A well-rendered account of Marines in combat on what must have been some of the worst acreage on earth.
The battle to take Peleliu, a scrubby island 600 miles east of Mindanao, was something of an accident of history. The Japanese had arrived there in the 1930s to establish an outpost for what was to become their short-lived Pacific empire, and they had had plenty of time to dig in and make a fortress of the five-square-mile island. But it was the destruction of the huge Japanese base at Truk, 500 miles east, that made Peleliu essential to the Japanese; writes Sloan (Given Up for Dead, 2003, etc.), it forced the Japanese combined fleet command to establish a new headquarters in the Palau archipelago, putting Peleliu in the line of fire. There were worse places: the Marines slated to attack Peleliu had previously done duty at a nasty little island called Pavavu, overrun by rats and land crabs, and many of them went mad or committed suicide before seeing the next big battle. (To his credit, Bob Hope put Pavavu on his USO circuit, a big morale booster for the men there.) That next big battle was, Sloan argues, unnecessary. Peleliu’s offensive capacity had been obliterated by U.S. bombing raids, and it posed no threat to Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines. Even the Japanese command declared Peleliu’s garrison “expendable,” and the ranking officer there knew “that his troops’ only remaining mission was to mount as tenacious a defense as possible if and when the American landing came.” It did, and they did; it took a full month of close combat to rout the Japanese, at a cost of 6,500 Marines—and, as Sloan notes, at the staggering cost of more than 1,500 rounds of ammunition to kill each of the 10,000 Japanese who died at Peleliu.
By Sloan’s lights, Peleliu is perhaps the biggest unknown battle of the Pacific War—unknown, perhaps, because pointless. A lively reconstruction that does honor to the men who fought it.