Marines in World War II Commemorative Series
The Japanese Defenses
The Assault in the Center
The Assault Continues
The Early Battle in the Division Center
The 7th Marines' Complete Destruction of Enemy in the South
Maneuver and Opportunity
Encirclement of the Umurbrogol Pocket
Encirclement of Umurbrogol and Seizure of Northern Peleliu
The Umurbrogol Pocket: Peleliu's Character Distilled
Post-assault Operations in the Palaus
Was the Seizure of Peleliu Necessary? Costs vs. Benefits
The Divisions and their Commanders
For Extraordinary Heroism
Special Subjects
The Changing Nature of Japanese Tactics
Naval Gunfire Support for Peleliu
A Horrible Place
Special Reef-crossing Techniques
A Paucity of Reserves
Tom Lea's Paintings

BLOODY BEACHES: The Marines at Peleliu
by Brigadier General Gordon D. Gayle, USMC (Ret)

The Umurbrogol Pocket: Peleliu's Character Distilled

Colonel Harris brought two firm concepts to this final effort for his 5th Marines. First, the attack would be from the north, an approach which offered the greatest opportunity to chip off one terrain compartment or one ridge at a time. His 1st Battalion positions along the east side of the Pocket would be held statically, perhaps incrementally adjusted or improved. No attacks would be launched from the south, where the 3d Battalion was positioned in reserve.

Colonel Harris' aerial reconnaissance during the first week on Peleliu had convinced him that siege tactics would be required to clear the multitude of mutually defended positions within Umurbrogol. As he had earlier expressed himself in the presence of the corps and division commanders visiting his regimental CP. Harris continued with his policy to "be lavish with ammunition and stingy with . . . men's lives." He was in a strong command position to prepare support thoroughly before ordering advances.

The 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, relieved 3d Battalion, 7th Marines in position on 5 October, but did nothing but reconnoiter positions where heavier firepower could come into play. Engineer dozers were brought up to prepare paths into the north ends of the box canyons, along which LVT flame throwers and tanks could later operate. A light artillery battery was emplaced along the West Road to fire point-blank into the west facing cliffs at the north end of the Pocket, as were weapons carriers and tanks later. Troublesome sections of certain cliffs were literally demolished by direct fire, and the rubble dozed into a ramp for tanks to climb toward better firing positions. Light mortars were used extensively to strip vegetation from areas in which firing caves were suspected, and planes loaded with napalm-filled belly tanks were used to bomb suspected targets just south of the key Hill 140, which 2/5 had selected as its key objective.

Marine riflemen accompanied by tanks push forward to the enemy water supply and rid it of Japanese troops once and for inner recesses of Horseshoe Ridge in an effort to cut off the all. The going got no easier as the Americans pushed forward. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 97433

As 2/5 picked off successive firing positions in the north, 3/5 on 7 October sent a tank sortie into the Horseshoe. This time, the mission was not to seize and hold, but to destroy by fire all identifiable targets on the faces of the Five Sisters, and on the western (lower) face of Hill 100 (Pope Ridge). When all ammunition was expended, the tanks withdrew to rearm then returned, accompanied by LVT flame-throwing tanks and guarded by small infantry fire-teams. Considerably more destruction was effected, a large number of Japanese were killed in caves, and many of the Japanese heavy weapons in those caves were silenced. Previous to this time, some single artillery pieces firing from within the Horseshoe had occasionally harassed the airfield. No such nuisance attacks occurred after the 7 October tank sorties.

Pope Ridge
Marines who fought on Pope Ridge would not recognize it in this photograph of the southern end of the ridge looking north showing how the vegetation took over. Caption and photo by Phillip D. Orr

For the next six days, the 5th Marines headquarters afforded all available support to small, incremental advances by 2/5 from the north. Light mortars were repeatedly used to clear all vegetation from small objectives and routes of advance. Both tanks and artillery were used at point-blank ranges to fire into all suspected caves or rough coral areas. Aerial bombardment with napalm was used to clear vegetation and, hopefully, drive some defenders further back into their caves. All advances were very limited, aimed simply at seizing new firing positions. Advances were made by squads or small platoons.

The last position seized, Hill 140, just north of the Five Brothers, afforded a firing site to which a 75mm pack howitzer was wrestled in disassembled mode, reassembled, sand bagged, and then effectively fired from its then-commanding position. It could fire into the mouth of a very large cave at the base of the next ridge, from which serious fire had been received for days.

Sandbagging this piece into position posed special problems, since the only available loose sand or dirt had to be carried from the beach, or occasional debris slides. Nevertheless, the use of sandbags in forward infantry positions began to be used in creasingly, and the technique was later improved and widely used when 81st Infantry Division soldiers took over further reduction of the Pocket.

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By this mode of careful advance, a number of small knobs and ridges at the head of the two murderous box canyons were seized. Direct fire could be laid into the west face of Walt and Boyd Ridges, whose tops were occupied by 1/5, but those cave-filled western slopes were protected by other caves on the opposite, parallel ridge known as Five Brothers.

