My Turn: The Battle of Peleliu and the scars of war

Last modified: 9/16/2014 12:27:41 AM
Seventy years ago, on Sept. 15, 1944, 6,000 young men of the 1st Marine Division landed on a tiny and still little-known island in the Pacific.

The battle was expected to be over in a matter of days, but by the time it ended more than two months later, it would produce the highest casualty rate of the Pacific theater during World War II. It also would remain among the least-known battles, overlooked in the war coverage of the day and lost in later controversy over whether the battle even needed to be fought.

Until HBO aired its miniseries, The Pacific, in 2010, few Americans had heard of Peleliu. It’s not surprising why: The battle was the victim of bad intelligence and strategy. Even at the time, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. thought the island could be bypassed, but he was overruled by Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chester Nimitz.

In later years, historians would argue that it probably never should have been fought. We gained little and lost much by invading this small island in the Palau Islands near the Philippines. It is not seared in the American collective conscience like Normandy, Iwo Jima or Okinawa. It marked neither a turning point nor a massive campaign. But it was significant for the bravery and losses of those who fought.

My father – Paul J. Shread Sr., a longtime New Hampshire resident and former postmaster of Concord – was a tall, rail-thin teenager when he landed on Peleliu, part of a company of more than 200 in the 1st Marines.

I’m here to record his experience only because he was one of 18 men in that company still standing after the first week of battle. After Peleliu, he was shipped to Okinawa, to fight in a battle better remembered. By the time the war was over for him, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder to the degree that he still carried a 50 percent disability rating as late as 1949.

The Battle of Peleliu was viewed by some as the most difficult of the war for the U.S. military in any theater. Japanese troops were dug into reinforced caves and sealed in with sliding steel doors on a series of ridges on the northwest side of the island.

Mount Umurbrogol reached an elevation of a more than 200 feet, so the Marines were attacking an enemy with a significant advantage in elevation and defenses. Aerial bombing ahead of the invasion had done little to blunt that advantage. That part of the battle became known in Marine lore as the Point and Bloody Nose Ridge, and it was there my father fought for 16 days.

The 1st Marine Division’s primary infantry units – the 1st, 5th and 7th Marine regiments – were decimated in the battle. The 5th and 7th regiments suffered more than 40 percent casualties. My father’s unit, the 1st regiment under the command of Marine legend Col. Lewis “Chesty” Puller, suffered 60 percent casualties, the heaviest losses ever by a Marine regiment. The Army’s 81st infantry division relieved the Marines and fared better, but still sustained roughly 30 percent losses between Peleliu and the battle for nearby Angaur. In all, 47,000 men were committed to the operation. Nearly 11,000 Japanese soldiers died defending Peleliu.

I never knew any of this until my father, late in life, wrote a paper on the battle for a New Hampshire Technical Institute course he was taking. Like many veterans of intense combat, my father had never talked about the war. Some scars I could see: His body was covered in coral scars that resembled pink caterpillars, suffered when an amphibious landing craft got hung up on a reef and dumped its human cargo far from shore.

But there were scars I knew nothing about. Even when I read his paper, in the early 1990s, I didn’t know enough of the battle to press him for more details on the most significant aspects of the campaign.

After he died in 1994, my mother began to talk about his experiences after the war. She didn’t know anything of his time in the service, but what she told me of his experiences after the war seemed harrowing.

He was shot in the leg on Okinawa in 1945, which, along with dysentery and PTSD, ended his combat duty. He spent at least a year in naval hospitals after the war, much of it for what they called “battle fatigue,” but today would be called PTSD. When he came home on leave from the hospital, his hands shook so badly that he couldn’t hold a cup of coffee. It was a long time before he stopped diving under the kitchen table every time a plane flew overhead. His last nightmare that my mother could recall occurred in 1949, but on some level he was still troubled because he was prescribed tranquilizers for years after the war. His doctors recommended that he join the Postal Service so he could walk around and get fresh air while he worked.

A May 1946 medical report from Chelsea Naval Hospital noted that after more than 80 days of combat on Okinawa, “he suffered from anxiety, nightmares and many gastro-intestinal symptoms.” He was diagnosed with “psychoneurosis anxiety” and recommended for discharge, and a month later he received an honorable discharge. My father was one of 26,221 “mental casualties” that made up 40 percent of the 65,641 casualties on Okinawa, according to historian Michael C. C. Adams.

My father joined the Postal Service as a letter carrier in 1947. In time he got a desk job, rose in the ranks and raised a family, but I wonder how much of that trauma remained with him his whole life.

