June 11, 2024

Peleliu 1944: Hell in The Pacific

US Marines come ashore at Peleliu under intense fore from Japanese defenders

Following the trail of famed Australian war photographer and cameraman, Damien Parer, we explore the jungles of Peleliu and awaken some restless ghosts.

Just as the morning sun began to bake the sand and rubble beaches of tiny Peleliu, two divisions of US Marines set off from their ships toward shore in waves of motorised landing craft. Intelligence had told them to expect only moderate resistance, but they were in for the surprise of their lives.

A furious naval and air bombardment had preceded their arrival, setting the entire southern end of the 37 square mile island ablaze. Their objective was the airfield, already obliterated by previous attacks, just a few hundred metres from the shore. 

Arriving at low tide to make hidden obstacles and traps more visible near the shore, many of the lumbering, vulnerable vehicles then proceeded to become stuck on the fringing reef. 

Unknown to the arriving young Marines, the Japanese defenders had meticulously prepared caves, bunkers and dugouts that had largely withstood the bombardment. Inside these impervious defences were machine guns and cannons that immediately opened fire as soon as the approaching vehicles were in range and continued as the hapless Marines threw themselves onto the sand.

What was anticipated to take less than a week, dragged on for more than two months, inflicting devastating casualties on both sides.

When the final stragglers and holdouts were eliminated, some 15,000 men from both sides were dead. The Japanese knew there were no reinforcements coming and were committed to a do-or-die effort. Under the scorching tropical sun, on jagged coral rocks completely devoid of shade, men resorted to unimaginable savagery in their attempt to annihilate each other. 

Deprived of water, shade and relief for days on end amid the stench of death and under constant enemy fire, many young Marines simply cracked. Some cried and yelled so badly they had to be quickly silenced by their comrades so as not to give away their positions. Others, at their wits’ end, simply shot themselves. 

Today, as I wander the remnants of the battlefield with Des Matsutaro from Peleliu Adventures, I find the landscape still littered with the detritus of war after almost 80 years. What's more, I find it impossible to imagine the carnage that took place in my midst. Sturdy trees now grow up through the carcases of tanks and armoured vehicles, jungle vines enmesh the skeletal remains of rugged, concrete and steel buildings and bunkers.  Vine-covered caves, both natural and hand-hewn, connected by a clever network of tunnels, dot the ridge that so bedevilled the Marines, raining hellfire on them as they stormed the heights now bear such ominous names as 'Bloody Nose Ridge' and 'Death Valley".

The airfield remains to this day, utilised by small commuter aircraft from the main islands of Palau to the north. As I write this, the US military has returned to this tranquil strategic outpost and embarked on a 5-month project to upgrade the airstrip. Heavy machinery has returned to Peleliu to do battle with the tenacious undergrowth that has sought to reclaim the island. The finished airfield will be wider, longer and sealed, ready to receive heavy military aircraft. While I don’t know the finer points of the arrangement, I understand the new airport will be administered by the Republic of Palau and available for civilian use, but with a full-time option for the US military.

While upgrading of the airstrip on Peleliu is under way, the normally scheduled 6- or 9-seater light aircraft from Pacific Mission Aviation at Koror is suspended until further notice, leaving arrival by fast ferry the only option currently. The airfield work also impacts on the limited accommodation available as military construction teams consume most beds at the few properties.

Visiting Peleliu: 
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About Damien Parer

Damien Peter Parer (August 1, 1912 – September 17, 1944) was a distinguished Australian cinematographer and war correspondent, renowned for his compelling visual documentation of World War II. Born in Malvern, Victoria, Parer was educated at St. Stanislaus' College in Bathurst, New South Wales, and later at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne, where he developed a keen interest in photography and cinematography.

Parer's career in the film industry began in the early 1930s with his work in still photography, which laid the foundation for his transition into cinematography. His early professional years were marked by his association with the Australian Government's Department of Information, which he joined in 1940. In this role, Parer became a pivotal figure in the production of newsreels, capturing the Australian military's involvement in World War II.

Parer's wartime footage is distinguished by its raw intensity and proximity to the front lines. His most notable work, "Kokoda Front Line!" (1942), vividly depicted the harsh conditions and valiant efforts of Australian soldiers fighting along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. This documentary earned widespread acclaim, winning an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1943, and significantly enhancing public awareness of the war's realities.

Throughout his career, Parer's dedication to capturing the essence of wartime experiences took him to various theaters of conflict, including the Middle East, Greece, and the Pacific. His ability to convey the emotional and physical toll of battle on soldiers and civilians alike set his work apart. Parer's cinematography not only documented historical events but also humanized the war, bringing the courage and sacrifices of the Australian military to the forefront.

Tragically, Damien Parer's life and career were cut short when he was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire on September 17, 1944, while filming a U.S. Marine operation on Peleliu Island in the Pacific. His death was a significant loss to the field of war correspondence and cinematography.

Posthumously, Parer has been honored and remembered for his exceptional contributions to wartime journalism and filmmaking. His work remains a crucial historical record and continues to be revered for its artistic and documentary merits. Damien Parer's legacy as one of the most influential war cinematographers endures, underscoring the profound impact of his visual storytelling on contemporary understandings of World War II.

Text compiled from various sources including AWM and Encyclopedia Britannica 

All material (c) Copyright Traveloscopy.com unless noted otherwise.

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