The First Marine Division left Melbourne, Australia in September 1943, rested and prepared for their next great test - this one in the rain-soaked jungles of Cape Gloucester, at the northwestern tip of New Britain.
Gaining control of the airfield at Cape Gloucester would allow land-based U.S. planes to attack the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, pummeling the enemy's center of air power in the South Pacific. "The initial idea was to take Rabaul," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries, "and destroy Japanese airpower in the Southwest Pacific. No army without an umbrella of air cover could hope to prevail in this part of the world."
The Gods of War were already failing the Japanese. In the first 21 months of the war in the South Pacific, Japan lost 26,000 planes - almost a third of its total air force. More importantly, Japan lost thousands of highly-trained, experienced pilots. As American forces closed in on Rabaul, the Japanese high command became increasingly desperate. In an effort to rally his pilots, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, flew to the Solomons in mid-April, 1943. Admiral Chester Nimitz's code-breakers leaned of his intentions, and Nimitz ordered an attack. "They ambushed him with P-38 fighters," says Miller, "and the last they saw of Yamamoto, his plane was on fire and spinning into the jungle. This was a direct assassination attempt, but Nimitz never debated what to do. When he got word that Yamamoto intended to fly to the Solomons, he sent out the order to go get him." When the First Marine Division landed on Cape Gloucester in late December, the men found themselves in a place even more miserable than Guadalcanal. It was the height of the monsoon season, and the thick jungle had been turned into a nearly impassable swamp. It rained relentlessly, and the branches of interlocking trees blocked out the sky, turning the jungle into a moist green cave. "It became a battle, not so much against the enemy, as against the jungle, a battle to survive and stay sane," says Miller. "The heat and humidity built up tremendously under the canopy of trees. The men began to feel trapped by nature - claustrophobic - and there was a lot of rot on the jungle floor - all the detritus of war, including the unburied bodies of the enemy. So it was just a stinking stew, and this, and the high rates of disease - dengue, malaria, typhus - drove many guys crazy. The men called it 'going Asiatic.'"
It was found that the further a mentally sick man was moved from his comrades, the worse his symptoms became, so the treatment strategy became a brief period of rest followed by a return to one's unit. "They never got this under control during the war," Miller says. "There was a hospital facility in Banika that was undermanned and didn't have nearly enough combat psychiatrists. Mentally broken men who were considered violent - a threat to themselves or other patients - were actually put in cages."
The Marines prevailed, however, and accomplished their objective of seizing the airfield, while in an earlier operation, Allied forces captured Bougainville, in the northern Solomons, and built three airfields. With Rabaul effectively isolated, the American high command decided to bypass it and let the large enemy garrison there "wither on the vine."
But there was no relief for the battle-weary Marines of the First Division. After leaving the "Green Hell" of Cape Gloucester, they were sent to a rest camp on desolate Pavuvu, a former British coconut plantation filled with land crabs, snakes and giant fruit bats that came out at night and fought with the rats in the palm trees above the Marine's tents. While the men of First Division worked to make Pavuvu habitable, they awaited replacements from the States and the orders that would send them back into the war, to a place, it turned out, few of them had ever heard of: A coral atoll known as Peleliu.
"It became a battle, not so much against the enemy, as against the jungle, a battle to survive and stay sane."
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