As the azure waters lap up against Peleliu’s white sandy shores, there is no question that this is a true paradise on earth. Located in a remote corner of the Western Pacific Ocean and home to around 700 people, the island of Peleliu is part of the nation of Palau. In 1944, this idyllic part of the world was to be torn apart as it became the scene of an apocalyptic fight to the death between the US Army and fanatical Japanese troops. The US ultimately claimed a pyrrhic victory, with 2,000+ of their men lying dead. Only 19 Japanese soldiers were captured alive and over 10,000 fought to the death. The Marine Corps call it “the bitterest battle of the war for the Marines”. 8,500 American troops who survived were left with horrendous injuries.
On our annual Least Visited Countries tour, we ventured deep into the jungles to hunt for the relics of this gruelling fight to the death and soon discovered that we didn’t have to look far. The island is like an open air museum full to the brim of rotting war relics from this horrific fight.
The Battle of Peleliu
By 1944, the US had gained serious ground in the Pacific and had brought the frontline ever closer to Japan itself. Then was the time to propose a direct assault on mainland Japan. Peleliu was crucial to any invasion stratagems, and an invasion of the island was unavoidable. The US Marines were chosen for the job. But lying in wait behind the sleepy shores and lush jungles of Peleliu were over 11,000 hardened Japanese troops preparing to defend the island or die trying.
Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Japanese had learned from their defeats and changed their tactics; no longer would the enemy be stopped at the beaches, but lured into the interior of an island riddled with heavily fortified bunkers, caves, and underground positions all designed to stop grenade and flamethrower attacks. The Japanese needed every man they had and disbanded the wasteful and ineffective “banzai charge”. They were going to ensure the tranquil waters ran red with blood.
After a relentless naval bombardment, the US ran out of targets and believed the Japanese to be decimated. In reality, they were mostly unscathed and lay in wait for the Americans. As the first wave of US troops landed, men and machines were obliterated as the Japanese revealed themselves and fired on all flanks, killing hundreds. Regardless, the Marines held their ground and pushed into the island for the gruelling fight to capture the airfield in 115°F (46°C) heat. After 73 days and mass slaughter, the island was captured. On 24 November, Japanese commander Nakagawa proclaimed “our sword is broken and we have run out of spears” before burning his regimental colors and performed ritual suicide. Despite the complete defeat, over 30 Japanese troops held out in the caves of Peleliu until 1947 and only surrendered after being convinced by a Japanese Admiral.
Searching for Battlefield Relics on Peleliu Island
Peleliu today is not hard to visit once in Micronesia. If you’re visiting Koror and have grown a bit tired of looking at tropical fish and eating the local fruit-bat soup, you can hop over to Peleliu on a day trip, as it’s only a one- to two-hour boat rid, with both public and private water transport available. Peleliu even has an international airport built by the Japanese, which saw some of the fiercest fighting as the US attempted to capture it. Today it still serves some expensive charter flights.
When you take a tour around the island, you are warned to stay on the marked trails, as unexploded ammunition still can be found in the jungle. It didn’t take long for our Least Visited Countries tour group to uncover an Aladdin’s cave of WW2 wrecks and war memorabilia. Obliterated Sherman tanks, Japanese Zero planes and tanks, war-ravaged Peleliu airport buildings and sandbagged Peleliu caves with equipment and helmets lying around where many trapped Japanese committed ritual suicide as the net closed around them. In local restaurants it’s not uncommon to see a Japanese WW2 flag adorning the wall, still signed by the soldiers’ friends and family for good luck and spattered with blood. In many ways Peleliu is like the Angkor Wat of the Pacific, with nature having taken over these impressive Japanese colonial-era buildings.
To round off the day, our group hiked up to the 300-foot-high peak of Umurbrogol Mountain. This is where the bulk of over 500 heavily-fortified caves and tunnels under Japanese control were located. The Umurbrogol Mountain was nicknamed “Bloody Nose Ridge.” The pre-landing naval bombardment destroyed virtually all vegetation on the ridge. This meant that advancing US soldiers had nowhere to hide and casualties here were enormous. At the peak is a sobering memorial to all who fell here. We paid our respects before leaving this now-tranquil island that was once the scene of fierce combat and enormous suffering.
Photos and on-the-ground reports provided by YPT’s Gareth Johnson, also known as the Street Food Guy, who is currently leading our action-packed Least Visited Countries tour. Join us in 2020 and experience this incredible corner of paradise for yourself!