Survivors of fierce WWII battle honored

Bill Geary, 88, a cattle rancher from Montana, paused Saturday to look at pictures and maps detailing the carnage of the World War II battle on the island of Peleliu.

Geary, who fought there as a Marine, was succinct in his assessment.

"It was a nasty place," he said as he walked a passageway dubbed the Hall of Heroes aboard the amphibious assault ship named for the battle.

What was nasty about it? Geary was asked. "Everything," he said, "absolutely everything."

It was a morning of remembrances for Geary and 10 other Marine veterans honored in San Diego as members of the 12th Defense Battalion, a unit of the 1st Marine Division, the division that led the U.S. assault on the Japanese garrison.

"Although these were ordinary men -- boys really -- when they began their life as Marines, they did extraordinary things for this country, without complaint and without hesitation," Capt. Marcus Hitchcock, skipper of the Peleliu, told a gathering on the ship's hangar deck.

The 29-year-old ship is docked at the 32nd Street Naval Base, where it is undergoing $50 million in repairs before redeploying to the Western Pacific next year.

The fighting at Peleliu was fierce and close in, in heat that exceeded 100 degrees. One in three Marines was killed or wounded during the two-month battle that began in mid-September 1944 -- by some measures the highest casualty rate of any battle in the Pacific war.

"The Japanese were dug in," said Hal Handley, 85, of Los Angeles, a retired banker. "We had to go in after them. They wouldn't surrender."

Military records indicate that 1,252 Marines were killed and 5,274 wounded and that 542 U.S. Army soldiers were killed and 2,736 wounded. Japanese deaths were put at more than 10,600.

If the Marines have vivid memories of their service, so too do members of their families, some of whom accompanied them to the ceremony, part of the 56th annual reunion of the 12th Defense Battalion.

Marie and Bob Sifferman were married just days before he shipped out. She went to Chicago to live with family and work in the defense industry. She worried continually about getting the dread telegram from the War Department.

"Every time the doorbell rang, we were afraid to answer the door," said Marie Sifferman, 85, her eyes glistening at the memory.

Many historians say the battle was unnecessary, that Peleliu and its airfield had lost strategic importance by the time of the assault.

Historian William Manchester, who fought at Peleliu as an enlisted Marine, wrote in "Goodbye Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War" that Peleliu was "a bad battle, fought at a bad time and a bad place."

The passageway from the USS Peleliu's hangar deck to its enlisted mess is lined with maps and pictures, including pictures of eight Marines awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery on Peleliu.

Regis Nolan, 86, a retired blueprints specialist from Chicago, looked at one map and found the spot where he landed.

He was part of a crew that attempted to take ammunition from a ship to Marines ashore. But Japanese shelling was so intense that they had to turn back, only to return the next day, wading ashore amid the bodies of dead Marines.

"It was very hot," he said, "and very scary."


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