The Battle of Peleliu, codenamed Operation Stalemate II, remains one of the most iconic, and controversial, battles in U.S. Marine Corps history. For the Marines of the 1st Marine Regiment, Peleliu would prove especially harrowing. Led into battle by the legendary Col. "Chesty" Puller, the 1st Marine Regiment would suffer unimaginable losses throughout the earliest days of the battle -- losses that would occur on the coral beaches and heavily fortified ridges of an island that resembled Hell on Earth.
The following account from Last Man Standing is the first of a two-part excerpt detailing the 1st Marine Regiment's desperate -- and deadly -- struggle to take the now-infamous "Bloody Nose Ridge" on D + 2, September 17, 1944. It was here that Puller would lead his men in numerous bloody assaults, with every attack quickly neutralized by strategically placed Japanese ridge fortifications supporting one another with deadly crossfire.
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At the end of the second day, Puller’s regiment was in somewhat better tactical shape than after the initial landing, but it had taken heavy casualties, and the toughest fight was yet to come—the jagged hill mass, nicknamed Bloody Nose Ridge. The terrain was described in the Regimental Narrative:
The ground of Peleliu’s western peninsula was theworst ever encountered by the regiment in three Pacific campaigns. Along its center, the rocky spine was heaved up in a contorted mass of decayed coral, strewn with rubble, crags, ridges and gulches thrown together in a confusing maze. There were no roads, scarcely any trails. The pock-marked surface offered no secure footing even in the few level places. It was impossible to dig in: the best the men could do was pile a little coral or wood debris around their positions. The jagged rock slashed their shoes and clothes, and tore their bodies every time they hit the deck for safety. Casualties were higher for the simple reason it was impossible to get under the ground away from the Japanese mortar barrages. Each blast hurled chunks of coral in all directions, multiplying many times the fragmentation effect of every shell. Into this the enemy dug and tunneled like moles; and there they stayed to fight to the death.
George McMillan wrote, “The 1st Battalion started out fine, moved with surprising ease for about an hour, but then was brought up sharp by fire from a concrete blockhouse the size of a small office building which stood directly in its path. Its reinforced walls were four feet thick, and as if that were not enough protection it was also supported by twelve pillboxes all connected by a maze of tunnels.” The battalion reported “that a large concrete structure 60 feet by 60 feet and about 20 feet high with 4 feet of reinforced concrete walls lay directly in the center of the battalion’s advance.” E. B. Sledge was glad his battalion did not have the mission. “We pitied the 1st Marines . . . [T]hey were suffering heavy casualties.” Davis reported that “it could be called a fortress because of all the pillboxes surrounding it.” Admiral Oldendorf had been badly mistaken. There were plenty of targets! The bunker and pillboxes were not even scratched.
|Ray Davis' battalion ran head-on into this huge Japanese blockhouse, which was still in operation despite the navy's assurance that all targets had been destroyed. Davis lost twenty-five men trying to knock it out. Marine Corps History Division.|
Matthew Stevenson recalled that “Dawn came and with it the fiercest fighting yet, centering around a squat concrete building with three-foot thick walls, impervious to 37mm and 75mm shells firing at point-blank range.” Tom Lea scanned the area. “Looking up at the head of the trail I could see the big Jap blockhouse that commanded the height.” Davis ordered the lead company, now ground down to a reinforced platoon, into the attack. The men crawled forward, using whatever cover they could find to get closer to the Japanese position. The constant crack of small-arms fire and the roar of automatic weapons and exploding grenades were deafening. Here and there a figure writhed in agony, while other crumpled figures lay still in the debris. The attack ground to a halt. Davis pulled the troops back. “I took twenty-five casualties, including three dead,” he recalled sadly.
First Lieutenant N. R. K. Stanford, a naval gunfire forward observer, worked his way into a position where he could call in fire. “I was lying in the coral rubble of a shattered bunker in front of the blockhouse with the Nambu fire going high to my left and the Jap mortars bursting in the ripped and twisted coconut grove behind me.” The outline of the emplacement was blurred by the haze of coral dust, which hung in the air from muzzle blasts and mortar fire. “I set up my SCR-284 [radio] nearly at the top of an abandoned bunker and crawled through the loose coral to look over a broken timber revetment at the top of the bunker.” His radio operator handed him the handset, and he established contact with “Ironsides,” the call sign of the battleship USS Mississippi. “Ironsides, this is Charlie Nine. Target at . . . reinforced concrete blockhouse . . . AP [armor piercing] one round. Main battery . . . commence firing.”
