Pepperdine professor honors father’s service in battle of Peleliu

The battle in the Pacific will be covered in several episodes in the HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” produced by Steven Spielberg, beginning April 11.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Sixty-six years ago this September, Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, prepared to invade the tiny island of Peleliu, one of the Palau Islands in the Pacific, as part of a strategy to recapture the Philippines from the Japanese. The bloody, but ultimately victorious battle that followed lasted more than two months, resulted in almost 9,000 American casualties and is featured in Steven Spielberg’s HBO miniseries “The Pacific,” now airing on television.

Commanding one of the naval patrol crafts that ferried Marines to the landing off Orange Beach on Peleliu was Capt. John E. Caldwell, father of Dan Caldwell, a former naval officer and now a political science professor at Pepperdine University. The younger Caldwell, who has published extensively on world politics and arms control, has also written about a journey he took with his father 12 years ago to Peleliu, and the memories that the visit spurred.

“In 1995, my wife and I went to dinner with my dad and he was uncharacteristically quiet,” Caldwell said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “Finally, he admitted that it was the anniversary of the invasion of Peleliu, where he saw so many of our Marines die, and he started to cry. It was the first time in my life I ever saw him cry.”

Three years later, Caldwell accompanied his father and 14-year-old son on a trip to the distant island and began to learn more about the patriotism his father exemplified and the horrific war experiences he suffered. Many of the heartbreaking losses are detailed in the HBO,10-part miniseries, with the episodes on the battle of Peleliu scheduled to air beginning April 11.

In 1944, some13,000 Japanese soldiers were stationed on Peleliu, defending an important airstrip there. Both Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Nimitz favored the invasion of Peleliu as part of a larger strategy to protect MacArthur’s flank while he recaptured the Philippines on his way to Japan.

“Operation Stalemate” was scheduled to begin Sept. 15, 1944 and was estimated by Maj. Gen. William Rupertus, commander of the 1st Marine Division, to require three to four days to take control of the island. The well-fortified and zealous Japanese made it a 70-day slaughter.

“My dad was only 22, but he was the oldest one on the ship,” Caldwell said. “Many of the Marines landing that day were only 16 or 17. They had lied about their age to join up.”

Caldwell said the pristine beaches that greeted him and his father in 1998 were a far cry from the four-month period when the elder Caldwell patrolled the island–a time during which he was on shore for only two hours. In 1944, the jungle had been blasted of all vegetation and the Japanese had dug more than 500 caves into the Umurbrogol mountain range as defense fortifications. Caldwell and his father found some of the anti-aircraft guns still in place, silent for nearly 55 years.

In the “Battle for Bloody Nose Ridge,” as the fight at Umurbrogol was called, only nine men from the 1st Marine Division survived. Eight men were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the Battle of Peleliu. The carnage was so absolute, Capt. Caldwell couldn’t speak of it for half a century. The battle to win the island proved pointless in the end. McArthur took the Philippines without the aid of the Marines in Peleliu or the Army, which secured Morotai in the Dutch East Indies.

Another of Malibu’s World War II veterans, Leon Cooper, becomes impatient when speaking of Peleliu. He captained a naval attack transport ship in November of 1943 and watched nearly 1,700 U.S. troops die in the Battle of Tarawa, also in the Pacific Theater.

“Peleliu was a blood bath, absolute stupidity,” Cooper said. “It was like Guadalcanal, where our guys were just left out to dry for months. So many young, young men. I am sure the beaches there hold relics of American soldiers.”

While the younger Caldwell was serving in the Navy, he and his father would drive down to San Diego and talk about ships. One day, they passed a decommissioned patrol craft berthed in the harbor and stopped to visit. It turned out to be PC-1230-the ship that the elder Caldwell served on in the invasion of Peleliu. He contacted the owner of the ship, who was honored to give Caldwell a souvenir-the same chart table Caldwell used to bring PC-1230 home from the Pacific.

Those weren’t the only souvenirs the elder Caldwell kept of his war experience. He managed to keep two invasion maps detailing the strategies for Peleliu and gave them to his son, a reminder of the sacrifices his generation had made.

The elder Caldwell died in 2000. In 2002, his son presented one of the World War II Peleliu invasion maps to Capt. Dennis DuBard, commander of the amphibious assault ship, the USS Peleliu. The LHA5 (“Landing, Helicopter Assault”) ship had just returned from active duty from the Arabian Peninsula, having ferried Marines to Kandahar for military operations in Afghanistan.

At the presentation ceremony on the Peleliu, ironically tied up just down the ship channel from where Caldwell and his dad discovered PC-1230 30 years before, a flag that had flown at Ground Zero following the attacks of 9/11 was on display. Someone had written on the flag, “Never forget our brothers and sisters. They are the real heroes.”

“My dad was my hero,” Caldwell said. “It is appropriate that his map is now hanging in the USS Peleliu’s Hall of Heroes.”

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