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thedrifter
05-27-07, 08:58 AM
Peleliu - a battle overshadowed
By Joseph S. Skrzat Jr.
For The Inquirer

The seed was planted when my wife gave me a book, The 25 Best World War II sites - Pacific Theater. Chapter 6 is Peleliu.

I was a naval officer for 41/2 years and have a big interest in military history. My father-in-law, Edison Glenn, was a World War II Marine who participated in the invasions of Cape Gloucester (New Guinea), Peleliu and Okinawa. He was awarded two Purple Hearts.

Like many veterans who saw the horror of battle, he almost never related his experiences until he saw the movie Saving Private Ryan, and then he opened up.

I researched Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands, 500 miles east of the Philippines, and learned it was the site of the fourth-bloodiest battle in Marine Corps history. Yet it has gone almost totally unnoticed, overshadowed by Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I wanted to see Peleliu.

Last August, three years after my father-in-law died, I flew 9,851 miles from Philadelphia to Koror. I was met by my native guide, Tangie Hesus, whom I had contacted through information from the 1st Marine Division Association in Oceanside, Calif. The next morning, we traveled to Peleliu, 25 miles south of Koror by speedboat. Tangie and I spent two full days touring the 6-mile-by-2-mile island, population 600.

The most emotional experience was walking, alone and in tranquillity, on White Beach 2, the code name of the strip of sand that my father-in-law stormed with his fellow Marines on Sept. 15, 1944. His battalion would suffer 55 percent casualties.

Securing the island had been projected to take four days - it took 21/2 months. Aerial reconnaissance photos did not reveal that beyond the narrow beach was almost impassable jungle that hid coral ridges, bunkers and pillboxes. Thousands of Japanese soldiers were concealed by an intricate network of caves.

Historian Robert Leckie wrote, "In proportion to the number of men engaged, Peleliu was the fiercest, bloodiest battle in the Japanese war." Numbers partially tell the story: The 1st Marine Division casualties were 1,121 killed, 5,142 wounded, 73 missing; of the 13,000-man Japanese garrison, fewer than 300 survived.

The island still bears numerous reminders of the battle, including wrecked aircraft, landing craft, Japanese buildings and an airstrip. The temperature, which was in the 80s (with the humidity index off the charts), reportedly reached 110 during the battle.

I came home from Peleliu with a small container of sand and a Coke bottle stamped "San Francisco 1945," both from White Beach 2.

NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw was correct when he called men like my father-in-law "The Greatest Generation."

To all Marines, especially the remaining Peleliu veterans: Semper Fi.

Joseph S. Skrzat Jr. lives in Lansdale, Montgomery County.

Ellie