A week of such siege-like activity pushed the northern boundary of the Pocket another 500 yards south. On 12 October, the 3d Battalion, 5th Marines was called in to relieve 2d Battalion, 5th Marines. The relief was seriously marred, primarily because the forward positions being relieved were so close to the opposing enemy. The incoming troops, including a company commander, were picked off by snipers during this exchange, and a small group of enemy reoccupied a position earlier subdued by frequent interdiction fires. Despite these losses and interruptions, the relief was completed on schedule, and on 13 October, 3/5 continued the slow and deliberate wedging forward.

Directly south of Hill 140, there seemed no feasible axis for advance, so 3/5's axis was shifted southwest, approximately paralleling the West Road, and into the coral badlands in front of the containing lines manned by the composite groups guarding West Road. While the composite groups held in place, 3/5 operated across their front, north to south. By this means the coral badlands were cleared out for an average (east-west) depth of 75-150 yards, along some 500 yards of the north-south front. This terrain, earlier judged unsuitable for any but the costliest and most difficult advance, was now traversed with the aid of preparatory fire-scouring by napalm bombs. Major "Cowboy" Stout's VMF-114 pilots' bombs fell breathtakingly close to both the advancing 3/5 front and to the stationary composite units holding just east of West Road.

A similar effort was then launched from the south by what was left of Lieutenant Colonel John Gormley's 1/7. Together, these two advances seized and emptied about one-half of the depth of the coral badlands, between West road and the China Wall. This clearing action allowed the composite "infantillery" unit to advance its lines eastward and then hold, as far as the infantry had cleared, toward the back of China Wall.

Overall, the actions of the 5th and 7th Marines in October had reduced the Pocket to an oval some 800 yards, north to south, and 400-500 yards, east to west. According to Colonel Nakagawa's contemporaneous radio report back to Koror, he still had some 700 defenders within the Pocket, of which only 80 percent were effective. In early October, some wag had suggested that the Pocket situation be clarified by enclosing it with barbed wire and designating it as a prisoner of war enclosure. Spoken in bitter jest, the concept did recognize that the Pocket no longer counted in the strategic balance, nor in completing the effective seizure of Peleliu.

Gayle, Bailey, Harris, Walt
Maj Gordon D. Gayle, commander of 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, outlines in the sand proposed enemy targets in the north for LtCol Joslyn R. Bailey, Marine Aircraft Group 11. Looking on are Col Harold D. Harris,e 5th Marines commander, center, and LtCol Lewis W Walt, behind Gayle, 5th Marines executive officer. Department of Defense Photo (USMC) 97878

But it still weighed significantly in the mind of Major General Rupertus, who wanted to subdue the Pocket before turning over to Major General Mueller the 81st Division's previously specified mopping-up task. In point of fact, Rupertus' successful seizure of Ngesebus and northern Peleliu had terminated the enemy's capability to reinforce the now-isolated Japanese on Peleliu. Creation of that tactical situation had effectively secured Peleliu.

Without pressing for a declaration that Peleliu had been effectively secured, which would have formalized the completion of the 1st Marine Division's mission, General Geiger had for some days suggested that in continuing his attacks into the Pocket, Rupertus relieve first the 5th, then the 7th Marines with his largest and freshest infantry regiment, the 321st RCT, still attached to 1st Marine Division. To all such suggestions, General Rupertus replied that his Marines would "very shortly" subdue the Pocket.

Two events now overtook General Rupertus' confidence. First, the 81st Division was made whole by the return of its 323d RCT, fresh from its critically important seizure of Ulithi. Second, the perception that Peleliu was effectively secured was validated by a message which so stated from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet/Commander in Chief, Pacific Ocean Areas. Major General Geiger was directed to turn over command to Major General Mueller, whose 81st Division was now directed to relieve the 1st Marine Division, to mop up, and to garrison Peleliu, as long planned. Rear Admiral George E. Fort, Rear Admiral Theodore S. Wilkinson's successor as commander of operations in the Palaus, was directed to turn over that responsibility to Vice Admiral John H. Hoover, a sub-area commander. When relieved by the 81st Division, the 1st Marine Division would embark for return to Pavuvu.

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During the movement and turn over, tactical operations ashore necessarily remained under 1st Marine Division control until the 81st Division could move its command post from Angaur. General Mueller established his CP near Peleliu's Purple Beach on 20 October. The Wildcat Division thereupon acquired "custody" of the Pocket, and responsibility for final reduction of its determined, able, battered defenders.

Meanwhile, the relief of the 5th Marines by the 321st RCT took place on 15 and 16 October. While that relief was in progress, Lieutenant Colonel Gormley's 1/7 was still engaged in the earlier-described coral badlands action, to make possible the eastward movement of the containing lines protecting West Road. The relief of 1/7 was accordingly delayed until the next day. On 17 October, a full-strength Company B, 1/323, newly arrived from Ulithi, relieved Gormley's surviving battalion, approximately man for man.

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Commemorative Series produced by the Marine Corps History and Museums Division