In 1999 Bruce Watkins returned to Peleliu for the 55th Anniversary of that Battle. Here is his account of that visit.
On September 11, 1999, I was able to realize a cherished dream of returning to Peleliu along with son Dave. This was inspired and made possible by a young man of 32, Eric Mailander, considered to be the leading authority on that island battle site. Eric had been a featured speaker on Peleliu at a reunion of the 2nd Bn, 1st Marines in 1998, and had suggested the trip to Peleliu on the 55th Anniversary of that Battle in September of 1999.
Meeting us there was Major Joe Gayle, my E Co. Commander, with his three sons, and Ray Fournier, an engineer veteran of that battle. We were joined by Karl Bielan and Sean Prizeman, Marine veterans of Viet Nam, and Donal Murphy, historian. Don Waldera, whose father was killed there with the 81st Army Division, rounded out what we came to call the “Dirty Dozen.”
We met in Koror, Capital of the Republic of Palau, and the next morning traveled by boat some twenty miles to Peleliu. On our way to Peleliu we stopped at Rock Island and naturalist Ron Leidich took us to the highest point, about 400 feet to a Japanese lighthouse and radar tower. There were ruins of a large Japanese Headquarters and caves with large calibre guns. These were never used as all the fighting took place on Peleliu, Anguar, and Negesebus.
From there the boat took us to the main landing on Peleliu. It is necessary to come in on at least half-tide in order to get through the surrounding reef.
For us three veterans of that battle, the approach to Peleliu was a landmark occasion. In the distance we could see White Beach Two where we had landed 55 years ago. The tremendous growth of foliage in that time had made a vast change. The hills were dimly defined and no caves were evident, although there were several hundred. We could understand how our intelligence prior to invasion had been misled. On D-Day, Naval shelling had reduced our target to 90% bare coral rock. We prepared for some meticulous searching for landmarks.
Prior to our coming, Eric had been approached by a Japanese delegation led by Mrs. Ieoanami, the granddaughter of war time premier Hideki Tojo. We had some mild misgivings about meeting our former enemies but went forward with an optimistic attitude in the hopes that things would work out for the best.
Upon landing on Peleliu we proceeded about a mile to the Story Board Resort, a divers complex with six cabins on Amber Beach. Each day we started with breakfast at 0700, donned our gear and headed out through the jungle. For noon meals they made Barracuda and cheese sandwiches which we took with us on our hikes. The temperature reached over 100 degrees every day and when we returned about 1900 we were soaked with perspiration. Showers, suppers of fish and rice plus local fruit, and long discussions on the beach followed.
Having settled in, we left there by van to White Beach One where K Co landed on a point at the extreme left of the Division. It was immediately apparent that what had been an island of mostly bare coral rock blasted by naval guns and bombs, was now completely overgrown with trees and vines. There was a large concrete bunker that housed a 75-mm gun that swept the landing beach. The paint was covered with bits of Military Ordnance, grim testimony to K Co.’s ordeal.
On Sunday we went to White Beach II where our Second Battalion had landed. We went through a huge concrete bunker on the right flank. This scene was pictured in “Old Breed” with Marines attacking on D-Day. Former F Co platoon leader, Jim Hunter, remembered this well and wanted to be sure we checked it out. It was the first tough obstacle met by F Co.
From there Eric lead us to a Japanese tank that he thought might be the one stopped by my anti-tank grenade on D Day afternoon. It was punctured near the forward tread, which made sense, and it had blown up from within in the same way. As it had been moved from its original position it was impossible to be certain. We, of course, would like to think it was the same one.
We then visited several amphibious tractor wrecks (LVT and LUTA) and ended up at the Marine Memorial on Bloody Nose Ridge. We found a nearby cave with mortar shells and grenades and a suspicious looking round metal object protruding below the cave. We decided to check back later as dark was upon us.
We retraced E Co’s D+3 and climbed Hill 210 through a saddle we remembered well. Here we found the spot where Joe had been shot through the neck as he led us up the hill. To our right we located a small cave where a lone sabre-waving Japanese officer had charged down on PFC Darden to end up with the point of his sabre at the startled Marine’s feet. Darden had put a whole clip of his M1 through him.
On the far-left flank there was a large Japanese gun mount (gun missing). Eric told us this had been installed just before D-Day and was never fired due to the lack of delivered ammunition -- a typical military snafu.
We came down from 210 to retrace the attack of my 1st Platoon up adjacent Hill 200 on the afternoon of D+3. We visited the cave where Eric had found a heavy machine gun tripod. This was where I had encountered two dead soldiers droped over their gun as we charged up. Next we came to the concrete bunker that had been the Japanese Observation Post during our landing.
