I Was There! - On this Tiny Island of Peleliu 17,000 Died
The weird story of Peleliu got lost in the excitement of our landing in the Philippines, but the island saw the toughest fighting of the Pacific war. The Americans, who landed on Sept. 14, 1944, so far have killed 16,000 Japanese there and lost 1,600 dead themselves. Henry Keys, The Sunday Express war reporter in the Pacific, tells what he saw there.
I have just visited an island of death – Peleliu, in the Palaus. Its age hangs over it like the brooding evil of senile corruption. It is a little island only five miles long by two miles wide. From the air it looks as if it had been hung on the blue sea like a discarded jockey's cap, the ledge on which the Marines landed representing the visor and the remainder the crumpled crown.
The landing was savage enough, made over a narrow reef ringing the shoreline like a necklace, a verdant coconut palm estate spewing death and impaling flaming tanks on the reef. Now the dazzlingly white coral shelf is pounded and beaten into a mass of airstrips. But it is back in the crumpled crown of the jockey's cap that the grim fighting took place.
This section is a mass of jagged ridges and escarpments 200 or 300 feet high. It took the Americans a month to inch their way far enough into them to be reasonably sure they would not be flung back into the sea, and another six weeks to break all organized resistance. The fighting is not over yet.
Twelve miles away is Babelthuap, with 25,000 Japanese. Every night some 300 walk across the reefs connecting it, except for two narrow channels which they swim. Each man is a walking arsenal. His object: a swim to an anchored Allied ship or a dump, and destruction by high explosive. Every night some 300 Japanese who ventured to take that walk died.
The island's commander, Marine Brigadier-General Harold Campbell, who was for a year the American adviser to Lord Louis Mountbatten in England, drove me over Peleliu. He headed for Bloody Nose Ridge, which sticks out towards the airfields. Our jeep bounced and twisted over the crazy, inadequate coral trail which the ant-like Japanese had made by hand.
We climbed almost vertically up to the hogsback of the ridge. Then we plunged down the side. The coral kept crumbling and breaking, and the jeep slid crazily down. I shivered as we fell from sunlight to gloom and the silence of the gulch.
We were at the mouth of a big cave, one of Peleliu's thousands, in which the Japanese fought to the death. We went in. There was the dank, heavy smell of a dead Japanese. We were soon able to see the outline of his broken body. Then other things became clearer; this was an old enemy dump. A broken caisson leaned drunkenly, one axle amid the filth of the floor of the vast cavern. There were burst ration cans, shells, shellcases and a small field piece.
The Silence Was Tomb-like
Everything was wet and rotting. Water dripped from the roof of the cavern, echoing like the tapping of a hammer. "Don't go too far", warned General Campbell; "we haven't had a chance to clean this out yet. There are plenty of booby traps". We drove on into the heart of the ridges. Everywhere there were caves, some high in the faces of the ridges. The entrances to most were jagged little orifices, big enough only for a man to crawl through on his belly. Many were hidden behind rubble and the blackish brown mounds of coral. Whenever the jeep stopped the silence was tomb-like.
"We killed and buried 12,000 Japs in these ridges alone", said Campbell. "It was a terrible job. There was nothing in books to help us, in a country like this. Look at that cave up there." He pointed to a hole 100 feet above us. "We put a 155-mm. rifle back 500 yards and just blasted at that for six days and nights. At the end of that time two Japs came out and crawled round the face of the cliff. But we had men round the shoulder of the ridge who picked them off.
"We kept shooting for another four days and nights, and six more came out cocky as the devil. We got them the same way. The main entrance of that cave was down at the bottom of the ridge, and we sealed it up with a bulldozer."
The general drove on. "I am going to show you the cave where we finished them off." We slid down the other side into ugliness and desolation. The general was cryptic. "Death Valley", he said. Death Valley was not 50 yards wide. The ridges went up sheer on either side, blackened and brown with the dead trunks of trees, amputated by shells and burned by flame-throwers, pointing ruefully to the sky.
Skulls Showed How They Died
In the middle of the valley's floor was a muddy hole. The rest of the floor was a forest of stalagmitic coral needles closely grouped like a vast cluster of pine trees. You could look down between them, as I did, and peer into inky nothingness. There were big bomb craters among them, for the Japs braced themselves against these columns for cover and fought from there. The skulls and skeletons wedged in the crevices showed how they had died.
"The Japs were without water", said Campbell, "and they just had to come over our side, 15 or 30 a night. We killed most who reached that filthy pool. There are still a few Japs hiding in the caves. We kill some now and then."
We took a last look at the ridges. "You wouldn't believe that the whole island and all the ridges were just one green carpet when we came", the general said. "Every foot has been scorched and seared by battle."
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