Rotting WWII junk in the jungles of Peleliu

Alex sez, "I recently had the chance to visit Peleliu island - a tiny 14 square miles of coral limestone in the middle of the Pacific. In 1944 it was the scene of one of the most ferocious battles in the Pacific War. Tons of the war stuff (tanks, guns, ruined buildings) lies out in the jungle, and I took a tour round, snapping some interesting photos and listening to stories (and weirdly, I discovered during writing the post that the battle was the origin of the phrase 'thousand yard stare')."

Unlike previous battles in the Pacific, the Japanese didn't place the entire emphasis of their strategy on defending the beaches - they fortified the island, in particular a mountain called Umurbrogol. The Japanese riddled Umurbrogol with a huge network of caves and tunnels from which to operate (this image shows a plan of one complex). Once they had completed their work, they evacuated the civilians, and waited for the Americans.

Below you scan see the entrance to one of the Japanese caves, and beneath that, a shot from inside, looking back to the entrance. The entrance itself probably isn't more than 3 or 4 foot high; inside the cave ceilings are slightly higher, although very uneven - but it's not a great place to be when, like me, you're 6 foot 2. It was a horrible place to spend 15 minutes, but caves like these were where the Japanese forces lived for the two month duration of the battle of Peleliu. Inside, you can still see discarded boots, bottles and bullets.

Thousand Yard Stares: Ruins and Ghosts of the Battle of Peleliu, 1944, 2008 (Thanks, Alex!)


  1. This article was wonderful, with incredibly beautiful and haunting pictures. One can only imagine the days when flamethrowers were still in military use, and streams of fire erupting everywhere at night, in the midst of gunfire. It must have looked beyond words, a truly terrifying landscape.

    Now, I’m glad the dead can rest, and the machines of war there lay impotent, as a memorial to what must never be repeated.

    That Japanese tank, btw, is really steampunkesque. A weapon of war, yet quite beautiful. Any war buffs out there know what the model of that tank is? I’d love to look up the blueprints/data on it. The design begs to be copied for a peaceful robot or something.

  2. Looks like a Type 95. The Japanese never made much progress in armor development during the war, probably owing to A. island hopping in the east and B. a vastly inferior opponent in the west (china).

    I’m sure come sociologist could do a doctoral candidate research paper contrasting the Gundam fascination with Japan’s actual progress in mechanized warfare.

  3. i finished Neil Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon” late last year and i think he set one of the battle scenes on this very island… i’ll have to go back and check.
    great book, btw… these pics really brought it all back for me, thanks.

  4. “With The Old Breed” by Eugene Sledge is his memoir of his time in the US Marines in the Pacific Theater of WWII, and quite a bit of the book is about his time on Peleliu. It’s an excellent first hand account of combat in the Pacific, it’s not clinical or dry. I’ve read it several times, and given it as gifts, and the description of sliding down the muddy hill while under fire and coming to a stop at the bottom with bits of blown up corpses in his pockets and all over him and especially the pocket full of maggots, well it gets me everytime. Ever since reading that book I’ve wanted to visit Peleliu. I even lobbied my dad to take an engineering job there years ago. :) Sadly mom’s fear of snakes won out on that one. :(

  5. Thanks for getting in the link to Eugene Sledge as soon as possible. A terrifyingly honest book about an awful, awful event.

  6. Sounds like Neal Stephenson may have drawn some inspiration from Peleliu for ‘Cryptonomicon’…

  7. Truly superb find … that 2,000 yard stare is something I find quite poignant.

    The ones that came home with that stare are going to be fundamentally ill at ease as to whether or not they should still be soldiers or civilians for a long time. Perhaps that culminates in what you might call “other losses” on the home front. Perhaps.

  8. I wasn’t particularly aware of the specifics of the battle, reading further it seems that Peleliu was to be a foretaste of what the Americans would experience at Iwo Jima – a planned brief campaign that turned into a long and bloody fight.

  9. Antinous, a long time ago someone once told me to be careful what I said to old guys, you never know if the old bastard in front of you killed a few dozen Japanese in his wild youth. Nail

  10. My inner pedant was a bit excited by the reference to volcanic limestone. Anyone know which it is?

  11. I know that I am not a nice guy buddy for any one that gets off on killing people. For the simple reason that I am nuclear qualified. I beg you not to idealize heroic battles . Any heroic battle ever. Heroic battles have always attracted a weird bunch of sexually defective males that write about them . Nothing has changed. Just the names.

  12. hey Boat, good to see you. Not everybody writes about them like they were good times. People have to remember.

  13. Takuan. I am mildly more sober. My heart is open to the dead ones. Of all wars. Of all time. Ever. I have a real problem dealing with anything that profits from death. Life support seems to be too simple for most people to grasp. Forgive me?

  14. #18

    Heroic battles have always attracted a weird bunch of sexually defective males that write about them

    I’d ignore you for that post, or call you a disrespectful troll, but after reading William Manchester’s war memoir I have to wonder if you have a point. He chose to put some pretty offbeat stuff into Goodbye, Darkness. What works, specifically, led you to that opinion?

  15. #22 The on going work of Cultural Anthropologists and related work in various disciplines that try to make some sense out of old bones. Bashed in skulls seem to go back a long way. I contend that the loving Male has always been vulnerable as a victim for nasty Males to kill and screw their women. I maintain that not much has changed. Other than the fact that we can now kill a lot more people with our clubs.

  16. Thanks for that. Reminds me of a project by a favorite photographer of mine, James Fee, juxtaposing photographs taken by his father, who took part in the battle, with his own taken some 50 years later. His work can be found below (the work documenting the industrial decline of the U.S. is incredible).

  17. The Japanese lost nearly 11,000 killed, and only 200 were captured. The Americans lost 1,800 killed, and 8,000 wounded.

    Why were the Japanese casualties so much higher when they were dug in and defending. Don’t the attackers normally suffer higher casualties?

    What happened to the Japanese wounded? Why aren’t there any?

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