Wednesday, June 30, 2010

From the Pages - Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu

Perhaps no singular battle illustrates the horror of combat in the Pacific War better than what was experienced on Peleliu. It was on this desolate coral island that approximately 11,000 determined Japanese soldiers waged a bloody and furious defense against the legendary 1st Marine Division in September, 1944. 

In the following excerpt from Last Man Standing, Dick Camp details the horrifying Japanese counter-attacks that occurred during the late-night hours of D-Day.


As dusk approached, there was furious activity all along the Marine lines. Russell Davis noticed worried-looking NCOs and officers scurrying about encouraging the men to “Dig in, dig deep. Get the wire out.” Machine guns were brought forward and carefully positioned to provide overlapping fields of fire. Company and battalion mortar squads registered their weapons on likely approaches to the front lines. Artillery and naval gunfire observers memorized target numbers so they could call for fire in the darkness. Everyone knew the Japanese were coming and dreaded to hear them screech “banzai” as they launched human wave assaults. “Dusk had come and visibility was closed down to a few dozen feet,” Russell Davis remembered; “The smoke, settling in the hollows behind the bank, helped to make it darker.” George McMillan wrote: “The hours of tension and danger did not stop with dusk; every man lay taut in his shallow foxhole through the night, beseeching the sun to hurry, to restore to the battlefield its bright, accustomed focus.”

Nowhere was it more tense than on the Point. All afternoon the Japanese had staged scattered infantry and mortar attacks on “K” Company. The Marines held, although more and more men were lost. All the company’s machine guns had been knocked out, and Hunt had resorted to using a captured Japanese heavy machine gun on the lines. Fred Fox had “liberated” it from its dead crew. “I found the air-cooled Hotchkiss in a small clearing; two dead Jap bodies lay alongside it.” He was amazed to find that the two Japanese soldiers were dressed in spotless khaki summer uniforms with wrap leggings and split-toed shoes. They had rank insignia on their collar. “We carried the gun up to the Point,” Fox explained, “and gave it to [Cpl. Robert Anderson] from the machine gun platoon who said, ‘O.K., I’ll take it.’ I had no desire to keep carrying that damn thing anyway.”

The gunners found a large supply of ammunition and kept it shooting for the next thirty-six hours. Just before dark, an LVT snuck in with badly needed supplies of ammunition, barbed wire, C rations—and water. Even with this bonanza, Fred Fox was not happy. “The water was brought up in a 55 gallon drum, but the drum had not been cleaned and the water tasted awful, sickening. It was oil and water and no way could we drink it. So, when you got the chance you went out, found some dead Jap bodies and took their canteens.”

Fox tried to scrape out a hole in the coral but it was impossible. He piled up rocks for protection and carefully laid out grenades and ammunition so he could find them in the dark and then hunkered down—waiting. “I guess we all knew that something unpleasant was going to happen . . . [T]his was the Japanese’s time . . . this was their time to fight.”

Hunt made a last tour of the lines. “As blackness crept up and completely enveloped us, we were subdued to an eerie silence. Even the clicking sounds of a rock, probably brushed off by the sweep of a man’s elbow, seemed a harsh disturbance. Though there was no moon, the sky . . . was just light enough to reveal the weird and grotesque silhouettes of knotted trees and stumps.” Jagged, pinnacled rocks melded with the gnarled tree remains, providing cover for Japanese infiltrators. Their odd shapes played tricks on the defenders’ imaginations, transforming them into Japanese attackers in the darkness. “The Jap loves the night and he loves to sneak,” Hunt philosophized. “He is an animal who prowls noiselessly with padded, two-toed shoes on his feet. When he attacks . . . out of the night . . . with bayonet and knife, he is dangerous and clever.”

Fred Fox had picked up a buddy and now the two of them shared a foxhole. They lay on their backs facing the Japanese. “Some time between eleven and twelve,” Fox related, “we heard movement out in front. You got the feeling something was going to happen.” Swede Hanson was close by. “You could hear movement going about, and your ears got bigger and bigger because you’re wondering, is it a Marine or is it a Jap? And you didn’t want to take a chance . . . so I start throwing hand grenades out there in front. And then I waited. Then, brrrrr, that Nambu machine gun. So I threw a couple more hand grenades out there and I heard brrrrr, but it took a little longer to get that one in.”

Hunt requested illumination. “Flares swished up from the rear. I prayed they wouldn’t break over our own position and light us up . . . but they burst well in front of us, flooding the area with light.” Someone shouted “There they are!” and the fight was on. “A machine gun fired a burst,” Hunt exclaimed. “Another one—it opened up with a vibrating roar, BARs and rifles . . . Hand grenades were bursting in rapid succession. The explosions were muffled in the woods, where there were gullies and ridges. Then much louder bursts—approaching our lines—closer—and I heard the cry ‘Corpsman!’ Jap mortars, big stuff, were pounding in the middle of us. Shrapnel was clinking across the rocks.”

