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Coral Comes High is Captain George P. Hunt's account of what happened to himself and his company during the initial stages of the Peleliu invasion by the US Marines during World War 2. The company sustains terrible casualties and is isolated in a seemingly hopeless position for a nightmare forty-eight hours. Outnumbered and outgunned by the enemy, they beat off all attacks and seize the Point with a courage which is at the same time matter-of-fact and almost superhuman.
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Coral Comes High
George P. Hunt
Published by Kismet Publishing, 2018.
Coral Comes High by George P. Hunt. First published in 1949.
Illustrated edition published 2018 by Kismet Publishing. All rights reserved.
First e-book edition 2018.
PART ONE - BEFORE LANDING | CHAPTER ONE
PART TWO – LANDING | CHAPTER FOUR
PART THREE - AFTER LANDING | CHAPTER FIVE
Further Reading: Dark December: The Full Account of the Battle of the Bulge
IN A VERY REAL SENSE the history of the United States Marines might be told as a series of separate and collective incidents wherein relatively small forces of men accomplished specific tasks. Although the Marines have operated as an integral part of large strategic forces—particularly in the winning of the war in the Pacific—it is nevertheless true that, in the final analysis, the battle is won by the individual fighting man operating as a member of a squad, a platoon, a company. In an overall sense there must be an esprit de corps and a larger organization under competent senior officers, but in the individual task, the individual incident, the leadership is up to the junior officer and the noncommissioned officer. The association must be that of men who have an individual respect for one another and a reliance on themselves, their comrades and their leaders. In the heat of battle a man cannot stop to think about the larger ideal; he must fight with courage and resourcefulness because his own life and his self-respect (without which few men can live) depend upon association with, and the respect of, his comrades.
It is my belief that Captain George Hunt has told here a story which is important in the history of the United States Marines. It is not an official account, and Captain Hunt has not attempted to give an overall picture of grand strategy, nor even the complete story of Peleliu. He has, however, told in the simplest terms the story of his own company—a small force which suffered terrible casualties and fought against considerable odds to see a specific job through. If this small unit, this small association of fighting men, had not done its job, there is no knowing what the results might have been in terms of casualties along an entire beach sector. Captain Hunt has been awarded the Navy Cross as commander of a company of Marine riflemen on Peleliu. This is a story of fighting men told by a fighting man.
ALEXANDER A. VANDEGRIFT, General, United States Marine Corps
AT 0830, SEPTEMBER 15, 1944, the First Marine Division attacked the Japanese-held island of Peleliu in the Palau Islands and engaged an estimated 10,000 Japanese in one of the fiercest struggles of the war. This division consisted of three infantry regiments, the First, the Fifth, and the Seventh, one artillery regiment, the Eleventh, a headquarters battalion and numerous attached units such as a battalion of tanks, amphibious tractors, engineers, and pioneers. Commanding the division was Major General William H. Rupertus.
My regiment, the First, according to military organization, consisted of a headquarters and service company, a heavy weapons company and three battalions, the First, the Second, and the Third. It was commanded by Colonel Louis B. Puller whose executive officer, or next in command, was Lieutenant Colonel R. P. Ross, Jr. My battalion, the Third, divided into a headquarters company and three rifle companies lettered "I," "K," and "L," was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen V. Sabol whose executive officer was Major William McNulty. I was in command of Company "K" with an organization consisting of a headquarters platoon, which contained a section of three sixty-millimeter mortars and command and supply groups, three rifle platoons, the first, second and third, and a machine-gun platoon. In no sense is this book the complete account of the Peleliu invasion. It is principally a story of my company and myself and what happened to us during a grim action of forty-eight hours' duration. With one exception, I have used the real names of real persons.
LATE ONE HOT AUGUST night we, a company of marines, were winding in a column of twos through the shadowy darkness of a coconut grove, between the rigid and scarcely visible tree trunks. We wore helmets and battle gear and carried on our shoulders canvas rolls containing extra clothing and bedding. Under the weight we bent forward as we walked. Most of us were silent, but a few were talking in subdued tones. We were sweating, and our jackets, wet under our packs, were clinging uncomfortably to our backs. Our movements made muffled sounds; trouser legs slapping against each other, a canteen clinking where it did not fit snugly in the drinking cup, rifle butts scraping against cartridge belts. Occasionally someone's foot would strike a stone or a log or the roots of a fallen tree or sink into a hole of sucking mud, and a muttered curse would follow. We came to a dirt road that bordered the coconut grove. By night it appeared as a blue strip cutting through the blackness which shrouded the trees. We turned left toward the bay, and saw scattered orange lights on the shore. As we approached the beach road which ran perpendicular to our route, we saw the hulking shapes of trucks and tanks and tractors jammed together and interlocked in the initial confusion that accompanied the loading of ships in preparation for an assault landing.