I took out my father’s community college paper again after the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy earlier this year, intrigued by what I might have overlooked more than 20 years earlier. The Battle of Peleliu has attracted more attention in recent years, in part because of its prominence in the HBO series, so I knew significantly more about the battle than I did the first time I read it.

What struck me on rereading the paper was that my father spent much of it telling the story of the landing, but very little on the terrifying battle that followed. I did not know enough of the battle then to realize what he had left out. Perhaps even in his later years he still couldn’t bring himself to recall details, so I’ll fill in what I can.

The aerial bombardment had benefited the Japanese more than it did the Americans, clearing away much of the jungle that had covered the ridges and making the 1st Marines the equivalent of targets in a shooting gallery. Temperatures soared to 115 degrees, water was scarce or contaminated, and combat was often hand-to-hand.

My father was tall and thin, 6 foot 3 when he was done growing and 176 pounds at the time of his enlistment, which likely kept him from succumbing to the heat and aided him in hand-to-hand combat. His sister told me that the draft board had assigned him to the Marines because of his height; perhaps they had hand-to-hand combat in mind. As far as I can tell from his military records, he served in Company B of the 1st Marine Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which on Peleliu attacked the Point with the regiment’s 3rd Battalion.

In the paper, my father was disdainful of the 81st Army infantry division that relieved the Marines, but their more methodical approach spared lives. Puller and 1st Marine Division Commander Maj. Gen. William Rupertus faced criticism for their near-suicidal tactics, as well as their refusal to accept help from the Army until forced to do so. After Peleliu, Rupertus was relieved of his command and put in charge of the Marine Corps School. He died of a heart attack on March 25, 1945, a week before the 1st Marines returned to action on Okinawa. Puller, along with the other regiment commanders, was returned stateside for rest. He returned to prominence in the Korean War.

Here, then, is the account of another D-Day, the invasion of Peleliu on Sept. 15, 1944, as told by my father nearly fifty years after the invasion:

The invasion of Peleliu: A first-person account


PFC, USMC, 1943-1946

Peleliu, in the Palau Islands, midway between the Marianas and the Philippines.

Today, this sounds like a romantic vacation spot on a travel brochure. In September of 1944, the United States First Marine Division engaged in a little-known, bloody battle that historians now say should never have been fought. Historians claim the island should have been bypassed and the enemy allowed to wither on the vine, as at Truk. Research has also verified the woeful lack of intelligence available to those planning the operation.

I am unable to comment on whether the island should have been bypassed, but I can attest firsthand to the intelligence failure. The enemy had honeycombed this rock and coral island with pillboxes and gun emplacements, reinforced with steel and cement. These defenses were not damaged in pre-invasion bombing, yet naval support claimed it had “run out of targets.” Those responsible for intelligence had completely failed to identify a bastion of rock formations rising 30 feet out of the beach. Sadly, we were to learn these formations also contained reinforced pillbox installations. This failure was to cost us dearly. In briefings aboard the transports, we were told the battle would be short, two days, three at the most. We were to find out how wrong these predictions were.

On September 15, 1944, we were awakened at 2:00 a.m. to eat the last hot meal many of us would ever have. We went back to our bunks, put on gear, and made our way up ladders to the deck. As we waited in the eerie darkness, the captain spoke over the PA system, wishing God’s blessing on us and our mission. These blessings would be needed. The terse announcement, “First assault wave commence debarkation,” broke the silence. The cumbersome gear and rocking of the transport and landing craft made descent difficult. The cargo net swayed, making it difficult to hang on.

Once in the landing craft, I experienced gut-wrenching fear, helplessness, nausea. My body was shaking. The landing craft moved into a large rendezvous circle with other craft, slowly plowing through the water. Water came over the bow, and in a short time, we were wet and cold along with our other miseries. By instinct, we huddled beside engines installed on either side of the well deck. The warmth felt good, almost comforting. We were unaware of 50-caliber machine guns immediately overhead. These weapons started firing. I didn’t know what had happened. Had we been hit? Had we struck a mine? Wild thoughts went racing through my mind. When I realized we were not taking on water and apparently would not sink, I felt some relief.

As I looked up from the well deck, the sky was alive with explosives, rockets, planes, anti-aircraft fire, 16-inch shells from our battleships out of sight over the horizon. Brief memories of childhood Fourth of July celebrations went through my thoughts. The 16-inchers sounded like express trains hurtling through the sky. Initially, I could not tell which way these shells were going and cringed each time I heard one. I felt somewhat proud when I could tell which were friendly. We received instructions to lock and load our weapons. At this point, the rendezvous pattern was broken and we headed for the beach. I remember turning and seeing a young (what am saying, I was 19 myself) Marine squatting in a corner reading a comic book. My thoughts escape me, but the image remains vivid.