The 14-inch shell passed low over his head with a heart-stopping crack and landed beyond the target with a huge explosion. Stanford requested an adjustment. “Down 200, one salvo.” It rumbled overhead, smashing into the blockhouse. “I was numbed from the concussion and it took my eyes a few seconds to focus, but I could see that the camouflage had been stripped away and the shape of the blockhouse altered.” Tom Lea described the scene. “There were dead Japs on the ground where they had been hit . . . I saw some of the bodies were nothing more than red raw meat and blood mixed with the gravelly dust of concrete and splintered logs.” The battalion reported, “The nearest body was fully 30 feet away . . . a severed Jap hand lay in the doorway . . . 15 to 20 dead Japs lay inside, not a mark on them, killed by the terrific concussion.”
The battalion moved out, but heavy Japanese mortar and artillery fire opened up on the exposed Marines. Casualties mounted. Private First Class George E. Cook was hit but “steadfastly refused to be evacuated and continued to press the attack in the face of continuing fire,” according to his Navy Cross citation. “Wounded again . . . he courageously elected to remain and continue the attack. Observing a wounded comrade lying in a fire-swept area . . . [he] ran forward, picked up the wounded man and carried him back to the lines . . . [W]hile returning he sustained further wounds.” Both men were carried to the captured bunker where the battalion aid station and communication center had been set up. Cook was quickly stabilized by the battalion surgeon, placed in an amtrac and evacuated to a transport that had been turned into a hospital ship. Unfortunately the Marine he tried to save died before reaching the aid station.
Lieutenant Robert Fisher took up residence in the shattered structure. He marveled at the number of men the battalion surgeon handled and evacuated from the blockhouse. Fisher saw a Marine severely wounded by a mortar round. “Suddenly a shell landed squarely beside him and mangled his left forearm so badly that it hung to the elbow by only a few tendons,” Fisher recounted. “Despite the severity of the wound, he walked unaided for five hundred yards to the battalion aid station, where the doctor immediately amputated the arm and sent him to the rear. I will never forget the sight of him walking back with his mutilated arm.”
A stretcher bearer told of evacuating the wounded. “We ran up the road about 400 yards or so to this blockhouse where there was a lot of wounded. We started out with four of us on a stretcher but on our first trip in, two got hit. I made four trips before I came down with heat prostration.” Tom Lea described a chaplain at an aid station. “He was deeply and visibly moved by the patient suffering and death. He looked very lonely, very close to God, as he bent over the shattered men so far from home. Corpsmen put a poncho, a shirt, a rag, anything handy, over the grey faces of the dead and carried them to a line on the beach, under a tarpaulin, to await the digging of graves.”
Casualties among the officers and NCOs forced Davis to halt the attack and reorganize. “A” Company had been hit so hard that two platoons were combined under a surviving lieutenant. As the unit moved through some dense brush, a Japanese officer armed with a pistol and a sword suddenly charged the veteran officer. He casually turned to the BAR man on his left and muttered, “Well, why don’t you shoot him?” The Marine obliged by emptying half a magazine into the enemy officer. If that wasn’t enough, a Rikusentai (Japanese Marine) machine-gun squad tried to set up their gun to shoot them in the back. An alert rifleman spotted the group, and the combined platoon opened fire, killing all but one, who managed to throw a hand grenade that slightly wounded one of their number. Despite the wound, the Marine sharpshooter hit the Japanese soldier in the head with a single rifle shot. The platoon continued to blaze away at the Japanese in the brush. Their heavy fire kept the enemy pinned down, making it impossible for them to escape. At the end of a short firefight, the lieutenant reported “at least 40 dead Japanese were counted along a 300 yard stretch of road.”
Davis’ battalion continued the attack toward the Umurbrogol’s outpost hills, with two abbreviated companies on line—“C” Company on the left and “A” Company on the right. At the base of Hill 160, “The Japanese turned their fire on it,” George McMillan recorded, “cutting our exposed front lines to ribbons under perfect observation. The 1st was forced to push on, to seek desperately for some of that high ground to storm the Japanese out of their emplacements on the bluff.” The attack was stopped cold by a Japanese 70mm mountain gun, which opened fire at point-blank range from a concrete hardened cave on the slope of Hill 160. The deadly effective howitzer fired for almost forty-five minutes, inflicting terrible casualties on the two assault companies. The battalion reported that “three of ‘A’ Company’s machine gunners were killed and three wounded. One whole machine gun squad and gun from ‘C’ Company was knocked out.” Davis was in awe of “Pfc. T. W. Pattee of the 81mm mortar OP, who was hit by shrapnel which tore a six-inch piece out of his left arm. It left his hand dangling by a small piece of muscle. Although severely wounded, Pattee assisted in carrying a wounded man back to the OP—and then walked another 650 yards to the aid station.”