Our column emerged from the darkness inland into the dim light and the turmoil on the beach. It halted as it confronted the massive, steel barrier of tanks that blocked its way. Men with flashlights were attempting to direct this lumbersome traffic, but the roar of idling engines drowned out their orders. Men stripped to the waist were climbing out of the turrets of tanks, out of the cabs of Alligators and ten-wheel trucks loaded with crates, pointing vigorously at each other, their mouths wide open with shouts and invectives that went unheard or unheeded.
Down the column we passed the word from man to man; "Take a break; smoking lamp is lit." We slowly dispersed into the shadows on either side of the road, and the darkness there was pin-pointed by the flares of our matches and the glowing ends of our cigarettes.
In an hour or so this confusion on the beach would straighten itself out. Then we would board ship, and our immediate future would be sealed. The reason for our existence would be confined entirely to one objective, and there would be no respite until that objective was attained.
SHE SAT LIKE A SQUAT, sedentary old maid. Flat-bottomed and broad of beam, she seemed motionless except for the thin curl of foam at her waterline. Dirty green and black camouflage had been smeared on her sides, and rust spread toward the top of her blunt bow, across her huge white numerals. As with an old tanker, her main deck was the forward two-thirds of her length. On the remaining third aft rose a stubby superstructure with a boat deck, a wheel-house and a canvas-covered conn where the skipper sat on a high stool with a speaking tube and a compass in front of him. The rigid lines of her boxlike hull were abruptly broken at the bow by the peculiar upward surge of the foc'sle surmounted by two open, circular turrets. Placidly resting on the water she appeared to be a peaceful, harmless ship, except for the long thin guns which bristled on her decks and pointed threateningly skyward.
Around her were many similar ships, all formed in even columns, all turning on the zig and the zag of their course in one lumbering motion, all inching ahead at seven knots. Toward the horizon were the protecting destroyers, rakish and jaunty, cruising back and forth around the fringes of the convoy. Sometimes their sleek hulls were lost in the graying atmosphere, and only the white foam at their bows showed that they were there.
The ocean was flat and gray and with the leaden sky above trapped the suffocating heat, mirrored it, increasing its intensity. Tomorrow a squall or perhaps a cool steady wind from the northeast? Doubtful—during September in these parts a typhoon was the only possible variation.
A dark chunk on this endless expanse of water, LST 227 was war-weary and seemed to resent each knot that slipped under her stern. Dully submissive she plodded along, a veteran, needing a new coat of paint, a new gyro and an overhauling in a dry dock. Since she had sailed down the Mississippi on her maiden voyage to the Gulf of Mexico, through the Canal into the Pacific, she had seen Kwajalein, Hollandia, Guam, Tinian, and now, with Truk off her stern, she was again far into Japanese waters bound for Peleliu, the last of the stepping-stones to the Philippines.
She was heavy with cargo; trucks and jeeps, and water trailers, amphibian tractors, a distillation unit, and crates of kettles, pots, ladles and rations, ammunition, explosives, drums of water, oil and gasoline. Heavy seas would swamp her; a hit by a Japanese bomb would touch off the explosives and blow her to a thousand pieces. She was relying heavily on the protecting umbrella to be furnished at a moment's notice by the three flattops whose outlines were dim on the horizon far astern.
When we first boarded No. 227 we had the usual difficulty of crowding ourselves into the limited living space which the Navy provided for us. The sleeping compartments down below accommodated only 77 and since there were 235 in my company, the others spilled over the main deck, finding what living space they could in the confusion of trucks and jeeps and water trailers and drums and piles of crates. All these were lashed to each other and to the deck by an intricate network of chains and braces. Through these countless barriers was one narrow passageway running fore and aft on the port side. The only obstacles on it were an occasional knee-high chain and the topside showers which it just managed to circumvent though still well within splashing range.