I don’t know how long we were under way, but the craft suddenly came to a grinding, abrupt halt. The ramp dropped and I was carried out by the rush of humanity. I was in water over my head. Later I learned we had struck a coral reef not mentioned in intelligence briefings. To this day, I feel the coxswain panicked, turned and ran. The craft was amphibious, tracked, and had the capability to cross the reef. I dumped all my gear, including my rifle, and somehow made it to shore, 100 to 300 feet in the distance. The coral had cut my clothing and skin like a jagged knife. These wounds would later become infected.

The landing beach was utter chaos. Only one of the three regiments had remained intact and was an effective fighting unit. Weapons had been lost and there was no apparent command. Marines were acting on their own, not as a cohesive unit. Burning landing craft littered the water and beach. The sky was still aglow, made even more spectacular by planes falling in flames. Dead Marines floated face down in the water, bobbing gently, their fatigue uniforms inflated into useless life preservers. Bodies dotted the beach where they died. In a short time, the heat and sun would bloat these bodies into grotesque forms. I took a rifle and entrenching tool from a body and dug in as much as the underlying coral would allow. Vicious small-arms fire kept pouring out of the pillboxes, there was no place to hide. I cowered in my shallow foxhole. My sole contribution to the battle that day was meaningless rifle fire against the fortifications. The enemy was a ghost you heard and sensed but did not see.

There were other Marines in the area, but no fighting unit as such. I was separated from my company. The enemy counter-attacked against the 7th Marines on the right flank and were repelled. If they had attacked our area, we would have been pushed into the ocean. We were defenseless. Did the enemy also have poor intelligence?

Landing craft in the early assault waves were assigned to bring wounded back to hospital ships. This did not happen. Craft were still getting hung up on reefs, but those that did make the beach unloaded and ran. A sorry episode in the midst of uncommon valor.

Night mercifully came. The heat abated, the small-arms fire became sporadic. Flares from our ships lit up the sky with a greenish hue. Litter bearers appeared from somewhere and began to carry the wounded down to the beach. When there was a lull in the shooting, I could clearly hear the groaning, sometimes screaming, of the wounded. Urgent pleas for “corpsman” continued through the night. On my right, someone, possibly an officer, was calling for a runner. In close combat, when all other methods of communication fail, a runner is dispatched to deliver the message on foot. Not an enviable assignment.

Dawn came, I had survived D-day. I was reunited with my company and went on to fight another day. The 30-foot wall of bunkers was scaled at horrible cost. By day six, our company of over 200 men was down to 18 Marines. We had lost all officers and non-coms. Replacements, fresh from the States, were phased into the line companies. Some of them died before we knew their names.

As we moved inland, it fell to our regiment to assault what became known as Bloody Nose Ridge. We became helplessly pinned down at the base of the ridge with small arms and mortar fire. A radio operator hovering with us desperately tried to reach battalion for artillery support. His monotone voice – “Sad Sack, this is Charlie Blue, this is Charlie Blue, Sad Sack” – is seared in my mind to this day. In several days of fierce fighting, our regiment was decimated. The 81st Army Wildcat Division, forever to be known by Marines at Peleliu as the Pussycat Division, was brought in from reserve. Fighting would continue for several weeks, but for us, it was over. We were pulled off the lines.

We were a pathetic outfit as we marched toward the beach. Sixteen straight days of vicious combat, some of it hand-to-hand, had taken its toll. If there was such a thing as combat fatigue, we had it. Unshaven, filthy, our clothes and shoes torn, a blank stare on our faces, we looked far from conquering heroes. Yet deep within us, there was fierce pride. We had done it. We had fought and lived under nightmarish conditions and had upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps. Along with this pride, we carried utter contempt and disdain for those responsible for planning this operation, for those who forced brave young Americans to fight and die under these conditions.

As we headed back to an island named Banika in the Pavuvu Islands, none of us were aware that in six short months, we would be on another transport, headed toward another place we had never heard of, Okinawa.

(Paul J. Shread Jr., a 1981 Concord High School graduate, covered City Hall and other beats for the “Concord Monitor” from 1986 to 1989. He currently directs a group of technology journalism websites for QuinStreet Enterprise.)

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