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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Battle of Peleliu Originated "The Thousand Yard Stare"

For the longest time, Dorie Miller represented the lone figure when it came to African Americans in WWII history. Miller became a household name because of his heroic deeds at Pearl Harbor. I happened to watch the 1970 seminal film Tora,Tora,Tora with my father several months ago. With the exception of a non-speaking Miller grabbing a machine gun and spraying the Japanese, this was the extent of depictions of African American soldiers with a weapon. "There goes Dorie Miller," My father announced. If I blinked, I would of missed him.

 Montford Point Marines participated in amphibious landings throughout the Pacific. While my father was in the Marshall Islands, a battle that was significant to the Montford Point Marines History was The Battle of Peleliu

D-Day on Peleliu
Montford Point Marines participating in the landing of 1st Marine Division.

From Right to Fight:

When the 1st Marine Division, on 15 September 1944, attacked the heavily defended island of Peleliu in the Palau group, the 16th Field Depot supported the assault troops. The field depot included two African-American units, the 11th Marine Depot Company and the 7th Marine Ammunition Company. The 11th Marine Depot Company responded beyond the call of duty and paid the price, 17 wounded, the highest casualty rate of any company of African-American Marines during the entire war. Major General William H. Rupertus, who commanded the 1st Marine Division, sent identical letters of commendation to the commanders of both companies, praising the black Marines for their "whole hearted cooperation and untiring efforts" which "demonstrated in every respect" that they "appreciate the privilege of wearing a Marine uniform and serving with Marines in combat."- The Right to Fight

Montford Point Marine Lee Douglas, Jr vividly recounted his time there:

"The Third day, we went ashore. We went ashore in the barges to beachhead. Because you must go in. You got to go in the barges and go in with your rifles and everything. The ammunition stuff doesn't take place until after you take the islands and settle. But you got go in to do that. Once you go into the Marines Corps, regardless of the assignment, you must learn the rifle, the pistol, the range, your combat, you have to learn all of that.You may be a mechanic, you may be a cook, but the rifle comes first. You must learn that part of combat. So whenever you get overseas, your second job, that's all becomes second, first becomes the rifle. The invasion is first. My company, when we went in, we went in with our rifles blazing. There is no second hand nothing. We had looked forward to taking the airfield in a day or two. And there was no such thing as that you know they were dug in. The enemy was dug in so strong until everybody was held up at the beach." -Men of Montford Point Marines

Medical Attendants at Rest, Peleliu, October, 1944

Another Montford Pointer Laurence Diggs* climbed caves to eliminate the Japanese defenders. Flamethrowers were used and contained the deadly chemical napalm. Oxygen was then removed from the fortified cave, rendering occupants unable to breathe and dead. Also, the intense, searing heat of napalm sticking to the skin caused its targets unthinkable pain and death. 

Coincidentally, "Thousand Yard Stare" was featured in Tom Lea's painting of Peleliu. Lea's subject was described poignantly:
“He left the States 31 months ago. He was wounded in his first campaign. He has had tropical diseases. He half-sleeps at night and gouges Japs out of holes all day. Two-thirds of his company has been killed or wounded. He will return to attack this morning. How much can a human being endure?”

Tom Lea "Thousand Yard Stare" Painting

From that point on, the term "Thousand Yard Stare" was used to refer to the gaze of someone that had battle fatigue.  It is clearly a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Tom Lea was a war correspondent and witnessed first hand the carnage. The appearance in the soldiers' eyes prompted Lea to create this work after an assignment in Peleliu. 

Battle of Peleliu Key Points-

  • One of the most fiercely fought battles of the Pacific War
  • Began on September 15,1944 and originally thought to last only three days, ended in November
  • 5,000 Marines wounded, 1,749 Marines Killed
  • Montford Marines participated in the invasion as members of the 11 Marines Depot Company and 7th Marine Ammunition Company
  • They supported the 1st Marine Division
  • Part of the Palau Islands. Peleliu was important because it was needed to recapture to the Philippines
  • The island had over 500 caves which served as forts for the well- dug Japanese. 
  • Some 11,000 Japanese were killed, only 200 survived. The Japanese were taught to die before surrendering. 
  • Included the Army 81st Infantry Division (additional facts from

Story after story emphasized the Montford Point Marines gallant actions. They finally earned the "right to fight" during the fiery battle of Peleliu. In fact, this battle would always be listed in the opening lines of Montford Point Marine history. They entered the brotherhood of United States Marine Corps with their amphibious landing in September, 1944.   

The phrase "Thousand yard stare" was introduced by artist Tom Lea. He painted a war weary Marine who endured unspeakable hell in this lesser known, but important Pacific World War II battle. "Thousand yard stare" marked a crucial intersection of military, art, and psychology and called attention to the effects of war on its combatants.

For a Video of the Battle of Peleliu click here.


Battle of Peleliu-
Men of Montford Point, Melton McLauren*
Right to Fight

See Also:

Capture of Peleliu for Marine Dan Bankhead story of the Montford Points in The Battle of Peleliu. Bankhead was a former pitcher for the Marines Baseball Team. His team played against Montford Point Marines.

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