Following along we reached the pinnacle where Sgt. John Kincaid and I had spent a desperate night defending E Co’s left flank. Some of the loose rocks we had stacked up for protection were still there, including the one where I had stashed my 45 pistol. Behind us was the hollow where we had stored grenades and ammunition. In 1997 Eric had found a live U.S. grenade there but it had since fallen several feet down still intact. We traced the naturally stepped side of the pinnacle that the Japanese had climbed to get at us. With the noise of battle and the dark we were not aware of them until they were almost upon us.
The eastern slope was near perpendicular and at its foot was a large cave, mostly filled in (Sea Bee bulldozer?). My son Dave crawled in to find an almost complete skeleton. We assumed that the other Japanese killed that night had been buried there.
Underneath the hill we entered the Japanese Headquarters cave which went some 100 feet completely through the hill. Their headquarters were moved the night of our battle.
What can one say after visiting this spot where we fought so hard 55 years ago? I only wished Sgt. Kincaid could have been with us. He died last April after a long illness. We had talked together several times about this experience and marveled at our survival.
Later we trekked through Death Valley to Col. Nakagawa’s last headquarters where he finally committed suicide. There was a large calibre howitzer still mounted in another cave.
On the way we came across a U.S. 30 calibre water-cooled machine gun still mounted on its tripod ready to fire. It was surprisingly well preserved considering 55 years of exposure to weather.
The next morning we met the Japanese delegation that had previously contacted Eric. There were approximately forty Japanese, including several women. We took them inland from Bloody Nose Ridge to seldom visited caves containing skeletal remains. There were no complete skeletons, but all types of skulls, ribs, and femurs scattered about. We understood they planned to cremate these. Some of the Japanese were elderly but managed the tangled jungle quite well. With considerable ceremony, the scattered bones were collected in colorful blankets. They seemed most grateful for our assistance and all carried small American flags.
The governor of Peleliu was upset because he thought the Japanese had not received official permission, but this was cleared up. There is a ban on removing any military ordnance from Peleliu.
On another day we visited White Beach One on the extreme left of the 1st Regiment’s landing. This was a point of land from which the Japanese had enfiladed our landing with heavy calibre guns in concrete bunkers. This point is well-known as the spot where Capt. Hunt’s K Co. had a horrendous battle. All over this area was the residue of that fight, grim testimony as to its intensity.
On Tuesday we started the day with a magnificent sunrise on our beach. As we began our trek we visited the spot (a well-concealed cave) where the last 16 Japanese survivors held out until 1946. There were also 18 Korean laborers.
Joe Gayle and I had told Eric we wanted to pinpoint E Co’s position on D-Day. We both remembered a 10 foot depression at the southeast corner of the airfield. Our Company had knocked out two Japanese tanks there. This was no longer easily defined as much of it was covered with jungle. So we all went to White Beach Two and spread out on a compass bearing through very dense jungle growth. There was no depression, but Eric, with his experienced eye, found one of the tanks buried on its side in the right location. With a little digging we had a clear picture of the tank in profile. Rubber parts by the bogie wheels appeared to have been scorched and we believed this is the one that PFC Brennan of my platoon stopped with his flame-thrower. It had been halted in a swampy hollow about 10 feet below the airfield and we assume that the Sea Bees had leveled the depression and buried it in the process. It was very special for us to find it defining the location of E Co on the first night.
An interesting side trip was made to the ‘Thousand Man Cave’ where Japanese miners had tunneled out a hill with six different entrances. This was chiefly living quarters and there were relics everywhere: mess gear, carts, grenades, and hundreds of Saki battles. We surmised that, facing defeat, they had had a final party. This cave and many others harbored 6" spiders, cave crickets, toads, and scorpions. At one point we were attacked by hundreds of bats.
On September 15th, being the 55th Anniversary of our landing, there was much going on.
At 9:00 o’clock we went to Bloody Nose Ridge where the Japanese held a ceremony honoring our dead. They passed out small American flags to everyone and placed flowers on the 1st Division Memorial. Their interpreter gave a speech ending it by saying, “If we had to lose the battle we’re were glad it was to the Marines, the world’s greatest fighters.”
From here we went, at 11:00 o’clock, to a Japanese service at the base of Hill 100 where they have a monument and Shinto Shrine. This was to honor their dead. We were asked to sit in the front row and later participated by laying friendship tokens , provided by the Japanese, on their altar. They also passed out small Japanese flags. It was distinctly odd for Marines to be sitting at a Shinto Memorial Service holding Japanese flags.
We then traveled to Purple Beach, which is now a recreation spot for the island with tables, benches, and shelters. It was here that the 1st Marines embarked when we left Peleliu after the battle. It was a really beautiful spot and here we met with some 20 other veterans; authors Wilbur Jones and Col. Joe Alexander; and Henry Sledge, son of author Eugene Sledge. We were reunited with Lu Chesnut, a squad leader from our 3rd platoon.
