smaller than Pavuvu. We’d be landing across a wide beach stretching north to south. Two hundred yards beyond was the Jap airfield that was our first day’s objective. Behind the airfield, mountains rose up and continued almost the whole length of the island. Except for the hills, they told us, most of the place was flat.
They didn’t tell us the name yet.
Our training wrapped up with a couple big landing exercises. We didn’t have our amtracs. They were still busy on Guam. So we used Higgins boats. They told us to come out of the amtracs ready for anything. Have bayonets fixed, a round chambered in our rifles and the safety on. Locked and loaded. Our ammo carriers were to have a couple mortar shells unfastened and ready to go.
They repeated over and over again the lesson learned on Guadalcanal:
“Get off the beach! Get your ass off the beach! Move in!”
Late on August 26, we filed on board LST 661. The next morning we were under way.
An LST was the largest ship the Navy could actually put right up on a beach. The hold would be full of amtracs and the amtracs would be full of troops. The big clamshell doors in the front of the ship would open and you’d just roll ashore. If there was a coral reef off the beach, the LST would stay farther out and the amtracs would rumble down the ramp into the water, form up and move to the beach in waves. That’s how it was supposed to work. Every now and then, we’d heard, an amtrac would go down the ramp, nose into the water, and sink. Just disappear.
The LST had a long deck for cargo. It could carry up to three hundred troops belowdecks and a couple dozen more in the forecastle, which was about two-thirds of the way back.
Our mortar section got lucky. The platoon leaders drew straws, and we were assigned to the troop quarters in the forecastle. Everyone else went belowdecks. All day long those steel sides and the deck soaked up that tropical sun, and all night they radiated the heat back into the compartments. Belowdecks was hot, cramped, stuffy. Pretty soon everyone was scrambling for any available place to sleep in and around the crates and equipment in the cargo area.
While we were at sea the division held landing rehearsals off Guadalcanal. Our amtracs and DUKWs had finally arrived, and they needed to practice launching them off the LSTs and getting them across a reef onto the beach. During one of these exercises, Major General William Rupertus, First Division’s commander, slipped while boarding an amtrac. He fell back on the coral, breaking his ankle. His foot would be in a cast during the whole invasion.
When we arrived at Guadalcanal, other ships were pulling in from Banika, Tulagi, Espirito Santo. From all over the southwest Pacific it seemed. Some of the Old Breed, the Guadalcanal veterans, wanted to go ashore to see where they’d fought and visit the military cemetery.
We got a pep talk from one of them, First Sergeant Paul Bailey. He was soft-spoken, down to earth. A helluva good Marine. He’d joined us on Pavuvu.
He told us for the first time where we were going—Peleliu. He said it wouldn’t be easy, that a lot of us wouldn’t be coming back. But we were going in and we were going to take it as quickly as possible with as few casualties as possible.
“Don’t be dumb,” Sergeant Bailey said. “We want to go in there and play it smart.” The faster we killed Japs, the sooner we’d get off that i sland.
I don’t know if those pep talks they always gave us before a battle helped or hindered. Those of us who had been through it already knew a lot of us weren’t coming back, that a lot of us would be killed, a lot would be wounded or maimed for the rest of our lives.
We knew any time you go into combat, it’s not pretty.
On September 4, we filed back on board LST 661 and weighed anchor. There were more than sixteen thousand of us, aboard thirty LSTs and a handful of troop transports. LSTs are slow, about seven knots. So we got a head start.