Stephen Murray has written a remarkably sensitive, insightful, and compassionate book about a war that continues. While Japanese forces surrendered the island of Peleliu in what is now the Republic of Palau to American invaders on 24 November 1944, the battle goes on around issues of memory, commemoration, and the meaning of history. The chad ra Beliliou (people of Peleliu) receive scant if any mention in the histories produced by the principal combatants. Their experiences, feelings, trauma, and the terrible devastation wrecked on their island go largely ignored in national histories that endeavor to explain and justify an unnecessary slaughter. Murray's book seeks to correct that neglect. While the author's investigation of American and Japanese sources is impressive, his inclusion of Palauan elders' voices is what makes this work so distinctive. The Battle over Peleliu thus represents a most valuable addition to earlier works by Geoff White, Lamont Lindstrom, Lin Poyer, Suzanne Falgout, Laurence Carucci, Keith Camacho, and Judy Bennett that deal with the Pacific War's effects on Island populations.
Murray gives close historical and ethnographic attention to the multiple contexts, both indigenous and international, that prefaced the battle. His book is divided into three parts. In part 1, he writes of Peleliu in the early Japanese colonial period as a time when villages (beluu) were still the focus of life; people lived close to the land and sea and organized their lives around clans, lineages, and chiefly councils. Land was key; people derived their personal identity from family lineages and the land those lineages controlled. For the chad ra Beliliou, history and geography are inextricably linked. History is understood as the movement of people among islands and across landscapes. Natural landmarks or human-made stone markers called olangch cued memories of events deemed historically important and worthy of recalling. The destruction of the olangch, first by Japanese phosphate mining and later by war, severed the people's ties to their past. As Murray notes, the "destruction of the villages, farms, [End Page 244] cemeteries holding the ancestors, and other landforms demolished not only productive assets but also the roots of identity and much of the means of memory and history" (4).
Part 2 details the prelude to conflict, the war itself, the exile and hardships experienced by the chad ra Beliliou, and their acclimation to a new US colonial overlord. While often overlooked in the history of World War II, the actual battle of Peleliu was nothing short of horrific. The naval bombardment, onshore shelling, high-altitude bombing, and use of flamethrowers devastated the landscape. The Japanese commander, Colonel Nakagawa Kunio, staged an extremely effective if doomed defense, placing his troops in Peleliu's caves as a way to slow the US invasion while inflicting maximum casualties. Eleven thous and Japanese soldiers would end up being entombed in those caves once US forces breached the shore defenses and secured the island; American casualties exceeded eight thousand dead and wounded. The cost of that victory proved all the more staggering given the conviction on the part of many US military planners that the invasion was unnecessary.
A morning air raid on 30 March 1944 heralded the arrival of war on Peleliu. While the Japanese military conscripted young men to labor on war-related projects, the majority of residents sought shelter in the island's caves. As the bombing intensified, most fled Peleliu for the nearby island of Ngercheu, where they remained until the Japanese command decided to evacuate them to the island of Babeldaob. There, the people of Ngaraad took in the chad ra Beliliou. For the people of Peleliu, the most significant memory of the war is the shelter and salvation they found with the people of Ngaraad. Not too long after the war had ended, the people of both places erected an inscribed olangch named the Odesangel Bad to commemorate the wartime bonds that continue...