Walking the Bloody Nose Ridge

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They were hoping to take the island in four days.

After all, there was not much to take, just an expanse of bleached coral, some 10 km long and 1.5 km wide. The only thing of import, an airfield, which the strategic thinking suggested had to be taken to secure General McArthur’s right flank before his long awaited return to the Philippines.

The Marines from the 1st Division commenced amphibious landing at 8:32 am on 15 September 1944. It was at least an hour too late, as one of the locals told me. The story goes that a traditional Marine breakfast had to be served before the attack, and by the time the plates were cleared the tide had started to go out. The landing crafts which were supposed to coast straight to the shore got stuck on the coral flats stretching in front of the beach. They were shooting ducks; in an hour, sixty have been destroyed by the Japanese shells.

The airfield was taken by the end of the second day, in a 46-degree C heat (that’s 115 F). It is eerie walking that dusty tarmac today. A few years before, the battle was restaged for Tom Hanks’ HBO mini-series “Pacific”. Until then I don’t think I’ve even heard of Peleliu. Until they landed, none of the Marines had either. Even today you have to keep to the airstrip; only metres away, in a low thicket, teams of Pacific Islanders are still searching, and still recovering thousands of landmines, as part of hand-on training provided by an NGO run by former British and Australian soldiers. The locals are demining their own home; others, like the Solomon Islanders, will take the know-how back to their own countries to deal with detritus of their wars, world and civil.

Rois Kar towers over the airfield to the north, if towers can be said of a 75 m elevation. But seventy-five metres is quite enough to cover the area below with artillery and mortar fire. From the third day onwards, American planes would take off from the airfield and within seconds be dropping their payload over Rois Kar and the rest of the Umurbrugul Pocket. Hardly any pilots bothered to retract their wheels.

The Japanese were dug-in too well for the air power to dislodge them. So up went the 1st Marines.

The length of the gully between the hills of the Pocket is about 1000 metres. It took the Marines one month – yes, one month – to get from end to end. Some thought it the worst fighting that the US Marine Corp experienced during the entire war. They called it the Bloody Nose Ridge, because of the 28,000 American troops involved in the landing and the battle, fully one third became casualties, most of them along the ridge. “What once had been companies in the 1st Marines looked like platoons; platoons looked like squads. I saw few officers,” Eugene “Sledgehammer” Sledge recalled later in his memoirs “With the Old Breed”. Tom Hanks turned him into one of the protagonists of his series.

Bloody Nose Ridge is now covered in jungle; green, humid, half-twilit, silent. In September and October 1944 it was all bare rock, stripped of any vegetation by tons of napalm dumped over the hills in the first few days of the battle. Every few metres along the ridge overgrown, barely now visible holes mark the openings of bunkers where the soldiers of the Imperial 14th Infantry Divisions entrenched themselves to their doom with their machine guns and mortars. They had to be blasted, burned out with flamethrowers and minced with hand grenades, one by one, metre by metre, day by day, week by week.

Spent shells of all possible calibres, spades, ammo boxes, water containers and other detritus of war still litters the ground of the Ridge, rusting in peace. Visitors are warned that trying to remove even a smallest piece as a memento risks a fine of US$10,000. Considering that the Americans spent 15 million round, almost 120,000 hand grenades and 150,000 mortar shells to conquer the island, the government of Palau, which administers Peleliu, could make a mint selling war souvenirs if they choose to. I would have gladly bought some. Perhaps this is more tasteful.

The island was declared secure after 73 days of fighting.

(All photos copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)

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