Shipwrecks of Palau
The islands of Palau are exactly what you would expect of a tropical island paradise; exotic smells waft on warm breezes through a lush green jungle that blankets each island while thriving coral reefs explode with every imaginable color in the surrounding crystal clear water. Most divers trek here to explore phenomenal dives site like Blue Corners where sharks, turtles and other big ocean pelagic’s mix with schools of reef fish that move in the current along living canyons of coral, or German Corner where Mantas often fly by like a formations of fighter planes. But hidden underneath all the natural beauty, rusting under choking jungle growth, buried in dark claustrophobic caves or slowly melding into the surrounding coral reefs, are remnants from a dark moment in world history. As I look around Palau today and compare it to black and white photos from 1944, it’s hard to believe that this is the same place.
By the time World War II reached this remote corner of the Pacific theater, the entrenched Japanese had created nearly impenetrable fortresses on the Palauan Islands of Angaur, Peleliu, and Koror and used these bases as a supply and staging areas for their amphibious assault forces. Many military historians now believe that the invasion of the Peleliu was unnecessary and irrelevant to winning the war in the Pacific, and could have been bypassed entirely, left to wither on the vine as the war moved further westward into Japanese home waters. At the time, with the invasion of the Philippines imminent and key component to the American Island hopping strategy, Admiral Chester Nimitz believed it was imperative to destroy the potential threat that Palauan based Japanese troops and aircraft placed upon his fleet, and to General Douglas MacArthur’s scheduled landings at Hollandia, New Guinea
The initial American air offensive called DESCRATE ONE, began in March 1944 with carrier based aircraft from the US Pacific Carrier Task Force 58 attacking military vessels, aircraft and merchant shipping. The operation sent many Japanese ships and aircraft to the bottom of the harbors and water surrounding the Palauan Islands, but did little to soften the resolve of the troops ashore. The next carrier strike occurred in July 1944 during operation SNAPSHOT, whose primary objective was to photograph areas of importance to the pending US invasion, as well as to destroy aircraft, shipping and defensive positions. The final major air offensive was in September 1944, as once again carrier-based aircraft launched pre-assault raids in operation STALEMATE II, weakening Japanese defensive positions and supporting the US First Marine Division’s amphibious assault of Peleliu.
The Marines ordered to capture the island faced a formidable task and had to deal not only with a resolute and battle hardened enemy, but with conditions that seemed to fight them every step of the way. Most of the island is solid coral, and the Marines could not dig in the hard rock to hide from the enemy fusillade, and with frequent rain and temperatures reaching 115 degrees it was said “there were as many casualties from heat prostration as from wounds. Original estimates believed the fighting would only last three to four days, but the sobering reality is that it took Marines two months of horrific fighting to take Peleliu and the Americans didn’t occupy the rest of Palau until the Japanese surrender at the end of the war. In the end the battle for Peleliu would cost the First Marine Division 1,262 dead and 5,274 wounded in one of the worst slaughters of US Marines in the Pacific theater. The Japanese defenders paid a high price as well, with 10,000 killed in action.