When the last of the First Marine Division departed New Britain in May of 1944, any man who expected another pleasant leave in Melbourne was sorely disappointed. Instead of repairing to a grateful city, the Marines arrived on Pavuvu, an abandoned coconut plantation in the Russell Islands, northwest of Guadalcanal. Fruit and foliage rotted in the tropical heat, filling the air with an unearthly stench.
"Pavuvu was a godforsaken place, infested with land crabs, enormous fruit bats, and rats the size of small rabbits," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "There were no paved roads, no buildings, no electricity, and no fresh water. The Marines had to build a rest camp from scratch, on top of this mat of decay from the un-harvested coconuts. It took almost three months of hard labor to make the place livable."
In the Pacific Theater at the time, two commanders had embarked on separate strategies of re-conquest. Adm. Chester Nimitz and his Marines advanced through the Central Pacific toward mainland Japan, while Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur drove up the coast of New Guinea, determined to retake the Philippines and liberate his former soldiers, who had been prisoners of the Japanese since the spring of 1942.
After months on Pavuvu, the First Division left for its next combat assignment: a heavily defended coral atoll called Peleliu, 2,100 miles to the north. There the division was assigned to take an enemy airfield McArthur insisted he needed to cover the flank of his advance toward the Philippine island of Leyte.
As the Marines approached Peleliu, however, Adm. William "Bull" Halsey sent a top-secret message to Nimitz. "While conducting softening-up carrier raids on the Philippines and nearby islands, Halsey had downed 500 Japanese planes and met unexpectedly light resistance," says Miller. "He believed Peleliu should be bypassed. It posed no threat to McArthur." But with D-Day looming, and assurances from the Marine commander in charge of the operation that the battle for Peleliu would be "tough but short," Nimitz refused to call back the amphibious force.
"It was," says Miller, "a tragically unnecessary operation, and one of the worst strategic and intelligence blunders of the Pacific war. The Navy had no sense of the wicked ruggedness of the terrain: razor-sharp cliffs and coral canyons that stood at 90 degree angles." Reconnaissance missions had been flown over the island, but thick vegetation covered all but a few of the coral ridges. Most of the Japanese defenders were hidden in natural and man-made caves in these coral hills. "Halsey had said he didn't want 'another Tarawa,' but that's exactly what he got."
So, when the Marines landed on the beaches of Peleliu, they kicked a hornet's nest of concealed enemy positions. Fire rained down from the coral ridges at the center of the island, known as the Umurbrogol, and the "tough but fast" battle the men of the First Marine Division expected became one of the most savagely fought campaigns of World War II, a close-quarter slaughter.
"The Navy had no sense of the wicked ruggedness of the terrain: razor-sharp cliffs and coral canyons that stood at 90 degree angles."