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South Pacific Campaign Pt. 2 - Pacific Firestorm
by William A. Sackman

Scenario Contest Honorable Mention

This scenario was written by one of our three Honorable Mention entries in our Axis and Allies Miniatures Scenario Contest . Once again, congratulations to William A. Sackman and all our participants. In the upcoming weeks we will be providing the last, but certainly not least, of our Honorable Mentions.

Background

Axis Situation

With the fall of the Mariana Islands in the summer of 1944, the Palau Islands became a crucial part of Japan’s “Absolute National Defense Zone.” Convinced that a determined defense of this inner sphere might lead to a negotiated settlement, Imperial General Headquarters intended to make any attempt by the Allies to breach this line as costly as possible.

To assist in this all-out defensive effort, units previously attached to the Kwantung Army in Manchuria were ordered to the Central Pacific. Of these, the 14th Division was transferred to the Palaus. One of the oldest and most distinguished units in the Japanese Army, the 14th Division was commanded by Lieutenant General Sadae Inoue and was composed of the 2nd, 15th and 59th Infantry Regiments. Each Regiment shared equally in the Division’s prestige and vied in spirit and aggressiveness. Establishing his headquarters on Koror Island, General Inoue deployed his units to defend the main islands of Babelthuap, Peleliu (with its vital airfield) and Angaur, the southern-most of the Palau Islands.

The defense of Peleliu was entrusted to Lieutenant Colonel Kunio Nakagawa and his 2nd Infantry (Reinforced). In addition to his own troops, Nakagawa had at his disposal the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, a battalion of the 53rd Independent Mixed Brigade, the 14th Division’s Tank and Engineer Companies, as well as an assortment of artillery, machine cannon and mortar units. All told the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) had approximately 6,500 troops on Peleliu. The Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) had another 4,000 personnel on the island.

Allied Situation

By September, 1944, the American juggernaut in the Pacific was unstoppable. General MacArthur was poised to return to the Philipines and Admiral Nimitz had island hopped across the Central Pacific. His forces had just taken the strategic Marianas, putting the Japanese home islands within range of U.S. B-29’s. Nimitz’s forces were next assigned the task of neutralizing the Japanese forces in the Palaus Islands in order to secure MacArthur’s flank as he moved into the Philippines.

Taking Peleliu and Angaur fell to the Officers and men of the III Amphibious Corps (III AC) comprised of the 1st Marine Division and the Army’s 81st Infantry Division, backed by Admiral Halsey’s immense Third Fleet. With the capture of the Japanese 31st Army Headquarters on Saipan in July, the planning staff for Operation Stalemate II received a detailed picture of General Inoue’s forces, island by island, throughout the Palaus. This intelligence, coupled with complete naval and air superiority, and an overwhelming belief in the fighting ability of his Marines, led the Commanding General, 1st Marine Division, Major General William H. Rupertus to publicly declare the battle would be over in four days. It was also the General’s opinion that the 1st Marine Division would take Peleliu without the help of the U.S. Army. The 81st Infantry "Wildcat" Division would take smaller, less defended, Angaur and then go into Corps reserve.

Peleliu, however, was not the generally flat island it was assumed to be by Rupertus and the planning staff of III AC. Peleliu, while small (no more than 2 miles wide by 6 miles long), had a very mountainous interior concealed by dense jungle, comprised of twisted coral ridges up to 550’ high. This terrain, combined with the Japanese ability to honeycomb any area with ingenious defensive positions, would lead to heavy American casualties. Add to this, recent changes in Japanese defensive doctrine (forbidding wasteful Banzai charges and dictating a defense in depth of the entire island) and the stage was set for one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history.

Scenario: South Pacific Campaign Pt. 2 - Pacific Firestorm

D-day, 15 September 1944, at 0832, two minutes behind schedule, five battalions from the 1st, 5th and 7th Marines began landing on beaches White 1 and 2, and Orange 1, 2 and 3, along Peleliu's southern shore. The 1st Marines and 5th Marines landed two battalions each while the 7th Marines struggled to land a single battalion on Beach Orange 3 on the Division's right flank. After landing under heavy fire and taking serious losses, the 1st Marines, landing on White 1 and White 2, slowly moved inland. Only the 5th Marines landing on the middle two beaches, Orange 1 and 2, managed to stay organized and make significant headway against scattered resistance.

By 0930 the 5th Marines had reached the edge of the airfield and dug-in. Having reached their first objective line the 5th was delayed by having to wait for the 1st Marines on their left to overcome stiff opposition and tie in with them. As the morning wore into the afternoon tank support and other anti-tank assets arrived to bolster their position. Division planners, aware of the presence of the Japanese 14th Division’s Tank Company on Peleliu, had warned the 1st and 5th Marines to expect a possible armored counter-attack across the open ground of the airfield.

Aftermath

The Japanese assault, while across open ground and into the teeth of heavy Marine defensive fire, was not the wild Banzai charge experienced by American forces in earlier campaigns. This attack actually began as a classic, combined arms, tank-infantry operation. The veteran troops of the 2nd Infantry Regiment advanced taking full advantage of the available cover including the shell holes covering the airfield. However, approximately 400 yards from the Marine lines, the enemy tankers threw their throttles wide open and charged, leaving their infantry supports far behind. Able to concentrate their massed firepower on the 18 or so light tanks, the Marines slaughtered the enemy armored force. Seeing their tanks devastated the remaining infantry fell back across the airfield to their start-line. The Marine fire was so overwhelming that if the after-action reports were taken at face value, the Japanese would have had to have 179½ Type 95 Ha-Go tanks involved in the attack. The remaining pieces of the light tanks actually defied an accurate count.

This counter-attack was the first of several departures from previous Japanese defensive doctrine that the island’s Commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Nakagawa, would use against the American forces in the continuing struggle for Peleliu.

Additional Reading

  • Davis, Russell. Marine at War. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1961
  • Falk, Stanley. Bloodiest Victory: Palaus. New York: Ballantine Books, 1974
  • Gailey, Harry A. Peleliu 1944. Annapolis, Maryland: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. of America, 1983
  • Hallas, James H. The Devil’s Anvil: The Assault on Peleliu. Westport Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 1994
  • Sledge, E.B. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa. New York:Oxford University Press, 1981
  • Wright, Derrick. To the Far Side of Hell: The Battle for Peleliu, 1944. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: The University of Alabama Press, 2002










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