Sunday, March 30, 2014

Operation Greif, the Final German Deception

Otto Skorzeny Tries to Turn the Tide of World War II

Operation Greif
Joachim Peiper during the Ardennes Offensive. Note the signpost to Malmédy, site of a brutal German massacre of American prisoners.

Operation Greif was a well-known German false flag operation during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. Operation Greif was lead by the notorious Waffen SS commando, Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny was Hitler's private commando, someone who "got things done" that others couldn't do.

Operation Greif
Benito Mussolini freed from the Gran Sasso jailhouse

Skorzeny was already famous by this point in the war for organizing the jailbreak to spring Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini from imprisonment in September 1943. Skorzeny wasn't all talk - he personally flew a Storch light plane onto the mountaintop where the hotel was located, picked up the startled Mussolini as his accompanying troops held back the jailers, and then took off with Il Duce to bring Hitler's fallen crony back to Berlin. Skorzeny's other exploits during the war - and after - are legendary, and he is basically the father of all modern commando operatives.

Otto Skorzeny
Otto Skorzeny in Pomerania visiting the 500th SS Parachute Battalion, February 1945.

Skorzeny’s notoriety would be elevated even further with Operation Greif, though somewhat ironically it was one of his least successful operations. In this particular event, Hitler asked him personally at a meeting held on October 21, 1944 to help him turn the tide on the Western Front. Skorzeny was to organize English-speaking German troops so that they would infiltrate American forces and cause chaos.

Disguised Panther
Ersatz M10 (Pz.V Panther Ausf. G) of Pz. Brigade 150 - Malmedy, Ardenne, Belgium - Dec. '44. A German Panther, disguised to look like a US M10 tank destroyer.

Dressed as American MP’s (military police), some would cross behind American lines to sow discord and do whatever they could to bollix things up. This involved switching sign posts to direct columns the wrong way and spreading outlandish rumors about casualties and defeats to lower morale.

Operation Greif
A Panther tank given American markings as part of Operation Greif. There were so many tanks of different generations and makes floating around in the ETO that sometimes even tank veterans could get momentarily confused as to whose side a tank was on (as apparently happened at the Cologne Cathedral shootout). However, the German tanks masquerading as American in the Ardennes were quickly unmasked.

Contrary to popular perception, though, that was just a by-product of Operation Greif. The operation had a very concrete main task. Under a command designated the 150th Panzer Brigade, the main body of commandos was to seize a bridge or two over the River Meuse. This would enable Hitler's tanks to advance out of Germany and quickly take the key Allied port of Antwerp before American reserves could react. Some captured American equipment was available for the commandos to use to help the operation achieve success.

Operation Greif
False-flag tank used in Operation Greif

Furnished with uniforms and proper ID cards, Skorzeny’s commandos were armed with their deadliest weapon yet; accent-free English with which they went about their work to sabotage and terrorize at will. Skorzeny had his commandos spread the rumor that General Dwight Eisenhower was the target of their plans. This wreaked havoc on American communications as Eisenhower was confined in his chateau unable to visit the front lines and assess the situation for himself, thus hindering American operations towards Germany.

Operation Greif
Captured Operation Greif commando. The penalty for capture? Death by firing squad.

Skorzeny was no dummy. He knew the operation had a very small chance of any success, and his preparations confirmed this. There weren't many English speakers available, and very little captured American equipment. Actually, there was plenty of American equipment, but the fighting units found it better than German equipment and refused to surrender much of it. However, Skorzeny did what he could and actually got the operation rolling on time. For this subterfuge, Skorzeny earned the nicknames of “The Most Dangerous Man in Europe” and perhaps more menacingly “Scarface” due to his numerous battle scars.

Operation Greif
German saboteurs under arrest

The operation, for all its notoriety, had limited impact. The commandos were Germans, not Americans, and it wasn't all that difficult to tell them apart from real GI's who spoke current slang and usually hated authority. Many of the commandos had not been to America in years, and they were not caught up on current events there. It became a cliché in American depictions of the event for the inevitable unmasking of the saboteurs to be accomplished by getting false or evasive answers to questions such as "Who won the World Series last year" or "who plays centerfield for the Brooklyn Indians." That wasn't really necessary, as the commandos were fairly obvious to spot.

