Peleliu, Caroline Islands Pacific Ocean September 15, 1944 0832 Hours
Destruction is near for the empire.
The morning heat is so unbearable that Corporal Lewis Kenneth Bausell, USMC, has trouble breathing. He is huddled inside an amphibious landing vehicle with a dozen other marines of the First Battalion, headed for the section of Japanese-held beach code-named Orange One. Even this early in the morning, the temperature hovers at 100 degrees. The Americans are sweating profusely as their armored craft brings them ever closer to the sand. But heat is not the only factor — some of the perspiration is from nerves. These marines understand that they may soon die or be maimed for life and few will ever know what happened to them.
Unlike in the much more publicized war in Europe, where reporters like Ernie Pyle and Edward R. Murrow are making names for themselves by covering every aspect of the fighting, there are few journalists or photographers hitting this remote beach today. The crucial upcoming battle against the Japanese will be waged in near anonymity.
Peleliu is important because of its airstrip, a hard-surfaced field capable of launching long-range fighter-bombers. The island is just six miles long and two miles wide, but the terrain is exceptionally rugged, a film of thin soil laid atop coral and limestone. A thousand yards off the beach rise the jungle-covered Umurbrogol ridges, a series of low, jagged peaks forming the island's spine. The Japanese have long coveted tiny, remote Peleliu, first taking possession of the empty island in 1914. For two decades it remained basically unused, but with the war came renewed awareness of its tactical importance. Since this past summer, knowing that the Americans would soon attack, the Japanese have labored to transform Peleliu into a fortress.
Most American marines could not care less about the history of Peleliu. Each man approaches the coming battle in his own way. Some smoke to calm their fears, some vomit onto the steel deck, and others worry about wetting their pants. But there is one belief that every man shares: no matter what happens when they hit the beach, surrendering to the enemy will not be an option.
Lewis Bausell has been through this before. Only twenty years old, the apprentice bookbinder from Washington, DC, has an easy smile and a wide boxer's nose. His hair is cropped close to his skull. Bausell had a semester left at McKinley Technical High School when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. He immediately dropped out of school and tried to enlist in the navy but was rejected. So instead, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. During his more than two years serving his country, Bausell has earned the respect of his peers, and although his rank is not yet official, just one month ago Bausell was selected for promotion to the rank of sergeant because of his heroic performance and leadership during invasions on Tulagi, Gavutu, Guadalcanal, and Cape Gloucester.
Now, as the amtrac churns forward through the flat surf toward Peleliu, Bausell buckles the chin strap of his steel helmet. The landing craft stalls momentarily on the coral reef one hundred yards offshore, then continues churning toward the landing zone. Bausell is tempted to peer up and over the side to glimpse the battlefield, but he keeps his head down. Japanese snipers are known to target the curious.
All at once, geysers of water erupt around the landing craft. Incoming Japanese 141-mm mortar rounds fill the air. Many find their mark, killing Bausell's fellow marines on other landing craft. The explosions and the roar of artillery are so loud that Bausell and his squadmates cannot hear one another without yelling. The smoke of battle has turned the blue morning sky black. On any other day, Peleliu is a tropical island paradise. Today it is a living hell.
"Hit the beach," yells a sergeant as the amtrac's steel treads reach the shore. Bausell vaults up and over the side, landing hard on the bone-white sand and coral. The staccato chatter of hidden Japanese machine guns forces Bausell to press his body flat against the earth. All around him, explosions bring flashes of light. The palm trees lining the beach are in flames. Crimson pools of American blood mingle with the yellow phosphorus of Japanese incendiary devices.
"All any man could do was sweat it out and pray for survival," one marine will later write of his first moments on Peleliu. "It would have been sure suicide to stand up during that firestorm."
Everything Bausell sees and hears gives the lie to what he and his fellow marines had been told about this tactically vital Japanese stronghold. In preparation for Operation Stalemate, the United States Navy bombarded Peleliu with ten days of aerial raids and two more days of naval shelling. It seemed impossible that anyone could have lived through such an intense barrage of napalm and artillery; "we have run out of targets," a top naval officer complained. American intelligence supported this notion, suggesting that the enemy response would be minimal. The Marine Corps officer commanding the invasion, Major General William Rupertus, predicted a quick and easy battle — "a hard fought 'quickie' that will last for four days, five days at most."
But as Corporal Lewis Bausell and his squad can now attest, Peleliu will not be taken easily. Its defenders have had months to prepare. Mortar launchers and artillery are concealed behind the 2,200-yard beachfront, targeted to strike the precise spots at which the Americans now race ashore. In addition, the Japanese have constructed antitank barriers, laid hundreds of mines, and lined the beach with every coil of barbed wire in the Caroline Islands. "Spider traps" — machine-gun nests made of coconut-tree logs — are camouflaged so well that they are almost invisible in the swampy landscape where jungle meets the sand.
