany in Europe.