Operation Greif
The commandos about to be shot for being spies

It was a clever plan, and did fit into a larger German plan to forge Western currency to destabilize their economies and otherwise use spies to win the war. However, that was the problem for the participants in Operation Grief - since they were dressed in the enemy's uniform, they were indistinguishable from real spies and could be treated as such. The penalty for spies? Summary execution. Everybody understood that going in.

Operation Greif
German commando Gunther Billing in US Army fatigues as US Army MPs tie his hands behind him before facing the firing squad. Billing was one of a group of German commandos who infiltrated US lines during the Battle of the Ardennes (Dec 1944) wearing US Army uniforms.

Those Operation Greif participants caught by the Americans were stood up by real American MPs and shot. Skorzeny? He escaped to Spain in another daring maneuver as the war ended, barely reaching the coast of Spain after a long flight from Norway, and lived to a ripe old age.
German spy Gunther Billing being prepared for execution, 23 December 1944
A colorized version of the photo above that shows Gunther Billing being prepared for execution. 


Gleiwitz Incident

Alfred Naujocks Gleiwitz radio station
The SS Major and the station

A Nondescript Radio Station in the Middle of Nowhere

The radio station at Gleiwitz, Germany was nothing special. Its tower was erected on August 1, 1934 as Sendeturm Gleiwitz (Gleiwitz Radio Tower. The Reichssender Breslau (former Schlesische Funkstunde broadcasting corporation) of the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft radio network operated it. The tower was typical for its time, modelled on the Mühlacker radio transmitter, and was considered a big improvement for the broadcasting company. It replaced a smaller transmitter located a few streets over on Raudener Straße and went in service on 23 December 1935.

Normally, nobody would care about this tower, which but for one incident on one night while the world was a peace would have served a normal life and then no doubt have been taken down and scrapped, to be turned into razor blades. However, this radio tower is special, because it led to something on the order of 50 million or so deaths. And the only reason that happened is because it just so happened to be near the border with Poland.

A Hungry Man

Adolf Hitler was hungry, but not for his usual mostly vegetarian menu. He had gobbled up Austria with the Anschluss of 1938 and the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia the same year (followed up by what little remained of the country in 1939). What Hitler was hungry for was territory, or what he called Lebensraum ("living space"), and he was in a hurry.

He had given the Poles part of Czechoslovakia to help justify his own aggrandizement there, and he did not have a very high opinion of the Polish military. Hitler had long held the Untermensch ("inferior people") of Poland in contempt, and it seemed preposterous to him that the Poles should have adopted airs after World War I of being a military power. There were many ethnic Germans living under Polish rule after the redrawing of boundaries in Paris. In particular, the Germans coveted a slice of land known as the "Polish Corridor," a narrow parcel which physically divided Germany into two parts, separating the "homeland" of the Prussian military aristocracy from Berlin. The League of Nations had given the land to Poland following World War 1 in order to grant them access to the sea. Hitler intended to invade this area as well as the rest of Poland, but he knew that attacking without clear justification would upset the citizens of his country and amplify the repercussions from other nations.

Hitler Chamberlain Munich
Hitler gobbling up Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938

There was only one problem: the Poles hadn't done anything, and there hadn't been the groundwork laid carefully as by the Sudetenland ethnic Germans to justify "protecting" the ethnic German Poles. Sure, he had given ferocious speeches making claims that Germans living in Poland were the subjects of terrible persecution, just like he had about Czechoslovakia, but he needed a pretext. If nothing else, Adolf Hitler was all about legal pretexts. The Munich Pact with Neville Chamblerlain and the others had given him carte blanche in the earlier case, but the British and the French could not be counted upon to do the same regarding the Poles, because they actually took their defense guarantees to that country seriously.

What to do, what to do.

Operation Himmler

Hitler did what he usually did in similar situations: he turned to his Party comrade "old reliable Henry" ("Der Truer Heinrich"). Commander Heinrich Himmler of the SS conceptualized and set in motion a collection of deceptions designed to make war appear inevitable, an undertaking which he rather self-consciously code-named Operation Himmler. Operation Himmler was a series of contemplated operations to be undertaken as propaganda measures to pave the way for Germany’s invasion of Poland. The incident at Gleiwitz would be a particular operation within the larger Operation Himmler.

Heinrich Himmler Adolf Hitler Berghof
Himmler and Hitler went way back

Himmler turned to his cronies in the Gestapo and other branches of the German secret police, and together they worked up a plan. This operation would have to be quick and dirty, no more of the years-long hatching of a plot. That sort of thing was so 1938, and with Stalin in on things and eager for his cut, there was no time to wait. Various "incidents" would have to be manufactured. That is where an SS Major named Al comes in.

Operation Grandmother Died

SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Alfred Naujocks explained to writer Comer Clarke in 1958 that in the summer of 1939, apparently August 10, 1939, he was summoned to the Berlin office of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German secret police.

Alfred Naujocks Gleiwitz radio station
Alfred Naujocks and the Gleiwitz radio station

Naujocks’ meeting with Heydrich was startling in its anticipation of far-reaching events:
‘Heydrich told me ‘Within a month we shall be at war with Poland. The Führer is determined. But first we have to have something to go to war about. We’ve organized incidents in Danzig, along the East Prussian border with Poland, and along the German frontier. But there has to be something big and obvious.’’
Naujocks described how Heydrich strode over to a wall map of Eastern Europe and stabbed a finger at Gleiwitz:
‘This is where you come in. The idea is that six men and yourself will burst into Gleiwitz radio station, knock out the staff and broadcast a speech in Polish and German, attacking Germany and the Führer and announcing Poland’s intention of taking the disputed territories by force.’
Heydrich further told how a body, dressed in Polish uniform, was to be left on the radio station steps to ‘prove’ the Polish connection. The top secret operation at Gleiwitz was given a new code word: Grossmutter gestorben, (‘Grandmother died’). This was the least war-like codename of the entire Third Reich period, which usually had bombastic names such as Operation Barbarossa (invasion of the USSR) and Operation Götz von Berlichingen (air attack on the Russian Navy at Leningrad). However, it was most descriptive and a lot more accurate than the others.

The plan, thus, was set: they would invade Poland under a pretext, a "false flag" event. The next project was to damp down any outside interference. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had seen how worthless the Western security guarantees had been regarding the Czechs, and he was a little hungry himself. He had his foreign Minister, Molotov, tell German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop that they could do a deal. This was done speadily in Moscow in the Stalin/Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939. Stalin agreed to do to Poland what Hitler and (ironically) the Poles, along with the other surrounding nations, had done to Czechoslovakia - carve it up between them.

portrait of Hitler

The Wehrmacht already was concentrating their soldiers and war-making machines along the Polish border in preparation for an all-out attack. Given the pact with Stalin, Hitler was ready. He still wanted, though, that pretext, for whatever good it would do. He had a very legalistic mind at times, Adolf Hitler.

On 31 August, Naujocks went to Gleiwitz and waited by the 380-foot broadcasting tower with six other storm troopers. They were all dressed in Polish military uniforms, though they were most definitely German soldiers in Germany. The men just needed a delivery, one of ‘Konserve’ or ‘canned meat (goods)’ -- a German euphemism for expendable concentration camp convicts. SS agents showed up and dumped off the body of an unconscious man, one Franciszek Honiok. This was the canned meat.

Franciszek Honiok Gleiwitz radio station
Franciszek Honiok, the Silesian killed by the Germans on Aug. 31, 1939 for the Gleiwitz false flag operation, and the first victim of World War II.

Honiok was a nobody, a simple 43-year-old Catholic farmer. He was a Silesian known for sympathizing with his people, the Poles. The SS had arrested him the day before, on August 30, 1939, in the Silesian village of Polomia basically for being annoying. He appears to have been selected because of his involvement in a number of local revolts against German rule in Silesia, a border region spanning present day Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic.According to his surviving family in Poland, Honiok identified strongly with Silesia and Poland, so he was a bit of a rabble-rouser - and Germans hated people like that. There were many such protesters, it could have been anybody, unluckily for Honiok it was him.

Franciszek Honiok The Gleiwitz Case
The Gleiwitz Case (Der Fall Gleiwitz) is director Gerhard Klein’s 1961 version

The Germans no doubt had a good laugh later about having used this pain-in-the-butt fellow who was so vocal about his people's "rights" to steal their land for good (they thought). Similar tales are told about the German bigwigs making snarky comments about some proposed victims during the June 1934 Night of the Long Knives. However, Honiok had the last laugh, in a way: at least his death entered the history books, unlike so many millions of other victims of the war and Holocaust who disappeared without a trace. Honiok’s death has never been marked with any sort of remembrance in Poland and his burial site is unknown.

The SS men hastily changed Honiok into Polish clothing and carried him over to the station building at about 8:00 pm. A doctor had administered a lethal injection before Franz at the concentration camp before he was transported to the site, but it had yet to take full effect when the SS men riddled him with pistol rounds on the ground outside the radio station. They then left him as conspicuously as possible, splayed across the entrance steps. Subtlety had never been a German attribute. It was all done very coldly and in such a way that even an independent autopsy would verify that the man had been shot while alive and wearing a Polish uniform on German soil - which was all very much true. However, how Honiok got that way most definitely was not as it may have seemed.

Naujocks and his operatives then entered the Gleiwitz radio station and promptly seized control of the equipment, shut down the regular signal, and powered up the emergency transmitter. The microphone was given to a Polish-speaking operative, who read a prepared speech about three minutes long, urging Poles to rise up and help in the invasion of Germany. At the end of the transmission, the officers fired their pistols repeatedly for the benefit of anyone who might be listening, and departed.

During the night a handful of other such incidents were executed elsewhere along the border, using other "canned goods" from German prisons to create the illusion that Polish soldiers were attacking German troops. Almost immediately after the “Gleiwitz incident,” every German radio station, in a carefully coordinated move, broadcast the words used by the “invaders,” and claimed that bodies of Polish regular soldiers who were killed in the incident remained at the scene. There have been rumors that some of the German radio stations broadcast the "news" before it actually happened, but that does not seem to have been the case.

Hitler is Shocked, Shocked at this Miscarriage of Justice

The following day the bodies of the dead prisoners were presented to the press and to police as evidence of the Poles' organized aggression against the Germans. Hitler pompously addressed the German Army with carefully amplified outrage:
"The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms. Germans in Poland are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great Power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich."In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honour and the vital rights of reborn Germany with hard determination. I expect that every soldier, mindful of the great traditions of eternal German soldiery, will ever remain conscious that he is a representative of the National-Socialist Greater Germany. Long live our people and our Reich!"
The German military attacked on that very morning, with the old battleship Schleswig-Holstein firing shots well before Hitler's speech. Adolf Hitler used the Gleiwitz ruse as his excuse to declare war on Poland later that day, September 1, 1939, initiating World War II. Addressing the Reichstag, he stated that he was outraged that the violation of German territory by “Polish Army hooligans had finally exhausted our patience.”

Invasion of Poland 1939
Hitler addressing his loyal lackeys

British, French and other European governments were notified that Poland had started the war. It took them a while to figure out what was going on, and England did not honor its guarantee to Poland until two days later. Hitler’s plan, while it fooled nobody, at least ensured that the German army would gain vital hours as ministers argued over whether any nation could be so evil as to concoct such a scheme. They ultimately concluded, apparently so

Invasion of Poland 1939
Time Magazine, September 25, 1939
After waiting a decent interval of a couple of weeks, long enough for the Germans to draw in the Polish reserves, Stalin attacked Poland from the east to get his share. Within a week of the attack, Germany claimed victory over the Polish Corridor, and the Polish capital of Warsaw was captured in just over a month. That was it for 1939 aside from a few bombing raids and naval actions, such as the cornering of the pocket battleship Graf Spee in the River Platte.

The Fortunes of War Change

Events moved along, and German fortunes rose and fell. Five years later, in November 1944, as things were starting to look really dicey for the Germans, Alfred Naujocks deserted his post and surrendered himself to Allied forces. He was held as a suspected war criminal, and he spent the remaining few months of the war in detention. Six years after playing his part in the deceit at Gleiwitz he testified at the Nuremberg trials, where he retold the events of that world-changing evening in 1939:
"On or about 10 August 1939 the Chief of the Sipo and SD, Heydrich, personally ordered me to simulate an attack on the radio station near Gleiwitz, near the Polish border, and to make it appear that the attacking force consisted of Poles. 
Heydrich said: 'Actual proof of these attacks of the Poles is needed for the foreign press, as well as for German propaganda purposes.'""Heydrich said, 'In order to carry out this attack, report to Muller for "Canned Goods."' I did this and gave Muller instructions to deliver the man near the radio station. 
I received this man and had him laid down at the entrance to the station. He was alive, but he was completely unconscious. I tried to open his eyes. I could not recognize by his eyes that he was alive, only by his breathing."
"We seized the radio station as ordered, broadcast a speech of 3 to 4 minutes over an emergency transmitter, fired some pistol shots, and left."