Yet Japanese commander Colonel Kunio Nakagawa is a realist. He knows the Americans will eventually work their way ashore. The US force is huge. So the wily colonel is employing a strategy tried just once before in the war. Despite the horrific welcome the Americans are now receiving, it is not his goal to win this battle on the beaches. Just a fraction of his army now fights the marines, but thousands of other elite troops wait inland, in a network of five hundred hidden caves in the nearby Umurbrogol highlands.
These fukkaku defenses will allow Nakagawa and his men to counter the Americans, "bleeding them white" by coming out of hiding to attack when the marines least expect it.
The attacking Japanese soldiers' ability to swarm out of nowhere led top British general William Slim to refer to them as "the most formidable fighting insect in history." The men of Nakagawa's Fourteenth Imperial Division embody that sentiment. Almost all are veteran warriors, hardened by years of battle. They have been living five stories underground, subsisting on a simple diet of rice and fish and enduring the beatings and harsh discipline from their officers that are typical of the Japanese army. "You could be beaten for anything," one Japanese soldier later remembered. "Being too short or being too tall, even because somebody didn't like the way you drank coffee. This was done to make each man respond instantly to orders, and it produced results. If you want soldiers who fight hard, they must train hard."
These soldiers have been taught another crucial lesson: that the Japanese race is superior to all others, and that triumph over the inferior Americans is inevitable.
That is a lie.
But to soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army, it doesn't matter. Their strongest belief of all is in the samurai code of Bushido, which stipulates that surrender is a form of dishonor. "The man who would not disgrace himself must be strong," reads a line from the Japanese army's Senjinkun, a pocket-size code of behavior issued to all servicemen. "Do not survive in shame as a prisoner. Die, to ensure that you do not leave ignominy behind you."
Therein lies the basis for Colonel Nakagawa's trap.
There is no escape route for the Japanese, no evacuation plan. The forty-six-year-old Nakagawa, who was decorated nine times for his heroism during Japan's earlier war with China, has already informed his wife that he will never see her again.
Soon, very soon, he will lure the unsuspecting Americans into the Umurbrogol highlands and slaughter them.
But in turn, he and his men will also be slaughtered.
Surrender is not an option.
* * *
Corporal Lewis Bausell rises up off the sand and sprints in a low crouch. His goal is the protective shelter of a small coral ridge a hundred yards inland. All around him as he runs, shouts of "Get the hell off the beach!" mingle with desperate pleas of "Corpsman!" Bausell has never seen such destruction. Two hundred marines will die today; hundreds more will be wounded. Terrified corporals and privates now watch the bodies of their brother marines torn apart as fire from Japanese heavy artillery crashes down.
"One figure seemed to fly to pieces," a marine will recall of a particularly grisly death. "With terrible clarity I saw the head and one leg fly into the air."
"I saw a wounded Marine near me staggering," another American will remember. "His face was half bloody pulp and the mangled shreds of what was left of an arm hung down like a stick ... he fell behind me, in a red puddle on the white sand."
Every man here knows what the Japanese army does to prisoners of war. Rather than hold men captive, the Japanese murder them in the most heinous fashion. Veterans of previous battles with this enemy have seen the corpses of marines unlucky enough to be taken alive. Some had their bodies roped to a tree and used for live bayonet practice. Some had their heads, arms, and legs chopped off; scores of US Marines were emasculated with bayonets as they lay dying on the ground.
"It was kill or be killed," Marine Corps private Dan Lawler will later remember. "The Japs didn't take prisoners so we didn't take prisoners either."
Or, as Marine Corps colonel Lewis "Chesty" Puller ordered his men before the Peleliu invasion: "You will take no prisoners. You will kill every yellow son-of-a-bitch, and that's it."
* * *
It seems an eternity, but it is only an hour before Corporal Bausell and a few of his fellow marines manage to get off the sand. Bausell's smile has been replaced by a tight-lipped glare. His instincts sharpened by his many previous landings, Bausell searches the tree line for signs of hidden enemy machine-gun emplacements targeting the invasion force. Suddenly, a burst of light gets Corporal Bausell's attention. The Japanese machine guns fire tracer bullets to help them zero in on a target, but these illuminated rounds can also help the marines pinpoint the shooter's precise location. Bausell sees a stream of tracers emerging from a small cave with a commanding view of the beach. The entrance is concealed by scrub plants and thick brush.
