Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From the Pages - Bloody Nose Ridge (Part 2 of 2)

The following is the second of a two-part excerpt (see Part 1 here) from Dick Camp's Last Man Standing in which men from the legendary 1st Marine Regiment detail their desperate -- and deadly -- struggle to take the now-infamous "Bloody Nose Ridge" on Peleliu Island on D + 2, September 17, 1944. 

In this excerpt, the 1st Marine Regiment's movement up the West Road is brought to a abrupt halt between Hills 200 and 210, a Japanese defensive point that relied heavily upon withering machine gun crossfire that would result in staggering casualties for American forces. For "Chesty" Puller's Marines, this engagement would represent some of the hairiest combat they would see throughout the entire war in the Pacific.

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Spitfire Two (Honsowetz)
Russ Honsowetz’s battalion also ran into a buzz saw. It guided on the narrow, coral-surfaced West Road and made good time, until chaos erupted. A torrent of fire from a two-hundred-foot ridge, known as Hill 200, poured into his lead element, quickly knocking out a tank and two amtracs. A deadly Japanese 37mm mountain gun fired point-blank into them from a cleverly hidden cave. Enemy machine gunners and snipers added to the firestorm of lead. Russell Davis was with the assault company as it worked its way “across a clearing littered with stumps and coral and the scrap of war, up and down low hillocks and through a draw, and then onto the foot of the ridge. We got part way up the ridge and then the hills opened and fire poured down on our heads.” Those men not bowled over in the initial burst of fire scrambled to find shelter. Davis and two others were “plastered down into a hole and there we lay while the world heaved up all around us. We could do nothing but huddle together in terror. We couldn’t go ahead . . . we couldn’t go back. We were witless and helpless, with nothing to do but lie and take it.”

A Marine Corsair provides close support by dropping napalm. Note that the aircraft has not even retracted its wheels after taking off from the island's airfield. Many claimed that the missions were the shortest bombing runs of the war. Marine Corps History Division.

The attack slowed. But “[t]he slightest concentration of Marines brought heavy fire at once,” Bruce Watkins lamented. Puller, monitoring events at his CP, was incensed at the slow progress and called Honsowetz to demand action. “Look, Honsowetz, I want the son-of-a-bitchin’ ridge before sundown . . . and I mean, goddamnit, I want it!” Honsowetz renewed his efforts to get the battalion moving. He requested additional tank and artillery support. Marine 105mm and 75mm artillery batteries swung into action from their positions south of the airport. Russell Davis crouched beside an artillery forward observer as he called in the target coordinates. “The shell came shrieking over and made a vast flame against a distant hill, beyond a deep draw,” Davis recalled. “The FO shouted corrections into the phone, ‘Right 50, drop 200.’ [Next he shouted,] ‘On the way,’” as a warning that the artillery battery had fired.
Davis hunched even further down behind a large rock as “shells swished by in a steady stream and the hillside flamed and writhed under the barrage.” Yard by yard, the advance continued.

Navy carrier pilots on station over the island flew in to bomb the Japanese positions that were holding up the assault. Bruce Watkins said he

heard the whine of a dive bomber coming directly at us. To this day, I believe the pilot mistook us for Japs . . . [H]e released his bomb, probably a 500 pounder, and we all watched as it headed toward us in a slight arc. Sure that we were going to be decimated, we could only hug the ground and pray. Miraculously, the bomb hit dead center on the bunker, collapsing it and killing the Japanese within. The concussion stunned us and covered us with white coral dust. We got shakily to our feet, like so many ghosts, in great wonder at being alive. No one had been hit.

As the assault ground forward, the extreme heat and lack of water put men out of action. “The heat was terrible,” Russell Davis recalled. “One big, redheaded man horribly burned and cracked around the face and lips, suddenly reared out of his hole like a wild horse. ‘I can’t take the heat,’ he bellowed. ‘I can take the war but not the heat!’” O. P. Smith noted, “The thermometer went up to 105 degrees. In the intense fighting over rugged ground the men soon exhausted their canteens. Resupply was difficult. We began to have a good many cases of heat exhaustion.” Water was brought ashore in fifty-five-gallon drums, but distribution to frontline units was almost impossible. Those lucky enough to get the water found that it was almost undrinkable. The oil drums had been improperly steam-cleaned, and as a result, the water was fouled. In addition some of the barrels had rusted in the tropical heat, polluting the water. “Some stupid son-of-a-bitch sure as hell goofed,” an expressive NCO groused bitterly. “God, how I’d like to get my hands on that . . . good for nothing . . . so help me, I’d kill him without a second thought.”

Within an hour, two company commanders were wounded in action. Bruce Watkins was close to the “E” Company commander when he was hit. “Captain Joe Gayle dashed up the steep spine of the ridge. Just as he reached the top, a bullet struck him in the neck and he tumbled down the ridge for all the world like a Hollywood movie. Lieutenant Marc Jaffe stopped his fall and tried to hold back the bleeding with a finger on each side of his neck. How much this helped, we would never know, but Joe lived to tell the tale with only temporary paralysis and the most interesting scars—like nickels on either side of his neck.” The “F” Company commander was also wounded, and his leaderless company was badly scattered.

