What do Palau SCUBA Diving and Memorial Day have in common?
In one memory, I am in Palau, SCUBA diving along pristine coral reefs in clear waters. In another, I am sitting with my mom, looking out over a sea of polished, gleaming white headstones thinking of my grandfather who fought in WWII. He had a successful medical practice and was well past draft age – in his 40’s I think, but he volunteered to go over and fight in Europe because that’s the kind of man he was and that’s the kind of country we have. Memorial Day is a special day – it’s a celebration of that spirit and the men and women that have died for it.
First enacted to honor fallen Union solders during the Civil War, Memorial Day commemorates men and women who died while in the military service of our country. Originally, it was a celebration of the end of the Civil War and the Union solders killed in it but has expanded significantly since WWI.
Sitting on the beach in Palau
Fastforward back to that other memory and I’m sitting on a beach – which is not an usual thing for me. This beach is beautiful, like a number of beaches I’ve been fortunate enough to stick my toes into. The sand is white and has almost flour like consistency. It’s smooth and comfortable. The water is bath tub warm, turquoise and clear and you can easily see tropical fish swimming in the shallows which extend out for some fifty yards. It’s a place where you could spend hours and hours snorkeling. There are a few puffy, white clouds in the sky but not enough to deflect the relentless sun. Man, it’s hot. But that’s OK because only twenty yards up the beach is the edge of the jungle with plenty of shade from the trees that stretch out over the sand. This is Orange Beach on the island of Peleliu and could be the definition of paradise unless you were here on the morning of September 15, 1944 when we would have been ducking mortar, machine gun and artillery fire – if we had survived the ride into the beach through thousands of mines and an obstacle course designed to disable our landing vehicle. It’s totally surreal.
SCUBA Diving in Palau and much more
One of the coolest things about leading diving adventures all over the globe is that the places where we find the best diving in the world usually also have other remarkable things about them – culture, history, ancient ruins or other adventure activities. One of the things I love is really checking this other stuff out too. Nothing quite like two world class dives in the morning and then an afternoon of other great stuff. Palau is custom built for this.
Where is Palau?
Most divers have heard of Palau even if they don’t know exactly where it is (about 500 miles east of the southern Philippines). Palau resides in the pantheon of kick ass diving, being anointed one of the seven underwater wonders of the world. The two most southern islands in the group are Peleliu and Angaur. Most people have never heard of Peleliu unless you’re a Marine. For U.S. Marines, that name ranks up there with Iwo Jima, Tarawa and Guadalcanal and is more notorious than famous. During WWII, a U.S. commander for the invasion predicted Peleliu would be taken in four days. It’s where 11,000 Japanese defenders had enmeshed themselves into the island, creating a vast network of interconnected underground defensive systems that were virtually impregnable to the massive pre invasion bombardment. The marines of the first division walked into a hailstorm that morning and the four day cakewalk turned into a multi month conflict that had the highest casualty rate for the Marines in all WWII.
The Battle of Peleliu
We are driving and walking around the island with Tangie – the Palauan, self appointed historian for Peleliu. He’s been the personal guest of the commandant of the Marine Corps and knows more about the battle of Peleliu than anybody else in the world. I’m a bit of a history buff, especially military history but even if I weren’t, this would be totally amazing and everyone I am with is enraptured by the experience. As we walk around the island and see the remains of tanks, planes, LVTs, bunkers and artillery emplacements I start to understand that I am walking through a living museum. The artillery bombardment completely denuded the island back in 1944 but you wouldn’t know it today as the jungle has returned with an undaunted relentlessness and covered up the scars of war. However, the museum is all around us. I ask Tangie if there are remains everywhere and he basically says yes. So to test this theory I just go walking off into the jungle and its not long before I come across an old spiderweb of mostly collapsed tunnels and defensive emplacements – complete with shells and bullets strewn about, rusted parts of a machine gun and the remains of a fuel depot. Wow. Amazing.
I’ve been to a lot of places of historical significance but Peleliu is something special – because of both what happened there and also because you can still walk through it and get a real sense of it. Tangie has a folder filled with historical photographs and as we move around the island and stop at specific places, he pulls out the photographs and shows us what it would have looked like in 1944, right from where we are standing. The major landmarks are all there but the juxtaposition is just wild. The one thing I can’t ever get used to is the beach. Beaches to me are awesome places; places where you relax in your boardshorts; have fun; commune with nature and swim in clear, warm water. It’s not a place where you get shot at and watch people die. It’s not a place that you want to get off of as quickly as possible. Even with the pictures to help, I have a hard time imagining what it would have been like on September 15, 1944. Attacking up a beach in 100 degree heat, wearing full combat gear, probably soaked with salt water and sand after your landing craft was hit by incoming fire on the way into the beach.
I’d like to give my personal thanks to all the men and women of this country that served and fought so I don’t have to know what its like to assault that beach. Thanks to all the service men and women who fought so that I have the freedom to sit on that same beach in boardshorts rather than sit in a sweltering foxhole during a mortar bombardment. Let’s remember that Memorial Day is more than just barbecues and pool parties. It’s about honoring all the people that have helped make the United States of America what it is today and protected the freedoms that you and I enjoy.
THANKS TO ALL THE CURRENT AND PAST SERVICE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING YOU DO!
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I got the idea for this post from Chris Bradbury of Glenwood Road Studios who traveled with me to Palau and Peleliu. He was watching the new miniseries on HBO, The Pacific, which has an episode (#8) on the battle for Peleliu.