Landing in Hell
The Pyrrhic Victory of the First Marine Division on Peleliu, 1944
Casemate Press, Havertown, Pennsylvania, 2018, 208 pages
Book Review published on: March 1, 2019
Peter Margaritis, a military history author and lecturer, continues his remarkable study of World War II with an examination of Operation Stalemate II—the United States invasion to capture the Japanese island of Peleliu in September 1944. The seizure of Peleliu was part of a larger offensive campaign known as Operation Forager, which was designed to neutralize Japanese bases in the central Pacific, support Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s drive to return to the Philippines, and establish bases for the strategic air campaign against the Japanese home islands. The most costly amphibious invasion in American history remains a forgotten battle largely due to timing as MacArthur’s epic return to the Philippines was underway and heavy fighting was taking place in Europe.
Landing in Hell provides insightful lessons on operational warfare and leadership. Margaritis describes the unrealistic assessment of Maj. Gen. William Rupertus that the operation would only take two or three days and that resistance would initially be moderate but brief. Rupertus simply ignored revised intelligence reports that eight thousand to ten thousand entrenched Japanese soldiers defended the island or the fact that it took three divisions nearly a month to take the smaller and less rugged island of Saipan. Margaritis is equally critical of Rupertus’s unwillingness to rotate his regiments for fresh Army 81st Division regiments despite experiencing significant loses within the first two days of the operation. Western Landing Force Commander Maj. Gen. Roy Geiger finally forced Rupertus to rotate his regiments or face relief of command. Operational issues like logistic shortages, poor planning preparation, Naval Gunfire Support debate, communication challenges, and poor intelligence negatively impacted Marine forces fighting on Peleliu.
Japanese resistance did not end with declaring Peleliu secured on 27 November 1944. Margaritis states that Japanese soldiers holed up in caves remained a nuisance on the island for months. As late as 18 January 1945, a group of some seventy-five Japanese soldiers who had initially escaped Peleliu to neighboring islands failed in their attempt to infiltrate and retake the island. In April 1947, rumors of Japanese soldiers roaming Peleliu resulted in Marine patrols that captured a straggler, Superior Seaman Kiyokazu Tsuchida. Tsuchida and Japanese Rear Adm. Michio Sumikawa assisted the American garrison on Peleliu in convincing the remaining group of thirty plus Japanese soldiers to surrender by 22 April 1947.
Landing in Hell goes beyond the traditional description of a battle in providing an in depth analysis of the battle in chapter four. Margaritis describes the historical debate of whether the invasion was necessary. Most historians that have assessed the Battle of Peleliu concur with Adm. Halsey’s pre-invasion assessment that taking the Palaus just to use their airfields would not justify the cost in taking them. Adm. Nimitz may have held similar feelings but went along with the invasion for possible political reasons or an unwillingness to cancel the operation at the last minute.
A significant factor that led to the high casualty rate was the Umurbrogols, a coral hill mass comprised of many pinnacles, sharp ridges, sheer cliffs, honeycomb with caves that provided defending Japanese forces protection, observation, and the ability to maneuver and mass without Marine acknowledgement. Gen. Roy Geiger’s after action report acknowledged that every conceivable and practicable method of reducing these positions, which was available, was tried. The only solution was the slow, methodical, and relatively costly operation for their reduction.
The strength of Landing in Hell: The Pyrrhic Victory of the First Marine Division on Peleliu, 1944 is Margaritis’s ability to capture the detail and brutality of the battle from the perspective of senior military leaders, commanders on the ground, and the common Marine infantrymen. This book is a great choice for anyone interested in Marine Corps history or World War II in the Pacific. Its leadership and operational warfare lessons make it a great choice for professional reading and inclusion on a military reading list.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas