The Secret of the South Pacific: A Guide to Palau

World War II Revisited: Palau's Historic Present
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Today it's just a footnote in military history. But the bloody 1944 amphibious assault by the First Marine Division of Japanese—held in Peleliu, a six-mile-long island that is today part of the western Pacific nation of Palau—was among the most horrific and deadly battles of World War II. Marine commander William H. Rupertus had anticipated a quick two- or three-day mop-up operation of an island long cut off from supply lines to Tokyo. But the 11,000 Japanese soldiers on the island had burrowed into a honeycomb of caves and tunnels in the island's mountainous interior, and they fought with a samurai-like no-surrender tenacity. The results: a ghastly, brutal struggle that lasted two months and claimed 6,000 U.S. casualties, and the lives of all but a few dozen of the Japanese. Historical perspective makes the death toll all the more grisly: the battle has been deemed largely unnecessary, carried out more for reasons of glory and career-building than for military strategy.
Because Peleliu and the surrounding areas of Palau are only sparsely populated today, a rich legacy of war sites and relics remains, many of them hardly disturbed in the intervening 57 years. Visitors today can crawl over the carcasses of Sherman tanks, crashed F4U Corsairs and Mitsubishi Zeroes, and into many of the Japanese tunnels and storage caves still littered with saki bottles, live grenades, rusting cannons—and, in some cases, human bones. (Just a few years ago, a crashed Japanese plane was discovered on a nearby Palauan island with an intact skeleton in the cockpit, dog tags still dangling from its neck.) Plane buffs who don't mind getting wet can don snorkel, mask, and fins for close-up views of a Corsair, a Mitsubishi Zero, and two Japanese "Jake" seaplanes, all ditched in shallow water. Scuba divers can choose from dozens of shipwrecks, both Japanese and American, at depths ranging from 15 to 125 feet.

Japanese pillboxes guarding a narrow entrance to the harbor of Koror, Palau's capital city, can also be explored. Ron Leidich, a local resident who likes to explore the jungle in search of war relics, came across the first pillbox on a densely vegetated uninhabited island only a mile from town. On a dank interior wall was scrawled a poem in Korean, apparently by a slave of the Japanese army who was abandoned by his retreating masters. "Mother and father, my heart is thinking of you and my village," he wrote as he waited helplessly to die.
A small opening in this first pillbox, too narrow for a gun, mystified the ever-curious Leidich. Surmising that it might be used for signaling another pillbox with a light, he plotted the sightlines across the narrow inlet to the opposite shore, then hacked his way into the jungle to the calculated spot. Sure enough, there was another pillbox. Similar sleuthing turned up a third. None had been seen by human eyes since 1945.
More accessible war relics in Pelelie and Palau include an overgrown road built by the Japanese to a gun emplacement and small headquarters building, and the decayed Japanese headquarters building on Peleliu. The coral airstrip built by the Japanese and later used by the invading Americans still remains and is used regularly by the one airplane operating in Palau these days, a 30-year-old single-engine Piper Cherokee Six. Peleliu and the nearby island of Anguar are sprinkled with memorials and gravestones, mostly Japanese, which still see the occasional visiting relatives who decorate the memorials with flowers and pictures.
Practically Speaking
Palau's main town of Koror is a two-hour Continental Airlines jet flight from Guam, which is itself eight hours from Honolulu. Peleliu is a short hop from Koror in the Cherokee Six, which makes regular flights. (Flying over the Rock Islands, a labyrinth of unpopulated limestone islands between Koror and Peliliu, will certainly be the scenic highlight of your trip.)
Unlike some of the other better-known battle sites like Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima, Peleliu and Palau are rarely visited by World War II buffs and have no official war museums. Local tour operators such as Sam's Tours in Koror (samstour@palaunet.com; 011-680-488-1471) can take you to the better-known sites. Also in Koror, WWII buff Ron Leidich runs Planet Blue Sea Kayak Tours (planet blue@palaunet.com, 011-680-488-1062) and can take you to any number of obscure sites via kayak. Wilderness Travel (800-368-2794, www.wildernesstravel.com) also runs an 11-day sea kayaking trip in Palau led by Ron that includes visits to many of the historical sites.


David Noland is a full-time professional freelance writer specializing in adventure travel, sports, and science. His book, Travels Along the Edge , published in 1997 by Vintage Books, is now in its fourth printing.

Published: 7 Jun 2001 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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