Honsowetz ordered an injured lieutenant to “get all the ‘F’ Company men you are able to find and if you are not too badly wounded stand by with them for orders.” Suddenly the battalion command post was bracketed by artillery fire and several men wounded, including the adjutant. Two amtracs in the CP area were knocked out by artillery fire. Just before noon, “G” Company reported eighty-seven casualties.

The battalion slowly advanced toward its objective, Hill 200. The fighting was often hand-to-hand, close-in, life-and-death struggles with knife and bayonet, the weapon of choice. Bruce Watkins remembered an incident that stuck with him:

Just to my left was Private First Class Darden . . . As we started up the slope, a Jap officer dashed out of a cave fifty feet in front of us. With his saber raised and coming downhill . . . he headed for the startled Darden, who raised his M-1 rifle and began to fire steadily at the Japanese. I thought he had the situation well in hand and I didn’t fire. The Jap, however, still kept coming, although I could see Darden’s bullets strike him. He finally made one final lunge, just reaching the unbelieving Marine’s boot with the tip of his saber as the clip ejected from the M-1 signaling the last of eight rounds.

By sheer guts, the exhausted survivors fought their way to the top of the ridge just prior to twilight and tried to build protective shelters. It was impossible to dig foxholes in the granite-like coral, so they took cover in shell holes or piled up rocks. Incredible as it seemed, a communicator managed to string a telephone line to Honsowetz’s CP. One of the first calls was from Puller. “How are things going?” “Not very good,” Honsowetz replied. “I lost a lot of men.” Puller asked, “How many did you lose?” “I don’t have a good count yet, but I think I lost a couple hundred men.” Puller immediately demanded, “How many Japs did you kill?” Taken off balance, Honsowetz responded, “Well, we overran one position that had twenty-five in it. We got ’em all. There were a lot of Jap bodies around, but I don’t know how many. Maybe fifty.” Puller responded angrily, “Jesus Christ, Honsowetz, what the hell are the American people gonna think? Losing 200 fine young Marines and killing only fifty Japs! I’m gonna put you down for 500.”

The loss of the hill forced Colonel Nakagawa to move his CP. He reported that, “under the protection of heavy naval gunfire, an enemy unit composed of two tanks and approximately two companies of infantry successfully advanced to a high spot on the east side of Nakagawa.”

The fighting in the mountains was brutal ... often
more vertical than horizontal. At times the Marines
had to be mountaineers. This Marine struggles to
 climb to the top of the ridge. Marine Corps History Division.
Spitfire Six (Puller)
In his nightly report to division, Puller stated that “Front line units have been decimated.” The regiment had lost 1,236 men. Puller called Col. John T. Selden, the division chief of staff, and asked for replacements.

“Johnny, half my regiment is gone. I’ve got to have replacements if I’m to carry out division orders tomorrow morning.”

“You know we have no replacements, Lewie,” Selden responded.

“I told you before we came ashore that we should have at least one regiment in reserve. We’re not fighting a third of the men we brought in . . . all those damn specialists you brought.”

“Anything wrong with your orders, Lewie?”

“Give me some of those 17,000 men on the beach,” Puller retorted.

“You can’t have them, they’re not trained infantry.”

“Give ’em to me and by nightfall tomorrow they’ll be trained infantry,” Puller replied grimly.

A staff officer at division thought that Rupertus, despite the heavy losses, still believed it would be a quick victory. “The overall feeling seemed to be that a breakthrough was imminent. Enemy resistance would collapse, or at worst, disintegrate as had happened on Saipan, Tinian, and Guam after a certain point had passed. The trouble with this reasoning was that on the other islands the collapse had occurred when U.S. troops reached favorable terrain and had been heralded by at least one suicidal banzai charge. But there were no banzais on Peleliu, and the terrain was becoming worse instead of better.”

Puller hung up and stumbled through the darkness to pass the word to the battalion commanders. “We press the attack at eight o’clock in the morning. No change. Full speed. Use every man.” He came back limping. His leg was beginning to swell—the old wound from Guadalcanal was acting up. Selden called back: “Puller, you got my orders?” “Yes, you needn’t explain further. I just came back from my battalions. We’re going to take ground tomorrow without replacements. We’re willing to try, but don’t forget we’re just going to add ten or fifteen percent to our casualties.”

O. P. Smith wrote a critical assessment. “The operations of the 1st Marines had been heartening. There had been an advance all along the line and, in the face of very stiff opposition and full scale fortifications, some of the commanding ground north of the airfield had been taken. Our hold on Hill 200 was tenuous. The Japanese still held Hill 210, but we were in firm possession of Hills 100, 180, and 150. The cost in casualties in the 1st Marines through September 17th had been 1,236. The 3rd Battalion had only 473 effectives, of whom 200 were headquarters personnel. The excessive heat was becoming an important factor in the fight. Men were beginning to drop from heat exhaustion.”

Spitfire Three (Sabol)
The 3rd Battalion report noted that “Our advance continued slowly through difficult terrain against light sniper fire.” At 1700, the battalion brought up supplies and dug in for the night, with all three companies on the line. A swamp kept them from tying in, but the gaps were covered by 60mm and 81mm mortars. Sabol reported losing 59 men and estimated that 344 enemy had been killed in action.

Excerpted with permission from Last Man Standing: The 1st Marine Regiment on Peleliu, September 15-21, 1944, Copyright © 2009, 2011 by Dick Camp

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