Two Sherman tanks joined the assault. Infantry alone could not do the job. “All we did was run up to Bloody Nose Ridge and throw round after round of 75mm shells into all the holes we could see in the cave areas,” Pfc. Larry Kaloian, a loader, described; “[T]he infantry was right alongside us. We were protecting them and they were protecting us from a banzai charge or someone who might throw a Bangalore torpedo at us.” As one tank tried to bring its gun to bear on the cave, an eight-pound anti-tank round slammed into its protective armor, disabling it. The crew escaped but saw “hundreds and hundreds of nicks from bullets.” Minutes later, the second tank spotted the enemy field piece as it pulled back into a tunnel. The gunner declared that “when that baby comes out again, I’m going to take a crack at it.” The tank fired point-blank into the cave mouth as the gun reappeared, destroying it and killing the ten-man crew. “It was like a shootout in one of the western movies,” the tank commander declared. “Thank God our gunner was a crack shot.”
Suddenly another position opened fire. This time it was a six-inch naval gun that had remained hidden from the pre-invasion bombardment. Its first shell sent the frontline infantry scrambling for cover behind a three-foot road embankment. The shell passed over them and hit fifty yards behind, directly in the battalion’s support units. Men armed with bazookas worked their way forward and succeeded in knocking it out. The infantrymen continued to claw upward. “The pock-marked surface offered no secure footing even in the few level places,” McMillan noted. O.P. Smith wrote, “Many men were wounded by rock fragments thrown up by the blast of the Japanese mortar and artillery shells.” As the men struggled forward, yard by yard, more and more were hit, and the cry “Corpsman, Corpsman” was almost constant.
Davis’ attack was frustrated by the terrain. “We would fight for hours, losing men every step of the way, along one of these ledges, only to find it ended abruptly in a sheer cliff and have to fight our way back. It was terrible!” Stevenson recalled. “All the jungle foliage had long since been blasted away; the landscape seemed like the mountains of the moon.” E. B. Sledge was told by survivors that they “not only received heavy shelling from the enemy caves there but deadly accurate small-arms fire as well . . . The enemy fired on them from mutually supporting positions, pinning them down and inflicting heavy losses.” O. P. Smith remembered, “There were dozens of caves and pillboxes worked into the noses of the ridges and up the ravines. It was very difficult to find blind spots as the caves and pillboxes were mutually supporting. We found out later that some of the caves consisted of galleries of more than one level with several exits.” One of Davis’ NCOs put it another way. “When we hit them on top, they popped out of the bottom; when we hit them in the middle, they popped out of both ends.”
As the battalion scrambled forward, Stevenson worried about adjacent units:
It became clear to me that there were no friendly troops on the right flank. It was completely open, entirely vulnerable to a Japanese counter-attack which could surge all the way to the beach. I called Colonel Puller to warn him of the peril and the urgent need for reinforcements. When I reached him on the field telephone he was true to form. First, he confused me with Steve Sabol and when this was cleared up, his gruff voice spoke its usual formula, “Just keep pushing, old man.” I stood transfixed, with my runner beside me as we heard Japanese voices and the clink of weapons on the far side of the vital road. Unbelieving, I called again. This time I got lieutenant colonel “Buddy” Ross, who instantly perceived the urgency. “Stay right there, Steve, don’t move; I’m sending up a unit from the Seventh. Tie them into the line as soon as they get there.” Within what seemed like minutes, they appeared an immediately took up firing positions to plug the gap. No sooner was this done when there came wild shouts of “banzai” as the Japanese poured across the road into the devastating but crucially effective fire of the newly arrived Marines.
