After landing on Peleliu, it quickly became clear to the First Marine Division that this battle would be far worse than anything they'd faced up to now. The Japanese strategy had shifted from human wave attacks to "defense in depth" warfare, with the goal of bleeding the American attackers as heavily as possible until the last Japanese soldier was dead. Instead of rushing at the Marines in Banzai charges, the Japanese waited for them to come within range of carefully constructed, mutually supportive gun pits, many of which were camouflaged to the point of invisibility.
"As the Marines were coming in, they didn't know where all that fire was coming from," says historian Donald L. Miller, author of 'D-Days in the Pacific' and a consultant on HBO's miniseries. "Their objective was to take the airfield, and as they made a mad dash across it, they began to see that the heavy fire was coming down at them from the hills above the airfield: Bloody Nose Ridge. The guns came out of caves and then disappeared back inside them. At that point, the Marines knew they were in for one hell of a fight."
The tactical challenges were only compounded by the horrifying conditions the men had to endure. With temperatures well above 100 degrees, the coral surface of the island felt hot as a stovetop. At night, the Japanese would infiltrate American positions, at times sneaking in to finish off wounded Marines. The stench of death was everywhere.
"In the coral, you couldn't have proper sanitation by digging holes," Miller says. "There were no privies. The Japanese artillery was chopping people up, leaving body parts and pieces of flesh everywhere. There were huge flies, and everything stunk. On top of that, it was an aimless battle. On Guadalcanal, it was clear that Australia was at stake. But what did Peleliu mean in the big picture? The men didn't know what they were fighting for, and it really got reduced to a survival fight. The Marines developed a deep personal hatred of the Japanese, who were killing stretcher bearers and mutilating prisoners before they killed them. So they started killing without regret or remorse. They began to want to kill."
Yet the worst fighting on Peleliu was still to come, as the Marines prepared to march into the central coral ridges of the island and root out the enemy in the winding box canyons known as the Umurbrogol.
"The guns came out of caves and then disappeared back inside them. At that point, the Marines knew they were in for one hell of a fight."