Alfred Naujocks Nuremburg
Alfred Naujocks testifying at Nuremburg

After the Nuremberg trials were closed, Alfred Naujocks sold his story to the media and became a businessman in Hamburg. He was later suspected of participating in ODESSA-- an organized effort to smuggle SS officers out of the country to avoid prosecution-- but his guilt was never determined. He died in the 1960s, though there is uncertainty regarding the exact year of his death (a common issue with Germans fleeing Germany after the war). Because it was by his hand that the deception at Gleiwitz was ultimately carried out, Alfred Naujocks has received a particularly grim moniker amongst many historians: he was The Man Who Started the War. This is somewhat unfair, but he did kill Honiok in cold blood, and that is enough to remove any vestige of sympathy we may feel for him.


The powers that be came and went, Hitler wound up dead in a bunker by his own hand and Stalin died in his sleep, perhaps poisoned. The Gleiwitz radio station, though, went on. Renamed Gliwice after the war, the town used it, from 4 October 1945, until the inauguration of the new transmitter in Ruda Śląska in 1955, for medium wave broadcasting of the Polish Public Broadcasting Company. After 1955, it was used as a jammer against medium wave transmitters broadcasting Western Polish-language programmes, e.g. Radio Free Europe. This radio transmitter had quite a history, always being used against the Western powers in one way or another.

Following a decision of the Gliwice City Council taken on 2 December 2004, the radio tower was shut down for good and became a museum on radio history and visual arts, located in the former radio transmitter building.

Gleiwitz radio station
Gleiwitz Radio Station, now a museum

Thus the station, the cause of more death and destruction than any other site in human history not only was untouched by the savagery of the war that ebbed and flowed across it, was not only untouched by any damage, but it has been preserved for posterity when all similar stations have long since been scrapped.

Honiok, meanwhile, the footnote within a footnote within a footnote, has not been completely forgotten. While his relatives understandably have learned from Honiok's experience and others that silence is usually golden in that part of the world, Pawel Honiok, his nephew and only remaining relative, has said:
“Nobody has ever wanted to talk about what happened, it’s always been secret. The Germans were in control of us until 1945 and then the Russians took over and they had no interest in digging up the truth about what had happened back at the start of the war. Even my own family were too afraid to talk about it when I was a child, and it was many, many years before we started to hear anything at all about what happened to him.”
“They never even accepted he was a victim of the war because he was killed on the evening of August 31 and, officially, the war did not begin until September 1,” Pawel Honiok said. “But now, people accept he was the first person killed in that war.”

And there you have it - the man who inadvertently and certainly unwillingly started World War wasn't even considered part of it until recently.

Gleiwitz radio tower
Gliwice radio tower today


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Invasion of Peleliu

Peleliu Palau
"Weary and exhausted after the tough battle for Hill 200 Near Peleliu Airport, this Leatherneck sits down amidst the battle rubble and weeps. According to the latest reports, the Marines are making steady progress on the Island, although heavy fighting continues." (Original caption) 26 Sep 1944 Peleliu.
Everybody remembers the Greatest Hits of World War II: Normandy, Stalingrad, Iwo Jima, Dunkirk. Those names have been engraved into the national and world consciousness and likely will never be erased. Then, there are places like Tarawa and Peleliu.

Peleliu Palau
A marine on Peleliu after several days of endless fighting.
You don't win wars by just rambling from one epic confrontation to another. You win them by slogging through forgotten pest-holes that nobody cared about before the war, and nobody will care about after the war. If you lose a leg on Omaha Beach, you're a venerated hero and you go back every year to be amongst the Presidents and the Prime Ministers; if you lose a leg on Peleliu, well, you were in some damn battle and lost a leg. Nobody will be giving speeches on the tarmac of Peleliu airfield a hundred years after the battle there, and that's a fact.

Peleliu Palau
Chow time on Peleliu, 1944
Peleliu is part of the nation of Palau, which nobody in 1944 had ever heard of, either. Admiral Nimitz was taking his island-hopping campaign westerly while General MacArthur camp up from the south. MacArthur's strategy had the advantage of being mostly a land-based campaign, with only a few hops from one large island to another. The capture of Peleliu would, in theory, provide some flank support for MacArthur's plan to advance to the Philippines.

