World War II
The blades spun swiftly in the cloudless sky as the sound of well-oiled motors broke the salty, humid air of the Indian Ocean. Slowly, like a hawk riding in the heat of the afternoon sun the Marine helicopter banked towards the waiting vessel below. The light gray chopper glanced once up towards the horizon and for a split second the motor-blades sliced the sun, blocking the rays. The chopper - a CH-46E Sea Knight - crested once above the aqua blue ocean, tilted slightly and then landed gently on the black and white tarmac of the moving ship.
Quick, systematic motions swung the doors of the chopper
open. Heavy, humid, salted ocean air mixed with the pungent aroma of jet
fuel and heated tar brushed into the cockpit as the pilot powered down.
The blades slowed and from half a dozen spots on the flight deck of the
ship, men and women, superbly trained in their tasks ran out with supplies
and designated duties. A Marine officer stepped off the Sea Knight, shouldered
his gear and walked out, completely aware of his surroundings, knowing
every inch of the flight deck that had been his home for so many months.
Another Marine stepped off, adjusted his sunglasses and followed the first.
Without a complaint, as if the hundred-degree heat were as cool and soothing
as a New England spring morning, the rest of the Marines emptied out of
the chopper. Their weapons put away, they strolled below decks, past corridors
filled with their comrades. The sound of their combat boots against the
steel of the ship's metal floors was a familiar tune to the men and women
of the crew.
From afar she looks like an odd duckling; while not quite a battleship, she is also not quite an aircraft carrier. She is in fact an amphibious assault ship, capable, like the other members of her class, of transporting America's best from one hot zone to another. Her flight deck is the proud base for a wide array of transport and fast attack weapons - both choppers and aircraft. Of the almost three thousand crew a large number of them are members of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, proud elite soldiers of a proud and elite army. The Peleliu stretches over eight hundred feet from stem to stern and displaces almost forty thousand tons.
Closer still to the Peleliu and one can see her beauty. Like a great white shark in the undisturbed sea, she cuts through the water, knowing full well that she is the master of her domain. She houses some of the most powerful weapons and the most determined men and women in the world. Aside from the fact that she is a veteran member of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, she is also very capable of bringing to any corner of the earth's seven seas the might and the will of the American people. On and below her decks thrives a fully functioning city of soldiers and sailors who have come to know the taste of the North Pacific in the morning air and the sweltering heat of her burning sun at the strike of noon. She has served many captains and many presidents but all along she has been the proud bearer of only one flag - the Stars and Stripes. From her decks members of the armed forces staged Operation Enduring Freedom and struck a blow for liberty.
In that recent operation, the landing craft that were housed beneath Peleliu's great mass were not used in combat but rather sat, awaiting a time when men will have to, once again, storm beaches under fire. Since the advent of the precision missile, fewer opportunities have developed for the use of the all out amphibious assault. And yet Peleliu's own name links her to that form of military strategy employed so often at the cost of so many good men in a time of great darkness.
More than one person has wondered where the name "Peleliu" comes from. Here, in fact, is where the story truly begins. Before there was an amphibious assault ship, before there was the Marine Corps Super Cobra and Sea Knight, before there were satellites and laser-guided missiles, there were the proud rugged men of the First Marine Division - "the Old Breed" - who, one morning in the fall of 1944, stormed a small island on the road to the Philippines: the island of Peleliu.
Today she is not much to look at, this once hostile and bloody island. She remains a lot like she did in the days before the Marines came and before the Japanese came. Nature has made her stronger, in fact. Her coral reefs remain sharpened by the endless waves that crash against her sandy beaches and her overgrown forests. Still here, from the days before man, there are ridges and rocks and trees that have known no danger. From the seashore, instead of the floating, decaying bodies of once proud and patriotic men, there are crabs that crawl up into the coconut forests and deeper into the vine covered woods. From the beach one can climb slowly, trying to avoid the roots of the trees that still jut from every direction, ready to catch the unaware and the unprepared. Slowly the humidity rises and even though the light from the sun is blocked by the dense brush the island heat will soon turn the air into a virtual oven. All around there are shades of different green - a distant reminder of the horrible days when shades of red splattered the island and the screams of wounded and dying men filled the air which now ring only with the buzzing of flies and mosquitoes.
Somewhere inland there is a small hill and a rise. Above the trees and above the damp, soft floor of the forest covered with vines and leaves the hill takes you to the top where a simple memorial marks the men who lost their futures on this piece of rock in the South Pacific.
There are still remnants of that great battle long ago. There are still shell casings, masks, Japanese buildings and vehicles, long since destroyed and long since adopted by the island as shelter for creatures of all types. Even the coveted runway, which was what brought the Allies to this island in the first place, still remains, although somewhat ill maintained. Everything that had survived the battle seems to be decaying in the damp, hot Pacific sun. But above the trees and on the hill there is a clearing and monument attesting to the valor and the memory of the men who did not walk away from this engagement. There stands amidst the tides of the Pacific and rolling hurricanes that slash at the islands' wind swept beaches a granite stone, marking the spot where so many brave men fell.
For the Marines Peleliu was a bad memory, but still she was a victory. In 1980, decades after the guns of World War II had been silenced by the sounds of millions of others across the conflict-ridden twentieth century there was a ceremony once again honoring the men who had served their country in the hills and jungles of Peleliu - the U.S. Armed Forces were naming a ship in their honor.
The author would like to apologize for a spelling mistake throughout last year's series on the lives of William Pitt Fessenden and Thomas W. Hyde. The author mispelled Hyde's middle name - which is actually "Worcester" rather than "Worchester" - in numerous articles.