Taking charge of the squad, he motions for his men to follow him toward the cave's location. Reaching the cave first, he fires into a small opening. Lieutenant Jack Kimble of Greenville, Mississippi, arrives with a two-man flamethrower team; a stream of fire is launched into the Japanese position in the hope of forcing the enemy to come out. Corporal Bausell, meanwhile, stands ready to shoot them as they emerge.
The first Japanese to run screaming from the cave is carrying a grenade. He pulls the pin before Bausell can fire his M1 carbine. Not only does the explosion kill the Japanese soldier but shrapnel slices into several nearby marines.
More flame is shot into the cave. Another Japanese soldier emerges.
This time, Bausell shoots him dead.
Yet another Japanese soldier runs out of the cave, choosing the sure death by rifle fire to being roasted alive. He too carries a grenade, hurling it at the Americans as Bausell raises his weapon.
The grenade is launched before Bausell shoots; it lands near him and several other marines. The blast may kill them all.
Without hesitation, Corporal Bausell throws his body onto the grenade. His torso rises off the ground as it explodes, smothering the blast. None of his fellow marines is hurt.
"Get that Jap," Bausell shouts. Somehow, he is still alive.
The flamethrower team shoots off a burst of flame, turning the Japanese soldier into a human torch.
Less than two hours after landing on Peleliu, Corporal Lewis Bausell is put on a stretcher and carried back down the beach. He is loaded aboard an amtrac, then ferried out to the hospital ship Bountiful, where he is immediately taken into surgery.
But doctors cannot stop the bleeding. The Japanese grenade has sent deadly shards of metal deep into Bausell's internal organs. On September 18, 1944, three days after the invasion of Peleliu, Corporal Lewis Bausell dies.
Unlike those of soldiers fighting on World War II's European front, his body will not be lowered into the ground and marked with a monument so that his family might someday visit. Instead, his corpse is wrapped in sailcloth, tethered to a spent artillery shell, and dropped at sea.
Corporal Lewis Bausell is the first United States Marine at the Battle of Peleliu whose death will see him awarded America's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, for actions above and beyond the call of duty in combat.
He is not the last.
Leyte, Visayas Islands Philippines October 20, 1944 1300 Hours
General Douglas MacArthur is grinning. "As Ripley says, believe it or not, we're here," he boasts to his chief of staff.
Seven hundred miles west of Peleliu, where marines are now mired in their fifth bloody week of combat, the sixty-four-year-old commander of American forces in the Pacific leans over the rail of the USS Nashville. He gazes into the distance at his beloved Philippines, which were invaded by more than a hundred thousand US Army troops under his command less than four hours ago. His counterpart in Europe, General Dwight Eisenhower, became famous for the D-Day invasion of France this past June. So MacArthur, well known for his ego, has chosen to call the date of this invasion "A-Day," for "Attack Day."
As on Peleliu, intelligence reports predicting minimal enemy resistance have proven very wrong. The Japanese are putting up a fierce fight for the Philippines. Even miles out to sea, MacArthur can hear the chatter of automatic-weapons fire coming from groves of palm trees and see the billowing plumes of black smoke from the jungle. Just overhead, American fighter-bombers buzz toward entrenched enemy positions, keeping a sharp eye out for Japanese Zero fighter planes.
Two years ago, after the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese, the most humiliating defeat of MacArthur's storied career, the general promised the world that he would one day come back in glory to retake the islands. Now, he is setting out to make good on that vow.
Douglas MacArthur, who likes to refer to himself in the third person as simply "MacArthur," is a shade over six feet tall, the son of a Medal of Honor–winning general through whom he has a lifelong connection to the Philippines. Arthur MacArthur Jr. fought in the American Civil War as a teenager and, after the Spanish-American War, served as military governor of the Philippines. Douglas graduated at the top of his class at West Point, and to this day is as narrow-waisted and fit as on his commissioning day in 1903.
MacArthur clambers down a ladder hanging over the Nashville's side and into a waiting landing craft. As he does every day, the general wears a freshly pressed khaki uniform that bears no insignia or ribbons. He fastidiously maintains the creases on his shirtsleeves and trousers by changing clothes frequently, and has just donned a fresh uniform for the landing. In case the landing goes horribly wrong and MacArthur is at risk of being taken prisoner, a loaded derringer that once belonged to his father rests in his hip pocket.
Sweat stains seep into the gold braid encircling MacArthur's weathered field marshal's cap; his dark brown eyes are shielded from the ocean's glare by wire-rimmed Ray-Ban sunglasses. Completing these trademark aspects of his appearance, all of which have made the general an iconic figure worldwide, is the unlit corncob pipe clenched firmly between his teeth.