Book Review: Bitter Peleliu: The Forgotten Struggle on the Pacific War's Worst Battlefield


by Josepha Wheelan

Oxford and New York: Osprey Bloomsbury, 2022. Pp. 336. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $30.00. ISBN: 1472849507

Peleliu -- A Second Tarawa

There is a mass of literature at present adopting the ‘face of battle’ perspective, and such works, generally books rather than articles, dominate attention. That is understandable, while much of the literature is not only vivid but also instructive in what it tells us about the nature of combat. Yet this literature can also be limited, notably both repetitive in its content and ‘lessons’ and also apt to downplay questions of strategic and operational significance, and to simplify explanations of success. In addition, accessibility, archives, and language issues, ensure that history of this type is often deals with the same battles and the same, or similar, primary accounts. Thus, we have more for the Pacific War of 1941-5 than the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

This history by repetition means that only a few of such books are worthy of attention. Among British writers, I find Saul David and James Holland worth reading, but Anthony Beevor and Max Hastings overrated. Among American works I have recently been impressed by Joseph Wheelan’s Bitter Peleliu. Wheelan, to a degree, is reprising his 2020 Okinawa study, while what he says about Peleliu will not surprise experts. The idea that the struggle has been underrated is not credible. But Wheelan is good on the nature of the combat, the experiences of the combatants, the intractability of the task and American intelligence failures. These were not only a matter of the situation prior to the landing but also during the initial fighting, notably repeated attacks on the ridges. Serious command faults are discerned, notably on the part of General William Rupertus. The lessons had to be relearned on Iwo Jima. Admiral Halsey argued that he was correct to have feared another Tarawa. Bitter Peleliu is a worthwhile book made more attractive by not being over-long.


Our Reviewer: Jeremy Black, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Exeter, is also a Senior Fellow of the Center for the Study of America and the West at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of an impressive number of works in history and international affairs, frequently demonstrating unique interactions and trends among events, including The Great War and the Making of the Modern World, Combined Operations: A Global History of Amphibious and Airborne Warfare, and The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon. He has previously reviewed The Return of Marco Polo's World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, King of the World, Stalin’s War, Underground Asia, The Eternal City: A History of Rome in Maps, The Atlas of Boston History, and Time in Maps



Note: Bitter Peleliu is also available in e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Jeremy Black   

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