Anderson Giles, retired University of Maine at Presque Isle professor, has made many trips to the Pacific focused on preserving the history of World War II. Recently, Giles had the honor of leading a select group on visits to two of WWII’s most deadly Pacific battlefields. The group participated in the special 70th commemoration ceremonies on Iwo Jima and then traveled on to explore battle sites on the island of Peleliu in Palau.
Once a year, the Japanese government allows U.S. and Japanese survivors, relatives of battle participants, members of the press, as well as government and military officials, to take part in ceremonies on Iwo Jima honoring the terrible sacrifices and loss of life which occurred during February and March of 1945. Access to the volcanic island is only allowed after signing an injury/death waiver, and is severely restricted due to dangerous conditions such as earthquakes, toxic volcanic gases, unexploded munitions, rugged terrain, and lack of medical and transportation infrastructure.
Giles’ group was part of what may be the last of its kind due to the rapidly declining number of actual battle survivors able to make the long trip. General Larry Snowden, who fought with the 4th Marine Division as a young 2nd Lieutenant and later worked in Japan for many years, has been a facilitator of the yearly ceremonies since 1995. He has decided that the 70th will be his last visit due to infirmities of age. In his remarks during the ceremony, overlooking the gloomy invasion beaches he landed on, he noted, “Time is the great healer and time has allowed physical wounds to heal, but healing has left deep scars for many of the survivors and left deep emotional scars on families of those who died here.”
Giles noted that he has been able to visit the island many time as lecturer on cruise ships and as tour leader for Valor Tours, Ltd. These journeys are always a personal pilgrimage to honor his father, a 4th Division Marine who survived the entire battle only to be killed in Korea in 1953.
“Each visit reveals new discoveries… caves still containing personal relics, rusting weapons, and poignant, seldom seen sites of vicious combat,” Giles said. “Each time I pick up jagged shards of shrapnel, spent shell casings, and climb the steep, infamous black sand berms on which many marines died, I experience both a profound sadness and sense of wonder at how the Marines were able to accomplish their mission.”
Iwo Jima was the first battle of the Pacific war in which the U.S. sustained more casualties than the Japanese. Many historians believe the high death toll on Iwo Jima and later on Okinawa helped lead to the decision to drop the atomic bombs.
After the day on Iwo Jima, part of Giles’ group traveled on to the site of another infamous island battle on Peleliu. Giles said many historians have come to believe that the savage battle was unnecessary and controversial. The landing took place September 15, 1944, and was intended to be a quick 3 to 4-day operation, but lapsed into a 72-day bloodbath, which saw the 1st Marine Division decimated with some units sustaining 60 percent casualties. Unbeknownst to U.S. forces, Japanese forces had turned countless caves in the infamous Umabrogol coral ridges into deadly defensive positions, almost impossible to see or destroy.
Due to the island’s remote location, it remains one of the Pacific’s most intact battlefields, with caves full of relics, human remains, unexploded ordnance, wreckage of tanks and aircraft, as well as large artillery pieces. While exploring the Orange landing beaches, Giles’ group ran into Steve Ballinger, an ex-British military ordnance removal expert, whose personnel had, only minutes before, discovered the remains of six Japanese soldiers in a destroyed bunker. He briefed the group on the protocol followed when such discoveries are made on the island.
One of Giles’ objectives was to climb and explore the notorious hill 100 (later named Walt’s Ridge) where a famous resident of Maine earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Capt. Everett Pope led his company in an assault of the heavily defended ridge on September 20, 1944. Sustaining heavy casualties, they managed to capture the incredibly steep heights. Fierce Japanese counterattacks practically destroyed his unit, which, having run out of ammunition had resorted to throwing rocks. Eventually, despite heroic efforts to hold with only eight unwounded marines, they were forced to climb back down the steep cliff under heavy fire.
In Last Man Standing, author Dick Camp quotes Pope as stating, “It was a suicide mission.” Pope attended Bowdoin College, along with Captain Andrew Haldane, another notable 1st Division Marine who was killed in action on Peleliu. Haldane is honored to this day by his alma mater in an annual presentation of the Haldane Cup to the graduating senior who exhibits outstanding leadership and character.
Those of Giles’ group who could make the climb reached the summit, examined the historic battle site, and held a short remembrance for those who perished. Human remains were discovered on the battlefield and Dr. John Shively, part of Giles’ group, examined bones and a skull with a fatal bullet wound. It was not determined whether the remains were Japanese or American. A team of experts will perform a further examination.
Three days were spent surveying many battle sites and Giles said it left the group with a profound sense of the horrific tragedy of this often overlooked Pacific battle.
“The 100 degree heat is brutal and the dense jungle and super rugged terrain exhaust you—but it is an experience you will never forget!” he said. “It’s fascinating to think of Peleliu’s connection to Maine, so many miles and memories away.”