Corporal Bob Anderson sat behind the captured machine gun. “Whenever someone heard the Japs jabbering, they would call for a star shell and when it would go off, we could see Japs running out to our front. Then I would open up with the machine gun at the running Japs. I don’t know if I hit any or not, but I used up a lot of ammunition.” Hunt recounted how when it was dark, “white muzzle flashes spit into the black.” He said, “The noise increased as the Japs answered and their bullets spattered on the rocks and ricocheted in every direction. Their mortar shells thundered into the coral raising the stink of gunpowder.”

Suddenly the Japanese mortar fire stopped—then “things began to slow down a little bit.” Fox recalled that “every once in a while, there would be another burst of gunfire—but the fight was over—flares revealed nothing.” At first light, the ground in front of the lines was strewn with enemy dead. A Marine told Anderson, “I never saw so many dead Japs in one place in all my life.”

Elsewhere along the lines, the Japanese infiltrators were at work. At one point, 2nd Battalion’s Russell Davis was startled by a voice calling out, “Amelicans, Amelicans. Pigs . . . dogs. Amelican pigs and dogs.” He knew it was a Japanese trick, so he held his fire. “Amelican pig,” the enemy taunted. “You die. You die. You die.” The Japanese threw fire crackers in an attempt to get the Marines to open fire and give away their positions “but were unsuccessful as the men were seasoned troops by this time and fired only when distinct targets were available.”

The frontline infantry knew that to move outside one’s foxhole was extremely dangerous. Russell Davis related how, “John, ‘the loner,’ had grown restless in the night. He had moved out of his hole and the other man had been trigger-happy and poured a whole clip into John, without challenging him, without giving him a chance. It seemed very unfair.” Nighttime passwords were issued that contained the letter “L,” because most Japanese had trouble pronouncing it. Multiple Ls were especially effective, though when placed together, the danger of slurring over the difficult consonants is lessened. The Japs were able to produce a word similar to ‘jolly’ with ‘jorry,’ but they floundered conspicuously saying “Honolulu.” In the stress of combat, men often forgot the password. A dog handler failed to give the correct password when challenged and was bayoneted by a frightened sentry. Fortunately he was not badly injured.

“Shortly before midnight a terrible scream erupted from one of the foxholes,” Tech. Sgt. Donald Hallman wrote in a press release: “Another voice yelled frantically, ‘Jap! Jap! He got my buddy!” A crouching figure dodged among the foxholes. A dozen men fired at the shadowy form but missed; the infiltrator escaped. He left behind a dead Marine and a badly wounded one. A doctor and a Corpsman braved the darkness and crawled to the wounded man’s side to administer first aid.”

A radio operator made a frenzied call and flares suddenly blossomed over no man’s land. All along the line, tense scared men peered into the greenish-tinged landscape. Shadows played on their imaginations—a bush appeared to be a crouching enemy soldier; a boulder took on a human form. Gunfire erupted and explosions quickly followed as the defenders’ nerves reached the breaking point. Flashes outlined the front lines as rifle and machine gun fire lashed out into the darkness. Gradually, officers and NCOs restored order. The firing died down and then stopped.

In another press release, Hallman wrote, “an hour later, there was a single shot. ‘It’s the lieutenant,’ was the cry. ‘The lieutenant has been killed in his foxhole.’ Later there were more shots. Someone yelled, ‘I’ll teach you, you son-of-a-bitch!’ You could hear the sound of blows, of men fighting. . . .” Further back toward the beach, Hallman reported an instance of hand-to-hand combat. “Three Japs crept to within ten feet of the artillery command post. A Marine spotted them. He fired and killed one, and then another as the other two charged towards him. The third, bayonet raised for the kill, kept coming. The Marine’s buddy grabbed the Jap’s rifle, broke it over his foe’s head, strangled him, and then threw the body into the rocks.” The Japanese infiltrators had achieved their mission. They killed and wounded several Marines—and, just as importantly, they were wearing down the American’s combat efficiency by denying them sleep. First Battalion reported the night’s activity in their sector. “Sporadic firing most of the night as localized counter-attacks and Jap individuals were eliminated. A few enemy managed to infiltrate during the night and were killed behind our lines the next morning.”

Sometime around 0200, a Japanese artillery battery opened up, “walking” its fire up and down the beach area, probing for troops and supply dumps. The crowded beachhead suffered a terrifying bombardment; explosions rocked the darkness. “All night long came repeated cries for stretcher bearers. Exhausted as they were, I sent them forward again and again,” Nikolai Stevenson recounted. “The stretchers lay near the water’s edge, the cries of the wounded haunting us as the surgeon and the medical corpsmen struggled in the dark to relieve their agony.”

Robert Fisher was hunkered down with him in the CP. It was relatively quiet, he noted, except “snipers made life unpleasant by firing over our heads throughout the night. There is something about sniper fire in the still of the night that makes it seem more dangerous than it actually is. The bullets crack so loudly as they pass over you that they seem to be fired from just outside your hole, whereas they were probably fired from several hundred yards away.”

The battalion reported, “During the night our artillery laid down an almost continuous barrage. We were subject to intermittent machine gun, mortar and rifle fire. All companies report some casualties.”

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