Somewhat later, a machine gun section moved through the same area, never suspecting that many Japanese were still lurking in the heavy undergrowth and had set up an ambush. As the lead squad entered the kill zone, the Japanese killed and wounded all five in a shower of grenades. The Marines never had a chance to fire a shot. However, the squad behind heard the firing and immediately assaulted through the ambush knocking down many of the enemy. They didn’t have time to mop up, as they had to keep up with the assault units. As the third squad came through, they learned that “some of the Jap officers had played ‘possum,’” according to Corporal Paul A. Downs, “and gave us the works on one side, while something like fifty Japs jumped us from the other. Loaded down with gear as we were, many of us couldn’t even fire a shot.” Many of the Marines were cut down in the deadly melee. One of the survivors,
Pfc. Jack Jean French, emptied his rifle, picked up a carbine and emptied that. Weaponless, he shouted for help. “There’s wounded here! Help me get them.” Sergeant A.E. Crawford, his squad leader, heard the call. “The first thing I knew, there I was on my way back to help that kid.” He picked up a BAR and waded into the Japanese—‘Understand I got ten Japs with it,’—until running out of ammunition. He then picked up a Tommy gun and continued the fight, expending another 250 rounds of ammunition before the Japanese withdrew. Corpsmen came forward to treat the wounded, as the survivors moved forward to support the attack.
By early afternoon, “A” Company gained the ridge. Its commander reported, “We’re up here, but we’re knee deep in Purple Hearts.” The units on its flanks could not maintain contact, so Davis had to order him back down the hill. The withdrawal was as costly as it was to go up. “They were forced to retire under heavy small arms and grenade fire from their front and machine gun fire from the 2nd Battalion sector,” the battalion reported. “It was decided that possession of Hill 160 would create a gap and stretch the lines too thin.” The men of “A” Company who had struggled all day to take the hill were not comforted by the rationale in the report. Morale among the survivors reached a low point. Davis reported that “ ‘A’ Company depleted itself on the bare ridge on the right as ‘C’ Company became seriously overextended on the left and was faltering. Everything we had was thrown in to fill the gaps. Remnants of ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies, engineer and pioneer units and headquarters personnel were formed into a meager reserve as darkness fell.”
At 1700 the battalion dug in, while engineers demolished caves and pillboxes to prevent them from being used by Japanese infiltrators. The battalion tried to soften up the Japanese for the inevitable nighttime attack. Stevenson recalled that “a forward observer, a young ensign from the battleship Mississippi, appeared and declared himself ready to direct fire from its big guns on the enemy positions. For the rest of the night we called in salvo after salvo, hour after hour, on the honeycombed ridges facing the fast dwindling strength of our companies. However, as morning came the fire ceased and the Jap machine guns and mortars resumed their lethal chorus.” Ray Davis and his command group—Jim Rodgers and Nikolai Stevenson—huddled together to plan the attack for the following morning. “Clearly it was to be the battalion’s last throw of the dice,” Stevenson reported. “If Bloody Nose Ridge could be taken, our fire from its height into the enemy-held crevices below would eventually dislodge them and Peleliu [would be] won at last.” His assessment was more wishful than prophetic.
The battalion reported that it had captured or destroyed “one large blockhouse, thirty-seven pillboxes, twenty-four caves, two anti-tank 47mm guns, two 70mm mountain guns, one six-inch naval gun and numerous machine guns. Over 300 enemy dead were counted.” A footnote at the end of the report stated: “At the point where the battalion OP was set up, three enemy carrier pigeons were shot and the attached messages were sent to R-2 [regimental intelligence].” Battalion casualties for the day due to enemy action were 14 killed in action, 81 evacuated and 2 missing in action. Many more were victims of the 112-degree heat and combat fatigue. The battalion total strength at this time was 18 officers and 474 enlisted men.
An officer of the battalion tried to explain the term “combat fatigue,” commonly known as “shell-shock”:
To those who have never seen it occur, combat fatigue is hardly understandable. But those who have experienced the constriction of the blood vessels in the stomach and the sudden whirling of the brain that occurs when a large shell bursts nearby or a friend has his eyes or entrails torn out by shrapnel can easily understand the man who cannot control his muscles and who stares wildly. It isn’t fear alone that causes shock to the system. Often it is the knowledge of his impotence, his inability to help his shipmate who is whistling through a hole in his chest, that momentarily snaps a man’s brain. Quite often, under the stress of combat fatigue, a man will perform acts of heroism that a reasoning mind would call foolhardy.
Ray Davis recalled an instance where one of his most valuable officers succumbed to fatigue. “I noticed Lieutenant Maples was in a state bordering on war-psychosis. He led his men forward into withering fire, exposing himself to assist his men. He was suffering from fatigue and the shock of seeing his men fall—but he never relaxed and kept moving in an entranced way. Finally one day he was shot in the abdomen and died just before reaching the hospital ship. This was his third campaign and he had distinguished himself in each.”
Excerpted with permission from Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15-21, 1944, Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Dick Camp