As I’ve been reading “To the Far Side of Hell“, I’m reminded again that history looks back on the Battle of Peleliu with an extremely critical eye. The garrison there was strong and well-entrenched, but the island’s airfield was useless and its aircraft destroyed. The general principle of “island-hopping” (bypassing Japanese strongholds and letting them wither for lack of supplies) would have been very appropriately applied to this small 5-square-mile landmass of coral, caves, and trees…and concrete bunkers, pillboxes, and death.
Furthermore, had this island been hopped, I wouldn’t be writing this episode of Today’s History Lesson.
Captain Andy Haldane was loved by his men. As company commander of the K/3/5 Marines, he had begun showing his leadership abilities as a Lieutenant way back on Guadalcanal. He lacked many of the traits of a stereotypical “drill-Sergeant”. He was hard-nosed, but not a brute. He never raised his voiced, but no one doubted when Capt. Haldane was chastising a subordinate Marine. He was as much a member of the K/3/5 as he was its leader, and he was popular for it.
But now it was October 12, 1944, and the “3-day-battle” on Peleliu was in its 27th day. Most of the 1st Marine Division had been (thankfully) relieved of duty; the 2/5 and 3/5 Marines were the only active units left. 2/5 was in the process of being cycled out, leaving just K/3/5′s depleted ranks and exhausted men awaiting replacement.
Even after a month of brutal warfare, the fighting on Peleliu was still intense. 2/5 was lodged against the edge of Hill 140 and was taking sniper fire on 3 sides. As 3/5 moved up to take over, they were told not to expose themselves to fire at the hill’s summit. “There’s Jap sharpshooters out there everywhere,” the men of 2/5 said. “Even one glance can get you killed instantly.”
As K/3/5 began to assess its new situation, several of the Marines belly-crawled to within inches of the summit. Their job, dangerous as it was, was to peek over that ridge and get an idea of what lay before them. It would involve raising their heads a couple of inches, making a one- or two-second lay of the land, then quickly lowering it again. Haldane, the only commissioned officer left, very carefully lifted his head 4 or 5 inches above the rocky parapets, took a quick look, and began to speak…
…and then stopped as the smack of a sniper’s bullet hit him square in the forehead. The Marine Captain probably never even knew he got hit, and was dead before gravity had fully reversed Haldane’s five-inch head lift. Somewhere, a Japanese sniper must have sighted that precise piece of real estate just as Haldane raised his head for that brief instant.
More than sixty years later, Sergeant Dick Higgins, Haldane’s aide and runner, still wrestled with the anguish that swept through K/3/5 that day. “It was the kind of thing that never gets out your mind completely, and it still hurts to think about it. I’ve wondered a thousand times why I lived and he died, but I guess it’s true that only the good die young. Andy Haldane was as good a man – and as good a Marine – as you’ll ever find.”
Recommended Reading: To the Far Side of Hell: The Battle for Peleliu 1944