WW II Battle Survivors Reunite
Written by Don Stacom
From The Hartford Courant, Monday, June 22, 1998
HADDAM - More than a half-century after the horrific battle for Peleliu Island in which 1,336 Marines were killed, World War II historians still debate whether the U.S. attack was a necessary risk or strategic blunder.
But the 30 or so Peleliu survivors who have gathered for a reunion this weekend at Camp Bethel no longer argue the merits of 1944 military strategy.
"Yeah, we lost a lot of guys for nothing. But you have to accept that with war. You have to accept mistakes -- this was an awfully big one, that's all," said Bruce Watkins of Hebron, a Marine platoon leader at Peleliu.
"It was a waste of manpower, a useless loss of life. We never needed it," said Robert W. Schmitt, who was a 24-year-old lieutenant when his unit fought its way ashore on the tiny Pacific island on Sept. 15, 1944.
"We could just as easily have bypassed it," Watkins added. "But then, hindsight is always better."
Watkins, Schmitt and their comrades in the Marines' Second Battalion, First Division have followed decades of analyses and counteranalyses of the decision to launch an infantry assault on Peleliu.
When military historians began suggesting as early as the 1950s that Peleliu was an unnecessary battle, some survivors and their families were angry. But the veterans at Camp Bethel, mostly in their mid-70s now, say that the decades have cooled any hostility.
"One thing you can say for it, it was a training ground for Okinawa," said Schmitt, who was wounded at Peleliu and Okinawa.
"The Japanese had shifted their whole philosophy by Peleliu, there were no more 'banzai' charges. They were in caves two and three stories high, almost impregnable positions that were camouflaged by the coral so well that you couldn't even see them."
The reunion, which brought veterans from around the country, was the creation of Sue Donnelly, Watkins' daughter. On the Internet, she used military-related bulletin boards, veterans' home pages and national phone listings to find men that her father wrote about in "Brothers in Battle," a self-published collection of war stories.
"Our whole family kept wondering whatever happened to these men he wrote about. It was like the end of the book wasn't there, so we did this. And it was worth all the work," Donnelly said. "When these guys saw each other the last time, they were young men in foxholes."
Researchers Nick Russo and Eric Mailander gave a slide show of the 2- by 6-mile island. Black-and-white 1944 battleground shots of smoldering trucks, bombed hillsides, dead bodies and napalm fires contrasted with 1990s pictures of lush forest and a tranquil white-sand beach.
Their detailed photographs of the old Japanese machine-gun nests and artillery installations - crumbling but still recognizable - drew unwavering attention from the veterans who'd spent a month battling for control of the island.
Schmitt looked to fellow Peleliu veteran James B. Hunter, shook his head and said, "We knew they had armed defensive positions, but until now we didn't know all of it. It's hard to believe any of us survived at all."
The only veteran at the reunion who has returned to Peleliu is Ray Fournier; during a four-day trip several years ago, he found that foliage had covered the landmarks he knew. The island, about halfway between the Philippines and New Guinea, was a barren, burned rock when his support unit pulled out in April of 1945, he recalled.
"I still had in my mind what I'd seen when I left, so nothing was familiar when I went back. When our plane flew over, I couldn't believe it -- there was nothing but trees."