BOB BONE'S TravelPieces 

Peleliu: a return to 1944

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

 

KOROR, Palau -- We fought our way up a difficult jungle rise, grabbing at wet tropical foliage that seemed to grab back at us, slapping at bare legs and faces as we tried to move forward.

The day was forebodingly dark. It had been raining off and on, and now it was on again. But Tangie Hesus, our diminutive and indefatigable Palauan guide, urged our little group onward, explaining there was shelter ahead.

Tangie Hesus and wreckage of Japanese Zero

Our uphill struggle was nothing compared to the travails of Americans and Japanese more than a half-century earlier. We were exploring the South Pacific island of Peleliu, the scene of one of the bloodiest and most useless battles of World War II.

The tiny island of Peleliu is today one of the states of Palau, a recently independent nation of islands in the Caroline group. Palau is largely unknown to Americans of the 1990s, except avid scuba divers. For them, it offers perhaps the clearest and cleanest waters and the richest collection of colorful ocean fish in the world.

But the atmosphere at Peleliu, a 20-minute light plane ride from Palau's capital of Koror, is different. Here, thousands died violently or miserably between Sept. 15 and Nov. 25, 1944. Estimates put the toll at nearly 2,000 American soldiers and Marines plus 11,000 of the island's Japanese defenders.

War equipment in place
for more than a half century.

As we grappled our own way up the hill, I thought about stories I had read: Allied commanders, flushed with recent victories, thought Peleliu would be a two-day cakewalk. They also thought the island was flat. Advance intelligence had failed to discover that it was full of rugged hills and ridges into which the Japanese had bored an elaborate system of virtually impenetrable caves and tunnels. At this stage in the war, they were no longer trying to beat back Allied forces on the beaches. Instead, they now relied on heavy firepower from camouflaged and well-protected interior positions.

Moreover, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill had decided that the assault on the Philippines was to begin immediately. But the wheels of fate were already in motion. The Peleliu operation was not turned back.

Gun barrel at the mouth of a cave.

Thunder was echoing off the hills. The rain came down harder, and I remembered reading that GIs had come across similar weather a few days into the invasion. I moved over a muddy rise and suddenly found myself staring into the mouth of one of the meanest, greenest, heavy gun barrels I had ever seen, its rifling still apparent after 52 years. Except for the moss on its metal surface, it looked ready to fire.

With the accompanying thunder, lightning, and the torrential downpour, the sight was one of the most startling experiences I had had since we began exploring the island. Sure enough, we found shelter behind the gun, which was mounted at the mouth of one of the thousands of caves still present on the island.

We explored a few tunnels, and after the rain let up, we made our way past the old cannon and down the hill to return to Tangie's van. He took us to other remnants of war -- ruins of burned-out block houses, wrecks of tanks and planes, the sharp coral-strewn invasion beaches, and to various lonely shrines erected by Americans and Japanese in the years following the war.

We also went to a one-room museum where he had gathered a collection of war's detritus -- hand grenades, bayonets, Coke and sake bottles, and some poignant reminders of the personal nature of war such as letters home.

Japanese barracks,
now turned into a private home.

 

As we returned to the airfield, Tangie apologized because the bad weather had kept us from some of the more elaborate caves and tunnels. These included one that had housed more than 1,000 Japanese, until they were finally killed by a new and more powerful flame thrower that had just entered into the war.

We were glad we came, and the rain suited the mood of the place. But we were also glad to leave Peleliu and fly back to Koror and the cheerful and sunny Palau of today.

Like some other places in the world, Peleliu, I thought, should be seen once -- preferably in the rain -- and remembered forever.

IF YOU GO . . .

Continental Micronesia Airlines has flights from Honolulu to Palau, via Guam and Yap, three times a week. Standard coach fares begin at $1,261 round trip.

The all-day, air and ground tour of Peleliu from Koror costs around $100, including lunch. Make arrangements at Palau Island Adventures on Palau or with the Palau Visitors Authority.

For information on Palau and elsewhere in Micronesia, call Continental Micronesia at 1-800-945-9955.

This travel piece appeared in several publications: Information

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