Military Monday: The Battle of Peleliu and the 2000-Yard Stare

by Crocker on March 15, 2010, 4:45 am

in History,Military

I’ve spent the last few days – in my free moments – reading Eugene Sledge’s classic WWII memoir With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa. It’s been on my reading list for years and now that the HBO series The Pacific is about to launch, I realized that the time to read it was now.

Sledge was a young Marine recruit who joined the 5th Marine Regiment just in time for its descent into the hell of Peleliu. Peleliu enjoys the dubious honor of being simultaneously the least remembered and one of the most horrific battles in the Pacific war. The operation to clear the small island was supposed to take but four days and instead dragged on for seventy, wrecking both the 1st Marine Division (of which the 5th Marines were a part) and the Army’s 81st Infantry Division.

Sledge’s detailed account – composed over many years and from notes he kept during his service – is written in plain but eloquent prose that reminds me of U.S. Grant’s Memoirs but reflects not a general’s viewpoint but the melancholic perspective of a Marine private.

The Battle of Peleliu marked a change in Japanese tactics from beach defense and Banzai charges to an interlocking defense in depth designed to exact the maximum number of American casualties. The Japanese would take these tactics and utterly perfect them at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. At Peleliu, Marines and soldiers under the worst conditions assaulted an enemy in deeply fortified positions in Umurbrogol Mountain – the infamous “Bloody Nose Ridge” of bitter memory. Marines and soldiers fought to the very limits of human endurance among blasted limestone cliffs in 110-degree heat, decay and indescribable filth. Everyone on the front line paid a price – in death, maiming and the type of mental anguish that time may not assuage.

For me, the Battle of Peleliu is uniquely captured by a portrait done by combat artist Tom Lea, who was present on the island and saw on the faces of the survivors something that came to be called the “2000-yard stare” – the blank stare of a man who’s seen too much and whose trauma continuously replays in the theater of his mind. Lea captured the look on the face of young Marine against the background of Bloody Nose Ridge. I first saw his portrait as a boy while thumbing through the old The American Heritage History of World War II. The look on the Marine’s face frightened me – as well it should have. Frankly, it still does.

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Lew Tibbetts March 15, 2010 at 6:57 pm

I looked at the painting and I thought of Sgt. Petie. He was in my infantry company in Viet Nam. I can still see him leaning on his rifle with that look on his face. Too much time in the jungle.

Craig Daley April 18, 2010 at 5:48 pm

My dad was in the 1st Marine Division in the first wave of the invasion. His name was William “Bill” Daley and was hit by mortar fire on the 3rd day there. Prior to leaving for Pelileu, he trained on Pavuvu and left on LST #224 to Guadacanal for a practice landing.

The history I have is sketchy, but I know he made it to the base of Bloody Nose Ridge with his buddies, “Mattie” and “Mac”.

Just wondering if anyone or his/her relatives knew him. He received the purple heart and lived until about 7 years ago

David Ross Wilson June 29, 2010 at 6:04 pm

My uncle Lt Layton W. Bailey was on Pelileu with the 1st Marine Div. and died in 1985.He never talked about the war.Does anyone know of him and what unit he was in?DRW

david r wilson July 6, 2010 at 1:55 pm

july 5 2010

Doug Evans January 16, 2012 at 4:55 am

I have had the privilege of visiting Peleliu in 1999. Of all the exotic places I have visited during my life, the day I spent on the island is what I remember more than anything. The island has not changed much since the war. Helmets, planes, bunkers weapons, radios, etc still lay scattered about the island. It is a mysterious place as it is so quiet now. Very few people live there, mostly caretakers. I only wish I would have known more about what happened there before the visit, but the visit was an unplanned privelege. The memorials there still stand in honor of the Americans who gave their lives in that place.

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