The first wave of LVT transports moved toward Peleliu invasion beaches, Palau Islands, 15 Sep 1944; note the bombardment lines consisted of LCIs, cruisers, and battleships; photo taken by a USS Honolulu aircraft pilot.
Admiral Nimitz's plan promised a quicker advance along a chain of small islands but put extreme pressure on his marines, who were forced to storm one gloomy beach after another. Ultimately, Nimitz and MacArthur got their men to the same destination at the same time, and each left an awful lot of young men in jungles strewn across the Pacific. Peleliu was just one stopping point for Nimitz that led to another. It was quickly forgotten by just about everybody except the families of those who stayed there forever.

Peleliu Palau
Marines advance at Peleliu over the limestone cliffs
The 1st Marine Division had gone through the tortures of Hell on Guadalcanal, losing more men to sickness and disease than to the Japanese jungle fighters. That had led to the Battle of Cape Gloucester, which also was no picnic. What it all meant was that the division only activated in February 1941, was well-seasoned once it was put on the barges to hit another beach, this time at Peleliu.

Peleliu Palau
A marine at Peleliu. The Battle of Peleliu was codenamed Operation Stalemate II.
The Japanese had given up their plans for the advance by September 1944 and were forming island hedgehogs. The strategy had a name - "endurance engagements" - and what it entailed was putting a bunch of guys on some rock and telling them they were on their own, and that they could either keep the rock or jump into the sea, but either way they weren't coming home. If you surrendered, you might as well never return to Japan, where you would be called a traitor and a coward. So, almost nobody did.

If they did somehow survive the battle, one way or the other, they would become pariahs at home and be shunned by everyone. Even if you simply lost a battle through sheer chance and events outside your control, such as Admiral Nagumo at Midway, you would become toxic and ultimately be sent to some rock to "command" and wait for the Marines and the battleships to show up and signal your doom. Since surrender was inimical to the Japanese martial spirit, this didn't leave a lot of choices. Fighting desperate men with no fall-back position is one of the most difficult battles possible, and this is what the 1st Marine Division was facing. Again.

Peleliu Palau
Marines in a hospital on Guadalcanal after being wounded in the Battle of Peleliu. Battle of Peleliu WW II 9-15-1944--10-15-1944 The battle was officially known as Operation Stalemate II but the survivors still call it The Forgotten Battle. It was one of the last big Pacific battles of World War II and one of the bloodiest. Even the names associated with this small coral strip of land in the Palau islands sound hostile and discordant:
The battle was officially known as Operation Stalemate II, but the survivors still call it The Forgotten Battle. It was one of the last big Pacific battles of World War II because the Japanese still thought they had a chance, and also one of the bloodiest. Even the names associated with this small coral strip of land in the Palau islands sound hostile and discordant: Bloody Nose Ridge, the Pocket, Five Sisters, Five Brothers or the China Wall.

Peleliu Palau invasion
Aiding an injured comrade.
Colonel Kunio Nakagawa - the Japanese didn't even send a General or Admiral to lead at Peleliu, even they thought it was a nothing in the vast expanse of the Pacific - based his defenses on Umurbrogol. This was a classic Japanese defensive strategy, the mountain riddled with 500 limestone caves and mine shafts that gave the defenders protection from the inevitable naval bombardment that preceded every US landing. The engineers had built them up a bit with steel doors and such to make the "fortresses," but everybody involved knew their real ultimate purpose: as crypts for the dead.

Peleliu Palau
September 15, 1944 – Battle of Peleliu begins as the United States Marine Corps' 1st Marine Division and the United States Army's 81st Infantry Division hit White and Orange beaches under heavy fire from Japanese infantry and artillery
The marines came ashore in the usual way, leaving their collection point at Pavuvu near Guadalcanal on September 4, 1944.

Peleliu Palau
Marines assaulting Peleliu, the smoke is from destroyed landing craft.
A bunch of battleships and cruisers softened up the island beginning on September 12, and on 15 September 1944, the landings began. They were firing 16-inch shells, which made a lot of noise but didn't bother the defenders too much, bottled up in their limestone caves on the 6 square mile island.

Peleliu Palau
We Remember Donald Mellins, KIA on Peleliu, 1944, one of many who perished.
The main Peleliu airstrip was a good, hard-surfaced field, capable of launching long-range fighter-bombers against the Philippines and protecting naval vessels in the vicinity. Six miles long and two miles wide, Peleliu has a rugged terrain. Like many Pacific atolls, it has a layer of thin soil laid atop coral and limestone. What that means for practical military purposes is that it is difficult to dig trenches for cover, and you stand a good chance of getting huge gouges in your extremities when you "hit the dirt." It also can make burying the dead an issue - and that did become an issue.