A delegation of Marines in cammies was there from Okinawa for the official Marine Corps celebration of the 55th Anniversary and we met many of them. The service was held at 1:30 on Bloody Nose Ridge complete with color guard and band. The Japanese also attended. The governor of Peleliu and Col. Alexander made speeches. A former 1st Division chaplain gave an invocation. This was also a special time.
After the ceremony, we went to another part of Hill 210 where barricades of rock filled 50-gallon drums had been used to protect the entrance of several caves. On the north side, Eric took us to an overturned Sherman Tank. He had located the surviving members of its crew who had had a plaque made for it. However, the Governor had not yet allowed it to be installed. In this area we passed through several small plots of marijuana, which were very well hidden.
The next day, accompanied by Col. Alexander and Henry Sledge, we traveled the short distance to Negesebus Island off the northern tip of Peleliu. Henry’s father had sketched (in his book) a concrete bunker that they had taken after a sharp fight in which he was almost killed. We found it, exactly like the sketch, and this was a very nice closure for his family.
We visited a very well preserved Sherman tank that appeared to be heavily barricaded for a long siege. My son Dave clambered inside and I tossed coconut grenades down the hatch at him.
There was a killer clam shell there about 2 feet in diameter that must have weighed 50 pounds. I also discovered a skull in one bunker that I at first thought was human. However, our resident naturalist Ron said it was that of a 6 foot long fish called a Du Gong. No doubt the Japanese had eaten it.
Later we visited the ruins of the Japanese headquarters building. This was badly damaged by shellfire and soil had formed on the second story roof with small trees growing from it. Interesting were the Japanese toilets that we remembered from China – porcelain trenches in the floor. When the Japanese abandoned this building it became the First Division Headquarters and later that of the 81st Army Division.
The remains of an American Quonset hut was nearby and Ray Fournier pointed out the battered remains of a Japanese truck he had tried to salvage when he was a Marine Engineer. Ray is a guide at the famous Antietam Battlefield and has retrieved many pictures of Peleliu for us from the National Archives in Washington.
Near Hill 100 we visited the remains of the ‘Lady Luck’ Amtrac (LVTA) which Eric had discovered earlier. There was much military debris scattered about, both U.S. and Japanese, at the site of her last stand. Strangely enough, there was a stock of human bones topped by two rusted Garand rifles adjacent to it.
Later we stopped back at Hill 300 and dug out the suspicious metal ring. This proved to be a six-foot Japanese 150-mm mortar. Apparently it had been buried when Marines blasted the cave. This was a new find and the first of its kind.
Late that evening we had a special event. The night before Don Waldera had told us how his father had been killed when Don was only two. From information he had gathered from his father’s comrades, Eric was able to pinpoint the small ravine leading to a Japanese Bunker on Hill 145. We waited while Don proceeded alone into this site. Returning he told us he had found an M1 Rifle and U.S. helmet and felt certain that this was the spot. We told him it was an honor to be with him and share this moment of closure.
On our final day our Peleliu native host and guide, Godwin Sadao, took us diving off the reefs. As the Palaus are world-famous for this, we had a great treat. The water was extremely clear and we could see beautiful coral formations 40 feet down. Many schools of bright colored fish were there along with the occasional shark. Dave went down 90 feet with scuba gear and saw turtles, tuna, and large sharks. We then made our last Peleliu landing and packed up to leave.
It was with considerable feeling that we said goodbye to Eric, Ray, Karl and Godwin. We agreed that this had been the experience of a lifetime.
I have never met with a more congenial group than this one. It seemed that we were instant good friends. For Joe, former E Co. C.O., and I, his Platoon Leader, visiting the spots where we had actually fought was tremendously rewarding. Peleliu was so untouched by time it was almost surrealistic. Eric Mailander was a superb leader.
Our first relations with the Japanese, although tentative, eventually gave us a warm feeling of closure. Joe particularly wondered how he would handle this. Terribly wounded, his future in doubt, he had spent many days aboard a hospital ship with taps playing every day as more Marines were buried at sea. An hour spent in solitary reflection on the beach allowed him to end his bitter feelings. As for me, I had been personally responsible for the deaths of so many Japanese, I felt I owed them the hand of friendship.
This wonderful experience showed us once again what it means to be a Marine. Even as 55 years before, we treasured each other’s friendship and looked out for each other. Age makes no difference when Marines gather, and we realized once again what the harsh training, discipline and patriotism did to make victory possible: Courage, Honor, and Commitment!
R. Bruce Watkins
Capt., USMCR Ret.
See reunion photos and read Sean Prizeman’s account of the event.