The Palaus anchor the western
edge of the Carolines, the most extensive island chain in the world, spanning
thirty-three degrees of longitude just north of the equator. The Palaus themselves
are an unremarkable string of islands ranging about one hundred miles from Ulithi
in the north to Peleliu and Anguar in the south...
Peleliu is barely six miles
long by two miles wide and shaped like a lobster claw. The airfields the
main complex in the south and the fighter strip under construction on Ngesebus
in the north lay fully exposed in flat ground. But along the northern edge
lay the badlands a jumble of upthrust coral and limestone ridges, box
canyons, natural caves, and sheer cliffs. The natives called this forbidding
terrain the Umurbrogal; the Japanese named it Momoji. The Americans would call
it Bloody Nose Ridge. But here was an intelligence failure. Dense scrub
vegetation covered and disguised the Umurbrogal before the bombardment began.
Overhead aerial photographs failed to reveal this critical topography to U.S.
analysts. That's why General Geiger was so astonished on D-Day to see such
dominant terrain overlooking the airfield and beaches...
The real tragedy of Peleliu occurred during the first week, when General Rupertus and Colonel Puller believed they faced a linear defense along the perimeter of the nearest highest ground, the kind of positions they could surely penetrate with just one more offensive push. As a result, for all their undeniably bravery, the 1st Marines sustained appalling casualties and had to be relieved by a regiment of Wildcats (at Geiger's insistence) six days after the landing...
The pace of relentless close
combat exacted a heavy toll among the Americans... "It was a young man's war,"
said Capt. John McLaughlin, a rifle company commander in the 5th Marines. "Only
a young man could fight all night, then attack all day." Here was another forecast
of fighting to come on Iwo Jima and Okinawa...