Reunion to gather Marines from the battle of Peleliu
Written by Jeffery Kurz
From the Record-Journal, Saturday, June 20, 1998
HADDAM - It was like standing on the top of a ladder fighting a crazy, hatchet-wielding man on the roof.
That's how R.N. Russo described the battle of Peleliu to his son, Nick Russo.
Russo was one of the 2nd Battalion 1st Marines who fought the Japanese for control of the tiny coral island in September 1944 in what was one of the most savage battles in history.
Casualties were staggering. Thousands of Americans lost their lives. The Japanese lost more than 10,000 men. Most of those were suffered during the first week of fighting, evidence of the battle's unparalleled intensity.
This weekend, veterans from across the country are gathering at Camp Bethel for the first-time reunion of the 2nd Battalion Marines who fought on Peleliu.
"For many of them, the last time they saw each other was on the battlefield," said Sue Donnelly, of Haddam, who with her father, R. Bruce Watkins, of Amston, organized the reunion.
As a child, Donnelly was fascinated with the tales her father told of World War II and particularly of his descriptions of the bravery of the men in his platoon. At his daughter's urging, Watkins wrote an account of his experiences during the war years titled "Brothers In Battle," which includes a chapter on Peleliu.
"One of the constant pictures of battle was the presence of our own dead comrades," Watkins wrote. "As soon as possible they were laid out at Company or Battalion Command Posts. Covered with ponchos to keep off the flies, they were a constant reminder of our mortality. In the heat of Peleliu, decomposition was rapid and the smell of death was constant, particularly at night when we were stationary."
Peleliu is a foliage-covered island about 5 miles long and 2 miles wide. Three days of bombing reduced the island to a coral wasteland before the Marines landed. The Americans took control of the airstrip fairly quickly but then faced the daunting task of rooting the Japanese defenders from their entrenched positions in caves and behind ridges.
Watkins' account covers a night he spent holding a hill with just one other Marine. "Time after time they came up that slope, and time after time we sent them back with clip after clip of ammo and grenade after grenade," he wrote.
Daylight the following morning revealed a pile of bodies, estimated at 40. Watkins learned later that the hill was right above a cave that served as the Japanese headquarters.
There's also a poignant account of hours he spent with a dying Marine, who had taken a fatal wound to the abdomen. "I tried to catch his fading words and give him what comfort I could," Watkins wrote. "He wanted his wife to know how much he loved her. Finally he was still. I just hoped that my hand on his was a little comfort toward the last."
Of 54 men in his platoon, only 9 left the island alive, Watkins said.
Donnelly said she and her father had wanted to organize a reunion for a long time but were unable to contact the veterans. Then the Internet provided the means of finding and contacting them. About 20 vets are expected this weekend with their families. Local Marines are providing transportation to and from Bradley Airport.
The reunion will include a presentation by Russo, whose father has since passed away, and Eric Mailander on their extensive research of the battle.
Russo said that Peleliu, which today has about 600 inhabitants, is an excellent site for research because it has been relatively untouched since the battle. The Iowa City, Iowa, resident visited Peleliu in 1994 for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the battle.
When the reseachers visited the cave below the hill Watkins had held that bloody night, they discovered two skeletons along with other military equipment.
Russo said Peleliu was a battle of elite troops versus elite troops. Casualties were high, he said, because the Japanese held the high ground and had prepared it for defense, there was no ground cover because of the shelling, and the island's coral consistency magnified the threat from shrapnel
Peleliu was one of many battles for Watkins. But it was the most traumatic, he said. "It was so fast, so quick and vicious," he said.
There has been some debate over how necessary Peleliu was to the outcome of the war, Donnelly said. The scars, for some, run deep.
"Some veterans are still not able to talk about it," she said. "They're still hurt and angry. It's still a bitter experience for some of them."
On Sunday morning the veterans will follow a color guard to the Camp Bethel chapel for a service led by Senior Navy Chaplain Lt. Cmdr. Doyle Dunn from the submarine base in New London. Later, a flagpole and flag will be dedicated on the campgrounds to commemorate the reunion.