More as protection from the sun than from the rain we hoisted up huge, green tarpaulins. Underneath them the men slung their jungle hammocks fastening the suspending ropes to any available object that was sturdy enough. They unfolded cots wherever they could make them fit, and before long everyone at least had a covered place to sleep. But moving around for anything but the necessary functions of living was impossible.
Amidships and perched precariously on top of a loaded track above the level of the tarpaulins was one isolated cot covered by a camouflaged poncho angled across four tent poles like the canopy over a throne. The owner of this home was sitting on the cot cleaning his rifle, majestically oblivious to the turmoil which seethed beneath him.
THE DAYS AND NIGHTS rolled into each other, losing their delineations of time. The murky, equatorial heat would muffle the sound of voices and the rattling of mess gear as the men formed the chow line on the port side. The PA system would croak, "First platoon chow!" and the line would move slowly aft toward the galley. The third platoon would be just finishing taking showers, and the spray, splattering off the sun-browned backs of the men, would splash the chow line. For a moment there would be congestion as the two lines merged, then straightened themselves out as they crisscrossed and filed off in different directions. The food was comparatively edible, as it usually was in the Navy, with occasional helpings of roast beef and fresh string beans.
Afternoon would drone by with a game of hearts, a shabby, well-thumbed pocket mystery, an hour's schooling and exercise on the boat deck, cleaning a rifle, evening chow and sick call down below where the heat was so oppressive that even the exercise of breathing made you sweat. The night would cool slightly, and the sky would swarm with stars. At one signal blackout would transform the convoy to ghost ships. The mornings would drag on like the afternoons, except that there would always be the rarely realized possibility of having fresh eggs for breakfast.
With Peleliu only three days away we began to think of our hopes for the future. The hours ticking by carried us to something which none of us knew about, but of which many had deep thoughts. Nearness of death produces varied personal philosophies. Some men challenge and defy death, some develop a fatalistic gloom, some are oblivious to it, some are cheerful and confident, some have faith in God and believe implicitly in His protection. At odd moments I have heard men express their thoughts on the subject. “When my number is up, there isn't much I can do about it. You know, three strikes and you're out.”
“I haven't any number. The bastards might nick me but they'll never kill me!”
“To hell with it. You either ‘get it’ or you don't, so why worry. If I ‘get it’ I hope it's quick.”
“Whenever I begin to worry too much about it I go to church services and come back feeling much better.”
I have often heard men say after a battle, "Joe got it in the head. Somehow I had a feeling he would, and I remember he told me once that he thought he'd never make it." Sometimes such premonitions come true—inexplicably—though usually they have no more meaning than mere superficial remarks. An officer whom I knew quite well had always been a hard luck kid. He invariably studied the wrong paragraphs for his examinations in college and consequently received very low marks. His best girl turned him down. He could never make the grade in athletics, and when he played cards his luck went against him. He was not strongly built, rather pale and thin. On Guadalcanal when I heard that he had been killed I was shocked but not surprised. Somehow I had expected it.
An exceptionally close friend of mine told me the evening before we landed on New Britain that he knew he was going to be killed. It was not long after the first shots had been fired that I saw him carried out on a stretcher with the telltale pallor on his face. Another who landed on Guadalcanal with me believed so completely in an inevitable death that he wrote his epitaph for his college magazine before leaving the States. He was shot through the head by a Jap lieutenant.
On the other hand, one of my sergeants on New Britain had a strong premonition of death and took incredible chances, as though to say, "Come on, let's get it over with." It never came. But many times I have seen men who were continually smiling and happy and never had a morose moment, who defied death, who prayed to God for protection from it or who naively believed that it could not touch them, suddenly blown to bits by a mortar shell or riddled by machine-gun bullets. These are the unfortunate majority of fatalities, victims of the normal happenings of war from which death is as inseparable as life from the beating of the heart.
Whatever our deeper feelings regarding our future we adopted, through training and necessity, a mental attitude of cold professionalism as though to say: It's just another day. But the usual physical signs of pre-battle tension began to appear as we crept very near to our objective. Laughter was often too loud and frequent; silences seemed too still; trivialities became major issues. There was a hushed atmosphere of preparedness exaggerated now by what had been so unchanging since we left our base in the Russells; the monotonous throb of the engines, sultry, stultifying heat, the drab overtones of ocean and sky and loneliness in the midst of vast space.
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