Photo/IllutrationA rusty cannon set up in a cave in a mountain on the island of Peleliu by the former Japanese forces (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

After losing a series of battles on the islands in the South Pacific, the Imperial Japanese Army in 1944 faced a full-scale attack by the U.S. military on the island of Peleliu.

Under orders from imperial headquarters, the roughly 10,000-strong Japanese garrison constructed hundreds of heavily fortified bunkers and caves, determined to fight to the death.

The Battle of Peleliu, as this campaign is called, was fought from September to November 1944, during the Mariana and Palau Campaign of World War II.

According to war history researcher Masao Hiratsuka, 82, the U.S. military poured oil into the caves where the Japanese troops were holed up and set it on fire, or buried them alive.

After withstanding the siege for 10 weeks, practically the entire garrison was obliterated. But there were 34 survivors who refused to surrender and hid on the island.

"These men had no idea of how the war was going," Hiratsuka said. "They knew nothing of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs, nor of Japan's surrender and Hirohito's radio broadcast."

The men stole food from U.S. military supply bases to survive. From an English-language magazine they picked up, they found out that Gen. Douglas MacArthur was in Tokyo. Everyone pretended to continue believing in the invincibility of their "divine nation," but their doubts began to deepen.

The U.S. military started trying to persuade them to come out of hiding. A former rear admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy was dispatched to Peleliu to tell the stragglers on a loudspeaker that the war was already over. And families of the identified stragglers were asked to write letters, which were sent by air to the island.

All 34 eventually surrendered, although they were still doubtful. But they returned to Japan in the spring of 1947.

Because Hiratsuka's mother happened to be a cousin of one of the stragglers, he has visited Peleliu eight times to collect the remains of the deceased and attend ceremonies to console their souls.

"The caves were so stifling hot, I couldn't even stay there for 10 minutes," he noted. "The 10,000 men who perished were pawns who were left there by the Imperial Japanese Army for the insane reason of just buying time. And I cannot pity enough the 34 survivors."

With its tropical sunshine and peaceful beaches, the island of Peleliu has become a booming tourist paradise. New hotels are mushrooming.

But anywhere around the island, I understand that visitors can come across abandoned Imperial Japanese Army tanks and buildings that still bear scars from artillery fire.

It is a battleground I would like to visit one day.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 20

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.