A Slice of Palau History : The Battle of Peleliu

This little piece of paradise has a big past and played an integral part in World War II. The details of the Battle of Peleliu, and the significance of this island's topography, taught a painful lesson for all parties involved.



I'll admit it! I would never have thought to visit Palau if it wasn't for a medical mission trip scheduled there. I didn't even know where it was and I had to look it up. But once I arrived and got to spend some time there, I was struck by several things:


  1. The immense depth of its history, specifically that which relates to World War II,

  2. The colorful local culture (yum, bats!), and

  3. The jaw-dropping beauty of the islands.

In this post, I will share some fascinating details about the country's critical role in World War II. But first...


Where Is It?


Palau - officially the Republic of Palau - is an island country located in the western Pacific Ocean. It sits between the Philippines and Guam, and the country contains approximately 340 islands and 16 states!

But its total area is only about 180 square miles, and just 17,907 people live there. The most populous island is Koror, where Belau Hospital is located (the location of our clinic).


Obviously, it's very isolated, but in recent years it's gotten easier to get there efficiently. My trip went from PDX to SFO to ICN (Seoul) to KOR (Palau) and took two full days. Of course, keep in mind the time difference for KOR from PDX is also 16 hours ahead.

History Lovers, Buckle Up


These islands have transferred ownership many times. Here's a quick run down:


  • The country was originally settled about 3,000 years ago by migrants from Southeast Asia.

  • In 1574, they were made part of the Spanish East Indies.

  • In 1898, when Spain lost the Spanish-American War, they were sold to Germany and were deemed part of German New Guinea.

  • After World War I, they were ruled by new owners, the Japanese.


Whew! But it would change hands yet again. This time to the United States in 1947, following World War II.


During the war, American troops were determined to seize Palau from the Japanese. Why? Because the location of the islands near the Philippines was very advantageous for U.S. troops.

In September of 1944, troops arrived at Peleliu, planning to storm the islands using tactics that always had for them worked before: they came onshore in waves and waited until they had accumulated large numbers of soldiers. They then pushed inland together.



Unfortunately for the U.S., the Japanese were on to them.


"The Japanese took a new strategy, aimed at bogging the enemy invaders down for days and inflicting massive casualties in hopes of pushing the Allies into a negotiated peace."

"Peleliu's many caves, connected by networks of tunnels, allowed the Japanese to hunker down and emerge mostly unscathed from the Allied bombardment. They held out for four days before U.S. forces were even able to secure the southwest area of Peleliu, including a key airstrip. When the Marines turned north to begin their advance, they were targeted along the way by heavy artillery fire, and a fusillade of small arms from Japanese forces installed in caves."

"Over the next eight days, U.S. troops sustained about 50 percent casualties in some of the most vicious and costly fighting of the Pacific campaign." (History.com)



While visiting the islands, we had the opportunity to explore some of these areas by boat. We saw firsthand dozens of caves. It was like stepping back in time to see so many holes cut naturally into the rocks, some small enough for only a few soldiers to crouch in.


We also came across one enormous cave, with a ceiling as high as 30 or 40 feet. The entire roof was blackened and charred, easily visible from some distance away. Our guide explained it was a cave the Japanese had used for artillery storage. It had been discovered by U.S. troops and destroyed.


All of this resulted in what's referred to as the Battle of Peleliu. It accomplished an eventual win for the U.S., but also the highest casualty rate of any amphibious assault in American military history. "Of the approximately 28,000 Marines and infantry troops involved, a full 40 percent of the Marines and soldiers that fought for the island died or were wounded, for a total of some 9,800 men (1,800 killed in action and 8,000 wounded)." (Facts & Details)


But the Japanese didn't fare well either."More than 10,000 (Japanese) soldiers were killed, many of them trapped inside their underground bunkers when U.S. forces exploded the caves during the battle. The bodies of some 2,600 Japanese soldiers were never found. In a stunning twist, a group of 35 soldiers survived within the caves of Peleliu, hiding out for some 18 months after the war ended before finally surrendering in April 1947." Bodies of Japanese soldiers are still being discovered. In fact, six more were found just recently in 2015. (History.com)


"WW II Japanese Military Cave"

What a history.


Here's the other part of this that I find so fascinating. While our Palauan guide toured us through these islands, telling us about the elaborate strategies and the record-setting carnage, a thought occurred to me.


"During all of this, what exactly were the Palauans doing?"

He put it simply. "Oh, they were hiding!"

The Palauans had to endure all of this going on around them, and worked hard to stay out of harm's way as two other countries battled for ownership of their home.

Can you imagine? Sometimes it's not so great to be wanted!

For more detailed information about this battle, visit Battle of Peliliu.

FUN FACT During the time that Japanese soldiers were hidden in the island caves, they were unable to cook their food for fear of having their fire smoke give them away. So they ate their fresh fish raw, creating sashimi.

Learn more about my experience, including exploring Palau's natural beauty.

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