The only thing worth having on Peleliu was the airstrip. [Source: "Killing the Rising Sun: How America Vanquished World War II Japan"] 
The tree-covered Umurbrogol ridges lie about 1000 yards from the beaches. They form a series of low, jagged peaks along the island's midsection, effectively bisecting it. After watching the US Marines debark on a string of beaches near the vital airfield, the Japanese in their limestone caves got down to business. The defenders opened up their steel doors and started blasting away with hidden artillery that the naval spotters couldn't have spotted.

Peleliu Palau

A number of landing craft were hit, and many marines had to get ashore in full battle gear through sharp coral in deep water with the Japanese firing at them. It wasn't fun at all, but the landing was a success and a 2-mile beachhead was taken.

Peleliu Palau
Marine Corsairs on Peleliu.
After that, it was the usual, grinding exploitation and then the mop-up operation, moving steadily inland while looking over your shoulder for snipers and hitting the deck when artillery rounds whistled in. Taking the airfield on the second day, the Marines then turned toward the mountain. Now with air support from Marine F4U Corsairs operating from the airfield, the island was secure, but the marines had to stop the deadly enfilade fire from the mountain.

Peleliu Palau
Sherman tanks on the prowl at Peleliu.
Since air attack against mountainsides is extremely difficult, the only effective way to do that was a step-by-step advance on the ground from cave to cave. This became known as the battle for "The Point," and it turned into hand-to-hand combat.

Peleliu Palau
Typical hidden Japanese defensive artillery on Peleliu.
Even after the Point, the island still wasn't suppressed. Further north, the surviving Japanese regrouped behind a hill later called "Bloody Nose Ridge." The marines were taking so many casualties and became so over-extended that they occasionally ran out of ammunition and had to resort to fighting off the Japanese with knives and fists.

Peleliu Palau
1st Marines boarding ships to go to Peleliu
The island wasn't pacified until the end of November when Nakagawa finally threw in the towel and committed Hara-kiri, something he no doubt knew all along was the only way out.

Peleliu Palau
Wreckage, decades later
Strangely enough, even that wasn't the end of things. Unbeknownst to the Americans, the Japanese remained on the island in the caves and the jungle. Not until April 22, 1947, did they finally surrender after years of living off the land.

Invasion Peleliu Palau 1944
General Lewis "Chesty" Puller at his command post during The Battle of Peleliu, September 1944
The 1st Marine Division suffered over 6500 casualties and was out of action until the following April, while the 81st Infantry Division which came along later (the standard practice) suffered 3300 casualties.

Peleliu Palau
Marines of the 1st Marine Division in the Peleliu airfield standing next to smashed Japanese tanks Type 97 Ha-Go, Sept 1944.

Peleliu Palau invasion
First wave of the Marines.

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion

Peleliu Palau invasion
Japanese headquarters at Peleliu today.

Japanese Cemetery

One last thought: the graves of the roughly 10,200 Japanese soldiers and support personnel on Peleliu are unmarked and their locations unknown. Many of the Japanese were simply sealed in caves and bypassed, left to die. There supposedly is a mass grave of Japanese somewhere on the island, and all that is known about its location stems from a random 11 January 1945 map that was found at a small U.S. Navy Construction Battalion ("Seabee") museum in Port Hueneme, Calif with the notation "Jap Cemetery." The map is crude and has that notation in the middle of the island, without other identifying information.

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko place a wreath at a memorial for U.S. troops on Peleliu on April 9, 2015. (Pool Photo)
Since its finding, a few other documents also have been found referencing the site. A US Marine Report from December 12, 1944, says that a decent burial should be provided for Japanese officers Major General Gonjiro Murai and Colonel Kunio Nakagawa, who both had committed suicide. Apparently, there was a mass burial by a bulldozer of other Japanese near Nakagawa's grave, which was marked in 1944, but now also is lost. Some logs were placed as boundary markers for the Japanese cemetery. Vegetation grows quickly in the tropics, and trying to find anything in the jungle is extremely difficult.

There are two prime suspected locations: an antitank ditch on the southwest coast of Peleliu, and a marshy area, the one marked on the map, on the opposite coast not far from Bloody Nose Ridge. The map is crude, and it may simply refer to a pre-war cemetery for all anyone knows. To date, the Japanese graves have not been found. All of the US war dead have been removed from the island, though the site of the original US cemetery remains.