Worlds Away

Worlds Away: Following My Father’s World War II Footsteps

©2004 Patrick M. Finelli, Ph.D.

“The Jungle Does Grow, Doesn’t It!”

Everett P. Pope, April 2004

These pages are rough drafts excerpted from the text of my journal with accompanying pictures. You may order the completed book, Worlds Away: Following My Father’s World War II Footsteps (ISBN 0-9754989-0-8) through your local bookstore, or directly through our ordering service:
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Peleliu.   It is a quiet, tropical island in the Western Carolines; a state in the Republic of Palau; a place where there are sandy beaches, limestone cliffs, caves, very few road signs and many reminders of World War II.  The war transformed this tranquil island into a fortress when Japanese forces, consisting of many veterans from the campaign in Manchuria, displaced the Peleliuans and fortified the natural topography and geological features for the sole purpose of  inflicting the greatest number of casualties on U.S. Marines.  Peleliu became the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

Late in his life, when an interviewer asked Bob Hope about his most moving experience while entertaining U.S. troops during a decades-long career, comedian Bob Hope did not hesitate to solemnly reply that it that it was in Pavuvu–a special show for the First Marine Division as they prepared to invade Peleliu.  It was not on his original itinerary.  Pavuvu was itself a muddy, rat-infested Devil’s Island.  Later, Hope said that he believed 60% of those Marines died in the Battle of Peleliu.

The Rock Islands of Palau arguably contain the best sites for scuba divers on the planet.  Their names are legendary: Blue Corner, Blue Hole, Peleliu Express, Ngedebus, Ulong, and Saies Drop-Off. They are world-class dives with changing, high-velocity currents and abundant aquatic life.   What stands out in my mind after visiting in March 2004 is a continuous stream of imagery: scuba diving-betel nut-battlefields-my guide, Tangie Hesus-storyboards-barracuda sashimi-schools of big-eyed jacks-trevally-scores of sharks on every descent.  Yet it all pales in comparison to the profound impression left by the invasion beaches, steep cliffs, treacherous caves and the debris of war on the island of Peleliu.  

This story cannot be measured by depth or pressure gauges.  The Peleliu battlefield is on the other side of the world, and our eyes are focused elsewhere on different wars in 2004.  Yet, although Peleliu is far away in time and place, it provided a defining moment in the history of the First Marine Division and the young Marines who went into battle.  One of them was my father. 

The idea for a website and book came from my sister, who manages volunteers at a hospice.   During her visits to see patients and check on their caregivers, she encounters many veterans and hears many stories about the war.  These men did their duty and use their last breaths to express what it meant to them.  Many have led productive lives; others became lost in alcohol, depression and fear.

The tragic irony is that the battle wasn’t necessary.  General Douglas MacArthur was moving on the west towards the Philippines and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz took the eastern route.    Admiral Halsey had doubts about the need to take Peleliu, but MacArthur convinced him that he needed the airfield to protect his right flank.  The Marines of the First Division were told it would be rough, but a 3-day walkover.   The battle raged for months.  Casualties were high.  The beach was 200 yards from the reef.  The landing beaches were covered with heavily fortified enfilading fire.  The hard coral on the White Beaches extends all the way to the jungle where the enemy was entrenched despite the pounding of U.S. Navy battleships for several days.  

Much of the official literature and many of the personal narrative accounts describe the battle as a “meat grinder.”  Eight Marines were awarded the Medal of Honor, including Captain Everett Pope who graciously helped me learn what to do and what to expect on Peleliu.    He also gave me the contact information for Tangie Hesus, the best battlefield guide for Peleliu.  

When you ask most veterans to tell their story, many can remember places, dates, weapons and the inevitable stench of war. Few feel comfortable telling what it was really like for them.  Pope told me that many who served and survived The Battle of Peleliu suffered from nightmares and trauma, even while raising families and establishing civilian careers.  I believe this is true for many who have been in combat.  A common retort is, “You had to be there to truly understand.” 

One day in the summer of 2003 I attempted to interview my father, but it became clear to me how difficult it would be for him to divulge those haunting memories.  Given the tremendous respect and admiration I have for my father, as well as for all the others who did their duty and fought on those battlefields worlds away, I realized I had to see Peleliu for myself.  The next logical step was a determined decision to make my way to the place where military and personal histories were forged in the crucible of fierce battle. This story had to develop from my own journey to trace his footsteps in World War II.  I had to observe, interpret, analyze and, more importantly, absorb its emotional impact.

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